Back in the Chi War

I’m still behind on my blogging. I’ve got two posts1 that should be going up before this one, but you’re getting this one because there’s some time sensitivity to it: the Kickstarter for Feng Shui 2 is supposed to go live this week, so I wanted to get my impressions up before that.

TL; DR – Feng Shui 2 is an awful lot of fun, and you should back it as soon as the campaign starts.

Feng Shui is an awesome game by Robin D. Laws from 1996 that captures the style and feel of the early Hong Kong action movies and2 wuxia. I got a copy of the Atlas Games version of the game, but never got a chance to play it – the approach was different enough at the time that I didn’t quite get it, and didn’t have a group that I could force it on.

Earlier this year, I found out that Feng Shui 2 was in the works. Robin was doing a new edition of the game, and it was going to be published by Atlas, starting with a Kickstarter to get things going. At the time this was announced, there was a call for playtesters, but I really didn’t have time in my gaming schedule to commit to a serious playtest of a new system3, so I just sighed and resigned myself to waiting for the publication.

Then, Cam Banks started looking for GenCon GMs to run FS2 events. I checked to see if I could fit that into my schedule, and couldn’t. But Cam said that he’d give me the playtest package to use to run the game at Games on Demand, and I jumped at that chance4.

So, I got to run FS2 at Games on Demand, and enjoyed it so much that I wanted to try it again with a group at home, where we could take more time and explore it a little more. Both sessions were a lot of fun, and everyone at both tables seemed to enjoy themselves a lot.

Now, the ruleset I’m using is a playtest document, so I’m not going to go into too much detail about specifics – they may still change before publications, but I’ve got some observations I want to share.

Characters

Back when I saw the first edition of Feng Shui, I was kind of taken aback by the idea of choosing an archetype, doing some pretty minimal customization, and playing that rather than building my own character from scratch. Since that time, other games like Apocalypse World and Marvel Heroic Roleplaying and Lady Blackbird using similar5 methods of character creation. I’ve lost my fear of such systems, and have grown to appreciate the way such approaches get you up and playing quickly.

FS2 sticks with the picking of an archetype, but you don’t customize mechanical things about your character6. Instead, you customize the backstory and motivations of your character, adding life to the numbers that way. There are over 30 different archetypes in the playtest document, so you’ve got lots of variety – pretty much every major character type from the source material is covered7, plus some interesting variations based on the game’s setting.

System

The system is pretty similar to the original game, but the mechanics have been vastly simplified. All the information you need to play your character is right there on the character sheet, and you don’t have to deal with large lists of skills and abilities.

This is not to say that there isn’t a lot of options for your character. Most of the options are covered by broad skills or abilities and a simple rule for default rolls when you don’t actually have a rating in whatever you’re trying to do8. What it means is that players can rapidly master their characters and resolution is quick and flavourful.

Combat9

There are three things about combat you should know:

  1. Stunts. When you do something in combat, whether attacking a foe or dodging a hail of automatic weapon fire or trying haul babies out of an exploding hospital, you are encouraged10 to phrase it as an action-movie-style stunt. So, you don’t just shoot the mook, you slide across the polished bar-top, scattering bottles, and fly off the end11 while firing two .45s into the chest of the foe, who staggers back into a giant mirror which smashes and rains glass down on the whole area. Now, the description of the stunt doesn’t have any mechanical effect, but it has a narrative one – it makes your characters as cool as their movie counterparts. It supports the theme and style of the game brilliantly.
  2. Shots. Initiative is handled by the same shots system as the original game12, which provides an interesting, fluid structure to the fights. There’s a bit of a risk though: if you roll low and others roll high on your initiative, you could have some folks taking multiple turns before you get to do anything. It’s not a huge problem, because each turn takes very little time to resolve. The longest part of the turn is trying to come up with the coolest stunt you can.
  3. Up  Checks. One of the coolest aspects of combat, in my opinion, is the way characters don’t have hit points the way they do in other games. As you accumulate damage, you become more impaired (i.e., you take a penalty to rolls) and, at a certain threshold you need to start making checks to see if you can stay on your feet. What that means in play is that, once you reach a certain level of injury, your character could drop at any point. Even if he or she doesn’t, you may have to make a check at the end of combat to see if you were wounded badly enough to die13. This uncertainty adds a level of risk to combat that I haven’t seen since Unknown Armies, where the GM tracks hit points, and just describes the injuries to the players.

Setting

The setting is an adjusted version of the original Chi War setting. You still have your genre-bending, time-hopping badasses fighting for possession of various feng shui sites so as to control the secret history of the world, but the four time junctures have switched up a bit. Now you get to play in the modern era, in 690 CE14, in 1850 CE15, and 2074 CE1617, as well as in the spooky, mystical Netherworld that links these time periods.

The assumption is that you will play members of the Dragons, a Chi War faction that mainly wants to prevent the various other factions from exerting their cross-time tyranny over the common citizen of the planet. They have – once again – been pretty much wiped out, and the PCs are new recruits dragged into the conflict.

If you don’t think that sounds cool, there’s no hope for you.

Play Experience

So, that’s the bones of it all, but anyone can get that from reading the rules. How does it play at the table?

Awesome. It’s fast, it’s flavourful, and it creates great cinematic moments.

Now, the basic structure of the game, like the source material, is somewhat formulaic – adventures are crafted around big, set-piece fights, and then connections are built to help get from one fight to another. That said, one of the things I tried in both playtests18 was taking more time with the between-fight stuff, letting the players roleplay more, interact with the world19, and generally try the system in non-combat contexts. The simple resolution system let things flow, the characters’ Melodramatic Hooks20 kept them pushing forward, and the style and theme of the game kept them all being over-the-top awesome.

Summary

Feng Shui 2 is one of the most fun systems I have ever run. The setting is crazy, the mechanics are both simple and flavourful, and it’s very fast to get a new group up and running. These are all things I look for in games these days, and they are here in spades. We all had a lot of fun playing, and I’ve added the game to the list of campaigns I will pitch to my players when one of my current campaigns wraps up.

The Kickstarter is slated to begin later this week, according to Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff21. There will probably be some more info once the campaign goes live, so look for that.

And back the project, Chi Warrior! The Dragons need all the help they can get!

  1. That I haven’t written yet. []
  2. To a lesser degree. []
  3. If I’m going to do an “official” playtest, I tend to take it pretty seriously, as evidenced by my posts on The Dresden Files RPG and, indeed, the existence of this blog. []
  4. Thanks again, Cam! []
  5. And, in some cases, more restrictive. []
  6. Not entirely true – swapping out some character abilities is offered as an advanced option. []
  7. Though, after rewatching A Better Tomorrow, I found myself wanting a Reformed Gangster archetype, so I could play Sung Tse-Ho. []
  8. Example? Sure! The player of the Old Master in our last playtest decided that he was blind, which was fine – it was just character colour, and didn’t limit him. Blind masters are common in wuxia movies. But then he decided that he wanted to use his heightened hearing to check the heartbeat of someone they were interviewing to see if he was lying. I thought that was a cool idea, but didn’t want it to become a defining schtick, so I just had him roll on the default skill level. Took about thirty seconds to figure out how to do that in game, and he got a cool character moment that wasn’t covered by the rules. Easy. []
  9. Yeah, it’s part of the system, but in a game like this, combat deserves a bit of special comment. []
  10. In the original system, in fact, you were penalized if you didn’t come up with a cool description. []
  11. In slow motion, of course. []
  12. Though there may be a few tweaks. It’s been a while since I looked at the original, so I can’t say for certain. []
  13. After a touching scene with your comrades, where you get to utter a few parting words. []
  14. During the reign of the woman emperor, Wu Zetian. []
  15. During a fairly dark period of European domination of China. []
  16. Where Show ▼

    []

  17. Why is that in a spoiler tag? That bit of backstory forms part of the plot of the intro adventure. []
  18. But emphasized in the most recent one. []
  19. In non-fighty ways. []
  20. That’s the game term for the aspect of the character’s backstory that drives him or her to do crazy, action-movie things – stuff like “I must avenge the murder of my father!” or “I will find a worthy heir for my family kung fu style!” []
  21. Which, incidentally, is a good podcast to listen to if you’re interested in finding out more about FS2. Hell, it’s just a good podcast to listen to, regardless. []

Yggdrasill

My friend Clint picked up a copy of Yggdrasill at GenCon this past summer. He held off as long as he could, but last week he broke down and ran the first session of the introductory adventure in the rulebook. I got to play, and I had a lot of fun.

