Monday, November 29, 2010

Sideshow Arcade: Modern Man

When one looks at the plethora of gaming systems out there, one notices LOTS of castles.  And dragons.  And hermaphroditic denizens of forests, lakes, and swamps.  Fantasy worlds are  more than a staple—they’re practically the TEMPLATE.

Wizards of the Coast’s d20 Modern offers relief from the hordes of elves, gnomes, halflings, and so forth.  It brings the player’s party up to the age of gunpowder and beyond. 

Where both Iron Heroes and D&D 4e (and all previous iterations of D&D, to an extent) are best served by players choosing a niche for their character to fill, the d20 Modern system encourages players to allow their characters to fill multiple roles.  In a sense, it is the system that allows for Renaissance Men; it practically requires characters to branch out from their initial concept.  Where multi-classing is an option in other systems, sticking with a single class in d20 Modern can seriously crimp your character’s growth and ability to survive in the Brave New World.

d20 serves both combat and non-combat situations equally well.  Its capability to handle non-combat situations is SO marked and so impressive, it quickly usurped standard D&D (and 3.5e variants)  as my preferred system.  Flexibility is the name of the game, and d20 Modern plays it really, really well.  It has to: d20 Modern is meant to cover an enormous range of technological innovation, from gunpowder to gunships to starships.  And more!   Want to introduce contemporary fantasy or horror to your gaming group?  d20 is your system.  Elves with laptops!  Cyberpunk, Steampunk, Jungle-punk!  All can fit into the gears of the d20 Modern machine.

d20 Modern emphasizes skills in order to maintain this flexibility.  Skills are generally defined enough to allow for translation to different ages—Craft (Mechanical) can be used to build a catapult as well as a new FTL drive for a starship, depending on the setting.  Navigation can be used to read computer output to navigate star-ways as well as to read the stars to navigate a sailing vessel.  There are a LOT of skills characters have to draw on, too: the sheer number of skills available might overwhelm those players who are more habituated to skill-lite systems.

d20 Modern has a bevy of feats available to characters in general; but also offers several feat trees within classes.  For example, the Charismatic class has three paths: Leadership, Charm, and Fast-talk.   Each path has three feats which are acquired as the character advances; each path is designed to use the class’ prerequisite (Charisma) in a different way.  The leader may use his feats to help coordinate team-members in battle; the charmer may use his feats to boost his ability to be convincing outside of combat; the fast-talker may be able to better con his targets.   While this feature may seem designed to drive characters into a niche, the skill system and the need for multi-classing serves to offset that.

Sometimes the d20 Modern system gets a bit too big for its britches, though.  The rules can get a bit hairy and complex.  Case in point is the wealth system.  Gone is the relatively simple days of gold pieces; instead, wealth (as written in the rules) is a function of a die roll, occupation, level, and an equation whose formula I don’t remember right now.  :)  Spent wealth is accumulated over a given period of time, but (barring a successful bank robbery or inheritance, or windfall of some sort) you’re not likely to exceed your initial wealth rating.  It was confusing enough for my Game Master to declare it utterly broken, and to use home-brew wealth rules.

In my experience, d20 Modern heroes are a bit more fragile than their fantastically empowered peers.  There is no divinely-empowered Walking Medical Kit; healing takes time and rest.  Of course, there ARE rules that permit instantaneous healing, ala ‘Cure Light Wounds’ spell, but I didn’t play THOSE games. 

The extent of customization available in d20 Modern is such that it’s probably not the best system for brand new role players.  From what I understand from my GM, ditto for new Game Masters.  But if you’ve cut your teeth on swords and dragon’s talons; if you’ve got an eye on that far distant land of the future; if you’re prepared to step out of the dark ages into the land of Enlightement, Reason, and Gunpowder, give d20Modern a shot. 

With that, let me close with this: unlike 4e and Iron Heroes, you can find much of the source material for d20 Modern for free and online HERE.

Next time: no d20, no d10, no d8 even.  Embrace your FATE.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Side-Show Arcade: Iron Heroes

I admit it: I hate the Wizard class.  I’m not sure what it is about those beady-eyed, pompous, over-dressed, social misfits that gets my dander up.

So Iron Heroes is my kind of system.  Created by Mike Mearls, it uses the framework of D&D 3.5e to propose an RPG world where there is little to no magic available for the players.  And what magic there is is more likely to corrupt or destroy you than give you a to-hit bonus.  This is a world where dedication, brute strength, cunning, and intelligence rule; where the Gods are distant or capricious; where magic is the province of madmen and fools.

Largely, my kind of place.

