26 March 2011

Games I Wanna Play, Part 3a: Horror

So I covered the World of Darkness in my last post, but I haven't really touched on the horror genre of gaming yet. That's where this post comes in. Now, for one reason or another, my horror library is fairly limited. I'm not sure if it's because I've never really explored it, or if it's because there's not much in the way of horror games out there (outside of the obvious titles). But even with my limited access to different horror-themed games, I tend to have a pretty extensive library of pertinent supplements and sourcebooks.

The first horror game I ever ran was Mayfair's Chill, and the only reason I bought it was because I thought the cover and graphic design were cool. Even though the system was somewhat... unique, I still loved that game (and I still do!). I had a tradition where I'd call together my gaming friends and run a Chill game on Halloween night (though it was typically the weekend before Halloween, and given the seasonal time change, we usually got an extra hour of gaming in). We'd run from just after dark until the game ended or the sun came up.

I certainly don't have the stamina for that kind of endeavor these days. I'm too old and I value my sleep too much. But damn, those were good times. But more about the specifics of those games when I cover Chill in full, below.

I was introduced to the horror genre of tabletop by a friend of mine who liked Call of Cthulhu. I wasn't all that literate in those days, and I'd never read HP Lovecraft or his contemporaries. Blasphemy, I know, but I was all of 14 or 15. I was more interested in the less cerebral aspects of gaming. You know: blowing stuff up, shooting bad guys, and looting their rapidly-cooling cadavers.

Those initial sessions (which were most often done on local bulletin board systems... that was what we had before Al Gore invented the interwebs, don't you know) piqued my curiosity, but I didn't really get a true taste of Mythos horror until well after I'd met my wife-to-be. In fact, my current CoC gaming library is comprised, in large part, of books that she brought into our marriage.

My wife ran a number of awesome CoC games in those days. I still recall with fondness the exploits (or, rather, the depredations) of Sheridan MacDonagh and his brother, Grady, as they blazed a trail of violent crime across the American Midwest; or Caleb Tucker, my intrepid G-Man, who had to "do the hopscotch" in the course of his investigations of an odd little girl that had disappeared some twenty years before. Amy doesn't run games anymore. She's far too shy to sit behind the GM screen. Maybe she'll get over her self-consciousness someday, and I'll be lucky enough to play in her games again. We'll just have to wait and see.

But enough of that. Let's talk about the games and why I'd love to run and/or play them again.

As far as horror games go, Mayfair's edition of Chill was my first true love. At the time, it was a game none of my friends had ever heard of. This meant that all the juicy bits of fluff and story belonged to me and me alone. There was no expectation from the players as to how the setting operated. For example, players with any experience with the WoD will have certain expectations about the world when playing in a Vampire game. I didn't have that baggage with Chill.

I never used the stock player organization, known as "SAVE," in my games... at least not as a player resource. When SAVE appeared at all, it was as an NPC organization, and they weren't always acting in the best interests of the player characters (more on that later). When I ran it, Chill was less about the players fighting evil than it was about the players (as everyday folks) being exposed to the Unknown.

The game was really creepy, especially given the fact that I tended to run it after dark, by candlelight, with soundtracks to scary movies playing softly in the background. The soundtracks to the Hellraiser movies were particularly effective. Plus, I seemed to have a knack for describing just enough to make the players worry, but not so much that they'd know what exactly I had in mind. Of course, I could be ascribing powers to myself that I never had, but at the time it seemed to work fine.

So every fall, I start to get that itch to drag out ye olde Chill books and run a Halloween game. I've been stymied in recent years by lack of time, lack of energy, lack of players, and (this last Halloween) by pestilence. So I'll get there someday, I just don't know when. I hope it's before I'm in the rest home, because I'd hate for my geriatric players to suffer from cardiac arrest if I still have a knack for creeping people out.

Those original Halloween games were pretty fun. Generally speaking, they involved a group of pre-gen PCs. One of the most memorable scenarios involved a group of college-age kids in Colorado, driving up to a mountain cabin for a good bit of Spring Break fun. They get up there, start to get settled in, when some scared stranger, bleeding, knocks on the door and forces his way in. He's got a gun, so they humor him. He's yelling, "Lock the doors! Board the windows! They're coming!!"

