Sunday, November 15, 2020

Acid Death Fantasy

This slim hardbacked book provides a realm for the game Troika!, it introduces the reader to the Thousand Sultanates and the Wastes that surround them. It's a post-apocalyptic science fantasy setting that leans more to the science fiction end of the spectrum. The bulk of the book is taken up with new character classes and creatures with a few pages of descriptions and a few tables and bullet points about what you might do with the content.

It's a beautiful book. I'm not sure I've seen something as striking since Mork Borg. As a teenager I loved the worlds that were conjured up by the artists in magazines like White Dwarf. I think the art direction here has the same potential to do the same for someone reading this now. It's coherent in terms of style, palette and feeling. It illustrates and amplifies the text and it feels necessary. It opens a door onto a strange world of possibility.

It is the most coherent and interesting realm I've read for Troika!. I'm not sure whether this is purely because its well written and designed or simply because I found the ideas and tropes of the setting interesting on a personal level.

One common feature of Troika material is pitching the tone from a starting point of the gonzo and surreal into the defiantly obscure and then sometimes further still into deliberate alienation beyond a tiny insider core audience. Acid Death Fantasy instead uses the character outlines in the archetypes and creatures to sketch a sense of the wider world being described.

Take the following examples from the background options, a Dune Rider:

You were an outrider of your fleet ..., guiding the fleet away from danger and towards vulnerable targets. Something happened and you left, perhaps by choice. You still have your single-rider craft but you've lost your purpose.

And this from the Warflock Outcast

Exiled from the Warflock you wander aimlessly, or is there some other purpose to your travels?

In both cases there is a suggestion of the character belonging to a wider society and world with its own views and morals. An emotional conflict for the character is suggested but is open enough to interpretation to allow each character created to the template to be different. It's a subtle but important quality.

Sadly the book ends with a whimper not a bang. Having introduced all kinds of strange and alluring ideas one of the tongue in cheek suggestions for problems the adventurers might tackle is a mysterious disappearing of shoes.

I would have loved to see a more compelling set of idea generation tables or may be a few pages of sketched situations to serve as jumping off points for a game. Situations that might both embody the world and beg the question of players: what do you do?

Thursday, October 15, 2020

Better Left Buried

Best left buried is a rules-light fantasy heartbreaker that seems to want to be the sidekick of Lamentations of the Flame Princess. It makes a big deal about how going into dungeons is a terrible idea and how nothing but death awaits those foolish enough to do it.

Okay, these are interesting points, but the game relies on characters wanting to do it, there's literally nothing else in the rules system. What happens if in the first session the characters get to the entrance of the deep and dangerous caves and then do turn back? What the game lacks is the motivation as to why the adventurers enter the dungeon despite the danger. You're expected to find dungeoneering compelling despite it clearly not being any kind of long term proposition.

Into the Odd, for example, deals with this a bit better by making the rewards, in the form of magical items, concomitant with the risks.

The copy-editing of the book is poor with repeated sections and grammatical errors. I'm not especially bothered but there are a lot of other games in this genre that don't have these mistakes so the feel is somewhere between an amateur and professional product without the charm of the former or the clarity of the latter.

The game mechanics uses three stats and a similar mechanism to PbtA games where you are trying to roll over 9 on 2d6 to achieve what you want. Stats added to the base die roll. Advantage and Disadvantage (by other names) can be applied to rolls.

To give players a bit more agency and to avoid bathetic failures there is an attribute called Grip that allows re-rolls.

The slightly brutal thing about Grip is that it also fuels supernatural abilities and can be eroded by bizarre or unnatural experiences as well as powering your re-rolls. So there's a lot of things that call on it but it is hard to refresh. The key way you get it back is by running out and having your character develop delusions or compulsive behaviours, after which your Grip points refresh.

Initially these disorders are easier to resist but the more times you need to refresh the harder the behaviours become to resist.

Just from reading the rules it feels all characters are on a pretty aggressive downward spiral and I wonder again what the incentive is to keep playing an increasingly deranged and unhappy character compared to retiring them and take on a new character.

