Friday, May 27, 2011

MSPE adventure points

In my review of MSPE I mentioned that the part I liked least about the game was that you have to keep track of adventure points for each skill separately. That may not bother most gamers, but it's the one thing about the game that I'd change. So if I were to run a MSPE game I'd introduce this house rule.

Adventure Points are gained in the usual fashion for good role-playing, achieving scenario objectives, making saving throws, etc. However, players no longer need to track APs for skills. Instead, when a character goes up a level they receive the new level number in points which may be divided between attributes and skills, with the restriction that a) no more than two points may be allotted to attributes and b) no skill may be raised by more than one point at a time.

For example, a character going from first to second level would get two points. He or she could put both points toward increasing attributes, put both points toward raising two different skills by one point, or use one point to raise an attribute and one to raise a skill. Another example would be a character going from fourth to fifth level. The player could allot at most two points to attributes with three points left over to distribute amongst three different skills.

The reason for restricting attitude increase to two points is to remain consistent with the original rules. However, if I were playing a Doc Savage style pulp game, or a high voltage Hong Kong action movie game, I could easily imagine relaxing that rule and using something more like the original T&T experience rules. The reason for limiting skill increase to one point per skill per level increase is to prevent players from becoming experts in some field overnight. I would also consider limiting the increase to skills that were used during the course of the game.

This system isn't as realistic as the original rule, but it is simpler. I haven't play tested it yet, but I don't see any obvious flaws in it. This is especially true given the unwritten rule that in T&T/MSPE even eighth level characters are rare and powerful. For example, in MSPE Sherlock Holmes is only a 7th level character. So since I don't run a Monty Haul game with 12th level titans running around I think this rule would work fine.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Mercenaries, Spies & Private Eyes

Michael A. Stackpole is probably best recognized today as an sf author of such books as I, Jedi (1998) and his Star Wars: X-Wing (1996) trilogy. But he got his start in the RPG hobby, specifically with the T&T based game, Mercenaries, Spies & Private Eyes. As you might guess from the title, the game focuses on contemporary crime and thriller adventures. As Stackpole says in his introduction, "MSPE is a game of two-fisted adventure: part pulp, part mystery, part John Wayne movie and 100% fun."

Cool box cover!

Character creation begins with players choosing their characters background, nationality, ethnicity, etc. before you start rolling the dice. You roll 3d6 for the standard T&T attributes, Strength, Luck, Intelligence, Dexterity, Constitution, Charisma, and Speed. If all the dice come up the same number you roll a further 2d6 and add it on, giving an attribute range of 5-30. Combat adds, the bonuses you get for having certain attributes over 12, are split into Hand-to-hand adds and Missile weapon adds.

The biggest change to the system is the addition of a skill system. In general skills work by adding the skill level to an Attribute when making a saving throw. They are broken up into groups based on a minimum IQ requirement, ranging from IQ 4 skills like Brawling up to IQ 16 skills like Cryptology. There are also Open Skills with no IQ min., covering Special Interests and Occupation skills. All characters start with a number of skill points equal to their Intelligence and each skill costs one or more skill points to acquire. During initial character generation you can also expend skill points to get a hereditary title or psi powers, either of which are then randomly determined.

Combat will be familiar to any T&T player, although Stackpole recommends splitting up the mêlée into one-on-one fights. The combat round is also restructured to take account of Martial Arts and firearms. Martial Arts are handled in an abstract but very clever fashion that allows a skilled martial artist to take on numerous foes and even disarm gunmen.

Character advancement is handled in familiar T&T fashion using the standard adventure point chart. The main difference is that MSPE characters only gain 2 attribute points after increasing a level. No Marvel superheroes here. In addition, individual skills acquire their own adventure points. That means you have to keep a running total of adventure points for each and every skill you have. That's a lot of book keeping.

There is some GM advice for running mercenary, espionage and detective games. In addition to stats for typical animals and thugs, this section features a detailed section on The Art of Detection which provides a wealth of information for setting up and running mystery scenarios. This is really the heart of the rules and gives the GM invaluable advice about establishing motives, laying out clues, etc., and generally how to run a compelling mystery game.

