Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Class Warfare

I thought Class Warfare was going to be a rules-lite approach to creating classes for DungeonWorld, rather along the lines of the variant rules for races in Dark Heart of the Dreamer. This was my preconception of the book and I'm not going to hold it against it that Class Warfare is something subtly different. It is a toolkit for deconstructing the existing classes into components that can be used together to create new playbooks and also a rich source of new moves.

The technical analysis of how DungeonWorld's class playbooks work is excellent and worth a read for anyone interested in game design (particularly of DungeonWorld playbooks) and the relative merits and flaws of DungeonWorld in particular.

With that done the book then moves onto an example new playset and illustrates how the book is to be used to construct new character classes.

The bulk of the book is made of various classes that are tighter in scope that the ones in the main rulebook. Most of the main book classes are decomposed into smaller parts that can then be reassembled.

It certainly gives players who are tired of the class tropes of the core game a chance to create something more distinctive and from a design point of view actually moves the Apocalypse System away from tight playset designs aiming to shape the actors in the game world to a more simulation-based ability to reflect the desires of the player to create and explore a certain character and set of powers.

Basically Class Warfare is sitting on the opposite end of the spectrum to Sagas of the Icelanders. It gives the player agency to bring their favoured brand of fantasy into the game rather than that defined by RedBox D&D.

I feel equivocal about DungeonWorld and I keep looking for the design that is going to unlock all the good parts of the game and ditch the boring aspects. Class Warfare isn't that key but at a forensic decomposition of how player interaction works in the game its a valuable piece of game design in Apocalypse World family.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Carcass

Carcass is Jim Pinto's game of leadership and danger. The design goals are to take complete narrative control away from players and create situations where their characters are trying to deal with situations beyond their control. The philosophical aim is to examine the nature of leadership in groups and perhaps as a consequence look at the impact of authority.

So how does it do those things?

The core mechanic is one of scene-framing and looking for conflict in situations that are then resolved via a dice mechanic.

The difference here is that control of the outcomes lies with the player to the left, the Foil of the player controlling the character. The dice determine the nature of the outcome but interpretation is left to the Foil. The nature of the interpretation colours the darkness of the game.

To balance out the PvP aspect the characters are all elements of the same tribe, struggling to survive. Making things worse for the character makes things worse for the group.

The leadership aspect functions as a reward, as the acknowledged leader of the community you get to frame two scenes per turn and for high dice rolls get to narrate your own outcomes.

This is balanced by a mechanism called Trepidations that represents the tribe's concerns with the leader and their plans. These can cause actions to fail automatically before a dice check.

The theme is post-apocalyptic, the darling of American game design, like zombies this will work for some people and not for others. Carcass uses the scarcity of the apocalypse to force the characters to act. They are not safe, they do not have food, shelter or security. They must change and move and therefore they are compelled to act despite the dangers.

One concern I have in the initially reading is that there are a lot of character types and, while the basic mechanic is rather like 3:16 in that you resolve everything with fighting, not fighting and special abilities, each type has a separate set of resolution tables and a domain for their special abilities. I'm wondering if the game is going to benefit from that level of granularity given that it is not in the high-level vision of the game.

I'm interested in Pinto's critique of freeform, narrative authority and improvisation as game mechanic. If nothing else Carcass is a valuable sally in game design. Whether it creates a game that reflects his themes is something that will require a play.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Showdown

Showdown is a game for two players that uses a split set of scenes that are played out simultaneously. The main frame for the game is a duel between two characters. The duel is somewhat abstract, in that it might be two aviators clashing above the trenches or simply a literal duel with swords, the key point is that only one of them is going to survive the duel.

The secondary frame are flashbacks into the characters' history to discover what brought them to this mortal conflict. The flashbacks also feature conflict but in the sense of the characters testing and trying to manipulate one another.

Showdown continues to use the two-track theme in the round resolution, where players dice off via the selection of limited hand of cards representing a range of sizes of dice. The highest roll wins but there are two rolls to resolve, the one for the fight and the other for the flashback. The person winning the duel gets to eliminate the other players attack card, forcing them out of options.

The person winning the flashback gains an insight that allows them to understand more about the character and in particular to throw new light on their true character. So if a character had a self-perception of Loyal to my friends the player with insight might narrate the outcome of the flashback to reveal that they are in fact Too scared to leave the gang.

This secondary mechanic is how the game decides who will be seen as the villain in the conflict. Both characters arrive thinking of themselves as righteous but both have their darkness exposed by the violence.

