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Author Topic: RPGs without Kewl Powerz  (Read 1692 times)
AdAstraGames
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« on: December 21, 2003, 11:19:21 AM »

I'm at a bit of a conundrum here.

I have a setting in development (The Ten Worlds), as the backdrop for Attack Vector: Tactical.

The setting is non-gritty hard science fiction.  People are still people. Aside from FTL, the laws of physics behave as we expect them to.  Planets are defined in a lot of detail, most of which translates into visual and roleplaying detail.

While we were building the backstory, planets and high politics for the Ten Worlds, a lot of people chimed in and said "Hey, you could set a lot of neat RPG stuff in this."  And I said "Sure!"

In terms of Color, there's just lots of detail about the planets to explore.  There are dysfunctional places where a character can Go Forth and Make A Difference.  There are varying shades of gray for political hooks.

There is interstellar travel, but it's pretty far from the Han Solo model where you take a tramp freighter and tool around an ever expanding universe.  It's more akin to adventuring in the 19th Century, where it would take several months by ship to go from Liverpool to Bombay, and be a not-insignificant expense.

Computer technology exists, and populations are small.  Spaceports are few on most planets, and unlike the Millennium Falcon, you need to land your shuttle some place where it can be refueled, which means filing a flight plan...which tends to strangle the "kicking around the stars" trope in its crib.

In terms of system, it's a roll under dice pool system (target number is your stat).   Skill is represented in number of dice.  A character with a Talent for a given skill gets 2 successes on a die roll of 1, and a more cinematic talent gets 2 successes on die rolls of 1 or 2.

In terms of play, I prefer Ron's "Die Roll In The Middle" position (which I first saw in Feng Shui), where you roll the dice and then describe what happens.  It encourages players to be descriptive.

I've been reading Riddle of Steel and hope to get Jake's permission to use the Spiritual Attribute idea as a mechanic, if I attribute to him.

I'm still fuzzy on GNS terminology, but hopefully the concrete stuff up above will be sufficient to see where my design tendencies sit.

In making a physically consistent (and "lethal roughly the way TRoS is lethal") modern/future RPG, you lose the magic system.  You lose the psi stuff, and all the Kewl Powerz.  

Accumulating Kewl Toyz loses its appeal when you've got an accurate physics model.  Who cares if you have the BFG 9000, capable of vaporizing cars, when a .22 rimfire can still take you down?

Now that you've waded through the context, here comes the questions:

So, how important are Kewl Powerz and Kewl Toyz to an RPG design?

Conventional Wisdom says they're massively important as game elements.  (cf DnD).

On the other hand. I'd cheerfully use RoS without the magic engine...and have had fun playing GURPS SWAT and WWII stuff.

What elements, if you lack a Kewl Powerz and Kewl Toyz treadmill, do you emphasise instead?  Color and Exploration are easy and obvious answers.  From the context above, can anyone come up with others?  Or perhaps throw other questions in the mix?
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xiombarg
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« Reply #1 on: December 21, 2003, 11:45:50 AM »

Moral choices.

At least, to blatantly self-plug, that's what I tried to do in Unsung.

Or, narrative power. I mean, you could use The Pool to do that sort of game if you wanted.
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Andrew Martin
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« Reply #2 on: December 21, 2003, 12:36:17 PM »

Quote from: AdAstraGames
Accumulating Kewl Toyz loses its appeal when you've got an accurate physics model.  Who cares if you have the BFG 9000, capable of vaporizing cars, when a .22 rimfire can still take you down?


The smart player very quickly realises this and gets really great armour that bounces .22 to go along with the BFG9000. Consider Ned Kelly and his iron plate armour for example. :)

Quote from: AdAstraGames
So, how important are Kewl Powerz and Kewl Toyz to an RPG design?


