Thursday, December 8, 2016

What the What? Valiant Universe RPG

So Valiant, huh? Apparently that’s a comics line. I’ll start by proclaiming my stupidity, which I come by honestly. By the early ‘90’s I’d stopped buying comics, maybe a year or two before Image launched. I missed the entirely of the ‘90’s- over-the-top character designs, pouches, collectors editions, variant covers, 53 different X-books, and finally the bubble and collapse. 

I only returned and learned what was happening in the Big Two in the early ‘00s. I bought some comics, not many, and filled in my knowledge with blogs and choice collections (Starman for example).

So I hadn’t really realized there’d been an original Valiant comics when I saw people talking about the new Valiant Universe line. It really only popped up on my radar when the Wait, What podcast mentioned it. Then the Valiant Universe RPG came out. As I’ve documented I love superhero rpgs. I took a look at the quickstart, but my brain failed me. I didn’t know the characters, so I had nothing to grab onto. When core book landed, I kept my eye on the Valiant Universe RPG. But other games floated to the top of my buy list.

Then we got a new and exciting Bundle of Holding. It contains several pieces of the Valiant Universe RPG plus a host of starter comic collections for the line. I’ve just gone through all of this, so I’ll give my initial impressions from a place of ignorance about the universe. This isn’t a review- more an overview and description to inform your decision.

RPG-SIDE
The Bundle comes with four rpg items: Valiant Universe RPG Comic Book Play Guide, Valiant Universe RPG Quick Start Rules, Valiant Universe: The Roleplaying Game, and Valiant Universe RPG: Transcendent's Edge. The first two are free products while the last one’s a campaign module.

You can find several different flavors of the VURPGQS on DriveThru, each with a different character focus and sample adventure. It looks like those feature different stories than those in the core book, so that nicely extends things. The Comic-Book Play Guide is very well done- we’ve seen other superhero rpgs do this before, but nothing on this scale. It’s worth reading through. The designers have done a good job of showcasing main and corner case rules there.

CORE BOOK
Right away you’ll notice the nice graphic design. It’s clean and open, making good use of the Valiant artwork. I liked MWP’s Marvel Heroic, but the design could be a little dark. This avoids that problem. You’ll also see we start with the characters and organizations of the universe. Each gets a couple of pages of backstory. These write-ups avoid mechanics, only offering some tags/cues (which I’ll come back to). The game’s focus firmly stays on the Valiant Universe and it’s a good sourcebook if you’re interested in that. Despite that, it does include mechanics for making your own character.

The main body of the rules run from pages 42 to 59, and that includes some discussion of comic arcs and stories. It’s amazingly tight. Character creation’s only nine pages. So what’s the system like?

It uses variable dice for the stats ala Savage Worlds (d4, d6, d8, d10, d12). It does the same with powers ala Marvel Heroic. It also reminds me of MHRPG with its broad treatment of power effects, but doesn’t do the same kind of pool building. Powers provide a fiction, and some can have mechanical effect (on armor). So it’s a little like Worlds in Peril. It does allow for some mechanic effect specifics (dice replacement, die keeping, increasing armor, etc).

Generally players roll their stat die for challenges. They can roll a relevant power die, but then drop the lower result. They add modifiers to that result and compare it to a d20 roll by the Lead Narrator (the GM). Modifiers are open-ended and an arbitrary LN choice. There’s one exception: if the player rolls the same number as their Luck stat, they automatically succeed. In combat, the LN’s d20 challenge die is replaced by the appropriate dice of their foe.

Everything has Cues from PCs to the villains to the story itself. These are quick descriptors (one or two words). They’re much tighter than Fate’s aspects. They don’t seem to have a mechanical effect, instead acting as prompts. Character “dispositions” are more like aspects, though again no apparent mechanical effect. Tags are like dispositions, I think, but it’s unclear what they do. I think they’re just color. Everything seems coded to offer players hooks for their scenes.

Valiant Universe also has a Plot Point system. PCs earn them for good narrations. Like Marvel Heroic, the Lead Narrator also earns PPs. When players spend one, the LN gains it. You can use PP’s make a change to the game. Any change. It’s hugely broad. Oddly it’s mentioned (and the play examples show) players can spend PP’s to create negative changes for themselves. But there’s no mechanical incentive to do so. The system focuses on story over detailed resolution or mechanics.

THE TWIST 
Here’s Valiant Universe’s big hook, though. Scenes are divided, as you’d expect, into turns. The Lead Narrator describes the situation/problem and the players take a “narration” of their action. When everyone’s done that, a new turn begins until the scene’s completed. So far, so good. Here’s the interesting tech:
“The LN starts a Scene and is the LN for every turn until a Scene is accomplished. Once a Scene is finished, the player to the right of the current LN becomes the new LN. The new LN starts the first turn of the new Scene by providing a narrative of the current situation, and so on, as described above.”
The LN also has a character, so they always get to play.

It’s wild concept, making this really a story game (at least in my head). I can see it working with the way they’ve got the adventures structured: a series of event briefs written out which have to be solved. If there’s a drawback, it’s that these run on railroad tracks. How you solve a problem remains open, but you’re always starting the next scene with X events established. On the other hand running without an established would be more challenging and require more negotiation for a game. The rules talk about the “Yes, and…” of improve and it’s going to require a lot of that. But there’s little discussion of how to build those stories.

