Thursday, 21 September 2017

X-COM 2: War of the Chosen

The Chosen,whose new album is out this week.
War of the Chosen is a massive DLC pack for X-COM 2 which, like Enemy Unknown's expansion, Enemy Within, transforms the standard campaign with new content, adding additional enemies, units and features of the strategy layer.

First and foremost are the titular Chosen, a trio of badass enforcers for the alien Elders. In a cutscene completely outside of X-COM's possible view or knowledge - a first for the series - the Assassin, the Hunter and the Warlock are tasked with returning the Commander to ADVENT custody. In order to ensure best results from their infighting underlings and promote cooperation, the Elders promise control of Earth to the one who captures the Commander (and later have the gall to get pissed at the Chosen for being competitive.) What this means in-game is that each Chosen controls an area of the world, and has the potential to show up during missions in this area and get all up in your face.

Strike a pose.
The Assassin is a bit like your Rangers, combining tremendous speed with a concealment power, a devastating melee attack which leaves all nearby X-COM operatives effectively puking their guts up in shock, a shotgun for back-up, and the ability to move after attacking. Oh, and she doesn't trigger overwatch fire, because fuck you, that's why. The Hunter is all about precision range work, bouncing all over the shop with her grapple and deploying a targeting lock which forces the engaged target to reposition or face a lethal attack in the following turn. Finally, the Warlock has some nasty psionic abilities, and they are all built like bastards, overflowing with hit points, armour and reinforcements. Oh, and you can't permanently kill them at first. And they can sometimes capture your soldiers.

Thoughout the game, the Chosen learn more and more about your operation, with an ultimate eye to attacking the Avenger and recapturing the Commander. This growing knowledge provides an additional countdown which, unlike the Avatar Project, can never be reset. In addition, they have the option to capture your soldiers for questioning, which is just... rude.

But what's sauce for the goose is sauce for the ruthless alien enforcer, and that additional strategy layer element comes into play with the covert action screen. Managed via the new Resistance Ring facility, Covert Actions allow you to seek out rare resources, but also to find information on your enemies just as they seek information on you. The primary missions of this type relate to locating the stronghold of each Chosen and unlocking a mission to infiltrate it and destroy the stasis coffin which keeps them alive, but you can also send troops to find out where they are holding your captured soldiers, and completing such a covert action similarly activates a one-off rescue mission. Completing a covert action requires you to assign one or more soldiers, scientists and engineers, and possible intel or supply resources, with most actions having a required baseline and additional assets which can be assigned to buy off some of the risks. Each action has a risk of injury, ambush or capture, which makes covert action a bad choice for getting some quick experience on the rookies.

These two are introduced as barely able not to kill each other. I think most
players probably set them up as a max-bonded kill team.
Covert action opportunities are provided by the three Resistance Factions, another addition to the game. The Reapers are facemasked, Russianish scout-snipers who look like refugees from Gone with the Blastwave and eat ADVENT troopers for breakfast; literally. Naturally, this makes working with the Skirmishers, ex-ADVENT defectors, iffy at best, and the goal of the Covert game is to get each of the factions sufficiently onside to create a united resistance. The third faction, the Templars, are psi-cultists, but lack the specific beef with the other factions which makes the Reapers and Skirmishers engaging. At the start of each month, any faction that likes you (including X-COM) can be assigned Resistance Orders, which act as powerful modifiers for the coming month, boosting income, reducing the risk of Covert actions, or making certain Proving Ground projects complete instantly, to name but a few. Each of the factions also provides a 'hero' soldier for your forces (and the Reapers at least may very rarely assign a Covert action allowing you to recruit another,) with powerful abilities.

The templar's focus is, essentially, cutting a fool.
The Reaper uses stealth, sharpshooting and explosives. Their enhanced Concealment mode, Shadow, makes them incredible point-runners for ambushes, and they can remain in cover for entire missions if correctly specced and used for picking off the injured. The Skirmisher focuses on mid-range firepower and mobility, with a grappling hook that can be used for traversal, to drag in enemies for a melee attack, or to take the Skirmisher across the map to the enemy. While the Skirmisher does have a limited melee capacity, the real close-range specialist is the Templar, who has only a machine pistol to back up a brutal hand-to-hand attack and a battery of psi-abilities which are powered by successful melee kills.

The hero units are not distinctly more powerful than regular soldiers, but they are versatile, especially with the new ability point system, which allows you to choose abilities from multiple branches of their advance tree at each level. In addition, each has the potential to inflict horrific damage, with a high level Templar carving a swathe through the enemy, and the upgraded Banish ability and a souped-up rifle allowing the Reaper to take out half a dozen large enemies in a turn on a good day. The Skirmisher lacks any such extreme manouevres, but has a number of traits granting additional actions, including the hit-or-miss potential of Battle Lord, which for one turn each combat grants the ability to act like one of Vahlen's rulers and act each time an enemy takes an action in the character's line of sight.

