Category Archives: Roleplaying

Tips for running the “Alien: Destroyer of Worlds” RPG campaign

In 2020, Free League Publishing released Destroyer of Worlds (DoW), an adventure for their new and well-regarded Alien roleplaying game. It’s the second published adventure for Alien (if you don’t count the short scenario included in the core rulebook).

In contrast to the relatively claustrophobic scale of Chariot of the Gods, the first adventure, DoW is incredibly expansive and action-heavy. That makes it a great purchase for any Alien RPG gamemaster—there’s enough material in here for months of gaming. But ironically, its very “bigness” can be a weakness. There’s simply so much going on in this adventure that it’s tricky to run.

I ran DoW across three game nights (about 10 hours total) and have some advice for other GMs thinking about running it for their Alien game group!

A quick note before we dive in: this isn’t an “is it bad or good?” review of DoW. That kind of review can be found elsewhere online. I really enjoyed running DoW, but after we finished, I knew that if I ever ran it again, I would approach it differently in some specific ways. I hope you find these suggestions helpful, or at least worth considering.

Tip #1: Take your time

As written, DoW is intended to take “at least three sessions to complete.” I’d like to emphasize the “at least” part of that!

There’s a lot to do and encounter in DoW. Running it across three sessions required my group to barrel through extremely complicated situations and encounters at high speed. While keeping the pace does provide some cinematic tension, it also meant that the players didn’t have time to engage with any of the adventure’s events or NPCs in anything but the most superficial way.

My advice is that you plan from the outset to spend at least four, and more probably six, game sessions with DoW. With all of the factions and agendas at play, you could actually make this a full-blown campaign and spends months in it–but 5-6 sessions is a good middle ground between making it a full-fledged sandbox, and ramming the players through it at breakneck speed.

If you know you’ll be spending more time in the setting, you can also be a little more deliberate in introducing some of the many major plot-propelling events that occur regularly throughout DoW. Many of the semi-random events in DoW are designed to close off areas/stories and push the PCs into the next act of the story; they’re a useful way to prevent PCs from noodling around aimlessly and losing track of the plot, but they can also feel like they’re roughly shoving the PCs down the plot pipeline. Take a note of the specific cataclysmic events that seem most interesting to you, and trigger them intentionally at points that fit the pace your game table wants.

Tip #2: Expand the player options to include non-Marine locals

DoW’s setup is that the player characters are Marines sent to track down a band of AWOL soldiers in a mining colony town that is sitting on the brink of collapse (due to an assortment of looming threats). That’s a fine setup that has the virtue of giving the PCs a clear goal and some helpful constraints on their actions.

The downside is that this setup means the PCs arrive on the scene of this collapsing colony with no personal connection to anything that’s going on. But wouldn’t the plot twists and dramatic moments hit harder if the PCs have personal stakes in the colony and its fate?

I highly recommend expanding the player options to include non-Marine locals. Any of the character archetypes in the Alien core rulebook (pages 38-54) would work well. Here are some examples of how you could plug more archetypes into DoW:

Colonial marshal: it makes sense that the colony’s sheriff would accompany or even lead a search for AWOL marines who have disappeared into the colony population. In fact, there’s an NPC marshal in DoW already (p. 26) who could easily be a PC.

Kid: did you like the dramatic elements that Newt brought to Aliens? It’s easy to imagine that in the chaos of the collapsing colony, a clever local kid might wind up in a group of PCs. Maybe they were separated from their family in the evacuation. And maybe they know the secret ins and outs of the colony better than the grown-ups do!

Medic or scientist: there’s a small hospital in the colony staffed by “one doctor, an intern, and a medtech”—those all sound like perfectly viable (and useful) PCs!

Pilot: DoW has a sideplot involving two spaceships that might be escape routes off the planet–one medical frigate and a freighter grounded with a damaged reactor. The freighter’s captain is an NPC who can be found drowning her sorrows in the colony bar. She’d make a good PC, especially if you want to allow for the possibility of the PCs repairing, hijacking, and/or escaping on one of those ships.

Roughneck: the colony is populated by gruff oil refinery workers. One or more might be deputized to help track down the AWOL soldiers, especially if they know the colony and its hiding places well.

Adding just one or two of the above civilian PCs adds a personal connection between the PCs and the doomed colony, and add a lot of roleplaying possibilities. Any of these civilians could have secret agendas of their own—the roughneck oil worker could be a secret communist sympathizer, for example. I highly recommend expanding the PCs to include more than just marines.

One thing to keep in mind, however, is that civilian PCs won’t necessarily have access to all the firepower that marines do. This will obviously affect how they’re able to respond to the inevitable alien outbreak. For this reason, you might want to adjust the types and numbers of aliens in the adventure to accommodate a less-well-armed group of PCs. More on the aliens later!

Tip #3: Focus on just a few major threats and agendas

Trim down the list of factions in play.

Did I say there’s a lot going on in DoW? Let’s take a look at a slightly simplified list of the different groups and factions pursuing their agendas in this adventure:

The aliens: obviously there are aliens here—in fact, there are a lot of them. We’ll talk about the aliens in tip #4 below.

