Friday, March 31, 2017

Character Creation: The Great Roleplay Melting Pot

Some people roll up characters for fun. In fact, I’ve heard lots of gamers say they take serious joy from this. It’s never been my bag. I’ve always dug writing up lists & details of NPCs, but there’s something about creating PCs. Maybe it’s that I can’t bear the thought of creating a character and not actually running them? Maybe it’s that character creation has the highest rules density and I’m kind of a wimp? 

In any case, we recently talked about Character Creation on the Play on Target podcast: favorite systems, best practices, player exploits. It’s a solid discussion and Sherri once again joins us.  I’m way behind on cataloging those episodes. You’ll find the show link below and I’ve written up nine additional things that occurred to me.

The Greatest Random Generation: I appreciate elements of random character generation. Rolemaster was a fav because it had built in safety nets. First, you could drop any rolls into your Primary Profession stats and make those a 90s. Second, stats had “Potential,” meaning how high they could go over time. Each level players rolled for stat gain. It usually meant a poor stat could eventually become average. But RM had a problem that became clear over multiple levels. Since stats heavily influenced skill ratings and determined how many points you got to spend on skills, characters with good stats pulled away. The rich got richer. These days if I’m going to have random generation, I want it for secondary elements: like the drawing of mutations for Mutant: Year Zero.

Homeworkers: Group character creation sessions give solid benefits, but have a couple of potential problems. Make sure you have enough reference material: sheets, playbooks, rules, etc. Print out or copy relevant sections. You may also have to deal with players at different points in the process. Some players like to plan ahead; some come with a finished character. I try to dissuade people from that. On the one hand, it means they’re less likely to have a conversation with others players. They’re less flexible. On the other hand, it means that some players may already be done by the time others are rolling up stats or choosing a class. Be prepared for that.

R-E-S-P-E-C: In the episode we mention letting players change character details and abilities after a few sessions. 13TH Age has this baked it. Leveling up’s an opportunity to change things around, to find a configuration you enjoy. I like doing that. Sherri paraphrased to me something S. John Ross said about the problem of player-written “Jack of All Trades” abilities in Risus. He said to not worry about them; they reduce that pressure of creation. It avoids players tangling themselves up creating the perfect, useful skill to make their character what they want. The same with respecs. Plus letting players know they’ll have the opportunity to make changes potentially means they’ll experiment more.

Need to Know Basis: As a GM you should figure out what the players need to know before creating characters: set up and mechanics. Give them a sense of the setting, but don’t overwhelm. Can you reduce it to key points? You don’t have to consolidate everything, but give them a guide to the heavier material. I’ve tried to cut any backstory down to a list—longer if I know the players, shorter if I don’t. Especially online I don’t expect players to have read this stuff. Often they haven’t. But I can direct them back to it if they have questions. I also give them sample character sheets and a rules cheat sheet. The former helps them to see what the game’s like. The latter’s useful to me; it makes me go back and figure out the key rules. In play I can direct questions back to that sheet as well.

Know Your Limits: Flaws and Disads can be awesome for the GM—depending on what tradition your player comes from. More recent games use these primarily to flesh out characters or generate resources in play. Older games use flaws to give characters stuff at the start and then expect them to pay that back with harsh interest. The latter means you’ve got a sharp division between cost and reward. All of this can confuse players who move from one approach to the other. Or if they’ve played disad-based games, but their GM hasn’t done much with those (something I’ve seen and been guilty of). These days I echo Fate’s advice: it you take a problem, trouble, disad, complication or whatever, it should be something you actually want to play out at the table.

Spend to Buy Divinity: One of my favorite character creation devices is “Buying into the Setting.” I haven’t yet adapted it to other games but I want to. Weapons of the Gods provides all kinds of backstories—on factions, on religions, on legends, on sex, and so many other things. It usually includes a story/anecdote and then some game info. But most importantly, you can buy a connection to these elements during character creation. Want to be tied to the Heavenly Circular Fists Gang? Make a small spend to be affiliated, make a large spend to be the son of the Leader. Like that cool legend about that dragon? Spend points to have your destiny tied in with that. It’s a cool idea and lets the players engage with a relatively deep setting.

Elect Your Representative: 13th Age has related mechanics with the Icons, Backgrounds, and “One True Thing.” The Icons distill the major actors in the setting. Players know they’ll be connected to these, so they learn a little more about the world. The choices they make tell you what kinds of stories they want. Backgrounds and OTT let the players tell you more about the world and about how they see their place. They’re super-useful. Plus the looseness of the Backgrounds reduces anxiety, as I mentioned above.

Weight Training: That approach does have some pitfalls. If you leave too much open and undefined, you put most of the heavy-lifting on the players. They may become overwhelmed or lost. You need to give some structure or direction. For example in Before the Storm, players build their characters with only the loosest sense of the world. But the game provides structures for those choices. They have to spend cards to make certain picks. The cheat is that it’s pretty easy to get a card allowing you to take something not on the list, so players still have lots of freedom. Directed questions in playbooks serve the same role. My Crowsmantle game failed in part because I put so much of the work on the player’s shoulders- from character idea, to world, to kinds of moves.

Overwhelming: How many choices are necessary in character creation? How many can overwhelm I like class and playbook approaches because they offer an answer. They present players a tight set of choices. It does put weight on that initial pick, but players can tune that archetype to their wishes. Confronting players, especially new ones, with pages & pages of stunts, powers, and advantages can put them off. That’s even worse if they have veteran players making suggestions at the table. I dig games that open up over time. In Mutant Year Zero don’t really make contact with the secondary talents as an option until after character creation. Perhaps that’s a way to handle Fate? Archetype playbooks, with the ability to add stunts outside of it once we actually get to playing. Now that I think about it, that’s sort of how Dresden File Accelerated handles it… 

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Game Tech: Teamwork Tactics

I’ve run a lot of superhero games: Champions and Mutants & Masterminds campaigns across multiple editions. Plus I’ve had shorter dalliances with ICONS, Villains & Vigilantes, Aberrant, Venture City, DC Heroes, Superhero 2044, and more I’m forgetting. Teamwork’s a classic element of these stories. Players use it from time to time, especially when facing down Big Bads. But one group I ran for took it to another level.

