Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Legacy of the Bieth Appendix N (Revisited)

James Introcaso, over at Worldbuilder Blog, released his own Appendix N a while back, and asked folks to contribute theirs.

Attentive readers will recall that I've written one, but that was five years ago. So here's a revised and expanded listing for Legacy of the Bieth's Appendix N.

Primary Sources
The Book of Contemplation, Usama ibn Munqidh
The Muqaddimah, Ibn Khaldun
The Rihla, Ibn Battuta

Epics and Folktales
The Romance of Antar, Anonymous
The Hamzanama, Anonymous
Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali (trans. D.T. Niane and G.D. Pickett)
Saharan Myth and Saga, H.T. Norris

I'm still making my way through most of these. Sundiata is amazing and absolutely fertile ground for RPG material. It's not just the main story of a denied prince liberating his home from an usurping sorceror-king, but also the little details like the far-seeing hunters (who provide another reason for the AD&D ranger to have all those divination spells...) I haven't had a chance to read Nneti Okorafor and Eric Battle's comic adaptation of Antar yet, but that's likely going to go up here also. 

Nonfiction
10,000 Ways to Die, Alex Cox
Night and Horses and the Desert, Robert Irwin
Timbuktu: The Sahara's Fabled City of Gold, Marq du Villiers and Sheila Hirtle
When Baghdad Ruled the Muslim World, Hugh Kennedy
Cairo: The City Victorious, Max Rodenbeck
Making Big Money in 1600: The Life and Times of Isma'il Abu Taqiyya, Egyptian Merchant, Nelly Hanna
The Tunnels of Cu Chi, Tom Mangold and Joe Penycale
Codes of the Underworld, Diego Gambetta 

Most of the sources here deal with Egypt and/or Islamic medieval culture, but there are a few ringers. 10,000 Ways to Die (freely available here) was hugely influential for thinking about the tone of spaghetti westerns, and what makes them work on a thematic level.

Fiction
Chronicles of Sword and Sand, Howard Andrew Jones
Throne of the Crescent Moon, Saladin Ahmed
Roadside Picnic, Arkady and Boris Strugatsky
Annihilation, Jeff van der Meer
The Malazan Book of the Fallen, Steven Erikson (particularly Deadhouse Gates and The Bonehunters)
Yendi, Steven Brust
"Zothique" stories, Clark Ashton Smith (also see generally)
"Outremer" stories, Robert Howard (also see generally)
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, John Le Carre
City of Brass, S.A. Chakraborty
Chronicles of Master Li and Number Ten Ox, Barry Hughart
"Black God's Kiss," CL Moore

The fiction section is one of the areas where I want to cast a wider net. One of my concerns with my inspirational material is that it's not drawing on enough North African material. The other is that it's drawing on too much of a Western lens. So, more work to be done.

Film
The Dollars Trilogy, Sergio Leone
Black Panther, Ryan Coogler
The Mummy (1999), Stephen Sommers
Indiana Jones Trilogy, Stephen Spielberg
The Proposition, John Hillcoat
The Wild Bunch, Sam Peckinpah

The movie adaptations of Roadside Picnic and Annihilation would likely make it onto this, but I haven't been able to watch them yet.

Music
Blue Oyster Cult (see generally)
Powerslave, Iron Maiden
Ennio Morricone
Federale

Blue Oyster Cult winds up providing a lot of the inspiration and underpinning for some of the weirder cosmological elements present.



Computer Games
S.T.A.L.K.E.R., GSG Game World
Mount + Blade Warband, Paradox
Age of Empires II, Microsoft

Artists
Zdzisław Beksiński
Remedios Varo

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Landsknecht Link Roundup, Aug/Sept


I did one of these in late July - seems overdue for another roundup. Here's a curated list of "Some Stuff I Thought Was Cool," and discussing what I liked/found interesting about them.
Ba Chim Seal of Approval!

(art by Dreadbeasts)
  • Hydra buddy Trey Causey continues to be a freakin' machine over at From the Sorcerer's Skull. I particularly liked his thoughts on how Adventure Time's setting design can inform campaign construction, and his thoughts for using Operation Unfathomable as the core for a '50s monster movie setting.
  • While you're looking at Trey's blog, check out the ICONS writeup for Girlgantua, another teaser for the forthcoming Armchair Planet Who's Who. (My favorite bit so far might be the quiet Trek nod in the Tempus Fugitives.)
  • David Perry released Principia Apocrypha, an alternative to the venerable Old School Primer that discusses 'core OSR principles' from an Apocalypse World-influenced standpoint. This one has some charming art by Evlyn M.
  • Continuing on with core principles, Into the Odd has some thoughts on the trio of Information, Choice, and Impact in centering player agency in campaign play.
  • Wizardthiefighter Luka completed the first draft of the Ultraviolet Grasslands recently, and I've started the editing process. Members of Luka's Patreon can check out the first draft, and of course there's a free preview available here.
     
  • The Lizard Man Diaries's Infinigrad Suburb Generator is a nice set of tables for jumpstarting some weird fantasy neighborhoods. I'm also interested in checking out Jack Shear's treatment of the same idea in the upcoming Umberwell supplement (demoed at DIY & Dragons).
  • While the Odious Uplands churn towards completion, Jason's fired up The Dungeon Dozen once again. As someone whose campaign fits the bill, I particularly appreciate his investigations into why There Are No Dragons In This World.
  • Rey & Grey continue to chug away at Break!! - here's some exciting art from the intro adventure, Trouble in Sprocket. I've played through Sprocket, but didn't interact with large parts of the adventure (including some of the groups seen here) and now I want to play through that again.
  • Emmy Allen wrote Dolorous Stroke, an Arthurian myth wargame inspired by GW's Inquisitor. Focus on small objective-based skirmishes with a premium on narrative construction. Very cool stuff. (I'm biased, I suggested the name.)
  • Evan, at In Places Deep, has a guide to sandbox construction up. As someone who often stalls out in the procedural side of setting generation, this sort of framework is extremely handy (and one I'm recommending to other folks interested in sandbox generation).
  • Against the Wicked City has just wrapped up a nine-part series looking at the books of WFRP 2e, but my favorite part is his discussion of Renegade Crowns. This book is one of my favorites, and I'm glad to see it getting a bit of recognition in presaging some of the OSR's fortes. (I think Joseph undersells some of the utility that RC still provides, including a sandbox construction kit of its own, some nice random tables for generating opposing factions, and an excellent Trouble Index system that keeps PCs dashing between internal and external threats to their petty fiefdom.)
  • Bad Wrong Fun is previewing Offworlders (Traveller by way of World of Dungeons). I'm not 100% sold on WoD, but I appreciate the rules-minimalist approach and am curious to see where Offworlders takes that fusion. Alas, no rules for PC death in chargen (yet).
  • Skerples is teasing Magical-Industrial Revolution. In contrast to the OSR aesthetics of ruin, MIR is focused on the time just before decay...right before everything goes to hell. I tend to steer away from high magic games and frameworks, but I've been grooving on the Revolutions podcast recently, and am extremely interested in seeing game examination of how building social pressures and unexpected catalysts can start things spiralling out of control.
  • A bit out of timeframe, but I liked Beyond Formalhaut's discussion of the purpose of RPG books (creativity aid and supplement). Melan's part of the OSR that I'm not really in touch with (I came in late). At this point I'm not particularly enthused about 'calls to arms,' but I definitely appreciate Melan's urging towards a culture of experiential play. (Not to mention a focus on discussion - which is part of why I'm trying to share these out!)
  • Give 'Em Lead investigates solo campaign construction in a wargaming setting - combining WFB matches with event-table solo play to create a campaign narrative focusing on one army (rather than the traditional duelling forces of a narrative campaign, or free-wheeling all vs all multi-player campaigns).
So. What'd I miss? What posts have had your brains buzzing?







Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Untapped Matrix Energy?

"And standing there, facing the pure horrifying precision, I came to realize the obviousness of the truth.
What is the Matrix? Control (of a game through preselected verbs and a fluid resolution mechanic)."
A while back Chris wrote about the Engle Matrix game and examples for implementing it in RPGs. It's a method for running and adjudicating wargames in a mostly stat-less manner, by allowing players to construct explanations/arguments for what they think ought to happen, and then providing the referee a method by which to adjudicate these while still maintaining uncertainty (the original explanation by Engle has more detail, as does Chris's first post).

The original Engle implementation (and the part giving it the title of Matrix game) involves a pre-selected list of cues ("Anger," "Large Formation," "Love," "Skirmish"). Players select five words from the matrix to construct their arguments ("I will have my troops break into SMALL FORMATIONS and SKIRMISH with the enemy in guerrilla warfare. This will succeed because my troops 1) KNOW THE TERRAIN, 2) and are ANGRY over enemy atrocities, while 3) enemy forces are FATIGUED from overextension.") The referee evaluates how strong an argument is, then rolls to see whether it succeeds or fails.

We've used matrix games in the Hill Cantons campaign as part of domain-game level play, during the Feral Shore phase of the campaign. In these instances, though, Chris elided over the word selection component of the matrix game, focusing on having players construct arguments over the group's intentions, assessing their strength, and rolling based on that.

I see the appeal of this method. It takes away the artificial feeling of selecting words, which I suspect at its worst would start to run into the same trap that bad FATE games do - spurious tagging of aspects to fit into the mechanistic requirements of the system. Obviously the referee's judgment can moderate these tendencies, but it's easy to see how the implementation can spiral downhill.

And yet.

Something still draws me to the use and implementation of a matrix in resolving situations. The incense of integration alludes to a magic system I've begun conceptualizing, that requires players to draw analogies between the qualities of a zodiac sign and the magical effects that the player wishes to achieve.
“Because I thought the serpent was cunning, like a spy out to be, and the crucible could mean knowledge, what you kind of distill, and the beehive was hard work, like bees are always working hard; so out of the hard work and the cunning comes knowledge, see, and that’s they spy’s job; and I pointed to them and I thought the question in my mind, and the needle stopped at death…D’you think that could be really working, Farder Coram?” -- Phillip Pullman, The Golden Compass, displaying the intuitively engaging feel of magical analogies

Beyond magic systems, I think there's fallow ground in playing with the list of words that compose the matrix and adapting it for targeted use in other situations away from the geopolitical. Adjusting these might provide the tools for a sweet spot in mechanical implementation of social interactions, between the unsatisfying "social combat" and the extremely broad "free RP."

Have any of you used matrix games (or similar tools) in your campaigns? Any thoughts for how to best employ them?

Friday, August 3, 2018

Incense of Integration

Feline Incense Burner - Louvre
Khorasan or Central Asia, 11th Century
A talisman is a spirit within a body...it is domination because its essence is coercion and control. It functions according to the purpose it was composed for: overpowering and coercing, by using numerical ratios and placing astrological secrets in certain bodies at certain times and by using incenses that are powerful and capable of bringing out the spirit of that talisman.

-- Anon., The Goal of the Wise (Picatrix), Trans. Hashem Atallah, Ouroboros Press, 2007

Talismanic magic, the domain of the most talented astrologers [and a likely new magic system to be detailed later -- Ed.] is a form of sympathetic magic. It requires that the magus establish arcane similarities between a configuration of the celestial spheres and an earthly vessel (a talisman), then use incense as a conduit for a minor jinn* to manifest and inhabit the talisman. Once the jinn has entered the talisman, the device becomes "charged" and will begin to enact its work.

Selection of the incense is therefore crucial. The right blend of ingredients to tie together the earthly requirements to align the talisman with its task, and the conditions of the talisman with the stars it seeks to emulate, is a delicate balance. An error in selection is therefore the difference between the lightning and the lightning bug.

Some of the foremost astronomers have developed incense of integration, a particular blend of ingredients which helps evoke the heavens and assists in aligning the physical construct of the talisman with the desired celestial configuration.

Mechanics:

Selection of the proper incense ingredients is made by rolling against the mage's Int on 4d6. The GM should provide bonuses if the player can present items which can establish a connection of sympathetic magic (hairs off the bandit's beard, resin from the Caliph's garden, etc.) and are present in sufficient quantities to make some incense.

Using incense of integration in the proposed blend allows the magus to reroll a failed Int check in incense selection. If, however, this second check is failed, there is a 2-in-6 chance that the talisman will operate in reverse.

*The term is...imprecise; this is as much a jinn as a Firanj "kobold" is a human.

This is my second entry in Dan D's #DIY30 Challenge.


Source: The Goal of the Wise (Picatrix), Trans. Hashem Atallah, Ouroboros Press, 2007

Thursday, August 2, 2018

Ghuleh, Ghuleh

Putrefaction
A scent that cursed be
Crawler from The Descent (2005)

Under cold dark dust
From the darkness
Rise a succubus
From the earthen rust

- Ghost, "Ghuleh / Zombie Queen"

Ghul
No. Enc.: 1d8 (1d6x10)
Movement: 120' (40')
Armor Class: 6 (hide)
Hit Dice: 2+2, or 6 (rais)
Attacks: 1
Damage: 1d8 (claws) or weapon
Save: F3, F6 (rais)
Morale: 9, 11 (rais)
Exp: 58, 820 (rais)

Hoard Class: IV (individual), XIV (group)

Hideous Regeneration: The first wound a ghul suffers in a combat will cause the ghul to take an additional 1 hp damage each round. However, if the the ghul is struck again, its jinn heritage will begin healing all of its wounds with diabolical speed; it will regenerate 1d10 hp per round for the rest of the day.

