Hillfolk in the Holy Land?

So, succumbed to the latest Bundle of Holding and picked up Pelgrane Press’s Hillfolk, the RPG that bills itself as having play like an HBO original series.

The base setting for Hillfolk is an early Iron Age tribe. I thought we were talking about the late European Iron Age, until I saw pg. 68, which is a map of the area.

Hillfolk’s hills, if I’m not mistaken, are the Judean hills, with the Jordan River to the east and the Mediterranean Sea to the west. Given that I’ve spent more time than I’ve cared to puzzling over Israeli road maps, I’m pretty sure I’m not mistaken (also it says it’s the 10th Century Levant two pages later).

I’m actually a little disappointed by this, because the instructions around this map are to make the area abstract and suited to whatever story you want to tell, which is great, but the Levantine early iron age was actually super-interesting, with all sorts of amazing cultural and religious details, but unless I’m a super-nudgy GM who demands them in despite the opposition of my players those details will never get included.

Otherwise, I like the system and look forward to trying it out. I also think running the underlying mechanics would be good for my “Eleanor Roosevelt’s Commandos” setting.

Nobilis – Halfway Through Character Creation

So, got halfway through trying to make a Nobilis character recently (if anyone really wants, I have a draft post where I “live blog” the process). The big issue is that the Lifepath isn’t actually tied to the scores, so you generate a really fun mind map that’s sort of relevant to how you gain experience, but then, when you try to tie it to the other numbers in the game, you can really get disappointed.

This disappointment is more than the disappointment where, for example, in Ars Magica I learn that my just-out-of-apprenticeship maga can’t do anything else if she wants to huck fireballs at things, or in Cyberpunk 2020 where you learn your newbie Netrunner actually doesn’t have skills in anything remotely useful outside the ‘net. In Nobilis, you generate all sorts of interesting connections, needs, and wants, but paying for them with the limited points you have for bonds, anchors, etc. is tough.

It almost makes sense to do things the other way, to do the math first, and then the lifepath. I’m going to try that for the next attempt; I’ll make a character that’s generically powerful, and then fill in the lifepath from there.

Card Hunter – A Flash Game Blast From the Past

So, instead of blogging, or doing anything else I’ve been promising to do, I’ve been playing the free-to-play game Card Hunter by the Blue Manchu studio. It’s ridiculously addictive.

It’s a “collectible card” computer game, but with the conceit that you’re playing something strangely similar to but clearly not using any licensed trademarks of Dungeons & Dragons, somewhere between 1st and 2nd Edition. Lots of moving little people on grid mats while a geeky teen in a cape tells you you’re in the lair of the kobold king or whatever.

As it sounds, the game doesn’t take its setting that seriously, although each battle does have a lovingly-rendered fake D&D module cover and chapter page to set the flavor of the next encounter.

As for the battles themselves, they’re fun. Each item equipped on one of your three characters grants them a number of cards to play with, which are randomly drawn each turn, so you either are chasing baddies around the board hoping to use your attack cards, running away from baddies hoping you’ll draw some attack cards, or just wondering why you equipped that weird item in the first place because these cards are effing useless. It’s all in good fun.

So, if you want to suck up all your time in a free-to-play game, and the Kim Kardashian game doesn’t do it for you (playing that I somehow ended up with an albino lesbian character who dressed like a Forever 21 clearance rack threw up on her), Card Hunter is worth a try.

Any System – Eleanor Roosevelt’s Commando Squad

I have a one-shot adventure concept that takes maybe two hours of prep time, and I want to share it with you, the three readers of my blog. Every time I run it with my group, people love it.

The premise is that, during WWII, Eleanor Roosevelt, known historically for being a pretty amazing person, secretly ran an all-woman commando squad for missions “the men” considered impossible. Each player in the game is one of Eleanor Roosevelt’s commandos on a secret mission against the Axis. I’ve run this both as a Guns of Navarone-style historical adventure, and as a Wolfenstein/Hellboy-style “stop the Nazi occult or super-science thing” adventure, and they’re both fun.