Four women, mostly non-comic fans, destroyed my villains.

They always acted to support one another. They always coordinated attacks. They split their builds, so they had all of M&M’s support feats on hand. They had a dedicated healer. They discussed plans and carried them out, working systematically through foes. They operated like a dedicated Raid Team in an MMO. It was at once glorious and disheartening.
Luckily my online players mostly don’t listen to one another.

This is the second in my series on “Game Tech”: how games handle particular sub-systems. I talked about Mooks last time. Today I look at how characters collaborate, coordinate, support, team attack, and assist one another. 7th Sea started me thinking about this; it has a sharp system that rewards helping other players. My list covers a broad range, including both combat and non-combat situations. I present a non-exhaustive cross-section with arbitrary labels. I provide an example or two each. Obviously these aren’t the only ones that use these approaches.

If you know of some mechanics or variations I haven’t mentioned here, please leave a comment.

  • Ease: How easy is it to help? (requires a roll, costs resources, takes an action)
  • Effect: How effective is the assistance? (cost/effect, opportunity costs)
  • Incentive: Does the system encourage or discourage this? (often gauged from above details, but the rules or genre may offer additional pushes)

Assistance Special Action: In many PbtA games you can make a move to assist another character. Often you roll based on a relationship value. The classic version gives a +1 Forward to the target with a full hit. But with a mixed hit, the assisting character also suffers any consequences of the attempt. More recent PbtA designs give the target “advantage,” meaning they roll 3d6 and take the two best for the action. Overall PbtA games differ in whether the helper can roll before or after the target’s check.

Assistance Special Action (Other Effect): As above, but the results can be used in unusual ways. In Masks, the support action can clear a condition or shift a character’s labels (stats). This can help set them up for their next action.

Collaborative Pool Build: For contests in Wild Talents, each acting player rolls their pool. If one gets a set, any other player who rolled that number can add it to that set.

Creating External Bonuses: The assisting character creates an “advantage” which others can make use of. These are usually free-floating and can be invoked by any ally. Fate uses the Create Advantage Action for this. Certain abilities in 7th Sea allow players to create Opportunities for other characters.

Dedicated Teamwork Abilities: In Coriolis, the Command skill helps others. Each success rolled can be added to another character’s action, provided they follow the Command character’s instructions. Mutants & Masterminds has advantages dedicated to being better at helping (Inspire, Leadership, Teamwork). It also has a talent where characters can Feint for others, reducing a target’s defense.

Defender Penalty: For combat situations. Instead of granting a bonus to the attacking ally, the defender gets a penalty to their relevant check or rating. Functionally, this is how classic Rolemaster operates. It has no mechanics for helping allies or even bonuses for multiple foes. But if a character wants to defend against several enemies, they have to divide their Parry among them. The same thing happens in classic World of Darkness and Exalted. The best way to aid an ally is to burn off your foe’s defenses. Each additional defense attempt reduces the target’s pool.

Enhancement Talent (Combat): Successful team up actions result in a greater effect. Silver Age Sentinels and Mutants & Masterminds do this for combined attacks. If players delay and coordinate, the damage from successful attacks adds together before being applying to defenses. Typically this reduces the effectiveness of a target’s armor or resistance. This is especially effective in M&M where landing a single +25 damage attack can be much better than landing five +10 damage attacks.

Enhancement Talent (Non-Combat): Each player rolls their check. The end result pools all of the successes. Aberrant, among classic WW games, does this. Fate contests work the same way in the end.

Fictional Positioning: The game is diceless or has super-light mechanics. Any teamwork’s about establishing the scene or giving fictional justification for events.

Flat Bonus: Each extra hand adds a flat bonus. In Fate Accelerated helper characters can add a +1 to a test (limited to one or two assistants). This offers a chance to help without the risk of making a test to Create Advantage.

Leader Testing: If multiple persons work together in a common task, i.e. climbing a cliff, the person with the highest rating rolls. If successful, this grants a bonus to everyone else’s check.

Miscellaneous: The game includes no explicit rules for players assisting with others’ actions. Instead that might fall under modifiers determined by the GM. Classic Rolemaster does this. It has static maneuver charts, tables, and modifiers, but no discussion of multiple persons working together on something. Ars Magica says nothing about collaboration on non-magical checks. It also frames combat as usually occurring between groups, rather than individual actors.

Multiple Actors Reduce Difficulty: Team Attack in DC Heroes works this way. The more characters involved with an attack, the more the target’s resistance is lowered.

Piggybacking: In GUMSHOE multiple persons can work together towards a goal. One character is the lead and makes the test. Additional players who want the benefits of the action spend 1 from their relevant pool. Unskilled or non-contributing characters raise the difficulty of the test by 2.

Reversed: The player taking the action gets to declare if another character assists them. This can be indirect. In Worlds in Peril, characters can burn bonds with their allies (as well as NPCs or institutions), to bump their result up by one degree. This uses up a limited resource.

Roll to Assist (Set Difficulty): Helper characters make a test against a default difficulty. If they succeed they enhance the check of the person they’re assisting. M&M 3e does this, with the assist having a DC 10. In combat, failures from assistants have no effect. Out of combat, they subtract 2 from the result.

Roll to Assist (Target's Difficulty): One character acts as leader. Other characters make same roll against the variable difficulty. Success increases effect or adds bonus to lead character’s roll. Team Attack in M&M 3e does this. It has some additional restrictions, such as shared damage types. Savage Worlds has the helpers make the same test, with a flat +1 gained for each helper’s success (up to a max of 4).

