Monday, July 29, 2013

Twenty Years Out: Ten Games

Thinking back I remember more the board games I didn’t play than those I did. I’m not sure if that’s buyer’s remorse or something else. As much as anything it feels like a judgment on the attention span or younger me. I remember many games I only played once: tons of Microgames (Rivets, Chitin, WarpWar, too many Melee solo adventures), longer pocket games (Swordquest, Intruder), oddball games (Barbarian Prince, Struggle for the Throne), and bigger ones (Alpha/Omega, Blood Royale, Up Front, Warrior Knights, Rogue Trooper). I subscribed to Strategy & Tactics and Ares, but only remember actually getting to play a couple of those. Then I had bigger games that never saw the table (Gunslinger, Vampyre, Ambush, Grav-Ball, and many more). My sister gamed, and we played a few games- but the age and interest gap was pretty wide. My dad never wanted to learn the rules to anything more complex than Mastermind, so we never played anything together. I remember setting up Berlin ’85 and World War 1 in hopes of enticing him to play. He read the rules to the latter but then told me they were too much for him.

RPGs remain my first love, but I love board games. I don’t know why- I’m not very good at them. I never did well with CCGs, any wargames I’ve won have been flukes, and I rarely manage to think more than a couple of turns ahead. But I love mechanics and mechanisms- I love watching how they work. Even as I’ve moved to more streamlined rpg experiences, I’ve come to appreciate how game engines operate. This weekend I played several small games with simple concepts that created amazing play and interaction: Love Letter, Hanabi, and Skulls & Roses. That’s a far cry from many of the games I played when I was young.

The most recent Top Ten from The Dice Tower got me thinking about this. They presented their Top Ten of boardgames from 1993 or before, anything over twenty years ago. And they left off many games that I adored. Not great games, but games that I actually played multiple times and stuck with me. So here’s my list with some comments. As a side note, I read/skim many geeklists. I’m guessing I’m pretty normal in checking title and paragraph one to see if I want to read further. I’ll admit I tend to skip nostalgia lists like these. I normally wouldn’t put one together, but I’m curious about how much my experience parallels or differs from those of my generation.

I suspect my preference for RPGs shows through in this, with many of these having a heavy narrative.

Our group bought and played all of the various Gamemaster series from Milton Bradley (Samurai Swords, Broadsides & Boarding Parties, Conquest of the Empire, Fortress America). But none of them survived as long as Axis & Allies. Some got a single play (B&BP), some more (FA), but eventually we'd return to this game. I bought a second set just to have more pieces and the updated rules. Then after multiple plays we hit the road block of figuring the game out. In particular the Russian/German moves and plays became a problem. I remember at least three sessions where one player quit within fifteen minutes of play when their opening gambit failed. After that A&A gathered dust. I tried a couple of times to bring in some of the fan-published expansions to extend and change the game, having new poster maps printed. However those did add much and usually just made the game longer- with people having to go home after a while. So I gave up on it. Even the release of new versions and area expansions couldn't grab my interest. I remember the early plays fondly, when everything was new.

An odd game I remember playing a handful of times and really enjoying. It had programmed movement and a role-playing aspect to it. You made up characters and fought with them in a bar-room brawl. I wish I could remember why I stopped playing it- perhaps I couldn't find anyone interested in it. I'm not sure. I played several arena style games in the same era- Arena of Death, Man to Man, Melee, Gladiator- but I don't recall any of them as fondly as this one. Perhaps I just had a really good time the few times I played.

Yes, I played Star Fleet Battles. I had binders of the rules and SSDs. I played only rarely, but bought everything. Then I quit. Then I went back and bought everything again. Then I played against someone who knew SFB and played it competitively. Then I quit and never played it again. SFB remained a rarity, an occasional game with a terrible money to fun ratio.

On the other hand, Starfire was relatively cheap. I had the original bagged game and the expansion. It was small enough I could sneak it into middle school and play at lunch or on breaks. I loved the concept of the simple ship listings and the way that different guns and systems interacted with that. I still love that concept- easy record keeping which offers all kinds of interactions with other ships. I think someday I want to figure out how to use that with the many space ships I've accumulated from Silent Death and Battlefleet Gothic. I've got a ton of the Heavy Gear 25mm figures- perhaps I could adapt Starfire to that for a fast game.

Flip books- what could be easier and more appealing? We never played with any of the advanced rules, instead settling down to flipping pages and checking for hits. I bought some of the additional books- Ace of Aces: Powerhouse Series and Ace of Aces: Flying Machines, but generally I just liked the goofy pleasure of trying to guess what would happen if I did X. It wasn't so much trying to outguess my opponent as trying to figure out how to actually fly my plane. I liked telling stories in my head about my pilot. Sometimes I'd play it solo, making the game more a toy than anything else. I enjoyed one other implementation of this system, Bounty Hunter: Shootout at the Saloon which I wished they'd done more with. Strangely I never got into the Lost Worlds series which spawned from this.

I know Traveller was an important early rpg for many people, but it never really caught on in our group. Some of us had copies of it, but we never played out a full campaign. Instead we would spend sessions rolling up characters and seeing what happened to them- a weird push your luck game. We had cool character sheet pads we burned through, making up PCs and coming up with backstories. But I don't recall any actual play. Sessions of Snapshot came closest to actual play. We did it as a competitive board game with each player having control of several characters and trying to gun one another down. We loved the maps and the crunchy, detailed combat mechanics. I wouldn't be the last time I'd see an rpg engine used as a battle game. We spent hours playing "Open Combats" with Champions. Since it had solid and mechanistic combat rules, you could have everyone make up 250 point characters and just go at it.

