Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Thoughts on Top Secret

Scene from a bar in Sprechenhaltestelle, 1953
We only got about four or five sessions of Top Secret in before I got a new job at the Post Office and all my gaming time got tanked. I was enjoying running the Sprechenhaltestelle mini-sandbox, but I think my players were having problems switching from the D&D "mug & loot" mindset to a more nuanced way of executing a mission. You know, like spies. Things generally devolved into slug-fests and shoot-outs rather quickly, which is fun and all, but not conducive to a subtle investigative adventure. Plus, there was the problem of the clunky old combat rules which did have a tendency to slow down momentum with fiddly bits. Some quick thoughts:

  • The gun combat seems simple on paper, but really takes up too much game time to execute. I think I could re-work it with just a little effort though. Interesting that the type of gun has nothing to do with how much damage it deals. Wounds are dealt with in different, also clunky, rules. Gun combat is dangerous, though, and that is important. It also really plays up the real-life non-accuracy of pistols.
  • The hand-to-hand combat is pretty fun in execution for the first few times when things are not literally life-and-death but its unwieldiness and unpredictability becomes a liability for an agent in the field. I think the players felt a lack of control over the outcomes, which is ironic, because the rules are written in a way trying to granulize HTH with specific moves and stuff, but really it feels more random than gun combat. (Maybe that is actually how real life HTH fighting is... I wouldn't know.)
  • Basically, combat is the most rules intensive part of the entire game—everything else is extremely simple and generally left up to the GM to adjudicate. Which is cool. They game went pretty smoothly outside of combat.
  • There is an actual rule for aliens about paragraph long... which is basically, "they have 1–20 hit points." It makes you wonder why its there at all, but I guess I am glad it is.
  • My plan was to run a late '50s spy adventure like Ian Fleming's original Bond novels and I discovered that Top Secret is pretty much geared for that straight out of the gate. The whole flavor of the game seems to come from that era already, down to the weapon choices.
  • Having access to the internet really opened up possibilities for the game. The simple thing of being able to Google a picture of available weapons increased my flavor by an order of magnitude. I actually think that might have hampered my enjoyment of the game back in the day. A list of guns with no pictures really means nothing to me (especially as a kid).
  • More coming...

Friday, September 19, 2014

Top Secret Index

I picked up a used copy of Top Secret (2nd edition) a little while ago and have been slowly preparing to run a short spy campaign set in the late 1950s... a la the original Ian Fleming Bond novels. One of the first problems I ran into re-reading the ruleset was the lack of an index (a pretty classic problem of these early TSR games). So, I whipped one up as I went along and offer it now for anyone else who may have had the same problem. Later on I will post some more detailed observations of this clunky, but flavorful, old game.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Reading List (year two)

Well, I haven't posted a hell of a lot lately on this blog, but I have been gaming steadily, and I have been reading continuously. Perhaps blogging inspiration will return this year... perhaps not. Anyway, here are the books I read this year with useful game ideas.

  • The Book of the New Sun, Gene Wolfe (A+)
  • Kraken, China Mieville (C-)
  • Reamde, Neal Stephenson (A-)
  • The Emperor of Dreams, Clark Ashton Smith (B)
  • Slow Apocalypse, John Varley (B+)
  • The Fuller Memorandum, Charles Stross (C)
  • Light, M John Harrison (B+)
  • Postsingular, Rudy Rucker (C)
  • Hylozoic, Rudy Rucker (D)
  • The Gunslinger, Stephen King (C+)
  • Drawing of the Three, Stephen King (C-)
  • The Waste Lands, Stephen King (C)
I'll try to add actual commentary to these as I go along, beyond just a dorky rating system that simply attempts to quantify how much I liked the book.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Artifact Use Chart

In Dragon #25 Gary Jaquet updated the Artifact Use charts from the first edition Gamma World rules. My photo-copy of the chart looked pretty natty so I went ahead and made a new version (above). When we were playing GW1e a couple years back my whole agenda then was to use the rules as written, just to get a feel for what the authors intended, before making any house-rule changes. That meant using those old artifact use charts that were so fascinating to me as a kid. Of course it doesn't take long before you realize that all you are doing is rolling dice over a certain number for effects and the flow chart is just for looks. So I started using the GW2e rules after a while to see if there were any subtle flavor differences between the two (GW2e rules are just straight dice rolls, but the system is a bit more complex). Not only did the GW2e rules seem oddly "safer" (less catastrophic results), but I found myself missing the visual interaction of the old charts. So when I found this updated version somebody posted on the internet form Dragon #25 I vowed to give it a spin, but we ended up putting the GW campaign on hiatus before I got to try it. I have no idea how well tuned it is, but it is kind of pretty.

