Lacking Natural Simplicity

Random musings on books, code, and tabletop games.

Recent Reading: Heinlein

I recently decided that I need to read Heinlein's juvenile novels. I'd read some of them in my youth (thanks to the Weston and Clarksburg public libraries), but not all, and I wondered how they would stand up in the 21st century to my middle-aged eyes, and how interesting they might be to younger eyes as well. (I'll have to wait a bit to see the later, though.)

Luckily, inexpensive compilations published by the Science Fiction Bookclub are easily available from online sellers, and I got four volumes that include all the juveniles, as well as Starship Troopers. Four Frontiers is the first of them.

  • Four Frontiers, by Robert A. Heinlein; First Science Fiction Book Club printing: June 2005. Published by arrangement with “The Robert A. & Virginia Heinlein Prize Trust” and “The Robert A. & Virginia Heinlein Library Foundation”, and Tor Books, and The Berkley Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc. ISBN 0-7394-5345-9.

    • Rocket Ship Galileo, copyright 1947 by Robert A. Heinlein, copyright renewed 1974 by Robert A. Heinlein, Copyright 1988 by the Robert A. & Virginia Heinlein Library Foundation.

      I had never read this one. As you might expect, the earliest is the roughest, and probably the least interesting to current crop of juveniles. It's still a fun adventure story, though current social mores would have made it impossible.

    • Space Cadet, copyright 1948 by Robert A. Heinlein, copyright renewed 1975 by Robert A. Heinlein, Copyright 1988 by the Robert A. & Virginia Heinlein Library Foundation.

      I can't remember reading this one, but may have. It's interesting how much of this is about learning to deal with others, which moves from dealing with other cadets to, eventually, dealing with aliens. Knowledge, brains, and morals win out over brains, money, and greed.

    • Red Planet, copyright 1949 by Robert A. Heinlein, copyright renewed 1976 by Robert A. Heinlein, Copyright 2003 by the Robert A. & Virginia Heinlein Library Foundation.

      I'm almost positive that I'd read this one, but if so I'd forgotten how subversive it was. And I love the skating, for some reason. (I don't skate myself.)

    • Farmer in the Sky, copyright 1950 by Robert A. Heinlein, copyright renewed 1977 by Robert A. Heinlein, Copyright 2003 by the Robert A. & Virginia Heinlein Library Foundation.

      This situation on earth in this one, sadly, looks more and more likely.

There's a fair amount of discussion of the actual technology of space travel and related planetary science in these first four books, and that's probably what has aged the worst. The adventures are still fun, and I think an open-minded juvenile could still enjoy them.

Note

This is a timewarp post.

Return to Alusia, part 4

Introduction

One of the games I ran over the holiday continued a Savage Worlds adventure that I started at Christmas 2007. The adventure is set in the Frontiers of Alusia sometime during the later stages of my original Frontiers of Alusia DragonQuest campaign, but set away from the scenes and characters of that earlier series.

Prehistory

In December 2007 I was looking for an adventure to run for the kids at the family get-together at Christmas. I'd been looking at my notes from my old Frontiers of Alusia campaign and decided it would be neat to revisit Alusia since my brother, one of the players in my original Alusia campaign 1, would be in for Christmas and would probably be playing with the kids. Of course, instead of using DragonQuest or GURPS, the systems I'd used in the original campaign, I wanted to use Savage Worlds, especially since I was giving all the kids who were old enough copies of Savage Worlds: Explorer's Edition that Christmas. I decided to reuse The Tomb of Aghyar, an adventure I'd written for another group that had adventured for a short time in my version of The Frontiers of Alusia, and have my original group's characters feature prominently in the city's gossip but not actually appear in the adventure.

I took the map I drew for the original adventure, added some more rooms, worked up Savage Worlds stats for the opposition (borrowing from Noble Deceit for some thieves guild types), and printed out copies of the pre-generated characters from Against the Orcs and Noble Deceit for the players to choose from, and off we went. It went well, my brother was pleasantly surprised when he figured out what was happening, and everybody had fun being chased by the Thieves Guild, figuring out where the tomb was located, and finally venturing into the tomb itself. As is not uncommon when playing with the kids we didn't finish the adventure that evening, and so had to wait for the next time my brother and his family were in town to continue it. My nephew from out-of-state repeated mentioned how he was looking forward to playing “those games with dice” when he came back for the summer.

