Thursday, October 29, 2015

13 RPG Thoughts for October

To finish out the month, a maddening miscellany... 

1. Epilogue: I ran a couple of VirtuaCon games last weekend. While my session of The Warren didn’t go, 13th Age and DCC did. I feel OK about the two sessions (I’ll say more about that later). But I managed to make a rookie mistake. I try to be strongly aware of the time when I’m running. At the start I tell players that when we get to the last 30 minutes, I will cut and compress. I told them that and planned for it, but in both sessions I still used up all my time.

Sessions feels stronger when you get a few free final minutes to decompress; ten minutes at least. That gives players a chance to go over what they liked, ask questions, develop closing statements for characters, and make future connections with the other players. A GM can also ask for casual impressions. Almost as important you give players a break between sessions. On Sunday I ended up closing one tab and opening another immediately to get to my next game, with no breather between. This advice holds especially true at a face to face conventions where you might also need to free the table for other groups. I heard a couple of horror stories from Gen Con this year. GMs completing ignoring that they’d run over, even with another group of players waiting.

2. Overstatement: I’m beginning to think that Dragon Quest 9 is the best JRPG. It has a strong focus on playability, lots of room for character development, tons of quests, great monster animations, and nice dress-up features. It’s a little disappointing that Nintendo turned off the online features of the game, closes off some additional content. Despite that DQ9 keeps impressing me. One little example: when your characters run to use stairs set in the floor, it doesn’t matter which side you approach from. The stairs trigger, and you don’t have to run the group around. Plus when you appear on the new screen, it starts your characters at the bottom of the stairs. You don’t have to do any wasted motion to go down. It’s a tiny, tiny thing but there’s lots of that throughout the game.

3. Paranoia: I found a hack for PbtA Shadowrun. I haven’t taken a look at it yet. I’d been thinking about doing the same sort of thing- trying to create role moves and figuring out what’s the most important play into those games vs. most important to me. So here’s the thing if I’m thinking about working on this: do I work on it and then read this version to see what it adds or do I read it and then work on mine? I’m not sure if I worried about contamination, cross-pollination, or that someone will have already done a cooler version. 

4. Clueless: I mentioned in Tuesday’s post that I'm worried about how much I focus on mysteries in my games. One of my co-participants on a This Imaginary Life panel surprised me when they flatly said they didn’t do mysteries. I couldn’t grok that. But then I thought about mystery games: I’d played in: bad mysteries. Games filled with red herrings, intractable NPCs, nonsense events, and closed off paths. So yeah, I can see how folks could dislike those. They also require different kinds of investment. Mysteries have a kind of continuity- from session to session, scene to scene- to put the pieces together. You can also be right or wrong with a mystery. I don’t know if that makes a difference.

There’s another thing which looks like a mystery but isn’t: problem solving. I mean that in the broadest sense. Rather than answering a question, the players have to complete an objective. Ashen Stars does something like this, but the stories there still have a mystery at the core. I’m talking about things like scams, extractions, shadowruns, infiltrations, and so on. They also have info gathering, but that ties into player agency. In those cases the players want to figure out a solution which fits with their skills and needs, rather than one that absolutely matches the world.

5. Narrowed: I’ve been thinking about the bits I dig from Blades in the Dark, both concept and system. Keep in minds my experience with this has been watching some AP and using some of the elements in my game. There’s a lot to love about the setting- the tensions between the gang and their rivals, the efforts to develop their group, the relationships among the characters. I’m wondering, and this might seem strange, if you could do a satisfying game like this where you shorthand or handwave the “jobs.” Play would focus on the cool bits of internal tensions, alliances, and figuring out what would advance the gangs agenda. You could random table- with some choices and modifiers- results of these operations and what the group gains from them. Maybe you could have a flow-chart with rolls and choices for each op type, leading to final results.

6. Considerations: I want to do a podcast with Sherri about RPGs. I have to figure out how to make that happen.

7. Malcontent: I received my copy of Urban Shadows yesterday. I hadn’t experienced it before, since I’d skipped reading the backer pdf. It’s a lovely book, with dynamite and consistent art by Juan Ochoa. Of course, because I can’t be happy with anything I immediately began thinking of how I would adapt it to play Changeling the Lost. Mind you, I do that with most new games I read.

8. Optimist: Since my 13th Age online game wrapped up, I have a little more room. Once we get done with the DFAE playtest, I’m thinking of running something online, trying to round up new folks or folks I rarely play with. I’d aim for 5-6 sessions, done on Wednesday evenings or Saturday mornings. That’s about all I’ve got so far.

9. Luddite: Had some irritation with Roll20 this weekend. Usually it’s pretty stable for me- and I’ve been skeptical when I hear others have problems with it. But we usually use it stand-alone, with Skype for the audio. For VirtuaCon I used Roll20 inside of Google Hangouts and it crashed multiple times in both Google Chrome and Chrome Canary. I ended up having to close every other tab and program. Only after that did the feed remain active and stable. That happened both times. It also didn’t play nice with my audio recording for XSplit, eliminating my voice almost completely. I thought it might be my mic, but the audio’s fine on the standard YouTube recording.

10. Estimations: I don’t have solid data, but in my experience, it tales 30-40% longer to run something online than it does f2f. That’s based on running several scenarios online and off, plus just general GMing. That has some important implications for my scenario planning.

