Monday, December 30, 2013

Play Report: Warhammer, Dec. 29th

Yes, I know I skipped the tremulus session on the 22nd. I'll get to that one soon enough. For now, I want to write about the Warhammer session we played yesterday:

Character creation:

Character creation actually happened on the 22nd, but since I didn't write that report yet, I'll go ahead and write about it here.

The process was a little bumpy, overall; I was the only one at the table with any knowledge of the game, and I had only read the rulebook once, several weeks ago. I was totally unready to make characters; my focus was on tremulus, but when that game ended early and we had a few hours to spare, we decided to get chargen out of the way so we could just focus on the game the following week. 

Once we knew what we were doing, the process was much smoother. Warhammer chargen is point-based, so it's really just about picking a bunch of stuff. In the end, we had four characters (J2 was absent for the session): a Coachman, a Student, an Apprentice wizard of the Bright Order, and a Thief.

The Adventure:

We played "Eye for an Eye", the adventure in the back of the GM's guide. This marks the first time in a very, very long time I've completely played through a module. I almost always write my own adventures. However, for the coming year, I really want to ramp up my gamemastering. I figure a way to do that is through running modules. All the time I normally spend inventing stuff can now be spent learning and refining stuff that's already been invented. It's a trade-off of creativity for quality. For now, I'll take it in favor of learning a new system. 

It didn't hurt that "Eye for an Eye" is a damn good adventure, though! The adventure is mostly a mystery; the PCs spent the majority of their time investigating the staff of Grunewald Manor, trying to address the lord of the manor's suspicions that something foul was afoot. The players did a fine job of investigating, splitting their time between unraveling the mystery and just doing good roleplaying (the thief had a memorable scene where he attempted to steal a painting in the gallery).

I'm not going to go into too many specifics here, so as not to spoil the published adventure, but overall, I think the adventure is solid, well-written, and easy to play and prep for.

Combat & Mechanics:

Warhammer's mechanics, combined with its top-shelf production value, is the main reason I even bought the game. And it lived up to the hype, I'm happy to say.

After a little class on what all the dice were and what the symbols on them meant, the players were assembling their dice pools quickly and easily. I kept a small stash of dice behind the screen for observation rolls (though I've got to remember in the future to record their observation skills so I don't have to ask!) What I love about the dice, aside from the refreshing lack of math, is that they actually contribute to the narrative. For example, the Thief rolled a bunch of banes with his success while inspecting the gate during the first encounter. So I gave the Thief some information about the gate and the wall and the guardhouse, but I then I decided that, because of the banes, his pre-occupation with the gate left him surprised by the beastmen ambush (which I translated into a misfortune die on his initiative roll). Nice, huh? In other RPGs, that mechanic simply doesn't exist: you either fail, or you don't. Is it necessary? Of course not. But, as a GM, any tool I can get that helps guide the story is a tool worth using. And Warhammer gives me a very powerful tool in these narrative dice. One of the only other systems I've seen do this effectively is my beloved Dungeon World. Anyone who's read a few of these blog entries knows my reverence for that game and it's kin.

As for the action cards...they pretty much worked the same way as powers in 4th edition D&D. The only difference here is, instead of cutting you lose to find your own solution to organizing those powers like D&D did (or trying to milk you for more money through their ill-fated Power Card decks), Warhammer gives you the tools right in the box. The same applies to the career cards, the character sheets, and the talent cards: they're all just really slick ways to track your character's stats. Like D&D, a blank piece of paper, a pencil, and some patience is all you really need, but these tools make the process a lot easier, and thus more fun.

One of Warhammer's unique elements that really impressed me, though, was the stance meter. It elegantly turns every roll into a tactical decision: go cautious and risk losing time, or go reckless and suffer fatigue or stress? And of course those decisions lead to yet more ways I can interpret a dice roll into the story. Brilliant!

Combat in Warhammer, if I was running it correctly, is swift and brutal. The PCs one- and two-shotted enemies left and right, and the few hits that the enemies landed on the PCs were significant and painful. The sanity rules came into play, too. By the end of the adventure, the Thief managed to shake out of his catatonia, but now the Student is permenently suffering from solipisim (the belief that everyone else in the world is imaginary, and that only she is real). As bad as I felt for L. and her poor Student, I greatly look forward to the roleplaying she's going to do with it. Warhammer, of course, even thought of that, allowing me to reward good roleplaying in an appropriate way through adding Fortune points to their party sheet. So even if her insanity makes her a liability, L. can always make up for it through good roleplaying!

Analysis and Final Notes:

Overall, I had a blast. This session was one of the best I've had in a long time. Warhammer is just a fun game to screw around with. It feels like Fantasy Flight Games just thought of everything, from the art, the look and feel, right down to the very logistics of tracking information, and just made it fun. Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay is a top-shelf RPG that is worth its admittedly steep price. 

Random notes:

-I want to be a better actor. Maybe learn to do a couple of accents. The adventure had a lot of NPCs I had to portray. L. is really elevating things with her roleplaying, and I want to match it!

-The great success of this game has made me think again about Star Wars: Edge of the Empire, a game I had written off as something I probably wouldn't touch again. I'm especially interested at looking through the rulebook again and seeing the exact refinements they made to the rules, lessons probably learned in the play of Warhammer.

-I have GOT to remember to either push the group to bring food, or plan for a lunch break. We were all scarfing down snacks like they were going out of style! And no one brought drinks, either! Tap water and fancy chocolates all around!



Thursday, December 19, 2013

The People Have Spoken...

...and by "people," I mean "My own desire to play a popular RPG." And so I have scheduled a D&D meetup for next Sunday. And hopefully, this one will not fizzle. Butts in the seats won.

I have a couple of ideas to manage burn-out this time, though. Let's list them, so we can laugh at them later if/when this latest attempt at a long-term gaming commitment falls through:

-I am planning for secondary gaming sessions. I have announced in the meetup that once character creation is up, the average session will be 3-4 hours. This leaves me enough time to do a brief one-shot of another game afterwards. The idea is this will allow me to exercise my need to play other games without the pressure of having to commit every minute to the one game I'm already playing. Also, should I manage to get new players into this campaign, this secondary session will expose those players to new, not-D&D games.

-Third time's the charm. I am running the excellent Keep on the Shadowfell. I have read and re-read this adventure, and could probably at least do the first several sessions on auto-pilot. This substantial prep advantage frees up brain space that would otherwise be spent straining to look up rules and study encounters, thus staving off burnout.

-I am imposing hard limits on character creation. Yes, nothing says fun like "hard limits," but a problem I ran into in previous games was what many gamers call "creep." Creep is when new rules and sourcebooks are gradually assimilated into your game, to the point where a game that was once manageable is now a labryinth of rules and decisions. Specifically, I would post the meetup, and invariably get people asking me "can I use THIS book?" "are you using THIS rule?" "Can I make a character with THIS option?" The answer now is going to be a nice, flat "no." I am sticking to the stuff I know extremely well, from the first PHB. I know this is going to alienate some of the more veteran players of the game, but as we established in the previous entry, I'm not really catering my game to them. I heart noobs.

-I am actively researching ways to streamline combat and increase narrative-based play. I get real bored, real fast, when D&D degenerates into a glorified boardgame. Indeed, that's something that turns off many people about 4th edition. To combat this (pun intended), I am scouring the internet for techniques to keep all that dice rolling in check. I've already found a few good ideas to keep things buttery smooth, and I intend to continue to research and refine my technique.

So, armed with this new sense of purpose, I am going to try again with the 4e campaign. I want to fulfill my own prophecy of an epic, meaningful, committed game (as written about in the entry "More Than a Good Time"). As the new year approaches, many are committing themselves to losing weight, finishing school, or connecting with their loved ones. I, however, have only one silly little resolution: to be a better Dungeon Master. Here goes nothin'...

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Pusher's Dilemma

I host all of my RPG sessions online, through meetup.com, in the Arlington-Alexandria Regional Gaming Group (AARGG!) This group is a general gaming group; in fact, I believe I am the only one who ever schedules RPG sessions. The majority of the meetups are boardgame-oriented. When I go to those boardgame meetups, I often hear from people "Oh, you're that guy who's always posting role-playing games!"

So the question is, why schedule games on a meetup group not exclusively for RPGs? In the Northern Virginia/D.C. area alone, there are dozens, maybe even a hundred or more, RPG meetup groups. And they're dedicated to just about every genre or combination of genres imaginable, not to mention whole groups dedicated to specific games. So why is my first choice for organizing events a group that is primarily boardgames?

The answer, as I've aluded to in past entries, is that my primary focus are new players. I want to share this hobby of mine with the world. I want to suck in as many people as possible. I want everyone to know just how wildly creative and outrageously fun a good role-playing game can be. Hosting on an RPG meetup group is just preaching to the choir. I want new converts. I want to be the best damn ambassador to this hobby that I can possibly be.

So that's why I post on the AARGG. It's also why I agonize over game selection. Given my goals of bringing newbs into the fold, I often have to make some hard decisions about the games I choose to play. Take Warhammer Fantasy Role-play (WFRP), for example. WFRP is probably one of the best fantasy RPGs I've ever seen. It's almost unfair how good it is, because clearly publisher Fantasy Flight Games just threw wads of cash at the game's developers, and it's hard not to make a good game with that kind of support. I've shelled out a truly horrifying amount of money just to get set up with WFRP. Yet I haven't been able to get a group to the table for it. How do you pitch this game to new players in a way that's exciting and intriguing? Worse yet, most people out there associate Warhammer with the wargame. So even though WFRP is about as far away from a miniatures game as you can imagine, many people associate the game with that, and so are not interested.

