Thursday, February 26, 2015

Thorough Thursdays: SPACE OPERA

Prior to this post, I have only tagged the term Space Opera,  ten times. As little sense as that makes for this blog, that is not the subject I wish to be thorough about this particular Thorough Thursday.

The issue is that few of those entries directing relate to the Space Opera Science Fiction Role Playing Game, written and created by Ed Simbalist, A. Mark Ratner, and Phil McGregor for Fantasy Games Unlimited in 1980.

That's just wrong.






Between 1982 and 1984, one particular group of my gaming buddies, and myself, played a lot of this game. A lot. Believe it, or not, outside of FASA's Star Trek, this was our game of choice for Science Fiction in those years.

That's right, not Star Frontiers, not Traveller. Space Opera by Fantasy Games Unlimited.

How that is possible, I do not know.

For years now I have attempted to figure out how we played this game. Periodically re-reading the rulebooks (my original ones from 1982), I am amazed that we made sense of this monster.

Space Opera is the quintessential example of trying too hard in game design.  

Nearly every facet of the game, from rolling your PCs characteristics, to ship-to-ship combat, is overly complex with no significant benefit I can see. Not only that, but you can clearly see an easier way to do everything.

For example, you roll percentile dice, and then reference a chart to determine what your attributes will be. There are fourteen attributes. The attribute stats range from 1 to 19. There are several columns, each with two, or three stats, that you need to refer to in order to figure out what your PC's attribute is. So a roll of 54 gets you a Strength of 13, but an Agility of 12.

Why not roll two 10-sided dice for a 2-20 range for all fourteen stats. I've tried to read through it again, and again, and I see no advantage to the way they have it. I could be wrong, as math is not my specialty by any means. Still, and all, I don't get it.

Overwrought, and convoluted though it may be (and it is - the organization of the rules is nothing to write home about either), I want to make it perfectly clear that we played this game. Often. It was a real favorite for a time, albeit a brief one.

How? I am not sure.

Why? I have some theories...





Space Opera was made during a very special period in gaming, and fandom history. They were at the dawn of the height in popularity, but still so small an industry that they could get away with stuff you'd be sued over today.

In no uncertain terms, Space Opera features (that is, unabashedly copies with the files numbers all but left on):

The United Federation of Planets, and Vulcans from Star Trek.
The Lens from E. E. Smith's Lensman series.
Jedi Knights, and Lightsabers from Star Wars.
The Kzinti from Larry Niven's Known Space novels.
The Bugs from Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers.

...and much more.

My friends, and I grew up in this era, and experienced this while it was all new. We can look back on it now, and be amazing they got away with that crap, but at the time it was just pure cool. Fantasy Game Unlimited wasn't 'getting away' with anything to us. They were doing what anyone interested in those things would do. They found a way to include everything they liked, and thought was awesome into their game.

So would you! So did we!

Our Space Opera universe was an odd mix of Science Fiction inspirations, and merged universes. In addition to elements provided in the game itself, we drew tons of ideas from authors such as Philip K. Dick, Harlan Ellison, Robert Heinlein, Larry Niven, and artwork from  Barlowe's Guide to Extraterrestrials, Epic Illustrated Magazine, Heavy Metal Magazine, the Terran Trade Authority books, and the book Tomorrow and Beyond.

A sample of one of our best, and longest, Space Opera campaigns can be found here. Hopefully, that will give you some idea of the thematic approach we took to the setting (or our version of it).

I think we knew what we wanted to run, and play. We knew what kind of stories we wanted to tell, the type of characters that should be in those stories, and what we needed out of the game to make that happen.

Somehow, I imagine that we made the game do what we wanted it to do, rather than playing it as it was meant to be played, and creating something out of that. Possibly, even very likely, this was one of my first forays into story-first, rules-second thinking.

Looking back on it now, it may have been one of the key formative game experiences that contributed to my later approach to gaming.

We made this nearly unplayable game work, because the rules of the games were less important than the yarns we wished to spin.

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Monday, February 23, 2015

As Time Goes By

Can you believe it's been 6 years? I can't.





Sometimes it seems like only yesterday that I started this blog. Other days, it seems like I only recently updated its look. I steal a glance at the post count, and view count, and I am just floored.

Where did the time go? Moreover, why don't I have even more material considering the six year lifespan of this strange creature? Some months are so chock full of posts I have to wonder when I slept. Others are so devoid of content I'm forced to wonder if I was in a Russian gulag, or taking a vacation in Tahiti without my own knowledge.

