A Fist Full of Dice

I originally published this opinion piece in 2015 on Noobgrind, a computer game website, but since that has gone I’m posting it here. Whilst the original article’s focus was about computer games, this article is more about my influences, how old games led me to martial arts and my RPG designs. Part 1 = https://batjutsu.wordpress.com/2019/11/18/way-of-the-exploding-fist-lookback/

This is the third article in the series exploring the impact of the game Way of the Exploding Fist (Commodore 64) had on me, and the path it lead me down. Due to my dad’s interest in computing I’d had access to decent home computers as well as a big collection of games for years, and in 1987 he bought an Amiga 500 resulting in me being given the C64 all to myself; a couple of years later I was given the Amiga. Due to living in a seaside resort I had access to many arcades, but I only had a tiny amount of pocket money. So when I visited the arcades with my mates I generally watched, preferring to save what little pocket money I had towards buying a new computer game.

The first arcade game I felt compelled to play was Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (TMNT), even though it was just a variation on such classics as Double Dragon, it was different, because it was TMNT! So that anomaly was understandable to me, since I was such a fan of the cartoon, but I was quite surprised to be hit by the virtual tsunami that was Street Fighter 2 (SF2) in 1991. The first Street Fighter (SF) looked okay in the arcades, I’d never played it and in retrospect it seems odd that I don’t recall anybody ever mentioning it at school; the 8-bit version of SF on the C64 looked horrid.

After playing a few games of SF2 I was horrified to find out that somebody else could join in beat me and take over, since I had limited funds I was not keen on this design approach. I also quickly realised the financial implications of trying to figure out hidden moves. My paper-round money was already failing to cover my three main hobbies: computer games, tabletop role-playing, and wargaming, so I made the sensible but frustrating decision to watch other people play SF2, and like my days watching Way of the Exploding Fist, maybe I’d learn, but without the financial cost. I got to see some pretty spectacular players who’d said they spent quite a lot of money getting that good. Watching helped me develop a better understanding of the depth of the game, but it also gave me an appreciation of the calibre of opponents that could easily beat me. In 1993 I finally got to play the game lots when a friend got SF2 for his Sega Mega Drive.

I had an appreciation of the diverse martial art styles that SF2 included. Although the game included mystical abilities, it was cool see how they had integrated them into a characters martial arts style, enhancing them without commandeering them. Granted the plot of SF2 was extremely simple, but it didn’t matter, as the playability was exceptional.  In 1992 I was introduced to Mortal Kombat (MK), which was an impressive evening of watching a crowd of people challenge each other. Personally I preferred the more in depth fighting in SF2, but I quickly became a fan of the MK game and universe; not that MK was an amazing story, but it seemed to have more to it, and in particular Outworld, it felt more fleshed out that SF2. Mentioning that SF 2 story is simple is a bit obvious, but the reason why I mention this is that a few years later this concept is flipped for me, when in 1994 a tabletop role-playing company called White Wolf released a role-playing game called Street Fighter (SFRPG).

The Street Fighter universe had been expanded in manga and anime. My friends and I particularly enjoyed Street Fighter II: The Animated Movie (1994). Like a lot of popular settings (IP), lots of things get produced, adding ideas and variety to the original idea; although not always a good thing.

Ryuandken Sf2 GIF - Ryuandken Ken Ryu GIFs

At the time White Wolf was known for its flagship game Vampire: the Masquerade, one of the many games set in the World of Darkness; I was an avid player and collector of these games. In the various World Darkness, games players could play characters (monsters) with incredible powers. The games tried to focus on storytelling and role-playing; a character’s story was the priority, not their powers; of course some groups focused on the power, not that there is anything innately wrong with that the group agrees. So upon acquiring SFRPG I was not surprised to find that the designers had managed to lay the foundations for an interesting gaming world based off the simple SF2 story. I am not claiming that White Wolf had written a masterpiece of world building, instead they had captured the essence of what had made the Street Fighter series so good. Although a gaming group could do whatever they wanted, the base focus of the game was all about a fighter’s journey to improve, set in a world of rampant crime and obscure mystics.

