Thursday, June 30, 2016

History of Wild West RPGs (Part Two: 2001-2006)

Westerns seem weird to me. So much of the mythologizing, the making of its iconic tales seemed to happen concurrently with event. Grand Wild West tales came around even as the West was being “won.” I suppose you could find other examples like the British Heroic Exploration myth or American Gangster romanticizing. But much of the Western got set down close to events themselves, gripped the imagination, and endured strongly. I can think of few other pseudo-historical themes that have that power.

In RPGs we have a handful of these genres that come back again and again. Samurai, Arthurian, Viking, and Roman fit the bill. We’ve had multiple takes on these, complete with reskins and reframes (fantasy pastiches, space versions). They pop up in RPG development across languages and eras. We have a few also-rans (Robin Hood and Gangsters come to mind). I think a smarter person than I could drill down and unpack the thematic connections between these five.

At Origins I did get to speak with a smarter person than I, Evan Torner, on a related topic. Evan works in both German and Game studies, not necessarily at the same time. I mentioned to him my surprise at the number of Wild West RPGs in multiple editions which came out of Europe. I suggested they arose from Italian cinema and the Spaghetti Westerns. He said it went even further back, that Germany had a massive appetite for the Wild West from the early part of the 20TH Century. A good portion of the backbone of Italian Western moviemaking came from German cinema veterans who’d shifted there. I love learning about that kind of thing, the transmission of these stories to places I didn’t expect. 

Originally I hadn’t planned on doing more with Wild West rpgs, but a few people asked me to continue the series. Since I don’t usually get requests, I thought I ought to oblige. So there it is.

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I focus on core books here or those that act as genre sourcebooks for a larger game. I’m also only listing books with a physical edition. I might include an electronic release if they’re notable and of significant size. At the end you’ll see some miscellaneous entries, covering borderline or similar cases. Some selections came down to a judgement call. I’m sure I missed some releases. There’s a little overlap with the last list vis-a- vis 2001. If you spot something Wild West which came out from 2001 to 2006, leave a note in the comments.

History of Wild West RPGs: First Fifteen

A Japanese RPG from FarEast Amusement Research (F.E.A.R.). They’re the company behind recent English-translated games Tenra Bansho Zero and Double Cross. Both of these games have levels of mechanics some would call rich, some would call opaque.

Wikipedia describes Tenra the Gunslinger as, "...tak(ing) place in Terra, a fictional continent modeled after North America during the American Old West. Its theme is frontier spirit. The setting is fictitious, but actual historical Americans also appear as non-player characters. They include Thomas Alva Edison, Nikola Tesla, Jesse James and Belle Starr. There are guns and steampunk items representing lost technologies (for example, phlogiston generators or aetheric drives). Players face monsters called the Dark. Player characters may be automata, bounty hunters, gunslingers, preachers, saloon girls, steam-mages, U.S. marshals and other archetypes as they ride the transcontinental railroad on their way to the far western frontier."

Terra the Gunslinger uses playing cards with a suit = abilities approach. F.E.A.R. later released Tenra War which mashed up this setting with Tenra Bansho and a mecha game called Angel Gear. Wikipedia also notes that “On a trip to Japan, noted game designer Greg Stafford noted that he liked the look of Terra the Gunslinger.” That amuses me.

2. Dust Devils (2002)
My favorite Westerns hint at the death of the genre itself: Unforgiven, Once Upon a Time in the West, The Wild Bunch. The recent Red Dead Redemption, probably the most popular Wild West video game, embraces this. Dust Devils simulates those stories. On the one hand it’s about redemption, on the other it’s about growing old in a dangerous world. You start strong in Dust Devils, but over time can decline and weakern You have to choose how hard you’ll push that.

Like several other Western RPGs, Dust Devils uses playing cards for resolution; the GM is (of course) "the Dealer." PCs have four attributes Hand, Eye, Guts and Heart, each associated with a suit. In a conflict everyone builds their best hand of cards dealt from a central deck. A character's hand size comes mostly from relevant attributes. Conflict losses lead to attribute point losses. They can be recovered between sessions, but in play losing costs you. It means having to make hard choices about continuing to fight. Designer Matt Snyder released an updated version of this in ’07 called Dust Devils Revenged. That includes options to port the mechanics to other iconic twilight settings, like fallen samurai There’s a great review and overview of the game here at The Cardboard Republic.

An early d20 Wild West game, but not the first. That honor goes to Deadlands d20 released the year before. Sidewinder offers a solid overview of Western game elements and plenty of mechanics for those wanting crunch. The ’02 edition uses straight d20 OGL. The following year the company released Sidewinder: Recoiled. This shifted the game over to the d20 Modern rules and added almost 100 pages. I’m not a d20 aficionado, so I have a hard time telling what’s novel here. At first I assumed they’d added Action Points, used for rerolls and powering some feats. But a check of the SRD shows that comes from there. Sidewinder follows the OGL with classes reflecting themes over specifics, so you can be a Strong Hero, Fast Hero, Dedicated Hero or the like. That’s, as you might imagine, supplemented by Advanced Classes like Pony Soldier and Tin Star.

Overall Sidewinder: Recoiled looks nice. Be aware the vast majority of the book’s given over to mechanics. Of the almost 300 pages, ten cover environmental hazards, thirty present animals, and five offer a slight sample scenario. Only the twenty page introduction actually examines Wild West themes and then very generally. If you’re looking for a WW resource, this isn’t it. It has a good mix of art, though some of it is the same Dover Wild West illustrations we’ll see again and again in these games.

4. Cold Steel Reign (2003)
This first popped up on my Post-Apocalyptic lists. Here a small company takes on the a supernaturally devastated Wild West, reaching into Deadlands' territories with a new spin. In Cold Steel Reign a meteor strike during the American Civil War sparks a cataclysmic shift. It rewrites the geography and tinges the whole world with a "Western" frontier lifestyle. Despite that concrete framing, Cold Steel Reign spins off to drag in a host of craziness: demon-harboring constructs, Templars, and long-forgotten secret magics. I'd assumed this was a straight alt-history, but the reviews make it clear it dives fully into the kitchen sink.

