Pixels & Platforms

Monday, December 30, 2019

Meandering Thoughts About Combat

I mentioned recently how I was feeling creatively empty, which gave me a bit of a creative burst, but I appear to have run out of steam and can't seem to finish my Martians setting even though I have a bestiary post already 75% drafted and would like to make some Martian Mechs for TNT by way of Mechs & Monstrosities and Gamma Knights. But that probably won't happen unless I will it to happen by mentioning it here.

On a theory level, I've been thinking about combat in tabletop RPGs, and how to handle it. While I actually do find character builds and tactical combat in games like D&D 3.+ compelling when I've done a sufficient amount of research into them, I prefer that style of play in videogames, not tabletop. I've come to respect that style of game design a bit more again. By integrating all of the mechanics together, a relatively crunchy game can be made much more streamlined (as opposed to many of the overly complex bolt-on mechanics of D&D 2e and other games from that era, see Star Frontiers Advanced which I should but probably won't write a review of bc tbh I was a little disappointed that my Gamma Knights review didn't make it on the thought eater humpday blogarama). However, it also becomes much less modular, so unless you want to redesign the whole game any time you want to hack something, you're pretty much stuck with what you've got. Which is great if you lack the time, creativity, or general inclination to make stuff yourself. But at that point, I'd rather just play a videogame.

Anyway, that was an unintended tangent, this is a bit stream of consciousness. I've been thinking about this stuff because of games like TNT and Gamma Knights. I don't necessarily prefer opposed rolls to hit vs. armor type combat systems, but I do find them interesting, and I wish more OSR people would look to TNT for inspiration even if they aren't interested in switching systems. I like how in TNT ranged weapons have fewer damage dice but can bypass the opposed roll, or how rolling a six on any damage die gives 1 spite damage that also bypasses opposed rolls, such that a sufficient number of weak monsters can still make a mark on player characters, without necessarily being an hyper-deadly game. Likewise, while I generally don't like character builds and tactical crunch in tabletop, I do like the idea of that being a differentiation between regular PCs and mechs or power armored PCs. If I were playing a whole mech game I wouldn't bother, I'd just reskin any other game, but there is something kind of appealing to me that I can't fully articulate about the different sensors and power management and force fields and computerized systems in Gamma Knights (or maybe it's more generally related to the point I will be making below, which is supposed to be the main point of this meandering post).

That being said, in practice, I almost always prefer to minimize combat, or add saving rolls or other non-combat mechanics into combat scenarios. I don't find GMing combat fun, I only kind of find being a PC in combat fun, if the GM did a good job setting up the encounter, and anecdotally, I find that a lot of the fun leaves the table when things get too solely combat-driven. It could just be that I'm not a good combat GM. Or it could be that good combat encounters should include non-combat actions, and I'm doing it correctly after all.

While I haven't played it, I find the Pyrrhic Weaselry, Or At What Cost? system so intriguing because it's willing to defy the norm of combat systems in an otherwise D&D-style game space, and is really conscientious of fictional positioning and how to leverage that to create interesting encounters. I think the term fictional positioning gets thrown around a lot by storygame people, but frankly I've found that many of the people who sling that term around don't really understand what it means, or haven't thought it through all the way, just making common sense needlessly pretentious (this statement is not intended as an attack on all storygamers or all storygames! I'm not one of those obnoxious anti-storygame people! In fact there are many things I like about FATE and PbtA!). Anyway, If you really want to understand what fictional positioning means, read Pyrrhic Weaselry (we've had some good conversations about it on the underutilized SWORDDREAM_unofficial subreddit). I do genuinely think FATE and PbtA do good fictional positioning as well, and also deserve credit for abstracting away combat as not fundamentally different from other mechanics; it's more that I think other people sometimes reduce it to something less meaningful.

Despite all of what I just said, the idea of a combat-less system just seems... wrong. I want a combat system! I don't care that I generally don't like it, or that my players generally don't like it, or that I usually try to minimize its use as much as possible, I still want it there! In small doses it's nice. Just knowing it's there adds to the experience. Maybe that's crazy, but such is life.