Rolling for Others: A character has a stunt, feat, or power that allows them to make a particular test for some or all of the group. For example a ranger making survival tests or an infiltrator making stealth checks. Some systems give this as a benefit for good rolls. Some skills In Mutant Year Zero let you choose to add one ally to the effect for each extra success.

Special Circumstances: Players have talents or abilities to assist other characters when certain events trigger. For example, M&M 3e has Interpose. This allows a character to take a hit for a nearby ally. Other abilities may allow characters to perform defensive actions (Dodges, Parries) in place of nearby characters.

Spends for Boost: Players can spend a resource to give another player an advantage. For example, in 7th Sea players can spend a Hero Point (with fictional justification) to give another player 3d10 to their roll (versus 1d10 if they spent it themselves). In GUMSHOE players can increase spends from an ability to increase the chance of success. Others can spend to assist, but with a -1 to their contribution.

Spend for Boost (Shared): Players can spend to assist, but the resource comes from a shared pool. In Masks, this is the team pool. Many moves can add more to the pool. If an ally declares they’re helping, they saw how and spend one to add +1 to the roll. Players can also “selfishly” use the pool to give themselves a bonus.

Substitution: The assisting character allows the target to use their stat, value, or power for something. For an example, allowing them to use their defense value or save bonus against an effect. Certain talents in 13th Age do this.

Time Reduction: One of a class of “alternate benefits” to teamwork. Assisting characters can reduce time it takes to complete an action, usually a project. SpaceMaster notoriously had a system where each additional helper halved the time it took to do research or a major construction. With enough people, you could build a spaceship in a day.

What approaches did I miss?

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Heroes & Villains: Superior Swashbuckling Souls for Scenarios

John Wick Presents has released Heroes & Villains as the first book after the core. I thought that an odd choice, but the more I considered it, the smarter it seems. Heroes & Villains is an NPC book, something we don’t see as much of these days. It offers a solid, useful resource for 7th Sea players & GMs. It helped me hugely when ran the game online. I could pick out a wide variety of pre-gens for players. Instead of immediately drowning players with new source material, options, backgrounds, etc, JWP offers a book to help us get to the table.

Here’s my assessment before I dive in: Heroes & Villains is a dynamite book and one of my new favorite rpg sourcebooks. I have the pdf, but I’ll be buying a physical copy when it comes out. I also liked it enough that I interviewed Lead Developer Elizabeth Chaipraditkul for The Gauntlet Podcast.

Heroes & Villains has write ups for 40 Heroes & 40 Villains. These characters, for the most part, come from nations detailed in the core book. I hope later on, once we’ve seen a few regional sourcebooks (like the recent Pirate Nations), we’ll get a second volume with characters from those.

Heroes & Villains opens with consideration of the nature of heroism (and villainy). It presents a villain’s redemption as the highest heroic aspiration. It even includes a new advantage tuned to that. The Heroes section drills down on these ideas. It opens with advice and admonitions for playing Heroes (Care About Other’s Stories, Create Ties to the World, Be Clear and Transparent). It then has parallel advice for GMs (Leading the Table, Challenging the Heroes, Acting as the Referee). It’s a small thing, but I love the way this book sets up structures and maintains parallelism. Three points for each half, done with similar depth. Throughout H&V smartly aids the reader and keeps the material tight.

The book breaks Heroes into five broad types: Indomitable, Deft, Tactician, Steadfast, and Trickster. These generally tie to the character’s key trait (Brawn, Finesse, Resolve, Wits, and Panache). Each section has a half-page introduction and then a page with guidelines for playing the archetype. That includes their impressions of the five Villainous archetypes. Not all characters in a section have the associated trait as their highest. Instead it’s about how they face situations. For example not all the Indomitable Heroes are muscle-bound warriors. But they all take a physical approach to deal with foes.

Each Hero gets two page. First, there’s a character sheet with standing portrait. That CS includes all the relevant details, including the wound track and space to write in stories, so you can easily print & play from them. Advantages are listed with page references, but the Quirks, Virtues & Hubris entries have the full details. The book adds four new advantages, a new dueling style, a background, a new brute squad type, and two new effects for Mother’s Touch Sorcery. These are listed at the back. Not all of the Quirks come from the core book, many are unique and tuned to the character. I haven’t checked if some of the Arcana entries are new.

A hero’s second page has a one column history, three goals, and notes on playing the character. I loved reading the backgrounds and picking out connections across sections. Many of the archetypes presented here would never have occurred to me. The goals offer concrete motivations for GMs using them. A player could easily use them as a starting point for their own advancement-generating Stories.

It’s a strong collection. Everything’s done concisely. It material offers players enough to work with while leaving them imaginative space. Splitting these entries into a character sheet and history page helps. You can just hand out the CS and let them go. The history page has a richer story. At first I was a little wary about how set these characters seemed into particular places and events. But really this is the GM side. They could use these as story starters or motivations for as NPCs. If players wanted more ideas about how to play or create a Story for the character, the GM could give them all or a part of this.

  • Catalina Morta (Indomitable) A Castillian captain and a nice illustration of a ship-bound character.
  • Bietrix de Veau (Deft) Accidental explorer and archeologist. There’s something about how she’s drawn: dirt on her face and clothes.
  • Szymon Naumov (Tactician) I love the idea of playing this retired, elder military character.
  • Cadha Mag Raith (Steadfast) How could you not love this giant warrior? She embodies one of my favorite quirks from the core book, Farmkid. “Earn a Hero Point when you solve a complex problem in a simple, tried and true method from back on the farm.”
  • Ludwig Schlammmann (Trickster) I love it because the name made me check to make sure it wasn’t misspelled. Nope, that’s how it appears throughout. An amnesiac hero covered in mud.

The Villains introduction parallels the Heroes’, but offers two really useful additions. It presents rules for structuring villains’ Schemes as you would players’ Stories. This gives them steps they can work through to gain benefits. I like this. It feels easier to work with at the table. The section also includes notes on lesser villains and how brute squads can gain promotions. Finally it has an extended example of play for a showdown duel between a Hero and a Villain. It’s long. It implies playing it out at the table would take serious time. But as a highlight scene, it might work. In any case, this example helped me grasp the Dueling mechanics.