Those reviews also suggest a clunky, crunchy system. Cold Steel Reign has an abundance of mechanics which switch from sub-system to sub-system. Add to that a host of editing problems. The game still has a FB page, last updated in 2012. You can also find character creation tutorials on YouTube. However Cold Steel Reign didn’t gain traction, with only the mammoth Player's Guide and a GM screen released. That's too bad. It has an awesome title and hints more than a little hint at Stephen King's Dark Tower series.

Eden throws its Stetson into the ring with this Wild West supplement. Notably overseen by Shane Hensley (creator of Deadlands), we get zombie Eastwood on the cover. There's a good chunk of general advice for running All Flesh Must Be Eaten in a Western mode; just shy of 40 out 140 pages if you count some of the game fiction. It’s a useful overview of the genre and shows Hensley’s expertise as he focuses on issues which might hit the table.

The volume includes four new settings plus conversion notes for Deadlands. "Singing Cowboys" offers a starkly black and white take on the genre. Here all cowboys are effectively bards. The zombies break all those rules and there’s a secret story logic to it. The “True Grit” Deadworld riffs on John Wayne and is set in the late 1880s. Here the zombies come from Anasazi sorcery, pitting cowboys against (undead) Indians. “Spaghetti with Meat,” of course, riff on the films of Sergio Leone and his peers. The PCs are tough loners in a terrible world made slightly worse by zombies running around. “Dances with Zombies” presents Sioux Indian heroes against undead American Army troops.

I’ve often wondered how many of these Deadworlds actually get run by groups and how many simply serve as inspiration. If you’ve played AFMBE, have you played in a particular one?

6. Link: West (2003)
Another one of my unproven rules is this: when many of the images I can find of your game’s cover have a discount sticker or show a pre-pub mock up, you may not have great game. Link: West offers a modest d20 Wild West adaptation. Oddly I’ve found two different publisher blurbs for the product. One mentions conventional d20, while the other indicates the game’s based on Big Eyes, Small Mouth d20. Other places suggest its built on Silver Age Sentinels d20, which I thought was close but not the same thing. A forum post by the publisher indicates it, “offers a bit of fantasy to the Western genre.” I’m guessing that refers to the Shaman and Mystics mentioned on the back cover. In any case, this game seems to have ridden off into the sunset.

I’m slightly sorry I went for that joke.

A Brazilian RPG. It’s the Western setting book for the generic rpg, OPERA (aka Observadores Perdidos Em Realidades Alternativa). Apparently at this point no Wild West rpg had yet reached the Brazillian market, beyond an article in the local version of Dragon Magazine. The Google translation of the game blurb reads, “Western United States, between 1860 and 1890 a heroic era marked by adventure by shootings saloons, duels to the setting of the sun and conflicts between cowboys and owners of farms. People have a place to call home, sheriffs and delegates have someone to hold, the bad guys have something to steal, the gunmen can put your weapons available to those who pay better. And meanwhile the dry tufts roll through the streets of the cities showing a mix of solitude and aridity. With its setting located mainly in three fictitious cities of Albuquerque and Santa Fe, '1887 - Under the Sun of New Mexico' brings with adventures in the best Western style.”

The designer previously worked on a FUDGE adaptation, which influenced OPERA. 1887 apparently introduces new mechanics for character generation to the base game. The rules include some game fiction as well as scenarios for the setting. There’s a small review with an example character here. You can read more about the base system here.

I've never been sure how to pitch Dogs in the Vineyard, except that it feels like it operates in an allegorical Western space. Is there magic? Are the demons real? I suspect that's a decision the group has to come to. DitV draws on Mormon history, but feels magical realist. That's not the most helpful description. The PCs are protectors and enforcers, the Dogs of the title. They travel from town to town acting providing stability and cleansing. The GM presents the players with a situation and they must come to an interpretation. From that they must then reach a judgement as to how to deal with it. But the basis and code the Dogs have to draw from is loose and subjective, meaning the party may disagree how to read the situation.

The combination of religious enforcers trying to keep their land pure and the "push your luck" mechanic of conflict make for a striking game. More than many others, Dogs in the Vineyard evokes a feeling about the place and time. It's also a game with GM rules that made me re-examine what I was prepping for the table. If you’re interested in a niche, tough, alt-Western atmosphere game, check it out. If you’re looking for something more conventional or specifically about historical Mormonism in the West, you might not find it here.

A supplement for Action! System. That was Gold Rush Games second foray into generic systems after their work with Fuzion. It's a flexible 3d6+Skill & Attribute vs. Target Number game. AS carries over Interlock’s fascination with derived stats. The Gunslingers supplement has some basic adaptation notes (like how to handle a Western’s “Code of Conduct”) and then fifteen standard templates (Scout, Brave, Rustler) & how to customize those. It has new skills as well as a decent equipment list. Most of the book covers add-ons to the basics and genre specific bits. So alcohol and hangovers take up two pages. Nicely adventures get a larger share in this game than many others. The final third presents a version of Dodge City, two extended scenarios, and a set of plot hooks. The only discussion of the “Western” as a whole comes in various appendices which present a bibliography, glossary, and discussion of a few significant events (like the Homestead Act). That’s just shy of thirty pages, so not bad.

10. OGL Wild West (2004)
Part of Mongoose’s large-volume OGL genre series (OGL Horror, OGL Steammpunk). I expected to tumble through the usual over-stuffed d20 mechanics, but spotting Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan as the designer gave me hope. There’s certainly more emphasis here on story, feel, and background. OGL: Wild West starts in the same place as other similar books, with thematic classes. These have evocative illustrations but no genre or real world examples. Occupations are called vocations here. The 21 presented seem more detailed than in base d20 Modern, with choices and additional talent trees. Action Points are called Luck here and seem to have a richer set of options, including establishing and changing events (like Fate Points). I have to note that Horses get their own feat set, a clever way of individuating those.

