Sunday, February 24, 2013

All the Drama and Power...

Before entering into today's topic, I would like to inform my readers that Raven has recently left a comment on an old post asking if anyone has played the new Synnibarr.  I haven't had an opportunity to look at the new version of the game, but feel free to comment about it.

* * *

There are philistines who wonder if Dallas should be considered a “real” role-playing game.  Certainly, there are no rules for combat and playing a halfling is not an option, but it is a role-playing game nonetheless.  Dallas does not precisely conform to the 'traditional' RPG paradigm, but one must remember that the 'tradition' was still being formalized when Dallas was made.  Dallas was ahead of the curve when it emphasized flexibility of rules and dramatic tension instead of encounter tables and wandering monsters.  Had the setting been more palatable to gamers, Dallas could have contributed significantly to the paradigm.

Some people liken Dallas to How to Host a Murder type games.  Dallas came first, so it may have of influenced the 'mystery genre' of games, but I think Dallas is closer in nature to Braunstein games.  Each player (other than the Director) controls one or more of the nine major characters:  J.R., Jock, Pam, Cliff, Bobby, Miss Ellie, Sue Ellen, Lucy, and Ray Krebbs.  (Sadly, there is no Jenna Wade.)  Fewer characters could be used, but care must be taken to avoid unbalancing the Script.  Each major character has his or her own Victory Conditions for any given Episode.  Of course, major characters tend to have contrary Victory Conditions; after all, this is the basis of conflict in the game.  The absence of certain characters might remove antagonistic motivation for the remaining characters.

The game provides a character sheet for each of the aforementioned major characters.  There isn't much difference among the sheets; every sheet has a table that lists the “Values” (i.e., attributes) for all of the major characters.  (The order in which the characters are listed differs, with a given character's Values at the top on his or her own sheet.)  The back of each sheet is a uniform Player's Rules Outline.  (The actual rules only take up four pages.)  The front also has a standard graphic on “How to Read the Character Cards.”  Otherwise, there is a summary of the character's 'Personal Victory Conditions' for the three Scripts provided with the game, a paragraph of biographical information, and three paragraphs of advice on how to play the character.  Even the advice is partially generalized; every male has the same 'male character' paragraph and every female has the same 'female character' paragraph.

The one thing missing from the character sheet is a listing of the “Bonus Point Awards” that are constant regardless of the Script being used.  As indicated above, each character has Victory Conditions for each Episode, “usually expressed in terms of particular characters and/or plot devices that must be controlled...”  Any character that has met his or her Victory Conditions at the end of the Episode is a winner.  To establish relative rankings among multiple winners, each character's Victory Points must be determined.  Unlike Victory Conditions, Victory Points are awarded the same way in any Episode.  Major characters receive Victory Points based upon the number of characters and plot devices they control and the Power Values of the controlled characters.  Major characters also obtain Victory Points as a result of sending other major characters to jail.  (We'll discuss this in a later post.)  Lastly, there are “Bonus Point Awards” that are unique to each character.  Let's look at some!
Bobby receives one Bonus Point for each additional Power Marker Pam has at the end of the Episode.
Cliff receives three Bonus Points for each Power Marker J.R. has lost by the end of the Episode.
Ray receives two Bonus Points for each woman he has seduced by the end of the Episode (multiple seductions of the same woman do not count).
Lucy seems to be the only major character who is not entitled to Bonus Points.  Oh well, Lucy is the weakest character of the lot and the easiest to write out of a Script (just like what happened to Lucy in the series).  Lucy's role in any of the three Scripts included with the game seems sort of contrived anyway.