It really depends upon what your goal is for desirable behaviour from the players. I feel that Kewl Powerz and Toyz are important if your market is the same as D20. I also feel it's a bad idea to compete directly with D&D, because even TSR & WotC found it difficult competing with D&D! :)

Quote from: AdAstraGames
What elements, if you lack a Kewl Powerz and Kewl Toyz treadmill, do you emphasise instead?  Color and Exploration are easy and obvious answers.  From the context above, can anyone come up with others?  Or perhaps throw other questions in the mix?


As Kirt writes, moral choices are really good. Anything else requires adding a letter to GNS. :)
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Andrew Martin
M. J. Young
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« Reply #3 on: December 21, 2003, 02:28:08 PM »

Mystery and Action-adventure lines come to mind.

You could do something akin to Prisoner of Zenda with this; you could do a futuristic Ivanhoe or Treasure Island or Most Dangerous Game. Just about any adventure book written before the twentieth century by anyone other than Verne or Wells would work, and quite a few of theirs, too. You don't need kewl powerz to have adventures.

They aren't really massively important to RPGs; they're massively important to marketing RPGs. There's an entire contingent out there whose first question is going to be, "what can your character do", and "anything you can do" doesn't grab those people. They want a character who will spark their imaginations by doing things they can't.

Thus your challenge would be to spark their imaginations regarding what can be done within the setting with relatively ordinary characters.

I'd take issue with your suggestions regarding the seeming lack of tooling around the universe and the necessity of flight plans. First, very wealthy individuals will be able to pretty much go where they want when they want, one way or another. Second, in the sort of setting you propose, there's going to be a lot of "we're going to go over to that underexplored region and see whether there's anything out there worthy of commercial exploitation" going on, some of it well funded by speculators. Third, obviously a lot of people are going to file flight plans that they don't keep, if flight plans are necessary--particularly if you have FTL travel but you don't have something like http://www.mjyoung.net/misc/quantum.htm">QNL communications, so the port at which you're arriving can't know you're coming until you get there.

Just a few thoughts.

--M. J. Young
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AdAstraGames
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« Reply #4 on: December 21, 2003, 02:50:24 PM »

Quote from: M. J. Young
Mystery and Action-adventure lines come to mind.

You could do something akin to Prisoner of Zenda with this; you could do a futuristic Ivanhoe or Treasure Island or Most Dangerous Game. Just about any adventure book written before the twentieth century by anyone other than Verne or Wells would work, and quite a few of theirs, too. You don't need kewl powerz to have adventures.


The difference between, say, Homicide: Life on The Streets and Rumble In The Bronx.

Hmm.  Focus more on moral decisions...the skull appears to be semi-permeable today.

Quote from: M. J. Young
They aren't really massively important to RPGs; they're massively important to marketing RPGs. There's an entire contingent out there whose first question is going to be, "what can your character do", and "anything you can do" doesn't grab those people. They want a character who will spark their imaginations by doing things they can't.


And in some sense it's the marketability I'm worried about.  Mildly jittery about the mechanics, but they're working in alpha test, and better than I was expecting.

One of the things I like about the spiritual attributes of RoS is that it allows for "subtly cinematic" play.  It's a gritty combat simulator that turns cinematic only when it's appropriate to the story.

Quote from: M. J. Young
Thus your challenge would be to spark their imaginations regarding what can be done within the setting with relatively ordinary characters.

I'd take issue with your suggestions regarding the seeming lack of tooling around the universe and the necessity of flight plans. First, very wealthy individuals will be able to pretty much go where they want when they want, one way or another. Second, in the sort of setting you propose, there's going to be a lot of "we're going to go over to that underexplored region and see whether there's anything out there worthy of commercial exploitation" going on, some of it well funded by speculators. Third, obviously a lot of people are going to file flight plans that they don't keep, if flight plans are necessary--particularly if you have FTL travel but you don't have something like http://www.mjyoung.net/misc/quantum.htm">QNL communications, so the port at which you're arriving can't know you're coming until you get there.


No FTL commo -- news travels at the speed of ships between stars, so having exit/entry data gathered isn't as critical.   But it does mean that doing something Really Cool may mean you never get to go back to that planet.