Now, I’ve only skimmed the rulebook – work has been pretty crazy this past fall – but the first session has given me some initial impressions that I want to talk about. I’m going to try and avoid spoiling the scenario, so this should not ruin things if you plan on playing the adventure.

Yggdrasill is a fantasy RPG set in a mythical Norse-flavoured world, where the tales of the sagas and the legends of the Aesir and Vanir are true. Players take the role of warriors1 doing their best to protect their clans, deal with the surprisingly complex politics of the period, and create their own sagas that will live on after them.

In other words, they go on adventures.

As I said, we ran through the first part of the introductory adventure. Here are my observations and thought.

  • As mentioned above, all the characters are warriors of one type or another. Everyone has some pretty good combat skills, though of course those who specialize in such things are better than those who don’t focus exclusively on fighting.
  • There are three different flavours of magic, based on the Norse legends: Seidr (sorcery), Galdr (invocations), and Runes. The differences between the different kinds of magic are simple, yet interesting, and there are cultural connotations to the different kinds of magic. For example, Seidr is considered to be women’s magic, and thus few men practice it.
  • We saw two of the different magic systems in play – Galdr and Seidr. Both were quite powerful and reliable, right up until the swords were out and blood was flowing2, at which time the system made magic far less effective than a good sword.
  • Those who don’t have magic, but have instead focused on combat, have a number of interesting options available to them, especially the savage warriors3. And a specialized warrior is truly terrifying on the battlefield.
  • The system is an interesting cross between World of Darkness dice pools based on stats and skills and Cortex Plus dice choice to come up with a total – that is, you roll a mittful of dice based on your stat and your skill, and pick the two highest to add together for the outcome total.
  • I was worried about the combat system – specifically, about the initiative system, which has a rather convoluted procedure that cycles through the initiative sequence multiple times each round, imposing a penalty for each action4 after the first. I think I see where they’re going with this, but have some reservations as to whether the coolness pays off the complexity. Unfortunately, by the time we got to the fighting portion of the evening, it was pretty late, and we were tired, and therefor the we didn’t give the system a really fair trial. We’ll have to see how it works next session.
  • Speaking of fighting, combat proved pretty deadly, at least the little bit we did of it. It also isn’t as big a part of the game as one might expect when one plays Norse heroes. A lot more of the game revolved around interaction, politicking, and travel. Now, some of that may be the influence of Clint, the GM, but as I understand it, he’s sticking mostly5 to the scenario as written. This is a good thing, in my opinion. The balance of combat vs. non-combat, that is. Not necessarily sticking to the scenario. Just to be clear.
  • We are spoiled to have Clint running this game for us. He says, and I agree, that this was the game he was born to run. He’s got an encyclopedic knowledge of history in general, but this time-period, and this subject matter, is his special love. That means that he makes the game world come alive with a wealth of little details about the setting and the culture, and that’s awesome.

My overall assessment of the game after a single session using pregenerated characters is that it is fun, flavourful, and engaging. The rules are translated from French, I believe, so the writing is a little awkward and unclear from time to time, but not enough to be more than a nuisance.

So, if playing in the world of Norse sagas and legends sounds appealing, I suggest you check the game out. It’s fun.

  1. Okay, let’s be clear. When you’re playing a pre-viking Norse character, you play a warrior. Everyone has some ability to fight. []
  2. That is, while the caster was not under any sort of stress or time pressure. []
  3. Like berserkers. []
  4. Or reaction. You spend your actions dodging or parrying, as well. []
  5. Because that’s as close as he can to running anything right out of the box. Unlike, say, me. ;) []

The Caves of Chaos!

***Spoiler Alert***

I’m going to talk about particulars of what my playtest group did in the playtest adventure below. If you don’t want to ruin the surprise of what’s waiting for you inside the caves, don’t read the Play section below.

***You Have Been Warned***

About half an hour ago, we wrapped the first session of our D&D Next playtest. Short review: we had a lot of fun, and are planning on continuing for at least one more session1. Keep reading if you want the longer review.

The Playtest Goals

The stated goal of this phase of the playtest2 is to put the core mechanic through its paces, seeing how well it supports different styles of play. So, there’s no character creation rules and there’s a recognition that, mechanically, the balance between players and monsters isn’t where it needs to be. The core questions seem to be:

  1. Does this core ruleset let me play D&D the way I like to play D&D?
  2. Does it still feel like D&D?

These are the questions I’m focusing on as I discuss the first playtest session.

The Playtest Package

By now, pretty much anyone who’s even remotely interested in the next iteration of D&D has probably seen, or at least seen a description of, the playtest package, but I’m including a list of what you get here in the interests of completeness. The package contains the following documents, all in .pdf format:

  • A letter from Mike Mearls. This is just a cover letter, letting you know what’s in the package, and what to do with it.
  • How to Play. This is a pared-down rules set that covers the core rules you need to play the game.
  • DM Guidelines. This is an expansion on the How to Play document, aimed specifically at the DM. It’s got tips on adjudicating the rules, setting DCs, stuff like that.
  • The Caves of Chaos. This is the adventure, and it’s based pretty faithfully on the old module B2: The Keep on the Borderlands.
  • Bestiary. Detailed stat blocks of the monsters used in the adventure.
  • Pregenerated Characters. There are five: a fighter, a rogue, a wizard, and two flavours of cleric.

Save vs. Nostalgia

Okay, I knew the adventure was going to be The Caves of Chaos. I mean, it’s not like it was a secret. It’s what they used back at D&DXP. Still, I was surprised at how much nostalgia reading the adventure brought welling to the surface. Like a lot of gamers of my age, The Keep on the Borderlands was the first adventure I ever played, and the first adventure I ever ran. Reading over the updated descriptions of the various cave complexes really got me excited to run the game.

It’s also, I think, a brilliant choice for testing the flexibility of the rules. It is a cave complex with no external narrative attached by default, no required progression through set-piece encounters to a climax, no assumption that combat is the only option in the encounters. The DM can impose pretty much any structure he or she desires on the adventure setting, tailoring it for the group’s preferred play style.

For me, I felt it was lacking a little something. Well, not lacking, exactly, but I was inspired to expand and beef up the adventure to make it something more like what I remembered from the good old days3. See, one of my fondest memories of the original adventure was the table of rumours that you could dole out to the characters. Some were true, some were false, and the players didn’t know which were which. It was a bit of a running joke in the game that, whenever we’d tell anyone at the Keep that we were heading to the Caves of Chaos, they would respond, “The Caves of Chaos! A word of advice…” followed by some dice rolling, and the dispensation of a rumour.

It made such an indelible mark on my gaming memory that I dug out my old copy of B2 and decided to add a bit of adventure at the Keep4, along with an updated rumour table. While I was updating the rumour table, I saw that some of the rumours were specific to elements of the Caves, while others were more general, more like adventure hooks. I took a few of the more general ones, and elaborated on them, writing them out on index cards. Then I went through the rest of the rumours, tweaked them a little to better fit the current module5, and wrote them out more as bits of overheard conversation, gossip, or stories. When we started to play, I handed out index cards at random to the players to give them some background reason for heading out to the Caves, and told them they could share the information with the others – or not – as they chose. Then, when they spent some time in the Keep, they could try and get more information, and I’d roll on my big list of rumours and tell them what they found out.

