Tuesday, September 20, 2016

50 Years of Star Trek, 30 Years of Star Trek Gaming

Star Trek is 50! Can you believe it? September 8 was the 50th anniversary of Star Trek’s television debut. I was still -3 years old at the time, so I didn’t catch the premiere, but as soon as I was able to start watching the reruns, I did. I really got into the show in junior high, when I had a crush on a girl who—amazingly—knew all the episode titles. (I duplicated this skill over the next year by mentally repeating each title as I read the James Blish episode novelizations; this was in an era before we could watch anything we wanted on demand!)

There's another Star Trek anniversary this year--at least, for me there is. Thirty years ago, in 1986, Star Trek became the foundation of my first roleplaying experience, when I found FASA's Star Trek: The Role Playing Game in my local Toys By Roy. I had heard of Dungeons and Dragons before this, but since I wasn’t a fan of fantasy at the time, I was immune to its charms. Star Trek, though, that was a different story!

My 2nd Edition box, released in 1983

I played this game SO much—probably more than any other game. It came in a box (like many games back then did), which held three thin rulebooks and one of those old 20-sided dice numbered 0 to 9, the kind of die that predated the d10. And the kind you had to fill in the grooves yourself with crayon or marker, if you wanted it to be readable.

Star Trek
My Star Trek "10-sider."
So well-used it's nearly round!

The game used a percentile system for both attributes and skills, and boy were there a lot of skills. (Now that I think about it, these two elements probably primed me to fall in love with Call of Cthulhu when I encountered it a year or two later.) Although the first two Star Trek movies had already been released, the boxed set focused on the original series and the animated series. It covered Star Trek pretty well, I thought, with pretty good info on technology and species, and fun systems for creating planets, creatures, and civilizations. Star Trek: The Role Playing Game was also well-supported with a line of adventures, movie sourcebooks, a tactical combat game, and alternate campaign settings like the Klingon, Romulan, and Orion sourcebooks.

IMG 7979
I still have every character I ever made for the game.

Other Star Trek RPGs have come and gone since Star Trek: The Role Playing Game (one of which I also loved), but this one will always be special to me.

Happy birthday, Star Trek!

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Invisible Sun For Cheapskates

You may have heard about a new game coming from Monte Cook Games called Invisible Sun. (If you read my blog posts, then you definitely heard me mention it.) It’s a surreal tabletop RPG set for release in 2017, with a Kickstarter running right now. The game is clearly designed as a deluxe product: it’s shipping in a big fancy black box; it comes with props such as dice, cards, tokens, a game board, and a statue of a hand; some players will receive physical notes and mementos in the mail; and the sale price is nearly $200—at the entry level.

Some players may balk at that premium price tag. To those players I say…let’s make our own surreal gaming experience for just a few bucks! We’ll even go the extra step of providing both deluxe and basic level product options, where possible.

The Title

In sticking with our cheapskate theme, I didn't want to spend too much time coming up with a great title for our inexpensive masterpiece, so I just looked for inspiration from the same source that provided the title "Invisible Sun."

I know this isn't where Monte got the title. Relax.

Bingo. We'll call our game "Roxanne."

The Rules

Now let’s choose a game system. We need an inexpensive RPG that we can use to craft surreal adventures for Roxanne. Let's go with Fate Accelerated, the condensed version of the popular and versatile Fate Core system. I believe this is especially appropriate because, just as Invisible Sun will be related-to-but-not-quite Cypher System, Fate Accelerated is related-to-but-not-quite Fate Core.

Fate games use something called aspects, which are phrases that emphasize something special about a person, object, place, or whatever. For example, a character in a science fiction game might have the aspect "Upholds the Prime Directive...Usually." We can use this concept to crank up the surreality of our game. With that in mind, here's a list of surreal aspects you can use.

  • Daughter of Bees
  • Resplendent in Dryer Lint
  • Constructed from Apathy
  • Master of Kumquats
  • Floats on a Cloud of Schadenfreude
  • Fish-Headed
  • Archduke of Jazz-Hands
  • The Diaphanous One
  • Singer of Silence
  • A Boat Made of Skeletons

Deluxe Cost: $5 for book plus PDF edition
Basic Cost: $2.50, the recommended price of the Pay-What-You-Like PDF edition

The Starting Adventure

Now Roxanne needs an introductory adventure. This is easy! We'll just pick a song with surreal lyrics and convert it to a loose narrative. Such as:

The PCs begin in a boat, on a river. As they float through a weird landscape featuring tangerine trees and marmalade skies, somebody calls them. It turns out to be a girl with kaleidoscope eyes. She's in danger, and something pulls her out of sight into the tangerine trees. If the PCs follow her, they pass through cellophane flowers of yellow and green that tower over their heads. Then they spot the girl again, this time with the sun in her eyes. Before they can interact with her much, she's pulled away again!

