Smoke, Mirrors & Faerie Dust #5

Copyright ©1998 By Joseph Teller& Kirlaee McCauley

Email: Website:

Surface Mail: 266 Western Ave Cambridge Mass 02139

Writing initialed with a JT are by Joseph Teller, those marked with a KM are by Kiralee McCauley

Personal Notes (JT):

Schedule problems continue to plague my local gaming group, and with the holiday season looming it looks like it won't be getting better until the turn of the year. Still, we did manage to finish another Night Watch scenario (a 3 session scenario covering the events of a single night that took 7 weeks to get the 3 sessions actually played). We've had two players drop out because of their schedules and a third that has made only one get together in the past 7 weeks, and thus is suspected to be unlikely to return. I also have one player who is busy working on wedding plans with his lady friend, and thus can be expected down the road to disappear for a month or so with all the obligations associated with such.

We're working on our ARISIA preparations, creating flyers, business cards and other promotional materials for the website and for the Shadow Bindings RPG. Work is underway on a new Setting booklet for the game (Mysterious Earth) as an alternative Earth pulp period game. I've also been asked to write reviews for some new game systems coming out shortly from a variety of game companies for inclusion on my website, so if nothing else, I'm keeping busy.

Paradigm Lite: An Analysis (JT):

This is not a review, its more of a personal commentary and analysis of the version of Paradigm that I got from S. Isaac Dealey's website. I come from this from a slightly different perspective, as has been mentioned in comments along the way, as I got to see the even earlier version of this game as it was included on the Fantasy Realms Journal CD Archive as one of about a dozen game systems presented on the disk. Some of this will deal with material that was not, as of this writing, re-presented in A&E. The intent here is to help find problems within the game and to encourage changes or expansion of material to make it a better game, not to flame it. Constructive criticism is always more useful then destructive.

First off, I found the HTML layout to be well done and general effective for navigation. The artwork is also of good quality, but I found it to be a bit limited in quantity. I know that good artwork is important in presentation, but also feel that B&W art can be as effective as color when used correctly. My only complaints about the art is that the game system could use more of it, and since the author is also the artist it should be expanded on to help better get a feel for the game and to better illustrate some areas within the text it accompanies.

The dice mechanic is based on a variant die pool system, which appears to have avoided the worst of the problems that other die pool systems (like that used in the Storyteller system) show in use. The only problem I can see is that there is little difference between having one and two levels in a skill in regards to roll results from a non-mathematically inclined player, since you subtract the lowest die roll from the highest die roll, getting one die for each skill level (and if you have only 1 rank you automatically roll three dice and use the difference between the lowest two dice as the result), save that you are more likely to have a slightly lower result on the same 0-9 result range for the die. Unless you do the math in regards to probability the difference is not as obvious as one would prefer in a mechanic, and this may cause some confusion for first time ever gamers who aren't big on probability calculations. One other small problem is that, like all die pool systems, you need a large number of dice on hand and must be able to roll large quantities if skill levels or combined efforts call for it (or spend a lot of time re-rolling if you have only one or two dice at hand). Some players don't like rolling large numbers of dice, its one of the common complaints about systems like Storyteller and Champions I've heard regularly in discussions.

The action modifiers are a bit more complex then most systems use, because instead of choosing a standard method (lowering the skill level before the roll as a penalty, modifying the goal value or difficulty for the roll or modifying the success result based on a GM call) the system uses all three at various times, adding to the complexity of the mechanic. For some people this could be annoying as a mechanic, for others this makes perfect sense. Those who prefer simplicity may end up deciding a 'house rule' of which of the three methods to use and discard the other two. There will be some bias to use the success modifier from folks use to other die pool games, and because the relational modifier system for effectiveness of skills abilities uses the success modifier method.

The use of the term Karma for what is basically the total point value of the character's knowledge, experience, and relative power is going to be objectionable to some players who come from cultures where that term has a very specific meaning. You might want to use a different and either more descriptive term or one that has no cultural/religious connotations. I also would consider the statement that "two heroes with the same amount of karma are roughly as powerful. Regardless of how their karma is spent" is to some extent wishful thinking. No point balance system ever really achieves this equality of value that I've encountered, as the setting, plot line, player creativity and GM style all affect the usefulness of specific skills, knowledge, abilities etc. This is why two GURPS based settings (for example) will have difference costs for the exact same ability, if they are designed well. This is also why in my own Shadow Bindings game there are only a few stock 'traits' and no stock skills, powers or magic systems as they are designed based upon the setting and not the mechanic.

The skill system usage rule that I find problematic from the start is the specific rule that all characters have one rank of all skills automatically, as this detracts from the realism of the game. Yes there are innate skills, but one would assume there are some skills that one cannot possibly have without actual training which this rule negates (ex: I know nothing of performing brain surgery, 9th century Mongolian History, Reading Arabic or anything about the poisonous flora and fauna of Turkey - why should I have a default chance to do such?)

