Smoke, Mirrors & Faerie Dust #1

Copyright ©1998 By Joseph Teller

Email: Website:

Surface Mail: 266 Western Ave Cambridge Mass 02139


I won't go into a lot of details about myself - suffice it to say I've been gaming a long long time, run one of the busier roleplaying web sites on the Internet, have been a regular contributor to Interregnum APA, and have authored a number of roleplaying game systems that have made their way into public distribution (Mystic Earth, FUDGE WOW, Fantasy Realms: Perilous Earth, Fantasy Realms: World of T'Phon, The Shadow Bindings RPG Mechanics, etc.) I tend to be a bit on the opinionated side, with distinct visions and concepts on roleplaying that I like to share with interested folks. This first zine will not be my best, rest assured, for it is sans Kiralee, my writing partner/editor as she is being overwhelmed by the mundane parts of life right now (I hope to coerce her to be more involved in future zines, as she has been in Interregnum).

I'm currently running a Shadow Bindings mechanics based worldbase, Night Watch (set in an alternative 1951 Cambridge Mass where magic works from dusk to dawn fed by the dreams, nightmares, legends and myths of the collective subconscious). Currently the group is dealing with the problem of the return of Captain Hook, who's turning derelicts into pirates to help kidnap children off to Neverland. My roomate is working on writing it up for future availability on the website (its just too long to fit in a zine).

Quick Review of GURPS Wizards

ISBN 1-55634-270-5 By Sean M. Punch Published By: Steve Jackson Games [128 Pages]

Wizards introduces the use of a character template system to streamline the character creation mechanics of GURPS. The use of templates aren't new in gaming, but the approach used in Wizards is different and in many ways refreshing. It combine elements from several such template systems, hones them for GURPS, and also gives some fine examples, in the way of 112 "ready to use" characters.

It appears from this that SJG plans to do several template books in the future (though none are on the current schedule) dependent presumably on how Wizards is received.

The book is easy to skim thru, using a basic descriptive word (Like Assassin, Demon, Shaman, Tech Wizard, etc)

to find good examples in most cases. There are a few overly powerful beings (400-750 point range) that might have been better to have been left out and more playable point value characters included, but not enough to overshadow the characters that are more in the normal player character point ranges.

The descriptions are purposely short, and the book is obviously for someone who has had some experience with the game on a regular basis more than the beginner because of this. They recommend that one have GURPS Basic, Compendium I and Magic, but I think in most cases one should also be sure to have the Grimoire, Martial Arts, Psionics, and Voodoo books at hand (they also have a few that would work best if you have access to Supers and Religion, but these are not as predominant).

In general, if you play GURPS I think the book is a good addition to the reference shelf. If you don't play GURPS but only use it as a reference for some other game (Like I often do) there are still some good ideas that you can take from it to get fresh character approaches. Its not world shaking, but a good book to have around.

Thoughts On Universal Game Design:

I've seen numerous folks lately trying to develop 'Universal Systems' for roleplaying, and I often have folks telling me that in its own way Shadow Bindings is just such a universal system. I've never advertised it as a universal system because I don't believe such a thing can exist. Shadow Bindings is a multi-genre system, but is hardly universal system.

A Universal system would need to not only emulate genre, but would have to be flexible enough that it could emulate all genres AND fit all playing styles and concepts of reality. Thus it cannot exist, as there is no way that a single system can satisfy everyone's style and definition of what is needed in regards to mechanics. There are the no-dice people, the low-dice, the 'High Power' players, the Strategists, the Realists, the Roleplaying as a Theatrical experience folks, the 'Low Power' people, the 'Cultural Experience' people, the minimalists, the sensualists, the Live Action folks, the folks who believe in no numbers, the folks who believe in lots of dice, the people who believe in roleplaying as a learning experience, the people who believe that monopoly is a roleplaying game, and the folks who want roleplaying games that feel just like being in a book, movie or tv show.

Shadow Bindings is designed with a specific set of concepts: Its heavy on stressing Personality (You must define a number of elements of a character's personality BEFORE getting around to things like physical and mental characteristics, history, occupation, abilities or skills). Its also heavy on stressing Dramatic Elements over cold hard reality or facts, and has built into it those features of life that are often flukes, quirks or coincidences in the eyes of science. There's even a character aspect (Synchronicity) that specifically affects character survivability in many situations that basically represents the importance of the character to the Universe (as the universe sees it, not the character), and there is the ability of a character to have a 'charmed life' where there's always a slim chance to get out of an impossible situation or escape a certain doom. Even the dice mechanics take the underdog in combat and gives them a slight edge, since in the case of a tie the defender in a challenge will win ties.

This means that Shadow Bindings would not be suitable for realistic battlefield emulations, especially in large scale conflicts, as it deals too much with the concept of the ability of the individual to make a difference - even against superior numbers. That also means it can emulate a Cyrano, the Three Musketeers, Crocodile Dundee, Conan, The Shadow, Doc Savage, Sam Spade, Ivanhoe, and numerous other classics of book, movie and even television.

I've read and played many other systems that try to be 'Universal' and find that they often have either huge flaws or simply fail to deal with every possible genre. GURPS, for example, according to folks at SJG has problems when dealing with very small creatures at the same time as human sized ones (which is why there is no GURPS Faeries). It also doesn't deal well with balance between skilled normal people and those that are fantastically powered (As recent discussions about the Cyrano test in newsgroups and mailing lists produced - You can build Cyrano, but will spend as many points as you need for a 500 point superhero that flies, throws fireballs etc. )

Lots of folks, even some here in A&E are talking about designing or having designed Universal Systems. I just can't see there being a system that fits all the genres, all the needs, all the desires (Simplicity and Realism and Dramatic Elements and Fictional Elements and Versatility and Compatibility and Durability and Wide ranges of character design and play choice, etc.)

