Sunday, March 31, 2013

Meet the Daredevils

The Daredevil Adventures book includes six 'sample player characters' to be used when a new player is introduced to a pre-existing campaign or – as was the case with your humble host and his pals – when players “wish to play immediately.”  Although “[o]nly very broad sketches are given as to characterization” and “[n]o information as to background is given,” the sample characters are clearly based upon certain characters from fiction.  Subtlety was not a consideration when fashioning these, 'homages.'

Mike Mattock

Take Sam Spade but name a different digging tool and apply alliteration.  The result is Mike Mattock, “a private investigator of the 'hard-boiled' school.”  Mike is first on this list by virtue of having the best illustration; the fact that he was played by your humble host did not factor into this decision.  He is the smartest of the sample characters.  “Often surly and short with men, he will fall all over himself with a dame.”  His Pistol and Driving skills are at maximum value.

Paddy Dugan

The inspiration for Paddy was none other than Marvel Comics' “Dum Dum” Dugan even though the Marvel character did not begin his adventuring career until WWII.  “A big-boned, tall lad who likes a good brawl.”  In fact, his Brawling skill has the highest possible score.  Dugan has the highest Health attribute among the sample characters and he is almost as strong as Grendith (see below).  “He is loyal to his friends and makes an excellent companion either in a tight spot or celebrating victory later.”

John 'Indiana Slim' Ford

They didn't even bother to come up with a different state for this dude.  “When 'off-duty,' he appears as a simple museum curator but, when in the thick of things, he is a hard-as-nails tough guy.”  Of course, he has a whip and his Whip skill cannot be exceeded (neither can his Swimming skill).  “Ford is a tough adventurer who is as much in love with danger as he is with the rewards of the game.”
Dominic Fortunato

Fortunato is a ringer for Howard Chaykin's Dominic Fortune.  (Personally, I have a preference for Chaykin's earlier version of the character – The Scorpion, alias Moro Frost.)  “He is, by his own admission, an adventurer who is 'only in it for the money.'”  Fortunato is the fastest of the sample characters.  Also, his 'Deftness' (manual dexterity) is on par with that of 'Indiana Ford' and is slightly less than that of Grendith (see next).  “He is persistent if not overly sharp.”

Earl Grendith

Replace the “ndith” in Grendith with “ystoke” and – violaTarzan.  In fact, the Captain Ersatz Tarzan in Philip José Farmer's A Feast Unknown is called “Lord Grandrith.”  Among the sample characters, he has the highest scores in Will, Strength, and Deftness.  In terms of Speed, he is just behind Fortunato.  “He is only at home in the wilderness” and there he “will wear only the lightest clothing.”  Grendith has the following skills at their highest possible value:  Knife, Brawling, Throwing, Tracking, Hunting, and Stealth.

Eagle Renwick

Last (and possibly least) we have Eagle Renwick who is based on the character of Col. John “Renny” Renwick, one of Doc Savage's five aides.  Like the 'real' Renwick, he is a civil engineer, but the Daredevils write-up emphasizes his abilities as a pilot.  “A very tall man of somewhat gangling appearance.  He is of a taciturn disposition, but will really enjoy himself in a good fight.”  He's not 'maxed out' on any of his skills and none of his attributes rank among the highest of his fellow sample characters.

Sample characters – in any game – provide a useful perspective as to how the game's designer envisioned player characters.  Of course, it is through their characters that players 'experience' a game.  Therefore, sample characters provide a window into the player experience that the creator intends.  With the characters above, Charrette and Hume show that Daredevils can accommodate a PC party that includes the likes of Tarzan, Sam Spade, Indiana Jones, and a couple of Marvel Comics C-listers (D-listers?).  Some people will like the concept and some won't.  If you don't like the concept, Daredevils can be played in a more subdued manner, but the game allows for – if not encourages – a diverse, flamboyant combination.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Action and Adventure in the Two-Fisted Thirties

When I was a young lad in the early 80's, a game master friend of mine tried to recruit me into a Daredevils campaign he wanted to run.  In my youthful ignorance, I had a limited appreciation of the past.  Stuff from a half-century ago was supposed to be interesting?  As far as I was concerned, 'pulp' was a gradient of orange juice.  Why play this if we could play D&D or Champions?

“It's like Raiders of the Lost Ark,” he finally said with a tinge of exasperation in his voice.

With that, I was sold.  Neither D&D nor Champions could hold a candle to Raiders.  It turns out that some of my fondest memories of role-playing come from that campaign.  I didn't know what I was doing half the time, but it didn't matter.  It was like Raiders.  More importantly, it was fun. 