The rest of the book contains full-write ups for 36 characters from the comics, plus abbreviated notes for 48 secondary characters and mooks. Finally there are Event Briefs (adventures), built for particular characters or teams. You could use these with your own PCs with some adaptation. There’s also a longer campaign linked adventure at the back.

THE COMICS
The highest level of the Bundle contains ten comic collections- the first four issues of different series. I expect more will be added. Given my absolute naiveté about the line, I’ve gone through each collection and read the first issue. Here are my impressions. I’ve ranked them from least excited to most interested:
  • Harbinger V1: Omega Rising: There’s a post this week from TV showrunners talking about rape as characterdevelopment. That came back to be as the main character of this book mind-controlled a woman and made her have sex with him. It’s treated as an overuse of his powers and a “bad thing,” but more a misstep than a violent crime. The Valiant Universe Handbook puts it this way, (the rape victim) “despite distrusting him for previously using his abilities to manipulate her,” ends up helping him develop his powers later in the series. Yick. 
  • Quantum and Woody V1: The World's Worst Superhero Team: I don’t mind the idea of bad superheroes. But that has to carefully balance like/dislike. I like the relationship between the two main characters even as I actually dislike the two main characters. But this first issue takes a long time to get to the point. It starts in medias res, but isn’t particularly grabbing. The flashback to how we got there lacks a real payoff.
  • Ninjak V1: Weaponeer: This has some cool stuff and the initial mission especially has some cinematic moments. But it suffers from too much telling us why someone is cool. David Mamet’s “Memo to the Writers of The Unit” points out how lousy this two people talking about a third trope is. I like Ninjak’s supertech-thief concept, but he’s such a lazy adolescent white male power fantasy…maybe? I’m not sure. He bugs me.
  • X-O Manowar V1: By the Sword: I think X-O Manowar’s the Valiant character I’d heard of most. I still didn’t know who or what he was when I went to read this. He certainly isn’t what I expected. We don’t get all that far in this first issue, but I’m genuinely curious about where the story’s going.
  • Unity V1: To Kill a King: This book takes place significantly later in the Valiant timeline. I’d recommend reading it next to last (just before Ivar). I like the framing and the set up. The idea of a team versus another major character (with his own comic) works for me. The one wrong note is the book’s set up a bunch of characters to kill off for drama. At first I thought the writer had decided to slaughter them off-page, which was striking and a cool reversal of expectations. But then we got a couple pages of gruesome deaths to showcase how badass the opposition is.
  • Shadowman V1: Birth Rites: I dig supernatural superheroes, but I’m always wary. Sometimes magic’s done just like any other power. I don’t get that feeling here. The first issue provides an interesting story, but sets up many mysteries I want solved. I don’t know why, but I like that the main character’s a jack-of-all conventional trades, having gone from job to job.
  • Ivar, Timewalker V1: Making History: Time travel’s hard, but this book works decently. The cover blurb makes Ivar seem like a wise-cracking rogue, which he isn’t exactly. In fact the other main character, scientist Neela Sethi, is more flippant and fun. It has lots of sly references to other Valiant books, so I recommend reading it last. It has a solid twist that made me want to read more.
  • Bloodshot V1: Setting the World on Fire: I like conspiracies in superhero comics. Bloodshot's conventional, but I dig his design. I'm curious about where this story will go. It's more interesting than Wildstorm's Deathblow, a similar mind-controlled merc.   
  • The Valiant V1: Team book! I like superteams and the set-up here is unique and cool. It establishes some serious stakes and makes me worry about the outcome. I also want to see how these characters actually work together. Good read.
  • Archer & Armstrong Volume 1: The Michelangelo Code: There’s an interesting mix in the Valiant line of serious (Harbinger, To Kill a King) and funny (Quantum & Woody, Ivar). Archer & Armstrong’s the most explicitly comedic. I didn’t dig it at first, but it grew on me. By the end I liked the characters and wanted to see where it went. Has some pretty good comic-booky jokes, in particular the Cult of Mammon.
  • Rai V1: Welcome to New Japan: Wow. This came out of left field. It’s very different from the rest of the line, set in the far future. The world-building’s excellent. Rai dashes off ideas and keeps moving at hyper-speed. I want to know the answers to the many questions it poses.

I’ll finish reading all the collections (except Harbinger). I’ll probably pick up more of those last three books, definitely more of Rai. Overall I’m pleased with the comics. They’re more than worth the price of the bundle and give a decent sense of the Valiant Universe as a whole. I do wish we’d gotten a Faith collection, but based on the strength of these I’ll pick that up on my own.

There’s also The Valiant Universe Handbook 2016 #1 included. It echoes the classic Marvel Universe Handbooks. It’s a good resource for the rpg. I wouldn’t read it until after you’ve finished reading the collections.

OVERALL

If you like superhero comics, it’s worth picking up this collection-- especially if you haven’t checked out Valiant. If you’re a superhero rpg fan, it’s also worth getting. The rpg itself offers a massively loose, improv-heavy, superhero story game. It’s unlike anything out there- more open than Marvel Heroic or classic Marvel Superheroes. But even if that approach isn’t your bag, VURPG has a ton of good resources and ideas. There’s even a large campaign module I didn’t even cover above. Going through everything I spotted plot point and character material I’m stealing for my Mutants & Masterminds campaign. That makes it worth my time. 

Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this bundle. 

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

The Year in Horror RPGs 2015 (Part Two: Outbreak: Undead to Witch: Fated Souls)

TRAIL OF BREADCRUMBS
If I’m feeling especially brave I try to do an assessment of genre trends with these lists. But 2015 proves strikingly resistant to that. Sure we had several zombie games, but it didn’t feel like a shovelware flood. We had some strong small press or indie titles (Ten Candles, Urban Shadows, Witch). But we also had some veterans return (Chill, Apocalypse Prevention, Inc). We even had FFG dip its toes into the horror rpg waters (The End of the World series). There’s a ton of good stuff, but nothing that I can point to and go “That was the year of X.”

But even when I go to my default horror barometer, horror films, I don’t see a trend. We had big studio horror (Crimson Peaks, Poltergist, The Visit); comedy horror (Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse, Final Girls), found-footage (Vatican Tapes, Paranormal Activity: Ghost Dimension), sequels (Sinister 2, Insidious: Chapter 3), anthologies (Christmas Horror Story, Tales of Halloween). But a stand-out film? I’m not sure. Perhaps The Witch, and even that seemed to split reviewers as to how strong it was. Even television seems to have managed to cater to a variety of horror tastes (Scream Queens, The Strain, American Horror Story, Penny Dreadful).

Your sense of 2015 in horror? Good? Bad? Indifferent?

I have a Patreon for this project. If you like it, consider becoming a backer or resharing these lists to spread the word.

COME IN MY DEARIE
For this list I’ve focused on major releases, arbitrarily determined. I’ve usually added it if it has a hard-copy version. I’ve judged pdfs on size and utility. For the list items I include core rules, significant sourcebooks, and large campaigns. I’ve split this list into two parts, at the end of the second part you’ll find grouped entries for some other sourcebooks and modules. You’ll also notice an absence of Cthulhu horror on this list- those will get their own post. If you see something major from 2015 I’ve missed in this half of the alphabet, give me a heads up. 


Outbreak: Undead moves back to classic zombies from the company's foray into generic sci-fi horror (Outbreak: Space). If you’ve read the first half of the list, you’ll note this is the third game using cards. These aren't integral to play and come in three flavors: encounters, character trait, and injury reference cards. The encounter cards also include survivors so you can pick one of those and play right away. Optionally you can take an online quiz, the “SPEW AI,” and generate a version of yourself It focuses on the survivor and survival side of things. You need to track your resources and handle encumbrance. In this regard it leans more to the Walking Dead side: life in the aftermath. OB:UD doesn't focus on backstory, instead it assumes you have that in mind. ("Zombies are here. What's next?"). It uses abilities and skills to form dice pools. While Outbreak: Undead looks simple, there's an array graphic icons and color coding in the rules, as well as the use of d5's.

I didn't like the messy, collage-filled graphic approach of OB:UD first edition, but this new version cleans that up. The 2e pocket edition is much easier to read. While you can't turn off the layers in the pdf, the page backgrounds aren't too intrusive. Overall it feels like a much stronger game with significant changes to the mechanics.

An Italian horror rpg which translates as "Toyland." It's written by the designers of Sine Requie: Anno XIII, a weird World War II zombie horror game. In fact this seems to be a weird creepy doll side setting within that world. Here's the loosely translated blurb: "On June 6, 1944, the world sank into the darkest of hells. On Judgment Day the Dead began hunting mankind ... but in another place, where imagination reigns, those who are puppets in the world dominated by Dead, live their lives and their adventures. Here you will find heroic knights, bears with funny hats on his head, powerful witches and graceful ladies with their parasols of lace."

RPGGeek lists it as zombie horror. But it looks more like a kids' perspective horror game- like Grimm or Monsters & Other Childish Things.

GURPS may have ruined us for generic system names. P.E.R.K. (written with all those periods throughout) stands for "Pretty Easy Roleplaying Kit." It's a universal corebook released with their urban horror setting as the default. P.E.R.K.’s a dice pool game with options for tactical tracking. So far they've only released these two books plus a microsetting: Hollywood Ninja. Oddly you can't buy the UH book separately right now on DriveThru, you can only get it in a bundle with the core book.

PERK Urban Horror follows the Monster PC path ala World of Darkness. It has a mature content warning on the back, a blurb, and some goth poetry. There's about eight pages of setting material, with the rest being mechanical material (perks, skills, gear, abilities), GM advice (six pages), and antagonists (16 pages). While it wears a sense of WoD on its sleeve, it doesn't reference those in its inspirations section.

So apparently there's a long-running comic called Phineus: Magician for Hire. Currently it's a webcomic, though the header says the company's been providing "Pittsburgh's Best Paranormal Comics" for 25 years. This game's written by the creator. Originally titled Backwaters of Mysticism (2010), this new edition increases the size fourfold. There's a nice quote from the author on his website, "Ironically John and my own RPG doesn’t have a world. We created it so that it would fit into any world you wanted it to...Many of my Phineus stories came from those games. Rugnar and Maynard are both characters I played in Backwaters. The Kali Saga was based on a campaign run by John, in which I played Brother Maynard. And yes, he did get squished in that one, too."