"Who's coming?" they ask.

Just then, the zombies attack. They break down the door, bust in the windows, and swarm in. The guy opens up with his pistol, but it doesn't do much good. Before long, the entire group has been wiped out.

They wake up the next day, bruised and battered and not feeling particularly well. The guy is gone, as are the zombies. It takes the next hour or two of game time before they realize that they, too, are dead. The humorous thing was, one of the kids had sustained a broken neck during the zombie attack, but he just assumed that he'd been mildly injured. So they went to an urgent care center for x-rays, which is when the doctor reveals that, wow, he ain't got no vital signs.

From there things got progressively weirder. One of the kids, who's taking psychology and parapsychology courses at their college, goes to his professor for help. The professor calls his contacts at SAVE and schedules a meeting. Little do the kids know that SAVE has already written them off, and sends a kill team in to put them out of their misery... with a LAW rocket. End of game.

But it was a fun ride, anyway.

There were other games, too. Like the one based on the novel The Night Boat by Robert R. McCammon. It's about a U-Boat that is buried by an aquatic avalanche caused by depth-charges in WWII. Just as the sub is going down, a voodoo priest curses it, and turns the German crew into zombies. Flash forward to the modern day, and the sub gets freed by an old underwater mine, floats to the surface, and the Nazi zombies come out to play. I realize it's all very silly when you think about it, but it was a good game anyway.

So... yeah. Someday, I'll break out those Chill books again and do another proper Halloween game, from dusk 'til dawn. Candlelight, creepy music, the whole shebang.

(To be continued...)

22 March 2011

Games I Wanna Play, Part 2: Supernatural Games

Note: If you aren't interested in my self-absorbed opinions about the World of Darkness, you can skip to the end. Otherwise, prepare for an essay (or even rant) about Vampire the Masquerade and as many of its spin-offs as I can recall.

First off, let me clarify: I'm not talking about the Supernatural RPG by Margaret Weis Productions. To my mind, "Supernatural" is a genre of gaming akin to Horror, but is instead where the players portray the monsters instead of the victims. Not that the monsters can't also be victims (in many cases, they are). More often, they're antiheroes. The games have elements of Horror, true, but the focus is usually on the loss of humanity, guilt, and/or angst derived from being a Creature of Darkness (tm).

Chief amongst such games is Vampire: The Masquerade, the original tragically hip game of Lestat-esque vampiric shenanigans. Truth be told, though, I'd explore this genre from a more traditional angle before the original V:tM was released. I was a big fan of Mayfair's edition of the Chill RPG (more on that when I talk about Horror games), and I got the idea into my head to turn my friend's character into a vampire. Without his prior knowledge, of course. It's always more fun when they're surprised, right?

Thinking back, I don't remember the specifics of the scenario, other than he lived in the middle of nowhere and a new neighbor moved in next door. It was very Jerry Dandridge/Fright Night, I'll admit, but I was younger then and not quite as aware of stereotypes. For whatever reason, Chris (my friend) ran afoul of his new neighbor, was overpowered, and then drained of every last drop of his blood.

Flash forward to Chris' character waking up in a coffin, six feet under. It'd taken some time for the whole vampire curse to take effect, and he'd been found dead, shipped home, and buried in a local cemetery. Lucky for him, the local groundskeeper heard his hammering and dug him out. Chris leaped from the coffin and made good his escape. Being hungry, he stopped by a nearby Circle K and discovered that food wasn't what he was hungry for...

We never got very far. In fact, I think we only ever played that one game, though Chris might have different recollections.

The World of Darkness
Speaking in broad strokes, the World of Darkness is the penultimate setting in this self-designated supernatural genre. I had a sort of love/hate relationship with the WoD for a while, but I've come to appreciate its finer details and do my best to ignore the more banal ones.

Vampire was really popular with a bunch of my friends, and it quickly replaced just about every game that we'd ever played. I didn't have the depth of knowledge of the setting, or of any of the fiction they were reading (Anne Rice, specifically), so it didn't have the same sort of appeal to me. I played in a few games of the original first edition, but beyond that... I was more attracted to other games and other settings.

When Werewolf: The Apocalypse (first edition) came out, my friend Chris snatched it up. It was his new pair of shoes, and he ran a few games, too. I remember them well. I remember sitting in a Burger King on San Marcos Boulevard with Chris, flipping through the book and talking over character ideas. I was his guinea pig.

