Smoke, Mirrors & Faerie Dust #8

Copyright ©1999 By Joseph Teller

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Surface Mail: 266 Western Ave Cambridge Mass 02139

Personal Notes :

Things have been busy around here, as I've been doing a lot of work for Kiralee on getting IR back on its feet and making deadline. We've been expanding the scope of the publication, trying hard to attract new contributors and subscribers, and getting all the accounting straightened out with Pete Maranci (Whose records didn't survive his latest computer crash).

I'm also dealing with some gaming group problems that I'm trying to deal with. I tried to put together a group contract to set up a system to deal with complaints and grievances (especially in regards to personality conflicts) and instead ended up with about half the group complaining that they wanted nothing to do with such an agreement and with three players in a personality conflict that's disrupting things and tearing the group apart in the background.

By the time this sees print an updated version of Mysterious Earth, the Neo-pulp setting for Shadow Bindings will be up on the website taking it into full Beta. I'd love to get some feedback, but with as many pages as the documents run there is no way I'm going to try to present it here in A&E or elsewhere, its just too big.

Nightmares of Mine (Brief Review):

I picked up a copy of this RPG Sourcebook at the local gaming shop this past week, evidently a book that both the folks at ICE and Chaosium were involved in (ISBN 1-55806-367-6 $14.00 from ICE, Inc.). It's a sourcebook on what is a horror game, how to run one, possible settings for one, elements of horror and solving problems that occur in a horror game from a GM point of view. It also explains how to use elements of horror in other game genres for a change of pace.

I must say this is probably one of the most useful books for gaming I've bought in the past 9 months or so, and the only one I can use without having to work hard to adapt it to my own specific mechanics etc. Its well thought out, absolutely 100% generic, and has some nifty quotes and artwork along the way that helps you to understand the genre of horror games in general.

The pointers and problem solving sections are helpful, concise and do indeed tackle real problems I've encountered when running horror games in the past. The sections on defining horror, on possible settings and developing scenario types are all very extensive, and the bibliography in the rear of the book is very extensive.

I'd recommend this to any GM who is consider a horror game, or applying horror elements to their game. I also hope that it's the start of some new cooperation between the gaming companies in general, as this is the sort of material that we've been needing for quite some time in gaming.

Unknown Armies (Review):

This roleplaying game, published by Atlas Games (ISBN 1-887801-70-7) is by Greg Stolze & John Tynes. Its subtitled as being a game of "transcendental horror and furious action". It retails for $25 and comes with a warning that it is "recommended for mature readers".

The production values are reasonable throughout the book, as is the art, and they have used the art reasonably sparingly so it does not look like a total clone of a white-wolf product. I don't care for the all black framing of each page's content, as its an attempt to set a 'dark' mood over the contents by invoking a white wolf design ploy, but I can live with it.

The premise is that the cosmos is about to die and be reborn. The last person who achieves archetype status will get to decide the form and shape of the new cosmos. The cosmos as is bears much resemblance to the one you live in on the surface, but there are subtle differences and a secret war going on between various occult groups and organizations to achieve control of the present and the new future.

The game makes certain assumptions about people, and the first is the hardest to swallow - everybody is crazy, and everyone has a major obsession in their life that guides it. It also assumes that violence is inevitable when you fill a world with crazy obsessed people. It also talks about a style of gaming, that the authors call "fractal storytelling" and the concept that all stories are told on three different levels. Unfortunately this is about as clear as mud in both explanation and in application within the example scenario at the rear of the book.

The authors each present a viewpoint about what is roleplaying, which are not drastically different. John Tynes claims its like "Improvisational Radio theatre" and Greg Stolze says that it's a way to "finally satisfy the frustrated novelist, screenwriter and actor that many of us have inside." These two comments set off the warning signals in my mind when I read them, as it tends to lead to game systems that hold little connection to simulating reality on any level or that take mechanics as seriously as setting in my opinion. I was right.

What we have is yet another variant of the 4-fold attribute system for character design, this time applied to Body, Mind, Spirit and Speed with percentile dice in use. Each attribute is used to develop skills, no skill in the game can be greater than 55% success, and generally you have 1 to 4 skills per attribute.

Psychology is applied in the mechanic in two ways. First each character has defined an obsession, and three types of stimulus (Rage, Fear and Noble) that they will react to. There are also separate kinds of "checks" made in game against character reaction to Violence, The Unnatural, Helplessness, Isolation and "Self" that are made when encountering situations (saving throws) which a character may develop emotion "shields" that harden them against being affected when these checks are made. (In other words a Sanity System for Insane). You also have a basic Wound Point value (a throwback to Hit Points, equal in this case to your Body attribute). In all, a character system that produces a character that fits on a file card and pretty much is a stereotype in most cases (you have to work real hard to make something original here).

