ShotC Playtest – Between Sessions

Shadow-of-the-Century-Playtest-Draft

Just a quick update to talk about some stuff we did with Shadow of the Century over the past couple of weeks.

One of our players was not able to make it to the pitch session ((It happens. Real life trumps games.)). She still wanted to be part of the playtest, so we created her character via e-mail this past week and the week before. She’s experienced with Fate games1, so coming up with the aspects went fairly quickly. The roles went easily, as well, and we created a role and stunt – both of them Gonzo – to reflect her history as a Prana Warrior.

All the other players pitched in via e-mail to do the Crossing Paths section, and we actually finished that in just a few days, which was faster than I expected.

I also decided to try doing the Cast section with the player, and take part myself, because I had neglected to during the pitch session. But you need three people to do it properly, so I enlisted another gamer friend to help out2. I also took a little extra care explaining what we were looking for in terms of the facts for the names – there were a number of facts in the characters that aren’t all that gameable3. So, we’ve got an extra nine characters in our cast pool.

And then I spent a few nights putting together stats for the villains, and writing up a notes for the scenario. I just finished, which is good; tomorrow is our first play session of the playtest.

So look for the post about that early in the next week.

  1. She was in the DFRPG playtest as Sydney Rae and Gerhardt Rothman, and in my Feints & Gambits campaign as Rogan O’Herir. []
  2. I could have got one of the others of the playtest group, but I didn’t want to give one player more influence over the game than the others. []
  3. Silly is fine, and we’ve got some silly ones. But we’ve also got some that just don’t really come up in play without a lot of circumstances. This is my fault, not that of any of the players. []

ShotC Playtest – Pitch Session

Shadow-of-the-Century-Playtest-Draft

Last night, I got together my playtest group1 for our first session of the playtest. The first session in Shadow of the Century, as in most Fate Core games, is all about establishing the framework of the game and creating characters. Because it’s modeled on 80s-style action movies and TV shows, it’s called the Pitch Session2.

First step of the Pitch Session is determining the format of the game – series or movie. This a choice between a longer, more episodic game (the series), or a shorter, more focused game (the movie). After a fairly brief3 discussion, we settled on a movie. The reasons for this were the fact that we’ve only got 3-4 sessions of play, and the fact that, as a limited game, the movie format means we can really let go and embrace the wackiness and gonzo nature of the game.

Next step is setting the Gonzometer. This is a determination of how over-the-top the game elements and characters are allowed to be. On one end of the scale, you’ve got stuff like Miami Vice and Magnum P.I., on the other end, you’ve got things like Flash Gordon and Ghostbusters. In addition to setting the crazy level of the game, it also adjusts the skill points and skill cap for the characters.

This conversation took some time. While the Gonzometer has four settings, they’re not hard-and-fast, nor clearly defined. They can’t be, after all, as the subject material doesn’t conform to the Gonzometer settings4. After a lot of talk about what each level meant and what kind of stories we wanted to tell, we eventually settled on setting 3: Big Trouble. This is the default setting of the game, and allows a fair bit of craziness, but assumes it’s in the shadows, and most people don’t know about it.

Step three of the Pitch Session is coming up with the issues of the game. This is how the group decides what the game is about. With the movie format, you create two issues: one that tells you what the big problem is, and one that introduces a complication or subplot. Because most of the character concepts5 were focused on shadowy doings and secrecy, the players decided that they wanted an issue to address that. We came up with the issue Secret War Against… and then had to do some talking to come up with who the war was against. Eventually, we settled on Secret War Against the Ghostmasters. We didn’t bother defining the Ghostmasters at this point; there’s a whole step for that.

One thing we did decide about the Ghostmasters is that one tactic they use is summoning ghosts and implanting them in innocent vessels. They tend to keep the ghosts quiescent when they do this, but the personality of the ghost has some subconscious influence on the host, and indulging the urges and desires of the ghost can start to wake it up, until the ghost is in control. So, our second issue became Possessed Innocents.

Now, with the issues of the game decided, we start with the characters. Creating the characters in ShotC, unlike in other Fate Core games, takes place in two stages, separated by more steps fleshing out the setting. The first step involves creating the aspects for the characters, and the second step involves finishing off the more mechanical bits of character creation.

Only one of my players was familiar with Fate games6, so I gave a talk about aspects, and what to look for, cribbed mainly from here. This bit, as expected, took a fair bit of time. But we got through it, and everyone was pretty happy about the result.

Next step was building the cast – a collection of NPC character seeds that we can use to fill in various roles in the campaign. Each player gets three index cards, and writes the name on the top of each. Pass to the left, then each player adds a fact to each of the three cards they’ve received. Pass to the left again, and add a fact to the new set of cards. You wind up with three times the number of characters as there are players, each with a name and two facts. This pool of characters can be used to fill in for other characters that are needed in the game – a friend, a contact, a rival, a foe, whatever.

I made a mistake running this phase. I just had the players do it, rather than grabbing three cards myself and participating. This has two downsides: I’ve got three fewer characters in the pool than I might have had, and I didn’t get a chance to shape the game with my input7 by adding facts to six other characters. I’m trying to decide if I should do something to correct this, when I work with the player who missed the session to create her character. She didn’t get to do this part, either. The problem is that there are two of us, and you really need three to do this properly. Maybe I’ll rope in one of the other players to do this part again8, or maybe I’ll impose on one of my gamer friends who’s not in this playtest. Still thinking about it.

Anyway, we came up with twelve characters, each with two facts. Some of them are pretty wacky, and one deserves his own TV show, but I think we can make use of them.

Phase six is the villains. This is were we flesh out the opposition a little more. We already knew that the main antagonists are the Ghostmasters, and we knew about one of their tactics. So, I wrote the name Ghostmasters on the top of an index card, and passed it around the group for each player to add an idea about who they are and what they do. We wound up with this9:

Ghostmasters

  • Each member of the Ghostmasters comes from a different culture or tradition (Taoist, Voodoo, etc.)
  • There’s lots infighting and conflicting priorities among the members
  • They love to gamble and place bets, which is how they compete for primacy in the group
  • They are all terrified of non-existence, the worst fate they can imagine for anyone

In further discussions, we decided that the Ghostmasters have gangs of ghostly ninjas10 that they use for enforcement. They also have the previously mentioned tendency to store ghosts in innocent vessels11, and this led us to another idea for a lesser threat – the Bone Thugs12, a street gang whose leader has suffered a severe personality change once the ghost stored in him woke up and took control. That strikes me as a nice, introductory problem to start the game with, leading to more confrontations with Ghostmaster minions leading to the final confrontation with actual Ghostmasters.

The final step was finishing off the characters. First, we worked out how all the characters had crossed each others’ paths. Then, they all picked their three roles. This is when we started incorporating some of the gonzo/spirit character elements, as one character was a Centurion, one had the ability to see and speak to ghosts, and one had learned ancient Kung Fu techniques for fighting ghosts13. Three out of the four players also created their own roles for their characters, and came up with gonzo – or spirit – stunts.

Yes, after the roles, and the skill calculations, they picked stunts. There’s a list of six stunts with each role, and you can pick from those, or you can build a stunt using the Fate Core rules. If you’re playing a Centurion or a gonzo character, you also start with an extra-good stunt (that you have to make up), and one less Refresh.

Then it was just some calculations for determining Stress and Consequences. Then done.

I asked the players to leave their character sheets with me so I could post their characters and the other stuff we came up with here on my blog. One player said his was too messy for me to read, and that he’d send me a typed version by e-mail, so I’ve got only three of them posted so far.

I also have to flesh out the villains a little before I can post more about them. But I’ll do that in the next couple of days.

Last thing we did was come up with the name of the movie we’re playing. Using that, I’ve done a quick pitch for the game below:

Ghostpuncher I: Legacy of the Voicless Dragon

The last disciple of the Voiceless Dragon hunts the Ghostmasters, a group of necromancers who slaughtered his sifu for teaching ancient Kung Fu exorcism techniques. Now, he is drawn to a city in turmoil, for the Ghostmasters are here, playing their strange and wicked games. His only help is a small group of outcasts and freaks: an old friend of his sifu, with many secrets hidden in his past; a young woman who can see and speak to ghosts; and a half-crazy inventor trying to repair a broken world. Together, they must stand against the chaos and madness the Ghostmasters are unleashing on an unsuspecting populace.