The game itself is OGL based (or as the book says "Requires the use of a Roleplaying Game Core Book published by Wizards of the Coast, Inc.") Oddly DriveThru lists it as using BRP from Chaosium. The rules themselves feel very rough, like a home campaign resource document assembled for players. There’s no table of contents, it jumps in without ref to the source rules, and has no page numbers. Phineus assumes a good deal of gaming knowledge. The layout's pretty basic a bar boxing in the single-column text and a greyscale background.

A new edition of Rippers, revised for Savage Worlds: Reloaded. The highly successful Kickstarter allowed them several additional releases. I've reviewed the original Rippers and summed that up this way: "A solid and unique take on Victoriana horror, Rippers manages to smartly combine the Gothic horror tradition with the trappings and worries of steampunk. Here science offers new ways to combat the darkness facing the world, but at a horrible cost to mind and body. Biotech and implants of a cyberpunk style game become limbs and organs harvested from monsters and implanted into hunters. The whole thing is well developed and presented. It has some material on the Victorian world, but mostly sets up the campaign ideas and concepts."

The new edition keeps that up, but with a new look, new art, and a more graphically intense page design (I hope you can turn off layers...). It looks very cool. It makes me both regret not backing the KS and not digging Savage Worlds more. The main material's broken into a Player's Guide and Game Master's Handbook. They've released several supplements: Frightful Expeditions (more on the setting), Lord of the Underworld (module), and various pdf incidental pieces. You can also buy a bundle of original Rippers for a quite nice price.

A sci-fi horror rpg, Shadows Over Sol embraces both the old and the new in theming and design. On the one hand we have issues of transhumanism, networking, and constructed cultures on the table. On the other we have a dense thirteen pages of setting history as a roadblock for new players. Shadows Over Sol threw me off right away. The introduction seems to set up a very specific and concrete backdrop for the game. A colony ship travelling from Mars to Ceres has problems. The crew’s divided politically and fighting breaks out. That failed mutiny damages the ship, but it limps to its destination. But it finds only dead comms at the landing site. The survivors stagger out into an empty station, perhaps to discover alien horrors lurking there.

OK, cool. I like the tight framing. We’re going to be crewmembers trying to survive and figure out what happened.

But that’s not what we get. Instead the game’s much broader. We switch gears to grand scale themes of space-faring, discussions of the solar system history, and a presentation of all the conflicting cultures. It’s a weird shift. Shadows Over Sol resembles Eclispe Phase, a broad sci-fi game which can be used to tell horror stories. SoS puts horror on the cover, but it doesn’t feel like that needs to be the case. It’s a general sci-fi setting and system. Despite citing notable sci-fi horror sources (The Thing, Europa Report, The Void) , the book only provides a handful of pages actually addressing how to use the game for those kinds of stories.

Also, it’s the fourth game on these lists to use cards.

Shane Hensley, creator of Deadlands, returns to Wild West horror with his rpg adaptation of the Oni Press comic, The Sixth Gun. Built for Savage Worlds, the Kickstarter pitch stressed the compatibility of this material with Deadlands.

I’d never heard of The Sixth Gun series. If you haven’t either, here’s the wikipedia synopsis, “The Sixth Gun takes place in the old west, shortly after the end of the Civil War. The story centers around a set of six pistols, each imbued with dark powers. The wielder of each pistol gains an ability unique to that weapon, and is tied to the pistol until his or her death.” The comic itself ran fifty issues, supplemented by a bunch of spin-off mini-series. Clocking in at about a hundred pages, The Sixth Gun rpg offers new edges, hindrances, artifacts, and optional rules. We’ve seen some licensed rpgs lean into the mechanics and others acting more as sourcebooks. The Sixth Gun falls somewhere in the middle.

Originally I'd placed this on my forthcoming "Year in Cthulhu" list. But when I referenced it in an online conversation, someone corrected me. They said Silent Legions wasn't a Cthulhu game, but instead literally Lovecraft-esque. A quick read-though of the preview got me to order a hard copy. As with the other Kevin Crawford rpg I hit this year, Godbound, Silent Legions hit a sweet spot for me: a toolkit for generating sweeping rpg adventures, backed up by interesting detail and a fully-fleshed system.

Silent Legions has several distinct but interlocking parts. It begins with an OSR-style ruleset for horror investigations. It's clean and simple, offering four classes (Investigator, Scholar, Socialite, Tough). These rules take up the first couple dozen pages. That even includes tight equipment lists, encumbrance, and madness systems. Crawford's distilled down what you need to play at this level of detail. As a plus, the OSR's tissue-paper characters fit here, overmatched by the horrors they face.

After the basic rules, we get a classic PC-destructive magic and psychics system. Here Silent Legions unveils its big trick: plentiful resources to help GMs tune those elements. The "Creating Dark Sorcery" section has random tables to create mind-blasting arcana. It's useful for any modern supernatural investigation game.

The same holds true for the tools on offer in the rest of the book. In the chapter on Creating Your Mythos, you build your cosmic horror-- from elder gods to alien races to cults. You can generate something echoing Lovecraft but unfamiliar to the player and characters. The tables hold together. I've seen table books that lack coherency. Crawford connects the material and offers rich examples for each section. You see the same skill in the Building Your World, Cults, and Bestiary sections.