This year, the sixth in which I've been blogging, and the thirty-eighth in which I've been playing RPGs, is off to a great start with no sign of slowing. I've got a ton of ideas, and subjects I want to discuss, Thorough Thursdays is going over very well, and the best is yet to come.

Thanks you stopping by ladies, and gentlemen, and other manner of others. Please enjoy your stay, and come back, and visit us often.

A Happy Anniversary for Barking Alien, is a Happy Anniversary for all of its readers.

Qapla'!

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Thursday, February 19, 2015

Thorough Thursdays: BLADE RUNNER

I know, I know. I said before that I wasn't going to add tags. The idea here is to go more in-depth about things I've already addressed at some point. Thing is, I've been thinking about this idea, on this one subject, for a while now. I also figure this is as good a place to talk about it as any other, since it is also related to this month's unofficial theme (Science Fiction).

To go a step further, I will be cross referencing this with a few other tags, so at least they will get some much needed love.

Thank you for indulging me.


***
 
 



Blade Runner
Original Theatrical Release Movie Poster, 1982
Art and Design by John Alvin
 
 
Prior to this post, I have never tagged, or mentioned in detail, the 1982, Ridley Scott directed, Hampton Fancher and David Peoples written, Warner Brothers Science Fiction-Noir film, Blade Runner, based on Philip K. Dick's novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, on this blog before today.
 
That's just wrong.
 
 




In one of my prior Thorough Thursday entries, I mentioned how few films had as massive a creative impact on my as Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

Meet the film that gives Close Encounters a run for its money.

So much of what I do in my Science Fiction games is inspired, and influenced, by this film, that I hardly know where to start in my adoration of it.

Blade Runner is, to me, much more than a great movie. It was my first glimpse into a different kind of Science Fiction than what I was used to, and what I previously enjoyed.

Prior to this film, my Science Fiction was always the relatively clean, and heroic, cooperative future of Star Trek, the campy, but lovable 50's-60's Sci-Fi of Lost in Space, or the epic Space Fantasy of Star Wars.

I had seen Planet of the Apes, and Logan's Run, but the concept of a dystopian, high-tech future, such as that portrayed in Blade Runner, was something completely new, and mind-blowing to me.

Science Fiction, it turned out, had a dark, seedy underbelly. It had people with big dreams, fleeting hope, and rain-soaked sorrows, all of whom were just trying to survive another day in a neon lit, smog covered canyon of glass, and steel.

This was Future-Noir, the predecessor to Cyberpunk. There was nothing else quite like it bad then, and nothing exactly like it has come since, even to this day.

 
***

 
 


When the movie came out in 1982, I was 13 years old.

An advanced reader for my age, I had read a number of classic Science Fiction books by the time of Blade Runner's release, but the work of Philip K. Dick was not known to me. Following the movie, I snatched up a copy of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, and marveled at the differences between the book, and the film.

While I find the book brilliant, it doesn't do to me what the film does. It shouldn't I suppose, two different forms of conveying a narrative as they are. The book showcases the subject of what it means to be Humans, and explores questions of morality, mortality, and empathy in greater depth than the motion picture. It does it well at that. However, the movie is positively drenched in atmosphere, and style.

One of the primary reasons for the films incredible visuals is the concept work of futurist Syd Mead. I believe I may have discovered Mead because of this movie. He, and his artwork, will forever forge a great deal of the technology, and architecture, I see in my mind's eye when I think about setting aesthetics for my Science Fiction RPG campaigns. From Traveller to Cyberpunk, and Shadowrun games, the look of the future (for me at least) looks a lot like the work of Syd Mead.


***
 
 
This is primarily a blog that discusses Role Playing Games, so it's about time I talked about the impact of Blade Runner on my gaming.
 
Where to start?
 
One of the games I ran very often in the late 80's was R. Talsorian Games' Cyberpunk (2013, and 2020). However, my impression of the genre was more heavily inspired by my love of Blade Runner.
 
Long before genetic engineering became a big deal in Science Fiction, and Science Fiction gaming, I was building Replicant NPCs. I 'built' them by using the rules for cybernetic parts, and just saying they were part of the design of the Replicant when is was grown/fabricated.
 
While PCs lost points of Humanity (and by association, Empathy) with the addition of cybernetic implants, Replicants started at zero, and their 'enhancements' added to their understanding of Humanity. Sounds crazy? I'll explain...
 
The idea was that as they gain experiences (not Experience Points, but life experience), Replicants develop a desire for more experiences. This often turns into a desire to live, to have more time. That's when they get a little desperate, and a little nuts (again, an inverse way of looking at Cyber-Psychosis from the Cyberpunk RPG).
 