While some of the Victory Conditions and Victory Point awards certainly reflect the antagonistic relations among certain characters, some of these conditions and awards have been crafted to promote alliances among certain other characters.  Thus the game manages to translate accurately the dynamics of character interaction from the show and implement those social politics into play.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

The Meta-Setting of Dallas

© Associated Press

Dallas was (and – given its current incarnation – still is) about the life and times of a powerful, dysfunctional Texas family.  Not surprisingly, the SPI role-playing game based on Dallas follows suit; however, the game's complete title is Dallas: The Television Role-Playing Game.  Beyond the trials and tribulations of the Ewing clan, the game treats its subject as television.  As we saw in last week's post, the Game Master equivalent is called 'The Director' and each session/adventure is an 'Episode.'  This is what I mean by meta-setting; between the participants and the 'game world' in which their characters interact, there is a distinct, fictive layer with its own concepts and conceits.

Players are not merely playing characters – they are playing characters within the context of a television show.  Perhaps the designer, Jim Dunnigan, felt that novice players would find it easier to pretend given the 'frame' of television; allowing the players to be two steps removed from the devious activities of the characters.  Of course, many games allow players to be devious, but in Dallas, 'deviousness' could take the form of coercion or seduction – behaviors the general public would not normally associate with a game.  Per the rules, “An interesting Episode, by its nature, forces characters to get what they can from other characters – either in the spirit of cooperation or in conflict.”  With two 'levels' of make believe, players might be more willing to employ tactics worthy of J.R.

When an Episode is played, the Director uses a Script to control the flow of the game.  There are three Scripts provided with the game.  Additionally, there is a Scriptwriter's Guide that provides advice on creating original Scripts.  Interestingly (at least to me), it is not assumed that the Director is the same person as the Scriptwriter.  An Episode consists of several Scenes; each of the provided Scripts has five Scenes, but “The Director may add a Scene or two at the end of the game if the play so far would seem to benefit from it.”  A 'Director Phase' occurs at the start of each Scene.  During this Phase, the Director introduces plot devices (which the game defines as “information, items, and events”) and minor characters.  The rules emphasize that “the Script is merely a guideline.  It is up to the Director to add his/her imagination to keep the game fresh and interesting...”  Although a Script suggests which Scene to introduce a given plot device, the Director should introduce it when it “will have its greatest impact.”  This is the extent of the television 'aspect' of Dallas; the necessary simplicity of the rules (it's right there on the cover – “easy rules”) precludes additional game mechanics.

Your humble host is aware of only one other role-playing game where the setting is treated within the context of television:  Cartoon Action Hour by Cynthia Celeste Miller and Eddy Webb.  In Dallas, there is no provision for character development from Episode to Episode; there is no experience mechanic, so to speak.  Besides a traditional treatment of experience, Cartoon Action Hour has an optional rule wherein a major character is forced to leave the series if his popularity declines sufficiently.  'Popularity' is represented by 'Cool Factor,' but could just as easily be called 'Viewer Interest.'  Each Episode, a 'Cool Factor' roll is made for each player character, but the rule could easily apply to non-player characters.  A low roll decreases the character's Cool Factor while a high roll increases it.  The roll is modified by 'Good Points' or 'Bad Points.'  A character receives Good Points when he “does something particularly clever, cunning, or true to his personality” and receives Bad Points when he “does something particularly bland or untrue to his personality.”  Something similar could be devised for a Dallas 'campaign' or 'season' (like that's ever going to happen).  With such a rule in place, I think that players should switch characters and play a different character each Episode.  In this way, a character's fate is not tied to the ability of one player.

Perhaps Dallas could use a “shower scene” rule where the majority of players can decide to invalidate a degree of continuity.  Of course, there would need to be some sort of 'cost' involved so as to discourage abuse.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Definition of 'Role-Playing Game'

Clio, Thalia, Erato, Euterpe, Polyhymnia, Calliope,
Terpsichore, Urania, & Melpomene

It is the nature of a role-playing game…to bring the world it reflects to life in an especially dynamic manner by allowing each player to assume the role of a major character of that world and permitting the players to interact…

From whence did this definition come?  Well boys and girls, it came from the very first licensed role-playing game.  Some of my younger readers may not realize which license was first in the RPG market; it wasn't Tolkien and it wasn't Star Trek.*  That's right everybody, pull on your cowboy boots and dust off your Stetsons 'cause we're going to DALLAS !