The game actually mechanically encourages this as your character doesn't really massively change as a result of experience. They get an additional hit point and a point of Grip, which as I've pointed out already amounts to one re-roll.

All character abilities are open to all characters at the start of the game and they don't really seem to interplay so there's not a massive difference between characters that get a lot of play investment and those that are fresh.

Clever bits

The combat system uses three d6, two of the dice have to be used to try and meet the target number to hit the target while the third becomes the damage dice.

Should the damage of an attack be higher than six then it results in a critical as well so good rolls or the ability to improve your ability to land blows has a lot of mechanical satisfaction to it.

Some of the sub-systems that require Grip to fuel damage provider a multiplier to damage based on the Grip spent to avoid a double whammy of a high-spend attack resulting in an outcome no different from a low spend one. That's a good idea but it's an indication of the patch and mend approach to the rules design where the fundamentals are a bit weak and if the patches aren't applied consistently then the game systems get a bit broken.

Monsters are handled in an interesting way that rejects the "creature catalogue" zoo approach in favour of unique unnamed creatures that have an emphasis on the inhuman and truly monstrous.

Instead of stats a process is provided for either mapping the vision you have for the creature into mechanics or creating a mechanical of challenge with the right feel or colour of the creature you're imagining.

If you want to draw from existing bestiaries though there is also a formula for converting Hit Die based creatures into the games mechanics.

The game also has its take on "Iconic Characters" by having some distinctive characters appear in it's art and examples.

Final thoughts

Any fantasy rules system with a retro bent or dungeoneering focus needs to explain why it exists and why someone should play it rather than anything else. Better Left Buried struggles to answer that question clearly.

It's rules-light, it's not directly indebted to d20 systems or Dungeons and Dragons but consequently has an ambiguous relationship to the implied background that those games have.

Dungeon crawling is dangerous and characters are constantly in physical and mental danger. None of the inhuman monsters seem to pose a direct threat to human society. There are no unique rewards to delving.

There is no wider political or cultural situation for the characters to be part of. Any fantasy trope is welcome here with no particular reason for anything to exist or not exist.

It's rules light and has some interesting ideas but it is also a complex game with some entwined and involved sub-systems that threaten not so much to mesh and snarl up on one another.

I could see myself playing the game but probably at the instigation of others rather than pushing for it myself.

Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Tunnel Goons

Tunnel Goons is a very small and rules-lite game that seems pitched somewhere between whimsical fantasy and traditional fantasy dungeon crawlers.

The basic rules system is very simple: rolling 2d6 and trying to beat a target number. Stats, equipment and so on add to the number. The referee determines the difficulty number and fills in all the other rules.

There are three stats that are essentially Physical, Criminal and Education.

There is no magic system, no races and no classes. Progression exists and is based on the metagame of the number of sessions played.

There is a tiny amount of background in the form of three tables for creating your character. The amount of flavour that jumps out of making the third table imply that most adults have been involved in some kind of world spanning war was quite exciting.

Tunnel Goons is very simple and kind of gives a streamlined fantasy PbtA experience. Its subtitle, "An analog adventure for nice people" kind of points to a less violent fantasy roleplaying experience that the rules don't deliver on.

It feels like it has that simple but powerful quality that things like Fighting Fantasy had and I can't help but wonder if it is similarly aimed at children.

Weirdly I'd quite like to give this one a go with the right scenario material. I can't explain it, maybe I'm just a nice person after all.

Sunday, September 27, 2020

Warlock

Warlock is a modern rules-light take on British fantasy roleplaying games like Warhammer and Fighting Fantasy. The stats and skills are a lot like Advanced Fighting Fantasy while the careers system is modelled after Warhammer Roleplay 1st edition while the inventory, world and monsters echo Warhammer Fantasy Battle 1st edition. With all these influences the modern flavour sometimes feels like the use of a d20 in skill checks.