Hmm.  Still thinking and good suggestions all.  Thank you for your input.

Ken Burnside
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MPOSullivan
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« Reply #5 on: December 22, 2003, 03:47:57 AM »

about the setting, specifically the flight plans and such, i don't particullarly think that they are important.  you mentioned in your opening dialogue 19th century naval stylings, M. J. Young brought up Treasure Island and such.  Landing is not a problem, for me anyway, but owouldn't any city that is a port cater to that clientele by being capable of supporting any ship that came to port, just like coastal towns of the 1700-1800s.  sure, it would be expensive to fund fueling and such, but there are plenty of ways to pay for that: going corporate, being government, or being a pirate (even like the original pirates, the ones used by england to cripple the spanish naval fleets when they were vying for power).  Then the characters would have at least the moral question of "what am i willing to do to see the stars?"  it also gives you the opportunity to really make impressive, big cities that can all differ drastically.  it's just like the open seas of that time oft mentioned so far, ports were bustling meccas that shared cultures as well as wealth, and were all kind of meccas for crime as well as diplomacy and dealings of a more stand-up nature.  The only problem i see with ditching flight plans is the inevitablity of crossing flight paths and crashing.  to fix this i would create some in game tech that allowed ships to detect each others "wake" as they travel at FTL.  oh, and speaking of FTL, are you including anything on the Variable Speed of Light theory created by Joao Magueijo?  fascinating stuff that.  or what about String Theory?  are you getting into crazy-physics-magician physics, or are you just doing non-theoretical stuff right now?

just a suggestion.

also, i saw your website and i have to say that using RPGs as a teaching device is a great idea and please continue with your work.

laters,

    -m
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Michael P. O'Sullivan
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ethan_greer
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« Reply #6 on: December 22, 2003, 06:36:45 AM »

Seems to me if you have Spiritual Attributes or Something Like Them, you've already got a good vehicle in place to facilitate a focus on moral choices in the game.

My personal opinion is that Kewl Powerz are actually undesirable from a design standpoint - they can be a bitch to implement well.  But that's just 'cause I'm a lazy designer.  :) Seriously though, I don't feel they're necessary even from a marketing standpoint.
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AdAstraGames
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« Reply #7 on: December 22, 2003, 08:30:38 AM »

Quote from: Zathreyel
about the setting, specifically the flight plans and such, i don't particullarly think that they are important.  you mentioned in your opening dialogue 19th century naval stylings, M. J. Young brought up Treasure Island and such.  Landing is not a problem, for me anyway, but owouldn't any city that is a port cater to that clientele by being capable of supporting any ship that came to port, just like coastal towns of the 1700-1800s.  


Enough things have been defined by the setting, and the physics model, that this isn't quite true.

This is Age of Steam, not Age of Sail.  If you've seen Master and Commander, a sailing ship that pulled up to a desert island could send carpenters out nearly rebuild itself.  They could break out stores of sailcloth and rope and make new sails.

In the Age of Steam, you needed a highly urbanized port facility to repair things....which is why we (the US) went from having hundreds of effective port cities to having 5 of them (Boston, Newport News, Forfolk, Virginia, and Birmingham AL).  

True spaceships never enter atmosphere.   Shuttles capable of going from orbit to ground are still limited by exhaust temperature, fuel flow rate and NIMBYism....and the Rule of 3 Kips still applies.  (An object impacting at 3 km/sec delivers KE equal to its mass in TNT).  Which means that a shuttle coming down with the wrong flight plan isn't "a 727 breaking up over the ocean", it's about 20x worse.

Quote from: Zathreyel
The only problem i see with ditching flight plans is the inevitablity of crossing flight paths and crashing.  to fix this i would create some in game tech that allowed ships to detect each others "wake" as they travel at FTL.


I was unclear.  It's not FTL where flight plans are needed -- travel times and distances and the ability to accidentally vaporize a city  are negligible there.   In fact, because of how Astrogation impacts travel times, ships can be delayed for months...