Daredevils was published by Fantasy Games Unlimited in 1982.  I think it must be the first role-playing game to embrace 'pulp' adventure as a genre.  (I categorize Gangster! and Gangbusters as historical semi-simulations of the “gangster” heyday rather than pulp adventure.)  The game and several adventure books are available as PDFs from RPGNow, but the original box set and publications are still available direct from the FGU websiteDaredevils was designed by Bob Charrette and Paul Hume, the team that had created two earlier FGU games, Aftermath! and Bushido.

It seems that Charrette was responsible for the illustrations, including the box cover (shown above).  (The cover of the actual rule book is a black & white version.)  While Charrette is competent as an illustrator, the cover is somewhat lackluster.  The primary subject is a drably-colored man who seems to be glancing toward his waiter.  One would hope that the cover of a pulp genre RPG would be somewhat more enticing – like the covers of the actual pulps.  The bottom portion of the cover is more appropriate:  an airship and autogyro among assorted pulp 'personalities' (including a rather spare Doc Savage poser in the bottom-left corner).  Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the cover is the Asian dude front-and-center; props to Charrette for being politically correct before that term was in vogue.  Of course, it may have been an intentional counterbalance to the nefarious Fu Sung, an evil Asian mastermind stereotype.  Fu Sung's presence is felt in two of the four adventures in the aptly named Daredevil Adventures booklet (included with the box set).  Yes, the stereotype is racist but, once in a while, can't we have an evil mastermind who happens to be Asian?  Don't get me wrong, I am a firm believer in equal opportunity evil masterminds and I would never suggest that Asians have a predilection toward evil mastermindedness.  However, in terms of style, some of the best evil masterminds – of course, I am speaking only about fiction – are Asian.  Must I feel guilty about occasionally including one in a campaign?

Aside from the rule book (64 pages) and Daredevil Adventures (32 pages), the box set includes three dice, 2d20 and 1d6.  Of course, this is old school, so the icosahedrons are numbered 0 – 9 twice.  Also included are a master character sheet (suitable) for copying and a gamemaster 'screen.'  One side of the screen reproduces various charts and tables from the rules.  The other side presents (1) a nice world map detailing “Political Boundaries in 1930” and (2) a “Quick Reference Table” by which a person can determine the day of the week of any date in the 1930's.  Below, I provide this table for use by my cherished readers.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Dallas of the Gods (also: Dealing with Sandestins)

Scenes from Jason and the Argonauts (1963)
I obtained these images from this blog, which may be of interest to the reader.

Dallas: The Television Role-Playing Game differs from “traditional” RPGs in several respects.  In this post, we ask if these differences can be employed suitably for settings other than a television soap opera.

In most RPGs intended for campaign play, player characters do not usually compete with one another.  The general assumption is that player characters (as well as the players) will work together towards a common goal; there is no definite winner.  In Dallas, each major character has explicit victory conditions.  Although the victory conditions are not mutually exclusive, they prompt the players to vie with one another to acquire specific resources (i.e., minor characters and plot devices).  In Dallas, therefore, the essential conflict is not between the player characters and an external force, the conflict is among the player characters.

Each Dallas 'Script' is a self-contained episode; each session is a 'one-shot.'  There is no campaign play, no continuing storyline.  For an 'entry level' RPG – what Dallas was intended to be – this is acceptable (and perhaps preferable).  At any rate, it can be difficult to maintain a campaign where the primary motive for player characters is conflict among themselves; difficult, but not impossible.  Wujcik's Amber is an excellent example of a game where the player characters are their own adversaries in a campaign story arc.  Dallas, however, would not be an appropriate rules set to emulate the adventures of Corwin and his kin given that Dallas does not address physical combat.

Other than player-to-player negotiation and plot devices, conflict resolution in Dallas is limited to Persuasion, Coercion, Seduction, and Investigation.  (Instead of 'Investigation,' let us use the genre-neutral term 'Intrigue.')  The lack of emphasis on violence makes a player-vs-player campaign more feasible; character elimination is practically impossible – shooting J.R. causes only a temporary inconvenience.

With Dallas, we have players opposed to one another in an effort to gain specified resources.  Aside from resource acquisition, we have resource management.  In Dallas, there is a currency of 'Power' – it can be used to modify Affect attempts and it can also be traded.  Other than Power, there is time to be managed.  Each player gets only three 'actions' per Scene.  When should you make a critical move?  When the opportunity presents itself?  Or at the last possible moment so you won't have defend what you gain?  Due to the nature of Victory Conditions in Dallas, there must be a set end-point when those conditions are determined.  I suppose Dallas could be played so that any given Episode ends as soon as any player achieves his or her Victory Conditions.  I think the set end-point would probably be the more entertaining of the two options.  Regardless, in a campaign, there would need to be an advantage conferred by 'winning' an Episode that could be employed in future Episodes.  More Power?  Improved attribute Values?  The ability to determine turn order during the Conflict Phase?  Perhaps retaining the Victory Condition resources would be sufficient reward.