My sister had this and Ariel Games version of Mystic Wood. I really can't tell you much about the actual mechanics of play. I just remember going into the dungeon or woods and slowly getting killed. I don't think I ever won. But putting out the cards and building the scene was awesome. Mind you the art was pretty mediocre, but it was still cool looking at the final board. I enjoyed this more than other "adventuring" games I played in the same era: Dungeon! and Talisman. The former felt stagnant and boring after a few plays. The latter just wouldn't end. That got worse the more expansions people brought to the table. I know at least three times I drew the black void at the end of the game- killing me and sending me back to the start.

So kind of an rpg, in that you could define your character a little and tell a story. I used to 'borrow' this out of my sister's room and play solo adventures (and die).

4. Spies!
A game I must have been miserable to play with given my age. This ended up being the only large "wargame-y" big box game I ended up playing multiple times. I really liked the idea of it. I'd read the LaCarre novels early, but more importantly I'd watched the Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes movies, several of which dealt with spies and the same period as this game. I loved the idea that events and secrets could push the time track forward- creating alternate histories and progressions for the lead up to the war. Spies could have been a Euro-game if it hadn't had a whole set of extra complexities. I picked up a copy of this a few years ago. I've been trying to figure out how to redo it to make it a more modern game with less fiddlyness. I've also been thinking how it could be used as a background to an espionage rpg campaign.

Man, I owe an apology to all of the patient teens and adults who played this with me. I had to own all of the expansions for this, despite my sister having a copy. I tried to play it with others my age- and a few of them enjoyed it in a goofy throw cards at each other way. We played with multiple powers, hidden powers, switching powers, any goofy option. That meant that when I went to conventions and played I could be truly annoying and unfocused. I'm sure negotiating with me drove others crazy. Ugh. But I loved the game, not perhaps for the gameplay, but for all of the crazy alien races. I used to take those out of the box and just read through them. I had all kinds of stories about what the galaxy must be like filled with these bizarre people.

I picked up the Avalon Hill and recent Fantasy Flight version of this, but I still haven't played either of them. I suspect it has been at least thirty years since I've played this.

I find it bizarre that this didn't appear on the Dice Tower's list. We played this dozens and dozens of times. I had a couple of copies of the plastic box version of this and the expansions. I've heard some people dislike it for the cheating options, but we never played with those. In grad school we played the boxed set with the much better poker-chip megabucks. I enjoyed the back and forth and the tension of the play of it. I think it hit a sweet spot for me: negotiation, straight smart play, and just enough luck to give me an excuse for losing. When INWO came out I dived deep into that as well. I bought the most recent edition of Illuminati and hated it: garish art borrowed from the CCG and terrible card stock. I have that packed up and haven't played it in years.

The first game I played with my future wife. Before that, she only knew me as the guy who ran the game room and was a terrible Magic: The Gathering player. I'd bought into the GW kool-aid pretty heavily by the time MoW came out: 40K, Mighty Empires, Rogue Trooper, Dr. Who, Judge Dredd, Chainsaw Warrior, WHFRP, Blood Bowl, Space Fleet, etc.). But I loved Man O' War. I was simple, fast, and fun. Even wish the expansions you could get a solid and satisfying combat done in under two hours. Players could easily create cool and striking terrain pieces. It had randomness and some strategy- with goofy turn-arounds and overpowered vessels. Most of all you didn't have to buy a ton of ships to be able to play, though I did. That meant many people who might not otherwise have bought into it invested and played. But it also meant that MoW looked like a product dead-end for GW and then quickly stopped supporting it. Most players, following GW's dog-whistle, moved on to other games. My stuff's gone now- a chunk lost in the fire. I thought briefly about picking up Dreadfleet, but the reviews made it look terrible and the price point seemed high.

Monday, July 22, 2013

INWO the Out Door

As I mentioned in a post last week, I hunted around for the stacks and stacks of Blood Wars cards I had laying around the house. However, as with many things, I remembered them from before the fire. It looks like those ended up caught in the blaze and destroyed or thrown out by the restoration people. It doesn't surprise me- but for some reason I thought I'd seen them since then- a trick of memory. I did find chunks of other CCGs fallen to the wayside: L5R from the first five years before the Olympics made them change their logo; tons of 7th Sea which I played a couple of times before realizing I didn't care for it; and of course Over the Edge which I really need to organize and sort. That's a fun game with lane-based mechanics that could be the model for something else. But no Blood Wars. 

OOH I did find most of my INWO aka Illuminati New World Order ccg collection. Some of it had clearly been destroyed, but the majority remained. Besides Jyhad, this was the CCG I played the most. We had a good, solid group who gamed regularly. Most had played the original Illuminati board game and enjoyed the new version even more. When SJG licensed a German-language version of the game, we got ahold of boxes of that since it had a few new cards (albeit in German). We bought a good deal of Assassins as well, but the distribution of rarities in that really frustrated everyone. Eventually, as with all CCGs, interest flagged and we went on to other games. 

Before that collapse, we played weekly trying out new things. Then someone, I believe Ken McCoy, suggested making up new cards for the game. Everyone would make up a new card and before a session, we'd throw them into the middle of the ring and pick one at random. That kept anyone from making a truly killer card- it might fall into the hands of someone else (as one player learned quite quickly). You kept any cards you drew- and if you stole them through any means during play, you kept them. Several months after we started doing this, SJG actually came out with blank cards- so we didn't have to use stickers and spray glue. Hunting through my cards I came across five of the homemade ones I'd ended up with. Several I made ended up elsewhere (Puss-in-Boots and The Golden Dome IIRC). Below are scans of the cards I found. Keep in mind this would be 1994-95 when access to DTP resources was rare and our graphic skills were even more negligible...