I think its better to set up a plan when designing a system that outlines the limits, goals, concepts and elements that are wanted in a specific game. You can use a similar system, or design a modular one, or design one that fits a specific atmosphere/philosophy much better than trying to build the Perfect Universal Mechanic. Its why I buy so many roleplaying books and throw out the mechanics for ones I prefer - my mechanics fit me and my playing style and that of my players. The information in many games is good, but the mechanics fail because they try to be too generic, too universal, and lose the importance of atmosphere. Those games that center their mechanics on the atmosphere and philosophy of the genre and style associated with it end up the ones we use intact, the others end up reworked to mechanics that do take these in to consideration (or if not possible, then they end up sitting on the shelf collecting dust).

Comments On A&E #274:

Everyone: If I fail to comment on your zine, rest assured it was read and enjoyed, it just didn't need any commentary, questions or input from me. This is my usual style, and is not meant to offend or ignore anyone. I'm not used to writing quite as many comments as folks in A&E do in most issues, I tend towards a more article oriented approach (which served us well in IR before its current hiatus).

S. Isaac Dealey: One system you missed is that we used in Fantasy Realms (World of T'Phon, Perilous Earth) which was an attrition system that didn't use hit points in the normal way. Each damage roll was on a combat table, and each hit would usually have a character effect and a die effect - so that each wound added to the next roll on table, producing a greater effect. So the first few effects were things like 'Knocked Off Balance', 'Stunned', 'Knocked Prone', etc and later ones were 'Full Wound, +4 to all further damage table rolls until healed'. It made it difficult for players to know exactly how much it would take to drop their character, since there was both an accumulated effect and a random effect. It didn't have a high level of character death in play, but was definitely different. [In Shadow Bindings we turned back to a variant Hit Point System, as the design philosophy was different].// I may be sending along a check for a copy of Paradigm in the next few weeks, depending on how my finances go.

Brian Misiaszek: I Love A Mystery was one of the great all-time radio shows, as was its later incarnation (name escapes me, but it went to weekly all-in-one episode format instead of the serial format). Jack, Doc and Reggie are great examples of a pulp hero team. Let us know how the search for missing episodes and such goes, as all I have are some stories from my younger days when I belonged to SPERDVAC. I didn't even know there were any movies (would love to get copies) and would also like to know where to get scripts for shows as well.

Lisa Padol: I really enjoyed the material from 'The Desk of Justin Thorne' and it definitely has an IOU flavor. I may have to borrow a few of the ideas to spring on my own players sometime....

Robert Dushay: I actually once ran a Mystic Earth scenario where an antagonist had decided to use technology to advance the distribution of spell knowledge. In this case he had taken a book of Faustian Magic and turned it into a computer text and sent it out over the Internet. Faustian spells all had a hidden drawback that made them possible, like a teleport spell that caused a minor earthquake at the locale you left. Unfortunately until you cast the spell you didn't know the side effect. The Antagonist was an elf who wanted to destroy humanity for genocide against his people, and was using their own magic and technology against them.

Michael Cule: Actually I'm reading The Last Continent right now, we have a game/book store that carries English imports, though they are annoyingly more expensive (about $45 for the Hardback of this book). It's a good fun read, though and definitely worth the effort to find. The Discworld's version of Australia is obviously built off of all the various movies (like the Mad Max series, Crocodile Dundee, etc) and comedy skits (like the mention of Australian table wines, ala Monty Python).

Spike Y. Jones: As you can see, at least one recruit has arrived from the long slow decline in Interregnum. I'm in contact with more of the IR folks then most, since I run the IR mailing list, but many folks are just too busy to bother starting fresh (and others have a sour taste in their mouth from the events that have made IR follow TWH into evident non-existence). Peter Maranci, the IR editor has dropped out of gaming locally, as far as we can tell, though he keeps telling me that IR will return... after as much time between issues as we've had I tend to believe that this is wishful thinking on his part. I have sent out a note to the other folks on the IR mailing list about A&E, whether this will help only time will tell.

Comments on A&E #275:

Lee Gold: We did come up with a mechanic in Shadow Bindings for characters trying to develop new technology or alternative technologies to their cultures tech rankings. We only ever had one character use the mechanic, as it was semi-realistic (taking a modern gasoline car and converting to alternative fuel, electricity, took about 6 weeks using the character's spare time). The formula for determining invention complexity is: +3 for each rank above current technology level, +1 for miniaturization, alternative power or other minor innovation, +3 for unusual power sources (ex: magic, psi, brain waves, cold fusion, stellar energy), +1 for each positive character trait advantage it gives (flight for example), +5 if the invention violates known physics (ex: turns lead into gold without a cyclotron), +1 for each skill the GM feels needed to accomplish the task. The total is multiplied by ten to get the number of hours the character must devote. It requires a workshop/lab, and cannot create something more than 3 tech ranks higher than their culture/world. The skill roll involved is usually handled as an average of all the required skills needed. A GM can still declare a technology impossible at the start, if the building blocks have not been developed (thus you can't make a portable computer in the 1950s unless you develop the micro-chip or micro-tubes first, and then the power system).

S.Isaac Dealey: RE: Action rounds. We've used a 6 second round for a long time, based on tests we did years ago with a friend on the archery range. 6 Seconds was needed to load, aim, and fire accurately short, long and compound bows ranging from a 30 lb to 120 lb pulls at a target.