Mage: The Ascension was another milestone for WW, but outside of an overarching appreciation for the content and ideas behind the game, I never really enjoyed playing it. That might be due to the games I did play, which I never found all that enthralling (and I can certainly blame the storyteller for that, I guess). As for the rules... I've always found them somewhat intimidating, given how open-ended they are. So in that regard, I'll never run Mage, but I'd certainly give playing it another shot, so long as I can find a storyteller worth his salt who's willing to run it.

I've picked up a lot of WoD books over the years, everything from Kindred of the East to Orpheus. After White Wolf canned the old World of Darkness (oWoD) and introduced the new World of Darkness (nWoD), I stopped buying their books. I didn't like what I'd seen of the new rules, and given there was no backwards (or forwards) compatibility at the time, I chose to stick with what I knew and avoided spending money I didn't have on a game line I didn't care about.

Vampire: The Masquerade
The original had some holes in the rules, but the second edition cleared most of them up, and the third edition went even further. It's funny, because it came to pass that any of White Wolf's first editions were akin to playtest copies that you had to pay for. The second editions, ultimately released in hardback, were much more polished than the firsts. I generally couldn't help myself, though... I bought the first editions. About the only first edition WW product I didn't buy was of Vampire: The Masquerade, and that was mostly because (at the time) I was sick of it.

After the release of the second edition, I came to appreciate VtM a lot more than I did initially. I also managed to pick up a slew of supplements at bargain basement prices, which helped to flesh out my collection. Working in a game store, I also had an employee discount (and it's true, more than half of my income went right back into the cash register... sad, sad days, those).

I've run a few VtM games in the past, only one of them being truly successful. The others were one-hit wonders, including a brief game set in Miami that ended just as soon as it began due to issues with players and their personal lives. It could've been good, but I have yet to revisit it. If I ever intended to run another VtM game, I'd attempt to resurrect my 1920's VtM game. Set in San Francisco during the heyday of Prohibition, it involved the forces of the Camarilla, Anarchs, and Sabbat struggling over control of 'Frisco. The players were all caitiff. Despite their clanless nature, the size of their coterie gave them a strength that no side could ignore. Plus, the '20's are a kick ass era.

I've been playing in a VtM game at work, run by my friend David. Without going into details, it's a lot of fun, and in playing I realized how much I'd missed the relatively intuitive mechanics of the Storyteller system. So the more of I've played, the more I've tossed around the idea of running my own game. I haven't gotten around to it yet, but I've been revisiting my books. As it happens, though, I haven't been looking real closely at my VtM books... instead, I've been pouring over my Vampire: The Dark Ages books.

Vampire: The Dark Ages
VtDA was the game that really gave me an appreciation for Vampire. I don't know what it was that attracted me to it. Was it the fact that it wasn't set in the modern era? That the traditional factions of Camarilla, Sabbat, and Anarch hadn't been established? Or was it the art and styling of the Dark Ages book? I think it was probably a little bit of everything, honestly.

I ended up running a long-term and, IMO, successful VtDA campaign. The first half involved a two-person play group, but it eventually grew to four players by the time the game was finished. The second half was a continuation of the first, but it involved a couple of the original players and two new ones. Both games were a lot of fun, and I'd love to run it again someday.

When Dark Ages: Vampire was released, it seemed somewhat superfluous to me. It lacked a lot of what made VtDA appealing to me. While VtDA was pretty open-ended, DA:V established a meta-plot that I didn't care for. Plus, the rules on paths and roads were revised in a manner than didn't resonate with me. I bought the core rules for DA:V, as well as the first couple of supplements, but I decided to stick with the original VtDA after that. I've become aware that there is a vocal group of folks out there who feel that DA:V is superior to VtDA, and that's fine with me. I'm happy with the vast amount of support that the first DA line had, and I'm not interested in upgrading to a new edition if I don't feel the old one is broken.

Werewolf: The Apocalypse
I've also been mulling over running a new Werewolf game eventually. While the first edition of the rules was rough, the overall tone of the game was much darker and less campy than the second. Despite this, the second edition's rules were a heck of a lot better, and it's easy enough to focus on the parts I like and ignore the ones I don't.