The book's capped with a GM grab-bag optional rules and re-frames. That includes my favorite: “Luchadores Against Cthulhu.” It also has notes on Freemasonry, a tables for secret adepts, school settings, and more. It discusses how to use Silent Legions with other games. If you like OSR then this game will work for you. But even if you don't it's worth picking up. Anyone running Call of Cthulhu, Fear Itself, Hunter, Monster of the Week, or similar games will find useful resources here. Highly recommended.

The world's ending. You're survivors trying to eke out a last few minutes, hours, days. You're going to fail. Your candle will be snuffed out. That’s the game.

Yikes may be the understatement of the blog.

What kinds of horror can you evoke at the table? Dread, as in the eponymous Dread with its terrible anticipation at the table? Cosmic horror, perhaps? A nihilistic reaction to things more massive and uncaring? Shock horror done with blood and gut?. Its sibling body horror or revulsion ? Jump Scares? Perhaps even the subtle horror of the uncanny as seen in some fantastic stories?

And then there's Ten Candles’ existential horror. You're not monsters dealing with your inhumanity. You're people. I don't know if I could handle this game. I don't know what kind of bleed I'd have, especially given the current climate.

My description doesn’t do it justice. If you want to read an excellent explanation and review, check out this post at Bluestocking's Organic Gaming.

A horror/slasher film-esque rpg; it’s generic but with a particular gory tone. Trick or Treat has a basic layout and look, complete with blood splatter page elements (at the top and bottom, not under the text...mostly). It opens with game fiction you have to wade through. The system’s percentile-based using skill and point buy. The blurb touts quick character generation as a feature. Sometimes I let a game’s ad copy do the tlaking, "While watching a horror movie it occurs to some that they could do better. Trick or treat is the game that puts you in that seat and gives you the chance to live up to those words. Can you really make better decisions or is it all talk? Can you play the ROLE and still trick the classic monsters or will you become their treat?" Publisher Trooper X has released a couple of other rpgs: Space Cadet Alpha, Ancient Steel, and Ancient Steel Horror. If you know one of those, you may have better insight into this game.

While we had a horde of zombies on the first half of this list, only this one shambles into view here. TROPES is intended to be a new basic system, and it launches with this Z-themed product. It's a light, d6-driven game. Characters have three stats (muscle, agility, wits), a background/ profession, and a descriptive sentence. A character's background gives a die bonus for related tasks. Those mechanics only take up the first 16 pages. It's pretty conventional, though I like the concept of exceptional rolls giving you the equivalent of fate points. TROPES: ZE does have good simple toolkit for building an outbreak. That's a decent resource and I'd like to see more of that. That's followed by NPCs, some zombie listings, and inspirational sources. TROPES: Zombies offers a quick, simple zombie game. If you like Z-horror and want something you can get to the table quickly, it fits. If you're curious about it, there's an artless PWYW version available. Small Niche Games has also released a companion and a scenario.

27. Tupilak
Sometimes I include things because I have no idea what they are. This is a Finnish rpg. RPGGeek has this translation for the back cover:

"Tupilak - The game of arctic death
Place: Greenland island in the North some hundreds of years ago
Players: Inuit shamans with strong sorcerous knowledge
Goal: Eliminate others as conveniently and surely as possible
Difficulty: Long distance, difficulty to move out of sight, everyone knows everyone.
Solution: Tupilak

Create Tupilak. Summon a spirit into it. Strengthen it with spells. Say the name of the target. Send it on it's way...

Tupilak is extremely easy, quick and exciting "party game", in which you only need this rule book, couple of regular dice, pen and paper."

The cover is properly weird.

My work's vanilla, so I rarely get angry commentators. One of the few objected to my inclusion of Mage: the Ascension on my Horror rpg lists. They had a point- while Mage existed in the World of Darkness, it didn't necessarily live in that darkness. My Mage did, but YWODMV. It's one of the problems I hit with horror in particular. At what point does a "supernatural" game become horror? If you're of a certain age you've probably seen someone's Vampires as superbeings campaign. Let's say monsters don't mean horror, then what are they?

Which brings me to Urban Shadows: Political Urban Fantasy. Is it horror? Well, YUSMV. I first heard it pitched as “World of Darkness done with PbtA.” And they're right, but a very particular kind of WoD. There beings of multiple fantastic origins struggle for control, authority, or survival in a dark city. Urban Shadows does that campaign well. Everything supports that. Debts and relationships create network between players. The urban backdrop emerges through play. A vast and spidery web of NPCs expands session after session. It clicks. Even in the one shot I played it worked and felt compelling.

Each player chooses a playbook belonging to one of the four factions (Mortality, Night, Power, and Wild). You have several choices within each one (Hunter, Wolf, Oracle, Fae). Character creation involves defining a circle and develop an agenda. While the players connect, they're not on the same side. Call in debt from a fellow PC and they might use that to shiv you. The PvP's strong here, something many PbtA games steer away from. But you don't necessarily want to destroy your fellow PCs. You only advance by interacting with each of the factions, and they’re often your access to those worlds.

Urban Shadows has some horror trappings: the monstrous nature of the players, the kinds of threats facing the city, and most importantly the slow spiral into corruption. It shares WoD’s focus on personal horror. It comes from overstepping the bounds you've set for yourself. Urban Shadows delivers those opportunities to fall. It's a good game and worth picking up for anyone who digs urban fantasy or horror. Even if PbtA isn't your bag, you may find interesting tools for politics within other games.