That got me thinking though, while there are certain things I don't like about FATE, one thing I really do like about FATE is how it re-constructs tactical combat in a way that doesn't remove combat mechanics altogether, but abstracts them into different kinds of actions that play into the fictional positioning system (aspects). Skills can be designed flexibly for any setting, and can be used as either an attack, defense, to overcome an obstacle, or one other thing that I'm forgetting off-hand because I haven't played it in a while and also I may be getting some of this terminology wrong. That in tandem with the two kinds of stress tracks (one more physical, one more mental, I think called Will) and the ease with which one could hack in more stress tracks, allows you to have your cake and eat it to when it comes to tactical combat vs. fictional positioning. I actually think it's a shame how FATE has to some extent become a victim of its own success, because personally I think FATE is much more interesting, flexible, and DIY than PbtA, which I think has become (or by its nature is) really just the D&D of storygames (for better and worse), but that's also post for another day (I should really be keeping track of these tangents...).

So I don't have a concrete idea at the moment, but I'd like to think about how to, rather than remove combat altogether in games like TNT and OSR, abstract it across other mechanics or situations in ways that are both tactically and fictionally interesting. How could one bend combat to social conflict, or fire fighting, or ghost hunting with a proton pack, or to cooking a dish / line cooking as a team during the dinner rush? I suspect creating a FATE bolt-on to TNT or OSR, or a TNT or OSR-inspired hack of FATE, will play a part in this, but I don't want to commit to anything yet.

I've created TNT character types such as the War Dogs or Warlord that add more fictional-positioning Saving Rolls to combat, but I'd like to maybe try coming up with some character types or general mechanics that go the other way, adding combat-like mechanics to scenarios that are not combat per se. The idea isn't so much to increase the overall amount of combat, but to smooth out the delineation between combat encounters and everything else.

Fitting for this post, I'm going to end on yet another tangent that is dubiously related to the intended point of this post. I've also been thinking about a Poker combat-type mechanic for TNT, inspired partially by the poker mechanics in Deadlands. Because of how TNT uses D6s, I think TNT lends itself better to this kind of mechanic than OSR, but there's no reason why it couldn't also be bolted on to OSR. But again, that's a post for another day...

Monday, December 23, 2019

Alternate Universes of Popular Franchises

These are six settings based on major franchises that branch off at some early point in the timeline. So for instance, an alternate take on Star Wars that branches off after New Hope. I had originally intended this as a r/d100 Let's Build Series but didn't get any takers, so I figured I'd make it a Weird & Wonderful table.

Star Wars Episode V Whill of the Force: When Luke goes to Dagobah to train with Yoda, he taps into the Force and is inadvertently transported to a bio-tech Roman-esque Midichlorian Microverse of the Whills. The Whills are humanoids reminiscent of fairies or butterflies, who feed on the force. With the dissolution of the Jedi Order, their world has become cold and bleak, and tainted by their dependence on the Dark Side. The current ruler is essentially a Sith Lord, a parallel of Palpatine who looks like a xenomorphic Darth Vader. In order to return to the Galaxy (and come back with some sweet new Force skills, and maybe a few powerful allies), Luke will have to reignite the Force from within. He is hunted by Boba Fett, who is implied to either be a Whill, or a John Carter (Barsoom)-type who found is way into the Midichlorian Microverse. Through some shenanigans or other, perhaps the rest of the cast also wind up in the Midichlorian Microverse, or they reconvene after the fact, with the Whills joining the resistance.