The book breaks Villains into five types: Beast (Rage), Chameleon (Deception), Mastermind (Manipulation), Juggernaut (Desire), and Deranged (Isolation). Each section intro describes what that means, how they view the different Hero archetypes, and how to play these foes at the table. It also has a short list of example Schemes suitable for these Villains.

Each Villain gets two pages. The background page has a rich history and three schemes arising out of that. The “character sheet” page has an illustration, quote, and stats (Strength, Influence, Rank). It lists the Villains’ advantages, along with page references. Nicely for GM it includes the full text of the NPC’s Virtue & Hubris. There’s a short paragraph on Servants & Underlings (if any) as well as roleplaying tips. I especially like that the sheet includes how a Hero might go about redeeming this character. Some can’t be, but for those who can change, it offers insights the GM can reveal to players over time. I like these sheets; they’re well-laid out and nicely parallel those of the Heroes with small changes. More angular text boxing, red as the background color instead of blue, and the history placed before the CS instead of after. Small details, but they pull this whole book together.

  • Julianna Onesta (Beast) Twisted by the Inquisition, but vulnerable due to a compassion even she’s unaware of.
  • Tassine Bullet (Chameleon) A criminal guild leader driven by a twisted romantic ideals.
  • Facio Contarini (Mastermind) A classic manipulator from Vodacce.
  • Isentrud der Chegir (Juggernaut) She has a creepy story of magical corruption and interesting plots. 
  • Ludwika Krzyżanowska (Deranged) This villainous archetype can be tough. They’re difficult to redeem and can seem inhuman. I like this one because I can visualize how I’d put the players in contact with her plots.

Heroes & Villains has a strikingly diverse cast. It has characters from every region presented in the core book. It mixes that up with different focus traits, kinds of Sorcery, and duelist schools. When I picked pre-gens for my online sessions I went through and made a chart of archetypes, nations, genders, who had sorcery, and who had a duelist school. I wanted to ensure broad choices for the players. It was easy, since the book had already done much of that work. Beyond that Heroes & Villains gives us characters of various ages, physical forms, skin tones, and orientations.

I like NPC books. The presentation of NPCs in the Citybooks and The Armitage Files are my favorites. Both supplement simple backstories with tools and dials for the table. The former has plot for each one; the latter has how to play the NPC in different modes. Heroes & Villains is as good, if not better. When I bought it, I read it in one evening. I rarely do that. But then Sherri picked it up and did the same thing, despite not being a fan of the genre. She found it that compelling.

It’s solid and highly recommended, useful both for 7th Sea and other rpgs in a similar vein.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Shadowrun Anarchy: My Take

This is going to be a terrible review. It’ll be scattershot, disorganized, unclear, overwritten, and contradictory.

Like Shadowrun Anarchy.

Catalyst calls Shadowrun Anarchy an “Alternate Ruleset.” We’ve seen other companies try variations on this: White Wolf’s Storytelling Adventure System, GURPS Lite, Rolemaster Express, HARP. It’s a great idea. Make it accessible for newcomers and bring back the fallen. Shadowrun’s among games with a rich settings and a major barrier to entry: a dense system, often expanded over multiple sourcebooks. See Earthdawn, Fading Suns, Iron Kingdoms. But Shadowrun’s an easy and vivid pitch: cyberpunk with Elves & Orks. Over decades multiple publishers created an amazingly cool world. Every sourcebook looks hot.

So an easy, rules-simple, player collaborative version excited me. I hadn’t played Shadowrun back in the day. I’d been among the Cyberpunk 2020 snobs. But over the years I’ve bought SR supplements. I even tried a couple Fate Accelerated sessions to get a feel for it. I wanted Shadowrun Anarchy to be good and I bought the physical copy and the pdf. I read through it multiple times. I tried to distill the rules. I ran a couple of sessions. You can see the AP for those online (Session 1, Session 2). 

And it feels like a massive missed opportunity. It didn’t work for me.

On the one hand I didn’t care for the way Shadowrun Anarchy actually played. My players didn’t dig the structure and I felt like the rules fought me. That’s about the kind of game SR ends up being. On the other hand there’s the concrete problem of the presentation. Let’s leave aside that they had errata immediately and the print version doesn’t have corrections. The writing makes SRA more difficult than it needs to be. The text actively works against the reader. It desperately needs a strong editorial hand to go back to the start and rethink how to convey these concepts.

There’s also a conceptual split in the rules. There’s the structural approach- making the game a conversation. That’s intended to make this collaborative, more modern, and narrative-leaning. But then there’s the actual mechanical approach. As agile as Shadowrun Anarchy’s scene framing mechanic may be, it the system then bolts weights onto it. That’s a problem.

Finally there’s the split between what this book could have been versus what it is.

Shadowrun Anarchy isn’t clear about its audience or purpose.

If we’re trying to bring in new players, then I can understand the amount of setting summary in the Shadowrun Anarchy. I can maybe even understand the large number of sample characters. But the rules themselves are unfriendly. They’re text-dense, disorganized, and barely highlight important rules.

On the other hand, if we’re trying to bring in current Shadowrun players with the dangling offer of lighter rules, then a large chunk of the book’s wasted filler. 33 pages of setting background and Seattle description. Even the number of sample characters seems overdone alongside the rules for character building.

Or perhaps they’re trying to get fallen trad Shadowrun players. The highly story-game structure’s going to be a hard sell. And rather than illustrate why this approach works with Shadowrun, the book buries things under stats and mechanics.

That crushing weight means Story Games will be put off by the sheer mass of stats and numbers. Add to that complex and opaque character sheets. Often your CS is your best hook for new people. They’ve got great illustrations for the sample characters, but there’s so much going on within the actual sheet.

In trying to serve so many audiences, Shadowrun Anarchy serves all of them poorly. It swings between approaches.

