Gaming Violence and Children

I grew up the son of a liberal Mennonite pastor. My dad was, and still is, a conscientious objector. Instead of serving in Vietnam, he did mission work in Brazil.

I recall conversations at the dining table about people struggling with the idea of paying taxes that went to the United States military complex. I knew of people who had refused to pay huge chunk of taxes, withholding the amount that would’ve went to the military. They would instead give that withheld money to organizations that promoted peace and justice.

My parents discouraged me from playing with guns. But when your primary toy is Lego, guns are easy to make. My parents discouraged me from watching violent TV, but I would sneak in an episode of the A-Team or later the Dirty Dozen.

The summer before my 6th grade year, a friend introduced me to my first RPG: Star Frontiers. I was immediately hooked. I loved the thought of reenacting Star Wars and Star Trek. To explore. To pilot a ship through a dogfight.

My freshman year in high school, the first Gulf War was beginning, and I recall many brave students standing up in chapel – I attended a private Mennonite high school – and saying they were not going to register for the draft. This meant no federal aid for college.

By this time, I had been playing Rolemaster and Dungeons & Dragons, games that placed a tremendous amount of rules explanation on combat and fighting.  And I maintain that by placing emphasis on combat, combat is more likely to occur.

I also began playing Axis & Allies, Civilization, Diplomacy, Magic the Gathering, and Warhammer. All of these games had abstract combat, but the means to victory is always through conflict.

When it came time to register for the draft, I wrote “Conscientious Objector” all over the draft card. I also wrote a letter, which I assume is still on file at my high school, stating that my conscientious objector status was not something that came about on a whim.

And over the years, I’ve continued to play role-playing games; Some sessions are full of combat, others are very light on combat. And while combat can be memorable and exciting, I have always looked upon it as something somewhat competitive.

Combat rules, more than anything, seem to receive the most scrutiny. It is in this arena, where two or more players engage the rules with little concern for the mechanics. Hit points are abstract, just as the damaging attack is.

But violence, that is a different thing from combat. When I am playing, I am not looking to channel some untapped unpleasant destructive urge through my role-playing games; I am simply looking to engage with the game and seek an escape for me and my friends around the table.

There have been times during a game of Diplomacy, where violent thoughts most certainly crossed my mind. And there have been role-playing games where heated arguments turned somewhat ugly, but even then violence was not part of the equation.

Trying to then frame this all in the context of children, I have to look back with my paternal eyes upon my experience. I have always felt physically and emotionally safe playing role-playing games. I know this is not likely the case for everyone, but I believe that is more a function of who you end up playing with than the system you play.

Role-playing games are ultimately a framework for telling a collaborative story, with a focus on providing a means for conflict resolution. RPGs are simply structured “Cowboys and Indians” or “Cops and Robbers” or “House.”

For myself, in middle school and high school, I gained a tremendous amount of self-confidence through the mastery of the rules systems.

Here was an arena in which my friends and I were in control. We were the strong and athletic, the movers and shakers of the world. There was a comfort in having this control, as my country waged war and my parents divorced.

In my rather intense studying of games and rules, I learned about probability, subsystems, abstraction, mental arithmetic, project management, communication skills, managing meetings, planning, writing, drawing, expanded vocabulary, and likely a whole lot more. A long list of things to learn at the expense of engaging in fantasy violence.

This post is in response to Jeremy Garber’s winning comment in my 202nd Post Competition.

Converting Star Frontier’s Vrusk into Bulldogs!

The Vrusk

A cosmopolitan, business-minded, intuitive insect-like species, the Vrusk are practical and organized.  Read more about them in the Vrusk’ Star Frontiers Wiki entry.

Game History

The Vrusk originally appeared in TSR’s Star Frontiers RPG.  Steve Bartell’s “Alternate Frontiers” article in Dragon Magazine Annual 1998, ported the Vrusk into TSR’s Alternity RPG.  And Wizard of the Coast’s D20 Future RPG supplement ported the Vrusk to the D20 system.

Bulldogs! Conversion

Begin Open Game Content

Typical Aspects


Invoke: you are at ease amongst other cultures. Though I’ve never had Wumpus intestine before, it is truly a complex and intriguing taste.

Compel: you can easily assume that other cultures are as open minded as you. I assure you I did not mean to insult the almighty Grand Tilixil by questioning his omniscience.


Invoke: you are a hard worker. If we push through this, we’ll get it done ahead of time.

Compel: you just won’t let a project or task slide. That paperwork is due by 5pm, and you just can’t step away for a moment.