The military: There’s a huge military presence near the colony in the form of Fort Nebraska. Although the adventure notes that it’s down to a “skeleton crew” of troops, that’s still about 200 personnel—a significant force. The commander in charge (who gives off real “Colonel Kurtz” vibes) is intent on evacuating with secret illegal alien research and wiping out all evidence of it on the way out. The military base is a huge “dungeon” filled with complications like a restrictive AI, a quirky android, and an unstable nuclear reactor; it could be the site of an entire adventure all by itself. Its space elevator is the “escape route” that DoW really wants the PCs to use to get off-planet at the end of the adventure.

The corporations: Mallory Eckford is a Weyland-Yutani corporate agent also looking for the AWOL marines; she has dispatched a team of hunters to find the missing soldiers before the PCs and/or the army do. She serves as a sort of wildcard in DoW and could be an alternating enemy and ally to the PCs.

The AWOL marines: four marines who have escaped from Fort Nebraska—some of whom have been infected/implanted by different strains of alien—are laying low around town, looking to escape and possibly blow the whistle on the alien research.

The UPP: The Union of Progressive Peoples (space communists) is planning a full-scale military invasion of the colony to seize the alien research in Fort Nebraska. This invasion occurs about halfway through the adventure as written.

Desperate civilians: the remaining population of the colony is in a panic to escape before the UPP invasion. Some are crowding at the local starport to find a way off the planet.

UPP sleeper agents: the local population has been infiltrated by UPP agitators who are spreading unrest and laying the groundwork for the coming UPP invasion.

Unidentified bombers: partway through DoW, an unidentified spacecraft appears and blankets the entire colony with the alien “goo” (as seen in Alien: Covenant). DoW deliberately does not tell the GM who this faction is or what they want, but it’s implied that they may be the bad guys from Heart of Darkness, the third published Alien RPG adventure.

That’s a lot of factions and agendas at play, and many of those agendas have been forming in the months before the PCs arrive on the scene. The PCs have no stakes in most of them. Think about the best Alien movies—how many competing factions do they feature? In most of the movies, you have two or three agendas that clash with and complicate each other. Having 6+ factions at work in one adventure is overkill.

Instead, consider choosing (say) three of those agendas and focusing on them, setting the others aside for now. The factions and agendas you choose can help you achieve a specific “feel.” For example, focusing on the UPP invaders and spies could add a Cold War “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” vibe. Focusing on the manhunt for the AWOL soldiers through a frozen, partly-abandoned colony could evoke some of the isolated frozen horror of The Thing. Focusing on the military and corporate shenanigans would highlight the dystopian hyper-capitalism of the setting.

My point is that choosing a few of these agendas and focusing heavily on them, rather than diluting all these themes by using them all at once, will give your DoW game a more coherent theme.

Tip #4: Use fewer aliens

Just like there are a few too many factions at play in DoW as written, there are too many aliens in it.

I know that probably sounds like heresy when talking about an Alien adventure. But DoW contains nearly every type of alien that has ever appeared in an Alien film, and a few that haven’t. Here’s the alien situation in the colony:

Regular xenomorphs: the PCs’ first encounter with an alien is likely with a single “regular” xenomorph, which they’ll hunt (and be hunted by) through the colony. This part of the adventure feels the most like Alien.

“Black goo” abominations: the PCs’ second encounter with aliens is likely to be with one or more of the “abominations” seen in Prometheus. These are humans that have been mutated into disturbing hybrids by exposure to the “black goo.” At some point the entire colony gets blanketed in this goo, turning the planet into a mutating hellscape.

An alien hive and queen: a whole hive of aliens, led by a queen, has taken root in the depths of Fort Nebraska. (The timeline of how and when this nest formed is a little fuzzy, like some other timeline details in DoW.) Assuming the PCs are evacuating via the space elevator, they’ll have to navigate a military complex overrun by an Aliens-style swarm of xenomorphs.

A “crusher” alien: in the alien hive is a special xenomorph called a “Charger,” a gigantic tank-like alien that would be an interesting “final boss,” except that there’s already a queen alien.

In addition to these, one or more PCs are highly likely to be infected by or impregnated with aliens, so you can count on at least one “Nostromo dinner table” scene.

I love all these aliens, but I think putting the entire Aliens bestiary into one adventure is too much. As with the factions in tip #3, I recommend choosing just a few alien types and centering the adventure around them.

The types of alien you choose will greatly affect the theme and even genre of the game you’re running. Choosing a few lone xenomorphs—setting the hive and Prometheus aliens to the side—will produce a tense, terrifying hunt atmosphere and would work well with mostly-civilian PCs.

Focusing on the hive as the main alien threat evokes the action of Aliens, especially if some of the PCs are heavily-armed marines.

Focusing on the Prometheus-style black goo aliens can emphasize body horror/transformation themes, and is a good way to keep the players on their toes (since the “life cycle” of these aliens is less well-defined and probably less familiar to the players).

Use the “charger” as a terrifying revelation for players who have seen all the movies and want something new.

When it comes to aliens in DoW, keep it simple! You can always complicate things later by throwing extras into the mix. As with the factions above, being intentional and spare with your alien threat lets you give your game a more consistent theme.

