Sunday, June 26, 2016

Characters in James Bond 007

One can play James Bond in the James Bond 007 role-playing game, but Bond would overshadow everyone else, of course, in games with multiple player characters.  Provision is therefore made to create original characters using a point allocation method.  There are three 'ranks' of characters:  Rookie (with 3,000 Generation Points), Agent (with 6,000 Generation Points), and “00” (with 9,000 Generation Points).  When players need to spend a thousand or more points to create a character, perhaps a game designer should consider reducing costs by an order of magnitude.

There are five characteristics:  Strength, Dexterity, Willpower, Perception, and Intelligence.  Player characters start with a value of 5 in each characteristic since it “is the minimum an agent of M.I.6 should have if he is to have a decent chance of surviving in the field.”  Generation Point costs are listed up to a characteristic value of 15 (although Jaws has a Strength of 18).

Several items of information are derived directly from characteristics.  Speed (“how fast your character's reflexes are”) is figured by looking up the sum of Perception and Dexterity on the Speed Chart.  Speed ranges from zero to three.  From Strength is derived Hand-to-Hand Combat Damage Class (A, B, or C) and Carrying Value (in pounds).  Running/Swimming Value (“how many consecutive minutes [a character] can spend running or swimming at full speed before becoming exhausted”) and Stamina (“how many consecutive hours your character may stay awake without feeling exhausted”) are both derived from Willpower.  One might think that physical conditioning would influence endurance, but such is not the case in the world of James Bond (at least in the interpretation of Victory Games).

A player must spend Generation Points for his or her character's Physical Aspects:  Height, Weight, and Appearance.  For males, Height can be anywhere between 5'2" and 6'6" and Weight can range from 120 lbs to 260 lbs.  For females, the ranges are 4'10" to 6'2" and 95 to 205 pounds.  In terms of cost, 'average' values are most expensive and 'extreme' values are least expensive.  For example, it would cost 400 Generation Points for a male character to be 5'10" and 181 pounds.  It would cost only 60 points for a male character to be 6'6" and 250 pounds.  Weight must be selected in relation to Height (i.e., “you must select a weight for your character that is within two lines of those same point values”).  There is a spectrum of six Appearance values:  Plain, Normal, Good Looking, Attractive, Striking, and Sensational.  (James Bond is 'Striking'.)  'Normal' is the most expensive at 200 points and 'Sensational' is the least at 30 points.

The rule book describes twenty-four skills (but player characters are not permitted to acquire the Torture skill).  “A skill is based on one or two characteristics,” the rules state, “the value of which is then added to the Skill Level to determine the Primary Chance for that skill.”  For example, the formula for the Riding skill is the average of Perception and Willpower.  Each skill costs 100 points; this gives a Skill Level of one.  (Player Characters automatically have Charisma and Driving.)  Each additional Skill Level has a cost of twenty points.  The number of Skill Levels a character may have for a given skill cannot exceed two more than the higher Characteristic used in the skill's formula.  In no case can a character have more than fifteen Skill Levels in any given skill.  Since “Bond has never had serious trouble communicating” during his adventures, languages are not deemed important by the rules.  Optionally, however, each language can be treated as a separate skill. 

Other than skills, characters can have Abilities, “which are equivalent to skills and are played like them, except they cannot be raised in level and always have the same Primary Chance (20).”  Any member of an intelligence-gathering organization – including every player character – automatically has the following Abilities:  Connoisseur, First Aid, and Photography.  (Incidentally, these are the only Abilities described.)  Naturally, 'Connoisseur' represents an important part of the James Bond oeuvre, but should it be considered standard training for secret agents?  Even so, should James Bond's Connoisseur affinity be no different than that of anybody else?  I think not.

As an optional rule, characters can have experience in a career prior to becoming a spy.  The starting age for such a character is 27 plus the number of years spent in a profession (to a maximum of six years).  The character gains twenty Generation Points per year spent in a profession; these points may only be spent on skills associated with the profession.  For instance, the Scientist profession offers Electronics, Science, and Riding.  Also, a character gains a 'Field of Experience' for every year he or she spends in a profession.  Unlike skills and abilities, for Fields of Experience, “a character either knows the information required or how to perform the task, or he does not.”  Fields of Experience available to the Thief profession, for instance, include:  Fine Arts, Jewelry, Law, Mechanical Engineering, and Rare Collectables.  There are also 'General' Fields of Experience, some of which include:  Wargaming, Economics/ Business, Tennis, and Snow Skiing.