So, that sounds pretty fun to me.

  1. Well, 80% of it. One player couldn’t make it. []
  2. As in, a TV or Movie pitch. []
  3. Brief for us, anyway. []
  4. The Gonzometer, after all, was developed a quarter century after the 80s. []
  5. Note that, in the prescribed Pitch Session sequence, you don’t start making characters just yet. But the sequence is a suggestion, and coming up with character concepts is one way that players get excited and start thinking about the game. So, all the players had at least a rough starting idea of what kind of character they wanted to play. []
  6. The player who couldn’t make it last night is also familiar with Fate, having played in my Feints & Gambits DFRPG campaign. I’m going to see about getting her character built over e-mail, with the other players participating. []
  7. I want to be clear here that, by “shape the game,” I’m not saying to steer it in the direction I want at the expense of the players’ ideas. But the GM is a participant in the game, and discounting input by a participant – even the GM – is not the way to do collaborative setting creation. In other words, I get to have my say along with the players, but my opinion does not override theirs. Nor do theirs override mine. Same team. []
  8. Though that means one player will have had twice the input. []
  9. I’ve edited it a bit from the raw ideas the players gave me in order to link things together a little bit. []
  10. They’re not actual Japanese ninjas. They are multi-cultural spectral spies and assassins. But ninja is good shorthand. []
  11. We talked mainly about this being people, but I’ve been having ideas about other types of vessels since last night. []
  12. I know. []
  13. His sifu, the Voiceless Dragon, was another Centurion, killed by the Ghostmasters because he was teaching people how to fight ghosts. That old chestnut. []

Into the Shadows

Shadow-of-the-Century-Playtest-Draft

Kinda coming full circle here.

The good folks at Evil Hat Productions have started beta playtesting of Shadow of the Century, a new Fate Core game. As they usually do, the Hat folks had me sign a Disclosure agreement when they accepted my playtest application – I’m supposed to talk about my experience playtesting the game in public.

Long-time readers of this blog may recall that’s how this blog got started, when I was playtesting The Dresden Files RPG.

So, I’m going to be talking about Shadow of the Century playtest here. And I’m starting today with an overview of the game based on my reading of the playtest document.

A Fate Core Game

First things first: Shadows of the Century is not a stand-alone game. It requires Fate Core rules to play the game – that’s where you’ll find all the mechanics for rolling dice, the four actions you can take, how fate points work, how conflict works, etc.

Fate Core rules are available on a pay-what-you-want deal1, so you’ve got no excuse for not having them2.

What’s Shadow of the Century About?

The first Evil Hat game I ever saw, read, and played was Spirit of the Century. It’s a pulp game, featuring the remarkable members of the Century Club having adventures and fighting foes like Gorilla Khan, Der Blitzermann, and Dr. Methuselah.

Shadow of the Century takes place in the same world, a half-century later. The members of the Century  club are dead, disgraced, imprisoned, in hiding, on the run. The hope has been drained from the world, and the Man3 is keeping everyone down. It’s a dark time for the world. Heroes are needed.

Thankfully, a new generation of heroes is rising up. They aren’t the innocent idealists of the Century Club4 – they are streetwise, rough-and-tumble folks who sometimes blur the lines in their attempt to help people.

Well, not all of them. Some are kids who belong to the Hu-Dunnit mystery club. Or engineering students at the Cross School. Or selfless paramedics and drivers with Phoenix Rescue. Or…

This game is set up to emulate the action movies, TV shows, and cartoons of the 80s, the same way that Spirit emulated the pulp and noire of the 20s and 30s. So, when you think of things like The A-Team, Miami Vice, The Greatest American Hero, Big Trouble in Little China, this is the game to do it.

Gonzo and Spirit

Now, there’s a real difference in the craziness that is acceptable in Miami Vice versus, say, Big Trouble in Little China. You set that craziness level withe Gonzometer, which helps determine what kinds of characters and story elements are acceptable. At the low end, you get bad-ass-but-mundane folks like Thomas Magnum and his friends standing up to corrupt organizations and crime cartels. At the high end, you get Flash Gordon and his ilk fending off interdimensional invasions and time-traveling robots.

Heroes can, depending on the Gonzometer setting, have varying degrees of special abilities. These usually cost a little more, and don’t so much increase the power of the characters as give them a few more options and add narrative colour to the descriptions of the character’s actions.

That’s for the New Wave Heroes – the heroes of the 80s. There is an option to play a Spirit; one of the original members of the Century Club, born in 1900 and embodying a universal idea about the world. For example, Jet Black is the Spirit of Today, and Mack Silver was the Spirit of Trade. Where as New Wave Heroes’ abilities are “powered”5 by Gonzo, Spirits’ abilities are powered by Spirit.

This means that one of the first choices players make is whether they are playing New Wave Heroes6 or a Spirit. If playing a New Wave Hero, the player then needs to decide is whether the character has any Gonzo abilities.

Roles

Building characters uses Roles. I first saw this idea in The Atomic Robo RPG, another Fate Core game7. The Shadow implementation of the idea is a little simpler and cleaner, and leads to what I expect to be pretty quick character creation.

The idea behind roles is that you pick three, which give you a boost to certain skills and a list of potential stunts. There’s a list of 16 roles in the book, and easy instructions for creating more. Each role gives you a +1 to four skills, so if you’ve got a skill in two roles, it starts at Fair (+2). If it’s listed in all three roles, you start at Good (+3).

After the roles are picked and the skill boosts noted, you get to pick a total of three stunts from the lists in each of your roles. And you get a few more skill points to spread around your skills8.

Aspects

This is a Fate Core game, so of course aspects are central. Your character has five aspects, only two of which – High Concept and Trouble – you need to define before play begins. There are the standard9 phases of character creation coming up with ideas for your aspects and brainstorming with the whole group.

Other Cool Stuff

There are a number of other things in the game that deserve a brief mention.

  • Montages. As the song from Team America: World Police says, “Even Rocky had a montage.” 80s action shows loved them, and there are rules for putting four different kinds of montages into play to add advantageous10 aspects to a scene.
  • Mobs. Groups of mooks treated like a single combatant. This was a feature in Spirit, and I loved it so much I ported the idea to every Fate game I’ve run. The rules for mobs in Shadow are the first form I’ve seen updated for Fate Core, and they take care of some of the problems I’ve seen porting the old rule to the new system, so that’s good.
  • Milestones. Milestones are the points at which characters can be advanced. The Shadow rules for milestones are carefully tuned to represent the source material – the more an adventure runs like an 80s action show, and the closer the characters cleave to the tropes, the better they’ll hit their milestones.
  • Organizations. Some of the big bads in the game are the criminal and corrupt organizations of the world. Shadow shows very clearly how to use the Fate Fractal11 to stat up these organizations quickly and easily, each one taking about an index card of space to completely detail what they can do and what they want.
  • Campaign Frames. The game also has three campaign frames, for groups that want to start playing right away and don’t mind using pregenerated characters. They all look fun, though my favourite has to be Team Black, an A-Team kind of campaign with Jet Black12 cast as Hannibal Smith.
  • VHS. It’s a clever abbreviation for variable hyperdimensional simultanaeity. See, the mathemagician, Dr. Methuselah13, has rewritten and overwritten the timeline often enough that it’s kind of worn and tattered. There are holes – into other times, other dimensions, other realities – that can cause problems. Now, how prevalent VHS is is tied to your Gonzometer setting, but it gives you some cool ways to add in strangeness and otherworldly danger.
  • The Backstory. The game gives a fair bit of detail on how the world has changed since Spirit, and what’s happened to a lot of the big players. I’m not going to give too much away, but I think they’ve done a great job on showing how the shining, hopeful early part of the century turned into the dark, despairing 80s. It’s a good read.

What’s the Plan?

Well, we’ve got until May 20 to run our playtests and get our reports in. I’ve got a group of five players signed up for this little romp, and we’re planning our Pitch Session for next week. I want to get three or four more play sessions in before the deadline.

I plan to post a report on this blog after each session. I may also post some other stuff on things I think about the new system during play.