Revamp

Fast forward to the summer 2008 visit. The night before we played I decided to remap the dungeon and redo the encounters to add a bit more zing. I was interested by D&D 4E's increased emphasis on encounters with more dynamic aspects, having followed some of the Internet discussions and read H1 – Keep on the Shadowfell, and wanted to see what I could do with Savage Worlds to make encounters be more dynamic.

Wizards of the Coast sells Dungeon Tiles, heavy cardboard 2 tiles with pretty dungeon and outdoor scenes marked off in 1 inch squares. They've also released similar tiles in the D&D Basic Game sets in the past.

There is a browser-based Javascript program called Dungeon Tiles Mapper that lets you design dungeons by dragging and dropping the pictures of the tiles from all those sets onto a grid. It lets you print off pictues of the dungeons you've created along with a list of the tiles needed to build it.

Anyway, I download the program and spend some time fiddling with it. It has some quirks and some outright bugs, but overall it is very useful. I was able to make a more interesting dungeon layout pretty easily. I then spent some time rethinking the encounters, looking for ways to make them more dynamic.

Actual Play, Part 1

The first room I changed the least. I already had an WC ooze and a fire trap, but I added a vicious bug swarm in a pile of skulls in one corner near the entrance. When they looted the pile of skulls they disturbed the swarm and after a couple of rounds where the two looters failed to stop the swarm and the swarm failed to damage the looters, everybody moved away to the other side of the room while one of them used fear to send the swarm scurrying. Of course, in the process they moved into the area of the ooze, which was actually dispersed under the dirt floor of the room. It oozed up through and around their legs, and they had to make Strength rolls to break free while the ooze got to try to completely envelope one of them and all had a chance of being damgaged by the acid ooze around their legs. They managed to break free, and one got off a lucky shot with their crossbow, acing their Shooting roll and then acing the damage roll so high I ruled that the shot hit the plum-sized brain of the creature and killed it outright. After that they searched the room, avoiding the depression left by the ooze erupting from the floor and the acidic liquid left by the dying ooze, and finally found a secret door out. Unfortunately, the rogue set off the trap on the door, a fire blast, and caught fire and fell back into the remains ooze, setting it on fire in turn. Now they had to hurry to rescue him and leave the room before the burning ooze rendered it unihabitable. They left through the new tunnel, which lead a few feet to a a shaft down to another short corridor that opened up into a larger room.

That's where we broke for lunch.

Actual Play, Part 2

After lunch we switched play to a different house (mine, just next door), and one of the younger players, M.A., wanted to play. I had a character sheet he could use 3, so on the spur of the moment I added a mystical column of light in the next room as a prison where the adventurers would find his new character.

That room was much larger, but I'd set it up with with a pool in the middle that took up much of the room, and around several of the walls were a number of alcoves. When I added the mystical column of light, I put it on a short circular pedestal on a square base in the middle of the pool. The PCs could easily jump (not even requiring a roll) from the six-inch tall lip around the pool to the base, but could only balance and move around the base with difficulty. An early experiment with poking the column of light with an unlit torch destroyed the torch and revealed that the rather-more-viscous-than-water liquid in the pool was very caustic. Cautious investigation by T.B.'s combat mage revealed the proper method of manually disabling the mystic column, and after some careful manipulations by T.A.'s rogue, M.A.'s new PC, a paladin of the Holy Light, was with the group.

While improvising a description of his cuirbouilli armor during the initial get-to-know-you conversation the serendipitous juxtaposition of my description of a design on his armor and a aced Smarts roll by L.B., who was playing a priestess of the Holy Light, inspired me to add to the new paladin's backstory that he was the last living paladin of the Holy Light, imprisoned here in agony for — his captors thought — all eternity as punishment by the pirates who destroyed the last stronghold of the order of the Paladins of the Holy Light, and who it was thought had killed last Paladin of the Holy Light. L.B.'s priestess informed the rest of the group of the paladin's identity and his importance, and several of the players immediately assumed the paladin would set about reforming the Order of the Paladins of the Holy Light. M.A. thought all this was neat. (He's 6, BTW.)