Another optional rule grants Generation Points to characters with one or more weaknesses.  “In addition to the depth of personality which weaknesses add to individual characters,” the rules state, “they will also help you create situations to exploit a specific weakness.”  Bond, for instance, has the 'Attraction to Members of the Opposite Sex' weakness.  About which, according to the rules:
If the person afflicted were not a secret agent, he would simply be considered healthy; however, agents are supposed to be immune to emotional attachments.  100 Generation Points.  Causes distraction.
Some other weaknesses include:  Fear of Snakes (75 points), Dependence on Drugs (125 points), Sadism (only NPCs may have this weakness) (100 points), and Greed (100 points).

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Sunday, June 19, 2016

Role Playing In Her Majesty's Secret Service

Art by James Talbot

In the early 80s, TSR issued a loan to Simulations Publications, Inc.  However, in less than a month, TSR called in the note, thereby dooming SPI.  TSR acquired SPI's assets, but not its people.  Some SPI alumni were hired by Avalon Hill and a subsidiary (or “sister”) company was formed – Victory Games.  Rather than in Avalon Hill's Baltimore, Victory Games was based in New York (just as SPI had been).   Victory Games published a variety of games in the vein of SPI; they also obtained the RPG license for the James Bond franchise.

James Bond 007 was published in 1983 and it won that year's H. G. Wells Award for best role-playing rules.  It also won the Strategist's Club Award in 1984.  In his Heroic Worlds, Lawrence Schick recommended James Bond 007 as the top espionage system.  He described the game as having “a smooth, fast-playing style and was well supported with scenarios for one, two, or several players.”

Interestingly, the last three digits of the ISBN are 007.  The game is dedicated to (Aaron) Eric Dott, chairman of Avalon Hill's parent company.  (Dott passed away earlier this year.)  Gerald Christopher Klug is credited with “game design, development and project coordination.”  Klug's other role-playing credits include work on SPI's Dragonquest and Universe.

Klug discusses the creation of the game in the third issue of Heroes, Avalon Hill's RPG magazine.  In the early 80s, Klug felt that an “area of role-play which...hadn't been adequately covered was the world of espionage.”  His gaming group wasn't satisfied with the “only game available at the time.”  Although Klug avoids mentioning the name of this unsatisfying game, it could be none other than TSR's Top Secret.  (Even Schick describes Top Secret as “competent but unimpressive.”)  “I knew I could design a better game,” Klug reminisces, “going so far as to start tinkering with a game system.”  Klug's rules were generic – not geared toward any licensed property.  The newly created Victory Games wanted to enter into the RPG market but decided against a fantasy game given the crowded field.  Klug proposed his espionage game, but instead of a generic setting, Victory Games “decided to base a game on the only spy character really worth doing – James Bond.”  I can appreciate that James Bond was the only spy character with a currently active franchise, but surely not the only spy character really worth doing.  Mission: Impossible and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. are worthwhile possibilities; even The Avengers would make a decent basis for an RPG.

The Bond license required Victory Games “to support the James Bond movies, so the characters, backgrounds, and plot lines made [in] the game would be drawn from the movies.”  According to Klug:
This would please some Bond fans and displease others, so the latter would have to be appeased by having the game system designed to support both the books and the movies...Since I was designing the game systems to emulate the books while giving the players information from the movies, that would satisfy fans of both genres.  And, as long as I made the game essentially simple to play, the young fans would by it and be happy with it.
As mentioned previously, scenarios for James Bond 007 were based upon the various Bond films, but the details were altered so that the plots were not predictable.  Even 'original' adventures were marketed as a type of sequel (for instance, Goldfinger II and You Only Live Twice II).  Not all of the Bond films were given a scenario treatment, although there seems to have been an intent to do so.  An early James Bond 007 advertisement included the following:

A 'playtest' version of From Russia With Love appeared in electronic form in 2003, but Moonraker, Diamonds Are Forever, and The Spy Who Loved Me never appeared.