I’m not going to be posting a lot of specifics, though. I’ll talk about how the sessions went, and the cool stuff we did, and the cool things the game allows, but I’m not going to drill down into the actual mechanics and such. Evil Hat will be getting those reports from me, but not the public. This is a beta playtest document, and subject to change – there’s no point in talking about details that aren’t final. Take a look at the DFRPG playtest stuff for examples of the kind of stuff I’ll be posting.

 

I hope you follow along on our little adventure. Feel free to ask questions but, again, I’m not gonna get too specific. I will answer what I can, though.

It’ll be rad!

  1. Yeah, that means that you can download it free and pay nothing. But a lot of work goes into game books – show them a little monetary love. The game’s totally worth it. []
  2. Are they good rules? I certainly think so. I wrote about it here. []
  3. Not a specific man. Just the Man, as in, “The Man is keeping me down!” []
  4. Now disbanded and outlawed. []
  5. Not really powered – there’s different nomenclature for the origin of the abilities to show that New Wave Heroes and Spirits are qualitatively different. []
  6. Though this is the default assumption. []
  7. They call them Modes there. You can read my review of ARRPG here, if you’re interested. []
  8. There is no Skill Pyramid, or Skill Columns. The roles make sure you have a good rating in the skills important to your character concept, and there’s a skill cap so you can’t dump 8 skill points on Shoot to only know how to use guns. []
  9. Or almost standard, any way. []
  10. And alliterative! []
  11. The Fate Fractal is the idea that ANYTHING in the game can be statted up just like a character, using a couple of aspects and a couple of skill ratings. It’s a powerful idea that really opens up the idea of quantifying things like storms, cities, police departments, diseases, etc. Anything. You can read more about it here. []
  12. Jet Black is a Centurion who flies with a jet pack. He, Sally Slick, Mack Silver, Benjamin Hu, Professor Khan, and Amelia Stone feature in the fiction line from Evil Hat. []
  13. At least a thousand years old, and able to twist reality to his whim using strange and mystical mathematical equations. []

Kicking Butt, Saving Christmas

All set up, waiting for the players.

All set up, waiting for the players.

Yesterday was Winnipeg Harvest Game Day at Imagine Games and Hobbies, here in Winnipeg. It’s the time of year that the good folks at Imagine host a bunch of games and contests, lay out a bunch of nice holiday treats, and ask people to donate to Winnipeg Harvest. As I have the past several years, I put together a Christmas-themed RPG one-shot to run.

This year, I chose Feng Shui 2, from Atlas Games. I chose FS2 because it’s fast, easy to teach, and can be run in a goofy, light-hearted style that suits these kinds of games1. This was my first chance to try creating an adventure in FS2, so it took me a little longer than I had expected, and I found a couple of problems with it in play that I manage to correct on the fly.

But I got the adventure created, and here’s the pitch I used:

It’s the most wonderful time of the year, but not everyone is happy. Someone hates Christmas, hates happiness, hates Santa! And this year, when Santa’s workshop (and powerful Feng Shui site) is attacked, only Hong Kong’s premiere team of hard-luck heroes – the Dragons – has a chance of kicking butt and getting Santa back on schedule!

Silent night, chi warrior? Not likely!

Now, I tied the adventure into the cosmology and backstory of the Chi Wars, but it’s pretty loose. That’s mainly because I didn’t think there’d be anyone there who would care too much about how this adventure fit in, and I was right about that. Still, there’s a rationale for what’s going on, and some touches in the description that can clue players familiar with the FS2 universe that this is taking place in the middle of the Chi Wars.

I had three players2, only one of which was at all familiar with the game. I’ve gotten a lot better at teaching the basics of the game quickly, and had them pick archetypes, name them, add the melodramatic hook, and give them a run-down of the basic mechanics in less than 15 minutes. And then we got going.

Butts are being kicked.

Butts are being kicked.

Play ran a little longer than I had planned – three-and-a-half hours instead of three – but not too bad. Everyone had fun, and Santa was saved, so yay!

Thanks to Sandy, Chris, and Maya for coming to Santa’s rescue.

The donation bin was pretty full when I left the store, but I don’t know the final total going to Winnipeg Harvest. Still, we did not too badly3. So, that’s good, too.

And, with the kind permission of Atlas Games, I am giving a gift to all the Feng Shui 2 fans out there: here’s the adventure I ran, Blood on the Snow. Use it wisely, Chi Warriors!

  1. In the past, I have run Gamma World, Marvel Heroic Roleplaying, and Firefly. []
  2. Almost had zero – only one person signed up, but he canceled. But I had one person show that hadn’t signed up, and another who was in the store and decided to play, and a friend I texted when I saw the sorry state of the sign-up sheet came down to join us. []
  3. This is pretty high praise in Canada, just so you know. []

Winnipeg Harvest Game Day 2015

 

winnipeg-harvest-2015

Once again, we’re coming up on Imagine Games & Hobbies’ Winnipeg Harvest Game Day. It’s next Saturday, December 12, at the Imagine Games store at 246 McDermot in the Exchange in Winnipeg. There are games running all day, including a number of tournaments, and the good folks at the store always have a lavish spread of Christmas goodies for everyone.

If you want in on the gaming, you just have to bring a donation for Winnipeg Harvest. Food items and money are gratefully accepted. Any donation lets you get in on all  the games, and you get a Cheat Coupon for every $5.00 worth of donation you give. These coupons can be used during the games to sway the odds in your favour.

As I have the past few years, I will be running a Christmas-themed RPG one-shot at 1:00. Here’s the pitch for the game:

FS2

Blood on the Snow

It’s the most wonderful time of the year, but not everyone is happy. Someone hates Christmas, hates happiness, hates Santa! And this year, when Santa’s workshop (and powerful Feng Shui site) is attacked, only Hong Kong’s premiere team of hard-luck heroes – the Dragons – has a chance of kicking butt and getting Santa back on schedule!

Silent night, chi warrior? Not likely!

This is a Feng Shui 2 scenario, capturing the craziness of Hong Kong action movies of the 90s. It’s fast, easy, and lots of stuff blows up. I’ll have everything you need to play, and I’ll also be teaching the game, so no previous experience is required. There’s even a prize for one lucky action hero!

Player slots are limited to 10, though. I don’t expect them all to fill up, but if you want to guarantee yourself a seat at the table, sign up at Imagine in advance – they’ve got a sign-up sheet at the counter. If you can’t make it down yourself before Saturday, if you give them a call at 204-452-8711, they’ll be happy to put you on the list.

So, come kick butt, blow things up and save the world! Also, help out a very worthy charity here in the city.

‘Tis the season, as the man says.

Playing With Strangers

A friend told me, a long time ago1, that you shouldn’t game with anyone you wouldn’t invite over for dinner. There’s wisdom in that – gaming is an hours-long social situation that forces you to interact with everyone at the game. Why would you want to spend that time with someone you don’t know you get along with?

I run a lot of games in public – at game days, at conventions, at parties, whatever. That means that I don’t always get to choose who sits down at my table2. Sometimes, I can be pretty confident that I know who’s going to come to a game, and sometimes it’s really a crap shoot. And playing with a player you don’t know can be challenging. Playing with a whole group of them, even more so.

I’ve learned some things by running these games about how to make things go smooth3. They’re not foolproof, and they require some effort on the part of the person running the game4, but they can help the experience be fun for everyone at the table.

First, some assumptions:

  • I assume you want to create a welcoming, fun experience for everyone who might sit down at the table. If not, you may want to ask yourself why you’re running a game.
  • I’m not going to talk about “problem players.” I don’t like the term, because it’s behaviour at the table that’s the problem, not the player. Also, any problematic behaviour might just be a cultural mismatch between your gaming ideal and the player’s5.
  • I assume you’re not deliberately trying to piss off someone at the table. If you are, you’re on your own with that6.