First, start with a “generic” RPG rule system, one that says it will simulate anything. I’ve had decent results with the second edition of Big Eyes, Small Mouth (BESM), less success (but still fun) with the diceless Best Friends, and next time I’ll likely run it with Savage Worlds.

An aside on system choices: BESM was really flexible, but the “tri-stat system” made the game a little flat; the game basically could have been diceless as either you were going to succeed in your roll or you were going to fail spectacularly. Best Friends was really designed for the players to combat each other, not Nazis; players with the higher versions of stats everyone wanted to use ended up hoarding the story points needed to do skills outside your range. I have high hopes for Savage Worlds, especially since the machine gun rules are the first I’ve seen in a while that have the visceral satisfaction of pumping someone full of lead that I got when playing Cyberpunk 2020 in high school.

Step two is to generate “archetype”-style characters for your players. This is a one-shot, don’t bother forcing the players to waste time reading the book. Any time I’ve made the players choose the characters have been a little rougher as it’s often the first time for them on a system or we just are in a hurry to play. The pre-gen have done a lot better.

These characters should be somewhat specialized; while they all should be able to hide in bushes and shoot at things, you should have some archetypes, usually more than there are players so they can have a real choice. Examples:

  • “The tank”: this is the commando who isn’t sneaking around anywhere because she’s carrying a BAR and possibly a bazooka and enough ammo for both to take on an entire division.
  • “The face”: this is the commando who packs an evening gown, heels, and a cigarette holder into her kit so she can (with her perfect German) talk her way into Schloss Burgberg without firing a shot.
  • “The mechanic”: usually also decent at driving vehicles, this is the commando who can fix or jury rig anything that could physically be fixed or jury-rigged.
  • “The pilot”: If there’s a flying component to the adventure; my adventures often have the commandos coming in by glider or stealing a plane to flee, because that’s fun.
  • “The saboteur”: An expert in sabotage. Probably carrying an unhealthy amount of explosives.
  • “The doctor”: Dammit, Jane, she’s a doctor, not a
  • “The capable soldier”: this is the one who’s good but not superlative at shooting, driving, etc., for players who can’t decide.

The first time I did this I based at least some of the characters off of famous women who could have been, before they were famous, in a WWII commando squad. Julia Child is the best example; she actually did work for the OSS in Burma in WWII. I also made a Heloise (as in “Hints From,” born in 1919 according to heloise.com) who was kind of a MacGyver character.

The adventure should be sketched out only in the most general terms. You can do as The Lazy Dungeon Master suggests and just have all the options briefly written on 3″ x 5″ notecards; I like to outline each potential scene and fill in with just enough bad guy stats so I don’t have to make up the baddies’ level of gun skills on the fly. An example outline scene:

You are in a glider being towed by a B-17 flying fortress. Once you clear the B-17’s normal bombing run over Germany (so you will be hiding with lots of other planes), you will be cut loose and fly the glider to Castle Burgberg. Takeoff is good, but you hit a lot of anti-aircraft fire while the B-17 towing you is doing its run, and it gets blown to bits.

Now it’s up to the players to prevent the B-17 from dragging their glider into a hostile German city, then, despite having been released too early, find their way in the dark with no engine to something approximating an appropriate landing zone. Let them figure it out.

Don’t stress about there being a “right” solution or the players having to do the adventure a particular way. To be honest, the more I’ve let the players in this scenario make their own solutions to these problems, the more fun everyone’s had (strangely, also the more collateral damage).

Eclipse Phase – Barsoomian Liberation

I was on the Eclipse Phase forum when I realized I was A) trying to start a flame war and failing, and B) woefully off topic, so I thought I’d bring my thoughts here.

Basically, the argument was over how the Eclipse Phase setting writers egregiously pick sides regarding politico-economic organization to a nearly Randian extent (hey, I loved Atlas Shrugged as a work of science fiction); if you are with the anarcho-capitalist program, you’re good, but if you’re not, you’re likely either a bigot or a slave-owner or both.

There’s a big debate about this regarding the hypercorporation-controlled states and some similar entities, but more interesting to me was the failure of the books to be clear as to how unsympathetic the “Barsoomian Movement” is.