Unlike other d20 Wild West games, OGL WW offers more tools for the GM and more general resources. There’s a nice presentation of historical NPCs, complete with plot hooks. There’s a short section on Western towns, with example businesses and locations which would be awesome if expanded and developed. The books wraps with ideas for running Westerns, handling classic elements like gunfights, and a discussion of game-able history. It looks at Law Enforcement, the Railroad, Mining and other issues. OGL: Wild West is more developed than similar games, though I’m still left wanting more. OOH it’s a decent resource for GMs and worth picking up, even if you’re not doing d20.

11. Spellslinger (2004)
A thin d20-based setting with wizards and wagon-trains. Fantasy Flight's Horizon line reminds me of TSR's Amazing Engine and WEG's Masterbook lines: attempts to make many settings to see which actually stuck. Grimm's the only survivor from this line. Spellslinger combines classic fantasy with the Western, with an emphasis on the fantasy side of things. It feels too short, but at the same time I’m unsure if I’d dig a full-scale release. It has the classic fantasy races overlaid with Western-y bits. The Western motifis offer more chrome than anything significant. Only about a quarter of the 64 page book deals with the background and setting, and even that’s almost half bestiary. If you’re interested in this concept, I’d recommend Owl Hoot Trail which more smoothly integrates the two halves.

12. Aces & Eights (2005)
When the “Basic Game” of your system has a detailed action point cost chart, two tables for combat modifiers, and a transparent hit location overlay you make me seriously worried about what the “Advanced Game” entails. Aces & Eights does just that, with a weird switch up. The first few pages of the game has you generate a character with two stats: speed and accuracy, rolled with a d4. Then you roll to see if you use a pistol or a rifle, your name, and your profession. Wow. Simple. Then suddenly a rogue chart pops up and your lying in the street in a puddle of mechanics…

But let me backtrack, because I actually weirdly like this game despite it not being my bag mechanics-wise. The original Aces & Eights from 2005 is a supplement- Showdown- for any Wild West RPG. It offers a detailed gunfight engine with a shot clock and the aforementioned targeting silhouette. I’m fond of this idea for many reasons. I remember other crazy overlay games and supplements like Killer Crosshairs. As well I have fond memories of grade school me buying a copy of Avalon Hill’s Gunslinger from Hobbyland in the mall. I desperately tried to make sense of the rules. I knew it had to be awesome because the mechanics were so dense.

I never actually played Gunslinger.

Anyway, we jump forward to ’07 when Kenzer & Co took the core element of Showdown to create the massive, massive tome that is Aces& Eights: Shattered Frontier. It took home the Origins Award for Best RPG and a Silver ENnie that year. As involved as the Basic Game is, the Advanced Game is meatier. Stats run from 1-25, you both roll and spend for these, and everything has modifiers & effects. The skill list takes up two pages in ten point font. I had Rolemaster flash-backs throughout. You have wounds and damage effects that make Living Steel look easy (well, maybe not that bad). Still all of it's presented cleanly and clearly. If you want a high complexity and detail-rich Western RPG, buy Aces & Eights.

But here’s the thing, all of those rules take up the first 140 or so pages of this 400 page book. Even if we take out another 60 pages for the mechanical appendices, you still get about 200 pages of rich material It has a massive section on running campaigns, discussions of cattle drives, a chapter on gambling, and more. Beyond that Aces & Eights isn’t a purely historical setting. Instead you have a few historical shifts resulting in splintered political entities such as Deseret, the Republic of Texas, and the CSA. I dislike Successionist victory alt history, but YRMV. What you get is some serious thinking and world building. That’s done in the interest of adding more game-able material and interesting situations to the mix. Deadlands offers the only other Western even coming close to this. Its still a wall of text to wade through, but it doesn't feel like someone's campaign world write-up. Bottom line, even if you’re not interested in the system, Aces & Eights offers a useful sourcebook to any Western GM.

13. Coyote Trail (2005)
Coyote Trail had a basic and then expanded release the same year. It contains a complete and simple rpg system: roll below stat + skill on 2d6 to succeed. Penalty/bonus dice affect this. Characters pick a vocation which gives them a handful of base skills to pick from plus a “Gimmick.” Gimmicks give simple and colorful abilities. Coyote Trail's rules work also with PiG’s Active Exploits Diceless Overall mechanic take up about a third of the 150 page book. Twenty-five pages detail the locations & people of Shady Gulch, a sample city. About thirty pages cover Western stories and reference bits. Another thirty or so look at “Indian Trails, ” describing tribes, treaties, and wars. It’s much more attention than most Western games play. I’d be curious what a Native American gamer thought of the section. It seems to offer a respectful treatment and it’s certainly a resource these kinds of games badly need.

This game has two editions- a core version using Poker Dice for resolution (clever!) and a “Streamline” version using percentiles. Rather than a historical West, Gunslingers & Gamblers focuses on a cinematic universe from classic Hollywood and Spaghetti Westerns. In the standard system, players roll five dice with skills and traits allowing rerolls and additional dice. Players try to reach the minimum hand established by the GM. It’s a fairly simple system. I like the detail that tied rolls in combat “suppress” the defender, making them spend the next round checking to make sure they weren’t actually hit. The book contains some GM support and background material including a quick settlement generators and a sample community. It’s a small book, coming in at less than 100 pages with public domain art. The company supported it with several small supplements, still available on DriveThru. However their website is down, suggesting that we won’t be seeing more in this line.

15. Serenity (2006)
I think we can agree that Firefly's pretty much a Western in space? It has some other trappings, but it plays with and reflects those conventions. That's been a classic trope in sci-fi for years, and its even popped up as a theme in many Traveller supplements (especially on the frontiers). But we hadn't seen a full rpg embrace that until Serenity arrived. I imagine if I broadened my scope I could spot some other loosely Wild West-y sci-fi supplements. In any case the original Serenity RPG used an early version of Cortex that you either loved or hated. Margaret Weiss released several nice supplements before losing the license…and then regaining it as Firefly in 2014.