Perhaps more incongruous than a prime-time soap opera as the basis for the first licensed RPG is the fact it was published by SPI, a company noted primarily for its wargames.  Alas, with the benefit of hindsight, it's not surprising that this venture was a failure.  However, to fully appreciate what SPI was trying to accomplish, we must journey back decades to a magical time called 1980, when anything was possible.

By 1980, role-playing games had been growing in popularity; as of the previous year, D&D products were “distributed to the book trade” by Random House.  RPGs being accepted by the mainstream was not an absurd prospect.  If RPGs were to become that popular, 1980 was the time to take action.  Of course, the right vehicle was necessary; elves and wizards were fine for kids, but adults might find it easier to relate to something less fanciful.  A game based on a television show was ideal – all it took was sitting in front of the boob tube to understand exactly what the game was about.  Dallas was popular, so it was a good bet.  In fact, it was an excellent bet; when the game was released, the show was the pinnacle of pop culture.  “Who shot J.R.?” was the catchphrase for the summer of 1980.  Dallas: The Television Role-Playing Game could have captured a huge demographic and expanded the market for RPGs...but it didn't.

In a 1988 interview, prominent game designer and SPI executive Redmond Simonsen stated:
As to DALLAS: we didn't print 250,000 of them. More like 80,000 (in two runs). That was about 79,999 more than anyone wanted. DALLAS didn't kill SPI, but it didn't save it either (as some had vainly hoped). Essentially, anyone who is wired on DALLAS (the TV show) is not also wired on games.
Yes, in hindsight, the Dallas license was an odd choice.  Yet, had it been successful, we would be look back with our wonderful hindsight and say something along the lines of, “It was obvious...perhaps inevitable.”  Dallas is not a bad game, but SPI learned the hard way that the (tabletop) RPG market is limited after all.  Dallas occupies a sort of limbo, an area where role-playing games and the general public would have overlapped.  Alas, fans of Dallas were not interested in RPGs and gamers were not interested in role-playing J.R. and his ilk.

Anyway, to continue with the Dallas definition of role-playing game:
There are two key elements to a role-playing game, which distinguish it from other types of games and imparts a sense of drama to play:
Character Roles:  Each player assumes the role of one major character from the television show, Dallas, and acts the part of that character throughout the game.  To help players assume their roles, the game includes Character Sheets which detail the Values assigned to each major character.  These Values reflect the various strengths and weaknesses of each character in dealing with other characters.
The Director:  The Director is the one player who does not assume the role of a character.  The Director’s role in the game is to create the circumstances of the Episode being played, to introduce new characters and situations as the game progresses, and to act as the final authority on all rules interpretations.
SPI published (the original) War of the Ring, so they had dealings with the Tolkien Enterprises.  As long as we're indulging in hindsight, is it not feasible SPI could have acquired the RPG license for Middle Earth?  Rather than attempting to capture the larger, uncertain market of Dallas viewers, SPI could have focused on existing role-players, many of whom were fans of Tolkien.  Middle Earth could have been the first licensed role-playing game.  Perhaps it would have been successful enough to keep SPI solvent.

*UPDATE (January 24, 2015)
I wrote this post prior to learning of the existence of Star Trek: Adventure Gaming in the Final Frontier published by Heritage in 1978.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The Rangeress and the Remorhaz

Hobgoblins have baboon faces...just so you know

Observant readers have doubtless noticed a new tab among the row of pages.  This new page features the entire rules to Adventures in the Dungeon, a game by Gary Gygax.  In 2011, Zenopus Archives posted about the game and even provided comprehensive charts and summaries.  Yet there are some observations your humble host would care to make and – in this regard – Thoul's Paradise presents Gary's rules the way Gary wanted you to see them.  The only difference is that certain terms claimed as intellectual property by Wizards of the Coast have been replaced with 'Ocular Terror,' 'Cadaver Creeper,' and 'Brownish Brute.'

