Ennies and recent favorite RPGs

Fellow role-players, as we continue to discuss our current games and what we might play next, don’t forget to vote for this year’s Ennies! Here’s how I voted:

While I haven’t played many of these, I own several, and I’ve looked at many more products and Web sites. I explain why I chose what I did below.

RPG dice
A pile of polyhedral dice — most tabletop role-players’ fancy


Standouts include Paizo and others’ continuing strong support for the Pathfinder system (a.k.a. “D&D3.75”) and Obsidian Portal, whose wikis our current face-to-face and telecom groups have been using.

I haven’t yet played The One Ring, but it has impressive production value, as do supplements such as DungeonMorph’s cards and the “Mass Transit” series of maps. Many of you have received the news and Game Mastering advice I’ve forwarded from Gnome Stew and EnWorld.org. I enjoyed Rich’s “Way of the Wickedone-shot.

Modern and superheroes

I voted for DC Adventures: Heroes & Villains Vol. 1 (using D20/OGL Mutants & Masterminds 3rd Ed.) over the Marvel Heroic Roleplaying Basic Game even though we’re using the latter in Jason‘s “Glassworkssuperhero miniseries. I thought Green Ronin’s relatively timeless approach to DC’s iconic characters was better than Margaret Weiss Production’s dice-intensive take on recent Marvel continuity. I’ll leave the various Cthulhu supplements to the horror authorities among us.

Science fiction

I’ve used various SFRPG supplements in developing the “Vortex” space opera, including Ashen Stars: Dead Rock Seven, Eclipse Phase: Panopticon, and Star Hero. Even though FATE 3e Starblazer Adventures/Mindjammer has been our baseline, Bulldogs! is a much clearer presentation of similar rules.


I’m not sure that Wizards of the Coast’s polls are the best way to get feedback for “Dungeons & Dragons Next” (5e), and Mongoose still has too many errors in its rulebooks, even if I like that it’s keeping Traveller going. Cubicle 7 has let support for Starblazer Adventures and Legends of Anglerre slip, so I voted for the publishers of my other favorite supplements of the past year.

What were your favorites? In addition, don’t forget to vote for which of my campaigns you’d like to see for the face-to-face groups in the coming year! Happy gaming, -Gene

“Vanished Lands” Update T3.22 — Leaping lizards and Rockney

A village in the Middle Ages
Hifalendorin town

Fellow role-players, here is my update for Session T3.22 of the latest adventuring party in my “Vanished Lands” heroic fantasy campaign setting. The teleconferencing team met on Sunday, 27 March 2011, and has been using Pathfinder, Skype, and an online dice roller.

In one ancient world, there was a region where strange majicks and demihuman races thrived. After “Holy Steel‘s” journey to the distant empire of Khemet, another motley group gathered in the northwestern “Vanished Lands” to explore a world full of perils and wonders….

>>Telecom party Player Character roster, as of spring 2011:

-“Gawain Keary” [Paul J.]-male Saganim human Illusionist (proto-Celtic Wizard); NGc, Age 20, Lvl. 1

-“Kovar” [Beruk A.]-male Half-Orc/Saganim human Paladin of Mithras, god of contracts and brotherhood; LGn, Lvl. 2

-“Davven ‘Digger’ Hollysharp” [Robert A.S.]-male Faldine Halfling archaeologist (Tallfellow Rogue) from a pipeweed farm in Tarken; CGn, Age 45, Lvl. 2

-“Asish Chen Ti” [Byron V.O.]-male Tsucharim human archer (Mongol-style Ranger), escaped from the kingdom of Gokuri; owner of Akita dog Genghis and horse Onimusha; NGl, Age 20, Lvl. 2

-“Jovinda Halflight” [Sammy H.]-female Half-Elf (Grugach/Hifalendorin) Cleric of Mekkil, goddess of nature; owner of horse Wyth-Amoi, or “Wind Spirit”; NGl, Age 23, Lvl. 2

-“Kazuo Takenaga” [Taum D’A.]-male Nezumi (Rat-kin) Monk from the Zedu kingdom in the Therud Forest; LNg, Age 20, Lvl. 2

-“Favelhorn Riftbringer” [Dexter V.H./absent]-male Mountain Dwarf Summoner; CGn, Age 51, Lvl. 1

19 to 21 August 1229 B.C.E.:” The adventuring party left the haunted hamlet of Alarn and rode southwest, following the Aspar River. The wanderers rode beneath cloudy skies, encountering few others on the trail across the wide Plains of Sathendo.