11. Visualization: I ran a 13th Age session for the convention. I think my scenario design really came up against my bad time sense. I wish I’d had some compressed plot points- I felt like I dragged a couple of things out. I went a little heavy on numbers for the final battle: too many mooks and lesser levels. I think it might have allowed for more movement on the field if I’d had fewer, but more potent foes. It’s a learning exercise.

12. Communication: Last month I read and commented on nearly all the #threeforged rpg entries. I also read through all the reviews and analyses I could. Many offered awesome and useful feedback. I learned a lot from those, even when they weren’t my games. That got me thinking about my own experience as an editor and being edited, as well as how I write reviews. I came back to something I have to reteach myself constantly.

It’s equally important to identify what you like and what works, as it is to point out problems. If you don’t call that out, there’s a good chance they’ll kill the good stuff with the bad while revising, reworking, and editing. You need to identify the ground the writer has to stand on. I’ve had editors and collaborators who only focus on the negative, and then get frustrated when changes don’t meet their expectations or cut out “the good stuff.” I’m not saying you have to find something nice in everything, but that when you’re communicating to a designer/author clarifying both sides of your reaction offers better feedback.

13. Belated: Halloween almost here and no talk about horror games this month? Luckily I still have a post for a couple of years ago as a “go to”:  Halloween Horror RPG Round Up

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

RPG Top 100 (Part Four: 1-25)

Here's the final part of my rundown of my Top 100 RPGs. As before, these aren't necessarily the 100 Best RPGs, but they're ones I want to play. We'll see if that changes in a year. Games marked with (*) mean I want to play the setting/premise, but I don't want to play with the existing rules. In some cases, there aren't any rules right now: I just want someone to write up a cool game based on that. I'll comment on more items than on previous lists, since this is the top 25.

Part Three 26-50

25. Tianxia
24. Mutant: Year Zero
23. Wuxia Hack*
As I've posted before, I want a game that simulates the soap opera feeling of the Wuxia TV shows and movies while offering room for interesting action. I need to go back and work on my PbtA hack some more. Hans Messersmith suggested a dynamite way to handle playbooks. Characters chose from personality archetypes: Student, Loyal Servant, Teacher, Outsider, Rebel, and maybe Retired/Isolate. While in that playbook/role they gain some benefits and can gain an advancement. When an event occurs which shakes the character's identity, they can move to another playbook. The precise shift (like from Loyal Student to Rebel) would have a name and gain them a distinct benefit. That's the rough outline. 

22. Lucha Libre Hero*
21. Fading Suns*
20. MERP/One Ring Tolkein*
I've been running fairly continuously for our Sunday group since the mid-1990's. We started with Rolemaster and have been through six campaigns in just under twenty years. Right now we're nearly at a climax for L5R. Several times we've floated Middle Earth as an new campaign option, but it's always been slightly outvoted. That's much to the chagrin of Alan, who loves the setting.
 
And his extreme Tolkien knowledge actually makes running a ME campaign a little daunting. I I'll have to really brush up on the material. I'm torn about actual time setting. On the one hand I dig the classic Middle-Earth Roleplaying '1641' period, just after the Kin-Strife. Arthedain still stands, and there's slightly more room to explore if I want the players to tour the realm. On the other hand, the recent One Ring material offers a compelling (and easier) approach set closer to the time of the novels. I'm unsure.


19. 13th Age
18. Legend of the Five Rings*
17. DramaSystem*
I've spoken before about DramaSystem and Sherri's offered a counter-point. After some play and some rereading, I know the whole it doesn't work for me. I love the character creation mechanics and how it builds the relationship map. I think the Series Pitches offer an amazing way to distill and present a campaign concept. In recent years when I've been campaign building, I've reviewed these structures (and those of Kingdom). And some of the series pitches are amazing and adaptable (I reworked Heroes of the City for example). I'm a little more ambivalent now on how scenes work. I like the transactions and the way the game measures social power. Sherri likes that less, and the loaded nature of every scene bothers her. Rich Rogers made a good point to me about the way the scenes disrupt flow, forcing a step away to assess victory before moving forward. 

And the procedural side? That I don't like at all. I've looked at some of the streamlined options given, but they still seem to be stuck on a needing some crunch and fiddliness. I know the game splits the two sides apart for a reason, but I'm not sure I want that. I think we either need something heavily handwavy for "action" scenes or else something which more organically connects to the drama side. I think maybe Aspects and Fate contests might work for that. Right now I'm still figuring that out. (Examples: Malign UniversalA War on Christmas, Mutant City: HCIU; Heroes of the City; Rust)

16. Mage: Sorcerers Crusade
15. Scion*
14. Rippers*
I'm not sure why I dig this concept so much. Maybe it's the Victoriana trappings, maybe it's the weird fantasy corruption. Maybe it's just that you can cut limbs off a monster and bolt them to your hunter. I think you could do a fascinating reskin with Monster of the Week. Whatever system I'd use, I'd want to develop an approach offering more interesting social and building aspects. The Kickstarter for a 2nd edition's out now, but the price point's a little higher than I like. I suspect there's enough background material in the original to make it work. 

13. Gotham Central*
12. Planescape*
11. Hot War
A lot of investigation games on these lists....huh. Am I stuck in a rut? I've encountered several players who say they don't like mysteries and investigations. I need to think about that. Anyway, Hot War's newest game in my top 25, I only found out about it a couple of months ago. It's a little dark, which means I probably won't be able to run it with my f2f group unless I reconfigure. I have a one horror and grime-hating player in most of those games. It might be something to try online, but I've found investigations and mysteries even harder to run in that context.  