Another problem with the skill system is the complexity level designed into the skills themselves. If a GM needs to look up a skill each time its used to look at a chart (like in Listening ) or to see special rules on Victories, Fumbles and Overkill it will slow down the actual play, even when using a hypertext reference system. The players I know prefer never to have to look at the rule book in play, and to have the GM rarely have to reference the rules during a game.

The Injury system, in regards to its measure of injuries, is very simplistic and suffers from some of the usual problems of a simplistic injury system, it does not come across as realistic to many players. Although you can be injured or slowed by your injuries there are no specifics, and to many players this makes a big difference. In systems where locations are used for injuries it is much easier, for example, to have a character knocked unconscious (by a head blow), or to injure them sufficiently that they cannot flee a situation, continue fighting or likely to be captured. The injury system presented here makes it far easier to beat your opponent to death or nearly to death before a combat would end. This makes games with a low bloodshed intent difficult to run, since such games are more likely if there is combat to have something like a fist fight occur rather than a fight to the death. I realize that there are some attempts to lessen this problem in the Paradigm mechanics, such as the Victory Dice concept to cause unconsciousness, but this does not deal with the entire problem. A broken leg, for example, could stop someone from pursuing a character but should hardly be considered an incapacitating injury that prevents all functions (they could for example still fire a weapon at a fleeing character, or use a psychic or magic ability). The simplicity of an injury system tends to increase its coarseness and detract from its usability. I would recommend that you reconsider the design of the injury system.

The scale modifier system seems straightforward, but suffers from the problem of being a mathematical X-Y coordinate table. There is a recent prejudice against such tables in games and game design that is difficult to get around, and may have something to do with the failing mathematical skills of the current 'younger generation' of gamers. I have no solutions or advice on this, just thought it should be pointed out.

The ability system seems to have been influenced in some ways by that of Champions, since it is in many ways a system of defining an ability rather than a list of abilities. Its more streamlined in many ways, but the influence is obvious, and this means that character creation of a character with abilities will take a real understanding of the mechanics, making it much harder for the first time gamer or someone that is coming from a system that uses a more ridged pre-defined system.

Overall the game has a lot of potential, but really needs a lot more material to make it viable. If the Lite version of the game is meant to draw a GM or player into trying the game, I fear that its not sufficient. You need to expand on your ideas, and give more examples.

I also feel that in many ways the game is a bit too preachy (something I'm sometimes accused of myself) in regards to supporting a specific moral code. It also comes across as being very much centered on a 'current era' roleplaying game, with a heavy emphasis on the superhero genre, even if that was not the intent.

You need to make available (either with the rules or separately) more setting related materials. Additionally an example character or two, an example combat and perhaps a step-by-step character generation example would help. I had trouble trying to craft a basic character with

the game as presented. The system has come a long way since its previous incarnation, but still needs some work (I know, thats painful, and I've had to face that myself a number of times along the way with Shadow Bindings, but my goal here is to encourage constructively but honestly). A number of others here in A&E have given you some very good advice and feedback as well, and you might want to take their points into mind as well as you refine the game system.

Comments on A&E #279:

(If we fail to write a comment, please don't feel that your zine was not read and enjoyed, its just that I didn't have anything specific to add that I thought would be of value to the readers).

Lee Gold: I think in your reply you got who wrote what in our zine slightly mixed up. Cindy has had no experience in training Gms, that was what I used to do when I managed a Game Store and a Gaming Club back in the 80s. (JT)

Lee Gold: While I was reviewing Aria, I wrote up a number of interconnected cultures using their system. I'd thought of including these as examples of what you can come up with, but I wasn't sure anyone would be interested. People tend to use this forum to share gadgets, powers, characters, and plots (via campaign write ups) but rarely settings. (KM)

S. Isaac Dealey: Shadis has recently been losing money regularly, and according to news I got this week is suspending publication (with an intent to restart with a revamped look sometime in the Spring). Each issue I've gotten in the past few months has been thinner than the previous in total page count and in actual content. If they manage to survive I'll probably not renew when I get my remaining few issues.// The GPA doesn't represent all the publishers and certainly doesn't represent the info that I get from the local retailers and clubs. If the distributors don't supply the stores then the stores don't have sales. The buying of Ingram (the biggest Book distributor around) by Barnes and Noble is also going to drastically affect the distribution system in the long term, especially for small press, from analysis that I've seen. It can also affect folks like me who have associate setups with on their websites if Amazon loses the web retail sales niche to their main competitor owning the distribution channel they deal most with. //A CD of the Archive should be enroute to you by the time you see this zine.// I'm considering a new CD project for the coming year, with my Shadow Bindings RPG and other things on it. We're still discussing whether we'll be doing it in collaboration with other authors this time or simply be doing it with our own work. We had lots of organizational problems with the first CD because of authors who pulled their stuff at the last minute, and others who never actually delivered their promised materials. We also had problems with getting supplemental material for a number of commercial game systems okayed by the perspective companies in a reasonable period of time (because of time constraints and reorganization going on in many companies that left us without someone to ok the materials). (JT)