The Company is my Life

Invoke: You can bring corporate resources to bear when acting in its interest. I know I’m not authorized, but let me talk with my supervisor at PanGalCorp, I’m sure he can straighten things out.
Compel: Your first priority is to your company. “Yes sir, I will gladly get your suit dry cleaned.”

Seek Harmony in Beauty

Invoke: you are keenly aware of the ugliness of conflict. Hey guys, I know you’re upset but can I buy you a drink?
Compel: you may become too obsessed with art. That painting’s tone and lines are fascinating, I must have it.

Eight Chitinous Legs

Invoke: steady, impossible to knockdown or trip. I never understood the phrase “Don’t rock the boat”

Compel: You can’t possible fit in some places. Damn, this cockpit wasn’t made for me.

Special Abilities [-4]

Armored Carapace [-1]

Your body is protected by a thick insectoid carapace that protects you from bruises, cuts, and scratches. You have an automatic Armor: 1 against all hand-to-hand attacks.

Comprehension [-1]

You can size people up in a glance. Normally, using Empathy to get a read on someone requires at least a few minutes of conversation, if not more. You only need a few moments.

Extra Speed [-2]

Your quick reflexes and 8 legs help you move faster than most others. When moving as part of another activity, you may move one additional zone without taking the –1 penalty for a supplemental action. You also gain an additional +2 to Alertness for the purposes of determining initiative.

End Open Game Content

Good News Everyone…Bulldogs! RPG is Here!

Full disclaimer: I have not read Bulldogs! in it’s entirety.  The book, however, renders gloriously on my Android tablet.

Update: My pre-gameplay review.

Yesterday saw the arrival of the Bulldogs! RPG (in pre-release PDF form), a Kickstarter Project, by Brennan Taylor of Galileo Games.  Bulldogs! was originally published as a d20 system game, but has been refreshed and re-imagined as a Fate game.

Take a look at Brennan Taylor’s blog post concerning developing Bulldogs! for Fate.  Creating balanced characters in the d20 system can be a tremendous choir, whereas Fate opens you up to defining your alien races via aspects and possibly a handful of stunts.  Certainly there are balance concerns with the stunts, but it just isn’t as regimented.

But What of Diaspora?

Don’t worry, I’m not dissatisfied with Diaspora, another Fate-based sci-fi RPG.  Quite the contrary, I love it, and eagerly look forward to our next session.

Where Diaspora is billed as hard science fiction, Bulldogs! is…

…sci-fi that kicks ass! Bulldogs! is a high action space adventure. Bulldogs! is about freebooting ruffians flying from planet to planet causing trouble. Bulldogs! is about far future technology—sci-fi movie technology that probably wouldn’t work given what we know about the universe today, but who cares? Bulldogs! is about blasters and faster-than-light travel. Bulldogs! is about hopping from planet to planet and running into a vast variety of weird aliens. Bulldogs! is about being shot at and pissing off powerful locals and fleeing just in time. Bulldogs! is about starship dogfights and ambushes by space pirates in rarely traveled star lanes.

Diaspora is a setting-agnostic toolkit RPG; Whereas Bulldogs! loudly and proudly lays out the setting  and tone.  The various organizations, races, etc are defined both with a bit of narrative fiction and with Fate Aspects.  The Aspects also include suggestions on how to Invoke or Compel them.  Unlike Diaspora, Bulldogs! rules closely adheres to Spirit of the Century and The Dresden Files RPG.

Diaspora models varying technology levels.  Bulldogs! has an assumed technology level that is available to the player characters.  Powerful things are modeled by wealth cost.  Personally I like the Diaspora model of civilian weapons vs. military equipment and the required stunt to use military equipment.

But What of Bulldogs?

Bulldogs! setting is also chock-full of aliens, each with a full color illustration.  The book includes 10 alien species and strongly encourages making others.  Thankfully, Fate makes this tremendously easy.  After all who doesn’t want to make a Vrusk?

The artwork is full-color and fantastic, invoking memories of my Star Frontiers: Alpha Dawn days.  The world at large may be civilized, but your role as a space explorer/delivery boy is anything but civilized.

One element of Bulldogs! that I like is the better defined aspects for the spaceships.  Whereas Diaspora’s ships have 5 general aspects, Bulldogs! has you define 3 aspects: it’s high concept, it’s trouble, and it’s strength.  These constraints provide focus for the ship, and I believe provide greater clarity.