I have nothing but praise for the system, although I admit to just being introduced to it fairly recently.  Iron Heroes differs from standard D&D in the way that it treats skills, and the way that it implements feats. 


In standard D&D, you’ve got a metric that describes your basic attack.  Say you’re a third level fighter; your experience level + Strength rating  may give you a bonus when you take a swing with your broadsword at that goblin warrior. 

The same goes for Iron Heroes, but the Iron Hero warrior may also be able to use skills to help make his attacks better able to hit.  The Iron Hero warrior may roar and rant just before striking, using his skill at Intimidation to gain a bonus on his swing; he may do a couple cartwheels to distract the goblin before striking, leveraging his capability with Tumbling to give him a leg up in his attack. 

The way the system implements skill is VERY satisfactory to me; most of the characters I like to play are skill-centric rather than combat-oriented.  (Which is why I lurv the d20 Modern system…)  Practically any skill can be used to augment combat ability; even traditionally non-combat skills like Diplomacy and Survival can be massaged into doing service for your blade or axe.

The other neat thing that the Iron Heroes system does with skills is to group them into families and allow for complementary skill point distribution.  Each Iron Heroes class has access to certain skill families; if you have access to a skill family, then you need only spend 1 skill point to feed all the skills within that family.  So, for example, the skill family Agility contains the skills Tumble, Escape Artist, and Balance.  My Weapon Master need only spend a single skill point to upgrade all three skills because she has access to that skill family.  For skill families to which she doesn’t have access—for example Robbery (made up of Disable Device, Forgery, Open Lock, and Sleight of Hand), she has to spend a skill point on each skill if she wants to augment them.


The thing that makes Iron Heroes stand out against other gaming systems is probably its use of Token Pools.  Token Pools are a device to reward players for using feats; or for playing their character to type.  For example, the Berserker has access to the Fury token pool; he can gain tokens by watching an ally fall in battle; getting hit; or spending a turn thinking about how angry he is.  :)  Those tokens can then be spent on special abilities available to his class.  The more tokens he spends, the better able he is to bring the enemy pain. 

Token pools are available for non-class feats as well.  For example, the old standby Dodge.  Normally, the Dodge feat allows you to nominate a single enemy and gain a bonus against all attacks from that source.  In Iron Heroes, the Dodge feat gives you access to the Dodge Pool; the more that enemy attacks you and misses you, the more Dodge Tokens you get.  You can spend those tokens on making him miss even more.

And that leads perfectly into the idea of the feat masteries.  The first time you take Dodge, you get a +1 bonus to your defense per token spent against a single enemy’s attacks.  As you level up and learn more, you’re able to learn to use Dodge even more effectively.  For example, at Dodge Master 3, you’re able to spend 4 tokens and redirect an attack meant for you to hit someone else.  At level 7, when your designated opponent attacks and misses you, you can spend 4 tokens and take an immediate 5 foot step.


I don’t really have any.  Whether the system is good from a game master’s perspective, I don’t know; I’ve only been a player. 

From my standpoint, the system inspires creativity and boldness in combat.  That’s precisely what I’m looking for, so Iron Heroes plays almost perfectly. 

Next up: d20 Modern!

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Side-Show Arcade: D&D 4EEEEK! My Childhood!

Ah, Grandaddy D&D.  You hardly look a day older than ancient.  You are famous for being (rightly or not) the quintessential RPG; the nerdiest nerd in the herd; the gawkiest geek of the gaggle.  How many iterations has it been since Gary Gygax and TSR? 

Many, many, many…

D&D is a different animal these days than it was when I was a kid.  Some of those changes are good—there are a LOT fewer charts to consult, for example, and the system itself has slimmed down (plethora of books notwithstanding).  I think that the mechanics have been greatly simplified, and that’s a great thing.  Really, there are few things more frustrating than to have to step out of a battle to look at columns and rows of numbers. 

4e enumerates character combat abilities more extensively than previous versions.  So, for example: in D&D 3.5e, you have your fighter.  He has an axe.  You roll one dice to find out whether you hit or not; and if you hit, you roll a dice to find out how much damage you did.  The same thing goes for 4e, but in addition to smacking your enemy with an axe, your attack may have additional properties: you may be able to push the enemy a square, or you may be able to get a second attack on a different enemy nearby.  All good, right?

Well, right, depending on the type of game you want to run.  The abilities bestowed on characters via their class are one of the things that can work against 4e by making the game less-playable in mindspace.  A battle grid (a physical representation of the field of combat) is almost essential to the game in order for players to take advantage of their abilities. 