The essential features of the Dallas rules set are (1) players as adversaries and (2) influence-based/non-combat conflict resolution.  What setting would be appropriate?  I envision a game where players assume the roles of the Greek gods.  Instead of J.R. and Sue Ellen, we would have Zeus and Hera.  Instead of oil companies and secretaries as resources, we would have heroes and monsters, cities and armies.  Yes, the resources could fight and kill one another, but the gods would not resort to physical violence among themselves.  Also, they wouldn't directly destroy resources – it wouldn't be sporting.  Gods would provide aid to their own heroes and attempt to thwart their opponents' heroes.  Victory Conditions could include the Golden Fleece and the rescue of Andromeda.  But why be limited to the Olympian pantheon?  There are plenty of mythologies.  Why not a 'mix and match' pantheon?  We could have Loki and Isis conspiring against Themis and Ishtar.

In less lofty spheres, I can see the Dallas rules used to simulate the interactions of 21st Aeon arch-magicians as portrayed in Jack Vance's Rhialto the Marvellous.  Yes, The Dying Earth Role Playing Game covers this milieu but the Dallas rules might offer a more structured alternative.  Among the minor characters would be the sandestins that the magicians use to carry out their spells.  In “Fader's Waft,” a sandestin's loyalty could be altered by Persuasion or Coercion.  Other resources would be spells and various magical “adjuncts” such as the highly coveted IOUN stones.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

A Saddlebag Full of Kruggerands

The Dallas box set includes:
  • The Rules of Play booklet (16 pages, including covers)
  • The Scriptwriter's Guide booklet (also 16 pages, also including covers)
  • A booklet of nine double-sided character sheets (discussed here) for the pre-generated 'major characters,' plus a reference sheet containing “Information for the Director”
  • Two perforated sheets of 28 cards each (pink sheet:  15 organizational characters, one 'blank' organizational character, 12 plot devices; white sheet:  22 minor characters, 6 'blank' minor characters)
  • Two dinky six-sided dice
  • My box also includes a one-page SPI flyer touting various games on one side and magazine subscriptions (for Ares, Moves and Strategy & Tactics) on the other
The Scriptwriter's Guide contains six sections.

Two pages of Director's Notes contain universally pertinent advice for any starting Game Master (e.g., “...your obligation as Director is to provide an interesting and entertaining Episode, not to see that any particular character wins”).

How to write your own game scripts is somewhat misnamed in that 'script creation' information is limited to a half page in the two-page section.  The section also contains instructions on how to use the scripts provided with the game, but the most interesting part of the section is devoted to 'creating your own characters.'  It is interesting in that it details the “somewhat abstract” process by which Ability values were determined for the show's main characters.  Each character received a score from one to nine (relative to the other characters) in six categories:  charm (“...representing the ability to get your own way on the basis of personality”), intelligence (“ terms of both intellect and cunning”), nerve, physical attractiveness, power, and “unscrupulousness.”  (The range for 'power' goes from zero to nine.  Power is the only 'category' that translates directly to a 'Value.')  Each of the Abilities represents a combination of categories.  (“The final totals were fine tuned so that no character was excessively strong or weak.”)
     Persuasion (Affect) = intelligence + charm + attractiveness
     Persuasion (Resist) = intelligence + nerve
     Coercion (Affect) = intelligence + nerve + unscrupulousness
     Coercion (Resist) = charm + nerve
     Seduction (Affect) = charm + unscrupulousness + attractiveness
     Seduction (Resist) = intelligence + nerve
     Investigation (both Affect and Resist) = intelligence + charm + nerve

The section on Plot Devices is a list of seventy objects or circumstances that could be (1) assigned to a character by the Director or (2) obtained (unseen) by a character that succeeds in an Investigation Attempt.  Plot Devices are usually represented by cards.  However, the only plot device cards that come with the game are the dozen used with the provided scripts and those are not numbered among the seventy.  An example of a plot device is 'Saddlebag full of Kruggerands,' which allows a character “to buy out any one character at any time” (unless two 6's are rolled on the dice).  Other examples include “Alcoholic depression.  Causes player to be absent a scene.” and “A phone number on the back of a book of matches from a Grand Prairie motel.  Nice sleazy tidbit.  Can be used as blackmail.”