Bonus tip #5: Skip the opening briefing

This is a quick one, but: go ahead and skip the introductory “cutscene” where the PCs are briefed, then sent to Fort Nebraska to equip their search party. The briefing is a gigantic wall of text that you don’t want to read at your players. Instead, skip right to the action: start as the PCs step out of the cold and into the colony bar that will almost certainly be the first stop in their investigation. You can fill in briefing details as needed. If I had done this in my game, I would’ve cut out at least 30 minutes of meandering gametime that didn’t contribute much.

I hope you’ve found these tips helpful! If you’ve run DoW and have made alterations of your own to it, please share them below. DoW is a great adventure—it’s even better if you spend some time customizing it to deliver the exact experience your game table wants.

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RPG boss monster analysis: the Balrog of Moria

For as long as I can remember, I’ve done the same thing every time I’ve acquired a published adventure for Dungeons & Dragons or any other roleplaying game: I flip to the very end to see what the adventure’s Final Boss is.

So you can imagine my joy when I first got my grubby teenage hands on the ultimate fantasy megadungeon and feverishly flipped to the end of the book to read up on the most famous dungeon boss of all. I’m talking about the Mines of Moria, and the famous Balrog that lurks in its depths.

That’s right: in 1984, Iron Crown Enterprises published Moria: The Dwarven City, a 72-page sourcebook detailing Moria for the Middle-Earth Role Playing game (MERP) and its sister game Rolemaster. And sure enough, there at the end are stats for the Balrog.

So could your plucky band of adventurers actually take out Durin’s Bane? Let’s find out!

Reducing Durin’s Bane to a bunch of numbers

Here’s the Balrog’s game statistics and powers:

stats for the Balrog

Egads, that’s a lot of gibberish. What does all that information mean?

Well, for starters, the Balrog is level 66. (Confusingly, the game rules handle it as level 36 for certain attack purposes, hence the number 36 in there.) The Balrog is much higher level than your characters are or ever will be. The longest-running MERP campaign I ran, way back in high school, stretched on for a couple years and when it ended, the PCs were in the level 15-20 range. I think it’s safe to say that unless you’re playing with the world’s most generous dungeon master, you’re never going to get a MERP character leveled up to match the Balrog’s power level.

A 1977 illustration of the Balrog by Greg and Tim Hildebrandt.

The rest of those numbers all boil down to this: the Balrog is extremely powerful in combat and very hard to kill. It’s got a huge amount of hit points and high defenses; combat skills so high that it’s virtually guaranteed to land a one-shot killing blow against anything it swings a weapon at; and the ability to mentally control enemies and/or freeze them with fear. It also has limited flight (the game designers have taken a stand in one of the internet’s oldest debates.)

Does it have weaknesses? Well… the Balrog is a bit of a one-trick pony; it’s an insane combat monster but has few powers that aren’t related to fire or killing. It knows lots of fire-related magic (fireballs and the like); but the other spells at its disposal have less utility in combat, and seem to be geared toward negating obvious player tricks (like an invisible character sneaking up on it…) or keeping track of its domain. When it comes to magic, an extremely powerful wizard (like Gandalf) would have some advantages… as long as they could keep away from the Balrog’s sword and whip.

The Balrog does have one single relatively low statistic. That’s right—just as you suspected, the Balrog lacks empathy. (Bad joke aside, Rolemaster’s “empathy” stat governs a character’s affinity for divine and healing magic. No surprise that’s not the Balrog’s strong suit.)

Most significantly, because it’s a being of fire, its strength and powers are significantly muted if the Balrog is completely submerged in water. A waterlogged Balrog will probably still pulverize you, but it won’t be able to set you on fire while doing so.

Is this faithful to Tolkien’s depiction of the Balrog?

As adaptations go, it’s not bad! From scattered references in various Tolkien texts, we know that Balrogs are pretty much just really tough, mean fiery guys (who can maybe fly). There’s not much depth to them beyond that, either here in the game or in Tolkien’s novel. As statted up here, the Balrog is certainly physically powerful and on fire, and its ability to terrify victims is in keeping with what we see in The Fellowship of the Ring. (It also fits the Tolkien theme of evil as the imposition of one’s will on somebody else.)

If anything, the designers may have even gone a little overboard with the Balrog’s physical power. But it’s hard to get an accurate read on exactly how deadly Tolkien bad guys are in a fight, because so many of them are “plot device” monsters (more on that below).

Is it killable?

The quick answer is “no.” In a straight-up fight with a party of typical player characters, it’s hard to see how the Balrog could lose. Any enemies that got within combat range without being dominated or frozen in fear would quickly get incinerated and/or annihilated.

But of course, the longer answer is… “maybe.” Every experienced dungeon master has watched in horror as players managed to take down a powerful monster by surrounding it and hammering it with spells and attacks; no dungeon master should assume that a lone enemy, even one this powerful, is invincible. The Moria sourcebook anticipates this by noting that the Balrog is accompanied by a host of trolls, demons, and orcs—all of them much less powerful than the Balrog, but easily able to bog down a team of adventurers while the Balrog picks them off.

