Bundle of Holding: Traveller New Era

If you are into science fiction and space opera roleplaying games the latest Bundle of Holding may be of interest to you. For about $15 you get everything you need to run a campaign in the collapsed Third Imperium.

The Starter Collection includes the core rulebook, Survival Margin, the World Tamer’s Handbook, Vampire Fleets and the TNE Player’s Forms. If you pay more than the threshold of $26 you also get the Bonus Collection which contains Keepers of the Flame and the Regency Combat Vehicle Guide, Path of Tears, Smash & Grab, the Reformation Coalition Equipment Guide, the Star Vikings character collection, Aliens of the Rim, and last but not least the TNE Referee’s screen.

10% of your payment will be donated to Human Rights Watch. So you’re not only getting a great game, but you’re also donating to a good cause.

TNE is not uncontroversial though. In this edition of the game they ditched the original rules system and replaced it with a version of GDW’s inhouse system. A lot of fans also weren’t that happy with the post-apocalyptic nature of the setting.

But in my opinion TNE is one of the best editions of Traveller. The rules system works pretty well, and the setting solves one of Traveller’s biggest problems: the overwhelming scope and history of the Third Imperium setting. With the New Era GDW basically scraped the slate clean. The focus is on smaller polities trying to survive the aftermath of the rebellion and the threat of the Virus. But if you wished you could always run a more traditional game set into another era after all.

You can learn more about this bundle on the official Bundle of Holding blog.

Pocket Gumshoe -Everything is Connected!

If you are familiar with Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency you will know the phrase “Everything is connected”. It generally highlights that everything in the universe is connected to everything else in the universe. Park that thought for a minute, I will come back to it later…

Pocket Gumshoe

Pocket Gumshoe was released in January this year by Nothing Ventured Games. I have never read, or played, a Gumshoe game but I was aware of the basic mechanic of not rolling to find the clue, that is given, but you roll to see how much additional information you glean.

Thinking you know how something works and reading the actual rules are not the same so I was interested in reading the rules for myself.

Considering that Pocket Gumshoe is a ‘light’ version of the game and the rules are just 32 pages my impression is that from a writing point of view this is the best game I have ever read! I am not saying that I will drop everything and convince my group to play pocket gumshoe. The game itself is not really to my taste. It is when you look at the component parts rather than the whole that the brilliance of the contents are revealed.

So enough teasing, the part that I loved the most was the support for new GMs. All the way through the rules are rich in great advice, not just for Gumshoe, for running a game and managing a group of players. It focuses on the improvisational nature of role playing and how to encourage the improv. to advance the story.

There is a wonderful example, this time for players, above. I am pretty sure all us when GMing have had the players stall due to excessive speculating or failing to agree on a plan of action due to a lack of information.

Pocket Gumshoe uses about a dozen general skills for meeting challenges. It doesn’t have a climbing skill, a running skill, an acrobatics skill, rather it has a single Athletics skill to cover all eventualities including dodging in combat. All the skills are broadly defined. This means that just a dozen skills cover all the situations that you will meet in this genre of gaming.

There is one standout skill in this collection and that is ‘Preparedness’. The idea behind this skill is that if a character needs a particular piece of equipment then you roll your skill and on a success you do indeed have that item.

I love this skill. There is always going to be a disconnect between what a character would know and what a player would know. The preparedness skill allows the character to have that sort of dynamic knowledge. It almost emulates the knowledge that the player doesn’t know they don’t know.

So as an aside there is a skill in the new Rolemaster rules called Vocation, bear with me. The idea of Vocation is that you take a specialisation in Vocation to match your characters job or background (not necessarily their profession/class). So when you want to complete a task that is not covered by one of the primary skills but your character would know how to do such as a Ranger being able to set a snare or light a fire in a rain forest or predict the weather from cloud formations then you roll your Vocaton:Ranger. One skill covers a myriad of situations. This Vocation skill is not popular with some in the playtest (those that loved the skill bloat of previous versions, I suspect). I can see house ruling the Vocation skill to incorporate Gumshoe’s Preparedness skill with the only caveat being that the only items that can be produced need to be related to the characters vocational background. I would happily eliminate about 90% of characters inventory management with this skill.

