Return to Arkham

Last night, some friends and I got together to try out the new Arkham Horror Third Edition boardgame from Fantasy Flight GamesThis new edition dropped about two weeks back, and I was initially pretty reluctant to buy it – I had pretty faithfully bought each of the Second Edition supplements that came out over the years1, so the thought of starting over with a new version that would probably spawn a whole raft of its own supplements was… uninspiring, let’s say.

Add to that the fact that we didn’t play AH much anymore because of the bloat. It seemed to take longer to set up, longer to play, and the rules kept getting more arcane2. There’s also a storage issue: Arkham Horror Second Edition is a huge game with all the supplements, and storing it all in a manner that makes it possible to actually keep the components sorted to minimize set-up times is a hassle.

But.

I love AH2e, even though the thought of setting it up and playing it is daunting. I loved the First Edition when I got it long ago, in the Before Times. So, even though I wasn’t planning to buy it, I was watching the pre-release information coming from FFG, curious to see what they were doing with the new version of the game. And that wore down my resistance3, so I preordered it from my FLGS4, and picked up my copy on release day5.

So. Let’s talk about the game itself.

It comes in the standard FFG-style square box. Stats on the outside say 1-6 players, 2-3 hours play time, and that it’s aimed at ages 14+. Nothing too startling about any of that, though I note that the play time estimate seems a little closer to our actual first-session play time than I expected, so it’s probably a closer time estimate than I’m used to seeing on board games. Also, it’s nice that the game works as solo play, but it’s a pretty elaborate set-up, so keep that in mind if you want to tackle things solo.

The premise of the game is the same as previous editions: your gang of desperate, soon-to-be-dead-or-crazy investigators roam the fictional streets of 1927 Arkham, Massachusetts, trying6 to keep unspeakable evil from wreaking havoc.

AH3e differs from previous editions in game structure by borrowing the scenario idea from Eldritch Horror and Arkham Horror Card Game. Where, in previous versions of AH, you picked the Great Old One you were going up against and that made minor changes to the game changes, in 3e you choose a scenario that changes pretty much everything: board lay-out, types of monsters, types of anomalies, timing mechanisms, objectives, everything. It also frames everything narratively, so it creates a more coherent story of the play experience7. So, for example, after we lost the game last night, we all agreed about the moment things turned against us, and what had happened in the game fiction – not just the mechanics – to do that8.

Set-Up

Like previous editions of the game, set-up is a bit of a fiddly job. There’s lots of cards and tokens, and a fair bit of sorting to get together the specific bits needed for the scenario you’re playing. I had planned to get everything set up before folks showed up to play, but then we changed venue, so I spent about 20 minutes to a pre-sort of the components to make sure the set-up process was a quick and easy as possible. Set-up on the site took around 10-15 minutes, and that included a fair bit of chatting amongst the players, so it can probably be cut down to less than 10 minutes with more deliberate focus. So, including sort time, set-up from box to ready-to-play looks to be about a half-hour. Slightly less than AH2e.

This is the board at the start of The Approach of Azathoth, the recommended first scenario. Note that I’m using the deluxe investigator figures from previous editions of the game, and I’ve got some nice plastic stands off to the side for the anomaly markers. Also, an official RickFest souvenir dice tower, limited edition.

Of particular interest is the modular board. It’s double-sided: you get five tiles with a total of eight different neighbourhoods. Two neighbourhoods – Northside and Easttown – have duplicates in the mix, to allow for a little more variety to the neighbourhoods that can be mixed in play. They’re nice, thick cardboard stock that lock together like puzzle pieces, along with the seven different street segments. The town is different for each scenario, and the board generally has a smaller footprint than the AH2e core game board9.

One really nice touch for this edition is the special cards for investigator starting equipment. In previous editions, if you were playing a character that started play with, for example, a car and a tommy gun, you had to search the appropriate item decks for those cards, pull them out, and put them with the character. Now, there’s a deck of investigator starting equipment cards, with the investigator art on the backs to make it obvious who they belong to. You still have to look through a deck, but it’s just one deck, and the card art makes it really easy to pull out the ones you need.

Note that each scenario has very clear instructions for setting up that mesh into the general set-up instructions. General set-up has you build the board, while the scenario card tells you what neighbourhoods to use and how to connect them. General set-up tells you to build the monster deck, and the scenario card tells you which monsters to put in it. And there’s a scenario-specific deck of cards that look like the neighbourhood encounter cards we’ve seen in previous editions that get put aside in a special holder. That sort of thing.

Game Play

The game is broken into rounds, and each round has four phases:

  • During the Action Phase, each investigator gets to take two actions. There’s a list of eight or so standard actions – Move, Attack, Ward, etc. – and different cards and abilities can provide options beyond those.
  • Then comes the Monster Phase, when the monsters on the board get to move according to their AI rules, and attack. Attacks are nice and simple – they just do the listed damage to the investigator they’re engaged with. No rolling, so it doesn’t slow things down.
  • The Encounter Phase comes next. This has always been pretty much the heart of Arkham Horror games – you draw a card based on where you are in town, and read what happens to you. This is where you most often have to use your skills to prevent bad things and acquire good things.
  • Finally comes the Mythos Phase. In previous editions, this is when you would draw a card for the Great Old One and commit the appropriate atrocities. AH3e borrows the idea of the chaos cup from the Arkham Horror Card Game, putting a mix of tokens into a bag and having each player in turn draw two tokens and resolve them. The tokens are a mix of good and bad things10, and are set aside when drawn. Once the bag is empty, all the tokens are returned to the bag, and it starts again. This is one of the timing mechanisms of the game, charting the descent of the situation into chaos and ruin.

You run through each phase in turn, then go back to the top and do it again. Repeat until the world is safe or destroyed.

One thing of interest is that you don’t know what you need to do to win when you start a game. Goals are laid out by cards in the Archive, which is basically a choose-your-own-adventure-style deck of cards. You add one or two to the Codex11 at the start of the game, and these cards tell you your initial goals, the pass/fail conditions, and any special rules. When you meet the pass or fail condition, you’re instructed to flip cards and read the back, or add other cards to the Codex, showing the next step on the path to victory or destruction. This is the piece of the game that charts the overall narrative of the game.

Advancement of the game, both in good and bad directions, is governed by two factors: clues and doom

Clues

In AH2e, clues were a simple resource that let you reroll dice and seal gates. In AH3e, they are more narratively supported as actual clues: evidence your investigators can gather that’s related to the central mystery of the scenario, and then figure out to find the next goal. Clues are spawned in neigbourhoods when you pull the appropriate token from the bag in the Mythos Phase12. The card with the clue information has a back that matches one of the neighbourhood encounter decks, and you shuffle it into the top two cards of the deck, so the clue sits among the top three cards. Having an encounter in that neighbourhood thus gives you a one in three chance of a scenario-appropriate incident that provides an opportunity to claim the clue.

Clues can be spent to reroll one die on a test. This is not a terribly efficient way to use your clues. Most scenarios only advance in a positive direction when you add clue tokens to the scenario card. This is done with a Research action, which is an Observation test13 that lets you move one clue per success from your character’s card to the scenario card. This means that, to take a Research action, you must already have one or more clue tokens on your investigator. Narratively, gathering a clue means finding evidence, and Researching lets you figure out what that evidence means.

So, yeah, you want to add clues to your scenario card. The Codex will tell you how many you need to advance the plot, but adding more is not a bad thing, because there are some times you’ll have to spend them from the scenario card to advance the plot.

Doom

Doom is the flipside of clues14. It shows how bad things are getting in Arkham. In AH2e, doom was just a track on the Great Old One card that, when it filled up, woke up the terrible ancient evil to eat you all. In AH3e, doom is added to locations in neighbourhoods, and causes bad things to happen as it accumulates there.

In three out of the four scenarios15, getting too much doom in a given location creates an anomaly, which are 3e‘s counterpart to 2e‘s gates. Once an anomaly exists in a neighbourhood, any new doom is added to the scenario card. Doom on the scenario card is similar to clues on the scenario card: get enough of it, and the plot progresses, but not in a direction that will make the investigators’ lives easier. Let this happen too many times16, and you lose the game.

The way to prevent, or at least mitigate, this is the Ward action. If your investigator is in a space with doom, you can use one of your actions to test your Lore skill, removing one doom from that location for each success you roll. Keeping on top of doom is vital for keeping the game going long enough to have a chance of winning.

Our Game

Our game lasted about four hours, which is only an hour longer than the time estimate on the box. For a first run-through, that’s pretty good. I think I’ve already said a couple of times that we lost. Here’s pretty much the moment we really knew it was over.

Okay. We had just pulled a headline card (one of the other timing mechanisms in the game) that cost everyone 1d6 Health and Sanity, split however we wanted between the two stats. Everyone rolled 5 or 6, so we were all pretty beat up. Then, a Reckoning pull put a whole bunch of doom on the board, spawning three anomalies. We hung on for a few more rounds, and got things largely cleaned up, but the time spent cleaning up the current mess meant we couldn’t really work towards the actual goal, and it all fell apart.

And thus, because of our failure, Azathoth arrived and destroyed all life on earth.

Sorry.

Tear-Down

Tear-down of the game took about 20 minutes, mainly because of the fiddliness of sorting all the various components. Most of the scenario-specific stuff auto-sorts itself during play, so there’s not a whole lot of messing around with doing that – just looking through the location decks for the scenario-specific clue encounter cards, which have a different enough face that they’re easy to spot. So, not a trivial clean-up time, but not overwhelming either.

Play Advice

After running through the game once, I have some advice to help it run smoothly and in a timely manner. These are mainly things I learned by not doing them well enough during the game, and regretting it. There’s no real strategy here, because I haven’t developed any beyond, “Clues good. Doom bad. Monsters bite.”