To recap, in Eclipse Phase, Mars is about 1/3 terraformed. There’s a nominally democratic government, but power devolved to a series of more or less corrupt city-states, several of which are wholly or partially controlled by hypercorporation interests or other minority factions.

In response, there is a popular movement of farmers, nomads, lower-class workers, and idealists that fights for a laundry list of grievances; it’s called the “Barsoomian Movement” (after the Burroughs novels), or just “the Movement.” There’s a political wing that participates in Tharsis League (Martian government) politics, and then…well, the books hint at terrorism, but they don’t say how much.

The degree to which the Movement uses terror to achieve its goals is, I think, a really important detail if you have a campaign on Mars. Depending on which group you take historical examples from, Mars can be a more or less tumultuous place.

For example, if the Movement’s militant wing is, at worst, the Weathermen, then characters can wander around the nice parts of Mars not really worrying about the Movement; bombs are likely going to destroy property, not people, with warnings often before they go off.

However, if the Movement has a militant wing more like the IRA, as a gamemaster you’re wholly justified interrupting a scene in hypercorporate-controlled Mars with, “that cafe just exploded.” Furthermore, contacts characters have might “disappear” if they get on the wrong side of the Movement.

If the players are working for Firewall to locate and destroy a particularly apocalyptic piece of technology, the Movement’s militant wing might find out and demand that the players surrender whatever nuclear weapon-level danger thing the players got their hands on for the cause of Martian independence.

And there are examples of other liberation movements that can really add to the “random messed up”-ness of a Martian campaign. The ANC’s militant wing spent some time leaving anti-tank mines under rural roads in South Africa before they realized they were blowing up more poor people than government convoys; Eclipse Phase has a Mars with a lot of long, mostly unpoliced stretches of road. Speaking of roads, ETA assassinated the Spanish Prime Minister with a bomb built in a tunnel under a major Madrid thoroughfare.

The limit placed on this by the material is that the Movement is not described as FARC, Shining Path, or the Viet Cong: it’s not a guerrilla army which holds territory outside the rule of the governments of Mars. So there aren’t going to be running gunfights on a regular basis between government troops and Movement forces, and there will be some limits on the violence as the Movement also does (according to the books) seek political legitimacy. But it can be pretty nasty.

Ars Magica – German Timeline 1220-1231

I was asked a long time ago, when I mentioned that I include timelines in my Ars Magica adventures, to post some online. Below the fold is cut-n-paste from an adventure set in what Ars Magica calls “the Rhine Tribunal,” a chunk of territory stretching from a little bit to the west of the Rhine River to around Poland in the east.

Caveats: the information below is scraped from Wikipedia and even less trustworthy sources. Because I use a “this is when you hear about it” system for the campaign notes, I’ve lost a lot of the specific dates, so dates are often approximate (or nonexistent) and events late/early in a year may bleed back and forth to the prior/next year as my campaign notes include a one-season delay for information farther than the local area (campaign is set in either Archbishopric of Cologne or Archbishopric of Trier).

In short, don’t use this for your college class. Use it for a roleplaying game with people who aren’t grad students in medieval European history.

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Eclipse Phase – on “hypercorporations”

Eclipse Phase is a fun setting, especially if the players have enough moxie points to overcome their frequent failures with the dice. However, there are a couple places where the setting is open to wildly different interpretations.

The Planetary Consortium is one. From what the books say, it’s a conglomerate of “hypercorporations” that form a politically-autonomous unit. It’s also one of the go-to “bad guys” of the setting; if someone with a lot of money sent a super-cyborg to kill you and steal your MacGuffin, it’s likely the Planetary Consortium or one of its constituent hypercorporations (if the assassin isn’t genetically-modified, it would be the other baddie, the Jovian Republic).

