Posted by: NiTessine | February 22, 2012

RPG Blog Carnival: Things to Love, Things to Hate – Giant Space Hamsters and Eclipse Phase

There’s a blog carnival going on at Nevermet Press, on the topic of things that we love and hate. They’ve even conveniently limited it to RPG products, which works well for me.

As long-time readers know, I’m very good at hating things, especially 4E. I decided that this time, I’d direct my considerable powers of derision towards something else, especially since nobody has sent me any new 4E books to detest. I hear they’ll be going for cheap soon, though.

But then, I’m not in this hobby because I hate everything in it. There are great things in it, beautiful things, things that I love and things that inspire me to create, and to rave about how awesome this thing here is. There are many books and product lines in the hobby that I absolutely adore. I’ve written on a number of them, but there’s a conspicuous omission in my oeuvre, especially considering the subheading of my blog.

Hamster, Giant Space

D&D’s been around for a long time, and been blessed with circumstances that have allowed prodigious amounts of content to be produced. When you have a corpus of over a thousand volumes, there’s room for some pretty weird stuff. A lot of this weird stuff accumulated into theSpelljammer setting, which essentially gives astrophysics the finger and goes with a grab-bag of the coolest misconceptions we’ve had of the makeup of the universe to take D&D to the stars.

(That’s probably the subject of a blog post all on its own – the astronomy of Spelljammer, much like the Cant of Planescape, isn’t just random stuff that they made up. They based it all on something. But I digress.)

Anyway, like all AD&D settings back then, Spelljammer received its own entries in the Monstrous Compendium series. It was still the early years after the release of Monstrous Compendium I, which was packed into a three-ring binder. The idea was that you could use the binder to put in all the other Monstrous Compendium entries and sort them alphabetically, for one, ginormous binder full of things to challenge your players. There are also some loose monster pages in boxed sets from this era. I really have no idea how it worked in practice – I came to the game just a few years too late for it and own only a few of loose-leaf Monstrous Compendiums. There were two of these collections for Spelljammer, both annoyingly titles Monstrous Compendium: Spelljammer Appendix. They’re MC7 and MC9 (MC8, in case you’re interested, is the Outer Planes Appendix).

The first one of these includes stats for one of my favourite creatures in all of D&D, the giant space hamster.

It’s pretty much what the name says, a really, really big hamster. Unlike your average D&D giant rodent, which is gonna be the size of a big dog at best (such as the dire rat), the giant space hamster isn’t called “giant” for nothing – the common breed grows to the size of a brown bear. Of course, they were originally bred by the tinker gnomes of the Dragonlance setting, and lemme tell ya, their biological creations work no better than their technological ones. I quote, from MC7 Monstrous Compendium Spelljammer Appendix, released by TSR in 1990:

Possibly the worst aspect of the giant space hamster (aside from its ludicrous existence) is that enchanted substances from numerous other sorts of nonhuman monsters can be introduced into its reproductive processes, producing unbelievable (except to a gnome) new sorts of giant space hamsters. Some gnomish communities deliberately breed unique subspecies in competition with other communities to produce the most interesting varieties. Usually, the results are more or less like the normal sort of giant space hamster, such as the wooly, mottled, ochre, Oriental, Occidental, chartreuse, spotted, not-quite-so-spotted, only-a-little-spotted, plaid, cave-dwelling, three-toed, lesser, greater, greater lesser, lesser greater, albino, and flightless giant space hamsters.

It makes no sense. It’s absurd humour, out of nowhere, and it’s hilarious. According to 30 Years of Adventure: A Celebration of Dungeons & Dragons, the coffee-table book WotC released in 2004, it originated when Jim Holloway was drawing spelljamming vessels, and came up with the gnomish sidewheeler, which has these huge paddlewheels on the sides. Jeff Grubb, noting that there’s nothing for them to churn in the void of space, declared loudly that they must be giant hamsterwheels. Roger E. Moore overheard this, and the rest is history.

MC7 supplies us with stats for other funky variations of the giant space hamster, such as the carnivorous flying giant space hamster (“a regrettable if understandable line of inquiry”), the two-headed lernaean bombardier giant space hamster, the fire-breathing phase doppleganger giant space hamster, the great horned giant space hamster, the abominable giant space hamster, tyrannohamsterus rex, and the fearsome giant space hamster of ill omen, also called Woolly Rupert.