  • There are two-side player markers that you can flip to show that your investigator has acted. USE THEM. The Action Phase lets you choose the order in which your investigators act each round, and there are lots of moving bits to the different actions, so it can be easy to lose track of whether or not someone has acted. Use these markers religiously.
  • Appoint one player to monitor and announce each phase. There are nice reference cards for each player, so use these to keep track. Again, there are lots of moving parts, and there can be digressions in play because of various things triggering other things. Giving one player the responsibility to keep track of what phase you’re in and what comes next can really help avoid having to make timing corrections.
  • Read your whole investigator card. I mean, there’s some flavour text that you can avoid, but I almost missed the fact that the investigator I took randomly17 was essentially permanently cursed, only succeeding on 6s on his tests. Made him a real challenge. So, read the whole card, and all the starting cards you get, and keep track of your various abilities. There are a lot of them.
  • Read all of the cards that affect the entire game out loud. Other people hearing the stuff may be able to help you avoid misinterpretation and mistake. It’s a co-operative game, so use your team.
  • Spend a minute or so at the start of the Action Phase to strategize. You get to decide the order in which the investigators act, so take advantage of that to make sure you’re doing things efficiently and effectively.
  • Clear your schedule. This is a game that takes time and attention to play. Not paying close attention or trying to rush things will really impact your enjoyment of the game.

Conclusions

Four of us played, and we all had a lot of fun. One of the group is generally reluctant to play these longer games18, and even she said that she had fun, and was looking forward to playing it again.

The scenario-based design really works well to build a story out of game play, and to emphasize the mystery and horror aspects of the game, especially on the first play of any given scenario, when you don’t know how the story will unfold. It also provide a strong structure for future expansion releases.

The physical design and structure of the components is typically high-end for FFG games. I sleeved all the19 cards, because I think the game’s going to get a fair bit of play, and the extra sorting and shuffling you do with the scenarios is going to increase wear on the cards. I also use a cheap set of plastic bowls for the various20 counters and tokens used in the game, making it easier to draw them during play, rather than just putting them on the table in the baggies I store them in.

Also, it looks nicer.

Of the 12 starting investigators, 10 have shown up in previous AH family games21, and 2 are new to this game. That meant I had the deluxe, painted investigator figures for all but two of the investigators. I also had some nice plastic stands for the anomaly markers that I threw in the box.

The Broken Token, my favourite creator of deluxe game crates and game organizers, has a product page up for an Arkham Horror organizer, but no organizer product listed on it, yet. I’m watching that space, though22.

This game is, to my mind an improvement over the second edition in a number of ways, including speed of play, replay value, and mechanically supported narrative. It’s still a non-trivial investment of time and money, but if you liked second edition, you’ll probably like this, and probably like it more. And it’s nice to have an AH game that fits in one box again. So, if Lovecraftian board games are of interest, I strongly recommend you check this out.

  1. And there were a lot of them! []
  2. Ba-dum CHING! []
  3. So, congratulations to the FFG marketing department, I suppose. Working as designed. []
  4. Amuse N Games, if you care. You should. They’re pretty great. []
  5. I was surprised to also get the Deluxe Rule Book with my preorder. Thanks, Brian and Scotia! []
  6. Largely unsuccessfully. []
  7. This was implemented in Eldritch Horror specifically, but was a little rough there. The AH3e version of it is nice and smooth. []
  8. ONE stupid headline! Just ONE! []
  9. This may change with the supplements that I assume are coming, and will probably add some more neighbourhood tiles. []
  10. Mostly bad. The only really good one is the one that puts a clue on the board. The other “good” one is blank, so the goodness is just that nothing bad happens. []
  11. The game’s fancy term for an array of cards that charts the narrative status of play and current goals. []
  12. You also start the game with three clues on the board. []
  13. That is, you roll dice equal to your investigator’s Observation skill, and count each 5 or 6 as a success. []
  14. Literally, in this game, because the tokens for doom are the other side of the tokens for clues. []
  15. I haven’t looked carefully at the fourth scenario, yet, so I can’t speak to what doom does in that one. []
  16. As we did, last night. []
  17. Rex Murphy. []
  18. To be fair, the version of AH she’s most familiar with is 2e, which can take 6-8 hours or more to play. []
  19. Many, many. []
  20. Many, many, many. []
  21. AH2e, Eldritch Horror, Elder Sign, Mansions of Madness. []
  22. Now, the page shows the AH2e box and publication date, so I don’t know if they’re making a product for 2e or 3e. Fingers crossed. []

Tachyon Squadron

Tachyon Squadron  is a Fate Core game of a squadron of starfighter pilots at war. You play pilots in the eponymous Tachyon Squadron, defending a star system against an oppressive empire bent on conquering it.

It’s important to note that you play pilots – not mechanics, not intelligence agents, not the hangers-on of the squadron. You play the pilots. And central to the game is engaging in space combat missions, most of which involve at least some dogfighting in your starship.

I point this out because these constraints do a lot to focus the game on the experience its designed to emulate. It’s not a generic science fiction game, or even a generic military science fiction game. It is specifically a game about science fiction fighter pilots. The mechanics of the game are fine-tuned to provide fun support for this type of story, and the setting elements give a solid underpinning for the game world that allows the GM to build a coherent, logical series for the players to play through.

Now, this is a Fate Core game, so it’s certainly possible to go beyond the narrow focus of this book to play a broader, more generic science fiction game, but Tachyon Squadron doesn’t do much help you with that. Which is fine; the game in the book is solid and fun as it stands.

The Book

Tachyon Squadron is a digest-sized hardcover, like most of the RPGs coming out of Evil Hat Productions. It’s a solid book, with nice, thick pages and interior colour art. Evil Hat makes really gorgeous books, and this is no exception. The art is nice, and the layout is very clean and readable.

The System

As a Fate Core game, there’s a lot of familiar stuff in here. For the core systems, Tachyon Squadron points you to the Fate Core book, so the TS book is a fairly slim volume1. It uses all the standard elements of Fate Core, with aspects, skills, stunts, and fate points. You’ll recognize most of the elements on the character sheet, though there are a couple of different applications for some elements.

Page 10 of the rulebook has a nice little boxed text section called Tachyon Squadron for Fate Core Veterans that does a good job of pointing out what’s different in this implementation of the system.

Character Aspects

Character aspects mostly work the same as in other Fate Core games. The high concept aspect is exactly the same as in other Fate Core games. There is no trouble aspect; instead there’s a two-part decompression aspect, showing how the pilot blows off steam between missions – one healthy method, one… not so much. So, you get decompression aspects like Excellent Therapist/Hitting the Bottle.

Two other character aspects are relationship aspects, which show your pilot’s ties with the other members of your squadron. This really helps reinforce the ties2 within the squadron, emphasizing the tight-knit nature of a combat unit.

The last aspect is totally free to choose, and is an extra chance to make your pilot unique.

Gear Stunts

Special bits of technology is a common thing within science fiction games, and Tachyon Squadron takes an interesting approach to gear. One of your three starting stunts is a gear stunt – a stunt that you have because of a piece of equipment your character owns. Instead of the standard bonus or use of a different skill that stunts normally give, gear stunts let you maximize one die on a roll – turn the die to the side.

This gives gear a little bit of different flavour than non-gear stunts, and maximizing and minimizing dice offers another mechanical handle to attach various things3 to.

The Engagement

This is the core of the game, in a lot of ways. It’s the central piece of new Fate Core mechanics that the whole rest of the game revolves around. If you are looking at Tachyon Squadron as a source from which to loot stuff, this is the main thing you’re gonna want to loot.

It’s very cool.

The engagement is how the game handles space battles, including dogfights, battles with capital ships, raids on space stations and ground bases, and all other kinds of battles involving starfighters. It’s a fairly simple, narrative system that doesn’t require miniatures, yet still manages to capture the thrilling movement and desperate action of a space battle.

It involves a ranked play area, with slots marked out for a range of numbers, usually -3 to +6 or so. There’s a slot at the top for Undetected, and a slot at the bottom for Special. Ship markers are placed on the ranks based on a Tactics roll, and can attack any ship ranked below them. Ships can also maneuver to change their ranking, to gain special advantage, to lock on an enemy’s tail, to shake an enemy off their tail, and all the rest of the things you want to see in space combat.

The rulebook spends some considerable time4 explaining how the system works, with copious examples. It’s very clear explanation, and a really clean system for running something that could be ugly and complicated. It might be a little bit harder to follow if you’re not familiar with Fate Core and the way overcome rolls and create advantage rolls work, but those aren’t difficult concepts to master.

There’s also a new damage system for starfighters, so you can capture the feel of having different systems fail during combat, just like in the movies. Again, it’s a clean, straightforward system that allows you to show surprising depth in play without resorting to excess complexity.

Campaign Play

So, Tachyon Squadron is set in a defined universe. A star system has just declared their independence from an oppressive empire, and a freedom-loving space superpower that just finished a war with that empire is funneling fighters and pilots to the newly independent star system to help it defend itself5.

You are among these pilots, in Tachyon Squadron6.  Your job is to use your space combat skills and very limited materiel to hold off the attempts of the enemy empire from retaking this star system.

There are clear instructions on how to build individual engagements of various flavours, including how to scale the difficulty of these engagements. There’s also a nice, step-by-step guide for building a series of engagements that tie together into a campaign arc, and two sample campaign arcs in the book.

Joining together a few of these campaign arcs can tell the entire story of the conflict in the system, from the first attempts at reconquest to the abandonment of these plans as not worth the effort7. In all, it provides a firm foundation for building a story that extends just exactly as far as is interesting to you.

Conclusion

I really like Tachyon Squadron. The source material is not necessarily my favourite stuff8, but it’s fun. The game design to reproduce the fun parts of that source material is sheer bloody beauty. It’s clean, it’s flavourful, and it’s fun.

This is another one of those games that, after reading it, I really want to run it.

If you like the idea of roleplaying space dogfights, as seen in Battlestar Galactica and Robotech, you should definitely check this book out. If you want a masterclass worked example of how to design a game to focus on a particular subject, you should definitely check this book out.

If both those things are of interest to you, you need this book. So go get it.

  1. 184 pages. []
  2. And the drama. []
  3. Like spaceship damage. []
  4. Over 40 pages. []
  5. Think of the Eagle Squadrons in World War 2. []
  6. The other two squadrons, Axion and Graviton, are (mostly) friendly rivals of Tachyon Squadron. []
  7. Or, of course, to the evil empire’s victory. That’s possible, too. []
  8. You can really tell that Clark Valentine, the writer, loves the source material, and has thought long and hard about what is good about it. []

Crooks… in… SPAAAAAAAACE!