Play

We started with the company traveling to the Keep in the company of a merchant caravan. They’d been traveling with the caravan about a week, and it was the last night before arriving at the Keep, so the merchant was putting on a special meal, the bard was playing, and everyone was going to be sleeping in the next day because it was only four or five hours more to their destination. I got the players to introduce the characters, and they got to do a little roleplaying and sharing of information6. The dwarves even regaled everyone with a dwarven drinking song7, and didn’t embarrass themselves too badly.

When they got to the Keep, the priest of Moradin – who is also a knight8 – prevailed upon the Castellan for hospitality for him and his squire, the dwarf fighter. The priestess of Pelor saw some sick and injured people at the Chapel, and was offered a bed by the Curate. The halfling rogue used her cooking skill to get some temporary work at the inn, and listen in on kitchen gossip. And the elf wizard planted himself in the bar to eavesdrop on conversations that might offer some information about the Caves. They gathered enough information about the Caves from their various investigations that it seemed like it would be a) a good idea, and b) profitable to go check things out.

The next morning, after confirming one of the rumours about a reward for rescuing a merchant and his wife9, they set out for the Caves. They had good enough directions that they were able to approach the ravine from the top of the south ridge, letting them look down on the expanse before plopping themselves right in the middle of things. I had done up a sketch map showing area, the elevations, the copses of trees, and the visible cave mouths10, which I handed to the party, showing them where they were standing. After some discussion, they picked the nearest cave mouth and went in to start some trouble.

They were surprised, nicely silhouetted in the cave entrance11 by the gnolls on guard, who proceeded to shoot arrows at them. The heroes closed on them fairly quickly and took out three of the four guards, but the fourth one ran off deeper into the complex, calling for reinforcements. The characters quickly looted the bodies, bound their wounds, and then found enough furniture and scraps to build a barricade across the top of a long stairway that the gnolls would need to come up to attack them.

They finished just in time to face off against a gang of ten gnolls. The barricade and the tactical position at the top of the stairs gave the PCs advantage12 and cover, so they were well able to hold off the gnolls, though the priest of Moradin decided he’d had enough hanging around and vaulted over the barricade13 to attack, and got laid out by the gnolls ganging up on him.

At the end of the fight, we’d gone a half-hour past our end time, so we called the game there. We’re planning to continue for a session or two longer, though.

Assessment

I had a lot of fun with the game, and the players said they did, too. I asked them the two core questions above, and got a yes on the first question, and a resounding yes on the second question. Why not a resounding yes on the first question? Because there’s enough new stuff in the system, and the parts we’ve seen so far, are bare-bones enough, that there doesn’t initially feel like there’s a lot of mechanical support for doing some things. I think that this will evaporate – or at least lessen – as we gain experience with the system and see the freedom it offers. I’m starting to see that, and I think the players will, too.

For myself, I felt the game did both things quite well. It brought back memories of simpler, more permissive rulesets for D&D, and the old-school adventure reminded me of the freedom such things offer, with no imposition of expected character actions. I had a great time revisiting the Keep and the Caves, and found that the core system was easy to adjudicate, even when the characters did something unexpected14.

Perhaps most important for me, combat was fast. We didn’t use a battlemap or miniatures, but even with five PCs and ten gnolls, it was no problem to keep track of relative positions and allow for interesting tactical choices, like the barricade15. In a four-hour session, we accomplished the following:

  • Got settled for the game.
  • Briefed the players on the rules.
  • Played through a night with a merchant caravan and the arrival at the Keep.
  • Played through five different scenes of the individual characters investigating and gathering information in the Keep.
  • Discussed tactics and objectives and shared information.
  • Traveled overland to the Caves.
  • Surveyed the area and picked a cave to enter.
  • Had a combat with gnolls.
  • Took a bit of a break to barbecue hamburgers and eat.
  • Searched the dead gnolls.
  • Set up a barricade.
  • Ate ice cream cake.
  • Had another combat with gnolls.

That’s a pretty full session by my standards.

Overall, it was a pretty positive experience.

What’s Next?

Well, I’ve been asked to run a playtest session at Imagine Games and Hobbies this coming Wednesday night. There are apparently seven people signed up for it, so it looks like we’ll be doubling up on some of the characters. There are some other people in my extended play group that have expressed an interest in trying the playtest, as well, so we’ll see if we can’t gather a few of them for a game at some point. And, as mentioned, this group wants to keep going for another session or two.

I’ll let you know how things go.

  1. Assuming we can slip it into the schedule, that is. []
  2. As laid out in The Caves of Chaos and discussed on the D&D Podcast. []
  3. Note: those days were not all that good, but they were a quarter century and more ago, so they’re definitely old. Also, they weren’t always days. I remember marathon all-night game sessions on summer vacation. []
  4. Another reason for that was that it just didn’t feel right to me to have the adventure begin as the heroes show up at the Caves, and give them a prepackaged spiel about why they’re there. Adding the Keep would add a little context and provide some resources. []
  5. One example: a rumour in the original adventure talks about the small dog men living in the lower caves. It’s meant to refer to kobolds, but kobolds have evolved away from dog men into small dragon men over the various editions. So I updated that. []
  6. They all told each other everything they knew about the Caves from the little cards I’d given them. They’re very trusting. []
  7. Is there any other kind? []
  8. From his background. []
  9. Also two guards, but they were worth less reward. Such is the life of a man-at-arms in D&D. []
  10. Incidentally, I found this great map of the Caves of Chaos by The Weem. It’s much prettier and easier to read than the blue line version in my original module or the blue line version reproduced in the playtest package. Thanks, Weem! []
  11. Well, not the rogue. She was hidden in the shadows about fifteen feet inside by the time the gnolls heard the others. []
  12. Advantage seems to be a simple way to replace a lot of combat modifiers. It’s a pretty cool mechanic, so far, and is balanced by disadvantage. With advantage, you roll your attack or check twice, and take the better result. With disadvantage, you roll twice and take the worse result. []
  13. And the burning oil the rogue had laid on the stairs in front of it. []
  14. “I pick up one of the burning stool legs and throw it into the gnoll’s face!” []
  15. Or like leaping over the barricade and the burning oil to pour a potion down the throat of the dying priest of Moradin. Just for example. []

13th Age Playtest – Actual Play

This is the second half of my report on our playtest of 13th Age from Pelgrane Press. You can see the first half here. I concentrated on character creation in the previous post; this time, I’m going to talk about the actual play of the game.

Our GM, Michael, ran two different adventures for us: the first was a simple investigation into goblin raiders, and the second was a longer quest chasing after a stolen sword. Between the two adventures, we wound up playing three sessions, and it gave us a pretty good view of the entire game. It was a good time.

The goblin raider adventure was designed specifically to showcase combat and give us players a chance to learn the ins and outs of fighting in this new system. It consisted of a simple hook and short trek to get us to the goblins, then a lengthy fight to defeat them and their hobgoblin allies. Along the way, we had the opportunity to try using our backgrounds a few times, but the focus was really on the fight at the end.

Combat is interesting. We ran into some strange math anomalies in some of the stats and a couple of odd corner-cases that the rules didn’t quite cover1, but overall things ran smoothly. There are some intriguing new mechanics to speed combat, including using a d6 – called the Escalation Die – to encourage heroic action by giving the PCs an attack bonus for consecutive rounds of pushing the assault.