Marvel Platinum Age: An alternate universe based on the premise that Jack Kirby eventually rose to a position of equal if not greater prominence at Marvel as Stan Lee, and never left for DC. Instead, The Fourth World spins out of Thor and is essentially the first major continuity-altering event comic. Eventually pre-Fourth World characters get re-introduced into continuity, but often in different ways than they originally appeared. OMAC is a post-Fourth World alternative future version of Captain America and a statement about post-World War II American Exceptionalism and capitalism. The Eternals are never created, but some eternals and deviants later become part of the Marvel canon as New Gods. Likewise, much of Jim Starlin's cosmic Marvel work is significantly different, given the changes to the marvel cosmic canon. The Marvel Universe continues to be about "real" people, but with a greater emphasis on cosmic, psychedelic, and existential themes. In the late 70's and especially the 80's, Kirby's work is laced with a growing cynicism, of the Vietnam War and US politics in general, and Marvel as a whole becomes more overtly and aggressively liberal and political, as well as nihilistic. While Alan Moore wrote very little for Marvel, no more so than in the real world, Kirby's work in the 80's and 90's more so resembles Moore's work than his real-world works at Marvel and DC through the 60's and 70's. This period of the Platinum Age, sometimes referred to as the Sterling Silver Age, is noted for its micro-cosmic horror; even as the Marvel cosmos spirals larger and larger, the ideas and themes and character flaws repeat themselves, spiraling downwards. Kirby hits a "glass ceiling" creatively and emotionally, the universe becoming "smaller". These themes receive little cultural recognition until the early 00's, after Kirby's death. In the mid-1970's Don McGregor takes a more prominent role at Marvel, and as a result so do Black Panther and Killraven. He leaves a mark on several other major Marvel characters including Namor, Daredevil, and the X-Men. McGregor and Kirby's X-men run becomes as much a success as Claremont's run was in the real world, but the emphasis remains more on the X-Men as students at a school. Elements of Claremont's run, including most of his early Uncanny X-Men characters, are brought about in his seminal X-Men International run, which combines elements of his real-world Uncanny X-men and later Excalibur works. It is generally acknowledged that the Platinum Age ended in the early 90's with the rise of creators such as Rob Liefeld. However, Grant Morrison's New X-Men run of the early 00's was seen as a spiritual return to the late Silver and early Platinum Age of Marvel comics and set the tone at Marvel for the better part of the 00's and early 10's.

Spider-Man and his Powerful Friends: Alternate Universe where Stan Lee and Margaret Loesch were successful in bringing Super Sentai to America before Saban. The "Power Rangers" (we'll continue to call them that). This is an earlier iteration than the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers from the 90's, and unlike Saban, they did not cut the footage with American actors, only dubbing the series. In the comic adaptation, Takuya Yamashiro, the Spider-Man of Japan, joins the team in a "6th Ranger" role, with a costume more reminiscent of the Power Rangers than Marvel's Spider-Man. Eventually this comic, along with related concepts like Planet Spider, Leapardon, and the Iron Cross Army, are integrated into main marvel continuity. A fictionalized version of Yamato Takeru is revealed to be an ancestor of Takuya, in a time-travelstory combining elements of Japanese Mythology / Fantasy and science fiction from the Planet Spider.

Matrix Recursion / Renaissance: Assumes only the first movie as canon. Neo, The One, has seemingly freed humanity from the machines. They have taken control of the Matrix, leading to a transhumanist renaissance, and leveraged their control of the Matrix to reach a peace pact with the machines, awakening more humans and repairing the environment of the real world. Behind the gilded utopia, political machinations (pun intended) ensue, as various factions of humans and machines both within the Matrix and in Zion and other nations of the real world differ in their ideologies and aims. Some cling to the 20th century nation-states that were artificially crafted by the machines, others believe they should embrace the machines and the utopian transhumanist opportunities that may arise from such an alliance. For all his power in the Matrix, Neo is not an especially competent politician, and seems to have grown addicted to his transhuman, god-like state in the Matrix, and is distancing himself from humanity, the machines, and the issues of the world. A new religion has formed around him, including even some machine adherents. And amidst all of this, Neo discovers something odd in the source code of the Matrix, something which suggests that everything they think they know is wrong, that Zion may just be another level of the Matrix, that humanity was never actually freed. Either in the latter part of the 2nd movie (Recursion) or perhaps the 3rd movie (Renaissance), he learns to use his One powers in the "real world", and this time truly free humanity (although many would rather not be freed; also, who knows if he really succeeded anyway...).