Clever things

Each career offers two random tables that offer details about your characters background if this is their starting career.

The core skill of a career is simply named after the career and covers the breadth of what the career is about. In addition stamina (or hit points) is linked to increasing your career skill which provides a double-incentive to focus on the core of your character.

The combat system keeps the idea of being fine while you have stamina (hit points) but then taking critical hits once you are at zero. Weapons are categorised into different damage types that have their own critical tables.

Items have cost ratings that result in a randomly generated cost. This makes hunting for a bargain a mechanical thing that encourages wandering and looking for bargains.

Less clever things

I think it's a bit odd that there isn't a Fate or Fortune point equivalent. You can test your Luck to break ties but that seems to be the only way you can really influence rolls that matter a lot to you.

The careers system allows you to jump from any career to any other career with the player being required to justify the change narratively. This is a sensible liberation but it would still be nice to have suggested career exits, maybe with a reduced advance cost.

Some of the writing and editing is quite sloppy with sentences not making syntactic sense let alone being grammatically correct.

Comparing to WFRP

Despite it's mixed heritage Warlock is most like Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay and therefore I think it is a bit interesting to compare it's modernisation effort to the 2nd and 4th Editions attempts to do exactly the same thing.

Warlock only allows characters to develop skills that are part of the character's current career. For the most part later additions of WFRP saw careers as a way of describing what your character had done prior to the game and loosened up the way you were able to develop your character later.

Magic use is a skill and therefore is much more available than in Warhammer. However access to spells is more controlled so spellbooks and scrolls are much more important. The magic system feels much closer to the Sorcery! gamebooks and Advanced Dungeons and Dragons than any of the Warhammer games.

Virtually all versions of Warhammer have very whiffy combat where dodging, toughness and armour all combines to make it likely that any individual strike doesn't make any difference to the game. Warlock makes combat a contested role so it reads like in every exchange someone is getting hurt and the game is going to move forward rather than being a stalemate.

Background

Warlock determinedly punts on having a background. The eponymous Warlock has betrayed the large human community that the game centres around. In addition to this internal foe goblins, orcs and hobgoblins constantly harry the humans' borders.

That's about the extent of it. I would have liked to see some principles of the game or ideas for adventures to try and understand what the author thinks the game is about but to be honest I haven't really enjoyed the world-building or colour in games with a fixed background in a while.

For a game that clearly calls back on a rich history of existing gaming the blank slate actually works pretty well.

Conclusion

There's a lot to like in Warlock, I kind of binge read it when the hardcopy arrived. It has a number of rough edges and I think some of them will only be evident once you play it.

But it is an exciting take on several classic games and manages to capture a lot of that early 80s British fantasy roleplaying atmosphere.

Tuesday, September 01, 2020

The King Machine

The King Machine has some interesting premises: it is part of the author's infinite planescape (called Soft Horizon), its characters are non-human primates and the author rejects violence as being the primary or only way of injecting or resolving tension into a roleplaying game.

Background

The world consists of countless floating pieces of land and trees, varying in size and height. Height is prestige and those forced to live on the ground are in exile enduring a dark, freezing world where death can be staved off but is inevitable.

A mysterious artefact called the King Machine appoints the perfect king for the world, appointing the person that the world needs at this moment.

Unfortunately the machine is malfunctioning and has anointed a false king whose abilities and interests are not what is needed now and who will in fact stir trouble and strife throughout the land.

Even if the false king is deposed or killed then the King Machine will appoint a new, equally wrong king until it is fixed on some new way of governing is found.

Weaknesses

Who are the characters? Why do they answer the call to adventure?

While ultimately it is clear that either the King Machine must be fixed or a new revolutionary form of government is established there's quite a gap between that world changing adventure and where the characters start out.

There are a few good charts for generating the false king and the problems that king creates but there isn't any real relationship building for the characters.

They may be impacted individually by the king's actions but their reason for taking collective action to resolve the problem isn't clear.

Conclusion

I'd really like to give this game a go. It's non-violent, non-human premise feels like something that would really tilt the right group in an interesting direction.

