Thursday, September 30, 2010

Nihilistic Motorcyclists! Who runs Bartertown? Chris Engle runs Bartertown!

One of my earliest posts on this blog concerned Nihlistic Motorcyclists, a game I've had in my collection since the mid 80's. Through the magic of Google, the creator of the game recently came across that very post here on OGGA and sent me an etheric-mail.
I was very pleased to hear from him, and he's given me permission to repost that missive here.
As follows;

I finally googled Nihilistic Motorcyclists and found your blog entry from last year. You are one of maybe twenty people who ever owned this game. Cool!

I the Chris Engle who wrote this dog so I can tell you what became of it and Angel games.

I sent out samples of NM to the distributors in 1986 and got a letter back from Richard Tulhoka (Bureau 13) who said he found a copy of the game at the bottom of a trash can and that the mothers of America would kill me for printing it. That made me think and then pull the game from the market. Only about 25 copies of the thousand I printed ever sold and I pulped all but a handful of the rest. I learned a useful lesson from that about not pandering to the taste of the lowest common denominator. Subsequently Angel Games ceased to exist. I went back to grad school and having been working in Mental Health since then.

My gaming interests didn't end though. In 1988 I invented Engle Matrix Games and started working on spreading that idea. Basically a game that could be run using words rather than numbers where players made up whole scenes and then rolled to see if they happened or not. Now we call that Indie Role Play Gaming but in 88 it was just weird and no one got it. I persisted though and am now happy that my ideas are so old hat. I started Hamster Press in 1995 and have had a booth at Gen Con since a year after it moved to Indianapolis. I do my own production so I can afford to put out all my games but I'm now working on how to move to selling in stores. My story games are about murder mysteries, Cthulhu horror, spy, and dungeon crawls. All very tame and main stream.

When it comes to NM I am amazed at how well the scenario and flow of play hold up. It still works today. I haven't run a game of it in over twenty years (It really is too sick) but I don't see anything now that would say it couldn't still work and creep people out. For all the sick and twisted games that have come out since then I haven't heard of one that made people act as badly as NM does. It is a pure game - it is a behavior mod token system for heinous crime on helpless victims. I learned from this that players do what they are rewarded to do so after that I reward good behavior. With NM I stared into the void and it stared back at me. That was enough for me.

Oh and I learned that you NEED to proof read. I misspelled "police" for god's sake!

Chris Engle

BTW Now I live down outside Bloomington and work at IU. A group of us get together once a month and play Euro Games at the Union. Stop by my booth at Gen Con and say hi.

Hamster Press = Engle Matrix Games

He's exactly right when he says there aren't any other games out there that so promote heinous actions on the part of the players. It's really astounding, the depths to which players will sink when there is an actual in-game rules reward system for committing atrocities.

The game does play fast and smoothly. It's in the category of rpgs referred to as "beer & pretzels games" today. It's probably more of a "whiskey and human ears" game in play though.

Nihilistic Motorcyclists did have a valuable lesson to teach, in an oblique manner. I like to think that I'm a nice guy, over all. I am introspective and contemplative by nature, and after playing this game a few times, I sort of felt bad about myself.
It's just an RPG, and I'm not of the camp that promotes the idea that RPGs are about self exploration. But I have to admit that Nihilistic Motorcyclists forced me to admit to myself that I'm capable of at least theoretically conceiving acts of no small evil.

No shocker there, today. But, as a teen we're all still learning what it means to be a human being, and when you realize you yourself have as much potential for evil as the next guy, it can be a bit disorienting.

I let chris know that I did gain something from the experience of playing Nihilistic Motorcyclists, expanded insight. This sure isn't a game to play with your kids though. It probably shouldn't be played by anyone actually. At least not by anyone with "issues" it might aggravate.

If you excised the Victory Points system, it would make the core of a nice bare bones post apocalyptic game.

When I asked Chris if I could use his email in a follow up post, he replied thus;

Sure you can. Please stress that after I realized what the game did I pulled if from the market. It just brings out the worst in people but in both our cases is seems to have steared us towards good.