Shadowrun Anarchy uses the Cue System, previously seen in Cosmic Patrol and the Valiant Universe RPG (my look at the latter). The basic idea is to put narrative power into the hands of the players. Each turn begins with the GM’s and then in a set order we run through each player’s Narration. On your narration a player can describe what their character does and what’s happening in the world: things that show up, people you meet, changes of circumstance, etc. If something they’re doing has a chance of failure they stop to roll dice. There’s no hard limit to what someone can do on a narration, except in combat. There they can only make a single attack action on a round.

The limits of player narrations are unclear. What level of abstraction are we working at? Are we playing out a whole sequence- “OK, I go to talk to the Fixer to get info on this and he tells me some things” (move to a roll) or are we breaking things down further than that? “I go in and scope out the Fixer’s location, and I see X, so I…”. Note that if another player wants to interrupt someone’s narration to take an action, they have to spend a Plot Point to do so, one of a couple game resources (we also have Edge, Karma, Armor, and Damage). While it’s not explicit in the rules, I expect if the narrating player wanted to bring them in to act, they could spend a point. That economy’s necessary because the game hard a set turn order. You have to either work your narrative around that or take steps to break it. I’m used to hard ordering in combat, but not outside.

To be fair, the game does say you can explicitly engage in Talk Time. Someone has to declare this and get table agreement to move into this mode. This can only cover freewheeling discussion. Once a PC gets to any test they have to return to the standard order. It’s a split that reinforces how the game locks down the usual narrations. Players can kibitz on others’ turns, but otherwise one person leads everything at a time.

“On a player’s narration, the GM only has the following responsibilities.
*Deciding whether an action requires the player roll a Test
*Declaring what modifiers (if any) apply to a Test
*Determining what Attribute(s) applies to an Attribute-only Test
*Roleplaying NPCs
*Making defense rolls for NPCs
*Knowing the information in the Contract Brief
*Arbitrating rules discussions
*Declaring that a player’s Narration is finished (such as if a Narration has lasted for too long)
Many other elements that might be considered traditional RPG gamemaster duties—describing the scene, detailing what NPCs are doing, having enemies appear, and so forth—fall to the player who is currently giving a Narration.”
Rich Rogers has described this approach as “putting the heavy lifting on the players.”

The GM starts each turn and has their own narration. There they give a run down of the current situation and “advance the plot.” Exactly what that means isn’t clear. Again, there’s little guidance for scale or scope. Like Valiant, you play Shadowrun Anarchy with a pre-set adventure, called a Contract Brief. That has the setup, pitch, objectives, backdrop, etc for the mission. It also has the scenes you’re expected to play through. They’re written concrete and linear, though elsewhere the book says they can twist.

It’s another case of the rulebook being unsure what it wants. If they intend these to be flexible, why not write them more flexibly? As it is they’re tiny sections of railroad track. In most of them, Scene 2 is contingent on certain things happening in Scene 1, and so on down the line. They provide little guidance about scale.

The book’s also massively unclear about who should see these Contract Briefs. In the rules section, it says the group looks through the Briefs and picks one. It specifically mentions that info there is for the players. But when we get to the Briefs chapter, it’s marked as GM only. Which one is it?

So here’s the freaking thing that bugs me. In several places, Shadowrun Anarchy tell us “this is how we play.” OK, I’ve got that in my head. That’s the assumption I’m taking on in reading the rest of the rules. But then much later, we get a “this is how we play” contradicting or swerving the earlier rule. Now I have to go back and re-read in light of that.

Because there’s a pretty big difference between a game that assumes the players know what scenes they’re angling towards in their narration and one where they don’t.

Oh man, this game.

On the other hand you have Shadowrun Anarchy’s mechanics.

Charles Picard wrote about Mutant Year Zero this week and he said something that stuck with me. “When I refer to narrative or story games, I’m talking about games that (and I’m speaking very broadly here) build their mechanics to focus on the unfolding story of the game, rather than mechanically simulating aspects of the game world.”

Shadowrun Anarchy has a weird clash between the story framing and mechanical side. SRA does a lot of consolidation and reduction of the game’s earlier mechanics. According to SR vets, players roll smaller pools of dice—usually now 8 to 12d6s. All powers have been lumped together as Shadow Amps. The book has a list of examples, but also has a point cost system for buying these abilities. So they’re closer to GURPS powers and more complicated versions of Fate’s Stunts. But a major point of contention has been that the sample characters break these rules.

Despite that mechanical reduction, it’s still complicated. Lots of stats and skills, weird exceptions sub-systems, several calculation steps. Any test, for example is opposed. If there’s a rolled test, the GM’s rolling dice either for the active opponent or the passive difficulty. So both player and GM have to choose and form pools, roll, activate additional powers, count successes (usually 5 or 6s on each die) and then compare those. If we’re in combat, we take that margin of success plus the weapons damage and apply that to the character. They then apply that to their armor and then to their damage track which has several levels with rising levels of penalties.

Combat’s not fast for several reasons, including the rolling. Here’s an actual example from our play. Sledge, our Ork street samurai goes in to attack a group of corporate security. He’s swinging a Mono-Katana around. He rolls 10 dice for this attack (skill plus A ((Agility because they use one letter abbreviations for the stats…)) for dice #). On average, he’s going to get three successes. He gets to reroll one die because it’s an Agility test. So let’s be generous and give him four successes. The Corporate Security rolls A + L (Agility + Logic) for 7 dice. That means an average of 2 successes. So Sledge has a margin of 2, he adds that to the 6P (Physical) damage for a total of 8 points. Awesome.

Except the Security Guard doesn’t drop. The SG has Armor 9, which he marks off, leaving him with one point left. Let’s say on the following round Sledge swings again for the same amount. The SG’s still up. They lose their last armor and then take 7 damage. They have 10, so they remain up with 3 points left. But now the GM has to track their die penalties (-3 in this case).

