Thursday, 10 August 2017

RPG Backwards Look: Daytrippers Core

I’m posting this today for a couple of reasons.

First, today’s #RPGaDay 2017 question is “Where do you go for RPG reviews?”.

Second and more important AsIf Productions the author and publisher of DayTrippers whose primary job is in web development has been struggling to get new clients and sent out a general message to the RPG community about the kind of services they can provide, and I want to boost the signal.

So, if you’re looking to hire a web developer they do small business sites as well as solutions for larger business, and they’re available for freelance writing and editing. Have a look at their website.

If you like the sound of the game you can support them by buying their books, or via Patreon donations for their ongoing content. Go to the DayTrippers RPG site for more information. They sell their content on a range of platforms including DriveThruRPG and RPGNow, where you can also order print copies.

Having read the core rules I’m going to pick up Golden Age Adventures which includes not only 16 adventures, but the fiction that inspired them (Jack Vance, Philip K. Dick and others) and sounds like a great deal.

Now, onto the post.


I am a terrible RPG reader, for the following reasons:

  1. Signal to noise. I have so many pdfs (impulse purchases, Bundles of Holding, etc.) that they all blur into one.
  2. Heuristics and bias. I’ve read a lot of RPGs and when I scan a book and mentally sort the sections into fluff, system, examples, adventures; then I’ll scan each section looking for familiar frameworks. This means I don’t read in detail, and instead make assumptions about the content of the bits I haven’t read yet.

I think my first read-through of DayTrippers core went like this:

“OK, a fluff section. I know how that works, I’ll come back to that later.”

“OK, a point-buy character generation bit. I know how that works, I’ll come back to that later.”

“OK, the combat section. Yeah yeah, I’ll come back to that later.”

“OK, bits on taking damage, vehicular combat, etc.”

“Oooh! Vector slipping. I’ll definitely come back to that later.”

“Dream worlds… survival suits… slipships… right. I’ll need to come back to those later.”

“Oh! And a mission section. That’s probably going to be useful. I’ll come back to that later, after I’ve read all the other bits I said I would come back to later. After I make dinner.”

The second time I read through I took a leaf out of Baz’s book and started reading from the back, which is a great technique because the first place you hit (skipping over appendices) will usually be a scenario or mission, and barring an actual demo play session that’s the place where you get the best first impression of how a game should play.

(this way you also get a good look at the character sheets first. They’re the windows into the soul of an RPG; a bad sheet won’t necessarily kill your enthusiasm but a good one certainly whets the appetite. Take a look at the sheet for Lacuna Part 1, or the toe-tag sheet for Hollowpoint)

DayTrippers, back to front

Here’s what we know from the website:

The time is shortly after the year 2100, the location is the first world. Massive megacorporations dominate the economic landscape and incredible advances in technology make the most miraculous things possible, from genetic modification to medical nanotechnology and microfusion power generators. But the most earth-shaking development of the 21st century is one we’re just beginning to see the ramifications of: As the 22nd century enters its second decade, the inner and outer realities of SlipSpace are opening up to human exploration. The Slip Capacitor, based on the groundbreaking work of Zayim Diaspora, is an amazing device that allows travel to other dimensions in vehicles known as Slipships. The bold explorers who pilot these vehicles face a multiverse of physical and psychological dangers to bring back priceless knowledge and powerful artifacts from far-flung dimensions and other realities. They’re called DayTrippers, and you’re one of them.

Now, content.

Mission Types (p37-39)

First, a taxonomy of mission types. From this we know that the characters will be taken out of their base, home or comfort zone and participate in an adventure: exploration, rescue, fact-finding, making diplomatic contact, etc.

Next, we find out that each mission type has a clearance level and the PC’s SlipShip (whether their own or borrowed) must be up to the mission. This is a nice way of gatekeeping or power-capping the adventure, or signposting the clearence level (Paranoia-style).

More tables and bullet points follow for different choices: the Node type, the Opposition, any Perks they get before the mission, Rewards, and Complications. Several of these are rolled beforehand. This looks like something right out of Sine Nomine’s offerings with a breadth of choice and random results, so I’m already loving it. Round that off with a sequence of scenes, from downtime accepting the mission, challenges, climax and return home.

Overall impression: this is a game with a strong format of mission, promise of reward, excursion and return. I already want to play it. Next!

Slipship construction (p32-35)

OK, we know that Slipships are important for getting about. They have a capacity, components, amenities, tonnage… I don’t feel the need to go into this now but I am interested that the ship is being created like a PC (it has its own character sheet). Possibly there’s shared ownership in mind — something I really liked in the point-buy base of operations in the Conspiracy X 2.0 (Unisystem) game.

I have one gripe with the ship sheet. Since I peeked ahead and know that the survival suit consumes kilowatts, does the Slipship really only consume milliwatts? I assume it should be MW not mW on the sheet. Unless of course there’s some Grant Morrison / In The Night Garden trickery with micro and macro-scale universes. In which case, having the power consumption of your encounter suit be one million times that of your Slipship is an interesting technical point.

Experience Points (p30-31)

A workmanlike section but very clear on what you get XP for and what you can spend them on (stats, skills, drama tokens if you use them, inventions, luxuries, fame, etc.). The most interesting part is the tracking of Total Character Value, XP Spent and XP Available. Why track both XP Total and XP Available? I’m hoping the answer is interesting.

Your Automated Survival Suit (p29)

Here’s what we know about the game from this section:

  • DayTripping is dangerous enough to need a suit
  • The suit has limited power: you get 100 kW from a full charge, and expend 1 kW doing certain tasks.

The scale is interesting because with 100 points to play with, people are less likely to quibble over spending a point here and there at the start — but the steady tick tick tick of the power meter going down will likely force some harder resource choices later into the game as the climax approaches.

Vector Slipping (p26-28)

This is the method of travelling to all different “Slip Nodes” in the multidimensional maestrom of the “Multiversal Chao”. OK. What we really have is a set of difficulties for travelling to different kinds of nodes (alt. Earth, Time Travel, Dream Worlds, etc.). There are consequences for failure, for missing the “Slip Window” and so on. There’s a whole page on Dream Worlds.

What this bit tells me is that this game is about travelling from a society that has somehow broken the barriers between many different levels of alternate existence; and that they probably lump different concepts of other times, other Earths, dreams, other planets all into one single category; as far as the DayTripping society of the 22nd century is concerned all of these can be written onto the same topological map provided the sheet of paper is big enough.

It’s also clear that the easiest jumps are the ones closest to home — alt Earths, time travel and known planets.

This gave me a few ideas already. All slips are conceptually the same but depending on classification, some may be locked down — depending on how the game world is run (corporations? A multiversal hegemony?). This also reminded me of the hyperspace navigation in Delany’s Babel 17 and the multiple gated realities of Ian McDonald’s Everness series.

Actions, Combat, Helping, Healing, Vehicles (p18-25)

This bit is the standard middle chunk of a RPG — a mix of rules for different circumstances, starting with taking actions. All you need to know is there are difficulty levels, you roll a bunch of dice and pick the highest, and there are a range of results depending on whether you make or miss the result. For example it matters if you hit your number exactly, miss or hit by 1 or more than 1. This granularity feels a lot like the results in FATE or Unisystem BUT I think I like the dice rolling here a lot more since it’s regular D6.

I particularly like the opposed rolling in theory with the “Yes, BUT”, “NO, and” style of results, and because the numbers are low the cognitive overhead shouldn’t be too bad. Everything else seems to work just like any other trad RPG — setting stakes before rolling the dice, interpreting afterwards. I’d need to play through it to see how smooth or crunchy it is.

Character Development (p14-17)

This is the bit that comes directly after Character Building but it’s frankly way more interesting; character generation is a hump that players just go through and this one, while simple, is still point-buy with options. More on that in a moment.

This bit looks very interesting because it talks about what happens to your PC during play. “Progressive Character Generation” is used to let the players “wear” their PC and defer actual backstory until later, by holding back Character Points to retroactively spend.

“LifeShaping” is a mechanism to mark dramatic character development, including motivations, personal problems, relationships, etc. I like the concept although I’m not entirely clear on the in-game process; nor am I clear on how (if) these relate to the once-per-session Character Development Scenes.

I guess this is partly where the claimed OSR-Narrative hybridisation comes in, and for me it provides opportunities for narrative expression of the PCs without stepping into the narrative-shaping role of the GM.

Character Building (p8-13)

This is another workmanlike section of point-buy setup, and it’s necessary but to be honest, this is an overhead I have to pay both to learn and play the game, rather than a bit I actually enjoy. I’m glad I read the book backwards. All I can say is there are lots of options for flexible skills, packages of skills and experience (“class advances”) etc. It’s not too crunchy.

I do like the way that skills are written on the same line as the Stat they apply to — this helps parsing the character sheet a lot.

The World of DayTrippers (p6-7)

Here we learn that the big movers and shakers of the 22nd century are corporate (rather than national/political) and the one thing they have in common is the disruptive technology that allows people to the Nodes. This is an important SF conceit — an extrapolated future based on a single scientific advance. The world is otherwise a blank canvas — there’s a half-page devoted to bullet points of technologies which might be available, but it’s up to you. The best description we get is the overview:

The world of DayTrippers is kinda dull, stupid and ridiculous, punctuated by spectacle, festooned with advertising and dripping with irony. It’s a place of technological progress and rampant global capitalism, complete with continuous media charades and enormous social inequity, somewhere between “2001” and “Idiocracy”.

This is followed by a laundry list of corporations. It doesn’t really matter who or what they are; as we’ve learned (by reading later sections) all that matters is you go on missions in slipships, those ships may be party- or corporate-owned, and the missions have classifications, and the people paying you to travel are mercenary capitalists.

The Introduction (p2-5)

Finally, the fiction which tells you how the world came to be the way it was. It serves its purpose; the most interesting bit is at the end where we read about SlipSpace and the five different kinds of slips (Cartesian, Paraterran, Temporal, Subjective and Compound) which map onto five kinds of Vector Slipping.

Final Remarks

DayTrippers feels weird and goofy, and not at all serious, and I’m not sure why that is — maybe it’s the New Wave SF surrealist sensibilities or the apparently disposable mission-based approach. Once I’m over that I can see a lot of depth and potential to be both superficial and lighthearted, or serious and deep. It could be a comedic franchised exploration company, contracting out to corporate clients a la Ghostbusters or InSpectres. It could be a serious, military SF style game if you replace the corporations with a military chain of command; it could take a conspiratorial tone if certain Nodes were classified or forbidden. I could see a mission focused game, or a sandbox where the PCs hire themselves to the highest bidder. I could see a game where the downtime drama scenes become as important as the missions.

By limiting the kinds of nodes you can tune the conceptual boundaries to make a game that’s only about alternate Earths, or space travel, or time travel, etc. And by tuning the power levels of the characters you could expand the scope further — I might fancy playing a superhero game like Planetary or Zenith (Phase III), sending supers to fictional universes using a fiction suit, or the Omnihedron’s alternate earths via. an Einstein-Rosen bridge. You can probably tell this is right up my street.

I can’t say what the system will be like yet, but it deserves a fair shout; the scale of results, the use of d6, the attrition of resources and the yes/and/no/but approach all sound like a really nice balance of “narrative” and “trad” — but then that’s exactly how we’ve played for years. But if you really don’t fancy it there are conversion rules for d20, PbtA and percentile.

So in summary: this is a smart and interesting game with an intriguing system and a very strong, yet adaptable premise. It’s not too long, and it’s good value for money.

Tuesday, 6 December 2016

RPG First Look: Perdition vs. Crypts & Things

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The Black Hack may have all the OSR (and indie) cred right now, but I’ve just been reading two other 2016 OSR releases.

The first is Perdition from Hack and Slash publishing. It’s self-consciously a third wave OSR game:

It is a third wave clone because it is not a game designed to emulate or provide an improved version of the “Fantasy Adventure Role-Playing Game”. It is not a game designed to allow you to create your own fantasy realm and have whatever type of adventures you wish. It is a game designed to allow you to explore the world of Perdition. It crosses a line of setting books that work with whatever ruleset you are using and provides the setting information via mechanics, classes, equipment, spells and monsters, instead of through large blocks of flavour text and fiction writing.

I said before that the third wave of the OSR will be defined by those who claim it. I also said that these definitions will diverge; and Perdition is clearly diverging from earlier hand-waving claims of simply “innovation of setting”.

The other is Crypts and Things from D101 games, a very British “Sword and Sorcery RPG” with nods to White Dwarf and Fighting Fantasy, and with no elves or dwarves. Speaking of which the Encyclopaedia of SF has this to say about the genre:

Tolkien’s long, richly imagined work is as important to modern sword and sorcery as Howard’s, the two representing the two ends of the genre’s spectrum: Howard all amoral vigour, Tolkien all deeply moral clarity of imagination. (Also, Howard’s heroes were very big, Tolkien’s very small.) Common to both – although the two writers could not have had the remotest influence on each other – is a powerful commitment to the idea of worlds where magic works, and where heroism can be pitted against Evil.

C&T’s influences are Howard, Clark Ashton Smith and Moorcock’s Elric, placing the game at the “amoral vigour” end of the spectrum. I always felt D&D was like that anyway, and perhaps that’s why the fantasy races felt so out of place in BECMI D&D. C&T’s core classes and focus on human cultures feel like a clean but necessary break.

(of course it’s not the only humanocentric Hyborian/Hyperborean S&S OSR game, and North Wind’s Astonishing Swordsmen and Sorcerers of Hyperborea was also a contender for my wallet — but getting the HC of either the 1st or 2nd ed. in Kickstarter would have been punitive to a non-US customer)

Reading through both books reveals interesting differences that point at fundamental design decisions, and I’m going to consider these in a bit. First, the lowdown on each book.

Perdition

Perdition is about playing in a world (Prime Material Plane) overrun by devils and demons. The latter are Chaotic and would tear creation asunder if it were not for the actions of the former who represent law and stability. They are at war and power their infernal war machine by corrupting human souls. The Vile Court oversees everything.

Perdition’s cover of a weirdly inverted city and a three-quarters view of a corpulent devil’s buttocks is by Matthew Adams, and will look familiar to fans of Yoon Suin. The other artists are Russ Nicholson, Heather Gwinn, Marcin S., and Michael Ralston. Nicholson’s art (a main attraction for me) is mainly found in the Monsters section detailing the major devils or lords. Interior book sections are graced by full-page illustrations, which are anything but traditional and have a spooky, dark fairytale and folk-art feel that would fit in with an occult anthropology book.

I love digest format books; but for once, I wonder if this one shouldn’t have been in a larger format. It’s a dense book and (as indicated by layout issues) there’s not a lot of white space.

(Actually there was some trouble with the PoD for Perdition, where page numbers, flags and some full plates were truncated (vertically and horizontally). This was fixed in my replacement copy (mostly) although the borders of some of Russ Nicholson’s full plates are slightly cut off)

Perdition divides up 326 pages roughly like this:

  • character generation including class, race and other bits (around 80 pages)
  • the usual miscellaneous rules for encumbrance, hirelings, languages, skills etc. (30 pages or so)
  • equipment (12 pages)
  • encounters (20 pages)
  • magic (90 pages)
  • monsters (40 pages)
  • finally GM’s section (“Agonarch”) that runs to the end (30 pages)

The contents page is great and the order is (mostly) logical. I had no trouble jumping to the sections I wanted to read. The book also provides a “Change Quick Reference List” on page 10 that tells us exactly where the system diverges from the SRD template. The authors know who their audience is.

Remarks

First, the Character Class and Magic sections — which are effectively player-facing — dominate the book with more than 50% of the page count. There are a lot of options for what you can play, and the game is the AD&D race-plus-class style with over 80 combinations (if you have the right stats). The classes are thoughtfully arranged into four groups based on Tarot suits (although I can’t see much Tarot symbolism elsewhere, but maybe I’m being thick) and the way you like your characters to get things done — fighting, skills, social and magical.

The magic section is extensive and that’s partly because there are many branches, some of which are specifically for certain classes. This means if you want to cast magic you’ve got to absorb both the class options and the magic section to make your decision on what to play. I like the way magic is handled with all the different schools, the Minor/Major/Grand distinctions (as opposed to levels) and the spell surges and so forth. But it’s a significant undertaking for starting players (and taxing if you’ve only got one book between you).

The monsters are the next largest section (and note that there are several fiends in the Summoning and Druidic magic sections also) and the Devil Lords get Russ Nicholson’s lovely art. If the goal is to communicate the setting through rules then I guess class, magic and monsters should be the dominant sections.

But actually the part of the rules I expect the whole game to revolve around is relatively short. The section on dealing with Devils and Demons (including summons, contracts and communication via the Vile Court) is appended to the general rules for equipment and skills and is maybe around 10-12 pages long. This sub-system together with some comments on the Wickedness stat in the Agonarch’s section is possibly the most important in the whole book. That I feel is the game’s real USP.

What else? Experience is treated as Prestige, an in-game currency that is used to claim levels, and also pay for petitions via the Vile Court (an idea I love, as it’s something I have in mind for Black Mantle). There’s a bit on Titan-sized monsters which can be both antagonists and locations (as in Shadow of the Colossus, island fish, etc.). There’s social and mental conflict (and hit points & armour class). The Encounter process causes PCs to suffer stress with successive encounters.

In summary, a lot to like, but also a lot to digest. I expect most OSR games to be nicely modular with a simple core — and Perdition is probably the same, but it’s different enough that you need to absorb it properly — it’s medium rather than low crunch and demands investment to play.

Crypts & Things

Crypts & Things is much more mainstream in terms of fantasy, though as said above it’s at the Howard and Leiber end of low fantasy as opposed to Tolkien’s high fantasy and great clomping feet. Comparisons with Conan and Hyboria (or Hyperborea) are inevitable — a ruined world besieged by “Others” via a mountaintop gate, pre-human civilisations, and a Barbarian character class.

I thought publishers steered clear of green book covers (when I was putting this image together for Fictoplasm it was a real struggle not to make the image as single wall of blue). Whether that’s true or not the lambent green cover is all you need to tell you that everyone on Zarth is fucked like a chronic case of Martian syphilis. Singing maggots aside it’s a very pretty cover (by David Michael Wright, who also did the interior art) with a male barbarian and female sorcerer squaring off against horned undead, a huge snake and a skull shaped portal in the background. The interior B&W art is consistent and sharp and on the whole very nice if a little safe with a procession of PC in a pose, snake person, ziggurat, snake person, temple, PC in a pose again. The best art (IMHO) is in the monster section (the place where it’s needed most).

The book is your traditional, large format and 2-column layout, plenty of white space. Hardly exciting by modern standards, but — and this is a big plus for me — printer friendly. The content is broken down into books — the Scrolls of Wonder (Player’s Guide) and the Book of Doom (for the GM). The former runs to just over 100 pages:

  • Creating a character, character classes and Life Events (approx. 40 pages)
  • Spell lists (20 pages)
  • How to play (20 pages)
  • The Continent of Terror (5 pages)
  • What the Elder told me (10 pages)

Then the Book of Doom’s approx 130 pages is divided like this:

  • The Secrets of the Continent (15 pages)
  • The Others (8 pages)
  • Antagonists including Snake People (4 pages) other bad guys (5 pages) and a bestiary (60 pages)
  • Treasure (5 pages), Adventures (20 pages) and author’s notes on play (10 pages)

The contents page is brief, the index longer but it’s all functional — I certainly wouldn’t have any trouble finding the section I needed.

Remarks

Let’s say retro-clones diverge in two directions: either greater diversity and choice, mixing and matching racial and class options (the AD&D way) or a reduction in the number of options (the Basic D&D way). Perdition is a great example of the former, while C&T does the latter.

Reducing options means reducing the number of decisions players have to make before kick-off. With four core classes and one homogeneous magic system C&T has a much lower cognitive overhead than Perdition. In fact C&T has an immediacy to it — thanks to the life-paths, the gazeteer and the “What the Elder Told Me” section (eight sets of culturally-biased answers to common questions like “who are we?” and “what is magic?”) I expect it would be quick to get up and running — which matters to me as I’m most likely to run OSR games as casual one-shots.

Downsides? C&T is a bit cartoonish; the classes are templates to be filled in, as is the landscape. That’s not a downside for me — I like my games painted with a broad brush and I don’t care for overly detailed settings. I feel C&T hits a sweet spot with just enough of a sketch to make the world a jumping off point rather than a straightjacket.

What else do I like? I like Skill and I like Luck. I also like the one kind of Sorcerer (as opposed to MU and Cleric) and three colours of magic, each with their own costs. Although based on earlier reviews (e.g. here and here) I had certain expectations and there have clearly been a few changes in the “remastering”. It seems previously White magic cost nothing, Grey cost HP and Black cost Sanity. Now White attracts “Others”, Black gains you Corruption and Grey has no cost.

Let’s talk briefly about Corruption and Sanity. I honestly can’t see the value of having both and in general I can’t see the point of CoC-style Sanity in a fantasy game — it made no sense when it was tacked onto Stormbringer and it’s not a great choice here. Corruption, now that makes sense. If only there had been more than one page devoted to it. The rules seem punitive; if it really goes up for every spell level cast then a 5th level sorcerer could see a bump of 9 points in a day’s adventuring. The rules for other classes being corrupted are hand-waving, as are the ones for reducing. The real problem is this isn’t a currency the players can manage except by not going near Black magic in the first place. A fair strategy and maybe the designer’s intent, but boring.

Final Words

Crypts & Things is formulaic, safe, evolutionary rather than revolutionary. I’d call that a strength, because the people I play with are only likely to engage with OSR games on a casual basis. The game has just enough flavour. It could be my go-to system for clearing up those LotFP modules cluttering my hard drive.

Perdition is uncompromising, detailed and unique. I don’t think I’d get the time to play it to the depth it deserves. But even so, I’m very glad I read it because it’s remarkable both in concept and execution.

Tuesday, 25 October 2016

RPG Revisited: Continuum and Narcissist

Narcissist is the companion game to the compelling but unplayable Continuum, slated for a 2008 release but so far yet to see anything beyond the 0.7 testing release.

In this post I’ll do a couple of things. First, I’ll look at Narcissist as the counterpoint to Continuum (which I’ll revisit, natch). Second, I’ll discuss the playability of both games. The second point is important because I’ve always considered Continuum unplayable due to the arcane Time Combat and punitive book-keeping. Is that true?

I have a thing for dead games. On the other hand Continuum and Narcissist are only dead in leveller terms. Their death is in both games Yet, but maybe they can still do great things.

Continuum Revisited

continuum

The Wikipedia page has an extensive write-up of Continuum, although it misses a couple of key points. These are the highlights.

Spanners are time travellers. Their ability to travel is measured in Span, which is counted in fractions up to one and then whole numbers after that. The Spanner rank determines how far you can go in both time and space between resting (ranging from seconds and inches to many thousands of years and miles). Spanner rank is taught, based on merit; and the ability to span is technological (nanotech to be exact), not magical. Spanners actually make use of the “sky road” aka the Van Allen belt.

There are three imporant eras in the setting, from 18000 BC up to 2400 AD. At the start there’s the Antedesertium, the origin of the narcissists, the self-serving enemy time travellers who oppose the Continuum. At the end there’s the spacefaring Inheritors, an inevitable future society of time travellers who no longer have to use the Sky Road. In between there’s the human Societies stretching for 20,000 years or so.

inherit

The Continuum is all about preserving the timeline. Alternate timelines are fallacious and heretical, as are parallel universes. The Continuum has a set of maxims which must be obeyed, including trusting your elders (they know more than you) and the limits of how much you can help a paradoxical situation.

cont

Speaking of paradox, frag is a measure of paradox and is applied personally to spanners, and it’s their job to deal with it.

Information is everything. What you actually know is really important, partly because of your personal Yet. Everything is technically fated to happen, but you can’t know what will happen if you haven’t observed the outcome. There are little rules here and there about what happens when you meet yourself (a gemini incident) and what happens if you skirt around your own death and then get killed a second time. But most importantly the rulebook is laid out according to Span, as though the player characters were progressing up the hierarchy. Crucially behaviours change as your span goes up. You age differently; you join Fraternities (Traditions, Bloodlines, etc.); you participate in the Greatest Game. Most importantly your spin on what the Maxims actually mean and tell you to do changes as you go up the ladder and learn more about spanning, becoming responsible for lower ranks beneath you.

The book is rounded off with accounts of the war between the Antedesertium and the Continuum over the zodiacal ages. But make no mistake, the outcome of the war is a foregone conclusion. The Continuum dogma does not allow for any future except the ones where the Inheritors succeed the Societies. The Inheritors at the end of time are thoroughly invested in that outcome, and they exceed the Span of any in the Continuum; therefore they will always ensure paradox is corrected and the timeline stays on track.

Narcissist

narcissist

Narcissist makes sense — and is a lot of fun to read — as a direct counterpoint to Continuum.

Being the same “Dreamcatcher” system it has a lot in common with Continuum — some parts of that book have been re-used (skills, leveller combat) and others have been tweaked ever so slightly to work from the “crasher” POV. So, here are the highlights:

  • “narcissist” is an epithet applied by the Continuum to the self-identified crashers
  • The Continuum is called “the Swarm” by crashers
  • Whereas Continuum spanners are invited, Crashers are recruited by “artisans”. The process of alteration is physical — as the book says, crashers are “retooled machines. You were not born; you were built.”
  • The Continuum have ranks based on Span; the Antedesertium have castes starting at zero (levellers) then going through low-level Pressed, mid-level Merchants and up to Princes, Kings and Gods
  • The crasher credo is fundamentally at odds with the Swarm/Continuum, which it views as a constrained vision of the future (where it insists that mankind “does not reach the stars”). Crasher philosophy is based on a number of paraverses, and creating crash points that can be used to generated gates to those paraverses. There’s still the concern about generating Frag but it’s also waved away in places with “but the Continuum will deal with Frag anyway”.
  • Most interestingly, there is a counterpoint to the Continuum’s inevitable timeline involving the Inheritors. The Kings and Gods of the Antedesertium are convinced that “in the final analysis, we will overpower them. It is only a matter of when, and if as immortal gods we should even bother”. This assumption relies on the existence of many universes overwhelming the one Singularity the Continuum is allied with and approaching.

So, basically, you have the same game, but perfectly inverted. One side relies on a philosophy of convergence to a singularity far in the future; the other side relies on the root of many branching paraverses deep in the past. But even though the philosophy of how time travel is achieved differs, the underlying mechanism — that of spanning, and Time Combat — is the same.

There is something beautiful about how Narcissist handles time travel, however. First of all low-level crashers are built by infecting them with stolen nanotech from the other side (specifically the Fraternity of Physicians). Second, they travel in time via the Royal Road by hopping to different paraverses.

In this game different paraverses are rated for Proximity (to where you are now), Thrust (scale, energy, mass, size) and Drift. It’s Drift that determines how fast time runs relative to your current paraverse; so to travel in time all you need to do is hop onto a faster drifting paraverse, then hop back and hey presto, you’re in the future. The Royal Road includes cascades of paraverses with graduated drift that can be used to make precise jumps.

(It reminded me a lot of Nine Princes in Amber).

narc

Another cute twist that Narcissist makes is the treatment of doubles or Gemini. The Continuum’s maxim of “trust your elders, they know more than you” applies to versions of oneself (elder Gemini). This is inverted by crashers, for whom elders you cannot remember are inherently untrustworthy, since they could be echoes or other Continuum tricks, or a corrupted older self. Disbelief protects against this. Not only that, crashers have a mercenary approach to their own doubles from other paraverses, being prepared to murder them to fake their own death in another paraverse, steal their lives and resources, and so on. Of course the Continuum’s dogma means this philosophical point isn’t really a concern.

Playability

At first sight the problem with Continuum is the sheer amount of book-keeping needed. Each player maintains a span card detailing their spanner’s every jump backwards and forwards.

Actually I think that’s fixable. Find a way to simplify recording the jumps, accumulating tokens, tracking locations and the number of visits each PC has made to them. Consider how complicated the combat is in Burning Wheel but then how easily it can be simplified by just laying down the moves on cards — which I believe is just what Mouse Guard does. You could do exactly the same with Time Combat moves and make it much easier to see what’s happening.

Narcissist seems much more playable than Continuum simply because it’s more interesting to be the underdog and the outcast fighting the system; but structurally it’s identical. Whereas Continuum’s Span 1 spanners start out in a Corner working for a Span 3 or whatever fixing things, Narcissist’s low-level Crashers will be working for their Artisan and later other higher ups from the Merchant and Warrior castes making crash points and new gates. I don’t see much of a difference.

The question is, why should they bother if their philosophy says their version of the timeline is inevitable? What are they actually doing? For both sides it sounds like pointless busywork to me.

Continuum notably has an “Appendix A” which is a list of all the things the game is not. It’s not about policing the timeline. It’s not about the mortals left behind. It’s not about the loneliness of being a time-traveller. It’s also not about a self-repairing universe or “chronos ex machina”. I’m struggling to work out what the game authors actually think the core activity is, aside from engaging in Time Combat all the time.

What would be playable, and interesting to play, would be a game where the characters live on the fringes of one side doing its dirty work, and are forced to make compromises and accept the philosophy of the other side to get things done.

I drafted a game called Transuranic World a while ago (and playtested it a couple of times). This was basically Sapphire and Steel as a PbtA game. It never went anywhere; but re-reading Continuum and Narcissist has made me realise what was missing — the philosophy, the high concept and the overarching vision of the timeline. It was fine when the time agents Sapphire and Steel only hinted at their true philosophy and motivation, but roleplaying games need more, I feel. This may just be it.

Last Words

Continuum and Narcissist are masterpieces of worldbuilding, but as games they’re no good. But out of two difficult games there’s one game with a great deal of potential. This is what I would change:

  1. The premise for what the actual characters do should be as time-repairers or time-crashers; but to achieve their ends they will come into contact with, and have to engage with their opponent’s philosophy, and risk accusations of treason from their own side.
  2. Thus they need to keep track of not only Frag but also Standing with their own organisation — something that is tainted by their contact with the opposition.
  3. For the actual mechanics, Time Combat needs better representation at the table. I would set the arena for Time Combat beforehand. Much like a Sapphire and Steel mystery this should be a closed field where time has been looped or otherwise perverted. Gates to other universes of infinite possibilities are not very interesting. Pockets with the potential to create Gates are much more interesting because they defy local physics and temporal philosophy, at cost to whomever is inside.

That’s what I would do, and what I may do if I ever come back to Transuranic World. I’m currently suppressing the ideas and trying to finish old projects rather than start new ones.

If these books ever see print again they should be as tête-bêche bindings with the final chapters in each comprising the timelines, converging on their mutually-exclusive zeniths.

Thursday, 16 June 2016

RPG Retrospective: Hawkmoon

Just recently I found this site cataloging the Premier and Nouvelle Editions of the French Hawkmoon RPG. The links to Oriflam and other places are long dead, and it’s a shame that the graphics aren’t bigger but you can see that the French line was extensive — while not much became of the English language RPG until Hawkmoon was picked up by Mongoose around 2008 (whose translation constitutes the French 3rd edition, I think).

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It took the French to keep Hawkmoon alive with its European heroes and Granbretan as the big bad. If only the Cornish nationalists had pulled their finger out we might have a line of Corum games somewhere. Although I can’t read Cornish.

1986’s Hawkmoon

Hawkmoon probably doesn’t qualify as Dying Earth although it has many of the trappings in common with Vance (and Wolfe, and Harrison) — a weird fantasy landscape, ancient technology as sorcery, regression to medievalism and feudalism, etc. I think this is important to bear in mind for this kind of setting where nods to a past Earth are dotted around like Easter eggs. Without it the whole thing degenerates into a weak sub-Tolkien fantasy of warring medieval nations.

In the mid-80s the genre wasn’t particularly well exploited in RPGs — there was enough post-apocalyptic stuff with Gamma World, After the Bomb and arguably Paranoia, but the only explicitly future earth settings that come to mind came much later, e.g. GURPS New Sun (1999) and Chronicles of Future Earth (2010). Is Kerie L. Campbell-Robson’s Hawkmoon RPG the first of its type?

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Chaosium’s Hawkmoon came in a box set with 3 books — one for players, one for GM and the Science book. There are maps, and a lovely cover by Frank Brunner.

Much like Stormbringer, Hawkmoon’s treatment of Tragic Europe’s locations is terse and mostly confined to the Character Generation chapter of the Player’s guide. Aside from the map the rest of that booklet is skills, combat, injuries and other fairly generic stuff. Likewise the GM’s booklet is just two scenarios plus a beastiary. The Science booklet is the most interesting with a fictional timeline — which I think is wholly created by the RPG authors — that places the end of the Runestaff chronicles around 5304 CE. There’s a section on technology and artifacts, one on animal and plant mutations, and a final piece on interdimensional travel. Actual “magic” or science that the players can manipulate is conspicuous by its absence. Even the sorcerer-scientists, Granbretan’s Order of the Serpent, only get the briefest mention.

System-wise this is pretty much identical to Stormbringer first edition — but without magic, demons, or any system for tracking affiliation to Law and Chaos. It’s definitely my favourite iteration of BRP, particularly with the grouping of skills.

Mongoose Hawkmoon RPG

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If Campbell-Robson’s Hawkmoon was sparse, Gareth Hanrahan’s offering for Mongoose goes in the opposite direction. At nearly 30 pages the gazeteer of Tragic Europe is thorough but a lot of it is dull, plodding stuff. Here and there the writing threatens to inject some colour, such as the boxed-text description of “wormwoods”:

That is not to say, of course, that wormwoods are empty – quite the opposite. They writhe with unnatural, twisted life. Trees drip bulbous green-glowing maggots and scream at the dawn;three-headed wolves hunt through the undergrowth, pushing through strange poisonous plants that shiver a thousand colours down their leaves and spit venom when disturbed. Mutant barbarians and mechanical things lurk in the shadow of the wormwoods; they are not good places to go.
The eldest wormwood is said to be in Muscovia, where they call it by its native name of Kernobul.

Yeah! That sounds great, let’s go wonder around some wormwoods, fight three-headed wolves and plunder the ancient tombs of mechanoids. Except… wormwoods are hardly mentioned again throughout the supplements (there’s three instances in passing in Hanrahan and Steele’s Granbretan, nothing in the linked adventures in Secrets of Tragic Europe).

Obviously Hanrahan appropriated and injected a few extra bits here and there; the wilds of Tragic Europe sounds more like the toxic marshes of M. John Harrison’s Viriconium, and I like that — but if Hanrahan’s Tragic Europe is going to be toxic and dangerous, where is that content in the Adventuring chapter? Where are my rules for toxic environments and ancient mechanical traps?

My second gripe about the core book is Science and Sorcery. This system has been lifted almost wholesale from the Sorcery rules from RQIII (and I presume MRQ1) so include all the effects like Intensity, Duration, etc. So far, OK. I can even forgive the generic spell descriptions like Damage Boosting, Cast Back, and so forth, which have been lifted directly from RuneQuest. What spoils things is the “requirements” for the spells which include workbenches and laboratories — a perfect fit for sorcerer-science, but totally incongruous with the point-and-click of RuneQuest magic spells. Casting a spell like Acid requires a workbench — a restriction which would seem to make the other restrictions (range Touch, casting time 5 minutes) totally irrelevant. It’s an incoherent union of system and setting.

The rest of the book is about skills, adventuring sub-systems (falling, sneaking, etc.), combat, and some statted-up Moorcock personalities, and a brief synopsis of the fiction; and since I own a lot of BRP material and a lot of Moorcock, I don’t really need either. And system-wise this is the iteration of RQ/BRP I like least.

Mongoose Hawkmoon is a plodding mess that completely drops the ball — in representing the source material, in presenting a compelling setting to play in, and in presenting a coherent system. Its one saving grace are the 2 pages at the beginning which discuss several kinds of parties and adventures (a Lord and Retinue, Mercenaries, Agents at Court, etc.).

Now the supplements are much, much better — Granbretan is both more useful and more fun to read, with spells that actually make sense, biological weapons, and a summary of Granbretan’s campaign in Europe. But then a company which releases a weak and incomplete core rulebook doesn’t deserve loyalty from customers for the rest of the game line. All of this is moot of course since there will be no more EC products from Mongoose. Still if you’re buying secondhand I’d say the core book is for completists only.

Closing

What a disappointment. Chaosium’s product is too sparse, Mongoose’s is too long-winded, and both understate the most important aspects of the setting — Granbretan as the villain, mad science-sorcery, weird yet familiar landscapes. Mongoose’s version does have some quality writing in the supplements — and I’m guessing that Hanrahan did much better when he wasn’t obliged to incorporate the MRQ1 SRD in the middle of his book.

Given that neither system is complete as far as doing the sorcery-science, these are the alternatives for running Hawkmoon:

  1. Use Stormbringer, and re-interpret demons as sorcerous devices, elementals and beast lords as lost technology, and so forth. Of course this magic is now devised rather than summoned, but it could still work. Was this what Chaosium intended? If Hawkmoon had caught on, might we have seen supplements? I’d love to know how the Nouvelle Edition of Oriflam’s product handles science.
  2. The CYD system in Mournblade could be made to work, and is way more coherent. Also it has a built in allegiance system.
  3. Whitehack would be a totally different but probably workable solution (given the flexibility of Wise characters re: magic).
  4. Last but not least, how about a game like Omnihedron’s Duty and Honour? It would only suit a certain kind of campaign, i.e. military action by the Kamarg forces against the advancing Granbretan army. Also it would need some hacking — reputations, social class and so on would need to fit into the Tragic Europe setting.

Thursday, 9 June 2016

RPG First Look: Mournblade

I got my copy of Mournblade at Librarie la Licorne in Aix. Last visit they’d moved all the jeux de roles to the cellar and kept the bandes desinees on the ground floor. They had lots of sexy French editions of L’Appel de Cthulhu and even translations of Monsterhearts and Polaris. Service is great! Recommended when you’re between sojourns along la cote d’azur.

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Mournblade is produced by the French RPG house Sombres Projets. Both Mournblade and their other game Wasteland use their Choose Your Dice (CYD) system, which is a clean but otherwise run-of-the-mill, trad-modern, middle-crunch fantasy RPG system. Production values (like all French RPGs, IME) are fantastic.

(Just FYI Wasteland is all about a new Knights of the Round Table in a post-apocalyptic world where only southern England and northern France exist. This is the only game I know that makes Eastbourne a major location, which is hilarious.)

Moorcock in RPGs: A History

I think I’m correct that there have been five incarnations of Eternal Champion/Elric RPGs:

  • Ken St. Andre and Steve Perrin for Stormbringer 1e-4e (with John B. Monroe for 4e)
  • At the same time, the French Hawkmoon and Elric lines by Oriflame, which probably include direct translations — although the Hawkmoon line contained a lot of new material I believe (can’t confirm as I don’t own any)
  • Lynn Willis and Richard Watts and others for Elric!/Stormbringer 5e (and also Darksyde’s Corum supplement)
  • Lawrence Whitaker and others for Mongoose’s Elric of Melnibone (and at the same time, Gareth Hanrahan for Mongoose’s Hawkmoon), using the Mongoose RuneQuest (MRQ1) rules
  • Ismael Saura, Jawad and others for Mournblade

As a Moorcockian reference Mournblade is a footnote at best, a device that underlines Yyrkoon as counterpoint to Elric and Stormbringer. In an alternate narrative Yyrkoon is a drug-addled sociopath, reaving his way across the Young Kingdoms after sacking his home city, with Mournblade as his conscience like a soul-devouring Jiminy Cricket.

So in the context of the RPG timeline Mournblade is a knowing wink that brings us full circle back Stormbringer. But what matters in the whole timeline is the point where the title transferred from Chaosium to Mongoose. Despite a new system Mournblade is still “a collective endeavour based on Mongoose’s Elric of Melnibone, the works of Michael Moorcock and the CYD system” and bears both Mongoose and Mongoose’s Elric of Melnibone branding alongside Sombres Projets, who appear to be producing the game under license from Mongoose. Not only is Mongoose’s writing team acknowledged in the credits, portions of Mournblade’s text are direct translations of Whitaker’s work from Elric of Melnibone.

(Back in 2013 when Sprange announced that there “were no plans for future Elric books” he dodged the licensing question; I suppose Mournblade answers that question.)

In some ways Mournblade is the clean break that the Elric of Melnibone RPG failed to make with five generations of Chaosium product. Whittaker’s writing has real heart, not to mention significantly more volume (Stormbringer and Elric! each devote about two pages to the various islands, Elric of Melnibone and Mournblade have 8 pages each on the equivalent section, with a lot more context and history) but that game was hamstrung by a mediocre version of BRP and Mongoose’s shocking production values (poor headings, low contrast grey-on-grey printing, a character sheet that looked like it was knocked up in Word). The fact that Elric of Melnibone used a variant of BRP can’t have helped — and while the CYD system won’t set the world on fire it does at least make Mournblade its own thing.

Despite the change in writing team Willis and Watts’ Elric! still feels like a Chaosium game with concomitant production values and a particular atmosphere. Make no mistake, I have a deep, nostalgic love for Stormbringer and Elric!, especially early SB with the best magic system, fewest compromises and demons, demons all the way down. But just as Call of Cthulhu isn’t about playing a Lovecraft story but playing in Lovecraft’s worlds, Stormbringer is about playing a fantasy game with all the trappings of Moorcock’s worlds, but not necessarily with the same tone as his stories. In some ways I think SB suits low fantasy better than high, absurd demon power levels notwithstanding.

Sombres Projets’ Mournblade: An Overview

Mournblade is one big, thick hardback book with 300 full colour pages. Old art from former products (Mongoose’s, and also Frank Brunner’s art from SB 1e) appears alongside new illustrations. The division of content is traditional:

Livre 1: Les Jeunes Royaumes (pp 7-82)

This is the history, geography, and slice-0f-life fluff that sets the stage. Includes:

  • A brief history of the Young Kingdoms (mostly focusing on the golden age and fall of Melnibone, and upstart nations)
  • Les Enjeux (“issues”): law and chaos, conflict, the age of exploration and the “agony of the old kingdoms”
  • Life in the Young Kingdoms
  • A big section on geography, covering northern, southern and western continents, islands, and mentioning the Unknown East

Livre 2: Les Elus (pp 83-246)

Literally “the elected”: in the context of Moorcock’s fiction les elus are characters who do the bidding of Law and Chaos. This reflects “Les Dieux Vous Ont Choisi” on the back cover.

This section is the largest and comprises:

  • the CYD (Choose Your Dice) system
  • character creation
  • combat
  • magic (runes, elementals, demons, automata)

Livre 3: De L’Autre Cote De L’Ecran (pp 247-301)

The GM’s section with adventures and characters, focused around Bakshaan on the northern continent.

Livre 1: Les Jeunes Royaumes

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The headline here is that a good portion of the text is directly translated from the Mongoose RPG — right down to prose. I haven’t gone through and directly compared every passage, but I know that e.g. the sections on Religion and Melnibone are near identical.

However the first book has more than double the page count of the corresponding chapter in Whitaker’s book, with no appreciable art padding or difference in font size — so there is new content here. Some of it seems to be expanded from Whitaker’s book (e.g. “Magic and Technology” appears to have been more than doubled, and includes a section on l’etat des sciences). Some of it may be new. It’s possible that some of it may come from other Mongoose supplements like Bright Shadows, but I’m not inclined to go through the text with a fine tooth comb.

This section has pretty much everything you’d expect — geography, history, life in the Young Kingdoms, arts, sciences, magic, Law and Chaos. I think Whitaker’s treatment of the source is both more thorough and more engaging than the Chaosium offerings (which seem to rush things), and Mournblade appears to be more of the same.

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My one complaint is that when Whitaker wrote the section on Melnibone he included a fair amount of localised but important history, and since his work has been repeated here it follows that the History section doesn’t contain all of the History — pieces are still scattered throughout the geography and other sections. This isn’t the best organisation, though hardly a deal-breaker.

Livre 2: Les Elus

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The USP of CYD is that you get to choose whether to roll a d10 or a d20 for skill tests.

  • Use a d10 for a “prudent and measured” approach where the linear result is applied to the stat+skill value against target number.
  • Use a d20 for a “flamboyant and risky” approach. If you get an even number, you get your result; if you get an odd number, it’s zero. But a 1 or 11 is automatically un echec dramatique, i.e. a critical.

Otherwise the CYD system works around the tried-and-true Attribute+Skill+Roll formula. There are five attributes:

  • l’Adresse is reflexes, manual dexterity, etc.
  • la Clairvoyance is mental acuity, memory, spirit and senses
  • la Presence is charisma, leadership and personality
  • la Puissance is strength and physical resistance
  • la Trempe is courage and willpower

There are secondary derived attributes (defence, health, psychic energy and speed), a fixed number of skills, and predilections (specialities, sub-classes) for those skills. There are about 18 skills listed on the character sheet. It’s neat enough, and much more consistent than BRP (and especially Mongoose’s RQ1).

Other parts of the character sheet include system currency in the form of Bonne Adventure points and Eclat points, which are gained and spent in-game to represent fortune and heroic acts much like Drama points in other games (and as part of the overall experience section). The Cosmic Balance is determined by the character’s affinity to Law and Chaos, and the margin between.

There are the usual sub-systems and examples for cooperation, conflicts, duels (which could be any conflict between two or more individuals, resolved in a fixed number of dice rolls).

Origins, Heritage and Professions

This is the usual “character tuning” section by geographic location, by social class, and by profession. The Origins (homelands) section is a nice summary for players of the different regions with divinities (Law, Chaos, beast lords and elementals) and advantages. Then the Heritages tend to be a package with advantage and disadvantage, including pariahs, nobles, abominations, hermits, and scoundrels (“crapule”). Finally the professions (assassins, courtesans, scholars, knights, etc.) provide an effective class with specialities and starting equipment.

Combat

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The combat section is predictable, with combats divided into rounds (tours de jeu) of six seconds, initiative, tests and damage. There’s a section on the effects of an echec dramatique on the outcome of a fight. For melee combat there are four basic attack options (violent attack, precise attack, feint and coup bas or trick) plus some advanced ones like charging into combat, containing an adversary, disarming them, or fleeing; there’s rules for improvised weapons, advantageous positions, etc. Wounds are lethal and non-lethal; there are rules for healing and the disadvantages of being wounded.

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Granted this is my first read-through and I may have missed something, but I’m struggling to get excited about any of it. It’s straightforward enough. I’d need to play it out to confirm it’s actually functional.

Cults and Pacts

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This is another familiar section, right down to the Grome illustration by Frank Brunner:

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This section seems much more extensive than both Stormbringer and Mongoose Elric. While I like the latter for the list approach of does-don’ts for each cult, Mournblade’s approach to La Veneration Des Puissances works like this:

  • the character sacrifices Ame (psychic) points to form a Principal Pact
  • this gives access to various Gifts
  • depending on the cult, each Gift has an associated Tendency (e.g. visions, demonic aspects, chastity, hydrophobia depending on Law, Chaos, Elemental or Beast cults)

There are lots of examples and choices. I do feel that Mournblade does a better job than previous versions in connecting the characters to the higher powers. I haven’t checked how much of the text is directly translated from other sources, e.g. Mongoose’s Cults of the Young Kingdoms but the content here is more than enough, and most importantly a lot is player-facing and puts the cults in the context of an agreement between individual and deity (whereas in Mongoose Elric the “gift” comes from cult devotion — mechanically the same, but thematically more like Runequest)

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Magic

The magic system borrows heavily (and possibly wholesale) from Mongoose Elric, so if you know that system it’s basically more of the same. Mournblade has

  • Rune Magic
  • Elemental Summoning
  • Demon Summoning
  • Automata and Enchantments

It’s worth noting that the various Demons of Desire, Knowledge, Combat, Protection and Travel (but not Possession) made it back into Whitaker’s game, and also appear here. They’re still not quite the same conceptually as early Stormbringer, but at least they’re not the “breeds” from SB 4e/5e.

In general the magic is interesting and provides a lot of variety and I guess it’s necessary to have a discrete magic system market a fantasy game in general. Maybe I’d like them to have been a bit braver and roll the elemental and demon summoning into the system of Pacts and make personal power solely about connections with higher powers. But it’s a good, muscular magic system you can sink your teeth into.

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Livre 3: De L’Autre Cote De L’Ecran

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The obligatory GM’s section always follows the same format: an adventure, maybe one or two essays on how to GM, and a few charts and tables and a character sheet in the back. From what I can tell the adventure is perfectly serviceable, there are setting maps and personalities and nice pictures to go along with them.

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I think to properly evaluate the content I’d have to run it. But otherwise it’s pretty much what you’d expect: maps, personalities, a synopsis (a rescue mission to an island of cannibals in the archipelago near Bakshaan, if I read correctly).

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Closing Remarks

“What, you can actually read French?”

My French is not great, but with Mournblade I’m not only familiar with the source material, I’m also expecting certain rules and structures (from world-building to character creation to combat rules). All that compensates for the gaps of my vocabulary and make sense of the content. And RPGs are (usually) written for comprehension rather than prose, which helps. Fiction and bandes desinees are harder owing to prose and slang.

Am I glad I bought Mournblade? Hell, yes. It makes me happy that there’s still someone making a Moorcock RPG, even if it’s not in English.

Would I run it? Before I gave it a proper read through I expected it to just be a souvenir and sit on my shelf next to SB 4e, Elric! and the Mongoose books. I don’t really feel the need of any new system — and since I’ve been thinking up an OSR hack for SB 1e’s demons, I’m more likely to use that. But I do feel the urge to run with the CYD system, at least once. I can see myself running See Hawmgaarl and Die! at a Con with a bunch of CYD pre-gens.

Should you buy it (if you can find it)? That depends:

  • If you’re a completist, then of course. It’s the prettiest Moorcock game I own.
  • If you want to show off by running a French RPG, then go for it.
  • If you loved MRQ Elric of Melnibone and want a tidier package with a better system, it could be for you. Note that I never owned the second edition of Mongoose’s game (for MRQ2) which may be a lot cleaner.
  • If you feel that MRQ Elric is all you need, or are inclined to take MRQ Elric and run it with a hacked OSR system then Mournblade may not add anything new.
  • If you’re a Stormbringer diehard from the mid-80s, and frankly you don’t approve of anything other than the Perrin/St. Andre version, you might want to give this a miss.
  • OTOH if you felt Stormbringer didn’t do Moorcock justice and never got a chance to own MRQ Elric, you may be pleasantly surprised if your French is up to it.

Wednesday, 1 June 2016

RPG First Look: Starvation Cheap

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I finally sat down to Starvation Cheap — Sine Nomine’s military campaign supplement for Stars Without Number — after re-reading Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War.

That in turn reminded me of the first war RPG we played, Revised RECON. Back in the 80s we’d play that during breaks under the stairwell in the college’s creepy abandoned B Block. Given that our only cultural touchstone for the Vietnam war was Tour of Duty (taped on VHS from the 1 am broadcast on ITV) the game was a sensationalist mix of cartoon jingoism, violence and unintentional racism.

Our next foray into war was only slightly better, hacking the original WFRP to play the newly released WH40K:Rogue Trader as a RPG, and playing out a thinly veiled Aliens pastiche of surreal jingoism, unintential violence and cartoon racism.

So, two out of two of the military campaigns I’ve played have been rather juvenile and not something I’m inclined to repeat. It wouldn’t really have occured to me to buy another military RPG, but I backed the Starvation Cheap Kickstarter on impulse, after loving Silent Legions and more importantly the promise of Starvation Cheap also in epub format.

Content

In a nutshell, Starvation Cheap does for a military campaign what Silent Legions does for the Lovecraftian horror genre. Just as Silent Legions creates a complete campaign starting with the supernatural pantheon and working downwards through cults and locations, Starvation Cheap does the same by focusing on the source of the conflict then populating it with personalities, missions and the like.

Military Life and Organisation

The first 25% or so of the book is mostly text (and the ePub version is especially welcome) covering a range of topics:

  • Ranks, Divisions and other Units
  • Chain of command, laws, and justice
  • Artillery and Vehicles
  • Logistics
  • Psychics
  • Weapons of mass destruction
  • Robots and Drones

The Logistics section deserves a special mention with all kinds of problems that might arise — and adventure hooks that result.

The Sandbox

Since the book is also a Sine Nomine sandbox product, the next major chunk of the book is table after table for generating content, including

  • Your commanding officer, including their current goal, what they’re likely to do in an engagement, etc.
  • Vital points (fortifications and other strategically important areas) and why they’re important
  • From-scratch creation of actual conflicts using the ubiquitous Tag system
  • Civillians
  • Army creation (both planetary armies and mercenary legions)
  • Missions with Mission Tags
  • Complications (combat, social, environmental, etc.)
  • Map features
  • Battlefield encounters

This content is actually spread over several chapters (before and after the massed combat rules) but it’s all part of the same whole — a top-to-bottom war scenario generation tool. The amount of utility is quite staggering, and crucially it’s largely system agnostic — yes, there are mentions of hit dice and Luck rolls here and there, but a huge chunk of this book could be repurposed for your system of choice.

There’s plenty of debate about what “innovation” means in the OSR (as if that were one monolithic entity). One reason it’s hard to pin down is the sheer number of diverse examples from settings to new takes on old rules to highly functional supplements. Starvation Cheap falls into the third category; but rather than using it as a poster child for the OSR, we should be recognising its broad general potential — it’s an innovative RPG supplement, full stop. Mainstream RPGs would do well to pack this much utility into just over a hundred pages.

Mass Battles

Tucked in the middle of the book with just a few pages there’s a section on running massed battles, using the “war turn”. This boils military units down to a few descriptors (strength, condition, type) and with a few die rolls you can resolve old battles and start new ones. All of this can be used to frame the ongoing conflict as a backdrop for the PCs’ adventures.

New Gear

The least appealing section for me, but expected by most RPG consumers. The section is still brief and to the point, and the descriptions of new equipment (personal and vehicular) are fun enough.

Comparison with Skyward Steel

After reading Starvation Cheap I went back to see how much had been cut and pasted from Skyward Steel, the Naval counterpoint to the army campaign.

The answer is, there actually very different in presentation. I found Starvation Cheap much more complete and accessible with all those tables — but the fact is they complement each other. Skyward Steel has the sections on Life in the Navy and Running Naval Campaigns, but it lacks any of the random generators, tag systems, mission generators, or attention to detail concerning the chain of command. The one thing it does provide is the very fun Battle Stations section with the different roles on the ship’s bridge.

With a bit of thought I reckon the two could be combined effectively — use the mission generators, the chain of command and so on from Starvation Cheap and apply to a Navy setting, and away you go.

The ePub

Thanks to Bundle of Holding I’ve owned the other SWN supplements (including Starvation Cheap’s naval counterpart, Skyward Steel) for ages, and just not read them because they’re in an very awkward format for me; too small for a tablet, and the two-column layout makes them a pain to read on a 16:9 laptop screen on a first pass. But for Silent Legions I basically read the epub cover to cover, then bookmarked the pdf for the important sections.

An ePub version is no guarantee of writing quality, of course (of the few RPGs I own that are Kindle-ready, Urban Shadows is excellent, but Nobilis is excerable). Nor does it do tables or boxed text very well. What the ePub version of Starvation Cheap does is get its foot in the metaphorical door of my reading list so I can skim it and make the decision to read more.

Closing

I’m still not sure I’ll ever use this for a campaign, but it’s been a joy to read. I could probably still use a lot of the tools to generate material for one-shots for convention play.

Saturday, 26 March 2016

RPG First Look: Black Hack, Malandros and Blades in the Dark

I backed the Kickstarters for the three games below. In no particular order:

The Black Hack

blackhack

The thing I admire most about OSR games is how they’ve taken the moving parts and tuned them for a particular kind of experience. The Black Hack is a stripped-back second-gen OSR title, extremely short in presentation and focused on the dungeon combat experience. Whereas Whitehack applies nuance and narrative creativity to the D&D class formula, The Black Hack goes in the opposite direction and focuses on class activities in the dungeon context. The text’s sole concern is on fighting monsters, healing and resting, and carrying around stuff. There are magic spell lists in the back but no actual spells, because why reprint them when they’re available in the SRD?

Nevertheless there are innovations here:

  • simplified rolls against attributes (a de facto standard)
  • roll with advantage or disadvantage is taken straight from D&D 5e
  • armour rules are very elegant both for function and handling people wearing the wrong armour; you have to rest to recover armour function
  • weapons are simplified and damage is class-based
  • usage dice for consumable items
  • simplified monsters
  • a great character sheet:

bh_char

This feels like the kind of game you’d want for a one-shot tabletop version of Gauntlet. There’s no world, or discussion of the characters’ lives outside the dungeon, and that suits me fine; but clearly this game is speaking to the kind of player who’s already absorbed the tropes (either first time around, or as an OSR enthusiast). That’s my only reservation: this isn’t a complete game so much as a layer or filter for another game, and it relies on familiarity with other properties — and while you can find those for free, you need to know where to look.

I should mention Into the Odd as the closest “competitor” for “0-60 dungeoneering”. Both games make me think Dungeon Crash as opposed to Dungeon Crawl. ItO has the edge with the flavour of Bastion, while BH has the advantage of familiar assets. For flavour I might pick the former, but I’d love to plug BH into some LotFP modules.

Malandros

malandros

I backed Malandros on impulse and G+ recommendation. It calls itself a Dramasystem game but deviates from Hillfolk in the procedural system.

The Book

Malandrosis absolutely gorgeous, with art throughout that immerses the reader in the setting (late 19c Rio de Janeiro). Thanks to the format Malandros is also way easier to read on my iPad mini than Hillfolk.

System

System-wise it feels like Dramasystem in the split between procedural and dramatic scenes, scene calling, emotional concessions, etc. It’s simplified in that there’s only one kind of token in Malandros (the Drama Tokens still move around according to whether emotional concessions are granted).

But there’s a heavy dose of Powered by the Apocalypse in there both for Procedural “signature moves” and “progress tracks” (a.k.a. clocks). I need to play this to see how it works but on paper it’s a vast improvement over the original, and potentially a case for the whole being much greater than the sum of parts.

Gripes

I have a couple of gripes. The first is about how the GM role can be passed around. Brilliant, I think — a feature I’m eagerly awaiting in Alas Vegas — but very little mention of this in the game aside from flavour text in the introduction and how to handle the GM’s drama tokens in that section.

This leads to my second gripe: this isn’t a game for newcomers. While that’s true of a lot of games in that generally you have to have played a RPG before, in this one it helps to understand both Dramasystem and PbtA. The text order doesn’t help — Signature Moves are mentioned in Character Creation, written about in the following chapter, but Procedural Scenes are only explained 30 pages after that. This isn’t a problem if you’re either looking to make the connection between character, setting and mechanics, or otherwise have the discipline to read the game cover to cover (and Malandros has a sane word count and little padding). But it is a fundamental problem to ask players to make decisions about their character which have mechanical weight, without knowing what those mechanisms are.

My third and final gripe is that in odd places the text indentation isn’t consistent (e.g. in People You Meet the indents for Abilities/Signature Moves). But that’s easy to ignore.

Alternative Settings

Just as Hillfolk has Series Pitches Malandros has its own alternative settings. The first of these, Aluminium Wars by Mark Galeotti follows a similar format to the core book — there’s setting, character types, then a discussion of signature moves, then finally some location-based fluff.

This is possibly the most interesting because it shows off the full potential of the system — by breaking out new Signature Moves it’s basically doing the AW hack thing but in a much more consistent framework, and well supported by the overarching system and micro-setting. At first glance Aluminium Wars offers a great deal more structure and support than Hillfolk’s series pitches.

Bottom Line

Malandros does for Hillfolk what Urban Shadows does for Apocalypse World (and what second-gen OSR games like the Black Hack do for BECMI D&D). It’s a second generation spin on a foundation text, clarifying and retooling innovative system into something more accessible and functional, but also a conscious deviation. Malandros is something special, and if you’re a tablet reader the PDF is a bargain.

For hardcopies I don’t know what’s happening yet — during the Kickstarter the POD provider was switched from DTRPG to a US-only service provider (slightly annoying since pledges were in sterling) and although it seems shipping charges aren’t much worse, I guess it will complicate returns if there’s a problem with your delivery.

Blades in the Dark

blades

This one was kickstarted around a year ago, and just won the Golden Geek Game of the Year award. I’ve played with version 0.4b of the Quickstart rules with a range of different players. I think it’s now locked in at version 0.6, so we’re waiting for physical products as well as the many stretch goals.

System

This is a post-PbtA design with associated trappings — notably playbooks and advancement. Other comments:

  • it’s slightly more traditional than PbtA with three groups of skills (insight, prowess and resolve) and a single action roll
  • your band of thieves has its own playbook
  • rules for group actions
  • stress plays a factor; aquire stress during the mission, burn it off by indulging vices in downtime
  • take territory from other higher tier gangs in Duskwall
  • avoid planning out the mission; instead, dive in and make use of flashback mechanics to justify on-the-fly mission conditions (e.g. “I brought the Head of Vecna, just in case”). I suspect this is close to the approach in the Leverage RPG, just as it’s implied in Hollowpoint

Because play is funneled into missions and downtime it’s very easy to grasp the flow of the drama during and between missions. The players I ran it with came from more of a trad background than indie, and it took some encouragement to get them to stop planning the mission up front and just go for it and use flashbacks. I found a similar problem when running Hollowpoint for a more traditional bunch of players. But unlike Hollowpoint the mission structure is less abstract and the support materials are there to guide newcomers into the BitD way.

The discussion on Clocks is more in-depth than any I’ve seen in Apocalypse World or hacks, and inspired thinking into Dice Clocks. I’d say it’s essential reading for anyone interested in ramping tension up in their RPG (which should be every GM, right?).

Setting

This is the same setting as John Harper’s Ghost Lines. In the QS it’s implied rather than absolute, and while there’s a lot of evocative characters and places there are also a lot of gaps. Will this get ironed out in the final product? I don’t know; there’s a trend in indie games to assume both tacit knowledge of how to play “the indie way” and also how to parse the text and fill in the blanks.

The problems happen when player-facing documents present some setting element which has no counterpart in the GM materials, putting the GM on the defensive. So, when in Blades a certain character or setting element gets mentioned, it’s hard to tell whether this is

  • a gap that the GM needs to fill, or
  • a load-bearing element that the GM should already be aware of

Examples I have in mind include the nature of the undead, demons and devils in the setting, and specifically how these mesh with the supernatural powers of the Whisper and the Leech. To resolve this the GM has not only to have a broad overview of the setting and the parts of the book (Unquiet Dead and Strange Forces, pp. 60-61) but also look carefully into the detail of the playbooks themselves. With enough time and careful thought these issues can be resolved; but with that much cognitive overhead, the Blades quick start is no longer quick.

Closing

It’s a testament to Blades how quickly my players (with a very broad range of experience, both in style and years of play) all just got it after a few rounds. I recommend reading in any case for the ideas on Clocks, the examples of how to build great player-facing game aids, and the interplay between mission and downtime.

BitD cites Thief as an influence, so it was always going to be an easy sell to me. But also interestingly both Blades and Malandros claim The Wire in their touchstones. And since the latter draws heavily on PbtA, the logical next step may be a Blades/Malandros/Dramasystem hybrid, a heterogeneous design which deliberately weaves in dramatic scenes and emotional concessions between missions as part of downtime, with mechanical feedback.

Wednesday, 23 December 2015

RPG First Look: Fugue

James Wallis’ Alas Vegas kickstarter was fantastically successful with a backing of 8 times its initial goal. It was also fantastically optimistic with delivery dates with an estimate of June 2013 for hard copies and December 2013 for the Alas Vegas novel. Some people are reasonably irked about the delays, and some have found creative ways to express frustration.

We are receiving some content, slowly. September 2014 got us a partial preview, and as of November 2015 the Fugue rules are “locked” and have been released under the Creative Commons license, so I’m going to look at those.

Alas Vegas

alas-vegas

Ocean’s Eleven directed by David Lynch. Fear And Loathing in Las Vegas by way of Dante’s Inferno. The Hangover meets The Prisoner. A new style of RPG by James Wallis, named by Robin D. Laws as ‘the godfather of indie-game design’, with art from this year’s winner of the World Fantasy Award, John Coulthart.

In the backer’s preview (Septemer 2014) James Wallis reasonably asks bloggers, reviewers and the like to hold fire for a couple of years on any of Alas Vegas’ secrets, and as I can’t stand spoilers I’ll do my best not to spoil anything.

Here’s the problem. I’d like to talk about the Fugue system, but the examples I’d reach for are off-limits — both for the reader, and for me, the backer. I’m allowed to read the setting and the first act (the owner of the book gets to be the first Dealer), but not much more than that.

So, this is a review and commentary on the Fugue system in general, but a lot of it will be around what my expectations of the system are, which is something I won’t be able to realise until the release. Alas Vegas and Fugue in general assumes a relationship between GM and game author that I don’t think I’ve seen anywhere else. I’ll talk about that in a bit.

Content Sets

There are three operating constraints on Fugue games:

  1. Your characters have no memory of who they are, how they got where they are, or any skills beyond the most basic (speak language, eat, breathe) at time in.
  2. Play happens over a short, defined span of sessions (“like a HBO miniseries”), typically four.
  3. The GM (“Dealer”) role rotates around the group.

There are some implied thematic constraints too, such as the use of the Tarot in setting elements — since there’s an Alas Vegas set of Major Arcana by John Coulthart, this isn’t much of a spoiler.

There are three “Content Sets” in addition to Alas Vegas (all stretch goal offerings from the Kickstarter). I’m going to assume these sets all obey the same constraints for now.

Now, here’s the problem. The Fugue rules tell us how to negotiate some of the operating constraints, but not all. I assume those gaps have been deferred to the Content Sets, but since (a) we only have half of a draft of Alas Vegas and none of the others and (b) I wouldn’t be able to read them anyway without spoiling it for myself, I can’t say for certain. Anyway…

The Fugue Rules

I went through the Fugue document and made this cognitive map:

Fugue

(pdf version here) Here is what you’ll find in the Fugue rules:

  1. What you need to play (pens, paper, a tarot deck, etc.)
  2. How and when to do flashbacks (lead by the Dealer, the player of the Persona, and other players; or triggered by the game content). The mechanism for exploring the first operational constraint is almost all there, with one key exception which I’ll discuss later.
  3. The principles of play, such as not contradicting players with flashbacks and One More Thing; and how much of the Content Set the players (who are Dealers) are allowed to read.
  4. How to do all kinds of contested actions, a Blackjack mini-game, and so on, including narrating the outcome based on the Tarot draw.

Now, here’s what you don’t find in the Fugue document:

  1. There’s nothing about weaving flashbacks and abilities into the narrative.
  2. What do to with the Dealer’s “persona” (PC) when it’s their turn to run an act.
  3. How to hedge on facts as the Dealer, when you don’t have enough objective information to provide the answers.
  4. How to hand over between sessions.
  5. How to write Content Sets.

While the player-led narrative control sounds like the new indie school, all of this freedom is entirely around the flashback mechanism and turning the Tarot strings into a narrative. It’s totally freeform, but it’s not dissimilar to other minimalist designs from the 90s like Over the Edge and Everway.

When it comes to Dealer behaviour, other than being prompted for flashbacks when a Significator comes up it’s very traditional, authoritarian GM stuff. The first act I read is not completely railroaded to hell, but it’s not far off. It’s been structured with scene-by-scene set pieces, drip feeding the plot to the players as you go on.

Now, thinking about the constraints above — 4 sessions, 3 hours each, and rotating Dealer with deliberate obfuscation of objective facts in the early acts — I am not sure if it could be done another way. But this raises some interesting questions about the relationship between game author and GM. The author of any Content Set is going to be unable to playtest their own game in the way it’s supposed to be presented to the players according to the Fugue rules.

This is an adventure-as-novel style, heavily plotted, a 90s throwback. There are other clues in the document — the way the Dealer is advised to make the Personas’ lives a misery, but stop short of actually killing them; the way the Dealer is advised to put off the players’ difficult questions, to restrict their movements, because where they’re supposed to be is defined by the act they’re playing in. Honestly? It reminds me of Vampire. Not a metaplotted to hell Vampire, but the intensely personal, introspective, first-edition Vampire. The version I actually like.

Closing Remarks

Thanks to this design, Alas Vegas could never have taken advantage of crowd-sourced playtesting. This is because the Fugue rules are only half of the required mechanism in any Fugue game; the other half is the Content Set.

I expect the Content Set to plug these gaps:

  • weave the Personas back into the narrative. I guess the logical place this will happen is where there are Flashback triggers written into each Act. I don’t see any dynamic, player-led linkage.
  • handover from Dealer to Dealer between sessions. The game may well assume this “just happens” because “the GM knows how to do this kind of thing”. But actually I think this is non-trivial; what if the Dealer played the cards close to their chest and didn’t reveal everything in the previous session? What if the party refused to go where the Dealer was supposed to send them? What if a later Dealer forgot some vital plot from the previous session? Consensus is needed.

Time will tell if this is successful; but these are the criteria I will be using to judge all four content sets when we finally see them. But considering a Content Set needs to plug these gaps and provide a snappy, structured four-act game, I’m not surprised that the initial delivery dates proved ambitious.

I’d compare Fugue to Hillfolk (with its Series Pitches) or WaRP or possibly GUMSHOE. Ostensibly freeform, but from a school of heavy up-front plotting. Like I said, a 90s throwback. Fugue is the antithesis of modern emergent design; it isn’t is Fiasco or Monsterhearts or (ironically) Penny For My Thoughts. The controls on the Dealer authority are baked into the Content Set but instead of mechanistic controls (e.g. the way PbtA limits MC moves) the controls are entirely fictional, deliberately limiting context.

I’m still very optimistic about the final product. Partly because I’ve done this kind of game in the past — when four of us played four Eternal Champions back in the 90s, where we muddled through four sessions, rotating the GM role. Almost entirely free-form, with no controls on how far each GM could go aside from trust and a shared commitment.

As for the Fugue system itself, I think there would be no problem in running a game with a very traditional structure, avoiding the whole rotating Dealers thing. The flashback mechanics and the action rules still work, compartmentalised from the Content Set. I’m sorry I didn’t do that a year ago when we had the first document.

Sunday, 15 November 2015

RPG First Look: Whitehack

I’ve said before that the OSR is like Linux:

OSR games are like Linux distributions: they reflect the operability ideals of the designers, they’re essentially a diffuse package of commands that the distribution maintainer curates and forces to operate together

These little differences between distros (package managers, system tools, desktop environment) form the basis of preference for Linux enthusiasts, but… they’re completely irrelevent to outsiders who make computing decisions on a completely different set of criteria (ideology, need for apps, shiny hardware).

And the OSR is like that. Outsiders can’t grok the difference between the retroclones, even if those differences are fairly significant. Their decision to look at OSR products comes from a different set of decision-making criteria (ideology, community they play with, style, genre, etc.).

In Decision Behaviour, Analysis and Support (excerpt here) Prof. Simon French discusses the “Strategy Pyramid”:

Pyramid

(also, another strategy pyramid — for another time)

The decision for “which OSR” or “which Linux” is Operational/Instinctive — it comes down to a set of low-level activities (which dice, ascending/descending AC, which commands). The decision to use or not use Linux in favour of Windows, or an OSR game in favour of, say, GURPS, is a strategic one with completely different criteria. For the RPG choice you’ll be thinking

  • What do my friends play/like?
  • What products are available in the shops?
  • What settings appeal to me?
  • What community do I identify with?

And so on. Yes, some of these have nothing to do with system — but they’re fair, high-level strategic decisions on which game to invest time in.

By now you’re thinking: what the hell has this got to do with Whitehack?

whitehack_booklet

Christian Mehrstam’s Whitehack speaks the language of OSR — “zero edition roots”, streamlined rules, implied conversions from other OSR sources. Those markers help the OSR types identify this game as part of that family of games, and therefore something to be curious about. If that’s you, check out Sophia Brandt’s 7-part study where you can get the information you need to decide how Whitehack differs from your favourite OSR beast.

For the wider RPG audience for whom Whitehack is “just another D&D game” there’s not much reason to seek out those differences, and that’s a shame. So here’s where I break it down. Because this isn’t only an OSR game, it’s a conduit between the OSR and 90’s minimalist designs which also understands the indie drive towards emergent setting.

Founding Principles

In play Whitehack appears to be built on two very important principles:

  1. You can negotiate for advantage at any time.
  2. When you negotiate for advantage, you explain where the fictional source of that advantage comes from.

The first principle is dear to my heart and core to playing light freeform-style games such as Everway and WaRP/Over the Edge. But it’s the second that drives the emergent setting, growing the world over time. That same principle lies at the heart of indie darlings Apocalypse World and Burning Wheel.

Genre Aware

The genius in Whitehack is not just in its re-treading of the OSR mechanisms, though these are certainly innovative and sleek — it’s in the game’s awareness of genre and setting as they pertain to “adventure”. From the beginning Referees’s section, p.24:

Nobody ever comes “clean” to a game or a genre.

Then from “Hacking Your Notion of Normal” (p.25)

The expression “normal fantasy” may sound contradictory, but it isn’t… if you want to hack your group’s notion of what is normal, concentrate on a select few important aspects of the setting and leave the rest

and from “Switching or Mixing Genres” (p.25)

Genres are formalised answers to historical social needs, not just containers for stereotypes, tropes and typical trappings… Genres run much deeper. For example, science fiction answers the need to shed new light on common beliefs and conceptions.

From the outset Whitehack makes the correct assumption that the reader has their own biases and experience with the genre; it doesn’t work against that, rather provides a framework for emergent setting.

Fluid Framework

I’ll mention one aspect of the mechanics, which is the interaction of the Classes and Groups. Much like Numenera’s characters which are typically

adjective noun who verbs

Whitehack’s character classes are not vocational but only imply a core activity (Deft, Strong and Wise). The book encourages the creation of e.g. Deft Magicians and Wise Warriors with different interpretations on their vocation (a Wise Warrior is a strategist, for example).

Combining this with the different Group options — everyone gets two groups, which can be vocational, affiliation or even species — the result is almost the antithesis of D&D’s rigidly imposed class structure. Instead the classes are a starting point and a means to diverge from the traditional classes, while retaining the usefulness of D&D’s experience reward system.

The Booklet

Whitehack has a clear message to deliver, and is uncompromising as it is clear. It’s not available as an electronic version — it’s POD only, and the hardcover editions don’t ship outside North America. It’s also completely lacking any artwork — the cover is the character sheet, and the interior is 64 pages long with a few tables and diagrams but otherwise just text. This is a very interesting design statement about both the neutrality of the content (your genre, your emergent setting) and the way the content is to be consumed.

Closing Remarks

If you have a reason for buying something from Lulu and you’re even remotely interested, I would recommend Whitehack. In many ways it’s a deconstruction and reconfiguration of OSR mechanisms that empower both the GM and the players in owning their setting and exploring it in emergent fashion. But even better because it has the trappings of OSR it’s “compatible” with a broad range of sources, and has the potential to plug into other games. Mixing and matching Beyond the Wall/Further Afield (Threat Packs, Playbooks, Scenario packs) with Whitehack seems a distinct possibility with a bit of care.

I get a similar vibe that I got with Sorcerer and Sword — and while the latter is more genre-prescriptive, the same principles of ownership of one’s own world, and embracing the emergent nature of that world hold true. At the same time this feels as much like Everway and Over the Edge as it does D&D; and it’s a true “hybrid OSR” approach that marries a player-led narrative with traditional GM oversight.

I am truly excited.

Saturday, 30 May 2015

Blowing Up The Movies: Punch. That. Shit!

blow

Thanks to the phenomenal success of Atlas Games Feng Shui 2 Kickstarter the companion ebook Blowing Up The Movies achieved all of its stretch goals, covering a wide range of action movie genres from both East and West (including at least one film that the author didn’t want to cover).

I’m a big fan of Robin D. Laws’ conversational style both in speech (the excellent Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff podcast) and in print. I got on particularly well with his style in Hamlet’s Hit-Points, so if you do too, you can expect more of the same from Blowing Up The Movies.

As such it’s possible to read the book as a critical analysis only (and enjoy it!), but since this is a companion to Feng Shui 2 Laws is already preaching to the choir. Some of the titles were selected by backers and the rest will make up the core of the typical action cinema fan’s DVD collection, making BUtM one big gratification beat where the reader can smile to herself and nod in agreement with the author.

The essays typically home in on the selected movie’s defining points, narrative structure, symbolism and political/historical context &c. Laws then drops in hints for FS2 GMs on how to take those moving parts, motifs and themes and make them work mechanically with that game. This part I could take or leave — most of the time if I’m invested enough in a genre to run it, I’ve selected/hacked a system to represent it. More interesting were the suggestions for melding the action with two of Laws’ other games: Hillfolk (for a drama focused game) or GUMSHOE (for a detective game). The mechanical mis-matches were kind of glossed over, but the principle is good, and the section on melding detective work with action (Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame) is one of my favourites. And naturally Laws is going to pimp, I mean turn to his other titles when considering system.

The essays are short, incisive and mostly positive (one exception being Equilibrium, the film Laws didn’t want to write about, but it’s a good essay on what not to do when pacing your plot). The staples of Eastern MA cinema are there (Hard Boiled, Once Upon A Time In China), the modern cinematic nods to the Wuxia genres (Crouching Tiger and the slew of films in it’s wake) and a mixture of obvious and less obvious SF (The Matrix, Equilibrium, Star Wars). There’s also Die Hard which Laws declares “the quintessential 80’s movie” which would make a certain friend of mine happy. Me, I was over the moon to see Hot Fuzz in the list.

In summary, if you like Feng Shui it’s a must-read, if you like action cinema it’s great fun even without the game, and if you like Robin D. Laws it’s more of the same.

And it’s in a device-friendly format (epub/mobi) too, so it gets bonus points from me. If only the Feng Shui 2 pdf were in a tablet-friendly or even a print-friendly format… one of those would be nice.