It’s been a while since I’ve posted anything here, and I thought I’d try to get back to it with a review.

I’ve just finished reading Scum and Villainy, a new science fiction RPG from my heroes at Evil Hat Productions. It’s a Forged in the Dark game1, meaning it uses the same core system as Blades in the Dark2. It came out this year3 around GenCon, and I just got around to reading it now.

Short review: it blew me away, and I want to play it.

So, the basic premise is that you are, well, space crooks. You’re the crew of a small spaceship in a small collection of star systems, and you’re… well, if you’re not total outlaws, you’re definitely shady. There are three distinct flavours of crew you can join, based on the kind of ship you choose:

  • Stardancer is for illicit merchants, smugglers, and blockade runners. Think Firefly.
  • Cerberus is for bounty hunters and extraction specialists. Think Cowboy Bebop or Killjoys.
  • Firedrake is for rebels and revolutionaries. Think Blake’s 7 and Star Wars Rebels.

The basic components of ships, jobs, and character types lets you reconstruct pretty much any space-focused science fiction universe you might like, as long as the main characters are a small, stalwart crew of underdogs4.

The Book

If you’ve bought any of Evil Hat’s roleplaying games before, the book is going to look very familiar. Digest-sized hardcover, with thick, solid covers and pages, and lots of black and white interior art. The book is physically durable5, and the layout is very clean and readable. There are even nice page-edge markers that let you flip quickly through the book and see what section you’re in. In short, it’s an attractive, useful book that’s going to last even when you’re using it for reference at a cluttered game table.

Basic Mechanics

Task resolution in the game is really simple. You build a pool of d6s, roll them, and look for the highest die. You get total success with a 6, partial success6 with a 4 or 5, and fail with a 1 to 3. The rolls are mainly Action rolls, based on one of your 12 action types, with dice added or removed based on circumstance. There are also Fortune rolls, which are used mainly by the GM to answer questions that are out of the control of the characters – how crowded is the spaceport, how many people in this village survive the alien plague, stuff like that. Also, Resistance rolls let you mitigate negative consequences that your character might face.

Two interesting twists on the mechanics of rolling are the ideas of Position and Effect. Position is one of three states – Controlled, Risky, and Desperate – that in many ways set the stakes for the roll. Position is determined mainly by the fiction, with the players and GM coming to a consensus before the dice are tossed. This is important, because Position determines how severe the consequences of failure7 are.

Effect is also determined by GM and players based on the fiction. It basically sets the expectation of what success on the roll means. It’s governed by things like relative scale and situational advantages. For example, trying to shoot down a starship with a handgun is not going to have a low Effect, while trying to intimidate a lone bookkeeper when you’ve got three well-armed mercenaries backing you up is going to have a high Effect.

Together, Position and Effect frame the Action rolls, making sure the players and the GM have a shared understanding of what’s going on, how much danger is in the air, and how much good can come from success.

Play Phases

Scum and Villainy, like Blades in the Dark, splits play into three different phases:

  • Free play
  • The job
  • Downtime

Free play is pretty much what it says on the tin – you just play, making whatever rolls the fiction calls for. This is the time when players are generally trying to deal with the aftermath and loose ends of their last job, and track down or decide on the next one. Free play generally lasts up until the crew picks a job and decides to work it.

The job is when the crew does the job. They steal the thing, or smuggle the stuff, or capture the bounty, or sabotage the stuff, or whatever. It’s the main actiony part of the game, and is set up to run in a quick, exciting, and surprising manner. The job lasts until the job is done, win or lose.

Downtime is a more abstracted phase that follows the job, where the crew collects their pay, heals up, blows off steam, repairs the ship, works on their long-term projects, ducks out of the system ahead of the police, and stuff like that. Downtime lasts until each player performs their share of downtime actions, then things revert to free play.

At first glance, this looked to me to be very mechanistic, and kind of dry. But upon thinking about it a little more, I decided that I really liked this aspect of the system. It sets clear expectations of each phase, so players and GMs have a shared understanding of what’s going on, and what’s at stake. It allows the game to implement slightly different mechanics for each of the three phases. It gives solid focus to the activities of each phase, minimizing digressions. And it builds in a rhythm and pacing familiar to anyone who watches episodic TV.

Characters

Scum and Villainy uses the playbook idea I first saw in Apocalypse World. There are a set number of roles that your character could take, and each one has its own special abilities and restrictions, spelled out on the character sheet. Instead of stats, you assign ratings in the different actions, and you pick your starting ability from your character list. As you advance, you can select additional abilities.

There are seven types of character: Mechanics, Muscles, Mystics, Pilots, Scoundrels, Speakers, and Stitches. Each one is pretty clear in its focus, but the choices you make during character creation add welcome distinction to the role.8

In addition to your action ratings and your special abilities, you also select a Heritage to reflect where your family comes from and a background to show how you grew up. These sound like a pretty fine distinction, but there are categories for each that you choose from, so it becomes more clear what each means.

You also need to choose a Vice – the little indulgence that helps you blow off steam and deal with stress. These aren’t necessarily what we think of as vices, including things like religious faith and family relations, but also include stuff like drink, drugs, gambling, etc. It’s anything that helps you feel in control and lets you balance yourself.

Each character also comes with a list of people you know besides your crew. This is an interesting mix of folks that link you into the setting, giving you a list of contacts, friends, rivals, and other faces. So, instead of having to ask the GM if you know anyone who can get you an unregistered blaster, you can ask if your buddy Shod, the arms dealer, can hook you up. This is just a beautiful way to make the characters feel like they have a history, and brings the background characters of the setting to life.

Character creation doesn’t seem to take long, but you wind up with an impressive depth of information about your character before beginning play. Not everything – in fact, there’s a section in the rules discussing the desirability of leaving details undetermined at character creation so that they can be discovered during play9. But the characters are flavourful and distinct, based on the character creation decisions.

Ships

The ship is an important component of the crew. Each type of ship is optimized to focus on a specific kind of job10, and has a playbook much like a character. You get to customize your ship somewhat during the creation phase, which allows you to skew or sharpen your focus somewhat. You also have to choose ties to various factions who helped or hindered you in getting your ship and crew together, so you start the game with some predefined relationships that you can lean on and that can lean on you.

Ships can advance, like characters. You can add new functionality, improve different parts, and generally grow it just like another character. Considering the emphasis placed on ships in this type of science fiction, it really works for the genre.

Setting

The setting is a network of four star systems in the Procyon Sector11 linked by jumpgates. In all, there are about a dozen planets, and maybe half that number other locations spelled out. It’s all part of a backwater area of the galactic Hegemony, which is a moderately oppressive and corrupt12 science fiction society. Tech is unevenly distributed, as are political power and sentient rights.

Procyon Sector is strewn with different types of environments, influences, secrets, and power struggles, making it a rich place to mine for story ideas. It’s a limited number of locations13 but the variety and the messiness of the connections give enough interest to keep the game going.

Besides star travel and blaster pistols, Scum and Villainy contains a lot of other popular science fiction tropes, including a space wizards14, alien races, xeno-archaeology, and sentient robots15. As I mentioned earlier, you can cobble together an homage to pretty much any science fiction universe you care about.

Brilliant Things

So, there’s the broad strokes of the game. It’s not an in-depth examination, and I’m sure you’ve spotted some holes as you’ve read through my thoughts. I’m going to address some of the holes below, as I call out a number of things that I think are absolutely brilliant about this game. Note that a number of these aren’t original to Scum and Villainy, and are just features of the Forged in the Dark games.

  • Devil’s Bargain: When you’re getting ready to make your Action roll, you start looking for extra dice to add to your pool, because more dice means a better chance of getting a full success – maybe even a critical. One thing you can do is accept a devil’s bargain. This is when the GM offers you an extra die for the pool in return for something bad happening in the fiction. So, maybe you get an extra die to shoot at the bad guy, but then your blaster jams, or you throw the cops off your trail, but it means they stumble onto your friend in a compromising position. It’s a way to elevate the stakes of the roll, giving you more risk for a better chance of success. It’s a wonderful little temptation to throw at your players, much like a compel in Fate.
  • Load: This is a great way to bypass the planning delay that choosing your equipment for an adventure can bring. Instead of having a detailed list of everything your character is hauling around, you pick a load level for the character. Then, during play, you spend your allotment of load to have the items you actually need in the moment. Each playbook has a couple of lists on it – one for generic items you might have, and one for items specific to your character type. Thus, anyone can say they’re carrying a blaster pistol or a communicator, but only the Scoundrel can decide to have forged documents.
  • Engagement Roll and Flashbacks: One of the big stumbling blocks in running a game focused on heists, capers, and missions is that, instead of  being a game about heists, they can become games about planning heists. I’ve spent sessions sitting around, discussing plans, and not getting to actually implement them until the next session, and then finding that half the planning was wasted, because the thing we planned for never happened16. In Scum and Villainy, you decide what your objective is, choose a basic flavour for the plan – assault, deception, infiltration, mystic, social, transport – and one initial detail. Then, you jump into the job, taking all the planning as given. You make an Engagement roll to determined how things start, and get on with things. When you run into something that you wish you had prepared for, you have a flashback, to show how you actually did prepare for it during the planning that happened off-screen. Not only does this allow play to bypass lengthy17 planning sessions, it means that you only have to deal with plans that make a difference, and that’s awesome.
  • Clocks: I think the first time I saw the clock idea in an RPG was in Apocalypse World18. Clocks are essentially timing/tension devices, a visual representation of changing situations. You can start a clock for any impending event, which means drawing a circle and splitting it into however many wedges you want. When something happens to make the event more imminent, you colour in a wedge or two and, when all the wedges are filled, the thing that the clock was tracking happens. The beautiful thing about clocks is that they sit right there in front of everyone, so they can see their progress, and can see what fills them up. It’s as good as a soundtrack for ratcheting up tension. Of course, clocks don’t just track bad things – they also show how close you are to finishing big projects and things. Either way, it’s great visual feedback on what’s happening.
  • Factions: In addition to the four systems and twelve planets of the Procyon Sector, the book documents 36 different factions. These are power groups of various strengths, abilities, and goals operating in the setting, ranging from the powerful and connected Engineering Guild to the hard-scrabble opportunistic street gang Wreckers. During character and ship creation, the crew winds up entangled with some of these factions, owing them favours, or being owed favours, wiring the crew into a dynamic mess of politics and scheming. Each faction has its own goals and resources, and they develop their own relationships with the crew, often based on how friendly the crew is with their friends and enemies, and how useful the crew is to them. This gives the setting a feeling of life beyond the characters, as the different factions jockey for position and pursue their goals, changing the setting as they do so. It also serves as a rich source for jobs for the crew.

