A Classic Science Fiction Simulator: Howard Andrew Jones and Todd McAulty on Traveller

Sunday, January 19th, 2020 | Posted by John ONeill

Traveller Role Playing Game closeup-small

Classic Traveller box set (Games Designers Workshop, 1977)

Over at Tor.com, Howard Andrew Jones and I (under my pseudonym Todd McAulty, the name I use for fiction writing) have posted an article on Classic Traveller, a science fiction role playing game we both dearly love. Here’s a taste.

Todd: It’s fair to say that Classic Traveller was basically a ‘50s/’60s science fiction simulator. It was deeply inspired and influenced by the mid-century SF of E.C. Tubb, H. Beam Piper, Keith Laumer, Harry Harrison, Isaac Asimov, Jerry Pournelle, Larry Niven, and most especially Poul Anderson.

Howard: Classic Traveller was very light on setting—

Todd: To put it mildly!

Howard: —but it sketched the scene in broad strokes. Players adventured in a human-dominated galaxy riven by conflict, thousands of years in the future. The star-spanning civilization of that future looked an awful lot like the galactic civilizations imagined by Asimov, Anderson, Jack Vance, Gene Roddenberry and others.

The two of us had a lot of fun, but I have to say the article got a lot more interesting once E. E. Knight showed up to share some of his experiences at the gaming table.

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Exploring Character in Starfinder

Wednesday, January 15th, 2020 | Posted by Andrew Zimmerman Jones

StarfinderCharacterOperationsOne great feature of the class designs in the Starfinder Core Rulebook is that each class has a variety of choices, allowing for distinct builds that can suit a variety of play styles. You can build a Mechanic or Technomancer that is either a weak combat-avoiding technician or a combat-ready armored cyber-warrior, for example. This initial diversity has allowed for many permutations on the basic character options, so right out of the gate there’s little chance of players feeling like they’ve explored everything their characters can do. Over its first couple of years, the expansions have focused on new playable races (across three Alien Archive volumes!) and equipment (in an entire Armory volume), but there have been fewer additional options by comparison to modify the core characters.

The release of Starfinder‘s most recent rules supplement, the Character Operations Manual (Paizo, Amazon), definitely helps remedy that situation. Like Pathfinder‘s Advanced Player’s Guide, this is really the volume that establishes the ability to deeply customize characters … a hallmark of what made the Pathfinder RPG distinctive. In addition to three completely new classes, the Character Operations Manual presents more Themes, alternate racial traits for core races and Pathfinder legacy races, Archetypes that provide alternate class features, feats, equipment (including shields), spells, new starship combat rules, and an entirely new downtime system mechanic.

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Gas-sharks, Jump Bridges, and the Church of Stellar Divinity: Behind the Claw by Martin J. Dougherty

Monday, January 13th, 2020 | Posted by Patrick Kanouse

Traveller Behind the Claw-small

Behind the Claw
By Martin J. Dougherty
Mongoose Publishing (288 pages, $30.00 PDF, $59.99 hardcover pre-order, March 31, 2020)

Traveller is a popular science fiction role playing game originally released in 1977. Over the decades several editions have been released, along with a substantial volume of player created resources and supplements.

Since the 1980s the earliest supplements have been fleshing out the Spinward Marches and Deneb sectors of Charted Space (the Traveller term for the area of the galaxy that has been widely explored), where the Zhodani Consulate and the Imperium have fought four wars with a fifth looming. Meanwhile, the Vargr Extents provide numerous corsairs that raid shipping and planets. Rich with conflict and tension, referees have and continue to find many adventures to send their players on in this locale.

This latest foray into this classic setting comes from Mongoose Publishing in Behind the Claw, a full-color 288-page sourcebook in the style Mongoose has adopted for the latest edition of their Traveller line. The book looks excellent as a result. Crammed with content, buyers will also get two 28×40-inch poster maps of the Spinward Marches and Deneb sectors.