10. Feng Shui*
9. Exalted*
I like the idea of Exalted but hate two things: the system and the Exalts. Well, not all the Exalts. Weirdly, I like the Dragon Blooded. They're ostensibly among the villains in the setting. And they've got a crazy, autocratic, infighting-based society. But they also make sense to me. They're trying to maintain stability and order. They have ambitions and passions which make sense. They're closer to mortals than any of the other Exalts. Most importantly, in order to survive and succeed they need to work together. That's huge- everyone else besides the Sidereals seem too dude-bro for my taste. 

7. Base Raiders*
I love this concept: not just for the idea of dungeon-delving into abandoned villain bases, but for the broader world. There's a culture that's grown up around this raiding, characters have very distinct reasons for going in, everyone has a meaningful background. We get a world with a superheroic past, but room for characters to make a mark. Add to that resource and building systems and you have a game I seriously dig. The actual mechanics of Strange Fate, eh not so much. They're OK, but not precisely what I want. I've thought about other systems to run this with. I like Worlds in Peril, but the abstract level it operates on might not blend with this. At the very least I'd have to retool the origins and goal playbooks. There's also my go-to supers game, Mutants & Masterminds. They have conversion rules for it. But I wonder if M&M might even be too crunchy. 

6. Microscope
5. Kingdom
I keep meaning to write a review of this game. I can't quite put into words what I love about it. I've always been a fan of realm management. Kingdom distills that down to the essence: a group facing crises. I love the way it presents the set up, and how it forces the players to agree and disagree. Everyone wants the kingdom to survive, but each player has a different sense of what that means. The mechanics and roles take some getting used to, realizing that doing some things may require a sacrifice and a shift in position. The rules can feel wonky to new players, and usually a first session will only face one "Crossroads." I'd really like to play this where we plan on having more than one session. 

4. Fate Core (Burn Shift; Wild Blue; Eagle Eyes; Romance in the Air; Venture City Stories)
3. Mutants & Masterminds
2. Fate Accelerated
I like Fate a great deal, I have a good time running it so I'm always a little sad when I see folks writing about how they hate it or it's broken or whatnot. Sometimes they describe the game they've played and I think "Man, that's not my Fate." That's not a case of needing an excellent GM to make the game work, but needing to not have a crappy GM. For others, Fate doesn't offer what they want out of the game or it doesn't handle things in a way that makes sense to them. I can dig that.  Me, I like a Fate game that moves the mechanics to the back. Say what you're doing and I'll tell you what you need to roll. We don't have to slow down to tag everything on cards or whatnot; we can catch things on the fly.

I didn't dig Fate Accelerated at first, but now I've come to appreciate the simplicity of the Approaches. Some don't like how it structures Stunts, but that can be easily modified, just build new ones. Look at Fate Core for example. If something seems too potent break it up into parts or have it cost more stunts. Anyway, I enjoy Fate, but many of those I play with don't; so I'll reserve it for special groups and one-shots. 

and pretty obviously...

1. Action Cards
If you've read my blog, you'll know Action Cards is the homebrew we've been playing for a decade and a half. For most of the games I've marked with an "*," I'd use AC if we're playing f2f. Online it's a little harder, but I'll figure that out eventually.  It's a little bit of a cheat, but so what. 

Part Four 1-25

Thursday, October 22, 2015

History of Post-Apocalyptic RPGs (Part 17: 2013)

WOULD YOU LIKE TO PLAY A GAME?
With this list we close out our Post-Apocalyptic histories. All that remains is cleaning up the fallout, meaning that I’ll go over all the major PA products released last year. Then I’ll survey 2014 for the other genres I’ve covered: Horror; Steampunk & Victoriana; and Supers. After that who knows what exciting new genre we might explore? Cyberpunk, Western, Generic, Mecha? I also have to do a follow up list of the many samurai rpgs I've discovered. But for now I remain firmly lodged in my apocalypse bunker. 

I've looked at Video Games in the genre, but it has also been well represented in board games. If you look at Zombie games alone, you can find dozens. So here are the top 13 ranked Post-Apocalyptic board games on Boardgame Geek released since 2005. I’m focusing on games where an apocalypse is central to the theme. Games which skirt around or imply that collapse (A Study in Emerald, Euphoria: Build a Better Dystopia, Ginkopolis) I’ve left out. I also skipped sequels and expansions. Note that these stats fluctuate, so they represent the results at time of writing.
  1. Dead of Winter (Rank 18 Rating 7.824)
  2. Battlestar Galactica (Rank 29 Rating 7.701)
  3. Earth Reborn (Rank 126 Rating 7.304)
  4. Neuroshima Hex (Rank 160 Rating 7.225)
  5. Zombicide (Rank 175 Rating 7.203)
  6. Gears of War (Rank 243 Rating 7.080)
  7. Last Night on Earth (Rank 353 Rating 6.918)
  8. The New Era (Rank 434 Rating 6.796)
  9. Doomtown: Reloaded (Rank 471 Rating 6.753)
  10. Arctic Scavengers (Rank 700 Rating 6.533)
  11. Thunderstone Advance: Numenera (Rank 732 Rating 6.514)
  12. Dawn of the Zeds (Rank 733 Rating 6.514)
  13. Mall of Horror/City of Horror (Rank 854 Rating 6.430)
That’s 5 Zombie games out of 13; less than I assumed. I’ve only played four of those games. From those I can highly recommend The New Era, set in the Neuroshima Hex world giving it strong rpg DNA. Some of the other games have rpg-like elements, most notably Dead of Winter. That’s a striking semi-cooperative game undercut by the weak execution of the Crossroad cards. YRMV. 