Conclusion

I’m a huge fan of this game, despite not having played it yet. It draws on the structure created in Blades in the Dark, and shows how it lies at the root of some of the most popular science fiction stories of our time. I think the cultural touchstones of the science fiction settings are a little more accessible than the industrial pseudo-Victorian fantasy basis of Blades in the Dark, which may make this book a little more popular than it’s design parent19.

If you’re looking for an action-packed science fiction RPG that privileges story, if you want something that focuses on the underdog in an exciting universe, if you like caper and heist stories that don’t get bogged down, this is the book for you.

  1. I find the naming of the… I don’t know what to really call it, maybe the genus of the game? I find it a little odd. I mean the first time I saw it was with the Powered by the Apocalypse games based on Apocalypse World, and that seemed kind of cool, but I’m not sure how much I like it as a trend. I’m torn. It strikes me as good branding, but it also strikes me as a little bit precious. So, yeah. I dunno. []
  2. Which is also a really cool game. The core system is fantastic, and I like seeing it get reapplied to other genres. []
  3. 2018, for you folks in the future. []
  4. So, not so good for most Star Trek franchises, or for Battlestar Galactica. For BSG, though, there’s Tachyon Squadron, which I want to review next. []
  5. I’ve been hauling it around in my bag for a couple of weeks, and leaving it open face down on tables overnight, and stuff like that, and it still looks pretty much brand new. []
  6. Think the 7-9 roll in a Powered by the Apocalypse game. []
  7. Or cost of success. []
  8. This makes it much more viable to have multiple players playing the same character type without stepping on each others’ toes than in the Powered by the Apocalypse games. []
  9. Which reminds me a little of the practice of leaving a couple of aspects undefined in Fate games to be determined during play. []
  10. Though, of course, that doesn’t mean it can only do that type of job. []
  11. Not necessarily having anything to do with the real Procyon, of course. []
  12. Has to be, right? Otherwise it’s harder to make the argument that PC criminals are actually heroes. Especially if you’re playing in the rebel mode on a Firedrake. []
  13. Not unlike the ‘Verse of Firefly or the Quad of Killjoys. []
  14. As exemplified by the Mystic character type. []
  15. Ur-bots, in this case. []
  16. My players remember the Amber game, where this was common. []
  17. And potential fruitless and frustrating. []
  18. Except, as I recall, it was just used for tracking injury to the characters there. Maybe also impending threats? Can’t say for sure. Pretty sure it was used for tracking impending threats in Dungeon World, though. []
  19. Though I strongly recommend getting both, if you can. They’re worth it. []

Speedy Dresden

My heroes over at Evil Hat Productions have just released Dresden Files Accelerated, fulfilling one of the stretch-goal promises of their incredibly successful Fate Core Kickstarter1. This is a version of The Dresden Files Roleplaying Game using the Fate Accelerated implementation of the Fate Core rules2. Now, some of you may know I’m a big fan of the original DFRPG, and of Fate in general, and I’ve already mentioned that the folks at Evil Hat are my heroes

What’s the Difference?

Back when it first came out, I wrote a post about FAE. In short, FAE is a rules-light, fast-play, simplified version of the Fate Core rules. DFRPG is one of the complex iterations of the Fate3 rules, notably because of the magic system4DFA is a simplified, fast-play version of DFRPG.

The Basic Mechanics

Like FAEDFA uses approaches instead of skills. The six approaches for DFA are Flair, Focus, Force, Guile, Haste, and Intellect5. There are the standard four action types – Create Advantage, Overcome, Attack, and Defend – and the four standard outcomes – Succeed, Succeed with Style, Tie, and Fail.

Actions and conflict work pretty much the same as in FAE: roll dF, add it to your approach rating, and compare it to a target number. Levels of success in combat turn into stress, or into free invokes on created aspects.

Of course, there are aspects. Can’t have Fate without aspects. They work the same as in other Fate games, giving a bonus or reroll when you invoke them and spend a Fate point, and earning a Fate point when compelled.

There are, however, some new bits of mechanics that do some really interesting things.

Mantles

DFRPG used a thing called a Template to define your character’s basic powers and abilities. DFA calls roughly the same thing a Mantle. There’s a total of 24 Mantles in the book, covering everything from a clued-in mortal to magical practitioner to Santa’s seneschal6.

Each Mantle has a set of core stunts, optional stunts, and unique conditions7 that provide the special abilities and flavour of each character type. Mostly, you pick a single Mantle for your character, but a few Mantles, like Changeling or Red Court Infected, act more as templates – you create a character using one of the mortal Mantles, then add the supernatural Mantle.

You start with all the core stunts of your Mantle, and with the unique conditions. You also get one free stunt from the list of optional stunts. And, as with standard Fate games, you can choose to take more stunts in exchange for giving up a point of Refresh per stunt.

Conditions and Stress

Conditions are a very cool new piece of mechanics. Functionally, they’re like stress tracks in Fate, or predetermined consequences. Really, they’re aspects with an On/Off switch8. Each condition has a series of checkboxes – some have as few as one checkbox – and, in given situations, you mark one of the boxes9. Once the boxes are ticked, the associated aspect is turned on, until you meet whatever requirement the condition has to clear it.

Example? Sure!

Magical Practioners10 have a condition called Exhausted. It’s got one box. With the Evocation stunt, you can boost the effect of your spell by marking the box, which gives you some bonuses on trying to, for example, blast a vampire with sunlight. While the condition is marked, you have the Exhausted aspect, and the GM can invoke that to mess with you. In addition, in any scene that Exhausted would be a factor, the GM gets one free boost against you. If you take the necessary time to rest up, you can clear the condition, and you are no longer exhausted.

So, really, conditions are the category to which stress and consequences belong – tick the boxes and get a temporary aspect. And stress in DFA is reshaped a bit to help it fit that model better. By default, characters have six boxes of stress, and the conditions In Peril and Doomed. Stress is not divided into the mental, physical, and social tracks of DFRPG – there is only stress11. In Peril and Doomed act as predefined consequences – you can tick one of those conditions to offset greater amounts of stress. If you can’t buy off all the successful shifts of whatever you’re dealing with – punch, shot, fireball, psychic blast, or anything else – you’re taken out.

Now, as I mentioned in a footnote, some conditions kind of work in reverse: they start out marked, and get cleared in certain situations, turning that conditional aspect off. These are basically aspects that give your character special abilities, like Police Powers or Medical License, but that can be revoked due to your actions.

Why do I think this is such a neat little piece of game design? Because it’s a simple, adaptable way to create great variety and model a lot of different powers without having to come up with entirely new sub-systems for them. It is incredibly flexible, there are a whole slew of worked examples in the book to help you come up with new implementations, and it doesn’t increase the complexity of the characters very much. I mean, there’s always some increase in complexity when you add a new thing to track for a character, but because it’s so very similar to stuff you’re already tracking, that increase is minimal.

So, yeah. Conditions are pretty cool12.

Stunts

I haven’t done an actual count, but my impression is that DFA has more actual stunts listed in the book than Fate Core does. It certainly has more than FAE does. This is because it takes everything that was a power in DFRPG and makes it a stunt. And also because the stunts integrate so closely with conditions that clear definitions of what some stunts do in relation to the conditions is pretty much required.

There’s also a discussion about how to create your own stunts, using the method from FAE.

Magic

This is the section I was most interested in13, when the game was announced. I was really curious to see how the flavourful-but-complex magic system from DRFPG was going to be implemented in the much-simpler FAE structure of DFA.

First, let’s talk evocation. Evocation is a stunt, and it lets you use elements to perform the four types of actions allowed in Fate Core. It’s got a couple of conditions tied to it – Exhausted and Burned Out – to model the way channeling that much raw energy can just tire you out. It’s just a standard action, tied to your approach, that you get to describe in a magical style; so, instead of a Forceful gun attack, it might be a Forceful fire attack. There’s none of the math that the DFRPG system required14, and a single roll instead of one roll to gather power and another roll to focus that power.

There’s also no need to track how good you are at the different elements. There are stunts that can give you a bonus using a certain element with a certain approach to accomplish a certain action, but that’s much simpler than the DFRPG method of calculating and tracking it15.

Overall, I like the new evocation. It’s cleaner and simpler and, though it may lack some of the risk and apprehension of the DFRPG method, it is loads faster and easier.

Now for thaumaturgy. While evocation gets about half a page of write-up in DFA, thaumaturgy gets its own chapter. Now, it’s a chapter of 13 digest-sized pages, compared to DFRPG‘s 26 full-sized pages, so it’s not really all that much. It is more complicated than evocation, of course – it’s more flexible and more powerful. In DFA, it’s only a single roll16 to use thaumaturgy, rather than the multiple rolls to prepare the spell and gather and focus the power in DFRPG.

There is some math in this type of magic. You really kind of need to do a little math to have the sort of flexibility that thaumaturgy has in the source material17. You build spells by determining what stunts and/or conditions the spell brings into being. So, if you want to, say, use magic to turn you and everything you’re carrying into a cat, that’s +4 for the Physical Transformation (lasting) condition, and +2 for the Shifting Adept stunt, giving the spell a difficulty of Fantastic (+6). See? Simple math.

Now, instead of having to make up a Lore deficit18, you add up the costs, based on the conditions and stunts in the spell. So, for our shapeshifting spell above, it requires four costs: one for the stunt, three for the lasting condition. Then you make the roll against the difficulty. How well you roll determines who gets to pick the costs; you, the GM, or both taking turns.

Costs are narrative complications or resources expended: time for completing the ritual, rare components you need, help that you need19, special circumstances like times or places, or the spell not quite working correctly. This basically replaces the before-the-roll spell preparation in DFRPG with an after-the-roll determination of the story of the spell. It also determines if you need to make any other rolls for the spell to work – maybe it takes a roll to get you hands on a bit of the target’s hair, for example.

