Game changes, late summer 2012 edition

While I’ve been too busy with work lately to do more than post updates regarding my various role-playing games, I realize that it can be confusing to casual readers of this blog who aren’t in my current groups. Here’s some context.

Buckaroo Banzai
A motley but fun group of adventurers

Changing venue

Over the past eight years, my face-to-face groups got used to meeting at my apartments in Needham, Mass., because of their spacious basements. It was convenient to have an area dedicated to our games, with large tables, shelves of reference materials, and miniatures and dice all in one place.

Fortunately, Brian W. and Rich C.G. have graciously taken over hosting duties since my move to Waltham, Mass., this past spring. They both live between my office and home and are still relatively central for the rest of the gang. We may not have as much at hand, but the collection of people is more important than rulebooks or battle maps.

Strange new worlds

The eight or so people who meet on Monday nights have also dealt with the usual seasonal shifts in games. After running alternating crews in my “Vortex” homebrew space opera (using FATE 3e Starblazer Adventures/Mindjammer and Bulldogs) for the past two years, we’ve been trying one-shots and miniseries through the summer.

I’ve enjoyed playing with different genres and rules sets, including Jason E.R.’s “Glassworks” (superheroes using Cortex: Marvel Heroic Role-Playing), Rich’s School Daze one-shot, and Brian’s Dungeon Crawl Classics fantasy retro-clone demonstration. I also got to run a playtest of Dungeons & Dragons Next (Fifth Edition) and play in Rich’s Way of the Wicked scenario for Pathfinder.

We had more ideas than time in which to explore them all! I held off on returning to my “Gaslight Grimoire” steampunk setting, and we didn’t get to Bruce K.’s conversion of the OGL Conan to Pathfinder or Rich or James B.’s Call of Cthulhu or Arkham Horror game.

Telecom turnover

My Sunday night teleconferencing group has also endured changes in membership. Just as I had been running “Vortex” for the Boston-area people, the virtual teams had been playing in my “Vanished Lands” heroic fantasy campaign setting.

For the past few months, Josh C. ran his “Spelljammer: the Show Must Go Onswashbuckling fantasy, using FATE 3e Legends of Anglerre. Even though D&D(4e) and Pathfinder are the most popular systems right now, my groups haven’t used them much lately.

Because of busy lives and “gamer attention deficit disorder,” I’ve found rules-light systems such as FATE to be easier to deal with for character creation and running via Skype or Google+. On the other hand, after another break, most of us are eager to get back to longer-term stories where we can develop characters and settings.

The new normal?

We’re dealing with end-of-summer schedule snafus, but we know what we’ll be playing this coming autumn. The latest Sunday night telecom team has picked “Vortex,” with a few Player Characters continuing from the previous face-to-face crews.

On Mondays, I’ll be running the “Vanished Lands” at Brian’s place. This time around, the group chose D20 retro-clone Basic Fantasy Role-Playing and a carnival-themed adventuring party — about the 39th in that world!

Josh’s “A New Beginning: Mystic Adventures in the Big D” (modern supernatural/urban fantasy set in Dallas using FATE 3e Dresden Files) will meet on alternating weeks with my game. Jason plans to eventually run his “Barsoomian Adventures” planetary romance, probably using Savage Worlds.

I’m sure we’ll also try other tabletop RPGs when we have out-of-town guests or when we can’t get quorum for one of the regular games. Nobody can say that we don’t have a rich fantasy life!

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 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

Game changes

A few weeks ago, between Free Comic Book Day and seeing The Avengers, Janice and I went to Lanes & Games in Cambridge, Massachusetts, for fellow blogger and former co-worker Ken G.‘s annual Cinco de Mayo party.

Ken G.'s party at Lanes & Games
Cinco de Mayo 2012

We met other IDG/CW alumni Michele L.D. and Bob R. and their respective spouses Paul D. and Sheila K.R. Just a month before, I had dinner with Ken, Michele, and Bob at the Met Bar & Grill in the Natick Mall for “The Escapists” book club. We discussed Michael Chabon’s Pulitzer Prize winner, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, which we mostly enjoyed. As a longtime comic book fan and onetime New Yorker, I found the novel very evocative.