THE ONLY WAY TO PLAY IS NOT TO WIN?
To keep this list easy to read I’ve tightened the years covered. As we get closer to the present the lists expand and contract weirdly. I include mostly core books, but also significant setting material or sourcebooks. I consolidate “spin-off” and miscellaneous supplements into a single entry. For example at the end you'll see round-up entries with post-apocalyptic elements. Given the number of great things published I haven't included everything I want. I try to list revised editions which significantly change a line or present a milestone. Generally I only include published material- print or electronic. I skip freebie or self-published games. I'm sure I've left something off without adequate reason; feel free to add a comment about a line I missed (if published in 2013). I've arranged these by year and then alphabetically within that year.

History of Post-Apocalyptic RPGs (Part One: 1976-1984)
History of Post-Apocalyptic RPGs (Part 17: 2013)
History of Steampunk & Victoriana RPGs

I've had some time to think about this game since I read, ran, and reviewed it. The concept has stuck with me. On the one level, I love the idea of embracing an apocalypse of superheroes. Nearly all supers- heroes or villains- have vanished in Base Raiders' setting. The world's carefully established balance has been destroyed, leading to major societal changes. Any heroes left behind have to recognize their own weakness. Everyone's suddenly in the wreckage of the metahumans' great works. It's a great example of a narrowly focused disaster, with global repercussions but also making a particular group the "survivors" of the setting. 

I love the building concept of Base Raider and the frantic tensions. These superbeings left behind their stuff: weapons of infinite destruction, self-replicating robots, bizarre alien menageries, and most importantly the bases. Players might be hunting through those for answers, but they're just as likely to be seeking ways to empower themselves. That backdrop- of vast numbers of people in a "mad science" scramble akin to a gold rush- clicks for me. It suggests all kinds of plots, characters, and interesting non-combat stories. 

And presenting superbases as dungeons honestly never occurred to me. We had games and sessions where the team had to fought their way through or explored them (Death Duel with the Destroyers, Island of Dr.Destroyer) but that acted as backdrop. It wasn't a real dungeon crawl- with the place itself as a tangible obstacle, the need to track resources & the possibility of turning back, and the actual accumulation of loot. That's sharp and Base Raiders does it well. While I'm not entirely sold on the "Strange Fate" mechanics, author Ross Payton has published conversion rules for M&M, Wild Talents, and Savage Worlds.

A sci-fi rpg, Foreign Element has a heavily corporatized humanity spreading out and colonizing the stars. Then the Great Blackout hits. Contact between most of outer humanity and the core crashes. Only silence greets attempts to gain information. In Foreign Element, the PCs play search and salvage teams sent out to these lost colonies. But these RX teams aren't purely altruistic. They're heavily corporate-backed and sponsored. There's a significant sub-system where characters have different agendas and secret goals. That's a cool concept, though it does introduce some PvP elements. Some groups will find that easier than others. The game itself uses a simple dice-pool system. Advancement comes through experience and credits used to upgrade equipment and other systems. It's a cool package and worth picking up for those interested in a slightly Transhumanist sci-fi exploration game with apocalyptic overtones. Designer Nathan Hill also developed Barbarians Versus... and Eldritch Ass Kicking. So far no supplements have been released for Foreign Element.

A post-apocalyptic game with heavy horror, supernatural, and conspiracy elements. Fractured Kingdom takes place in 2202 after a hundred-year war in which the Church of the Redeemer destroyed science, technology, and advancement. The world has begun to bounce back but still remains a century behind its height. Tech exists and surrounds humanity, but it's a mix of cyberpunk and lost arts. Corporations run the show, having the greatest control over these resources. People hunt the ruins for devices, but often have no idea what these things do. At first that seems pretty sci-fi-ish

But the other major change is the presence of "Lucids." These persons possess strange, supernatural powers. They gain these by travelling to one of the four Outer Reams (Dark, Grave, Slumber, or Verdant). Their particular powers depend on which realm they entered. The PCs are Lucids, trying to survive in a fallen world filled with secret agendas, occult conspiracies, and ruthless corporations. Its a kitchen sink PA setting with a dose of Mage: the Ascension, OTE, and cyberpunk. Fractured Kingdom came out of a Kickstarter project. The publisher has only released the core book and a small freebie module. Reviews are generally favorable.

A German rpg apparently built off the Dungeonslayers fantasy game (there's also Starslayers and Zombieslayers). The system seems to be d20-esque, though I can't quite tell if it is actually based on the SRD or just reasonably close. Gammaslayers adopts a "storm the ruins, kick down the hatch, and slay the mutant" ethos. It looks like it has all of the classic tropes: contamination, mutations, robots, etc in a post-nuclear setting. There seems to be a legendary site called "Eden" which the characters hunt for. Also, as in Fallout, the PCs seem to be emerging from previously sealed vaults sometime in the 23rd Century.

Another Kickstarter project, MP 4e more than doubled it's $15K goal. It sticks with the original system and concept: Morrow Project teams awaken in a strange new world and now have to explore and rebuild. It still has a strong military vibe to it, though it looks much nicer in this edition. The new core book's a bit over 300 pages. Most of that's given over to the mechanics. There's only a little background through "in setting" material at the beginning, plus some details in the GM section. MP4E has mixed reviews online. Some love the cleaned up and unified system. Others object that little has been done to update and refine the mechanics, others take issues with some of the elements (like community management). I suspect if you dig the tone and approach of the earlier MP editions, you'll like this one. GMs looking for a more detailed simulation may also find it useful.