Thursday, July 18, 2013

On Modules: Play on Target Ep. 14

For this episode of Play on Target we take on the question of modules. Or rather we circle around the question of which modules mattered to us and why we don’t actually use modules very much these days. I certainly have some great memories of modules that absolutely worked (or didn’t work) at the table. My reviews of The Enemy Within series and various Legend of the Five Rings modules come from a real love of them. But I’d say these days I buy fewer of them, despite being the primary GM in my group. At a guess, I’d say only about 15% of my rpg spending goes towards these knds of products. Yet I still recall the idea of modules fondly…

If there’s a disadvantage to age-range and experience of the podcast crew, it might be that we have a certain focus, in this case on D&D and related materials even when we don’t play it currently. That serves as such a common language that we end up talking about those modules more than others. So other popular lines get left to the side. For example, Deadlands has a mass of really interesting modules- from micro-adventures to large scale campaign arcs. That game had a lot of traction around in our area. Consider the various classic World of Darkness lines- most of which had modules which actually moved the metaplot forward. Despite that, products like Loom of Fate and Blood Bond always ended sitting on the shelves when other sourcebooks had a decent churn. It was interesting to see Steve Jackson test the waters of published adventures (Flight 13) and then quickly back away.

We don’t really touch on the game line with the most legendary modules, Call of Cthulhu. While some could be weak- others like Masks of Nyarlethotep and Horror on the Orient Express remain benchmarks for the genre. I played through some of those and read through more. CoC generated some of the wildest and most amazing material. Strange Aeons I’ve used and repurposed. It gets even better when you included the material on offer from secondary publishers- Glozel Est Authentique! and others from TOME; most of Pagan Press's output. Pagan's Walkeri n the Wastes, Devil's Children, and The Resurrected - Volume One: Grace Under Pressure all kicked ass. One advantage CoC had and still has (well, until we see what the next system is like) is universality and the ease of moving adventures between editions.

I recall several other modules quite fondly- the cornerstone adventures for anyone wanting to play the game. For example GW1: Legion of Gold, with the awesome Jeff Dee (correction: Bill Willingham) cover, came out every time someone ran Gamma World…with GW2: Famine in Far-Go as a close second. Champions had The Island of Dr. Destroyer- which I saw run over and over again. Even more awesome was DeathDuel with the Destroyers, written and drawn by Fables creator Bill Willingham. I saw the characters from that module repurposed more than any other in our group. Then there were the James Bond modules, especially Dr. No- which despite being taken directly from the film offered hours of gaming. I think I ran that three times. The The Free City of Krakow was the touchstone module for players of Twilight 2000. I also remember playing various modules and adventures from Daredevils and Bushido with some relish.

One issue we don’t address is the economic problem of modules and adventure material. They’re aimed at a fraction of the market. That makes them inevitably lower sellers than other kinds of products. Players might pick up sourcebooks because they’re interested in reading about a particular faction or place. But they’re not going to buy modules. The new digital marketplace takes some of the pressure off the publisher- not having to invest in a print run, not having to try to get it on store shelves. But you still need good solid modules to back up the ideas. I think Pelgrane Press does this as well as anyone. They have awesome and interesting module support to most of their game lines. Products like Dead Rock Seven and Hard Helix help GMs see what kinds of stories can be told in that setting. They also do a good job of offering modularity- with ides for how to restructure and rebuild the stories.

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

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Five Game Ideas: On the Drawing Board

In the early heyday of CCGs when everyone and their brother's company tried to make a collectible game, you could count on at least one person in our large and extended group to try out each game. We had brief dalliances with early Netrunner, Over the Edge, first edition Legend of the Five Rings, Dragon Storm, Illuminati, Doom Trooper, Wyvern, Heresy, Kult, Shadowfist, Mythos, and Jyhad. Some hit for a little while and others had some legs. Some clicked with the group and everyone bought into it right happened with Blood Wars.

This was TSR's other CCG besides the pretty bad Spellfire. Most of us picked it up because we really loved the art work and concept of Planescape. Plus the decks were reasonably priced and TSR pumped out the expansions quickly. Many bought a ton of it before even playing  the game. But eventually they did and realized how bad it was. Not terrible- just not good, at least in two-player. Multi-player was another story. Blood Wars let players dogpile on the leader. The moment anyone got slightly ahead of the pack, they were smacked down and the game effectively reset. I remember playing a single game an entire afternoon before we just quit.

Anyway, I ended up with many of those cards. They're somewhere in the house. When I took peoples' various extras I had an idea: perhaps the cards could be reworked and a new rules set built to accommodate them. Perhaps an all-in-one stack game like INWO? I spent some time thinking about it and then put it aside. But today something occurred to me and now I have to root around and find those cards. Perhaps I could come up with a way to make Blood Wars into a deckbuilder. I'd need to go through an isolate which cards I have multiples off and then look at the keywords and numbers on them. It could be a fun project and a chance to look at that amazing Planescape artwork.

For the recent superheroes game I ended up doing some research on Pro Wrestling. That had never been my cup of tea growing up, despite having a neighbor that worked the Chicago circuit. But I'll admit I was intrigued by the spectacle of it- and I used some of what I saw for a Luchador arc in the campaign. As well I picked up a copy of Eternal Contenders on a whim. I've only gotten a little ways into it. I'm a fan of video game fighters- though I'm terrible. But I love weird back stories like those for Soul Calibur and Mace: The Dark Age.

Anyway I started thinking about WWE characters aren't really like modern-day gladiators. There's some risk, but the gladiatorial contests of Rome and most fantasy settings have real lethality and risk. But gladiators are stars- they can be celebrities. But in order to do that they have to survive. So I've been thinking about what gladiators as WWE-style characters and celebrities might look like in a campaign with magic, especially with healing magic. Those who do well and enjoy the favor of the crowd, fans, and their management can spend money on restoration and recovery. It becomes an engine to keep people alive- perhaps with some Frankenstien-like effects. Actual magic in the arena would be forbidden, and perhaps there could be an alchemical doping scandal. Healing would have to be rare and expensive- and only take care of physical injuries (so infection and illness would be a real danger). Gladiators who don't seem to feel the pain- perhaps from too many healing bouts would lose the crowd's approval.