But in the end, a group of high-level characters, while not a direct match for the Balrog, command significant powers and abilities; it’s very hard to predict the kind of advantages they could create for themselves by working in concert. You can bet they’ll be coming up with ridiculous schemes to drop the Balrog into a lake, or collapse a few hundred tons of cave ceiling down onto it, or something else. An indirect, story-driven approach that avoids physically battling the Balrog is the only way I could possibly imagine a band of adventurers taking down Durin’s Bane.

If it’s not killable, what’s it doing in the game?

Mostly I think this is just a fun exercise to “stat up” one of fantasy literature’s most famous boss monsters. Certainly, I enjoyed poring over these numbers as a teenage gamer, imagining what a Balrog showdown would look like. Be honest: you’d be disappointed if you picked up a roleplaying module about Moria and it didn’t have stats for the Balrog.

But how would you actually use the Balrog in a regular game? MERP is mostly interested in defining the Balrog by its tactical combat abilities, which are far beyond the typical adventuring party’s. But although the module doesn’t discuss it, the Balrog is really a “plot device” monster, like most evil overlords in fiction. Most of the evil bosses in Middle Earth seem nearly invincible in combat but can be defeated by a hero who works out their unique weaknesses and exploits them for narrative effect. Think of Smaug (weakness: that one missing scale), Shelob (weakness: Elvish magic, hobbit tenacity), Sauron (weakness: the Ring), the Witch-king of Angmar (weakness: women), etc. It could be very satisfying to watch the players work hard to uncover the Balrog’s one weakness and use it to banish or destroy the demon without getting into a big physical fight. Finding that weakness would be an epic quest in itself, which sounds perfect for a roleplaying game.

If you’re itching to see the Balrog’s +240 whip attack in action, though, there are a few possibilities. One could see the appeal of an extremely high-level “Balrog hunting” game, in which players control canonical movers and shakers like Gandalf, Saruman, Elrond, and Galadriel in a high-powered raid on Moria. Those characters are statted up in other MERP sourcebooks, and as a team would be a match for the Balrog.

And lastly, bold lower-level characters traveling through Moria might have a close brush with the Balrog without actually engaging it in combat. A group of extremely clever and lucky characters might try stealing treasure from its lair and making a mad dash for the exit before it notices or catches them, much as Bilbo Baggins did with Smaug.

But mostly, it’s just fun to stat up the Balrog.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

New Roll for Topic episode: “Romance and Shopping”

Episode 32 of Roll for Topic is out! This time we were joined by Donn Stroud, an RPG designer and freelancer. Of the various things Donn has worked on, Mothership and Dead Planet are the two I’m most familiar with—I fell in love with Mothership last year at Gencon. It’s a lightweight RPG designed to emulate space-horror games in the vein of Alien, and it’s set apart by a combination of great writing and fantastic visual design.

The topic for this episode is an odd one that was added to the list of topics at least partly as a joke by a past guest. It is often the case that Chris and I (and our guests, when we have them) look over the table before we begin recording and wonder aloud what on earth we would have to say about, say, romance and shopping in RPGs. But those slightly weird topics often end up being the most fun to discuss, and that was the case here. Anyway, give it a listen and let me know what you think!

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Disadvantage: Enemy (Secret Service)

Cover image of GURPS Cyberpunk

Here’s a nice writeup of a famous tale from the game industry: the 1990 Secret Service raid on Steve Jackson Games in which they confiscated the manuscript for GURPS Cyberpunk.

It was perhaps not our country’s finest hour:

In spite of the fact the rulebook contained rules for having your consciousness transferred to a gender-swapped clone, when [Steve Jackson] spoke to them the day after the raid he was told that his company was publishing “a handbook for computer crime”. When he protested that it was clearly made up, he was repeatedly informed: “This is real.”

I’ve heard versions of this story retold over the years. According to this article, GURPS Cyberpunk was a target of opportunity, not the official reason for the raid: the Secret Service was poking around, equally ridiculously, for evidence that Steve Jackson Games was connected to some suspected BBS shenanigans. They grabbed the GURPS book when no other nefarious evidence presented itself. From a SJ Games post about the raid:

Their agents were very critical of [GURPS Cyberpunk], and on March 2 in their office, one of them called it a “handbook for computer crime.” Since their warrant was sealed, and they wouldn’t comment, our best guess was that they were trying to suppress the book. They did suppress it, but apparently it was through bureaucratic inertia and stonewalling rather than because it was a target of the raid.

Imagine if terrorists had gotten hold of the information in that or any GURPS tome—they’d know exactly how many one-inch hexes away from a target they can be before they get a -4 penalty to pickpocket attempts unless they paid 50 character points to replace their arms with telescoping cybernetic limbs. I feel safer already.

You know, it’s crossed my mind over the years that the game-prep Google trail of a typical gamemaster probably sets off all kinds of red flags in the various Orwellian surveillance systems keeping tabs on us. “Siri, how much C4 would you have to use to topple the Statue of Liberty onto a shoggoth that’s rising from New York Harbor?”

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Did I mention I have a podcast? I have a podcast.

The biggest gaming-related project I’ve worked on over the last year has been the Roll for Topic podcast, which I co-host with the inestimably talented Chris Salzman.