This wouldn't be an issue if I simply went to an RPG meetup group and posted there, but that's simply not what I do. Instead, I have to consider D&D. I love D&D, but in a sense, D&D is like the Apple of fantasy role-playing games: a lot of its appeal is not necessarily the quality, but the brand. Hardcore RPG gamers will scoff at the notion of playing D&D because it's popular, but that's not something I can ignore. I can post a Warhammer group on the AARGG site and be lucky if I get two or three people interested...or I can post a D&D meetup and have all seven slots filled within 24 hours.

So I've got this tug of war always going on in my head...play what I want to play and stuggle to put butts in the seats, or play what's popular and pack the house. The best answer, of course, is to play what I want, and hype the damn thing so much that people come running to it. So that's what I try to do.

How do I do that? How do I take an indie game like, say, Apocalypse World, or even a mainstream game that just doesn't have a strong following, like WFRP, and fill the community room with enthusiastic gamers? Well, I've developed a few ideas on that concept, but I'll talk about them in a later entry. If any of you out there have any suggestions, I would love to hear them!


Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Play Report: Numenera and tremulus, Dec. 15th

Following is my write-up for my RPG session on December 15th. We played Numenera and tremulus. I had four players with me (using first initials only for this post): J, J2, L, and B. 

Comments to this report are welcome and appreciated, but please see my comment disclaimer at the end of this post before you write!

Numenera: Call of the Callerail

The Story:

The characters were on the Wandering Walk, which led them into the Adenu Woods. There, they entered the city of Ephmenon, where they stumbled into the semi-annual Call of the Callerail. Every so often, the callerail population becomes a serious threat to the residents of the city, and so they organize a massive hunt to bring down as many of the beasts as they can.

The characters got swept up into the hunt. After jumping off the beaten path and nearly getting devoured by killer tentacled fish, they found a callerail deep in the woods. The adventurers discovered in the heat of the moment that they had no chance of defeating the massive beast in a straight fight, and so they had to work creatively with their numenera, special abilities, and the environment to defeat the creature. 

After looting the body, the players discovered what appears to be a homing beacon in the callerail's innards. Someone, or something, was directing this creature, or at least monitoring it closely...

Character Creation:

Character creation was a little bit choppy. J2, B, & L were all completely new to the game, and I myself have only played once, so there was a little bit of bumble factor here. Numenera looks simple enough when you read through it, but the flow, mechanics, and even terminology of the game are so alien from other RPGs that it's easy to trip over it all. The learning curve is prominent, but very climable. I am certain all will be made clear with more play.

I'll note, though, that one of Numenera's many strengths is its thematic consistency. The mechanics echo the design of the world incredibly well. Even the basic terminology suggests that Numenera is a world unlike any you've ever gamed in before. Monte Cook (designer of the game) is an industry legend, and that experience and skill are definitely on display throughout the book.

Game critique:

Overall, I was a little disappointed with this second outing into the Ninth World. Since the structured approach I took to the first game didn't pan out, I tried running this second game a lot more loosely. The result was a lot of scrambling for details, inadvertent plot holes, and an encounter mismatch. I knew the callerail would be too much for the players to fight straight-on, and knew they would have to be creative to defeat it, but I didn't have any solid ideas in my head for how. The adventure was still a lot of fun, mind you, but, as always, my obsession with pacing and flow was definitely digging into the back of my head. 

Just as character creation was more complex than it appeared at first glance, so too is running Numenera. Despite having few stats to track, I found the game quite difficult to freestyle because of the depth of detail that runs throughout the game world, and the characters. Another mismatch that developed through play was with the characters' motivations and the plot as it unfolded. J played a ladies man looking for his next big score; L and J2 were meek, late teenagers just trying to survive, and B was a gallant knight looking for a cause. In other words, none of them were really a great fit for an adventure where the players are expected to dive head-first into danger. 

These are, of course, problems that are common in many RPGs. These are also problems that are more personal than game-related. I get that. I just thought that with the paradign shift in the rules, there would be a resultant shift in GMing. Instead, it seems like GMing in Numenera best benefits from a more tradionalist approach of careful preparation, rather than inspired freestyle. 


tremulus

Story summary: The four players...an Alienist, a Professor, a Dilettante, and a Private Eye...are living private lives that are quickly becoming wrapped up in the affairs of the town's most prestigious family, the Quinces. Namely, Taylor Quince is suspecting that her husband, Maximillian, is going mad. Taylor alluded to events in the past that may be the cause of this, but whatever she knows, she is not telling, for now. Taylor has confided all of this to the Dilettante, who then went and hired the Private Eye to follow Maximillian. 

Meanwhile, Maximillian is likewise concerned about the sanity of his wife. He hired the Alienist to examine her, implying all the while that he would like to have her quietly confined to a mental institution. Taylor somehow caught wind of this and fled the mansion, seeking safety in an old flame, the Professor. While Maximillian's men search Ebon Eaves for his wife, he sets the Alienist to work on another person, Markus Robertson. Markus has reverted to some kind of bestial, animal state, and Maximillian, for reasons unknown, has him locked in a cell in a dungeon beneath the mansion (it is also unknown why Maximillion has a dungeon, complete with prison cells, beneath his mansion). The Alienist deems Markus completely and incurably insane. 

While returning to town, the Alienist's cab is gunned down and run off the street by some thugs. The Alienist survives almost completely by sheer luck, the car stuck in a tree after being driven off the mountain road. The Alienist, stuck in the tree, is saved by the Private Eye, who was poking around the Quince family mansion and discovered the dungeon. 

The Professor (reluctantly) hid Taylor in his apartment. The Dilettante, discovering that Taylor has disappeared and fearing the worst, remembered her old flame was in town and goes to his apartment, hoping to find her. The Professor is in the process of getting both of them out of his apartment when a man with a shotgun blows open the door. The assailant is nearly successful, but the Dilettante and the Professor, fighting for their lives, take down the miscreant. 

That is where the session ended.

Background and Character Creation: tremulus was played entirely off-the-cuff. I finished Numenera early because I wanted to retreat and rally the adventure, so with the extra time, we decided to play another game. Character creation, as it always is in Apocalypse Engine games, was so swift and easy it could barely be called "character generation." J simply printed out all of the playbooks and off they went. I handed out the Ebon Eaves questionaire, tallied the answers, and wrote down the results.

Self-critique: tremulus, paired with Numenera, was an excellent study of contrasts. Numenera is a deep, detailed game that thrives from preparation, planning, and understanding the system. tremulus is a storytelling game that can be played with literally zero prep. By just a quick read of the adventure synopses for both games, it's probably pretty easy to tell which game I'm better with. To be fair, though, I've been playing and studying Apocalypse Engine games for over a year, whereas I purchased Numenera about two months ago. 
 
I have already gone on and on about how I feel about tremulus (look up the entry titled "The little t," if you're curious), so I'm not going to rehash that here. Just know that tremulus went down almost exactly, to the letter, as I described it in that post.

Final Thoughts

Overall, it was a great session, and I had a great time. I am not giving up on Numenera. Although I hate running published adventures, I think I may give one or two of them a serious read, and run one for the next Numenera game I run. I think combining the structure of a written story, combined with my own flights of freestyle fancy for when players inevitably jump off the page, may be the best of both worlds, and ultimately fulfill the incredible potential of Monte Cook's masterpiece.

As for tremulus...well, we'll just have to play to find out, won't we?





COMMENT POLICY: I would love to hear your thoughts about my session, and hear any suggestions you have on how to run the games better. However, that is all I want to hear. I am not interested in hosting any discussions, no matter how civil or thoughtful, on the merits and flaws of Numenera and/or tremulus, or any other game, for that matter. Such comments will be deleted, not because I'm a jerk (well, maybe), but because this blog is about my experiences as an RPG gamemaster. I consider such discussions, then, as off-topic. 

If you don't know if your comment is appropriate, go ahead and post it! If I delete it, though, please try not to take it personally. I'm just trying to control the content of my blog, is all. If you're that scared of being deleted, then simply email your thoughts directly to me instead of commenting. Thank you!

Friday, December 13, 2013

Geek for Hire

I've decided I'm going to dip my toes into the freelancing world for RPGs. Why not? Might as well put my work experience as an editor at the National Archives, AND my (pending) Masters degree in Writing from Johns Hopkins, to fair use. And what better way to do that than with the hobby I love?

It seems like in today's world, freelancing for the RPG industry is both easier and harder than it used to be. Easier, because of big break-throughs in copyrights such as the rise of the Creative Commons License. Some of the best role-playing games out today, such as Eclipse Phase and my much-beloved Dungeon World, have explicitly stated that you can write whatever you want for them. There is a little fine print, but the bottom line (at least for this blog) is you don't need anyone's permission to write something for those games.

Writing seems harder these days, though, because of the competition. The market is saturated with amateur RPG writers and designers. I have spent days browsing DriveThruRPG.com's endless list of roleplaying games and supplements. I often wonder how many of these products have been playtested...or even edited, for that matter! Sure, the cost for most of these products is pretty cheap, in the grand scheme of things, but the time and effort it takes to assimilate a new RPG product into your mind and your game group's rotation can be significant. 

