Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Not Legit Enough

Hearthstone is all the rage across the internet/gaming community these days. If you don't know, Hearthstone is a free-to-play collectible card game by Blizzard, the good folks who made World of Warcraft, Starcraft, and Diablo. In fact, Hearthstone takes it's theme from World of Warcraft, with characters, abilities, and monsters from that game running throughout play. Even many of the iconic sound effects, like the gurgle-roar of a murloc or the metallic clunk of a warrior settling into a defensive stance, are used to great effect in Hearthstone. If you take even a few minutes to play the game (which is free to play, a small download on your computer, and turn-based so almost any machine can run it), it's easy to see the appeal. Like all its other franchises, Blizzard has managed to take their chosen genre...this time, turn-based  card strategy...and make it simple enough for casual players to wander into, but deep enough for hardcore gaming veterans to sink their teeth into. Combine this with an attractive presentation and silky-smooth, fast-paced gameplay, and you have an accessible, hyper-addictive gaming experience that even the most cynical hater won't be able to talk trash about until they've sunken in a few hundred hours of gameplay.

Yet, I'm not that into it. Sure, I've played a few dozen matches, unlocked all the decks, tried the Arena mode...but it unfortunately gets the stamp of doom from me: Not My Thing.

I fully admit it's not at all the game's fault. No; the fault is entirely my own. You see, I'm a quitter. This is something I really dislike about myself, but in my older age I have come to reluctantly accept it as a part (albeit a darker part) of who I am. I'm not a sore loser; in fact, I pride myself on being gracious in defeat. However, my morale is a fickle thing, easily broken by even the smallest setback. Of all my many losses, both in Hearthstone and every other competitive game out there, I'd say at least half, if not an overwhelming majority, of them can be attributed not to fate, not to the opponent's skill, but instead to my crappy, defeatist attitude in the face of a setback.

I remember once, many years ago, I was in a Magic: The Gathering tournament at a local hobby shop. My opponent was an experienced veteran, and I was just returning to the game from a long hiatus. As he put down awesome card combo after awesome card combo, I looked at my meager, pathetic layout and figured I was done. I said as much to my opponent, and just went through the motions, awaiting defeat.

"Nah, man, play it out, play it out," he said. I did play it out, not out of any expectation of winning, but because I didn't want to sully his victory with my surrender.

Then, I pulled a card that took out one of his threats. I managed to survive what was supposed to be my death blow. Then, I pulled another card to stop another threat. Then I put down a threat of my own. And just like that, several turns later, I defeated this seasoned opponent. And it felt even worse than losing, because I knew that without my opponent's encouragement, I would have lost that game.

I love all forms of gaming, so for a long time, I considered having a character flaw that can directly affect my enjoyment of games...or worse, the enjoyment of be unacceptable. But I feel powerless to change it. As soon as that minion gets inflated to some huge attack number and I've got no minions with taunt in Hearthstone, my gut reaction is to pack it up and say "good game."

Thankfully, being a quitter doesn't spoil all of my game experiences. Team-based games, for example. I never quit in a team-based game, no matter how badly my side's getting trounced. Maybe it's the solidarity of knowing I'm not screwed alone, or maybe it's the ego-sparing knowledge that I can't be the only reason we could lose, but I am quite capable of getting over myself and fighting to the bitter end when I'm on a team. That extends to cooperative games, too. I don't care how many outbreaks have happened in our game of Pandemic, or how many civilians have been lost in a game of Legendary; if a fat lady ain't singin', then I ain't stoppin'!

I'm fine with games where I have no idea how well I'm objectively doing, too. Dominion, for example. Yeah, it may look like someone's winning, but you never know until you start counting up the victory cards in your deck. Cosmic Encounter, too. You might have four colonies, but then someone goes on a tear and just like that, it's over.

And, obviously, games where winning is ambigous or not the point, such as roleplaying games, I'm fine with.

It's been a painful lesson I've had to learn over the past year or so: that not only am I not perfect, but I'll never be perfect, and that I have little choice but to accept that sometimes, my worst self cannot be avoided. I'll probably never like Hearthstone the way the rest of the world does. I'll probably never get back into Magic, and I'll probably never get into those cool-looking LCGs like Netrunner or Game of Thrones. And I can tell myself excuses, like "the game isn't balanced," or "it's too random," or "it's not random enough," but the fundamental truth is, I just don't have the competitive spirit necessary to enjoy those games. So while millions of my peers dive into Hearthstone, I'll more likely be back on Azeroth playing the game that it takes its theme from.

Update (5/1/2014): I spent a pretty considerable chunk of last night playing Hearthstone. I'm getting my ass handed to me, repeatedly, but I keep going back. Perhaps that's further testament to how amazing of a game Hearthstone is. Win or lose, it's so much fun to play that you just keep going and going! Perhaps Hearthstone is going to be that one exception that proves the rule with me...

Monday, April 28, 2014

The Kill Switch, Pt. II: Analysis

Perhaps the single greatest thing about the Firefly RPG, and the Cortex Plus system as a whole, is that the flexibility of the system really gives me the freedom to experiment with my GMing. Last episode, I cold-opened on a crazy en media res situation, then started back at the beginning of the story and challenged myself and my players to get ourselves into that crazy situation. In this week's episode, I wanted one of the players to be the main antagonist, and I wanted to interweave flashback sequences into the episode as it unfolded. Here's how I did it.

At the end of the first session, I asked every player to send me some detail on their character's background. The first person to give me anything was Dr. Montgomery's player. Because he was first, I got to stew on his story the longest. I had already decided that each player was going to be the "focus" of an episode, and so I decided the good doctor would be the focus of this one.

So the doctor's story, about rehabilitating Alliance soldiers, was his idea. So I rolled with it and originally thought of a Sopranos style sequence where he conducts talk therapy with a dangerous Alliance asset in an attempt to get information. Then I realized, well shit, we've got a dangerous Alliance asset on the ship already with Q! So I stole an idea from the Serenity movie, altered it a little, and bam! Episode ready!

That was the scary part about last episode, and it was the scariest part about this one, too: the general lack of prep. By nature of the game and the story, I had to keep things loose and flexible, improv on the fly, and hope that the players can provide enough material to keep things going. And just like last episode, it worked. When everyone showed up, I took Q and the doctor's player aside, I explained the story to them, and asked them if they could do it. They both agreed. Q's player was especially excited about being the villian! I told her, of course, to go hog wild.

For Dr. Montgomery's flashbacks, I settled on three scenes. Those three scenes, I decided, would be my pacing mechanisms throughout the adventure. The first one would happen within the first few scenes, to help establish the situation; the second one would mark the half-way point, and the third one would be trigger the episode's climax. When did I know we were at the halfway mark? When I felt like things were starting to lag. I had to adjust plans for the third flashback, however, when Enzo blindly stumbled upon the kill switch. So the third flashback became a resolution of the entire plotline rather than a trigger for the episode's climax.

To keep the flashback scenes lively and fun, I tapped Kitt to roleplay a minor recurring character during the scenes. This worked really great, and it off-set the fact that Kitt herself had relatively little going on in this particular episode.

I knew going in that focusing an adventure on one character's backstory would naturally create some asymmetry amongst the players. As I said above, having Kitt's player roleplay during the flashbacks partially offset this. Having Q be the episode's antagonist also help offset this. That left only Jack, Sally, and Enzo without a significant bit during the session. They all managed to find great spotlight moments however: Sally had an awesome fistfight with Q, Enzo somehow managed to guess the kill switch (it was really awesome how that happened; Enzo's player wasn't really engaging at all with finding the kill switch, preferring to tinker around with the ship; then right when things are looking grim, he just blurts it out!) And Jack had a great stunt where he swung himself across the cargo bay on a line while the air was being vacuumed out of the ship in a desperate attempt to kick Q off of the airlock doors. It failed, resulting in a spectacular crash against the door, but it was sufficiently convincing for Q to give up on the door before he came up with another crazy idea. (Oh, and upon discovery that Q's mother was a companion, he made a lot of whore jokes. A lot.)

The good thing about the asymmetry, though, is I now know where to focus the next adventure's energy on. So everything is flowing really well and I think the third episode will continue to carry the game's momentum. I'll end this analysis with some random notes:

-I gave Q total control over his own actions during the entire episode, though I frequently took breaks to pull Q's player aside and discuss plans of action. I portrayed the Kensington Protocol as a simple d10 asset Q's player could use for any roll involving messing with the ship or the crew. It worked great. I also, of course, let Q's player come up with her own kill switch.

-Up until Enzo's amazing stab in the dark, I was afraid discovering the kill switch was going to be too hard on the players. If I ever play this adventure again, I'll have to come up with a couple of hints I can feed the players. The best I could do in this game was, as Peaches, help steer the topics of conversation a little towards topics around the kill switch (for example, the players were barking up the wrong tree for awhile with a series of questions about Q's pet cat)

-The adventure ended at 2 1/2 hours. That's just a hair short for my liking, but better short and good than long and drawn-out. Besides, we had a blast playing some boardgames afterwards!

-For the extra heavy lifting involved, I gave bonus advancements to several players. Everyone got the episode, The Kill Switch, as an advancement. I gave Dr. Montgomery a second advancement in You Can't Save Them, representing his flashback sequences (the phrase comes from Colonel Kensington himself, during the third flashback scene where Dr. Montgomery discovers that the rehabilitation project was to be shut down, and all sleeper agents executed). For her particpation, I gave Kitt a second advancement, Rosalie Lynn McCready (the name of the recurring extra she roleplayed). And I gave Enzo the bonus advancement Deus Ex Machina, for miraclously coming up with the kill switch. I fully plan on shining the spotlight on Jack and Sally in the next adventure so they get a chance to earn a bonus advancement, as well.

The Kill Switch (Pt. I, synopsis)

Yesterday I ran the second episode in my season of the Firefly RPG, titled "The Kill Switch." All the same players playing the same characters showed up as from my last session, right here.

In this episode, while Enzo was working on the compression coils, he accidentially triggered the intruder alert alarm on the Serenity; a routine problem, easy fix. The whoop whoop! of the alarm, however, turned out to be the subliminal activation code for the Kensington Protocol inside Q's head. Turns out what the Alliance did to Q, in addition to making him a killing machine, was they implanted this biological programming into his brain that, when he heard the trigger sound (in his case, a ship intruder alert signal), his programming would override his brain and he'd have to complete his mission.

His mission? Disable whatever ship he's on, including all crew within, then signal the nearest Alliance vessel to board it. If he can't disable them, "plan b" is to kill them and destroy the ship. Q's own survival was secondary to the mission.

So Q hears the signal, jump kicks a flustered Peaches, then disappears into the access chutes within the Serenity. The rest of the crew conduct a manhunt to find Q and bring him to heel before he can knock out the ship (and everyone in it).

Dr. Montgomery knows all about the Kensington Protocol. As revealed in three flashback scenes about his past throughout the episode, he used to work for the Alliance on a project to undo the Kensington Protocol from sleeper agents who were no longer needed after the war, so that they could live a normal life again. Dr. Montgomery knows that, in the event the Kensington Protocol is accidentially triggered, it can be deactivated through a "kill switch," a phrase of emotional significance about Q's childhood. All doc had to do was discover the kill switch, and the problem's solved.

As a failsafe for people to discover the kill switch, Q's brain has been altered so that he must truthfully answer all questions about his childhood. So while the crew is trying to hunt down Q and fix the ship as he damages it, Dr. Montgomery is communicating with Q over the intercom, learning about his childhood growing up and trying to discover the kill switch. Q couldn't say any of the words in his own kill switch, so Dr. Montgomery and the rest of the crew had to pay attention to any words Q was talking around and going out of his way to not say while answering the questions.

Like a good episode of Firefly, it came down to the wire. Q tried to enter the cockpit and fly the ship to the nearest Alliance cruiser, but in a spectacular fight scene with Sally, he escaped back into the vents. He was flushed out of the vents by a coolant spray that Enzo used to flood them, where he then donned an atmosphere suit, threw the other suits out into space, then evacuated the ship through the airlock. There, Q proceeded to use makeshift explosives and tools to blow off both airlock doors, which would have caused the Serenity to lose all of its oxygen and kill everyone inside. Without space suits, the crew had no way to reach Q outside the ship. All they could do was desperately assist Dr. Montgomery in discovering the kill switch before it was too late (they could still communicate to Q through the suit's comm system).

When a desperate plan by Jack and Enzo stopped Q from blowing off the airlock doors, Q then made his way to the outside of the cockpit and went to work on the cockpit exterior hatch. He was about to blow it off when Enzo, of all people, blurted out the kill switch "You are not a mistake!" Q snapped out of the Kensington Protocol, and they all lived happily ever after...for this week, anyway!

Friday, April 25, 2014

Ponno Nyarlatho

And now, the rare videogaming blog entry...

I have recently begun playing Funcom's new(ish) massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG, or just MMO), The Secret World. It is, in a word, amazing.

Set in our modern day, in The Secret World, you play a member of one of three secret societies: the Illuminati, the Dragon, or the Templars. These three groups have been manipulating the world around us for hundreds of years, and have also kept us blissfully unaware of the world's true evils. Monsters, dark magic, and sinister cults rule the shadows. These organizations keep them in check...but they are also constantly facing off against each other for true control of the world.

I have played many MMOs. Few other than World of Warcraft have held my attention for long, and I'll even admit that a lot of World of Warcraft's appeal to me might be more emotional than anything else.  The thing of it is, I am pretty fickle with my gaming tastes, particularly when it comes to videogames. I am like a woman of ill repute, fluttering from game to game, never settling down with just one. So it is a pretty big deal when I fall so hard for one game. That's why Cortex Plus has been such a big deal for me on the tabletop end of things. And that's why The Secret World is such a big deal now. I implore you, Dear Reader, if you have a PC with even modest gaming capabilities, to make the small investment in picking up The Secret World and giving it a try. Here are some reasons why you should do so:

1. The story is actually really good. Writing/story development for most MMOs is pretty awful. And understandably so; few stories can be told skillfully over hundreds of hours, featuring unpredictable human players as their protagonists. The resources that could be spent on making believable dialogue and decent quest writing could also be better spent on squashing bugs and gameplay imbalances. So the fact that The Secret World can deliver quality storytelling so effortlessly is quite amazing. The NPCs in The Secret World are not just quest-spewing robots; they're real characters, with personalities and backstories. There are several stories hidden in chunks throughout the world that you'll uncover as you explore, piecing these fragments together to get an entire narrative on one of the three factions, or the backstory behind the zone you're exploring. Quests have cutscenes that you actually won't want to skip through because you'll want to see the story unfold! And although the writing is good, part of the reason you'll not want to skip through those cutscenes is because...

2. Quests are more than errands. Quests in The Secret World will frequently have you solving puzzles or answering riddles to progress. To accomodate the more cerebral atmosphere, The Secret World brilliantly has its own web browser so you don't even have to leave the game for hints (although this browser isn't all that great, and a decent smartphone or tablet is probably a better bet). Don't think you'll just spoiler your way to victory, though; the community, in some kind of unspoken agreement, are often cryptic with clues. That's not to say you can't find the solutions out there; but on the more direct sites like the game's forums or wiki page, you can safely visit them and have a reasonable chance of not having too much spoiled for you.

3. Quests are also convenient and smartly-designed. You never have to run back to the NPC quest-giver to finish a quest in The Secret World (unless doing so makes sense in the story of the quest, such as bringing supplies to a safehouse being besieged by zombies). Typically, a simple click of the "send" button on your in-game cellphone finishes the quest. Quests in The Secret World also don't follow the annoying "series" pattern of many other MMOs. You know; do this quest, now do this quest, then do that quest. Quests in The Secret World are complete stories, and each connected task is broken into what are called "tiers." For example, in a lesser MMO, you might have to go to Point A and get item X, then return to the quest-giver, turn it in, then get a new quest connected to the old one that has you going to Point B to get item Y. In The Secret World, you'll receive just the first quest, usually with a cutscene by the giver explaining the whole situation. Then going to Point A might be "tier 1", getting item X when you're there is "tier 2", going to Point B is "tier 3", and so on. This, combined with the sharp writing that gets you invested in the story, combined with the ability to simply finish the quest rather than running back to where the quest originated from, makes questing one of the most fun aspects of The Secret World, rather than the weak single-player filler that bridges the gap between PvP, raids, and dungeons that it often feels like in other MMOs.

4. Advancement is constant, and addicting. There are no classes in The Secret World. Instead, like Guild Wars 2 and the more recent Elder Scrolls Online, skills and abilities are tied almost exclusively to the weapons your character uses. As you gain experience points, you earn "ability" points that you spend to unlock new weapon abilities. Where things start getting wild is here: you can only have seven abilities and seven passive skills equipped on your character at a time. AND, you earn ability points at a constant rate, not at an exponentially sliding scale like levels in other MMOs. The more powerful abilities simply cost more points to unlock. So when you start playing you'll immediately dive into this crack-like experience of acquiring points to unlock new abilities to mix and match with other abilities to create the ultimate shadow world badass! The resemblance to a collectible card game is clear; in fact, loadouts of abilities are collectively referred to in-game as "decks."

I could go on and on, but every word I write is one more second I could be playing this game. So I'll see you in The Secret World!

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Pobody's Nerfect

I have been heaping tons of praise onto the Cortex Plus system over the past several blog entries. Today, to help balance things out, I am going to offer a criticism. Here it is: The Cortex Plus Hacker's Guide was a terrible idea. Okay, maybe "terrible" is a strong word. But this is the internet, so go hard or go home, right? Anyways, yeah; I think the Cortex Plus Hacker's Guide is a mess, and quite possibly one of the weirdest RPG products I've ever seen.

I'll start by admitting that all of this might be my own problem. You see, I bought The Cortex Plus Hacker's Guide cold, with zero experience in any of the games it is derived from. I bought it with the understanding that generic versions of all three games existed in the guide, and that the guide was essentially a core RPG rulebook with some extra essays and hacking ideas thrown in. So I have approached this guide the way a role-playing gamer would approach a new role-playing game. I understand this was not Margaret Weis Productions (MWPs) intention. But why not? Could they not have it both ways? Would it have been so hard to make a role-playing game that is both a commentary on hacking a favorite system AND an actual, playable system? Pelgrane Press did it with 13th Age. Evil Hat did it with Fate Core. I'm frustrated because I love Cortex Plus more than either of those games, yet the book...dear God, that book...

On the surface, the guide seems innocous enough. People like to hack Cortex Plus games, so why not take collected advice about hacking from notable game designers and put it into a book, right? Well, in my not-so-humble opinion, the better approach would have been to make a generic, genre-less system out of Cortex Plus and ship that as a book (they did kinda-sorta do that, which I get to next paragraph). Take Fate Core, for example. People loved to hack Spirit of the Century, so what did Evil Hat do? They took the core system, took it apart and put it back together again, streamlined and revised it, then presented it in a crisp, clean book. MWP could have done that, but instead, they published this bizarre collection of essays about people doing it on their own, rather than just giving us a generic version of the system to begin with.

There are three system reference documents (SRDs) within the Hacker's Guide that offer generic equivalents of Cortex Plus' Action, Dramatic, and Superheroic systems. But these are, indeed, SRDs. They read very dry, they assume full comfort and familiarity with the game they've been pulled from, and all the important concepts are front-loaded into the first few pages, hitting a newcomer to the system such as myself like a double-barreled shotgun. Using these SRDs as standalone role-playing games is like jumping into a collectible card game with just booster packs; sure, it's doable, but if you're new, why not just start at the start? 

Building off of that, "starting from the start", a Cortex Plus vet would probably say to pick up one of the Cortex Plus games...Smallville, or Leverage, or Marvel Superheroic (and, more recently, Firefly)...and become familiar with those first before jumping into the Hacker's Guide. The problem with that is, you've got guys like me who weren't terribly interested in any of those three franchises, but did want to know what the system was all about. Now that I've clawed my way through the book and love the system so much, I did go back and grab those three RPGs, but why make this book so unnecessarily exclusive? Again, why not just present the three core systems as complete standalone games, like Fate Core or even World of Darkness? Instead, we've got this book with these SRDs added in, literally an afterthought to the essays (I heard that the SRDs being added to the book was a Kickstarter unlock, so the original plan for the book didn't even have a game in it!) with some ideas for hacks kinda sprinkled in.

So if you're interested in getting into Cortex Plus (and you should be, because it's awesome), don't do what I did and run right to the Hacker's Guide. This book is a meta-game supplement to other Cortex Plus games, not a standalone book, no matter what anyone else tells you. Start with any of the four Cortex Plus RPGs first and read them. Then, and only then, go back and grab the Hacker's Guide. 

I'll end this post with the normal slew of disclaimers: 

-I'm nobody special.  I don't publish or design RPGs; I just play them. I get very little traffic to this blog and I don't work especially hard to increase the circulation. MWP is not going to lose money from my words (especially because all my words basically boil down to "buy the other Cortex Plus games before the Hacker's Guide," so theoretically I'm helping MWP make money, but I digress);

-I love Cortex Plus. If that wasn't clear from the three or four positive blog posts about the game, here it is, again.

-I have nothing but respect and admiration for all of the talent and hard-work that went into, and continue to go into, Cortex Plus and Margaret Weis Productions. I offer these thoughts as constructive criticism, a critique, not a condemnation. If I come off as petty or outspoken in this post, I'm sincerely sorry. 

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

There's No Way I'm Goin' Back

This coming Sunday is episode two of my seven-episode run of Firefly. Like the pilot episode before it, I am going in with little more than a few ideas and then just putting my faith in my improv skills, the players' collective imagination, and the rulebook to do the rest. It turned out really well last time, and I am confident that it'll be good this time, too...

Earlier this year/late last year, I was in a very different place. I wanted to have meticulously-detailed games. I wanted to do vast amounts of prep and make this big production out of role-playing games. My repeated attempts to get a D&D campaign off the ground. My plans for Numenera. My Warhammer fantasy game. I wanted to kick it up a notch, and not do what I felt was half-assing a game. In attempting to do so, however, I think those games were more half-assed than ever. My heart just wasn't in the details. I just like to build off of the energy of the moment and create a story. I know many people don't have a problem with that at all. In fact, there are many indie RPGs out there that are banking on it. But I wanted to go in a different direction. I wanted to have a deep, sophisticated, detailed gaming experience, within the context of a fantastic story.

What happened? Where did it go wrong? I have my theories, of course. My main theory is I got caught up in the hype of new and popular RPGs. I wanted D&D to work because, well, it's D&D, the premier brand, the big show in the hobby. I didn't want to play it because I wanted to play it; I wanted to play it because everyone else wanted to play it. That was kind of the case with Numenera, too; it came out and made such a big splash, I had to dive into it, again not because I wanted to but because I was trying to follow a trend. Warhammer, I think, was the exception that proved the rule; though I do love that system and will probably go back to it when I feel like doing fantasy again, I pushed it before I was actually ready to run it, and so it fizzled.

This makes me a little sad. I would love to be the kind of GM who has these pages and pages of notes, and knows the rules inside and out, and has been running the same campaign for years. But I'm not that guy. The most ambitious I can hope for, I think, is this seven-episode run of Firefly, which, at two episodes a month, will run about four months. And I'm not even guaranteeing I can do that!

Over 2013, there were three games I consistently got to the table: Fate Core, using my custom-made Call of Cthulhu conversion; World Gone Mad, both as a Fate Core campaign setting and in its current form as an Apocalypse World hack; and tremulus. The trend here, for anyone familiar with these games, is obvious; I lean towards more story-first systems with low prep and an open campaign setting. Firefly aptly fits this mold, as well, and so (though, again, no promises) it seems very possible that this campaign will span much longer than my prior attempts.

I'm growing tired of this whole "game of the week" thing I've been doing the past several months. I was so excited by the prospect of so many different games, I became obsessed with the question of what to play, and ignored the question of how do I play, and what game best complements my own style. I'm not sure if I'll feel this way next week, or even tomorrow, but today? I'm ready to settle down.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Hackable Lector

What I'm loving about Cortex Plus these days is how easy it is to hack. In fact, I'd call it the most hackable system I've ever seen. I guess that makes sense; afterall, it did recently publish a book entirely about hacking it. There are a number of factors that make the game so damn hackable.

First is the player's dice pool. When hacking other systems, you're often dealing with static bonuses: +1 here, -2 there, and so on. But with Cortex Plus, you're adding dice, not solid numbers. This, combined with the story-focused approach the game takes, allows you to create whatever you want without fearing you've accidentially made something too strong or too weak. And though Cortex Plus isn't the first game to use dice pools, it's one of the few to use dice pools utilizing almost the entire range of polyhedral dice. Most dice pool games stick with dice that are fairly easy to grasp mathmatically, like d6's or d10's. By incorporating d4's, d8's, and d12's, Cortex Plus blurs the lines over the exact benefits of a bonus. This, combined with the fact that you ordinarily only keep two of them for your total, makes odds almost completely impossible to reliably evaluate. This impossibility allows players and GM alike to focus on the game and the story,not just the numbers.

But there are more tools Cortex Plus can use, too, to assure that no hack can get too far out of hand. There's also the "trouble pool." Just like players can adjust their dice pool, so can GM's adjust their own. There are no static difficulty numbers in Cortex Plus. Everything a player does is either opposed by an NPC, or must beat a GM dice roll based on whatever dice are in the trouble pool (or doom pool, or whatever you've renamed it for your hack). Dice can get added to or taken out of the trouble pool at almost any time, for any reason that makes sense in the fiction. So, while you're hacking, another tool you have to balance out the dice a player gets to roll is to simply alter the dice a GM gets to roll, as well. For example (and this is mentioned in Marvel Heroic), the Trouble Pool for a game in a "normal" world is 2D6. If your PC's are superheroes who can crush ordinary tasks with ease, then the Trouble Pool could be bumped up to 3D6, or 2D8, or 2D10, to represent that those heroes will only ever be rolling for things that would be almost impossible to a normal person. 

Yet another tool Cortex Plus has are Plot Points. Plot Points in Cortex Plus are extremely useful, but unlike many other games, they are not super-powerful game changers. In Cortex Plus, plot points flow enough to be used as a mechanical currency, whether it's mana for powering magic spells or simply health for staying alive. Because Plot Points are designed to ebb and flow wildly throughout a game, Plot Points become yet another mechanism a hacker can use to assure a fun balance to his or her hack.

The last tool Cortex Plus has to assure safe hacking is, of course, the narrative itself. Much like Dungeon World and Apocalypse World before it, in Cortex Plus games, the story is a real thing. If you're blind but not suffering any kind of penalty because you don't particularly need to use your eyes right now, you're still blind. And anything that would require seeing, like the color of a painting, would not be visible by your blind character, no matter how many or few dice are in your pool, or Plot Points you have to spend. The narrative carries real power, here; it's not just the "skin" of the RPG, it's one of the vital organs as well (indeed, skin is actually an organ itself, but I digress).

So, for the first time I've worked on a hack since I made my zombie apocalypse hack for Apocalypse World, I have had a genuinely fun time screwing around with Cortex Plus and seeing where I can go with the system. 

Thursday, April 17, 2014

The House Always Wins

Back in the day, I used to work at a casino as a cage cashier. I always wanted to be a dealer, though. I had chances to switch over, but I turned them down because they work crazy hours, their pay is dependent on tips, and they have to stand still for long stretches of time (when standing, I am an incessant pacer, very uncomfortable just standing still).

Despite all that, though, I felt like being a dealer would be the closest I could ever get to having a job where I could run a game for money. As it is now, I just do it for free, whether GMing a role-playing game or teaching everyone at a table how to play a boardgame. I hear all the time about how people hate doing that. How GMing is too much work, and how people would rather play a game and consider it a drag teaching to others. Yet it is my preferred way to game. Why is that?

I think there's something wrong with me. Well, maybe not something wrong, like broken in my head...but I think I'm a deeply flawed character who tries to turn his weaknesses into strengths. I have this constant, self-destructive need to stand apart from things. Not above things, as if I thought I was better; not outside of things, like always wanting to lead the trend instead of follow it; but apart from things, connected, but in a different capacity. For me, the best part about teaching a tabletop game to others is that I'm an active participant in the game, but I'm not actually playing it with them.

I feel like I keep people at arm's length. It has little to do with trust...I'm very trusting, probably to a fault...I just somehow can't help myself but to put up walls and distance between myself and everyone else. I wish that weren't true. I wish I wasn't like that. But I am. I don't know how to change. I don't even know if it's possible.

That's not to say I don't have fun in my roles in gaming. Quite the contrary; there's nothing better in my little world than when I manage to put a good RPG adventure together. There's nothing more satisfying to me than watching people's eyes light up when they understand the game I'm teaching them, and they start talking about how great it is, and then I find out next week that they bought the game for themselves. But after that moment passes, the next natural step would be to build on it, right? To have the next adventure. To play the game harder, now that everyone knows how to play. But me? I just move onto the next game. Sometimes even with different people. Am I afraid of intimacy? Or am I just somekind of asshole with bizzare ways of drawing satisfaction from people, moving on once I've gotten it?

Either way, it leaves me wondering if I'm a good person. Sometimes I think I am. Other times, I think I'm not.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The Cursed Island

(This is an essay I wrote for my graduate writing program at Johns Hopkins University.)

I checked into a hotel, brought my worn, black canvas bag into the room, and tossed it onto the bed. I went back to the car, grabbed my pizza and 2-liter of Coke, and came back. After that, I just stood there, for a moment. I could feel it already; doubt manifesting like an evil spirit in the back of my mind, haunting my subconscious. What have you done? What will you do? You have to go back—

The case for a separation had been growing between us for years. Yet for all the compelling arguments, no action had been taken. Then, one grumpy Saturday spent running errands and nursing a hangover, the fire was lit.

Emotions burst out of me; raw, unfiltered, unchecked. Anger and frustration and resentment consumed me. Things were thrown. Things were broken. Words were said.

I stuffed my bag, left the house with a slam of the door, and just like that, I was separated from my wife. I no longer had a home.

I needed to keep thinking, keep acting. Keep doing something. I opened my bag. At the very bottom, buried under a random assortment of clothing and diabetes medication, was Robinson Crusoe: Tales of the Cursed Island, a boardgame I purchased just two days before. I and three of my friends had played it the previous night. We all died. Crushing as that defeat was, the game lingered in my brain. I wanted to play it again. Robinson Crusoe had rules for playing the game solitaire.

And so, on the night of my separation from my wife of nearly ten years, I sat alone in a hotel room, playing a boardgame by myself.

* * * * *

I played as the Cook. Stranded on a deserted island, I had to build shelter, hunt for food, and survive, all the while gathering wood to build a bonfire big enough to signal the rescue ships by no later than the tenth round.

I was doing so well in the early rounds. As the Cook, I had skills that allowed me to stretch my food longer than other survivors. So starvation, an issue that cost my friends and I dearly during Friday night’s game, was less of an issue for me playing alone. The island consists of random tiles depicting island flora and fauna. I explored the island freely, uncovering the random tiles and living off the land and gathering wood for the bonfire.

The problem was I had neglected hunting and shelter. As the turns progressed and my Cook ate all the readily-available food found from exploring the island, I needed to shift my priorities to constructing weapons and putting a roof over my head.

I didn’t re-prioritize fast enough. I never do. The rain started on round six, forcing me to burn additional wood for warmth and consume additional food. I attempted to go hunting, but did not build sufficient weapons, instead using too much wood for the bonfire. After a disastrous encounter with a tiger, I was left nearly dead. When my wounds became infected and snow began to fall with the rain, I was dead by round eight.

That night, I laid in a bed that was not my own, alone in the dark, in a hotel room two miles from what used to be my home. The guilt came back in the dark, around the edges of my mind. What’s wrong with you? How are you going to live alone? What have you done?

Both she and I had done things wrong, of course. But that night, that weekend, I didn't focus on her. I focused on me. What I did wrong. How I contributed to this current state of affairs. All I could think about were my mistakes, like when I used to take an exam in high school and immediately after it was done I would think of the questions I knew I guessed wrong on. The guilt, irrational and unfair as it was, was relentless in its indictment of my role as a husband.

I had a single, solitary thought to fight the guilt back. A thought I held like a torch to light the darkness: I should have built the shelter right away.

* * * * *

The following Monday was President’s Day. To seize the free day off, my boardgaming group organized a bonus get-together at the Landing. Normally, we’d just meet there on Fridays. I hadn’t planned on going. I was supposed to spend the holiday with my wife.

The Landing is an open, public area in the Crystal City shopping complex underground. Dozens of tables and chairs are set up for anyone to sit at and eat from the various take-out places nearby, or to rest briefly from an extended shopping trip, or just to check your email on the free wifi. The Landing is huge; even when my boardgaming group shows up in a full force of three dozen or more boardgamers, there’s usually more than enough room for anyone else not-boardgaming to show up and do their own thing.

The meeting was planned for 1:00 P.M. I was there by 12:30, lunch eaten, Robinson Crusoe out and ready to play with the first three other people to show up. The Landing was still quiet at that time.

That early Monday afternoon, sitting at every seat at every table, was my guilt. It had grown, mutated into regrets, self-loathing, and doubt, ghosts of myself. Making eye contact immediately with one of these ghosts shot a telepathic message through my head: Why did you get so mad? Why didn’t you just leave earlier and come back? What have you done? WHAT HAVE YOU DONE?

My only defense was to keep my head down and focus on this one game. I was going to win today, I knew it. It was all about the shelter, build it right away—

* * * * *

—we froze to death.

I was the Cook, again. With three other players, the other roles...the Soldier, the Carpenter, and the Explorer...were all on the table. We had to work together to survive. And, like last time, and the time before, it seemed like things were going so well. The Carpenter built the shelter for us, then got to work on other items to help us survive. I aided the Explorer in mapping out the island, gathering food and making sure we were well-fed. The Soldier aided the Carpenter, until the Explorer and I could discover some wild animals for him to hunt.

Once the Explorer and I found some wild animals, the Soldier and the Carpenter went to work on weapons. Our shelter was built. The Explorer and I were still exploring, trying to find more food and maybe even a helpful treasure or two from the treasure card deck. The Carpenter spent a few rounds building a cooking pot, which we needed so we could cook a medical remedy for the infection the Soldier got a few rounds before, from an injury. Things were looking great.

Then the rain came. Although we had shelter, we hadn’t invested too much into the roof. We didn’t think it was necessary. The rain came down hard, and our roof was proving insufficient. When the rain comes down hard, you have to consume more wood to stay warm. If you don't have sufficient wood to stay warm, you take damage. We all took damage.

Then, in one disastrous round, a severe storm ripped the roof clean off. We scrambled to fix it, but we didn’t have enough wood. Then the snow came. Then we died.

As we put the game away, the others talked about how much fun it was, but also how hard it was. Though Robinson Crusoe had only come out last year, it had already grown a reputation in the boardgaming community as one of the hardest cooperative boardgames in the hobby. With my record now 0-and-3, I could see what everyone was talking about.

The other players, after getting handedly destroyed by Crusoe, wanted to play something lighter next. Jesse, my neurotic Jewish friend from New York City, who was also gracious enough to give me a couch to sleep on in the days following the separation, brought out Quarriors, a breezy dice game with a cartoony theme.

As he explained the rules to us, I looked up. Every ghost saw me. They all stood up, and circled me around the table.

* * * * *

The next hour was a bizarre contrast of silly dice-rolling and vicious self-hatred.

Was she really asking for so much? I rolled the dice, marked my score.

You know, if you were a better man, this wouldn’t have had to end this way...I ended my turn. I drank some Diet Coke. I ate a cookie from Subway.

She had some real concerns, some real issues she wanted to work out with you, and you just bit her head off, ran away, and now here you are, playing games like some kind of child...I asked a question about the rules. I took my next turn. I marked my score.

You know the truth. She’s right about everything. You just can’t handle being called out on your bullshit. No wonder she hates you. The game ended. We tallied up points. I won.

Apparently, the self-inflicted verbal abuse was showing on the surface. Jesse looked at me like I was having a stroke. “Ed? Ah..what do you want to do now? Do you want to play something else?” he studied me for a moment. “Do you want to go back to my place?”

You fucking man-child, you worthless piece of shit, she was your everything, everything that was good about you came from her and you fucking threw it away and now she’s gone and you need her but she’s gone and you’re alone and you can barely fucking live by yourself how are you going to do anything right ever again—

I took a breath. I paused for a moment.

“You know what I want to do, Jesse? I want to get off that goddamn island.”

* * * * *

It was no metaphor. It was no symbol. I just wanted to not be me, for just a moment. The ghosts of my regrets were torturing me, and I couldn't handle it. At that point, I was thinking of nothing less than relief from the pain. Survival in the presence of my own destructive thoughts.

I played as the Carpenter this time. Jesse was the Cook. Eric, who had played the previous game with us, was the Soldier. A new player, Tuan, who thought the game looked cool, joined us as the Explorer.

We didn’t build the shelter right away. Instead, the Explorer set off towards the center of the island. He quickly found a natural shelter in a deeper part of the jungle. The wood that would have gone into making the shelter itself was saved, and spent instead on the roof. The explorer also got to pull a treasure card off the deck, an old pair of bongo drums. Playing the drums raised our morale, giving us precious determination tokens to power our special abilities.

After I built the roof, I got to work on a few other projects...hammocks, so sleeping was more restful; a defensive palisade, to keep out predators; and the cooking pot, earlier this time, so a cure for any infections could be made right away, before they chipped away at the health of my fellow castaways. I let the Soldier build his own weapons while I transitioned over to gathering wood for the signal fire.

The Soldier, fully armed and ready to hunt, set off into the jungle. He bagged an emu, and some other exotic creatures I’d never heard of. Then he ran into a tiger. Thankfully, his weapons level was high enough to come out of that hunt not only victorious, but virtually unhurt.

When the rain came, our roof held, and kept us dry. No matter how many storm clouds showed up on the weather dice in the later rounds, we managed to keep our wood burning and excess food consumption to a minimum. With the vast amounts of meat the Soldier was bringing in, I constructed a cellar, to help preserve our surplus food from rotting. I took all the furs he was bringing and used them to reinforce the roof, which became especially handy once the snow started falling again.

A few rounds later, we had the signal fire up and lit. We had food to spare, and no one was hurt.

By the time the rescue boat showed up, all four of us broke from the game for a moment to describe the scene to each other. The Soldier, draped in a poncho made of tiger fur, wearing its head as a hat, steps onto the beach and sees the boat coming. He yells to the Cook, who’s turning the carcass of an entire gorilla on a spit over the raging bonfire. The Cook wakes the Explorer and I, sleeping on the hammocks, nursing hangovers from last night’s bongo drum party where the Cook made us some crude hooch (one of his special abilities) to help warm our blood in the cold of night.

“You’re here to rescue us? Nah, we’re good!” said Eric, speaking in character as the Soldier to the theoretical rescue ship that would site us on the island. We all laughed. Jesse and I talked about it all the way home from the Landing.

* * * * *

Jesse opened the door to his place. We were both still basking in the glow of glorious victory.

I entered the living room. There, sitting on the couch, and at all four chairs of the dining room table, were the ghosts, waiting for me.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Take me out, to the Black (Pt. II: Critique)

(Part I, with a synopis of the adventure I ran, is right here).

You can usually tell how much fun I had in a session by how much I'm willing to write about it. If I didn't like the session, usually a paragraph or two is all it gets. This, however, is part two of an already-massive post about the Firefly game I ran yesterday. So, yeah, it went really well.

So the big centerpiece of this whole adventure was the idea of starting at the end and then working towards those crazy scenes through the rest of the adventure. It fell together really well, and though I will (lightly) pat myself on the back for making it happen, it was the brilliance of the Cortex Plus system that really allowed it all to come together. I've written recently about how the mechanics influence the storytelling and vice versa, and that was a running theme throughout the entire game. I used just about every opportunity I had to influence the story and work it towards it's pre-determined conclusion. For example, when Enzo was working on the ignition coil, he rolled multiple 1's on that roll. Immediately, I thought "Bam! THAT'S why the door was open!" and described how he took a part from the cargo door that resulted in the unfortunate situation of flying around with that ramp down! During the firefight, when Sally got taken out...BAM! That's why she was in the fruit container! And because she was in the fruit container, someone needed to pilot the ship...BAM! Peaches at the wheel!

Another incredible strength about the game was its tremedous flexibility. At one point, Q wanted to do a Chuck Norris-style roundhouse kick to take out all of the goons at once. In another RPG, I'd be worried about handing out bonuses and penalties and whether mechanics are being broken, but here, I simply said:  "You tell me how many guys you want to take out. For every extra dude you want to take out, I'm going to add another d8 to the opposition's dice pool. If you beat whatever the final total is, you'll take 'em all out." Was that the right call? Who cares! It worked, and it allowed us to continue to focus on what's important: being awesome and telling kick-ass stories.

As one may expect from reading about the game, Firefly (and the Cortex system as a whole), is pretty loose and rules-light. Some of my players more used to "crunchy" games fumbled a bit with the mechanics, but even they had a really good time. I do think Cortex can accomodate a more granular crowd, though; Marvel Superheroic, as well as its generic fantasy equivalent found in the Cortex Plus Hackers' Guide, have a lot more dials to fiddle with. 

Inevitably, the notion of similarities to Fate Core came up during the session. With Assets being created and Complications being handed out constantly, the game did very much feel like a Fate Core game. Is that a bad thing? Of course not. But the begged question is: why play this when you could play that? The answer, invariably, is going to depend on the person. Currently, I'm leaning more towards Cortex these days because of the straight-forward, physical nature of the rules. If I had run this adventure with Fate, I would, for example, write Fruit Juice all over the Gorramn Floor as an Aspect. That Aspect would have rules that go along with it; you spend Fate Points to invoke it, offer Fate Points to Compel it, add numbers to dice, reroll dice, etc.. But Cortex? You hold up a D6 (or D8 or whatever) and you say "this is fruit juice all over the gorramn floor." That's it. Whomever it would help (good guy or bad) will add it to their dice pool and there it is. Is that better? Not necessarily. In this respect, you could call Cortex a more streamlined type of gameplay than Fate Core. Wheras Fate will give you all kinds of bells and whistles to tinker with and create a game as light or as heavy as you want, Cortex will always come back to "roll a bunch of dice and hope you roll high." 

So I look forward to continuing to screw around with Cortex and seeing where this Firefly story takes us!

Firefly RPG, Episode One: Pilot (Pt. I: synopsis)

Yesterday, I played a "pilot episode" of a seven-episode "season" of the Firefly RPG. It was my first time playing the game. I had six crewmembers-

-Enzo, an eccentric engineer;
-Dr. Montgomery;
-"Q", an escaped government experiment on the run;
-Sally, an ace pilot;
-Kitt, a grizzled Unifaction War veteran;
-Jack, a wanted Browncoat renegade.

This pilot episode would mark the first time these characters all met each other (Kitt and Jack being the exceptions, as they've been traveling together).

The episode began at the end. I opened up with Kitt holding a gun to a man's back and forcing him to fly a ship they just stole out of a canyon; Enzo dangling out of the open cargo hold by a rope, uncaring about the chaos around him as he tries to fix the engine's busted vacuum ignition coil; Jack holding onto that rope while Q was fighting three goons onboard the ship; Sally awakening from a concussion in a crate full of fruit, and Dr. Montgomery, in the medbay tending to a critically injured Alliance soldier as the ship rolls and spins through the canyon. I ended the scene with a shot of the ship emerging from the canyons, and the "camera" panned across the ship's bow, revealing its name: Serenity. I then cued the TV's show's music and took a lunch break.

After the break, the story of how this crew came together and ended up in this situation unfolded. Kitt and Jack were hired by a neurotic (and possibly insane) fence named Doc Fallenstien to hijack the Serenity, which had some special cargo on it that Doc wanted. Doc also hired Q to use her psychic abilities to find items at a bargain from the merchant square, where she was also to keep an eye on Kitt and Jack and assist in their hijacking, as necessary. The Serenity had somehow been sold in an auction on a backwater planet to a produce merchant named Simon Borroghs, nicknamed "Peaches" because of his product of choice. Peaches had hired Sally to pilot the ship, Enzo to run engineering, and took on Dr. Montgomery as a traveler.

It didn't take long for things to get nice and complicated. Kitt, Jack, and Q decided to go for the direct approach and just head to the ship. There, they were apprehended by the port authority who weren't allowing unauthorized personnel on the ship's landing. At the same time as this is going on, a group of thugs (who are later revealed to be working for Badger, who also wants the cargo on the Serenity) try to infiltrate the ship. They are scared off by Sally, who hung around the ship after the others left for the market. Meanwhile, the other players managed to talk their way around the port authority troops and end up having an intense stand-off with Sally.

Meanwhile, at the market, Dr. Montgomery was apprehened by Alliance soldiers and detained at a station where he is interrogated about the ship he arrived on. Turns out the Alliance is also aware of the Serenity's special cargo and they want it, as well. However, the Alliance, trying to avoid a spectacle, want to get the cargo as quietly as possible. So they enlist the good doctor's aid, and send him back to the ship. Dr. Montgomery informs Peaches of this, and the two of them head back to the ship, where they wander into the standoff between Sally and the others. Later, more Alliance soldiers show up at the market stall where Enzo is now working alone. Enzo, not really paying attention to what's going on, casually tells the soldiers that the pilot has run back to the ship. The Alliance follows, and Enzo stays in the market and turns a decent profit selling fruits and various knick-knacks.

As all the other crewmembers and Peaches are trying to sort out what the hell is going on, the Alliance shows up in force. When they see Jack, they immediately attempt to board the ship. Things are looking real bad but then the doctor shows up and informs the soldiers that he is on a mission for their commanding officer. The troops back off. Enzo returns after the Market closes, and the scene lingers for a bit as everyone aboard tries to figure out what's going on.

They discover that the special cargo is hidden in a secret compartment beneath the ship's engines. The compartment is rigged with heavy explosives that will set off a chain reaction in the engine, instantly blowing up the ship and killing anyone inside.

As Kitt and Jack break the news to Doc, Dr. Montgomery receives a call from the Alliance officer, informing him that the mission is off. Now that they know a known fugitive from the law is onboard the ship, they can easily justify shooting the ship down with missiles once they try to leave. The doctor informs the crew of this. They are displeased. Moments later, however, the doctor receives a second messge from an Alliance soldier. The soldier says he was a friend of the old owner of the ship (someone named Mal), and he has information regarding the special cargo.

While that soldier is en route to the ship, Badger's thugs return with new orders: blow open the ship and take the cargo by force. They arrive on the landing with a rocket launcher. The crew can't take off because the Alliance will shoot them down, so they come up with a desperate plan; they'll fly beneath the city into the canyon below, fly through the canyon until they're out of missile range, then emerge from the canyon and get the hell off the planet. They scramble to take off before the rocket launcher is ready to be fired.

As the crew is prepping for launch, Enzo notices that the vacuum ignition coil is broken and will need to be repaired before they can enter space. Enzo takes a part from the cargo door...however, he accidentially opens the door and, in removing the part, has broken the door. A firefight with Badger's thugs begins. The Alliance soldier shows up and makes a mad dash for the ramp. He gets shot repeatedly by the thugs before he makes it onboard. The doctor bravely runs down the ramp, grabs the soldier, and drags him into the medic bay to tend to his grevious injuries.

One of the thugs lands a lucky shot on Sally, knocking her into a nearby fruit container. With the pilot occupied, Kitt forces Peaches, at gunpoint, to fly the ship. The thugs successfully make their way onto the ship as it takes off. Alliance troops arrive just in time to see all of this. Three Allaince troops jump and are dangling off of the cargo ramp as the Serenity takes off.

The ship can't fly properly with the cargo ramp down, so Enzo tries to simultaneously fix both the ignition coil and the door. Unfortunately, a sudden lurch in the ship causes him to fall down the ramp. Jack grabs a cargo rope and successfully manages to lasso Enzo's feet, leaving him dangling from the ship with the ignition coil in his hands. While he waits for Jack to pull him back into the ship, Enzo works on the ignition coil. A thug tries to attack Jack, but Q fights him off, and proceeds to take on the other thugs.

And so the adventure ended the way it began, and the new crew of the Serenity began their adventures out in the Black...

Friday, April 11, 2014

Serving with Distinction

One thing I've really, really come to love in modern role-playing is the idea of narrative action informing game mechanics. The first time I came across this was in (surprise, surprise) Dungeon World. In that game, the bard class has a move called bardic knowledge. When the bard first encounters a new monster, place, or magic item, the bard gets to ask the GM one question about it, and the GM has to answer truthfully. Then, the GM may ask the Bard how his or her character would know that, and the bard's player has to explain where they heard that information, whether it's in a song, a tavern tale, an old book he read, or whatever.

The simple brilliance of that, when I first read it, blew my mind. I was used to older RPGs, where if you wanted to know something, you rolled a skill, the GM set a difficulty, and if you succeeded, you knew it. If you blew it, you didn't. That was it. But here, in Dungeon World, it's not just a pass or fail roll; story is built off this simple move. And it's not just some house rule or flavorful little add-in; it's just playing the rules of the game, right off the page. It's what I ideally picture role-playing games to be; this perfect little fusion of storytelling and gaming, this ying-yang where one influences the other.

Other games have taken this idea and run with it, and I'm really happy about it. The latest...and, arguably...greatest implementation of it that I've seen yet is in the Firefly RPG and how they do Distinction triggers. But before I explain that, here's a quick couple of sentences about how the Firefly RPG works:

When you want to do something, you put together a dice pool. Dice come from various parts of your character...if you're trying to climb a rocky cliff, for example, you might get a D6 from your Strength, a D8 from your climbing skill, or roll all of the dice in your pool, add up the highest two, and if it beats the number the GM rolls, you succeed.

Now here's where Distinctions come in: Distinctions also can add dice to a dice pool. Distinctions are what veterans of other RPGs would call "Feats" or "Traits" or "Quirks"; they're mechanics to describe a certain aspect of a character's background, personality, special training, or whatever. Using the rock-climbing example above, maybe your character has the Distinction "Raised by Ninjas." You could argue that climbing is probably something your character is comfortable with, then, so you could add the dice value of the Distinction (typically a D8) to your dice pool.

That's already pretty cool, but here's where it gets awesome: Disinctions also have a number of triggers. Each trigger, when "pulled" in gameplay, has another effect.  Let's say, instead of "Raised by Ninjas,"  you have the Distinction "Afraid of Heights." That might force you to roll less dice, or make it easier for the GM to mess with you, or whatever, when the trigger is pulled, which in this case might be "whenever your character tries to do something from a tremendous height," or something.

See that? The narrative going hand-in-hand with gameplay. In an older RPG, the player might have a disadvantage or something called "afraid of heights" that gives a static penalty for a static point bonus. That's kind of similar, but it doesn't do anything aside from monkey with the numbers a little. With Distinction triggers, the narrative itself can change as fluidly as the dice roll does. Here's an example of that, pulled right from the RPG itself. This is one of the triggers for the Distinction "Friends in Low Places:"

I Know A Guy: Spend 1 PP to create a D8 Asset when you call in a shady friend with the skills you need.

Look at that! For one Plot Point (I'll talk about those some other time) you can add a D8 to your dice pool (that's basically what an "Asset" is)...and some story comes right along with it. Who do you call? How do you know them? Why does he/she help you? Might they call you back to return the favor? The story is evolving, all because some player at the table wanted to roll one more die.

So, needless to say, I'm pretty pumped to run Firefly this Sunday. A detailed play report will follow. Stay tuned!

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Yelling at People: the Boardgame

Last night, at the Silver Diner in Arlington, I met up with some fellow boardgamers and had me some fun. For me, the highlight of the evening was Space Cadets: Dice Duels. I bought it almost immediately after seeing it featured on Shut Up & Sit Down's "Yelling Games Special." I figured, my collection was missing a good game where we can yell at each other and pressure each other into making mistakes, so I thought it was a good purchase. I was right!

In Space Cadets: Dice Duels, up to eight players form two teams. We had nine people for the game, so I sat out to referee. That actually turned out to be a very good thing, as it helped to have someone to answer questions and control the chaos (as you'll see). Each team runs a space ship, each player in charge of a couple of systems, such as weapons control, sensors, or engineering. The goal is to blow up the other team's ship, either by hitting them with torpedoes or planting mines that they fly over. For your ship to function, engineering rolls its power dice, then assigns the dice to the various sections of the ship. Those sections use the power dice to roll their own section dice, locking in the dice they need to function, then give the power dice back to engineering.

The catch? This all happens in real time. No turns. No timers. Both teams roll and pass dice as fast as they can. That's where the yelling comes in. The engineer is frantically rolling dice, trying to get a few dice to sensors so they can lock onto the enemy ship...meanwhile, the other ship is trying to get the helm dice together so they can get out of the way of the other ship's firing arc...

It's a chaotic mess, and it's absolutely glorious. The game is actually quite simple...firing a torpedo, for example, is a simple calculation: if you have a loaded torpedo and a number of sensor locks equal to the distance between the two ships, plus any sensor jammer dice they have, you hit. But it's not so simple when everyone is doing stuff at once and multiple people are yelling warnings and "suggesting" actions to each other. In the rules, if you miscalculate the shot, you lose the torpedo dice and sensor dice, so you'll have to roll them and re-lock them in all over again, which means going back to the engineer and getting the power's crazy, and it's brilliant.

In pitching this game to the other players, I billed Dice Duels as a party game. In play, however, I unfortunately learned that a "yelling game" is not necessarily the same thing as a "party game." The pressure of real-time decision-making and frantic planning left a lot of hands trembling and tensions raised over who the made the mistakes, who didn't listen to the rules (or who didn't explain them properly), and the defensiveness that goes with all of that. Gamers looking at the cartoony box and dozens of colorful dice expecting relaxed, silly fun may be in for an unpleasant surprise. More than one player wryly observed "if this was a party game, that party could go south really fast!" So in retrospect, Dice Duels is best with a group of friends you know and trust, who won't crack under pressure and can laugh at themselves when everything goes to shit.

But despite that, I am extremely motivated to get Space Cadets: Dice Duels to the table again. I, personally, had a blast, and though there were one or two players who will probably never want to see this game again, there were plenty who felt the same way as I did!

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Public Service Announcement

If you possess older, out of print role-playing games, never get rid of them, ever. If you have a chance to pick up older, out of print role-playing games at a bargain, do so immediately. 

One thing that's really astonished me about RPGs are that they age the most gracefully out of nearly any form of entertainment I've ever seen. The crustiest, crudest print of an old Dungeons & Dragons book still fetches a handsome price on the market. More to my point, though, are that those books are still very playable, and oftentimes just as fun as they were when they were first purchased.

D&D is a good example of what I'm talking about. Being one of the oldest RPGs out there, there is a lot of older material for the game. One would think that stuff would be old news, obsolete, and no one would be into it. One would be very, very wrong. There is literally an entire sub-community within the greater RPG community completely devoted not only to old D&D stuff, but to the printing and playing of brand-new material purposely designed to look like the old stuff!

There are a few reasons for this particular trait amongst RPGs. One is, of course, the nostalgia factor. Just like action figures and 80's cartoons, there are quite a few collectors of older games out there who just like to hang onto these artifacts of their own adolescence. Another, more practical reason is that many RPGs didn't have the financial support to stay in print. There was nothing wrong with the game; there just wasn't enough money to keep it alive. There are some true gems out there that would be huge in today's community if they were still easily accessible, games like Alternity and Everway and the old Dragonlance RPG powered by the card-based SAGA system. I owned all three of those games, and I now kick myself daily for ever getting rid of them.

Even older editions of still-existing games still carry a lot of value. Take the World of Darkness, for example. When that universe famously rebooted itself, it of course left behind a lot of die-hard fans of the original settings. For them, the old books are all they need, and that system hasn't actually changed all that much since it first appeared, over 20 years ago. To my knowledge, I can think of very few newer editions that rendered older editions completely obsolete. GURPS comes to mind, but that only applies to its core books: there are older edition sourcebooks that have yet (if they'll ever) see a current edition reprint.

So, because people like lists and it pads my own word count, here is a top five list of completely out-of-print RPGs I would totally pull the trigger on if I had the chance to today:

1. Aberrant. The World of Darkness spin on superheroes, this was one of my all-time favorite superhero settings. It is currently available in pdf form, but I'm afraid the scan would be sub-par quality. A print book would have to do it (and, as memory serves, the printed book had the dimensions, shape, and feel of a graphic novel, which made it all the more awesome).

2. Wraith: The Oblivion. Another World of Darkness game, Wraith never got the "New World of Darkness" treatment, instead kindof evolving/devolving into Geist. What made Wraith incredible was its world, a ghostly spirit world where weapons and buildings were literally made out of the souls of other people. It was a game of horror and redemption, and young, teenager Ed loved every page of it. It's getting the "20 year anniversary" treatment from White Wolf publishing in the coming months. It'll probably be the one re-issue I will actually buy.

3. Earthdawn. What I liked about it was that it was the first RPG (if not THE first, the first I ever saw) who's fantasy world was built for role-playing, rather than for literature. There was a reason dungeons existed. There was a reason why your character was more important and powerful than normal people. Levels weren't just abstract number comparisons; they actually had a magical equivalent in the game world. It was really awesome. When it was announced that a new edition was being funded via Kickstarter, it quickly became the first game I ever backed.

4. Alternity. Basically D&D in space, Alternity consisted of three gorgeous hardcover books. With universal mechanics and a framework that could allow for any sci-fi campaign setting, it was to be my go-to game whenever laser pistols or aliens were involved. Sadly, it came out at a time when I wasn't playing many RPGs, and I never got a chance to play it before I sold it all on eBay.

5. The SAGA System. There were two SAGA system games: a Dragonlance game, and a Marvel superheroes game. I owned but never played both. They were both card-based; you had a hand of cards that worked as your dice rolls and your health. Since you had to play cards to succeed at tasks, many games took on a more tactical feel; do you burn your highest cards to assure success? Or do you save them for when you really need them? Between the two, Dragonlance was the cooler one, as it was more widely supported, but the Marvel game was really impressive, too.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Battle of the Century

Cortex Plus versus Fate Core: Which is better?

It's an uncomfortable conversation to have. Generally, in the RPG community, people don't like to declare one RPG better than another; it's a safer and more diplomatic thing to say each game is better in certain situations (the exception, of course, is D&D. Nobody has a problem shitting all over any edition of D&D, and since it's the biggest RPG out there by a mile, it can take it). I myself don't like to do it as well; I've already written about how I believe tabletop games (RPGs in particular) can't be accurately reviewed because of the X factor every group brings to the table.

However, as I read the new Firefly RPG and see the Cortex Plus rules implemented in their latest incarnation, I am naturally drawing a lot of comparisons to Fate Core. Both games place a strong emphasis on story. Both games grant a lot of player agency. Both games have mechanics involving fate or "plot" points to grant players narrative control. Both games represent a modern evolution of RPG mechanics where both the dice influence the story, and the story influence the dice.

So the natural question that arises is: since both systems are so similar in function, which one is better? I hate to be a sensationalist hyping this debate, then coping out, but that's exactly what I'm going to do: both systems are fantastic, in different ways. Here are five ways that they differ:

1. Cortex Plus, as opposed to Fate Core, can offer a more nuanced gaming experience off the page. The subtle tweaks to the system, whether in the relationship mechanics found in Cortex Plus Dramatic, or the over-the-top superpowers of Cortex Plus Superheroic, can offer gamers a more specific type of game than the "here are the tools; have at it, son!" approach that Fate Core takes. Do note my emphasis on "off the page," though; Fate Core can, with the proper tweaking, emulate drama, cinematic action, or fantasy heroics just as well as (perhaps even better) than Cortex Plus. The latter, though, can do it with little or no tweaking.

2. Fate Core has an industry-leading, evolved approach to distribution, while Cortex Plus remains a fairly traditional, psuedo-antagonistic approach to its books. Almost every major Fate Core release is available on a "Pay What You Want" basis, allowing game groups to have free and immediate access to pdfs. This advantage seems small, but it is very important, espeically for me and my own mission of open gaming and bringing newcomers into the hobby. It's very easy to say "Hey, we're playing Fate Core next week, go to and download the books so you know what you're doing before we start" as opposed to "We're playing Cortex Plus next week. The pdf is on sale for $20 at DriveThru, or you can just wait till next week and I'll explain everything." 

3. Cortex Plus has a more streamlined, comprehensive mechanic than Fate Core. Almost everything, from casting spells to hacking the Matrix, to rock-climbing resolves the exact same way in Cortex Plus. And because of the fluid nature of the mechanics...the way assets can be created on the spot and rolled by either party, for example...even though you're always rolling the same way, it always feels different. This is where that strong emphasis on story comes from within the Cortex system. Fate, on the other hand, revels in its modular approach to design where there can be several different ways to do anything, depending on the type of game the GM and his/her players want to have.  You can ask ten gamers in the Fate Core community "Hey, how should I handle hacking the Matrix in my Fate Core game?" And you'll get ten completely different answers, from simple skill checks to actually simulating an abstract battle with the Matrix! This is, of course, not a bad thing...but like the aspects at the heart of its own system, it can be used both positively and negatively.

4. This is less of a big deal now than it was a year ago, but Cortex Plus has big licensing behind it. Fate has The Dresden Files which is a pretty big deal, but that game doesn't use Fate Core; it uses an older variation, still totally playable but not the bleeding-edge of the system. Cortex has the mighty Marvel universe behind it (no longer officially, but the RPG is still out there), and now, they've got one of the most beloved sci-fi franchises in history in Firefly. I've written before about the great power a franchise can bring to an RPG, and it can't be ignored.

5. Though Cortex may have the marketing, Fate Core has the more active fan community. This is probably due to Fate Core's having more dials to fiddle with than Cortex Plus (see number 3, above). In the barely-year since Fate Core has come out, it has since published its excellent Fate Worlds books that bring a lot of campaign and adventure fodder to the table, as well as the Fate Core Toolkit, essentially a "GM's guide" of suggested hacks, tweaks, and ideas for your game. And that's just the first-party stuff! Even the most casual search of Fate Core mods will uncover a hack out there for virtually every genre and franchise you could possibly think of (and quite a few you probably can't). Don't believe me? Here's a simple test...character sheets. The most basic and fundamental (and arugably important) piece of support material for a role-playing game. Fate Core has hundreds of them, fan-made and customized for every setting. Cortex Plus, on the other hand, doesn't even include one in their corebook (and don't give me that "Cortex character sheets have to be customized for the game so no generic can exist" BS; Fate is just as, if not moreso, customizable, yet it manages to have at least a basic sheet that can be built on).

6. Related to point 2 about modern distribution models, Fate Core has a clear, attractive, easy-to-read layout and design, ideal for digital media. The design is consistent throughout all of its products, making the game great to read and easy to understand. I've said it before, but it bears repeating: Fate Core, in my mind, is the industry standard for modern RPG layout. Although the Cortex Plus Hacker's Guide has a similarly approachable design, its latest game, Firefly, is a fairly "old-school" layout, similar to older, print RPGs (complete with photo stills from the show, which I found a little tacky, especially contrasted to the excellent artwork found in other parts of the book). This is espeically baffling considering the PDF came out so much earlier than the print book. This is a minor point, and understandable within the context of Firefly (I'm sure every Firefly fan will buy the physical book as soon as it's available, for collector's purposes if nothing else), but nevertheless, I think that book could have been laid out in a more readable, modern way.

So, there you have it. Here I'll drop the Unnecessary but Still Somehow Necessary Because Internet disclaimer: both games are awesome. No game group can go wrong with either. I'll probably run a lot of both. Enjoy!

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Creative License

I have wallowed in self-pity long enough. I want out of this lethargy. I want to go back to RPGs!

I've spent the last week trying to figure out what game I want to play. As I said in my last blog entry, I want to play something on the "story gaming" side of the fence, light but not too light, and something exciting and new. As it just so happens, Margaret Weis Productions just released their much-anticipated Firefly role-playing game a few days ago. It's new. It's exciting. And it uses Cortex Plus, a rules-light system I've been dying to try. So it appears the RPG Gods have spoken. Firefly is the perfect game to return to (although, sadly, it lacks zombies).

There's only one small problem: I've never seen a single episode of Firefly. 

Now, the question is, should I watch it? This topic actually comes up a lot...creative properties/franchises go with RPGs very naturally. Both Star Wars and Star Trek have had tabletop RPGs almost as long as they've existed. Lord of the Rings is on its third RPG. Both Marvel and DC comicbooks have had several RPG incarnations. Though Harry Potter may never get an official RPG because licensing on it is much tighter than many other franchises, simply Google "Harry Potter RPG" and you'll find a Harry Potter hack for damn-near every RPG out right now. And, unlike videogame adaptations, RPG adaptations tend to be quite good. Several of those licensed RPGs have been nominated for...or won...esteemed awards within the tabletop industry (including the Marvel Superheroic RPG, which uses the same system and is published by the same people who did Firefly). So even if you're not a Star Wars fan, sometimes it's an appealing option to pick up a Star Wars RPG just because of how easy it can be to get it to the table. 

The other side of the coin, though, is that many GMs like myself don't like the baggage that comes with licensed property. For example, I don't like the idea of players playing second fiddle to the "stars" of the series. This has been my biggest issue with comic book RPGs; the Marvel Superheroic RPG, by default, just assumes players are going to play as Marvel superheroes! Rules to make your own heroes from scratch was an addendum to the real game (there is a long story regarding this, about how Marvel basically forced the makers of the game to only allow Marvel superheroes as playable characters for the game. I totally understand that, but it sucks, anyway)! Outside of character creation, world creation/knowledge becomes a much more slippery slope in licensed games. When I play a Star Wars game, I usually have to make it crystal clear before the game what movies, books, comics, and videogames are going to be considered canon for my adventure. I inevitably get a player or three who want to use this idea or that idea from "the extended universe." That's not necessarily a bad thing, of course, but one thing inevitably leads to another. 

So because of this baggage, an option for many GMs is to actively avoid exposure to the franchise, and to instead play the world of that franchise as interpreted by the GM and players through the rulebook, as opposed to through the fiction. Because of my controlling tendencies, I'm not typically a big fan of this idea. I don't like the notion that my players all know more about the world than I do. So my typical response to licensed RPGs is to simply avoid them.

Some franchises are too big to avoid, however. Star Wars is most certainly one of them. Firefly, at least within the sci-fi/geek community, is another. I have neither the time nor inclination to both prep for the game AND watch all 14 episodes of the show. And so, with nothing but the first 15 minutes of the pilot episode under my belt, I will wander into a new world. Here's to hoping my vision of the Firefly universe is more like J.J. Abram's Star Trek and less like Joel Schumacher's Batman!

EDIT: 4/7/14

This weekend, I watched the pilot episode of Firefly. I intend to watch one or two (or three or four) episodes this week, before the game. So I'm not going in completely blind anymore!

My Own Loser Path

"If you're a Sym main, please exit the stream," was the description yesterday of one of the Overwatch Twitch streams I follow....