During all of this the PCs had dispersed around the room, and it was at this point that they finally noticed that the liquid in the pool had become very agitated, with waves as tall as a man, and suddenly it was flinging globs of acidic gloop at them. Several were hit, some were injured, and one had his precious chainmail damaged by the gloop. Luckily, they had the example of the earlier ooze's remains catching on fire and had plenty of oil, and proceeded to set the gloop pool ablaze, which quickly killed it, to my dismay. 4

Just before the beginning of the glooping, B.B.'s fighter made a Notice roll and figured out that the dusty cobwebs in the alcoves at both ends of the room concealed leathery corpses. He wanted to start stabbing the corpse in each alcove before moving on to the next. Knowing that this would simply bring the corpses out to fight him as he moved toward the alcove I decided it would be better to charge a “Divine Inspiration” tax and take one of his Bennies and tell him it was a bad idea, so they didn't end up fighting the eighteen zombies at the same time as the Wild Card gloop.

However, as soon as they opened the door out of the room, the eighteen zombies came out to attack. Since B.B.'s fighter had noticed the corpses earlier and warned the others of the alcoves' contents I gave them a Notice role with a bonus, so they had a round to decide where they would be when the zombies actually attacked. Most lined up at the end of the room with the door out, but D.B.'s dwarven fighter moved back halfway through the room, planing to get a first shot at the ones coming from the other side with his crossbow, then switch to his axe.

It was M.A.'s paladin's turn to shine: he got the Joker for initiative early in the fight and proceeded to ace his Fighting roll and really ace his damage roll. I decided that the return of the Last Paladin of the Holy Light to the world and his almost immediate return to the fight against Darkness was such a momentous occasion that he had been inspired by the Holy Light and began to glow and his sword, swung for the first time in over 200 years, cut through the heads of the three nearest zombies even before they had completely left the alcoves. The paladin retained the glow and a small bonus through-out the rest of the fight. B.B. remarked that his fighter was inspired by this, and slightly later in the fight when he aced one of his rolls I ruled that he picked up a slight glow for the moment. At the end of the fight B.B. decided he wanted to become a Paladin of the Holy Light as well.

In the mean time, everybody else had been whacking at the zombies. D.B.'s dwarf was doing wonders with Sweep, keeping a significant number of the zombies from attacking the others from behind. T.A.'s rogue was stabbing away Two-fisted with his knives and both of the girls (who had independently and without me knowing at the beginning had picked two female clerics with Pacifist; I might have suggested one or the other take one of the other female pregens without Pacifist had I known) were quite happy to be taking out these unnatural creatures.

T.B.'s combat mage had been plagued with really bad rolls all night, and he was getting perturbed. I had actually missed pointing out a couple of bonuses he should have got that would have made one or two of his earlier attacks hit, so I gave him a small bonus on his last attack roll, which got him a hit with raise and with the extra d6 of damage he aced a couple of his damage dice and got to totally disintegrate the last zombie, which made up for the bad time he had earlier.

With the zombies truly dead and the gloop still blazing, it was time again for some quick looting and then out the door to the next encounter. Unfortunately, we had to end things there, to be resumed at Christmas 2008.

Remarks

In hindsight, switching houses in the middle of the game was a bad thing for the game 5: we lost a lot of time moving things and setting up again. On the other had, it did help get rid of distractions. I think in the future at this big family gatherings at the farm I'll just plan to have gaming set up at my house, and we can just migrate people there when it's time to play.

The Dungeon Tiles make nice looking dungeons, but are tedious to organize; finding the right tiles takes too much time unless you can do it before the game, and they are surprisingly bulky. I still haven't figured out if I've lost any of the tiles. I need to try some PDF tile sets to see if it's more convenient when I can just print out as many tiles as I want on cardstock, instead of having a limited number of much thicker tiles.

