Archive for May, 2010


Anyone who’s read the earlier pages of this blog knows I’m an avid collector and that I’ve provided my own small, very small pearls of wisdom regarding the collection trade. I’m always on the lookout for helpful resources to assist me in my passion (some would say obsession) and I’ve lately acquired a new one that I thought worthy of noting to you gentle readers.

The book Heroic Worlds by Lawrence Schick was recommended to me as a guide to any collector whose focus was in any way on the earlier era of RPG’s. Schick through connections in the industry and a storied history himself of game play and research had compiled in the early 90’s the definitive tome and catalog of RPG’s. This work is seminal in its history of the industry, review of the hobby and again its completeness. Indexing and trends are even included. Even more interesting is that this book was published just a few years prior to the TCG blow-up that portended the end of the Golden Age of paper role-playing games, which makes it a time capsule of sorts for the hobby.

There’s almost a sadness that comes with looking through this old book. An index of gaming companies and their contact information reads like a casualty list from a great battle. So many companies are gone now or have merged with the survivors. Of course, so many new companies have sprung up since that time, so it’s not quite so depressing. However, it is a reminder that this industry is far from static and that things change and some are not restored.

The book begins appropriately enough with an outstanding reference set of information, such as the ubiquitous “What is a Role Playing Game” chapter found in almost every RPG main book, the history of RPG’s (this is a must-read) and the priceless though brief “Advice for Collectors”. Schick could have made this simply a catalog, but with this 50 pages or so of reference information, he makes it something so much more useful for gaming geeks such as myself.

I also appreciate the style of catalogs in the book. Schick chose to group games in genre and obviously company. Each product has a small blurb that describes it with the occasional side comment thrown in for good measure. One gets the impression that after so many hundred similar entries, Schick felt the urge to write “and yet another supplement that has traps or spells or a dungeon with insert-your-bad-guy-here for PC’s to fight.” Still he manages to maintain his composure and provide concise and effective information, especially for a collector.

Beginning each chapter is a description of the development of that particular genre of games, which games started when and which prospered. For example, although Mekton was the first significant mecha or giant robot game, Battletech came to define the market with Robotech right on its heels. Westerns sadly by this point had not been given much consideration as Boot Hill is the predominant entry for that category. This is one of the many ways in which the book shows its age, missing the advent of such incredible games as Pinnacle’s Deadlands or even GURPS Old West by several years and the Swashbucklers section if of course too early for the grand production, 7th Sea.

The last but certainly not least gem to be found in this book are priceless essays from some of the giants and founders of the industry. Remembrances of the industry, how they developed certain games and the importance of a diet of fried chicken in developing new mechanics are the bulk of what the reader will find in the words of old greats like Gary Gygax, Dave Arneson, Eric Wujcik and Mike Stackpole. It’s nice to see such things from these authors, not all of whom remain with us. I love old tidbits and war stories from the early days of gaming, because they help me remember why I got into this hobby and more importantly the remind me why its important to keep it alive.

It might be easy to imagine at this point that I consider this book a must-get for any collector or gaming history enthusiast. It is well laid out, packed full of useful information and most importantly still readily available. Such information should be as widely disseminated as possible.

This book was recommended to me specifically because the person knew I was a collector. If anyone else who reads this happens to know of other works that are as or nearly as valuable, I’d love to hear about them and I’m sure others would as well.

GURPS: My Favorite Campaigns

I’ve already commented on my hang-ups regarding GURPS. I do actually like the system, though. I like its ability to jump-start to almost any campaign setting or existing game imaginable. It’s always had flaws. No system is perfect, but GURPS comes about as close for a detail-oriented gamer as it gets.

The first time I ever played GURPS, I played as a villain in my friend’s Supers campaign. Chick, the GM, thought a pre-made villain would be a way to introduce a stubborn bastard like myself into a game for which I had hitherto refused to make a character. Through the steely eyes of a 20’s era hitman gangster turned-metal-man, I was allowed to take a series of shots at my friends who were playing a variety of classic supers.

There was perhaps no better way to introduce me to the system. In fact, I liked it so much I made my first Super, a skill monger named Backfire. Of course, he was an assassin-type turned good guy, because let’s face it there are few better ways to blow off steam than killing things in a game. 🙂

Our first group of Supers were all killers come to think of it. We typified the bash it with a stick mentality. Much to the frustration of our GM, we would barrel through most of his problems with brute force and then eliminate his well-crafted villains with extreme prejudice. Given a long-term campaign, which it was, we eventually had some near world-destroying entities coming to call every week as it seemed that was about all that could take us. This led to the eventual creation of a second generation of Supers, many geared towards less damaging powers and abilities.