The giant space hamster has since made appearances elsewhere, and most gamers of today will most likely remember it from the Baldur’s Gate games, where the berserker Minsc has a miniature giant space hamster called Boo as a pet. It was also recently updated to Pathfinder RPG in Frog God Games’ Tome of Horrors Complete, a work of such weight that while its contents will kill your character, the book itself can be very easily used to kill you.

To me, the giant space hamster is a reminder that there’s room for humour in everything. While I do take games very seriously indeed, it’s good to remember that nothing should be taken allthat seriously.

And now, for something to hate… hard one, especially if I lay off 4E. Let’s try something, though.

Eclipse Phase

There’s a surprise for you. Actually, I don’t hate Eclipse Phase. I kinda like it. Its setting is a beautiful distillation of all the greatest works of transhumanist science fiction. Its recommended reading page alone has yielded me countless of hours of enjoyment in the discovery of new authors. The art is magnificent, the PDF copies take advantage of the format in ways I’ve only seen Lamentations of the Flame Princess’s last two releases do, and the Creative Commons licence and innovative, courageous distribution model is make it a thing of the future in not just content but in fact. I want to love the game. I just can’t.

It’s the system. Though on the surface, the game appears slick, cool, and modern, under the hood it’s straight out the 1980’s. There are percentiles and endless tables and charts and they are making my eyes bleed. The character generation system has you allocating a hundred points in a hundred different places on a sheet that looks like it was vomited forth by Excel after a night of heavy drinking. It’s MERP all over again, the game I started with but could never learn. There are just too many fiddly bits and moving parts, and subsystems. The character generation looks especially daunting. They’ve put up a heroic effort to try and explain the system in the quickstart adventure Don’t Mind the WMD, but I just can’t bring myself to study the system with the dedication it would require.

So, that’s me and Eclipse Phase. I want to love it, but I can’t. Sorry, not much hate here. The last post took it all out of me, and it’ll take some time to build up the reservoir.


Responses

  1. I feel the same about Eclipse Phase. Reading the book went something like: “Hey, this book is pretty. Wow this is maybe the best scifi rpg setting I’ve ever read. Now let’s see the rules… what the hell? No way.”

    I can’t believe someone would make a game with such a futuristic setting and such a stone-age rules system.

  2. Here’s another “me too” for Eclipse Phase. If I ever try running an EP campaign again, I’ll want to strip out the existing rule system and replace it with something better.

    The only question is, with what? I’d like to be similar in spirit as the original EP system: gritty, somewhat crunchy, leaning on the simulationist side. My favorite idea so far is some variant of the Unknown Armies ruleset, which also has the added bonus of including the best insanity rules that I’ve seen.

  3. Take the fluff, apply to Fudge or Savage Worlds…. Adventure!

  4. Kaj: The second time I’ve played Eclipse Phase, we used a conversion of the Nemesis system, which is mean for lovecraftian horror games. It’s rules-light and has a variant of the Unknown Armies insanity rules. The Eclipse Phase settings seems to lend itself well to sci-fi horror. We went very light on the rules, mostly we just used the insanity rules and a skill roll now and then.

    (You can get Nemesis for free as pdf. Seems to be available at http://www.arcdream.com/pdf/Nemesis.pdf )

  5. Dronir: Thanks, that looks promising! After getting Reign, I’ve been wanting to try out ORE for a while, but Reign’s setting didn’t enthuse me too much. Using those rules with Eclipse Phase could be an excellent chance.

  6. Eclipse Phase is basically Shadowrun 4 with percentiles and roll modifiers instead of dice pools and pool size modifiers. The only really new mechanic it adds is sleeving.

  7. I’ve read a lot of transhumanist fiction and I find EP unoriginal at its core, almost bordering on plagiarism in some parts of it. It’s also very unbalanced in perspective, as if the writers couldn’t get someone who wasn’t a rabid transhumanist to write a sympathetic point of view.

    As many have said, the system is unimpressive at best.

  8. Well, being unoriginal is what is expected of systems like that: Shadowrun is borrowing heavily from cyberpunk classics, D&D from high fantasy, etc. Minding that the expectations of the players and GMs alike are heavily coloured by the fiction they’ve read in the genre, it’s only natural for a system to mimic that fiction.

    I dunno about “many”, but I find SR4 core mechanics to be workable, d6 pools or percentile dice, and the detail level is somewhere around what I like. So if there are any serious flaws, like there are in D&D4E, SR5 or GURPSdonebythebook, you’ll have to point them out yourself instead of relying on authority.


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