Note that this method makes thaumaturgy much more reliable and safe than in DFRPG, though a bad roll may result in the GM picking costs that you can’t obtain or aren’t willing to accept. This means that, if your ritual spell fails, it’s usually because you choose for it to fail rather than expend the resources or accept the costs required. And that’s interesting to me.

One last note about thaumaturgy: there are four example spells in the chapter, each about a page long. Two of those examples don’t actually use the ritual magic rules, and are examples of when to use these specialized rules and when to use the standard FAE-style actions. This is incredibly useful in opening up the concept of only using these more complicated rules20 when they actually add something to play, and modeling things using the regular mechanics otherwise. Good advice, and good examples.

A few other notes about magic:

  • Sponsored magic is handled by stunts and conditions in the mantles. It really helps simplify the whole sponsored magic stuff, which was a weak part in DFRPG ((To be fair, it was really cleared up in The Paranet Papers, which I reviewed here.)).
  • The Sight is a condition called The Third Eye, and using it is risky to your sanity. Clear, simple guidance on it.
  • Soulgaze is a stunt, and again, there’s clear, simple guidance.
  • Enchanted Item is a stunt that lets you pull a useful magic item out of your pocket once per session. Individual, permanent magic items, like the Wardens’ silver swords, are singular stunts on their own.

All in all, the magic system in DFA does a really good job of simplifying the DFRPG magic system without sacrificing very much in the way of flavour or flexibility.

Scale

The Dresden Files novels have creatures of vastly different levels of power facing off against each other. Supernatural creatures vs. mortals, wizards vs. fey nobility, stuff like that. DFA has the concept of scale to address that. There are five different scales: Mundane, Supernatural, Otherworldly, Legendary, and Godlike. Going up against a force of a different scale provides the higher-scaled side a significant bonus, based on the difference in scales.

This bonus is a big deal, but there are ways around it, as demonstrated in pretty much every Dresden Files story out there. As DFA says:

Wizard Dresden is an expert at finding the Achilles’ [sic] heel of superior foes.

Other Stuff

Just a quick rundown of some other things I think you should know about the game:

  • It’s got all the customization stuff you’d expect from an FAE game: building your own setting, GMCs, stunts, Mantles, and so on.
  • It’s also got a complete prebuilt setting, with GMCs and playable characters.
  • The advancement system is very simple, but there’s some good advice on advancing the setting along with the players.
  • It’s great fun to read, with lots of useful examples and amusing marginalia.
  • The art is clean and evocative, and there’s lots of it.
  • It’s a digest-sized book, like all the other Fate Core books.
  • The background covers up to Skin Game in the Dreden Files books. So, y’know, spoilers.
  • It’s waaaaaay easier to carry than DFRPG.
  • Our Story and The Paranet Papers for DFRPG are useful sourcebooks for DFA, but aren’t required.

Conclusion

I really like this game. Really. Reading it has got me looking at my game schedule to see if I can fit a new game in21, because I want to gather a group to play.

It’s a nice version of Dresden Files, vastly simplifying the system without sacrificing the cool flavour and flexibility of the game. If your a fan of Harry Dresden in any of his incarnations, I recommend picking it up.

You know you want to.

  1. To be clear, the stretch goal was that they would develop DFA, not that you’d get DFA as part of your Fate Core Kickstarter. They were very clear that this was not going to happen right away. And it didn’t. But it did happen, just like they promised. []
  2. Think I’ve linked enough things in those two sentences? Feels like a lot of links. []
  3. Note that it predates Fate Core. []
  4. If you don’t believe me, I wrote a lengthy series of posts talking just about the DFRPG magic system. Take a look at the Spellcasting section here. []
  5. Only slightly different from FAE‘s Careful, Clever, Flashy, Forceful, Quick, and Sneaky. []
  6. Not even kidding about that last one. []
  7. I’ll talk more about conditions below. They’re cool. []
  8. Which I think is brilliant. []
  9. This is not entirely accurate. Some conditions start as ticked checkboxes, and you clear them in response to certain situations. []
  10. Like Wizards, for example. []
  11. This is the same in FAE, and I liked it there, too. []
  12. Forgot to mention another default condition everyone gets: Indebted. This lets you track favours that you owe to others. Nothing dangerous about that, right? []
  13. And the longest section of this review. Sorry. []
  14. Take a look here to see what I mean. []
  15. Which I discuss under Calculating Your Bonuses here. []
  16. Kind of. Keep reading to find out about costs. []
  17. That is, more powerful spells need more complex rituals, so you need some way to determine how powerful the spell is in order to decide how complex the ritual is. []
  18. What am I talking about? You can read about it here. []
  19. Remember that Indebted condition? []
  20. “More complicated” compared to the other DFA rules. Not compared to DFRPG. []
  21. Not quite yet, unfortunately. Maybe in a couple of months. []

Those REALLY Meddling Kids

EDIT: I got some feedback from Robert Bohl, the author of Misspent Youth, pointing out a couple of errors I made in talking about the game. I’ve added those inline, below. Thanks, Robert!

I found out about Misspent Youth from Tabletop1, and went and bought the game pretty much immediately after watching the episode. It’s an RPG that draws on the current ideals of YA dystopian science fiction – the world is messed up, and a group of plucky kids2 fight the system to claim their freedom. So, y’know, stuff like Hunger GamesDivergentReady Player One, and so on.

Mechanically, this falls more on the story game end of the RPG continuum, with a fairly light system and lots of authorial control in the hands of the players. Still, for all the light system and player control, the structure of each session is pretty tightly defined, and the whole of the game is focused on producing a very specific kind of story and play experience.

Focused and specific doesn’t have to mean narrow, though. While a lot of the modern dystopian stuff is pretty formulaic3, and Misspent Youth is really tweaked to run those kinds of stories, there are a couple of extended examples in the game that show how you can take other stories that don’t really fall into those patterns and shape them to work in the game. For copyright and IP concerns, the serial numbers are filed off, but there’s a breakdown of how you could run both Star Wars and ET as Misspent Youth games.

It’s all about how you choose to set up the game, and that starts with the Authority4.

The Authority

The Authority is the Man that is Keeping You Down. In keeping with the source material the game is inspired by, this can be a totalitarian state, with weird restrictions on large portions of the population, such as you see in Hunger Games. But it can also be something less monolithic, less ubiquitous, less pervasive, less public. So, you could put together a secret conspiracy that only controls one small area of society5, or set everything at a school where the folks in charge are pricks6, or whatever.

You design the Authority together as a group, GM and players, at the start of your first session. It starts with brainstorming about bullying – what bullying behaviours really get under everyone’s skin, and then using your brainstormed list to help you pick some defining characteristics for the Authority from a set of lists. At the end of the process, you have a Name, Description, Vice, Victim, Visage, and Need for the Authority. Everyone also gets to invent a System of Control: a thing about the Authority that gives it power over people.

The key idea is to make an antagonist that everyone really hates, embodying the worst bullying aspects that you’ve brainstormed. It’s got to be something that enrages you, not something where you can sit back and say, “Sure, they’re bad, but I can understand why they do the stuff they do.” You’re building an enemy. Don’t pull punches.

Of course, one of the group has to play the Authority, as the GM. That means that, while the Authority should be total Bad Guys, they also need to be comprehensible. The GM has to be able to make sense of what they do and what they want.

There’s also a bit of discussion about picking a rating for the game. Dealing with issues of authoritarianism, rebellion, oppression, and freedom means that there are themes and actions that come up that can be… unpleasant. Having a discussion early in the game about what sort of tone you’re going for, and what level of violence/profanity/whatever is acceptable really helps let everyone immerse themselves in the game, without having to worry too much that they’re going to be faced with something that spoils there fun in play.

The Young Offenders

So, player characters in this game are a group of teenagers, age 12-17, and are called YOs – Youthful Offenders.  You create these as a group, brainstorming and helping each other sort out concepts and convictions.

Convictions are the heart of the characters. They are a set of five descriptors about who your character is and what he or she believes. Three of these convictions are closed, meaning you choose them from a list, and two are open, meaning you get to pick anything for those. The closed convictions are Means, Motive, and Opportunity, while the open convictions are M.O. and Disorder.

These are not skills, although they – especially M.O. – can describe what you can do. They are more like aspects or approaches from Fate Core or Fate Accelerated Edition, in that they say more about who your character is than what he or she can do.

Each conviction starts free, and each can be sold out in play for a guaranteed success in a scene. So, if your Means conviction is Smart, you can sell it out, and it changes to Pedantic, but you then win that scene. This is powerful and tempting, but hazardous – selling out a conviction is permanent, it brings you closer in harmony to the Authority, and the entire game series ends when one YO has sold out all five convictions.

Yeah, this is a game, at its core, about selling out. About lost innocence, and capitulating to the powers that be. Your YO can’t really die in the game, but his or her soul can. Friendships, trust, hope, all of that can be lost, and those are the big threats.

Scenes

Each session of Misspent Youth is played out in a set of seven scenes, in a specific order:

  1. What’s Up
  2. Fighting Back
  3. Heating Up
  4. We Won
  5. We’re Fucked
  6. Who Wins7
  7. Dust Settles

This sequence of scenes gives a definite arc to the session, and mixes in a variety of different feels and moods. It helps keep the events of the game in a story-like structure, rather than being a series of events that a story is imposed upon. Each scene serves a specific function in play, and has a particular focus and intent.

Each scene also brings in elements of the world – either an Authority Figure or a Friendship Question. Authority Figures are pretty much what it says on the tin – a face of the Authority that is going to be important in this scene8. Friendship Questions are questions that were created when the players created their YOs, and can shift the focus from an external antagonist to internal strife as the secrets and truths that the characters have tried to hide are brought to light.

EDIT: Friendship questions aren’t created at the same time as the YOs. They are created at the start of each session. Thinking about it, this makes more sense to me; it allows players to reflect changes in the relationships between the YOs from session to session.

Everyone at the table takes turns setting a scene, including picking a where and when, picking an Authority Figure or Friendship Question to form the focal point of the scene, and saying what happens in the first five seconds of the scene. Then, the scene kicks off and the roleplaying begins.