And now, some tips that I’ve found useful:

  • Set expectations at the start of the session. If you want to keep the language and content PG-13 because you’re playing in a public space, for example, say that up front. Tell the folks what kind of time investment they’re looking at. Talk about when breaks will be, if there are going to be any. If you don’t want people writing on the character sheets, tell them so.
  • Remember that, if you’re playing in public, you’re likely representing someone else. At a game day at a local store, for example, you may be a volunteer, but your actions reflect on the store. At a convention, how you behave affects how people talk about the event and the organizer. Do your best to make sure the impressions you make reflect well on the host. Even if you’ve just added a person or two to your regular gaming group, how you act will colour how the newbies view the entire group. So, y’know, Wheaton’s Law applies.
  • Read the diversity of your group. In a random group, you may have kids, older people7, young people, people of colour, LGBTQ folks, people with disabilities, people of a different gender than you, people of different religions, folks for whom your language is their second language, people on the autism spectrum, neurotypical people, Klingons, Whovians, Trekkers, Trekkies, Stormtroopers, Jedi, Ricks, Morties, furries, vampires, LARPers, grognards, n00bs, bronies, Marvel fans, DC fans, and trivia-stuffed blowhards8. You don’t have to take a survey or anything, just be aware of any obvious diversity, and realize that there might be more that you don’t see9. Keep the diversity in mind when you think about my first assumption up above.
  • In keeping with the previous point, and the assumption about making your game both welcoming and fun for everyone, I learned about a neat little tool when I ran some games for Games on Demand at GenCon. It’s called the X-card, and is the brilliant idea of John Stavropoulos. The link explains it in wonderful detail, but the idea is that you have an index card on the table with an X on it. You explain at the start of the session10 that you want everyone to help you make a fun game for everyone. So, if someone is uncomfortable with something that happens in the game, all they have to do is tap or lift the X-card, and that bit gets edited out, no explanation necessary, no judgment attached. I’ve been using this at all my public games since I learned about it, and it has rarely been used, but it provides a really useful safety valve if someone is facing something that’s going to ruin the game for them.
  • Remember that this is your game. Don’t let the players push you around or bully you. Just be firm in your decisions. I’m talking about your game decisions, here, but I’m also talking about your out-of-game interactions. If someone is ruining someone else’s fun – saying rude or inappropriate things, trying to quarterback, ignoring the X-carding of a subject, whatever – , ask them to stop. If gentle admonishments like, “Come on. Let’s not have any name-calling,” or, “We X-carded baby-eating, so how about we come up with something else?” then you may want to call a short break and speak to the person one-on-one.
  • If you have to speak to someone about their behaviour, speak to them about their behaviour. Don’t talk about the person. “I don’t like some of the language you’re using. I think it’s making some others uncomfortable, too. Can I ask you to rein it in, please?” This is all conflict management stuff – “I” statements, addressing the behaviour, clear language, polite and respectful but firm, etc. You’ve probably learned at least some of it just by running games with your friends, even if you don’t realize it. You can also find a whole lot more of it online by searching for conflict management.
  • If behaviour escalates to the point that it’s ruining the game for everyone, call a break and ask the person to leave the game. This is supposed to be fun for everyone at the table, including you; if one person’s fun is causing everyone else to not have fun, it’s time to cut that person loose.
  • BE FAIR. Running a game makes it easy to play favourites, to fudge things, to reward or punish the players individually or as a group. Don’t do that. Play fair. And applaud good play by the players.
  • If, however, you are demoing a game with a winner and loser, especially if you’re demoing it for the manufacturer at a convention, try not to win. Yes, this contradicts the previous point, but winners get excited and are more likely to buy the game. You must serve your corporate master in this regard.

So, that’s a pretty long list. I’m now going to answer a few questions that I think it might raise:

What, I’m supposed to think about that huge list of different kinds of people who might be at my table and remember them all? No, of course not. Some of the things on the list are serious things to consider, and some are me just trying to be funny. If you can’t tell which is which, you may want to rethink running games in public11. It is important, though, to recognize that you can’t always know all the various intersections of diversity that will show up at a table, and treating everyone like a human being, worthy of respect and courtesy, and a welcome addition to the group, helps get you in the mindset to accept any diversity that does come up. Again, my assumption is that you want to welcome everyone and for everyone to have fun.

Why do I have to be the one who calls out bad behaviour at the table? If it’s bothering someone, why don’t they say something? Well, they might. And if they do it calmly and reasonably, that’s great. But some people aren’t comfortable with that kind of confrontation, or get too angry, or are dealing with other issues, and just won’t. They’ll suffer silently, and then talk to their friends about how much your game sucked. Like it or not, this is your game. You’re the boss of your table. Maintaining courteous behaviour amongst the players is part of your job.

What happens if someone seems likely to become violent if I ask them to leave? Well. This can happen. It’s not good, but it can happen. My recommendation is, if you think you might get hurt, get back-up. Store staff or convention staff, or a buddy from nearby, or even a police officer if you can get one in time. Remember: this is a game. It’s not worth you – or anyone else, for that matter – getting hurt because of a game. If you have no back-up, but the situation has become untenable, call the game. “Sorry, folks, I’m out of time. Thanks for coming out, and I hope you had fun.” If you think there’s a chance of violence, you can be sure that some of the others have also picked up on it, and will be willing to wrap up before things get ugly. It’s sub-optimal, but better than an actual violent confrontation.

This sounds like it takes practice. How do I get practice? It’s like any skill. You get better with practice. If you’ve got a local game store, talk to them about running a game at the store. There are regular D&D games supported by WotC at local stores, or Pathfinder, if you prefer that flavour. Other game companies are usually really supportive of anyone demoing their games at a store, and my even be able to provide support – scenarios, prizes, stuff like that. Look them up and e-mail them.

If you really want to go full-bore, though, nothing beats volunteering for Indie Games on Demand at a convention. They have a presence at most gaming conventions these days, they’re always happy to have more GMs running stuff, and they have a top-notch support system to help new GMs find their feet and not feel abandoned. This is also where you’re likely to run into the widest variety of gamers, and will get the most practice making strangers feel comfortable and getting them to have fun.

I’ve got one last tip for you: relax. Have fun. If you’re not enjoying this, why bother doing it?

Gaming is for fun. Remember that.

  1. So long ago that I don’t really remember being told this, and it’s just a truism that I’ve always known. But it must have come from somewhere. []
  2. Though I can choose who gets up and leaves, sometimes. []
  3. Even Firefly games. []
  4. Why do I talk about the person running the game, rather than the GM? Because these things are just as applicable when you’re demoing a board game as when you’re GMing an RPG. []
  5. This last idea may be worth it’s own blog post in the future. []
  6. And again, why? Why bother? []
  7. Like me. I’m old, now. I’m not telling you which of the other categories I also belong to. []
  8. Okay. I lied. I belong in that category, too. []
  9. And is none of your business. []
  10. While you’re setting expectations, right? []
  11. Though, to be fair, some of the funny ones can be serious concerns, too. []

We Did It: Playing UA 3rd Edition

***SPOILER WARNING***

I’m going to be talking about the UA scenario Garden Full of Weeds, by James Palmer. It’s an awesome scenario, and is available with five others in the book Weep. It’s also a decade-and-a-half old, so I think the statute of limitations is expired. Still, you’ve been warned.

This is what UA should feel like.

This is what UA should feel like.

So, last post I talked about the playtest my group did for Unknown Armies 3rd Edition. After I posted it, Cam Banks pointed out to me1 that I hadn’t really talked about what it was like to run and/or play the game. All I’d talked about was the rules, which is something anyone could have got from reading the playtest document. Faced with this very correct observation, I resolved to do another post, talking about how the rules worked in our campaign.

If actual play reports with GM commentary aren’t your thing, here’s the gist: so far, the playtest rules do a great job of capturing, supporting, and reinforcing the overall mood and themes of Unknown Armies. They are also2 easy to learn and use to run the game.

If actual play reports with GM commentary are your thing, read on.

This is what UA should feel like.

This is also what UA should feel like.

As mentioned in the last post, we converted an ongoing UA2 campaign to UA3. We did it in the middle of a scenario, as well – I was running Garden Full of Weeds, on of the darkest and most disturbing UA scenarios ever written. There are dead babies, racial violence, the hopelessness of poverty, a paranormal MIB, and a man so twisted with bitterness and hate that he’s killing his neighbourhood.

Converting the characters over to UA3 took the better part of an evening. That was mainly due to the fact I was paging back and forth through the playtest document to guide the process and answer questions, and because the concepts embodied in the new Shock Gauge mechanic and the paired abilities took some explaining.

Because of the difference between how skills work in UA2 and the way abilities and identities work in UA3, we couldn’t do a straight conversion, where the players just adjust some numbers or skill names. We essentially had to rebuild the characters using the new guidelines and rules. This is not a bad thing; the new character mechanics are both very flavourful and pretty easy to get your head around3.

