Thursday 31 July 2014

RPG a Day 1: My first roleplaying game

August being the month of GenCon, it's time for #RPGaDAY, in which David Chapman suggested that we answer different questions about our gaming history on different days of the month. Today, the question is: what is the first RPG you ever played? I made a short video about mine:

A few notes on the video: reading up on it, it seems like T&T was probably the first solo RPG in paperback format, even ahead of Fighting Fantasy. Huh! The game is still available in a bewildering variety of versions. There's even, you guessed it, a new deluxe edition coming via Kickstarter. But you can also still get the fourth edition (for four bucks, the same price it was when it came out in 1977! That was a lot of money in those days but it isn't now) or even the first, with typewritten text and everything. That's pretty cool.

The scenario that came in the boxed set was this one, Buffalo Castle.

You can learn more about the game from its publisher, Flying Buffalo.

Also, I forgot about Grimtooth's Traps. Man, I had a bunch of those.

Wednesday 30 July 2014

Review: Sagas of the Icelanders

Right, so apparently it's Iceland week here at the blog. Who knew? Anyway, yesterday I reviewed Mythic Iceland by Pedro Ziviani, and today my attention turns to Sagas of the Icelanders by Gregor Vuga, a game modelled on the, er, sagas of the Icelanders.

Although a friend had been trying to get me to look at this game for ages, I kept forgetting to, but I picked it up a while back with a bunch of other indie games, including its ancestor Apocalypse World. They get me with these Bundles of Holding, man, no joke. 

I have the PDF, which you can get from the publisher for 6 Euros(!). Looks like the print version is sold out. 

So, despite sharing the same foundation, this game and Mythic Iceland are very, very different.

I have never played an Apocalypse World-inspired game, but basically most of the things your character can do mechanically are codified as "moves," some of which anyone can do and some of which are unique to your particular playsheet (which is basically a sort of character class in brief). Each different *World game has different sheets: those for Sagas of the Icelanders are:

  • The Child
  • The Woman
  • The Man
  • The Matriarch 
  • The Goði
  • The Seiðkona
  • The Wanderer
  • The Shieldmaiden
  • The Huscarl
  • The Thrall
  • The Monster
Each of these has their own particular moves, plus the basic moves anyone can do and some moves that are specific to their gender. You get one free one and then choose another from a list. So for instance, the child might choose to be be able to get adults to sympathise with him or her, or the woman might choose an ability that lets her scrounge up supplies in an emergency. As you go on, you can develop new ones, I believe, although it's late and I'm not going to look that bit up again.

The basic system is very simple: you roll 2d6, usually adding one of the four stats (Young, Versed, Gendered, and Wyrd). Get a 7 or better, you succeed. On a 7-9, you succeed but with some kind of flaw or cost. On a 10+ everything goes swimmingly. Each move specifies what the flawed condition is. Stats start out anywhere from -1 to 1, with some going as high as 2. Again, I imagine they improve over time. 

The four stats might seem a little weird, but they're basically measures of how well you do at physical challenges, knowledge challenges, things relating to your social gender role (this is quite a big deal in the sagas) and luck or magical challenges. 

You also have relationships to other people, created at character generation, which have a certain number of bonds on them. You can increase bonds by doing favours, giving gifts and so on, and use them to do various things. I like the mechanical reinforcement of social norms; you can also see this in the gendered moves. For instance, the female moves include seduction, hard-headed pragmatism and what saga scholars call "whetting," that thing where women goad men to go kill some fools. Meanwhile, male ones are all about the prickly maintenance of honour and face, which is yet another reason for fool-killing. 

The GM (called the MC in this game) has a suite of moves as well, but honestly they seem like kind of formalisations of the things all GMs do. I found them super confusing to read about, but I probably would not find them super confusing to do. 

I'm at a stage in my gaming life where I'm drifting back toward the traditional, relatively secure in my GM skills and unconcerned with questions of game design per se, so this elegant but unfamiliar design doesn't have the appeal for me that, say, Dogs in the Vineyard did when it came out. Still, a lot of people rave about it and I will try to play it at least once. 

Sagas of the Icelanders is a much "thinner" game than Mythic Iceland, both literally and in the sense I have discussed previously. It's much more focused on a relatively small region and set of characters (or at least that seems to be the assumption). While character creation in Mythic Iceland tends to produce a sort of supergroup ("Gunnar, Egil and Grettir team up to solve mysteries"), Sagas is largely about creating a connected group around a single farmstead and leading them through the long-term story of feuds and rivalries and loves and what have you. 

Which isn't to say that Sagas doesn't have good historical detail; it's mostly pretty thin, but there is a pretty solid appendix on legal proceedings, some recipes, and other flavour-type text. 

I had a couple of gripes: for instance, the book refers to an MC sheet, which is nowhere in the book nor in the downloads that came with the Bundle of Holding. I had to go look for it on Google and find a version of it from 2012. That seems like an oversight. There's also a little mismatch between parts of the book: for instance, the currency system is super abstract -- you have a bit of silver, a handful, a pouch, a chest. Which makes sense, I guess, even though the pedant in me preferred Mythic Iceland's elaboration of the wadmal exchange system. But then in the legal appendix, all the fines are given in marks. Now maybe I just missed where it tells me how a mark fits into that system, but ... is it a little? A lot? I can go look it up (I have a pretty good shelf on the subject of early medieval Iceland), but still. 

I'm going to play it at some point, and I'll report back, but for now I'm still happy with enough of the ideas in it that I consider it a good buy, and at £5 I imagine you will feel the same. 