I find it interesting to compare and contrast The Adventures of Indiana Jones with James Bond 007.  One was celebrated and the other scorned.  Yet both were released within a year of one another and both were based on the films of pop culture icons.  Even the basic game mechanics of the two games are similar.  The Indiana Jones game compares the results of a percentile roll against some multiple of an Attribute Rating for purposes of task resolution.  In James Bond 007, a character has a Primary Chance associated with some task.  The Primary Chance is multiplied by an Ease Factor to establish a number to which a percentile roll is compared for determining success.  (There are eleven Ease Factors:  one through ten as well as ½.  Lower numbers represent more difficult tasks.)  There are four “levels” of success with regard to checks in the Indiana Jones game and, in James Bond 007, there are four Quality Ratings that represent different levels of success – from 1 (excellent) to 4 (acceptable).  I'm not suggesting that either game copied the other, but both games used a similar mechanic to appeal to entry-level players.

Although Indiana Jones was developed into another role-playing game, James Bond has not returned in RPG form.  However, an approximate simulacrum of the Victory Games rules system has been produced under the name Classified.  The name leaves much to be desired; I would have gone with something like 'Agents & Assassins'.  (You can't go wrong with alliteration and ampersands.)

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Who Roves Where Dreamers Seek

Art by Harold S. De Lay

I would take you back with me into an age beside which that of Brennus and Rome is as yesterday.  I would take you back through, not merely centuries and millenniums, but epochs and dim ages unguessed by the wildest philosopher.  Oh far, far and far will you fare into the nighted past before you win beyond the boundaries of my race, blue-eyed, yellow-haired, wanderers, slayers, lovers, mighty in rapine and wayfaring.
                                   – The Valley of the Worm

Today marks the passage of eighty years since the demise of Robert E. Howard.  Rather than focus on the circumstances of his death, let us instead appreciate what he has given us.

The October, 1936, issue of Weird Tales contained the final installment of “Red Nails,” the last Conan story Howard wrote.  About which he said to H. P. Lovecraft, “it well may be the last fantasy I'll ever write” and that it “was the bloodiest and most sexy weird story I ever wrote.”  The illustration above is from that story.

Also contained in said issue is a poetic tribute to Howard by Robert H. Barlow (displayed below), whose other literary efforts include a handful of collaborations with Lovecraft.

In the poem, Barlow conflates Howard with Conan, Howard's most famous creation.  Writers tend to put something of themselves into their characters and there must be something of Howard in Conan.  In my opinion, however, Howard is more like another of his creations, James Allison, a contemporary Texan who recounts heroic past lives.  While Allison is constrained by his own infirmity, Howard is constrained by his mother's infirmity.  Both, of course, take us to “epochs and dim ages unguessed.”

Howard, along with various other luminaries, was written up for GURPS Who's Who 2.  Such write-ups can't help but be subjective; Ernest Hemingway's write-up would easily thrash Howard's write-up in the world of GURPS.  I would like to think that “Two-Gun Bob” would put up a good fight against “Papa,” but what do I know?  Anyway, using a tortuous conversion process from GURPS to Hero System to (A)D&D, I have fashioned Howard in terms of “the world's most popular role-playing game.”

Robert E. Howard, a.k.a. Ervin the Mighty (2nd Level Fighter)
Strength  16
Dexterity  12
Constitution  14
Intelligence  14
Wisdom  14
Charisma  15

Add a 'Survival' non-weapon proficiency, roll hit points, and equip to taste.

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P.S. – Readers may be interested in a guest post I recently wrote for the eminently readable Schlock Value blog.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Chases in The Adventures of Indiana Jones

In a pursuit, there are the chased and the chaser; in The Adventures of Indiana Jones, the terms are Leader and Follower, respectively.  Distance is measured in units of 25 feet called Areas.  The Referee's Screen presents a table that converts miles-per-hour into areas-per-turn in increments of 10 mph.  (A Turn is five seconds.)