And lest I not forget, the stunts of Bulldogs! are exceptional.  Diaspora keeps the stunts very limited in scope, but in some ways it feels like a bit too much is left for the reader’s imagination.  Bulldogs! provides a healthy dose of example stunts, and they continue to build on the game’s setting.

In the days to come, I will most certainly be mining Bulldogs! for ideas and inspiration, and right now I’m waxing nostalgic. Kudos to Brennan Taylor and crew.  I love your work, and am proud to be a supporter of such a finely crafted creation.

Z is for Zebullon’s Guide to Frontier Space

My tattered copy of Zebulon's Guide

My tattered copy of Zebulon's Guide

This was written on April 29th and scheduled to be published.

I purchased Zebulon’s Guide to the Frontier Space in 1988, a rules accessory for the Star Frontiers: Alpha Dawn game.  Zebulon’s Guide was an overhaul of the Star Frontiers system that made a dramatic turn in both task resolution and skills.  If there would’ve been RPG message boards in those days, I’m fairly certain there would’ve been a rather loud Edition War.

But I didn’t care about the rules changes, I was drawn in by the cover of a space marine with some kind of data-monocle attached to his shiny power assault armor.  Wielding both a pistol and rifle, he was ready for combat.  For the longest time, this gaming book was my most prized possession; I’m fairly certain it is the one role-playing book that I have spent the most time perusing.  I didn’t quite have it memorized, only mostly internalized.  And there were pieces missing.

If you look carefully, in the upper right corner of the cover picture you can see the words “Volume 1.” And where there is a Volume 1 there must be a Volume 2, at least so the logic goes in a gaming-information deprived teenager’s pre-Internet mind.  After all, there was so much that was left unconverted: There was no power assault armor or rules for space ships — the two most glaring omissions.

This hope of discovery was in a time before the Internet. A time before I could spent vast amounts of time both seeking and being bombarded with information concerning a game, game book, or what have you.  Discovering a game, at least for me, was a matter of serendipity.  There weren’t any television ads for the games I played (at least none that I was aware of).  There weren’t any public groups that played the games that I played; Turns out they were all around town, but confined to their own living rooms and dining room tables.  Instead, it was a matter of going to the Sci-Fi / Fantasy section of a book store and seeing what they had to offer.

For years, I kept the candle burning for Zebulon’s Guide Volume 2, until one day it dawned on me that I could use the World Wide Web (that’s what we called it in those days) to find the answer. I went to and searched for Zebulon’s Guide to the Galaxy Volume 2; (I almost typed googled instead of searched).  It turns out, while TSR had initially planned for more volumes, they had opted to abandon the whole line.  It was a strangely sad moment; What I had held dear as a kid wasn’t as important as I had thought, at least according to others.  The market had spoken, and my first role-playing game was put out to pasture.

A is for Alpha Dawn

Long ago, 1987 to be precise, in a basement in Carlock, IL I was introduced to my first role-playing game, Alpha Dawn. In this dark basement, childhood friends and I laid out a map of a futuristic cityscape (here is a replication provided by the StarFrontiersMan). On the map, we laid out tokens for characters and vehicles. Each of us had a sheet with statistics representing the capabilities of characters and vehicles.

And down the spiral I went. This role-playing game captivated my imagination; There were spaceships, hover cars, aliens, laser guns, and space pirates. Here before me was the means of stepping beyond the “lawlessness” of childhood “Cops & Robbers.” The rules were a framework for resolving conflict, and an 11 year old boy and his friends sure can create a lot of conflict in their play. There were now rules to say “who shot first” (it was Han).

Beyond the play, there were the rules themselves. They were something to study; Something to explore, to delve into and learn how it worked. With my devotion, both in time and passion, to understanding the rules, I would wager that I could have gotten college credit. I could certainly recite numerous stats and nuances of the system. And that was only Alpha Dawn. There have since been many others:

And there are others that I’d love to play:

Since a role-playing game, like other games, is an abstraction of the “real world”. The rules system provided a means to engage the tiniest fragment of that “real world.” My friends and I would spend countless hours creating characters, living vicariously through the adventures of our proxies. And in this alternate world we would defeat the grandfather of assassins, create a stone giant smoothy, contemplate operation badger drop, collecting ogres’ heads for our franchised brewery, spitting in the face of tactics, escaping from overwhelming odds in our failing starship, and so many other things.

It was these shared experiences that brought the proxies together, but more importantly gave the players a shared language, a shared experience, a commonality. Or, in other words, it built friendships.