Not sure what i want to do with that- might make a nice background detail or plot for a fantasy setting. Perhaps just a setting for EC. 

I love board games and the last couple of weeks I've been able to play some cool new ones. One classic kind of BG, usually Eurogames, has you slowly developing and building your "victory point engines" in order to most efficiently generate points by the end of the game. Caylus and Agricola would be good examples of these. Even Dominion operates a little bit like that as well. There's a pleasure to that kind of crafted efficiency.

I'm wondering if you could do a game that does exactly the opposite. You begin the game with a solid engine, but then events occur and you have to figure out how to deal with the problems. Units get lost, sub-systems break or redirect. You'd be trying to get the best patches in place and figure out contingency approaches. I think it could be interesting- especially if you could make the game move fast. Players don't like negative events and this would be a downhill run. Perhaps a card based game? Not sure.

This past weekend we recorded a couple of upcoming episodes for our podcast Play on Target. In one segment we talked about games we no longer play. Cyberpunk popped up and stuck in my head. I never ran it- except as a Watchmen-style superhero game. But my late friend Barry ran quite a bit of it and some people really loved it. Strangely no one in our group played Shadowrun, CP’s strange step-child. I did enjoy Cyberpunk, but mostly when we were on directed an specific jobs- with set goals and obstacles. However those often ended up being the least satisfying for Netrunners who ended up sitting on their hands- at least as Barry ran it. He never got the balance between the two right.

I think a pseudo-rpg boardgame using some form of Cyberpunk could be pretty cool. Think of Descent, Warhammer Quest, Fury of Dracula or other games which pit the most of the players against a single adversary serving as the GM. The “Administrator” would have a limited set of resources to put against the group- tricks, traps, ICE, distractions, and the like. Each player would have a role- Fixer, Street Samurai, Netrunner, etc with different abilities and resources. The actual operation wouldn’t be gridded or tactical (like minis moving on a building map), but would be abstracted with locations. These could be built by random cards on a board, with the Admin able to shift things a little. There might be some set scenarios with different goals and perhaps some agendas for additional VPs.

The Netrunner would be playing a slightly different game- or at least one operating under different rules. They would be using their rig and mods to assist the group or change things around. You could do that with card play or something more interesting. I think a variation based on Bejeweled could be neat. Imagine a Boggle board with d6s of different colors. The runner would use his programs to match and remove elements from the board or shift things around. Doing so would allow the Netrunner special actions. Failures or leaving things open for the Admin could result in damage to their rig or themselves.

I want reskin the boardgame 7 Wonders to Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri. I think it could easily work. Each player would have a different faction with slightly different rules and benefits. Secret Projects could appear in each of the ages- operating like Leaders or Cities from the expansions. Importantly you’ve have military force, but also Green Technologies. Essentially polluting technologies could affect a Planet timer- potentially triggering events. Different end game conditions (World Council, Enlightenment, Military) could change how things get scored at the end of the game. I don’t think it would be that hard to do and make it feel pretty different from 7 Wonders.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Firstwave: Series Two: Lessons

The skies cleared, leaving our heroes standing. They'd faced seven gargantuan monsters from the depths, an army of the dammed, the Queen of Hel herself, and their own deceased and corrupted comrade Thor. NYC showed the scars- but Firstwave had won- in part due to allies they'd made. The Furies, supervillains Mister Miracle had stood up for; Quicksilver and the Morlocks, turned away from the path of Mutant supremacy; the Mole Man and his army, helping those who had stood up for him to the government; the Justice Luchadors, called back from retirement; and even jerry-rigged suits of defunct Iron Man armor. They won the battle which brought to a close the second arc of my Mutants & Masterminds campaign, Firstwave (campaign wiki here). 

For the first arc I'd aimed for 6-8 sessions and ended up with 13. This time I shot for a dozen sessions and finished the series out in 17 sessions. I had some general ideas at the start about what I wanted to see and do- some of which I got to and some of which ended up cut. The game rolled in many different directions- and I had a good time trying to hold the reins. I learned a few things in doing it.

When we finished the first series, I knew we'd have to come back. I took a couple of months off. Running superheroes can be tough- it requires more prep than most of my other campaigns. That's a relative measure. I'm a prep-lite GM but with mysteries I like to sketch out different leads, clues, and approaches. I wing those less.  I stat supervillains in greater details ahead of time. But one of the biggest time-sucks comes from visual presentation. At home when I run a fight I have years of accumulated scenics, miniatures, and a battle mat. For a tactical superhero fight using Roll20, I want the same or greater pizazz. That means first finding, drawing, or adapting great maps. HeroClix maps are good, but most rpg battlemaps have been drawn for fantasy games. When I've found modern maps, they're often tightly drawn corridor-fests. That's not as useful for a colossal battle. I also need to collect art and make up tokens. Since I'm running in a weird combo DC/Marvel universe, it isn't that hard to find images for the bad guys. But I try to track down new drawings or costume redesigns (like those of Project Rooftop). For example, I used the hybridized Batman villains created by deviantART artist gingashi. Getting the right artwork, organizing it, scaling and zoning maps, and getting the tokens ready takes up time. But that time's worth it- the fights run well and look good.

I had set up a number of elements in the first arc I wanted to come back to. Primarily I wanted to explore further the idea of the Cabal. This secret order of superbeings had controlled the world for decades- hiding the reality of superpowers. Think the bad guys from the Wanted comic or the Illuminati from Marvel. They'd vanished, which had led to the apparent new emergence of superheroes two years ago. The group had uncovered some of that secret history, including an abandoned base which they'd appropriated. Second, I'd introduced some McGuffin gems in the first arc. They'd learned more about one, but more existed so I wanted to develop that. Third, I had an idea for a Joker homage- based on the PCs having dunked a psychic supervillainess in toxic sludge during one of their battles.