I have to say that I really like the idea of the scene structure. It gives a strong focus to the game, keeping things moving forward and putting a bit of a clock on the story. It also drives towards conclusion, helping to keep things from just kind of trailing off. With each player taking a turn to set a scene, it helps to make sure that everyone gets input into the game, and shares the spotlight time around. And the choice of Authority Figure or Friendship Question really helps keep the scenes connected to the world and makes sure the stakes are compellingly high.

Struggles

Once each scene, and only once, there is a struggle. This is when the Authority wants something to happen, and the YOs oppose it, or vice versa. It can be physical combat, a chase, an escape, an argument, an infiltration, or any other event where one side is trying to do something and the other side is trying to stop it.

The Authority declares when a struggle starts, though it may be prompted by the actions of any player. So, the Authority may say something like, “Unkown to you, the cops have surrounded the restaurant you’re eating in, and are starting to move in. We’re starting a struggle.” Or, a player may say, “I’m not afraid of the gang. I pull my switchblade, flick it open, and tell them to back off,” and the Authority says, “Sounds like a struggle’s starting up!”

When a struggle starts, the Authority declares an objective – what the Authority wants to achieve in this scene. The YOs then collectively declare a hope – what they want to achieve. Now, whoever wins stops the other side from getting their objective or hope automatically, so you want to pick a proactive goal. If the Authority’s objective is to send the YOs to a juvenile detention facility, the YOs shouldn’t choose the hope of NOT getting sent to juvie; they get that if they win, automatically. They may want to choose something like embarrassing the officer who arrested them in front of his boss.

Struggles are when you use dice in this game. Well, the players do, anyway. The GM never rolls. It’s a fairly light system mechanically, involving claiming numbers and rolling 2d6, and trying to match numbers selected by the players and not the GM. If you roll a number that hasn’t been claimed, you claim it. If you roll a number that’s been claimed by you or another YO, the YOs win the struggle. If you roll a number that’s been claimed by the Authority, you lose the struggle. This is the point that you can sell out a conviction to claim a win, if you want. In amongst the rolling and claiming, you’re narrating what you’re doing, using your YO’s convictions. And the Authority narrates the Authority response, and claims another number.

This system is extremely adaptable to cover pretty much any kind of conflict, obstacle, or challenge you need in the game. It can represent a desperate fight lasting a few seconds, or it can model weeks of careful planning and politicking. The necessity of tying any YO action to a conviction really highlights the ideals and values of the characters, while the temptation of selling out for an easy win adds a nice dark side option.

Conclusion

There’s more to the game, of course. The author provides a lot of solid advice about how to run the game to really make it do what it’s designed for. He shows off some more advanced tools for getting the most out of the game. And there are a lot of good examples of everything, and some nice character sheets9, and other sheets. Everything, from the game’s terminology to it’s graphic design, is focused on driving home the idea of youthful rebellion, and it really works. I haven’t had time to actually try playing it, yet, but it’s on my list.

Right now, the game is only available in .pdf format, but Robert Bohl, the author10, let me know that, towards the end of June, he will be launching a Kickstarter for a new print edition of the game, plus a supplement. I’m definitely jumping onto that campaign for print copies of both, because this is something I want sitting on my shelf.

I urge you to check it out, and to keep an eye peeled for that Kickstarter.

EDIT: The Kickstarter campaign is scheduled to start Thursday, June 29. Now you know.

But I’m not the boss of you.

  1. At the time of writing this, the episode in question hasn’t made it to Youtube, yet. It’s only on Alpha. []
  2. Teens, by default. []
  3. No more so than any sub-genre, but there it is. []
  4. Not this Authority. []
  5. Like, maybe, the Pride in Marvel’s Runaways comic series, or the government agents in Repo Man. []
  6. TapsAnimal HouseToy Soldiers, etc. []
  7. I mistyped this as “Who Sins” at first. That could make for a cool game, too. []
  8. Usually as an adversary, if that was unclear. They’re bad guys. []
  9. They’re called Permanent Records. []
  10. Okay. When I bought the game in .pdf format, Robert Bohl reached out to me, asking where I’d heard about it, what made it interesting to me, etc. I answered him, and we had a little discussion, and he told me about the forthcoming Kickstarter. Why am I telling you this? Because it was a very nice, friendly thing for him to do, and it deserves to be noted. Not only did he write a great game, he’s the kind of guy who cares about his audience, and wants them to have fun. []

Those Meddling Kids

Last summer, my heroes over at Evil Hat Productions released Bubblegumshoe. Unusually for Evil Hat, the game is based on Pelgrane Press‘s GUMSHOE system, rather than on Evil Hat‘s own Fate Core system1. It is2 a teen detective story game, drawing heavily on stuff like the Veronica Mars TV show, Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys and Three Investigators book series, Scooby Doo cartoons, and so on. You play kids who are trying to solve mysteries.

I got a couple of my friends3 to agree to giving it a try4, so over the winter, we played through a limited campaign. It was a single mystery spread over three sessions, with an intro session devoted to setting the game up. We had a lot of fun with it.

The Book

The physical book is a digest-sized volume, about the same size as the Fate Core rulebook. It’s 272 pages, on sturdy, glossy paper, with a lot of black-and-white art throughout, a clean and open layout, and wonderful little elements of marginalia5. There are the requisite chapters on the system mechanics, building characters, and such. There are also a few chapters on getting the right feel for a teen mystery game, and a number of different settings – with rules tweaks for many of them – allowing you to set your game in different environments.

One of the nicest features of the book is that it contains five example mystery spines – essentially outline examples of how to put together your own mystery. One of these then gets an in-depth write-up, showing you how to take a simple spine and flesh it out into an entire scenario. I found that looking at the spine and the fleshed-out version was really helpful in figuring out what kinds of things I needed to think about in building my own story.

The GUMSHOE Bits

If you’re not familiar with GUMSHOE6, it’s a system designed for investigatory games. It’s built to address the problem that running investigations in other games often encountered – a bad roll could derail the entire game, as they players then don’t get a clue that they need to solve the mystery. With GUMSHOE, you have a set of investigatory abilities and, if you say you’re using the right one in a situation where there’s a clue to be found, you find that clue7. For other things you try and do that aren’t directly gaining clues – running, jumping, climbing trees8 – there’s a very simple d6 system.

One of the big things with every GUMSHOE game is that the list of abilities is tweaked to match the setting and reinforce the themes. Bubblegumshoe‘s abilities are focused on the kinds of things that make sense for teenage sleuths. Some particular tweaks to the system that I liked:

  • Grownup Face replaces Cop Talk from a lot of other GUMSHOE games. It serves the same function – gives the character credibility and access with authority figures – but instead of letting you be taken seriously by police, it lets you be taken seriously by adults. Important for teenage detectives.
  • The Cool ability functions effectively as both Health and Stability in normal GUMSHOE games. You run out of Cool, you’re out for a while. This, along with some changes to the Fighting ability, does a great deal to minimize a potentially problematic element: it means that you don’t necessarily have to have teenagers beating each other to death in your game. It also reinforces teen drama tropes, by making embarrassment and social power plays effectively life-or-death9.
  • For investigative abilities, the list is very focused on what a teenager might reasonably have access to. So, you get a Photography ability, and you get a Reasearch ability, but you don’t get a Forensic Pathology ability. And to make sure that you can still have access to some of the more esoteric investigative abilities, the game gives you Relationships.

Relationships

Okay. So, your fifteen-year-old yearbook editor may be really good sussing out whether someone’s kind of out-of-place with the clique they’re hanging with, but not so much with running a license plate to see who a car is registered to. That makes sense. But it does impose some limits on the types of clues you can reasonably expect your players to be able to collect.

Well, similar to the Sources idea I talked about in Cthulhu ConfidentialBubblegumshoe gives each character a number of Relationships – people that they know and that are important in their lives. And these Relationships can have abilities that the characters don’t otherwise have access to. So, your character doesn’t have any hope of using forensic accounting to unravel the community centre’s finances, but her aunt is a CPA who can take a look at the books and give you some insight.

In Bubblegumshoe, though the Relationships serve the same mechanical function as Sources in Cthulhu Confidential, their roleplaying dimension tends to be more important. You need to spend time and effort10 maintaining your relationships. You need to keep your mom happy and not get kicked out of school. You need to diss your high school nemesis and back up your BFF.

This keeps things closer to the kinds of source material stories the game tries to emulate – real life11 often intrudes upon and complicates your cool mystery-solving efforts.

Combat

I mentioned earlier that Bubblegumshoe uses the Cool stat as both Health and Stability12. This alone does a fair amount to help turn combat non-lethal, which is, I think, a necessary element, both in modeling the source material and in making it more comfortable for adults to play this game13.

Now, there are ways to hurt other characters physically in the game. The Fighting stat lets you, well, fight. Note that, in keeping with most of the source material, most fights are bare-knuckle affairs, schoolyard scuffles. Pulling any kind of weapon is a huge deal, and is usually14 used as an intimidation tactic. Getting hurt is serious – there are four levels of health: fine, scuffed, injured, and dead. Without a weapon, it’s hard to get to injured, and really hard to get to dead. With a weapon, it’s a lot easier, but it takes some Cool and other ability spends to ramp up to being able to seriously imperil the life of another.

So, physical combat is fairly quick and dirty, with serious in-world penalties for doing it – suspension, grounding, criminal charges, law suits, etc. Social combat, on the other hand, gets it’s own mechanical subsystem.

Throwdowns

Social combat is the focus of most confrontations in this game. Shaming, frightening, or otherwise dominating your opponent15 is the equivalent to a big combat set piece in other games. Getting the quaterback to back down from a confrontation, or tricking the cheating popular girl into incriminating herself, or making the villain so angry he or she takes a swing at you – all of that comes down to a Throwdown.

The Throwdown system is a little bit involved, factoring in allies on both sides, who’s taking the lead, who’s on their home turf, and who has things to support their side of the combat. Taking hits reduces Cool, and running out means you lose – you get laughed at, or lose your temper, or say something stupid, or everyone just turns on you. There are techniques and strategies you can employ, just like in physical combat in most games16. It can turn pretty intense, which is what you’re looking for.

