Memento Mori

There are three types of people in this world. Those you’ve never met nor heard of. Those you’ve not met but whose names you know. And those whose actions have directly touched you, for better or for worse.

And there are two categories of the latter. Those whose death you have been prepared for, by age or illness. And those whose death comes unexpectedly, and far too soon.

If there is a land of the dead, souls there must surely celebrate each passing, as it increases their number and adds new stories of experiences past.

But here in the land of the living, we can only mourn their loss. Then, after a time, we turn our faces again to the future. For ours are survivors’ tales.

And in this as well are two categories of people, the pragmatist, and the idealist. You cannot change their basic nature, though you may appeal for a moment to their grasp of the other. And so the pragmatist grieves awhile. And the idealist is coaxed to cease grieving and move on.

I am by nature an idealist. Were I a god, this is not the world I would have made. For existence to include suffering and sorrow seems appalling. I can only dream of other worlds, and strive to make ours more like those.

As an idealist, then, I pick up the pen again today to work at creating. Though the pragmatist in me acknowledges the sorrow behind, and recognizes that there is also, inevitably, sorrow yet ahead.

A glassblower’s sun
Sky of glazed porcelain clouds
A crack of thunder

—Lester Smith

My Time With Groo

Groo: The Game is currently $110 and up on eBay. And the expansion alone is currently $50 minimum. It is honestly one of my favorite games. And as a game designer myself, I admire it. I feel fortunate to have been part of its production.

The game is based on Sergio Aragonés’ comic book character, a dimwitted barbarian with godlike combat skills, who bumbles through his world, leaving a trail of destruction behind. (Imagine Inspector Clouseau in the body of Conan the Barbarian.) Groo’s only two friends are his dog Rufferto and the Sage.

The game’s designer, Ken Whitman, may well be Groo. That would make me either the Sage or Rufferto. I hope to god I’m the Sage, and not the dog.

Comparisons between Ken and Groo should be obvious. It is no secret that Ken has swept through the game industry leaving a trail of destruction and burned bridges behind him. His name is anathema around the world. But dammit, I can’t help but remain his friend.

That sentiment may well earn me some ire. It may sour the wine in Tenkar’s Tavern, where bitters are served whenever Ken’s name comes up.

But while Ken has many times frustrated me or disappointed me, my life has been the fuller for knowing him. I’ve honestly never spent a regretful hour in his company. And I know many people in this industry—some of them legendary—who could well say the same.

Bughunters RPG

Tabletop game designers tend to pour their heart and soul into projects. And publishing companies tend to keep the rights to those projects. It’s the difference between “work for hire” and a novelist’s “advance on royalties.” I’m not sure why a salary doesn’t equate to an advance on royalties. But then, I’ve always sided with labor unions, which if I’d been born in the early 20th century instead of the middle would have gotten me labeled as a communist. By the time I came along, it merely implied you were affiliated with gangsters. In either case, “Blood and souls for my Lord Arioch!”

But to continue, Bughunters was my very first RPG project at TSR. I applied much of what I’d learned at GDW, including a foldout 3D star map in the back. And it plays on tropes represented in popular film and fiction at the time. But it’s meshed together with some inventiveness of my own, to fit an entire sci-fi campaign in a 128-page book.

The premise is that PCs are “Synners”—synthetic humans built from volunteered DNA, which donation scores the volunteer a cushy pension. Because they’re enhanced beyond human norms, they’re forbidden from setting foot on Earth (ala Blade Runner). Their job is to prepare habitable planets for human colonization, by clearing traps and monsters leftover from an interstellar war between two alien civilizations that managed mutual annihilation. And while participating in this hellish task, they have all their donor’s memories, including the day of DNA donation for a pension, so they also suffer a weird sort of displaced self-loathing. Add in a modular starship system, with deck plans, that involved choosing a command module size, marrying it to a cargo bay size, and tacking on an engine module size (small command module and small cargo with big thrusters is fast and nimble fighter ship; medium command module and huge cargo space with small to medium thrusters is a cargo hauler; etc.), and the result was a game I could feel proud of.

Two quick memories from that project:

  1. The editor was going to revise the mortar-fire rules to say the skill roll should be based on the higher of the forward observer’s rating and the firer’s rating, because why penalize the better PC? My first reaction was to just say, “Leave it alone. You simply don’t understand. Trust me. I’ve actually fired mortars during my National Guard days.” (Medics are invited to fire pretty much everything while attending a range in case of accident.) He got offended at my high-handedness, and I pretty much had to beg him to wait, and to listen to a careful explanation, delivered in a humble manner, in order to convey that it doesn’t matter how experienced one person is, if the other member of the fire team isn’t. (Now that I think about it, there’s a parallel in that story. But I certainly learned some humility and patience that day.)
  2. When the book was published, Steve Winter stopped by my office to say, “This is good. I’m impressed.” Steve had been one of the two TSR staff members I had gotten to know and respect before I hired on there, from meeting them at Gen Con parties each year. (The other was Doug Niles.) So such words coming from Steve were more encouraging to the “new guy” than he might know. Thanks, buddy!

I still love Bughunters. I’ve asked WotC about selling me the rights, to turn it into a D6xD6 RPG book. But they’re not interested in even discussing it. So it’s gathering dust with the other Amazing Engine titles while WotC pursues more high-ticket projects, ferreted away just in case they may someday want a weird little fairly hard sci-fi property influenced by Philip K. Dick’s paranoia.

Update: An old friend and GDW colleague pointed out that the Bughunters setting is now part of WotC’s d20 Future sourcebook. So I guess they did dust it off and use it. And I guess I just now gave them free advertising.

I’ve no idea if I’m credited, but if you click the linked title in the previous paragraph and happen to buy a copy, I’ll get a few cents kickback from Amazon. 🙂

Condition: New in shrinkwrap
Price: $25
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