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.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Clink

Clink (Kickstarter campaign) is the game of Drifters who have come together for some specific purpose. It's meant for short games that test the resolve of the characters and see whether they will remain true to their purpose and achieve their goals or give up in the face of the obstacles they face and the weight of past failures.

The system is custom to the game and relatively straight-forward. It works on coin flips with heads being a "mostly succeeds" result and tails being "the situation gets worse". The characters have rules that allow them to flip another coin in the hope of getting a complete success in the form of double heads.

The special rules are elegant and drive the story. The central one being the Creed of the group, the reason and motivation why the group are together. When characters act towards their Creed they gain a coin. In addition the characters have Triggers, behaviours that are deeply ingrained but unhelpful. They feel more like bad habits that have arisen as a part of the character's difficult life prior to the game, a life lesson misapplied to their new situation.

The character's histories are revealed during the game through a system of Flashbacks (which provide the chance to flip an additional coin) and Scars (the result of losing a series of escalated coin flips). Too many Scars and a character loses faith in the Creed, either abandoning the group or making them unable to gain coins from it as they have lost faith in the meaning of the Creed.

Flashbacks are bought with Coins but can be used for the rest of the game as part of the character's inherent abilities.

The game system is essentially attritional so the players have an incentive to push towards fulfilling the group's Creed if they want the characters to succeed in their goals. Failing is kept interesting by revealing character's darker back stories.

The game requires a GM to provide obstacles and also to provide some escalation during coin flips. It feels very much like a "GM as player" role though as really the GM is there to challenge the other players as to whether their characters can fulfil their Creed or not. The GM's story contribution is to provide a stage for the action and some antagonists. The rest lies with the players.

Players also get to ask questions during Flashbacks and Scars so it feels like a very collaborative storytelling system.

The suggested backgrounds for the game are Spaghetti, Horror or Sci-Fi Western. The traditional Western genre can be problematic and I'm not sure the additional genre twist really changes that. This is a game about rugged individuals doing battle with the world to see the ascent of their personal morality.

It feels like a good choice of Creed is going to make or break the game.

Clink is a straight-forward game with a strong looking mechanic that allows for near zero-prep play and emergent player-led story gaming.

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.

Conclusion

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.