Adventures in the Dungeon was published as part of The Official Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Coloring Album from Troubador Press in 1979.  The album consists of alternating pages of (uncolored) art by Greg Irons with the facing pages providing a narrative that describes and connects the images.  The story is about a stalwart band of adventurers exploring a dungeon; many 'colorful' details are mentioned to aid anyone using the album for it's intended purpose.  The rules for Adventures in the Dungeon are presented at the bottom of the narrative pages, one or two paragraphs per page.

Troubador Press claimed copyright to the album, but TSR claimed copyright to the “illustrations of AD&D monsters and text.”  Supposedly, Gygax wrote that text but he held the copyright to Adventures in the Dungeon separately.  I find this interesting.  Was this a way for Gary to get some income separate from TSR's slice of the pie?  The second sentence of the rules begins, “Normally a Dungeons game...”  Note that Gygax doesn't say “an AD&D game” or “a Dungeons & Dragons game” or even “a role-playing game” – he says “a Dungeons game.”  Was this done to avoid using the D&D trademark in a work copyrighted by Gygax and not TSR?

In full, that second sentence reads, “Normally a Dungeons game has very few actual rules and the play is controlled by a Dungeon Master.”  So, in the same year that the Dungeon Masters Guide was released, Gygax made the claim that the “Dungeons game has very few actual rules.”  I wonder if the irony was intentional.

The 'dungeon map game board' was clearly derived from the 'sample floor plan' in the Holmes basic game book.  Was Gary's copyright supposed to include this derivative work?  What about the “illustrations of AD&D monsters” on the game board?

In the game, players control characters that fight monsters in a dungeon and – if successful – recover the Holy Talisman of St. Cuthbert.  In less than 2,400 words, Gygax presents a game that capably conveys the essence of (1979) D&D play.  There are four characters, each with its own abilities:  Paladin, (Dwarven) Fighter, Wizard, and...Rangeress.  Adventures in the Dungeon and discussions thereof are likely the only places where the word “Rangeress” occurs (or will ever occur).  I can understand why Gygax would want to avoid using a thief or a cleric in this introductory game.  For commercial purposes, I can understand why Gygax would want to include an obviously female character.  A sorceress rather than wizard may not be ideal because it could be seen as the 'weakest' character.  A female Dwarf is out of the question, of course.  What's left?  Paladina?  Paladinette?  Given these considerations, 'Rangeress' sort of makes sense.

After a monster is defeated, the dice are rolled.  (The game requires two normal dice.)  If the result is 12, then the characters find the Holy Talisman.  I would change it so that if doubles are rolled (other than boxcars), the characters find a healing potion that allows a character to recover one hit.

The movement rate is nine squares per turn, but if a monster is not encountered, the characters move an additional nine squares.  Why nine squares?  Why not point-to-point movement?  I would change it so that if the characters travel nine squares and do not reach a 'monster area,' a check is made for wandering monsters.  If an exact score of seven is rolled on the dice, the characters would encounter a party of goblins.  Otherwise, there would be no wandering monster encounter that turn.  The number of goblins in the party would equal the number of characters; they would have one hit each and perhaps a -1 to their attack.  There would be no possibility of treasure.  This 'wandering monster' nuisance would cause players to plan movement.  It also introduces the possibility that the characters may die after finding the Holy Talisman but before exiting the dungeon.

Gygax offers a scoring method with only four possibilities; essentially, the number of surviving characters after the Holy Talisman is found.  Gygax encourages players to keep track of their scores because with repeated “runs through the dungeon,” players should find it easier to accomplish the goal.  Instead of a four-option scoring system, I would have players total the characters' remaining hits.

'Area 10' features a remorhaz.  Why a remorhaz?  Why?  It's a very rare monster that inhabits “only the chill wastes” (according to the Monster Manual).  Gygax uses a remorhaz, but there are no dragons in the dungeon.  Why use a remorhaz when you could have used a dragon?