Typically the initial response to the RPG was a quick list of surprise comments, followed by ridicule, followed by questions. I was the Games Master / Storyteller (GM / ST) for several groups, and I also chatted with several other gamers at my local gaming shop, so I got to talk to a lot of people. My answers highlighted how intriguing M. Bison’s Shadoloo was, how similar to other secret societies/criminal empires, asking them what they thought Bison was up to. I’d explain an important game mechanic, that characters used Chi to activate certain powers, they could gain Chi points back by making Honor rolls. So if Bison had no honour, how could he regain Chi? Many role players I spoke with were willing to give the game a go, and generally they quite enjoyed it.

Over the years I have run several SFRPG campaigns, all were fun and some were even good. I think it is noteworthy to consider that the majority of people know little to nothing about martial arts in real life, and even those that do know some things tended to only trained for a few months. What is great is that SF2 had educated its players enough that they know what different styles roughly look like, as well as what sort of techniques are used; granted SF2 added fireballs and the like to the mix, but did so without ruining the martial style. This SF2 education was an interesting bonus, as it generally affects a player’s ability to role-play better, since it reduced learning a setting, combat and powers. I loved that many SF2 players trying out SFRPG were pretty much veterans when it came to describing their character’s attacks, and understanding what was happening in a detailed fight. The combat mechanics in the role-playing game were surprisingly effective (but not perfect). They allowed players to quickly learn how to play, and with the combat cards a bout could be carried out quite quickly, all in all, very efficient just like SF2. Interestingly the combat mechanics had some key differences to the other World of Darkness games, a few years later an optional book was added to the World of Darkness beautifully entitled Combat.

street fighter video GIF

I was disappointed with how the Combat book mostly handled Mage: the Ascension. Effectively it did not add anything, suggesting Mages can perform True Magick like Stunts is IMHO pointless, since that is what a Mage game is basically like anyway. I do understand why this approach was taken, I am not saying it is worthless/garbage, just disappointing to me. Whilst there are a few special maneuvers for a character with Do 3+, which was nice, but, since Do was basically an Akashic Brotherhood (now: Akashayana) special skill. I think this approach sadly reduced a setting with infinite potential and options to cliché views of ‘Asians are best at martial arts’, ignoring the numerous world cultures with exceptional fighting systems, and the commonality of violence and the human body. This is partly why I have experimented with various ways of integrating the SFRPG mechanics and Combat Cards with other games, my own games, and for the last few years Mage.

Mage SFRPG

Debates about tabletop role-playing game systems is a major part of that hobby, mechanics matter and add to that so much of what we know is from movies/games/books and not personal practice. The designers of any role-playing system need to acknowledge the fact that truly simulating reality is far too complicated, never mind the fact that so much is not understood, therefore a game needs to be easy to understand, and usually quick to play whilst not sacrificing too much realism. My point linking back to the previous paragraph about game accessibility, reducing player learning requirements, and helping players understand game events, I think overall SFRPG did a great job.

I personally found the core rules for SFRPG to be overall good. Whilst the expansion books introduced new great things, unfortunately it also added some garbage into the game. In interviews it has been explained how rushed the game line was, sadly this shows, which is a shame because if more time had been given to the designers some of the garbage would likely have instead been more great additions. The most famous example is the: Cartwheel kick, in was so clearly broken it took most players only a few seconds to figure out that it was godly. Likewise the magic shows in Savate. This lack of playtesting stands out, and is a disgrace to the quality of SF2 combat. Fortunately all role-playing game mechanics can be altered by groups introducing house rules, and generally a veteran gaming group can run a good campaign despite any rubbish game mechanics or bad story/world design. Having worked at a games company I have a good appreciation for the difficulties of hitting deadlines, costs of running a company and how easy it is too miss things, which is why playtesting is so important. Ideally a product should have as few problems as possible.

A call back to the previous article regarding Gene Lebell and Bruce Lee. It is a shame that Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) had not happened decades earlier. So many RPGs could have been fixed in regards to the martial art clichés. This is one of the interesting things about Street Fighter 2, for all the made up and fantasy aspects, the game has a diverse range of fighting techniques shown; granted no ground game, but at least grappling is a core part. I think this has helped SFRPG stand out against other RPGs, for example Palladium’s Ninjas and Superspies. The Contenders expansion added many styles and maneuvers, of particular note is groundfighting, but there are other gems like Chi Push.