There's a couple of neat dice tricks in the mechanic, you can flip flop a percentile roll if you are rolling vs a skill that is your obsessions (all mages are obsessed with magic, by the way and the majority of player characters will probably want to be either mages or combat monsters to survive what they will do and encounter) so that a bad roll can be changed to a good roll. Additionally there are some dice gimmicks associated with rolling doubles for magic and combat (known as "cherries") that can be applied to represent unusual results, a variant of the concept of klutz tables and critical successes that are customized for a specific character (guess this goes on the back side of your file card character sheet (yes, they give you a full page character sheet, but it has more blank space than you really need).

The combat mechanic is fast, and fairly fatal. In a world where folks have an average Body/Wound level of 50 points and weapons can do as many points of damage as the highest successful combat roll vs skill to hit that they have (thus a character with a gun skill of 55 can do 54 points of damage with the gun) it means a fairly fatal mechanic where winning the initiative roll tends to be the big deciding factor on victory. The hand to hand system is wimpy in comparison (instead of the percentage being damage, you add the two dice for damage, and if using something like a knife a small value like a +2 or +3 is added dependent on the hand weapon).

The magic system has some interesting ideas and concepts, but in general a fast gun bearing character will leave the spellcaster dead long before they can start a spell. Instead it should be focusing on concepts of subtle action, manipulation and information, and does so, but for some reason there is still a preponderance of combat oriented spells in the examples, which makes no sense given the effectiveness of the combat system in regards to guns.

The magic system focuses on the concept again of obsession. Dipsomancy, for example, is defined as Alcohol-based Magic, or "boozehounds". They can only cast spells while drunk, but take no penalties on their magic while drunk, only trying to do anything else. Magic all uses charges, of various levels (Minor, Significant and Major) to power spells, which are built up thru various actions and activities.

The non-combat spell examples are mostly good and creative, but the explanation of how to build your own spell system (which is talked about as being a regular feature) is rather limited and doesn't really cover the sorts of guidelines a GM needs to balance the system against the existing spell lists.

There are some reasonable sections and information on scenario design for the setting, so long as you avoid references to the "Fractal Storytelling" concept (which would probably fail if it was used on a large gaming group).

The example scenario has the redeeming feature of not assuming a straight-line path to be taken by the player characters, a problem a lot of recent game systems that have examples included tend to follow, but its done in this case because of a gimmick in the storyline and not simply to show good GMing technique of planning in multiple directions that players might choose to take.

Summary: Forgotten Armies has a lot of problems as a game mechanic for a large gaming group, but might work for a small (1-4 player) sized group in the hands of an experienced GM that was willing to put a lot of effort into making it interesting and avoiding falling into its suggested "violence as a solution" concept. Its premise is not acceptable to all, and it is a little condescending to real-world pagans and magicians (especially the use of the generally accepted Pagan spelling of magic as magick, and a few paragraphs here and there to assure people that real-world magic is not the same as magic in the game). The mechanic is a poor simulation of realism on most levels and characters end up stereotypes rather than detailed representations of unique ideas and concepts. The combat system is fairly fatal and overpowers the magic system on many levels, which makes little sense in a magic oriented setting. It has some interesting dice mechanic twists that could be applied elsewhere, and some useful spell ideas. The horror aspects and creatures are downplayed too much for a horror game, and are not done as well as they could have been (pretty much B-Movie Slasher types). I won't be using this system personally, nor would it be one I would have any interest in playing in. First glance at the game was deceptive, and may have set my hopes a bit too high. Some minimalist players might find it interesting, but others would probably think its too complex since the mechanic is more complex then OTE. In general I don't understand the folks giving this game a rave review, maybe I'm jaded or I just see the flaws too easily.

Frustrations With Time:

It looks like my appearances in A&E are going to be more like every other issue for a while, as I've taken on a number of additional responsibilities with Kiralee taking over Interregnum APA, since I'm now the Assistant Editor, Art Director, Advertising Staff, Liaison with Our Printers, Convention Liaison, Webmaster, Email List Manager, etc. and expected to get out a zine in every issue there as well (8 a year). For anyone that's interested, IR's website is a sub-set of my main one: (We're looking for more contributors to write for it, but IR is a bit different than A&E in many ways, including format and styles).