When playing with the kids, I tend to let really high aces do things that are just plain cool, like letting a damage roll that aced with enough raises to do a half-a-dozen wounds if the PC had been attacking a Wild Card to instead take out several side-by-side Extras, and/or add some cool special effects, like the glow and bonus for M.A.'s paladin, the much shorter glow for B.B's fighter, and T.B.'s combat mage's disintegration of the last zombie.

I also tend to be fairly lenient with bonuses if I realize I'd made a mistake in an earlier round that could have made an earlier attack a success, retconning those earlier misses into “you spent a couple rounds getting this attack set up right, and boy did you hit it this time!” It's not going to do me any good to not recognize my mistakes and hide behind the letter of rules and send a kid away from the table unhappy. All but one of the kids I play with regularly is 11 or younger, and we often don't get to play more than once month, if that. If I was playing with adults or older kids, or we played often enough that even the younger kids had the rules down perfectly I'd be stricter.

Savage Worlds doesn't have all of D&D 4e's mechanics for dynamics, such as special rules for shifting and pushing and pulling, and I didn't really do anything particular in these sessions to do that with Savage Worlds other than trying to have more terrain obstacles and have more than one opponent per room. Things seemed to be pretty dynamic in play. I think the things that Savage Worlds does have still let you do dynamic things easily, though with more recourse to GM judgement.

Note

This is a timewarp post.

1

The original campaign was based only on the original The Frontiers of Alusia supplement, which was just a map and 4 pages of terse descriptions that accompanied it.

2

These are real cardboard, heavy and stiff and about one sixteenth inch thick.

3

Several of the Savage Worlds Savage Tales adventures come with pre-generated characters and figure flats for the characters (as well as the monsters for the adventure) so back at Christmas when I'd quickly put this adventure together I just printed out the sheets from a couple of the adventures and let the players pick which ones they liked the best. That left me with several from which new players could pick.

4

Perhaps using an ooze and a gloop that both could burn as Wild Cards in nearby rooms was not a good idea...

5

It was still a good thing overall, since it got most of the kids and their commotion out of the house with most of the adults, so the stess levels for those adults went down.

Actual Play: Buggin'

Another of the roleplaying games I played over the July 4th holiday was Buggin', . This game had T.B. as a scorpion named Scorp; T.A. as Dragon the dragonfly; M.A. as a pillbug, Bill the Pill; my brother A.B. and his youngest O.B. teamed up to run Bob the cyborg grasshopper 2; E.A. as an Aunty the Ant; and L.B. as Maria the bee. Several of these characters had been played in earlier games of Buggin'.

The characters, having done some troubleshooting for the local ant colony in the past, were assigned to find out why communication with a neighboring ant colony had stopped. They escaped an Ant Lion trap, lots of fun was had with the ant lion throwing sand at the PCs and the flying PCs trying to rescue the non-flying ones who'd fallen in the trap. They made a new trail around the trap and moved on. They found the neighboring ant colony deserted, passed through the strangely rectangular rooms and corridors of the lowest levels, found the huge cubic room and black floating rectangular monolith, climbed up the ledges and across the bridge and passed oddly through the black monolith, to find themselves huge jellyfish-like creatures floating in the upper atmosphere of Jupiter, where they set about building cities for new homes, along with lots of other jellyfish-like creatures.

And then they woke up, and found themselves back to normal and remembering the Ant Lion trap as the only problem with other colony. And then they woke up, and they were Jellyfish Colonists on Jupiter again. And so forth.

Some of the kids thought this was funny, and others thought it was just strange. M.A. thought it was really neat.

L.B. was very worried that those characters would be constantly flipping back and forth between being Jellyfish Colonists on Jupiter whenever they went to sleep, so I assured her that it was just for this one game.

Remarks

I find that Buggin' is less work for me to run than Toon. The system is simpler, a character sheet and the character creation rules all fit on one page of paper 1, and I don't have to worry about making things funny, since the genre doesn't require humor (although the players usually add plenty of it themselves). It's usually pretty easy to come up with adventure ideas on the fly, since the genre is ubiquitous in TV and movies; I'd still find an adventure generator useful for inspiration, though.