I'm not trying to fake myself out of freelancing...I'm just wondering how I'm going to produce something that will rise above the rest. I guess I better start at the bottom: adventure design.

I HATE writing adventures. Well, "hate" is a strong word, but I don't typically run a pre-written adventure, and I don't like writing them. I usually prefer to have a broad outline and then just wing it. Take this weekend's Numenera adventure, for example. I've got a little "wish list" of freaky Numenera shit I want to see in the adventure, and a general set-up (the PCs are all on the Wandering Walk, for reasons of their own devising), and that's it. I like to feed off the players' energy, and I often feel an adventure gets in the way of that. 

So I guess that's how I've got to write these adventures I want to publish, right? I write a set-up, I write a list of cool shit that could happen, and that's it. We'll see if it's that easy.

My first "assignment" is still up in the air, but the front-runner right now is the very promising looking Covert Ops, by DwD games. They're looking for short (10 page or less) adventures that they plan on selling on DriveThru for three bucks, allowing the writer to keep half. After DriveThru's cut, DwD estimates that to be about 75 cents paid per purchase. Can't exactly quit the day job on that, but a legit, paying gig is a nice bullet-point for the freelancer resume, right? So, after this weekend's foray into the Ninth World, perhaps I'll order a copy of Covert Ops and see what kind of adventures I can cook up...

Monday, December 9, 2013

Returning to the Ninth World

So, unfortunately, the tremulus meetup didn't work out. All four of my players cancelled on account of the snow storm yesterday, so I just hung out and played Terraria all afternoon. Assuming the weather is not a dick this coming weekend, I'll be hosting Numenera.

Why not try again with tremulus? Well, the mojo is gone, for now. I ride these waves of inspiration out of one game and into the next. I've tried to control it, tried to fight the tide, but I just can't. I'm happier when I just ride that wave wherever it goes. And now, it's going to Numenera. I last played Numenera several months ago (the post is around here, somewhere). It was fun, but said inspiration left me right after the session, and I moved on to other things. But now, I'm back. I am letting returning players resume with their characters. Whether we will continue with the story we started in that previous session is another matter, however. I'm thinking we will, but right now I'm at the brainstorming stage of prep where I just want to get down as many cool ideas as I can think of and just roll with it.

When I last played Numenera, I was really trying to make something epic of it. I had all these narrated passages I was going to read, and a broad map of the story that I planned on fleshing out as time went on. I'm kinda done with that now, though. Now, I'm in kind of a freestyling place. I'm going to have some ideas ready, but overall, I want to work with what the players give me, rather than setting them up into a story. Numenera looks like it's going to be a great system for that; it's rules are so flexible and simple, I shouldn't have any problems going anywhere the players want to go. So my prep for this week is really just going to entail becoming as much of an expert on the world of Numenera as I can, and being ready to weave an adventure around my player's ideas.

Looking further down the road, I've got some other games I'm going to be exploring, too. 13th Age is coming in the mail this week, and I just picked up Lords of Gossamer and Shadown last week. And, of course, I still have a huge (and expensive) collection of Warhammer Fantasy RPG stuff on my shelf, waiting for play. We'll just have to see where the wave sends me next...

Friday, December 6, 2013

Hype Control

Yesterday, I posted a fairly-gushy post about how much I love tremulus, including the controversial notion that it's my personal favorite Apocalypse Engine RPG. A few people out there on the Interwebs were so shocked that I could like this game that they felt they had to explain to me why, essentially, I'm wrong. I deleted these comments. I have no intention of addressing them. Any attempts to resucitate them on my blog will get them deleted again.

The reason for this is two-fold. First is the title of this post, something I call "Hype Control." I like to get myself and my players psyched for my games. I want them to believe that they are about to play the greatest RPG they have ever played, and I want to believe that, too. No matter how far from the truth it could be, I want every game I host to rock the khazbah. It's hard to rock khazbahs when people are questioning the game. Had these criticisms appeared weeks later, after the game had come and gone, I probably would not have deleted them. But I don't want anyone coming into my game thinking "Well, Ed, some people were saying this-and-that about this game. Is that true?" Likewise, as I prep for the game, I don't want to be wondering if I'm wrong about my thoughts on the game. I've posted the event, I've read the book, and that, for now, will be that.

Secondly, I have this odd belief that RPGs have no floor. What I mean by that is an RPG can be good, excellent, better than another similar RPG, but it can't be bad. In my mind, there are no bad RPGs, just game groups that don't want to deal with a given RPG's bullshit. I'll admit, there are a lot of RPGs out there that seem to be so stuffed with bullshit I can't imagine anyone enjoying them, but I'll be the first to admit that that's my thought, not some indictment on the game. I lose a lot of respect immediately for anyone who says an RPG is bad. How do you know? How many games of it have you played (and I am NOT at all an advocate of the "I haven't played it, but I've read the book and that's essentially the same thing" line of thought). However, if someone likes an RPG they haven't played, or calls it a great game, I'll listen, at least a little. It's asymetrical, hypocritical, and maybe even unfair, but it all goes to the Hype Control I mentioned earlier. Quite frankly, I think the hobby is just too small to get snobby about games. If someone is trying to get together a group for Vampire: Undeath, best of luck to them. Like them all, whenever you can, and simply ignore the ones you can't. Don't be hatin'.

As a simple "house rule" for my blog, if I want discussion, dissent, and criticism, I'll ask for it. Otherwise, a simple +1, or a question, or a suggestion on how to make the blog entry better are really all I want to see. It's not that I have a problem with people disagreeing with my opin....oh, fuck it; I have a problem with people disagreeing with my opinion. This is my blog, not Oprah's Book Club. If you don't like what I'm saying, don't read it. If I've provoked something in your own brain that you want to discuss, then write your own blog. My ego is fragile enough at the thought of maintaining a blog about role-playing games; I just don't have it in me to host debates on here, too!






Thursday, December 5, 2013

The little t

Continuing on my love for the "Powered by the Apocalypse" games...this Sunday, I'm playing tremulus.


tremulus (the "t" is intentionally non-capitalized as part of the title) is Apocalypse/Dungeon World's youngest sibling. And she is goth. Put in a less-cheeky way, tremulus is an Apocalypse Engine spin on Lovecraftian horror storygaming.

Though I've only played it once, I've read the book a few times, and I would daresay that tremulus is the best Apocalypse Engine game yet. Or, at the very least, my personal favorite.

Why? tremulus adds a couple of wrinkles to the Apocalypse Engine formula that simultaneously make it feel like more of a game and more of a story. Take, for example, the GM moves. GM moves are generally divided into hard and soft moves. A hard move, like "deal damage," is a move with tangible effects (in this case, inflicting damage on a character). A soft move sets up action for subsequent play (my favorite soft move comes from Apocalypse World: "Barf forth apocalyptica," in which the GM is to indulge in the tangible details of a post-apocalyptic hellscape.) In most other Apocalypse games, which kind of move the GM chooses is pretty much dictated by the narrative.

In tremulus, however, most hard moves require the GM to spend hold, a form of currency the GM earns whenever the players make certain moves, or roll particularly poorly. This discrepency seems minor at first, even limiting. But then consider the genre...the impending doom. The horror you're about to discover. The things that creep in the dark. The players know they're there, but they can only wait until they reveal themselves. The system reflects this through hold and hard GM moves. The players know the GM has hold, so hard moves are coming. But they don't know when, or what, those moves will be. And just like that, a little edit to the rules creates baked-in theme and tone.

Another interesting example of the way tremulus elevates its game is through the players' moves. One basic move all characters have is "poke around." Depending on the roll, the player chooses from a list of things he or she discovers. At first glance, that doesn't sound amazing at all, does it? But look...one of the things on the list is "a secret passage." That means, if a player chooses it, there is a secret passage. Screw the map. Screw your notes. That random house the PCs just entered now has a secret passage in it. Where does it lead? What is in there? The PCs have no idea...and the GM doesn't, either. And so the GM pulls...from his notes, from the player's backstory, from the adventure itself...and fills in the details.

In other words, everyone at the table is playing to find out. Agenda fulfilled, doing nothing more than rolling dice and choosing from a short list of results.

The final praise I'll heap onto tremulus, the masterstroke that makes this game absolutely stuffed with horror and mystery, is the playset. Clealry inspired by Jason Morningstar's brilliant Fiasco, a playset is a matrix of people, places, events, and horrors. Before play begins, each player answers a short questionaire concerning things their character knows about the adventure's setting. The GM compiles these answers into two three-letter codes, one for the town's present, one for it's past. The GM looks up the codes, and there it is: the town's history, it's important folk, it's dirty secrets, it's dark past. The black, beating heart of an entire campaign, created for you, in minutes. tremulus comes with one playset, Ebon Eaves, and shows you how to make your own. Since the game just came out, I'm sure more playsets will follow.

The ideas behind the playset can easily be transplanted into another game, so it's not like you need tremulus to do this, but tremulus created it. And the playset tremulus comes with can be played right off the page, in minutes. To me, Ebon Eaves alone is worth the game's 15-dollar price tag (for the pdf version; I actually ponied up 40 bucks for the hardcover).  