16. Other Western
This period saw several new takes on and editions of Deadlands. In 2001 Steve Jackson Games released GURPS Deadlands, which they supported with a couple of small supplements. Two years later, Deadlands: Savage West arrived, bringing the game up into the new Savage Worlds system. Another two years later would see the release of the updated and expanded Deadlands: Reloaded. WotC’s d20 Past (2005)has material on Wild West gaming, but that’s only a portion of it. Two electronic-only products are worth noting. Vs Outlaws (2006) is a mini-rpg built on the vs. Monsters system. The Fifth Wheel (2006) is a Western fantasy game aimed at one-shots where you play the law. Its about a hundred pages and you can find it on DriveThru bundled with its supplement, Frontier Edge. Finally I have to note that I left off two important Western supplements from my last list: Rifts New West and Spirit West.
History of Wild West RPGs: First Fifteen

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Fae Shadows: Changeling the Lost Hack Thoughts

Hedges & Back Alleys
As happens yearly I’m thinking about how to run Changeling the Lost, my favorite published setting. I love the way it deals with ‘survival’ in a supernatural world. While GMs can tweak it more WoD-y, at base it’s about people trying to get along despite their strangeness. There’s more than a little Monsterhearts in there.

I’ve run Changeling with three different systems: World of Darkness, Fate, and Action Cards. The original system burned me. I don’t dig that level of mechanics today. The system has highly specific rules for each power you have to go back to the book for. There’s also a discontinuity between the game’s stated ideas and the rules carrying them out. WoD proved too much, even with the God-Machine revision. On the other hand, Fate’s a decent choice. If I had to do a pick-up game of CtL, I’d use FAE. However many of my players dislike pure Fate, so it isn’t a great choice. On the other hand, Action Cards borrows from Fate, but works with my style and group. When I ran before, I did a far too literal translation. Now I’d toss all that out. But AC’s also something of a non-starter. Until I figure out how to handle AC’s card mechanics online (unique player decks, discard face up, text display, redraws, no hand management) I’ll have to wait.

Deep End or Shallows?
My last two Changeling campaigns began with the PCs emerging from the Hedge. As new arrivals, they had to figure out the rules of the world, find safety, discover fellow changelings, and resolve their past. These games revolved around secrets and self-discovery. I thought my approach was the default, but talking to other CtL GMs in our GM Jam surprised me. Everyone else ran with the PCs embedded and part of the freehold’s fabric. I want to broaden my horizons, so I’d like to make any new campaign start with more experienced, less neophyte characters.

Thorny Shadows
So I’m considering if Urban Shadows could work for Changeling. Sherri and I had a chance to play US at Origins, me once and her twice. We’d talked about a CtL/US conversion on the way up because a Gauntlet vidcast’s mention of it. Sherri came away her session much more enthusiastic about the conversion idea. I suspect we’ll need to play several sessions of a standard Urban Shadows campaign before we can do anything more serious than my twiddling here.

Urban Shadows uses PbtA, so if that isn’t your bag this might be annoying. But for this post I want to lay out some assumptions I have about CtL and talk about how I’d begin such a conversion. I’m trying to plan out hacking & reskinning projects. I’ve usually just jumped in and started kludging things together. That’s resulted in some messes as I got too close to see the big picture (i.e. my earlier CtL hack, Action Cards L5R, Scions of Fate).

Your Changeling the Lost May Vary
Some of my assumptions about the setting fit with the book, some contradict, and others add definition. They’re important considerations to me when I run CtL
  • The seasonal Courts have a vital role. They help protect and preserve local Changelings from the predations of their Keepers, old foes huntiing them. The Courts and their bargains make it harder for the Keepers to enter freeholds and locate lost charges. A good deal of that power’s tied up in the concept of cycles. Power passes from Court to Court. Breaking that rhythm causes problems. Courts may be reduced in power, but destroying them’s never a sane option. That’s mutually assured destruction.
  • Fetches can be bad, can be good. They may or may not know they’re mimics left in the stead of stolen persons. Killing your fetch can have long term psychological consequences. Doing that’s a risky and personal choice. Courts within a city monitor fetches they know about, but don’t do anything for two reasons: it might attract Keepers’ attention and it falls to the copied Changeling to make that decision. There are no magical rituals for killing your fetch to give you new powers. Those are awful stories told by awful people.
  • Changelings are broken, brittle people. You may not immediately recognize their problems. But their durance, their time in the Hedge, changed and shattered them. They’ve reassembled themselves mentally and physically. Durances are bad. Changelings weave positive visions and memories of that experience from self-delusion, rationalization, and unwillingness to accept responsibility for awful things they did or had done to them. I know the new version of CtL allows for upbeat durances, but that doesn’t fit with how we’ve seen them.
  • Changelings have a hard time getting along. They usually don’t talk about secrets or durances with other fae. But ironically only a fellow changeling can understand the depth of their experience. That’s a double-edged sword. Interactions with mundanes can be great, but there’s often an element of feeding off their emotional energy. Changelings may become acutely aware of “playing a role” in those relationships. Interactions with a Changeling offer risks for these humans. Their fate and destiny can get tangled together.
  • Changeling Kiths have themes and roles. We’ve always gravitated to some key ideas about them. Beasts represent a kind of base seduction. They had to give in, become something else. They thought joining would protect them. Darklings come from isolation and loneliness. Some mechanism in their durance kept them separated mentally or physically. Elementals had a different kind of giving in from Beasts, they surrendered more absolutely. They offered submission with the hope of annihilation. Fairest believed promises. They were co-opted in one form or another. Ogres are about rage, directed about others, themselves, the world. They know they’ve been used, but could do nothing to stop that. They deny that helplessness. Wizened are created from roles and rules perfection. They have a profession and that’s their obsessional identity. Wizened have to follow procedures and that’s how they destroyed one another in their durance. .
  • Clarity loss does several things to changelings. It makes it harder to take in and understand the real world. They begin to misread simple things, perhaps coming across as paranoid, schizophrenic, or autistic. Reduced clarity can make them retreat into elements of their kith. Finally it can make them forget and long to return to the Hedge and their durance.
  • Changelings have swiss-cheese memories, both of their past lives and time in Arcadia. Their trip in and out of the Hedge caught those experiences on the thorns and tore them away. Memories and truth are vital: bargaining with them is a risky and dangerous thing.
  • Changelings rarely travel between cities. When they leave a freehold, they leave the protection of the Courts. Some rare, rare few manage to travel through special devices and forms (like a Changeling Carnival). Communication outside a Freehold is also suspect: Keepers can intercept these things. Letters, emails, online interactions, G+ hangouts: these are all vulnerable. The Old Ones can and will catfish for their lost charges. Freeholds are isolated, constantly isolated.
  • That means the Entitlements from Changeling the Lost don’t exist. There are no orders spanning across freeholds. If you wanted anything like that, you could have it represent assuming an archetype, perhaps bargaining with the world to support an image and role.
  • Hobs can exist in the real world. They hide in the margins. They don’t have a proper “Mask” instead they’re hard to see head on. Hobs have a hard time directly interacting with people, so they’re mostly about theft and scavenging. They serve Keepers when they come calling as they can’t really resist. Hobs resent changelings for being something else, having a spiritual essence, and being favored above them.