Tuesday 29 July 2014

Review: Mythic Iceland

When I was a youngster, my parents had the old Penguin paperback edition of Njal's Saga, the one translated by Magnus Magnusson and Hermann Palsson (there is a new translation in Penguin these days, I believe). I didn't read it until high school, after I had already read the Poetic Edda and the more sort of mythological works in general. And then of course I got into the sagas much more seriously at university, when I was studying the Viking age. I think you are generally an Egil's Saga guy or a Njal's Saga guy, and on balance I think I am a Njal's Saga. I like tragic heroes more than antiheroes, maybe? I think my favourite part of Njal's Saga is (spoilers for a story from the middle ages) the death of Gunnar:
Gunnar defended himself with great courage, and wounded eight more so severely that many of them barely lived. He kept on fighting until exhaustion brought him down. His enemies then dealt him many terrible wounds, but even then he got away from them and held them at bay for a long time.
But in the end they killed him.
Now obviously I know that the sagas don't have paragraph breaks, and this one is the work of some modern translator, but damn.

But it's not all the cosmic futility of heroism; there's lots of hacking and slashing and jumping over things and sliding on ice and catching spears in the air and flinging them back with deadly accuracy. But I get my cosmic bleakness fix.

During an age of great brokeness, I was in Forbidden Planet in London and I did a comical spit-take when I saw that there was a game on the shelf called Mythic Iceland. I put it on my Amazon wishlist, which is what I did in those days with things that cost money, and then I kind of forgot about it, so I was really pleasantly surprised when a generous friend got it for me for my birthday. I have the paperback, which retails for about £20, but you can also get the game in digital format for $19, which is around £11.20. Heck, at the time of this writing, it's on sale, but only for a few hours, so if you're reading this later you're out of luck. I should have done this last week, really, shouldn't I?

The only real weakness of the digital version is that you don't get a copy of this bitchin' map of Iceland:

That is nice. I would put that on my wall. Of course, my wall already has a copy of Olaus Magnus's Carta Marina Scandinavia, so it might be a bit repetitive, but I guess what I am trying to say is that I like maps and I like this map. So that's a good point right out of the gate. 

Now, when I tell you that this is a BRP game about playing saga heroes in 10th-century Iceland, I expect you're going to have some assumptions (if you're like me). You'll imagine that this book is going to be: 
  • very well-researched
  • a little stodgy in its presentation
  • nominally generic but with a slight tilt toward mystery and horror. 
And you would be dead right. But let's look into the book and break down the contents a little further. 

We start off with an introduction to Icelandic history and literature, as well as an intro to the world. This is going to be a fantasy setting based on the sagas, with some medieval Icelandic folklore thrown into the mix in the form of the Hidden Folk. 

Character creation follows the outline of BRP character creation, but removes some things and adds others. There are no specialised professions (which is in keeping with the economy of saga-era Iceland), and you have a fylgja (animal spirit, fetch) that represents you. Your wealth takes the form of a farm and certain types of trading rights, although all characters start as householders and have roughly equal wealth. I would have liked to see a little more variation here, although it is true that being a free landholder is pretty commonplace for saga heroes -- and is the only way you can participate in the oh-so-important lawsuits. 

There isn't a lot of advice, speaking of saga accuracy, on making female heroes. You can create them, and there's a female name table and all, but then the rest of the game doesn't pay much attention to what women might be doing other than things stereotypically associated with men (although the female character on the cover is preparing to do some magic, which I think is the right answer to that question). 

The character sheet, I am sorry to say, is ugly as sin: 

You have a god you're devoted to, and doing things to increase that devotion can give you bonus on relevant actions. Like Egil being devoted to Odin, I guess. 

There's a lot of really good material on the climate, landscape, society and culture of saga age Iceland, and a great visual explanation of the calendar. Mind you, I'm not sure who this is for. I already know a lot about the Viking period and the Icelandic sagas, but I still think it's great to have this all in one place. But this doesn't solve the problem of how you get players to enjoy the unique saga-ness of the sagas without just making them do a shitload of homework. Shitload of homework seems to be what this game is opting for. We're well over 50 pages into this thing before there's any hint of what the players might actually, er, do.

Oh good! Lawsuit rules. You can't do Icelandic sagas without those. And if you think I'm joking you've never read one. 

There's a good section on religion, emphasising its murky and variable nature but giving pretty simple and memorable rules for how to earn your god's favour. Do something your god likes, get a point in the allegiance-to-whoever score. Get your score over a certain level, get some bennies. But there's also a section on Christianity, including a legend about the Holy Grail being in Iceland. Get in! Viking things in games don't often pay enough attention to Christianity. Erik Bloodaxe was a Christian, y'know. 

OK, magic in this game is based on being a runemaster. Each rune has a meaning, which can have a narrative effect (for instance, Fe, which means wealth or cattle, has a narrative effect of bringing fertility or creating wealth) and a mechanical effect (in this case, adds 10% to Farming or Brawl skills). 

Runemasters start with knowledge of only one aett (set of 8 runes), based on the god they worship, and have to learn more in play, either by studying with runemasters, "sitting out," "going under the cloak," etc. Rune lore and seidr seem to be being collapsed into one here (not that I think we can systematise early medieval magical beliefs that easily, but for gaming purposes, why not, right?). Procedurally, it's pretty straightforward. You choose the runes you want to use, carve them into whatever, "dye" them with blood, speak a targeting phrase (better if it's a poem) and roll the dice. More complex rune "phrases" have more potent effects but take longer. Talismans are much the same but you burn permanent points of POW into them, so you can't make too many. All makes sense. 

This is a nicely detailed little system, and frankly you could drop it into most other games that have a skill system or equivalent thereof with next to no effort. There are good little summaries of the runes for players that you could copy or print out for the runemaster to have. I think this system would work best when encouraging runemaster-like play, by which I mean that it should require the player to do a bit of reading and think about the rune lore (stipulating the usual, that most rune lore is ahistorical nonsense, blah blah). 

Then you gotcher guide to the setting, with every location having some little adventure seeds in it. Of course, saga hero PCs aren't just troubleshooters for hire or murder-hobos, so a lot of these fall into the old CoC structure of the PCs having some kind of uncle on the spot. Mind you, this is essentially the plot of Beowulf, so whatever. 

