Sunday, July 21, 2019

Reunification

Reunification is about a society being divided and then reunited with individual storylines reflecting families and groups that end up on either side of the divide.

The obvious examples are the Cold War east-west divisions of countries and colonial-era border drawing of colonies and states. Places like Germany, Vietnam, Korea and more recently divisions like Crimea and South Sudan.

It has a kind of strange pitch for a tabletop game as players are not allowed to talk to one another until the end of the game. This is because they are playing members of a family that have been divided by war. Instead the players communicate by "letters" or rather abstractions of letters that a written on that storygame staple of index cards or scraps of paper.

The game is set in the year before reunification. This idea of the "last year" combined with the silence at the tabletop reminded me of a Quiet Year. The letters though echo the letters that form the core of Slower than Light from the 24 Game Poems collection.

The final year is divided into four seasons, each season each character writes a letter to another character and annotates the reply with a one-word reaction.

At the end of the first three seasons there is a random event which each character responds to.
After the final season the players can talk to one another again. Each character is discussed by the other characters in terms of the feelings they have towards them based on the letters that have been received.

With the feelings that the family have towards each member having been discussed there is one last general discussion of whether the family can be reunited as the country is brought together.

It feels like quite an odd game mixing a whole bunch of different things together; random events, non-verbal communication. I think therefore the kind of groups it might work worth are a little unusual. Groups used to game poems would be fine, those with no conventional roleplaying experience also fine.

Those looking for a more traditional fair are going to be disappointed. It also lacks any meaningful game mechanics. This is a game that is purely about people's feelings.

For me this feel's like a back-pocket game that doesn't demand to be played but is worth remembering the next time the right opportunity presents itself.

Saturday, June 08, 2019

Mothership

Mothership is a game of sci-fi horror/survival. It has an old-school element in that it is a collection of rules with an implied background.

That background is kind of like Aliens and Dead Space. The rules allow you to create crew members on a ship that is exploring a huge and dangerous universe.

Core mechanics

The main dice used are d10s are the main mechanism is a d% check as per so many Runequest-inspired games.

The other elements such as saves and advantage and disadvantage will probably be familiar to most people through Dungeons and Dragons though.

Skills

The skills are maybe the most distinctive thing about the system as they are setup in a tree with three tiers where higher-tier skills have prerequisites.

Higher-tier skills cost more to buy and offer a bigger percentage towards checks (which seems like a sensible way of dealing with percentile whiff).

While a bit involved (and with the naturally debatable choices about whether given skills sit in the right tier and have the right prerequisites) I can see that this might be an acceptable balance of crunch with simplicity of play.

Starships

Like skills the rules for Starships are both relatively short while not being simple. You choose the things you want your ship to have and then things like engines and so on are calculated on the basis of your choices.

The entire ship spend then goes towards building the stats for the ship.

It is reminiscent of Black Book Traveller but again has a number of improvements over that system while still benefiting from a calculator. Mainly that it focuses on the outcome you want and then backfills the costs and the calculations.

Art

Mothership is hands-down the best illustrated game of 2018. That's because its art is integral to the content and used not just to illustrate but to illuminate the meaning of the text. This is not merely beautiful drawings that sit alongside the text, here form and function merge and become one. It's beautiful and utilitarian and is setting a new benchmark for me.

Overall

Mothership seems a dense but neat system for playing combat and exploration orientated sci-fi games. However as a set of rules it doesn't really have a lot to say about horror. It is one of those games which hopes that throwing out a simulationist approach will result in the game it wants. Ultimately there's nothing to explain why horror will happen on the protagonists will get involved in it.

I like Mothership a lot but its going to take a mix of the right idea and the right group of players to make it work.

Sunday, May 26, 2019

Electric Sheep

Electric Sheep is a fantasy cyberpunk hack based on the extremely influential Lady Blackbird game but it's a bit of a strange Frankenstein of other games.

Unlike Lady Blackbird the game doesn't strongly define a situation or a clear relationship setup between the characters. Even more strangely it doesn't really describe the character very much at all. It's clearly intended to be a much blanker canvas than Lady Blackbird.

The basic system is the same, you build pools of dice (d6) based on the traits on your character sheet that are relevant to what you are trying to do. Rolls of 4 to 6 are a success and the GM decides how many successes are required to achieve the character's outcome.

Failing a roll either allows the GM to escalate the situation or the GM can give a character a Condition (this part of the game is drawn directly from Masks) which can only be cleared by taking a specified action in a downtime scene.

The pool refresh scenes were something I really liked in Lady Blackbird and I feel their replacement here with the more prescriptive cues from the Conditions is inferior.

Recovery scenes allowed people to explore the relationships between the characters but with conditions you now have to be looking to hit a particular beat within the scene, such as hurting the other person in the scene which doesn't sound like much fun for the person on the other side.

What does work better than the original though is the stronger game structure which is based around the idea of missions. Lady Blackbird starts strong but then tends to lack the conclusion that a good one-shot needs.

Here the missions allow you to control when to end the game and the experience system allows some kind of evolution of the character in a small amount of real-time but a potentially longer span of time than the manic 48 hours of Lady Blackbird.

Each mission is made up of steps that have associated dice pool difficulties. The players know the sizes of the each of the pools but the GM assigns the pools to the challenges.

The game provides some standard missions such as infiltration, ambush and net run but it feels like the GM is meant to come up with a mission and it attendant stages more on the fly. It feels like the good parts of Shadowrun Anarchy with a kind of clear act structure.