From the Great War came the First Founding, the creation of the Pack. Now that Pack- made up of you and your fellow samurai motorcycle warriors- roams the land: fighting duels, gaining glory, and maintaining your honor. Motobushido might at first glance seem goofy, but it isn't. It takes itself seriously and the presentation & mechanics support that. The War is a loose event, integral to the creation of the PCs order, but left open to the players. There's only a general sense of collapse given. The War has destroyed the old orders and the land is scattered and lawless. Players can develop specifics by playing out the origin tale of their Pack at the start, but the game aims for the mythic: specific factions and forces existing in a fuzzy wasteland.

Motobushido's pretty brilliant and a lovely read. There's an unusual depth of feeling here. It combines an appreciation for biking, the community of riders, and samurai imagery. More than just imagery through, it embraces a full platonic ideal of that bushido code. The game doesn't shirk away from addressing the fiction of those concepts (and the problematic elements in them), but outside of that it plays things straight. The setting's striking, but the mechanics are equally deep and interesting, using card play to simulate the tension and challenges of this world, especially dueling. There's some surprisingly deep mechanics for developing communities, running duels, and handling large conflicts. You can pick up a text-only version of the rules PWYW, but the full book's so much better. Highly recommended.

Aka Nameless Land. A big-book Italian rpg that clocks in at just under 300 pages. It takes place in 300 years after a nuclear war devastates the world. Players try to survive in a world overrun with mutants, occult organizations, and biomechanical threats. It looks classic: players generate survivors with class specialties and rolled mutations. The book includes big sections on weird powers, equipment, and monsters. There seems to be a supernatural element, but I'm unsure if that's actual magic or something more like alien contacts or psychics. It looks like there's some kind of meta-story, with conspiracies and forces trying to command this new world. The publishers have released a couple of substantial sourcebooks for the line so far.

Numenera was (and likely still is) the new hotness. So you may already be familiar with it or one of it's highly successful Kickstarters. Perhaps you're looking forward to the CRPG adaptation which hopes to follow in the footsteps of another Weird Fantasy classic, Planescape: Torment.

Numenera's world lies atop eight previous ones. It's a far, far future which normally I'd put in the "Dying Earth" PA sub-genre. But usually in that genre, the past's hidden away- thin set decoration, only hinted at. It's offered as an in-joke; recognize the tatters to catch the reference. Vance's work and Moorcock's Dancers at the End of Time take this approach. In RPGs The Chronicles of Future Earth, World of Aden, and The World of Sinnibarr echo this. But Numenera explicitly considers and excavates that past. The world and the game itself centers on discovering and uncovering objects strange and powerful. The past isn't a distant backdrop, but the central play-space.

And the science-fantasy of the setting comes out of the randomness and seeming illogic of that past. The layers shouldn't make sense, they should confuse. That's hugely attractive as a GM and there's a ton of material for creating random weirdness of all kinds: psychical, psychic, cultural. The monsters provided are equally bizarre and absurd. I like the idea of a completely sandbox world for generating those mysteries. But that's not what Numenera is. Yes, the past is a sandbox, but the present is highly detailed and mapped out. Almost a hundred pages of the core book literally and figuratively map out this world. Rather than a hexcrawl of discovery, there's a dense and overwhelming setting. Really overwhelming for me; there's no good signposts for how a GM's to process this material. It doesn't have the hook of a Dark Sun or Old World. I find it confusing and off-putting.

But that's just me because a ton of people love Numenera. They also love the system which is mostly just ho-hum to me. Let me make one thing clear: the game's gorgeous. The art's amazing, the creature designs are striking, the layout's wonderful, even the font choices are unique and engaging. And Monte Cook Games has continued to support this line with a multitude of supplements. It's undoubtedly the best supported game on any of these lists.

A fantasy post-apocalyptic rpg with a weird, MS Paint-style cover. The introduction states that the old world has been destroyed by chaos, changing the nature of the earth itself. "Perilous is a game of fantastic adventure in a postapocalyptic world of monsters, mutants and magic." However in the core book there's almost no development of the setting beyond a few scattered paragraphs. Instead it offers a generic fantasy rpg system with some nods to mutations. It's a little uncertain why the apocalypse is even an element. The company's released a series of three short modules for the game, which look equally fantasy generic.

A post-apocalyptic setting and sourcebook for Tunnels & Trolls. Porphyry offers a full reskin for T&T, rather than a few add-ons. Interestingly it's designed to work with T&T 5th edition. While readers using a later version will find it compatible, it doesn't line up quite as easily. In Porphyry a cataclysm- The Burn- wiped civilization from the world. Now centuries later new peoples have begun rebuild and expand. Exploration and discovery's on the menu, with lost technologies and relics hidden in the ruins. Strikingly the devastating event isn't completely gone. Instead something of The Burn remains, isolated in the far north of the world.