The SFRPG rulebooks were full colour, which was very unusual for that time. Although the books had a distinctive White Wolf design with the flavour text and story snippets, the layout of the SFRPG books were more exciting/dynamic looking than their other games. The artwork was mixed, whilst some pieces were great, others were less so.

Character creation was quite straightforward, particularly for players familiar with other White Wolf games. Choosing a character’s special moves list was an interesting and fun part of the process, since it would be a major part of the character’s abilities and development. Interestingly the game encouraged players to declare the names for their moves, just like Hadoken in the computer game. Whilst not everybody chose to do this, nobody complained about it being silly, I put this down to the fact that SF 2 had taught players that this was a somewhat normal the thing to do.

Even after writing several of the negative points about the tabletop RPG, I still think that overall the core SFRPG was brilliant, providing players with a great toolset to explore the intriguing world of SF2. Along with the animated movie it is nice to know that some game tie-ins aren’t complete garbage. Whilst there have been other good martial art role-playing games, my players and I still fondly recall many great Street Fighter gaming sessions and rate it as our favourite of the genre. Every few years we play it again, playing with new ideas and house rules.

The Street Fighter series has millions of fans, but a few of us crave more than just the fights. We are also nostalgic about the espionage of the World Warrior circuit, rising up in rank, to more epic stories of training under Ryu, discovering new/lost techniques, and I suspect in a few cases usurping Bison to take over Shadoloo! I’d love a great computer RPG set in the SF world, whilst I doubt that will happen, maybe one day soon.

From Way of the Exploding Fist to Street Fighter RPG 3 part series

Part 1 = https://batjutsu.wordpress.com/2019/11/18/way-of-the-exploding-fist-lookback/

Part 2 = https://batjutsu.wordpress.com/2019/11/18/fist-2-exploring-mystical-fighting/

Part 3 = https://batjutsu.wordpress.com/2019/11/18/a-fist-full-of-dice/

Trinity Continuum Aberrant Erupts

At the time of writing Trinity Continuum: Aberrant is in the final 24 hours on Kickstarter. I’ve been waiting years for this event, a reimagining of Aberrant. https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/200664283/trinity-continuum-aberrant

Aberrant is a fabulous Supes/Super RPG that was part of the Trinityverse, now called Trinity Continuum. Back in the late 90s Aberrant presented a world obsessed with super powered celebrities (Novas), hyper focused reality TV (N!), individuals with the power of gods but also dark conspiracies, and power that tainted the Novas. The old game was very socially minded, why rob a bank when sponsorship and mercenary work is available, etc. The new Trinity Continuum: Aberrant builds upon this, but crucially there are some differences that I love! The game requires the Trinity Continuum core book, I wrote about this last year https://batjutsu.wordpress.com/2018/02/28/impressive-reboot-of-trinity/.

“What would you do with the power of a god?”

First a quick shout out to Ian A. A. Watson (@VonAether), who in particular has spent years trying to create a new Aberrant. There are many interviews covering the process, so here is a summary of the journey about how the old White Wolf merged with CCP Games. Richard Thomas formed Onyx Path Publishing and producing old and new RPGs. Later Paradox Interactive purchased the World of Darkness IP, whilst Onyx Path negotiated to buy Trinityverse outright, which is now solely owned by Onyx Path. Hence the IP of Trinity, Aberrant and Adventure! have had quite the journey.

Aberrant Trinity Batjutsu

I’ve run a few Aberrant games over the years. Some of the games were more like D.C. Comics or Marvel 4 colour style, more carefree fun, sometimes a bit silly. Whilst with my main I ran a dark investigation game for over ten years. This chronicle was about hope, about trying to prevent the inevitable Aberrant War. When we last played it seemed that maybe the PCs had helped solve so many problems, that the future looked positive; I’ll not froth about this campaign, whilst I loved it, typically with RPGs you needed to be there ;-). Like many RPGs the tone can be tweaked, along with keeping in mind PCs motivations and player preferences, to create the style wanted. The new Aberrant includes an examination of this, with an explanation of how to approach the different styles of Supes.