Bringing the Shadows
Let me pivot and consider Urban Shadows’ structure. 
  • First, as you may already know, it isn’t “PbtA does World of Darkness.” Instead it’s much more about power & influence conflicts within a Dresden Files-like setting. There are four factions (Mortality, Night, Power, and Wild). Each faction has several archetypes, each with a playbook. For example Power includes Oracles & Wizards; Night includes Vampires, Spectres, and Wolves. Your relation with each faction has a rating, used in several moves. You advance by interacting with all four factions.The game also includes a significant debt system and PvP elements.
  • The factions represent an umbrella, but the archetypes within those have individual agendas and sub-groups. Each faction also has a set of distinct moves.
  • Modelling CtL directly doesn’t work. We have to make splits and create some potentially artificial distinctions. Each PC begins with a Kith and gets a playbook based on that. Kiths aren’t exclusive, so you may have more than one Ogre or Fairest in a player group. A character’s Seeming, narrowing their role within a Kith, acts more as color and narrative fluff. I have an impulse to create Moves representing each Seeming but I need to toss that away. That’s more work and goes against Urban Shadows’ approach. Instead each Kith needs to have a fun variety of moves.
  • Obviously the Seasonal Courts map to the four factions. And that’s cool: each Court should have a few unique moves. But I think we need to define it further. In Changeling the Lost, each Court has several aspects under its auspices. These can contradict, creating tensions. For my version, each Court has two cabals vying for influence. These might represent light & dark sides, two different foci, or waxing & waning influence. I’m not sure. I’ll have to go back and tease that out.
  • In any case, players pick a Kith, Court, and Cabal. The first and last give most of their initial move picks. The final two offer general moves members can use. So someone might be a Wizened of Autumn Ascending. Particular Cabals would be exclusive, with only one PC per.
  • Corruption would be Clarity Loss. Kiths (and maybe Courts or Cabals) would have Corruption Moves.
  • Other supernatural groups (Vampires, Prometheans, etc) only serve as NPCs if the players and MC want them in the story. That should be negotiated. I’m not sure if you need non-Court Changelings as a playbook choice. I don’t think so. They simply exist as an NPC pool. 
  • Can players change Courts or Cabals? What would be involved with that? I need to consider if that works. I should re-examine the Courts and figure out what I want from the Cabals. Related: are the Group Advancements from Urban Shadows necessary?
  • To get started on this I’ll probably begin by making a master move list. I’d like to figure out how to map those to the different CtL groups. I’ll also want to look at other PbtA games (Monsterhearts, MotW, Masks) to see if there’s anything to borrow from there. I’d prefer to not re-invent the wheel. I’d like to put an old wheel on and service it later. The pool of moves should be relatively close to base Urban Shadows, i.e. PCs have access to the same # of moves from various sources.
  • Debts are important within Urban Shadows. In many cases, they should be like pacts in Changeling. Should there be a distinction between empowered and non-empowered deals? I don’t want to complicate things. Do I need another mechanic or can I make a simple but evocative one for this?

OK- that’s all I’ve got off the top of my head. I wanted to get that down so I can see if that’s too big a task or workable. I’m leaning towards the latter, but we’ll see. 

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Recent Games: Garage Bands, Hengeyokai, and Werewolf Receptionists

Just  a single post this week; next week I’ll have the next in my History of RPG Genres. In the last month or so I’ve played a mess of games, with many more one-shots than usual. Here are my impressions, including some notes on my Origins events. 

I’ve played several sessions of Rich Rogers’ "Gauntlet City Limits," a series of small press rpg sessions linked by a shared setting. Those included InSpectres, Ninja Burger, High Strung, and 1%er - The Outlaw Biker Game. I enjoyed the first two. They have absurdity without full gonzo; you maintain a role even as things get goofy. High Strung’s more serious, an rpg of local bands trying to make it big. I liked the premise, but we got tangled in the rules. When it clicked, I had a great time. I think High Strung’s a dynamite game. The mechanics aren’t exactly my bag, but it won’t be hard to adapt. It’s unique and deeper than you might imagine. If you’re at all interested in the idea of a band-based rpg, consider picking it up.

Tuesday night we did the second session of 1%er - The Outlaw Biker Game. I’m not a Sons of Anarchy fan and I wasn’t sure what it would be like. The mechanics are expletive driven. It’s a rude rule book. But unlike Human Occupied Landfill or similar games, that actually serves a purpose. Somehow it avoids being juvenile and doesn’t outstay its welcome. I enjoyed 1%er more than I would have expected. It does go brutal and nasty. I wouldn’t want to play it too often and I’d be super careful who I played with.

I also played Dungeon World and Ghost Lines, both of which I’d tried before and enjoyed. We’re getting to the end of Crowsmantle, but I don’t want to write about that until we finish it up.

I played in three sessions via Games on Demand
Urban Shadows: I backed the Kickstarter for this, but avoided reading it until the hard copy arrived. I loved what I saw and dug Mark Diaz Truman’s discussion of it on the +1 Forward podcast. Still I couldn’t quite grasp the game’s shape. Mark made a compelling case for the PvP aspects of it. But that’s pretty antithetical to my usual games. Playing in a one-shot gave me perspective. I saw how those tensions could work. We didn’t manage to fully engage with some of the mechanics, like Debts, but it worked. I can see how it would evolve and emerge over time.