The game mechanisms do not seem to be fair or balanced. Should a player for example win both duel and flashback rolls then the other player will be on the backfoot for the rest of the game. This seems to be intentional as the narrative beats reflect the fact that the duel can only have one winner and there is a need to avoid a long period of losing where agency is being ground away. Sudden reverses from round to round would also presumably be problematic to the narrative.

There are quite a few two-player games that are short and are meant to have a couple of rounds played in a single session. I get the feeling this is one of them.

I bought the book and then the accompanying card set. The cards are small in number but the game uses them in a very specific way that makes it a bit tedious to try and do your own set. The shipping was a little high so I would recommend getting both at the same time if you are purchasing it physically.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Questlandia

Questlandia feels like a mix of familiar elements: the quest structure and map building of Intrepid, the community focus and key characters concept of Kingdom and the heroes journey of games like Becoming.

The game is designed to be zero-prep, discover through playing with resolution in a single session.

Players create a kingdom or land through a mixture drawing cards that represent the troubles the kingdom faces and free play.

One interesting part of the shared creative responsibility is that as aspects of the world come up they are assigned to players. The players then have complete creative authority over that aspect of the game world, answering questions from the others as to how it works.

With the world established then the players create characters trying to achieve goals within the world, which might be orthogonal to the problems or directly inspired by them.

Characters go through three rounds of play to discover whether they will achieve their goals or not. The rounds involve free play directed by the character's player and the other players trying to create obstacles to the character's success. Once the action has reached the crisis point there is a dice mechanism for resolving the obstacle.The dice mechanism is deliberately weighted against the players so to get re-rolls and edges they need to have indulge their character flaws.

The card mechanic for the kingdom seems to guarantee that if the characters are successful in their goal then it will be against a backdrop of great strife. The secret weapon would appear to be the fact that each player gets a Kingdom Epilogue statement that will allow them to explain how their success or failure impacts on the wider community.

Looks fun.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Wield

Wield is the game of powerful objects trying to achieve their dreams and destiny via the medium of those who wield them. It's Elric told from the perspective of Stormbringer and Mournblade; its Lords of the Rings as told by the One Ring; Harry Potter as an epic struggle between the wands. And if you're not into the indie angst and darkness its Doctor Who as seen by the Tardis and Star Wars as the adventures of the Millenium Falcon.

The game is GM'd with the GM taking a role as Fate with a rather unusual mix of responsibilities. The players will take on dual roles in the game, an object of power and a wielder of one the other player's objects. Both the objects and the wielders have their own objectives and Fate is responsible for creating the wielders so their characters and objectives should be challenging those of the the objects. Apart from that Fate seems to be there just to play the other characters and generate situations to explore the conflict that should emerge from the goals.

The rules (and there are not many, half the book is taken up with scene-setting fiction) cover resolving conflicts and defining the powers the objects grant their wielders. The central dilemma is one of control versus power. Grant your wielder a lot of power and you struggle to control them. The more you control them the less able they are to fulfil your goals.

There's an implied PvP and it feels like a there is a responsibility on Fate rather than all the players to create an engaging synthesis of the competing goals and rivals.

One I'm definitely looking forward to playing.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The Gaean Reach

Robin Laws, talented games designer though he may be, is the Doctor Frankenstein of game design. Stitching elements of traditional gaming and story games together into a resulting rules system that seems to please enough people to make it worthwhile continuing to produce them but not enough to have people praise them.

The Gaean Reach is on the surface is a game I could love: classic sci-fi pulp with a story of revenge; a motley crew of the wronged lining up against a powerful interstellar villain, the head of a powerful criminal organisation. It's basically Guardians of the Galaxy.

However it is also a revivification of Laws early games Dying Earth and Gumshoe; incredibly retaining some of the worst parts of both systems in a worst of both worlds combination.

It has Gumshoe's split-skill system and the dual-mode of game operation, it has Dying Earth's random taglines and character package generation. It has you-go, i-go combat and it has a GM who creates scenarios that have fixed plots that the party traverse.

If this game has appeared a few years earlier I would perhaps of been more willing to forgive its weird foibles and tried to make it work. But we live in a post-Vast and Starlit (and even Rogue Trader) world now and we don't have to put up with poorly thought through implementations of the sci-fi revenge story and thirty-plus pages of rules.

The Gaean Reach has inspired me to perhaps try one of Vance's books in the series but not to play the game.