Note

This is a timewarp post.

1

... which is a goal of the 1 Page Game system used in Buggin' and the other 1PGs from Deep7 and its partners.

2

In the very first Buggin' game I ran N.A.B. created a grasshopper, Bob. During the course of the game he lost his arm. At the end of game the ant colony “repaired” him, and he ended up with a cyborg arm. He also ended up with a pair of Frankenstein bolts on his head.

Gaming during the Week of the July 4th Holiday, 2008

My brother who lives out of state usually comes in from out-of-state twice a year, once during the summer and once at Christmas. One of his sons is old enough to play Savage Worlds these days, and since I'd given him, along with rest of the kids who were old enough, their own copies of the Savage Worlds: Explorer's Edition I wanted to make sure we got to play some roleplaying games while they were in town, especially Savage Worlds.

Running for kids is a lot different than running for adults. One of the kids is in his middle teens, but the rest of them are under 11 and one is 6. They're very enthusiastic when they're interested, but if things slow down the younger ones (literally) wander off until things speed up again. They also have sometimes have a little difficulty switching between the neat stuff that is happening and the mechanical stuff we're using to make the neat stuff happen, which can make things take longer than it should. They all enjoy it, though, and it's definitely worth doing.

Sometime I'd like to make some character sheets specifically for the younger kids who don't read very much yet, with pictures of, for instance, their sword and the dice they need to roll to attack and do damage with it.

One of my nephews is very into a particular collectable card game, and we didn't get a chance to play it this summer. Maybe at the Winter gathering.

Note

This is a timewarp post.

Recent Reading: Tim Powers

  • Powers of Two, copyright 2004 by Tim Powers, NESFA Press, 2004; ISBN: 1-886778-51-5.

    • The Skies Discrowned, copyright 1976 by Tim Powers, published by Laser Books; republished in slightly different form as Forsake the Sky by Tor Books, 1986.

    • Epitaph in Rust, copyright 1976 by Tim Powers, published by

      Laser Books; republished in corrected form as An Epitaph in Rust by NESFA Press, 1989.

These early novels by Tim Powers show little of the reality twisting genius of his later novels, but were still enjoyable.

Note

This is a timewarp post.

Recent Reading: Ellis/Cassady; Powers

  • Planetary: Archaeologists of the Impossible, Book 1: All over the World and Other Stories; writer: Warren Ellis, Artist: John Cassaday, Colorist: Laura Depuy with David Baron and WildStorm FX; copyright 2000 Wildstorm Productions; originally published in magazine format as Planetary #1–6 and Planetary Preview, copyright 1998, 1999 Wildstorm Productions, an imprint of DC Comics; ISBN 1-56389-648-6.

    It's been quite a while since I've read anything approaching a superhero comic with any regularity. This is probably as close as I've come. Very good. I'll probably have to find and read the rest of the compilations.

  • The Bible Repairman, copyright 2005 by Tim Powers; Subterranean Press, 2nd printing; ISBN 1-59606-046-8.

    A slim pamphlet, containing one of Tim Powers' typically weird stories.

  • A Soul in a Bottle, copyright 2006 by Tim Powers; Subterranean Press, 1st edition, 2006; ISBN 987-1-59606-075-3.

    A slim book with another of Tim Powers' typically weird stories.

Note

This is a timewarp post.

Actual Play: Toon

We got to play Toon a week before the July 4th holiday week.

Part 1: Character Creation

On Staturday the kids made characters while I used one of the Toon Adventure Generators to generate some adventure ideas and looked for interesting NPCs in the Toon books. T.A. created a helpful ghost named Jim and took ghostbusters as his natural enemies. I'd rolled the location to be a haunted house, so I told L.B. and E.A. they were ghostbusters and gave them a ghost trap and proton guns, and told T.A. that he was one of the ghosts haunting the house, a former sailor, “Salty Jim the Ghost” 1. T.A. was worried that L.B. and E.A. would spend the whole time ganing up on him 2, so I told him that they would initially be at odds, but later they would have to cooperate. E.A. created Tanny the Ballet Bunny and took gardeners as her natural enemy, so I added a garden and gardener/caretaker to the haunted mansion, although they didn't get used very much. L.B. created Nicole the Chameleon. I decided they be facing an alien invasion and the Dough Boys would be the minions of the aliens.

