Cawnpore and Perseus are available in the Createspace eStore and on where, if you order a physical copy of the books, you get the ebook for free. They are also available as ebooks on every ereader out there.


Here’s a good response to my “It’s Not the Game That Sucks, You’re Playing It Wrong” post…

Originally posted on Casting Shadows:

For a few years, my game group and I switched games and usually systems every month. Every once in a while, the other GM in the group would switch systems out from under a setting to try a new way of running a game we’d already played for his month of sessions. Generally, though, each new month (give or take a few lengthy runs) brought us a new game to learn. Exposing myself to new games was not new to me. This was something I had been doing since my first year of university. It was, however, the phase of fastest acquisition and implementation, through which I have passed before or since.

It was a lot of fun at first; it truly was. I learned a lot of games. I learned a lot about games. I learned about learning games, and I learned about how other people learn games. In…

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For the last decade, I’ve had a selection of rifles — mostly AR-style carbines from various manufacturers in gas port and gas piston, but I never meshed with the ergonomics of the weapon. i was much more fond of the FN PS90 in 5.7mm — sure, it didn’t have the power of the AR-15, but for most urban engagements or home defense SHTF situations, a pistol cartridge carbine has a few definite advantages: 1) they’re lighter, 2) ammo is interchangeable with handguns, 3) they’re easier to control and shoot. The downsides are obvious: 1) lower power, 2) shorter effective range.

The PS90 served the house for a decade with the FiveSeven as my carry gun, but over the last two years or so, I realized i wasn’t carrying the FN, despite the lighter weight; my 1911 was more concealable. Also, I hadn’t shot the PS90 in almost three years. Time to make some room in the gun cabinet. I decided I wanted a 9mm or .45 for cost efficiency (and because it’s near impossible to get a 10mm carbine.)

There were only a few options — an AR in 9mm, but i don’t like the ergonomics and if you’re going to buy an AR, buy a rifle cartridge; there was the Hi-Point, which had some real boosters online, but looked like crap; and the Beretta CX4. The Storm is a sexy looking thing that uses M9/92 model magazines, and those are plentiful. All the reviews touted the reliability and the accuracy. I borrowed one from the local range and put a few boxes through it.


The bad first: The trigger’s a bit heavy, but better than the PS90. The iron sights are spot on but horrible for quick use. The gun needs a decent reflex sight or a simple red dot. I dropped one on and I can still see the iron sights through the glass, just in case. Some might not like the safety — it’s a cross bolt and hard to operate unless you’re used to a shotgun; then you’ll be fine. The magazine well is a bit clumsy for seating the standard 15 round M9 magazines, but I suspect the extended 30 round ones should go in much easier. It’s a little pricey at $700 when a el-cheapo AR is running $850.

The good: Accuracy is great out to the 30 yards I tried it at. My suspicion is it should be spot on out to 100-150 yards. Reach to the trigger is about the same as the PS90. Recoil is very manageable and the rubber cheek pad and buttpad is very comfortable. There’s a Piccatinny rail on the top for optics, a light screw-on rail for the side near the front for a light, and there’s a very small nub of a rail under the barrel that after cleaning the Storm, I noticed connected to a long bit of plastic in the upper. Pushing in the front sling post allows you to slide a long, useable rail out under the barrel.

The great: It looks amazing and futuristic. You can swap the ejection port and charging handle with ease from right to left hand. The takedown is as easy as the PS90 — knockout a wee pin from either side of the foregrip, pull the stock out, pull the bolt out. Done.

New CX4 with a crappy BSA red dot scope.

New CX4 with a crappy BSA red dot scope.

So is it worth it? Yes.

UPDATE: I took the Storm out this morning and dropped 200 rounds through it. The old BSA RDA30 scope shook itself apart about halfway through the shoot and had to be junked in favor of a new BSA reflex sight. The rifle had no malfunctions, shot true to it’s iron sights and my original red dot, and once I got the new one sighted in, here were no issues. It is, however, a dirty gun — 200 rounds had me with soot all over my fingers and I could feel the oil from the ammunition on my face.