Mad Max Hyperspeed: This setting only assumes the first movie as canon. While the global economy collapsed after the oil crisis, the world continued onward. The United States, Soviet Union, and their various allies formed the research team known as the Multinational Alliance of EXtranormal (MAX) Technologies. MAX-Tech developed all sorts of alternative energies including viable geothermal, solar, and more exotic technologies such as tachyonic and dark energy. Just as it seemed that society was on the verge of recovery, something went horribly wrong. Some rumors say that MAX-Tech was sabotaged, others say there was an instability in one of their power plant designs that caused devastation throughout the world. Some far-fetched rumors even suggest it was strange, gigantic beasts that came up from the Earth, or came down from the stars, that destroyed the world. Those rumors may have been inspired by all the mutations and superpowers going around. Whatever the case, Australia, so far removed from the rest of the world, has become one of the last refuges of civilization. Even as society is rebuilding, various warlords have managed to acquire or create exotic weapons salvaged from MAX-Tech, quickly undermining any hope of recovery. Max Rockatansky travels across the desert by car or motorbike, preferring old-fashioned gasoline-powered rigs (but not above utilizing some MAX-Tech enhancements), ostensibly just trying to survive, but inadvertently helping others like a wandering ronin.

Twilight of the Superheroes: DC Comics never publishes Crisis on Infinite Earths, and instead publishes a version of Twilight of the Superheroes. Rather than allowing Twilight to serve as a "Final" superhero story as Moore intended, instead it leads into years-long status quo like a superpowered, cyberpunk Game of Thrones. While this direction was generally well received under Moore's leadership, after Moore left the company many felt the quality of the books declined. Some exceptions to this include the Kingdom Come event comic (now in-continuity). Eventually things revert to a more typical DC universe, albeit one in which a version of the multiverse still exists.

Saturday, December 14, 2019

Martians pt. 2: Items, Gear, and Vehicles

This is Part 2 of my Martians Micro-Setting. The stats are designed for TNT, but the ideas can be tweaked for OSR or other systems. Part 1 focused on Character Types, including the Psychomancer, Thark, and Radium Legionnaire. This part will focus on items, gear, and vehicles.

Martian Items, Gear, and Vehicles
  • Radium Pistol: 4d6 damage. Cost 250. The radium bullets create a Radium Explosion when doubles are rolled on a missile attack SR. On each use, roll Wear & Tear. On fail, the Radium Pistol is destroyed and explodes in a Radium Explosion around the wielder. Rolling 1 and 2 (critical fail) on a missile attack SR also destroys the gun and creates the explosion. (see Radium Explosion).

  • Radium Grenade: Cost 25. Can be lobbed (as missile attack SR) to create a Radium Explosion (see Radium Explosion).

  • Flying Saucer (Fighter Class): A smooth, disc-shaped, metallic flying machine with neon lights and usually a glass dome over the top. Can fit between 1 and seven people. They are powered by radium, and require knowledge of martian engineering, piloting, or really good luck to operate. They usually have at least one radium cannon. May be given MR equivalent to flame demon from the TNT deluxe gamemaster screen, or slightly lower MR but apply the massive combat rules. For PCs operating the Flying Saucer without sufficient knowledge, roll luck SR on each turn (or at some approximate rate like once per hour outside of combat), at least SR 2, to maintain flight and/or working order of the saucer. In vehicle combat, use saucer MR in place of normal character attributes.

  • Flying Saucer (Destroyer Class):  A massive version of the flying saucer above. Should be much more difficult to operate for those not qualified (at least SR 4). May use equivalent MR as a dragon, or lowered but with massive combat rules (as above).

  • Tripod: Fighting machines over 100 feet tall. They are composed of three long spindly legs and an almond-shaped body like a cephalopod or head of an insect. From the body sprouts several flexible and prehensile tentacles. They attack with a radium cannon and radium grenade launcher, and have MR comparable to a serious flame demon up to a serious dragon (from TNT Deluxe GM screen), adjusted lower if using massive combat rules (as above).

  • Hyperbolic Orange Torch: Cost 250. A handheld electric torch which produces hyperbolic orange light, invisible to non-martians. The torch masks the wielder's appearance as any hologram programmed into it, undetectable by any senses unless revealed with magic fire. The torch can only store one hologram and a replaced hologram is permanently destroyed. All Martians can use with an SR 1 LK, Orange Agents require no SR to use. Non-martians must make an SR 2 LK roll on each use. Additionally, any wielder must roll Wear & Tear after each minute of use. On fail, the torch runs out of power.

  • Hyperbolic Orange Torch Battery: Cost 50. Used to power hyperolic orange torches.