Sunday, February 3, 2013

A Glimpse at Zorin Greystar's Grimoire

copyright 1984 by V Autumn, S Scherf, and K Autumn

          I have held the title of archmage for many, many years, and there is almost nothing I have not seen and done regarding magic and adventuring...I cannot in good conscience keep this wisdom to myself, so as writing is the only lasting way to spread ideas, I write this manuscript.
– Zorin Greystar

The Complete Works of Zorin Greystar – Book One, by Steve Scherf and Kellar Autumn, adopts the conceit that it is a commentary by characters “in a Fantasy Gamer's imagination.”  Archmage Greystar himself acts as an editor of sorts and contributes 'Chapter V – Spells,' briefly mentioned in last week's post.  Zorin provides a “small excerpt from [his] spellbook freely,” yet he refrains from giving “anything with which you could do widespread and long-lasting damage such as [his] more powerful temporal acceleration and reversal spells, and the ever-feared Storm of Chaos.”

Instead of one 'Dispel Magic' spell, Zorin has 'Dispel Type I' and 'Dispel Type II.'  Dispel Type I is a first level spell and works only on the caster's own spells.  Dispel Type II, like Dispel Magic, is a third level spell and works similarly except the formula for success is more complex and magic items can be neutralized temporarily.  'Anti-Magic Shell,' 'Permanency,' and 'Time Stop' also get the 'Type II' treatment from Zorin.  'Time Stop Type II' is a twelfth level spell that shrinks a target and places it into “temporal stasis” inside “an indestructible...sphere.”  “Indestructible” is defined in another twelfth level spell by the name of 'Indestructability' [sic].  When cast upon a “creature,” the 'Indestructability' spell is fatal to that creature in 1 - 10 turns.

There is a fifth level 'Improved Fly' spell with a tripled movement rate compared to the third level 'Fly' spell.  Zorin's 'Teleportation Type II' spell (ninth level) has “no chance of error” and his 'Teleportation Type III' spell (eleventh level) takes effect upon the caster's demise. 'Final Strike' (ninth level) is another spell triggered by the caster's death; it allows a number of spells to be stored “in stasis” and then released when the caster dies.

Zorin offers a variety of 'protection' spells:  'Protection from Gases' (fifth level), 'Protection from Liquids' (fifth level), 'Protection from Cold/Fire/Lightning' (sixth level), 'Protection from Curses' (seventh level), 'Protection from Normal Weapons' (seventh level), and 'Protection from Detection/Location' (tenth level).  'Tactile Protection' is an eighth level spell that “creates the illusion that the caster cannot be felt.”

'Secret Writing' is a third level spell that “alters writing so as to make it unreadable by any but the caster.”  The effect “cannot be dispelled because the writing is actually changed, and the magic is gone once cast.”  However, a mage of a level at least equal to the original caster can use the reverse of this spell, 'Manifest Writing,' to make the writing normal again.

Some spells are based upon mana use and the cosmology of Greystar's universe.  'Interrupt' (fourth level) causes all spellcasters to save vs spells or roll on the 'Spellcasters' Fumble Chart.'  'Negative/Positive Projection' (eleventh level) opens a rift to the negative or positive force.  If a rift is opened to the negative force:  (i) living things within the area of effect will “have their souls obliterated and their bodies shriveled” (unless they succeed in a saving roll vs magic) and (ii) undead spellcasters “will have all of their mana restored.”  In the case of a rift being opened to the positive force, the converse occurs:  undead beings will be destroyed and living spellcasters will recover mana.  In either situation, there is a chance of “overloading” the brains of the entities recovering mana.  Also, there is a not insignificant chance “of contacting the wrong force” when casting this spell.  The twelfth level 'Contact Positive/Negative Force' spell restores the caster's mana (evidently with no chance of overload); however, there is a possibility “of bridging to the opposite force,” which would be especially ruinous to the caster.

Some of the other spells Zorin provides include: 'Breathe/Suffocate,' 'Cat Sleep,' 'Elessa's Adamantine Arrows,' 'Empathy/Atrophy,' 'True Sight,' 'Zaardoz's Spell of Soul Stealing,' and 'Zorin's Spell Storing.'

copyright 1984 by V Autumn, S Scherf, and K Autumn