Just yesterday I was recollecting to someone quite dear to me a perfect example of this. I created a small stable of heroes for this bold experiment, but first out of the gate was Dr. Otto, a super-intelligent gorilla. His sole method of fighting was, well, “gorilla-style” for lack of a better term. He was a scientist and a bit of an egg head, you see, and he didn’t like or know much how to fight, so when forced he fought like a gorilla…because he was one. I recall his first “field” mission was with an electronics/gizmo gearhead type and they were both confronted with a locked door to a suburban house. We in character spent several minutes debating on how best to enter the house (Disabling potential alarms, looking for key rocks, etc.) before actually gaining entry. Chick had this look of bemused fascination on his face as he watched us do this where our old characters would’ve just busted in the door.

Again I will always think on that as one of my favorite settings. GURPS Fantasy comes in pretty much in a tie, though. Chick again was our GM and he used the standard “Yrth” setting provided in the Fantasy and eventually Banestorm books put out by SJG.

We started out as a simple enough group. We consisted of a Reptile former gladiator (me), a swashbuckling swordsman, a ranger and a battlemage. For flavor we acquired a goblin thief to handle those duties. As an aside and oddly from my point of view, I’ve never known someone who liked to play a thief. We’ve never had a PC thief in any group of which I’ve been apart.

Our merry little band advanced from being simple mercenaries for hire to fighting in a war of survival for Caithness, one of the larger, but newer nations and then “dieing” only to be brought back to finish the war we’d started some years previous. From there we parlayed our war fortune into a piracy outfit centered around the Brig Hellshark, at least I think she was a brig. The same problem occurred as before. As our adventuring increased (it was a multi-year campaign in real time), our power increased and as our power increased our opponents became more and more ridiculous in power themselves.

The campaign lost much of its interest as our GM was unable to keep providing challenging scenarios, and like the Supers campaign ultimately folded with a whimper instead of a bang.

Both the Supers and Fantasy settings, very different in most aspects, sold me on a system I had boycotted for years. I began to truly appreciate just how flexible GURPS really was and applied elements of it to several games afterward that I myself ran. Most notable among those was my Traveller campaigns. I kept modifying the Traveller campaigns I ran, never content with the rules systems that were available. CT and MegaTrav’s settings had great character-building “Career path” systems, but everything else was very clunky. For combat, nothing matched GURPS’ level of detail and my players loved detail when it came to killing. So did I, I must confess. Not many games were out that would let you target an eye, finger or jugular with equal simplicity. I don’t know that that has changed. I began adding the GURPS elements to provide that level of detail and to keep my players happy; the ultimate goal of any GM.

For a system I had so stubbornly avoided, it was playing in it that ultimately broke through my curmudgeonly shell and let me finally realize its true potential. It reminded me that with much in the way of RPG’s, we really should give new ones a chance before writing them off altogether. Is that realistic? Our biases and personal idiosyncrasies tell me that in practice it is not, but small examples like this prove that it works.

If anyone has similar stories or favorite campaigns that come out of one GURPS book or another, and the beauty of that system is many excellent world and subject books exist, I’d like to hear about it. Write in the comments section if you feel so inclined to share.

I took a long time to come around to GURPS (the Generic Universal Role Playing System). Steve Jackson did his level best to make me not want to by his product. This may require some back story.

It certainly wasn’t the first product of his in which I had shown an interest. I was an avid fan of Car Wars and had most of the original “pocket sets” back when such things existed. Car Wars, Truck Stop, Crash City, Midville and a variety of Uncle Al’s guides graced my collection and my original group played several rounds of the game.

Steve had, it seemed, a hatred of my hometown, though and frankly this pissed me off. I hailed from Indianapolis, you see, and Steve had the town nuked by terrorists. The town that up through the 80’s was known for little else than racing had been nuked out of existence. That made about as little sense to me as anything could at the time and well my response was to not buy any of his crap for several years. Considering how much of my money went to gaming books, I figured I was denying him a significant market share of the industry at the time. Ask my now-retired pusher, I mean game store owner. He’ll attest to the amount of his kids’ college for which I paid.

I was lulled after many years to actually play GURPS Supers, although I still refused to by the book, and then I was slowly conned into playing in a GURPS Fantasy campaign, both I now consider among the best campaigns in which I ever played. Still, I was very slow, almost a decade in, in acquiring my first GURPS book. It was well into Third Edition before I acquired the Basic book and Compendiums.