  • Holographic Prism: Cost Varies (minimum 50). Made of martian glass, these handheld objects store holographic images which may be used with a hyperbolic orange torch. The cost of having a custom hologram made, or to buy a hologram of an abnormal creature, or an especially important / powerful person, will generally be much higher than something unassuming.

  • Directional Compass: Cost 100. A pocket watch-sized compass which contains a phosphor-radium monochrome viewing glass, which can be used for directional navigation on Mars.

  • Radium Gauntlets: Cost 30 (per pair). Sleek metal gauntlets, generally worn by Tharks, but some are made for medium-sized humanoids. They provide up to 2d6 weapon damage per fist, 1 armor per fist, and can bypass most magical defenses and armor.

  • Radium Falchion: Cost 100. A one-handed sword hilt which can project a close-range radium current edge for 5d6 combat dice. Except for the hilt, it is weightless, and can cut or burn through most physical defenses and armor. As a LK SR, may attempt to melt or burn a target's weapon or armor.

  • Radium Backscatter Shield: Cost 75. A large target shield made of a gold-colored metal with a greenish radium glimmer, commonly carried by thark warriors. It projects invisible, close-range waves of radium which deflect radium weapons. Provides 5 armor against radium damage or 3 armor against all other kinds of damage.

Re-posted from part 1:
Radium Explosion: The target and all characters in melee range of the target (including allies) take 1d6 radium explosion damage.

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Gamma Knights Review

I am terrible at writing reviews, but even so, I think I'm going to try. This is my review for Gamma Knights, a supplement for Gamma World 4e. Gamma Knights includes new content for Power Armors in Gamma World 4e, in addition to being its own wargame. Below are a few caveats for the review (in addition to me being terrible at writing it).

  • This review is just for the RPG supplement content, not the wargame content. It seems like it might be a fine wargame, that just doesn't interest me personally at the moment and I didn't read it thoroughly. 
  • This review is of the pdf, purchased on drivethrurpg during the 2019 black friday / cyber monday sale.
  • I have not read Gamma World 4e in a while, which I also purchased as a pdf on drivethrurpg at some point, but from what I vaguely remember it is more or less compatible with D&D 2e and by extension most OSR. 
  • I have not played this supplement nor any version of Gamma World, although I have incorporated some elements of Gamma World into my campaigns at various points, most notably in my first Phantasmos campaign. In other words, this review is not from in-use experience, just of the book and my impressions of how it might play.

What is Gamma World?

For those of you who don't know what Gamma World is, it's a post-apocalyptic (arguably post-post-apocalyptic) science fantasy setting, arguably THE post-apocalyptic science fantasy setting. It's usually tongue in cheek, with plenty of references to the real world. You have mutants of all kinds, uplifted animals and plants, robots, and high-tech humanoids. It's Weird & Wonderful and it's a shame that it's never come close to the same level of popularity as it's sibling D&D (it was originally created by TSR and is currently owned by Wizards of the Coast). It's inspirations can be felt all over the OSR though, and even videogames like Fallout or Borderlands.

Visuals, layout, and pdf quality

Sometimes the pdfs of these older games are really low quality scans. Granted I read it on my brand new microsoft surface pro 7 which I also bought for black friday because I'm that guy, but it ran well and looked good. The text has been parsed from the page and can be searched and copied, not sure about bookmarks and stuff since I don't really bother with that anyway (I have a onenote file where I keep all my bookmarks anyway).

The layout is nice. It's simple and a little dense, but that's pretty typical of books of its era, or so it seems to me. I was pleasantly impressed by the art. It's black and white and has that old school cartoony charm, but it's well done and the designs were more interesting than I expected. Even though Gamma World is in many ways the archetypal post-apocalyptic science fantasy, I do think it has a certain unique identity of its own, and it comes through in the Gamma Knights art.

Writing and Clarity

It's a bit dense and overwritten, sometimes obfuscating important information with needless detail or getting deep into minutia or blending discussion of mechanics and setting in ways that I personally dislike. That being said, I generally found it to be well written and relatively clear. Despite the mechanics being a bit more fiddly than I'd like, they do a good job of explaining how it all works and making it make intuitive sense. All of the parts of the power armors are explained, with light mechanical explanation, before really getting into the meat of things, which I think was smart. That being said, I would have preferred if they had included an even higher-level overview, very briefly explaining all the parts and how the power armors work in one concise section, maybe a few paragraphs at most.