However as a GM'd game with an unusual setting and world I feel it puts a burden on me to be a facilitator, cheerleader and a storyteller. A bit more support in the structure of the rules or the building of the setting would be welcome.

Saturday, August 15, 2020

The Enclave

The Enclave is a game about an isolated community separating itself from and external threat (real or imagined). Of course the community has stresses and tensions within itself that threaten the community and allow the threat to seep in a corrupt everything.

The game tone is going to massively vary within this fixed frame. A cult with a charismatic leader trying to seal out the rest of the world is going to be significantly different to a medieval town trying to quarantine itself from the plague. You can also extend the basic idea to cover children on the summer vacation hiding from neighbourhood bullies in a treehouse or even the Siege of Troy.

The group chooses a type of Enclave from a table of suggestions (or they can make their own). They mutually sketch out a drawing or map of the physical domain of the Enclave. Then each player creates a character, they roll to discover how loyal the character is to the community and how they view those outside the community. The rolls also determine which character will be the leader of the community.

The game proper then begins with players taking turns which are called Ordeals (although Ordeals may actually be positive for the Enclave). The game is played out to a fixed number of scenes and the game suggests using a sheet of stickers to record the elapsed ordeals but essentially you're going to play 26 unless you're playing with five players in which case you do 25 total.

Each Ordeal begins with a dice roll on the playset table. There is an interesting but involved process for handling duplicates where events that get repeated are either replaced by a less desirable event but a reward of tokens to the player or the player can pay tokens to shift the event to be from the more favourable part of the event table.

The system is designed to avoid repetition and provide an arc to the game play that makes it more likely for positive events for the Enclave to happen earlier and negative events more likely at the end of the game.

I admire it as a piece of game design but I had to read through it a few times to understand what was going on and I can't help but feel that something like Deep Forest does a similar thing but in a simpler and more elegant way by choosing a random method that doesn't inherently contain repetition.

Having selected an Ordeal the player then frames a scene around the requirements of the Ordeal, interestingly not necessarily involving the character they created. Instead their goal is to interpret the prompt and provide the detail of what happens and how the people in the Enclave are affected. This includes drawing and modifying the map of the Enclave. It also means exploring some of the consequences that might be picked up later.

There's a lot I like about Enclave, it has really got to the heart of a particular scenario, as witnessed by all the variations you can play around with. It also has the classic elements of a storygame: a crisis that can't be ignored, characters in conflict and a flow to an inevitable end. What puts me off is the structure that it has been put around that framework. The game rules feel fussy and not particularly streamlined. It feels strongly influenced by map drawing games but doesn't have the elegance that other systems do. I'd be interested in playing a lighter hack of the game but not so much in grappling with the process or playsets of the current iteration of the rules.

Friday, May 15, 2020

The Sword and the Loves

The Sword and the Loves is a game of chivalric romance and Arthurian legend that uses the Archipelago system.

The basic structure of the game is pure Archipelago with the ritual phrases, fate deck, story card resolution and a map that is drawn during the game.

Some of the bespoke elements come from the obvious customisation of the fate deck and a bespoke story card and a minimal map outline of Southern England featuring Camelot and Avalon. 

The more subtle parts are the determination of a fixed set of aspects for the game as well as character archetypes for the characters.

Instead of the relatively blank slate of Archipelago you are creating characters that are designed to fit in the framework of knights and ladies, love and duty.

The rules imply that there are a fixed number of elements: . I think that in practice you are going to have to assign other elements as per regular Archipelago due to the GM-less nature of the game, however I'm willing to give this a go and see what happens. Presumably it means that anything outside of these elements is outside the world of the characters.

Each character is created using an archetype that has a number of leading questions to help guide their creation.

The game also provides fixed roles for the players on the left and right of the current acting player.

I'm an Archipelago fan and I have a soft spot for Arthurian stories so I am eager to give this a go and see if this is the GM-less storygame equivalent of Pendragon.