Porphyry packs a ton of material into its 86 pages. A good deal of that's mechanical. It offers new forms of magic, unique races, a new system for character professions, and new approaches to damage. I'm not a T&T player, but you can certainly see the careful work and development here. We end up with a mixed tech and magic post-apocalyptic setting, which a couple of reviewers compare to Numenera in tone. I'm not sure I agree with that. Porphyry actually feels more open, with the world sketched but not locked down. It actually devotes more of its length, by percentage, to world building than many other post-apocalyptic adaptations. We've seen many on these lists that do little other than a history and some monsters. Awesome art also helps the book; while the cover's a little plain, the interior art's excellent.

A setting sourcebook for the Spanish generic rpg, Hitos. It offers rules for handling post-apocalyptic games as well as  a full multi-stage adventure. In Postapocalyptica the PCs take the role of youths forced out into the ravaged world in order to save their community. It's a classic premise, which isn't a bad place to start with games like these: easily adaptable and clear. The game looks good, with sharp art. It's nice to see non-English generic systems supporting multiple genres. Hitos has sourcebooks for Crime, Supernatural Mysteries, and Westerns. Each of these seem to be half-sourcebook, half-module, like a Savage World supplement. You can find the Hitos core book on RPGNow

This is a brilliant little storytelling game you should pick up. The Quiet Year consists of a tiny rulebook and a unique deck of cards. Players tell the story of a post-fall settlement, just entering into a year of respite between trials. They do this via declarations, gatherings, and marking ideas, objects, and places on a shared map. The cards come in four suits: Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter. The group works through each randomized season in order. On their turn, a player draws from the deck and then deals with its events and instructions. Usually these include questions the player must answer. Most answers add to the story of the settlement and/or the map. Players can also call for group deliberations, making things more or less tense within the community. The only thing close to mechanical for the game comes from dice to track the time to project completion. Players trying to develop and strengthen the community via these projects. Come the winter, bad things arrives and the game suddenly ends. The Quiet Year's a surprisingly moving and engaging game. It's worth playing for anyone interested in collaborative play or questions of community in the wake of collapse.

Zombie survival meets superheroes pretty much sums this up. Rotted Capes offers a stand-alone system and setting. We've seen several 'zombies meet capes' story (Marvel Zombies for example), but Rotted Capes seems closest to the ideas of Peter Clines' Ex-Heroes series. The game has some interesting concepts, in particular a focus on scavenging and tension because the PCs play ‘B-List’ heroes. It does a good job of making those concerns over survival central to the play. In most zombie post-apocalypses, you play underpowered, desperate folks. Here, despite having great powers, the world can and will still kill you. I can imagine a campaign that begins Base Raiders and then becomes Rotted Capes

Rotted Capes has straightforward mechanics. Characters begin by choosing a power source and an archetype. These modify the point spends for attributes, skills, advantages, and powers. The game has a lot of calculations and exceptions (requirements for purchases, calculated stats, modifications from archetypes). The power list's a mix of specific and effect types. Combat uses an initiative clock for each character with different actions having different time costs. It isn't exactly the same as Scion, so I'd be curious if it has the same limitation. In Scion speed kills: anything reducing your action time cost makes you significantly more effective. I've read through Rotted Capes and I'm not sure how to judge it. It feels more complex than Mutants & Masterminds. I really need to watch or read about an actual play. The mechanics make up a little more than half of the core book, the rest covers the world, history, and GMing. Gamers looking at doing a superhero zombie game will find a wealth of ideas here. Beyond that it is a pretty awesome looking book- with gruesome and evocative art.

A game using the "FateStorm Virtual Reality System." If you like descriptions of unique systems, you should check out the description of it here. In any case, Shattered Moon is the second rpg using this system (the other being Ascendancy: Rogue Marshal). It bears the subtitle: "Resist or Capitulate. The earth will follow your fate" (sic). The game use unique cards for resolution and aims for some crunch. It has the tactical approach echoing D&D 4e, with miniatures assumed for combat. The game's intended for mature readers as well, based on some content and the art. That art's a mixed bag, done entirely by the designer who also handled the layout. 

The story? The moon blows up. Supernatural forces are released. Magic comes back to Earth. Fantasy races pop up. That creates a Shadowrun-like near future post-apocalyptic setting, sans the cyberpunk elements. About 10% of Shattered Moon's material directly covers the setting, with the rest in passing through character creation and adversaries. The bulk of the book covers the system, so if you're just hunting for a setting sourcebook this isn't it (especially given the $30 price tag for the 320 page pdf). However if you're looking for a heavy and complex set of rules to sink your teeth into, this might be for you. I'd recommend checking out the online reviews. They're mixed, with most reviewers praising parts of the game, but hesitating about recommending overall product except for niche gamers. Not unlike my approach with this write-up.

15. Miscellaneous: Fragments & Corner Cases
A few companies released collections including post-apocalyptic settings or frames. Cartoon Action Hour: Season 3 includes series like the "Ani-Bots," "Asgard 3000," and "Rift Warriors." Fate Worlds: Worlds on Fire has "Burn Shift," a mixed element, rebuilding game. DramaSystem offers several more. Hillfolk has "Bots," a post-human robot setting. Blood on the Snow has "The Throne," about an angel war after God vanishes and "The Bunker" about a 1960's family emerging from shelter following a devastating war.

We also see some new editions and new electronic-only games. Yellow Dawn the post-Old Ones cyberpunk setting gets a new editions (and there's a third coming out next year).The Sundered Land is a brief, 7-page rpg from Vincent Baker aimed at a quick session of play. It got several award nominations. 7th Seal: Armageddon is a pdf-only kitchen sink post- Armageddon/Disease/Alien Invasion rpg. Millenniums & Mutations is another Gamma World-type game using Tunnels & Trolls. It's unclear if there's any connection between this and the copyright-infringing material doing much the same thing a few years previously. Finally Caustic Earth is a short contaminated world game using the D4Core system. I assume it uses d4's (thus proving there's a system for everyone). 

