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.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Summerland Second Edition

I loved and was frustrated with Summerland in equal measure and when a second edition was Kickstarted I was excited and immediately backed it.

To be honest I didn't read the prospectus too deeply as I would have been happy with any improvement over the original rules.

However now in possession of the second edition I feel that the issues I had with the game are clearly not those the author did.

The game is set after human civilisation has been wiped out virtual overnight by the strange appearance of a forest over most of the land mass of the globe. It's a situation that reminiscent of sci-fi such as the Southern Reach trilogy or Roadside Picnic. From computer games then we are very much in the territory explored by *The Last of Us*.

The biggest issue I have with the game is its split game system. It has one game system for most things in the game, in this case a version of the Open d6 system. It then has a specialised sub-system for handling the thing that is the core of the game.

In Summerland the players are meant to play Drifters, characters who are resistant to the "call" of the forest. Their resistance comes from some inner trauma that leaves them unable to hear the call due to their psychic pain.

They can use their trauma as a bonus in contests however in using and confronting their past there is a chance that they start to resolve their Trauma. This is both good, because as the Drifter becomes less alienated and damaged they are more likely to be accepted in the few communities that exist in the area outside of the main effect of the call. It is also bad as the Drifter becomes more susceptible to call and their livelihood is based around doing things in the forest that others can't.

Therefore the game, from the character's point of a view. Is a finely judged dance where the character slowly resolves more of their Trauma and attempts to integrate with a community, transitioning from one way of life to another.

For me, this is the heart of the game and the reason to play it. All the survival horror is essentially the backdrop to this inner struggle.

The game as written disagrees. Survival horror is the name of the game and combat gets more page space than trauma does.

This second edition makes me feel like I need to get over myself and accept that Summerland is a creepy game of surviving a spiritual apocalypse and I should take what I like about it and try and create another game that reflects what I find interesting.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

The Belly of the Beast

Belly of the Beast has a very unusual premise. An alien giant worm has consumed the surface of a conventional fantasy setting and now the shattered remnants of civilisation live inside the vast intestine of the creature, struggling to scavenge enough to survive from either the creature itself of the remains of its other meals. I guess you might summarise it as post-apocalyptic body horror.

The Swallowed live in small communities learning to live on what they can scavenge within the complex tract of the worm and the body of the creature itself.

Life inside the creature is defined not by day or not or the passing of the seasons but the structure of the creatures body, its movement and the arrival of new resources in the form of newly devoured territory. It really is new levels of "grimdark".

The game is structured around "pulls" which is where the characters try and acquire what their community needs to get through another day. The communities are world-built or can simply be randomly generated (along with their current needs).

The GM creates an opportunity to satisfy that need and the characters go after that opportunity as best they can. It predates Blades in the Dark but there is a lot of overlap in the basic ideas of the adventure play being driven and feeding back into the community cycle. Mechanically though only the adventure play has rules and mechanics. The communities are more abstract.

On the mechanics, during conflicts the GM sets the difficulty of any task or outcome and then the player builds a dice pool based on their character and pools of Advantage and Instinct dice. Advantage dice seem to be GM-awarded fiat that players can request. Instinct dice are more interesting as they are built up by the characters acting out the character's instincts and those instincts are those of desperate survivors. Essentially the Instinct dice enforce the cultural values of the setting. Act according to them and you get rewarded with dice that you can spent to be more successful.

Although the rules explains the mechanics clearly (with handy recaps and summaries at the back of the book) it is a little hard to really understand how the dice flow works without trying it in play.
Belly of the Beast is a highly distinctive setting with a custom ruleset that aims to support player behaviour that matches the setting. Its biggest failings, as written, is putting a burden of both story creation and situational judgement on the GM. It feels like there could have been more support for collaborative situation or world-building and that the mechanics of the challenge could have been based around the structure of the pull.

This is a game I'm curious to play but it does fall between traditional and storytelling stools so it might be difficult to pitch it to an interested group.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Ruma: Dawn of Empire

Ruma is a Powered by the Apocalypse game about a Roman Empire that is facing off against supernatural threats summoned by it barbarian neighbours. Players take the role of characters who are confronting those threats.

The rules introduce Latin-flavoured playbooks that reflect various roles in historical Roman society and within the Legions.

Irritatingly Ruma introduces some alternative names and spellings for the various countries and peoples of its world. It tries to put some fictional distance from history but not in a way that adds to the historical roots. While flawed as a narrative campaign Hunters of Alexandria did a better job of blending the historic and supernatural fantasy of its world.

Apocalypse World, as a ruleset, seems appropriate to the environment, the Empire is powerful but besieged by threats that seek to overthrow it. Characters will win big eventually but the costs will be high.

Ruma's fundamental problem for me is that I'm not sure why this isn't a skin for Monster of the Week. You play in a group, threats emerge and need to be countered.

Ruma is also badly in need of some good Threats and Fronts in the style of DungeonWorld. There's no real need to explain what has happened to the world (no-one explains the Apocalypse in Apocalypse World after all) instead it requires a compelling and urgent threat to the Roman way of life that needs to be met right now and only the characters can step up to the challenge.

What the book provides feels like a fundamental misunderstanding of the whole concept. In one of the suggestions a rich Roman needs the characters to recover lost knowledge from a foreign ruin, the escalations feel more like steps in a scenario and the final outcome of the threat is crop failure in Rome. Joe Banner's work (such as the recent Bastion Ein Sof) would be an ideal template here.

I really like the idea of Ruma but this is not an execution that does justice to the conceit.