Rad-touched: Ghuls are immune to the effects of anomalies and other features of the Zone. 

Ghuls are mutants of the jinn - descendants of those trapped in the Zones and twisted by the horrid magicks of the Bieth. Twisted faces (always sporting twisted tusks), never-healing radiation burns, and withered limbs distort their forms. Confined to their warped and twisted physical forms, they are disdained by their jinn brethren, and feared by human city-dweller and nomad alike. Cast out from all society, pushed to the wastelands and ruins, ghuls regularly turn to banditry and slaughter to survive. Given their residence in the ruined and hollowed cities of the Zones, and the inhospitable nature of the wastes, many believe that they subsist on the vast necropolises and the corpses stored within. 

Despite their ill reputation, many ghuls dream of leaving their blasted homes and joining the societies they have dimly heard of. Given their immunities to the deleterious effects of the Zone and the perilous anomalies, ghuls will occasionally strike up relationships and even alliances with those striking out into the Zone. However, they are wary and paranoid, and many an alliance has been riven apart through betrayal and fear on both sides. 

Ghul bands of 20 or more have a 4 in 6 chance of being led by a rais (boss), a 6 HD ghul who can polymorph self (AEC 73) into any humanoid form three times a day. They are known to ride in great bronze chariots drawn by ostriches or eyeless dogs. 



O who will bear my news to the young men of Fahm
     of what I met at Riha Bitan?
Of how I met the ghul swooping down
     on the desert bare and flat as a sheet?
I said to her, 'We are both worn with exhaustion,
     brothers of travel, so leave my place to me!'
She sprang at me; then my hand raised
     against her a polished Yemeni blade.
Then undismayed I struck her: she fell flat
     prostrated on her two hands and on her throatlatch.
She said, 'Strike again!' I replied to her, 'Calm down,
     mind your place! For I am indeed stouthearted.'
I lay upon her through the night
     that in the morning I might see what had come to me.
Behold! Two eyes set in a hideous head,
     like the head of a cat, split-tongued,
Legs like a deformed fetus, the back of a dog,
     clothes of haircloth or worn-out skins!

-Ta'abbata Sharran, "How I Met The Ghul" (Irwin 24)

Notes:

  • Apparently ghuls eating the dead was an invention of Antoine Galland in his translation of the 1001 Nights (Al-Rawi). There certainly seem to be several tales and instances of MENA folklore where ghuls are shown eating corpses, but those tales postdate Galland's translation. This is honestly part of why I'm making Legacy of the Bieth in the first place - drawing upon MENA folklore and myth that tries to step away from The Arabian Nights (TM) and its dominant presence as the touchstone for "Islamic fantasy." 
  • This is my first entry in Dan D's #DIY30 challenge. Despite this post running on 8/2, I wrote it the night of 8/1, so it counts dammit. We'll see how long I can keep up.

Sources:
The Mythical Ghoul in Arabic Culture, Ahmed Al-Rawi, Cultural Analysis, 8, 45-65.
Night & Horses & The Desert, Robert Irwin
"Zerendac," Feminist Folklore
Folklore of the Holy Land, J.E. Hanauer (source here)


Thursday, July 26, 2018

Blog Roundup, 7/26

Over on G+, there's been some discussion about how the blogosphere is dead and gone -- how the environment that made it fruitful no longer exists to provide a viable discussion zone.

(For my part, I continue to blame the death of Google Reader, but that's neither here nor there.)


So here's my part to try and provide some revitalization - a curated list of some recent posts, plus what I liked or found interesting about them.

  • From The Sorceror's Skull - Weird Revisited: In Arcadia - Trey is running a few old posts here, which is really good because there are a lot of his older posts that I haven't seen! Trey's post provides a slight taste of the realm and presents discussion as to how you'd integrate it into a game:

    "Magical practitioners view Arcadia and its neighboring realms as places to salvage materials and items out of myth and legend, and to parley with powers that--though perhaps consciously forgotten--still retain great mythic resonance in Man's unconscious.  As with all extraplanar dealings, caution is warranted: These primal beings have agendas of their own."

    This touches upon something I'd like to see more of - ways in which a setting's myths and legends can rebound upon and affect the setting as players grapple with them.
  • Ynas Midgard's RPG Blog - XP for Exploration in Hyperborea - this post takes on Jeff's eXPloration post and provides a worked example beyond Jeff's original post. The new wrinkle here is the "completionist" aspect, where finding different hidden wonders provides ever-increasing XP benefits. The players may not necessarily know how many of these hidden wonders there are, but discovering each one provides greater and greater rewards. I like this because it speeds up the process of evaluating how much each site is worth, and provides the players with an interesting incentive to go into deep exploration of a given region.
  • Cavegirl's Game Stuff - Dolorous Stroke - Playtests! - I'm pretty hyped about Emmy's work on Dolorous Stroke (and not just because I suggested the name!). It's taking a look at the design space that Inquisitor delved into, re-fusing RPGs and skirmish games back together.
  • Tales of the Grotesque and Dungeonesque - Mama Lesidi Gheda, the Cult Leader of Cinderheim - Jack's almost done with the Cinderheim book, and these warlord profiles are good teasers. I wish it were a bit more simulationistic in terms of breaking down a few more of the details (how strong is Mama Gheda in relation to the other warlords?) but it's a great format to construct a punchy, evocative snapshot of a character and their domain.
  • Rolltop Indigo - Lexicon - Robert recently pointed me towards S John Ross's blog. This series, looking at developing a new set of terminology for talking about RPGs, seems to me to be setting out some useful and handy frameworks. Invisible Rulebooks, for example, is a nice and clear discussion of some of the unstated assumptions that go into a gaming group's decisions and game framework.
  • Coins and Scrolls - A 12th Century Tour, Part 7 - Egypt, North Africa, and Home Again - I'm only belatedly coming to Skerples's posts here, but of course I'm going to show up for the MENA post. And look at the entire thing! A pointcrawl of the Mediterranean, with contemporary glimpses into what many / most of those points were seen as. Holy crap. (Oh, and while you're here check out his Island-Based Reviews.)
     
  • Papers and Pencils - Questions To Ask Yourself After A Session - If you're like me, wrapping up a game session leaves you with both a sudden frenzy of energy and a lack of direction (particularly if all your players are toddling sensibly off to sleep). Beloch's questions here help provide a bit of that direction, and let you tap into that post-game high in order to provide some dynamic directions for the next session.
I liked writing this. No promises, but I'd like to continue putting out further roundups. 

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Gaming Insurgencies in a Galaxy Far, Far Away

So. Stuff is awful in the real world. Hell, between the time I started this blog post and the time I'm writing this sentence, things have gotten worse.

I urge folks reading this to consider donating to RAICES or the International Refugee Assistance Project.