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Alignment Check: Play on Target Podcast Ep. 48

In this week’s episode of Play on Target we wrestle with alignments, morality, and the ethic of GM intrusion. Maybe our discussion isn't grand as that but it feels like a big issue in some games. What happens when players and GMs disagre on what a particular alignment mean. That axis of evil/good concept’s been around since the beginning of D&D, though as I mention in the episode in weirdly different forms. For an over-the-top example of alternate old-school approaches to this, see Lizard’s Gaming Blog discussion of alignment in Arduin, . If you like close read-throughs of highly weird early gaming stuff, work through that whole series. Note that alignment, like many other concepts, didn’t become concrete until Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, Gygax’s effort to codify and create one correct version of D&D. Despite that novel system (and the various alignment guide meme posts it spawned) those descriptions remain a point of contention.

Throughout this post I will shorten “I Was Just Playing My Character” to IWJPMC

SPARE THE EXP PENALTY, SPOIL THE PLAYER
Usually when GMs talk about alignment in games, they’re dealing with problems. They've hit the point where the game's gone off the rails. That can look like some version of Sam’s example in the episode, leveraging alignment picks for advantage, or even using it to create interparty conflict. GMs often struggle to find a good way to apply consequences to those players. Or put more roughly, to punish those characters for bad behavior. That creates several problems.

First, as we say in the episode, alignment draws lightning because it speaks to player behavior- or at least player choice. While most GMs want players to have freedom, all players want that. Gamers react badly to perceived unfairness or limits to autonomy. Given that alignment reflects internal and personal choices- restricting that can seem supremely unjust. And if a player’s sincere in their choice, then judgement about that behavior can be a real world judgement. "That’s a crappy and evil thing your character’s doing" translates into "You’re a bad person."

Second, there’s the question of “punishment.” If the GM assigns a penalty via the rules for an action based on a player’s choice, then that’s a system-regulated consequence. But the grey area of moral choices means that interpretation can appear vindictive. On the GM side those arguments may look more like players trying to game the system. IWJPMC comes across as an insincere excuse. Both parties have to be careful about how they frame those discussions. They can escalate quickly.

Third, GMs have to be careful where the hammer falls. It may seem like an easy solution to make the players police themselves. Collectively punish and cause problems for the group when an individual character gets too far out of line. But that can create real tensions between players. Fellow players rarely buy into IWJPMC with any good grace. A couple of times I’ve seen groups blow up over this: sometimes when players fight and sometimes when the group resents the GM shoving things onto their plate. Consequences for alignment breaking or alignment “justified” behavior need to begin with the acting character. Where possible you have to minimize the fallout to the rest of the group.

BUILD A BETTER SOCIOPATH
That’s why over the years, when I run games with Disadvantages, Flaws, Drawbacks and whatever the system calls them, I’ve limited them. For example Lone Wolf’s a disruption, justifying players not working with the group. Things like Stubborn, Vindictive, Jealousy, Casual Thief, give players an excuse to be crappy to one another. It’s worse if players want to have those disadvantages secret. Then they can feel wounded that IWJPMC and no one got it. By default I make players share these elements during character creation. 

Other disads suggest they'll create problems for the PC, but more often create greater disruptions for the group. For example Bad Temper and Berserk mean players can justify their character smarting off or killing NPCs who irritate them. Usually the player gets the satisfaction of having done that, while the group suddenly finds themselves having to clean up the mess, fix their rep, or get out of dodge. That’s not always how that falls out, but it’s a short step to get over the line. The same thing can happen with something seemingly innocuous like Codes of Honor .

I notice here that I’ve expanded alignment to more broadly consider “behavior justifiers.” That’s seems like a reasonable jump to me. But it may be far enough away from the original topic that it doesn’t apply.

VILLAINS
As we mention in the podcast, both Sam and I have done villains games. That's a fairly common trope these days, especially in Supers where you can see Necessary Evil and Better Angels trying something new with the concept. Of course there's the evil PC book from D&D 3.5 which I've forgotten the name of. I skimmed it once and put it back on the shelf. In any case, Villain games never end well. I base that on my experience and multiple conversations with GMs, including a seminar at Origins. 

These campaigns can fail for multiple reasons. Sometimes the GM realizes they don't really enjoy running villainy. Heroic choices are often difficult and require sacrifice. Being evil is the easy road. Being awful rarely means hard choices. In other cases the freedom of an evil game leads to massive and drastic interparty fighting. Villains might get along for a while, but once some portion feels shorted or slighted, the knives come out. I ran a villainous Rolemaster campaign for a long time. The players held it together, but then two of the players began to resent another player's leadership. So they killed him. The victim's player didn't rejoin our games for about four years. Even then his enthusiasm for play had been killed as well. 

Villainy can seem sexy and that itself can veer the game towards destruction. I joined a Supervillain late, a few months into play. The PCs were awful and did indirectly horrible things, but worse it seemed the players themselves had no idea how bad they were. They laughed off things that made me cringe. I briefly tried to bring the implications to their attention, but ended up getting mind-wiped by my fellow PCs. I quit after that. Some games have built-in sexy bad guys, like the Scorpion Clan in Legend of the Five Rings. We had a player who loved being the sneaky, secret, potentially backstabbing character from that clan. He reveled in it. But then we had a session where he had to do truly awful things, embracing the racism, absolute loyalty, and superior attitudes of the Scorpion. He was ordered to cut down a family of Ratlings who had assisted them. The player ended up furious that he'd been put in that position. He made it clear that I'd been unfair as a GM to make him have to consider those implications. 