I've only ever attempted to run one Werewolf game. Being someone who is never quite willing to leave well enough alone, I had to run something that wasn't quite traditional. The premise was the the Apocalypse had happened, the world had "moved on" (in a vein similar to the world in King's Gunslinger books), and the players portrayed orphaned cubs who didn't even know the tribes they belonged to.

The PCs were raised by a crotchety old werewolf, and part of the fun was the self-discovery of it all. The players made the foundations of their characters, while I secretly chose their Tribes and gifts. Of course, one of the players was a Black Spiral Dancer. I don't remember if that ever came out or not, but the nightmares were definitely a clue as to his origins. The overarching story, outside of learning who and what they were, involved establishing a new cairn while standing against enemies, old and new.

The game ended prematurely, as many games do. I'm not sure why. I still have my notes, though, and it'd be fun to bring it back, even in the context of a short-term campaign. We'll have to see about that.

Back to the present. A few weeks ago, I was seriously considering putting together a Werewolf: The Wild West game. I pulled out my W:tWW books and started reading, and I remembered (with dawning disappointment) why I'd hated that product so much. It's so damn shallow! It'd be easy enough to run a wild west game using just the W:tA rules and a firm grasp of history. Nothing in the WW book was particularly necessary. The setting information concentrates quite a bit on the struggle between the Euros and the Native Americans, as well as the more stereotypical aspects of a "Cowboys and Indians"-style setting. No mention is made of the Civil War or its effects in any of the history (though it is giving a passing entry in the brief time line supplied with the game).

Some of the rules were utter crap, too. The rules on silver bullets, especially, made them much less useful, and were presented in a style that said, "We're not going to explain the physics of this, so you'll just have to trust us." Basically, if you could find someone to make you silver bullets, you'd pay out the nose for them, they'd be more difficult to hit with, and do less damage than regular bullets. In my own research of the topic, the bullets would be more difficult to make, but they might actually be a little more accurate at short range (due to the density of the material). They'd also deform less than lead bullets, which would probably make them less damaging than traditional ammo. But it was the way that the authors handled the topic which really got my dander up.

So, long story short, I decided that I'd avoid the wild west setting and look into other alternatives... and this brought me to my copy of Werewolf: The Dark Ages, a VtDA supplement that I'd had since its release, but never quite read in depth. Outside of the lack of an impending Apocalypse and a lack of a central threat to the Garou, the DA setting is much more appealing to me. At the moment, it's at the top of my "I Want To Run This" list. I don't have any story ideas (that I want to discuss right now), but I'll get around to it soon, I'm sure.

Wraith: The Oblivion
Wraith was another first edition WoD product that I bought, read, and immediately disliked. I can't remember why, but I think it had a lot to do with the mechanics. Much later, I ended up buying the second edition used for $10, and I found it possessed none of the problems I'd had with the original. By this time, the Wraith product line was being phased out, and I was woefully behind in supplements. Luckily, this time period also coincided with a bunch of local clearance sales, as well as a good run of the books and the aforementioned used book shelf. In a short time, and for much less than cover price, I had a nearly complete collection of Wraith supplements.

As much as I've wanted to run a Wraith game over the years, I've never been able to. I even worked out rules for converting mortals to wraiths (which I still have) which I intended to use to hoodwink my players into a game. They'd start as mortals, get involved in something terrible, die, and then wake up in the afterlife (headed for the serious strife). I'd still like to do this eventually, as I think it'd be an interesting way to explore Wraith. Maybe I'll have the chance to in the near future. The real question is, do I want to surprise my players with such a significant change? I mean, if you expected a game about mortals in the WoD, but ended up dead and ghostified, would you be upset?

Other oWoD Titles
I've done a little bit of talking about oWoD titles in general. I've got the majority of them on my shelves, but I'm not all that interested in exploring them with more than a peripheral interest.

I was initially excited about the prospect of Hunter: The Reckoning, but after I bought the book and read it, I lost interest. I was looking forward to a more detailed version of The Hunters Hunted, not a game about humans imbued with special powers who hunted down the supernatural.

Changeling: The Dreaming was another one I didn't buy on release, though I did eventually pick it up used. It didn't really appeal to me.