It’s a bi-weekly podcast about running roleplaying games with a simple gimmick: we don’t decide on each episode’s topic of discussion in advance. Rather, we roll a ten-sided die at the beginning of each episode, check the result on a random table, and determine what we’ll be discussing. The goal is to simply have a friendly, casual conversation about topics of interest to gamemasters. Thus far, joined by an array of different guests, we’ve discussed topics ranging from handling GM anxiety to running convention games and, well, lots more. You can find all the past episodes at the Official Website(tm) or on iTunes/Google Podcasts/your favorite podcast service.

We’re coming up on episode 32 (this Thursday)! This episode features a fantastic new guest who hasn’t been on the show before.

It feels odd to post this announcement a year into the podcast’s life. But I’m honestly still a bit stunned that the podcast is still going strong over 12 months in; and I wanted to correct the inexplicable lack of mention of the podcast here on the blog. If you haven’t listened to Roll for Topic yet, tune in this Thursday when the episode 32 drops, and please let me know what you think!

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Fate of Cthulhu at AADL Mini RPG Fest

It’s been a while, but I’m still alive! In fact, in a few weeks, I’ll be running four (!) short games of the Fate of Cthulhu roleplaying game at the Ann Arbor (Michigan) Distrct Library’s Mini RPG Fest on March 21.

Fate of Cthulhu coverThe purpose of the Mini RPG Fest is to provide a place where the general public can try out different roleplaying games in a casual and friendly environment. Most games are only one hour long, so you can sample different games as you like.

One-hour games are a challenge for the GM to run, but an interesting one. Last year, I ran (more or less successfully) four one-hour games of Numenera at the last Mini RPG Fest and learned a few valuable lessons. One hour is just enough time for a handful of short game encounters, so the trick is to pick a few situations that show off the game but which can also be resolved quickly. Both Numenera and Fate of Cthulhu keep combat pretty fast and simple; I don’t envy some of the other GMs who were running detailed-combat game systems like D&D. But from the laughter and cheers I heard at the other game tables, people were having fun with those games too.

Fate of Cthulhu is an action-oriented game in which the PCs play time travelers from a future in which Lovecraftian monsters overran Earth; its pitch is “Terminator, but Skynet is Cthulhu.” I find that premise irresistible, and hope to attract a few Cthulhu newbies to my game at the Mini Fest.

If you’re in the Ann Arbor, Michigan area on the 21st, stop by and roll some dice!

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Who’s Flying That TIE Fighter?

One thing that’s always struck me a little odd about Star Wars is that, for a film series that features so many epic spaceship battles, few of those spaceship battles feel very personal. With a handful of exceptions, the spaceship fights in Star Wars films feature our heroes facing off against hordes of faceless minions.

The heroes in a Star Wars space battle are always quirky personalities: Luke, Han, Lando, Poe, etc. But there’s almost never a matching personality on the enemy side—no Red Baron, no grudge-bearing enemy ace to duel with our heroes. Instead, it’s mostly waves of generic TIE Fighters piloted by black-uniformed Imperial minions:

TIE Fighter pilot

(Darth Vader’s presence at the Death Star run in A New Hope is the main exception, and not coincidentally, that space battle is the most compelling one in the entire series.)

So, that’s a little boring. Wouldn’t it be more fun if at least one of the TIE Fighters in that squadron you’re fighting was an ace, a coward, a psycho, or just anything other than a generic, faceless minion? I got to thinking about my old Why Is This ‘Mech So Terrible? chart and decided to create a chart for making TIE Fighter encounters more interesting.

This chart is for use in a tabletop RPG or other Star Wars game. When the heroes encounter a batch of TIE Fighters and you want to shake things up a bit, pick one of the TIE Fighters, roll a d20, and find out who’s sitting in the cockpit.