Next up are elves and the Hidden People. These are very fairy-tale like. For instance, children can see them, but adults can do so only rarely. They do give that Scandinavian folklore sense of this kind of parallel society of weird people who are still essentially farmers and hunters and so on. The backstory explanation is that these guys are elves who basically self-exiled from Alfheim to live out their lives in peace. Proper elves from Alfheim sometimes turn up, and they are arrogant, belligerent sonsabitches while the Hidden Folk are mostly pretty chill, just a little shy. 

The next section is about the rest of the world, with the usual Northern Europe stuff, plus good sections on Greenland and North America. The Wineland stuff has some Native American monsters (Uktena, Thunderbird, Wendigo, that kind of thing), plus the monopods from Eiriks Saga. There's a section on going Viking, with ship stats, weapons, rules on random generation of raid targets, and a useful monastery map. 

One thing I thought was missing from this section was something on plunder. If you've ever read the sagas, you know there's a lot of coveting of items, a lot of gift-giving, and a lot of objects (particularly weapons) with histories. So it would have been cool to see the loot described in terms of the kinds of things you might find rather than just X amount of wealth, particularly when the game's already done such a good job of explaining the importance of gift-giving in the cashless Icelandic economy. 

But I am not one to complain! Instead, watch this space for some cool examples of Viking plunder and perhaps a random loot generation table. 

Lots of good stuff on running a game, with some discussion of Luck in its confusing Norse sense. 

Then you get some critters, ranging from the usual suspects like trolls and frost giants to selkies, krakens, draugar, and even more mundane opponents like polar bears. 

Then there's a scenario, which as far as I can tell is the devil's own railroad. This kind of thing is very common for intro adventures in games where the adventuring premise needs to spring from who the PCs are. The other alternative would be the old Vampire: the Masquerade intro scenario, in which approximately nothing at all happens. They're just there to give you the feel of it, even if in this case the feel is attached to "go here, fight this guy."

There's an appendix which is basically a little Iceland supplement for Cthulhu Dark Ages: some history, monsters, spells, and a scenario. Nice! I was not a big fan of the game, mainly because it didn't feel well-adapted for what I wanted to do with it (it was very focused on running scenarios set on Continental Europe, which, I mean, I get that it's a German game, but you'd think that the English-language version would talk about England a bit more). But here in combination with the Icelandic setting material it's pretty good. Plus, volcano cults!

The wrapup

I think Mythic Iceland is pretty good, even though I absolutely cannot see myself running it as written. It's dense with stuff, which is good, and it shows knowledge of medieval Iceland, which is also good. It's kind of weird, in that it's neither a balls-to-the-wall Norse-themed fantasy setting nor a game in which you play out some variant of the Iceland sagas. It's kind of somewhere in between. Still, I think it has a lot of use for people who a) want a bunch of info about the sagas in an easy-to-use gaming form or b) are already running a historical-fantasy campaign they could slot this into. There is already an Iceland sourcebook for Ars Magica, but I assume it's high-medieval. 

In terms of stuff to idea-mine for another fantasy game, I would say that the magic system is usable, the gods system is a pretty neat idea for putting religion into the lives of non-cleric characters, and the map and location guides are good too. 

I think I would definitely run it as some kind of Cthulhu Dark Ages thing, but that might be because I have all the necessary resources easily to hand. Kind of a cold, bleak, damp and relentless Norse horror thing. I could get behind that. 

Next in this impromptu series of things about Viking age Iceland, I'll do that treasure table thing and I'll also take a look at the Sagas of the Icelanders RPG, which I picked up ages ago but still haven't even read. 

Friday 25 July 2014

Week of Synnibarr: Final thoughts

Well, it's been fun working my way through The World of Synnibarr this week. I feel like I've come away with more respect for the game but maybe a little less relentless enthusiasm for it. Over on an RPGnet thread about games that are bad but that you like anyway, I wrote:

No one's got time to be doing any serious self-evaluation when a squadron of wizards, cyborgs and Iron Fist cosplayers on pedal-powered gyrocopters are closing in on a mutant crab man with a laser (excuse me: lazor) gun riding on the back of a giant vampire bat and the death rays and magic arrows and hails of machine-gun fire are flying thick and fast. 
Now, that sounds like an absolute blast, but there's a part of me that wonders whether in fact that scene would be at all fun to run or play or whether it would just be a tedious mathfest.

(And there's another part of me that says "only one way to find out ... ")

In the end, though, I came away with a little more appreciation of Synnibarr and a little less glee in the cruel eviscerations it suffers on the internet. People criticise Synnibarr a lot, but I honestly believe they're looking at it from the wrong perspective. About 50% of the major criticisms are off-base, I think.

  • "The game is unbalanced." I think over the last few years, a lot more people have come to realise that game balance isn't necessarily a high priority in non-competitive games. I'd still rather have a roughly balanced game than not, but I can do without it, balancing on the fly. 
  • "The game's ideas are puerile and not serious." And? 
  • "The system is complex and unwieldy." Yes -- although probably no more complex than many systems of its time. There was a definite vein throughout the 90s of games that were AD&D but with waaaay more mechanics.  
  • "The book is badly written and hard to use." For character creation, certainly. The lack of internal page references is really frustrating. But for most things, I dunno. Powers, which are the heart of the game, seem as well-organised as they can be. 
I hear talk on the internet of a new edition: more streamlined, more balanced, less goofy. I would like two of those things. But as for "less goofy," I feel like all that could do would be make Synnibarr more like every other game. It's not like if you scrape some of the nonsense off this thing it's going to turn into Henry V. It's nonsense all the way down. And that's OK. A diet of nothing but junk food isn't healthy for the body or the brain, but sometimes what the hell. 

So here's to you, Raven c.s. McCracken and Bryce Thelin, wherever you are these days. Your game is dumber than hell, but you didn't half-ass it. You went nerd-dumb on it, and I can respect that. 

I'm going to be taking a break for the next couple of days. But when I get back, I'm going to do a little more retrogaming nostalgia -- but also a nerdy breakdown of a historical game, just to clear the palate. 

Thursday 24 July 2014

Week of Synnibarr, Day Seven: At long last rad.