What Eclipse Phase doesn’t explain, though, is what it means to be a corporation after an apocalypse where explicitly all the old national governments died. There is, as per the setting, no equivalent of the “Free French” in WWII where the Canadian Minister of Natural Resources and a bunch of displaced bureaucrats pretends that Canada still exists on a tiny patch of the moon or Mars. I believe it’s in the Sunward sourcebook that it’s intimated that the Planetary Consortium actually killed those folks off during the “Fall” (the great apocalypse) to ensure that didn’t happen.

“Corporations,” as we understand them, are creatures of law as defined by a government. Limited liability, corporate personhood, and the vagaries of agency law are all defined by a government that exists separate from (although perhaps suffering from regulatory capture by) the corporations themselves.

In my mind, this leaves three major options for playing the Planetary Consortium:

1) “Hypercorporation” as feudal government run by MBAs

After the Fall, the businesses acted like their corporate rules still held, but this is a lie. While the labeling is modern corporate-speak, the lived experience is no different than in the middle ages. Ownership of a certain percentage of a firm is basically like the old acreage of a Japanese daimyo; it’s how much you can tax, and how much influence you have over your subordinates. In a feudal hypercorporation, C-level executives might be able openly order the death of non-management employees at will, because the corporation itself has power over life and death.

Similarly, in each corporation power flows downward from the shareholders in a feudal manner. “Vice presidents” are like dukes, middle managers landholding knights, down to the peasantry that toils in the offices and factories. The Consortium itself is like the Holy Roman Empire; unified only to the extent that the different counties’ interests are aligned.

An important thing to note here is that feudal hypercorporations won’t act like economic actors; they’ll act for their owners’ political or idiosyncratic interests first, then for the bottom line. As a result they will be more externally aggressive.

Pop culture example: The Genom Corporation from Bubblegum Crisis. It did whatever Quincy wanted it to do, even if it was crazy, criminal, or money-losing, and suffered no repercussions when, for an example from the original series, a rogue android took out its vengeance on Genom by firing space-based particle weapons into various major world cities. No one then said, “huh, maybe we should investigate Genom.” Nope. Business as usual.

2) “Hypercorporation” as Gilded Age robber baron

In this view, there is an overarching Planetary Consortium government nominally independent from the hypercorporations, but it is quite weak and corruptible. So, in theory, you could buy stock in a hypercorporation, but the corporation can dilute it. Direct Action might have made a “wrong airlock” mistake when it machine-gunned the living tar out of your habitat, but no judge will hear your case against them.

That said, as bad as things are, the nominal government creates principles so that any hypercorporation has to at least pretend that it’s not too corrupt or cruel or destructive. While it’s acceptable for a hypercorporation to have its security folks shoot someone in “self defense,” there will be political repercussions for sending a squad to level an orphanage.

Example from pop culture: the remake of Robocop with Michael Keaton as the head of OCP. In this movie, OCP is so closely tied with the government that it basically takes not only the head of the company holding an innocent woman hostage on the top of a building for the government to disavow its connection to OCP, but the death of that executive as well. Otherwise, OCP employees can murder and conduct questionable activities to their hearts’ content.

3) “Hypercorporations” as modern deregulation taken to an insane extreme

In this situation, the Planetary Consortium has an independent, semi-representative government with actually not that horrible rule of law; you have rights against the government suppressing your speech or jailing you indefinitely.

The difference here is that “the government” is maybe ten people who, apart from deciding foreign policy, mostly issue business licenses and arbitrate inter-corporate commercial disputes. Everything else, from food to national defense, is subcontracted to one of the hypercorps. Your police are Direct Action mercenaries. Your mail is Planetary Express. Your continued existence depends on being able to conduct commercial affairs with most of the major companies, and if they turn on you, you may not have the time or resources to get what a judge would eventually award you.

Here, the hypercorporations act most like businesses first, and less based on their owners’ personalities. Evil things that happen tend to be the result of lazy thinking, corner-cutting, or hiding mistakes from supervisors or the public rather than an overarching intention to do evil by the head of the company.

Example from pop culture: the original Robocop. Remember how the CEO of OCP had no idea that the head of the ED-209 project was killing people and making deals with street criminals? But then, when he found out, he fired the guy responsible instead of standing behind all that criminality as the cost of doing business?