But most importantly I had to deal with the question of the death of one of the PCs at the end of the last arc. Thor had sacrificed himself to destroy Starro, the Great Old One. He'd actually managed that with a nat twenty to seal the deal, so it had been pretty amazing. I asked Thor's player what he wanted to do- a classic comic book death and return, a completely new character, or something else. He suggested playing Loki- but disguised as Thor. He's been reading some recent Marvel comics with a more sympathetic spin on young Loki. He wanted to run him as a bad guy infiltrating the group, with an eventual aim of destroying his brother's reputation and legacy. I liked it and we brought Thor back towards the end of the first session. Then, during the second or third session, we did a scene that revealed to the players- but not their characters- that Thor was actually Loki.

That worked really well- it engaged the rest of the group in that story. They played off of that without playing a gotcha game of trying to figure out the truth. Instead everyone got more enjoyment out of those moments where I put Loki in the vise. As time went on, Loki slowly began to relish the attention and adulation of the public. He stepped forward to be heroic- even when his fellow heroes didn't quite reach those standards. We had a great moment late in the game where Tony Stark recovered from a strong moment of hubris, spurred on by Loki's words to realize his errors. I enjoyed the whole arc- and the players still weren't sure exactly what the secret was- was this actually Loki? Thor brainwashed? A Skrull? Or something else?

I started out the campaign arc in the middle of a fight- with villains drawn from City of Heroes. The play group had been heavily invested in that for years, before moving on to Champions Online and other games. CoH closed right around the time of this session, so it fit together pretty well. I'd given the group a set of “interludes” and then I followed that up with some news reports offering them different cases to look into. I tried to mix up been fighting and investigation sessions and change up the combats and interactions. We had two or three sessions which were purely the group chasing down different threads and deciding where they wanted to go. However, these players keep focus- more than many other groups I've run for. They choose a task and run with it.

The second act of the arc began with the battle against Dr. Simian and his cyber-ape corps. That led back to connections with the Cabal and more revelations of the nature of the world. The second act introduced questions and arguments about the treatment of super-criminals, the Mutant issue, and the idea that someone had been studying the group. The third act began when some of the group's research paid off and they discovered the location of one of the lost crystals. That led to a fight on a college campus. But while absent, a set of supervillains took over their base and held some loved ones hostage. So we had a session of the group fighting their way through their own defenses, essentially a dungeon crawl. They then fought the bad guys, but a supervillain they'd been holding snuck out and stole another one of the gems. That led immediately to the group tracking him down and facing the real Tony Stark who turned out to be Kang the Conquerer. Having barely defeated him and a dozen Iron man suit, they came out to see NYC overrun by Hel's army.

  • We made the switch from TTF to Roll20 early in the process. I’d been worried, but Roll20 proved stronger and more robust that TTF. You cansee my initial impressions here. That bore out through the rest of the campaign. I have a few quibbles with the program, but it gives amazing results. We did opt to use Skype instead on the in-service voice chat. Since we weren’t using video feeds, it wasn’t a loss. It also fixed a weird chat lag two of the players had.
  • I have a couple of tropes I tend to fall back on. For one I like the idea that the players make friends and allies throughout a campaign and those come back either directly in the field at the end or as an abstract resource. That’s something that offers a payoff for taking the time to work at those interactions. For another, I like to make the last several sessions a downhill run- picking up speed with no real downtime between events. In this case the players ran from fight to fight to fight- with some change up in terms of structure and obstacles (like having to dungeon crawl their way through the base). The problem I had here was that we had a couple of breaks for events and obligations, so it didn’t keep quite the energy I wanted. I like both of these techniques, but I have to recognize that I when I use them so I don’t become predictable.
  • I really like the zone combat system I’ve used for this. It avoids specific measurements of distance (which M&M frankly does badly). It scales well across maps. More importantly it makes play easy- really important for an online game.
  • For M&M savants, I’m glad I capped Luck. Hero Points remain the most effective power in the game. I had a few others I also put the kibosh on- Concealment is super-cheap for what it does, as is any power which offers a double effect (like Disintegrate). If we do a third and more cosmic arc, I’m considering taking the limits on powers (but not Luck) off to see what they can do. And I’ll respond in kind.
  • I build several interesting modern maps (a cool elevated train platform, a meta-human gym, their base) usually from pieces I found on the web. I ended up especially pleased with two of the battlemats. In one case I found a brochure drawing of a small college campus which I cleaned up and adapted. They then fought across and through the various buildings. For the final battle, I found a b&w map of the south end of New York City. I cleaned that up and then increased the brightness to map it more greyscale. It ended up pretty effective, I think.
  • I need to make a Firstwave logo. 

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Virtuacon 2013

This year RPG Geek has decided to organize an online virtual convention. It will run October 18-20th across many time zones. RPG Geek's been a pretty great community to participate in, with solid and interesting participants. Beyond that it offers a solid and comprehensive database of RPGs, along with the ability to record and track your collection. I've used that resource to track down new games in genres I enjoy.

I'm going to be running two events for the convention; I'll post the specifics when everything is finalized. They're still looking for more GMs and events. If you're interesting in running an online game for a pretty solid group of gamers, consider pitching in. They'd like to get a few more events before the event reg deadline of July 15th. 

You can see the full details on sign up and more details about the convention here. 

Monday, July 8, 2013

Sell Me on a Game: Play on Target Ep. 13

For this episode of Play on Target, we tried a slightly different approach. Each of us presented a game we like and pitched it to the others. I always enjoy the chance to advocate for good games. And in this case I learned about a game I’d only heard off and then had to go out and buy immediately. At first I thought all four of our choices were out of the mainstream, but I’m not entirely sure there is a mainstream in rpgs anymore. I suspect for the next time we do a show like this one I’ll try to pick a more conventional or bigger selling game I enjoy and talk about that.

