Sunday, January 14, 2018

Teen Detective and Best of Fiends

By a strange coincidence I've just read two takes on the teen detective genre (think things like Veronica Mars and Riverdale) and they are both interesting in their own way and both improvements over Bubblegumshoe.

Teen Detective is by Richard Williams (who I do the Across the Table podcast with) and Best of Fiends which is a work in progress from Stuart Chaplin (and which is currently unavailable generally as far as I know, I asked Stuart whether I could take his notes, which is how I got a copy).

Teen Detective builds off Cthulhu Dark but I think I'm going to have to read my latest copy of the rules again because it doesn't feel like it has that much in common with it anymore. The closest intersection is around destroying evidence in an investigation.

Instead Teen Detective uses a system of gaining Edges over people by investigating the mystery. You also have a pool of points that allow you to get through moments of failure of imagination or inspiration.

You can also take a risk to succeed which switches to a simple d6 check but interestingly what you are staking is not your personal health or well-being but your family's dark secret.

The dark secret is created for you by the other players but the GM gets to choose the actual dark secret from two choices the player selects. It's a modified Archipelago mechanic and it is pretty smart and really plays well into the Veronica Mars theme.

By comparison Best of Fiends is a PbtA but thankfully avoids playbooks by offering a shared set of moves and motivations that are unique around the table. Stuart also nails the attributes of the genre with: Sweet, Dark, Trouble and Strange.

Another simple innovation is that the rules introduce Advantage and Disadvantage to the PbtA system.

Roll three dice and take the highest score if you're at an advantage, the lowest if you are at a disadvantage.

A hundred moves and special carries can now be excised from PbtA rulebooks everywhere.

Playing mysteries

Teen Detective spends a lot of time trying to accomodate different playing styles from solving a fixed conventional mystery scenario that a GM conceives, to a pulpy action game to the story-telling mode that feels like it's default gear.

It also is less interested in whodunnit but why and what the Teen Detectives are going to do about it now. Consequences are obviously interesting but the thing that struck me is that it doesn't seem quite on genre. Noir detectives quite enough try and create their own sense of justice but teen detectives are never really vigilantes and the shows never really go as far as saying that the adult world is irredeemable corrupt. Really it is the consequences for the characters that are significant, the guilty always seem to punished by the authorities in these kinds of stories.

Best of Fiends is entirely simpler: something bad happens, your character (and the others) all have different connections to it and the characters complicated relationships do the rest. It's not really about the mystery but like Monsterhearts is about what the characters think and feel about one another.

Best of Fiends also uses random tables to offer up background and ideas whereas Teen Detective leaves the GM with a lot of responsibility for making the game work and little in the way of structure.

Its suggested five act structure is fine as long as you're steeped in the genre and understand what makes it work. Otherwise there is no real explanation of why these stories are popular and what makes them work.


Both games are short, fun explorations of the genre and both have ideas that are worth jumping on. However both need some kind of supplement that help you create a town where bad things happen and it is the community's teenagers who end up investigating.

Sunday, January 07, 2018

Cthulhu City

Cthulhu City is simultaneously a brilliant idea and a coffee table book that is too long, detailed and boring.

What's great about it is the idea of characters being pulled into a strange city, with the traces of the Mythos everywhere while the population studious ignores it. The city is hard to leave and even when one escapes it supernaturally sucks the characters back in.

It's like the best paranoid novels written about cities from the birth of the metropolises.

What's boring about it is the level of detail that is piled onto of this core. There is a description of the city, it's different parts, its politics and history, the secret societies and all the in-jokes of Cthulhu as the various New England locations become parts of the sprawling metropolis.

It all feels like a berserk preparatory research for a novel I'm not going to read. It's clearly aimed at people who are engaged with roleplaying culture but aren't necessarily going to be playing games themselves. I think Steve Ellis said to me that it had been described as the best roleplaying reading of Dragonmeet.

So why am I interested? For me Cthulhu City is exactly what Itras By wanted to be and should have been but wasn't. It's a strange, dangerous noirish world where everything is wrong and no-one wants to acknowledge it.

Where as Itras By relied on its own mythology and a shared understanding with its readers of Thirties cinema reusing the Cthulhu stories allows a more universally understood aesthetic on which the story can be built.