The trail then leads to a bridge by a fountain, where rocking horse people eat marshmallow pies. Other people are around this time, and they all smile as the PCs drift past the flowers--flowers that grow so incredibly high. Nobody acknowledges any questions about the missing girl; all they do is offer to share their pies. (Any PCs consuming pie must roll to resist its psychotropic effects.)

Eventually, newspaper taxis appear on the shore, waiting to take the PCs away. If the PCs wish, they can climb in the back. The newspaper taxis lift out of the river and launch into the sky, and soon the PCs' heads are in the clouds, as they are gone from the tangerine tree forest. During flight, one of the newspaper taxis starts to lose altitude, and the PCs must find a way to repair it to avoid a crash.

After a psychedelic flight, the PCs land in a train station in the clouds (and their newspaper taxis are now train cars). Plasticine porters with looking glass ties greet them as they disembark--and then they attack! After defeating the plasticine porters, the PCs find a trail of diamonds leading past a turnstile and to a room holding a familiar looking captive: the girl with kaleidoscope eyes. (Her name is Lucy.) Award XP!

(I admit that this adventure isn't strong on providing player agency, but if your players are stoned they'll have a blast anyway.)

Deluxe Cost: $13 for the CD of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album, containing "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds" (used above) and 13 other adventure seeds
Basic Cost: $0 for text provided above (you’re welcome)

The Box

Invisible Sun will ship in a massive, elaborate, black box. I mean, check this out:

To cut costs, the box we use for Roxanne will need to be more humble. Wait, scratch that--let's say our box will be more eco-friendly...because we're going to recycle whatever box we have lying around the house! If possible, make it something surreal, to fit in with our game's theme. Take the box I've chosen, for example. Who would expect a roleplaying game to emerge from...a shoe box!

Our box only needs to be big enough to hold our cheap budget game contents, so this should be a good fit. If you want a fancier box, or can’t find a shoe box lying around the house, you can buy a cardboard or plastic box pretty cheap.

Deluxe Cost: $1.89 for transparent shoe box from the Container Store
Basic Cost: $0 for cardboard shoe box you have in your closet right now

Next we’ll see the items that need to fit in our awesome box.

The Accessories

Invisible Sun will come with lots of fancy bits and bobs, including special dice, multiple types of cards, tokens, and a game board. Let’s see how we’ll provide these amenities for Roxanne on the cheap.


Roxanne’s specialty dice will be Fate dice, made specifically for the Fate system (and Fudge system). At the budget level, just download the free Fate dice roller app. You could also, of course, repurpose 6-sided dice you already have sitting around.

Deluxe Cost: $15 for Fate Core dice
Basic Cost: $0 for Fate dice roller app, or dice you borrow from another game


Similar to the dice category, we can buy cards made for Fate called the Deck of Fate. In addition to providing die roll results on most of the cards (thus providing another cost-cutting measure, since you can skip the dice if you want), the Fate cards provide a bunch of images and symbols you can use to spark your imagination during a game of Roxanne. (“You drew a moon? Hmm. You are suddenly buried in green cheese.”)

A cheaper option is the Deck of Fate app; it’s not free, but it’s under $3. If that’s still asking too much, then do what I do and use your own collection of business cards. What could be more surreal than the surprise appearance of a plumber? For added weirdness, combine two cards, and delight the players by letting them confront bizarre allies and adversaries, such as a gastroenterologist who cuts hair.

Deluxe Cost: $15 for the Deck of Fate, or $2.99 for the Deck of Fate app
Basic Cost: $0 for business cards


Invisible Sun will include “more than 100 tokens of different types to use for the different kinds of player rewards, Vance spell management, and more” (as explained in MCG’s All the Components page). We don’t yet know what all that means, but in the meantime we can include some tokens in Roxanne to use as Fate points or whatever else we can think of. On the cheap end, I’m using something easy to find and almost completely worthless: pennies. If you want to upgrade to Roxanne Deluxe, pay a buck and use a gamer staple and my favorite form of tokens: M&Ms.

Deluxe Cost: $1 for a 1-serving bag of M&Ms
Basic Cost: $0.50 for 50 pennies ($.01 each)

Game Board / Map

While Invisible Sun boasts a game board, a cloth map, AND a poster map, Roxanne is going to need to cut corners. I mean multi-task! We'll use a single component that can serve as both a game board and any kind of map you need. At the deluxe level, this is a small dry erase board. (It has infinite possibilities!) At the basic level, just use a sheet of paper. (It still has infinite possibilities! If you don't erase too hard.)