Gawain studies his spellbook, and Kovar recommends that his companions be careful about mentioning Vappu Lahja when they reach the Hifalendorin (proto-Western European) human city of Nadwi. Not only has the mysterious woman stirred up Centaurs and other Fey folk against human farmers, but she has also ensorcelled Digger and Kazuo.

Digger offers to keep track of the party’s treasure, with Kovar holding the purse. Asish keeps a watchful eye over the tall grassland, while Jovinda looks for local fauna. Kazuo keeps his own counsel, denying that Vappu Lahja has any undue influence over him. “Sir Bonner of Runnymeade” [Jon W.B./Non-Player Character], shamed by his fear in a recent encounter with animated scarecrows, rides at the rearguard.

Asish sets watches for the night: Gawain and Kazuo, Kovar and Digger, and Jovinda and himself. After dinner and sunset, Kazuo’s keen Nezumi senses detect something crawling toward the camp from the river. The Monk and Illusionist quietly awaken their band. Two large lizards lurch at the team!

Nimble Digger throws a dagger before a lizard grabs him with its mouth! The unhappy Halfling resists its venomous saliva and recalls a similar attack by a magically enlarged eel near Alarn. Archer Asish fires arrows and moves to one side, while patient Kazuo waits in “Iron Monkey” stance for his opponent to come to him.

Hastily donning his breastplate, Kovar spears the lizard holding Digger but is bitten in return. Arcanist Gawain maneuvers and casts Color Spray, blinding and stunning the monstrous duo. Pious Jovinda invokes Mekkil, goddess of nature, and casts Cure Light Wounds on Digger, who then frees himself from the reptile’s jaws.

Ranger Asish’s next volley hits its mark, but Kazuo’s first punches miss. The injured lizard smacks armored Kovar with its thrashing tail, and Gawain casts Detect Magic. Paladin Kovar knocks his foe on its back with a mighty shield bash, and Jovinda strikes it with her staff.

Digger’s daggers do more damage to the lizards, and Asish finishes one off. Kazuo slays the other creature with a Flurry of Blows. Gawain tries to copy the fading runes on the lizard’s bellies, which Digger notes are similar to those on the eel. The Illusionist later identifies the markings as Enlarge and Permanence spells, but he doesn’t fully recognize the language.

Asish happily butchers the carcasses, taking many pounds of lizard meat and hides for later use. Jovinda claims the claws for jewelry, some of which she agrees to trade for Asish’s leatherwork. As with the scarecrows, the group suspects a single cause for their unsettling encounters on the plains, but Digger is reluctant to blame Vappu Lahja or mage Octavius Karstus, who hired him to look into property around Nadwi.

The next day, the explorers reach the village of Rockney, about 10 miles northeast of Nadwi. Friendly innkeeper Vormana greets them at the sleepy “Helm’s Draught” tavern. Her husband Arien shows the way to guest rooms, and Asish offers to help cook.

Gawain keeps an eye on Digger, and Kovar stays with Kazuo to keep the well-intentioned Monk from proselytizing. Back in the common room, Digger chats up farmers Bart and Carson, who mention that a disheveled man came from Alarn within the past week. His babbling made no sense, they say, and he soon left.

Jovinda notices burly Dalan and dark Arvon, and Kovar and Asish pay close attention to the conversations as they pass around roast lizard. Digger shares Halfling pipeweed from Tarken and says he found giant footprints, but none of the locals know anything about giants so far from their traditional homeland in the Ivory Mountains….

Please see my notes on Nadwi as your Player Characters prepare to investigate the city! Sammy, I’m sorry that you got stuck in a train, but I’m glad that you were able to join us, even if your microphone wasn’t always working. Dexter, let me know if you need any help with your Pathfinder characters or getting back into Skype.

In the meantime, you should have also seen my post on the attendance thread regarding upcoming spring sessions. Let me know if you have any problems with the gaming schedule. Thanks again, Byron, for your help with the latest FATE 3e Starblazer Adventures: “Vortexspace opera scenarios! Have a good week, -Gene

What’s with all these games?