It's been a long road -- first nine-day week I've ever seen, if nothing else -- but we're finally there. And although we've seen a lot of unusual things, I don't think we've done more than scratch the surface of Synnibarr's rich weirdness. There's a lot more that I haven't had the courage to go into, especially in terms of the game's incredibly detailed list of powers, spells, mutations, chi abilities and what have you.

Today, though, we're going to finish up by concluding the experiment in character creation and then looking at the resulting character, Ballworthy J. "Balls Rad" Raddington. 

In our fourth video installment, I gaze in derpy perplexity at the skills section.

And finally, it's time for shopping.

Now, having put more extra work into completing him than I care to think about, I present to you 1st-level Shadow Warrior Balls Rad, ready to go out there into Synnibarr and take on some flying grizzlies. I just have to jot a few final notes down first ...

... "movement rate is found by taking the movement in miles per hour and multiplying it by 0.293." Are you fucking kidding me?

So that took longer than I expected, but here he is at last:

Concerned about his low health, I bought him the best armour I could afford, Hadrathium plate armour, and an absolute shitload of weird weapons, plus a pedal-powered gyrocopter, on which I mounted a chain gun. I also got him a pet paradrake, an assault rifle, a laser sabre, some camping supplies and a pair of high-top sneakers. With his sonic sabre, shadow axe, and laser sabre, it's a little silly that he carries around a regular sword, but since he can carry 800 lbs without caring, what's the difference? 

Tune in tomorrow for some final thoughts. 

Wednesday 23 July 2014

We interrupt this Week of Synnibarr ...

Today I don't have time to edit my video, since I am away for the afternoon. Instead, I am going to write about a cheap toy that I used in one of my games!

Seen here with Wednesday night D&D stalwart Torchy the Torchbearer and a Rogue Trader-era Space Marine, these little guys are Androidz toys which I got at The Works for 49p each. As you can see, their design aesthetic makes them good little warforged sort of guys. There are also much more work-robot-like designs, which I also got a few of. I figure they'll bumble around spaceports and things doing important tasks and periodically going berserk.

I think that, if you wanted to be serious about them as miniatures, they might take quite a lot of work -- the bodies are metal, the arms are relatively soft plastic, and the mould lines are a pain in the butt. But I know that there are people who've worked with them, so it isn't impossible.

Using toys in D&D seems to be a thing for me -- the earth elementals in my last game were Gormiti figures I got for 25p each at a car boot sale. I like to use miniatures in games because I think it's a fun visual representation of what's happening; I don't do it in every fight, just ones where it improves convenience. But even so, if I'm bringing out new antagonists every couple of weeks, even a miniatures collection as eclectic as mine struggles to cope.

Plus, you know me: I find scavenging and bargain-hunting fun by themselves.

Tomorrow we'll be back with the exciting conclusion to Week of Synnibarr! Hopefully.

A third Androidz toy playing the part of a wrecked wargolem while some
goblins pile on a poor hapless PC and an eagle signally fails to help. 

Tuesday 22 July 2014

Week of Synnibarr, Day Six: Fat games (and character creation part three)

So RPG blogger Zak S. of Playing Dungeons and Dragons with Pornstars once divided games into "fat" and "skinny" games. I think this is a pretty interesting distinction -- it isn't quite the same as rules-light vs rules-heavy, although they often go together. A "fat" game is a game with lots of stuff, usually mechanical stuff but not always. You can have a relatively simple core mechanic but still have lots of stuff in your library -- spells, monsters, items, abilities, that kind of thing. All of the different animals in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Other Strangeness are fat content, for instance. The monsters in D&D. All the weird equipment in Rogue trader, like porta-racks and synskin and hoverboards. The superpowers in Marvel Super Heroes.

I think this is often overlooked, honestly. When we pore over RPG rulebooks until late into the night, it's usually that kind of thing we care about. People who love Unknown Armies usually don't care about the game's somewhat clunky core mechanics (other than the excellent Madness Meters) so much as the many many different magic schools and Avatar paths and whatnot.

I think we can conclusively say that World of Synnibarr is a fat game. Although the rules are complex, with long character generation and lots of spot rules, the real density of the book is in the powers. (No, wait. These are p0w0rz.)

The book is 477 pages long, including index, appendices and all that stuff. Of this, 88 pages are monsters and a whopping 102 pages are spells, psychic powers and what have you. Character creation is the longest section of the rules, at 81 pages (!), but even then that's because it contains all the descriptions of the different classes and races and their various powers. The combat and spellcasting rules take up a mere 16 pages all told. There are lots of other spot rules here and there, but a lot of the rest of the book is taken up with setting description (33 pages), equipment (35 pages) and so on. Even the gods get 7 pages of dense three-column text.

So when I say that the game is complicated, it's not so much that the rules are complicated (although there are a hell of a lot of steps in many processes) as that there is a lot of stuff in it. You're never going to find, like, a fighter hitting a goblin with a sword. It's always going to be a Bio-Syntha Cyborg (who has a ton of special rules) shooting his Midnight Sunstone Bazooka (which probably has its own special rules) at a Sea Unicorn (which, in turn ...).

Now, fat games are deceptively simple for players in some ways. For instance, even though there are umpty-bajillion different magic schools in Unknown Armies, I as a player only need to know the rules for my one (though maybe I care about knowing what they all do in order to choose the one that's right for me, I guess). But the GM, of course, has to know what all the players' stuff does, and then also needs to know what all the monsters and NPCs and so on can do. In a D&D-type game, this is usually relatively simple. If I roll "wolf" on the random encounter table, I just turn to p. 101 of the Monster Manual and away we go. In fact, I don't even really have to do that -- I only need to know a handful of stats for the critter: move, hit dice, AC, to-hit, damage. I can fudge the rest.

But there isn't an equivalent of that in Synnibarr, as far as I can tell. Almost every damn thing has crazy powers, so I'll constantly be flipping back and forth to the powers section. Sandbox play becomes kind of a hassle.

The way around this, of course, is to be Raven c.s. McCracken himself and just have an encyclopedic knowledge of the game so that you can know without looking that a Black Titanium Wolverine has 5 attacks per turn + 1 for every 5 levels.