 *******

Aaron Allston (RIP) had a long-running and stellar RPG resume, but I think his most highly regarded work may be the Champions supplement Strike Force. Strike Force was a sourcebook detailing in-depth Allston's home Champions campaign, tips and tricks for GMing a long-running campaign, analysis of how the campaign developed, etc. Jeff took a look at it a while back; it's a great "how-to" for constructing your own supers campaign in the same mode. Allston's example provides guidance for the issues that will likely come up in a supers campaign, and gives the prospective GM a framework and set of tools for being able to deal with them.
"Face Loran" by Midhat Kapetanovic
(a fan artist whose work Allston enjoyed)

I was taking a bus to NYC recently on little sleep, and needed something to keep me awake and upright. So I started flipping through and rereading one of the Wraith Squadron books - Allston's first entries into writing Star Wars fiction. They focus on a ragtag bunch of near-washouts with nevertheless exceptional skills, multiclass commando/pilots tasked with special operations for the New Republic.

The three initial Wraith Squadron books center on the squadron's operations against Warlord Zsinj, an ex-Imperial warlord with a Super Star Destroyer who's managed to carve out his own personal empire (lowercase 'e' there). The Wraiths wind up staging multiple false-flag and covert operations, masquerading first as Zsinj's own forces, then as independent mercenaries...

As I was blearily paging through, I had a sudden realization born of equal parts brilliance and sleep deprivation.

The Wraith Squadron books (and to a lesser degree, their Rogue Squadron predecessors) serve as a great how-to for setting up an insurgency-focused RPG campaign. I don't just mean that they're crackingly fun novels about an insurgency-style conflict (although they are that), or even that they feel akin to the vibe given by the best parts of the WEG Star Wars RPG (although they are that too). The Wraith Squadron books give you a sample set of characters (and showcase their evolution over time), raise a clear set of problems that insurgent cells might face, and provide examples of how to structure a campaign framework that meaningfully combines strategic decisions with engaging roleplay-friendly tactical frameworks (the traditional "adventure session").

The Wraiths do seem like a traditional PC selection - one part Central Casting (Star Wars), one part goofy off-the-wall character concepts ("A Gamorrean mathematical savant!" "Imperial double agent with artificially induced dissociative identity disorder!"). But the most interesting thing for RPG purposes is the framework that Allston places the Wraiths in.

There's a bit of throat-clearing in the first Wraith book (character introductions, training montages) but it gets going with a interesting problem that the PCs have to wrestle with: most of their X-wings are disabled in space, and they're pretty sure that a hostile ship is inbound to their location to scoop up the disabled craft. How do you deal with this?

In short order this turns into a new problem/opportunity - 1) you've captured the hostile ship that was coming for your squadron, and 2) the enemy doesn't know that you've taken it. What do you do? How do you turn this into your advantage, in an open-ended setting with no immediate mission orders beyond "deny the enemy"? (Oh, and 'how do you modify the ship to be cooler,' in swift accordance with the gear fascination that regularly crops up in RPGs.)

As I've written before, special operations make for a compelling campaign framework. The Wraiths continually have to deal with resource shortfalls - both personnel (as casualties mount) and starfighters (generally their most effective, but also most irreplaceable, equipment asset). Missions are designed, on both sides, with the objective of gathering factual intelligence, but also an understanding of the motivations and personality dynamics behind the opposition.

Wraith Squadron, by Jeffrey Carlisle
(WotC, Galaxy at War)

The additional component that the Wraith Squadron books bring is a discussion of sources of power, legitimacy, and the dynamics of control - the heart of an insurgency discussion. Directly duelling Zsinj is repeatedly shown to be a mug's game - he refuses to give direct battle with his fleet unless he has a clear numerical advantage, and only fights on ground that he has chosen (something most explored in the third Wraith book, Solo Command). Here, Zsinj is in the position of the insurgent against the incumbent New Republic. The NR forces wind up gaming out a few possibilities - how is he maintaining support? What are the crucial components of his empire's infrastructure, and the sources of his legitimacy? Insurgencies are about convincing a population that you are going to be a better source of government than your opposition (however that population ranks 'government'). This is the fundamental objective of an insurgency-centric RPG campaign as well (regardless of which side one's on, insurgent or incumbent) - degrading your opposition's capability to govern and exert force, while demonstrating to the populace that you're able to do better on those fronts.

Chris has written before about the incorporation of a Chaos Index into a campaign to present a campaign framework that reacts to player actions. (If curious to see a worked example of a chaos index, check out Misty Isles of the Eld; all of the Hill Cantons products from Hydra have Chaos Indices but Misty Isles is the most directly helpful for today's discussion). As Chris alludes to in his blogpost, the Chaos Index framework has origins in the political track that some wargames incorporate to determine the allegiance of a population. So here, we're bringing the Index back to its roots.
Wraith Squadron, by Joe Corroney
(WotC, Star Wars Gamer #9)

If players are taking on the role of an insurgent cell, then it makes sense for the GM to track two variables in particular: the "Heat" that player actions have generated, and the population's inclinations towards one side or the other. (More ambitious GMs might wish to track the population's affiliation towards each side on its own separate track, in order to model disillusioned populaces who can trust neither belligerent, or populaces seeking alternative governance when one side is insufficiently responsive.) As players continue to take action, Heat will continue to rise, and the incumbent will devote more and more resources to countering their actions and reasserting control over the areas that the players are striking at. Notably, Heat will rise with both successful and failed operations - but if the players lie low for too long, the ability to win over the population will begin to diminish.

On the other hand, if the players are the incumbent, then the inclinations track might be paired with a Public Will or Official Support track; as fighting and conflict continues on, the incumbent's capacity to exert sustained influence begins to wane. So the incumbent has a strong desire to bring things to a head quickly...but the quick way is often the way that decreases legitimacy, and therefore decreases inclination.

Either way, dealing with an insurgency conflict is a fundamentally political issue, since it hinges so strongly upon gaining the support of the population (or at the very least, preventing their active opposition). It requires interaction and bargaining with with multiple factions, and mandates interaction with various stripes of leaders. This isn't 'just' a wargame, but a framework that combines strategic and tactical objectives with a deeply personal framework that makes it suitable for RPGs.

Have any of you dabbled with insurgencies in your games? What would you want to ensure is present?

One final note - as with any campaign framework dealing with war and conflict, an insurgency-centric campaign can go dark places. However, given the very real-world insurgency conflicts that we've seen over the past two decades, those dark places may touch too close to home for folks. Getting player buy-in (and evaluating the areas folks are comfortable delving into) is going to be crucial here.