Later Sherri and I talked more seriously about how we’d use Urban Shadows to do a Changeling the Lost campaign. We still love that setting. US isn’t really a World of Darkness-esque game. WoD tends to be internally driven, looking at the tensions within a particular community (even when you’re running cross-monster games). Urban Shadows has multiple factions working and vying for power, more like Dresden Files. I think it could work for CtL but would require some rethinking about how you define Seemings, Kiths, and Courts.

World Wide Wrestling: I’ve mentioned before my reversal on wrestling as a concept. I’m deep into Lucha Underground now. I enjoyed reading the WWW rules and had committed to running a session for friends. But I wasn’t entirely sure what play looked like. How much did the Creative work within matches? How did the control switch feel? What did commentary look like? Beyond being tremendous fun, this session answered all those questions. We had six players at the table and we probably could have handled a couple more. My character got eliminated from the tournament in the first round, but I didn’t care. I had a great time. You have play opportunities via off-screen moments, run-ins, and color commentary. Much fun. Playing this with a sharp GM allowed me to run a great session of WWW last night.

Side note: Both of these GMs, Marissa Kelly and Nathan Paoletta respectively, put out playbooks, had us do character creation, and then spun stories from that. I’m cool with improv and zero prep at home, but I’m not brave enough yet to approach a convention game cold. My fret-itude means I need a scenario ready. They did an awesome job.

Golden Sky Stories: Sunday morning we played this light, Miyazaki-esque game. You play Hengeyokai, animal people, living in a pastoral Japanese town. It avoids mechanics for violence, instead you focus on friendship and relations to give you the power to succeed. I had a great time and I think I want to run this locally now. We had a fifteen year old GM. I’ve mentioned this elsewhere, but it bears repeating: I wish I’d been as good as GM as her when I was 15. She had things together, brought energy to the table, did her table prep, and seemed completely at ease running for a group of adults. Kind of amazing.

Magic Inc: I did two sessions of this. Despite the same scenario they ended up radically different. When I run at cons, my first session’s often the weakest. My nervousness and uncertainty get the best of me. I felt that way about this, despite having two players I’d played with before. I’ll put part of the blame on me and part on a weirdness at the table itself. For Games on Demand you list down two games on your menu. The first player to choose your table sets which of the two you’ll play. The hosts then put a large red X over the other. We had our fourth player arrive a little after we’d started, clearly distracted. We got twenty+ minutes into character creation for this game about low-level wage slaves in a supernatural corporation. At that point the fourth player looked up and said, “I thought this was a game about ninjas.” We had to explain we’d chosen the other game.

We rolled on, but it put me a little off balance. Magic, Inc’s a comedy game. Three of the players bought into and listened to the others. I try to run comedic games as straight as I can- putting absurdity out there with a straight face. And, I don’t know exactly how to put this, our fourth player was a little tone deaf. He’d drop a joke and then when he got no reaction from it, he repeated it again and again to salvage it. We got through the session, but I pedaled furiously to make it go faster. I cut corners in my nervousness and I could have done a much better job.

For my second session on Saturday evening I determined to facilitate better. We had a great table of four players, one of whom had been among my local group years before. That session was awesome. I can usually keep a straight face when I run, but here I absolutely lost it. It has no real meaning out of context, but when I turned back to the department’s salesperson and said, “OK so you have twelve Mars Bars painted yellow,” it blew up. The table literally laughed hard enough we brought the neighboring games to a halt. The receptionist player had to get up and walk away from the table to recover. It took me several minutes before I caught my breath. A good session and one of my favorites of the convention.

Side Note: I need to clip down some of the character creation options. Each character deck has some strengths & weaknesses, but those aren’t immediately obvious. I should have done basic skill picks, with a couple of extra ranks for players to distribute. That would cut the time. Alternately or additionally I need to provide a ranking for each deck. If it’s a strong physical deck I should mention that and how the other three areas rate. I could also cut some choices, just by one or two for the “Stunts” and “Keys”. That would slightly reduce time and put more weight on their picks. This is mostly an issue for Magic Inc, as I’ve made the NSV choices pretty tight.

Neo Shinobi Vendetta: I dug this session immensely. John Alexander had play
ed in my NSV scenario last year and given me great feedback. Most of the changes I’d made came from that (moving to action faster, card-based damage). I also got to run for Yoshi Creel, a great gamer I played with in the WWW and Urban Shadows sessions. An awesome trio from Canada rounded things out. Everyone got into their role, they came up with sharp plans, and they played up their awesomeness. They gave me the high-octane cyber-ninja session I’d hoped for and everyone had at least one signature moment that stuck with me.

Overall I really enjoyed Origins, much more so because Sherri went with me this time. We had a great line up of GMs and I had the opportunity to talk with some people I only knew through G+. I also have to give a major shout-out to Evan Torner who oversaw the Games on Demand scheduling. After my Thursday session he came over and asked how things went. He talked me down and made me feel better about it. I then monopolized his time further, making him tell me about some of the awesome academic work he’s doing. He filled me in on many aspects of European Westerns, especially a connection German connections I had no idea about. It was great learning things in addition to playing games. 

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Targets & Gauntlets: Non-Blog RPG Stuff

Here’s a quick rundown of non-blog RPG stuff I’ve done you might find interesting.

For our most recent Play on Target episode we talk about Villains. Rich Rogers joins us for this one. Good, solid villains present one of the toughest balancing acts at the table. Many games I’ve played had villains I hated: not because they did anything dangerous, not because they raised the stakes, but because the GM played them smug and omnipotent. That would be cool as a GM "choice," but it clearly wasn’t. Instead they knew the villain was cooler, smarter, and more awesome than the podunk PCs. That may be a worse Gary Sue-ism than the hyper-competent NPC. We had a Hunter the Reckoning game where the GM turned that smarmy character into an ally we couldn’t bring to task. And then a romantic interest for one of the PCs. Ugh…

For the record: there’s a place for the smug- when the players have an opportunity or chance to wipe that off their face.

I’m also thinking about a JRPG I hate-played recently: Rune Factory: Tides of Destiny. It has just a handful of dungeons. When you get to the end of them, there’s a masked figure who has gotten there ahead of you. Every time he breaks the sacred relic before you can stop him (in a cut-scene of course). This happens four times. His only dialogue consists of “You’re too late.” In the final fight, you face him again. This time he explains his plan: he’s going to destroy the world and he doesn’t have time to tell you why. You beat him; world saved.