One thing I noted in the Battlestar Galactica campaign we’ve been running is that the system doesn’t quite allow for the toaster splashing antics of Starbuck and Apollo, nor are the toasters as deadly as they could be. One reason for that is the Cortex Classic mechanic for damage in a fight. As mentioned in the Discussions on Damage post from today, the idea for these possible house rules catalyzed out of a Facebook group post that caught my attention. So without further ado:

Suggestion 1: Tying the damage die to success. You need a 7 to hit the target and get a 12. That’s 5 points basic damage plus the d8W for your rifle (or viper.) At this point, anything under 5…is a 5. That means when you roll the d8W, you get between 5 and 8 as a result, so a 3 stun and 7-10 wound. This makes you a ton more effective against the toasters…and vice versa.

Suggestion 2: A static damage number that is tagged to the basic damage. As per the last example — you’ve done 3 stun and 2 wound basic damage. Now your rifle does 8 wound. This seems a lot more dangerous, and isn’t the one I would recommend.

Suggestion 3: This is one I suggest separate from the above ideas, and is one I use in my Cortex games: characters always roll an Endurance (Vitality+Willpower) versus damage taken. If they succeed, no penalty is rendered; if they fail, they are stunned for the number of rounds they missed by. This can be bought out with a plot point, or if they have Cool under Fire or some such asset. If they are hit with an extraordinary success and the character misses the roll, they suffer the effects as per the normal rules (pg 94 in the Cortex core book.)

Suggestion 4: This has also been one I’ve used in our campaigns — an extraordinary success on an injury leads to some kind of lasting effect — a broken arm, or the like — that gives the character a temporary Chronic Injury complication equal to the wound, round down. So say you take 9 wound and 3 stun, but live…you have a d8 Chronic Injury, Broken Whatever that takes that many weeks of game time to heal.

As usual, feel free to completely ignore any or all of this.

One nice thing about roleplaying is that it is social, it’s a discussion — between GM and players, between the characters, between players in different groups across the interwebz. One discussion that caught my attention was on the subject of damage or injury in a game. The question asked was static or random damage…but is that all the choices you have?

Most Fate variants have the ability to soak injury into complications like “Broken Arm” or some such mechanic that works against the character, but doesn’t take them out of the game. James Bond RPG had an excellent rules set where the quality of the attack dictated how much damage was done based off the Damage Class from A-L (character’s could usually delivery A-C damage in hand to hand; a pistol between E and G), so you might take a Light Wound on an acceptable or good hit, a medium on a very good, or a heavy on a excellent result. Cortex has a similar quality based damage system where basic damage is done by the amount of success on the attack roll. Say you have to hit on a seven, and you roll a 12; that’s 3 stun and 2 wound…but then you add the randomized damage of a dx wound or stun for the weapon. That 5 total damage was pretty good, but Oops! you rolled a one on the damage roll. Kinda sucks, huh? There’s a rule that extraordinary successes do full damage of the weapon (pg 94, Cortex core book) where the target suffers a steady d2 bleed out until they get aid, but does that accurately (or even cinematically/dramatically) represent a great shot?

One way around this is a “mook rule”, if you will. PCs that get extraordinary success or a critical hit, dispatch whatever no name henchman or monster they are dealing with. Only the lead villains or major henchmen get the benefit of damage roll. (Or to quote Nigel Power in Goldmember, “You haven’t even got a nametag! What chance have you got? Why don’t you just…lie down?”)

Another could be to take the weapon and add it to the roll for the attack. Does your sword do a d6 damage, add that to the d20 (if this were D&D, say) and whatever you beat the AC by, that’s your damage.