Further Reading:

X-Wing Series, Michael Stackpole and Aaron Allston (particularly Stackpole's Wedge's Gamble, Krytos Trap, and Bacta War, and Allston's Wraith Squadron, Iron Fist, and Solo Command)
Counterinsurgency and the Rule of Law (yup, I'm vain enough to cite my own work here)
Wargaming in the Classroom: An Odyssey, James Lacey, War on the Rocks
GMT's Counterinsurgency Games

Saturday, September 9, 2017

To Battle in Hell - L'Mercenaire!

A brief plug before the main entry: the Hydra Cooperative is participating in a Hurricane Harvey relief bundle on DriveThruRPG, running through 9/12/2017. Pick up over $400 of PDFs for only $25 - and help out the Houston Harvey Relief Fund  and the Coastal Bend Disaster Recovery Group Fund. Play elfgames AND assist those in need - win-win!

Mercenaries have been a subject of fascination for me for ages. As a kid, I devoured books about the Flying Tigers and other merc pilot outfits, but also fell in love with Arthur Conan Doyle's The White Company and Corwin raising his army of Earth mercs to take Amber. Later, Glen Cook's legendary Black Company books and Steven Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen continue to loom large for me, as do Iain M Banks's Use of Weapons and Drake's Hammer's Slammers.
NC Wyeth's "The White Company"

Driving back home just now, I listened to a great interview on why Erik Price's plan for Afghanistan is terrible. Price, the founder of Blackwater/Xe/Academi/Constellis, was described by the guests as (among other things) "Gyro Gearloose" and "[a guy who] thinks he's Tony Stark but is really Lex Luthor." Hell of a listen. (See also this 2007 piece, by Paul Tullis and one of the folks on the interview, Robert Young Pelton.)

Grizzly APC.jpg
Blackwater's Grizzly AFV
By Dominguez2 - Own workCC BY-SA 3.0Link
Prince's outlook, combining a strong religious fervor (and profit-motive driven amorality) with wildly ambitious ideas (both sensible and awful) rang a few bells of recognition in my mind from a gaming perspective. Price certainly fits the mold of a recurring NPC, if not a PC himself. His peripatetic post-Iraq schemes for BlackXeCademi (an abortive attempt to foment a war with Iran, creating an anti-piracy force in Somalia before abandoning his forces in the field to go rogue, creating an oil refinery scheme in South Sudan before being kicked out for trying to skim off the top) sound like the sort of harebrained ideas that, well, a bunch of PCs would come up with. And when I hear about Blackwater creating its own COIN planes and AFVs, visions of folks geeking out over how to minmax and optimize their own vehicles in GURPS or Traveller flash before my eyes.

Even while I listened with horror to the Blackwater podcast, a treacherous 13-year-old who lurks in my brain was going "that's so cooooool" at some of the Blackwater shenanigans. To be clear, the cool bits were more the homegrown vehicles and wild antipiracy plans than the civilian massacres, heedless destruction, and disregard for human life. (Those last bits are...kind of not so hot, to say the least).

Joel DuQue, for HareBrained Schemes's Battletech
This train of thought got me wondering why we don't see more discussion of PCs-as-mercenaries in RPGs. While there are certainly several games that do support this (Traveller and Battletech both pop primarily to mind, but also several games from this list - interesting to note the strong presence in all three lists of the Keith brothers), I don't know that there's too much support for the mercenary company in fantasy games. Certainly you have games like ACKS that integrate a wargame/economy system into the core rules, but given the presence of computer games like Mount & Blade and Battle Brothers, not to mention all the literary sources I've mentioned above, I'd have expected a bit more support and/or exploration of the idea.

So. What makes playing a merc campaign interesting? One of the settings I would have expected to cover this in more detail doesn't; Green Ronin's Black Company Campaign Setting fails to engage with what playing through a merc perspective ought to entail, instead treating the issue as simply "fielding a small army." (This isn't intended to slag the BCCS, which is one of like two d20 books that I have actually sought out and really like, but just noting what it doesn't cover.) Even worse is the AD&D 2e "For Gold and Glory," which lists a slew of uninspiring and incoherent Forgotten Realms mercenary groups and their Battlesystem statistics - perhaps expandable with work into something useful, but it would be hard going.

Instead, a better place to start is something like the Mercenary's Handbook for Battletech. This book (1st ed by J Andrew Keith - see above) lays out a few principles that help clarify what makes a merc campaign interesting:
Niclas Meldeman - "A Landsknecht Brandmeister"

  •  It's about logistics, economics, and survival as much as it is about strategy and tactics.
    A merc unit isn't just about warfare and fighting - it's also about doing so at a profit (or else you wouldn't be mercs in the first place). While this can (if taken to extremes) lead to excessive spreadsheet management taking over play, it also helps focus the players on long-term decisions. While it's possible for PCs to take extraordinary measures to heal (or even resurrect) a single companion, it's harder to do so for whole units. Players have to conserve their forces and ensure that they're spending their money wisely. (As forces increase, player overhead does as well - perhaps a refreshing change for GMs who are all too familiar with player power creep combining with money meaning less and less throughout play.) This point seems like it might interact interestingly with the traditional "1 GP = 1 XP" rule for classic D&D.
  • The merc has two concerns to keep track of - the actions of their enemy and the actions of their employer. Corollary: the employer feels the same way about the mercs.
    Hiring a mercenary unit means that a state actor has delegated one of the state's core functions (the monopoly and control of violence) over to an actor that is operating from financial gain. This sets up a slew and a half of dangerous incentives for both patron and mercenary. Shadowrun is infamous for including a stereotypical "Mr. Johnson" patron who generally intends to screw the players over upon completion of the job (either because they Know Too Much or to avoid paying the contract.) Battletech takes a more subtle approach, with constant struggles between patron and merc regarding both payment and the amount of control that the patron will ultimately be able to exert over the mercenary unit. Long-term, the mercs have to worry about being hung out to dry, sacrificed for either financial gain or simplifying the playing board. In turn, the patron has to worry about the mercs being unreliable (failing to fight or turning their coat) or even staging a coup once they're in a commanding position. 
  • It's not all about the fighting.

    As I mentioned, many discussions of mercenaries in RPGs (primarily fantasy gaming) seem to abstract mercenary play to merely mass combat. However, this undersells several of the strange and outre mission types that lend themselves exceedingly well to RPGs in particular - the ones that require out-of-the-box thinking and unusual actions to supplement maneuver and force. In the Mercenary's Handbook, Keith identifies a few contract types that fit this bill: cadre duty, security/riot duty, siege warfare, recon and objective raids, and guerrilla warfare.

    These contracts place the players in situations where they either have interesting responsibilities not usually present in PC groups (shepherding and training green troops, conducting security rather than breaching it), or situations ideally suited to PC organization and scheming (infiltration to shorten a siege, guerrilla warfare). These are frameworks which offer social interaction, sneaky tricks, and lateral thought a chance to shine alongside direct application of force, while giving players increased resources (and responsibilities) to manage.
  • A mercenary campaign is a shortcut to domain game play.

