Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Big Game Wednesday - Stalking the Night Craptastic

So in keeping with the Halloween theme, I held over the discussion of this game from last week. In the early 80's, a company called Tri-Tac Games published three RPG's designed by a guy named Richard Tucholka: Fringeworthy, FTL:2448, and Stalking the Night Fantastic. The first two were science-fiction oriented, and the third was a horror game... sort of. I'll get to the "sort of" in a bit.

Now, if you're an old-school gamer, Tucholka's name might set off some alarm bells. That's because he was also one of the designers of another game I've talked about before. Yeah, that's right, this one. And like The Morrow Project, Tri-Tac's RPG rules system featured very detailed combat rules that would conceivably allow you to adapt any firearm from history easily into the system. Like The Morrow Project, that meant combat would be realistically deadly. But unlike The Morrow Project, the scenario set out for Stalking the Night Fantastic wasn't meant to induce the sort of paranoia that would cause the party to kill each other off within the first game session.

At this point, allow me to make a slight digression from the topic at hand. One thing that has held pretty consistent throughout my life is that, given a binary choice of competing products--VHS vs. Betamax, Macintosh vs. Amiga, Chevy Aveo vs. Mini Cooper, Champions vs. Villains & Vigilantes--I almost invariably choose the wrong one. I had a Beta VCR. My first computer was an Atari 400. I was loyal to the Amiga when IBM ruled and Mac was ascending.

And standing in the store, deciding whether to pick Stalking the Night Fantastic or the only other available horror game, a minor work titled Call of Cthulhu, well, you know which one I picked. The reason?

Sanity. I wanted a game where characters could fight back against and conquer evil. A game where the characters could improve into better and better monster-killing machines, not a game where the characters were doomed to a slow degeneration into madness. I chose... poorly.

Because although Stalking the Night Fantastic was a horror game--pitting the players as agents of a shadowy organization known as Bureau 13 against a wide variety of monsters--it also tried to be funny. The third edition of the game even featured cover art by Phil Foglio, known for his lighthearted style.

The humorous touch was reflected in the history and timeline of Bureau 13, as well as in the cast of sample characters. Not only were the NPC's in charge of the agency rather silly, but also the sample monsters and other enemies, like some kind of undead TV preacher and a redneck werewolf or something (the rulebook has long since been lost, so I remember it only vaguely--the cover image up top was taken from, so while it features the same cover art as my lost copy, mine was not spiral bound, I don't think).

The combat rules, on the other hand, were deadly serious and very detailed. Looking at the book in the store, I was excited by the level of detail you could achieve in determining wound locations and severity. I thought it would really bring things to life in a vivid way to be able to say, for instance, "the bullet hits you in the left forearm, shattering the bone," or "the bullet hits your thigh, but misses the major blood vessels and passes through." I thought that could be cooler than the AD&D standard of "Hit, 6 points."

So how did Stalking... achieve such a level of realism? Let's look at the character sheet. Here's the first of two pages:

That big block of stuff toward the top is 16, count 'em 16 stats, plus hit points listed in 25% increments. And here was where we encountered the first element which made the game (at least in its first edition) virtually unplayable.

Although I no longer have the rulebook, I did have a cheat sheet I made up as a quick reference for combat (check it out--it's typed with badly-yellowed photocopied tables cut out and taped onto the sheet--kicking it old-school, man). I was confused recently when checking this sheet, however, because I remembered hand-to-hand combat as using a completely different dice mechanic than ranged combat (which was corroborated here). Apparently, this sheet I made is a simplified house-rule version I adapted to try to get some playability out of a game that had otherwise turned out to be a waste of time and money.

Because combat in the game was a mess. If you look at the character sheet above again, you'll notice that Accuracy, Dexterity, Agility, Dodge, and Throw are all separate stats. And although it's pretty stupid to bring a knife to a gunfight, the situation could turn up at some point. But the systems for hand-to-hand and ranged combat were so incompatible (with hand-to-hand rolled on percentile dice and projectiles rolled on a d20) that the first time I tried to run a sample combat, I seriously could not figure out how to make the two work together. Epic Fail, as the kids say today.

So I apparently adapted the percentile tables to a d20 equation for all types of combat. But then came the real killer, illustrated on page 2 of the character sheet:


See those silhouettes? They're covered with a grid. Basically, once you had rolled to hit, you would then roll to see which part of the body was hit (lettered A through G on the grids). Each lettered body part was divided into a 6x6 grid, so you would roll two six-sided dice to determine in exactly which spot you were hit. Then (as an optional rule, IIRC) you could consult several pages of damage tables to see exactly what the result of the damage was.

For instance, let's say you rolled a damage result of D,2,3 (with an extra roll to determine it was the right side). You would make a dot on the character sheet to indicate the hit, then go to the damage tables for D,2,3 which would look something like this:


Where the S meant skin, the M meant muscle, the B meant Bone (with the numeral indicating how strong the bone was; the thigh and pelvis were thicker than the fingers and skull, for instance). So say your bullet did 8 points of damage; counting through from front to back of the damage table (and counting the bone as three), we get seven. So your bullet would pass completely through the upper arm of your target, shattering the bone in the process. But if you had armor over that location which stopped four points of damage, the bullet would only have four points left to apply to the arm, meaning it would pass through the biceps and lodge in the bone.

On paper, it all looked cool. But when I tried running my first adventure, in which a group of agents attempted to foil a coven of witches during a demon-summoning ritual, the damage resolution rules brought the game to a maddening crawl. One of the NPC's had a Thompson submachine gun, which meant burst fire and multiple bullet hits. I think it took somewhere in the neighborhood of a half-hour to resolve the damage from that one attack, after which the PC was rather thoroughly dead, the rest of the players were bored, and no one wanted to play this stupid game for another minute, me included.

That was probably one of the last games I game-mastered in California. Luckily, Gary decided he was willing to give Champions another try, but that's a story for after Halloween.


marc carlson said...

For the record, you don't have to actually penalize sanity.

BTW, I was looking back at your old article on the Morrow Project -- I may want to see if I can borrow that. I've never played with those rules (which is weird because I've played the game before. In the army I had a GM who was playing from what he remembered of the rules).

TheyStoleFrazier'sBrain said...

Well, if you don't penalize SAN, what's the point? That was, like, the defining mechanic of the game, as far as I could tell.

I'll have Morrow Project with me Friday night (assuming my car makes it), if you want.

marccarlson said...

That would be great - unfortunately I'm thinking we have soething else planned for Friday night, so WE may not be there. If you could slide it towards Naamah, I'm pretty sure I'll get it soon enough though.

The CoC system isn't too bad without the SAn losses -- and in fact Chaosium seems to have based it's "Basic Role Playing System" on that.

I maintain that most gaming characters (and for that matter a lot of characters in fiction) are pretty well nuts to begin with, so SAN penalties is simply slamming them for what they are naturally. And good role playing should take up the slack.

I mean, really "OMG, there's this horrific old building where people have recently been eviscerated by who knows what. I know, let's spend the night and look into it." Sure it sounds like fun the first time, but wanting to repeat the experience? A lot? Sanity - really?

Or, "I want to go kill things, let me get my sword and wander around though dank old ruins so I can build my body count higher than syphillus -- but it's ok 'cause they're "monsters" and "cultists"." Yeah, that's the ticket...