It's the "get on/off the planet" where every vehicle that goes up is as potentially a firestorm waiting to, well, vaporize a city where flightplans are, and where the travel choke point occurs.  Darn straight, space port security will be looking for people attempting to die gloriously and take a few hundred thousand folks with them.

if you and your adventuring team just did something the Local Powers That Be do not approve of and are trying to get off planet (like, oh, lending credence to an opposition leader), how likely is it that when you put your eye to the retinal scanner to verify your boarding pass that security will get a flash saying "Terrorist!  Apprehend With All Haste, Lethal Force Advised" on their com sets, and will do their best to make sure you vanish abruptly?

In the places where adventures can happen, society is, as a rule, dysfunctional.  Dysfunctional societies have a pretty poor record with regards to respecting individual rights and due process of law...and they control the access points on and off planet.

Does this better explain my concern?

Quote from: Zathreyel
oh, and speaking of FTL, are you including anything on the Variable Speed of Light theory created by Joao Magueijo?  fascinating stuff that.  or what about String Theory?  are you getting into crazy-physics-magician physics, or are you just doing non-theoretical stuff right now?


With the exception of FTL, everything in the game obeys physics as we know it.   Some of the engineering is unlikely, but current knowledge of physics doesn't make it impossible.  

FTL requires being on a straight line between the star you're at and where you want to go, within a certain minimum distance of a stellar sized mass undergoing fusion.  Pour energy into FTL gizmo, and you get translated into another dimension, where you take a ballistic path, losing energy as you go along.  Eventually you lose enough energy to drop back into our universe.  From the perspective of the person on the ship, no time has passed.

If there's a mass at the other end of your ballistic path, it's gravity will oull you in.  You can "surf" its magnetic fields and appear at either of the magnetic poles -- or you can let the gravity pull you in, which will make you appear in the center of the star, which is unhealthy.

If there isn't another star, you appear in the depths of interstellar space (missing the star means your real space position is so far off that the only way you're getting back through flat space is by Massive Plot Device)

Because it's in some ways a quantum effect, you only have limited control over your vector coming out.  Which means that a good Astrogation roll can have your vector shaping right towards your departure point, and a bad one can cost you weeks on course corrections to get to it.

We assume that everyone who's gone to Astrogation School knows how to avoid appearing in the depths of space and/or the hearts of stars.

So, no, FTL is handwavium fluff on this end, but it's decently entertaining handwavium fluff...and we spice it up by referencing QM effects and known physical constants, and built a tram-line map of the stars around Sol.

Quote from: Zathreyel
also, i saw your website and i have to say that using RPGs as a teaching device is a great idea and please continue with your work.


Will Comply.  *smile*  I try to base my games and game materials off of enough real stuff that they can be used as references for classrooms or demonstration tools.

Ken Burnside
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AdAstraGames
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« Reply #8 on: December 22, 2003, 08:41:52 AM »

Jake has given his blessing to the Dramatic Hooks mechanic I proposed.

It's a slightly simpler version of his Spiritual Attributes system, and a tiny bit more freeform in its definitions.  Luck is handled differently with a different mechanic.

Other than that, it's nearly identical, because the dice pool sizes I use are nearly the same size as TROS.  I spent some time trying to find a different way to do it, and came to the conclusion that Jake's way can't really be improved on.

Thank you, Jake.  The text block in the credits section reads:

"The Dramatic Hook mechanic owes a great deal to Jake Norwood's Spiritual Attributes mechanic in The Riddle of Steel.  In fact, it's close enough to a direct copy that I wouldn't have included them if he hadn't given his blessing.  

To learn more about The Riddle of Steel (and better yet, to buy it and keep Jake in the game publishing business), go see http://www.theriddleofsteel.net/

Again, my thanks to Jake for making the Fantasy RPG I always wanted, and double thanks for letting me use one of its most innovative parts."