Fun and games
Polyhedral dice

Those readers just joining this blog may have noticed that more than half of my recent posts are dedicated to the various games I’m playing. In truth, they do occupy a fair amount of my free/social time. As my peers enter middle age, finding time to hang out aside from the usual work and family commitments is increasingly difficult.

A quick look back: In autumn of 1982, when I was a freshman in high school, I entered a hobby that would change my life. My interest in fantasy and science fiction had led me to Dungeons & Dragons and Star Frontiers. Through college, grad school, and married and professional life, various role-playing games (RPGs) have been my main medium for creativity and socializing.

Like many people of my generation, I also played video games in arcades, on consoles, and on computers, but they never appealed to me the way tabletop games have. I’ve only dabbled in board games, collectible card games, miniatures-driven wargames, and multiplayer online games.

I don’t expect the freeform storytelling, character-driven drama, or arcane rules sets of true RPGs to be for everyone, but many of my friends and I enjoy them. It’s a pity that role-playing hasn’t gotten the public acceptance that video games have, and face-to-face, pen-and-paper, or dice-and-pizza games peaked in popularity in the 1980s. As David I.S. noted, tabletop RPGs will likely persist as a niche form of entertainment, like heavy metal music, model rocketry, or cosplay.

In the present, I’m running games for three groups. On Sunday evenings, I meet with six people across the U.S. via Skype for a fantasy campaign using Pathfinder. Since I prefer homebrew scenarios over professionally published modules, the current adventuring party is exploring my “Vanished Lands” setting. Sure, that world is based heavily on the works of J.R.R. Tolkien and others, but close to 400 Player Characters have helped shape its fictional history.

On Monday nights, I’ve been running alternating groups of about six players each in my “Vortexspace opera, using FATE 3e Starblazer Adventures. I’ve enjoyed juggling numerous characters and storylines, but I’m at the limit of what I can prepare for and host regularly. I’m also in contact with other Game Masters, both locally and near Boston, New York, and Washington, D.C.

Aside from the session updates, what else do you want to know about my games? My groups have tried several genres and rules sets over the years, and the interpersonal dynamics are at least as important as our choice of game or characters. If you’re in one of my games, what would you like to know about from “behind the curtain”? What don’t you understand, or what tragedies and triumphs have occurred in your own groups? Happy gaming!

“Vortex” Update 5b.11 — Venusian virus

Erin Gray autograph
Buck Rogers

Fellow role-players, here are my notes for Session 5b.11 of the “Vortexspace opera campaign. Team 2 met on Monday, 7 March 2011, and is using FATE 3e Starblazer Adventures/Mindjammer, Diaspora, and Limitless Horizons.

In one future, humanity has begun to colonize the Sol system, but ecological degradation and internecine conflicts persist. Open and official First Contact with Galactic societies, themselves at war, threaten Terra’s very survival. Can heroes rise to the challenges?

After encountering various hazards around Karachi and Ghanki Station beneath the Arabian Sea, the adventurers had escaped to the Shepard 2 orbital city, but their new ship was missing key components. After a successful heist from a Lunar warehouse, the crew of the “Gen. Lee” went to Venus on an urgent medical mission….

>>”Vortex” Team 2 Player Characters, crew of the Appomattox, as of spring 2011:

-“Gabriel Adams” [Paul J.]-male North American Terran near-human with telepathy, underworld courier

-“Hector Chavez” [Beruk A.]-male Latin American Terran human, “burned” operative and communications expert

-“Jasmine” [Sara F.] female Martian Felinoid (Synth, “Uplifted” tiger), former professional pit fighter

-“ARTHERR (Advanced Resonance Theoretical Heuristic Exploration and Research Robot)” [Greg D.C./absent]-Explorer created by megacorporation Vimeco

-“Dr. Richmond Garrett” [Dave S.C./absent]-male Southern American Terran human, space snake-oil salesman and social climber

22 to 24 August 2194 A.D./C.E. or 0 Galactic Era:” While investigating the collapse of Hephaestus Stadium at Kardikea Station, the travelers had fought assassin robots. Both the Venusian Finance Union and the United Earth Authority (U.E.A.) expect results in the disaster probe.