The system is not the old Storyteller one, instead using the Storypath. I’ve still yet to play the system but I do love what I read when I backed Trinity Continuum. In addition to the great momentum mechanic, is the idea of Scale. Scale is reminiscent of the old D.C. Comic RPG, but is designed to be easier to allow for quick decision making, allowing everyone to focus on narrative. From the Kickstarter page Danielle Lauzon explained:

“Okay, so Narrative Scale is for when you just want to know how badly you crush something because of your difference in Scale. It’s described liberally as a multiplier to your successes on a simple roll to get a thing done, but what that really means is that a Scale 1 difference doubles the number of successes you have to do the thing, Scale 2 difference triples, Scale 3 quadruples, etc. Narrative Scale is there for the following kind of scenarios “Superman flies through a building, and we want to know how much damage that does to the building.” We accept that he flies right through, so the roll isn’t to see if he can, but instead to find out his damage to help figure out if the damned thing falls down. Sometimes the SG might just look at a Scale difference and decide narratively that we don’t even need a roll, it just crumples.

I loved the old Aberrant the most out of the numerous Supers RPGs, even though I appreciated it had a few mechanic problems. I’ve read/run/played old Heroes/Champions, GURPS Supers, Mutants & Mastermind, D.C. Comics, Marvel and Palladium. For me, I think the old Aberrant presented both a great setting and rules that worked well enough. Trinity Continuum: Aberrant seems to stride the middle ground between these various systems, providing a vast range of powers, in a setting with different types of powered and baseline characters, with rules that better understand what they are focused on. I’d be very surprised if I don’t love the game when I run it!

Usually I’d write about different game ideas, even crazy ideas about merging various RPGs together. Instead I look forward to returning to my old long running chronicle, which included Adventure! and Trinity. The fact the group and I have had so much fun over the years speaks volumes about the game, and I am sure we will continue to love it for years to come.

The factions are still there, but there have been some important tweaks. Another titanic difference is that Taint is now Transcendence; Novas are no longer time-bombs towards physical and psychological disaster. Characters can still grow distant from humanity, for example Dr Manhattan (Watchman) is a great example of ludicrously powered individual who has very high Transcendence. Check out these two interviews for more details about changes:

https://thestorytold.libsyn.com/bonus-episode-aberrant-kickstarter-interview-with-steve-kenson-and-ian-watson

Onyx Path have a free Aberrant comic at http://theonyxpath.com/comic/you-are-not-alone-cover/

Join the Kickstarter at https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/200664283/trinity-continuum-aberrant

#TCAberrant #TrinityContinuum

#RPGaDay2018 Day21 Dice Mechanic

Which dice mechanic appeals to you?

Today has yielded a diverse collection of answers 🙂 Initially I pondered talking about how dice rolls and mechanics don’t matter so much; if viewed in an entirely positive point of view, we all just flow forward and ‘roll appropriately’. I forgot to mention in my video that I find the biggest impact on play is how often dice rolls are required and the reasoning behind the request. Going back decades ago I experienced far too many GM/DMs requiring constant rolls for the smallest of reasons; often because the system implied it was required, or worse they thought the genre demands it. Even when the Storyteller came along and explained in the short rules section about how and when to roll, some ran the games requiring constant rolls. A bit of a negative subject, but thankfully from my experience less of a problem as players and games have evolved 🙂

In today’s video I talk about an answer that surprised me: Street Fighter. Plus an honourable mention of Legend of the 5 Rings (pun intended), and the forthcoming Storypath system for Trinity Continuum.

Dave talks about various things in his blog, in particular the Vortex System for Doctor Who.

Check out Runeslinger’s answer. Reminded me why I originally thought Palladium was odd yet brought something different. Overall I found it worked and I grew to appreciate it 🙂

MooBat dice

#RPGaDay2018 Day15 Tricky RPG XP

Describe a tricky RPG experience you enjoyed

Almost a brain-fog video today, but I think I managed to been coherent enough. I talk about anxiousness and the moment, LARP, Street Fighter and my Mage game; see #PieChartofIndecision below. I didn’t go with any thoughts about handling tricky experiences based around things like clashes of playing styles, system opinions or expectations. I’ve had a few tricky RPG encounters at Conventions in the Living D&D and Star Wars systems, thankfully those were rare. Not that those don’t count, but I went with experiences that were all positive, I think to better keep with the #RPGaDay focus, otherwise I might have descended into a confused rant about something negative; today has been a bad day! Keeping it positive, below is a bit more info about the L5R game event that I list.