I've seen lots of love-letters to World of Darkness on these lists. It's always a pleasure when those demonstrate an appreciation for the source, but then create striking elements & head in new directions. Witch is one of those good rpgs. It stands solidly on its own, but echoes older games. It’s not imitative, but works in the same play-space to create a new experience.

In Witch you play a user of magic. Like Mage: The Awakening or Ars Magica it focuses on the trials, tribulations, and development of your character's interaction with the mystic. But here you gain power by making a deal with a demon. These demons come in many forms, drawn to different kinds of recipients. The powers they grant vary- giving us archetypes, called "Fates": Heks, Druid, Djinn, Yokai, Sosye, Lich, and Seer. Each has access to unique spells and (in a nice touch) have variations on the basic talents. Characters can develop more powerful spells and rituals. But of course all of this has a cost. Using and pushing your magic can eventually drive you over the edge. Such failures give rise to horrible results in the real world, terrors reaching well beyond the witch.

I dig Witch. It has a clean design and I love the Fate illustrations. It offers solid world and support material for GMs (interesting artifacts, cool adversaries, additional options). I also like that it works with a simple 2d10+Stat+Skill vs. target, rather than a dice pool. That makes it easier to deal with the complexities of the magic system. Witch is worth picking up if you like modern fantasy/horror. Designer Elizabeth Chiapraditkul has also released a companion Devil's Deck, a lovely tarot-like card collection. These can be used with the rpg, but they're cool on their own. Chiapraditkul is listed as designer, developer, and layout person. It’s an amazing product, more so for having been done by one person.

28. Miscellaneous: Modules
I’m not going to detail every horror module released. Instead I’ve cherry-picked a few longer and more significant releases.
  • Chaos Earth Resurrection: An adventure collection and setting supplement detailing shattered Wisconsin in Rifts Chaos Earth. Lots of zombies.
  • Kuro Tensei: The final volume in the Kuro rpg saga. Moves the meta-plot forward, adds new locales, expands PC powers, and wraps things up. Features neo-Japanese occult scenarios to play all that out.
  • No Soul Left Behind: A massive campaign for the Better Angels demonic superbeings rpg. It follows the goings on in a parahuman academy. NSLB is deeply embedded in the setting, making hard to adapt for other games. A fun read.
  • Penny Dreadful: In Defense of Innocence: Four adventures for Through the Breach linked by the backdrop town of Innocence.
  • Portsmouth 1745: A full campaign for Colonial Gothic set in Portsmouth. Has new rules and connected adventures for PCs of all levels.
  • Savage Tales of Horror: The year saw three volumes of these scenario collections for Savage Worlds. Some adventures focus on particular SW flavors like Solomon Kane, Deadlands Noir, or The Last Parsec.
  • Stone and a Hard Place: Both a sourcebook and a plot point campaign for Deadlands. Details new foes, critters, and locales of the Southwest. Includes new character options.

29. Miscellaneous: Sourcebooks
As with modules, I’m not hitting everything. But the supplements here expand rules, settings, or challenges. Some include adventures and could fit on the entry above.
  • Dark Osprey series: Osprey’s specialized guidebook line series details different horror settings. While they include no rules, you get a ton of background materials and ideas. The 2015 releases are: Werewolves: A Hunter’s Guide; The Wars of Atlantis; The Headless Horseman of Sleepy Hollow; Bug Hunts: Surviving and Combating the Alien Menace; and War of the Worlds: The Anglo-Martian War of 1895.
  • Dystopia Rising LARP Survivors Guide 2.0: Not the standalone system for this LARP, but a massive resource book for players and organizers.
  • Grand Tome of Adversaries (Second Edition): A big, big bestiary for Witch Hunter: The invisible World.
  • Into the Steam: A player and location sourcebook for Through the Breach. Explores the lands of the Arcanists and adds many character options.
  • Judgment Day: A fantasy horror setting for the Entropic Gaming System. Covers three eras: Crusades, Victorian, and Modern. Also in Savage Worlds flavor. 
  • Lords of the Night: Vampires for Pathfinder.
  • Monsters Macabre: Enemy guide for Cryptworld. Includes monster design rules and PC-Monster options.
  • Nemezis: Galaxy: Expanded setting details for the Horizion system in this Savage Worlds sci-fi horror setting.
  • Occultism: A Shadows of Esteren sourcebook on magic. Looks at occultists’ powers and organizations. Finishes with an adventure to showcase these ideas.
  • The Paranet Papers: Expanded setting material for The Dresden Files RPG. Brings the Dresdenverse up to date with the novels. Adds new locations, spirit realm mechanics, magical options, supernatural creatures, and more.
  • Post-Apocalyptic Vampire Wars: Starbright Illustrations never met an open-license rpg they didn’t like. A vampiric post-collapse setting using the WaRP rules from Atlas Games. Caveat Emptor.
  • Rise of the Ilu: Rules for gods and playing gods. “…includes everything you need to take your Contagion Second Edition campaign to a celestial level!”
  • Slip: A Fate World of Adventure. Strange dimensional invaders have begun to infiltrate and attack our world. Only PCs equipped with bizarre powers can face them.
  • The Thin Blue Line: A Detroit Police Story: A new modern horror setting for Savage Worlds. Details a Detroit police precinct and the supernatural horrors facing its officers.