You never get a name. You never get a motivation. You never get a backstory. You never get any kind of explanation whatsoever.

I played the game through thinking: "there’s got to be some kind of payoff..." Nope, only a minor cosmetic revelation you could see a mile away. But other than that, he was just a bad dude or creature or magical force (I don't know).


I had the chance to appear on The Gauntlet podcast. We talked about several topics, including GM-less play Monsterhearts. I covered both the challenges of running a Middle Earth campaign and my thinking when I put together Crowsmantle. There’s some great stuff on Battlestar World, which is the PbtA hack you’d imagine from that title. I’ll be curious to see how hidden role mechanics eventually come into it. Also, I talk briefly about my new love for Lucha Underground.

The Gauntlet also started a new video series, Super Friends. This episode talks about gaming things we’re looking forward to.

Finally, if you like PbtA games (and if you don’t, that’s cool) then you really ought to check out +1 Forward, Rich Rogers' new podcast for The Gauntlet. It’s a focused show, talking with a PbtA designer about their choices and how they run. So far he's spoken with Meguey Baker about Apocalypse World (2nd Edition), Mark Diaz Truman about Urban Shadows, and Stephanie Bryant about Threadbare. It literally is what I hoped for from a game-focused podcast. Amazing and great. 

Monday, June 13, 2016

Action Cards: What the What?

I'm finishing up prep and printing for my two Origins Games on Demand options. Both use Action Cards, the game I'm most comfortable with. I've talked about that homebrew before; it's what I've used for most long-term campaigns in the last decade and a half. You can see a brief overview of it here, though some details have changed. I've been working on a full, complete version of the rules and I'm about 95% done with the rough text. I drew this post from that to act as a companion piece to the overview. I discuss the basics, how Fate fits with AC, and where it came from.

Action Cards is an rpg using individual character decks as a randomizer. Each deck is tailored to a particular character and contains with several unique cards. When you test for an action, you draw a card and check the results. Most cards have results across four categories, while others have special effects, offer choices, or allow you to narrate the results. Your decks can be marked up, modified, or gain new cards over the course of a campaign. It acts as unique dice for your character. It evolves and changes with play.

You have a character sheet to record skills, damage, aspects, and special abilities. Depending on how the GM sets things, this sheet can be minimal. You’ll also have tokens for fate points to spend and possibly dice for damage (depending on the options).
Action cards has two ways to create characters: standard and draft.

In basic character creation you get a deck twenty-four card deck. Six have results pre-written in in the four areas, common to all decks: Social, Physical, Combat, and Mental. Eight have blank results. You distribute ratings among these: Catastrophic, Bad, Just Missed, OK, Great, and Amazing. How many depends on the campaign. Next you have six special cards all decks share. Finally each deck has four blank cards. You’ll create unique cards for your character- one all-around positive, two mixed, and one bad. After assigning results to your deck, you’ll pick skills and stunts based on the setting.

For one shots or short campaigns, you can draft your decks. Everyone begins with a set of common result and special cards. You then draft additional result cards. In this process, you try to grab the best results for your character’s focus. You also draft two good and one bad unique cards to fill out you deck. Draft decks will usually be tailored to the genre and setting, with different effects and card titles. As above you finish out character creation by picking skills and stunts.

When making a test, the GM tells you the result needed to succeed and what kind of draw to make (i.e. a Great Physical pull). You draw and check if you’re happy with the result. If not you have the option to repull by using a relevant skill or invoking an aspect with a fate point. Alternately you can invoke that aspect to raise the result by one degree. You can use various means to redraw up to twice, but have to go with your final draw.

You usually reshuffle your deck after every couple of scenes and after every three rounds in combat. GMs can also call for a reshuffle if decks are getting low. You can spend a fate point to reshuffle at any time. The GM reshuffles their deck more frequently.

Many cards have catches or dramatic options on them. Unique cards may require you figure out how your action fits with the fiction. You always have the opportunity to control this narration, but the GM can also take it over if you get stuck.

When running an active opposition- mooks, bad guys, monsters, etc- the GM uses their own 32-card deck. It contains several unique cards, but mostly result cards broken into four categories representing quality: Average, Trained, Skilled, and Elite. NPCs fit overall in one of these categories. They’re further tuned with Skills (redraws), Qualities (+1 to the result for something specific), Aspects, and Stunts.

Action Cards works as toolkit. In a few places the GM or group decide how you’re going to handle things at the table (skills, damage). There’s a strong core, but plenty of ways to tweak what’s here. We’ve used variations for different kinds of campaigns. Small tweaks- like increasing to decreasing the time between reshuffles- can dramatically impact the tension.

We’ve used Action Cards for many different long running campaigns: a fantasy riff on Battlestar Galactica (The Last Fleet); multi-dimensional problem-solving (Ocean City Interface); steampunk fantasy school (Libri Vidicos); Cyber-Ninjas (Neo Shinobi Vendetta); dogfighting pilots (Sky Racers Unlimited); and standard fantasy (Sellsword Company, Masks of the Empire, Guards of Abashan, Relic Hunters) among others. We’ve adapted it other settings including Fallout, Glorantha, Legend of the Five Rings, Changeling the Lost, HALO, My Little Pony, and Star Wars. It’s also worked for one-shots from capers to superheroes sessions

Reading-- but not getting to play-- two games influenced me to put together Action Cards: Lace & Steel and Castle Falkenstein. The former has a card-driven dueling & repartee system. The latter uses playing cards for resolution. I’d also tried an early attempt at a CCG rpg, DragonStorm but the group didn’t like it. In the background I had my dissatisfaction with Rolemaster, Champions, GURPS, and my various homebrews, all of which I was still running. When I finally sat down to write up the game, I knew I wanted a few things:
  • Players would have their own decks. They’d be mostly the same, but have unique elements. We wouldn’t work from a shared deck.
  • They would be able to mark up, draw on, and change their cards. It would be yours and reflect both you and your character.
  • We’d keep the resolution simple, with basic success levels.
  • It would move fast and part of the fun would be in making choices based on card-counting.
Those elements have remained true throughout the various versions. We’ve bolted a ton of extra modules to Action Cards: action points & countdown initiative, combat styles, traits with global bumps, hit locations, weird deck manipulation, additional factors like mana on cards, wound levels, and more. And we’ve jettisoned those over time. Usually the changes have been to simplify elements. Some have added granularity (like our Damage options).