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Desperate Heroes in the Oldest City in the World: The City of Kings by Frank West

Thursday, January 9th, 2020 | Posted by John ONeill

The City of Kings at Gen Con 2019 2-small

The City of Kings at Gen Con 2019

My trip to Gen Con this year was a little overwhelming, to be honest. I’d been invited as a guest to the Writer’s Symposium, and I had a fairly packed schedule of panels and presentations. But I did find the time to wander the enormous — and I do mean enormous — Exhibit Hall, jammed end to end with hundreds (maybe thousands?) of booths, all packed with vendors selling games. It was too much to take in all at once, so I learned to snap a photo or two every time I saw something interesting. I brought home plenty of treasures, but there was no way I could afford (or carry!) even a fraction of the items that caught my eye. So in the five months since I’ve returned from Indianapolis I’ve slowly been sifting through hundreds and hundreds of photos, trying to make sense of it all, and occasionally ordering a game or two that I find irresistible.

This has been a fun process of discovery, actually. Just this week, based on my photos and a small amount of internet research, I took a chance on The City of Kings, an ambitious Kickstarter-funded game designed by Frank West, and I’m enormously glad I did. The display at Gen Con was one of the more impressive sights in the hall — the massive game box comes absolutely packed with content, weighing in at nearly 8 pounds — but I didn’t get the chance to spend much more than 60 seconds in the booth. But of the hundreds of titles I saw, it was one of a handful that really stuck in my mind, and when I had a few extra dollars after Christmas I splurged on the core set.

The City of Kings is a fully cooperative fantasy adventure board game, meaning you and up to three friends must work together. You play the surviving leaders in the oldest city in the world, faced with the nearly-impossible task of overcoming the armies of Vesh over a series of seven stories and twelve scenarios. Each story offers different challenges and objectives. The game is playable with 1-4 players (yes, it has a solitaire option); story games run from 90-180 minutes, and the simpler scenarios 45-90 minutes.

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I Need to Talk About Hellblade 2, or I’ll Burst

Tuesday, January 7th, 2020 | Posted by S.M. Carrière

Hellblade 2

Senua, swapping the woad warpaint from the first game for red and black in the second. It’s nice to see she still has her triskel, though.

Good morning, Readers!

So… The teaser trailer for the sequel to Ninja Theory’s spectacular horror puzzle adventure (how’s that for genre-blending?) game Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice dropped a few weeks ago, and I’ve been dying to talk about it. But first, the trailer:

One thing is for certain, Senua’s Saga (Hellblade 2) looks like it’s going to be as intense and terrifying as the first.

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The Joy of Starter Kits, Part Two

Saturday, January 4th, 2020 | Posted by John ONeill


Dungeons and Dragons Basic Set Second Edition,
edited by Tom Moldvay (TSR, 1981). Cover by Erol Otis.

I often wonder how new players discover role playing these days.

I mean, I know how it happens in theory. You’re introduced to the concept through video games, or friends, or a gaming club, or maybe Stranger Things. The whole thing sounds pretty cool. Eventually you take the plunge and shell out for a set of hardcover rule books and dice, and become a genuine RPG gamer. Sure, it’s a commitment. But it’s no more expensive than other pastimes of the idle rich, like polo or yacht racing.

It’s that initial expense that gets me. The D&D Players Handbook, the most fundamental RPG book on the market, retails for $49.95 — and it’s only one of three you really need. And that doesn’t even include dice. God knows how pricey those are these days.

It used to be easier. You used to be able to try D&D the same way your tried Monopoly, with an impulse buy of a single reasonably-priced box. That’s how I got started in the fall of 1979, when I bought the D&D Basic Set after seeing a few magazine ads in Analog and picking up a copy at the local gaming store. The sheer financial (not to mention emotional) commitment required of modern RPGs is a serious barrier to entry, and many game publishers have gradually come to that realization.