#RPGaDay2018 Day15 graph

This story is when we were new to playing Legend of the Five Rings. The party were mostly Dragon Samurai, two had Kitsuki training so were odd in the setting. The group were Magistrates and as part of their travels came across a village with a murdered Samurai. Unless the guilty party was found the whole village was at stake. The Kitsuki trained individuals along with their Crab friend proceeded to investigate the murder of a Samurai. Meanwhile the cold-PC decided they did not approve of the methodology and found out who the murderer was using traditional methods.

Short-version: eventually both investigations uncover the truth, the murder was self-defence by the Chonin’s daughter who had been assaulted. The cold-PC is slightly ahead of the rest of the party, calls the village to hear the confession of the Chonin and immediately decapitates the Chonin; an innocent person. The rest of the party are quietly furious. During a drink break the others admit that they are a bit freaked out OCC, but appreciate Rokugan is different and complicated, but thankfully were loving the IC drama of it all.

A long IC awkward silence ensues, eventually the Kitsuki trained PC questions the cold-PC on their actions. The cold-PC is offended, but eventually gives in and explains that the Chonin was honourable, saved his daughter who would have been killed regardless of whether you believe her self-defence was warranted. The Chonin saved face for all, the Samurai’s family will not have their name tarnished, and the Chonin’s soul will gain from his honourable actions. Plus any parent sacrificing themselves for their child is understandable, and is worthy of respect. This way everyone won, whilst the Kitsuki’s methods would have revealed a truth, but would have undermined the Kami’s Order and Tradition. It was a wonderfully awkward session, both IC and OOC, and helped us all learn the tricky political and religious viewpoints about truth in the setting.

 

#RPGaDay2018 Day14 Failure Became Amazing

Describe a failure that became amazing

I go into some depth about a crazy game Vampire that I run back in the 90s, which become a disaster from a certain point of view, but most of the players loved it. It also led to an amazing game. No LARP stories, nor have I included tales about a critical dice roll radically altering a game, not that I have anything against those moments, just that the list I think I made is enough 🙂

Just realised I badly explain my point about high fantasy RPG, pesky sleep deprivation. I guess my foggy thinking was that high fantasy is typically about big failures and big successes, so many of the stories I know from others are the overly-epic type. Such as intentionally pushing scenarios to create guaranteed failures, invulnerable NPCs monologuing, which then requires Deus Ex Machina or there is a party wipe.

#RPGaDay2018 Day14 graph

#RPGaDay 30

If you are not familiar with #RPGaDay, then please read this page first. For the 30th day of #RPGaDay the question is:

What is an RPG genre-mashup you would most like to see?

My tweeted answer is: #RPGaDay 30, #RPG inspired by many systems, and my old job, a Mafia Time Extortion game.

Like many role-players, I have a collection of ideas that I’ve been adding to for years. It can be argued that so many genre-mashups have been done, that there is nothing left. I almost agree with that sentiment, particularly with so many systems and settings allowing for easy adaptation of anything.

  • Whether it’s GURPs in general, or the Banestorm setting in particular.
  • The wondrously detailed Heroes system.
  • Palladium’s Rifts, and the Megaverse in general.
  • Technically the World of Darkness has everything within its vast Tellurian.
  • Dungeons & Dragons has mentions of links to other realities, so there is nothing preventing mash-ups with that system.
  • Or other systems that work well as a launching platform such as Savage Worlds or Fate.

Keeping to the spirit of RPGaDay, and having fun with the question, I’ll get hung-up on whether my idea is silly, or already been done. I am sure people will mention all sorts of ideas that may actually in a few groups giving it a bash, so I am quite looking forward to scouring the Web for answers.