Anyway, character creation continues:

Monday 21 July 2014

Week of Synnibarr, Day Five: The Werewolf comparison (and character creation part 2)

As you may know, I have been struggling through the process of World of Synnibarr character creation for the last couple of posts. A video recording of the second stage of my progress can be found below.

In response to these videos, a friend commented: "And I thought Rolemaster was slow setting up... "

Well, maybe. But although the character creation is taking me a hell of a long time, I'm not sure World of Synnibarr is really all that slow. There's certainly a lot of stuff, but part of it is that I'm unfamiliar with the terms and part of it is that I'm learning the setting as I go. So, for instance, I spent a good couple of minutes just learning what a Shadow Warrior was in the first place.

Consider another game from around the same time, Werewolf: the Apocalypse, which came out in 1992. The first time I create a new character, assuming it's a werewolf and not something else, I need to:

  • Choose my Nature and Demeanour from a big list. 
  • Prioritise and buy stats. 
  • Prioritise and buy skills. 
  • Choose a Breed.
  • Choose an Auspice (which means learning what they are).
  • Choose a Tribe (from a dozen or so, which again I need to learn).
  • Select some Gifts.
  • Assign Gnosis, Rage and Willpower.
  • Take Merits and Flaws (from a great big list). 
  • Explore some of the other Merits in more detail (e.g. Rites, Fetishes)
Is there anything else? I guess equipment if I have any, though that's a less important part of the game. 

I don't think it would surprise me if that took a good hour or hour and a half the first time I did it. 

The big difference is that the Synnibarr character creation process is much less interesting. When I am creating my Werewolf character, I'm making choices every step of the way. I decide what skills to buy, what Gifts to take, and so on. I'm choosing what I have. In the Synnibarr character creation process, I'm just looking shit up on tables or rolling randomly for it. From the moment I choose my class to the moment I go shopping -- which must be about 30-40 minutes at least -- I don't make a single decision, I just find stuff out and write it down. It's the kind of process you could automate. 

Now, there are successful games that have character creation systems where there is a ton of randomness -- classic versions of D&D are the most obvious example -- but by contrast, their character creation processes are relatively quick. I rolled up my first AD&D 1st ed character in probably less than 20 minutes, of which easily 10 minutes was shopping. I do like shopping. 

I guess what I'm saying is: 
  • Next time (hah!) it will probably go faster, but
  • It's not so much that this process is slow as that it's not very engaging. 
Shoping might be more fun, though -- I haven't done that yet!

Sunday 20 July 2014

Week of Synnibarr, Day Four: O Canada! (and character creation part 1)

No Week of Synnibarr yesterday, I'm afraid -- I was out all day and not able to get around to it. However, I wasn't idle! With the aid of my lovely wife, I recorded what was intended to be a short video explaining the intricacies of Synnibarr character generation. However, while recording the "short" video we discovered the intricacies were ... intricate. My wife pointed out that around the 50-minute mark I said "now we're getting somewhere!"

So instead, I'm cutting it down and breaking it up, and this short piece is only the first installment. I hope you will enjoy it regardless.

The other thing I wanted to talk about today was Synnibarr's art. Unlike a lot of fantasy games, Synnibarr's art is very comic-like. Outside of comic-based games, I think this is actually pretty unusual in games, isn't it? The only example I can think of is Palladium, which always had a lot of art by comic artists, whether Richard Corben and Berni Wrightson in Beyond the Supernatural or Denys Cowan in Ninjas and Superspies. And there was some Mike Gustovich in there as well, but I assume that's because Palladium published a Justice Machine supplement for Heroes Unlimited. Come to think of it, Synnibarr is quite Palladium-like in some ways, although maybe I'm just saying that because it has a pre-DTP 80s-style layout and that's what Palladium games also look like.

Now, when we think of a 90s game that has lots of mutants and ninjas and whatnot and comic-inspired art, we probably assume that there's going to be 80 million teeth and lots of pouches strapped tight across the thighs, floppy hair, all that kind of thing. I hate that stuff as much as the next guy, but that's not what's really present in The World of Synnibarr. I think Synnibarr's art is actually more consistent with a sort of late-80s comic fandom in a lot of places. That's not to say that there aren't any obvious 90s-isms, like these guys:

I may just think that because of the hair.

But there's also what appears to be a lot of John Byrne influence, particularly around the mouths and also the wholesale copying of characters from Alpha Flight.

Take this image of a "Tiger" martial artist, for example. I looked at that and thought "hang on, that's Guardian from Alpha Flight."

So I Googled "Alpha Flight John Byrne" and what was in the first row of search results? 

Coincidence? You decide. 

Also, there's a fair amount of Iron Fist: 

Those weird areas of shadow on his chest are
even where the dragon's mark would be. 
Right down to the little ballet slippers!

And the Wendigo: 

There are also quite a few characters I strongly suspect of being comic characters but can't quite place.

The pose looks like Shaman from Alpha Flight, but a girl? 
And then how can any discussion of Synnibarr's art be complete without this cheerful little guy? 

Now, I don't want you to think I'm hating. Again, this is all part of the lifelong-RPG-campaign-ness of World of Synnibarr. When you made your first character, don't tell me your character portrait wasn't something you traced from a comic (or whatever). Legalities aside, I think it adds to the charm. 

Friday 18 July 2014

Week of Synnibarr, Day Three: That old-time religion!

Right, we're back! It's Day 3 of THE WEEK OF SYNNIBARR and there's lots more looney business to explore. Yesterday we investigated the monster section and discovered all kinds useful foolishness. Let's see if we have similar luck in other areas. Today we're going to look at the setting and cosmology of Synnibarr.

Which is a hell of a mess, and is explained absolutely terribly. Seriously, once we're past the ToC and the forewords, the first page is deep, deep backstory:
In the beginning, 800 million years ago ... 
OK, squire, I'm going to stop you right there.