Part 2: The Haunted Mansion

On Sunday we actually got to play. The ghost and the ghost busters spent some time trying to make each other fall down, destroying much of the foyer of the haunted mansion and turning up a plaque holding the spirit of Prof Winterbottom, the missing owner of the mansion, who in the course of a world spanning career had collected an enormous collection of weird items from all over the globe and then disappeared mysteriously. Once the initial player-vs-player slapstick had wound down I had a delivery truck crash through the front porch 3 and dump a load of cylinders of bread dough through the front door of the house, which burst and combined into Dough Boys from the Toon rulebook. The PCs then fled down a long corridor (on roller skates?) and crashed down the steps into the basement. I decided that the aliens would be extra-dimensional octopus-faced Cthulhuoid monsters called “pluggoths” named for their odd special effect of squeezing through any aperture (doors, mystic portals, etc.) as if it were a plughole only an inch in diameter. The pluggoths were using The Dough Boys to open a portal to to Earth in the basement of Winterbottom's mansion, since it was the only building with the necessary density of weirdness, and planning to launch their invasion using the house as a base. Luckily the PCs were hiding in the basement, and after the aliens did their inevitable gloating and explanation of there plans to conquer the world and suck out everybody's brains, it was up to the PCs to foil their schemes and save the world. After some entertaining efforts by T.A.'s Salty Jim using bottles from the wine cellar as simultaneously triggered cork-guns and playing on the octopus-faced pluggoths' fear of fishermen things moved on to a climax. E.A.'s Tanny the Ballet Bunny had, unbeknownst to me, taken dynamite one of her possessions and in a move echoing all those desperate Call of Cthulhu characters proceeded to set an explosive trap for the pluggoths and the Dough Boys. Unfortunately, she failed her Set/Disarm Trap roll and the resulting explosion completely destroyed the entire mansion, flinging the PCs and Prof. Winterbottom's plaque high into the air. Luckily the pluggoths and their extra-dimensional portal did not survive the blast. All the PCs Fell Down, and Tanny fell down out of the sky through the Gardener's chimney and right into his stewpot. The End.

Remarks

I find Toon to be difficult to run: I feel a lot of pressure to keep up the wacky slapstick humor we're familiar with from Bugs Bunny, the Roadrunner, or Tom and Jerry, and frankly that's hard. Moreover, I find it hard to think up things to do. Thank goodness Toon has a number of “Adventure Generators”; they really help me come up with ideas. In any case, this episode became more and more a slapstick Bugs Bunny cartoon Call of Cthulhu episode as it went on, with creepy voices and noises and villains whose ambitions were only overmatched by their slapstick weaknesses: I worked hard to keep things at a Scooby Doo 4 level of creepiness, saving only that the monsters weren't people in disguise but silly cartoon creatures. I was aiming at Bugs Bunny visuals and Scooby Doo creepyness factor, but not forgetting the Tom and Jerry slapstick and the Scooby Doo chase scene goofiness.

I wonder if Toon would be easier or harder with adult players?

Note

This is a timewarp post.

1

T.A. wanted to make sure that his character could be other kinds of ghosts in other games, which I thought fit in well with the many examples of recurring cartoon characters taking on different roles in different episodes, so I assured him that the “Salty” part of “Salty Jim the Ghost” was only for this episode. I also gave him some temporary Shticks to help his ghost role.

2

T.A.'s very much into hack-n-slash and kill the monsters, and like the other kids hasn't internalized Toon's Tom-and-Jerry-like “conflict between players is fun” attitude, yet.

3

Who needs a man with a gun to burst through a door, when you can have a whole truckload of bread dough cylinders burst through and explode?

4

The first three seasons of Scooby Doo only, thank you.