Later on, I'll post a report on the first game I ran of tremulus. And I'll definitely write up what happens this Sunday. Stay tuned!

Update #1: Turns out I DID post about the first game of tremulus and forgot! Look at my blog entry titled "Playing to Empty Seats."

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

My Life, Powered by the Apocalypse

About a year ago, while reading Dungeon World and preparing for a game, I wrote a little "life-hack" of one of the core concepts of the book.

See, in Dungeon World, the game is framed within a conversation. The GM says something, the players respond to what was said, the GM responds to the response, and so on and so forth. Virtually every RPG since D&D has done this, but Dungeon World, along with its father game, Apocalypse World, is one of the very first games I've come across to directly call out this exchange, and to identify it as an important mechanic of the game. As the conversation between GM and players continues on, occasionally the players trigger what Dungeon World calls "moves," which are little blocks of rules that sort of channel what can happen next. GM's have moves, too, although rather than being hard blocks of rules, GM moves tend to be more oriented on the story, what the GM would say to the players under certain circumstances.

Anyways, those moves, and everything else the GM says, is guided by a three-item agenda:

1. Make Dungeon World seem real.
2. Fill the characters' lives with danger.
3. Play to find out what happens.

The techniques and guidelines a GM uses to carry out that agenda are called principles. There are about a dozen of them, which, if you're curious, you're welcome to look up here at the free online version of Dungeon World: http://book.dwgazetteer.com/

So where does my life-hack come in? Well, as I played Dungeon World, I realized that having an agenda, and using the principles to follow it, create a fun game. Dungeon World is at its best when the agenda and the principles are being followed to the letter.

So, I thought...Dungeon World runs smoothly because of its agenda and principles. Would my life run smoothly with an agenda and principles? And so, back in the winter of 2012, I wrote this:

The GM's Guide to Life

The Agenda:

1. Have fun
2. Take care of yourself
3. Think ahead

The Principles:

1. Ask lots of questions
2. Write everything down
3. Drink water & eat healthy
4. Spend quality time with your spouse
5. Connect with friends & family
6. Schedule appointments, plan events
7. Be honest and communicative, with others and yourself
8. Practice your skills & learn new ones
9. Listen to your body
10. Get what you deserve

I printed this out and showed it to my wife back then. She said it was possibly the greatest thing I'd ever written. So, thanks for that, Dungeon World!

However, I had forgotten about this little guide...until just now. While combing through my emails for something else, I found a copy of it I had emailed to myself. So I've printed it out and posted it on the board next to my desk, so hopefully I don't forget about it again.

Now, a caveat. I wrote this guide for myself, eyeing up my individual strengths and weaknesses. For you, dear reader, your agenda and principles could be different. I came up with this agenda for myself by taking a quick look at my life and identifying a few trends...what my recurring problems were, what things I wish I did more of...things like that. So your mileage may vary, as they say. If you want to start living your life by this guide, I highly recommend you edit it as necessary to fit your own goals, ambitions, and fears.

So, yeah...this is basically proof that role-playing games CAN allow you to live a better life. Or something. So play more RPGs!


Monday, November 25, 2013

Playing to Empty Seats

Sunday was supposed to be the kick-off of an epic Warhammer campaign. But only two people showed.

I attribute this to a number of reasons. One is the holiday weekend. All the folks out there either leaving the area or hosting family members for the week may have just not been interested in dorking it up just now. Another is the game. Perhaps I didn't make it clear enough that my intent was to play Warhammer the role-playing game, not the more well-known miniatures game.

But, whatever. Two people showed, and that's what I had to work with. I didn't want to start Warhammer because the adventure is designed for at least three (plus, when the game inevitably starts, I would like character creation to be all at once, and not having half the group sitting around while the other half makes characters). So I decided to grab another game and run a quick-and-dirty one-shot, improv-style. Now, finally, after all these months, was the time to try tremulus.

Character creation was, as it often is in Apocalpyse World, Dungeon World, and all the like, quick. Maybe five minutes. We Father Finnigan, priest of the Ebon Eaves Catholic Church, and Nash Anderson, reporter for the local Ebon Eaves newspaper. They quickly created a backstory on their connection to one another: there was a scandal in the church, Nash was invesitgating, and Finnigan was one of the Vatican's "Diplomat" priests, sent to the little town to smooth things over with the populace. Putting all that within the context of Lovecraftian horror already had my mind buzzing.

But then came the playset. Of all the little tweaks and innovations that authors have added to Vincent Baker's game over the years, what Sean Preston has done with the playset and tremulus is, in my humble opinion, the coolest. Each player was given a questionaire with 12 statements on it, grouped into two sets of six. For each set of 6 statements, the player had to circle which three statements were true. I didn't allow the players to reveal their answers to each other. Once completed, I generated two three-letter codes from their answers. Consulting those codes in the back of the book gave me a complete setting and the openings of a mystery to for them to solve. Combined with their own backstory, I had what looked like a complete adventure ready in minutes.

I'm not going to get into the whole thing, but here are the main plot points, and where those points came from:

-Women and little girls were being abducted from the town. (Me, inspired by the players backstory).
-The children were being kept in a temple called the Order of the Silver Flame, a group ex-communicated from the Shriners for their allowing women to be members (This came purely from the playset).
-The players came to discover that Silver Flame were a cult devoted to birthing the children of the elder god Yig. They were inpregnating the women and girls, who would later give birth to snake-children of Yig (all me)
-The players fought their way out of the temple, burned it to the ground, and now struggle through the rest of the days with the haunted and horrifying images of the things they have seen.

It was a short (about an hour) adventure, and I was seriously impressed with it. Very, very rarely have I done an improv game with that level of polish, tension, and pacing right out of the gate like that. Turns out it was just what I needed. I've been so focused on delivering a full game experience with "crunchier" games like Warhammer that I had overlooked the simplistic grace and ingenuity of tremulus.

I have now started another meetup for tremulus next week. Let's see what the next batch of players brings to Ebon Eaves...

Friday, November 22, 2013

On the Docket Tonight...

Tonight, I'm going to get together with a few people at the Landing in Crystal City and play some boardgames. Personally, I'm bringing two: Ghost Stories, and Cards Against Humanity. I LOVE Ghost Stories. I don't actually own it; I'm hanging onto it for another boardgamer who forgot it when they came by a few weeks ago. So if I see him again, I'll give it back to him. Regardless, though, I hope to get in a game or two of it before giving it up. It's a cooperative game that, arguably, is even harder than Pandemic. That obviously makes it much more frustrating, but also much more exciting.

As for Cards Againgst Humanity, I have a new-found respect for the game after last weekend. My aunt died, and my cousins were understandably shaken over their sudden loss. I, desperate to make them smile and encourage some family support, broke out the game as a means to have fun. Some epic laughing insued. It was a very cathartic experience for my counsins, I think. So I'm going to throw it in the bag and bring it this evening, and see if anyone in a bad mood may need a pick-me-up. Including myself. Things have gotten a little sad in my house these days, so maybe I could even benefit from a little Cards Against Humanity...

I'm also going to try to drum up some interest for my Warhammer game this Sunday. If I can't lock down at least one more person, I'll probably cancel my event. That wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing, as I could use the extra time to get some grad school homework done, but who wants to write some boring old papers when I could be playing role-playing games?

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Breaking the Silence

It's been almost two months since my last blog post. I've weathered a government shutdown, a surge of grad school stuff, my aunt's funeral, and several other game-stopping things. But now, I'm looking to get back on track with my blogging and continue to document my travels through the mental corridors of my hobby.

There have been several boardgaming sessions in the past month+ I could talk about. Surprisingly, there has been little to say on the RPG side of things, though. The planning and the logisitics of tabletop role-playing have once again become an issue, as I haven't had the time or the inclination to pay either of those steep costs to get a game going.

The only steep cost I've been willing to pay lately are actual, monetary costs. I went "all in" on Warhammer Fantasy Roleplaying(WFRP) a few weeks ago. WFRP is probably the most premium RPG experience money can buy: the $100 core set contains hundreds of cards depicting every ability of every one of the game's 45 different careers. It also contains die-cut standies of the players and the enemies they'll fight; dozens and dozens of different tokens that can be used to track wounds, fatigue, time, or literally anything else you can think of; FOUR different books covering playing, game-mastering, and rules for magic and cleric stuff; custom-made character sheets complete with their own folded box for containing all the cards the comprise their arsenal; and, finally, 36 propietary dice that the game uses. This is NOT a game for the casual RPG gamer; this is a game that you show off to people.

Oh, and did I mention I ALSO got the Player's Vault, the GM's Toolkit, and The Gathering Storm campaign set?

Anyways, I bought all of that like three weeks ago. I've read it and I LOVE it. I am stoked to play it. Sadly, though, only two people have signed up for my event this Sunday. I want at least three to get started. I'm going to a boardgaming event tomorrow (Friday), and I'll see if I can recruit a third for Sunday.

I'll write more later about my various boardgaming endeavors, and more about my RPG future with Warhammer.

As for Numenera? I haven't forgotten about it. But, unfortunately, my inability to focus on any one game has left me adrift again. We'll see how long I can stick to Warhammer before I slink off to another game...