The Gaean Reach has many rules but fails to encode the fiction it is trying to create into its rules system and therefore fails as a story games. As a conventional RPG I think that the current Gumshoe system is just too broken to be fun any more. I would have been more interested in drafting in the Dying Earth resolution mechanism here, or perhaps just fully committing to Gumshoe's pool-management system completely.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Fate Worlds: Volume One: Worlds on Fire

With contributions from Jason Morningstar and Filamena Young, both of whom contribute system hacks rather than pure settings this book might be described as the indie take on FATE. However in truth the bulk of the book is made of more conventional settings.

Morningstar's contribution Fight Fire is the one I found most interesting personally. It involves a stripping back of the Fate system to focus on firefighting grounded in the modern world. Characters are described in terms of their abilities to combat fire and also a few personality details. Fire and Smoke are described in game terms rather like monsters and the Fate region-based tactical maps are repurposed here to describe critical locations within burning buildings where the fire must be stopped and people rescued.

The description of building a fire crew and the sample incidents are great but the rules for creating your own fires are sketchy and its not clear what principles, if any underpin the sample fires. The closed setting environment makes the game an interesting prospect for an intense focussed game.

White Picket Witches is Filamena Young's entry and is based on supernatural soap opera TV shows of a kind I don't really watch. It encourages players to act like show writers, runners and directors and think not about what is good for the character they are playing but what makes for a good show. Once again smuggling story game ideas inside more traditional games.

In terms of crunch the game modifies FATE to make location Aspects more significant, allowing the squabbling witches to harness the power in certain locations to boost their own abilities. The locations give a reason for characters to meet and interact, a problem that sometimes plagues games like Monsterhearts that have strong PvP but also work best when all the characters are interacting.

The non-indie darling settings are: Tower of Serpents, Kriegszepplin Valkyrie, Wild Blue and Burn Shift.

Kriegszepplin Valkyrie is a closed campaign setting with the crew of the Valkyrie taking on Professor Schottky and his robotic minions. It's interesting to see a presentation of the short campaign/long scenario format and there is an interesting rules tweak where the robots can copy the character's attributes if they are used on them but the robots have the chance to escape. If the PCs dawdle for too long then the robots will be able to use all their abilities and tricks against them. It's a nice little device for forcing the action and also nods back to Battlestar Galatica.

Wild Blue is a superhero Western which leaves me feeling a little meh. Tower of Serpents is good fantasy action but it has pretty stiff competition from On mighty thews and Swords without Master.

Burn Shift is fantasy post-apocalypse in the style of Gamma World or Metamorphosis Alpha but a community setup that is similar to things like Fallout or Wasteland. It has a lot of rules for mutations but I'm not sure where there is anything mechanically interesting here yet.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Era: epic storytetlling

Era is quite an interesting game from the same people who brought you Duty & Honour. A two or three player game about a single hero and their optional sidekick performing some epic quest.

Playsets are being funded via Patreon and I find it weird that James Bond style playset was not an automatic choice for the printed rulebook. Instead there is an Arabian Nights style set, think Sinbad or Aladdin.

There are five game elements that represent aspects of knowledge, force and charm. Characters are made up of layered traits matching these elements with different size dice assigned to them. The characters have a base score but then have items and relationships that also have dice assigned to them.

The gameplay then revolves around the elements as well with each scene creating a challenge around one of the elements. This strict scene structure means each session or adventure is closed and discrete.

There's a lot of interesting stuff going on in Era and it looks less demanding than most two-player games but I wonder how often a situation that matches its parameters will occur.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Midsummer Wood

Vincent Baker's Midsummer Wood (to differentiate it from the many faerie-based, wood-located midsummer games that are around) is a game for a single human protagonist and four to five faerie players who seek to either make the human fall in love with them or humiliate one of their fellow Faeries.

The game is very short (one playsheet for the human and one for the Fae) and has some really interesting mechanics about asking for help and being denied it. The faerie characters have few responsibilities but if the human is denied then they will discover the blade that will make them the King of Faerie.

The rest of the game is about manoeuvring to either uncover the human interloper, play tricks on other fae or win favours from other characters and then use them in interesting ways.

The game is played to a fixed number of turns so the pressure is on the players to achieve their character's goals and the consequences of the system seem subtle but interlocking.