I know its wrong but I can't help but feel a little pride that I wrote a game that remains more out there than anything that has followed. It was a very pure design (commit crimes for victory points - though at the cost of looking crazier and crazier) which is why it was so far out. Kind of "Kill Puppies for Satan" like. I'm glad I started using my powers for good (as the super heroes say).

Chris Engle

PS: If you come to Gen Con look for the booth with all the stuffied animals and dragons at. We pay the bills with plush.

I want to say thanks to Chris for letting me use his replies here on the bliggety-blog, and for creating that horrible,horrible game in the first place.
Nihilistic Motorcyclists has a place in RPG history now. A dark,scary place.

It also strikes me as hilarious that plushies are a part of Chris's business now. Maybe some commemorative Nihilistic Plushies could spice up the booth?
Who wouldn't want a nice fuzzy Toe-Cutter to take home from the con?

Clicking on the Nihilistic Motorcyclists tag in the Old Guard Guide sidebar will bring up the original post on the game from feb-09.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Can I play with madness? dabbling in skill systems.

* Edit-
The above image was originally 7th son of a 7th son, an interior illustration from Iron Maiden's 1988 album of the same name. I suppose Photobucket took it down in keeping with their vague,arbitrary enforcement of their terms of service. I'm leaving the censored version up as a tribute to their sniveling obeisance to the dictates of the feckless,dying record industry.

The existence of a skill system in a game, and the willingness to use it, or not, is one of those points which is always a bone of contention in those discussions of, “Is this Old School, or not?”

I got on the D&D roadshow at the Holmes edition, which included the Thief class and its thieving skills matrix, so I’ve never been totally opposed to the idea of skill systems. At least in theory, that is. It’s that gap that exists between the theory of what a skill system can contribute to the game, and the facts of what it actually does in play, that prevents me from employing a fully fleshed skill system in my own game.

Skill systems were added to D&D, and made the heart of later RPGs, with the idea that they would expand the possible actions available to PCs. The perception was that actions not quantified by the rules as written were therefore not possible in the game, and the way to correct this was to add to the rules base.

I think this comes from an assumption that anything not expressly permitted, is forbidden. I have an unsubstantiated gut feeling that, in general, the proportion of the populace which thinks in this manner has been increasing for a long time now. I prefer the opposite mode of thought, that everything not expressly forbidden is permitted. And, you’d better have a really good reason for attempting to forbid me anything.

Anyway, what I’ve seen in games with a heavy reliance on skill systems is that rather than expanding the portfolio of actions available to characters, they actually reduce them. The existence of the skill system encourages an attitude towards viewing your character sheet as an armory or magazine of possible action choices. It is so, partially, but the problem arises when it also is seen as a list of the only actions possible. This is the point where players are in danger of falling into the trap of thinking that, “If it’s not on my character sheet, I can’t do it.”

The general attitude of the Old Guard towards this perception is very well summed up in this quote from a thread on RPGNet by Mike “Old Geezer” Mornard.

Probably the most extreme case is a TETSNBN player wondering how to tie somebody up in my OD&D game because there was no “Use Rope” skill. I mean, Crom, “Use Rope”? What’s next, a “Tie Boots” skill? “Eat Food?” “Take Dump?”

That guy kills me.

First generation skill-less RPGs, by not instituting a frame work of defined skills, leave open the greater possibility of character action. Players of the mindset that requires a defined rule structure are uncomfortable with the rules looseness of Old Guard play. They want things spelled out on their character sheet, and they want a rules coded menu of action options.

I think this is fine, in a beginner level RPG experience, but it’s not the sort of Advanced D&D I like.

Don’t take that as an insult if you are in favor of skill systems, I’m not trying to pull your beard. What I’m saying is that skill systems are fine for what they actually do. And that is providing a structure for players and GMs to use in place of their own judgment. What they don’t actually do is increase the possibilities open to players. In cases where the participants are young and inexperienced, in life as well as in RPGs, skill systems provide a structure and framework which fills in for a lack of the knowledge and experience that’s required to feel comfortable with playing and DMing by fiat.