Monday, September 30, 2013

More Than a "Good Time"

Yesterday, I played my first game of Numenera, Monte Cook's role-playing magnum opus. Before the game, I also snuck in half of a game of Thunderstone with two other players who showed up early.

Thunderstone went considerably better than my last attempts to play it (see my blog posts titled "Too Fast, Too Hard"), and it was a lot of fun. I'm pretty sure I might have even won, but then the last player showed up for Numenera, and since I publicized this meetup for that game, we quit Thunderstone.

I wanted everyone to make characters from scratch at the table, so we went over character creation first. The book made character creation sound like it shouldn't take longer than 20-30 minutes, and I would, overall, call that accurate. It did take longer, but that was mainly because there was a lot of musings and asides throughout the process. Character creation went smooth and easy. Part of what made the process so smooth was the abundance of Numenera paraphenilia that we had on hand. When I promoted this meetup during the previous D&D session two weeks ago, something about the game really struck a chord with Jim. He slipped into a bit of a mini-obsession, buying every single material available for the recently-released game, and hunting down all kinds of community add-ons and Kickstarter extras. He printed all of this material, put it in a binder, and had it ready at the table. He even had a system of colored beads and mini plastic containers for the stat pools! It was quite impressive, though he tells me his wife was not so impressed. I told him to tell her I only introduced him to the game, and I take no responsibility for the ensuing obsession. That's Monte's fault.

The game itself went pretty well, but I cut it short due to the extra time we spent on character creation. I also wanted to tailor further installments of the game to the specific characters that were created. We didn't do much more than two or three scenes: an introduction to the village the players were from, and then an attack on said village by mutants.

After the session, I received some interesting criticism. Jim (the budding Numenera addict) said he was mildly disappointed that the adventure devolved into one big fight. He had fun, he said, but he expected this game to be about discovery and exploration, and instead I plunged them all into a chaotic battle around their home. I did explain that we only played a small part of a larger adventure, and the rest of the adventure is considerably-less combat oriented, but I still found myself musing on that comment the rest of the day. I had a golden opportunity to show everyone what Numenera is about, and I blew it. I'm not completely disappointed, because I know what's coming down the road for the players and I think they'll be happy in the long run, but I was a little disappointed in myself for a typical combat scenario to be the start of the game. Jim, this guy who so clearly loves this game already, didn't feel like the adventure was completely in the spirit of Numenera. Looking back, I can completely see where he's coming from, and I have plans in motion to address his concerns for next weekend.

Some less-useful criticism came from HZ. She told me she wanted to see more roleplaying, moments after she sent me a multi-page email discussing her characters abilities, powers, and backstory. HZ is a new player; yesterday's Numenera session was her first time playing a tabletop RPG. Normally, I LOVE having new players. Bringing new people into the hobby is one of my favorite things to do. It's part of why I tend to publicly post my RPG groups instead of going private with a smaller group of friends. Every player I have brought in so far has been an eager student to the hobby, and were willing to go with the flow, which I think is very important for new players (sometimes, the only advice I'll give new players in my games is "whatever happens, roll with it!")

HZ is a different, rarer breed of new player, one I've encountered in the past numerous times, but have had the good fortune of not having to run across since making my games public. HZ is one of those new players who fails to grasp that this is a group activity. She thinks she understands this, but her wordy critique and over-thinking of her character are dead giveaways. What she really wants to do is lead the group, and have both myself and the other players play the game she wants to play. If she were a veteran player with a grand, ambitious vision, I might indulge this fancy of hers. But this is her first game ever, and I've been doing this for over 20 years, so I consider her "helpful hints on ways to get players roleplaying," unnecessary at best, insulting and condescending at worst.

The question now, of course, is what do I do about this? I'm still not sure. However, the whole thing has got me reconsidering my stance on public gaming. I have met dozens of fantastic people in the past year since I've been hosting RPGs for the public. I have all of their emails and phone numbers. It would be nothing for me to hand-pick my favorite group of gamers and begin a real game with them. Something substantial. Something like the vision of Numenera that Jim wants to see. It may be time to settle down and have a committed, long-term game, and not just my average Sunday RPG Meetup....

Thursday, September 26, 2013

The Hunger for More

Ever since the raise at my job and the move to a cheaper apartment, I have loosened the tight leash on my game spending. I have picked up a number of things I’ve wanted for quite some time (and a few things that were, frankly, impulse buys). For the first time since my raise, nearly a month ago, I have no packages coming to me from Amazon this week. No plans to go to Labyrinth Games before my Friday boardgaming group to pick up a new game to bring. No “shopping list” of items that could be helpful in running my Sunday RPG group.

There are two reasons for this: one, I am a federal employee, and the rumors of a government shutdown are reaching an unignorable crescendo, and two: to avoid going nuts with spending, as I have every other time in my life I’ve had a financial windfall, I have established a very generous budget, generous on the condition that I stick to it. I WANT to stick to it. I want to be a “reasonable consumer.” I don’t want to be on Hoarders: Extreme Geek Edition.

And yet, here I am, counting down the days till October 1st, praying for no government shutdown so I can have a clean slate again to go nuts in October.

I don’t give myself a hard time about this too often. I’m making more money than I’ve ever made in my life. I have no children. My wife also has a job. This is my primary hobby. Though there are some important, mature things I can do with my money, like pay off my remaining debt and build up more savings for retirement, both of those things are budgeted for sufficiently. So what the hell else is a 34-year-old married man who doesn’t drink much and hates the outdoors supposed to do with all that money?

I think I may have a minor shopping addiction. I love the high of obsessively stalking something I want, then finally being able to pull the trigger on it. I love getting it in the mail, or bringing it home from the store, and rapidly plundering its secrets, discovering the joy of it, and later mentally cataloging what specific “fun niches” this new thing covers. I relish that feeling of tranquility, of knowing that something I wanted is now mine, to do with as I please.

Is that wrong? I guess the answer to that would be “Well, if you can stick to your budget and pay all your bills, absolutely not.” And therein lies the very reason why I’m writing this. I want to pull the trigger on more stuff RIGHT NOW. And I’m writing this in a desperate attempt to understand this hunger and hopefully stave it off, at least until Tuesday (again, assuming there is no government shutdown, at which point I can literally no longer afford to indulge myself). I write this as nothing more than a direct attempt to fight the urge. Like performing surgery on one’s self, I’m cutting into my own mind to see what the problem is, and seeing if there’s anything I can do to ease the pain of waiting.

Engaging the Senses

When I was younger and played RPGs, nothing else mattered but the sound of my voice. Role-playing games have always been a conversation, but they were especially so in my teenage years of gaming. I would talk. My friends would listen. My friends would respond. I would listen. I would respond to their response, and so on.

But as I get older, I increasingly see the value in engaging the player on a level beyond just talk. I've broken out sketches and battle-maps more frequently. A few weeks ago, for what I believe is the first time ever in my RPG career, I broke out miniatures. The old me would have scoffed at a game like Star Wars: Edge of the Empire and it's requirement for funky, custom dice just to play it. Who do they (Fantasy Flight Games) think they are? I'd ask, confident I had just side-stepped what was most-assuredly a money-grabbing gimick. Indeed, younger Ed would have looked down his nose at things like read-aloud text, or even published adventures.

What changed?

The cynic is me says it's just laziness. I don't want to have to explain an entire situation to players, so I use a map. I don't want the theme, tone, and pace of the game to lie solely with my storytelling, so I rely on funky dice and other "crutches." But I think the wiser side of my gamer brain says it's a concession. I'm finally putting a firm check on my ego and realizing that a good adventure doesn't have to be all about me. I can spread the narrative around a little, to other players, to inanimate objects, and trust that the highest objective of a role-playing game...to have fun with others...will be met.

I'm getting to this point just a little behind the industry as a whole, I think. Newer RPGs, like the aforementioned Edge of the Empire, are wholly-aware of the new dimensions such props can bring. Other "new-school" RPGs, like Fate Core, readily utilize the players themselves as a storytelling resource beyond just what their character represents.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Too Hard Too Fast

After that first game of Thunderstone, I kept thinking about the game. It was exactly what I was looking for in a good deck-builder, and I had a blast...but James was taking so damn long! And now that we've worked a few of the "first game bumbles" out of the way, the second game should be even smoother and faster, right?

When I go to these boardgame meetup groups, I have two simple rules, rules I have formed from the experience of dozens (maybe hundreds, at this point) meetings: you don't play a game twice in one night, and you don't play anything heavy past 11 P.M.. You don't play a game twice in one night because there are tons of games that everyone brings to these things, and it's just a waste, when there are so many great games out there. Furthermore, changing the game up is a good chance to connect with other people, rather than staying with the same group and just resetting a board. You stop the big games at 11 because the majority of people in these groups are on a normal, 9-to-5 schedule, and around 11 is when energy levels...and, correspondingly, thinking levels and stress tolerance levels...start to bottom out. In other words, people start getting grumpy, tired, and make bad decisions after 11. Better to leave the night early, on a high note, than to play "one more game" and risk souring an otherwise-enjoyable evening. And if you are going to stay later than 11, keep it to low-key, casual games and party/social games that don't require too much heavy mental lifting.

I broke both of those rules that night. And by the end, I remembered why I made them rules!

Of the three I had just played with, only one...the winner from the previous game...wanted to return for the second game. So he and I spent about 45 minutes wandering the venue, talking with people and drumming up interest for the game. It was past ten o'clock, and most people seemed pretty leery of playing a brand new, involved-looking card game.