Eugene Reynolds: As far as I know there are only a few independent magazines, and in most cases they are very small (like Fractal Spectrum and Rolepaper). I do my best to support them with my subscription money, like I did with The Familiar, but that is but a drop in the bucket. (JT)

Simon Reeve: OtE isn't my cup of Tea in regards to its mechanics. FUDGE might work better than GURPS for Discworld with the right GM, but it would need a lot of work to make use of that system for it. I tend not to support or encourage the low mechanics systems (Ote for example), nor do I like the High mechanics systems (Champions, for example). I think that Discworld, considering its scope, really deserves a mechanic all its own, or a mechanic that can better handle the concepts of that setting (Maybe the system used in 'Tales of The Floating Vagabond'? It's a good middle-ground mechanic that can be adapted to quite a bit of settings and can deal with the comedy elements better than GURPS). //Your Alternative Earth concept in regards to the Central Powers winning WWI was interesting to read thru and may inspire an adventure for my players someday.//I think it would be wonderful if the Thylacine has managed to evade and survive the presence of mankind (I'm a great fan of marsupials and actually had a game world I played with at one point with an Intelligent Kangaroo nation for players to deal with, they had developed firearms while the humans were still in the early medieval period on a separate continent when encountered, leading to some interesting concepts for folks to deal with). (JT)

Michael Cule: I tend to agree that the language in Aria can be "execrable." The authors seem to be extremely competent with the social sciences, but not math or English. And, if you can't read it, it makes perfect sense that you don't like it. I sometimes wish I could translate it for the rest of us, but in some ways that implies theft of their ideas. Oh Well. (KM)

I should point out that I was only reviewing Aria: Worlds, their book on setting design. Although I did read the actual game book (Aria: Roleplaying), I wasn't nearly as impressed. It has some neat ideas, but character generation can be overly complex, and conflict resolution (if I remember correctly) needs some work. I didn't think the society level game worked at all, and, as you say, there's no way to relate it to individual play. (KM)

Everybody: Or, why I don't write comments in A & E. I have trouble reading many of the zines. The APA is too long, and, more to the point, the fonts are too small. Often, I feel like I am slogging through a swamp, with never an end in site. And this despite some excellent articles and write ups. (Lisa Padol's zine is a good example of this. I very much enjoy the Altclair write up, for example, but under the pressure of deadlines I feel mired in it.) I read and read and read, and never finish a page. By the time I finish my first run though of the whole she-bang, several months have past. And I would have to read it all again to actually find the things I want to comment on.

Although the length of A & E contributes to this, it is the size of the fonts that really annoys me. Small fonts means dense text. It makes it difficult to judge how long it will take to read something, as my sense of timing is born of larger fonts. And when I misjudge the timing, I get frustrated with the speed of my reading, even when I enjoy the content. Instead of being a joy to read, A & E becomes a chore. (KM)

Everybody: I've gone back to the sort of basic format I was using for IR, with some encouragement from Kiralee, to a larger font, more carefully laying out of my material and inclusion of some basic artwork within the zine. This is also in part after having skimmed thru some back issues from when I was writing IR and thinking about what I liked about my zines when I was involved with it. I always found that artwork spruced up a zine and made it more readable overall and more attractive. I won't include large quantities in each issue, so it shouldn't overwhelm the words. (For my next trick I'll try to convince Kiralee to go back to editing the full zine, which will greatly improve the grammar and consistency of style). (JT)

Guillotine: A Quick Recommendation (JT)

Besides roleplaying games we do have fairly regular playing of board and card games of various sorts with our group, usually occurring when schedule conflicts prevent us from continuing a planned run because too many key players are missing. One of the worst things you can do is let a gaming group slip off schedule for any length of time, as it will inevitably cause the collapse of the group. Players need a schedule regiment to keep a campaign alive, substituting other games when problems occur is a good way to do this. Its also a good thing to do between major plot lines, to relax a little. (File this under Joe's Lessons For The Dynamic GM).

One game that we've recently taken to is Guillotine a neat little non-collectable, all-in-one-box card game published by Wizards of the Coast. Its a fun game, though with an odd dark humor, where each player is an executioner in the French Revolution and you vie for the most valuable collection of heads over three days of executions. Each day there is a round up of twelve nobles and their staff to be executed and players take turns vying for them. There are two decks of cards, one for the actual victims and one that is a collection of actions, tricks and political games that the players use on each other to interfere with each others execution records so that at the end of the third hand when the score is taken the one with the most valuable collection of heads wins. Even the Scarlet Pimpernel appears amongst the cards you can play as actions to use against the other players. The artwork on the cards is cute, and the play is quick.