    Classic D&D has the domain game - rulership, land management, and building a kingdom/dynasty - as a traditional endgame. The mercenary campaign lets players engage with a section of those widgets earlier than they might otherwise (and in novel ways that don't quite match up to standard domain game play). It also places PCs in a situation where they have to engage with the broader setting, interacting with movers and shakers in a situation where the PCs have got an inherent value and potential leverage for the bigwigs. 

Rievers' raid on Gilknockie Tower, G. Cattermole
The most difficult component of a satisfying mercenary RPG campaign will be economic balance and a satisfying campaign economic system. Normally I'm not too fussed about game balance, but since the merc campaign revolves around keeping the company in the black and not the red, this component will need to be robust enough to keep a core gameplay experience satisfying.

The next component is a good, quick, and easy-to-integrate/translate mass combat system. (It is a merc campaign after all. Even though force on force conflicts may not be the core gameplay from session to session, you'll want to have a robust enough system to allow players to take on force engagements in a fun and engaging manner. (You'll also need players who are interested in mercenary gaming, but that's not really something I can provide assistance with here, beyond noting that such players are objectively smarter and more attractive than others.)

It's a tricky thing to put together and organize. I've tried before and had it either peter out or crash and burn very rapidly. But I'm convinced that there's a core gameplay loop here that's immensely satisfying, and I want to explore this space further.

...or maybe I just want to field some homegrown AFVs along with some landsknechts.

How have you worked war and mercenaries into your campaign? What's worked and what hasn't?



Friday, March 24, 2017

Implicit Settings and Welcoming Voices

Firstly, a shoutout of thanks to Trey Causey for creating the badass blog banner above. I've gotta do a full site redesign at some point.

Secondly...

I was talking with Strix a few days ago about fostering diversity in gaming (and in the OSR in particular). One of the topics that came up was the implicit narrative that a system winds up imparting by the structure of its rules.
Trampier, AD&D Monster Manual

This isn’t exactly untrodden soil, particularly in the OSR; there’s been a good deal of electronic ink spilled on taking the implications of the rules as written and using that to understand the intended setting. (See James’s post here, asking what the hell the presence of the OD&D ranger says about the implied world of OD&D, or Chris's post here discussing the broader societal implications of the presence of low-level fighters in AD&D). And there are oodles of discussions re: the implications of GP = XP and the implied frontier town setting and all that, which I'm too tired to link right now but y'all know what I'm talking about.

But Strix pointed out that there's another factor to consider with those rules and their implied settings, beyond the fictional environment that goes along with them. There's also an interaction between the rules and the player, and that interaction can determine whether or not someone wants to come hang out at your table - or has any interest in working with the stuff that's on your table.

There's an implied narrative in baseline OSR stuff of "get rich or die tryin'," at least at low levels. Obviously that's not a universal (see: Wampus Country, Beyond the Wall or Godbound for example), and the extent to which that is true in play winds up hinging on the DM and their campaign/setting construction. But that baseline narrative is there, and it can be a turnoff for folks, because of actually dealing with the awful stuff that said capitalism can wind up bringing into their everyday lives.

Mansion from Arrested Development, by
Matt de Lanoy, from here.
A silly analogy: OSR stuff (as has been suggested in several other contexts) is like a bunch of Legos. And Legos are awesome, you can build frickin' anything. But if all you see on Lego boxes are mansions, you're not necessarily going to think of using Lego for building an atom smasher or an ATV. And if your primary association with mansions is "places for folks who aren't me," you're probably not going to be interested in investigating the other uses of mansion-construction-kits.

Or, to put it another way (since I think my Lego analogy got away from me a bit), look at the reaction to the 5e paragraphs discussing how "yes, it's OK to have PCs who don't necessarily conform to expected roles re: gender and sexuality." For most of the folks in our circles, this was a shrug, because it was already happening and has been for ages and ages. But there are lots of people who felt encouraged and welcomed by those paragraphs.

What does this mean for fostering a more diverse community within OSR circles?

Part of it, which has already been touched on elsewhere, is hiring and supporting authors/editors/designers whose voices might not be heard otherwise, and who aren't necessarily as broadly represented in our neck o' the woods as they could be. Not just hiring them for existing projects, but giving them space to tell their stories and present their perspectives. (For an awesome example of this, check out the latest printing of Swords & Wizardry, spearheaded by Stacy Dellorfano; also check out Stacy's discussion of the thought behind the selection of her all-female design team and the increased utility that brought to S&W here. Also consider giving some support to ConTessa.)

But another part is making sure that a playstyle doesn't feel like dealing with it is going to be an aggravating and hurtful process - and highlighting that fact.

Personal story time.

"Man in Armor," Edwin Weeks
I got into RPGs around fourth grade or so, in the time-honored "one part D&D, one part let's pretend" manner; character sheets were foregone for wandering around the playground improvising our games. And instinctively, I introduced elements of my faith and cultural background into these - my characters refused draughts of healing wine, and (in one bit that I still like) my paladin PCs recited the Ayat ul-Kursi ("the Verse of the Throne") as the invocation of their protection from evil ability.

But that got leeched away as the years went by and I bought into the oroborous-ness of late '90s TSR
(and D&D novels; I was the coveted D&D player as brand fan). And my fantasy became a fantasy I didn't even notice lacked people who looked like me.

I want to foster a diverse community of OSR creators because I want to do what I can to make sure that other folks never have that same sort of sick feeling on their end. That's a major goal of mine, regardless of whether I'm wearing my GM hat, my OSR community member hat, or my Hydra Coop partner hat.

Relevant further reading:
On diversity in DIY (perhaps relevant to DIYD&D)

Okay, that is a lot of words (for me, at least) and not much in the way of gameable stuff. I owe y'all some Joesky Tax; expect other entries soon.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

The Dragon of the Void

The astrologers gaze up at the heavens and say that the world is a pebble in a vast sea, that it and other pebbles circle the Sun, and that all that is and all that is yet to come is etched upon this vast firmament.

Al-Biruni on phases of the moon


The wizards peruse their divinations of arrows and cracked bones, and pronounce that this world is as a single door in a vast multitude, and that the heavens above are merely a shadow of the true heavens which yawn above this multitude: the Void.

"Blue Oyster Cult," Bill Gawlick


The theologians say that the world is suspended between four realms - the Fire, where the serpent Falak reigns, the Water, where the leviathan Bahamut presides, the Air, demesne of the Queen of Birds, the Simurgh, and the Earth, ruled by Lord Kujata, Paragon of Bulls -- and though these four dispute between themselves, they are all obedient to their Lord, Ar-Rahman.

Zal and the Simurgh
From the Topkapi Palace collection.
 And while the fools may dispute as to which of these is the truth, the wise know that all of these things are true together. They know this through the unity of Jawzahr, the Dragon.