There are two-and-a-half pages of Character Biographies.  Each of the characters – minor or organizational – that have a card have descriptions in this section.  Some of the characters are not connected to any of the three scripts included with the game and “are provided to assist you in writing your own Scripts.”  An example:
Haynes Brusco Connolly
Born: 1935.  Place of Birth/Raised: South Boston, Mass.  Education: High school.  Notes:  Detective on the Dallas police force and a friend of J.R.  Carries a 9mm Browning automatic.
Most of the Scriptwriter's Guide is presented in two columns of text; the exception is the Background section, which is a little more than three pages in length.  The Background pages have three columns of text and a smaller font that the rest of the booklet.  This section consists of three topics – 'Texas,' 'Dallas,' and 'Texas Politics' – that provide a wealth of information any encyclopedia would be proud to include.  Seriously, it starts with the Ordovician period.  Interesting stuff, but it's better suited for a term paper than as an aid for playing a soap opera game.  Did you know that Texas – when it was an independent nation – sent a trade representative to the Hanseatic League?

Lastly, the back cover describes a Sample Scene which does a good job of showing how the game is played; a necessary example after the rules explain how to play the game.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Inspiration: Samakhara

The blazing chasm...the rock bridge, the spired palace...

The plot of Tom Strong #34 (October 2005) regards the manifestation of the setting and characters of an in-universe work of fiction.  In this issue, written by Steve Moore, the eponymous protagonist journeys to the middle of Asia to investigate “high strangeness” that seems to correlate to the inexplicable presence of Samakhara, a place that should only exist with the pages of an outré 19th century novel.  That novel, The Chevalier de Rêve and the Spires of Samakhara, had been written sometime prior to 1889 by Armand DeLaTour.  Samakhara would seem to be located between Samarkand and the Tarim Basin.

Tengri Khan
Our hero ventures forth to “the spires,” a palace inhabited by Tengri Khan, an evil sorcerer who styles himself as 'Lord of Samakhara' as well as 'Lord of Heaven.'  On route, our hero encounters a variety of weird obstacles.
  • Shadow-Mist:  A fog which seems to cause a sense of foreboding.
  • Arm-Spiders:  Six-limbed 'things' as large as a human.  They have large eyes and a beak and they “serve as scouts and supply-gatherers.”
  • Meadow of the Damned:  A field of flowers whose blooms are pursed lips that intone phrases of discouragement.
  • Flesh-Eating Tentacle Trees:  Self explanatory.
  • Flying Snakes:  Also self explanatory.
  • River of Heads and Limbs:  A river of slime in which inhuman heads call out and clawed appendages flail about.
  • Air-Scavengers:  'Jellyfish' that float through the air.
  • Black Rain:  A precipitation that “seems more like soot than water.”
The palace itself is surrounded by a “blazing chasm caused by an ancient meteor strike...”  The same meteor was also the source of the Oculus Caelestis, a gemstone which grants Tengri Khan his power.  The Oculus Caelestis – the Celestial Eye – is attached to a strange idol according to DeLaTour's book.  At the climax of the book, the gem is thrown into the fiery chasm, thereby destroying the palace along with Tengri Khan's magic.

“An awful statue of a wrathful deity”
Horrors abound within the palace as well as without.  Denizens of the spires include “yetis in livery” and “stone-headed corpses.”

Yetis in livery – the one on the right has a monocle!
Eventually, Tom Strong comes across DeLaTour's protagonist, the Chevalier.  Seemingly for more than a century, she has been in a state of suspended animation.  Tengri Khan caused the Chevalier to enter this state by affixing a peculiar insect to her face.  Strong easily removes the moth and it flies away.

The hideous moth-mask
Since we merely seek inspiration, the resolution of the Tom Strong story need not concern us.  Moore has supplied us with a variety of weird and colorful details that we can appropriate – separately or combined – for our gaming purposes.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

The Rules of Conflict in Dallas

I found this on

Previously, we learned that each 'Episode' of Dallas:  The Television Role-Playing Game consists of four or five 'Scenes,' each of which begins with a 'Director Phase.'  Every Scene has three Phases:  Director, Negotiation, and Conflict.  In the Director Phase, the Director provides information to the players, individually and/or as a group.  The Director also introduces plot devices and (non-player) characters, which are typically represented by cards.  Examples of plot device cards include 'Senator's Press Conference' and 'Deed to Southfork.'  Characters that are not player characters can either be 'minor' or 'organizational.'  Minor characters are individuals, like Alexis Blancher (J.R.'s secretary) or the intentionally vague 'Secret Informer.'  Examples of organizational characters include 'Ewing Oil' and 'Local Press.'  Some plot devices or non-major characters may begin an Episode under the control of a major character and some may be left “up for grabs.”