I have a Patreon for this project. If you like it, consider becoming a backer or resharing these lists to spread the word.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Xenoblade Chronicles X: Where's My Mech?

November’s been weird, huh?

So let me talk about a video game, Xenoblade Chronicles X.

Sherri and I bought a Wii U in mid-September. We picked it up primarily for two games: the aforementioned Xenoblade and Tokyo Mirage Sessions. That’s not something we do for a console. We usually wait for a critical mass of games we want to play. But the Wii U catalog isn’t getting any stronger. I can only think of 4-5 other games on the system I’d even want to pick up. As well Nintendo just announced the end of Wii U production and the development of the “Switch.”
But we’ve already gotten our money’s worth out of the Wii U.

As of today I’ve played 269 hours of Xenoblade. Sherri’s played 378.

It hits our sweet spot and I’m not entirely sure why. We like JRPGs, though we prefer turn based combat. Still we dug FF XII & XIII, Star Ocean, and Dragon Quest Heroes, all twitchy games. But many others we’ve hated (Resonance of Fate, Rogue Galaxy). Today I’m going to boil down ten things I like about Xenoblade Chronicles X.

But first some backstory.

The original Xenoblade Chronicles came out for the Wii late in its life cycle. A fan campaign barely managed to get a US release. Sherri and I played a ton of Xenoblade Chronicles (I’ll call it XB1 from this point on). It had a decent active-time combat engine and (for the most part) interesting characters. But XB1’s set up and presentation sold it. It had massive zones, giving a better sense of space and scale than any other rpg I’ve played. It has to because your characters lived on the surface of a colossal warrior statue- one of a pair. These titans had frozen, locked in battle. To cross from one to the other you journeyed across their clashing swords. XB1 remains a dynamite game and probably the second best rpg on the Wii (after Rune Factory Frontier). Later Nintendo would do a version for the “advanced” 3DS, but I haven’t tried that.

Xenoblade Chronicles X (yes, they could have made a better title split) doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the original. That’s as far as I can see many, many hours in. Instead we’re clearly in our universe. Warring alien races destroy the Earth at the start, though why remains uncertain. Several colony ships escape just before the end. Aliens attack our ship, The White Whale, another solar system, shattering the vessel. The pieces crash across a world called Mira. Gameplay begins with our rescue from a stasis pod. We’re brought back to the single human settlement, New LA, developed in the months we’ve been on ice. From there we explore the world, fight monsters, do missions, develop new equipment, and uncover the secrets of this world and the original conflict which destroyed Earth.
 
It plays a little like an MMO. There’s a continuous landscape of several enormous zones. Xenoblade Chronicles X only loads when you fast travel across the map. In combat you have a default auto-attack and cycle through various arts to activate special attacks. It’s fast and chaotic, but gets manageable quickly. The AI controls your team of three additional characters, but you can tune their loadout and special actions. There’s a ton to do, but the emphasis is on exploration.

The Bad and the Good
(I’m limiting myself to eleven each)
BAD This space colony project clearly had terrible vetting. Many of your fellow human survivors (a limited pool) turn out to be assholes. They’re venal, greedy, and xenophobic in the face of humanity’s extinction. And they’re really dumb at times. The game needs to have human adversaries, I get that. But the side missions fall back on this trope way too much.

GOOD I love exploring environments. That’s my favorite part of every MMO (Final Fantasy XI, Everquest, Secret World). In particular I loved just flying around City of Heroes to see what the designers had created. This is even better. Each of the major zones has a distinct feeling: different colors, textures, weather, monsters, verticality, pathing. And there’s always more to find. This morning, 269 hours in, I dropped down into a place I’d never seen before and nearly got my ass handed to me.

BAD You can dress your characters. But there are many super cheesecake-y female outfits/armor. They have male flesh-baring clothing, but they’re not nearly equivalent (especially in the pants department). It can get annoying. In a similar vein a couple of the alien races fall into lazy design tropes (bulky, brute, armored males vs. svelte sexy, scantily-clad females).

GOOD But you have a ton of armor and costume choices throughout the game. And I mean a ton. Some are color swaps, but even they have minor differences to distinguish them. More importantly you can set your “Fashion Gear,” meaning your pick of visible armor. That lets you play paperdoll to your heart’s content. I love switching around outfits for my team from time to time, especially after I uncover a new unique suit.

BAD There’s no sort function for any of the inventory lists (collected items, weapons, armor). In some cases you can filter. But that only helps a little. You’ll spend time finding things within sub-menus. This is probably a translation artifact. As with other JRPGs items appear on the list as they did in the original language.

GOOD Xenoblade Chronicles X fixes several of the problems of the first Xenoblade. You have more control in combat. You can train in different weapons sets, switching them between fights if you want. The creation system makes sense here as opposed to earlier random alchemy. The environments feel more full and diverse. The annoying Nopon race from the first game reappears here, but they’re more interesting and palatable.

BAD Though it didn’t bother me, some critics didn’t like how long it takes to get a battle-mech of your own (called Skells here). You’ll be well past the halfway mark before you do. Even then you have to wait another chapter or two before they develop flight technology.

GOOD When you finally get your Skell, it’s awesome. It controls very differently and takes some getting used to. By that time you’ve gotten down all the base character systems. Piloting a Skell introduces a host of new mechanics: new weapons, add-ons, fighting combos, tactics. It feels awesome when you can go out in your mech and beat up the monsters that crushed you in the past. There’s a parallel feeling of hubris when you discover Skells can’t solve every problem. More than anything since you’ve explored on foot for so long, being able to jump higher and eventually fly recharges the landscape. You get to explore again and uncover new secrets.