By enumerating characters’ abilities, the system tends to play a little inflexible.  This is actually one of the selling points of D&D’s Human race—while other races can pick two standard combat abilities, the human race can pick three, maximizing their combat options.

If a DM isn’t careful, the game can wind up feeling a heck of a lot like an expansive board game.

That said, 4e plays a LOT better than I initially thought it would.  Allowing characters to fill niches makes for very clear combat direction: your fighter is the guy who takes damage and protects the team; your wizard is the guy who controls the battle field; the thief sneaks in to deal heavy damage to a single foe; and the cleric leads it all by boosting abilities and keeping everyone alive.  The exchange of flexibility for greater mechanical clarity and simplicity isn’t BAD; and from what I understand, the DM support manuals make encounter creation a breeze in comparison to earlier editions.

Next time: IRON HEROES!  All of the danger, and none of the magic!

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Side-show Arcade: RPG System Review


Keep your X-Box and your PS3.  Hold your PSP, your Wii, your vintage GameBoy, your Nintendo DS.

I’ve no need of them. 

I’ve been involved with Role Playing Games since I was in grade school.  My brother and I nicked a copy of one of the old Dungeons and Dragons solo-adventure modules (something about a thief and a gem) from an older kid on the bus, and we were hooked.  This was back in the old red-box days…the original Red Box days.  Yes—we memorized charts of experience; the ridiculous AC system; everything.  We convinced my grandmother to spend the dough on getting us all four tiers of the system: Basic, Expert, Companion, and the Master level.


We moved off of D&D to TSR’s d10 line of modern RPGs—the Top Secret/SI line, which was brilliant.  Hit points no longer in a pool, but distributed equally across parts of your body?  So you could kill a guy by doing 10 points of damage to him, as long as it was a head shot. 

topsecretsi Of course we loved it.  We were Texans, after all.  What could possibly be more Texan than carting around a huge shotgun, hunting down a deadly government conspiracy?

Nothing, that’s what.

We dabbled with Advanced D&D; we got the Player’s Guide and the DM’s Guide, and the Fiend Folio, but that was really it.  After we left Texas, I played D&D exactly once. 

Fast forward to 2002.  An online acquaintance asked if I’d be interested in playing a Dungeons and Dragons campaign through email; I jumped at the opportunity.  Since then…well.  I’ve had the opportunity to play in a number of campaigns, with a number of different gaming systems. 

My gaming point of view, these days, is largely narrativist.  I like games where the system supports the story telling; where combat is a chance to further express your character’s goals, desires, and personality.  I don’t mind numbers, don’t get me wrong, but I’m never going to be the one spending hours pouring over the source material, looking for the combination of feats/stunts/etc that will make my character the most powerful character EVAR.  I am LIKELY, however, to spend hours on his backstory, and I may be inclined to justify feat selection through writing a complete novella about my character’s personal growth between levels.  :)

A couple caveats: all of my recent gaming experience has been playing through email or through forum postings.  Additionally, most of the groups I’ve participated in have had story-telling as the significant element in the game.  It’s worth noting; the kind of pace that online gaming engenders isn’t for everyone.  A battle that might only last fifteen minutes gathered around a table may last a month or more when played out over email.  For my extremely crowded schedule, a glacial pace is about all I can handle… 

To a certain extent, then, most of my gaming experience resembles collaborative story-telling more than it resembles a dice-fest.  I enjoy this sort of exercise, and so my biases are slanted toward gaming systems (and Game Masters) that reward story-telling.

And therein lies a pretty big problem with the reviews hereafter: so much of the game experience depends on the type of GM you’ve shackled yourself to.  The GM’s predilections are such an omnipresent part of the experience, it almost seems unfair to the system to review it.

Nontheless—consulting my tables, I don’t see a ‘Save against Unfairness’ listed for this blog…

Coming up: D&D 4E!

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

How To Title Your Story – Or Not

As an editor, a bad title had never (consciously) caused me not to buy a story, nor have I ever heard any editor say they failed to buy a book or story specifically because of the title. However, it does set certain expectations for me regarding what I’m likely to encounter once I start reading, and obviously it’s in your best interests to have an editor start reading with the best possible impressions.

If a title doesn’t work and I want to buy the story, I won’t unilaterally decide to change it; I’ll point out what I consider the specific flaws in the current title and suggest some alternatives. At that point the author and I will discuss it, come to an agreement, and we’re set. However, I do know that many book publishers will (and frequently do) tell their authors what the title of their novel is going to be when it’s published, and it’s not just first-time authors that this happens to; I once had a conversation with Orson Scott Card about one of the books in his “Ender’s Game” series, and even he had one of his titles changed. It was early in his career, but well after his huge success with the original Ender book. The point is, it can happen to anyone, and you should be neither surprised nor insulted if it happens to you.