If you can remember back a bit I was exploring a game concept called Devil’s Staircase a while ago. That game is still in development. I am still working on the first proper draft of the rules but I am going to adopt a version of the preparedness skill and the relaxed attitude to inventory management with that game.

This is what I meant at the top about how ‘everything is connected’. This one skill definition in a minimalist game has had a direct impact on both a card based wild west game and on Rolemaster, one of the traditionally heavy weight games*. Is this plagiarism? I don’t think so. I think we should be taking the best of what we can find in any game and apply it anywhere where it makes sense and improves the experience and fun for all the players and GM.

So to sum up, if you want to take a look at Gumshoe then I seriously recommend reading this rulebook. It will not take long, it is just 32 pages, and it is free. As an introduction to the Gumshoe system I think it is damn near perfect!

 *Despite its reputation for being rules heavy, Rolemaster is actually pretty rules light compared to the monsters that are 5e and Pathfinder.

The Sound of Music

Don’t worry, I don’t want to talk about the movie from 1965 , I just thought it made for a witty title. Instead I want to have another look on how you can use music as an effective tool in your GM’s toolbox. I am convinced that music can be a very powerful and effective tool when it comes to setting the mood. There’s definitely a limit to what mere words can accomplish. Music reaches us in a more subconscious, emotional way. A good GM can use detailed and poignant descriptions to make a scene come alive, but a great GM adds an additional layer by using music.

Of course not every music works in any situation. Personally I avoid any contemporary popular music, especially when there are lyrics involved. In my opinion lyrics often tend to distract people (especially me). In most cases you want the music to remain in the background. I still remember one adventure set into an underground facility shortly after Christmas. Dead bodies and destruction where accompanied by the same Christmas song repeating itself continuously. Christmas music has never been so creepy.

When running games based on popular movie, video game, or TV series licenses it makes a lot of sense to get your hands onto the respective soundtracks. Nothing helps to set the mood for a Star Wars game quicker and easier than John Williams’ score. But especially less iconic soundtracks can be used in all kinds of games. One of my favorites is the soundtrack to the original Nightmare on Elm Street. It’s my go-to music for horror games and it never disappointed. Even though the players know the music by heart already, it still helps everyone to get into the right mindset.

For one Star Trek game I made the effort to setup and use a software called Ares (Aural RPG Experience System). In Ares you can play music, sound effects etc. at the touch of a button. You can also create elaborate sound environments. Of course using sound of a Star Trek door opening and closing whenever the players leave a scene gets old pretty fast, but using the Enterprise background loop, or the occasional phaser sound during combat can be very effective.

But you have to make sure that using music and sounds doesn’t become a distraction. If the flow of your game gets interrupted because of you searching for a certain track on a CD, or if you are struggling with a software like Ares more than focusing on what your players are saying, then its time to tone it down a bit. Often playing some music in the background from a CD or MP3 playlist is all that it needed.

So what does one need to use music in their roleplaying game sessions? If you play always at the same place and if there’s dedicated hi-fi equipment available that’s almost perfect – especially if it’s the GM’s place where they can prepare everything beforehand. Personally I prefer a more mobile solution. Most of the music I use for gaming is saved on my smartphone. I also own a couple of Bluetooth speakers, which I can take with me. Nowadays I also make sure that I pack some audio cables as well. I remember more than one session that got interrupted because the speaker decided it doesn’t want to connect to my phone anymore.

I’ve experimented with the idea to use an intro theme music to my campaigns. But this actually didn’t really work that well with the only exception being Star Wars. My current Star Wars GM even uses a custom Star Wars opening crawl which includes a recap of the last sessions. That’s a very efficient and fun way to get everyone back into the game even after a longer hiatus.

What are your thoughts on using music during roleplaying game sessions? Have you embraced the use of music as I have or do you avoid it? Please share your thoughts below!

A Roleplaying Games blog