We’re enthusiasts talking about games we like- trying to explain what we like and why others might find fun in them. I try to keep up with what’s coming out and in doing my various histories of different game genres I’ve had to read through a ton of material: introductions, publisher blurbs, websites, back covers and the like. From that I have a few suggestions on how to sell a game- to me, at least. I others will have different things they look for and love, hate or tolerate. 

Genre is Not Enough: Saying you’re offering a steampunk, Western, superhero, or horror game can pique my interest, but you’d better go past that. What kind are you? What are you simulating and why? Steampunk’s especially bad in this regard- smart people have such dissenting opinions about what that means. But I’ve read games where I have to dig a long way in before I realize that your particular flavor of steampunk includes Elves and magic. Explain upfront what your spin on the product is.

YAZG or “Yet Another Zombie Game”: Even if you’re picking out a sub-genre, that’s shouldn’t be the end all of your marketing. In putting together the horror lists, I saw several games which simply pitched themselves as “Have you ever wanted to play in a Zombie setting?” Yes, yes I have and I had All Flesh Must Be Eaten to do that with. You really need to address and accept the existence of other games in the sub-genre and show how yours does something new. Take for example John Wick’s The Shotgun Diaries which puts the simplicity and almost boardgame nature to the player competition up front.

Generic isn’t a Great Selling Point: I’ve seen a good deal of push back against generic games over the last several years. That seems odd to me because we had a long period where that approach grabbed people’s attention. But I can understand the counter-argument: generic systems are too common and don’t emulate any one thing particularly well. That means that if you want to sell me on a generic game, you need to do a great job of talking about the mechanics, the interesting systems, and what the core engine really brings to the table. Just saying “you can do anything with this game” isn’t enough, and from what I’ve seen actually puts readers on the alert. At the very least don’t make that universality the sole or key component to your spiel.

I Don’t Want to Read Your Novel: When I go to look at a new rpg, if there’s more than a couple of pages of game fiction at the start, I usually put it back. That’s especially true if there’s no set up to what the game’s about before that. I don’t want to have to plow through a short story to figure out the game’s premise. A couple of pages works- a teaser that sets up ideas and leaves me asking questions. I’m more forgiving for supplements, like WW books, where I’ve already bought into the line. But even there I usually skip the bits. I don’t know if I’m in the majority or minority with this.

I Don’t Want to Read Your History Dissertation: I like history- I primarily read historical non-fiction. But when I hit a wall of that in an rpg my eyes roll up into my head. As with game fiction, a few pages is fine- especially an overview that sets up the context of the game. But you need to put some kind of preface or introduction that lays out the basic premise and key concept of the game. I really dislike a dozen pages of history presented cold that start all the way back at the dawn of pre-history and work through wars and conflicts in the distant past. I want to know what the world looks like now- I want to know what’s happening in the present. I understand you have to set some of that up- and offer secrets the GM can pilfer for stories. But more of that can go in later sections. Be economical with your historical info dump.

Cover Art: If your cover art depicts something cool, that ought to actually be in the game. I’ll make an exception for more mysterious or strange games, but generally if the game cover has cool steam trains and an industrial city, I expect that to be pretty front and center.

Mystery is Not An Excuse: Here’s a problem I hit on with several horror games. You clear have a strange or surreal setting with secrets or hidden motives. You don’t want to give away too much, so you pretty much simply point and go “trust us, that’s weird and wild.” That’s not enough to make me want to play or buy the game. You need to offer something more. Don’t Rest Your Head and ImagiNation both handle this well- with enough tease to make me interested.

Character Sheet: You should have one at the back of the book I can flip to easily to check out.

Maintain Your Website: If I want to find out more about your game, I’ll usually check your website. You should have an easy to get to blurb or explanation there. Not a couple of lines, but a more substantive explanation. Copy the game’s introduction if you have to. If the game has supplements, have a quick and easy list of those so I know what’s available. This applies even if you’re doing your site via a blog.

TELL ME WHAT WE DO: If I’m playing in the game, what am I doing? Is it geared to investigation, dungeon-crawling, social conflict? Are we playing adventurers, empires, planets? I understand that authors don’t want to narrow the possibilities, but I really need some kind of tag line. Not just what the game’s about, but what the premise looks like in play. If I can’t figure that out easily, I’m much more likely to just put the book back.

And that’s what this is really about- keeping me from putting the book back or clicking on. We live in a golden age of rpg media- I have far too many games to ever play them all. But I love reading new ones. I have a limited budget of time and money for that. If a game doesn’t sell me quickly and clearly, I’ll move on to something else. Unless I get word of mouth, I’ll probably never learn how great your game was. Keep in mind the implied IMHO on all of these suggestions- they're about personal preference and what I look for. 

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

Friday, July 5, 2013

Collaborative Gaming: A Response

A couple of weeks ago I posted the video from the ConTessa panel I participated in, Collaborative World-Building and Gaming. In that post I also expanded on some of my ideas about those kinds of games- why you might use them. Last week the Black Vulmea (BV) posted a response on his blog Really Bad Eggs. His post, "Under the Microscope," takes the panel and my post to task for some failings. BV’s one of my favorite blogger- someone I slow down to read when it pops up in my feed. I started following him when I saw some of his posts on Social Networks and how he handles them in his games. His always offers readable and useful posts. If you’re at all interested in Swashbuckling or Pirate-style games, this is the blog you should be reading.

BV has several concerns and criticisms of the post & panel which I’m going to try to respond to. He has  legitimate grievances, but I think some arise from misreadings. The burden of that misreading, at least for the blog post, lies primarily with me for not being clearer and/or more precise. There’s some interesting discussion in the comments, but I’m admittedly restricting myself primarily to BV’s post. Note that I’m speaking for myself and not the other panelists. They’re smart and likely more plugged into this area than I am. I can only really talk as a GM who has found these tools useful in my games. I’ll also be paraphrasing/ summarizing some of BV’s comments- so I really encourage readers to go and read his full piece. I do want to address one comment. Matthew Milller makes the point "The only thing that irks me is when CWB fans adopt a condescending attitude toward trad RPG players, who are framed as "fearing the players," unwilling to leave their "comfort zone," etc. Grr.” I don’t believe that’s the tone of my piece.  