Ken Burnside
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AdAstraGames
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« Reply #9 on: December 22, 2003, 12:00:50 PM »

(Ken) As the first three paragraphs state, this is taken nearly entire from Riddle of Steel.  I put a bit more emphasis on the Hooks than Jake did on Spiritual Attributes, because I see the Dramatic Hooks as BEING the Kewl Powerz of this game engine.

Please let me know if there's a subtlety I've missed.

Step 2:  Select Dramatic Hooks.

The Dramatic Hook mechanic owes a great deal to Jake Norwood's Spiritual Attributes mechanic in The Riddle of Steel.  In fact, it's close enough to a direct copy that I wouldn't have included them if he hadn't given his blessing.  

To learn more about The Riddle of Steel (and better yet, to buy it and keep Jake in the game publishing business), go see http://www.theriddleofsteel.net/

Again, my thanks to Jake for making the Fantasy RPG I always wanted, and double thanks for letting me use one of its most innovative parts."

“My name is Inigo Montoya.  You killed my father.  Prepare to die.”
   --William Goldman, The Princess Bride

Dramatic Hooks abound in literature.  The quote above is one of the best known to modern readers and movie goers.  While Inigo Montoya had spent years becoming a true master of the blade, victory in the scene was not his until Duke Regan mocked him, for living his life to avenge his father, and failing.  At which point, a dagger in his guts, Montoya grabbed victory from the jaws of defeat.

Dramatic Hooks are a tool set that allow your character to do similar things.  They are a mechanism that allows what your character believes in, what motivates him, to have impact on the world around him.  It is the essence of the mythic journey that one man, fighting for what he believes in, can go against the world, and win, carried not by the force of his arm, but the beliefs in his heart.

Mechanically, a Dramatic Hook is something that boosts a character’s ability improves because he’s doing something that MATTERS to him.  It allows a “rigorous” setting and rules set (where lethality is high) to become subtly cinematic, without becoming a cartoon.  

Each player must define 5 Dramatic Hooks for their character, then allocate 7 dice between them.  No hook can exceed 5 dice, and you can leave some at 0.  
Nearly anything can be a dramatic hook, but it has to follow these guidelines:

1)   It has to be DRAMATIC.  For most people, a Dramatic Hook of “Wants to put in 20 years as an insurance salesman and retire” isn’t terribly dramatic.  “Wants to avenge the death of his father by the 6 fingered man” is dramatic.
2)   It has to be PERSONAL.  This is something that shapes your character’s destiny.  Thus: Dramatic Hook:  Curious is too broad.  Dramatic Hook:  Driven to Learn All There Is About The Dunwich Horror would fit much better.
3)   It has to have IMPACT, either on the world, or on other characters played by your friends.  Examples of this kind of Hook would be  Patriotism, or love of your children.

If you just remember the DRAMATIC PERSONAL IMPACT and ask yourself, when assigning Hooks, “Where’s the Dramatic Personal Impact”, you’ll be able to make ones that are suitable to your character.

If you make hooks that aren’t being used, any time a Hook is set to 0, you can change it with the GM’s approval and a good explanation for why it ties into your character’s story.

Finally, not all Dramatic Hooks need to be admirable traits, and they can even be mutually contradictory.  Much of classical drama comes from the internal conflict, and matches a lot of what’s shown on television.  What happens if your super spy character has Dramatic Hook:  Patriotism and a Dramatic Hook: Loves Her Children.  Now, with her daughter captured, and terrorists threatening to blow up a sports stadium, which hook does she use?  How does the player resolve the moral quandary?  (The GM, can, after the moral quandary is decided, use both dramatic hooks in the final confrontation of the act – where the daughter is being held hostage next to the ticking bomb…)

In any situation where a character’s Dramatic Hook is applicable (Duelling the man who killed your father, for example), you may use your Dramatic Hook dice to add to the dice pool generated by your skill.  So if you have 4D of a Hook for “Loves Mary Jane”, any activity that would be impacted directly by that love would add 4D to the skill.  Using your dramatic hook does not reduce the dice in the hook.  Going contrary to your dramatic hook (or at least, not role-playing the conflict between them when they do conflict) will reduce the neglected hook by one die, down to a minimum of 0.