On average a stock standard guard will take three shots from a PC to take down. That’s assuming luck holds. Don’t even get me started on a Small Drone, which is even tougher to take down. In the GM section there’s a small passage suggesting from time to time you could handle opponents as mooks. But, “While this shouldn’t be embraced very often in an RPG setting, as that approach would most likely make an evening’s gaming a tad too boring, the GM should be willing to embrace this type of scenario every now and then…However, this option should be used sparingly.” When the rules stop off twice in a paragraph to warn me about doing something, there’s a message.

But that “mook aside” is one of many rules changes you speed-bump over. Shadowrun Anarchy has tons of alternate rules, optional mechanics, and different systems. They pop up throughout the rules text. “You don’t have to do it X, you could do it Y.” I’m all in favor of optional mechanics. I played Rolemaster for years FFS. But there needs to be a clear, solid statement of the base rules first. Instead we have rules thrown in a blender

There’s more. The writing’s opaque in places. We jump from section to section on dense pages without a good map of where we are and what rules we’re working through. That makes it horrible when you have to go back to find something during play. I felt like I was back in the 1990s: text heavy pages, poor use of headings and callouts to guide, verbose writing requiring parsing. The rules have weird implications and odd placements. For example, you have to pay a Plot Point to move twice on your narration. But we only get this idea of switching from tactical to larger scale in the movement section.  It creates an even larger break between the narrative side and the weirdly crunchy resolution and combat side.

And there’s no example of play.

I repeat: there’s no example of play in the entire book. We have all that setting and 60 pages devoted to NPCs, but not any example of play.

Shadowrun Anarchy didn’t work for me as a GM. I found the rules badly written, making it hard to figure out exactly what they intended. I tried my best to GM Shadowrun Anarchy, but it felt like running through molasses. I wanted to like it and thought I was open to different systems. I’m running point-heavy Mutants & Masterminds, tradindel rpg Mutant Year Zero, Fate, and PbtA. Look at the variety of stuff I’d run for TGIT Gauntlet Hangouts.

Let me give my gut feeling about Shadowrun Anarchy, purely gut. It chickened out. As I said at the start, Shadowrun Anarchy doesn’t do a great job defining its mission. But certainly the lead-up buzz talked about a rules-light, accessible, and narrative focused rpg. That’s a great goal. But Shadowrun Anarchy can’t let go of all the systems and crunch. There’s elaborate chrome and a deflated version of the original systems. Rather than fully rethinking those mechanics, they just put them in a dehydrator. They couldn’t take the leap: recognize the strength of their IP and find a new system approach.

Other games have managed that shift. I’ll point to Mutant Year Zero as the best recent example. But I’d say Mutant Chronicles, another branch from the same tree, manages this while staying crunchy. 7th Sea’s another example of an older game pulled into the modern era. Shadowrun Anarchy’s not in bad company though. As I’ve mentioned before I’d hoped Feng Shui 2 would be awesome and modern. But it kept some core concepts about initiative and actions that make it as game I don’t really want to play. I’m half hopeful, half nervous that the new edition of Scion will give us a lean and accessible system.

Shadowrun Anarchy’s hobbled as well by its presentation and writing. It needed an editor the caliber of Amanda Valentine or John Adamus to bring coherence. Games have gotten better about this in recent years. I think Urban Shadows, Tianxia, Coriolis, and 7th Sea offer strong examples. I think rules should be accessible, logical, and easy to reference. SRA’s anything but.

I’m not fond of writing negative reviews- I’d rather point people to things they should be looking at. That’s doubly true for something I wanted to like. That being said, if you’re enjoying SRA, more power to you. I’m glad it’s serving your group. I didn’t work for me.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

The Year in Post-Apocalyptic RPGs 2015 (Part Two: STALKER: gra fabularna to Winter Eternal)

We had a surplus of salvage this year. So much so I had to split this list into two parts. I'm always glad to see that-- especially when we get new core products. You can find the first half of the list-- Catalyst to Shayō-- here. I looked at PA themes in movies and TV last time, so how about in other games?

Board gaming saw some expansions, but many completely new products. Miniature-rich Zombicide released Season 3: Rue Morgue and Angry Neighbors. The first’s a stand-alone game; the latter offers an expansion into the suburbs. CMON also released Black Plague, a medieval version of this zombie game. It's nuts how much there is out there for this line as a whole. Dark Age Z covers the same medieval Z-territory with more of a Euro game approach. Lock-n-Load Publishing revised their All Things Zombies strategy game to include dealing with gangers and others survivors, creating a stronger post-apocalyptic feel. Bang the Dice Game, already a spin-off, released a spin-off version BtDG: The Walking Dead. That even got an expansion.

In non-zombie apocalypses, we saw Terminator Genisys: The Miniatures Game released, hoping to capitalize on the movie. So sorry. In more classic post-apocalypse, we saw three striking products. Bright Future is a card-driven rpg-esque game. You send characters out into the tunnels searching for equipment and technology. It can be played co-op or competitive. Night of Man offers a tactical battle against aliens after the devastation of Earth. It's a toolkit for this, including various scenarios and a point-buy game creation system. Posthuman is a huge, over-produced game which chronicles the journey of survivors across ravaged zones. It got an expansion the same year, increasing the player count to six.

In video games, we have the titanic Fallout 4. The gives you another sandbox game in the same setting, but now with a massive community-building sub-system. However, you can’t clear corpses from your town. To create hype for the game Bethesda released Fallout Shelter, a Vault-simulator app. It garnered mixed-reviews (at least among my group). Wasteland 2, a spiritual cousin to Fallout, sticks closer to the original tactical rpg mechanics. It got a PS4 release in 2015. Mad Max, based on the MM: Fury Road license, didn’t get traction. Reviewers liked some of it, but found it repetitive.