In a situation where a PC wants to attempt something about which you, the DM, knows nothing of in real life, having a skill system handy provides a guide line you can use to navigate that gap. This is a great help to starter gamers, training wheels if you will. The drawback is that if you have no fear of relying upon your own knowledge and judgment, a skill system becomes a hindrance and an encumbrance, eliminating possibilities and making the game less than it could be.

I will, of course, readily admit that I am somewhat grognardly in my attitude towards the precepts of contemporary gaming culture. I don’t agree that more is better, or that a system must be rigidly interlocking or else be seen as “broken”. I like to think that I’m genial in my disregard for modern gaming though. I don’t go out of my way to attack those who see things differently. The vast and inherent superiority of Old School games is self evident and requires no defense. Heh….

See above image for an illustration of what might be defined as, "somewhat grognardly".

I’ve never had any difficulty in making a judgment call, and sticking to it, in cases where a PC attempts something for which he has no rules defined success/failure mechanism. I consider the relevant factors and assign a probability, or a number to beat, and we go on from there. That’s all a skill system does anyway. I’m just more confident that I can take the relevant factors into account and make a decision on the fly that’s more closely applicable to the situation than a hard coded skill system could provide.

Now, it may be that I get away with this because I have players who have known me for a long time, and understand how I think. They know that if I employ Dungeon Master’s Fiat, it’s principled and reasoned and never arbitrary. I make a note of it when I have to fill in the gaps of the rules as written for expediency’s sake, and this becomes like referring to prior case law when similar situations arise later. I don’t allow the rules, or the lack of them to bog a game down. I encourage and expect “outside the dungeon” thinking from players. Some of the most exciting and entertaining gaming results from forcing PCs out of their comfort zones and into situations that require them to attempt actions for which their character class is totally maladapted, in circumstances most dire.

Skill systems tend to retard the willingness of players who are used to them to attempt actions which they do not specialize in, or have some rules established ability to perform. This is why I don’t, as a general rule, use them. I want players to surprise me with deeds of daring do and outlandish solutions to problems. With all the work that goes into DMing I expect a challenge and some entertainment at my end of the table too.

I do like the idea behind skill systems though, the thing that skill systems are meant to do, but don’t. That is, I think, to enhance the depth of the PC by adding layers of potential abilities.

I do this by breaking “skills” into three categories and administering them in an open ended manner.

Natural Talents, this is a list of traits, abilities, aptitudes, quirks, flaws, etc, which the PC was born with. This is always rolled randomly, no exceptions. The class of the character is of no matter and has no bearing on which Natural Talents he may be born with. I leave it to player choice if they want to roll on the Natural Talents list. Some, of course, have definite ideas about the sort of character they want to create and play and don’t want to chance the random results of the list. Others are happy to let chance have a say in character creation and interested in the challenge of running a possible oddball. There are no character building points involved, this is not a system which can be worked to PC advantage. These things are simply meant to add texture and depth to the PC. Some are advantageous, some are drawbacks, and some are normally neutral.

Learned Skills, This includes trade skills, political skills, folk ways, woods lore, etc, skills which the PC learned as a child or was taught prior to becoming a classed adventurer. I assign no rules mechanism to Learned Skills and administer them in an open-ended and common sense fashion. If a player wants his character to have been the son of a fisherman, we’ll have a discussion about just what Learned Skills the PC is entitled too. (What sort of fishing, where, with what equipment, etc,). I’ll write up a brief outline to add to the character sheet regarding the implications for the character’s abilities in-game, and that’s that. If a player wants to perform an action based on his Learned Skill list that I haven’t previously OK’d, he’s going to have to make a convincing argument for it, and quickly.

Minor Class Abilities, This includes all the small things that come along with learning to be a fighter, or a cleric, or a magic-user, or a thief. Each class has its own unique list of Minor Class Abilities. These also may be altered depending upon the character’s background history.

I do allow the possibility of PCs teaching other PCs Learned Skills and some Minor Class Abilities.