Die result (1d20) It’s piloted by a… What’s their deal?
1-3 Loyal Imperial Citizen-Soldier Like most of the Imperial military rank-and-file, this pilot is a decent, hard-working guy who signed on with the Imperial navy because he believes the Empire is the best hope for peace in the galaxy. He has faith in his leaders even when his orders are unpleasant, trusting that his higher-ups know better than he does. He follows orders to a tee.
4-5 Bitter Conscript Drafted into service against his will, he just wants to get through his term of service in one piece. In combat, he does the absolute minimum needed to avoid being executed for cowardice, but otherwise takes no risks and shows no initiative. He doesn’t like the Empire but also has no interest in the Rebellion. His only motivation is to get back to base alive each day.
6 Conscience-Stricken Imperial When he signed on with the Imperial navy, he thought he’d be helping to bring peace and justice to the galaxy. But the more he sees (and is ordered to do), the harder it’s getting to reconcile that idealism with the reality of Imperial rule. This pilot is close to defecting; the right set of circumstances might see him refuse an order on the battlefield or even switch sides in the middle of a fight.
7 Zealous Political Officer This pilot is a political officer and true believer whose job is to make sure his squadmates act with sufficient… enthusiasm for the Imperial cause. In battle, if one of his squadmates shows “insufficient aggressiveness,” he just might decide to turn his guns on the coward to set a vivid example for the rest of the squadron, even if it means turning away from the Rebels for a few precious minutes.
8 Ambitious Promotion-Seeker This pilot has lofty ambitions for a career in the Imperial navy, but lacks the political and family connections needed to secure promotions. He’s just putting in time in the TIE Fighter service while hoping to catch the approving eye of his superiors. He cares more about looking good for the promotions board than he cares about the Imperial cause. Accordingly, he plays it safe in battle but is carefully watching for a chance to score a flashy victory that puts him in no real danger… and he’s not above secretly collaborating with the enemy to stage such a situation.
9 Imperial Avenger He just learned that Rebel scum killed his family in a terrorist bombing on Coruscant (or at least that’s what his Imperial masters told him), and he’s out for blood. He’s not going back to base until he’s killed every Rebel (real or imagined) he sees, no matter what his orders are. His rage gives him an offensive edge in combat, and he won’t retreat even if ordered to.
10 Rebel Spy This pilot is actually a Rebel spy who funnels Imperial military plans to the Rebels, and he’s looking to transmit stolen data files to the first Rebel ship he encounters. But he’s got to do it without blowing his cover… and without getting blown up by the Rebels he’s trying to contact.
11 Imperial Test Pilot The Imperial navy is evaluating some souped-up new TIE Fighter variants, and they’ve placed one in this squadron to test its combat performance. This TIE’s armor, shields, firepower, or manuverability (pick one) are one notch higher than average. To make sure this expensive prototype is handled properly, its pilot is almost certainly a cut above the rest.
12 Unknowing Force-Sensitive This pilot is your typical Imperial serviceman, loyal and brainwashed to follow orders. Except for one thing: he’s sensitive to the Force, although he doesn’t realize it. He’s prone to remarkable “luck” in battle—every now and then he pulls off impossible shots, and when his TIE Fighter gets hit, the damage always seems to just narrowly miss vital systems. Once per combat, he can reroll any die roll that didn’t go his way or which caused him harm.
13 Imperial Ace Uh oh. This guy is bad news; you can tell by the number of X-Wing silhouettes painted on the hull of his fighter. All of his combat and piloting skills are way above average.
14 Secret Pacifist He was drafted into the TIE Fighter service, but in his heart he just really doesn’t want to hurt anybody. He’ll go to almost any lengths to avoid actually harming anyone in combat—making sure his shots miss, pretending not to notice potential targets on the long-range sensors, faking weapon malfunctions, etc. His commanders will soon figure out that he’s dragging his feet; he’s already planning how he might use the chaos of battle to make a run for a backwater system where he can hide from the Galactic Civil War.
15 Victim of Sabotage Enslaved aliens working at a TIE Fighter factory sabotaged some key components, and nobody’s noticed yet. At a key moment in the next battle, something will go horribly wrong for this TIE Fighter: maybe the guns or other key systems will abruptly stop working, or the torpedoes will target friendly Imperial ships instead of Rebel ones, or the wings will fall off. Use your imagination!
16 Imperial Psycho TIE Fighters are cheaply built and utterly expendible, as are their pilots. Everybody knows that, especially the poor suckers forced to fly them. For obvious reasons, most Imperial pilots jump at the chance to be promoted into a better spaceship. But not this guy: he actually likes his TIE Fighter and he keeps turning down opportunities to fly something better. He’s crazy and he scares all his squadmates, but he knows how to coax unbelievable stunts and maneuvers out of his lowly TIE Fighter. For game purposes, his TIE Fighter is treated as a TIE Interceptor, and his piloting skills are close to maximum.
17 Marked Man This pilot’s gambling problem has put him far into debt with the Hutts, and now there’s a bounty on his head. Partway through the next battle, a bounty hunter shows up on the scene. The bounty hunter ship ignores everybody else and focuses on destroying or capturing this TIE Fighter.
18 Pampered Scion This lazy dilletante from a wealthy Imperial family is grudgingly doing his time in the navy. He’s a terrible pilot, but he’s used his family’s wealth and connections to ensure that he always flies in the best spaceship possible. While his squadmates make do with aging, cheaply-built equipment, he’s flying a souped-up TIE Interceptor with all the upgrades money and influence can buy. Will his advanced fighter compensate for his lack of instinct and skill?
19 Former Classmate This pilot attended the Imperial Academy with one of the heroes (before the hero joined the Rebels), and may have been a terrifying bully or honorable rival to the hero (pick one). And there may still be scores to settle!
20 You Don’t Want to Know You know how you sometimes read about kings and generals quietly visiting the common soldiers in the trenches, to get a sense for morale, pretend to care for the everyday grunts, and remind everybody what they’re fighting for? Darth Vader’s not that gracious, but he does like to show up unexpectedly to terrify recruits into obedience. And he’s been known to fly along unannounced on random TIE Fighter patrols….

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Oddities From My Game Library: Darksword Adventures

s-l1000I have a big collection of roleplaying games—far too big, I’m reminded every time I venture into the basement room where it resides. With a few exceptions, my collection doesn’t contain anything terribly rare or valuable (the games in my library that would command the highest prices from collectors also happen to be the ones I played to death over the years, so they’re far from mint condition). But I do have a good number of oddities nestled amidst all the predictable D&D tomes. I came across one of them today while rearranging the family bookshelves.