We started playing Action Cards in 1999, beginning with a swashbuckler mini-campaign done for a friend’s group, and then two modern urban fantasy campaigns. From there I kept refining, tuning, and changing the game to fit many different campaigns. In 2011-2012 I tried to play around with Strands of Fate. I’d read Spirit of the Century & Diaspora but I couldn’t figure them out. I missed something. But Strands, a game I ultimately didn’t like, finally gave me insight into Aspects. That idea fit with many things I’d been trying to do with Action Cards and took over for a whole range of messy mechanics. Eventually I brought over other elements: action types to establish a clear language, stress & consequences, a set skill list, and stunts as an organization system for feat-like things.

Why play Action Cards?
…if you like the idea of a card-based rpg.
…if you dig the concept of marking up cards Legacy-style.
…if you like Fate but hate the dice.
…if you’re intrigued by the thought of card-counting and push-your-luck in an rpg.
…if you want toolkit relatively easy to tweak to various genres.
…if you like goofing with new systems.

The beta version I'm finishing up is intended to get the basics down in one place for Action Cards after years of play and multiple iterations. I've added options throughout the book. It is a toolkit. All of that with terrible layout and minimal art! So far I’ve only included a few of the campaign frames, enough to give you a feel for how they operate. They’re also the ones I have draft deck versions available for. A full version will have more. Even more importantly the next version will include a discussion of how to adapt the idea of Action Cards to a more conventional Fate game. I hope that will serve the additional audiences of GMs who like reading new setting material and people who really dig Fate but want to tweak it.

  • Aspects: We embrace this idea. Characters have aspects and the players can use these to define actions, environments, and many other elements. You can invoke aspects for a bonus to a test or to add and element or effect to the fiction.
  • Fate Points: In game also gives PCs fate points which they can use invoke aspects, power certain stunts, and a few other tricks. The GM have a pool to use for adversaries within a scene. A character’s fate points reset to their “refresh” at the beginning of most sessions. In play, characters can gain fate points by accepting complications and compels, often based on their trouble aspect.
  • Skills: As in Fate, skills define a character’s expertise. Different Action Cards frames will have different skill lists, but generally aim for about 20-24 skills to cover the genre.
  • Stunts: We call special powers and abilities stunts and generally follow Fate’s pattern for these. They’re listed under affiliated skills.
  • Action Types: We use Fate’s four basic actions (Create Advantage, Overcome, Attack, and Defend). We add a fifth, Discover, which can be seen as a tweak of Create Advantage.
  • Success Ladder: Like Fate, we use descriptor words for success and failure levels. Action Cards actually invests more heavily in that, skipping most numbers in favor of descriptors.
  • General Approach: Action Cards shares Fate’s general approach: collaborative creation, success with costs, looser conflict resolution.
You’ll see other bits and pieces as well. We draw from the Fate SRD so several major concepts.

  • Cards: That’s pretty obvious. There’s the Deck of Fate, but Action Cards operates differently with each player using a unique and tuned deck. The cards act as an individual randomizer. It also varies from many other card-driven games in that there’s no hand-management.
  • Card Counting: You don’t reshuffle after every draw. Let’s say there’s a “Moment of Glory” card still in the deck. You got a decent result, but could do better. Do you use a skill to keep drawing? This might seem like a meta-distraction but it adds tension and choice in play.
  • General Attributes: While it doesn’t exactly function the same way, the results for the four areas (Combat, Social, Physical, Mental) can be imagined as conventional “stats” from other games. That’s complicated by the presence of other cards in the deck, but you can picture it that way.
  • Skills: Fate Core focuses on skills. They shape and define a character’s abilities. All tasks fall back to these. In Action Cards skills become more a bump or add-on. Skills allow redraws from the raw results of the cards.
  • Loose Skills: In Fate a skill has a solid definition of what you use it for. For example, you buy a stunt to use a skill in a new context. Action Cards operates more loosely: if you can justify it, you can use it. We do have parallel stunts which allow you to draw another category for an action type, i.e. Mental for Defenses.
  • Decoupling Refresh and Stunts: Fate points aren’t connected to stunt limits. We use other mechanics to control these. Generally it means characters will have more stunts and can even choose to focus on that over skills or developing their deck.
  • Granular Advancement: The system doesn’t use milestones. Instead players spend experience to buy things. WAIT! DON’T RUN AWAY. It has worked for us. Players buy up results on their cards, write in “edges,” purchase skills, acquire new stunts & powers, add new cards to their deck. That supports one of the most important parts of this game…
  • Ownership: Players mark up and own their deck. They cross out, erase, and scribble on these cards. It might sound odd, but our players have dug this- even more than doodling on their character sheet. Edges, result buy-ups, and unique cards all make a deck feel like your character. You learn and appreciate other player’s decks over time. You can add different color inks, stickers, and card sleeves to this. If you’re doing a Print-and-Play version, you can tailor the cards even further.
  • Stress & Condition Cards: Action Cards uses a granular stress system. Boxes on a stress track are one-for-one. Rather than consequences, players can reduce damage taken via condition cards. These go into your deck and clog it up.
  • Damage: Rather than margin of success for damage, Action Cards offers two options. The first uses the cards themselves and the second requires dice. Both offer more granularity. Using dice for damage seems weird, and my only justification for offering this is that players like rolling damage.
So that's the basics. I hope to have a "beta" document (plus deck files) up on DriveThru in the next couple of months (before Gen Con I hope). I'm not under any illusions this is the greatest rpg out there. But it is the system I've tuned to my GMing style. At the same time, I've seen other GMs successfully tweak it to their approach. I want to put together a version for interested gamers which they can run or borrow ideas from for their own games.