Deluxe Cost: $9 for 8 1/2" x 11” dry erase board
Basic Cost: About $0.02 for a sheet of paper

Hand Sculpture

Invisible Sun features a funky statue of a 6-fingered hand, called the Testament of Suns. It’s described as “an imposing resin sculpture that holds a Sooth card that is active long-term for all to see.” That’s cool, and kinda freaky, but we can match it. Behold this jewelry display hand I got on Amazon to display my Green Lantern rings. With a little help, it holds a business card game card. If this is too rich for your blood, you can just draft a friend or relative into holding a card up for you while you play Roxanne.

Deluxe: A wild artist appears
Basic: A wild dermatologist appears
More Basic: A bored teenager appears

Deluxe Cost: $8
Basic Cost: $0 (depending on the availability of a sucker)

The Directed Campaign

Yikes, this one will be hard to match. The Invisible Sun Directed Campaign is an experience that the high-end purchasers unlock, in which players receive customized game material from Monte Cook Games for a year. "This includes adventure material, campaign advice, handouts, props, and special physical items. It’s like Monte himself is your GM coach, providing step-by-step advice and aids for your campaign as you run it. We’ll even send your players intriguing mystery packages tied to the campaign that are keyed to their character." (Source: Invisible Sun Kickstarter page.)

OK, no sweat, we can do this. We just need an envelope, something symbolic or unexpected to put in it, and a customized note for your player. A craft store will be your friend when executing your own directed campaign for Roxanne.

Just think how excited one of your players will be when they get this in the mail...

Deluxe Cost: $5 at a craft store will buy a sampling of buttons, feathers, bells, and other strange odds-and-ends, plus a pen like a grown-up would use, plus a few stamps and envelopes and paper
Basic Cost: $.06 for an index card + $0.65 for a small box of crayons + $0.08 for an envelope + $0.49 for a stamp

We Did It!

Here's the final price tally. Roxanne Deluxe costs $72.89 (not including tax, shipping, and the ever-important handling), and Roxanne Basic will run us $4.30. Booya! I am going to pronounce our budget-saving efforts a success, and our new game--Roxanne--complete. I look forward to seeing your playtest reports, convention anecdotes, and actual play videos start to roll in. To answer your next question, yes, I'll be happy to sign your shoebox.

Playtesters enjoying the sublime mental journey that is ROXANNE.

I hope it's obvious that I'm only teasing my friends at Monte Cook Games. I'm a proud backer of Invisible Sun, I've been excited about it since I saw the announcement at Gen Con this year, and I can't wait to try it out!

Invisible Sun on Kickstarter

(The adventure inspiration was, of course, "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds" by the Beatles. Can you think of other songs with lyrics that would make for a surreal adventure?)

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

If You See Something...

I have a Ghostbusters board on Pinterest I created when preparing for 31 Days of Ghostbusters. I find it fascinating that one of the images (and only one) attracted a lot of followers and re-pinners. It's this one!

Monday, August 29, 2016

Not Sacred Flame

My friend Jay continued running us through Ravenloft last night. Toward the end of the evening, the party was spent. My cleric had used all his spells (and his turn undead), our druid had used all her wild shapes, and our dragonborn had used all her breath attacks. We were low on health, running on fumes, and still had to stay in the fight to keep Evil from winning.

Since I had also left my weapons behind (because taking weapons to a dinner party is uncouth), I was down to using my sole attack cantrip as my attack. Good ol' sacred flame.

When my fellow players got sick of hearing me say "I cast sacred flame" over and over again, I had to find a way to accommodate them. The best thing would have been to find a different, more creative attack, and mix things up a bit.

But it was late and I was tired so I just made up new names for my spell.

Here are the alternate names I used for the sacred flame spell. Perhaps some of these are regional variations. Or names for the spell in older spellbooks. Or changes to the name made by a bard who needed a rhyme for "seven."

  • Sacred Fire
  • Flame of Sacridity
  • Holy Flamethrower
  • The Pope's Matches
  • Lasers From Heaven
  • Torch of God
  • The Penitent Candelabra

What are some alternate names for YOUR favorite spell?

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Gongfarmer’s Almanac 2016

I contributed to a community RPG project last year, and now that it’s available to the public, I can tell you where to find it!

The Gongfarmer’s Almanac 2016 is a fanzine-style publication for (and by) fans of the Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG. All the writing, artwork, layout, and editing was done by members of the DCC RPG Google+ Community. This is the second year the team has done this; last year’s Almanac spanned six volumes, and this year we pushed forward to eight.

In addition to editing, I wrote three pieces for the Almanac this year. They are: Random Tavern Generator (Volume 1), Fantasy Food Generator (also Volume 1), and d50 Fantasy Foods (Volume 8).

You can download all volumes of Gongfarmer’s Almanac 2016 from the community’s Google Drive links below. If you want to order the Almanac in print, you can get the whole shebang in one volume from Lulu (pricing is at-cost, simply covering materials and shipping).