I'm looking forward to running an adapted game soon.

Tuesday, January 02, 2018

Three Faces of the Wendigo

This is a collection of scenarios for the Cthulhu Hack that focus on the influence of the Wendigo or The Evil That Devours.

The foreword has the interesting anecdote that the collection was conceived at Dragonmeet 2016 and released for Dragonmeet 2017. Pretty good going!

The three scenarios are: Wolves in the Mountain, Lonely, Dark and Deep and Tainted Meat.

Of the three Tainted Meat is the most substantial and satisfying.

Lonely, Dark and Deep is a short piece about a hunting party in the woods that encounters and essentially fights the Wendigo. The thing is does well is use pre-generated characters to create reasons why the characters are going to tarry too long in the woods until the fateful encounter and also the tensions between them.

Wolves in the Mountain is one of those scenarios where cultists are both deranged in their behaviour but also capable of forming and executing long-term plans with patience, co-ordination and cooperation. The PCs are lured into the mountains to serve as a sacrifice while their town is attacked in their absence. A strong start and conceit gives way to horror that is always more telling than showing, followed by a conclusion that lacks any artistic or dramatic satisfaction.

Tainted Meat is essentially about a town that has started  to consume the regeneration carcass of a Wendigo, leaving them unable to enjoy normal food and enthralled to the town butcher who has hidden the Wendigo. The horror is more subtle and left in the background (although the townspeople's dark acts are spelled out in the text) and the metaphor is strong. The body horror combined with the strong possibility of the adventure's central revelation happens after the characters themselves are tainted is powerful.

The scenario also suggests a misdirection beginning with the characters ending up in the town after an accident. It's an interesting setup but then makes keeping the characters in town and conducting an investigation awkward. I think it would have been more interesting to take a leaf out of Lonely, Dark and Deep and make the characters townspeople responding to the poisoning of their food and themselves.

If found it interesting to see that all of the scenarios are set at some point in the past (some more explicitly than others). Banning the Internet, radios and mobile phones seems necessary to make all of them work. The Wilderness is clearly not what it once was.

Ultimately I felt that all of the scenarios in the collection were starting points for something a bit more interesting and tailored to a particular group or situation. Nothing felt broad and good to go straight from the page, it is well put together but not compelling.

Monday, January 01, 2018

Bastion Ein Sof

I picked this up at Dragonmeet 2017. It's an alternative setting for Into the Odd. If you not familiar with that game then it's default setting is a city-state called Bastion, there's an alternative steampunky setting called Electric Bastionland that still seems to be in playtest. Bastion Ein Sof is set in aftermath of the destruction of "Electric" Bastion whic h is refers to as Old Bastionland.

If indie rpg lore isn't your bag then more simply this is a setting where a huge steampunk city has been destroyed by spirit beings known as Angels. The only survivors exist (literally) in the shadow of equally immaterial beings known as Giants.

The players take on the role of adventurers seeking to steal the blood of Angels to appease the Giants and acquire treasure and wealth for themselves.

One of the interesting things the setting does is to create an incentive to adventure is an idea called the Giant's Debt whereby at the end of every session the party must sacrifice money, Angel blood or a limb to the Giant that protects their city. If they don't they risk the Giant being offended with consequences for everyone who lives in the city.

Joe Banner has done a lot of interesting scenarios and settings for DungeonWorld and I think the best way of describing Bastion Ein Sof is that it brings the Apocalypse World design principles to the new wave of old school game design.

The small pamphlet has a scenario with some random tables but it also describes the principles of the setting and the questions those principles ask. It also provides some clear GM principles to follow when running the game. In many ways the opening pages reminded me of Dark Heart of the Dreamer, economically introducing and defining the key ideas of the setting.

The rest of the booklet is made up of some descriptions of a few of the city giants and a scenario based around an angel that is occupying an icebreaker locked in the ice. These are probably too detailed for me. I often like the author, Joe Banner's work in the broad strokes and less of his aesthetic in the details.

This booklet was printed as an ashcan or similar to judge the taste for more material the setting and I would welcome more of the game design fusion but for the moment I'm not convinced I want to know that much more about this world of angels and giants.