What do you all think?
 
 
 
 
"I've...seen things you people wouldn't believe...
Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion.
I watched c-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser Gate.
All those...moments...will be lost in time,
like...tears...in the rain.
Time to die."
 
 

 
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Year of the Horny Animal

Whoah there boys, and girls! Just relax. That's NOT what I meant.






2015 is the Chinese (as well as other East Asian cultures)  Year of the Goat, but in truth it's a bit more complex than that.

You see, a Snake is a Snake (make no mistake),
And a Horse is a Horse (of course, of course),
But the Chinese character 'Yang' means 'Horned Animal'.

As such, various Western parties trying to understand our Eastern brethren, have translated the character to mean Goat, Sheep, or Ram. It doesn't help that even in China there are mixed opinions about which animal people want representing them.

Interestingly, some of the artwork I have seen celebrating the New Year has a creature more closely resembling some sort of Gazelle, or Antelope.

Well, whatever Horned Animal you prefer, Good Luck, Peace, and Prosperity to you from Barking Alien.

Gong Hey Fat Choy (or in Mandarin, Gong Xi Fa Cai)!


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Monday, February 16, 2015

Front Loaded and Backfired

The ever extraordinary Lowell Francis of Age of Ravens, and Play on Target fame, has assembled, and posted, a GM Campaign Prep Survey.

Go participate! Now!

Welcome back. I missed you. You've been gone forever, or perhaps a few minutes, or so.

Dogs can't tell time.

Now that you've checked it out, I thought you might get a kick out of an idea that I got a kick out of - turning the survey into a post analyzing one game's prep. Ah, and I'm going to go one step further. I'm going to analyze two past campaigns that buck my own trends, and eschew past advice.

A High-Prep campaign that tanked, and a Low-Prep campaign that rocked!

Sound like fun? Aces.

Lowell's questions are in white, while my answers are in green.

First up...



 
Art by Lisa Free


1. What system did you use for the campaign?

Pendragon - 4th Edition

2. Had you run this system before?
 
No. The last time I played Pendragon was 1st Edition, and I had never run it before.
 
3. What kind of setting did you use?
 
Essentially the game canon, adjusted for the region our story took place in. I added various elements from British, Irish and Viking folktales.
 
4. Had you run this setting before?
 
No.
 
5. Where did you run?
 
Face-to-face, at a public location we often use for our games.
 
6. How often did your group meet?
 
Roughly once a month.
 
7. How long was your average session?
 
8-10 hours.
 
8. How many players did you have on average?
 
Five.
 
9. About how many sessions did you run for? (Say "ongoing" for present campaigns)
 
Four. Maybe five.
 
10. Did you have an expectation about how long the campaign would last when you planned it?
 
No. I try not to do that.
 
However, I planned  for the first 'chapter' to last about nine sessions. My hope was for three chapters, and then more if the group was interested.
 
11. If yes to Question 10, about how long did you expect the campaign to last? Was that more or less than it did run?
 
As noted above. We stopped after four, or five sessions. It was terrible.
 
12. Did you have what you'd consider a "finale"?
 
No.
 
13. What caused the campaign to end?
 
A complete, and utter disconnect between the type of campaign I was trying to run, and the type of game the players thought we were playing.
 
In addition to there being too many off beat characters for the setting, the players just could not wrap their heads around the idea of epic, mythic, folklore fantasy. They focused on realistic, logical, almost simulationist approaches to the world, the characters, and the situations.

In addition, one player was playing a character who had a personal agenda counter to that of the rest of the group.

Ugh.
 

14. How did you think about the ending of the campaign?

I'm glad I shot it, and put it out of its misery.

 
This next part focuses on the actual time you spent prepping for the game. This is all estimates and self-assessment. I'm going to ask you to come up with some rough percentages in categories. But how you define prep is up to you. If you think early brainstorming, watching genre-movies, or musing on things while riding the train counts as your prep, then count it.

This is pretty blurry, so just go with your gut on these answers.

Now here is where things get interesting.

I put a lot of thought into our Pendragon game. I tried very hard to get the geography, feel of the setting, the characters, the politics, and everything else just right. I did extensive research of both books, and film on the subject, and this is from a person who took Arthurian Literature in college.

I was so ready for this campaign. I was ready for it to be awesome.

It started great, and went sour quickly.
 
15. Roughly how many hours did you spend preparing for this campaign? (Please answer in numerals: 2, 6, 18...)

Over the course of a month, or so, I spent approximately 45-50 hours on the pre-first session, and campaign prep.
 