We played a few rounds of billiards/pool as munchies and Ken’s other friends arrived, including a few I remembered from previous shindigs. None of the friends I’ve introduced Ken to made it. We then tried candlepin bowling, which both Bob and Ken were good at. I lobbed gutter ball after gutter ball (I’m not as bad with regular bowling or its Wii equivalent). Janice’s game improved significantly, though.

I did slightly better with air hockey, which I won a tournament in back in the early 1990s in Queens, New York. Overall, we had a good time, and it was nice to have an excuse to socialize. I get along well with most of my current co-workers, but the copy desk crew had a decade for its chemistry to develop.

In other games, my role-playing groups are in transition. On Monday nights, I have been running my “Vortexspace opera for two face-to-face teams of about six people each, using FATE 3e Starblazer Adventures/Mindjammer and Bulldogs. I haven’t heard from Team 2 (the grifters on the Appomattox) since my recent move from Needham to Waltham, Mass. I know those guys are busy with other things, including Greg D.C.’s FATE 3e Dresden Files modern supernatural game.

Vortex” Team 1 (the explorers aboard the Blackbird, for which I owe an update) has chosen to take a break for Jason E.R.‘s “Glassworks” superhero miniseries. The fictional city of Hamilton, Delaware, is the same setting that Jason ran with his DarkPages noir one-shot, but we’ll be using the Marvel Heroic Roleplaying system.

So far, these Cortex-based rules have gotten mixed reviews (I do like the Leverage adaptation). Marvel Heroic Roleplaying‘s dice-pool mechanic reminds some of us of the “FASERIP” Marvel Super Heroes, and its Power Points are similar to FATE, but the core book’s organization could be better. A good alternative might be D20/OGL Mutants & Masterminds 3rd Ed./DC Adventures or Icons. I trust that Jason will come up with interesting scenarios for our street-level vigilantes.

On the weeks when Jason isn’t running, we’re looking at various ideas, including Bruce K.’s Pathfinder: Conan” and Rich C.G.’s fantasy and horror proposals. Brian W. has graciously offered to host the Monday games. I don’t mind the break from Game Mastering, but I’m sure I’ll want to be back behind the screen soon enough.

On Sunday nights, my “Vanished Lands: the Uncommon Companions” fantasy campaign (using Pathfinder, Skype, and an online dice roller) is again on hiatus because of scheduling conflicts for half of that teleconferencing group. So in the meantime, Josh C. has been running his “Spelljammer: the Show Must Go Onspace fantasy miniseries (using FATE 3e Legends of Anglerre and Google+/Tabletop Forge).

Last for now, but not least, my historical weapons class at Guard Up! in Burlington, Mass., has continued to be interesting. Each Wednesday night, I and about 10 other students spend half an hour practicing our moves with wooden or resin weapons and half an hour sparring with foam ones. It’s good exercise.

Our instructor, Karl, has shown us the basics of the quarterstaff, longsword, and warhammer. We’re currently learning about the naginata (a Japanese pole arm) and will eventually get to the great sword and fencing.

Revisiting RPGs and Lego licenses

One game to rule them all?
Lego Lord of the Rings

Continuing this week’s look at tabletop role-playing games, especially the announcement of Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition and subsequent reactions, here’s an overview of my current groups. I caught up on videos and some reading around the holidays, but I had to take a short break from my campaigns because it was too difficult to get quorum for my groups. We seem to be getting back on track.

In the meantime, I’ve enjoyed several recent sourcebooks — in both hardcopy and PDF — including the Asian-flavored Pathfinder Bestiary 3, Mongoose’s printing of science fiction sandbox Stars Without Number, and the horror/SF Ashen Stars, which uses the Gumshoe investigative/troubleshooter rules. All of them will be helpful in my current campaigns.

The two teams of about six people each in my “Vortexspace opera game (using FATE 3e Starblazer Adventures/Mindjammer plus Bulldogs) were on hiatus over the past few weeks. I’ve kept busy, however, with planning for our alternating Monday night sessions, which are still going strong. Fellow Game Masters Jim J.D’B. and Byron V.O. have helped me prepare for the continuing misadventures of the explorers and diplomats aboard the Blackbird and the grifters on the Appomattox.

My Pathfinder: “the Vanished Landstelecom fantasy team has had persistent scheduling problems on Sunday nights, but I hope to rebuild from our core group of three low-to-midlevel Player Characters. They’ve been heading north into the Wisalef Forest to investigate rumors of Unseelie Fey…. Paizo’s recent Pathfinder Boxed Set is a good introduction to that system (for up to four or five players to Level 5) and to role-playing in general.