I do have a copy of the Mummy RPG, as well as the two previous WoD supplements for mummies. It might be interesting for building interesting NPCs and villains, but I don't think I'd ever run it all by itself.

Orpheus interested me, at least initially. It seemed like a reboot of Wraith, but with a finite limit to the depth of the game. I never picked up the rest of the Orpheus books. I might do that eventually to see where it went.

While I'd never dare to run Mage: The Ascension, I might consider exploring Mage: The Sorcerer's Crusade. It's the non-modern aspects of the setting, mostly. It's got a lot of neat setting material, too, and was just as good as VtDA in exploring the whys and wherefores of the Renaissance and how it applies to Awakened individuals. I mostly bought it because I felt I could leverage some of it into my Dark Ages games. That, and it was cheap.

Of course, there's Kindred of the East, which I really, really liked after I bought it and read it. It seemed to take all the interesting things about VtM, WtA, and WtO, and mashed them together into an Asian-infused supernatural game. I always felt, though, that it'd be difficult for most players to assimilate all that Eastern mysticism and mumbo jumbo. Still... it could happen. We'll have to see what I think after I review the particulars.

Last off, I only picked up Demon: The Fallen because a local game store was going out of business, and all the stock was 60% off. I got the Storyteller's kit, too, as well as the Los Angeles supplement. It might be interesting if I cared to dig into it some more, but without a Player's Guide (which goes for a lot of cash, depending on where you look) I'd be hard-pressed to seriously consider running it. Chalk it up to my feelings on the Mummy game: it'd be an interesting way to develop new and unusual NPCs and bad guys.

So, in summation (and after all that reflection and blathering), I would most like to run a Werewolf game set in the Dark Ages, or a Vampire game set in the 1920's.

Next up, I'll talk about the horror genre in general, because (dammit) I'd really like to dust of my Call of Cthulhu and Delta Green books and get down with some madness!

21 March 2011

Games I Wanna Play, Part 1: D&D

I have a pretty big gaming library. Come to think of it, "pretty big" might be an understatement. Used to be (before I had kids and financial responsibilities) I'd buy any game that caught my fancy. If it looked even mildly interesting, I'd pick it up, read it in the bathroom, and then stick it on my bookshelf. Nowadays I'm not so free with my cash. Impulse buys are a thing of the past. My money goes towards things like rent, utilities, gasoline, and food.

So despite the fact that I've really only kept up with two or three titles since I "grew up," I still possess an embarrassing collection of RPGs, many of which I've never actually played. But this rumination isn't solely about my regrets as to these long-ignored titles, but rather to the games I'd love to run or play, whether I've done so in the past or not. Unfortunately, there are only so many hours in the day, and even if the time available to me was unlimited, I doubt I'd get a stable of players with just as much free time.

Dungeons & Dragons (3.5)
I get this hankering every so often to play or run a good, old-fashioned D&D game. I can't quite bring myself to run AD&D 2nd Edition... or any prior edition, for that matter. I've come to like the options available in 3.5 too much. It may still be class-based nonsense, but it's a lot more flexible than previous editions.

I have a stack of Dungeon Crawl Classics adventures, many of them geared for low- to mid-level characters, that I'd love to dust off for a short-term campaign or two. Sometimes the "kick in the door, kill the orcs, take their stuff" adventure is fun... and they can always lead to meatier, less formulaic adventures later on.

I've also been tempted to pull out some of the old settings I've always loved. Midnight is one of them. It's sort of like "Red Dawn," but instead of having the Russians and Cubans occupying your lands, it's Morgoth and the orcs. And they've been on your soil for a hundred years. A very grim setting, but there are a lot of really awesome options.

My all-time favorite setting for D&D is Dark Sun. Outside of Athas.org, there was never and official 3.5 update for Dark Sun. Well... I take it back. There were some Dungeon and Dragon articles back in the day, and they weren't bad (outside of their take on half-giants, IIRC). And the Athas.org stuff is usable, too. If I ever did it, I'd need to take a long look at the available source material and decided which version(s) to use.

For more traditional fantasy D&D, it'd have to be either Greyhawk or Forgotten Realms. A long while back, before I moved to VA and started working for EA, I was running the Expedition to Castle Ravenloft adventure, but I'd set it in Forgotten Realms. I've often thought about reviving that game with a new cast of characters. It could be fun.