The resulting characters were pretty simple on paper: Name, Obsession, the three Stimuli, the Shock Gauge, and 1-3 Identities with their features. The hardened notches in the Shock Gauge set the levels for the ten abilities, so the only math and point-spending the players had to do was for the Identities. I gave them a fairly generous batch of points for this4, to reflect the fact that they were experienced characters.

Everyone liked the fact that the character sheets were simple5 and you didn’t have to hunt through it to find whether or not you had a specific skill.

Okay. The love for the character sheet faded a bit for one or two of the players during the playtest, and there’s a very simple reason6 why. In games today, there are two7 types of character sheets. One defines what a character can do, and one defines who a character is. Obviously, every character sheet contains elements of both, but individual games tend to focus more on one approach than the other. D&D, RuneQuest, Apocalypse World, Feng Shui, all of these focus strongly on what a character can do. On the other end of the continuum, you have games like Fate and Over the Edge focus on who the character is.

This fosters two different approaches to using the sheet. One approach is to look through the list of stuff on your sheet to find something interesting to do, and the other is to think of something you want to do and then look at your sheet to find something that will let you do it. The “what you do” type of game encourages the first approach, and the “who you are” type of game encourages the second. Neither is empirically better than the other, but some folks prefer one approach to the other.

Thus, for one or two of my players, the sparse character sheet became a bit of a disappointment, as they looked for prompts and didn’t find the help they wanted. I think this will ebb over time8, as they get more familiar with the abilities tied to the Shock Gauge and the way Identities work.

Anyway, that was the characters done.

As GM, I was faced with the challenge of converting a scenario9 to UA3 format. This was starting to look like a real challenge - UA3 has a very player-driven structure of Goal and Antagonist Phase, whereas older UA scenarios are collections of scenes that the characters encounter and maneuver through. I was struggling with how to handle the disconnect between the two styles until I had a bit of an epiphany: all I had to do was reframe things a bit.

So, I did a quick and dirty conversion of the main GMCs into UA3 by copying over their hardened notches from the Madness Meter to the Shock Gauge, and noted what level of the two abilities that indicated. And I added a couple of Identities based on the character write-up and noted a trick or two that the GMC could pull out to be exciting and interesting. Each character wound up fitting on one side of an index card.

I then did up a quick mind-map showing what scenes connected to which thread of the scenario, so I could pull something interesting in when they interacted with that thread. This is basically just converting the scene structure of the scenario into Antagonist Phase notes, and it took me under an hour when I finally figured out what to do.

As for the Goal, I got the characters to choose the Goal based on what they had been doing the previous session. The campaign structure was pretty simple: our heroes are a troubleshooter team10 for TNI, sent to investigate weird stuff and fix it. Given that TNI had assigned them to investigate the super-high infant mortality rate11 and had uncovered more nasty and weird stuff going on, they chose a fairly high-level goal: Stop the horrible things happening in this neighbourhood. To reflect the work and investigation from the previous session, I got them to enumerate the things that they had done to advance the Goal, and gave them a die roll for each of those to add to the Goal rating.

The actual play of the session was interesting to me. The players generally had no trouble deciding what to do, and I had very little trouble deciding if they should roll, what they should roll, and what happened. So, they watched some children playing hopscotch and writing sigils on the sidewalk in blood, tracked the baby-soul-stealing witch to the park, drove through her hovel with a car (incidentally killing her), shot the weird mirror-shade wearing MIB shadow until it died, and managed to direct an angry mob to tear apart the evil12 old man who was twisting the psychic landscape of the neighbourhood.

How did the Goal work into this? Well, they were sitting around 90% when they found where the witch was holed up. They already had a good idea about the old man behind things, so they decided to pull the trigger, and successfully rolled under the Goal percentage when they decided to go take out the witch, find the mirror-shade man and then sort out the old guy. So, their advance knowledge let them catch the witch at home and vulnerable, track down the mirror-shade man, and make the key decisions of what happened to the old man.

That’s not to say the Goal roll was the only roll that mattered. They had to make rolls to deal with the witch, to kill the mirror-shade man, to get the mob together, etc. Basically, the roll was to see the overall shape of the final scenes, and then the players got to shape it further through character actions and skills.

Oh, and letting the old guy die caused some major psychic fallout, loosing dark, twisted power to reshape reality to such an extent that one of the Cruel Ones13 came in and set things right.

This allowed me to move the campaign into the next phase of play. See, the idea that the players had come up with at the start of play was that their characters were reluctant TNI operatives, and would at some point go rogue. I told them that the discontinuity caused by the Cruel One was a good bit of cover to use to slip away. They took the option.

That put things more comfortably in the hands of the players to set the Goals. They decided the next Goal was to set up a safe-house for them so that they were out of TNI’s reach. I worked up some things in the Antagonist Phase to challenge them on that – they decided they wanted to set up in Salem, MA, so I fleshed out a bit of the Occult Underground of Salem, and I dug out a TNI hit squad to be after them, and stuff like that.

So, of course, the first thing they decided to do when we sat down to play was try and find someone to make them new IDs. A perfectly reasonable step, but I was unprepared for it. But they were driving from Baltimore to Salem, and a previous scenario had the King of New York City telling them to never come back, so I gave them a fake-ID contact in Harlem. This is a textbook example of an obstacle from the UA3 rules – giving them what they want, but making it risky. It also shows how blowback from previous escapades feeds into the Antagonist Phase, and helps deepen and enrich the story.

That led to a session full of creeping around Manhattan, dealing with criminals, trying to avoid Max, the King’s right hand, bargaining with their blood, and a tense stand-off in a veterinary office. For a completely improvised session, it worked fairly well. The structure of the UA3 mechanics made it fairly easy to improvise characters and challenges, so I didn’t need to stop in order to stat up an entropomancer or a bunch of gun-toting thugs, for example.

So, they made it out of NYC and into Salem by the end of the session. We picked up in Salem the next session, with our heroes trying to scope out the paranormal aspects of the town. They visited a couple of witch shops, found that they were pretty much just for tourists, and got frustrated. The flailing around they did for a bit wound up with them having an introduction to a historical guide and a bit of a warning by a local gang14. Also, one of them knowingly drank a roofied drink and almost wound up abducted from a club. I ran into a bit of trouble here because I couldn’t recall how the taser rules worked, and didn’t want to slow things down while I looked them up, so I did most of this encounter narratively15, and that worked. That all ended with police and ambulances and the roofied character rushing back to the hotel so as not to miss her TV program16 while the rest of the group went off to meet the historic guide after her last ghost tour.

And that’s how I separated the group so I could end the evening with the videomancer getting a phone call saying, “If you ever want to see your friends alive…” The other players were cool with me doing that to them for dramatic effect, though I promised them that there was a reason and I’d explain17.

This is also what UA should feel like.

This is also what UA should feel like.

In summary, the new Goal/Antagonist Phase focus of the new edition required some changes from previous editions, but nothing overwhelming, and I really like the way it puts the power of choice and direction into the players’ hands. It led to some surprises for me as a GM during play, which I’m always a fan of. The mechanics were simple enough that I could18 easily wing it without extensive prep of stats and such.

The central focus of the Shock Gauge for the characters also produced some interesting changes and decisions during play. The way it can cause your abilities to shift and change in the midst of play gives the Shock Checks some real weight – succeed in this Violence check, and you become less able to interact with normal folks19, while if you fail, you get better at punching people, which is good, because you might have to be doing that right now.

Identities are a good way to define not just what your character can do, but who your character is. It’s also really useful for the GM in statting up quick GMCs.

And throughout the whole thing, the game keeps driving towards hard choices and personal horror.

It’s a wonderful version of the game I love, and I know it’ll just get better as it nears completion.