Use the link to download Midsummer Wood and enter into Vincent's experiment on how and why games gain traction.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

The Comics Code

The Comics Code is an interesting take on the superhero genre. Its designed to be a low-prep, fast playing game. In this goal it looks like a total success with sensible streamlining of conventional superhero mechanics on powers and fighting. With one tiny exception the mechanics seem to drive the action forward and there are some interesting rules about when a hero can use their superpowers.

Where the game seems to have tackled its objectives less well is the promise to deliver the flip side of superhero comics, the relationships and moral dilemmas that drive most superhero plots. Apart from a small but useful collaborative sub-plot generation system for a scenario most of that responsibility is devolved to the GM.

One of the less attractive mechanics is to have the GM judge whether a character's actions are heroic or not and whether that heroism is exception or not. It would have been far better to have the player declare the character's morality and then have the GM test it. I would also have like to have seen some mechanics for relationships between heroes themselves and their supporting cast.

The rules of the game create an interesting world where characters can have amazing powers but are always vulnerable and the risk of death is real. It feels from the initial read to be at a Daredevil-style level with a few characters that will have amazing and terrifying powers. It also explicitly about teams of heroes, even if those characters are informally collaborating rather than doing it in an organised team. Villains will also be working in structures and hierarchies.

I like the streamlined rules The Comics Code presents and I think with a few additions from other games such as a Wish/Fear system and the better parts of Marvel Superheroes such as the scene economy there is probably a tight, quick playing game to be had here.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Havok Brigade

Havok Brigade is a game of elite humanoids invading a human city to perform dangerous stealthy missions behind enemy walls. It is massively influenced by Warhammer Fantasy in terms of its gothic, slightly silly, techno-fantasy.

The game uses a shared pool of dice to both represent the alarm and suspicion of the humans but also a resource the orcs can dip into to help win challenges vital to their mission.

The game is very focused and slight, the bulk of the game is the various character sheets of the Orc commandos. It's hard to understand what kind of game it is going to be and I suspect it will play better with people who understand the background material.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Atomic Robo

This Fate-powered game from Evil Hat promises Action Science! and atomic-powered robots. It combines Evil Hat's pulp obsessions with a new universe that introduces us to scientists who approach physics as Indiana Jones approaches archaeology.

The game also serves as a pretty good introduction to Fate or a way of moving from more mainstream games to a looser narrative-style game.

It is lavishly illustrated with bright comic book art featuring the titular Atomic Robo himself, created by Nikola Tesla in the Twenties and therefore spanning a century of weird science.

The basic rules are all Fate but there is an emphasis on the lighter styles of play and higher power levels with mega-stunts introducing invulnerabilities and immortality to allow for a wilder style of play.

I'm still in the process of reading but I was surprised to see how much more interesting I found it compared to Spirit of the Century. There's a big overlap between the two but it seems to be some combination of the slightly more tongue in cheek appeal of Atomic Robo and the years of rules refinements that have gone into the latest edition of Fate.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Abnormal

I picked up this odd little (and quite anonymous game) at Leisure Games. It uses cards, d4s and pieces of acrylic to tell a story about someone whose body is being changed against their will. Influences seem to be Tetsubo, The Fly, Teeth and Videodrome.

The game plays 1 to 3 but while the solo option is intriguing I think the full trio sounds like the best option.

Looking forward to giving it a go.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Myriad Song

Myriad Song has a great premise with a sci-fi setting inspired by 70s pop culture and a rulebook lavishly illustrated with comic book art.

The mysterious Syndics of the Myriad Syndicate have disappeared without warning leaving countless other species that they used to rule over to find their own way. The players take on the role of space adventurers involved in cosmic exploration (in both the sense of mental and real space).

The game fiction promises slightly surreal and alien adventure, one comic strip follows the misadventures of musicians who accidentally discover a lost chord in the Xen-Harmonic scale that allows warring alien races access to lost planets.

However rather like things like Starblazer Adventures and the Fantasy Flight Star Wars games what follows a bold statement of genre fiction is not a rules system for supporting that genre fiction but instead a ridiculously detailed simulation system that realistically can never return on the investment you put into it. Each Gift or merit is detailed individually and the weapons system includes the ability to fit your semi-automatic shotgun with baton rounds. This kind of thing works in something like Traveller but here its depressing mundanity is all more apparent for being juxtaposed with the implication of thrilling action.