Most of the people in my groups are also playing in other games. Various local Game Masters have expressed interest in running one-shots, although they’ll have to promote their ideas and find time and space for them. Here are some of their ongoing campaigns and potential one-shots:

Paul J. and Greg D.C.: FATE 3e Dresden Files (modern supernatural) 

-James B.: D20 Call of Cthulhu (period horror) or Gumshoe: Mutant City Blues (investigative metahumans) 

-Josh C.: conversion of AD&D2 Spelljammer to FATE 3e Legends of Anglerre (fantasy) or Arkham Horror (board game) 

-Jason E.R.: Fvlminata (alternate Roman history/espionage) 

-Bruce K.: Pathfinder/D&D4e or D20 Conan (sword and sorcery) 

-Rich C.G.: Cthulhu Invictus (alternate Roman history/horror)

A few of the local role-players have also asked to return to my “Societe de Justice Internationale: Drake’s Port 7″ superhero scenarios using D20 Mutants & Masterminds 3rd Ed., whose excellent Game Master’s Guide just arrived. So many games, so little time….

In unrelated but exciting news, Lego recently announced that, in addition to its licenses for Harry Potter, DC and Marvel Comics, and Star Wars, it won the rights to The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings movies! We briefly used Lego for the D&D3.0 “Vanished Lands: the Liberators” and “Dragonslayers,” and even though I have dozens of other miniatures, I’d love to use Lego minifigs for my campaigns in any genre, from steampunk and superheroes to science fiction!

Role-playing roundup: Science fiction, fall 2011 edition

My favorite author
Favorite author Isaac Asimov

Continuing my look at recent role-playing supplements such as The One Ring, I’ve managed to squeeze in reading some sourcebooks in between work, travel, and running games. Fantasy may be the primary genre in which I’ve played — and superheroes, steampunk, and time/dimension travel have yielded many memorable characters — but science fiction is still my first literary love.

As I’ve mentioned before in describing my “Vortex” game, my sandbox setting is largely inspired by classic space opera such as the novels of Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, and David Brin. It’s no surprise, then, that I liked the PDFs of Star Frontiers Remastered, StarCluster 3, and Stars Without Number so much that I ordered hardcopies. Stars Without Number is about to get a revised printing from Mongoose, publisher of the latest incarnation of Traveller.

The detailed “future history” of games such as Stellar Horizons and Ashen Stars is similar to that of “Vortex.” (I took a class on the topic back in college.) In these settings, humanity has colonized the Sol system and beyond but faces new threats such as alien horrors, as well as old ones like infighting. I like the political and technical extrapolations of Stellar Horizons and the idea of Player Characters as interplanetary troubleshooters in Ashen Stars.

At the same time, I’ve incorporated elements of more recent cyberpunk and transhumanist fiction in my campaigns. I’ve already used ideas from Panopticon, a supplement for the excellent Eclipse Phase, in recent sessions. I also still regularly refer to GURPS Terradyne, Blue Planet, and Jovian Chronicles for megacorporations, genetically engineered species, and descriptions of colonial life, respectively.

Speaking of mixing genres, the fantasy/cyberpunk Shadowrun has endured even as fashions have changed in the past few decades. I played and ran the game briefly in college. The Fourth Edition and the 20th Anniversary Edition — even though Shadowrun has been around for longer than that — are slick and straightforward, with solid rules (point-buy character creation, dice pools using D6s). I would have preferred more thorough location and faction descriptions rather than “flavor-text” fiction, but that was the style of games from the late 1980s and most of the ’90s.

Similar to Ashen Stars in time period is Chthonian Stars/Void, which has a strong horror bent. I haven’t yet gotten it, and Cubicle 7 did reply to my query about supplements for Starblazer Adventures/Mindjammer and Legends of Anglerre. They’re delayed, but I look forward to eventually using them for “Vortex.” I’m also enjoying the lean FATE version of Bulldogs in the meantime.

After grabbing nearly every star map published for RPGs in the past 30 years, I recently ordered the excellent poster maps from Project Rho Productions. I’ll eventually need every human-habitable system within 100 parsecs, but this is a great start!