Presumably the magic starts to flow when the GM can chain together these missions to give a narrative arc to the campaign or one-shot.

Electric Sheep is a Frankenstein's monster, but one of great taste, it borrows liberally from many excellent sources but the assemblage is the less than the sum of its parts. I'll want to play it before I pass my final judgement but I suspect that I'll want to hack it more than play it straight.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Electra before the throne

Electra before the throne is a three player, three character shortform freeform game that wraps Greek classical mythology over the throne room confrontation scene in Return of the Jedi.

Electra face Hades, the King of the Dead, who has raised her father Agamemnon from the dead to serve him. Each character has a goal for the scene, an understanding of the situation (which may be wrong) and a kind of tic-tac-toe of abilities regarding the other characters.

Around them the city of Argos is under attack by the dead, the three protagonists must find a resolution to their conflict in 20 minutes of gameplay, after which Argos will be destroyed and its people slain.

This game is entirely a riff on the confrontation between Luke, Darth Vader and the Emperor in Return of the Jedi, re-imagined through classical literature. The blend of high and lowbrow culture makes it seem immediately comprehensible.

The requirements of the game: short play, exactly three players; means this has been kicking around in my possession while waiting for the right circumstances but I'm curious to see how this nano game works in practice.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Do not let us die in the dark night of this cold winter

Two quick things about Do not let us die in the dark night of this cold winter: firstly whatever bet existed on the length of a supplement title, it has been won. Secondly, the cover of the book is one of the most beautiful things I've seen.

Do not let us die is a mini-game for D&D-style games that focuses on a small community trying to survive a harsh winter in the wilderness.

The game requires the player characters to keep as many NPCs as they can alive, keeping them healthy, fed and warm. Doing so requires food, wood and medicine. Each of the PC archetypes is skilled at gathering one of these resources.

The players also have to manage how many buildings are being used in the settlement and how many people are in each building.

Each round a random event happens, which feels quite a lot like the Quiet Year. In generally the events are all bad, like people falling sick or having accidents. As this is a more crunch than narrative game, generally the events deplete your resources or actions and may result in the loss of a villager.
Eventually the winter ends and if any of the villagers have survived the PCs gain the reward they were promised for helping the community.

It's a delightfully weird game that nicely intersects OSR mechanics and randomness with storygaming emotion. The winter can be endured but it can never be beaten.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Unfinished Business and the Beast

Grant Howitt's Patreon powers a series of one or two page games. In the latest batch I found Unfinished Business and The Beast interesting.

Unfinished Business is one of the relatively large pool of revenge beyond the grave games, mostly inspired by The Crow. This is slightly different as the game isn't just a single character looking for revenge but a group.

Also rather than being returned to life with supernatural powers the ghosts have an object they are linked to that allows them to possess those who touch the object.

Once possessed most of the rules are for how the ghost can retain control of their host and use them to enact their revenge.

It seems an interesting take on the genre.

The Beast is a horror game set in 18th century Eastern Europe, a group of retainers must defeat an ancient and powerful monster or suffer for their failure.

The mechanics are fairly typical for the series with a d10 rolled against an opposition die. Abilities, skills and challenge are all factored into the number of dice rolled on both sides. It is like a simplified version of Cold City/Hot War.
The Beast itself however rolls d20 instead of d10s so by default the group is going to lose if they try to go head to head with it.

Learning a weakness allows you to exploit it in a challenge which steps down the dice the opposition rolls.

This gives a nice shape to the game as to succeed the characters must spend some investigating and interacting with the Beast's minions to try and discover some of its weaknesses before the challenge the creature.

One I'd be interested in giving a go.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

The Corruption of Pelursk

This mini-adventure is by the By Crom! author, Shel Kahn, so the first thing worth saying is it benefits from visual design and is beautifully illustrated and physically satisfying to own.

It is a classical fantasy roleplaying adventure with the premise being that you as a group are interested in acquiring some rare magical crystals and have journeyed to the only place that produces them.

Once there you discover that the town is in crisis as the crystals have ceased to appear where they are normally collected. The nearby island is a taboo place but it also seems connected to the problems with the crystals as a local has gone missing while investigating it.

Having presumably tricked their way onto the island the game then shifts to a clever hex-crawler with the island interior being the hex map and then you roll and place cutout hexes onto the map. As you move around the previous hexes are not fixed and therefore you may double back to find that the landscape has changed. The goal here is to get to the centre of the island which seems to be the centre of the magical energy that is linked both to the crystals and strange phenomena on the island itself.

The hex crawl is definitely the more interesting part of the scenario and is quite imaginative. I didn't want to pay the potential duty on the import but one version of the scenario came with a fabric map and hexes and that would have been a far superior way to play out the exploration.

Once the group reaches the centre of the island they discover the mystery of the crystals along with the fates of various villagers. There is a difficult moral choice to make that potentially transforms life in the village.

The scenario ends with the trip back from the island and the resolution of any plot threads that have developed.

The scenario is described quite abstractly so it should work for any D&D-influenced systems. The Drives idea from Into the Odd is used to explain the motivations and preferred course of actions of the various people and challenges in the scenario. This makes it pretty flexible to work around the goals of the scenario.

The biggest issue with the scenario is that the first part in the village doesn't really create enough of a dilemma in the conclusion. It's going to be to easy to see the villagers as jerks whose relationship to the crystals is unhealthy. There needs to be more sympathy for them if the player's decisions are to have weight and consequence at the end of the adventure.

Overall though I'm a fan and I'd be interested in seeing more from what is intended to be a range of pocket dungeons.