But seriously, it goes on for page after page, telling us about Aridius, The God of Hope and Command, and the Father of All, and Shadarkeem, the birth dimension of the Gods, and the creation of the Synnibarr worldship (it's the planet Mars, hollowed out to use as a spaceship and sent off to orbit around Shalom, the planet of peace. As you do) and Lord Midnight and the 72-headed chameleon hydra and the appearance of Sirius the Vampire Lord and and and ... it's not long as such, it's just crammed full of irrelevant sugar-high detail. It doesn't even get around to "What Kind of a Game Is The World of Synnibarr" until page 5.

Honestly, the idea isn't bad -- basically, you have this worldship, which is an environment which is self-contained but absolutely ginormous, and then all these different weirdoes running around on it and leaving behind ruins and artefacts and stuff, and then the worldship itself isn't quite working to spec. And this plague wipes out everyone, so no one really knows what's up with all these temples and labs and Great Reactors and Dark Lords and whatnot. It's kind of like Metamorphosis Alpha in letters ten feet high.

That's got some staying power, actually. I mean, basically it's not unlike Rifts, although more on the fantasy hackity-slashity side than the skiffy one.

The very first time I read The World of Synnibarr, I was with some friends, and we were reading the history section and deciding what to name our bands after. In my mind, "Lord Midnight and the 72-Headed Chameleon Hydra" is a great band name. Basically, you have Lord Midnight down the front in his tuxedo, and then each of the Hydra's heads has a different instrument. "Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to the Starlight Ballroom. I'm Lord Midnight and this is the 72-Headed Chameleon Hydra. Hey! Flyyyy me to the moooon....".

Other band names included The Purging and The Rebellion of the Drakes.

But the good names don't last into the deities section, no sir. The weird blend of things is in full effect again. Actually, Synnibarr doesn't have a blend of things, because the different sets of influences -- fantasy fiction and Marvel comics and cartoons and what have you -- often coexist kind of weirdly. I think the names of the gods suggest that to me. They include:

  • Alorius, Goddess of Prosperity
  • Amarasis, Goddess of the Amazons
  • Aragorn (!), God of Chi
  • The aforementioned Aridius
  • Black, God of Mutants and Mutations, who appears as a "cattar"
  • Blade, God of Heavy Metal, Cragons and Martial Arts
  • Cat, God of Thieves
  • Drakomere, God of Drakes
  • Joe Null, God of Nullification and Matter Control, 
  • Maximillion, the Immortal
  • Li'eel, God of Lies and Mischief
  • Killgore, God of Technology and Unarmed Combat
  • Tuch, Lord of the Ninja (distinct from the god of Martial Arts, who is a ninja)
  • Ringzazerakrazad, God of Death (let's hope his name doesn't come up much)
  • Schernoklasptetor, God of Wealth and Metals, called Xrra for short
  • Watchhaven Storm, God of the Weremen
That's about half of them and the others are equally bonkers. 

In total honesty, it is easier for me to believe that the God of Ninjas
plays the guitar in a heavy metal band than to believe that
he wears a necktie. It's like eleventy million years in the future.
In addition to the worldship and various surrounding planets (which is where you find the giant space mantas with 116 million hit points that I mentioned yesterday), there's also a Psychic Plane, a full set of Elemental Planes, Limbo (the Plane of Time), an astral plane -- wait, two astral planes -- and an apparently infinite number of other dimensions, with rules for randomly determining what types of magic work in them.

 I might design a sufficiently demented setting-equivalent for a PA game some day, but I have to say that today's reading has proven less fruitful than yesterday's ... 

Thursday 17 July 2014

Week of Synnibarr, Day Two: Monsters!

We're back with another installment of Week of Synnibarr. This week, in keeping with my promise to talk about good and interesting things in this game, I'll be focusing on the monster section. 

Not that the monster section is good per se, but it's definitely interesting. 

Most RPGs tend to specialise in one or two kinds of monster: your horror monsters, your fairy-tale creatures, your alien species, that sort of thing. Warhammer's main contribution is the Chaos stuff (including the Skaven); Call of Cthulhu is all about horror monsters, and so on. The big exception is, of course, D&D, which encompasses a pretty broad range of critters, which presumably is why other games tend to be comparatively limited in what new things they introduce -- because someone else already covered the basics. 

But Synnibarr -- I think this game legitimately includes a class of monster I've never really seen in a game before or even really considered. These are sort of drug-addled sci-fi fairy-tale equivalents of actual animals. It's as if the setting had been populated by someone who had been given a brief to recreate the animals of earth but who didn't have much to go on other than their names. As a result, in Synnibarr: 
  • Nurse sharks have healing powers. 
  • Tiger sharks turn into tigers. 
  • Thunder lizards shoot lightning. 
  • Antelope hooves, if struck together, generate an antigravity field. 
I feel like I'm reading some kind of medieval bestiary -- you know the kind of thing, where elephants don't have sex and antelopes bounce on their horns. Was it Aristotle who said bisons defend themselves using their flaming hot poop? It was someone anyway. 

So, regardless of all the other stuff, I think Synnibarr does actually have this one strange and unique feature. Most of the other animals are just huge, intelligent, magical versions of themselves, which if not particularly original is at least consistent with the game's "turned up to 11" aesthetic. 