The system doesn’t use a battlemap or grid for movement and positioning and, while it didn’t make much difference in our initial combat, we found that in later combats2, our tactics were a little lacking after our long conditioning to the combat grid. That is, we didn’t take care to state that our fighter-types were protecting our squishy wizard3, which led to some good opportunities to test out the dying and recovery rules.

Those work pretty well, thankfully.

I want to stress that this is not a fault in the system; it’s just something you need to keep in mind when you play the game. It’s easy to make this mistake, if you’ve played a lot of D&D; the game feels enough like D&D that you can get tripped up by the little differences. You don’t get the visual cues from the minis to see what lines of assault are open, and who’s exposed to attack, so you need to think about that when you describe your action. There’s a discussion in the playtest document about using minis to show loose, relative positioning, and I think that might have helped alleviate this issue, but we didn’t try it out.

The first adventure went pretty well – we located the goblins’ hideout in a ghost town, managed to not be surprised by the hobgoblins, and even tried to negotiate with them4. When the fight broke out, we managed to tip things in our favour pretty early, though the fight was still pretty tough.

The second adventure was more involved, and featured more non-combat elements of play. It saw us trekking through the Empire to a magical site in order to see a magical sword get enchanted5, then chasing the thief of that sword to a ruined city and finally wresting the blade from him. We ran this adventure over one short evening and one longer evening, mostly because we kept breaking to discuss our impressions of the system and how it was working at any given time. I’m pretty certain we could have crammed the whole thing into a single longer session.

The system showed to pretty good effect overall. It handled us remembering information, making friends6, spotting dangers, navigating, negotiating, figuring stuff out, threatening, working magical rituals, running up and down7 a two-hundred foot tower, standing off a dragon, and fighting assassins, wolves, dragon-men, and the end boss8. There are mechanics in place to encourage pushing on in an adventure rather than falling back to rest and recover, and they work pretty well to keep things active and interesting. Combat can be very suddenly deadly9, but the rules for death saves allows for some heroic and cinematic recoveries, so that’s okay. We even tried the leveling up mechanics, and found them to be surprisingly quick and simple, even for multi-class characters.

There’s a lot of stuff in the game that’s left to GM adjudication. That’s not a complaint, because mostly10 the rules provide enough support with examples and simple general rules that it didn’t seem to slow our GM down much. It allowed more freedom for the players to try interesting stuff, while giving the GM the tools needed to handle it.

The main things I was looking for were a cinematic feel to the action in the game, and for combat not to dominate all the play time. The game delivered on both of these things, in spades, so I count it as a success. Now, there were still some rough edges to the system – including the aforementioned weird math anomalies in combat – but as this is the first round playtest, I fully expect those things to be worked out by the time the game is actually released.

All in all, I’m looking forward to the final version of the game.

  1. All of which has been dutifully reported to the good folks at Pelgrane Press. []
  2. That is, in the next adventure. []
  3. Also known as ME! []
  4. That didn’t work. Goblins are dicks. []
  5. Quick digression here: Apparently, the sword was the standard hook written up in the adventure, which is fine. What’s awesome is that, as my character’s One Unique Feature, I had him receive a sword from a mysterious stranger at his birth, so the GM used that as the sword in question. This is just one example of the ways that the interesting features from character creation that I talked about last time come back to inform and enrich the adventures during play. []
  6. One thing we didn’t wind up trying was using the Icon relationships we had established in character creation. They just didn’t really come up, as I recall. []
  7. And, in two cases, jumping off. []
  8. Not gonna tell you what that was. []
  9. As I found out. Twice. []
  10. It’s still just a playtest draft. []

13th Age Playtest – Character Creation

Over the past few weeks, my friend Michael has been running us through the first-round playtest for 13th Age, a new fantasy game from Pelgrane Press. Now that the playtest is over and we’ve submitted our feedback, the NDA allows me to talk1 about the experience. And you know me; I hate to have an unexpressed thought or opinion.

The game is billed as:

13th Age is a love letter to D&D: a rules-light, story-oriented RPG that honors old school values while advancing the OGL art. Players create unique heroes using flexible interpretations of familiar D20 character classes. New indie-style rules connect each character’s story to the Gamemaster’s customized version of the campaign setting.

I think it meets those goals admirably, and has some very nice little bits incorporated into the rules and the character creation that just shine. I’m really looking forward to the final version of the game.

This post is just going to be about the character creation portion. In a few days2, I’ll have another post about the rest of the rules, and the actual play experience.

Character creation looks pretty standard on the face of it, a sort-of mash-up of various versions of D&D to get your stats and pick your class and race. Once you get through picking the normal components of your character, however, you run into a couple of very indie-inspired elements that turn your numbers into something special: Backgrounds, Relationships, and One Unique Feature.

Backgrounds substitute for skills in this system, and are broad categories of experience that show where your character came from and what he or she can do. There isn’t a list of backgrounds to choose from – you are encouraged to create your own. This not only fleshes out your character history and abilities, it also fills in detail about the world. For example, in our little playtest group, our character backgrounds wound up adding the following elements to the setting:

  • A service of Imperial Couriers that rode gryphons to deliver high-priority goods and messages.
  • A rich noble who employed rangers to assist with the maintenance and record keeping in her menagerie.
  • A network of ex-slave gladiators spread throughout the Imperial military.
  • A loose association of arcane scholars called the Fellowship of the Lost Book, dedicated to ferreting out forgotten magical lore.

All these things gave the GM good, solid hooks to draw us into adventures, and provide information. It made the world feel more complete, and it made our characters feel more a part of it. It gave them a place in the grand scheme of things.

This is enhanced by the Relationships. The world of 13th Age has some very powerful – mythically powerful – beings in it called Icons. These Icons are sort of archetypes that different people may fill from time to time3 and represent the powers of the world. These are things like the Archmage, the Elf Queen, the Dwarf King, the Dragon Emperor, the High Druid, and so forth. Each character gets some points to define a few Relationships with these Icons – not necessarily with the Icon itself, but with the Icon’s organization. For example, having a weak, positive relationship with the Elf Queen doesn’t mean she knows you by sight, but means that you’re in good standing with the Court of Stars in general, and can hope to be well-received there should you need a favour. Again, this does a lot to tie you into the world, and give your character a sense of history and place.

While these two elements do a lot to tie your character into the world, One Unique Feature is there to make sure your character stands out. This is something that lets you create something, well, unique for your character. Examples included in the playtest document run the gamut from weird little abilities (a half-orc with a supernaturally compelling voice) to odd bits of character history (a monk who started life as a bear before being transformed into a human) and everything in between. There are no mechanics attached to what you come up with here, so giving your character the Unique Feature of being able to kill with a touch is pretty much off the table, but being able to use your Unique Feature for bonuses or to be able to attempt things that other people wouldn’t seems firmly within scope. But the real advantage of the Unique Feature is that it turns your character from The Wizard4 into the wizard who wields the sword Bitter Understanding.

Together, these three elements really bring the character to life, and make it so that, when you start play at 1st level, your character feels like a hero.

I glossed over race and class, above, to get to the bits of character creation I think are neatest, but you get a standard mix of races  – human, dwarf, half-orc, halfling, three flavours of elf, half-elf, and gnome, plus their version of dragonborn, tieflings, aasimar, and warforged – and classes – barbarian, bard, cleric, druid5, fighter, monk, paladin, ranger, rogue, sorcerer, and wizard, along with a system for multiclassing. Each race gets a neat little mechanical benefit, and each class gets an array of features and abilities to choose from.

One nice touch with the classes is that the playtest document has a short section that rates each class according to how difficult/complex it is to play, with barbarian at the low end of complexity and wizard at the high end. There is a note that multiclass characters are going to be more complex than any single class character, and that seemed borne out in our test.