  1. Very politely. []
  2. Mostly. []
  3. I also took this opportunity to encourage the players to tweak their characters, changing things that weren’t working for them. I think this is a good practice in most games – let the players tweak their characters to optimize their fun and minimize their pain. []
  4. Though, being players, there were some complaints that they wanted more points. Gamers, eh? []
  5. Especially me. I love me a simple character sheet. []
  6. Though I seem to be spending a lot of words on explaining that reason. []
  7. Well, there are more than two, but for our purposes here, we’re gonna focus on those two. []
  8. In some ways, our four-session playtest was an interesting amount of time – it was enough time for some issues to crop up, but not long enough to work our solutions. []
  9. And a UA1 scenario, at that. []
  10. But not a volunteer one. TNI is making them work for it – if they balk or fail, they’ll be turned over to the various groups that want them dead. []
  11. I almost typed “infant morality.” That would be a different kind of investigation, but might still work in a UA game. []
  12. Also pathetic. But that’s how things go in UA. []
  13. They’re essentially angels. They care only about the survival of reality, and are horribly brutal in their tactics. No one wants them to ever show up. []
  14. The Dead Witches. And there’s something up with them. Go figure. []
  15. Though I think one character learned a valuable lesson – if you’re gonna get the most out of Struggle, do it before two huge bouncers have your arms pinned. []
  16. Videomancer. []
  17. Spoiler
    The historic guide is a cliomancer who doesn’t want other weird folks coming and messing up the good thing she has going here with her staff of proxied guides. So, lots of mojo, and the good guys didn’t suspect anything.
    []
  18. Mostly. See my comment about the taser rules. []
  19. Your Connect skill drops. It makes sense in context. []

You Did It: Unknown Armies 3rd Edition

Those who know me know that I have a special love for Unknown Armies1. At GenCon this past summer, Cam Banks offered me the chance to jump in on the UA3 playtest, and I, of course, eagerly agreed2. So, now I’m going to talk about it.

Before we get started, a couple of points: this is a playtest. I’m not going to get into the minutia of the rules, and everything is subject to change as the product approaches completion. What I am going to talk about is how UA3 compares to UA2, and what cool new stuff has been added.

First off, as things stand, UA3 is split into three books. Book 1 is focused on the basic rules, player and setting creation, combat, Avatars, and ritual magick. Book 2 is mainly for the GM, but it also includes the rules for Adepts. Book 3 is an alphabetical listing of a whole bunch of stuff that you can use in your game – GMCs, monsters, schools of magick, Archetypes, places, and whatnot. I have to say, I bounced up and down in my seat, clapping my hands, when I started looking through Book 3; one of my all-time favourite RPG supplements is the Spherewalker Sourcebook3, which is set up the same way. And, like Spherewalker, the entries in Book 3 have stories hidden in them, giving some history of the UAverse and how it’s changed from the days of UA24.

Of course, things could get changed and shuffled between now and release. But I like the three-book structure.

Anyway, once my players were on board, we set up a session to convert the characters from UA2 to UA3. As I read through the rules, it became obvious that a simple conversion wasn’t going to work – characters are too different between the versions – but that we should be able to rebuild the characters without too much trouble. So, we basically ran through the character creation rules, creating 3rd-edition versions of the characters.

That wasn’t quite as straight-forward as it sounds, though. UA3 blends character creation with setting creation, so that you and the players collaboratively build the game, including locations, important GMCs, goals, magick, etc. Basically, whenever a player makes a decision about his or her character, he or she also adds an element to the game world that’s important to the character. That way, when the characters are complete, there’s also an entire framework of setting around them that they care about, and want to interact with.

We were converting an ongoing campaign to UA3, so we didn’t do the setting creation part. Still, we walked through the steps and phases of the process, omitting the setting elements, and just doing the character elements. And we wound up with characters that everyone was happy with. Indeed, more than one player commented that he or she was happier with the UA3 version of the character than the previous one.

What’s so different? Well, some things are the same. There’s still the requirement for an Obsession, and for Rage, Fear, and Noble Stimuli. But the Madness Meters are now called the Shock Gauge, and this becomes a far more central element of the character. Each Gauge has a pair of skills tied to it, and the value of them changes depending on your hardened notches in the Gauge. For example, the more hardened you are to Violence, the easier it is to beat someone up (high Struggle skill), but the harder it is to form meaningful and useful emotional contact with someone (low Connect skill). This means that the hardened notches in the five Gauges – Violence, Self, Isolation, Unnatural, and Helplessness, just like always – determine your values in ten core skills.

In addition to these, you can pick one or more Identities, which are sort of broad headings that cover most of whatever else you’ll be wanting your character to do. So, taking an Identity of Ex-Special Forces Soldier might let you shoot guns with some accuracy, rig improvised explosives, move around stealthily, stab someone quietly with a K-Bar, and stare down a drunk in a bar fight. Some of these things are skills that you want to be able to count on, so you lock them down by calling them Features. The rest you can still have, but you need to be able to convincingly say to the GM, “I’m an Ex-Special Forces Soldier. Of course I can…” whatever. The GM then rules if you’re right, or if you’ve just overreached yourself.

Identities are how you get magick. If you want your character to be an Adept or an Avatar, you need that as one of your identities. Most Archetypes and schools of magick are build-your-own: there are a couple of fleshed out examples in the books, but not a lot, and none of the ones from UA2 ((Or UA1, for that matter.)) are statted up in this playtest package. That said, most are pretty easy to port over; changing mechanics may cause you to reword some effects, and you may need to revisit the charge cost of some spells, but that’s about it5. There are good, solid guidelines for building schools of magick and Avatar channels, so creating special stuff for the players should be pretty easy6.

What about the system? Well, it’s pretty unchanged over all. Percentile rolls, occasional flip-flops, just like always. There’s a lengthy7 discussion at the start of the rules about when you should be rolling, depending on your skill level and the kind of situation you’re in. As has always been the case, skill levels are mostly pretty low8 – a good skill is around 30-50%, and if you’ve got something up around 70%, you’re very, very good at that.

There are a couple of new tricks in here, like coercion based on applying pressure to your target’s Shock Gauge9. This didn’t really come up during our playtest, so I can’t speak to the efficacy or ease of the mechanics, but they look solid, and provide some interesting options, both for good guys and bad guys.

There are also rules for what the game calls gutter magick. Gutter magick is little magick rituals that you can do with a basic understanding of how magick works in the UAverse. It encompasses tilts and proxy rituals from UA2 and turns them into an improvised, build-it-yourself-as-needed way for the magickally aware characters to work a little mojo. Nothing you do with this system is going to outclass what an adept with an appropriate spell can do, but it’s very flexible, and the gathering of ritual symbolic elements and performance of the ritual makes for a fun roleplaying moment for the character.

The last things I want to talk about, the system for goals and the Antagonist Phase, are going to talk a little meandering for it to make sense. Bear with me.

UA has always been a game of very personal stakes and issues. The central question seems to always have been “Is this really worth it to you?” Adepts have to twist their lives and their minds and their souls to get the magick they need and crave. Avatars have to follow strange codes of conduct, playing dress-up with deadly earnest in order to keep channeling the power flowing from the Statosphere. Even the “normal,” non-magickal characters risk their sanity and bodies just knowing that the Occult Underground exists.

Every time a character wants to make some waves, push towards something he or she wants, the question, “Is this really worth it to you?” comes up. Because there’s always a price. And the price is always just high enough to make you hesitate, but not quite so high as to make it completely unthinkable. It’s always a decision for the character10.

So, I mentioned above that the players are instrumental in building the setting. This means that they decide what is important to the game, the things that their characters are interested in, the things that are interested in their characters, the good guys and the bad guys. They put in things that they have decided are big enough to get their characters to take those risks, pay those prices, make those sacrifices.

And the game has a mechanic to push that along. The characters, as a group, set their goal – which must meet certain criteria, such as being measurable so that they know whether or not they achieve it – and then work towards accomplishing it. When they do something in-game that would advance their goal, they get to roll some dice, and add to the goal rating. This rating is the percentile chance that they can accomplish the goal. The more things they do to advance their goal, the higher that rating grows.

To actually accomplish the goal, the characters have to actually take an action that could accomplish the goal, and then they can roll percentile dice to see if they succeed, and narrate the whole thing in tandem with the GM to create the story of how things happen.

What this means is that it’s the players that set the goals, pushing their characters into situations that matter to them, without the GM having to guess. The players choose what’s important, rather than the GM just throwing things at them to see what sticks.