The reason why book titles are so important to publishers is that they know that titles are one of the top three factors in a customer’s decision to pick a book up off the shelf and look at it – or not to. (The other two factors are the cover art and the reader’s familiarity with the author’s name.) The title may not make a reader decide to actually buy the book, but they can’t possibly buy it if they don’t pick it up, can they?

With short stories you have a little more room for fun, creativity, and, quite simply, words. But with a novel, titles needs to be catchy, punchy, and short enough to fit on the spine of the book (and still be readable). Are there exceptions? Always. But consider these excellent titles: A Game of Thrones, The Sorcerers Plague, Enders Game, Skinwalker, Fahrenheit 451, Mad Kestrel, Act of Will. All are generally one to three words long, and all contain either uncommon words or uncommon combinations of words.

That brings me to one of the biggest problems I see in titles: incredibly overused words and/or painfully common words used in isolation. The word ‘game’ is a common one, yet there are two hugely successful books with that word in the title (just in the list I just gave you; I’ll bet there are others). The difference is that in both cases the word is closely paired with another word that it normally has nothing to with.

From my own pile of submissions at IGMS (not that they are common titles, merely ineffective), look at these rejects: “The Long Fall,” “Human Child,” “The Chorus,” “Rationalized,” “It’s Not You, It’s Me.”


What do these titles tell you? Nothing. What questions do they raise? None. This is the essence of a bad title. Common and overused words (and expressions) used in isolation.

On the other end of the spectrum, you can also easily over-do it. “ORANGE AGBADA JACQUARD,” “Photon-Card from Delteron-9,” and “Gray as a Moth, Scarlet as Sumac” are all real titles that were submitted to IGMS in the last year or so. And in my opinion (with aplogies to the authors), they are all trying way too hard.

Yet another thing to avoid with titles are ones that are only clever, or only make sense, after you’ve read the story. If you need the context of the story to understand the title, you have a bad title. If the title takes on additional meaning after the story is read, that’s great. But it has to work before-hand, too.

I mentioned earlier that I occasionally work with authors to change the title of a story I want to publish. Let me give you a few examples, so you can see my logic:

“An Early Ford Mustang” by Eric James Stone was originally titled “Brad Decides To Be Early.” The story is about a guy named Brad who inherits a Ford Mustang from his uncle. This car has the ability to influence the flow of time, but that ability comes with a price. The original title only makes sense after you’ve read the story (strike one), but even then, it is incredibly bland (strike two). Not that the new title is stellar, but it’s a big step up from “Brad.”

“Judgment of Swords and Souls” by Saladin Ahmed was originally titled “Red Silk In The Lodge of God.” “Red Silk” isn’t necessarily a bad title, but the climax of the story centers around a ceremonial battle called – you guessed it – the Judgment of Swords and Souls. As a title, it’s tighter, has more drama to it, and brings the added benefit of taking on additional meaning with the reading of the story. Bonus.

“The End-of-the-World Pool” by Scott Roberts is actually just a trimmed-down version of the original title, but I think the difference is an important one. I thought the original title, “Horseplay at The End-of-the-World Pool” set the reader up with expectations of something with a lighthearted tone. And though the story does in fact open with two boys fooling around at the edge of a swimming pool, it quickly takes on a much darker tone that it maintains the rest of the way. The story feels to me like something Bradbury would have written in his early days and is a favorite of mine, but it required a title that didn’t mislead the reader.

“Aten’s Fall” by Aliette de Bodard is another example of a story that had the right basic idea, but this one needed to be turned around one-hundred eighty degrees. The story is about an interstellar ship called the Horus, which is run by an artificial intelligence named Aten. The problem as I saw it was two-fold. First, the story is about the ship after it crash-lands, is separated from the AI running it, and learns to survive on its own, so it’s not even about the entity named in the original title. And second, although both names come from Egyptian mythology, there are a lot more people who have heard of Horus than Aten. My concern was that ‘Aten’ was going to leave a lot of prospective readers scratching their heads in bewilderment. The new title, quickly agreed on by the author, was “Horus Rising.”

So there you have it: a crash course on what makes one title effective, and another not, along with some specific example of titles that were changed and why. Now it’s your turn. Can you think of titles of published books or short stories that you thought were particularly effective or ineffective? More importantly, can you tell me why?