BAD Boy this game is white. You can change your own character’s skin tone and set up whatever ethnic identity you like. But most of your seventeen possible party members are white. Two are definitely Asian, one might be, and only one has darker skin. The same holds true in the human population within the New LA Colony: you see few definite persons of color.

GOOD I love the monster designs in this game. Of course you get the palette swaps with some species but more often than not, you’ll spot new details across beasts in different regions. I love watching Sherri play because I can actually see these foes. Yesterday I noticed that one species of Lictor, a big insect creature, had unique armor plating. I could see rune-like engravings on its plates. This game has many moments like that. I haven’t even touched on how well animated the monsters are. All have striking, animal-like movements.

BAD There’s a limited ‘palett’e to the characters you can add to your party. Let me rephrase that. Of the seventeen characters you can add, six feel interchangeable (either milquetoast or slightly douche-y males). The female characters fare better. Despite that you still have many great characters with interesting stories to choose from. But it’s disappointing that they don’t feel unique or possesses more than a basic characterization (know-it-all, drinker, airhead).

GOOD That being said I dig some of the richer characters and their stories. I want to know more about Alexa, Murderess, Elma, Nagi, and L when I play them. Murderess, in particular, is a terrible human being who stands in stark contrast to the others. It’s great to hear her interact with the more ethical party members.

BAD There’s little in the way of DLC. I would drop money for new things: armor, areas, missions, characters, monsters.

GOOD You have seventeen recruitable characters. They have different conversations among themselves depending on your team composition. We’ve seen that in other games, but I don’t recall there being this many. Some of the interactions are awesome and revealing.

BAD If you’re a playing a woman, some weird after-combat dialogue that pops up from time to time. In particular talking about problems with your hair. Some the female characters talk about shopping. If you’re doing a lot of battle grinding, you’ll notice it. It’s so weird and discordant with other stuff that I wonder if it’s an artifact of the original or something that popped up with the localization.

GOOD I love the way Xenoblade Chronicles X handles online stuff. And I hate console online gaming. You can go light with it, just getting some new tasks and bonuses or heavy and actually go on missions with other players. I haven’t done the latter, but it doesn’t feel like I’m missing out on something vital.

BAD “Here’s your weapons. There you go.” This game throws you in. There’s no real tutorial. Systems aren’t explained, you just have to figure them out. When they do finally mention something (“Hey, there’s a Collectopedia!”) that’s 20+ hours after you’ve discovered it for yourself. Arts & Skills, key combat elements, Overdrive, that there’s no falling damage, etc. aren’t explained. You have to dig down to figure out that out. Potential’s a listed stat…what does that mean?

GOOD At the same time I kind of love that. I dig figuring out things here- and that’s not normally my bag. I love having to go to the manual. I even love hunting around on forums to get insight. There’s a real pleasure when you get something to work. Like that moment when you spot signs about of a monster’s susceptibility to a particular damage type-- important because the game has six of them (Physical, Thermal, Ether, Gravity, Electric, Beam…with no explanation). The system’s opaque, but that doesn’t hurt it.

BAD Xenoblade Chronicles X has hundreds of side missions: from basic gathering, to bounty hunts, to city-changing assignments. You meet many, many quest givers. But one is presented as stereotypically gay: mincing, making suggestive comments, wearing make-up. It’s clearly presented to make the NPC seem odd and weird. That’s an off note and something we don’t see anywhere else in the game.

GOOD Combat remains challenging for a long time. Eventually you’ll be over-leveled, but that’s a ways in. You might smash through some monsters if you’ve tuned your weapons and armor right. But then you hit another creature that doesn’t work with and have to start again. If you’re like me, eventually you’ll get complacent. You’ll see a group of bug and jump in, only to have them agro a horde of other insects. Then Phogg dies, then Hope dies, and suddenly you’re away running as fast as you can …

BAD The Earth has been destroyed and New LA is the last holdout of humanity. We have a population, I’m guessing, of a few thousand. They live in a hostile environment, beset by alien foes, with a pseudo-military leadership. Yet Capitalism remains the driving force. Humanity immediately builds a “commercial district” with shops, colonists worry about their finances, and you see class distinctions. As well, all the friendly alien races are capitalists. It’s odd and actually becomes laughable in a couple of spots. Again, a minor note but a strange backdrop.

GOOD Xenoblade Chronicles X is an open-world game. Within zones animals of vastly different levels wander next to one-another. There’s no “this is the newbie area.” You’re forced to plan and move carefully. If you’re smart you can get by truly dangerous creatures. That allows you to unlock riches or die quickly. This open-world approach means that the story’s loose. You have distinct chapter missions you pick to move the story forward. That’s complemented by several dozen normal and affinity missions deepening the world and adding new elements. But the through-line of the story can be hard to follow and you may find yourself just wandering. That’s the risk of a sprawling game like this. Despite that, Xenoblade Chronicles X has gotten me a couple of times. It’s had some twists I didn’t see coming and at least one revelation that completely changed earlier events for me. 

In short: a great game that makes the Wii U worth it. 
Other experiences with it?