Gabriel confines cook (and former owner of the Fortune’s Fool) Nero Bartholomew to his quarters after he starts showing symptoms of the arthritis-like plague afflicting the Venusian colonists. Capt. Adams orders that Nero receive injections. He also orders reptilian “Synth” (genetically engineered humanoid) Averki “Deep Dish” Dyashenko to disinfect the galley and repaint the Appamattox.

Hector and ARTHERR analyze the robotic remains from the Hephaestus wreckage. Some are from maintenance droids, which appear to have deliberately weakened support beams with sulphuric acid (found in Venus’ atmosphere) and industrial chemicals. Other parts belong to combat models that were reprogrammed to attack the salvage crew. Both types were made by megacorp Vimeco, ARTHERR’s creator.

Jasmine practices gunnery, and Dr. Garrett stays in his low-gravity sauna. Gabriel contacts smuggler Kirun in Lucifer’s Hole. The underworld courier learns that although there are no nonmilitary faster-than-light ships in Venus orbit, a Ru’ulok (reptilian alien) trader named Gorvek Beezo has access to such technology in Earth orbit. However, the U.E.V. Sphinx is maintaining its quarantine of Venus.

“Capt. Doug McDonnell” [Erik B.L./Non-Player Character] of the aid ship Parsifal radios to say that one of his crew has died from the mysterious ailment, which may have mutated to act more quickly. He also notes that an infection vector has been found — food preparation.

ARTHERR and surgeon general Dr. Garrett coordinate with Vimeco, Xi Labs, and Morningstar Consortium hospitals across the Venusian colonies to ramp up synthesis and distribution of medicine. Capt. Adams and Mr. Chavez report to Capt. Amelia Saviola of the “Sphinx,” and she encourages them to pursue their lead on the robots.

Gabriel, Hector, and Jasmine don space suits and leap from the Appomattox to an adjacent airlock rather than deal with local security forces. Now that the means of transmission has been identified, they remove their suits to more covertly cross Kardikea Station.

Hector finds that one Kiril Shatalin authorized the work order for the maintenance robots. The man in black and his companions go to Shatalin’s apartment in Gold Sector. After Jasmine almost trips over a surveillance unit, Hector hacks it to show recent visitors and run a loop during their entry.

Agile Gabriel vaults to a second-story window and easily breaks in. Burly Jasmine searches the dingy unit, finding no sign of recent visitors and some old uniforms. Wily Hector finds that the bureaucrat had limited copies of requisition forms on his local computers.

After Gabriel distracts a nosy babushka with a telepathic suggestion, the trio goes next to the Ministry of Infrastructure. Furred Jasmine waits in the long lines and talks with Pavel, a fellow Synth who agrees that the Finance Union doesn’t care about the workers, despite its omnipresent rhetoric.

Gabriel and Hector don Kiril’s coveralls, flirt with the office staff, and get an audience with Shatalin’s superior. Sofia Siderova reluctantly admits that she had been ordered to reassign the Vimeco robots to the Oromax-built stadium by the Central Committee shortly before the disaster, which killed many thousands. The two offworlders promise not to mention her in their report.

The idea of breaking into the Central Committee’s headquarters to get hard evidence linking chairman Orion Stefanov and the 12 houses to the stadium disaster appeals to Gabriel. He, Hector, and Jasmine return to the Appomattox to plan their next moves….

Greg and Dave, we missed you at this session, but I hope that everyone can make Team 2’s next game on March 21. In the meantime, take it easy, -Gene

Note: As I continue consolidating blogs, some posts will be mirrored across my Web sites.

>>”Vortex” Team 1 Player Characters, crew of the Blackbird, as of spring 2011:

-“Syzygy” [Brian W.]-Trinoid (trilateral amphibious alien) xenologist with an organic laboratory and a pet cat named “Mr. Sniffles”

-“Tela” [Sara F.]-female Tharian (winged reptilian humanoid alien) refugee and mechanic, fond of humans

-“Chris McKee/Agent Prometheus” [Josh C.]-male Terran human sniper working for Black Box Security Co., a shadowy eugenics organization

-“Aughest-vor…” [Jason E.R.]-male human from the Lemuria orbital city, disgraced scion of a wealthy family and solar-sail regatta racer

-“Lt. Kevin Reese” [Bruce K.]-male Terran cyborg human, burned-out officer and explorer in the Interplanetary Patrol

-“Gombo Shisel” [Rich L.]-male Martian human, former horse rancher, survival expert, and assistant medic

“Vortex” Update 5a.12: Who wants to be a starfarer?