"It's easy!" I told them. "You'll have a blast!"

In addition to last game's winner, I rounded up three more players....let's call them Mark, Jessie, and Rob. Mark and Jessie had just finished a pretty-big game of Lords of Waterdeep where Jessie had won. Rob happened to pass the table as we were setting up and remarked that Thunderstone looked cool, to which I persuaded him to join us. Reluctantly, he sat at the table.

As I explained the rules to the game, I could see by Rob's bloodshot eyes and Mark's scowl at his hand of cards that I probably shouldn't proceed. Jessie looked considerably brighter, but that was probably more due to her unexpected win on Lords of Waterdeep than anything I was saying.

Finally, with the first turn of the game happening at 11:00 P.M., we began.

Rob folded first. He seemed to follow the game well enough, but it was clear that he was just too tired to concentrate. He put his cards down and wandered off.

Mark followed a turn later. Frustrated by the lack of good cards he was drawing (frustration caused partially by his refusal to trash his starter cards, along with what I imagine was a decent case of the Late Night Grumpies), Mark huffed off, muttering the entire time about how Ascension was a better deck-building game (I would not go so far, but have to admit that Ascension is quite good).

This left myself, Jessie, and the winner of the previous game, who's fake name for this blog escapes me, and I'm too lazy to go look it up. Anti-climactically, Jessie folded a few turns later. "I'm sorry," she said. "I'm just too tired to focus. It seems like fun, but I've got to get home."

Truth is, I was the one who should have apologized. I knew full-well this game was too heavy to play so late in the evening, but I pushed, and pushed hard for this second game. What I wanted to be the triumphant arrival of Thunderstone to my gaming group was instead a challenge of endurance that three people tapped out on. I felt ashamed as I continued to play, now a one-on-one game, with the previous winner.

As if out of karma, perhaps, all my incessant pushing was for nought. The previous winner became the two-time winner, beating me by four points.

This Friday, I will bring Thunderstone again. I will NOT push too hard this time, and I definitely will not push beyond 11. Lesson learned...again.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Before I Got Greedy...

Boardgaming post. 

On Friday, Sept. 19th, I went back to the Landing in Crystal City to play some boardgames. I had a clear agenda this particular evening: Thunderstone! The deck-building boardgame had just arrived in the mail the previous night. I had been reading about it all week and by Friday morning was whipped into a fervor over it. I wanted to play nothing but Thunderstone, all evening.

When I arrived, a game of Betrayal at the House on Haunted Hill had just started.

"We've got room for one more," said one of the guys setting up. "Want to join us?"

Ten minutes later, I was exploring the creepy haunted mansion. I was cool with it at first; a little appetizer before the main course. But as the game dragged on, I realized that I don't actually care much for "adventure" boardgames where the point is to uncover unexplored spaces on a board. More to the point, I WASN'T playing Thunderstone!

Thankfully, I got killed. After the mid-game twist revealed that one of us was now an invisible serial killer, we wandered around the mansion some more. The player, who had earlier expressed interest in the magic spear that I found, was now capable of stealing objects from us. So I knew he would be after me. Sure enough, once he successfully took my spear, I gave a good, educated guess as to where he was and found him. In response, he killed me. I later found out that my finding him got him killed in the end, technically meaning I and the other not-psychos won the game. Good news!

But more importantly, it was Thunderstone time! I got together with three other players (names changed to hide the innocent): Pete, Frank, and Rob.We set up the board (which took considerably less time than usual, thanks to my lunchtime preparation of the game beforehand), and the game was on!

Here's a quick summary of what Thunderstone is (you can safely skip the next paragraph if you know how to play Thunderstone):

In Thunderstone, you construct a deck through purchasing cards with gold pieces from "the village." Once your deck is mighty enough, you enter "the dungeon" and begin slaying monsters. When you slay a monster, that monster's card gets added to your deck, which has a victory point value on it. The game proceeds until the boss monster (who is shuffled into the bottom half of the dungeon deck) shows up. The game then ends when either a player defeats the boss, or the boss makes it to the furthest empty dungeon slot (advancing by taking the spaces of other defeated monsters). At that point, whomever has the most victory points in their deck wins the game.

For those of you familiar with it, Thunderstone is very, very similar to Dominion, but with a more high-fantasy, D&D theme than the more straight-medieval theme of that game.

Sounds awesome, doesn't it? Well, it was! We played, we bought cards, we formed decks, and we slayed monsters.

There were only two problems:

1. Thunderstone's got a fairly steep learning curve, especially for players unfamiliar with the deck-building sub-genre. There are a lot of fine gameplay concepts to understand, plus there's the usual basic strategy common to most deck-building games that needs to be mastered. For example, your deck begins with 12 cards, all of which are pretty weak and actually do more harm than good to your deck later on (because drawing them is less efficient than drawing a better card). So a savvy deck-building gamer knows he or she's got to get rid of those cards as fast as possible. But newer players who's minds are in the "more=better" mentality don't always get that, and are thus much slower to remove cards from their deck. This depth is what attracted me to the game so much, but it proved troblesome for other players (which I'll talk about in a minute).

2. Pete was taking an INCREDIBLY long time on his turns. Like, absurdly long. By design, Thunderstone puts a pretty strong limit on what you can do in a turn (e.g. you can only buy 1 card OR defeat one monster in a turn, not both), the idea being that gameplay will be fast-paced and more fun by keeping between-turn down-time to a minimum. However, Pete is one of those deliberate-thinking type gamers who likes to ponder every possibility before commiting to action. Thunderstone isn't built this way. Of course there's a lot of planning involved, but each individual card is a small part of a bigger plan, so pondering each individual card means you don't have an overall plan; you're just trying to figure out what the best card is. Combine this with the idea that you draw an entirely new hand every turn (thus assuring that even with the right cards, you may not draw them at the right time), and Thunderstone, like many deck-building games, is a game of big-picture thinking, not turn-to-turn pondering. Not only did Pete's pondering suck a lot of fun out of the game for the rest of us, but he also came in dead-last when the game was over.

By contrast, Rob, who seemed to be flying by the seat of his pants the entire game and barely seeming to think about his moves, beat me by a single point to win.

So that's how the first game went. I'll talk about the second game of the night later, since this post is quickly spinning out of control!


Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Boardgames Rising

Boardgames and tabletop RPGs are the two non-wife loves of my life. I often swing like a pendulum from loving one more than the next for whatever reason. A brief glance at this blog will show you that the pendulum's been on the "RPG side" of the clock for the past several months. Now we're finally starting to swing back to Boardgame Land.

Last Saturday, I attended a day-long boardgaming jamboree over at the friendly local library. I played these games:

-Seven Wonders
-King of Tokyo
-City of Horror
-Elder Sign

I loved all four of them. I had a blast. I FINALLY got to be the freak rookie who crushes everyone the first time he learns the game (Seven Wonders)! I'm NEVER that guy!

This was my third time playing City of Horror. It's finally clicking into place, and man is it fun! Whenever I go to these boardgaming events, I always want to be at the table that's having the most fun, the one that's hooting and hollering and playing a game that looks utterly fascinating. That was definitely the case with City of Horror. When one of the players played a card that shifted all zombies from the water tower to the church, the collective "OHHHHHH!" from our table drew stares from the entire room! We had two to four people hovering over our table the entire time we played. It was glorious. I had my doubts about City of Horror when I bought it, but now, the game has finally and officially earned it's place on my shelf, next to it's already battle-proven veteran contemporaries Battlestar Galactica, Cosmic Encounter, and Pandemic.

I also finally got a chance to see Elder Sign played in earnest (as opposed to the frustrating spurts of play I have with the app version on my iPhone) and I gotta say, that one's pretty fun, too! I always chafed under the tremendous amount of prep and down-time that goes into a game of Arkham Horror; Elder Sign is a faster alternative that doesn't compromise the immersive (and oppresive) cosmic horror aspects of that classic adventure game.

This Friday, I'll be heading to another boardgame event: the Landing, at Crystal City. I've been to it a few times, but this will be my first time writing about it. I'll be bringing two brand-new games: Mansions of Madness and Thunderstone: Towers of Ruin. Much like City of Horror before it, I am concerned about Mansions of Madness. It's a massive, long, adversial adventure game (think Descent, but with Lovecraftian influence instead of D&D), and I'm just not sure if the game is going to be worth the exobitant price I paid for it. I mean, if I want to play an adventure game spanning well over two hours, why don't I just crack out D&D, right?

I am far more excited to dig into Thunderstone. Thunderstone is a cooperative deck-building game. Cooperative deck-building games are my absolute FAVORITE super sub-niche genre of boardgame! Ever since I played Legendary a few months ago, I've wanted to do it again. I damn-near pulled the trigger on Legendary, too, but Thunderstone looked deeper, and was about ten dollars cheaper and had more expansions, so I went with it, instead. We'll see how it all goes down Friday!

And, this Sunday, I begin my "training campaign" with Numenera for my big con game at DC GameDay. More to follow...


Monday, September 16, 2013

D&D 4E AP Report

Yesterday, Sunday the 15th, I got together with seven other people and played some D&D. I used a little mix of some homebrew ideas and the "random dungeons" rules listed in the DMG to do a procedural, Diablo-style hack-and-slash RPG dungeon crawl!