The mechanics of the power armors are a little more fiddly than I'd like, but I'm intrigued. A lot of the faux-realism fiddlyness can be easily ignored, and most of the mechanical fiddlyness that is there seems logical and fun. While I generally prefer rules-light games that stay out of my way and don't pack all that my character can do in a tight build, I do like to "build" a mech, and it's a nice way to differentiate mechs / power armors from regular play.

They provide a reasonable number of pre-made power armors (Standard Armor Suits) which can be used as a good point of reference. They don't explicitly have a section for different power armor chassis which seems weird, but one can simple take the chassis of the pre-made power armors and re-spec the slots.

The power armors have a base AC and a number of slots, for head, left arm, right arm, front plate, back plate, left leg, and right leg. Certain mods (I don't think they ever provide a specific terminology for all gear so I'm calling them mods, but I could be misremembering) can only be placed in certain locations, and also any given mod must be able to fit within the entirety of that location (e.g. a mod that requires three slots can't be placed on the back plate if there are only two slots left). In addition, most mods require power, so the power armor must have quantum processing units (QPCs) to power those parts. A power armor doesn't need to have enough QPCs to power all their mods at once, they can switch them on and off. The slots system is exactly what I want from a mech supplement, and the power part at first seemed like the kind of thing I'd find annoying, but actually the impracticality of having all mods powered at once, and having to think about when to switch them on and off, actually seems like it could be fun and not just fiddlyness for the sake of fiddlyness.


While there are some useful tables in the back, and also for the mods for each section, there is annoyingly not a section where all the mods tables are collected together. Also, while the pre-made power armors include the location and power demand of each mod, they don't include the number of slots for each mod. Maybe it was a formatting thing that they couldn't fit it, but it's very annoying that it's not there. This issue with the tables is probably my single biggest issue with the book, but even so it's not too bad, it just could be better. Note that the tables at the front of the book are for the wargame, not the RPG (or at least, so I can tell...).

The "Mods"

The mods are broken into sensors, which generally provide sensory and attack bonuses, defensive options which provide defensive bonuses and healing/repair, weapons (melee, ranged, missile, grenade), locomative assist options which give movement bonuses, and strength enhancements which provide unarmed damage bonuses and increased carrying capacity.

The mods are all surprisingly interesting, both in terms of flavor and mechanics. The autosurgeon defensive option seems to predict research in neuroimmunology that I don't think existed yet when this book was written. There are multiple kinds of force fields and they have various benefits and flaws and counterbalances that all seem tactically interesting and evoke a sense of being in a power armor. As do the mechanics for computer systems and computer-assisted actions. The weapons are also surprisingly interesting; the flavor text for the Mark XII Blaster elevates it to something more than just a generic scifi gun.

All of that being said, this all seems like the kind of thing that could just... not work. Like, it reads well on the page and sounds interesting, but in practice I could see it being really difficult to plan for as a GM, difficult to keep track of as a player, and slow down combat or any tactical maneuvering to a boring crawl, like the grating of rusting metal plates against each other. I don't think I can say for sure without trying. If nothing else, it's all inspiring.

So What Do I Think About Gamma Knights?

If nothing else, it was an entertaining and inspiring read, and I would recommend it to anyone interested in incorporating power armors into their OSR game. They suggest that power armors should be rare and limited within the Gamma World setting, but this begs to be at the center of a campaign. Given how powerful the power armors are, one could easily scale up these power armors into mechs, without even necessarily touching the mechanics, besides maybe just units of measurement for movements.

I am skeptical about whether or not some of the mechanics like the force fields or computers would actually be fun, but they're also some of the more interesting ideas. However, if nothing else, this book makes me want to play / run a Gamma Knights game, or at least make a power armor / mech OSR or TNT hack inspired by this, but stripped down. If you've played this or have read it and have thoughts of your own, please let me know! I hope this review inspires others to check it out and give it a shot, or make something like it.