There's a lot to like about the imagination at play in Myriad Song but it feels like what should have been a booklet detailing a Fate hack has turned into some crazy coupling of a 90s verbose hard sci-fi roleplaying with a comic book universe with a furry twist. I suspect I am not going to get round to actually playing this.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Serpent's Tooth

I've actually had this for a long time but I've been quite behind on my reading. Serpent's Tooth is concerned with symbolic patricide with one player taking the role of the King, a strong, powerful and mostly likely male character, and the other players characters in the kingdom or court who will usurp the King's power.

The really interesting mechanical aspect is that the King's powers are actually the rights to control parts of the narrative. Initially all the narrative rights are with the King but if the other players successful scheme to steal the in-game emblems of the King's authority then they get to control part of the scene framing.

The game ends when the emblems have all been taken from the King so there is a symmetry between the fiction and the rules structure.

There are various playsets for the game, the first being the obvious literal king while the others are Amazon King (Jeff Bezos or Steve Jobs), Homecoming King (American high school) and more esoterically the Green Man (the heart of the forest) and a superhero version.

It's a short punchy game and one I'm looking forward to giving a go.

Sunday, February 09, 2014

Tremulus

I backed Tremulus on Kickstarter so I had access to the PDF version of the game for a while, although the print copy turned up last year I've struggled to formalise my feelings on it.

I didn't find the PDF that accessible and was hoping, like a lot of games, that the ideas would be easier to absorb on the written page.

However it turns out that the PDF was representative of the game generally and it is not the easiest of reading.

Tremulus is a horror game based on the Apocalypse World engine, it aims to create a Lovecraftian atmosphere by revisiting the sources, side-stepping the baleful gravity of Chaosium's classic interpretation of the genre. This does give the game an original spin and also means it can handle a broader range of horror themes than fishmen in the harbour or dangerous geometry.

The playbooks are pretty standard for the AW family and you cannot really judge them without giving the game a go.

The thing I'm finding most intriguing about the game so far is the way that the setting content is based on players choosing rumours they've heard about the location. This builds up a series of features and threats the characters have to investigate and face. It's a little like Durance.

Sunday, January 05, 2014

The Seclusium of Orphone of the Three Visions

The Seclusium of Orphone of the Three Visions is a fantastic book with a title that deserves some explanation.

A Seclusium is the sanctuary of a wizard. It is where they research magic, create arcane devices, study the metaverse and relax away from the world. The book deals with the vunerable phase in the lifecycle of the sanctuary of a wizard. The point where the wizard has abandoned or been forced to leave but much of the defenses and occupants of the sanctuary are still present.

Orphone of the Three Visions is a wizard who has become lost in a realm of creation that leaves her in a state of orgasmic ecstasy. In doing so she leaves her creations and failed experiments to wander her laboratories.

Vincent Baker has put together an amazing hardback that consists of a scene-setting essay on the relationship between wizards and their place of study and retirement from the world.This is then followed by three wizards whose have abandoned their Seclusiums.

Brilliantly each wizard consists of custom lists of options that you pick from to create your own unique version of Orphone or any of the other wizards. It brings all the modern storygame techniques of provocative creation to traditional fantasy gaming.

By going back to the original sources though the lists crackle with strange, inspiring and uncomfortable fantasy rather than the now too-easy tropes of Tolkien-homage.

It's incredibly exciting to read and a powerful reminder of what fantasy and imagination can invoke in the reader.

Saturday, January 04, 2014

Monster of the Week

Monster of the Week is a game that can I only really think of as being Monsterhearts without the sex and angst. That undersells what it offers and tries to achieve.

Whereas both games have deep roots in the Buffy series, Monsterhearts takes the sexual angst of the TV show and makes it explicit via teen horror films. MotW on the other hand focuses on the action and literal monster-fighting throwing in similar shows ranging from Dr. Who to X-Files. The result is less shocking, enticing and transgressive but perhaps much more flexible and varied to play. It might also be more appealing to people who find Monsterhearts too full on.

For the most part the game has little new to offer, there are playsheets that do a good job of representing the various archetypes of Buffy with enough variety to encapsulate a wide range of TV shows.

The GM Moves, Agenda and Principles are sound but for the most part because they have been thoroughly road-tested in Apocalypse World itself as well as its many children.

The real area of distinction is in the scenarios that shape the narrative of the game. MotW is literally about episodes of monster hunting. If you find and defeat the monster the world is a better place, if the monster find and defeats you then your monster-hunting gang is just going to be names on the victim list.

If you don't know Monsterhearts see these Thee Rapture review notes of Monsterhearts