Overall, I think the character creation section of 13th Age is wonderful. There are a few little quirks of math that made me raise my eyebrows, but finding those things is what a playtest is about, and I’ve passed my concerns on to the folks who can do something about it. The only other complaint I had was with the organization of the document, which made it necessary to do a lot of paging back and forth to create a character. This is, again, a product of the fact that this is a playtest – I know the final version of the game is going to be cleaned up and reorganized once it’s complete.

In short, in 13th Age, you wind up with a character that has depth, history, competence, and feels like a hero right out of the gate. That’s a big win for any fantasy game like this. We also managed to create four characters in under two hours, so that’s pretty good considering we’re all just learning the game.

In a few days, I’ll post about the actual play. Watch for it.

  1. Well, write in this case. []
  2. Hopefully. I’ve been pretty lax with my posts here, and am playing catch-up. []
  3. Well, some of them. Some, such as the Three, the Lich King, and the Great Gold Wyrm are more permanent. []
  4. Or even worse, The Other Wizard. []
  5. The druid is listed in the playtest doc, but the actual class was not ready to be distributed for playtest this round. []

Mucking Around in Middle Earth: The One Ring RPG

Saturday night, I gathered together a group of friends to try out the new The One Ring RPG from Cubicle 7. Over the past couple of weeks, we had created characters, and I had produced a couple of cheat sheets, so when the time came, we were ready to sit down and play through the introductory adventure included in the game.

For those unfamiliar with The One Ring RPG, it’s the latest roleplaying game based on the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien. It comes in a wonderful set of two books1, two maps2, and a set of the special dice3 needed for the game in an attractive slipcase. It uses a new system developed by Italian game designer Francesco Nepitello that is very straightforward, but has a number of interesting little twists to it that give it surprising depth while not slowing down play. The books and maps are beautiful, as might be expected.

We had a pretty good time, and really enjoyed the game. The rules do a good job of evoking the feel of the world, and reinforcing the kinds of things one sees in the source material. The adventure was paced nicely to wrap up in a single session and offered a sampling of pretty much everything the game has to offer.

For characters, we had a Barding slayer, a Barding treasure-seeker4, a Woodman wanderer, and a Wood-Elf warder. Character creation is a simple templated system: you choose your culture, choose your background, choose your motivation, and then spread around a few discretionary points. It runs quite quickly once you figure out where everything is in the books and how it fits together, but this is a stumbling block that I’ll get to a little later.

There is an actual subsystem for handling the party as a party – what the rules call a Company. It gives the characters each a job to do in the journey system, provides a pool of points to help the characters out, and defines who your most important relationship is with in the group. That was how we started the game, as the characters had been developed independently: defining the Company and fleshing out who the characters were, how they had met, and why they were together.

I’m not going to talk too much about the adventure itself, to avoid spoilers, but here are some general observations:

  • Combat is wonderful. It is fast, cinematic, and deadly. There is a sense of real tactical choice and danger, despite the fact that it doesn’t use minis or battlemaps or anything like that. It abstracts positioning by using stances, where each character decides if they’re fighting on the front line or hanging back and using a missile weapon or something in between. Initiative, chance to hit, and chance to be hit are all determined by choice of stance, and the Loremaster just throws the monsters at the appropriate combatant. It works very nicely, and we all loved it.
  • There is an Encounter system, which is somewhat similar to skill challenges in D&D. It’s used specifically to handle social situations where the characters might or might not impress or offend a person or group. It works fine, but I found the scenes ran just as smoothly through straight roleplaying, taking into account the prejudices of the other party, without making a lot of rolls. I can see mixing it up a bit during ongoing play, but recommend not getting too slaved to the dice rolling.
  • The journey system works well, but it met some resistance in play. Part of this is the fact that I’m not experienced in running it cleanly, so it felt awkward, and part of it is that the roles for the journey were called out in other parts of the game for special tasks. The roles and journey system are there specifically to provide spotlight moments for different characters and to have everyone in the Company contribute to success5, but the rigidity of the roles felt artificial. Running this adventure a second time, I would handle the non-journey system invocation of the journey roles differently, asking who was doing what at a given moment, then asking for the roll.
  • I was very pleased with how easy it was to mix combat with other types of action – such as holding off an attack while escaping. I can’t say too much more about that without spoilers, so… Show ▼
  • We only had the one set of special dice for the game, and it got a little annoying to share them. According to the Cubicle 7 forums, there will be dice available without buying the rulebooks in the next couple of months, and I plan on picking up a couple of extra sets6, but it was easy enough to use regular d12s and d6s.

There is one big problem with the game, though: the rulebooks are not well-organized. First off, they are split between an Adventurer’s book and a Loremaster’s book, and the split is not clean. As Loremaster, I need to look in both books to run combat, because combat is asymmetrical between PC and monster. The indices in the books are not true indices, but instead just an alphabetical listing of headings. The character creation leads you right through the process very nicely, except for one piece – Virtues and Rewards – which requires you to jump two chapters ahead to find the details. Without a page reference.

Now, the rules are not all that complicated, but it’s still a big stumbling block for the first few sessions, when the players and GM are having to look up a lot of stuff. The lack of proper index and the split between two books makes finding a specific rule mainly a matter of random chance, and that just slows the game down. A lot.

That said, the game ran fairly smoothly, and worked pretty well. We had enough fun that the players want to try another adventure in the system, following on one of the obvious next steps from the intro adventure. I’ve said okay, and given them the go-ahead to revamp their characters based on what we saw during play this time. We may even add a couple of players. And it means I get to figure out how to build an adventure in the system.

But that won’t happen until after I get back from Ireland.

  1. One for players and one for Loremasters, the game’s special name for GM. []
  2. Again, one for players and one for Loremasters. []
  3. A d12 and 6d6, each with special markings to be used for system quirks. []
  4. Brother and sister. []
  5. Also to avoid everyone in the group rolling for every single challenge faced by the Company. []
  6. What can I say? I love dice! []

Leverage: The Double-Switch Job

Friday night, I got four players together to run a second playtest of Leverage: The Roleplaying Game. My plan is for this playtest to be somewhat more involved than The Quickstart Job, and includes full character creation with the recruitment job and a job of my own devising. That means two sessions: one for character creation and the recruitment job, and one for the full job. And the first one was, as I said, on Friday.

One of the things I was worried about was the fact that I could only get four players, when the game seems highly optimized for five. I could probably have snagged one more player by expanding the initial invite list, but when I started thinking about that, I realized that it might be a good idea to see how well the game works with fewer players1, so I decided to go with it.

The main issue with having only four players is that there will be one of the five roles2 that does not have a primary – a character who has taken a d10 in that role. That means the team has a slightly reduced tool set for completing the job. While that initially bothered me,  I began to think about other strongly role-based games, like D&D 4E, and how they play with one or more of the core roles lacking. They work just fine; it just changes the options the characters have in approaching the various obstacles in the adventure.

The initial phases of character creation went pretty smoothly, with everyone picking their primary and secondary roles, distributing their attributes, and picking a distinction without any problem. We wound up with a Grifter/Thief, Hacker/Hitter, Hitter/Thief, and Mastermind/Thief. I found it interesting that, recognizing that they did not have Thief in a primary role, the group’s approach was to make sure that they had, shall we say, depth of field in Thief as a secondary role. The prevalence of the Thief role in secondary, to me, created a strong theme for the crew3 – they were, for the most part, stealthy, sneaky, covert types.

Attribute-wise, we had an even split in the group between the generalist and specialized attribute arrays. That says to me that the two options are nicely balanced, each offering something valuable, yet different. Now, that was my assumption, based on the fact that each array essentially gives you 48 die-sides to spread among your attributes, but equal numbers doesn’t always mean the two options are as good as each other. The test, in my mind, is whether people will use both options equally. In this admittedly small statistical sampling, they did.