When I worked at KJC Games back in the 2000s, there a few ideas that Mica, my boss, and I discussed as potential for a commercial PBM RPG. Mica worked on some details for an interesting flashback vampire game. Since he knew I was a fan of supernatural myths and many game systems, in particular World of Darkness, he used me as an example of the target customer. Sadly that game never happened, too many other things to do. Years later I contemplated doing something with the idea, but decided against it since it was originally Mica’s, instead I got obsessed with coding software to support role-playing a time travel game.

d6

There are many games that touch on time travel, and of course GURPS explores the subject in quite some depth. In the 90s and early 00s I had run the Vampire Giovanni Chronicles with a few groups, and my main group had gotten up to book 4. The PCs start out as mortals in the 1920s working for the Mafia. The chronicle explores their lives being drawn in to the World of Darkness, eventually being Ghouls, and eventually embraced by Giovanni. My players, however, decided they were really happy playing a mortal Mafia game, since they were having such fun they even requested I delay any supernatural aspects indefinitely. Since I was still working on the time travel game ideas, I got the idea of doing a setting that was a mash-up of a Mafia Time Extortion game. Years later Looper was made, which is somewhat of a Mafia time travel story.

In 1999 I spent a year working on time travel ideas after meeting Martin and Damian of the original Suzerain team. After writing them a detailed essay about the game, I was invited to become more involved with the game, and so I became a freelance writer. I later helped with Suzerain’s GenCon UK launch, demonstrating games and helping to run the two LARP events that weekend. Suzerain was an interesting RPG, that reminded me of Quantum Leap. I’ll write about my Suzerain interest another time.

Although I’ve not playtested the designs I have for my Mafia Time Extortion game, I did adapt a few things for the Trinity Verse game I ran. What started out as a typical Aberrant campaign became about tracking down Max Mercer’s time travel. Typically for me the game got complicated, and required a database to track all the Novas, as well as Adventure and Trinity era NPCs. That game is on hold awaiting the release of the Trinity Continuum.

#RPGaDay 23

If you are not familiar with #RPGaDay, then please read this page first. For the 23rd day of #RPGaDay the question is:

Which RPG has the most jaw-dropping layout?

My tweeted answer is: #RPGaDay 23, #RPG, #GURPS

I was blown away when I was 11 and I first saw AD&D 1st Edition; it seemed even more impressive than the D&D boxsets. I had the same reaction a short time later when I looked through the Manual of the Planes 1st Ed. The pictures and text layout emphasised the goal of the book, an encyclopaedia of places and metaphysics to explore. For my formative years I have had similar reactions with the majority of RPGs I looked at: Cyberpunk, Warhammer, Vampire, Palladium, etc. I guess typically for my age, even a game with poor layout didn’t particularly bother me; I’d mine it for what I liked regardless.

This changed in the 90s when I finally took a lot at GURPS. I found the books to be jaw dropping, the sheer amount of information crammed in to them. Even the content pages are detailed and long. The layout style in GURPS is further enhanced by its usage of sidebars to layer even more information. I know from chatting with a few other people that the layout of GURPS added to their apprehension with the game, they felt the book was assaulting them with information. I appreciate their point, but for me it’s almost like having a book within a book.

GURPS layout

After I’d seen GURPS I did keep coming across works that impressed me, but I didn’t have the jaw dropping reaction. Even with games I adore: L5R, Changeling: The Dreaming or Aberrant.

As I gained professional experience with layouts, I was required to learn more about the power of layout. When I made the Quest: GM Edition rulebook, it was all about providing information without swamping the reader; I still have mixed opinions on that work, but at least I worked hard on it. Whilst, when my old boss converted the Beyond the Stellar Empire game to Phoenix, he settled on a layout similar to GURPS approach for the rules, which suited the nature of that in-depth game. We discussed different layouts for hours, as well as examining other peoples’ work, fun times.

These days I genuinely appreciate the craft of layout, and the time sink it can involve. I think I’ve finally figured out the layout for my massive role-playing guide, which for years I kept altering. I felt that most of the previous designs, gave the work the presentation like that of a waffling textbook. I feel I still need to learn a lot more, especially given how impressive RPGs can be these days.

There have been many great examples posted for today’s question. In particular Runeslinger’s answer introduced me to a very impressively designed book.

This video gives a good overview on the power of layout: