Thursday, January 29, 2015

Placid Islands of Ignorance

I may go quiet for a couple of weeks or so. The reason I am about to go dark is because my awesome editor at Geek Native just bestowed upon me my next reviewing assignment: Call of Cthulhu, 7th edition. It may take me awhile to sift through the nearly-400 page corebook. Additionally, I promised him a feature about the game in addition to the review.

I am extremely excited to do this. I missed out on being able to throw in my two cents on the latest edition of Dungeons & Dragons. Now I have a chance of riding the first wave of reviews on perhaps the next biggest role-playing game after D&D.

For those of you not in the know, Call of Cthulhu is a tabletop roleplaying game based on the short fiction of H.P. Lovecraft. For those of you really not in the know, H.P. Lovecraft is one of America's first, and best, horror writers. His influence can be felt everywhere. If you've ever enjoyed a Stephen King novel, or just finished binge watching HBO's True Detective, then you've had an indirect encounter with Lovecraft.

A couple of months ago, I wrote about the lack of all-American culture in tabletop gaming, about how there are hundreds of games that draw on European history but relatively few that draw on American history. Call of Cthulhu is a massive middle finger to that. The "default" campaign in Call of Cthulhu is 1920's America, specifically New England, a small fictional town named Arkham. Over the years, Cthulhu has spread to earlier (1890s), later (1990s), and much later (the distant future) settings, as well as to Asia and, of course, Europe.

Lovecraft's writing, called by some "existential horror," revolved around the idea that there are secrets that humankind is not meant to know. That there are omnipotent, godlike beings out of range of our awareness, and they care about us about as much as we care about a single ant colony in a crack on the sidewalk. The mere revelation of the existence of such beings drives many characters in Lovecraft's stories insane. In a game of Call of Cthulhu, you get to play as investigators who make those very discoveries...and try and live with that knowledge. Sure, you might try and stop one of these ancient beings from destroying the world, and you might even succeed...but they can always try again.

Why would anyone want to play a game with such a bleak outlook? And yet, as I said before, it is probably the next biggest RPG in the world, behind D&D, and just as old. Well, part of it is because of that very contrast to D&D. In that game, you start as mere mortals and slowly, over the course of a campaign loaded with adventure, your heroes gain power and abilities that rival the gods themselves. That progression is what made D&D so popular for 30 years. In Call of Cthulhu, however, survival is the reward. Living (and being sane enough) to make it to tomorrow is your progression. You don't gain any special powers or additional hit points in Call of Cthulhu. Instead, you gain knowledge, knowledge that stretches the boundries of the human mind, knowledge that can just as soon kill you as it can inform you. It's the thrill of horror, that getting in touch with our own mortality, that gives Call of Cthulhu its enduring charm.

And as time goes on, I believe Lovecraft and his fiction will get even more poignant...and horrifying. Today's generation, the generation of Google and Wikipedia and 24-hour news cycles...can they even really imagine the notion of knowledge that's better left unknown? How scary must it be to them, if they think about it, that there might be things out there that they shouldn't try and Google? I daresay the existential horror of Lovecraft is the very arch-nemesis to our entire popular culture. What if we discovered the answer to global climate change isn't a "yes" or a "no", but a who gives a shit? The world is doomed and there is NOTHING WE CAN DO TO STOP IT!

At this point, I have read about half of Lovecraft's entire catalogue, and nearly all of the "really important" stories that have gone on to shape the sub-genre of Lovecraftian horror. And I've read nearly every edition of Call of Cthulhu. Today, I go back into Lovecraft's world to read the 7th edition of what some would call the Greatest RPG of All Time. I may check in every couple of days to give my thoughts ahead of the review. But if I disappear, fear not, Dear Reader. I'm just immersed deep in research. I might even come back...
The title of this blog entry is a reference to the first paragraph of Lovecraft's Call of Cthulhu novella. As a dude with two degrees in English writing, I tell you that first paragraph is one of the greatest openings in all of literature, right up there with "Call me Ismael" or "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times..."

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Remember My Name

I've remarked before about how it seems like the very best RPG stuff gets pulled from the things that move us. My friend Boomer has this great Dungeon World campaign, set in a world of his own divising years ago, and it's been great watching all of that come alive, and having it inform his own game. He cited videogames like Dark Souls and comic books like Skullkickers for his influences. I have seldom, if ever, made a campaign based on such influences.

I'm wondering if I should start. Right now, I'm just in the brainstorming stages, but I'm thinking about making a dark, modern crime drama campaign based on my all-time favorite TV show, Breaking Bad.

Taking a page from the Fargo FX TV series playbook, my campaign would be called Breaking Bad, take place in New Mexico (or is it Arizona?), and have the same themes as the show, but the story would actually take place years after the rise and fall of Heisenburg. So this game would be more about the ideas, settings, and themes of the show, not the characters. That's where the PCs come in.

It seems to me, off the top of my head, the best system for this would be Fate Core. Session one would be character creation, where the group discusses each character they plan on making, and we together sketch out some of the important NPCs. Like the TV show, there would be these connections between all of the characters and NPCs, even the protagonists and antagonists, the same as Walt's relationship to Hank in the show.

Finally, one cool concept I'd like to gank from Hillfolk: the dramatic poles. In Hillfolk, Robin Laws describes how characters in the game should be in a constant internal tug-of-war between these opposing forces in their heart. For Walt, this was between being a responsible family man and a power-corrupted drug lord. For Jesse, it was between being a partying punk kid or growing up and accepting responsibility. I'd love to see each player come up with dramatic poles for his or her character, and then have adventures revolving around the ongoing battle between those dramatic poles.

Mechanically, it's very important to me to keep the "game" in role-playing game. If I wanted to tell a story, I'd tell a story; I don't need a group for that. So where I'd begin to spin away from the TV show is in the design for the campaign. The characters would, presumably, be motivated to start their own drug operation for whatever reasons, and from there, the kinds of concerns and pitfalls the characters deal with would unfold at their own pace. Ideally, a session of Breaking Bad: the Roleplaying Game wouldn't have a set adventure: it'd have procedural rules (not unlike The One Ring) detailing how, exactly, certain things happen, and what kinds of problems can occur. I would walk into a session with little to no idea on what's going to happen: rather than preparing a story, my job as GM is to strictly play as the world, interpreting the results of
dice rolls and creating reactions to the players' actions.

The resulting game environment wouldn't so much be a collaborative sandbox like, say, an Apocalypse Engine game, but more like a machine cranking out a fun story/game. Like using the random dungeon charts in the D&D Dungeon Master's Guide to make an adventure. For that reason, although I'm still pretty confident Fate Core is up to the task, a more traditional game like GURPS might be able to handle it, as well. I guess it depends on where I want the whole story/game balance to be. On the one hand, I wand this to be a game in no uncertain terms; on the other, I am going for a very specific narrative.

Will I ever actually try this? Maybe. Maybe not. It's definitely not the first idea for an avant garde RPG campaign I've come up with in the pages of this blog. But it's interesting to think about, at least...
Tread lightly.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Recap of The One Ring: The Council of the North

Yesterday, I had seven(!) friends over for the next session of my One Ring game, called "The Council of the North." In the adventure, the fellowship traveled from Rhosgobel to Dale to attend the Council of the North, where delegates from the Elves of Mirkwood, the Kingdom Under the Mountain, and Laketown appealed to King Bard for aid.

The trek across the Wilderland was fairly uneventful, until the fellowship ignored the advice of the elves within their own group and decided to take the Old Forest Road. There, the Shadow still was very strong, the Road overgrown and spiders weaving webs across its length. The fellowship endured grave hardship...including a massive battle with the spiders...before they finally arrived in Dale, worn down but relatively unharmed.

In Dale, the dwarf, elf, and Laketown delegates (each were played by a PC) made their case to King Bard. The elves requested aid to help clear the Old Forest road and reopen it to travel. The dwarves were resuming deep mining operations in the Kingdom Under the Mountain and were running into roving goblin tribes. And the new Laketown was without a trained milita, which they needed to help enforce the ban on travel to the ruins of old Laketown, where townsfolk afflicted with dragon sickness were drowning themselves as they searched the lake floor for gems and gold that fell from Smaug during his final attack.

Mechanically, I handled this as a series of skill rolls, though each roll had to be justified in the fiction by a line of argument (e.g. The dwarf would say something like "helping us with our problems will allow trade to flourish throughout the region," and then I'd let him use his persuade skill). The companions of the fellowship unaffiliated with the delegations had the King's ear as a neutral party, and thus were able to influence him with whatever path they felt was appropriate. After some frantic, rushed debate (we were running out of time), the elf delegation won, and so King Bard will lend his aid to cleansing the Old Forest Road of the Shadow. No doubt the fellowship's own adventures there influenced their opinions!

Overall, the session went well. Here are the things I liked:

1. The procedural nature of the system continues to be a lot of fun for me. The standardized way travel, combat, and encounters are handled allowed us to cover long stretches of time relatively quickly. What might have taken several sessions in other RPGs was covered in about three hours, here.

2. I left most of the journey "open form", meaning I let the fellowship decide how simple or complex they wanted it. In between Travel rolls, I let the players run their own scenes, where they got to illustrate their character's traits. Optionally, I let them put their skills to the test, as well, with success granting them Advancement points, and failure penalizing them in some way (though I don't think anyone failed a skill test in this manner). This seemed to work very well, and allowed the travel to flow.

And here are a few things I didn't like:

1. I never thought I'd ever have this problem, but I had too many players. Six is a stretch. Seven was a mess! It was a fun, lovable mess, but it was definitely a mess, with all the side conversations, wise-cracks, and meanderings that a larger group tends to have. The dramatic nature of The One Ring was poorly suited to handle this, and quite frankly, I was, too!

2. Further compounding matters, three of the seven players were not present at the last session, and one of the three had to wait to make her character till the day of. So the first hour of the session was helping with character creation and explaining the system to the others. Combine this with the problems listed in #1, above, and it was surprising we even got as much accomplished as we did!

3. I was overprepared for the previous session, and underprepared for this one. I had figured that the procedural systems to the game, plus the players' scene setting and the Council "mini-game", would have been enough, but a few issues came up during the game I wasn't ready for. This of course happens in any good roleplaying game, but these were issues that, in retrospect, I could have seen coming. Combat, for example; that big fight scene with the spiders was improvised off a Hazard roll. I had no combat encounters planned in advance, and was quite happy about that. It would have helped, though, if I had gone over the monster stats earlier, brushed up on combat, and made sure I had a balanced, fun combat encounter ready to go, if I needed one. I think I scrambled well enough, but the resulting encounter ate up minutes that probably would have been better spent developing the Council scenes.

So overall, it was a good, though not great, session. I had a lot of fun, and I look forward to the next one!

Friday, January 23, 2015

The Great Eight

Since I just got done with my review of The End of the World: Zombie Apocalypse by Fantasy Flight Games, I'm keeping this blog entry short and ridiculous.

Remember that Big Ten list I did a few weeks ago? Where I listed ten RPGs as the only ones I'd focus my attention on for running and reading? Well, it's undergone some more changes. Notably, two whole slots have dropped off, making it a Great Eight instead of a Big Ten. Anyways, here's the list as it currently stands. Whenever applicable, the latest edition is the one being referred to in this list:

1. D&D 
2. Shadowrun
3. The One Ring
4. Star Wars (Edge of the Empire, Age of Rebellion, Force and Destiny)
5. Fate Core
6. Call of Cthulhu
8. Apocalypse Engine

So, let's start with the losses. I had to be brutally honest with myself. I just don't have the time, money, or energy to be anything less. As much as I love Numenera, The Strange, Eclipse Phase, Warhammer Fantasy, and the World of Darnkess, I will likely never run them. The reasons vary: some of these games don't have enough support. Some of these games require too much work. And, as much as I love the idea of some of these games, the fact of the matter is I'm just not that excited to run them.

Following that last one..."excited to play" is the governing factor for the games that remain. I am pumped to run any of these. I'm not saying they are the best of the best; I'm just saying, if somebody asked me to run one of these, I'd do it on a moment's notice and be happy about it! I can't really say the same for the four games that got cut.

So why GURPS? How did that end up on the list? I've seldom mentioned it in previous blog entries. I've never run it, though I've read several books in the line and am familiar with the system. There are several reasons why it's on there, and I intend to talk about them in the future, but here's the TLDR version: GURPS is such a huge game, there is literally something for everybody in it. On this list, I find it makes a fine "yin" to Fate Core's "yang." 

And notice who's back? The Apocalypse Engine! I'll be honest: that one being on there is as much a political move as a matter of choice. I've said before that most PbtA games are more about theory than practice, good ideas rather than solid mechanics. For the most part, I stand by that. However, game groupie that I am, I cling closely to the most popular stuff in the hobby because of my overall mission of bringing new players into RPGing, and the influence that these games are having is undeniable. Besides, how am I NOT going to have the system powering my own hack World Gone Mad on the list?

Now I know the list has changed quite a bit...this is the third revision to it since I first wrote it up back in October...but I always knew this list wouldn't be something set in stone. The idea is to try and focus my attention, not constrain myself. This list, as of now, is best reflecting what I'm into at the moment and what I intend to focus on, moving forward.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Dice Discipline

In a roleplaying game, dice are used for almost any level of action resolution. Punch a bad guy? Roll dice to find out if you hit, and if so, how hard. Convince someone to go on a date with you? Roll dice to find out if he/she likes you, and if he/she is willing to. Climb a rocky cliff? Roll dice to see if you avoid falling, and if you do, how fast you climb.

I like this. Dice are fun. Plus, dice can inform the narrative. That's not earth-shattering news, but oftentimes when GMs/RPG groups get too deep into dice-rolling, they forget that. They start to feel constrained by the dice. They start to feel like they've lost control of the game, or the narrative of the story.

Throw them bones, players!
"When and when not to roll" is a classic conundrum faced by all GMs. Many RPGs try and help you out with clear-yet-broad guidelines: "When failure would be interesting, roll." "When success is not certain, roll." "When you don't know what will happen next, roll." Other games, notably games like Dungeon World, will get even more specific: "When you exchange blows with your foe, roll."

What I find interesting today about dice rolling...and the inspiration for this entry...comes from my study for two separate RPGs with very different "dice discipline:" The One Ring, and Dungeons & Dragons. In The One Ring, dice rolling is only for important tasks, where success and/or failures can have serious repurcussions for the party. As a result, dice aren't thrown all that often in The One Ring, compared to D&D. In D&D (specifically, the first official adventure, "Hoard of the Dragon Queen"), almost the entire first part of the adventure is a series of skirmishes. Played straight, there are probably over a hundred dice rolls in just that first part of the adventure...more than probably four or five adventures combined in The One Ring. 

Does this mean one game is better than the other? Of course not. What we see here, though, is that dice are being used to control the pacing and the mechanics of the game. The One Ring is a narrative-heavy game. By design, The One Ring doesn't want you to roll dice too often, and when you do, it wants you to really care about the results. It expects the GM (called a Loremaster in that game) and his/her players to carry the majority of the narrative. The dice, fundamentally, do little more than throw some randomness into the current of that narrative. In D&D, dice are practically the reason for the season, so to speak. The game expects you to roll dice often, and for the results of the story to be heavily shaped by the turnout of those rolls.

Of course, both games aren't entirely dependent on their design choices. There are parts of The One Ring (combat, namely), where dice rolls can completely make or break the story. Likewise, in D&D, there are whole situations where the dice never need to be broken out. The observation I'm making here is in how each game chooses to value their dice rolls.

Because Internet, there's often debate about when or when not to roll, what constitutes a "good roll" from a bad one, and judgements on the quality of any given RPG, based on how dice-heavy it is. And, because Internet, I hearby offer my unsolicited opinion on the topic: Dice discipline is a conscious design choice within any RPG, and to say one game is better than the other because it uses more or less dice-rolling is, patently, bullshit.

What games do I think have great dice discipline? Here are five:

1. The One Ring: As said in the blog, rolls are always important and meaningful.
2. Star Wars: Edge of the Empire: Rolls are directly designed to influence the narrative, and it does so with great panache and style.
3. Shadowrun: This game knows what it does well: nerd-binging on magic and technology, and it's dice provide for a wide-range of options that emphasize just that.
4. Call of Cthulhu: Quick, simple, and often brutal.
5. Cortex Plus: A game literally built from the ground up to roll lots of fun dice, and it works!

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

The Power of Love

A friend of mine asked just asked me how I manage to write as often as I do. This post right here is my 190th blog entry since I started, back in May of 2013. I have a lot of thoughts about it, so I figured I'd share 'em here.

And that is the first tip I have, right there. When you've got something on your mind, something that you're passionate about and you know you have a bit to say on it, don't just sit on it. Open up Blogger (or whatever you use) and write! It's tough at first, but after a dozen or so entries, it becomes a reflex. You'll notice a lot of my blog entries begin with "I was reading this or that on someone's G+ post." It's because as soon as I feel that swell of bullshit in my brain, rather than posting some massive comment, I come here and blog it, instead.

As I write this, I'm also chatting with my friend on text, and I'm getting a little discombobulated over what I should say here and what I'm saying there. The instinct is to stop blogging and just focus on the texting. I want to do that because I'm afraid everything I write here is going to be a rambling, unfocused mess. And THAT right there is tip number two: your blog is going to be a mess. And that's okay. Accept it. Don't fight it. Writing, like nearly every other art form, has this romantic notion of one person, typing away at their keyboard in the dead of the night, but that just ain't true. There are editors. There are proofreaders. There is your best friend, your wife, your family. There are critics and colleagues. Great writing doesn't happen in a vacuum. So don't expect your blog to be any good. The sooner you accept that, the happier (and more consistent) your blogging will become.

"Well, why would anyone want to read a crappy, unorganized blog?" one may ask. The answer is tip number three: You're not writing for anyone but yourself. The only time you should care about readership is if you're counting on your blog as a revenue stream. And that is a whole 'nuther ballpark: good writing is only a tiny part of that shit. There's also advertising and networking and demographics to consider when it comes to readership. What blogging really needs to be about, first and foremost, is YOU. I write about tabletop gaming because I frequently, constantly think about tabletop gaming. And rather than bore someone to tears about it or ramble on some message board about it, I come to a blog: a place where my brain can run free, and occasionally other dudes can drop in and see what's going on. You blog for yourself first, and everyone else second.

That third tip is powerful. It can kill one of the other common excuses for not writing: "I don't feel like I'm saying anything original." Who gives a shit: You're not writing for anyone but yourself!

This fourth tip is a little harder to recognize, but it's helpful. All of those questions? There's a lot of judgements in there. That your blog is crappy, or boring, or messy. Yeah yeah yeah, you're writing for yourself, but it can be hard to care about that when you're busy being down on yourself for being crappy, boring, or messy. Stop judging yourself. It is very important to be your own harshest critic, but you also have to be your own biggest cheerleader. It's a difficult balance to strike, but if you don't believe you're any good, why the hell will anyone else?

As I said above, good writing seldom happens at just the single-person level. So the trick here is to hold two paradoxical truths in your mind at once: that you are a good writer, and that everyone needs help. Both of those ideas are equally valid, and you need to understand both to be a good writer. To be a good blogger, you really only need the first one, and a strong enough stomach to ignore the second one.

It can be a scary thing, publishing a blog, sharing your thoughts with the world, knowing it probably didn't come out right, knowing there are those out there judging you by what you've chosen to put out there. Unfortunately, I have no advice to help overcome that fear, except maybe this: make your passion stronger than your fear. Love what you're going to write about so much that you don't care if writing about it makes you look like an ass. When you can do that, you may be surprised to discover the opposite: that you don't look like a fool, but you in fact look exactly like what you really are: someone who loves something.

It don't take money. It don't take fame. It don't take no credit card, to blog on this train.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Off the Chopping Block

On Friday, I played my first game of Imperial Assault with four other players. We played the first mission of the campaign. It took approximately two and a half hours, including setup time.

I had posted earlier about my aversion to playing Imperial Assault due to the immense amount of pieces and the organization/upkeep that would go into having the game. Following that blog post, I was all but ready to sell or trade away the game, having decided I didn't want to go through that hassle.

After that single playthrough, however, I am changing my tune. I am definitely keeping Imperial Assault, and I look forward to playing it again!

Why the change of heart? Well as it turns out, Imperial Assault is really, really fun. It takes the "asymmetrical teamplay" formula of Descent and Mansions of Madness, streamlines some of the bookkeeping parts, and adds some more tactical gameplay parts, resulting in a game that's smarter and faster than its predecessors. I wouldn't go so far as to say it renders Descent or Mansions of Madness obsolete; rather it complements both of them. Descent still has its strong fantasy theme going for it, and Mansions still has its Lovecraftian theme, as well as its meticulously-crafted mysteries. With all three of these games, you could easily keep a group of gamers busy for an entire year or more!

For those of you considering Imperial Assault and about to play it or pick it up, here is one other thing to consider (minor spoilers and strategy talk about the first campaign mission ahead, skip the rest of this blog entry if you don't want to spoil it):

The first mission can be exceptionally difficult. Just outside the mission start area is a blast door. It opens without trouble initially, but after the round is over, it slams shut and an alarm goes off, summoning more bad guys and reinforcing the control terminals the Rebels have to destroy as their victory condition. If the players botch the timing on this, they can end up with one poor Rebel alone inside the base while the rest are frantically hacking at the blast door to open it up, all the while facing Imperial forces on either side, and a looming round limit and two or three terminals that will require at least two (and often three or more) good whacks to break. For an unsuspecting group of Rebels (i.e. first time players), this scenario seems almost completely unwinnable.

However (and this is a theory, I haven't tried this yet), if the Rebels simply time their movements right and step through the blast door the same round they open it, they should have plenty of time and firepower to get through the door and destroy the remaining terminals. It'll still be a tough fight (victory is definitely not guaranteed), but it won't feel as blatantly unfair as what happens when your "scout" character goes in alone!

Another thing to keep in mind from the beginning is that the campaign continues regardless of whether the Rebels win or lose. It's just a matter of what mission they take on next. I haven't played the next mission so I can't exactly say if the win mission or lose mission is better, but if you find yourself with a group of discouraged Rebels, remind them that the campaign continues either way and that the nearly two-dozen missions ahead of them can't possibly be this brutal...

...and now, some rules questions for any Imperial Assault veterans out there (so much as there are, considering how new the game is):

1. When counting distance, is the square your target is actually in count as one square? So if you have a melee weapon with reach, can you hit something that's two empty squares away from you, or just one, the second square being the square the defender's in?

2. When an entire unit is defeated, can the Imperial Player re-summon that unit with Threat? For example, in the first scenario, when all three stormtroopers get killed, can I bring the whole squad back with Threat?

3. Building on question two, does that mean I could field up to two entire squads of stormtroopers on that map, if I have sufficient Threat to bring back the first squad?

4. In the first scenario of the campaign, the Imperial Player doesn't really have any special abilities yet, right? Just the ability to use and reinforce the squads already on the map?

5. Diagonal movement: is it possible, and if so, is it two squares or one?

Friday, January 16, 2015

A Game of Trust

Trust. Perhaps the single biggest, most important resource at a table for running a roleplaying game. All RPGs are built on trust. Creativity may be the fuel that powers an RPG, but trust are the wheels...such a simple thing, and yet without them, you're going nowhere.

One thing that bothers me often about the newer crop of RPGs these days is that I feel they're often trying to work around trust, as if they're trying to minimize its importance. They spend paragraphs talking about how important it is to have "table consensus" and the need to have everyone in agreement about how something is going to happen before it happens. More often than not, these read to me as assurances to skeptical players that "hey, don't worry, the GM can't be a dick because everything here is decided by the group, not just him."

I think that's all a waste of time. If you don't trust your GM, there's no RPG out there that's going to fix that. Likewise; if you're a GM and you don't trust your players, then you're not going to have much fun since you'll be questioning their every move, planning against their inevitable attempts to "cheat" the system. Trust is a very important part of roleplaying gaming, and no RPG can mitigate that importance.

This topic is more or less always on my mind, but I read about two incidents lately that made me think even harder about it. They both involve Fate Core, perhaps the single hottest new RPG out today. In one incident, a GM was having a hard time in his game because his players kept exploiting their Aspects to overcome challenges and bypass most of an adventure's situations. In the other, a Dresden Files GM was upset that Fate Core stripped most of its more traditional conventions out and instead emphasized too much on collaboration and table consensus, making for what he thought would be an uncomfortable game.

In both situations, the problem to me is obvious: the GMs and their players don't trust each other. In the former case, the players are actively trying to exploit their way through an adventure, based on what they know of the rules; in the latter, the GM is actively afraid the same thing will happen. So it's not a game issue, to me. It's a trust issue.

But Fate Core isn't completely blame-free here, either. Trust is an important part of every tabletop game that's ever been created. So why does Fate Core try so hard to remind us that trust is important? Of course it is! By over-emphasizing it, Fate ends up planting these seeds of doubt, the same way someone who's lying can give themselves away by overemphasizing how they're not lying. In that first situation, maybe the players aren't a bunch of scoundrels at all...maybe they just got the idea that they can do this because Fate Core so readily reminds them that table consensus rules the day, so they can get away with anything as long as the table as a whole agrees it could/should happen.

Older RPGs (and older RPG gamers) don't seem to suffer from this problem as much. Why is that? It's for a few reasons, I think. For one thing, RPGs have a much wider player base than they ever did back in the 80s or even the 90s. The rise of "virtual tabletops" and gaming across the internet has created a pool of players so vast that there are bound to be a few bad apples in there, spoiling the bunch.

Another reason is the D20 Dynasty. Yes, I love to blame everything bad about RPGs on the D20 System, but here me out, here. That system, to me, represented old-school gaming to its most excessive extreme; sourcebooks for everything, optional rules so pervasive they might as well have been written on stone tablets; books for every genre and setting under the sun. As is always the case when a dominant force rocks popular culture, there was a backlash. And a principle that guided the D20 backlash was "Stuff that happens at the table should be dictated by the players at the table, not by the books on the shelf." A fine notion, of course...but that was always the case. It just got buried under all the D20 stuff. So now we have a new crop of RPGs, over-compensating.

I wonder where the hobby will be four, five, or six years from now. Will there be a Fate Core backlash? Will gamers everywhere be demanding hard and fast rules for every situation? It's hard to believe that the excessiveness of the D20 System will ever be back in style, but hey, anything's possible.

Judge Judy would probably make a hell of a GM...

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Tough Crowds

One of my Christmas/birthday acquisitions was Libertalia. I was really pumped to play the game, and so decided to spontaneously pull two co-workers into a game of it over lunch.

As usual, gaming at lunch is a dicey proposition (no pun intended). After lunches are acquired and eaten and the game is set up, we're left with approximately 40 minutes of actual play. For three newbs learning Libertalia, that proved too little time; we had to call it midway through the second week. Nevertheless, it was a fine opportunity to learn the game. I was really happy with the (partial) playthrough; it's very impressive how much strategy is crammed into such a relatively simple structure. 

(One question though for you Libertalia players out there: what the hell are the flag tokens for? The six tokens that look like flags, one for each player color? The instruction manual does not mention them, and the run-through video I watched on YouTube made no use of them. I presume they're an organizational aid, but can anyone tell me for certain?)

Anyways, I was thinking as I played about how interesting the power of passion can be. I'm not a terribly social guy, but if I want to play a board game, I'll ask random strangers whose names I don't even know and set up the game. I'm not a terribly driven guy, but I'll host and organize a meetup group if it means getting a roleplaying game to the table, even for a one-shot. I am, largely, a creature of comfort, yet I'll stay up late, wake up early, skip meals, and walk for miles to get to a gaming venue.  I find that interesting, since there are very few other things in my life I'll do that for. My family and friends are probably the only other things, in fact. This is a facet of my life I've only discovered in the past few years, and yet it's hard to imagine myself living any other way. 

This gaming at lunch isn't working out too well for me, yet I keep trying. I send out company-wide emails and end up with one, maybe two people. I know there are a wide variety of excuses as to why people don't show, but nevertheless there's usually at least a few people who take the same lunch hour and just prefer to sit at their desks. I don't blame them, but it's always a little discouraging. Then amongst the people who do show, sometimes I get co-workers I'm simply not crazy about and I've got to put my personal shit aside in the interest of playing a good game. And I tell myself, this is a chance to get to bond with someone you wouldn't normally care about. But that's an effort of will, you know. That's hard work. And who wants to work on their lunch?

Well, apparently, I do, if the work involves tabletop gaming. Odd, how that is. 
Believe the hype. It IS that good.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Agent of Chaos

For my birthday, my dad very graciously got me a copy of Imperial Assault. For those of you not in the know, Imperial Assault is a Star Wars-themed adventure board game. Most of the players play Rebel heroes, and one player plays the various agents and soldiers of the Empire. Games consist of scenarios with varied goals like collecting certain items or making it to a certain spot on the modular game board. I stole a term I heard Will Wheaton throw around to describe games like this: "A Roleplaying Game in a Box." Other games like Imperial Assault include Mansions of Madness and Descent.

I was very excited to receive the game. Then I looked at the back of the box and read the component lists. The hundreds of unpainted, plastic miniatures. The several decks of cards of various types. Stacks upon stacks of different tokens, chips, and cardboard bits. And I actively found myself dreading just opening the box, because I didn't want to deal with all of that. Though I received the game a week ago, the box still remains, plastic-wrapped, sitting on my bookshelf. I'm even a little tempted to return it to Amazon, or trade it for something else...something I really don't want to do, as I try to cherish and hoard every gift I've ever received.

But one other thing I really don't want to do is open that box and deal with the monumental task of organizing all that shit! I also own Mansions of Madness. Anyone with even a touch of OCD who opens my box of Mansions of Madness would, quite appropriately, go insane. Every card, figure, token, and game board are scattered inside the box, flowing freely, not unlike the toy chest of a little boy. "Setup" when I play Mansions usually consists of literally dumping the entire box onto the table, then assigning organization tasks to each player. "Cleanup" is a simple series of arm swipes directed into the box, the only hints of organization being an order to the swiping (boards and instructions first, then cards, then tokens, figures last).

You'd be surprised how well this works. I've got it down to a science, and I know for a fact that I can taskmaster the setup of this game as quickly as someone who keeps every piece in a separate box (I've done it before, side-by-side, against someone who keeps a neater collection of the exact same game). And cleanup...please. However, what can't be ignored...and what ultimately makes me realize I can't do this for every the morale hit the group takes when that box comes out. I hate that a bunch of neat freaks can potentially ruin the fun of a game before it even hits the table, especially for such a superficial reason, but I cannot deny that tabletop gaming, like many live pastimes, is all about morale and spirit. So when the box for Mansions of Madness opens up and the chaos is unleashed, I have to constantly reassure everyone at the table that yes, everything is here. Yes, everything is in fine enough condition. And yes, we will play, not only promptly, but just as promptly as a more-organized system, as long as we work together. It's an exhausting explanation. Look at how many sentences I've just spent talking about it. And yet it's a fight, every time. I've literally gotten into arguments with people about it. Quite frankly, it's soured me, not only on Mansions of Madness, but every game that "requires" an organization system.

This whole notion has honestly curtailed a lot of my boardgame-buying habits, much to my wallet (and my wife's) glee. I've all but shunned card games now. Any board game review/gameplay video that "strongly recommends" printing player aids or buying something to organize your stuff gets ignored almost immediately by me. I've even found myself actively searching for games that contain decent organization methods right in the box and exclusively focusing on them...or games that have few enough components that don't require careful organization.

Anyways, this brings me back to Imperial Assault. I received quite a few great board games from friends and family this holiday season. The unexpected bounty has given me the urge to get back into boardgaming. But this lingering issue of organization is holding out. I find it interesting that prep work for an RPG is something I will do willingly, diligently, and often, but prep work for a board game is practically a deal-breaker for me.

I'll end this bitchy blog post with a list of my favorite "self-organized" games. If you have any requests, both for hassle-free organization for existing games or self-organized games, please let me know:

1. Terra Mystica: All of the numerous bits to this game come in their own plastic bag. Even after everything is bagged, the box closes properly. Voila!

2. Pandemic: I can't speak for the new edition, but my old edition has few enough parts that I can quickly put the game together, from mass of stuff on the table to ready for turn one, in less than ten minutes.

3. Arctic Scavengers: This brilliant deckbuilding game of Dominion for hipsters has few enough cards that organizing them can be quick and easy, especially if the other players are willing to co-sort during setup.

4. Lords of Waterdeep: Perhaps one of the best boardgaming inserts I've ever seen, this game is ready to go almost from the moment the box opens, and cleans up just as quickly.

5. Conquest of Nerath: Appropriately, this D&D-themed game does for wargames what Lords of Waterdeep does for euro-style worker placement games. And, like it's sibling game, the insert is brilliantly useful, storing the various cards, tokens, and figures with no clutter and quick access.

Take everything you see here, load it into a shotgun, then fire it into a cardboard box. That's how my game of Imperial Assault is going to look, shortly after my first playthrough of it... 

Monday, January 12, 2015

Play Report: The One Ring, Jan. 11th

Yesterday, I got together with four of my friends and ran a game of The One Ring. It was an adventure I had written myself, called "The Hound of Sauron." It was my first time running this game, and the first session I have GM'd since September (with a single one-shot run back in November). Three of the four players made their characters in-session. Character creation is very swift and easy. I'd put it about the same level as Star Wars: Edge of the Empire. 

Weeks before the adventure, I had made an arrangement with one of the players. He wanted to play a Ranger of the North, which was tricky because there aren't any Rangers of the North in Wilderland, the default setting for The One Ring. I ended up basing the entire plot of the adventure on making this exception; I told him he was traveling into Wilderland to hunt a hound of Sauron, named Roshr, who had slain many of his brethren and then traveled East. In the opening moments of the adventure, the Ranger met the three other elf of Mirkwood, a Barding, and a Beorning...while in pursuit of the beast. They formed a fellowship and vowed to send the monster back to the Shadow!

Most of the adventure was travel, with the Ranger following Roshr's trail. The hound's trail eventually led into Mirkwood, in the Narrows of the Forest. Upon entering the forest, the fellowship ran into Radagast the Brown and beseeched him for aid. Radagast refused to directly involve himself out of fear of scaring off Roshr (he'd rather the beast be drawn out and slain then to continue to skulk in the forest, working for the Enemy), but did say that Twitters, one of his nightingale friends, would watch over them.

Finally, the fellowship entered a clearing in the woods and confronted Roshr. Roshr had two warg packmates with him, and together, they attacked! The fellowship emerged victorious. Twitters flew off and informed Radagast that the deed had been done, to which Radagast went to the party in his rabbit-drawn sleigh and gave them a lift to Rhosgobel, which became the party's first sanctuary.

Things I Liked/Went Well:

1. The system: The One Ring has all kinds of little procedural systems in it (journey resolution, combat, encounters, fellowship phase actions), codefied and fairly well-defined, that kept the game running extremely smoothly. In fact, The One Ring seems extremely well-suited to running very short games (1-2 hr sessions), giving a complete gaming experience that doesn't feel rushed or cut off arbitrarily.

2. The setting: You absolutely cannot go wrong with Middle Earth. The world has so much history and culture. It can feel a little intimidating, and there is the whole Imaginary Ceiling thing, but Tolkien's world has tons of places to explore and create stories in without ever bumping into a continuity problem. And because of the way society in Middle Earth is set up, with divided cultures spread over hundreds of miles, you don't even have to know that much, because chances are the average peasant doesn't know that much, either! But if you take the time to learn the history around the adventure, it can be very intrinsically rewarding for a One Ring GM...

3. The adventure: "The Hound of Sauron" was one of the easiest complete adventures I've ever written. Though I spent a week or two brainstorming the story, I had all the mechanical details I needed written out in front of me in barely a day's work. As a result of all those cool little sub-systems inside the game, I didn't have to worry much at all about how I needed to frame things, what kind of rolls I'd need everyone to make, stats and difficulty numbers, etc. Most of that is already covered in the system itself, so just the smallest amount of prep is really necessary. In fact, despite the intricate setting, running The One Ring prep-less would actually be quite doable, since, again, the game's subsystems for journeys, encounters, and combat are very capable of carrying most of the action for you. This frees you up to think about narrative details and just getting it all to mesh together.

Things that don't work/disappointed me:

1. The final conflict: In the One Ring, NPCs have an "attribute level" that is their default stat for everything. This attribute level is on a scale of 1-10, with the bigger movers and shakers of the world (Beorn, King Bard, etc.) in the 10-range. Roshr, the hound of Sauron, had an attribute level of 6, so I thought he'd be a capable, if not difficult, challenge for the beginning fellowship, especially with two wargs (attribute level 5), helping him out. However, I learned the hard way that attribute level is not equivalent to, say, D&D's encounter levels.  Turns out that attribute level is not a very good indicator of equivalent fighting prowess. Only one member of the party got seriously injured (and even that wasn't life-threatening). One of the wargs got one-shotted by the Elf; the other got two-shotted by the Beorning. And Roshr himself lost over half his endurance in the opening volley of the combat (a mere two arrows hitting him). Granted, the players were rolling exceptionally well, but still, what I thought would be one of the harder fights my group's ever had was actually a steam-roll. It was fun and exciting, but also just a little underwhelming. I'm definitely going to have to take a much closer look at the bestiary and make sure I understand the tactical uses of each monster when I create another combat for this fellowship!

2. Roleplaying (or lack thereof): With the game's systems doing so much of the heavy-lifting for you, it's easy to get lazy and just let the adventure turn into a series of dice rolls, which I kind of did, especially in the second half of the adventure. It's important to build-in some opportunities in the adventures to let the fellowship bond with each other, roleplay, and generally have an opportunity not just to do heroic stuff, but to act like heroes doing that kind of heroic stuff.