When everyone went over to d20, we were still playing many other things. But it was clearly something worth knowing about so I ran a campaign to see what I thought. I did the same thing with Savage Worlds, Gumshoe, Dying Earth, Fading Suns, and many other games that I ended up liking parts of, but not everything. I’d run Champions for years, but was willing to try other superhero games- eventually landing on Mutants & Masterminds as the one I tried and liked. But I also tried out Godlike, Silver Age Sentinels, and City of Heroes. I’ve explored other, more “indie” systems to see what they have to offer: Fiasco, Hollowpoint, Dread. People talked about OSR so I made sure I played and read some of that. Like every other GM, trying out other systems helps me see what I like about games I run regularly. Sometimes I find new ideas and techniques. I like how FATE describes the environment and I brought that back to the table. And I liked Microscope’s framework for collaborative world building. Has everything I’ve tried worked? No. I’ve learned things my group doesn’t like- things that other groups love: FATE Dice, Detailed Combat Mechanics and Timers from Scion, Abstract Combat Representation, Tag Lines from Dying Earth, Roll Under but High from Fading Suns, Modifier Heavy Systems, GUMSHOE’s standard action system, skill lists written to fit with the setting over clarity, etc.

I use collaborative techniques as another arrow in my GM’s quiver. I run mostly conventional campaigns- GM-created and crafted. You can see most of my campaigns are fairly classic style- here’s are two inventories of them from M&M to GURPS to Rolemaster to D&D to Homebrew to Exalted and so on (Fantasy World and Other). 

Black Vulmea talks about some areas of concern that I share: games which lack mystery and/or have a strongly shifting player/GM relation in the campaign play. But that’s not what’s going on with my sense and experience of collaborative world-building. I’m taking the long way around, but let me begin by distinguishing what I’m not talking about. I can really only speak to my own focus and interests (the panelists may be different).

  • I’m not talking about GM-less games- like The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, The Committee of Exploration of Mysteries, Durance, Capes, or any of countless others. I appreciate games like Fiasco and Our Last Best Hope. They’re cool- and I’d recommend everyone, especially GMs, try one once. It might not be your cup of tea, but you might find something interesting you can bring back to your other games. I like these games, but generally they’re one-shot experiments or goofs on a free evening or between campaigns. They function like a board game for me.
  • I’m also not talking about more abstract games which do have a “GM” but effectively have a negotiated resolution. I believe Murderous Ghosts, mentioned in the panel, falls into this category. In a sense these are randomizer-less- something I’ve not really been able to wrap my head around. These are more storytelling games- again a great and fun thing- but a little bit away from my interests in campaigns and rpgs. They’re cool for a one-shot.*I’m also not talking about games which give the players large-scale control over the narrative in play. By this I mean where they explicitly set the plot or adversaries along with the GM. I’ve heard about games like this but I can’t really point to any. I’m not plugged in enough to the indie scene to know what’s out there in this category. Perhaps My Life with Master. I own that but haven’t played it. My sense again is that these kinds of games are more one-shot than on-going campaign, but that may be my bias (i.e. I have a hard time seeing how that would sustain itself). If someone can give me some examples, that would be helpful.
  • I am talking about mechanical systems or rules which help structure that process. In this case I am talking about some GM-less games, like Microscope or Dawn of Worlds. I’ve played Microscope as a stand-alone game and it was fun. But mostly I’ve used it as a tool to build a setting for a conventional campaign (I’ll come back to some examples later). Some standard rpgs have similar mechanical systems for doing shared creation- Diaspora mentioned in the video for one. Another would be The Dresden Files city creation mechanics. Ars Magica’s another early one- where the players create the Covenant and the GM role passes between players from story to story.
  • Shared character creation: Various flavor of FATE offer a collaborative process used to tie the party together and create aspects. So a segment of the PC’s creation can be influenced by the group. The couple of times I’ve used this, I’ve been surprised by the positive response. It obviously wouldn’t work in all games, but FATE’s system of aspects makes it easy to use.
  • Player Narrative Control: Generally I’m pretty open about players introducing details to a scene- provided they fit the context and ‘ground rules.’ As I mentioned in the video- I encourage players to flesh things out, like describing that there’s a something at hand or in their pocket. Some games, like FATE, make this a mechanical device- allowing players to spend resources to create an impact on the scene. I’m OK with that. But in most of these cases that’s a pretty modest impact- with more significant ones requiring an action, a roll and/or the spending of resources. That’s more a GM technique, I think, then a question of collaborative gaming. I try to be pretty open about things- aiming for a more “Say Yes” approach. If there’s a question, we go to a roll. But I’ll say no if it doesn’t fit or represents a misunderstanding of the scene. I had a player for years who simply couldn’t process scene descriptions. I’d set the stage at the top of each round and even restate things before his actions and he’d still bizarrely misunderstand positions, set ups, details, etc- even with miniatures. I said “No” and “No, But…” with him many, many times.

So what am I talking about- i.e how have I actually used collaborative world-building and gaming?

One of Black Vulmea’s key concerns is that the panel doesn’t strongly enough address or deal with the objections gamers might have to a collaborative approach. We do consider some of it in the panel, but not strongly or in depth enough. I think that’s a fair concern. However I’d say that the panel’s really about presenting perspectives on a tool which gamers can bring to the table. Yes, it is an advocacy panel in that regard. I think given the constraints of the format and the number of participants that’s the likely result. His point is a fair one and if I’m on panels like this in future I’ll give more space to why whatever technique I’m talking about won’t work for everyone.

BV has a bigger concern, “as a player, I want to explore the game-world, not build it. The "world of mystery" isn't something I want to get past; it's one of the most important features of roleplaying games for me” (emphasis his). 