In Part One of this article I looked at some of the games that have embraced the old idea of the Starter Kit, an inexpensive box set that includes everything new players need to learn the fundamentals of role playing and have a few adventures. This new generation includes Pathfinder, Starfinder, Battletech, Numenera, Shadowrun, and others. In Part Two we look at Call of Cthulhu, Traveller, Star Trek Adventures, Warhammer, Star Wars, and the new breed of Dungeons and Dragons beginner boxes.

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Vintage Bits: Robert Clardy, Synergistic Software, and the Birth of the Personal Home Computer Role Playing Game

Wednesday, January 1st, 2020 | Posted by Ernst Krogtoft

Synergistic Software collection-small

In 1978 Robert Clardy released his first computer game, Dungeon Campaign, for the Apple II. Dungeon Campaign, and Don Worth’s beneath Apple Manor, are widely regarded as the very first personal computer role playing games. While greatly inspired by pen and paper Dungeons & Dragons, there were no proven concepts or templates to work from, and it was very much a trial and error effort to figure out what features and elements would work, and not least what was achievable with the limited technology at the time. Today these pioneering games might seem extremely primitive and somewhat quirky, especially from what we now perceive as the standard template in computerized versions of role playing games, but at the time they were truly innovative.

In the mid-’70s computers, how they were used, and who had access to them, started to significantly change. The landscape was starting to move away from mainframes, which took up entire rooms or even floors, to hobby kits that with the right skillset could be turned into a more or less useful (or useless) device, to an environment where non-technical users could buy an off the shelf personal computer powerful enough to run somewhat sophisticated software.

This change in computing can very much be credited to the 1977 Personal Computer trifecta, the year we tend to refer to as the birth year of the personal computer as we know it. It was the year Commodore, Apple and Tandy Radio Shack all released their own take on accessible personal computers. These machines were not only powerful enough to be useful, they were also mass-produced and marketed to the average consumer, who frequently lacked the technical skillset earlier machines required.

The advent of computer role playing games, especially on mainframes and later personal computers, has its roots in the remarkable human nature to innovate – making machines do something they were never intended for. People with access to these mysterious computer colossuses quickly saw the potential for more than just boring analytics and data-crunching.

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From Buffalo Castle to Choose Your Own Adventure: The Evolution of Solitaire Board Games

Tuesday, December 31st, 2019 | Posted by John ONeill

Buffalo Castle Rick Loomis-small Death Test The Fantasy Trip-small Wizards and Warriors Jeffrey Dillow-small

I’m old enough to remember when Choose Your Own Adventure books first appeared in bookstores and supermarkets in the late 70s and early 80s, and what a sensation they created.

I remember thinking how simplistic they were, especially compared to the more sophisticated solitaire fare already available in gaming stores at the time. Like Rick Loomis’ groundbreaking Buffalo Castle (Flying Buffalo, 1976), the first solo adventure for Tunnels & Trolls (and considered by some to be the first published adventure gamebook, period); Steve Jackson’s bestselling Death Test for The Fantasy Trip (Metagaming, 1978); and especially Jeffrey C. Dillow’s brilliant collection of early solo adventures, Wizards and Warriors (Prentice Hall, 1982), which I played to death and passed around repeatedly to my gaming group.

But there was something powerfully appealing in the very simplicity of Choose Your Own Adventure titles, and it didn’t take long for me to become a convert. I wasn’t the only one. Bantam published its first Choose Your Own Adventure book, The Cave of Time by creator Edward Packard, in 1979, and the series quickly surpassed role playing in popularity, selling more than 250 million copies. That’s more — far more — than virtually any RPG or fantasy or series in history. (For comparison, The Lord of the Rings has sold 150 million copies over the past 70 years, and George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones novels a scant 90 million. Only J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels, at 500 million, offer real competition). Bantam produced 184 titles in the series between 1979 and 1998.