Volume 1: Men, Magic & Drink
Volume 2: Patrons & Gods
Volume 3: Monsters & Treasure
Volume 4: Complete Adventures
Volume 5: Drop-in Adventures
Volume 6: Crawljammer & Interdimensional Travel
Volume 7: Tables & Tools Part I
Volume 8: Tables & Tools Part II
All 8 Volumes In One PDF

The 2015 Gongfarmer's Almanac is also still available, both in print and PDF. (Here are the PDFs for Volumes 1-5, and here’s the one for Volume 6.)

Friday, August 19, 2016

Gen Con 2016: TimeWatch

This year I only played in one game at Gen Con. Wait, before you repossess my dice, hear me out.

This was the first year I dragged my wife and son along, so I didn’t want to overload them. Also, as a developing RPG writer, I had a lot of seminars to attend and schmoozing to do, so that took a lot of time. (I had a second game scheduled before we arrived at the con, and ended up canceling it to squeeze in one more seminar.) Finally, I’ve learned to prioritize exhibit hall time over gaming time, because the former is in shorter supply.

Anyway, the game I DID get into was fun enough to justify the whole trip!


I'm realizing a time theme in my Gen Con games...I've attended for the last 3 years in a row, and every year I've been in a time travel game. This year's was TimeWatch.

I had just bought the game the day before, and got to meet its designer, Kevin Kulp. TimeWatch is a gonzo time-travel game that uses the Gumshoe system. I missed the game’s Kickstarter (and cursed myself for bad timing), so I was happy to see it on sale at Pelgrane Press’s booth. (Their buy-3-get-one-free sale worked out great for me, too.)

Jumping forward in time approximately a day from my purchase...guess who turned out to be the GM for our session! Yep, Kevin. Kevin ran the adventure "The Gadget,” which I later learned is in the adventure book “Behind Enemy Times."

Adventure synopsis:
"An obsessive 24th-century collector (and disembodied brain) tries to steal the first working atomic bomb for his own personal museum. As Agents work to stop him, ezeru slip in to steal his collection of nuclear warheads."

My son's drawing of the disembodied brain

I liked the adventure, and I’m happy to report that Kevin runs a good game. He's good about letting everyone have their time in the spotlight, including letting each of us define something about the setting (such as the color of time travel, which--in our game--is blue). I also liked his suggestion that we not focus on what was on our character sheets, telling us instead to just think of what cool stuff we wanted to do and go from there.

I played as a British big game hunter from the 19th Century with an impressive elephant gun and an even more impressive mustache. My wife was a sexy liquid-metal-cyborg from India in the future. My son took the part of a caveman with a 12-word vocabulary. (This was a perfect choice for a shy kid who doesn't want to talk much in front of strangers anyway.)

The other pregenerated characters were all cool too. We had an African pilot from the future, an intelligent velociraptor from an alternate timeline, Genghis Khan's daughter, and an arrogant scientist who claimed to have invented time travel. These are signature characters in TimeWatch book, referenced in examples throughout the book.

In the adventure, we got to visit several different time periods, gather clues, infiltrate our enemy, and fight a woolly mammoth and a brain-in-a-jar. We were, of course, successful in saving all of time and space. I don't want to give away too many details about the adventure, in case you have a chance to play it yourself. In fact, if you're in Memphis, I'll run it for you!

In general, though, my favorite thing about TimeWatch is that time travel is its core activity. It's not just a way to get you to the site of an adventure, it's a tool you'll use frequently, both in and out of combat. You can have your future self leave an item for you in the present (Bill-and-Ted style). You can jump ahead in time to see the effects of recent events on the timeline. Each character has her own time travel device, so you don't even have to go as a group.

Oh, another thing I liked about this session was Kevin's use of "Turn Tracker Cards." They were awesome for keeping track of whose turn is next and who has already gone--including adversaries, divided up into Minions, Flunkies, etc., all the way up to the Big Bad. (As soon as I got home I ordered my own deck. You can too!)

If this were a review (it's not), I'd say this: if you like time travel, buy TimeWatch. It's incredibly fun. As I continue to not review it, I must also say I was surprised how thick the book was. The Gumshoe system seems pretty simple, so I didn't think this game would require a lot of info. The thing is, I was kinda right! I believe you can run this game after reading just a few of the chapters. A lot of the book is dedicated to alternate campaign settings (every one of which looks compelling), adversaries, adventure seeds, and full adventures. This, for me, is how to present a game: not a lot of it is mandatory for running the game, but they've given us a large amount of useful material.

End of non-review. It's table selfie time!

Friday, August 12, 2016

Interview With Chris Birch About Star Trek Adventures

A new Star Trek RPG is in the works! Modiphius Entertainment has the license, as they announced recently on their website. I interviewed Modiphius's publishing director, Chris Birch, for Gnome Stew. Here's a link!

Interview With Chris Birch About Star Trek Adventures