Jawzahr, the Dragon, was once a monarch equal in dignity to Bahamut and Kujata, Simurgh and Falak. And Jawzahr made his abode in the Void, and it was equal to the realms, as Jawzahr was to the other monarchs. Yet in his pride he rebelled against his Lord, Ar-Rahman. And in consequence Jawzahr was cast down from his lofty place, and the Void was made no longer there adjacent to the other realms and to the world, but was instead beyond. Yet Ar-Rahman allowed the Void to remain tangent to the world, so that the world and those upon it were not unmade, for Ar-Rahman loves and is merciful to his creations.

Mortar and Pestle depicting Jawzahr (Iran), from here
Part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art's collection
And the Lord of the Void Jawzahr was sent amongst the pebbles of the sky, tangent to the Void as the Void was tangent to the world, touching and yet not touching, for without its ruler the Void itself would cease. This is why Jawzahr is entombed in a shadow of the Void, while the Void is become as a shadow of the Realms Elemental, that the world be not unmade.

So the learned know while the fools dispute. For Ar-Rahman is mighty, wise.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

INVASION!

Started listening to the Dead Games Society podcast. Their latest episode deals with early Battletech and MechWarrior, a subject near and dear to my heart.
WHM on the move.

Like Warhammer 40k, BattleTech has changed in tone from its initial presentation. It's gone from feudal knights riding slowly disintegrating metal steeds in a dark age to a bunch of combined-arms "modern" stellar nations duking it out with militaries that seem far more contemporary in org structure and tactical capabilities.

In the first iterations of BattleTech, a MechWarrior* losing their 'mech meant that they became Dispossessed, losing the traditional rights and privileges of a MechWarrior until they somehow clawed their way back into another 'mech or died trying. By the time of the Clan invasion, it just meant you picked another off the factory floor.


But I digress into boring shit.

After a friend gifted me with some Battletech expansions in law school, I've wanted to run a full operation scenario, charting the course of a raid or incursion from initial landing to hitting the objectives to exfiltration. As I was listening to the podcast, I realized how I might want to do this: a pointcrawl map, using double-blind movement for both players.


Ah, Space Bavaria!


The scenario would work something like this. Two Leopard dropships (total of 8 mechs) are sent to attack a world in a commando raid. The first battle is getting the dropships through the planet's space defenses; can the defender get lucky and take out one (or both) dropships?

Next step is landing and a cat-and-mouse game. Both sides are given a pointcrawl map with a few nodes. Some of these are the invaders' objectives (factories, bridges, etc.): others are useful areas to hold (satellite uplink - whoever last tapped this can see certain types of movement, etc), and others are just empty nodes.

Leopard-class Dropship
The attacker can land their ships on lines between two nodes on the pointcrawl, and then send their 'mechs out, divided up as they please. Meanwhile, the defender has designated where their 'mech forces are to be located (in nodes), and their abstracted planetary militia. Militia would occupy lines between two nodes (like the dropships); if enemy mechs moved through the area, then the militia forces basically get a free shot at the moving mechs, while the 'mechs get a chance to eliminate the militia unit. Quick abstracted resolution that has the 'mechs arriving on battlefields somewhat beaten up. Oh, and presence of a light mech would allow for a saving throw to avoid the ambush altogether (yay scouts!).

Both sides would be engaging in maneuver here: the attacker to try and take out their objectives (and possibly additional side goals), and the defender to intercept them. If 'mech forces wind up occupying the same node, then you resolve as per a traditional Battletech game. (The aerospace fighters used in the initial portion of the battle somehow fail to show up for the cat-and-mouse component, since aint' nobody wants to deal with aerospace integration in a B-tech game, it's already cumbersome enough as is.)

Each of the special function nodes would have to be clearly denoted beforehand so that it's possible for folks to figure out where the crucial areas and chokepoints are going to be.

 Neither side would have any repair capability (or maybe capacity for minimal field repairs - armor is fixable, internals less so), so commanders have an incentive to play conservatively with their tonnage and withdraw .

Thoughts?

*Something never explained in BTech: the inexplicable fondness for every damn thing to be named in CamelCase. BattleMech, AgriMech, MechWarrior, ComStar...

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Complete Character Campaign 01: NGR

Blogging has fallen off here at Legacy of the Bieth. (Was it ever on?) But it's for the best of reasons.

Firstly -- I'm continuing to work with the Hydra Cooperative; earlier this month we released Misty Isles of the Eld, something I completely failed to mention here.



Mini-sandbox exploring a planar incursion launched by Lawful Evil Space Elves with a taste for bizarre bureaucracy, biomancy, and Bowie. You know you want to check this out.

Secondly -- my day job has picked up and that's been eating a lot of my time. I haven't had a chance to run Legacy of the Bieth, or any other game, for quite some time.

But honestly I need to get into the habit of writing more, for both Hydra and my day job. I'm figuring that some regular content here might not go amiss.

So: a Bold Plan. I'm going to create characters for every damn one of the RPG core books I have on my bookshelf. I'm going to try for once a week. And I'm going to try to finish up some of the other dangling threads around here (like those Mark of Amber review tidbits from a few years ago.)

First game on the list: Zzarchov Kowolski's Neoclassical Geek Revival

NGR operates under the Schrodinger's Character principle - much of the character's info and abilities are developed during the course of the first adventure played - so I'm only going to create the basics as listed.

Stats are either point-buy or dice-rolls plus a few discretionary points. I strongly prefer random char-gen or else all my fantasy PCs look like elven fighter-mages, so dice rolls it is.

Strength: 10 (d6)
Agility: 13 (+1, d8)
Health: 13 (+1, d8)
Awareness: 12 (+1, d6)
Intelligence: 10 (d6)
Social: 9 (-1, d6)
Luck: 16 (+2, d10)
Spirit: 9 (-1, d6)

Discretionary points were dumped into Strength and Intelligence, bringing those to average from abysmal.

Characters in NGR get to use 3 pie pieces to select their character focus, split amongst the Warrior, Wizard, Rogue, Bard, and Priest pie plates. Since this PC has great luck and good agility, but not particularly great intelligence or social, I'm thinking a hapless thief -- all 3 pieces in rogue, 

Rogue Powers:
1) Specialist (specialty TBD)
2) Parkour!
3) Detect Traps
4) Expert
5) Jack of All Trades

Characters get up to 2 traits; I'm just selecting one -- Arrogant, to reflect this PC's belief in their charmed life.

Traits:
Arrogant (+2 Influence on successful appeal, epic failure in social conflict = -d10 repeating influence)
Skills: 10 unfilled skill slots, TBD in gameplay.
Equipment: Explorer's Pack (rope, grapnel, light armor, backpack w/ 2 weeks food, wineskin, map, 2 militia weapons and a dagger).
Lucky Number: 13

Combat Modifier: +1
Spellpower: 0
Stealth: +2
Presence: -1
Faith: -1

Luck Points: 10

Obliviously arrogant rogue, always in over their head but doesn't know it...I'm thinking Jackie Chan in Drunken Master.