In cases where this is just about developing characterization, it’s only a matter of role playing it out. If the knowledge or skill gained may be used to affect the outcome of combat or other situations where the dice normally come into play, then learning the skill will require the PC to expend experience points. I don’t make this cheap, so the player’s got to really want it to make it worthwhile.

I’ll post the text of these categories when I get it transferred from notebooks to Word.

In other news, I barely avoided getting a ticket today for having an expired plate. I had no idea the thing was out of date, the BMV sent me no notice that it was about to expire. This is the second time this has happened to me, but I did have to pay a ticket last time. I really hate it when one branch of government screws up, and another branch punishes me for it. I won’t miss the BMV when the revolution comes.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Be not slovenly in the Art, lad. Lest ye call forth the Catarrhapillar!


Frequency: Extremely rare
No. Appearing: 1
Armor Class: 4
Move: 6”, (60 feet per round)
Hit Dice: 6
% in lair: nil
Treasure Type: Special
No. of Attacks: 1
Damage/Attack: 1d6+2, (bite)
Special Attacks: Mewling causes fear
Special Defenses: Catarrhal miasma
Magic Resistance: 40%
Intelligence: Animal-Low
Alignment: Neutral Evil
Size: L, (8 feet long, 300 lbs)
Psionic Ability: nil

When an attempt to summon and bind an infernal being of whatever sort fails badly, there is a chance, the magnitude of which depends upon various factors, that the imperfect summoning will call forth a Catarrhapillar, rather than the intended target.

This unfortunate happenstance is one reason among many for the mania would be diabolists have for attention to detail in their work, and with good reason.
A catarrhapillar, (or the catarrhapillar, it is unknown if the creature is singular, or of a kind), appears as a gigantic, demonic caterpillar-like beast. It has a broad, but shallow mouth filled with sharkish teeth, a single great baleful eye, and small horns or like protrusions upon its head.

The creature moves slowly, but with power. The rolling crepuscular undulation of its log thick body of fiendish muscle gives it strength equal to that of a stone giant when it comes to dealing with doors or other obstructions.

At all times the creature is enshrouded within a vile atmospheric exudation which it emits from its body. This is the catarrhal miasma. Any creature which comes within 1”, (10 feet), of the catarrhapillar must Save VS Poison or else suffer its effects. The miasma causes severe inflammation of the lungs and sinuses, as well as burning of the eyes and racking coughs. The weakness and heaving spasms effectively reduce the victim’s movement rate by 50% until he has been clear of the catarrhal miasma for 10 rounds.

In addition, the, (or a), catarrhapillar constantly emits the mewling. The mewling is a cry which sounds as though it were coming from a fearful infant calling for its mother, or the cries of abandoned kittens. All who hear the mewling and witness its actual source must Save VS Magic or feel Fear as per the spell.

Once brought to the prime material plane, a catarrhapillar has no goal other than to devour its summoner. It will ignore all other threats unless they come between it and its target. The creature is untiring and unrelenting. It will pursue its summoner without pause regardless of distance or obstacles. Even should a summoner remove himself from the catarrhapillar’s presence by teleportation or dimension door or other such magic, the monster will still sense the caster’s direction and distance and pursue at its best speed.

A catarrhapillar cannot be held or charmed or controlled in any way.

A catarrhapillar has no treasure as such, but may contain within its guts items or artifacts belonging to previous victims.

I've been slow to post lately. It's because allergies make me stupid. I'm outside alot, and once I suck in that late summer pollen, I get dumber and dumber as the day goes on. I just can't seem to focus well enough to string words together.
If I take enough antihistamines to clear my head, I get that weird detached feeling of watching everything through camera eyes instead. I'm sure everybody at work thinks I'm high. Ah,well.

The pic is a clip from an Adams family cartoon. That thing creeping down the stairs just stuck in my imagination.

I wanted some sort of low level, but terrifying demonic creature. The idea with the catarrhapillar is have something that will evoke that fear of relentless pursuit you get in those dreams where you fall down a lot while being slowly chased by something horrible.