Role Playing has evolved and expanded enormously since the 70s. You can’t say the same of Choose Your Own Adventure… but the franchise isn’t as dead as you might think. Most interesting to serious games is a pair of cooperative adventure board games released by Z-Man Games that capture the spirit of the CToA line, and take it in some intriguing new directions.

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Corporate Dystopia, Androids, Cults, Science, and even Archaeology: Alien: The Roleplaying Game by Free League

Saturday, December 21st, 2019 | Posted by eeknight

Alien The Roleplaying Game banner-small

“You don’t beat this thing, Ripley. You can’t. All you can do is refuse to engage. You’ve got to wipe out every trace. Destroy any clue. Stop its infection from spreading. Make sure there’s no chance of the human race ever making contact with it again. Because the moment it makes contact, it’s won.”
―Marlow (from Alien: Isolation)

Sweden’s Fria Ligan has been running up the score in the tabletop role-playing game industry lately with titles like Tales From the Loop and Forbidden Lands. So when I heard they had finessed a license to an RPG set in the Alien universe, I ran down Grandmaster Games in Oak Park and told Charlie to get me EVERYTHING in my best Gary Oldman voice.

The only absolutely necessary items you need to enjoy the game is the Alien: The Roleplaying Game core rulebook, a couple handfulls of assorted six-sided dice, and an ordinary deck of cards. The game itself is simple to understand yet is role-play heavy enough that seasoned gamers will enjoy it. I’ll go a step beyond and say this would be an excellent game for introducing someone who has never played a tabletop roleplaying game to the hobby.

The world is familiar. There are tons of reference points to explain game mechanics like panic (“you know when Lambert just froze up in terror?”) or a character sustaining enough damage that they are broken (“like after Cpl. Hicks got the acid splashed on him…”). You just need six-sided dice of two colors (or two different sizes) and the usual paper and pencils. The mechanics are simple: take your skill at doing something and add the controlling attribute for that skill and roll a number of six sided dice equal to the total. If you get a six, congrats, you succeeded.

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The Joy of Starter Kits, Part One

Wednesday, December 18th, 2019 | Posted by John ONeill


The Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set (TSR, 1977). Cover by David C. Sutherland III

There’s lot of ways to get into role playing these days. But recently the industry has embraced the Starter Kit (sometimes called the Beginner Box, Essentials Kit, Beginner Game, or something similar) in a big way.

They all have their roots in the Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set, the granddaddy of all Beginner Boxes, created by J. Eric Holmes and based on Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson’s original boxed set from 1974. The D&D Basic Set was first published by TSR in 1977. It was the way I learned how to role play, and I wasn’t alone — the D&D Basic Set sold hundreds of thousands of copies in the late seventies, and was so successful it was constantly updated and kept in print by TSR, with revisions in 1981, 1983, 1991, and later.

Gygax’s masterpiece, the Advanced Dungeons and Dragons Players Handbook, was released in June 1978, and was the gateway into role playing for millions of young gamers. Not me, though. That damn thing was a 128-page hardcover, and you needed the Monster Manual and Dungeon Masters Guide just to use it. By contrast, the Basic Set had a slender 48-page rulebook and everything you needed to start playing immediately. That’s right, everything, including dice, a pad of sample maps (“Dungeon Geomorphs), and an introductory adventure we played through at least a half dozen times. I didn’t have anyone to teach me how to role play, but with simple, clear instructions Holmes taught me everything I needed to become an enthusiastic Dungeon Master for my brother and our friends.

At long last the industry is rediscovering the power of Starter Kits to attract and educate new players. The best ones are cheap, easy to learn, and packed with goodies. In just the last few years there have been beginner boxes released for Call of Cthulhu, Pathfinder, Starfinder, Battletech, Dungeons & Dragons, Star Wars, Traveller, Shadowrun, and many others. They haven’t all been well promoted, however, and many gamers who could be taking advantage of an inexpensive entryway into a new gaming obsession are unaware they even exist. Let’s see if we can fix that with a look at a dozen of my recent favorites.

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