Huh, perhaps I should post how to actually use the chart.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Attending Daedalus

Deserted Estuary by Bruce Pennington
By coincidence I came across a used copy of Attending Daedalus by Peter Wright around the time I was finishing reading Solar Labyrinth by Robert Borski. Borski's book had a lot of tantalizing theories about Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun in it (even if I am inclined to only agree with around 60% of them), but seemed to focus only on the puzzles and mysteries of the series without actually discussing Wolfe's literary techniques. Attending Daedalus is definitely a good remedy for that, examining Wolfe's writing style and its effect on the reader throughout his career, with specific emphasis on the Book of the New Sun. Wright's writing tends to be overly-academic and dry (it was an English dissertation after all), but he illuminates the complexity of Wolfe's genius in a way that I may have intuitively grasped, but without an intellectual understanding the process involved.

All in all, my re-reading of Wolfe's Book of the New Sun, along with the various analysis of other authors, has deepened my already reverent appreciation of his works to a level of almost baffled mystification. How can he be so good?

Monday, January 28, 2013

Reading List (year one)

Not so much an "Appendix N" as simply the stuff I've been reading over the last year that has some quality of gaming inspiration, one way or the other. Lately, I've been rereading my personal holy grail to that end of things, The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe, although this time through I have Michael Andre-Driussi's Lexicon Urthus on the nightstand as well for further edification. After I finish the series I plan to pick up Robert Borski's Solar Labyrinth as a final delve into the layered mysteries of Wolfe's world creation.

  • Peace, Gene Wolfe (A)
  • Kingdom Come, JG Ballard (B)
  • Wireless, Charles Stross (B+)
  • Zero History, William Gibson (B-)
  • The Tree of Life, Israel Regardie
  • Home Fires, Gene Wolfe (A-)
  • Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, Jorge Luis Borges (A-)
  • City of Saints and Madmen, Jeff VanderMeer (D)
  • Imaginal Reality, Aaron Daniels
  • Holy Fire, Bruce Sterling (C+)
  • Magical Circles in the Grimoire Tradition, William Kiesel
  • Promethea, Alan Moore (B)

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Gamma World—Part I

Original drawing by Jeff Easley / Coloring by Sorvan
Gamma World was a game that had always fascinated me as a kid in the late '70s and early '80s, but somehow we never really got around to playing it back then. It became one of my bucket list games that I would spend free time musing about while busy playing other games for years. It wasn't until after finishing a long, multi-year campaign with 3E D&D that I realized my brain needed a rest from crunchy rules systems and swords and sorcery. I had a captive audience with my new gaming group, so I good-naturedly pressured them into playing Gamma World. Since most of my fellow gaming friends were slightly younger than me, and quite enjoyed modern game design, I wasn't really sure how well GW would go over, so I was pleasantly surprised when the players really dug into the game and we ended up playing a campaign that lasted over two years. (And is still not even close to being completed... we are just currently taking another genre break for a little while.) It was, in truth, the experiences of playing old-school GW that first triggered my interest in starting a gaming blog, although due to my slow-moving nature and general laziness, I didn't actually get around to starting until after putting our GW campaign on hiatus.

There are myriad subjects I wanted to touch upon in regards to playing first edition Gamma World, so I will just chip away at my notes as I feel inspired. One of the most visceral pleasures I had as a GM to a table full of fledgling GW players, was the fact the all the monsters would be new to them and completely mysterious. Hell, after close to thirty years, the monsters were pretty "new" to me as well! Each random encounter on the road would fill the party with dread (as is fit for any D&D-like RPG), but also a sense of wonder because they would be trying to figure out just what the fuck that crazy sounding beast was. The sensation kind of mixes together the two of the primary elements of RPGs... battle and exploration at the same time. I love all the classic D&D monsters, but to a certain extant, everybody at the table knows what you are getting when you encounter a goblin, or ghoul, or dragon. But what the hell are up against when the GM is describing a horl choo, a barl nep, or a yexil? Even the names are completely alien and beyond deciphering. I remember as a kid I was kind of tripped up by those weird names and the fact there were no monster illustrations (for the most part), but these days all that is fundamental to my enjoyment of the game.

I tried to stick to the essential power descriptions as listed in the rulebook (occasionally allowing for some ideas from the second edition rules as well), no matter how strange, and let that flavor my impression of the creature. For example, the arks have the weather control ability that didn't seem to mesh well with their other powers, but after some thought I decided that the arks were these witchy wolf-people that lived on the fringes of civilization, feeding on humans and spoiling the crops unless the humans were able to broker terrible deals with them. I also allowed the arks to summon the occasional lightning bolt with their weather abilities, just to make them more fearful and devastating.

On the other hand, there were some descriptions that proved too tortured (or boring) for my rationalizations as is... mainly with the shapechange ability of a few creatures. For example, the ability of cren tosh to morph into "any lizard" (boring), or the similar ability of fleshin to morph into sleeth. (Why sleeth? The two creatures are not overly similar, and sleeth are much more sophisticated and intelligent than fleshin.) I decided to keep as close to the rules as written as I could while injecting a small dose of rationalization into both those monsters. Basically, I made them the weird juvenile forms of the mature sleeth, the cren tosh being the males and the fleshin being the females. Each has the capacity to mimic the adult sleeth, although at a much diminished capacity... it's more of a disguise than anything else. Who knows what sort of strange and mysterious process finally transforms these adolescent creatures into full-blown sleeth? The cryptic sleeth guard the secrets of their culture well.