16. Give a rough percentage of time you spent on each of these activities in preparing for this campaign. Though I've set this to add up to 100, I understand there will some blurry lines.
 
  • Learning or Relearning Rules - 20% (Considerably more than usual for me).    
  • Developing or Homebrewing Mechanics  - 5%             
  • Drawing Maps, Sketching Illustrations, or Crafting Props  - 10%             
  • Coming Up with NPCs - 10%   
  • Plotting Incidents, Arcs, or Stories - 15% (Barely any of which saw play)           
  • Writing Up World/Setting Backstory - 10% (Barely any of which was investigated)      
  • General Research - 20% (Perhaps half of which saw use).           
  • Player Character Work - 15%
  • Other


***
 
 

Art by Kenichi Lowe


1. What system did you use for the campaign?

A homebrewed hybrid of InSpectres by Memento Mori, and Ghostbusters by West End Games.

2. Had you run this system before?
 
I had run the original Ghostbusters RPG before, but no, not this blended version.
 
3. What kind of setting did you use?
 
Canon setting focused on the first Ghostbusters film. Modern, present day, New Jersey. The PC's were a Ghostbusters franchise based out of Hoboken.
 
4. Had you run this setting before?
 
I have run a Ghostbusters campaign before using the movie canon, yes.
 
5. Where did you run?
 
Face-to-face, at the home of two of the players.
 
6. How often did your group meet?
 
Once a month.
 
7. How long was your average session?
 
6-8 hours.
 
8. How many players did you have on average?
 
Four. Always four.
 
9. About how many sessions did you run for? (Say "ongoing" for present campaigns)
 
Four. (Sad Panda)
 
10. Did you have an expectation about how long the campaign would last when you planned it?
 
No. As I said, I don't usually do that.
 
11. If yes to Question 10, about how long did you expect the campaign to last? Was that more or less than it did run?
 
Campaign was cut short due to personal issues of some of the players.
 
12. Did you have what you'd consider a "finale"?
 
Unfortunately no.
 
13. What caused the campaign to end?
 
As noted above, group members having personal issues.
 
14. How did you think about the ending of the campaign?
 
Cut down too soon. So sad.

This next part focuses on the actual time you spent prepping for the game. This is all estimates and self-assessment. I'm going to ask you to come up with some rough percentages in categories. But how you define prep is up to you. If you think early brainstorming, watching genre-movies, or musing on things while riding the train counts as your prep, then count it.

This is pretty blurry, so just go with your gut on these answers.

A lot less prep went into this initially than my usual campaigns. I should point out that no less thought went in, simply that the time between when the idea for the campaign struck me, and when I developed, and then ran it was surprisingly short.
 
15. Roughly how many hours did you spend preparing for this campaign? (Please answer in numerals: 2, 6, 18...)
 
I would say maybe 12-15 hours.
 
16. Give a rough percentage of time you spent on each of these activities in preparing for this campaign. Though I've set this to add up to 100, I understand there will some blurry lines.
 
  • Learning or Relearning Rules - 5%    
  • Developing or Homebrewing Mechanics - 10%              
  • Drawing Maps, Sketching Illustrations, or Crafting Props - 25%               
  • Coming Up with NPCs - 10%   
  • Plotting Incidents, Arcs, or Stories - 10%           
  • Writing Up World/Setting Backstory - 5%       
  • General Research - 30%           
  • Player Character Work  - 5%
  • Other

***

The second of these two campaigns, 'Ghostbusters New Jersey', had less than half the prep time of the Pendragon campaign, but time isn't what it was about in this case.

It was about inspiration, seeing it all clearly, knowing what would work and what wouldn't on an almost instinctive level, and feeling comfortable that the group of gamers I was the campaign for would 'get it in one', no fuss no muss.

With 'Pendragon - The Lion and The Sea', I perceived of a very different game than that which we ended up playing. As such, I prepared for that game, the game I envisioned, and not the one that ended up being played due to the differences between what I pictured, and what the players had in mind (whatever that was).

I find this, and other surveys and questionnaires like it, a lot of fun, and very interesting to fill out. They allow me to look at my own campaigns from a somewhat more subjective position than I typically would.

Perhaps, in analyzing these two campaigns in this way, I am seeing something about my gaming nature I did not previously comprehend. I am better off it seems with a solid vision of what I want to do, and a great that is guaranteed to be on my wavelength. Such campaigns will forever be superior to ones that lack this dynamic. Unfortunately, no amount of prep can really help you with this kind of thing.

The more prep time the better I would think, but between the group, and the GM, you either have it, or you don't.


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