The characters (listed by their real-life names) were as follows:

-Joey, a human cleric;
-Mary, an elven druid;
-Joe, a dragonborn warlord;
-Rob, a tiefling wizard;
-James, a drow rogue;
-Stephen, a half-elf paladin;
-Elizabeth, a kobold hex-blade.

As stated above, the adventure was a lightly-prepped freestyle dungeon crawl. Before the game, I put every monster I intended to throw at the party in a bag. As I selected monsters, I took notes on how I would portray them, and anything special that would happen with their encounters. I then laid out all my dungeon tiles and again jotted notes on how certain rooms may appear within the dungeon. From there, I simply rolled the dice and consulted the tables.

Here is what I liked about the adventure:

1. I LOVED the low-prep random dungeon rules! It's a revelation to hack-and-slash gaming. I didn't have to draw a bunch of sketches of dungeons; I didn't have to write out how many and what kind of monsters appeared. A few notes, the dungeon tiles, and the handy-dandy monster vault compendium were all I needed. With these tools, I can essentially run D&D like a boardgame, practically on a moment's notice. I know many of 4e's detractors hate the very concepts that allow this to happen, but as a DM who likes having a low-prep option, this is the best.

2.  The "stuff" that I bought to run the game really paid off. I can understand why people who don't want to spend lots of money on D&D would be resentful, but it really is worth the money spent for the convenience, in my mind. The new "Essentials" editions of the DMG and Monster Manual are nice. They are highly portable and easily accessible. I didn't need to write, photocopy, or print monster stats; I could flip to them very quickly. The Dungeon Tiles similarly saved me a lot of time. I laid them all out on a separate table behind me, grabbed the ones I needed to form a room for an encounter, and I had a complete tactical battle-map in moments. The tokens from the Monster Vault, as I said before, I simply threw in a bag and fished out the ones I needed. I also have dozens of tokens for player characters. None of this stuff is necessary, of course; but for those out there looking to get into D&D? I would highly recommend buying the "essentials" collection stuff over the traditional three core books. VERY handy!

3. Pacing. As I've said in previous posts, I am a nut for good adventure pacing. Because of the open, modular structure of the adventure, it was extremely easy for me to manage the pace of this game. As a result, this was probably one of the smoothest adventures I've run in a long time. In the "rest" moments, when the players were divying up treasure or discussing tactics, I could plan ahead a little, bookmark a few pages, get my dice ready...when I wanted the action to pick up, I could throw in a bunch of minions that the players would rapidly widdle down; when I wanted something a little more tense, I could throw harder monsters at them...it was great!

Here are some things that I want to work on for the next session:

1. The meta-game of balancing encounters to the party's capabilities is a constant tight-rope walk, one that I floundered on in a few spots. The entire party was inadvertently balanced towards bringing down big monsters. Not realizing this, a few of my encounters, such as a face-off with a gelantinous cube, were easier than expected; a few other encounters, such as fighting off a regenerating swarm of skeletons, were harder than expected. The group also had surprisingly few ranged options. The lesson: 4E requires a much closer, finer eye on the party's capabilities than previous editions.

2. Though I worked hard to bring story and narrative bits in wherever I could, once the momentum got rolling, those details ended up mostly flying out of the window. My next adventure is definitely going to have a lot more story to it, maybe a few planned roleplaying encounters. Now that I've met all the players and their characters, I think I'll send out a few emails and probe their backgrounds a bit. Then I can make the next adventure custom-made to the stories they want to see!

Other interesting little bits about the adventure:

-I accidentially through a Black Pudding monster into the bag, thinking it couldn't be much harder than a gelantinous cube. It ended up almost killing the paladin and greatly endangering several others! Thankfully, I put it in a room where they could climb up some pillars to avoid it (yes, I know black puddings can technically climb, but this one couldn't, dammit!)

-I had the group take my cellphone number and, if they wanted to tell me something discreetly, encouraged them to text me. A few players took advantage of this, and I think it was a lot of fun!

-I'm chafing a little with the experience points system. I don't want certain people to fly ahead of the pack with XP, but at the same time, I don't know how else to reward clever ideas and good roleplaying. I may have to look into some house rules on this...




Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Gearing up for Adventure!

With great, nerdy glee, I clicked the "Place Order" button on Amazon. Within the next 48 hours, I will receive my latest RPG tools...the D&D Monster Vault, and the Dungeon Tiles Master Set. The former is over 200 die-cut cardboard tokens representing the monsters of the D&D world, plus a book with their stats, a double-sided map, and an adventure. The latter is a series of 10 double-sided die-cut cardboard tiles representing various configurations of dungeons. The 10 tiles can interlock with each other and form a nearly limitless variety of dungeons for my players to crawl around in. Combined with the Monster Vault and a few pre-generated characters, I can (in theory, anyway) run D&D on literally a moment's notice.

I am a massive RPG sellout. The indie crowd, who print their minis at home (or, better yet, play games that don't require them) would turn their nose up at the money and effort I've expended to amass my D&D collection. Just this morning, while cruising the new gatherings at Meetup.com, one poster has titled his RPG event "Anything but 4E," referencing the latest edition of Dungeons & Dragons. In the RPG community, there is a vast "Old School Renaissance" that has sprung up seemingly around the idea of shunning D&D (or it's current edition, anyway, as a large part of this movement plays earlier editions of the game). I'm sure any OSR officiado would reject that notion, but it does seem odd to me that such a "movement" would happen during this iteration of the World's Oldest Roleplaying Game, kinda like how the Tea Party Movement just happened to spring up under the country's first black president.

Now, don't get me wrong; it's not like D&D is hurting because of it. It's still one of the best-selling RPGs out there. It's still the only tabletop RPG you can buy at most bookstores. I've heard rumors that D&D is even available at Wal-Mart now. So it's not like the game has been hurting because of the backlash. But no other game faces the kind of direct animosity it does. Heavy wears the crown, I suppose.

Why so much resentment? Though any of the game's detractors will come up with dozens of legitimate-sounding grievances, I personally think it comes down to one thing: money. See, the 4th edition of D&D is the most "boardgame" like version of the RPG since it first came out in the 70s. Most of the special abilities in the game are measured not in real-life units like yards or meters, but 1-inch squares. Furthermore, virtually every class in the game is built around battlefield balance; the fighter, for example, has abilities to "mark" monsters so they get an attack penalty when trying to hit anything other than the fighter who marked it. The rogue has a number of abilities to allow him to dance around the battlefield not getting hit. The wizard has powers that allow him to control the battlefield from afar, and so on. All of this means the game is built around tactical combat. All of that means you need tokens, battlemaps, and power cards to keep track of your various abilties. All of that costs money.

Now enter D&D's previous editions. All you needed were in the core rulebooks. Back when we were kids playing D&D, we didn't need fancy minis or colorful battlemaps; everything happened up here! *pointing to brain* You could pull that stuff out of it you wanted to, but the important thing was that you were having fun! Because somehow, buying all this stuff isn't fun. It's just a waste of money, right?

I sympathize with the OSR movement, really I do. Plus, I'll be the first to admit that some truly amazing RPGs have come from it. Dungeon World, one of the most prolific RPGs today, takes it's cue from old-school roleplaying. Dungeon Crawl Classics, a game so rooted in old-school gaming that it borders on parody, is a fantastic "reboot" of the genre. But the hatred over good ol' D&D is, as most hatred tends to be, unwarranted. The game is fun. Even if you get a cheap ten-dollar dry erase board and just mark everyone's place with pennies, D&D 4th edition is a fun game. No, I would not recommend it if you want to do a role-play intensive "story-based" game, but for what it does do, it does do well.

And, if you've got a few dollars to spare, the game will put that money to use! The options available to "pimp your game" are astounding. These dungeon tiles and monster tokens I just bought are only the tip of the D&D iceburg.


Tuesday, September 10, 2013

The Power of Prep

One important aspect to the fun factor of Sunday's Fate game was my level of prep. Normally, I'm a "Freestyle" GM who likes to make stuff up on the fly and roll with whatever my players give me. Recently, I've grown tired of that approach and wanted to broaden my horizons a little. So I decided, for this Fate Cthulhu game, to do some meticulous, old-school prep.

I basically pretended that I was writing the adventure for someone else. I did a "scene map" where I mapped out every scene like it was a room in a dungeon. For every scene, I wrote down every skill that could be relevant, and the kinds of clues that could be found. I even wrote flavor text to read aloud to players when they first enter a scene.  I think at a few points, I even write in the text about "the GM" as if somebody other than me was going to read it!

But it worked, beautifully. I had a nice, steady stream of material I could feed to the players, and when they improvised or leapt off the page, I would go into my normal freestyle mode, then gently guide them back to the prep. There were two major benefits to the prep. First, it gave my storytelling confidence. Because I knew exactly where I intended the story to go, I could think about the future, not worry about stalling for time, and otherwise just focus my attention on where it needed to be at that point in the game. The other major benefit is that I had a lot of control over pace. I'm always obsessing over pace in my RPGs, because I've seen too many games ruined due to dragging on to long. On the other hand, though, I do this once a week and I respect and appreciate the effort that a lot of people (many of whom are complete strangers until they walk in the door and introduce themselves) take in showing up and chancing an afternoon with me. So I don't want the adventure to slip by too quickly.