Everyone seemed to have a good idea of their first distinction, based on the little bit of backstory they had come up with for their character concept, so that went quick. We wound up with Charming Rogue, Hot Tempered, Tougher Than He Looks, and Bastard. And then we got down to the recruitment job.

This was a little rough. Some of that roughness is my fault for trying to make things a little more elaborate than the way things are described in the rulebook, and some of the roughness is caused by the expectations set up in the rulebook for what will happen during this job.

The part that was my fault was caused by me wanting to inject a little more flavour of the full job into the recruitment job. So, I let the group set the mark and the client, and then I statted them up. They got to determine the plan for the job, within the restrictions that they would each get a spotlight scene. The issue here is that I let things get too elaborate, story-wise, while still keeping the spotlight scene restrictions from the basic recruitment job, meaning the crew had to work things into a very artificial structure. In retrospect, I should have gone all one way or the other: either make it a full job, with none of the restrictions, or stuck with the basic nature of the recruitment job.

The part that was caused by the expectations set up in the rulebook is a little different. See, the assumption that was left with after reading through the character creation session was that the characters would be complete after the recruitment job, with maybe one or two that were missing one or two things that could get filled in during the first job. A little bit of math shows this to be somewhat unreasonable, unless you’re running a full-session job4.

When you start the recruitment job, each character needs to complete a certain number of things on the rap sheet:

  • Three roles still need dice assigned to them.
  • Each character needs two more distinctions.
  • Each character needs two specialties.
  • Each character needs two talents.

Now, the roles are moderately easy to assign – just try doing something in one of the scenes that uses a role you haven’t assigned. The trick is that, by doing so, you are by definition not playing to your strengths, moving outside of your comfort zone. I like this, because it very nicely puts some interesting stress on the character, revealing more information by how they respond under pressure.

It’s the other three categories that create the problems. Each distinction, specialty, or talent is introduced in play with a flashback. That means, in a four-player game like we had, you need a total of 24 flashbacks during the job in order to cover everything. Each flashback took about five minutes to work through5, with time for the player to come up with a flashback, present it to the group, and incorporate its effects into the character.

That makes for two full hours of flashbacks. Two and a half, if you’ve got a full five-person crew. Considering that our play sessions run about five hours, and the first two hours of the evening were taken up with the first part of character creation and an explanation of the system6, that leaves an hour of play devoted to creating and completing the job in the present if you’re going to get everything in. That doesn’t strike me as a reasonable expectation.

It’s important to note here that not everything needs to get taken care of in the recruitment job. The book specifically says that if, at the end of the recruitment job, you still have some blanks on your rap sheet, don’t worry about it, because you can fill those in during play. The problem was that I hadn’t done the math on the time factor needed for all the flashbacks, and had assumed that it was unlikely that there would be anything left to fill in if we ran the recruitment job properly. That meant I was trying to cram everything in during the job, and that made things feel very forced and clunky.

I also think that the requirement of a flashback to introduce distinctions, specialties, and talents is not really necessary. In future, if I run this again7, I’m going to say that you can establish these things after a good character moment – maybe even let the rest of the group pick the moment to establish a distinction for a character. Still allow flashbacks, but not require them. That would speed things along, I think.

Another thing I should have done to speed things along is to have cheat sheets done up of the available talents, to aid the players who hadn’t read through the rules in picking them on the fly. I didn’t do that, and it meant that a lot of times, the players didn’t know what kinds of talents they could pick, and so didn’t try to establish them.

I’m making it sound like the recruitment job was a train wreck, aren’t I? It wasn’t. It was less smooth than I would have liked, and parts of it felt forced, but it still worked and was fun. Considering how smoothly things had gone in The Quickstart Job, I was curious as to why it hadn’t gone that way this time, and so I’ve spent some time analyzing the issues. That’s why I’m talking about problems rather than what went right, here.

The job turned out to be interesting, and showed me very nicely how a good complication can be used as a twist in the job.

The basic set-up was that a real estate developer had a property owner beat up, trying to force him to sell8. The crew decided that he was a collector of antique swords, and also skimming off the company profits. The plan was to swap one of his valuable swords with a fake9, then approach him to sell him the real sword. The asking price would be high enough to get him to tap into his offshore accounts for funds, which would let the hacker piggy-back in and copy his financial records for delivery to federal investigators. The money from the sword would then go to the client to cover medical bills and pay off the liens on his property.

Things went pretty much as planned, right up until we got to the end of the scene with the hacker copying the data, and I realized I had three complications that I hadn’t spent. I glommed them all together into one d10 complication, and said, “Huh. According to the financial data, he’s using his development company to launder money for the mob.” Mob Involvement d10.

That changed the objective of the plan to getting him to roll over on the mob, abandoning his luxurious life for witness protection. The Mastermind organized a series of flashbacks where the crew made the mark think that someone in the mob had given him up to the feds, and the mob was going to take him out to prevent him being arrested and testifying, ending up with the asset Worried About The Mob d10 to offset the mob complication. The wrap-up had the mark fleeing into the arms of the FBI ahead of imagined mob assassins, and the money from his cleaned-out accounts going to the client.

The way the complications I had left turned into a twist in the plot worked remarkably well. The rulebook says that, really, all you need to run the game and build jobs are a problem, assets, and complications. This was a perfect illustration of that fact, and one that I need to keep in mind for when I create the full job for the next stage of this playtest.

We wrapped up with a postmortem, where we discussed the issues I’ve outlined above, but everyone said that they had had fun. To help address some of the issues, I had gave those who had not completely filled in their rap sheets the option of doing so before the next session, or leaving the blank options to be filled in during play. The one thing I wanted to complete were the distinctions – most of the characters had one distinction still to be filled in. I got the rest of the group to decide on a second distinction for each character based on how they had done things during the job.

And that’s where we left things. In three weeks, I’ll be running this crew through a full job – they’ve already got a taste of how it works, but now they will have no restriction on number of scenes or who’s involved, or the number of flashbacks needed, or anything like that. I think it’ll go a lot smoother10. I’ll let you know how it works.

  1. Another question becomes how well the game works with more than five players; at some point, I may try and test that. []
  2. Theoretically, you could wind up with more than one role going spare if the players double up on primary roles, but the structure of the game seems to encourage diversifying. []
  3. The fact that the Thief role is secondary to three characters, in my mind, almost overshadows the difference in the primary roles. Strong commonalities often act as a foundation of unity for a group, allowing the differences in the primary roles to shine out. For example, every member of The A-Team had been a soldier; they could all fight, despite the fact that each brought a different skill set to the table, as well. []
  4. Even then, it’s gonna be a tight fit. []
  5. Mastery of the system would, of course, reduce this time requirement, but given that the recruitment job is going to be one of the first jobs most groups do, I think it’s fair to say that mastery of the system probably won’t exist in the group at the time of running it. []
  6. Again, this time requirement would be reduced significantly with mastery of the system. []
  7. Who am I kidding? Of course I’m going to run this again. I don’t want to start a new campaign right now, but I’m at least going to try another playtest with more than five characters to see how things scale in that direction. []
  8. Strangely reminiscent of the current storyline in my Feints & Gambits campaign, but only one of the players is in both games, and the set-up wasn’t her idea. []
  9. An interesting first scene for a group without a Thief primary, I thought. The Hitter/Thief managed it, though. []
  10. I’m using the word smooth, and its variants, a lot in this post. That’s because smooth is the best way to describe the system when it’s working well. []

Leverage RPG: The Quickstart Job

I’ve been looking at the Leverage RPG for months now1, planning to write a post about it, but I didn’t want to do it until I’d had the opportunity to actually run the playtest scenario, The Quickstart Job. Last night, I got the opportunity to try it out, and it did not disappoint.