Overall, though, I think the adventure went really well, and I look forward to getting this game to the table again soon!
The Narrows, where the adventure's climax took place, is in Southern Mirkwood, southeast of Rhosgobel and northeast of Dul Guldur.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Cortex Meta

Here's an idea that's been simmering in the Kitchen for a little while: a roleplaying game that's built for one-shots. The idea is that the player, not that player's character, progresses over the course of the game. A "campaign" is a collection of one-shot adventures that can cover any genre, but the players who are in the game get progressively cooler tools to use in each adventure. Since I first experimented with some ideas of meta-game play in my Firefly campaign, I find myself drawn to using that for this idea. Let's call it Cortex Meta.

Here's how I see it working. This is all raw, off the top of my head shit, so I want feedback, people!

-There's a GM with a set adventure and players who make characters. There is a procedural system for how stuff happens and what the characters are capable of. This ain't Fiasco. 

-Every character, regardless of the nature of the one-shot, has four Primary Traits: Body, Spirit, Social, and Mind. These are all pretty self-explanatory, but Spirit can swing a bit depending on the game (in a normal, contemporary world, it may reflect simple grit and determination; in a fantasy world, it could actually be magic power, or something).

-Every character also has about twelve Secondary Traits, which can vary widely per game. The number has to stay around 12, though; too few and the game is too bland, too many and the game is awkward. It's okay for Secondary Traits to toe-step on Primary Traits: You could have a game where there is an Athletics trait, even though functionally it would be the same as the Body Primary Trait.

And then, the meta stuff:

-Even though every adventure is a one-shot, each player has a collection of meta traits that carry over from one character to the next. The nature and scope of these meta-traits can vary in scope, but I personally would have them probably revolve around certain motifs: for example, a D8 Something's Always Blowing Up trait that can be added to any rolls when an explosion is involved. Or a D10 Bathroom Brawl trait, whenever that player's character ends up in a fight that takes place in a bathroom. Stuff like that.

-There would also be Meta Distinctions, that carry over from one-shot to one-shot. These work like Distinctions in Firefly: each Distinction has a die assigned to it, and two or three special abilities that can triggered in various ways throughout play. These Meta Distinctions would of course be meta-flavored, so they'd be things like The Best Friend, or The Bumbling Hero, or The Wise-ass Sidekick. 

-Plot Points carry over from one-shot to one-shot, so a player who spent them all to be the Big Damn Hero last week may suddenly find himself largely in a supporting role next session.

-Every Meta Distinction would also have at least one "Plot Request Ability," where the player can spend a Plot Point to assure something happens during the next one-shot. For example, a player with The Bumbling Hero Meta Distinction may have an ability called "Bull in a China Shop" that reads something like "Spend a Plot Point to guarantee that there is at least one action scene in the next adventure that takes place in an area where there can (and will) be lots of collateral damage." 

-Every Meta Distinction will also have at least one "Narrative Ability" that does nothing mechanically but can inform the story or shape the narrative a certain way. This differs from the plot request ability in that it can be used during the session, rather than in advance of the next session. A player with the Wise-ass Sidekick Distinction, for example, could have an ability called "Just for Pun" where they can spend a Plot Point and the GM has to set the player up for an obvious pun. (That one may have to have a once per session limit on it).

So what do you think? It looks a little messy right now, in brain-dump form, but if I clean it up a little and get a group together, I think it could be fun!

John Malkovich, the patron saint of all things meta...

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Check In

It's been a week since my last blog post, so I'm posting this just to keep in touch (with whom? Myself? EWW! I'm keeping in touch with myself!)

Anyways, I just wanted to not go more than a week without a blog entry, so I'm cheating and writing this meta-entry about not writing the past week. I've been a little busy with other stuff, which is why I haven't been writing. So, bullet-point style, here are a few things I've been doing the past week that have been occupying my time:

-I've spent a lot of the past few days emerged deep in The One Ring. I am running a game of it this Sunday with an adventure of my own design, which I have been writing and prepping for. Also, I just finished my review of the latest sourcebook for the game, Rivendell, for my reviewing gig with Geek Native. I am very, very excited to run this game. Not only will it mark my return to regular GMing after a hiatus of several months, but The One Ring, as I've written before, is an extraordinary game, and I've been having a blast putting this adventure together. I am very enthusiastic that it will turn out well!

-With the arrival of the Xbox One this Christmas, my gaming pendulum is swinging back into videogame land, for the first time in almost a year. In the past few weeks since Christmas, I've beaten Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare's single player campaign, made a new character in Dragon Age: Inquisition, and had some epic battles in Shadow of Mordor. To say nothing of Sunset Overdrive, which is just ridiculously fun. And my greedy eyes look ever outward at expanding my collection. I've refused to buy anything before my birthday this Friday, but after this weekend, as soon as I'm able, I'll be picking up Halo, Grand Theft Auto V, and Diablo III, amongst numerous potential others.

-Although my interest is now running deep into console gaming territory, I still intend to stay with tabletop gaming. For one thing, I generally don't like multiplayer videogaming; I prefer my social gaming face-to-face. For another, I am very much an advocate of investing in experiences, not things. Tabletop gaming definitely feels like a collection of things at times, but most tabletop games can't be played alone. So these games facilitate an experience with other people. That's important. So while videogaming is definitely something I look forward to when I need a quiet evening at home by myself, this blog isn't going to switch over to electronic gaming any time soon.

-I'm having a problem with my office at lunchtime D&D games with my coworkers. Mainly, I'm finding it really boring. We're running the Starter Set, which may be fine for a new group of players, but for an old vet like me, I'm finding it excruciatingly plain. My players seem into it, but I most certainly am not. I'm wondering if I can switch them over to Star Wars or The One Ring. Or maybe I could pick up a deep strategy game that plays in less than an hour, like Seven Wonders or something...

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....