Settings

One thing I love about Fate Core is that it has good, structured methods for building your setting and game milieu at the start of play. Bubblegumshoe has incorporated that piece into the game, letting you and your players build the location and environment for your campaign, fully integrating the themes, places, and characters you want to see in play. The book leads you step-by-step through the things you need for your game, plus it gives you a lot of background discussion to help you make the decisions during play, and to understand what is and isn’t going to work.

And if you don’t want to do that, there’s a fully fleshed-out town already built and written up in the book: Drewsbury17. In addition to Drewsbury, the book has eight other settings, not as fully statted, but with enough background – and some rules tweaks – to show you how to use them with the basic setting building method to get a good start for the game. These include some paranormal elements, some science fiction elements18, dystopian societies, super heroes, and scouting. It gives you the tools to play everything from a Smallville-style game19 to a Lumberjanes scout troop to a Scooby Doo gang, complete with animal sidekick.

One last thing I want to point out about settings: there is an actual mechanic for modeling the bad part of town. Locations where your character isn’t supposed to go – because of age, because of gender, because of clique or social class or neighbourhood or whatever – get thresholds. This is a number of Cool points you have to pay to take part in a scene in that location. So, if you want to go into the Teacher Lounge at school, or the biker bar across the tracks, you need to pay a point or two of Cool, reflecting that you are out of your element and at risk. I just think this is a great little mechanic for getting players to worry about going places that their characters would worry about going.

Lester Bay

As I mentioned way back at the start of this post, I got a couple of friends together to try the game out. We wound up creating a small town on an island in the Queen Charlotte Strait of BC20 in the early 90s. My players decided they wanted to play younger characters – 13 years old – and that they wanted some supernatural elements in play.

Character and setting creation took a session, then I put all our notes into a setting bible21, and mapped out the mystery. The plan was for a three-session game, so I made a mystery that I thought we could get through in that time, revolving around the vandalism of a mural at the local community centre. Scheduling meant we needed to take a bit of an extended break over the Christmas season, but we got the three sessions in and finished the adventure. Everyone had fun.

That said, I learned some lessons that I think are useful, so I’m sharing them.

First, if you’re using some supernatural elements in the game, you need to be careful that they don’t overshadow the main mystery. My initial plan was that the mystery itself was mundane, but the created disharmony between the town folk and the nearby First Nations village caused some supernatural events. And the characters latched on to those elements as the focus of the investigation, because of course they did. They were far more interesting than somebody breaking a window and writing a slur on a mural. So, bad planning on my part. Distracting.

Second, make sure you and your players have a solid shared understanding of what it means to play kids. This was especially important because of playing such young characters. Teenagers just don’t have the freedom and agency that adults do, and are heavily constrained by society and parents and peers. That limits the ways the characters can deal with some standard RPG obstacles so, as a GM, you have to make sure there are ways for the characters to get clues that are appropriate for their age. And, as players, you have to remember just how frustrating it can be to have your options limited by your age, and how you used to get around that. So, a discussion of these types of expectations before we started playing would have been helpful.

Finally, and this applies to all investigative games, it’s easy to get caught up in the roleplaying but, as a GM, your focus must be on getting information to the characters. They can’t proceed without the information and, especially when their options are limited by the age of the characters, you need to make sure they always have something to do, some thread to follow.

Just my thoughts.

Conclusion

Bubblegumshoe rocks. It’s well-written, really evokes the source material, and is a great deal of fun to play. If you like teenage detectives and investigatory RPGs, this is a must-have. It gives you the flexibility to play light games or dark games, modern or historical or futuristic games, and to add in pretty much any element from YA media that interests you. The system is robust and simple, though the paradigm of GUMSHOE can take some getting used to if you’re coming from more traditional RPGs.

So, yeah. Get it. All the cool kids are already playing it.

 

  1. Though, to be honest, I think the niche of teen-hero-Fate-game is kind of already filled by The Young Centurions. []
  2. As it says on the cover. []
  3. Thanks, Chris and Sandy! []
  4. Talking my friends into playing games, even trying new ones, is not much of a challenge. What is more challenging is trying to fit another game into everyone’s schedules. []
  5. Not as dense and focused as the DFRPG marginalia, but it’s a nice visual touch to the design. []
  6. Shame on you! No, no. Sorry. No shaming here. But I think you should check it out. []
  7. That’s not a great explanation. It makes it sound like a guessing game, where the player just lists all his or her abilities, and when the right one comes up, the GM gives them a plot coupon. I talk in more detail about how the system works in general in this post. []
  8. As Eddie Izzard says. []
  9. Which is the way I remember them feeling in the long-ago time when I was a teenager. []
  10. That is, scene time during play. []
  11. You know what I mean. []
  12. Which is to say, as both HP and Sanity points. []
  13. The idea of running a game where having a modern teenage player character decide that the optimal strategy is to kill a rival is a little too close to some of the more horrific real-life news stories I’ve seen. I do not think I would play that game. []
  14. And most effectively. []
  15. Preferably, but not necessarily, in public. []
  16. In Bubblegumshoe, there are more techniques and strategies available in Throwdowns than in physical combat. []
  17. Drewsbury is good, but I found it to be a very American place. That’s not a bad thing, but keep it in mind if you’re planning to use it. []
  18. Gotta give a shout out to Veronica Base, Mars for the effort to use the name without violating IP law. []
  19. Though for that, I recommend digging up the Smallville RPGBut still. []
  20. That’s British Columbia, a province of Canada, for my non-Canadian readers. []
  21. I’m not sharing the setting bible. I thought about it, but I wrote up some stuff about one of the coastal First Nations groups that is the result of very light research, and I’m not comfortable sharing something that I, as a white dude, wrote about another racial/cultural group that I did that little research on. []

Hush! Hush! Cthulhu Fhtagn!

I just got a message from Pelgrane Press to confirm my shipping address for my Cthulhu Confidential preorder, the premiere book in Pelgrane’s GUMSHOE One-2-One line. I figure that means I should probably tell some people about the game.

The premise behind the line is pretty simple – adapt Pelgrane’s GUMSHOE line to make it really sing if you’re playing with just one GM and one player. I’m not going to talk too much about GUMSHOE itself1, but I do want to talk about the new system2 and some of the choices made.

What’s In The Book?

The book itself is 315 pages, so it’s a big, meaty volume. It’s got the same look and design as the Trail of Cthulhu line, with the greenish overall colour and the wonderful and evocative Jérôme Huguenin cover art. The authors are Robin D. Laws, Chris Spivey, and Ruth Tillman.

The actual game rules take up about 60 pages, and a lot of that is advice about how to run the game effectively – as is pointed out, running for one player is decidedly different that running for more than one. Even two players really lessens the intensity of focus that the GM and player require. Without a larger group for brainstorming and kibitzing, there’s no real downtime for the two folks sitting down to play this game. Both player and GM are always on.

After the rules come three sections, each focused on a different city, different PC, and different scenario. So, you’ve got Dex Raymond, the hardboiled L.A. detective; Vivian Sinclair, the determined N.Y.C. investigative reporter; and Langston Wright, the war veteran and scholar in Washington, D.C.

Wrapping up the book are the appendices, with reference material and hand-outs for playing and running GUMSHOE One-2-One.

Cards Everywhere

One of the conceits in the core GUMSHOE system is that you find the clues you need for the story to advance. That carries over into GUMSHOE One-2-One, as expected. What I hadn’t considered before reading this book is that, without the buffer of other players and characters, it gets much easier to stall the story3 through non-investigative things. Sure, if you search the garden, you find the strange footprints by the pond, but if you can’t climb over the wall into the garden, you can’t search the garden, right? In standard play, this is handled by the resilience of the group – if you can’t climb the wall, surely someone in the group has some points left in Athletics to get to the other side.

Same thing, but even more so, with combat. TPKs are a threat in any game, especially when combat is as deadly as it can be in GUMSHOE. But when there’s only one PC, it gets that much riskier – a single bad die roll, and everything is just done. Over.

On the other hand, if you just let the character succeed at everything, there’s no sense of risk and no sense of accomplishment in play. The chance of failure is what makes success mean something.

GUMSHOE One-2-One has completely redesigned the way General Abilities work to address this issue. While it still uses a d6 resolution, like GUMSHOE, it allows you to roll multiple dice4. There are two target numbers, representing two types of successful outcome: a Hold, which is  an okay or middling result, and an Advance, which is the best result. You need to roll higher to get an Advance than to get a Hold.

If you don’t roll at least high enough to get a Hold, you get a Setback5 – a problem that arises from whatever it was you just attempted.

And this is where the cards come in6. When you roll an Advantage, you often receive an Edge, which is a little bonus that you gain from being awesome. When you roll a Setback, you often receive a Problem, which is a little complication that you gain from not expressing you awesomeness through die rolls. Both these things are tracked using cards, telling you what type of Edge or Problem you now have, and how it affects the game. Sometimes, these things go away, like spending an Edge for the bonus it gives you or fixing the Problem narratively, but sometimes they stick around for a while.

Here’s the coolest thing about this system: most challenges have Edge and Problem cards specific to that challenge. There are some generic ones7, but mostly, the Edge or Problem you get is directly related to the challenge you just faced. And it’s a perfect way to keep the story advancing even if the challenge was too much for the character. Here’s an example:

Note that this is a combat challenge. If the character gets a Setback, he or she winds up not dead, but chained to an altar, which directs you to another scene. Also, if the character gains an extra problem (by rolling an extra die), he or she can wind up Clawed by Deep Ones, with that problem card.

So, as a case progresses, the player will have a shifting array of cards, tracking different Edges and Problems. Each chapter has a few pages of the collected cards for that scenario, ready for you to print out8 and cut up. That lets you get set-up and ready for the game pretty quickly.

The Sources

Another issue you have to deal with in converting GUMSHOE to a single player and single character system is the fact that it becomes problematic to make sure all the investigative abilities are covered. In normal GUMSHOE, each character can take a few, with a focus on a few specialties, to make sure you’ve got someone on the team with the ability find pretty much every clue. In the games I’ve run, it generally means that, at most, there are one or two investigative abilities that no one has put any points into.

With only a single character, you have the choice of either letting them have all the investigative abilities, so that each character is largely the same, mechanically speaking; of making sure that there are only clues for the investigative abilities that the character has; or giving the character access to investigative abilities that he or she doesn’t have through some other means.