I agree- I want to explore my worlds and I want my players to explore them. That’s the point of my section “Room to Build” from my original post- and really shows that I needed to be more explicit and precise about that. Bottom line: the collaborative approach I’ve used shifts the “GM/player dyad” for a short time before the campaign begins. It then returns it to a conventional “GM/player dyad” during the course of the actual campaign. And in my experience, that’s provided benefits, including increased engagement and excitement.

When I’ve run player involvement with world-building hasn’t detracted from the joy of exploration or the sense of mystery surrounding the world. Let me point to a couple of examples. Here’s the rundown of the collaborative session for the creation of The Last Fleet campaign. It sets up the world background and the history leading up to the present day. That’s what the players know- from that they went away and created characters. Based on that background and those characters I’ve run a 2+ years campaign.

And the game’s been all about exploration and surprise. Voyaging to new places and dealing with the bizarre challenges, while at the same time considering the weight of their own history. They’re the last of their people and they know what they’ve lost. I always hope for an ‘out-of-the-park’ campaign, and this one has delivered. Here’s the thing- the players at the start know as much about the setting as I do. That changes very quickly as I fill in details, add twists, and use the room they’ve given me to add depth. There’s no more lack of mystery than there would be if you were running an established campaign setting players know: Forgotten Realms, Star Wars, or even historical Europe. Here the players have definitely “read the background material” and have an additional connection, a sense of ownership and investment.

You can see another example, our Relic Hunters aka The Hunts Begin campaign, here. Look at the possibilities. They’re delicious and I made the most of them. That detail about the Blazing Sun became the centerpoint of the campaign, with the players trying to figure out how to put a stop to that. In the process the learned secrets about who had manipulated that to happen, what had been the reason for the purges of the assassin clans, and who the real threat to the world was. The players had to uncover the backstory for the Bells of Pelic, mentioned in the history, revealing more tragedies and terrors facing the world. They got to go to many of the places mentioned and actually see in play some of the figures- in their full complexity. By nature, this collaborative approach can only sketch the outlines- the GM still fills in the details. This can even apply to players creating their city - as in Grey Reign which offers more things for me to explore and twist at the table than I’ll ever get through. Or where the players create their family or clan, as in the Legend of the Five Rings campaign I’m running.

Collaborative worldbuilding doesn’t negate exploration. In the games I’ve used it, it made it richer. Mind you if players don't want to build the world, that's a fair personal preference. But not wanting to build it because then there won't be any mystery misunderstands the process. 

BV has some other concerns, “In Lowell Francis' blogpost, it goes rather beyond simply ignoring other positions to exaggerating a fringe argument, that referees who don't embrace collaborative world building may do so because they 'fear the players,' instead.” I don’t know if I’m exaggerating a fringe argument in my post- I hope I’m not. As I said I’ve seen that response pop up in a number of forum thread- on blog posts, on RPG Geek, and on Reddit. I’ve also talked with several GMs who expressed the same sentiment. That’s anecdotal- but I’ve seen it enough I wanted to address it. IMHO it hasn’t been a fringe argument, but a legitimate concern I’ve seen multiple times. So in my post, I’ve tried to answer that- if that’s your particular worry, I don’t think you need to be afraid. You may have other reasons for not trying it, but if you’re afraid of autonomy loss to the players with these methods, I don’t think you need to be.

Let me give a related example. When I decided I wanted to try out Microscope to build a campaign, I had a couple of my long-time players (25 years+ and 18 years+) express some real fears before we got started. They worried about “the other players getting it wrong.” Mind you, everyone else they’d also played with for years. They trusted me to do campaign and world creation, but they weren’t sure about everyone else at the table. Afterwards, both talked about their worries and how working through the process had completely changed their minds. That experience has made me more aware that players and GMs might have concerns along those lines- so I’ve tried to address those. I’m not saying you’re a coward if you don’t try these techniques- that would be stupid.

The last point Black Vulmea makes is, “the difference isn't between the players collaborating in world building or not -it's between collaborating in world building in-character or out-of-character.” (emphasis his).

We can have both. We can collaboratively build the world and then do everything BV mentions as a play activity within the rules of the game, whether that game’s Flashing Blades, Rolemaster, FATE, or whatever. At least as I’ve used them, these two segments exist independently. We get together as a group and build a world. Then I, as GM, go away and put together some character creation mechanics to fit the world and the system we’re using. Then the players make up characters and play within that world they’ve created as you would with a conventional campaign. In Last Fleet they’ve made alliances, they’ve founded a new homeland, they’ve developed romantic plots, they’ve risen in ranks and status- all in classic gameplay. They continue to change and shape that game world from within. They continue to explore and learn about that world from within. But the players aren't OOC building the world during play. Instead they're playing in that world. 

This isn’t something Black Vulmea specifically mentions, but I want to be clear. Collaborative gaming is a tool and a technique. As I mentioned above I strive to try out new things to see if they add to my games. Many times they don’t and I set those aside. The positive reaction I got from players had encouraged me to do more with shared world-building and collaboration. Will I use it for everything? No. It doesn’t fit for some things I want to run. Collaborative character building, for example, won’t necessarily work where I want the PCs to begin as strangers or unconnected. Like every playstyle- it has a place and may not fit with every group or GM.

But for me it has been a success. I think that it is worth trying at least once to see if it works for you or if there’s something there you can steal for other games. In my case, and again this is anecdotal, it added to the players’ excitement; the groups (sixteen players in six distinct groups) spoke about how much they enjoyed it; the challenge pushed me to develop great new material; quiet players ended up being able to show what they wanted (where they usually didn’t articulate it when asked directly); and most of all it has been super fun. 

I want to thank Black Vulmea for his excellent blog (Really Bad Eggs) and for taking the time to watch the panel and read through my post. I hope I've addressed at least some of your concerns with this.