Other highlights are an extensive equipment list, an excellent recommended reading list, and rules to cover Car Crashes and even Law Enforcement Agencies, which are given attributes like Records, Forensics, Judicial, etc. There's a section called Nightstalkers which gives advice on using the rules to run a pulp-fiction Lost World or horror/science fiction game, which includes stats for dinosaurs and supernatural monsters. Finally there is a selection of sample characters from different time periods, with a few notables like Philip Marlowe and Sherlock Holmes.

These rules are a clever variation on the basic T&T system. The skill system is a welcome addition with lots of options. The stand-out section is The Art of Detection, which is something anyone running a mystery oriented game, whether straight detective or Call of Cthulhu, should read if they get a chance. The combat rules are also changed for the better. Combat skills like Brawling, Pugilism, Self Defense, and Martial Arts each have a different game effect. Martial Arts is the most ingenious, and captures the feel of Kung Fu fighting without getting bogged down in details.

Unfortunately this game does get bogged down by adventure point tracking. I don't like experience points to begin with and having to tally them up for each of maybe a dozen skills your character has is a real headache. The other shortcoming of the rules is that the GM sections on running mercenary and espionage scenarios are very anemic. They are sketchy at best and can't compare to the detailed guidelines for running mystery games.

The rulebook cover is kind of plain.

MSPE are must-have rules for T&T players looking to broaden their scope of play. They do and excellent job of expanding the rules and adapting them to a more realistic, contemporary setting. For anyone who runs games that feature mysteries I can't recommend the essay The Art of Detection highly enough. And even if you just want to find out what happens if your leprechaun rogue gets his hands on an Uzi you'll like this game. MSPE is one of those game that deserved a wider audience than it got. If it sounds like your cup of tea I highly recommend it.

Mercenaries, Spies & Private Eyes (Flying Buffalo Inc.) $9.95

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

BRP & Me

Adam has an interesting post linking to another post arguing that RQ/BRP is better than D&D. I agree in so far as I personally like the BRP system better than D&D's mechanics, but I wouldn't claim one is better than the other. It's like arguing about whether DC is better than Marvel or vice versa. It's really just a matter of taste. But I do prefer BRP. In fact, it's one of my favorite game systems. If you've read this blog before that may come as something of a surprise since aside from the occasional mention of Call of Cthulhu or Elric!/Stormbringer I hardly ever talk about it. That's because I don't play it any more. How can it be one of my favorite systems if I don't play it? I'll explain that later. First, let me spell out why I like it.

One of my favorite things about BRP is the ease of play. You roll your attributes, then pick a few skills to define your character and you're off. What I like even more is that it completely does away with character classes and experience points. Character classes are nothing but a group of skills, either implied or enumerated. With a skill system classes become superfluous. Want to be a thief? Give your character the skills Pick Pockets, Move Quietly, Spot Trap, etc. Want to be a fighter? Pick a bunch of combat skills. Want to be a fighter and a thief? You don't have to mess around with some awkward "multi-class" with a separate experience point table, you just choose the mix of skills that fits that kind of character. In fact, you don't have to mess around with experience point charts at all because there are no experience points. If you're like me and you think keeping track of experience points is about as fun as balancing a check book this will make you happy.

The other great thing about this approach is that you can modify the skill list to suit your fancy. Do you have a fighter who wants to use nunchaku? Just add a nunchaku skill. Does someone want a Fast Draw ability? Just add a skill for it. Do you want magic users to be able to smell magic? You got it, Smell Magic skill. This is a great approach to gaming and it's stood the test of time. The BRP system is so stable it has remained virtually unchanged since it first appeared. So why don't I play it any more?

I used to use BRP for just about every game I ran. It was great because the percentile based system was so intuitive that players would pick it up in a snap. The hardest math was multiplying your base attributes by 3 or 5 to get different saving throw values. But the thing about the percentile system is that the skills are defined too finely. If one character has a Boogie skill of 63%  and another has a Boogie skill of 64% that's not a meaningful difference. In fact, to make a real difference you need a much coarser separation on the order of 5-10% or so. So instead of multiplying your attributes by 5 you should be dividing your skills by that much. And once I started thinking along those lines I realized that you didn't need all those different polyhedral dice. Just divide the skills by five and roll that number or less on 3d6. Kind of like GURPS but without the fiddly stuff.