Even though I contributed to Green Ronin's Thieves' World campaign setting, I've never run a game of TW (outside of a couple of sessions at conventions). Between the core setting book and the other supplements, it is such an awesome product line. It's really too bad it didn't sell better, but I guess TW fans who also play 3.5 are nothing if not a niche audience. If you like TW and you don't have the books, I suggest you check out Green Ronin's online store. Last I looked, the gift set was discounted quite a bit.

That about covers it for D&D. There are some other settings that would be nice to mess around with; the short-lived Dawnforge, for one. When I was just getting into the industry, I'd been contracted to write part of the Dawnforge monster supplement, prior to the product being scrapped due to poor sales of the core books. It's too bad; Dawnforge would've been an interesting product line. Who knows how it would've turned out if WotC had chosen it instead of Eberron?

There are others I could touch on: Green Ronin's Testament (Biblical!), Eternal Rome (Romans!), and Skull & Bones (Pirates!); Mongoose's version of Lone Wolf (which is a bit too rules light as written); and Nyambe (deepest darkest Africa).

So... that's about it for D&D. Next time I'm going to cover some other RPGs I'm hankering to try out, be they pulp, science fiction, horror, or even non-D&D fantasy. See you then!

20 March 2011

Games, Etc.

It's obvious that I need a better handle on the WFRP rules, but I'm getting there. I learn by doing, and I've only run the game three times so far. I have a comfortable familiarity, but when it comes to some specific questions, I find myself combing through the rules looking for an answer. I'm somewhat self-conscious about it, but I also had help from one of the players last night (thanks, Jason!).

All in all, I like the system. Amy made an observation that in combat, it's like you're whittling away at someone and then, suddenly, they die. It's pretty much the way it is, and the wound system makes it incredibly deadly. At the least, the potential for being seriously maimed is definitely there.

There's also the question of relatively low skill percentages, but this is mitigated by liberal use of difficulty modifiers, combat maneuvers, and the like. Let's just say that both the players and the NPCs missed a lot... except for Amy, who proved that her Protagonist is the meanest chick this side of the Rhine. And to think she was using her "crap dice" last night.

We finished the adventure. I admit, I sped through some of it, but I had assumed we'd be unable to meet again until after the move. After consulting the calendar, it looks like we've got one more Saturday available to us before the proverbial hammer falls.

18 March 2011

Tri-Tac Podcast Interview

As you know from my previous post, I was a guest of honor at TotalCon a few weeks back. While I was there, I sat down with Peter Blix Bryant, and he interviewed me. We talked about my experience in the games industry, what I've written, and what I'm doing these days. It was a thoroughly enjoyable experience, and Peter was a very congenial host.

So, for those of you who'd like to listen to the podcast, you can check it out by following this link. Yes, it's shameless self-promotion on my part, but so what? If only one person walks away entertained or enlightened in some way, I'd be perfectly happy.

Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning was recently revealed at PAX East. Lots of fanfare there. It's definitely brought additional excitement to the workplace. Feel free to do a search for more info if you're interested. Otherwise, just check out the Reckoning website (at its new address), or read the fanfare over at 38 Watch.

In other news, I'll be running my Warhammer FRP game tomorrow. It'll likely be the last session for a while, as we're all going to be moving to Rhode Island within the next month or two. I'll miss my friend Justin, who was one of my players when I was running games back at Mythic in Virginia. I don't know if he'll be willing to commute to the Providence area to play with us or not... I guess I'll need to ask.

I've been playing another game at work every couple of weeks, a Vampire: The Masquerade game run by my friend and co-worker, David. It's oWoD, which is just fine with me. I've never felt the need to "upgrade" to the new World of Darkness. The size of my library is expansive enough to keep me running Vampire (or Werewolf, or Mage, or Wraith) until the day they stick me in a rest home.

It's certainly brought back memories of the games we played when we were younger, unmarried, and childless, and I really have missed the game system more than I knew. I've been re-reading a lot of my old WoD books, and I'm slowly getting a hankering to run a game of my own. Dave is fine with me stepping up to the plate once he's put the last nail in our coffin.

That's about it for now. Thanks for checking in! I'll try to put more words down in the near future.