There are also a lot of scenario-inspiring tidbits in this thing. Here are a selection: 

  • "If caught and tamed, the alouthrepa make good mounts, although they are a little hard to feed." (Because they are giant disease-ridden vampire bats that weigh a ton and have a 45-foot wingspan.)
  • "There is many a tale of a lone snow ape saving a doomed village with its powers". 
  • "Armapines appear similar to a cross between an armadillo and a porcupine ... their meat is one of the most sought after, having an unparalleled taste ... they can project the psi spell Intellect Annihilation six times a day."
  • "Over the centuries the mutant baboons have travelled throughout Synnibarr by hijacking ships..."
  • "The armoured bees create great hives constructed of secreted metal."
  • "Mutant hatchet buzzard". (One of the most ordinary animals in the game!)
  • "Winged cobras grow to be 25 feet long and weigh 50 to 300 pounds. They are fifth-level Dream Warriors."
  • "Cragons are the servants of Blade, the Immortal Ninja...". 
  • "Crocopedes are centipedes with the head of a crocodile and batlike wings. ... Their four eyes are on the end of stalks ... one of the few living beings that kill for fun."
  • " ... like all sharks, can transform itself into a humanoid form."
  • "The space mantas have 116 million life points...".
  • Green flies are a legitimately good monster! They just deliver painfully itchy bites; when the target is good and distracted by scratching, a nearby predator strikes. Presumably the flies feed on the corpse. 
  • "Midnight sunstone hydras have the choice between two different breath attacks: Venderant Nalaberong Black Fire or Midnight Sunstone Energy."
  • "Mutant lobsters have a nasty temperament, probably because their meat tastes so good."
  • "Scarlet Grimraver" is the name of a demigod. "The abilities of these fantastic creatures are incredible."
  • "There are two ranks of status within the Neria Bendix's militaristic society: the tech troopers and the supertroopers."
  • "Talking Raccoons are peaceful by nature."
  • "These creatures are cockroachlike, big, bright-red and, well, cockroachlike."
  • "There are seven different types of gases that the plague beast may use."
And so on and so on.

Now, just at a first glance, I am not sure how easy it would be to translate these critters into the system of your choice. The Synnnibarr system is, as I have said before, a baroque mess, and it's going to be a lot more of a nuisance sticking one of these into your Mutant Future game than if it were a more broadly compatible system. On the other hand, I defer to the knowledge of experts. 

Still, though, I think the Synnibarr monster section has a lot of things to contribute to a game. A certain type of game, I'll grant you, but I think that if you want to apply a more sophisticated filter, there's still something to get out of the crazy fairy-tale monsters. 

Wednesday 16 July 2014

Week of Synnibarr: Day One!

Welcome one and all to WEEK OF SYNNIBARR, the only blog event awesome enough to merit all bold and all caps. If you're not familiar with World of Synnibarr, I think you'll enjoy finding out about it, and if you are, I hope you'll find that my approach to it is a little different from what you may be accustomed to.

The facts are simple enough: The World of Synnibarr is an "intergenre" RPG that came out in 1993, around the time that games were very intently trying to take themselves seriously. Deep settings and genre emulation were all the rage, White Wolf could do no wrong, everyone knew like a scientific fact that AD&D 2nd ed sucked out loud except for all the people happily playing it. It was a heady time. We were young, we were proud. We made mistakes.

Into this milieu plunged The World of Synnibarr, with a can-do attitude, a pair of wraparound shades, a feathered mullet and a jetbike. And it was torn to pieces. Reviews slated it, usenet (back when that was a thing) pilloried it, and it quickly became a gaming in-joke. Game designer Raven c.s. McCracken didn't do himself any favours by wading into the online discussion swinging. But in all honesty, it's hard to see what he could have done when he appears in the back of the game looking like this:

A moustache, a mullet, a suave-dude camera-point, a fantasy costume and a sword. An army of too-cool-for-school gamers were sharpening their knives from the moment they saw that. 

And the accompanying author bio, which is basically about polymath he-man Raven c.s. McCracken and his career from the early years of bitter struggle to the dizzying heights of RPG design success, didn't help. In short, McCracken was the RPG community's village fool and has remained that way for 20 years. 

This isn't about that. 

There are a million zillion places on the internet you can find people taking the piss out of Synnibarr and McCracken. You can read this Something Awful article or Darren MacLennan's punishing RPGnet review. Elsewhere, you can find bloggers and forum posters bagging on the game in moods ranging from good-natured ribbing to hysterical vituperation. 

What I'm saying is that it would be pointless for me to join in. I like a good vituperatin' as much as the next guy, I suppose, but leaving aside the fact that it sounds like Raven c.s. McCracken has had a pretty hard life and I would hate to bag on the dude further, it's all been done. So instead I'm going to spend this week talking about what The World of Synnibarr can bring to your (or at least my) game. 

Let me start with that infamous photo. It was 1993 in Seattle, WA. I'm talking the absolute height of grunge (well, maybe just sliiiightly after it; maybe the very height was late 1992. But whatever). And here's dude rocking the full-on Hey How You Doin' in a Black Knight costume. You know what that is? That's commitment. That's "doing you," as the young people appear to be saying. Raven c.s. McCracken looks like 100% of a bonehead in that photograph, but he's not a trendy bonehead. He's hopelessly uncool and he doesn't give a shit. Possibly he doesn't even know. And we're going to see the same thing repeated throughout the game -- McCracken and collaborator Bryce Thelin going in hard behind the dumbest, most worthless ideas imaginable. 

Over on my other other blog Bad Movie Marathon, founder Happyfett maintains a list of tags which we use to describe awful films. Among these are: 
  • Commercial
  • Boring
  • Pointless attempts at cool 
  • Unacceptable pretensions
I recently acquired a bunch of Dragon magazines from the early 1990s on Freecycle, and when I read them I want to track down whoever mandated this boring, snooze-inducing house style, roll up a particularly thick issue (maybe with an included Polyhedron) and hammer it down his gullet until he's sorry. And when I read a White Wolf book from the 90s ... well, actually, some of them are pretty good! But with a lot of them all I can think of is what a tiresome little shit I was as a teenager. 

But I don't feel that way about Synnibarr. It's bloated and broken and badly written and ugly and unplayable and dumb, dumb, dumb, dumb dumb dumb dumb. But there's something so charmingly dopey about it that I can't hate it in the same way I hate its slicker, more accomplished cousins. Here, let me give you an example. This quotation is from the Example of Play given in the book, which is mostly a lengthy example of the game's pointlessly baroque combat system. Our characters have just left adventuring academy or some crap like that. 