So I moved away from BRP. I still think it's a good system, and it has had an important influence on the hobby, but I doubt I'll be running games with it any time soon.

Friday, May 13, 2011

RPG anarchy

I like the general attitude of Mark C. MacKinnon's BESM/Tri-Stat games which are very much in line with the T&T tradition of modifying the rules to fit your style of play. However, their emphasis on a storytelling style sometimes gets out of hand. For example, in the Tri-Stat rules there's a section on "Moving Beyond Tri-Stat" (pg. 90) which gives advise on doing without rules.

Remember back to your childhood when you played “House,” “Cops and Robbers,” (and perhaps even “Doctor”) with your friends. There were no Character Points, no rules, no dice, and no character sheets at that time. All that mattered was the role-playing. Capturing the essence of those games you played long ago should be your ultimate goal: just role-playing, and nothing else.

There follows sections on how to "Remove the Skills," "Remove the Attribute Levels," "Remove the Dice and Rules," and even "Remove the Game Master." I don't object to any of that in principle, and it could work quite well given the right group of players. I think that's pretty much how those Murder Mystery dinner parties work. The problem is that the role players I'm used to tend to be power gamers and they would not fit well with that approach. MacKinnon recognized that himself sever pages earlier in the section on "Power Abuse" (pg. 86).

The player characters may have tremendous powers. Perhaps they can literally
move mountains, or change the course of history. Sooner or later, someone will
decide to see just how far he or she can go with their character’s powers.

The solution he suggests is GM veto. But if you've done away with the GM then what? If you've thrown out the rules and a player says "I jump to the moon and pick up the alien death ray I find there," who's going to contradict them?

So while I think it's quite possible to have a fun game with no rules and no GM, I think it takes a very particular group of gamers to make it work. The average munchkin is incompatible with that style of play.

But I admit I'm a bit biased. I'm something of a gearhead and I enjoy games like Mekton Z or Hero System where you design your character or mecha for optimal awesomeness. So maybe my fondness for a design system that can be tweaked is skewing my view. Have you ever run a game with no rules or even no GM? How well did it work?

Friday, May 6, 2011

Tiger & Bunny

I thought I'd brainstorm a bit on how to run a superhero campaign based on Sunrise's new comedic superhero anime, Tiger & Bunny.

The basic setup is this.

"The series takes place in a fictional re-imagined version of New York City called Sternbild City, where 45 years before, individuals with superpowers called "NEXT" started appearing and some of them became superheroes. Each of city's most famous superheroes work for a sponsor company and their uniforms also contain advertising for real-life companies. Their heroic activity is broadcasted on the popular television show "Hero TV", where they accumulate points by each feat accomplished and the best ranked hero of the season is crowned "King of Heroes"."

Since corporate sponsorship is such a big part of the show, it should be worked into the game, too. One way too do that is to have the character's sponsors be the player's favorite junk food, or favorite brand of sneakers, or whatever. So if you have a gamer who is always drinking Dr. Pepper that could be her sponsor. If another guy always wears Nikes that could be his sponsor. Etc.

To complicate matters further, if you have a regular group of players you could have each one play both a superhero and the corporate rep of another player's sponsor. So not only will players be competing against each other for ratings on Hero TV, they can make life miserable for each other by having their corporate bosses making demands on them. Handled right that could lead to some very entertaining situations.

As for which rules to use, just pick your favorite superhero RPG and go with that. There are plenty of good free rules you could use. There's D6 Legend, the generic, OGL version of WEG's old DC Universe RPG. There's also John M. Stater's  Mystery Men! which is based on OD&D, or the 4C System, which is a generic version of TSR's old percentile-based Marvel Super Heroes Roleplaying Game. And then there's Tri-Stat dX, which is the generic version of GoO's short-lived d10-based Silver Age Sentinals. And there are many more.

So grab your dice, pull on your tights and try not to embarrass your sponsor.