But doesn’t that mean the GM has to improvise the adventures? Well, yes and no. The rules give guidelines for the players to delineate a path to their goal – a series of things they’re going to try to advance the goal. So, the GM knows that. And the rules also have detailed instructions on how to use that information. Part of the game prep for the GM is called the Antagonist Phase, and involves the GM looking at the players’ path, and the constructed setting, and his or her own fiendish imagination, to come up with opposition, obstacles, and distractions that make the characters face those hard choices – that make them ask if it’s really worth it.

This isn’t necessarily anything new for GMs. But it is structured nicely, and has a lot of advice that’s tuned towards making the characters make troublesome decisions. Paired with the goal mechanics, the Antagonist Phase ratchets up the stakes for the characters, and gives them something to overcome. It also gives the GM the pieces to use as needed in improvising the game session – obstacles and opponents to throw in the characters’ way.

These two elements work nicely in concert to promote the personal aspects of the game, both the costs and the pay-off when the goal is successful.

Verdict? Well, I’ve always loved Unknown Armies11. The third edition seems to focus more tightly on what the game was trying to do all along, building a game of mystical power and personal consequence. It’s got me really looking forward to the actual release. It pulls in some neat story-game elements12 to make the game do more of what it always wanted to do. Let’s face it, RPG technologies in the form of new mechanical ideas and approaches, has advanced since those long-ago days, and Greg Stolze has been one of the folks pushing the form forward.

If you like UA, you really want to keep your eyes open for it, too. If you don’t know UA, this will be a great place to jump on.

Greg, you did it13.

  1. In fact, I just acame across this short story a couple of weeks ago. I wrote it for UA way back in the day. I thought it was lost in the void of the ‘net, but nothing online is ever really gone, I guess. []
  2. Without even consulting my players. But they were cool with it. Thanks, Melly, Matt, Tom, and Fera! []
  3. Also by Greg Stolze, as is at least the bulk of UA3. []
  4. There’s some awesome stuff about St. Germaine and the Freak, but I’m not going to spoil it. []
  5. Though, there are some schools from previous versions that are really dated. Videomancy, for instance, has been pretty much gutted in the new era of streaming video services. []
  6. And honestly, there’s something about the idiosyncratic nature of UA mysticism that really seems to call for one-off weirdness. []
  7. And eminently helpful. []
  8. The exception to this being skills tied to the Shock Gauge, where it’s likely that you’ll have one or two high ones, depending on the hardened notches you added during character creation. []
  9. So, you can torture someone by coercing their Violence Gauge, for example. Or by threatening to never speak to them again, coercing their Isolation Gauge. []
  10. And the player, of course. []
  11. One of my friends, upon reading the first edition of the game, looked at me and said, “It’s like they wrote this game just for you, Rick.” He’s not wrong. It pushes all my buttons. []
  12. Broad skills in the form of Identities, the goal mechanic, and some other stuff. []
  13. For those who don’t get this, “You did it,” was the tagline of the game in 1st edition. []

Don’t Turn Your Back

 

Don't Turn Your Back

Don’t Turn Your Back

Quick disclosure: I am a friend of the Hat. I like the company, I like their games, I back their Kickstarters, and I even did a little writing for them once upon a time. I try not to let that influence what I write about their games, but it’s fair to say that I am predisposed to like them. And I only write about games I like. So, take that for what it’s worth.

I backed the Kickstarter for this game, and I got it a few weeks ago1. Last night, I finally had time to get a couple of friends together2 to play through it.

It’s a combination of deckbuilding and worker placement, set in the Mad City of Evil Hat’s Don’t Rest Your Head RPG. The Mad City is the city you might wander into if you go long enough without sleep, populated by nightmares and lost souls. In the board game, you’re one of a group of folks in the Mad City, trying to win the favour of the Wax King. You do that by calling in favours of your own and doing little jobs for him throughout the City – this is represented by playing your cards, which represent folks who owe you favours, in the various Mad City locations for different scoring possibilities. Candles are victory points, and the goal is to end the game with more candles than your opponents.

I’m not going to go into details about the rules and play, because Evil Hat has the rules available online, as well as a video tutorial of play. You can check those out for a better job than I could do explaining the rules.

Turn two, after card placement but before scoring and acquisition. It's a pretty game.

Turn two, after card placement but before scoring and acquisition. It’s a pretty game.

We had a lot of fun with the game and, strangely, I actually wound up winning by a single candle. Some specific observations:

  • The game is for two to four players. We played with three.
  • There is an interesting timing mechanism for the game: you have a number of Law cards, which change each turn. When the last Law card is played, it’s the last round of the game. You play with eight cards for two or four players, nine cards for three players. This confused me a bit until I figured out it’s a balance thing – the number of Law cards is set to allow each player to be First Player the same number of times.
  • Play happens in a couple of phases: first, everyone plays their hand of cards into the Mad City, one card at a time. Then, when all the cards have been played, you evaluate each section of the Mad City to see who scores what or who can acquire new cards. Then, you clean the cards off the board, draw a new hand, and pass the first player card. Repeat.
  • This game rewards mastery. Having a solid idea of what the advantage/disadvantage of each Mad City section, and a good idea of what the cards do is the first step. Repeated play will let you figure out the different values of the various sections, when it’s worth committing a card and when it isn’t, and when it’s okay to send a card to be encased in wax as tribute to the Wax King.
  • There are many ways to earn candles in the game – the Laws in District 13, the High School payout, various Bizarre Bazaar abilities, acquiring new cards in the City Slumbering, and sending cards to be encased in the Wax Kingdom. I’m not sure yet if it’s viable to focus on one or more advantageous to try and get a little bit of everything3.
  • The end-game scoring bonus from the encased cards in the Wax Kingdom can be surprising. It cased a fairly substantial swing in our final scoring.
  • Play time is listed as 45-60 minutes. I generally find my groups doubling the listed play time on board games, as we tend to be very social and not entirely focused on the game all the time. Also, I’m usually teaching games to one or two people who don’t know them and answering questions. This game ran about 100 minutes, which is easily in the ballpark for my adjusted expectations for a first play of a new game with that listed time frame.

The verdict? This is a fun game. It’s beautiful and well-designed. The components are top-notch. Price-wise, it’s about average – $40 is not unreasonable, but it’s not super-cheap, either. Which is fine.

I wouldn’t call it a gateway game. The play and strategy are somewhat convoluted and arcane – it smooths out after a couple of rounds, when everyone’s got the idea, but it can be a stumbling block for newbies. Also, the heavy reliance on the background of the Mad City can be confusing to those who don’t know it. If that encourages more people to  check out Don’t Rest Your Head, that’s all to the good, but it may be a hurdle for people really getting into the game.

More technically, I think the combination of deckbuilding and worker placement mechanics is interesting and well-executed. It’s something I haven’t seen before, and I4 like the depth of strategy and variety it gives to the game.

So, yeah. This is not a game for someone who’s new to the hobby game community. But for someone who likes Don’t Rest Your Head, or who is well-versed in modern hobby games, it’s a great, flavourful addition to the library.

  1. Almost completely off topic – Evil Hat Productions is really very good about Kickstarter fulfillment. Usually, you look at the expected delivery on the Kickstarter site as a laughable pipe dream, but the folks at the Hat treat them as actual deliverable milestones. Kudos for that. []
  2. Thanks, Chris and Elliot! []
  3. I won, and I had a little bit of everything, but I only won by a single point over a player who had focused on acquiring cards. []
  4. So far, anyway. []

The Paranet Papers

The Paranet Papers

The Paranet Papers

It’s been some time coming, but the new Dresden Files Roleplaying Game volume, The Paranet Papers, is more than worth the wait. I have to say that I am greatly in favour of publishers taking the time needed to put out such high-quality, meaty books as this. As with the first two volumes, the book is thick and colourful, 370-odd pages of full-colour illustrations and annotations. Not to mention the dense information.

The book takes the conceit of being a collection of information gathered by the Paranet1, and edited into RPG format by Will Borden2. As with the original books, the in-game rationale  is to get important information about the spooky bits of the universe out to the public under cover of a deniable RPG book.

This approach makes for a lot of flavourful fun in the book – there are notes from Will Borden, Waldo Butters, and Karrin Murphy discussing the information, illuminating and clarifying it. The authors have got the voices of these characters down to a tee, and it’s a lot of fun to read.

But what’s in the book?