So, yeah, I don't run villain games anymore.

Play on Target: Character Behavior and Alignment
If you like RPG Gaming podcasts, I hope you'll check it out. We take a focused approach- tackling a single topic each episode. You can subscribe to the show on iTunes or follow the podcast's page at www.playontarget.com.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

RPG Top 100 (Part Three: 26-50)

Here's the third part of my rundown of my Top 100 RPGs. As before, these aren't necessarily the 100 Best RPGs, but they're ones I want to play. We'll see if that changes in a year. Games marked with (*) mean I want to play the setting/premise, but I don't want to play with the existing rules. In some cases, there aren't any rules right now: I just want someone to write up a cool game based on that. 

50. Glorantha*
49. Ashen Stars*
48. Cthulhu Invictus/AD 43*
47. Road to Slaughterbowl/Bad Bard’s Tale
My #threeforged entry didn't make it through the third stage, but I still love it. I want to figure out how to put that together and make the playing of the central sporting event a compelling mini-game while still being easy. Alternately I want to take some of those mechanics and run my fantasy "band on the road" game, Orclectric Lyte Orkestrar

46. Lady Blackbird
45. Durance
44. Hunter the Reckoning
This appear higher than Monster of the Week. Why is that? MotW's a solid game and has some dynamite mechanics. Plus you have a host of clever fan-made playbooks. Combat's fast and easy. There's lots of room to fashion a world. If I wanted to do that Luchadore/Supernatural TV show mash-up I'd probably use MotW. I might even use that system to do this game.

So what grabs me about this game? I'm not completely sure. Some it's nostalgia. I like the way it provides an off-kilter entry point to the World of Darkness. It's a game that suggests the reality presented in any one of the games might look completely different from the perspective of another. That's a fantastic concept. When I ran Changeling the Lost, I made Promethean's a background fixture. They're so strange and dichotomous that  the former couldn't grasp the logic of the latter. And that was great. That's the same thing happening in HtR.

But even more, Hunter focuses on the cost- or at least the best supplements do. Forces beyond their control drive the PC's to this task. It takes a toll on their loved ones. Inevitably it destroys those relationships. And the PCs may well be insane. They have visions, see people as monsters. I love that uncertainty.

43. Worlds in Peril
42. World Wide Wrestling
41. Progenitor*
40. Keith Stetson’s Kingdom Management Prototype
Last year at Metatopia I got to play this. It was awesome. I want to see more. I can't say much more than that.

39. Unknown Armies*
38. Rotted Capes*
37. Masks
36. Mummy the Resurrection*
35. Rolemaster Standard System
Don't judge me. I ran Rolemaster for many, many years. I went through updates and edition changes. When they went to RMSS I hung on and ran several games. But I dropped off before the next shift, to RMFRP, hit. Some of that came from buyers' fatigue, but more came from a desire for less complexity in my games. I wanted systems I could hack more easily. I've spun that tale before

But over the last year I've played in Shawn Sanford's RM Classic campaign on off Mondays. It's goofy fun and each fight feels like it could be the one where I get my arm lopped off. If old Rolemaster is a patchwork of randomly sized pieces, then Standard System has cut things to a regular size but used weak thread. You can see the gaps- the compromises made in an attempt to create unity while maintaining variety. And I kind of love that. If I actually ran this, I'd follow a suggestion made on one of Hans Messersmith's threads: create easy to pick up and evolve playbooks for classes. I think I'd go further and collapse skills down into categories, with the ability to specialize. I'd also unify the maneuver chart and include the hard bargain for success option.


34. War Against the Chtorr*
33. Night’s Black Agents*
32. Mage the Ascension
31. Adventure!
30. Shadowrun*
29. Mutant City Blues*
28. Iron Kingdoms*
When Warmachine came out, people in our group still clung to WH40K. I bought most of the preview sets and tried to convince others to try it out. I managed to get a few of them interested, but the money they'd sunk with GW kept them from picking another game up. It didn't help that the only rules were scattered and hard to pull together. Everyone liked the models, but not enough. 

Over the following years I bought some more minis, picked up the main book, played in a Unisystem version, and generally kept my eye on the setting. I liked the world-building, but I'll admit I started to lose a grip on the story and continuity. Magic, mecha, steam-stuff, blunderbusses, goblins with wrenches, Russian analogues...that I could keep straight. The "extended universe" of new factions (and Hordes) lost me. But when the Iron Kingdoms core book came out I bought it. 

That thing's more like a textbook than any other rpg I've read. There's so much backstory and detail, and it hits you with that first. That's a strange choice, like an Umberto Eco novel. You have to make it through the first section obstacle course to get to the good part. I'm not sure who the audience is. Not new gamers. I can attest they'd get lost even if they knew the setting a little. Veteran Warmachine folks? They already know the setting. There's so much cool stuff there, but it needs to be teased out. I think you need clear playbooks ala AW or nation archetypes ala L5R. That would be my first task. Finding a way to present the material and setting simply and clearly. After that I could figure out mechanics.


27. James Bond 007
26. Blades in the Dark

Part Three 26-50
Part Four 1-25