Two zombie apocalypse-games stand out: H1Z1 Just Survive and Dying Light. The latter combines parkour with horror survival. It’s striking and hard to watch at times. We also saw a lot of zombie-based shovelware. On the other hand we got three striking apocalyptic scenarios. Submerged has characters wandering through the ruins of a sunken city, searching for medicine. Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, a “walking simulator,” has you wander through an aftermath. Finally Bloodborne has an overrun city infected by the attentions of otherworldly beings. Your character mediates between the real world and annihilation.

I focus mostly on core books here. I include Kickstarter projects if they actually released in 2014. I give pdf-only releases their own entry if they’re notable, of significant size, or come from a major publisher. I’ve consolidated a ton of material into several ”Miscellaneous” items at the end. I’m sure I missed some releases. If you spot them, leave me a note in the comments.

This is a self-published, pseudo- unlicensed, electronic-only product from Poland. But it has a weird enough story to warrant a mention. We've seen another "Roadside Picnic" aka STALKER-based game, Stalker, the officially licensed one from Finland. It released in 2008, with an English translation in 2012. But STALKER: gra fabularna is an earlier game. RPG Geek translates the publisher's blurb thusly:
They came unannounced. They were gone without a single word. All that was left was traces of their presence.
STALKER is a complete role-playing game based on the novel "Roadside Picnic" by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. Set in a near future, in a year 2014. The world if ruled by international corporations. Alien artifacts of incredible and incomprehensible powers are being extracted from the Zones surrounding alien landing sites. There are stalkers, who enter the Zones and bring back alien objects, defying corporate monopoly and ownership of extraterrestrial technologies.
The rulebook contains the rules, setting description including alien artifacts, an introductory scenario and rules regarding the use a special deck of STALKER cards
STALKER is a long lost Polish game that was announced at the end of the year 1996. It was to be published with a permission from Boris Strugatsky by Wydawnictwo S.R., at a time a publisher of Strugatskys' works in Poland. Unfortunately the publisher encountered financial difficulties and the game was never released.
STALKER resurfaced after almost 20 years. The text of the game along with almost all original illustrations (apart from a set of card deck art which was lost) was published in February 2015 as a free PDF file under Creative Commons BY-NC-SA licence."
For a more extended statement (in Polish), see here.

I placed Ten Candles on my horror list, but it bears mentioning here. As I described it there, the world's ending. You're survivors trying to eke out a last few minutes, hours, days. You're going to fail. Your candle will be snuffed out. That’s the game.

Yikes may be the understatement of the blog.

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

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

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

Another repeat from my horror lists. The End of the World series feels like they could be played either way: as the horror of devastation or as fighting against the world’s fall. Fantasy Flight has a well-deserved reputation for slick products and smart packaging. Edge of the Empire and Warhammer FRP 3e illustrate how they've been able to elevate rpgs into hybrid projects. They don't stick with the conventional. The End of the World series doesn't head off into pseudo-board game land. Instead it takes another unusual approach while remaining a more conventional rpg than other recent FFG releases. Some of that may come from TEotW's origin as a Spanish language rpg series, El Fin Del Mundo (2013).

Each volume of The End of the World offers a complete game with a complete apocalypse. In 2015 we got Alien Invasion, Zombie Apocalypse, and Wrath of the Gods. The final volume, Revolt ofthe Machines, dropped in 2016. All share a simple basic system: six stats in three categories rated from one to five. Features expand the details (i.e. flaws/assets). Players roll a pool of positive and negative d6s. Matching negatives cancel out positives and every remaining die under the relevant stat counts as a success. Those rules take up 30+ pages of a 144 page book.

Each volume then each offers a set of sketchy scenarios, each with a slightly different twist on the events. In some cases they give clear bridges between those, but in others the elements feel like they exclude one another. If you're expecting a toolbox for developing the themes, you might be disappointed. As well if you buy multiple volumes, you're repeating much of the basic material (about 25%). You might be better served by a sourcebook or dedicated game.

However The End of the World has one big hook: you play yourselves. Scenarios have flexible starting locations so you can tailor events to your own hometown or city. There's even a mechanic for painfully deciding your own stats. That works with TEotW’s fairly simple system, both easy to pick up and get running. But a large part of your enjoyment will rely on how much you like playing yourself getting murderized. I burned out on that long ago. If you remove that element, then you're left with a fairly standard set of light rules with a bog standard Armageddon.

Based on Mini Six, a hyper-light implementation of the d6 System. Has a basic layout with rough artwork. Twilight Fall offers a kitchen-sink apocalyptic setting: "Plague Zombies, Alien Horrors, Insane Robots and Computer Programs. The population of the Earth never stood a chance." It has the look of a house campaign put together for general consumption. Could be interesting for Open d6 gamers who want ideas for their own post-apocalyptic games.

A Brazilian game from 2013, translated into English in 2015. It has a great title and a creative commons license. In the early part of the 21st century, alien invaders quietly arrive. They make no demands, instead using an EMP weapon to disrupt and devastate. They land and begin to extend their reach, taking territory from shattered humanity. But no one has actually seen the aliens and survived. You're part of the resistance, struggling to survive against terrible odds. It bills itself as a game of "desperate combat and scarce resources."

UED has several really interesting pieces of game tech. Each attribute has a dice pool. When you roll a die from that, you remove it. When you run out you have to return to rest, take shelter, or resupply. I'm curious to see how that works in practice. GMs vary hugely in how many rolls they call for; that might change that tension. Success on missions can also impact the morale of your haven. Good results allow you to upgrade that base. The actual resolution system's pretty lean- simple rolls or opposed tests to resolve points of serious challenge. UED includes an appendix with optional rules for more detailed combat. They're decent, but more granular than I want out of this.

I'm kind of amazed I hadn't heard of UED: You are the Resistance before I started assembling this list. It's very well done: good layout and smart graphic elements. The system's interesting and handles resources in a novel way. It also includes pre-gens and a sample adventure. Recommended.