It was about this time, I think, that Steve heard I was buying his books, because realizing he couldn’t have such a thing, he committed his second atrocity in my eyes. I have spoken before of the release of GURPS Traveller. I have also spoken about how furious I was that MegaTraveller and Traveller: New Era were being tossed aside in favor of his desire and Marc Miller’s to see the bloated Imperium campaign continue.

I was livid and again I delayed in acquiring his products. In time, I forgave and began my 3rd Edition collection, although about a third of my collection consists of $5 specials from GenCon as 3rd Edition was phased out and 4th was phased in. I’ve purchased one 4th Ed. book (Traveller: Interstellar Wars), but refuse to buy all the others again. I’ve already done that with other systems (bought the same book with revisions umpteen times) and I think I’ve finally reached my limit with GURPS. That or I still haven’t forgiven the son of a bitch completely. 🙂

If there was ever to be a science fiction game that had considerable promise, it was Star Frontiers. Granted, I may only think so highly of it because it was my first and thus most dear science fiction game, acquired I think around the tender age of 14. Its system was, as many are, unwieldy and not much good beyond basic play with basic tasks (combat, climbing, riding, etc.).

The universe was perhaps generic, but it was at the same time gifted with a certain unique twist in that the races were still very playable and amusing. We of course had our ubiquitous humans. What game doesn’t? Well, some but this had humans. There were gliding apes called Yazirians, who I assume were developed to fit the “wookie” role in the Star Frontiers universe. The inscrutable “Vulcan” like characters were oddly enough insectoid, Vrusk. Outside of Star Wars’ Verpine, rarely do you see PC insects in scifi. And lastly the fourth main race were the Dralasites, blobs of goo looking like Gloop and Gleep from the Herculoids that could shape themselves in any number of ways with any numbers of limbs and a ridiculous sense of humor that was equally pliable.

There were many subraces introduced over a series of adventure supplements, most NPC-level in detail, but these were the four main player races.

Naturally a villain race was introduced, the worm-like Sathar. And yes, they resembled nothing so much as an oversized earth worm with a penchant for large guns. Something that infuriated me as a teenager was the fact that TSR took great lengths to insist that any campaign should keep the Sathar a complete mystery to the PC’s. Some small things were found out about them near the end of the adventure series (in Face of the Enemy and War Machine), but by and large there was never any information produced on them. They killed themselves before capture and blew up their ships if they were losing a battle. I always longed for TSR to flesh them out, as it were, but to my knowledge they never did.

The modules were surprisingly enjoyable. The original “Volturnus” series for Star Frontiers was in my opinion a fun albeit somewhat predictable storyline. I own multiple copies of these adventures and always enjoy re-reading them. What’s not to love? Squirrel monkeys, land squids and desert-dwelling octopi mixing it up with bipedal super smart dinos. Yeah, have to call that one a winner in my book.

The unigov in this game was called, wait, United Planetary Federation (UPF) because the United Federation of Planets might be too obvious. That goverment mixed with local colonial governments gave quite a degree of flexibility in campaigns.

I was a huge fan of the fact that Star Frontiers had its own wargame, “Knight Hawks”. It allowed for UPF and Sathar space battles in a very standard wargame fashion. Everything from fighter to fighter to battleship to heavy cruiser was covered. Again the system was overly simple and not designed to survive much detail. Small detail criticals were included almost as an afterthought, it seemed, but the system was quite playable.

Both “Alpha Dawn”, the RPG set and “Knight Hawks” had maps and counters; a step above almost any other TSR fare at the time. In fact, it outdid a lot of games of its day in that regard. Most companies couldn’t afford all the extra bells and whistles.

Coming out of Star Trek and Star Wars at the time (this was about ’85), I was quite eager to play an actual scifi game and Traveller was not yet fully on my radar. Star Frontiers proved a remarkably simple and satisfying product for that need, but it left me wanting a lot more. I’ve often thought the setting should be modified for other systems, like GURPS, and maybe it has. I might look that up. Yep. I love the web.

If you’re looking for a simple system with great races and a very workable and expandable campaign setting, you can do a lot worse than go with the Star Frontiers setting. The products are highly collectible and even include some miniatures if you can find them. It amazes me how much money TSR threw at this project, but it was in its seriously flush days of the Frank Mentzer D&D sets, so it makes a bit of sense.

If any of you ever played this or it was also your “gateway drug” into other scifi games, I’d love to hear about it.

For now, I’m back among the living. Family life’s just so much fun. Anyone with one will understand that statement. I’ll try and post some more goodies. Glad to see people have still been coming around in my absence. If there’s a general topic or game you want to hear about and I have info on it, let me know and I’ll write and write and write for your amusement. 🙂