As may be implied by the name, The Quickstart Job is a short, simple scenario that introduces the rules and structure of the game, played with the characters from the TV show2. The adventure is a quick caper, trying to steal some corporate records at a party, with a nice twist thrown in to force the players to think on their feet. It’s set up to be pretty much a railroad plot, at first glance, obviously intended to be run quickly with people who are unfamiliar with the game system, leading through the steps of the con by the hand.

This is a good thing; it’s what a quickstart adventure should do. It keeps the extraneous complexity and subtlety of the system off-screen, showing off the cool things you can do in the game. And the plot is not as much of a railroad as it first appears, something I didn’t appreciate until I actually ran it3. The complication mechanic adds a lot of little side action, forcing the characters to rethink the plan right in the middle of things going pear-shaped, just like on the TV show.

System

Quick overview of the system, which is a heavily4 tweaked version of the Cortex system, called Cortex Plus:

  • There are five different roles in the game, representing broad areas of expertise – classes, if you like – shown in the show. They are Grifter, Hacker, Hitter, Mastermind, and Thief.
  • There are six different attributes, representing the standard raw abilities of the character. They are Agility, Alertness, Intelligence, Strength, Vitality, and Willpower. Interestingly, each has a strong social function outside the obvious function.
  • Roles and attributes are ranked by die type, d4 to d125, and rolls are made using the die from the appropriate role and appropriate attribute. Extra dice can be added by introducing something new and interesting to the scene, called an Asset. No matter how big the dice pool gets, though, only the two highest dice are totaled for the result.
  • The GM – Fixer, in this game – rolls the opposition dice pool, representing whatever obstacles the characters are trying to overcome. The Fixer dice pool works roughly the same way, except the Fixer gets Complications instead of Assets.
  • Plot Points can be used to gain Assets or include more dice from your pool in the result of your roll.

There are some subtleties and other mechanical flourishes to the game, but that’s the core of it, and I’m only going to talk about a couple of other parts.

First, in keeping with the source material, the game uses a very nice mechanic for flashbacks, allowing the players to spend Plot Points to retcon some action in a flashback, showing how they set things up for an advantage that they now want to use. I thought this would be a difficult thing to get the players using, but they were all fans of the show, and jumped at the chance to use the idea. It’s really brought out in The Quickstart Job during the wrap-up, and creates a different way of looking at the game: instead of trying to account for every little possibility during the actual play of the game, where things can get bogged down in the minutiae, you can leave the loose ends for the end of the game and tie them up then, when you see what they are.

Second, Complications. Complications are really the heart and soul of the game. The assumption of the game is that the characters are obscenely good at what they do. They are among the top people in their respective fields in the entire world. So, it is expected that, as long as things go according to the plan, they will succeed. Complications are how you inject surprising things that aren’t according to the plan and force the characters to think on their feet to deal with them. Just like the TV show6, the drama and interest in the game comes from how the characters handle the problems that pop up to skew the plan.

Complications arise when a player rolls a 1 on any die in his or her dice pool on any roll. It earns them a Plot Point, and lets the Fixer add a trait to scenario rated at d6. This trait gets added to any roll the Fixer makes where it would apply. So, a Complication like Heightened Security d6 would get rolled when a character is trying to sneak into a building7. Extra 1s can grant more Complications, or can step up the die type of an existing Complication: d6 to d8 to d10 to d12.

One of the beautiful things about the Complication mechanic is that the Fixer can bank it, and is, in fact, encouraged to do so. So, when a player rolls a Complication, the Fixer can make note of it and not introduce it until a later time, when it would be more fun. This might seem a little prone to abuse, with the possibility of the Fixer saving up the Complications to hit a player at a very vulnerable point with You’re Screwed d12, but it’s really a way to make sure that the interesting, exciting parts of play get used at dramatically appropriate points. And if your Fixer does that, it just means you are more likely to fail at that particular action, not that the job falls apart.

The entire game is engineered towards making the characters show off how cool they are. That means that, in general, failure just means you have to think of a different way to do what your were trying to do. Even failure in a combat simply means that now the bad guys have you prisoner, and the rest of the team has to try and break you out, as well as finish up the job.

The Job

So, how did the playtest go? Really well, I thought, though not quite as I expected. I don’t want to give too much of the adventure away, because I hate spoilers, especially in reviews, but here’s the high-level look at it.

I spent about fifteen minutes at the start of play talking about the system, making sure everyone was up to speed on how to roll, what to roll, how to use Plot Points, and how to get more. Then, I got the players playing Nate and Hardison to read the briefing out loud to the other players, and we jumped right in.

As mentioned previously, the scenes are set up in a very basic, linear, hand-holding style. That didn’t survive encounter with my players. They’re all experienced gamers, and all of them are fans of the show, so they took what they had and ran with it. The first scene was pretty basic, with three of the characters scoping things out at a party, and we went through that as written, with them making their notice rolls and getting – or not getting, in Nate’s case – the information they needed. The second scene involved an actual objective to achieve, and that’s where they went to town.

In seconds, there was an elaborate scam involving a cake, fake e-mail, a surprise speech, and the preemptive removal of a couple of security guards. The scenario gives three options to accomplish the objective, and they’re probably very useful for groups who haven’t gamed as much, or watched as much Leverage; my group came up with a strange mish-mash of all three, with some extra bits thrown in, involving four out of five of the characters.

I hadn’t actually expected there to be that much flexibility in the scenario, so I was a little caught off-guard, and panicked a bit. My first instinct, being less secure in the system and scenario than I might have liked, was to try and force them back onto the tracks, but then the wiser part of me said, “Nah. It’s a playtest. If it all goes to hell, it doesn’t really matter. Relax and go with it.” So, I took a minute or two to think8, and ran with it.

That was the moment when the game started to shine. Everyone was trying crazy things, everyone was throwing around Plot Points for Assets9 and flashbacks, and I was layering on the Complications.

The game rolled along, and I nudged them past some points where they were getting bogged down by things that could better be handled in the wrap-up through flashbacks, and kept the pace going fairly well. Not quite as well as I would have liked, because I had to scramble a couple of times to figure out how to handle something, but that can be addressed by familiarity with the rules.

All in all, the game took about two and a quarter hours, and ended nicely10 for the group. They achieved the objective, and helped a little old lady keep her home, and sent the scumbags who were threatening it to prison for a long time.

Afterward, as I like to do with playtests, we had a postmortem to talk about the system, and what worked and what didn’t. Then we called it an evening.

Assessment

I really like the system. It does what it promises to do, and it does it with style and flair. I have not seen a system that handles caper and heist play nearly as well, ever. Some specific thoughts:

  • The Quickstart Job seems to use an earlier iteration of the rules than what finally got published in the rulebook. Specifically, the rules for acquiring Assets and for Contested Actions are different. The ones in the rulebook are, in my opinion, cleaner and more fun.
  • Once the game jumped the rails of the plot, I really began regretting that there wasn’t a complete set of traits for the Mark – the main villain of the piece. And for the locale. It was easy enough to improvise things, but the addition of a couple of stat lines would have been very useful, especially in an introductory product like this.
  • The idea about using post-it notes to track Assets and Complications on p115 of the rulebook is solid gold. Even in this short game, there were about ten Assets created, and five Complications (some of which got stepped up as high as d12). That’s a lot for everyone to keep track of, and the notes were a life-saver.
  • No one in the playtest used their Distinctions11 to generate Plot Points, only for bonuses. This is, I think, the product of the short adventure and the larger-than-normal starting Plot Points for the characters. In campaign play, I think the characters would be more hungry for Plot Points, and use the Distinctions more to get them.
  • The game is really focused on doing one thing, and doing it well. By default, the situations for the adventures are going to be rather formulaic, just like in the TV show. That said, there are a number of hacks for the system to work in different types of settings and genres already on the net. For a start, check out Rob Donoghue’s blog on the subject. His Two Guys With Swords set-up makes me really want to run a short Fafhrd/Grey Mouser campaign.
  • The playtest scenario leaves out a couple of the coolest parts of the system in the interests of brevity. Character creation is wonderful and collaborative, and the basic assumption of play is that the group is going to plan the job at the session. And there’s great advice in the book for handling both of these things.
  • The game has a situation generator, which lets you randomly roll up the client, problem, mark, etc. for a job. It’s tremendous fun to play with, even if you don’t end up using the results strictly as rolled.
  • I messed up the fight action a little in the game, due to lack of rules familiarity. That was part of the reason Eliot took such a beating, though his abysmal dice luck was a larger contributing factor. Again, this will be addressed by more familiarity with the system, and was exacerbated by the difference in rules between the playtest booklet and the final rulebook. The two systems were warring in my head.
  • The game is optimized for five players. Fewer players, and you’ll have one role that’s not covered in a primary position; more players, and you’ve got some double primary roles. Now, in theory, either of these – or both – could happen even with five players, but the system makes it sub-optimal. It’s far from game-breaking, but could change the dynamic of play significantly.

So, yeah. Leverage RPG is a very fun game. It’s got me looking at the slot on the game calender that opened up with the demise of Fearful Symmetries and thinking.

Thinking hard.

But I think I will hold off on starting a new campaign for now. I think I’ll wait at least until the two splatbooks come out this summer. I’ve already got them pre-ordered.

I think I may run another playtest, though, with a job of my own devising and full character creation. Just to see how it goes12.

We’ll see.

***Super Important Edit***

I forgot to say thanks to my players for taking part in this playtest. I hope you had as much fun as I did. So, thanks to:

  • Penny – Sophie
  • Michael – Hardison
  • Sandy – Parker
  • Kieran – Nate
  • Aleksander – Eliot
  1. I got The Quickstart Job pdf way, way back when it was first released, and preordered the main rulebook immediately after reading through it. When the rulebook went to the printer, the good folks at MWP sent me the pdf, which easily lived up to the promise of the playtest scenario. So, it’s been almost a year since I first looked at the game. []
  2. And if, by some chance, you don’t know about the TV show, you can find the details here and here and here. It’s a fun, light caper show. []
  3. One reason I’m glad I waited until I had run the game before writing about it. []
  4. And beautifully! []
  5. In practice, characters have scores from d4 to d10 when starting out []
  6. I’m saying that a lot in this review, and I personally think that’s entirely appropriate for a licensed game. In fact, I think that’s eminently desirable. If you’re playing a game based on a TV show, it should feel like you’re playing in an episode of the show. []
  7. Or talk his or her way in, or fight his or her way in, or hack his or her way in, or whatever. []
  8. Also, a convenient bathroom break, but that’s not all that relevant. []
  9. Which, for most of the evening, I kept calling Aspects. What can I say? Mechanically, they’re similar, and I’d just run Feints & Gambits the previous evening. But it was confusing for the poor players. []
  10. Although, Eliot got pretty beat up at one point – no matter what the system, a sucky roll is a sucky roll. []
  11. These are another thing kind of like Aspects in FATE. They let characters either get bonuses to their dice pool or to get an extra Plot Point. []
  12. Honestly. I can quit any time. []

Hunter Redux: One Year Later

Last Friday, I ran my second of two playtests for Hunter: The Vigil. You can read about the previous playtest here.

We used the One Year Later quickstart adventure available for free at DriveThruRPG.com. This used the same characters as the previous playtest we did (The Hunt), with some experience applied. We all liked this, because it meant that the players were able to grab the same character as last time and have a great deal of familiarity with it.

As for the adventure itself, it was about as good as the previous one. Looking at my original post, it seems I was quite hard on that adventure, and that wasn’t my real intention. Both The Hunt and One Year Later are written for very specific purposes, and they fulfill these admirably. They are good introductions to the kinds of things that you do in the game, they provide interesting and challenging scenes with a range of activities, and they show you how the rules work. And they are designed to run in a limited time.

The main problem we had with the scenarios was that we weren’t under the time constraints assumed in the writing. We had a whole evening to play, rather than just two or three hours. That made the adventures seem sparse and linear, lacking in opportunity to follow player choices in unusual directions. They are very much designed as demo scenarios, or convention scenarios, pulling in a bunch of people with minimal preparation and completing an adventure in a very tight time-frame.

One Year Later continued this trend, and it worked just as well. Sure, I had to tapdance a little bit when my players asked how they got the information that led them to the guy they’re following at the start of the adventure, or when they killed the only vector in the adventure for a critical piece of information, or when they decided to completely break away from the way the final encounter was scripted, but that’s fine. I was able to adapt and deal with that.

On the whole, my players liked the adventures, liked the pregenerated characters, liked the game. After the game, I asked them what they thought, and they were all pretty positive about the experience. Then I asked them if they would be interested in starting a new campaign.

They gave me a qualified yes.

See, we’ve already got a large number of campaigns running. Pretty much any given weekend, I’m either running or playing in one or two games. But they’re all Dungeons & Dragons. Nothing wrong with D&D, but nothing wrong with mixing it up, either. A little variety, like a modern horror game, is just the thing.

But scheduling is tough. We’re all adults, with family and work commitments. We’re already scheduled pretty tight.

So the suggestion (from Sandy) was to make it an episodic thing, more a series of mini-campaigns. Each episode would be three or four sessions, then we take a break while I build a new one and run that one in a couple of months.

That seemed a popular choice.

I sent out an e-mail message to the five players containing a number of questions I want them to answer, the first question being, “Are you in for the game?” Other questions cover things like setting of the campaign, level of lethality, level of supernatural, level of conspiracy, how much combat, etc. This should give me a solid basis to start constructing a campaign.

On my end, on the advice of one of the folks who commented on the last post*, I picked up some non-free .pdfs for Hunter. I got pretty much everything on this page, and I’ve been working through it, mining it for ideas. I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself until I get the responses back from the questions I sent to the prospective players, but I’ve got some ideas percolating.

Oh, yeah. And I bought these dice, because I’m a great big geek.

I’ll let you know how things go.

*Named, suspiciously, Chuck. Could it be…?

First the Blood, Then the Fire

Looks like the second round of the Dresden Files RPG playtest is about to get underway. While the first round was the Bleeding Alpha, this one is the Burning Alpha, and it’s got a new graphic:

DFRPG Burning Alpha Playtest

DFRPG Burning Alpha Playtest

[EDIT: I am a moron. I haven’t been able to figure out how to put a graphic in this post yet.]
[EDIT: Got it. I think.]

We who were involved in the Bleeding Alpha are getting to see the files and try them out, and still talk about them, but the focus on this round is really on new folks trying out the game. The canny Evil Hat contingent is setting up a special mailing list for the Burners, while still encouraging us Bleeders to use our list.

So, what does that mean for me?

I don’t know that I can get the old gang together for another extensive playtest – it’s summer, now, and people are scattering. Also, I’ve run some number of one-shots and short adventures in the past several months, and people are starting to push me to do a longer campaign again. I don’t want to start a campaign using a test ruleset, so…

Besides, I’m still trying to find the time to do a test run of Mutant City Blues.

Still, I’m going to be reading the revised rules, and I’ll probably talk about some of the changes here. I may even revisit some of the play reports and characters, to show how they would change in the new rules.

Also, I encourage the new playtesters, you Burners out there, to send me a link to anything you post about the game. I’ll put it up here, and we can help keep people up to date on what’s happening.

The blood has been spilled. Now, the fire will purify.