Note: As I continue consolidating blogs, several posts such as this one will be mirrored across various sites.

Local star bubble
The Local Bubble

Fellow role-players, here are Josh C.’s notes for Session 5a.12 of the “Vortexspace opera campaign. Team 1 met on 28 February, 2011, and is using FATE 3e Starblazer Adventures/Mindjammer, Diaspora, and Limitless Horizons.

In one future, humanity has begun to colonize the Sol system, but ecological degradation and internecine conflicts persist. Open and official First Contact with Galactic societies, themselves at war, threaten Terra’s very survival. Can heroes rise to the challenges?

After evading xenophobic attacks at the Rio “beanstalk,” New Miami, and Lemuria Station, two alien explorers and their human allies obtained passage to Mars, where they found new allies and threats….

>>Vortex” Team 1 Player Characters, crew of the Blackbird, as of spring 2011:

-“Syzygy” [Brian W.]-Trinoid (trilateral amphibious alien) xenologist with an organic laboratory and a pet cat named “Mr. Sniffles”

-“Tela” [Sara F.]-female Tharian (winged reptilian humanoid alien) refugee and mechanic, fond of humans

-“Chris McKee/Agent Prometheus” [Josh C.]-male Terran human sniper working for Black Box Security Co., a shadowy eugenics organization

-“Lt. Kevin Reese” [Bruce K.]-male Terran cyborg human, burned-out officer and explorer in the Interplanetary Patrol

-“Gombo Shisel” [Rich L.]-male Martian human, former horse rancher, survival expert, and assistant medic

-“Aughest-vor…” [Jason E.R./absent]-male human from the Lemuria orbital city, disgraced scion of a wealthy family and solar-sail regatta racer

>Field report of Agent Prometheus, “25 to 31 August 2194 A.D./C.E. or 0 Galactic Era”

Before I begin, I must apologize for the tardiness of this report. My communications were temporary jammed after the I.P.V. Icy Corona brought us from the Mars Confederacy to the Asteroid Belt. Kevin wined and dined with the captain, Tia Horektef, who turned out to be married.

I spoke with Syzygy about my suspicions on Tela’s origins, as mentioned in my last field report. Most of the extraterrestrials we have encountered aren’t familiar with her species, with the notable exception of the reptilian Ru’ulok. Tela practiced gunnery.

Syzygy said that Tela was not a combined organism, but the three-armed scientist couldn’t rule out the possibility that the Tharian was an animal “Uplifted” by the sluglike Encegulans. He did mention, however, that he had pinpointed her planet of origin.

Upon our arrival at the Asteroid Belt, my companions and I were greeted by a massive surprise. The United Earth Authority (U.E.A.) has been busy. Ceres, previously the site of a modest space station, has been hollowed out, and numerous asteroids have been gathered for an immense shipyard. It appeared to be the U.E.A.’s staging area for all deep-space exploration. While I was there, my link to Black Box was cut off.

After arriving at Ceres Station, we were told that we would be vetted by two panels — one of Terran humans from the U.E.A. and one of aliens from the Kharvamid Alliance. While we waited, I was approached by Gombo Shisel, a former horse breeder and wilderness guide from Mars. Syzygy got some order to include as many humans as possible on our team.

As you’re no doubt aware, Shisel’s family is well known for its genetically engineered livestock. Black Box has monitored its progress with some interest. Unfortunately, Gombo’s herd was affected by poor breeding and disease, and his fellow ranchers drove him offworld and confiscated his remaining property. Shisel’s clan didn’t help him, and I’ll send more data as it becomes available….

>[Josh’s out-of-character notes:] Hi all, last week, we had an interesting role-playing experience. Each person played a member of the panel interviewing the other characters. For the rest of my notes, I’ll provide the reports of the panels.