In any given turn, the distance of the Leader from the Follower equals the Follower's Chase Rate subtracted from the Leader's Chase Rate.  The Leader has a number of Areas as a Head Start.  The sum of the Leader's speed and Head Start is his or her Chase Rate for the first turn of the chase; the Follower's Chase Rate equals his or speed.  To determine Chase Rate on subsequent turns, for both Leader and Follower, speed is added to the prior turn's Chase Rate.

According to the rules:
It doesn't matter if your characters are using cars, horses, or their own feet in a chase.  You run chases the same way for all three.
Despite this assertion, the rules primarily address vehicle chases.  Vehicles have the following specifications:  Acceleration, Breaking, Maximum Speed, Redline Speed, Turn Speed, and Vehicle Rating.  If a vehicle tries to turn when in excess of its Turn Speed, the driver must make a Movement Check.  If successful, the turn is accomplished without incident; if unsuccessful, “your character loses control and has an accident.”  The vehicle's speed is added to an accident roll.  Results on the Accident Table range from 'skid' to 'flip and roll'.  When a vehicle travels faster than its Redline Speed, the driver's Movement Rating is halved.  Vehicle Rating “is a measure of a vehicle's durability.”

If light damage is inflicted upon a vehicle, its “Maximum Speed is reduced by 10 mph.”  If a vehicle suffers medium damage, “The vehicle's speed is cut to half of its normal Maximum Speed.”  When a vehicle takes serious damage, it “stalls out and [slows] to a complete stop.”

The Adventures of Indiana Jones has a Chase Flow Chart (presented above).  It consists of twenty-five circles identified by letters A through Z (with the exception of O).  Twenty-one of the circles represent intersections, three represent Hazards, and one is a dead end.  The Hazard Table is shown below; however, the rules state, “The Referee may also create his own Hazards.”
Ten of the circles are numbered, permitting a 'starting' circle to be determined by rolling 1d10.  If the Leader is attempting to reach a specific location, that location is also determined by rolling 1d10 (rerolling if the starting circle number results).  The Chase Flow Chart is not shown to the players.  When a player character is the Leader and he (or she) is attempting to reach a specific location, the Referee should announce which direction the character should take at a given intersection if the character “is pretty familiar with the area...”  If the character “is only slightly familiar with the area,” then an Instinct Check must be made at each intersection.  Of course, this is dependent upon the Referee realizing the ideal route.  What's the best way to get from 9(X) to 2(C)?  A random direction is rolled for an NPC Leader not headed for a specific location.  If the difference in Areas between the Leader and Follower exceeds the number listed between two linked circles, then the Follower loses sight of the Leader.

The Judge's Survival Pack includes additional rules and material regarding chases.

First, there are five more Chase Flow Charts:  one for “citystreets,” one for countryside, and three for buildings (“mainfloor,” “midfloor,” and rooftop).  Additionally, there are Hazard tables for “countryroad” (with results like blow out, cloud of dust, and bridge out!) and buildings (with results like loose carpet, cleaning lady, and “laundry in hall”).  (Incidentally, The Fourth Nail Adventure Pack includes several Chase Flow Charts, including charts that represent Barcelona.)

Second, chase participants can attempt “shortcuts.”  With a successful Movement Check, the character gains “spaces” (either 2, 4, or 6).  Although unstated, I suspect that for vehicle chases, “space” means Area and for foot chases, “space” refers to Square (i.e., five feet).

Lastly, the Judge's Survival Pack provides rules for stunting.  For “wild car chases,” characters can do things like attempt “skid turns and bootleg 180 degree turns” (succeed with a Movement Check or else roll on the Accident Table) or jump an obstacle (“there must be a ramp in front of the obstacle, the driver must be going Redline speed, and he must make a Movement check at × ½”).  Rules are also supplied “for overcoming obstacles in a foot race.”  For instance, actions such as “Sliding, Swinging, Vaulting, and Tackling require a Movement check at × ½ to maintain control and not get hurt.”  Another rule helpfully explains, “Walking a ledge, Jumping High, and Controlling a fall may require a normal Movement check or one at ×½ or ×¼ depending on how difficult the situation is.”  So, in short, engaging in a Movement 'stunt' may require a (possibly modified) Movement Check.