Enter the sources.

Each character has a list of sources, with notes about what investigative abilities they provide, their personalities, and their relationship with the character. So, like a detective novel, part of play is the investigator going to talk to an interesting person who can help them with information or analysis. It turns finding a clue into an interactive roleplaying scene.

The Characters

The Cthulhu Confidential core book gives you three fully fleshed out characters to play, and the free download The Red Mist on the Pelgrane site gives you another one, along with a scenario for her. In addition, the appendices include the basic ability lists for ten more characters for other GUMSHOE genres, including Trail of Cthulhu, The Esoterrorists, Fear Itself, Night’s Black Agents, Mutant City Blues, Ashen Stars, The Gaean Reach, TimeWatch, and Bubblegumshoe.

There’s a short section on creating investigators so that players can play a non-pregen character, but it stresses that the pregens are specifically tuned for their scenarios9, so making big changes from the pregens may cause problems in play. Still, it’s got all the information you need to build a character from scratch.

The included characters are a more diverse lot than you see in most historical period gaming. You have Dex Raymond, who is a Sam Spade/Phillip Chandler type, the tough, white, male detective of the noir pulps. Then, you get Vivian Sinclair, who is a female investigative reporter. Third is Langston Wright, an African-American war veteran and scholar. In The Red Mist, you get Phyllis Oakley10, a female dealer in rare books.

Vivian and Langston also have information about how women and minorities were treated, both historically and in the pulps that inform this game. There is a discussion with each about scaling the types of treatments facing non-white, non-male11 characters, allowing the player and GM to set the level of horribleness of humanity that both are comfortable dealing with.

The Cities

Each of the three character chapters includes a write-up of the character’s home city. For Dex, that’s Los Angeles; for Viv, that’s New York; and for Langston, that’s Washington, D.C. These write-ups include the historical context – the 1930s for New York and LA, the 1940s for Washington. Also included are some maps, important locations, and important people.

And a fairly rich sprinkling of story hooks to build new scenarios.

More than a lot of game books, the cities in Cthulhu Confidential work almost like characters in and of themselves. I think this is a product of the tight focus on a single character for play in each of the cities, which lets the city write-up focus on a more coherent theme and presentation, rather than being written for wider appeal and purpose. Anyway, the result is a real feeling of immediacy for each of the cities.

The Scenarios

The Cthulhu Confidential core book comes with three scenarios, one for each of the three characters:

  • The Fathomless Sleep: How did fast-living society girl Helen Deakin come down with a case of catatonia? Her sultry sister pays you to find out. As Dex Raymond, you’ll explore a web of blackmail, dirty money, and weird mysticism in the city of fallen angels.
  • Fatal Frequencies: In the offices of the New York Herald, Sadie Cane seeks reporter Vivian Sinclair‘s help. Sadie’s fiancé, George Preston, disappeared three days after a murder in his apartment block. Can Viv uncover the truth about George, and will Sadie like what she finds?
  • Capitol Colour: Lynette Miller was a riveter. A few weeks ago, she got a new job: hush-hush, and highly paid. She’s a clever and resourceful young woman, and now she’s missing, and her father is heartbroken. Can Langston Wright unweave a web of deceit, face down racist cops and uncover the deeper conspiracy which endangers the war effort?

In addition, there’s a free downloadable adventure, The Red Mist, available on the Pelgrane site.

Each of these scenarios is focused specifically on the character for whom it was written. Though they can probably be run for the other characters12, I would want to go through them in detail, and make a number of changes to the Edges, Problems, and challenges to make sure they all still make sense for a different character.

Because of the way the new challenge system works with the cards, and because of the fact that there’s no real downtime for the GM to think about stuff will the players are talking to each other, I think it would be very difficult to run Cthulhu Confidential as an improvised investigation, the way The Armitage Files worked13. I also think that prepping a scenario is probably a bigger job for the GM than in Trail of Cthulhu, because of the need to more carefully design each challenge, especially coming up with Setbacks that don’t derail the game.

That’s why I think it’s so valuable to get these four14 complete scenarios with the game. Not only do they give you ready-to-play scenarios, but they also serve as solid models to pattern your own scenarios after.

Conclusions

I haven’t had a chance to try actually playing15Cthulhu Confidential scenario, so I don’t really know how all this works in play.

That said, I really like the way the game is built. The main changes to the system address problems that I didn’t know were problems until I saw the solutions, so that gives me confidence in the thinking and playtesting behind the game.

The characters, cities, and scenarios are all meaty, and look like a lot of fun. The book is well-written and physically attractive.

I say it’s a winner. I just need a guinea pig to help me try it out.

  1. I’ve already talked about Trail of Cthulhu here, and chronicled my Armitage Files campaign here. []
  2. Yeah, it really is a new system, though heavily based on the original GUMSHOE stuff. []
  3. And thus the game. []
  4. Assuming you have multiple dice in the ability you’re using. []
  5. I am very pleased that it’s called a Setback and not a Failure. []
  6. You were wondering, weren’t you? []
  7. And a whole host of generic Edge and Problem cards in the appendices. []
  8. Or photocopy, if you’re working with just the physical book and not the pdf. []
  9. Or vice-versa, I guess. []
  10. Who can be renamed Phillip Oakley. []
  11. And non-straight. []
  12. Or for an original character. []
  13. Though there’s an interesting article about running The Armitage Files using Cthulhu Confidential here. Still, the article says it’s not easy. []
  14. Actually five: with my preorder of Cthulhu Confidential, I got a pre-layout version of The House Up In The Hills, another Dex Raymond scenario. []
  15. Or running. []

Dresden Files Cooperative Card Game

Box-Facing-to-the-Left-No-Shadow-600px

The good folks at Evil Hat Productions are currently running a Kickstarter for a new card game: The Dresden Files Cooperative Card Game.

There is1 five days to go on the Kickstarter, and around $38,000 dollars to hit the last stretch goal. I really want them to hit that last stretch goal, which will give folks free expansions and variant cards in the app version of the game that they’re going to develop. So, I’m trying to get the word out a little wider.

As a backer of the campaign, I was able to download the print-and-play version of the game and give it a try. I’ve played several solo games2, and a couple of multi-person games. Short version: it’s a good game – challenging and flavourful and just a lot of fun.

First, the basics.

Players take the roles of various characters from the Dresden Files book series. Each character has a small deck of cards that represent their abilities. The group faces off against a deck of cards based on one of the Dresden Files books, which presents a series of cases, foes, obstacles, and advantages. The group must use the cards in their hands to solve the cases, defeat the foes, overcome the obstacles, and gain the advantages. To win, the group must have more solved cases than there are undefeated foes when the game ends.

As with a lot of cooperative games, the core of the game is resource management. The initial hands the players draw for their characters are pretty much the only cards they’ll have for the entire game – opportunities to draw more cards are uncommon, and players may only have one or two opportunities to draw a new card over the course of the game, so using the cards for best opportunity is key.

In addition, all the cards have a Fate Point value. There’s a pool of Fate Points that the group shares3, and playing a card requires spending Fate Points from that pool. Players can also discard a card to gain that card’s Fate Point value into the pool4. So, deciding when to spend Fate to play a card and when to discard a card to gain Fate for later use is another key decision point in the game.

The Book cards are dealt out in two rows, and the position of the cards along a range band tell you which cards can be affected by cards with different ranges. The layout of these cards changes with every game, and that means the optimal strategy changes with each game, too. There are interrelationships between the Book cards, as well, so that dealing with the cards in a certain order can make dealing with other cards easier. For example, you may need to solve a case before attacking a given foe.

The game ends in a showdown, where there is a final hail Mary chance to solve outstanding cases and defeat outstanding foes. You enter the showdown when you play a card that has more Fate Points than you have available, or when the players are all out of cards, or when all the players agree that they should go to showdown because they don’t have anything useful they can do. At the end of the showdown, which is a series of rolls5 against the various outstanding cards. These rolls can have their odds improved by spending Fate Points, so it’s good to have a few left in the pool when the showdown starts.

At the end of the showdown, you total the number of case cards you’ve solved, and compare it to the number of foe cards still on the board. If you have more case cards, you win. If you don’t you lose.

So far, I have yet to win a game. But every game has felt like I’ve had a chance right up to the showdown, and my immediate reaction after each loss has been, “Wow. I better try that again.” The game is challenging and a little bit frustrating and highly addictive.

The base game comes with five character decks: Harry Dresden, Karrin Murphy, Michael Carpenter, Susan Rodriguez, and Billy and Georgia of the Alphas. Two more decks have been unlocked as freebies by the stretch goals: Mouse, and a crossover from Sentinels of the Multiverse, Ra.

There are five book decks in the base game: Storm Front, Fool Moon, Grave Peril, Summer Knight, and Death Masks. There’s also a deck called Side Jobs that you can use to generate a random scenario for play.

Stretch goals have also unlocked three expansions, each of which features two more character decks, two more book decks, and a few more cards for Side Jobs. Stretch goals have also generated a $10 discount on shipping charges, so shipping in the US is free, and it’s just $10 for shipping up here to Canada. And the stretch goals have increased the art budget, so you’ll see a lot more variety in the art than is currently presented in the print-and-play version6.

You also get a play board, some Fate dice, and chits for tracking clues, hits, and Fate Points in the base game.

So, if you get all three expansions with the base game, you wind up with 13 character decks, 11 book decks, and about 45 Side Jobs cards, enough for a lot of replay value.

The Kickstarter is almost over. Right now, you can get the base game for $39, and the base game plus the three expansions for $69. And if the campaign hits $450,000, there will be free expansions and variant cards when they release the app for the game. If the game sounds good, jump in quick.

Harry needs your help.

  1. At the time I’m writing this. []
  2. Yes, there are solo rules. []
  3. The size of the pool is based on the difficulty the group has chosen to play at. The lower the difficulty, the more Fate Points available at the start of the game. []
  4. This also triggers a special ability that each character has, called a Talent. []
  5. Using Fate dice. []
  6. The art currently in the game is great, but there is only one image for case cards, one for foe cards, one for obstacles, etc. The increased budget means different images for different cards. []

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. []