It’s called Darksword Adventures. And it’s an odd duck.

It is not, as far as I can tell, rare or valuable. (The going rate on Amazon for a used copy is one cent.) But in my many years of going to game conventions, lurking on roleplaying game forums, and playing all manner of games, I swear to you I have never once heard Darksword Adventures even mentioned, let alone have I seen evidence that anyone has ever played it.

Let’s take a look at this quirky little artifact of gaming history. It’s written by the mass-market-fantasy powerhouse team of Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman, authors of the immensely popular and influential Dragonlance chronicles. Darksword Adventures is a roleplaying game (sort of—more on that in a bit) based on a different fantasy trilogy they wrote in 1988: the (you guessed it) Darksword Trilogy.

img_4026The Darksword series is set in a fantasy world called Thimhallan. Its central gimmick is that everyone in Thimhallan is a magician of sorts, able to tap into a Force-like source of magical power and employ it to do things that would otherwise be done with machinery and technology. In fact, mechanical devices and anything (or anyone) that operates on principles other than magic are considered to be “dead” abominations. The hero of the series is a man born “dead”—unable to use magic. There are ancient prophecies, annoying “comic” sidekicks, noble sacrifices, a depressing ending, and other stuff you’d expect from a 1980s fantasy saga. It’s not going to dethrone Tolkien anytime soon, but it was appealing enough for high-school-aged me.

Anyway. Like most of Weis and Hickman’s numerous non-Dragonlance series, the Darksword novels didn’t catch on like Dragonlance did. But its publisher believed in it enough to publish a truly odd follow-up book: Darksword Adventures, “the complete guide to venturing in the enchanted realm of Thimhallan.”

Why was this book weird, you ask? Because it’s a roleplaying game system disguised as a paperback novel. More specifically:

See? Looks just like every other novel on your 1980s teenage self's bookshelf.

See? Looks just like every other novel on your 1980s teenage self’s bookshelf.

The format was odd. In the 1980s, roleplaying games were published as oversized, textbook-style tomes or fancy boxed sets. Darksword Adventures, however, looked exactly like a 1980s paperback fantasy novel—physical size, cover art, everything—which presumably let the publisher get it shelved next to all the bestselling Weis/Hickman novels at bookstores rather than relegated to a “games” section in the back of the store. Shelved alongside other mass-market paperbacks, it would be indistinguishable from them at a quick glance. At the time, I’d never seen a full-blown RPG in a paperback-novel format (not counting a few “choose your own adventure” style RPG-lite gamebooks).

It was presented more as a fan guide than as a game. The back-cover copy pitches the book mostly as a fan companion to the Darksword novels, not as a D&D-like roleplaying system. It was clearly an effort to break out of the roleplaying market and entice non-gaming fantasy readers. In later years, companies like Guardians of Order would publish combined fanguide/roleplaying game sourcebooks for various media properties, but in the late 80s I hadn’t seen any such thing before.

The writing is in-character and very ‘meta.’ Every roleplaying game I’d encountered by the late 80s was written like a textbook. The game rules read like a technical manual, and setting descriptions read like an atlas or encyclopedia entry. Darksword Adventures, however, presented both its setting and its rules in the voice of a character from Thimhallan. The setting is described in a (fairly entertaining) novella-length travelogue written by an inhabitant of Thimhallan; the game rules are presented with the in-setting conceit that they’re a popular form of organized make-believe enjoyed by Thimhallans, called “Phantasia.”

I'm not sure this is any quicker or better than going out and buying some game dice. But I respect the effort.

I’m not sure this is any quicker or better than going out and buying some game dice. But I respect the effort.

It doesn’t require dice. Darksword Adventures includes an overly complex, but workable, method for determining random results using hand signals, on the assumption that you might not own nerdy gamer dice. Which was probably a safe assumption if your target audience was not existing RPG players.

It’s nonetheless a full-blown roleplaying game system. It’s as complete a game system as most of its peers at the time, covering character creation, a big variety of character classes (different varieties of wizard, as you would expect from the setting), a (typical for the 1980s) complicated but logical rules system, a bestiary, a surprisingly interesting and versatile magic system, and enough world information to run a campaign. You just had to get over the fact that much of it is presented in-character.

A character statistics writeup from Darksword Adventures.

A character statistics writeup from Darksword Adventures.

It was weirdly ahead of its time. While (as far as I can tell) it went almost completely unnoticed by the gaming world, Darksword Adventures was doing some legitimately interesting things. It was an early attempt to cross over into the (huge) non-gaming, fantasy-reading market. It eschewed most of the telltale formatting and presentation standards of the game publishing industry in order to do so. Its rules and writing style didn’t assume any gaming expertise (or even ownership of dice). I’m sure it wasn’t the first game to attempt most of these, but it has to be one of the first to attempt all of these things at once.