In the Negotiation Phase, “players, power, or anything else and make agreements to support each other...”  The Director may allow players to engage in negotiations “away from the table and away from other players.”  The Director determines the duration of the Negotiation Phase.

Conflict occurs in the aptly named Conflict Phase.  The mechanics of conflict are similar to those used in Illuminati, which Steve Jackson designed the year following Dallas' release.  Conflict consists of one character attempting to “Affect” another character.  There are four types of conflict:  Persuasion, Seduction, Coercion, and Investigation.  Each type of conflict correlates to a character “Ability” (i.e., attribute) of the same name.  Each Ability has an Affecting Value and a Resisting Value.

Generally, in a conflict, the appropriate Value of the Resisting character is subtracted from the appropriate Value of the Affecting character.  The player controlling the Affecting character must roll the difference or less on 2d6 in order to be successful.  With a difference of one or less, the attempt is impossible, but with a difference of twelve or more, the attempt is automatically successful.  Players can use 'power' to enhance an Affecting or Resisting Value of any character he or she controls during a single conflict.  'Points' of power increase a Value on a one-to-one basis except for Coercion; each point of power increases the applicable Coercion Value by three.  Expended power is not available until the next Scene.  Power belonging to a minor or organizational character can only be used to increase its own Resisting Value, but apparently can do so as often as necessary during a turn.  A player cannot contribute power to a conflict that does not involve his or her characters (but power may be 'given' or 'loaned' during the Negotiation Phase).

Some characters have Luck Values.  If an Affect attempt is successful against such a character, its Luck can be used,  If the player rolls the character's Luck Value or less on 2d6, “the otherwise successful Affect attempt is unsuccessful.”

During a Conflict Phase, the Director determines the turn order for players by whatever means the Director deems appropriate.  Each player is limited to three Affect attempts.  For each Affect attempt a player forgoes, he or she may “Protect” a character in his or her control.  “A Protected character has its Resistance increased by 3 to any one Affect attempt against it.”  A player may opt to Protect without regard to turn order.  I would assume that a character cannot be 'multiply Protected' for a given Affect attempt, but can a player 'spend' another Protect when Resisting another attempt?  I also assume that a Protect does not carry over to the following Scene if no affect Attempt was made against the Protected character.

If a character is successful in a Persuasion attempt, the controlling player opts for one of three possible results.  (1) The Affected character “must provide information upon demand.”  (2) If the Affected character is a major character, it must “relinquish control of a character or plot device.”  (3) If the Affected character is a non-major character, it will “come under the control of the Affecting character.”

A successful Seduction attempt allows the same options as a successful Persuasion attempt; however, a character can only Seduce characters that are of the opposite gender and which are not blood relations.  Also, Seduction cannot be used by or against organizational characters.*

A successful Coercion attempt offers the first two options that a successful Persuasion attempt provides.  As a third option the Affecting character may force the Affected character to “attempt to Affect, upon demand, any other character of the Affecting character's choice.”  If the Affected character is controlled by a player, I'm not certain if  this coerced Affect attempt counts against the limit of three attempts per Scene.  If a Coercion attempt fails against an independent minor or organizational character, “there is a possibility of Revenge.”  This means that each of the other players can make a Persuasion attempt – presumably not counting against the three attempt limit – to control that independent character.

With a successful Investigation attempt, a character can obtain information just as with the other three conflict types; however, “Investigation may also be used against the Director to discover the identity of characters and plot devices that are face down on the table.”  If the Director determines that a character has committed an illegal act, a player who controls an organizational character with legal authority (e.g., Local Police, Texas Rangers, etc.) can use Investigation against the criminal character.  A series of Investigation successes – identification, arrest warrant, indictment, and conviction – will cause the criminal character to lose all power for the remainder of the Episode.  Each 'level' of successful Investigation against a criminal character grants the Investigating player an increasing number of Victory Points.  The severity of the crime modifies Investigation attempts to the benefit of the Investigating character.

The only organizational character vulnerable to Seduction is the “Rich Liberal Northeastern Senator's Investigating Sub-Committee.”  The biography from page 11 of the Scriptwriter's Guide states in full:
Born in Boston and raised in the New York Times and Washington Post.  Effete in outlook.  Basically designed to smear oil companies for the Senator's political benefit.  Only institution that can be seduced.  Can be stopped by any Ewing with information regarding the Senator's exact actions the night after a party when he tried to float a Mercedes in the Charles river.  The committee is regarded by most Texans as being a hapless joke.  Added for political realism.