PS: NGR and two of its supplements, Rampaging Monsters and Hark! A Wizard! are all PWYW until Canada Day - July 1, 2016! So if you like what you see, now's a good time.


Monday, April 11, 2016

Reader Questions: How To Dark Heresy

I haven't been blogging as much as I'd like, so I put out a call for questions.

"The Lady"
Nicolas R. Giacondino
Evan asked me "How do I get into Dark Heresy stuff if I normally find 40k impenetrable?"

Well, the short answer is to go read some Dan Abnett - the Eisenhorn and Ravenor trilogies. Yes, that's a big chunk of text - but they're good reads. Not just "good licensed fiction reads," but actually good reads in their own right. And if you're like me, you'll read them and instantly go "Crap! I really want to be playing in a Dark Heresy game right now!" (#121). Hell, just reading the Ravenor prologue does that for me.

But that's a mediocre response.

Here's my take on Dark Heresy: it's 40k, but it's not about 40k. Just like Warhammer Fantasy takes the Warhammer tabletop minis game and diverges into its own universe, so does Dark Heresy diverge from the 40k tabletop game. Frankly, I suspect the less chance there is for a single damn Space Marine to show up the better your Dark Heresy game is going to be. (Also note that this is all my take on the concept of Dark Heresy, not necessarily one that's borne out by the actual rulebooks or published background or whatever.)

Warhammer Fantasy has an implicit setup of "average folks making their way in a crapsack world while dealing with the hidden spectre of Chaos creeping out to gnaw at the roots of society, Ratatosk-like" Obviously individual campaigns can diverge from this, but it is an assumed backdrop. Dark Heresy isn't too far off - except instead of average folks, the assumption is that you're playing agents of the Inquisition, and the assumption is somewhat less sandboxy than WFRP can be.

The existing games that I think are most valuable for getting into the Dark Heresy frame of mind are Delta Green and Night's Black Agents.

"Pronunciatur Hereticus"
Undermound

In both DG and NBA, players are tasked with uncovering what's really going on. They're games with a high focus on tradecraft, investigation, and ambiguity. Sure you have the ooky monsters who are the baddies (Mi-Go and other Mythos creatures, vampires) but dealing with the mundane threats of exposure, corruption, betrayal, and secrets form a major component as well. Dark Heresy fits the same paradigm - you're working your way through layers of conspiracy and skullduggery, trying to trace these things back to their source, while attempting to avoid being found out by the opposition or burned by your bosses.

In all of these games, the players have access to a great deal of power, with a catch involved. In Delta Green, the PCs (usually) have the apparent weight of the federal government...counterbalanced by the fact that they're operating rogue, without actual federal auspices, and therefore have to remain covert. In NBA, players are frickin' movie superspies with all that entails, but AFAIK don't necessarily have official backing (and/or have a strong likelihood that the official backing is actually compromised by vampires).


I tend to see Dark Heresy as taking the option that's most advantageous for the PCs from both of these, which is not necessarily a bad thing. The PCs are pitched as being strongly competent agents - perhaps not the superspies of NBA but not too far removed from them either. And unlike the doomed agents of Delta Green, Dark Heresy PCs usually do have the full weight of the Inquisition behind them, assuming that their relationship with their Inquisitor isn't frayed, or that their Inquisitor isn't actually involved in one of the conspiracies themselves...

Does this large throw weight decrease the interesting options for the players? I don't think so. As the scope of player power expands in Dark Heresy, so does the scope of both the threats and the universe. The conspiracies they're fighting, both supernatural and mundane, have their tendrils in just about everything. And again, these tendrils can be of either the supernatural or the mundane sort.


"Get Yer Kicks J-7"
mjranum-stock
  
Also worth reading when thinking about Dark Heresy: Zak S's "Zero Dark 29, 28, 27...", which discusses the difference in paradigms between Night's Black Agents and Call of Cthulhu. Check out the bit about revelations and showdowns, reading (in part):
Games relying mostly on Showdowns want the world to feel connected and, ultimately, knowable--everything is about you and your big fight coming up. Games relying on Revelation want the world to feel abstract and unknowable--everything beyond you is a mystery in the great beyond.
In the revelation story, the players are small and the world is large. In the showdown story, the players are large and the threat is large and the world is a backdrop.
Dark Heresy is mostly focused on showdowns, with the focus being on hostile conspiracies, but I believe that those showdowns work best when leading to a revelation - that sort of peeling back the curtain and seeing that despite all their power and influence and clout the PCs are still just tiny smidges against the unknowable.

Other must-reads for Dark Heresy play are Chris's series on constructing sandbox networks (here, here, here) Robert's discussion of a campaign frame for Marvel '78 (here), and Evan's own related Superheroes Year One work - obviously you'll have to do some tweaking here to get something appropriate for Dark Heresy rather than superheroes. I view those last two as the "main phase" of a Dark Heresy campaign, after an initial startup seed -- the main focus of play is trying to strike a balance between thwarting the hostile actions of conspiracies within a bounded area (planet? subsector?) and conducting the investigations to root them out.

"Pontifex Maximus"
John Blanche

So why the hell would you want to play Dark Heresy?

You want to play this if you're looking to strike a middle ground, gameplay-wise and tonally, between Delta Green and WFRP. Both NBA and Delta Green take a strong focus on the psychological well-being of the agents and seeing how they spiral into depression and sadness and lose their bonds with their family members and stuff. That's all well and good, but it's not what I want from my general gaming. Sometimes you want to be able to fearlessly blast beings of Chaos with a plasma pistol (and have a minuscule chance of taking them down), instead of your character heading straight to PTSD-ville.

(As a side note: Dark Heresy and the wide-open nature of the 40k setting means that you can do things like going from a big ol' Blade Runner/Coruscant cityscape to a Mad Max planet to basically anything that you might see in Traveller, and it'll all fit just fine. Plus mutants, zombies, and the undead, which I suspect might be a selling point to anyone who might write about a Galaxy of Fear.)

Dark Heresy provides you a venue for playing through and unraveling fantastic espionage and conspiracy in a high-powered environment (allowing for genre shifts when you want a change of pace). Depending on how high you want to ramp up some of the 40k elements, it can have paranoia, PARANOIA, or both.

So how to get into Dark Heresy? Well, you could read Eisenhorn or Ravenor. You could stick Traveller, PARANOIA, WFRP, Delta Green and Night's Black Agents into a blender. You could look at a bunch of John Blanche art, read Dune and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and 2000 AD, watch Dredd...

The list stretches on.