I'm in the middle of several new RPG projects that I hope will eventually show up on the website, and possibly putting together a new CD-R disk of roleplaying material (My first one is nearing being sold out after about 3 years, reaching its planned "break even" point to cover all its production costs along the way). {Such a CD-R project wouldn't be released until 2000 sometime}.

Comments on A&E #283:

(If I 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: (re secret decoder rings) I actually got to use a Captain Midnight 1940s Secret Decoder badge in a recent Pulp game I ran, using it for the secret message the players intercepted from a villain to her henchmen in regards to their next meet. The player managed to crack most of the code on their own (they were usually alpha-numeric substitution codes) and later got the actual device off another henchman that they captured (which gave them the two items they had missed and needed to figure out the time of the meet). My badge is a replica that was made back in the 80s, but even the replicas have become scarce. I've had it for a game prop for years, but this was the first time I had a chance to use it in a game.

Lisa Padol: (re How do you get the laundry done?) Now that's a question to consider adding to my often-ignored player character essay page of the character sheets (where I ask 6-10 questions to help folks get in better touch with the character).

Joshua Kronengold: (re cmt to me regarding minimal mechanics and running off the top of one's head) I'm not using as large a brush as you may think, and much of what I believe is from experiencing lots of really bad Gms who thought they could run off the tops of their heads AND use minimal mechanics and preparation. Of course one can run entirely off of player decisions and actions in a prepared setting with lots of detail (I've done that myself) but I don't consider that running off the top of my head - many hours went into preparing the supporting cast, local color, relationships etc before the players entered into the setting. Nor are all minimal mechanics bad, but to be useful a minimal mechanic must be able to fully describe a character as the player perceives them in detail. FUDGE can do this, in the hands of the right GM and the right Players in the right setting, for example. But if the minimalist mechanics limits the possibilities (like I found in Everway) or fails to allow detailed description then it fails. For an example in Everway, try to produce a Tribal Shaman character with Shapeshifting ability into animal forms as well as healing magic and prophecy that is effective (an archetype that should be possible in the concepts that the game holds to more primitive cultures instead of technology driven cultures) under the rules as laid out in the book. Without changing the mechanics you can't produce one that is effective (I know I had a friend who tried to do this). When I run a game I can run with random elements added to my plot structures - we've been using a storypath deck to do just this in my Pulp Campaign. But if there is no structure, the players have no reason to do anything, and when I have let the deck be used too often the game ceases to be anything but reactionary and the concepts of cause and effect break down. It may have something to do that I'm running a fairly large group (8 players). I've noticed that minimalists tend to run with much smaller (1-4) player groups. All I know is I have yet to find a low level mechanic (including FUDGE) that works for me or the group I run with. I use what works for me, and that's a game system that uses a mechanic that uses detail at the character creation point, but is loose in the skill/combat resolution mechanic. Perhaps an Overhauled version of Mercenaries Spies & Private Eyes (itself a revised version of Tunnels & Trolls) might work for me as a minimalist mechanic, with a lot of character background write-up, but I suspect that anything in my hands would cease to remain minimalist as I tend to tinker whenever problems occur that make the mechanic too unrealistic or gets player complaints.

Comments on A&E #284:

(If I 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: We're trying to get George to adapt to our new standards for IR (1" margins on binding edges, and 10 point fonts for readability). We tried scanning and shrinking his zine last time, but the quality of his copy was too poor to do this without making it unreadable. //Unfortunately we are unlikely to make any other cons this year, except maybe Readercon. Cindy might make Dragoncon, like she did last year, but Kiralee and I have much tighter finances to juggle.

Lisa Padol: (re PC Deaths) I tend to make sure that the mechanics I use don't have very often the possibility of "instant kill" combat, and use traps of a non-fatal nature more than those that can kill them off. PC Deaths can still occur on occasion, but not as often as some folks would have - I haven't actually killed off a player character in about five years that was still actually being played (I did with the pulp group recently kill off a character when the player dropped out after only 2 sessions as he made a convenient plot point to build off of - gave a couple of the characters to go after his killer that might have left the trail of the killer otherwise since the only deaths had been of people they didn't know and didn't have any connection to up to that point.) // Sorry that my opinions of Unknown Armies are drastically different than yours, as my review this zine shows, but I also don't like the mechanics of OTE (but love the setting). I like detail, and no one has shown me a mechanic or setting that gives me a reason not to. I don't run games of pure horror either, because its not surprising, its more interesting to use horror elements in a traditional genre setting so it can sneak up on the players.