Another might be to use a variant of the Cortex rules — damage is based on how well you rolled over (or under, depending on the system) the target number with a set damage rating for the weapon. The downside to this is combat gets a lot deadlier for the PCs. Another option is you can’t roll below the amount you succeeded by. So if you beat a target of eight by four — you do four points before the d6 for your weapon.  Anything under 5 is four, so a total of eight or higher. There’s still some chance, but the results take quality of action into effect more.

These are just a few suggestions, but it does break us out of the flatness of a random or static only damage mechanic for a game.

It appears that Margaret Weis Productions is looking to re-release Marvel Heroic Roleplaying without the Marvel. I suspect this will be the same, or mostly the same, rules set stripped of the licensed material. This could be a nice boon to the superhero RPG fans, as the rules set was great at recreating the flavor of comic books.

So, I got an opportunity at the local Meetup group in Albuquerque to play Firefly with one of the system leads, Mark Truman. I was interested to see if someone with familiarity in the game would run it dramatically differently than I had, and whether my opinions regarding the game would change. We ran through one of the canned adventures from MWP, and he had obviously run the game a few times. It was well tailored to the selection of characters we had. The experience as a player was much easier than that of GM for the game. I found I was having a good time (as I did running the game), but was able to focus on the mechanics and how they played because I only had to focus on one character. (I played Zoe.)

So how did it play? I thought the players dove in well and utilized the rules much more enthusiastically than my group had. This is a typical experience for one-shots and convention games, I’ve found. The simplified character attributes and skills (as compared to Serenity) worked well for the pacing, and the distinctions allowed for some good mechanical advantages for the dice pools. As the night went on, especially in the main action piece, the dice pools ballooned and were hard to keep track of as assets and complications were created. At one point we had over a dozen stickies with notes on the table to keep track of the action. In the hands of a gamemaster with experience in running the game, it seemed to flow no better or worse than it had for me.

So in the end, what is the verdict as a player, rather than a GM? One — it’s still a good game, and I think the rules could be adapted very very well to other settings (Star Trek or Star Wars particularly!) Two — the assets and complications quickly get out of hand, even if players are spending plot point to step them back. Three — the asset/complication mechanic seems is supposed to enhance player contribution to the narrative, but I found it hampered the gamemaster while only allowing a little extra power to the players. How? I noticed that the asset or complications on the table felt, often, like they had to be taken into a account…whether that was the case or not, the sticky was there, crying to be used. Four — the assets and complications, and the plot points, are much, much more manageable than they were in Marvel Heroic Roleplaying.

The final verdict: Firefly is a good game that is potentially a great one for new players. There are still a lot of moving parts to the game at times, and I think that could swamp a new gamemaster. It’s a buy.

[p.s. A lot of people are getting frustrated (myself included) by the constant delays in the release. This seems to be tied to coordinating all the publishing nonsense that goes with a simultaneous international release -- copyrights, shipping, yadda yadda...]

This post is going to have double purpose: To address the issues of player agency and narrative control, and to tie into a short review (as a player) of the new Firefly system.

This weekend, I got a chance to play in a game of Firefly by Margaret Weis Productions run by one of the systems leads, Mark Truman, for the game. I figured it might be interesting to see if the experience of the game would be different, and if my opinions of the game would be changed by it. Along the way, there were some interesting chances to speak with the others at the table.

Mr. Truman had had a chance to peruse the previous review, and we talked about the experience of the game as I (and others) saw it. One of my comments was that the assets and complications mechanic, as in Fate, was overly complex and could lead to some confusion for the players and the GM. The assumption seemed to that I didn’t understand the mechanic, which was incorrect — I did, and even saw use in it — or that my lack of skill with the system was coloring my perception of the game. This response, I thought, harkened back to some of the issues of the Is there a right way to Game? post from a few weeks ago, and brought up some interesting questions for me:

1) Is the skill or familiarity with a system intrinsically linked to perceiving a game as good or bad? Is it a case of “It’s not the game that sucks; you’re playing it wrong”? That was certainly the implication I inferred. (Which means I could have completely misread the statement — so consider that my “I could be full of shit” caveat.) 