I have no idea how well it did or didn’t sell, but the complete lack of buzz about the Darksword RPG then or now suggests that this was a failure, albeit a noble one. Since then, many roleplaying games have embraced one or more of the elements above, with varying degrees of success. Darksword Adventures isn’t exactly a lost classic, but for historical reasons at least, it would be fun to see a reprinted or revised version made available again.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

ubi sunt qui ante nos fuerunt

The PlayCo toy store in Escondido, gone many years now.

The PlayCo toy store in Escondido, lost to the sands of time.

I recently acquired a copy of Night Below, a 1995 AD&D boxed set outlining a sprawling fantasy campaign set in the Underdark setting. I remember drooling over it at a toy store—I think it was the late, lamented PlayCo in Escondido, CA, if my memory has the year right.

The copy I acquired has been lovingly used. And by that, I mean the owner really liked highlighting text:


Every page looks like that. My reaction upon seeing it was twofold:

  1. When you reach a point when there’s more highlighted text on a page than non-highlighted text, have you defeated the purpose of highlighting?
  2. Why doesn’t every game book look this colorful?

I’ll be honest: I love this. (Here’s another example of the sort of awesome gaming artifacts you find in old boxed sets, if you’re lucky.) Back in the day, I was pretty neurotic about keeping my books and game material in pristine, mint condition. But a banged-up, highlighter-inundated, notes-scrawled-in-the-margins game book like this has been played, and that’s a lot more fun than a perfect-condition rulebook that looks like nobody’s ever so much as opened it.

The owner of this copy of Night Below didn’t just read through it and highlight interesting items; he/she and their game group played the heck out of it. You can tell they played through it in its entirety, because all the way to the end, the encounter descriptions are marked up with notes that must have originated from actual play. Here, for example, is a description of one of the final “boss battles;” you can see that the DM has jotted down ever-decreasing hit points in the margins, and has crossed out spells that have been cast:


There’s a thrill in holding—and, I hope, one day playing!—a game that was important to real, actual gamers before me. A campaign like this might have taken months or years to play through. The DM must have spent hours and hours pouring through this campaign planning each new game session, marking up important parts of the text with a color-coding system that made sense to them but not to me (the same color is used in some places to mark spells, in others to mark hit points—it’s madness, but a madness that meant something to somebody). Perhaps the players still recount stories and anecdotes from it to this day.

TSR1125_Night_Below_An_Underdark_CampaignAnd having provided hundreds of hours of collective entertainment, how did this boxed set wind up being sold on the internet for a few measly bucks? Surely there’s a story there too, of a hobby abandoned, a game group graduating and getting married and heading to different corners of the country, a family clearing out a garage storage bin after a death, or whatever else you might imagine.

There’s also a bit of a rebuke in a heavily-used game like this: why aren’t more of my games lovingly defaced like this? As I look through my collection and ponder trimming it down, I see too many books in great condition, and not enough books with cracked spines and falling-out pages caused by years of regular use at the gaming table.

So here’s to the anonymous Dungeon Master and their players, who adventurered their way through this campaign all the way to the end. And left behind lots of mile markers for me to follow.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

Anyone who can be trusted in little matters can also be trusted in important matters. But anyone who is dishonest in little matters will be dishonest in important matters.

This cautionary video clip, brought to you in 1993 by The 700 Club, has been making the rounds:

(More info here.)

Mocking Pat Robertson, and more specifically the anti-D&D hysteria of the 80s and early 90s, is a bit too easy at this point, so I won’t bother. But I do want to point out a few things about this video, which aims to scare people away from Dungeons and Dragons by suggesting that playing the game leads to child sacrifice and the wearing of terrible homemade wizard/KKK robes.

The most obvious thing is that nothing at all in this video remotely resembles anything that ever would be said, seen, done, or heard at a Dungeons and Dragons game. The “game” that they’re playing, which looks like a homebrew Candyland variant, bears no resemblance to D&D.

No big surprise there; few anti-D&D attacks like this showed signs that their creators had ever seen or read D&D, or talked to people who did. But look at the date this video was released: 1993, almost twenty years after D&D was first created! It’s even ten years later than Jack Chick’s infamous Dark Dungeons tract. In those two decades, nobody at The 700 Club had so much as flipped through a D&D rulebook at Toys ‘R’ Us. That graduates it well into “willful ignorance” territory.

And for somebody trying to warn of the dangers of pop culture trends, Pat Robertson has completely missed the boat here; by 1993 D&D’s heyday of popularity was well behind it. A little card game called Magic: the Gathering was just about to explode onto the scene, and as far as evil roleplaying games went, Vampire: The Masquerade and its sister games had decisively eclipsed D&D as the Shock Your Parents™ games of choice. In 1993, D&D was quaint.

Consider what this video says about Robertson’s intended audience. Anybody who had actually played D&D would immediately dismiss it as being insulting, slanderous, and irrelevent; so it clearly wasn’t bothering to address people actually playing the game. This video is talking only to people who had no clue what D&D was about, and who could be relied upon to never try to find out. Despite either laughable ignorance or simple contempt for truth, Robertson was asking people to respect his judgment about a topic they knew little about.

Ah, well. If you want to know what really goes on in the dark basements of D&D players, this remains the best source.

(Bible quote is from the Contemporary English Version.)Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather