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. []

The Quiet Year

TL;DR: The Quiet Year is a deep, interesting, fun map game. If you like post-apocalyptic story-style games that aren’t RPGs, you need to own this game.

Last year at GenCon, I wound up pretty much by mistake1 at the Indie RPG Awards ceremony. As I recall it, the game The Quiet Year seemed to be nominated in pretty much every category, and it won the Most Innovative Game award. That made me curious, so I went out and found it the next day on the exhibitor floor.

Now, you can get a .pdf version for eight bucks, but Indie Game Revolution had a great little bagged set that had almost everything you need to play:

  • Rules
  • Deck of specially printed cards
  • Reference card
  • Little skull beads to use as contempt tokens
  • Six d6s to use for project dice
  • A funky-cool burlap sack that holds it all

The only things missing were something to draw on and something to draw with.

The drawing is important – the game is all about trying to build a post-apocalyptic community2 in the one quiet year you have between major crises. And to show the community building and the progress of your little group of folks, you draw it all on a map.

Anyway, after many months of trying to fit the game in3, I got a chance to play it last night, and we had a blast.

Here's our blank map and the pieces of the game laid out before we begin.

Here’s our blank map and the pieces of the game laid out before we begin.

Now, I tend to put together little kits for games like this, so I can just grab the organizer pouch I keep them in and bring it to an event, so I stocked it with a cheap coilbound book of sketch paper and a set of coloured markers, along with a few index cards (not shown) and some writing pens.

While you need index cards and something to write/draw with and something to write/draw on, you don’t need to go as deep into this as I did. But I figure that if we’re going to be drawing stuff as a major part of the game, let’s do it right.

Anyway, the rulebook is written in such a way that the facilitator – there is no GM for the game – reads the overall description of the game, and then everyone takes turns reading the rules sections. This works very well, takes maybe 15 minutes, and keeps everyone involved and thinking about the game. To start, you decide where your community will be situated – seacoast, forest, abandoned shopping mall, an old military installation, ruined subway tunnels, whatever. This is one of the few communal decisions of the game. Once you have a very general idea, each player takes a turn drawing one detail on the map.

The way this happens is kind of important – each person decides their own detail based on the general location, and draws it on in turn, explaining what they’re adding to the others. There is no discussion, no debate, no consensus – when it’s your turn, it’s your decision. You’re not allowed to ask for help or suggestions, and others aren’t allowed to offer. This is a theme that carries through the entire game, and I’m going to be coming back to talk about it a bit later.

After the basic map is drawn with each person’s detail, each person decides on one resource that will be important to the community. This can be basic stuff like food, arable land, clean water, shelter, etc., or it can be something a little weirder – old books, scrap metal, energy crystals, mutant hogs, whatever. Then, in your second communal decision, you pick one of your resources to be abundant, and all the rest to be scarce. This gets written down on an index card, and each player then draws a symbol on the map to represent their resource and its abundance or scarcity.

So, here's our starter map. details we added were the cove on the seacoast, the neaby caves, and the abandoned cottages along the road. Resources were abundant old books (a bookmobile up on blocks), scarce shelter (holes in the walls and roofs of the houses) and scarce clean drinking water (nearby freshwater source is an almost-empty pool in the nearby cave).

So, here’s our starter map. details we added were the cove on the seacoast, the neaby caves, and the abandoned cottages along the road. Resources were abundant old books (a bookmobile up on blocks), scarce shelter (holes in the walls and roofs of the houses) and scarce clean drinking water (nearby freshwater source is an almost-empty pool in the nearby cave).

And now the game begins.

Each game turn represents a week of your year, and is represented by a card you draw on your turn. The cards are divided into seasons – hearts for spring, diamonds for summer, clubs for autumn, and spades for winter. You shuffle each season separately, then stack them in the above order. So, you’ll draw all the spring cards, then all the summer, then all the autumn, and then the winter cards. One of the winter cards ends the game, so you may draw only a single winter card in your game or, like us, you may draw the game-ending card as the last card in the deck. The point is, you never know when the game is going to end, once winter begins.

Each of the cards has instructions, usually a choice between two things that happen or two questions to answer. These help flesh out the story of your community, sometimes making good things happen, sometimes bad things, and sometimes neutral things. After picking your event from the card you drew, you add a little drawing to the map to represent it, if applicable. Then, each project on the go advances towards completion by one week, and then the player gets to take one of three available actions:

  • Discover something new. Tell a little story about something new the community has discovered, and draw it on the map.
  • Start a project. Say that the community is going to start working on a project and what the project is. Discuss with the other players to determine how long the project is going to take, from one to six weeks, and set a die on the map showing the number of weeks left in that project’s duration.
  • Hold a discussion. Ask a question or make a statement. Each player gets a chance to weigh in with a sentence or two. Then it’s done.

Discovering something new adds an element to the map, and finished projects also add elements to the map. After a season, the map starts to fill in, as does the story of your community.

Here's our little community at the beginning of summer. There's been sightings of ships at sea, and a bad omen comet, and we've had a soldier move in. We've also fixed up the houses (still one week to go on the last one), found a generator and got it working, built a way to get to the birds nesting on the cliffs, and met the neighbours one town over. in addition to the house repairs, we've got two projects on the go - a scouting expedition down the coast, and a watchtower being built on the cove.

Here’s our little community at the beginning of summer. There’s been sightings of ships at sea, and a bad omen comet, and we’ve had a soldier move in. We’ve also fixed up the houses (still one week to go on the last one), found a generator and got it working, and met the neighbours one town over. in addition to the house repairs, we’ve got three projects on the go – a scouting expedition down the coast, a way to reach the birds nesting on the cliffs, and a watchtower being built on the cove. Oh, and there’s big bitey sharklike things in the cove who will eat us if we’re not careful.

Each season has its own rhythm and flavour. Spring is all about learning who you are and what’s going on. Summer is about putting down roots and getting things done. In autumn, things get harder and tenser. And winter kicks the crap out of you.

So, that’s the way the game goes. But let’s talk about some of the subtleties.

I mentioned before that most decisions4 in the game are made by the person whose turn it is, without discussion or debate or consensus. I don’t know about you folks, but that kind of limitation on table talk is tough for me, and for a lot of my group. Especially because, in this game, we all want our little community to succeed. So, building consensus and making group decisions seems like the way to go, right?

But, as the rules point out, that’s not how communities work. Parts of communities make decisions that affect the entire community, often without discussion, engagement, or approval. That’s what happens in the game. If the card you drew gives you two choices, and they’re both bad, you get to pick the badness you prefer. Others may not like your choice, or the choice of a project that you started, or the fact that you didn’t listen at all to what they said in the discussion you called.

This allows factions to form in your community, and disagreements to enter the story. When someone feels that something someone else has done is upsetting to part of the community, or ignores you, or just basically pisses you off, you take a contempt counter – one of the little skull beads. These show that part of the community is not happy.

These have no mechanical effect5; they’re just visual indicators that all is not milk and honey in your little town. And I found myself considering my contempt tokens, and the reasons I had taken them, when making decisions, meaning that they fed back into the game, but not in a directly mechanical way. This, to me, is very cool.

Things are progressing. We're trading with the woodcutters to the south, and paying tribute to the Sea Kings. There's been a scandal in town as our soldier ran off with one of the town girls, abandoning our half-trained militia. We've got a garden in, found a ruined hospital down the coast, and set up some fishing nets, as well as our watchtower and our egg and bird source.

Things are progressing. We’re trading with the woodcutters to the south, and paying tribute to the Sea Kings. There’s been a scandal in town as our soldier ran off with one of the town girls, abandoning our half-trained militia. We’ve got a garden in, found a ruined hospital down the coast, and set up some fishing nets, as well as our watchtower and our egg and bird source. A set of three flags appeared mysteriously down in the southwest, but then some yahoos put up flags meant to represent us. They had the the bad-omen comet on them, though, so we burned them down. That uncovered a pit of flints. We’ve also found some useful ores and an abandoned listening post in one of the caves. The projects on the map right now are repairing an old warehouse for shelter and building a fence around our garden. It’s been a busy summer, and now we’re moving into autumn.

Another interesting thing is that it is totally possible to “win” this game by gaming the system. In our game, we spent a lot6 of our turns starting projects. We shored up the weaknesses of our community, worked to acquire more resources, and all the reasonable gamerly things you do make your community the best it can be.

Here’s the thing, though: there’s no victory condition. Every game ends the same way – the Frost Shepherds arrive and the game is over. You don’t know if you survive the encounter. You don’t know if you can survive the encounter. You don’t even know what the encounter is, except that it ends the game and the story of the community. There’s no way to “beat” the Frost Shepherds. They show up, and the game is over.

Thus, it became apparent during play that the real way to win is to make the most interesting story of the community. You follow the storylines that emerge from the events of the game, and use them to add interesting challenges and dilemmas to the game. It’s all about the story you tell before the game ends. And that means that, like an author, you will decide to do horrible things to your community, because that’s where stories come from.

Harvest is in, and the Grange is fortified, thanks to the efforts of the Parish. We lost a lot of folks in a vicious storm at the end of autumn, and we also found a shallow grave with the body of the girl we thought had run off with the soldier. Currently, we're working on using the flints and wood we've traded for to make some weapons. We've also substantially improved our water source.

Harvest is in, and the Grange is fortified, thanks to the efforts of the Parish. We lost a lot of folks in a vicious storm at the end of autumn, and we also found a shallow grave with the body of the girl we thought had run off with the soldier. Currently, we’re working on using the flints and wood we’ve traded for to make some weapons. We’ve also substantially improved our water source, trained up a militia, and got the houses wired to the generator (which is running out of fuel). Now begins winter.

So, The Quiet Year was a very different play experience from pretty much any other game we’ve played. It built an interesting story for the community7, and created an interesting, colourful artifact of the game – the map.

The restrictions on table talk – designed to make sure that each person makes their decisions without input or influence from the others – were especially tough on me. I talk a lot during games, bantering and expressing my opinion, and doing my best to help people, because I’m usually teaching whatever game we’re playing. A few times, I had to clamp my hands over my mouth when I realized I was trying to persuade someone or suggest something. But the result of the rules is worth the effort.

The Frost Shepherds showed up on card 52. They can appear on any of the (potentially) 13 winter card draws, but we got the whole season out of the way before they arrived, just before the next spring. So, a full Quiet Year.

The Frost Shepherds showed up on card 52. They can appear on any of the (potentially) 13 winter card draws, but we got the whole season out of the way before they arrived, just before the next spring. So, a full Quiet Year. Things were going well, with food and power and a smelter and fortified building. We even had uncovered old songs and music to help the winter pass, and were going to be hosting a summit between us, the Sea Kings, the Woodcutters, and the Biker Consortium next year. Oh, and it turned out the dead girl’s father killed her to keep her from running off with the soldier, so we put him in jail. Outside.

And that’s how our town ended. We had an amazing time playing, and want to play again. The two choices on the cards – as well as the wide-open starting state of the map – gives the game great replay value. And because it’s card-based, it would be simple8 to set up a different set of events for each of the cards and add variety.

The big catch for me is that four-player limit. To be fair, I can completely understand why it’s there – this game would get unwieldy pretty quickly with more players. But it does mean that this game may not get the time in our game rotation it deserves.

One of the coolest aspects of the game is that, at the end, you’ve got the map to remember the game by. Here’s ours.

For some reason, we did not name our settlement. We'll have to remember to do that next time.

For some reason, we did not name our settlement. We’ll have to remember to do that next time.

I recommend this game very highly, if you like games that generate stories and post-apocalyptic settings. You can order it here. And you should do that now.

  1. It wasn’t by mistake, really. I was at a meeting for Games on Demand, and the award ceremony was held there. []
  2. Really, it doesn’t need to be post-apocalyptic, but that’s the default. And you get to decide how soon after the apocalypse it is, and how wacky things are. Is it Road Warrior, Thundarr, or Adventure Time? []
  3. One downside the game has is that it is only for 2-4 players. That means it doesn’t fit at a lot of my game nights, because we often wind up with too many people. []
  4. The exceptions are project duration and when to add or remove an abundance or scarcity, based on events in the game. []
  5. I thought, upon reading the rules, that some of the cards might trigger on certain numbers of contempt tokens or something, but nope. []
  6. Like probably 70%. []
  7. And we all agreed it would be an interesting world to run an RPG in, once we’d built the community. []
  8. Which is not the same as easy. []

Back in the Chi War

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Characters

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

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

System

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

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

Combat9

There are three things about combat you should know:

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

Setting

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

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

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

Play Experience

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

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

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

Summary

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

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

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

  1. That I haven’t written yet. []
  2. To a lesser degree. []
  3. If I’m going to do an “official” playtest, I tend to take it pretty seriously, as evidenced by my posts on The Dresden Files RPG and, indeed, the existence of this blog. []
  4. Thanks again, Cam! []
  5. And, in some cases, more restrictive. []
  6. Not entirely true – swapping out some character abilities is offered as an advanced option. []
  7. Though, after rewatching A Better Tomorrow, I found myself wanting a Reformed Gangster archetype, so I could play Sung Tse-Ho. []
  8. Example? Sure! The player of the Old Master in our last playtest decided that he was blind, which was fine – it was just character colour, and didn’t limit him. Blind masters are common in wuxia movies. But then he decided that he wanted to use his heightened hearing to check the heartbeat of someone they were interviewing to see if he was lying. I thought that was a cool idea, but didn’t want it to become a defining schtick, so I just had him roll on the default skill level. Took about thirty seconds to figure out how to do that in game, and he got a cool character moment that wasn’t covered by the rules. Easy. []
  9. Yeah, it’s part of the system, but in a game like this, combat deserves a bit of special comment. []
  10. In the original system, in fact, you were penalized if you didn’t come up with a cool description. []
  11. In slow motion, of course. []
  12. Though there may be a few tweaks. It’s been a while since I looked at the original, so I can’t say for certain. []
  13. After a touching scene with your comrades, where you get to utter a few parting words. []
  14. During the reign of the woman emperor, Wu Zetian. []
  15. During a fairly dark period of European domination of China. []
  16. Where
    Spoiler
    the Jammers have turned the world into a barren, post-apocalyptic wasteland by detonating a Chi Bomb that killed 97% of the population.
    []
  17. Why is that in a spoiler tag? That bit of backstory forms part of the plot of the intro adventure. []
  18. But emphasized in the most recent one. []
  19. In non-fighty ways. []
  20. That’s the game term for the aspect of the character’s backstory that drives him or her to do crazy, action-movie things – stuff like “I must avenge the murder of my father!” or “I will find a worthy heir for my family kung fu style!” []
  21. Which, incidentally, is a good podcast to listen to if you’re interested in finding out more about FS2. Hell, it’s just a good podcast to listen to, regardless. []

Atomic Robo RPG

I’ve been waiting anxiously for the Atomic Robo RPG since I heard it was coming out. I got a chance to try it out last year at Games on Demand at GenCon, and had an absolute blast playing Robo. Earlier this week, after spending a week or so teasing us all with glimpses of the book1, Evil Hat went ahead and launched the preorder2. Now, as is typical with these fine folks, when you buy the game from them3, you also get the .pdf of the game at no extra cost. With the preorder, you get the .pdf right away, so you can read through the game4 while waiting for the physical copy to get printed.

Surprising absolutely no one who knows me, I’m pretty sure I was in the first two dozen preorders – Fred Hicks tweeted that there had been 24 preorders, and mine had already been placed. And then I spent the next two nights reading it.

TL;DR – The game is great. It’s a nice implementation of Fate rules, really captures the feel of the comics, and can be hacked to support a wide range of set-ups similar to Atomic Robo. I heartily recommend buying it. FOR SCIENCE!

The Book5

More than any other company these days, Evil Hat books are cleanly and clearly laid out, and ARRPG is not an exception to that rule. The pages are attractive and inviting, and the overall design is practically invisible, while helping you find your way through the book and get the most out of it. This kind of invisible design is hard to do, and so wonderfully helpful when reading the book.

Mixed in, as might be expected, is a lot of art from the Atomic Robo comics. Indeed, most of the examples in the book are panels and sequences from the comic book, with little talking heads plugged in to explain the mechanics in use. Besides being helpful in understanding the game and how to play it, these examples made me dig out my comic books and reread them all, just because they reminded me of all the fun moments in the series.

There’s also a good index. A good index has become more valuable to me than gold as I have gotten older. I don’t have as much time for prep, and often wind up looking things up on the fly during a game. For that, nothing beats a good index, which most game books traditionally don’t have. Evil Hat has been reversing this trend with their releases, which feature meaty, professionally done indices, and that makes me happy.

The Characters

ARRPG has what is, I think, the second most complicated character generation I’ve seen in Fate games, with the first most complicated being DFRPG, with it’s point-buy powers. Now, before that scares you off, it is still massively less complicated than most of the big name RPGs out there. In the time it takes to create a single D&D 3.5E character, you can have all the characters in an ARRPG game up and running and half-way into the adventure.

ARRPG gives you two6 methods to create characters. One, which they call the E-Z No-Math Character Creation7, has you pick three different character modes8 , which are groups of skills, from the default four of Action, Banter, Intrigue, and Science. You then rank the three modes you picked, and bump up those skills that feature in more than one mode9. You also, because this is a Fate game, choose aspects for your concept, each of your modes, and an extra aspect they call the Omega aspect. Finally, you calculate your stress boxes10. And, of course, somewhere in there, you need to come up with a name.

The other character creation method is called Weird Character Creation. It works pretty much the same as the E-Z No-Math method, but pulls the curtain aside a bit to show you the underlying point structure that makes it work. This allows you to build new modes, called Weird Modes, for your character. So, if you wanted to build, say, an atomic-powered robot created by Nicola Tesla in 192611, you can construct a Robot mode to give him12. The method is pretty straightforward, though I had to read the entire chapter on modes, skills, and stunts to get all the pieces to fall into place13 with the skill costs and how to build new skills for the Weird Modes. There are a number14 of ready-made Weird Modes in the book, for everything from dinosaurs and warbots to pilots and reporters.

There are also two flavours of stunts in AARPG: stunts and mega-stunts. Stunts are exactly like stunts in other Fate games – little tricks that make your skills work a little better for you in certain situations. Mega-stunts, which you can only take if you have a weird mode for your character, are more powerful, incorporating multiple stunt-like effects15. Everyone gets five stunts, whether of the normal or the mega varieties. The cost for taking mega-stunts is that it gives more fate points to the GM to use against you.

One interesting thing about ARRPG character creation is that, despite how it sounds above and how I said it’s one of the most complicated chargen implementations in Fate, it’s designed to get you up and running very quickly. The book recommends that you just choose your modes, a couple of aspects, come up with a name, and figure out your stress boxes, then jump right in. You can fill in the rest of the aspects and stunts16 as required on the fly.

The exception to this is weird modes and mega-stunts. These require some thought up front to construct and implement, so it’s best that you nail these downs before the game starts.

I have to admit, I was a little confused on my first read of the character creation chapter. My confusion cleared up a lot when I got to the chapter on modes, stunts, and skills, but between the two chapters is one on aspects and fate points17. What I’m saying is that, if you get to the end of the character creation chapter scratching your head and wondering if you’ve missed something, hang in there. The answers are coming two chapters down the road.

Other Rules

The rest of the rules are, for the most part, pretty standard Fate fare. There are some tweaks to the skills18, but other than that, there are just four big innovations:

  • Across the Fourth Dimension: The stories in the Atomic Robo comics cover events from shortly after his creation up to 2021. Now, when I say “cover,” what I mean is that there are stories and flashbacks19 set throughout almost 100 years of Robo’s life20. And they aren’t necessarily told in chronological order. The game has a lot of advice for how to get that kind of feel in your campaign, and the ability to throw non-weird characters together in ten minutes means that it’s completely feasible to jump around in time at the game table. So that’s cool.
  • Invention: What would a game about action science be without the ability to kit-bash and create new pieces of tech as required in play? Boring, that’s what! So of course the game contains rules for how to construct useful and obscenely dangerous devices that you can use both to solve problems and create new ones. It’s a neat little system that lets you assemble cool toys, trading functionality against risk and time.
  • Factions: This is a special implementation of the Fate Fractal – the idea that everything in Fate can be treated like a character, with aspects, skills, stunts, etc. Here, it’s used specifically to flesh out Tesladyne and the resources that the action scientists can call on, but the implication that you can do the same thing to M1221 is pretty clear. It gives me a lot of ideas about how to run a campaign aimed at destroying22 an agency or organization, rather than just concentrating on the big boss that runs it. Very cool stuff.
  • Brainstorming: I saved this one for last, because I think it’s the coolest. You know how, in the movies and comics where scientists are featured, there’s always that one23 scene where they have to put together the clues, figure out what’s going on, and come up with a solution? That’s the brainstorming mechanic in ARRPG. Everyone involved in the brainstorm gets to roll dice and use their science to come up with clue aspects for the problem and, if they get enough successes over a number of rounds, they can figure out the problem. And that problem is whatever the players say it is at that point. Yeah, the players get to decide what the big problem is. Oh, they have to stay within the bounds set by the clues, and a careful GM can steer things to a degree, but at the end of the day, if they successfully brainstorm the problem, they get to determine reality. Which is awesome. Of course, then they have to come up with a plan, but they’ll have a number of aspects created by the brainstorming which they can use when they implement the plan. This is just sheer genius, as far as I’m concerned.

Hackability

As I was reading the game, it became clear to me that Atomic Robo and Hellboy both use very similar narrative set-ups for their comics24. It would be trivially easy to play a BPRD game using this system. All you’d need to do is build a couple of weird modes, a few mega-stunts, and maybe replace the flexibility of the Science mode with an Occult mode. It would maybe take an hour to get the whole thing worked out.

Other suggestions online I’ve seen have been for Ghostbusters, and again that seems a pretty easy port. It would also be a good setup to use for one-shots based on disaster movies, like Armageddon or The Core. And, of course, any of the 50s-style science-horror movies like Them or Attack of the Fifty Foot Woman or Godzilla or The Blob are influences on the comic book, and thus make for excellent adventures.

And lifting the mode method of character creation25 or the subsystems for cross-time play, invention, factions, and brainstorming is easy. These are easy bolt-ons to other games, or pieces to build a new one.

Summary

Atomic Robo comic books are pretty much perfect in their mix of action, science, and humour. I love them to death. The Atomic Robo RPG does a great job of creating a game that give you the experience of the comic stories. The production values on the book are exemplary, and the rules adaptation is note-perfect. It’s available for preorder now, and you get the .pdf right away. If you’ve made it through the above 2000-word review and STILL aren’t rushing to buy it, I’ve gotta question why you bothered reading this far.

It’s got ACTION. It’s got SCIENCE!

IT’S GOT A ROBOT AND CARL SAGAN AND THE GHOST OF THOMAS EDISON!!!

How have you not already bought it? GO NOW!

  1. Thus earning the “evil” part of the company name. []
  2. I’m thinking that’s about enough links for one paragraph. Yeah? []
  3. Or one of the retailers participating in their Bits and Mortar initiative. []
  4. And, incidentally, do a last, crowd-sourced check for typos. []
  5. Well, obviously I don’t have the book, yet. But you know what I mean. []
  6. Really, three, because you can split the difference between the two main ones. []
  7. I’m torn on the name, here. There is a tiny bit of math, but really, it’s the kind of addition that could fairly be called “counting.” []
  8. If you’ve read the Fate System Toolkit, you’ve seen the mode idea discussed there. []
  9. This is the counting thing I was talking about. Or mild addition, if you prefer. []
  10. A little more counting. []
  11. Just to pull an example out of the air. []
  12. Or her. []
  13. Maybe it’s just me, though. []
  14. And that number is 13. []
  15. Along with some effects that couldn’t be achieved with a normal stunt, like being bulletproof. []
  16. And use the skill improvements that every character gets but that I haven’t mentioned until now. []
  17. Does this mean the book has a problem with structure? I don’t think so. I thought about this a lot, and I see why the character creation chapter doesn’t have all the information you need – it would bulk it out with a lot of information that would need to be repeated elsewhere. And the chapter on fate points and aspects should come where it does for gamers new to Fate games. But as someone already familiar with the basic Fate system, the separation of the material was a little confusing at first. Now I get it. []
  18. Most notably the Science skill, which gets its own subsection called Science: It’s Special. []
  19. And one flash-forward. []
  20. If you bring in the Real Science Adventures comics, you get to see Tesla and his adventuring companions even earlier than that. []
  21. Or the BPRD. []
  22. Or otherwise rendering ineffective. []
  23. Sometimes more than one. []
  24. And Scott Wegner’s art in the early Atomic Robo books showed a great deal of Mike Mignola influence. Over time, it’s evolved into what is very much his own style. I love it. []
  25. As shown in the Fate System Toolkit. []

Eldritch Horror

Trying the solo version of Eldritch Horror.

Trying the solo version of Eldritch Horror.

Last night, I had a bunch of friends over, and we played a game of Fortune and Glory and a game of Cards Against Humanity1. This afternoon, after I had cleared up all the game stuff from the table, but before I removed the table leaf and pushed the table back into the correct position, I decided to try out my newest board game: Eldritch Horror, from Fantasy Flight Games.

Eldritch Horror is another Lovecraft-themed game from FFG. It’s got the same basic underpinnings as Arkham Horror or Elder Sign – it’s a co-operative game, set in the 1920s, with a Ancient One trying to break through into this reality and mess up all the furniture2. It differs in scale; it covers the entire globe, while AH is a town3, and ES is a single museum. So, your investigators have to travel the globe, tracking down clues and information to prevent the Ancient One from winning.

Complexity-wise, EH falls between AH on the high end and ES on the low end. There are more moving parts and options and special rules than in ES, but not nearly as many as in AH4. Turn structure is a simplified version of AH turn structure, with three phases for players:

  1. Action Phase. Players get two actions. This is stuff like moving, resting, acquiring assets, resting, etc.
  2. Encounter Phase. Players get to have an encounter. They may fight a monster, or draw a special encounter card, or what have you.
  3. Mythos Phase. Draw a card to see how the Ancient One tries to screw you over.

Turns seem to tick along more quickly than with AH, and possibly even more quickly than ES, once you remove the fact that I was relying pretty heavily on the rulebook and reference guide while trying to get the hang of the way things work. All in all, I got set up and through five rounds in about an hour, with two characters. About half that time5 was me checking the rules to see what I was supposed to be doing. So that’s about ten minutes set-up, the big part of which is building the Mythos Deck6 and sorting out cards that don’t get used with the Ancient One, leaving about a minute per phase per player.

Of course, if you’re not playing solo, some of that time savings from not relying on the rulebooks so heavily will be eaten up by discussion, planning, and socializing. Still, compared to about five minutes per player per phase in AH, you still come out ahead if you double the EH turn esitmate.

Right there, that’s enough to make me like the game. I mean, I love AH, but it is a huge investment of time to set up and play. A version that sets up and tears down quickly, with speedy play, is just what I want, and I’d have been happy if that was all EH brought to the table7. But there’s a lot more than that.

I mentioned while describing the set-up that you use subsets of different kinds of cards during the game – building a Mythos Deck from a larger assortment of cards, for example. You also have some specialized decks for the various8 Ancient Ones that you must battle. These decks allow the game to build strong narratives for each of the different Ancient Ones, setting different goals and tactics for each one.

To defeat each Ancient One, you must complete three9 Mysteries. These are unique to each Ancient One, and are related to the trademarks of the specific Ancient Ones. For example, you may have to investigate the strange meteor that landed in Tunguska if you’re facing off against Azathoth, or explore newly re-risen R’lyeh if you’re dealing with Cthulhu, or defeat the Dunwich Horror if Yog-Stothoth is your opponent, or break up horrid witch cults in remote corners of the world to beat Shub-Niggurath.

In addition, there are specialized research cards and (for some) encounter decks. These, coupled with the special ways the different Ancient Ones advance the Doom Track, add a lot more consistent and10 interesting narrative to play. Facing off against Azathoth is qualitatively different than dealing with Cthulhu, which is great.

There’s also a mechanic for scaling the difficulty of the game based on the number of players. A set of crib cards show you how many gates, monsters, and clues get spawned at the appropriate times, as well as the position of the initial Doom Track marker.

One other mechanic deserves mention here: double-sided cards. These are Condition cards and Spell cards, which have information on two sides. Players can freely read the top side, but are not allowed to turn them over to read the back side until something specific directs them to do so11. For Spell cards, this is usually casting the spell. For Condition cards, it’s when a certain symbol comes up on a Mythos card, indicating that a Reckoning is due. The cards flip over, you get to read the consequences of your leg injury acting up on you or your bank loan coming due or the downside of messing with powers man was not meant to know.

Players win if they complete the three Mysteries of the Ancient One before the Doom Track reaches zero. Well, they mostly do. When the three Mysteries are completed, there are instructions on the Ancient One card as to what to do next. Sometimes, that’s it, you’ve one. Other times, you must face the final Mystery that is printed on the Ancient One card itself.

The Ancient One wins if the Doom Track reaches zero before all three Mysteries are solved, or if all the investigators are eliminated.

I do worry, however, about replayability. There are only the four Ancient ones included in the game, and each has a deck of four Mysteries, three of which get used each game. Right there, you’re only looking at sixteen combinations. But there is a lot of other stuff going on, too, that adds variety to each game, so it’s entirely possible that my concern is completely misplaced.

Another concern is a common one to Arkham Horror and Elder Sign12 : once your character starts doing well, he or she can get stuff to help him or her, like gear and allies and spells and so forth. But if you need to succeed at a couple of encounters without that kind of help to get the game currency you need to get the stuff that helps you. If you take some time to get rolling, it can be very frustrating13.

On the up side, it looks like the gate and monster holders from Litko that I got for AH will work just as well with EH. I’ll have to check to see if I have the character figures for the investigators in EH, too.

So, final evaluation? I like Eldritch Horror. It fits nicely into the complexity/duration gap between Arkham Horror and Elder Sign, and does some very cool things that neither of those other games do. It’s not just a simplified version of AH, though it is that too. But it’s a great game in its own right.

I’m glad I bought it when it came out. I’m looking forward to playing a full game with real people.

  1. I lost both games pretty badly, but still had an awesome time. []
  2. And, by “furniture,” of course, I mean, “reality as we know it.” []
  3. Or a couple of nearby towns, with the expansions. []
  4. Caveat: of course, there haven’t been any expansions for EH, yet. This may change; the expansions sure ratcheted up the complexity of AH, after all. []
  5. Maybe a little less. []
  6. You use a subset of all the Mythos cards in each game. []
  7. As it were. []
  8. Four, right now: Cthulhu, Azathoth, Yog-Sothoth, and Shub-Niggurath. []
  9. Or four, for some Ancient Ones. []
  10. To my mind, anyway. []
  11. This is a little like the Danger/Cliffhanger cards in Fortune and Glory. []
  12. And, indeed to other games with similar rules for getting various stuff to beef up your character, such as Fortune and Glory. []
  13. Trust me. That’s how I spend a lot of these games. []

Mask of the Other

motocover

Mask of the Other is a modern Lovecraftian horror/military adventure novel by Greg Stolze. Here’s the sell text from the back cover:

In 1991, a squad of US soldiers in Iraq stumbled across the wreckage of Saddam Hussein’s secret occult weapons program. Mask of the Other tells their story.

In 1974, something two armies couldn’t kill was buried under the wreckage of Varosha, during the invasion of Cyprus. Over the next three decades, teams of Turkish soldiers repeatedly attempted to poison it, burn it, or blow it to bits. They only succeeded in keeping it pent up, waiting.

In 2001, a skirmish in rural Afghanistan somehow escalated to the point that an entire village was wiped out, along with most of the personnel of a private military company. The only survivors were four Americans suspected of looting Iraqi antiquities a decade earlier.

In 2004, those same Americans were hired to provide security for a mining firm looking to restart operations on the abandoned island of Hashima. Both they, and the man who hired them, knew that the island’s abandonment in 1974 had left it as the home to far worse things than smugglers and squatters.

Mask of the Other takes modern ghost towns, low-intensity combat zones, international espionage and corporate intrigue, weaving them together with the ineffable horrors of H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos. It’s a war story, a survival tale, and an account of existential survival against incredible threats.

Now, bias alert. Here’s a list of reasons that you might decide my review of the book is biased:

  • Greg Stolze, along with John Tynes, bought a bunch of my writing back in the days of Unknown Armies.
  • I got to know Greg back in those days, and we’ve been friends ever since.
  • Greg sent me a .pdf of the book back when it was first released, for free.
  • I backed the Kickstarter for the audiobook version1.
  • In general, I like Greg’s writing, both his fiction and his game material.

So, those factors may indicate that I am predisposed to like this book, and you’d be right, I guess. But I try to be honest in my reviews. I think the above points make it more likely that I’d read the book, certainly, and to write a review if I like it2.

This review is coming very late – the book was released over a year ago, and I started reading it then, but I got distracted and never got back to it. When the Kickstarter for the audio version of the book came along, I backed it at a high enough level to get the softcover version, as well. I just finished listening to the audiobook this afternoon, so it’s time and past time to write a review.

The sell text above hits the high points of the story. The book actually weaves a few different narrative tracks together, some of which come together later in the book, and some of which are more in the nature of vignettes, filling in some blanks from the story and illuminating the nature of the threats facing the characters3. This does a good job of controlling the revelations of information for the reader to heighten suspense, because sometimes it’s scarier to be surprised and sometimes it’s scarier to see it coming.

I had a bit of a problem with this approach, though, especially in the earlier part of the novel. The chapters don’t progress chronologically; that is, they jump forward and backwards in time. Each chapter starts with a date/place heading, so it’s not that huge a deal – except with the audiobook. With a written text, you can flip back to the chapter’s beginning, and to other chapter beginnings, to help keep track of where you are in the story’s timeline. You can’t do that with the audiobook, though, and with all the jumping around in the start of the book, it’s not hard to lose track.

It’s not a huge problem, though; just something that caused me a little confusion. And, as the book proceeds, the narratives come together and begin to advance in a more conventional manner, the problem evaporates.

The story itself is a lot of fun, and really quite disturbing in many places4. Greg uses a couple of very common monsters from the Lovecraft corpus, and uses them pretty much in their conventional roles, but throws a couple of awesome twists in to move them from standard tropes up to things of real horror again. The deep ones are nasty and terrifying in their breeding program and level of infiltration, and the shoggoth pulls some tricks that show why they were essentially an Old One doomsday weapon.

The main characters of the book – the squad of soldiers – are great. They make the same kinds of desperate, foolish, awesome decisions as player characters in an RPG5, and enjoy the same kinds of great victories and horrible defeats. The horror of Lovecraft’s stories is often so cosmic, that it is removed from personal horror, but this story does a good job of showing how the cosmic horror leads the characters into personal horror. Their choices, and the consequences of those choices, really drive the most disturbing parts of the novel.

Of course, some mention must be made of the narrator of the audiobook. His name is Trevor Dutton, and Greg described his voice as “gravy on gravel.” I can’t do any better than that; it’s a smooth voice, with a bit of a rumble in it. He doesn’t do a lot of voices, but reads clearly, and at a good pace. I believe he produced the book, as well as reading it, so he’s responsible for the sound effects interspersed throughout. The first time I heard one of the sound effects on the recording, I was startled, but they work really well, and I wound up enjoying them a lot6. All in all, a fine job of reading.

End result? I really enjoyed Mask of the Other. It hit all the right buttons for modern Lovecraft fiction, as far as I’m concerned, marrying his stark, horrific universe with the more personal, immediate horror of modern sensibility. It’s a tough balance to strike, and Greg Stolze hits it about perfect. If you like Lovecraft, Delta Green, or just modern horror, you should read this book.

  1. Some may view this as bias, some may view it as further endorsement. I leave it to you to decide which it is for you. []
  2. I don’t write reviews of things I don’t like. I’d rather celebrate and share stuff that I think is good than whine about or tear down stuff that I don’t. After all, opinions are very subjective, and there’s lots of good stuff out there, so why not focus on stuff I like? []
  3. Most of the illumination is some form of “See? This is why it’s very, very bad.” []
  4. Which is what one looks for in Lovecraftian story, after all. []
  5. And, incidentally, so completely unlike the rather sterile, cerebral characters of an actual Lovecraft story. []
  6. Mostly. There were one or two little tinkly musical stings that struck me as kind of incongruous. []

The Demolished Ones

TheDemolishedOnesFrontCover

So, a while back, Steven D. Russell at Rite Publishing asked if I’d be willing to review their first Fate product, The Demolished Ones, by Brian Engard. I sent him an e-mail talking about my review policy1, and he said he could live with those conditions, and sent me a free .pdf copy of the game. This was back at the end of July, and I’ve finally got around to reading it.

Here’s the blurb for the game, from the back cover:

You wake in a room.

You don’t where you are, where you came from, what’s happening. You don’t know who you are. Your identity has been taken from you. It will come back with time, but can you trust it? This world is not what it seems. Are you?

And then there’s the murder. 

Who killed the dead man? Was it you? Was it one of the people who woke in the room with you? Are you all being blamed for a crime you didn’t commit? If you want to keep your freedom, you’ll need to solve the mystery of Jack Smith’s murder while you solve the riddle of your own identity. But is freedom even possible, or is it just another lie?

This is a game.

The Demolished Ones is a game about identity, amnesia, and the power – and danger – that comes with knowledge. This game uses Fate, a rules system that helps you build characters with personalities, histories, and baggage. If you’re not familiar with Fate, don’t worry: this game teaches you everything you need to know.

This is a story.

This book also includes a full story for you to play through. It contains all of the characters, locations, and events that you’ll need to tell a story of mystery, intrigue, identity, and horror.

The Demolished Ones is written as a limited-duration campaign. Looking at it, I estimate it could be wrapped up in as little as four to five sessions, or stretched out to double that, depending on how you ran and paced things. There’s also a section near the end that gives you a bunch of options for continuing play after the main storyline is completed.

I’m not going to talk too much about the plot, because a lot of the great bits about the game depend on revelation and discovery. The whole idea of starting as blank slates of characters, slowly adding abilities and memories throughout the game, is interesting, and Fate is a great system for doing something like this, as it already has a default build-as-you-play character generation option. The strangeness and mystery of the setting unfolds as the story proceeds, and the characters learn about the setting at the same time they learn about the world.

And it’s a world worth learning about. The background story is deep and interesting, with wonderful secrets to uncover and explore. The weirdness is compelling and engaging, and the options it offers for characters are just cool.

But the game has one potential flaw. It seems2 to be based on a particular movie3. And based very firmly on the movie, in both setting, structure, and terminology, so much so that, if I were playing, I’d be hard-pressed to keep from anticipating things from the movie in the game.

It’s not like the game slavishly follows the movie, though. There are plenty of tweaks to the plot and the setting. But if the connection is made early in the game, it will give away some of the cool secrets of the world, and may undermine the enjoyment of the players. In other words, knowing the movie constitutes spoilers for the game.

That said, I think this would be a very cool game to run for a group that were unfamiliar with the movie. And, if I were not familiar with the movie, I would love to play it. Brian Engard has done a great job of creating a claustrophobic, twisted, paranoid world where identity and reality are fluid and unreliable. It’s a great mini-campaign for the right group – one that enjoys mystery, horror, adventure, and isn’t afraid of something off the beaten track.

Beyond that, it really shows off a lot of the strengths of the Fate system. The implementation of the Fate rules fit into about 20 pages, including all the special character stuff the game requires. The in-game weirdness works very well with the structure of aspects and skills. And the cinematic, free-form mechanics make for some potentially fantastic sequences.

Yeah, so if any of that sounds interesting, I’d recommend you check out The Demolished Ones.

  1. Spelled out on my About… page. []
  2. I say, “seems,” because the movie is never directly mentioned in the book. []
  3. The back of the book hints at what that movie might be, but for those who wish to know, I’ve hidden the movie name here: [spoilers]Dark City[/spoiler] []

Twittering Throne of the White Birds

I haven’t talked about books in a while, and now I have three that I want to tell you about, so I’m putting them all in one review.

The reason I’m doing this is Twitter. I found out about each of these books on Twitter, tracked them down, read them, and thoroughly enjoyed each one1. More and more, I’m using my Twitter feed to find out about good books and authors that I might not hear about otherwise. These three books are just the first that I’ve picked up this way – there are more that I’ve found and read2, and others3 that I’ve been teased with, but that aren’t yet released.

So. Yeah. Twitter is fast becoming my go-to book recommendation service.

Enough about that. Let’s talk books.

Throne of the Crescent Moon, by Saladin Ahmed

Throne is note-perfect sword-and-sorcery, in the tradition of Fritz Leiber and Robert E. Howard, but with a more modern sensibility to things like the inner lives of the characters, diversity, language, and the like. It takes the rollicking, swashbuckling, over-the-top action and adventure of the pulps, and adds character depth, ambiguity, and actual moral dilemma, creating a novel that is both exciting and rich in story.

It’s set in the pseudo-Arabic city of Dhamsawat. I say “pseudo-Arabic” because it’s not set in the real Middle East, even by cleverly changing the names, but in a fantasy world that combines the best of the 1001 Nights and real touches of history to create a place and time that is richly evocative of a fairy-tale Arabia. The main character, Adoulla, is a ghul-hunter – the last of a mystical order that hunts down and destroys the undead ghuls and the sorcerers who create them. He’s old, he’s fat, he’s cynical and irreverent, but still has the heart of a hero4, though he’s slowing down and thinking about retiring before he gets killed.

And so, of course, he gets dragged into one last case by an old flame5.

I loved this book6, mainly because of all the ways it subverts genre tropes. First off, a non-European-based fantasy world is a treat. No clones of Arthur and his knights or the Fellowship of the Ring showing up. Characters of different races and cultures – sure, pseudo-British and pseudo-German cultures are fine and good, but we’ve seen a lot of that over the years, and it’s nice to get a different perspective on things. Faith is dealt with in an interesting, two-edged way, showing both admirably pious characters and villainous zealots. And a nice contrast of ages, as the older characters7 and younger characters each show very different strengths and weaknesses.

And every one of the heroes kicks ass. The aging ghul-hunter? Kicks ass. The pious and naive young dervish bodyguard? Kicks ass. The angry young nomad shapeshifter? Kicks ass. The old alchemist, worried about her husband’s failing health? Kicks ass. Her husband, the mage, who spends his own life-force to power his magic? Kicks ass.

The bad guys are suitably detestable, whether they are the shadow-jackal servant Mouw Awa8 or simple thugs in the street. Perspectives shift and change as the simple question of who is raising the ghuls evolves into a desperate race to save the entire city.

It’s a wonderful book, and you should read it. If you like sword-and-sorcery stuff, you’ll like the way it handles the genre. If you hate sword-and-sorcery stuff, you’ll like the way it subverts the genre. It’s clever, and dotted with little delights to keep you reading. Go buy it now.

White Horse, by Alex Adams

The only reason I found this book was because I butted into a conversation about chickens9 on Twitter, and Alex Adams was involved. We bantered, and she followed me, and I followed her, and then I checked out her page, and found that she was an author with this book coming out, and it sounded interesting, so I bought it10.

The story is a little bleak. It tells the tale of Zoe, a young woman who survives a multi-stage end-of-the-world scenario, and is on a journey from the US to Greece. It flashes back to the time before and during the… well, Apocalypse, I guess… slowly building a very compelling, ground-level view of how the world ends. There’s scientific hubris and human fear and agression and sheer bad luck all mixed together in bringing things to the point where most people are dead, a lot of technology is trashed, and strange things are happening to the survivors. By showing it through Zoe’s eyes, the whole thing is personalized, and the impact of it is visceral. Chaos, confusion, fear, loss, and desperate hope all get some page time as we see the world fall apart.

In the midst of all this grimness, Alex Adams weaves some solid literary magic. She plays with you. She teases you with a couple of wonderful bait-and-switch-and-switch-again threads that follow Zoe through her journeys, both inner and outer, leading you to the edge of revelation before showing you that – again – things aren’t what they seem. I don’t want to give away what those threads are, or where they eventually lead; discovering and following them, thinking you’ve got them figured out and finding that the author is still a step ahead of you, that’s one of the great joys of this book.

I’m gonna be honest: I almost didn’t finish this book. Don’t get me wrong – it’s a fantastic book, with some great writing and compelling characters. And I’m not afraid of a bleak story.

What got to me, what almost made me stop reading, was the lack of any really likable male characters11. Well, okay, not really lack of them, but the nice guys were pretty quickly removed from play, and the male characters that took the centre stage were all unmitigated bastards. I hated them. They were vile, brutal men, and they made me want to throw the book across the room.

Why didn’t I stop? Well, because I’ve been reading a fair bit about privilege, and I thought it would be enlightening and good for me to read a book where I wasn’t given a character that I, as a straight white male, could identify with as my proxy in the story. I mean, I read a lot of books where I am given that character, but other readers – women, non-white, non-straight readers – aren’t. So I wanted to see how that made me feel, to raise my awareness of such issues.

That’s the end of my little political tirade, by the way.

I’m immensely glad that I didn’t stop reading the book because Alex Adams – and I picture her with a saucy, knowing smirk when I think about this – plays games with this, too. Expectations are both fulfilled and confounded, understanding dawns as the final tricks are exposed, and the issues are revealed as both subtler and more complex than they first appeared. And I am left marveling at the craftsmanship and beauty of the story, and the delicate, artful way that my emotions and reactions have been led to the end.

Normally, I read a book, enjoy the story, and move on to the next. White Horse lingers with me, making me think about how I read it, what it did to me, and how I reacted to that. It has shown me something new about myself and about the world. It wasn’t an easy journey, but it’s one that I’m immensely grateful I was able to take.

And I’m eagerly looking forward to Alex Adams’s next book.

Blackbirds, by Chuck Wendig

Chuck Wendig has written some of the most entertaining – and profane – writing advice I’ve ever read and enjoyed. So, I wanted to read his novel when it came out.

First things first: if you have a problem with coarse language, avoid this book. Because the language is coarse like a cheese grater rubbing on your most sensitive bits. But Chuck uses obscenity like the craftsman he is, building brilliant, dark images and situations with finely crafted expletives, each polished to perfection. He is deliberate and inventive in his cursing, understanding the rhythm and pace of each horrific bon-mot he includes. He is an artist in vulgarity, and worth reading just for that.

Anyway, with that caveat out of the way, on to the book.

This is the story of Miriam Black, a young, troubled woman who just happens to be able to tell when people are going to die. When she touches someone, she sees the time, place, method, and circumstances of their death. She can’t change anything about it, though; what she sees comes true, and if she tries to change things, she winds up contributing to the death she’s seen. This has, as you might imagine, messed her up some, and she currently wanders the highways and by-ways, hitching rides and living hand to mouth. She isn’t really a nice person, but she is someone you can root for.

Two things come into the picture that change things for her – the first is a vision of the death of someone that she doesn’t want to die, and the second is someone who has figured out her secret.

The book is fiercely focused, and quite short. There are no wasted words, no distractions, nothing to take you away from the story. It is a brutal trip through a pulpy charcoal sketch of bad people and nasty situations, and it drags you pretty aggressively through to the end at top speed. Along the way, you see how Miriam got to be the way she is, and what she’s really made of.

There’s a dark delight to the story, a nobility in the seediness of the situations and locations, and great heroism happens on very human scales, feeling more real and immediate than all the over-the-top thrillers. It’s a very human book, with messy, damaged characters, rife with good12 intentions and stupidity, fear and hope, desperation and resignation.

It’s not a happy book, but it is a hopeful one. And the darkness in it is wonderfully entertaining.

Word is that Miriam’s coming back, too. And that’s good.

  1. That’s the quick review. []
  2. Like John Scalzi’s Redshirts and John Horner Jacobs’s Southern Gods. []
  3. Like Tom Pollock’s The City’s Son. []
  4. As well as the appetite. []
  5. Yeah, there are a few nice noir touches in there, too. []
  6. So much so that I’ve used it as the loose basis for a D&D adventure. []
  7. Including the main character. []
  8. Easily one of the best-written, creepiest bad guys I’ve read. []
  9. Evil, stupid creatures. Ambulatory plants motivated by pure malice. []
  10. Authors on Twitter take note: being a friendly, approachable human being is good marketing. You don’t always have to be hard-selling your stuff. That said, no one begrudges you a little self-marketing either. Mix the two – like the authors I’m reviewing here – and you’re golden. []
  11. There was another, subtler issue, as well: the fact that Zoe was determined not to kill, even when her opponent was someone that I, as a reader, really felt should have been killed. But there’s another dynamic, only partially gender-based, at work there – in the bleak, post-apocalyptic world, we expect life to be cheap. But to Zoe, it wasn’t. It was the most precious thing there was, and I finally started to get that later in the book, and began to understand the strength it showed. Just a different kind of strength than we’re used to in the kind of book I expected this to be. Again, my expectations were confounded, and brilliantly so. Bravo. []
  12. Or not so good. []