Settings

There are five settings in the book, taking up about two-thirds of the page-count, and they do a lot to show the wide variety of settings you can use for the RPG. The range of different locations, time periods, and dimensions give you a ripe field of choices, but it also should serve to spark some ideas for your own settings.

Each of the entries is written up in about as much detail as Baltimore in Your Story – enough detail to hook in lots of story ideas for lots of different characters. There is also plenty of room for a gaming group to fill in, adding their own hooks and ideas. So, each is rich with ideas, while still allowing groups to customize it to fit their own tastes and preferences.

Las Vegas: The first setting is Las Vegas. The city is a precariously balanced place, where a network of competing interests are wrapped tight in a supernatural tangle. Unfortunately, the central bit of this tangle, the element that kept everything in balance, has recently gone away3, and the various factions are starting to spread their wings, expand their influence, and settle scores.

Las Vegas, as written, is all about hard moral choices. What sins will you commit in order to for good to triumph? When you understand the purpose that the corruption of Sin City serves, will you become complicit in the misery that is required to stave off destruction? I think it would be a fairly dark campaign, but as long as everyone’s on board with that, I also think it could be a very dramatic, intense game.

Russia: Specifically, Novgorod, in October 1918, just after the revolutions of 1917. There’s rich history4 surrounding the revolutions and the aftermath, in addition to the folklore of Russia itself. The entry makes good use of both history and folklore, drawing in both Red and White Russian factions, along with Baba Yaga and Koschei5.

This entry is a wonderful study of how to set a DFRPG campaign in a different time period. It shows how to pick the interesting bits of history to add to the game, how to leave things open-ended enough to fit in the PCs, and how to weave in the supernatural.

The setting is dark and paranoid, though it’s the sort of stoic, noble darkness of Russian literature6. It does have a range of options for play, from the noble revolutionaries to loyalists trying to undo – or just survive – the turning tide. And, of course, the supernatural set, who are not supposed to take sides, but still wind up at the mercy of mortal politics.

The Neverglades: A little, out of the way tourist town in Florida, Okeeokalee Bay has the mixed blessing of being near the Fountain of Youth. There’s an explanation for the fountain that fits very well into the Dresdenverse7. There’s also a wonderful assortment of quirky characters, notes on the manners and mores of rural Florida, and a couple of pretty nasty monsters.

The default assumption in DFRPG is that the campaign is set in a city. The Neverglades shows what setting a campaign in a rural area looks like. There’s even a note in the write-up about The Neverglades Twist: focusing on the Faces rather than the locations, and tracking how the PCs’ actions change relationships. Having grown up in a small town, I can vouch for the fact that the terrain of interpersonal relationships – friendships, feuds, grudges, debt, alliances – shape the community at least as much as the physical terrain.

A campaign set in the Neverglades can be lighter than the previous two entries, drawing on the quirky nature of the locale and NPCs. That’s not to say it needs to be a comedy game – the TV shows American Gothic and Twin Peaks shows the kind of more serious, intense story that can take place in small, quirky towns.

Oh, and also the Fomor are involved.

Las Tierras Rojas: The Red Lands, the parts of South and Central America (and parts of Mexico) that were formerly controlled by the Red Court Vampires8. It’s written from the point of view of the surviving Order of St. Giles. In many ways, the area is sort-of post-apocalyptic, with the aftermath of the sudden and complete removal of the Red Court leaving the area in turmoil.

Again, the scope of the setting is larger than the usual assumption of a city. We’re talking an entire continent and part of another. That means the details the write-up focuses on a sort-of high-level look at the various factions, with less emphasis on individual places.

Aside from a post-apocalyptic feel, this setting also allows for high-intrigue kind of gaming, traveling the continent trying to deal with the things the Red Court left behind and those powers trying to move into the power vacuum.

The Ways Between: The Nevernever is the subject here. This is kind of a setting, and kind of a write-up on using the Nevernever for travel. It gives a framework for how to build a setting where the assumption is NOT that the PCs are set in one locale. There are suggestions on how to build a road-trip campaign, along with discussions of the kinds of themes and problems that might be central to the campaign and, of course, details on how to get around the Nevernever, and what you might find there.

The bulk of this chapter is made up of what are essentially building block encounters that you can string together to provide interesting things that happen in the Ways. Most have some crunchy stat blocks, along with some suggestion as to theme and threat for that particular item. Running through this is a set of sidebars that show how these elements can be strung together into The Faerie’s Bargain, a sample frame for the aforementioned road-trip campaign.

Of all the settings, this one offers the most opportunities to run a very classical-fantasy style of game, with questing and monsters and elves in a magical setting. Ties to the mundane9 world let you set the dials on this where you like but, as they say, this dial goes up to 11.

Spellcasting

Okay. DFRPG is, in general, a fairly rules-light game. The big exception to this is the magic system10, and the two biggest problem areas in magic are Sponsored Magic and Thaumaturgy. The issue with Sponsored Magic is that the rules in Your Story don’t really have the precision and guidance that the other types of magic do. The issue with Thaumaturgy is that it’s complicated.

This section, running to a little more than 30 pages, do a lot to address these issues11, as well as throwing in  bunch of neat Evocation tricks, some details on Soulfire, how to effectively use summoning, and the answer to the much-asked question of what sort of resistance do you face casting magic on yourself12.

It’s a really crunchy chapter that makes running spellcasting characters a lot easier13 for both the player and the GM.

Goes Bump

Goes Bump is a big section in Our World, and this is chapter updates and expands the material from that book. This brings things current with the short story Aftermath, which takes place almost immediately after the end of the pivotal novel Changes. So, that means more details where we have learned them in the novels and short stories, and brand new stat blocks for new creatures and whatnot introduced.

One of the nice bits I found here is a write-up on the Fomor, who we haven’t seen a lot of even up to the current stories. It doesn’t have a lot of solid information beyond what’s in the stories, but it does have some interesting speculation that may or may not be borne out in future case files.

Who’s Who

This expands the Who’s Who section of Our World in the same way the Goes Bump section does. Updates to a number of main characters, as well as stat blocks and write-ups for characters introduced in the newer stories.

Now, in my campaigns, I never used the characters from the books, but I still got a lot of use from this section, just changing names and sometimes tweaking a few stats. So, even if you’re not running a campaign where the canon characters appear, the Who’s Who section has a lot to offer you. Even just swiping the various stunts for the PCs to use makes things easier.

So?

Couple of disclaimers. First of all, I seem to have a credit in the book, in the Beta Review Squad. I honestly don’t remember what I might have done for this book to rate that, but I’ll take the ego boost. Second, the fine folks at Evil Hat Productions offered me a free copy of the book. I didn’t accept, but only because I had already preordered it. I love these books, I love Evil Hat, and I don’t mind giving them my money to make more of these books.

That may mean to some that I’m biased, and I’ll admit that I am predisposed to look fondly on this book. But I honestly try not to let that sway me. Still, better to be up front about this.

You don’t need this book. The two main books give you everything you need for all the DFRPG gaming you could ever want. That said, you want this book.  It provides a whole lot of new ideas for your game, more options, clarification, and raw materials to dismantle and reassemble for your own game.

And it’s a beautiful book, full of great art and fun design. It’s fun to read, and fun to look at, and just looks great on your shelf or coffee table.

So, yeah. You don’t need this book but, if you’re a fan of the game, you really, really want it. It’ll make everything better.

  1. An organization of minor practitioners in the Dresdenverse. []
  2. Alpha of the Alphas, a crime-fighting werewolf band. []
  3. Yeah, I’m doing me best to not give too many spoilers. []
  4. And mythology. []
  5. I would point out actual historical figures, but honestly, I am not up on this era of history, and I can’t really identify which ones are real and which are made up. []
  6. Of course. []
  7. Spoiler
    It’s a fountain that acts as a conduit to a world of vital energy, probably Summer.
    []
  8. Up until the events of Changes, of course. []
  9. Okay, more mundane. []
  10. Hence, my series of blog posts about how magic works in the game. []
  11. The chapter actually has TWO avenues for addressing the Thaumaturgy issue: a clarified explanation of the process, and a streamlined Thaumaturgy system that they call Cheer-Saving Thaumaturgy. It’s pretty awesome. []
  12. Official answer to this one is that you don’t resist the spell the same way an external target does, but there may be factors that increase your resistance above zero. []
  13. And more fun. []