2) By this metric, if you are very skilled with a set of rules does that make a game “good?”

 3) Is your skill at pretending to be a character tied to an understanding of the rules? Are are skill, familiarity, and preference linked, or is this a case of correlation not being causation?

4) Is your prefreence for one system over another based on a lack of proficiency with the system?

I’m going to start with the last point first: absolutely. I’ve known plenty of gamers for whom if the rules are not GURPS, OGL d20, or Fate, they’re not playin’. (Says the guy bitterly clinging to a half dozen defunct games…) Most of these guys have also been playing the same games for years. For these people, it is familiarity that produces preference, but what about people who do venture forth and try new games? — which I have advocated in the past.

I would suggest that for these intrepid gamers, preference comes from two factors: ease of play or learning curve, and from how well a game models the genre or the setting. Ease of play usually ties to the simplicity of the core mechanic. The traditional attribute+skill (+asset or other factor) beating a target number has been pretty standard for at least 20 years. Before that, in early D&D, it was as simple as roll a d20 and get under the number for your trait (strength, etc…) The learning curve was relatively slight, with a bit of a rise when you hit combat or magic. Add a ton of math into character creation or into managing modifiers to a roll was a good way to lose a player’s interest — although GURPS and early Champions still had plenty of adherents.

More importantly, especially with the wave of newer system designs in the 1990s, were games tailored more toward role playing rather than tactical gaming with role playing rules tacked onto them (have a look at your favorite game — if the chapter on combat is twice the size as the core mechanics, we’re talking about you…) White Wolf, Call of Chthulu, Castle Falkenstein, Fudge (later Fate) were relatively simple to learn, gave the players more say in character design than race, class, etc; and oriented toward pushing story, rather than wargames with characters. This required the games to also adhere to genre convention well.

What does this have to do with preference? There are games that have lived a long and healthy life after they went out of print. Some of those were settings that would be recreated in newer games. Case in point: Why play Last Unicorm or Decipher Star Trek when FASA already did it in the 1980s. (And there are die-hard FASA fans that will not consider doing that…) LUG Trek managed to do a good job of modeling the universe of the various Star Trek television shows, and was a lot easier to learn than FASA’s version. Decipher took a lot of the LUG ideas, thought about cramming it into OGL d20, then relented and gave a bastardized version of LUG Trek that did a good job of handling all of the series (LUG had series specific core books!), but lost some of the ease of the prior set of rules. Still I jumped to Decipher…why? The core rules were easy and the game captured the feel of Trek pretty well.

Why use Spycraft when there’s Top Secret or James Bond: 007? Why buy Victoriana when there’s Castle Falkenstein? Why buy anything else when there’s GURPS? Because the new game captures the flavor of the genre you are playing in. 

If familiarity or skill with a system were so intrinsic to preference, why would people branch out? Can you look at your favorite game for a certain genre and say “this would be better, but I like this better”? I’ll start it off — Classic Cortex would probably work just as well, if not better, for espionage games such as James Bond. But JB:007 helps emulate the world of the movies better than Cortex’s mechanics would, despite being more complex. Preference here is due to familiarity, but it does not create in me the impression that other systems are not good…for this, JB:007 just does it better. Firefly does a decent job of capturing the show, but would be better at modeling Star Trek. Take that FASA guys!

Which starts to deal with point the third: Is your skill at pretending to be a character tied to an understanding of the rules? Can a player role play well enough that the rules are incidental. After 30+ year of doing this, that’s an unequivocal YES. In other words — there’s no way to play wrong. Your “skill” as a player, nor your enjoyment of a game, is necessarily hinged on the mechanics. However, there is a way to design a game that will not play well for certain expectations. Those expectations are not wrong, nor is a preference for, say, how mechanics divvy up narrative responsibility (for instance, strong v weak GM.) Those expectations can help someone understand if running a certain system or playing with those rules is more preferable than another set of rules. (Again, see A/B test of the Firefly/Serenity rules and the “Is There a Right Way to Game?” posts.)