If more than one dramatic hook applies, you get the dice from all of them added to the skill test.  (So, for Jane Bond, Mother and Super Spy, those terrorists have made a grave mistake by bringing her daughter into it.  Now, it’s personal…)

Any time you complete an action that uses your Dramatic Hook, it goes up by 1 die, to a maximum of 5 dice in any Hook.  If a given action uses multiple hooks, and has sufficient narrative force, you can increase multiple Hooks from the same scene.

You may also spend (as opposed to use) your dramatic hook dice to increase skills.  Spending your Hook dice DOES reduce the Dramatic Hook permanently.  Each die spent becomes one Skill Point (see “raising skills after character creation” later on.)

In play, Dramatic Hooks are viscerally important.  In particular, with the combat engine of the RPG set as lethal as it is, characters should only pick fights that are important to them.  They should make plans and use the frontal assault as seldom as possible.

Dramatic Hooks give players a way of communicating what kinds of stories they want to play, and give the GM an incredible amount of information to build emotionally laden adventures from.  Stories told with Dramatic Hooks revolve around “What makes a hero?”, with the answer matching much more closely to the literary and film roots of our hobby.

Heroes are not merely those who have abilities beyond those of mortal ken.  Heroes are more often the ordinary guy put into un-ordinary circumstances, who’s trying to figure out what’s going on, and fighting for what matters to him.  Because the reward and character advancement method is built into the Dramatic Hook tool, this kind of play can progress for an entire campaign, rather than as the first three sessions before the Advancement Spiral makes the characters invulnerable.

Dramatic hooks generate characters who act in complex ways, because they’re induced into doing so by players seeking to incorporate their Dramatic Hooks to get the bonus dice (and to succeed in actions where the Hooks come into play)

Dramatic Hooks give the GM a road map to drama.  Want to make sure your spectacular finale scene will be a jaw dropper?  Make sure that the focal point character’s dramatic hooks are involved.  In addition to providing dramatic tension, you’re also giving the players the keys to “power up” for the encounter.  This preserves the verisimilitude of the action/adventure/moral drama, where the spectacular feats only show up when they’re important, rather than being trotted out as a solution for everything from finding the lost car keys to topping governments.
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Bankuei
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« Reply #10 on: December 22, 2003, 12:11:59 PM »

Hi AAG,

For many people, its important to have conflict drawn out in bright primary colors.  This is the reason you'll notice in each White Wolf game and many others that you have various splats(Clans, Tribes, Traditions, etc.) which serve as a combination of class, "alignment", and political bent.  Instead of taking it to that degree, providing a group of political groups who interact is a simple way to drawn in the PCs.

Chris
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Doctor Xero
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« Reply #11 on: January 28, 2004, 09:00:36 PM »

I'd say the most important thing to an RPG is Kewl Setting, which is
usually manifested through Kewl Powerz and Kewl Toyz.

So if you exclude Kewl Powerz and Kewl Toyz, you have to make an
extra effort to make certain you don't unintentionally exclude Kewl Setting
as well.  Why should anyone be interested in doing with pen and paper
what they can (and perhaps should!) be doing RL?  There needs to be
something exotic about it, something outside a person's ordinary daily
existence.

For example, a Wild West campaign may lack Kewl Powerz and Kewl
Toyz but it is still exotic to anyone living today.

I mention this because I've seen a few indie RPG efforts in some of my
web-browsing forages which presented powers, toys, and settings which
were so ordinary that I could find everything they offered simply by
getting off my ass and walking down the street.  I'm not sure I like the
idea of RPGs which presume gamers are couch potatoes who might
find a pick-up game of basketball to be exotic.

Doctor Xero
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"The human brain is the most public organ on the face of the earth....virtually all the business is the direct result of thinking that has already occurred in other minds.  We pass thoughts around, from mind to mind..." --Lewis Thomas
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