>>United Earth Authority review committee:

-“Capt. Wu Hanbei” [Brian W.]-female Belter “near-human” (low-G) pilot of the U.E.V. “Babieca” (hardass; doesn’t trust civilians)

-“Lt. Bubbles Jones” [Sara F.]-female Terran Delphine (“Uplifted” dolphin) marine from the T.C.S. “Cherasu” (wants to know all threats to the Sol system)

-“Dr. Zach Siddig” [Josh C.]-male Lunar human astrophysicist (eager to explore deep space)

-“Lt. Rajesh Williams” [Bruce K.]-male Jovian “near-human” (cyborg) mecha driver of Kendawa-class battlesuit (doesn’t trust aliens)

-“Carlos Mazantas” [Rich L.]-male Martian “near-human” (telepathic) journalist (uncomfortable with secrecy)

According to our interviews, Syzygy is a brilliant xenologist (at least by Terran standards) but lacks a complete understanding of human biomedical ethics. We are concerned at the Trinoids’ lack of the concept of “informed consent,” even if their intentions and technologies are benevolent. Dr. Siddig recommends that other Kharvamid member species be contacted for their perspectives.

Tela, who has made a name for herself as an engineer on a few U.E.A. vessels, was evasive regarding how she came to Earth. Mr. Mazantas suspects some illegal activity or emotional trauma. We had no problems with her otherwise.

Lt. Williams grilled Mr. McKee about his employers at Black Box Security Co. While Chris assured Lt. Williams and Lt. Jones that he would do his best to protect his crew and missions, we remain concerned about his loyalties to the shady megacorp.

Lt. Reese is apparently leader of this rag-tag group. The Interplanetary Patrol officer generally received high marks, except from Capt. Wu Hanbei (who seemed to hate everyone). Kevin promised to represent the Sol system’s interests, opt for diplomacy when possible, and defend his friends to the best of his ability.

Capt. Wu Hanbei expressed disapproval of including civilians such as Mr. Shisel and the infamous Aughest-vor… (transcripts to come) but acknowledged that the group was picked as a whole by the Star League lend-lease program. Gombo said that his experiences in the Martian outback would be helpful to the party in planetary exploration.

This committee recommends to Adm. Raul Xinshang, commander of the U.E.V. Musashi and its battle group, that these people be approved for extrasolar travel. However, we also note the caveat that a U.E.A. robot should be assigned to the “Morifaiwet/Blackbird” to monitor the crew’s activities.

>>Kharvamid Fleet/Star League panel:

-“Stk’Krst/Stack-Kurst” [Brian W.]-male Nethian (insectoid alien) engineer from the N.I.O. “Silk Claw” (wary of incompetence)

-“Sudoku” [Sara F.]-female Trinoid (trilateral amphibian) xenologist (curious about human factions)

-“Old Chi of Clan Flanker” [Josh C.]-male Gustrall (orange-furred, antlered, raptor-like alien) swashbuckling explorer from the “Amberthrax” ultratanker (ready for any hunt)

-“Arvel Dilsir” [Bruce K.]-male Olvar (arboreal mammal-like mystic) telepath (uncertaion about hidden agendas)

-“Gurthex” [Rich L.]-female Me’orr (lion-like alien) officer (wary of Terrans)

Stk’Krst questioned Chris McKee and Lt. Kevin Reese about the number of times their group has been attacked. He also asked Tela about her familiarity with various classes of faster-than-light drives and noted that the Morifaiwet was an Olvar experiment in biomechanical systems.

Sudoku greeted Syzygy as a fellow member of the Trinoid science collective but was more interested in the different approaches of humans McKee, Reese, Shisel, and Aughest-vor to potential First Contact situations.

Old Chi of Clan Flanker traded war stories with Lt. Reese, asked about Gombo Shisel’s livestock, and emphasized the usefulness of close-combat expertise on hostile worlds. The Gustrall also noted that the Sol system was at the edge of Kharvamid space, surrounded by neutral or nonaligned territory.

Arvel Dilsir asked Syzygy about his observations of Terran culture and the potential for humanity to join the alliance. The Olvar, proud of the Star League, was still wary of factionalism, while Gurthex asked about the chain of command and whether the crew had a mutual code of honor….

Jason, we missed you, but don’t worry — the panels have some questions for “Aughest-vor!” Richard, it was nice to meet you, and we look forward to you sitting in on Team 1’s next game on March 14. Josh, thanks for the notes, and I’ll see you and Sara for Rango this coming Saturday.

In the meantime, I’m also working on the update for the latest “Vortex” Team 2 session, and the next Pathfinder/Skype: “the Vanished Landstelecom fantasy game will be on Sunday. Have a good week, -Gene