Anyways, having a prepped, fully-written adventure allowed me to look at the entire story from a bird's eye view and instantly gauge where we were and where I thought they should be. When we were moving too fast, I would linger on a scene. When we were going to slow, I would start dropping hints about where to go next. This is not something I can do as effectively in a freestyle game, because I often don't know where the story is going.

Identifying myself as a Freestyle GM, I think it's obvious that I have nothing wrong with running a game like that. However, by embracing the prep work, I had a lot of narrative tools at my disposal during the game that provided for a rich, amazing experience. Moving forward, I'm definitely going to pay a lot more attention to my prep process and try and come to the table with a little bit more than my own brain from now on.

This coming Sunday, I'm playing D&D, a game that thrives especially well on DM prep. I'm using a published adventure, so I can just do all the reading, learn a couple of rules, and print-out a couple of cheat sheets and be ready to go. It's a trade-off, though. I really like running my own adventures. Not only do I get to put the kinds of encounters I want to see in them, and tell the stories I want to tell, but there's no better way to understand the source material than to write it myself! On the other hand, it's a LOT of work. As I look on to the next semester of grad school, and my day job, I can definitely see the appeal in taking a lower-prep shortcut to a good game.

In the end, I think prepping/writing adventures for RPGs is, to me, the ultimate example of a "labor of love." It is hard work at times, but the satisfaction and fun that come from it is, to me, unparrelled. My wife, who does not play RPGs, often asks me why anyone would want to do all that work instead of just letting someone else do it and just play. I'm hard-pressed to give her an answer, so I usually just go with the smart-ass "Well, being married is hard work, too!"


Monday, September 9, 2013

Call of Cthulhu: Fate Edition AP Report

Yesterday (Sunday, Sept. 8th), I kicked off a Call of Cthulhu campaign, adapting the venerable RPG to Fate Core. I had three players and ran an adventure I wrote from scratch. 

First of all, here are the links for the stuff I wrote up:



We started a little after 1 P.M. My players were:

Chris Welles: an abrasive Med student who's only real friend was Jennifer Solomon (the missing girl at the heart of the adventure)

Dr. James Wolfson: Erudite professor who was also Jennifer's thesis advisor

Rick Spencer: A hot-headed friend of Jennifer's family.

Observations on character creation


-I am VERY glad I listened to the Fate community and kept Trouble Aspects in the game. They made for some excellent drama during the adventure's climax!

-The "Dramatic Hook" Aspect had some unforeseen ramifications...namely, when I was expecting the investigators to be more assertive and combative with Jennifer, they tried a lot harder to reason with her. I was expecting Jenny to be either arrested or killed. Instead, the investigators agreed to work WITH her to gather the other tomes! I didn't see that one coming. Overall, I do think the Dramatic Hook was a good idea, but I am going to have to keep in mind about how it can affect gameplay next time!

-Instead of leaving the 5th Aspect slot blank for everyone, I should have had each player tie themselves to each other with that 5th Aspect. That could have planted some more seeds for interpersonal conflict and drama. Originally, I had intended the Dramatic Hook Aspect to be all the reason necessary to get the investigators together, and relationships with each other could develop over the course of the investigation. However, as the players discussed, debated, and dissented on what direction they should take, having an Aspect to compel or invoke could have made things a lot more interesting.

-Stunts, as always, are the stickiest part of character creation from my experience with Fate. Chris ended up making too powerful of a stunt: a +2 to Will when resisting fear. This kept him stable as a table throughout the adventure while the other two were very close to taking Consequences early on (more on that below). I am going to change that stunt to an Aspect on Chris' character for the next session, then give him a new stunt to replace it (or give him the chocie to leave it blank for +1 refresh).

Observations on the Call of Cthulhu Fate hack:


-The Horror "attacks" worked beautifully. There were three checks in this adventure (one when the notes in Jennifer's apartment were translated, one when the investigator discovered Kevin and what Jennifer had done to him, and one more when Dr. Wolfson found the actual, authentic tome in Jennifer's bag). All of them were only +1 (I intend on the insanity/horror theme to be a slow burn, so I started small). Still, two of the three investigators had full-up mental stress boxes during the big Conflict at the end. At first I thought it was a little too light, and I could have leaned a little harder with the Terror attacks (or maybe even add an Insanity rating), but in retrospect it was just right for an intro adventure. Like I said before, I didn't want to hit them with the full force of the Mythos in the first adventure; I just wanted to give them a taste, and I think the rules I whipped up to cover sanity worked well enough.

-Dr. Wolfson got +1 Mythos Lore for reading Jennifer's notes. He hasn't gotten a chance to use it yet. I think I am going to expand the rules on Mythos Lore and also include "Mythos Stunts," which are specific applications of Mythos Lore. I already mention this in the hack document, but I want to flesh it out more. Spells are basically going to be Mythos Stunts, using the Mythos Lore skill, and have a mandatory Insanity rating of at least 1. 

-The exclusion of Provoke was, in retrospect, a mistake that I will correct on the next pass of the document. Spencer, as kind of a rough-and-tumble type, used Provoke frequently, and Rapport (at least within the context of this game) was getting over-used for social interactions (of which there were surprisingly many). I am going to re-instate Provoke and have it not only cover "taunting," but any kind of assertive argument to get someone to do or feel something you want them to. That may be how Provoke was supposed to work originally, but I was fixated on the "Taunt/Intimidate" idea of a Provoke skill, and so wanted to strike it from the list as not being very practical for investigators of the Mythos. As befits a Call of Cthulhu game, the Research skill was used heavily, and the new Logic skill I made got used a couple of times, as well.


General Critique of how Fate Core played:


I am getting better and better at Fate Core the more I play it, which in turn makes me like it more, which in turn makes the players like it more. This was by far the best Fate Core adventure I've run yet, head and shoulders above my more awkward attempts with the zombie apocalypse game I ran earlier this year. The system really is brilliant in ways both great and small, and though I've found the learning curve a little high, I welcome the challenge to be a better storyteller and role-playing gamer.
 
The single biggest lesson I have learned about running Fate Core effectively is this: The mechanics are part of the story. I've said this before, and in the past, it's been a sore spot with me. I'm used to hiding the mechanics "under the hood," sometimes going so far as to do all the rolling myself, just to keep the players immersed in the story and to keep the fiction in the fore-front. But that's not how it works in Fate, and this session, I finally let go of that idea, and the result was fantastic. During the climax, with Jenny holding a knife to Kevin's throat and Josh sticking a gun into the back of Chris' head, the players discussed how they were going to convince Jenny to put the knife down and not have the situation become a blood-bath. On each player's turn, they engaged in social combat with Jenny, creating advantages like "There's a Better Way" or "Put the Knife Down and We'll Help You." Jenny got Consequences like "I'm Listening..." Meanwhile, Jenny was invoking Spencer's "Friend of the Family" Aspect to make him help her torture Kevin. It was an intense, exiciting scene, and all the while, the players are thinking of ways to create advantages, ration their Fate points for when they REALLY needed them, and watching out for compels that could make things worse. It was, in a word, awesome.

So in future adventures, I'm really looking forward to exploring how all the rules work in various situations. Instead of trying to sweep them under a rug, I'm going to put them in the spotlight and let the players work with me to interpret the dice. I'm looking forward to what happens next!

So, overall, I had a great time yesterday, probably one of the best sessions I've had in a long time. I have a few more thoughts on the game that I'll write about later so this post doesn't get too long. In the meantime, I better get crackin' on the next adventure...

Friday, September 6, 2013

Something Wicked This Way Comes

I have been working obsessively on my upcoming Call of Cthulhu adventure. As of Friday morning, I've got the entire adventure planned, and a broad outline of the entire campaign (which would span at least eight sessions, but probably much more than that).

I've said in previous posts that I want to "settle down" and focus on one game, one campaign. I want to have a meaningful, deep role-playing experience, and I'm tired of the rather hollow (albeit fun) of the casual, open-ended sessions I normally run. I didn't know at the time that the creative inspiration would drive me to Cthulhu, but here I am.

What's even more surprising is that I'm not just running Cthulhu...I'm running my own Fate Core hack of Cthulhu. That, to me, is just weird. I hate hacking systems. I would typically rather play another game than a game that gets jury-rigged into something else. I have neither the motivation nor the confidence to take a system that's been vigorously tested and analyzed and then start fiddling with the dials.

By extension, I also tend to dislike "generic" RPG systems. I've always believed an RPG system is as much a part of the story as the setting. The dice used, the terminology used...it all contributes to the experience of the game. What a film-maker may call Mise-en-scène, the "art" of the story. I always thought generic systems were for people who don't care about that kind of stuff and just want to toss dice. No disrespect to people like that, but that's not the game I run.

All I can say is, Fate is somehow different. There is something...for lack of a better word, organic...about the way the game is built, that lends itself well to the storytelling/game hybrid that I seek in RPGs. The system, as written, seems to imply a message that if you bring your game to Fate, Fate will help you make it better, not hold you back or make it worse. And so here I am, taking one of the oldest and most-loved RPGs of all time and hacking it into a system that, although it carries a strong pedigree, is itself not even a year old.

Will it all work out? Or will it be a disaster, another disappointment in what I've determined is a "cold streak" in my GMing? We will find out Sunday...