My response to this is — familiarity or proficiency with a system for a GM or players can make the game easier or more fun — but ultimately, the mechanics rarely make a game more fun…but they can dash it very quickly. A couple of case studies that will also play to point 2: 

Call of Chthulu is a fairly easy set of mechanics to learn, and I understood how they drove the game perfectly well. The guy running the game blew goats, so my opinion of the game has been badly tainted. I understand this preference was based on a single outlier and I have been open to trying it again…but there’s usually something I’d much rather play than a game where the point (seems to be) to see how you go mad and die. That’s not the game’s fault and Truman’s statement about GM skill is spot on here, but it also wasn’t aided by the fact I find Lovecraft-style horror unengaging — that that more taints the perception of the game and has nothing to do with familiarity of the system or the universe; a good GM could make me invest in the universe…but horror is hard to do.

Example 2: I ran Chameleon Eclectic’s version of the Babylon 5 universe for years. It has an easy base mechanic — a minus die and a plus die with the result (anywhere from a -5 to a +5) added to the skill. The combat system was a hot mess, except! I understood what it was modeling, so it made sense to me. It captured how a small injury could be instantly debilitating or not, and how a vicious injury could be leading to your very imminent demise, but not slow you down. Because I got it, I ran it well and the players quickly got a hold of the base mechanic and left the combat stuff to me to adjudicate. The rules set sucked, but because the “skill” of the GM was high, the game ran well and was, in Truman’s terms, a good game. That is wrong, however — the players and GM were good enough to rise above the limitations of a bad rules set.

Likewise, I ran Space: 1889 for years and was very familiar with it, but the limitations of the mechanics from a probability standpoint were glaringly, painfully obvious. We swapped to the Castle Falkenstein rules despite terrible combat rules (which we figured out were bad even before trying them out, but try we did.several times…) Was this due to a lack of expertise in running it? Perhaps, but they also did not model swashbuckling adventure well. We kit-bashed a version of the Lace & Steel combat rules (also a card-based game) that captured the fun of sword and fisticuffs play so well that, in one of those rare instances, they made play more fun. Players sometimes eschewed the ease gunplay for the fun of clashing blades. The new rules were not “familiar”, either, and evolved a bit over the course of play…but they accelerated the pace of fights and made it more competitive. So yes, the mechanics can aid play…but after 30 years of doing this, I can safely say it’s a rarity. Space: 1889 has a phenomenal setting that is so good game designers have started pasting it into other rules — Savage Worlds and Ubiquity. Castle Falkenstein’s steampunk meets fantasy was equally engaging but the core mechanics could not survive quirky side rules mechanics for sorcery and fighting. Again…great setting, crappy GAME.

At heart, I think the argument is between whether you think rules should help engage the players, or you players should engage with the rules. Newer indie games seem to be trying to find new ways to do the first — having the mechanics engage the players in some way by having them take part in the storytelling process. This, coupled with a recent trend of game designers wanting to view RPGs as “art” (James Franco agrees!) or “socially relevant”, leads to games more interested in the mechanics as art. They absolutely want the people playing the game to have fun, but their perception of what the fun part is, and how it is achieved might not quite jive with what their audience wants.

I would describe it this way: If you know how to tell a story, and the players are invested in theur characters and the setting, the mechanics can only hinder you. Rules light systems can capture that quite well, but in the end, good role playing and understanding the mechanics are mutually exclusive to having fun or good game rules. Familiarity can cause a better perception of the rules, but not all new games we play “suck” until we get better at them. Sometimes the mechanics enhance play, sometimes they simply disappear, and sometimes they curtail play. 

Sometimes, the game does just suck.


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