This third-party setting for Savage Worlds calling itself "post-post apocalyptic." That's a clever way to phrase an approach we've seen before, what I've called Civilization in the Ruins games. In this fantasy world, the sun exploded, devastating Azegar and Ehlerrac with natural catastrophes. Then the freeze came, forcing survivors into tight settlements sustained by magic. Sorcerers recast heat & light spells every morning on globes suspended each city. Several hundred years later, explorers have discovered a new resource, shards which convert light into great heat. That's spurred tentative first steps into steam and industrial technology. Now the peoples of the eight cities have begun to venture out and reclaim the cold, not-so dead world.

It's a decent concept. Is it too close to another popular SW setting, Hellfrost? The designer says no, they're nothing alike. Winter Eternal focuses on urban adventures and changes wrought by rising technologies. Winter Eternal's neat for coming from a South African design group. Pinnacle's press release mentioned this being their first licensee from Africa. Some further hunting tracked down that designer Morné Schaap's based in Cape Town, South Africa.

16. Miscellaneous: Zombies
I mentioned End of the World: Zombies up above on the list. But this year saw other Z-games and sourcebooks. In AFMBE lingo GURPS Zombies Day One’s settings are Deadworlds. They're a collection of zombie set ups and scenarios ranging from fantasy to video-game style to space bound. It includes a couple of "aftermath" type approaches. Fear the Living offers a standard zombie survival game. It does have a couple of interesting twists, particularly collaborative zombie apocalypse creation. But that’s a short section, with a few example. It isn't a massive toolkit, but it’s an interesting idea and one you could port over to other Z-games.

The pitch line for AZ: After Zombies doesn't show what sets this apart from other undead outbreak rpgs. It mentions the percentile system, lack of character classes, and that it’s the brainchild of an industry veteran, Charles Rice. The game itself is a done-in-one rpg clocking in at 144 pages. They've released a couple of modules for AZ as well. Characters have eight stats, three derived attributes, complimented by backgrounds, traits, and optional disadvantages. Each character also has at least two skills. The base system uses random rolls to determine these, but you can simply take an average instead. The art's quite good, but I'm not sure what the killer app is here. There's mention of Unity as a group stat in the preview, and that's an interesting concept. But this year in particular saw a ton of zombie games, so I fear AZ got lost in the shuffle.

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

Finally Outbreak: Undead 2e moves this line back to classic zombies from the company's foray into generic sci-fi horror (Outbreak: Space). It touts its use of cards but they aren't integral to play. These come in three flavors: encounters, character trait, and injury reference cards. The encounter cards also include survivors so you can pick one of those and play right away. Optionally you can take an online quiz, the “SPEW AI,” and generate a version of yourself. Outbreak: Undead survival. You track your resources encumbrance. In this regard it leans towards The Walking Dead side: life in the aftermath. OB:UD doesn't focus on backstory, instead it assumes you have that in mind. ("Zombies are here. What's next?"). While Outbreak: Undead looks simple, there's an array graphic icons and color coding in the rules, as well as the use of d5's. I didn't like the first edition’s messy, collage-filled approach; this new version cleans that up. While you can't turn off the layers in the pdf, the page backgrounds aren't too intrusive. It feels like a much stronger game with significant mechanical changes.

17. Miscellaneous: Revisions and New Editions
18. Miscellaneous: Supplements
  • Alfieri di Ferro and Schiavi delle Maree: Both for the Italian game, Nameless Land. The former's a sourcebook for the Southern Continent. The latter's a large volume covering the seas of the New World, including San Francisco and Ordo Pacific. Has material for running an ocean-based campaign.
  • APOCalypse2500 GM’s Campaign Guide & Bestiary: Big book of GM tools for this rpg: optional rules, reference tables, new foes, and setting details.
  • Chaos Earth: Resurrection: An expansion for RIfts: Chaos Earth, that adds zombies (?). Might have been inspired by the success of Dead Reign.
  • Creatures of the Apocalypse Codex: Large collection of monsters for Mutant Epoch. It brings together previously published beasts and six new ones. Each entry includes loot & encounter tables, mutation listings, victims & locales, as well as a full page image to use as a handout.
  • Legacy: Echoes of the Fall: Adds three new playbooks, ten sample technologies, and a variety of threats for use with this PbtA game.
  • Post-Apocalyptic Vampire Wars: A Starbright release. Caveat Emptor. This time they've gone with WaRP as their free system of choice.
  • Ruins of Atlanta: An unusual sourcebook for the superhero game Bulletproof Blues. In the setting's "Kalos Universe" Atlanta has been destroyed by the superhero Paragon. This gives info on running a campaign in those now lawless ruins.
  • Scraps of the Rust Empire: Regional supplement for the tabletop version of Dystopia Rising. Focuses on "Oilberta, the Pacific Providence, the Under-Sea, Bridge City, and the Lilac City." I remain curious about this sourcebook series. I think I'll have to break down and pick one up to see how they're presented.
19. Miscellaneous: Modules
  • Cthulhu Apocalypse brings together three Trail of Cthulhu post-apocalyptic modules/toolkits previously released. It expands that with eight new scenarios. It's from Gareth Hanrahan and Graham Walmsley, so how can you go wrong?
  • Godchild: Two adventures, Eldruden and Hell Storm for this strange game. The blurb for the first one includes: "Angels of a God Reborn is the story of Amadi Dialla, the Eldruden, Jehovah Incarnate as Son of Man. The adventure begins with Amadi within Gul Gugorroth, subject to Grand Prafectae Madhiem's cruel experiments for the secrets of Jehovah's mind, contained within Jehovah's memories, or, Soul Mind." Also I just noticed the designer’s credited only as Gemmon (also the name of the publisher).
  • Metamorphosis Alpha: We got releases, not for any of the later editions, but for the "collectors" version of the first edition: Death Ziggurat in Zero-G, The Level of the Lost,
  • Mutant Epoch: Several modules including One Day Digs: Hunt in the Dark, Lilac Towers, and the double feature Beneath the Spire /Tunnels & Skulls. We also saw a much larger adventure sourcebook described as "multi-path,” The Flesh Weavers.