NINJA: "I want to stop at a weapon shop. I need a sword and some throwing stars." 
DRAKE: "Thermal drake [in response to an earlier question], and all I want is some food and a bullwhip."
[They shop for a bit
ADVENTURERS: "Okay, now let's go get a drink." 
FATE: [The GM] Holding the map of Terra open, "Which bar will you go to?" 
ADVENTURERS: Choosing a tavern they say "There, the Blind Owl. We will walk up to the bar and order three large milks in dirty glasses." 
DRAKE: "I'll take mine with a broken straw." 
[The GM rolls some dice and whatnot
HALFHAN: [The GM, speaking as the bartender] "Well, three milks it is. Hey, you guys looking for an adventure?" Whispering, "I know of a cave where a paradrake lives. The paradrake is guarding a temple or something. I'm not sure exactly what." 
MAGE/NINJA: In unison, "Oh yeah!"
If you don't think "three large milks in dirty glasses!" "And I'll take mine with a broken straw" is legitimately funny, I don't think we have a lot in common. And I'm a big fan of that "hey, you guys looking for an adventure?" to "Oh yeah!" as well.

I imagine it as this:

So yeah. During this week it's not that I'm not going to be making fun of Synnibarr. I don't know how you can write about it without making fun of it just a little bit. But I'm also going to try to appreciate the game for its virtues. Its derpy, 90s-ified virtues, but its virtues nonetheless.

See you tomorrow, when we take a look at the book itself.

Monday 14 July 2014

Inspiration is everywhere: Day 7

So that was kind of a slog, and I'm not sure I did an amazing job. Still, I learned a certain amount. I should definitely start making notes continually, rather than waiting for the end of the day to try and mash out a blog post. I had kind of underestimated how mentally tired teaching a four-hour class in the morning makes me.

Ripping things off is a perpetual process.

However, while doing the Inspiration Week, I did have another idea for a series of posts relating to an unlikely source of inspiration. I'll be starting on Wednesday, hopefully. I call it ...

Awwww yis.

Sunday 13 July 2014

Inspiration is everywhere: Day 6

OK, looking around for more inspiration! If I turn my head to the left, I see this little guy, who was a Christmas gift (or was it a birthday? I think it was Christmas) from my wife.

This is Beatbot, who is basically a speaker that you plug into your phone or other device and then songs come out of your robot. I can move his little arms around and he satisfies my fondness for retro skiffy things.

Very well, then! Let us explore Beatbot as an opponent! I feel like one of the things this project has taught me is that I'm out of practice statting up baddies for anything other than d20. I'll have to get on it; I'm out of practice with any system other than this as a GM -- or Stars Without Number, I guess. And I don't have the SWN bot rules because I have the old edition. Screw it, let's go for it anyway. Here's Beatbot for SWN, or more likely for Other Dust.


Created as a riot control and pacification tool by Earth's authorities, this autonomous system was nicknamed the "Beatbot" by those who had to suffer either the pounding of its armoured gauntlets or the devastating sonic attack it deployed. The beatbot hulks over a human, standing over 2 metres tall and weighing over half a tonne. Resilient, heavily armoured and hard to destroy, the beatbot is practically a mobile pillbox, although its movements are sluggish and lumbering.

Armour Class: 19
Hit Dice: 6
Attack Bonus: +1, +1
Damage: d6 each, gauntlets
No. Appearing: 1-3
Saving Throw: 14+
Movement: 20'
Morale 12

If the Beatbot has not moved or fired its sonic cannon in the previous round, it can launch a devastating sonic attack that affects biological targets through their inner ears. The attack covers a cone-shaped area, only about 2 metres wide in front of the bot, but nearly 10 metres wide at its maximum 40-metre range. Any target in the affected area must make a successful Physical Effect save or take d6+2 stun damage. Targets within 10 metres of the robot take a -1 penalty to the save; targets beyond 20 metres get a +1 bonus. Non-human life forms receive a further +2.

Saturday 12 July 2014

Inspiration is everywhere: Day 5

Today the heat and tiredness have just sapped my ability to think. I don't have any idea what to write about. But that's why we have a system, right? Let's go to the shelves. 

The gift of friend Chris (whose cool DIY Mass Effect costume blog you can find here), this copy of the infamous Simon Necronomicon is part of the overlap of my collection of occulty nonsense and my collection of Lovecraftiana. Its textual history has been covered in great detail by Dan Harms, but that's not what we care about. What we care about is whether there's anything in this load of goddamn nonsense that might be useful in a gaming context!

Behold its arcane majesty. 

I think there is a certain amount. Firstly, sometimes you just want to bash out a little occult ritual text or artwork and you don't give a hoot in hell for authenticity. When that happens, you can't go wrong with some of this book's high-falutin' pastichery (or cut-and-pastery as the case may be). Something like: 

Thee I invoke, Serpent of the Deep!
Thee I invoke, NINNGHIZHIDDA, Horned Serpent of the Deep!
Thee I invoke, Plumed Serpent of the Deep!
You could give me twenty tries, and I'd never come up with Ninnghizhidda, Plumed and/or Horned Serpent of the Deep. And I like to think I'm good at names.

The Simon Necronomicon itself could also figure in games. Most games written by people who actually know anything about the field would die with shame rather than incorporate the Simon text (though I seem to recall that it does get mentioned in some Call of Cthulhu supplements, maybe?). But consider Unknown Armies, where magick tends to come from weird places. Alternatively, you could have a CoC tome (particularly in the Delta Green setting) that was written by some hack to capitalise on perceived Mythos weirdness but which nonetheless has magic properties.

Yeah, so our author -- let's call him Paul Lilak* -- is that fascinating mix of carnival barker, isolated weirdo and basic-model hippy that you get hanging around occult circles pretty much anywhere in the world. He mashes together some real-world mythology, some stuff he just made up, and some stuff ripped off from other sources. And through some combination of occult alchemy, even though the original materials didn't have magical powers, the mixture does.

So here's everyone ripping the piss out of Lilak, because everyone knows that his book is a load of bullshit, and he's getting increasingly crazy-furious, since he knows his crap works and that these magic-nerds aren't even bothering to try it. And serious occultists avoid it like the plague, so the only people even gaining the magic from the book are small-timers, lonely teenagers and dumbasses. That has potential.

(*I don't expect anyone to get this joke.)