Saturday, March 04, 2017

Macciato Monsters

Macchiato Monsters is another descendant of the Black Hack system. Unlike some of its peers though I feel it offers greater freedom with less complicated rules.

The basic mechanics are 5th edition D&D, a d20 roll under your statistics with advantage or disadvantage being handle by rolling two dice and taking the higher or the lower value.

Risk dice are pretty much from Black Hack making low rolls bad and stepping down the die and high rolls lucky. This means introducing a personal frustration of mine where the reading of the dice is different depending on the type of roll you are making.

The remainder of the rules are all some of the simplest and flexible in this family or rulesets that I've seen.

Characters have levels but essentially each level up allows you to use the same rules as character generation to expand the character.

Spells are particularly satisfying because they don't come from a spell list. You do have to pitch your spell to the GM and the GM is responsible for setting the numbers on it, which is a bit disappointing. The guidelines for spell design could be stronger to allow players to take responsible for spells themselves. A simple risk-reward element would probably have been sufficient.

The spell rules are elegant as well each spell has a hit point cost which can be paid for by using component risk dice, you then try to beat a stat in a normal check. Succeed and the spell's effect happens, if you fail you then have the choice to go to a Chaos risk die and see if you can get a favourable result or not.

Combat sensibly keeps to the Black Hack rule of only players rolling the dice but damage is quite variable. It is something I would need to play to see how I feel about it in practice.

Overall I think this rules set was one of the more exciting attempts to blend the freedom of early fantasy gaming with modern game design.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

The Golden Sea

The Golden Sea is a short game by Grant Howitt. It's about a great civilisation that has been smothered by sand, leaving roving scavengers sailing on the sands and looking for treasures thrust up to the surface.

This is one of Grant's handwritten and manually laid out games (follow the link to see what it looks like).

Like a lot of these small games the setup is traditional with a GM and players with each player holding a single character that they generate themselves.

The game is whole mish-mash of ideas, you have an initial map drawing phase that creates the world. The basic mechanism is a d20 roll plus modifiers versus a fixed target number. You have archtypes and associated abilities like Lady Blackbird. The GM gets lots of random tables to help create a scenario. Advancement is a "please the GM" style affair.

The real appeal though is in the background of wandering agents in a sand skimmer, given a license to wander and embody the cultural values of your religion and employer.

If you've ever wanted to mash-up Fury Road, Dark Sun, the Quiet Year and Lady Blackbird. Don't bother. The Golden Sea is here.

Sunday, February 12, 2017


Most OSR community is based around Dungeons and Dragons, however like a lot of Europeans my first encounter with roleplaying or fantasy gaming was not through D&D itself by through reflections of those who had read a copy or heard of the idea and created their own.

Like a lot of early British roleplayers my nostalgia is really for Fighting Fantasy, a formative experience that was notable different in tone from American fantasy while being composed of much the same tropes.

Troika! is an attempt to create a retro-clone that brings together Warhammer and Fighting Fantasy into a simple rules system that bakes weird fantasy into core of character creation in the same way that the Ratcatcher career did in the 1980s.

The basic mechanics are pretty simple. Mainly 2d6 are used and the basic characteristics are Skill, Stamina and Luck.

If you are attempting something against the environment you try to roll under your Skill on two dice, if contested you roll and add, aiming for the highest total.

Combat is pretty interesting, with the use of an initiative bag filled with counters to determine who has the next action and rounds being variable length due to a turn end token.

One of my bugbears with OSR games is also fixed with the use of a damage table that ensures that damage is very consistent and occasionally poor and sometimes high.

My biggest issue with the game (apart from some of the inconsistently sloppy game design) is that I find a lot of the esoteric fantasy over the line into incoherence and obscurity.

Instead of being a stepping stone to your own interpretation some of the ideas that are enshrined in the rulebook are mood-killing whimsical (brawlers are from the Society of Beef Steaks, one of the backgrounds is as a Befouler of Ponds), story killing (spell results that turn the caster into a pig) or just impenetrable (the Cacogen).

There's a lot to admire in Troika!, in particular the way that a particular view of weird fantasy is invoked through the origin stories, items and abilities of the characters. I think it might be one of those games that I might have to play to really understand.