By this point, their guns had been named... after
each other.
Another new addition to the mix is soldier bonding. Operatives sent on missions together, especially those who spend time in proximity on the field and shoot at the same enemies (or at enemies shooting at each other,) develop cohesion, and have the potential to form bonds, which grant extra abilities relating to their partner. Such pairings can then be made the subject of an inspirational poster, as can victorious group shots and other photos taken with the new photo booth feature. Stored in our game files, these can be found as propaganda posters around the battlefields, which now include underground levels and abandoned city blocks. The last of these are home to the Lost, zombie-like rejects from the Elders' experiments that attack in hordes. Killing one grants an extra action, so it is possible to take down a lot of Lost in a single turn, especially with a good sniper.

War of the Chosen overhauls X-COM 2  with a new feeling and a host of new gameplay elements, although one of my favourite things doesn't come up until the very end, when we see the Skirmishers welcoming waves of ADVENT troopers now free of conditioning. It's rather sweet. It also expands the original game without the crippling difficulty hike that makes it hard for me to get on with the excellent Long War 2 mod. I won't say 'otherwise excellent', because it's a feature rather than a bug, but does unfortunately mean that the mod is not really for me (at least until someone with better technical skills than I creates a better aim mod that works with LW2.)

Tuesday, 8 August 2017

RPGaDAY 2017 – 'Which RPG cover best captures the spirit of the game?', 'You can game every day for a week. Describe what you'd do!', 'What was your most impactful RPG session?', and 'What is a good RPG to play for sessions of 2hrs or less?'

Here I catch up on the last four days of RPGaDAY. I honestly don't know if this is in the spirit of the thing, but...

'Which RPG cover best captures the spirit of the game?'
I'm not sure how to answer this, since honestly the best covers tend to gel smoothly with the design so that you barely notice them as a discrete element of the whole. Covers that fail to capture the spirit are the ones that stand out, usually when you get about halfway in and find yourself thinking 'why are five centuries of British history all happening at once and where the actual fuck are the pirates?'

1668? Bollocks more like.
Yes, that's right long-time readers, I'm talking about first ed. 7th Sea again, and in particular the fact that its cover very clearly promised one thing – swashbuckling adventures in the Golden Age of Piracy (1668, to be exact,) and instead delivers a mishmash of historical fantasy including the weird assumption that Elizabethan drag never went out of fashion in a pseudo-Britain where Scotland is hardcore post-Catholic Stuart and there is no Commonwealth, because after all, history doesn't consist of related events at all.

You know, it's never really occurred to me before, but I think that after the massive dissonance with the cover, the thing that stopped me getting back into 7th Sea however many people told me it was the most amazing thing ever(1) was that its world-building grated so much. Thea is a world put together from an anachronistic assemblage of each nation's 'classic' period, without regard for the fact that history is a great, interlocking machine, and that you can't just ignore those interactions and have each nation have reached their idealised historic peak simultaneously. Also, the Eisen looked ridiculous, and I turn out to have a serious twitch about a swashbuckling game with a full-fledged magic system.

Now, it's entirely possible that there is a solid fictional history behind the cultural clusterfuck of Thea, and I hear that the second edition is a very high-class piece of game design. I'll likely never know, because with my time so brutally curtailed by the demands of adulting, it's hard for me to take a chance on something new, and harder still to take a chance on something that's burned me before.

'You can game every day for a week. Describe what you'd do!'
A whole week with no other demands? Sleep?

Okay, if I am required by the terms of whatever scenario means that this can happen to be gaming, then I'm going to hire a place in the country and put together a programme, damnit.

Mornings would be fresh air and exercise after a late start and a good-size breakfast: Nice walks or visits to local parks and places of interest with my daughter, because yes I'm taking my daughter with me. Late morning we'd have board and card games out for those back from their walks.

There would be a social, but not sit-down, lunch at about one o'clock, after which we'd begin in earnest, with two hours of 'A Game of Ponies', followed by breakout boardgaming. A light dinner would be served early, followed by a large-scale boardgame while whatever kids are with us are put to bed, followed by a late supper for the grownups and the meat of the week, a five-part campaign, probably run in a relatively freeform fashion using Fate Core rules.

'What was your most impactful RPG session?'
The climax of James Holloway's long-running Unknown Armies game was a big one, dramatically reshaping a lot of my expectations of how a campaign should go when we wrapped up by running into a burning building with no real expectation of survival and called it an unqualified win.

'What is a good RPG to play for sessions of 2hrs or less?'
Wait; there are sessions of more than two hours? That would be nice.

(1) And there are a lot of them, and people I trust, although in truth a lot of the enthusiastic descriptions have served only to convince me that this isn't for me. One friend described the awesome pirate adventures her PC had while near-permanently shapeshifted into a cat. Weirdly, I would be more enthusiastic about a pirate swashbuckling game in which you could opt to play as the ship's cat, than one in which you could turn into a cat.

Friday, 4 August 2017

RPGaDAY 2017 – 'How do you find out about new RPGs?' and 'Which RPG have you played the most since August 2016'

Another twofer today.

New RPGs tend to come my way when Robin Farndon excitedly posts something about a Kickstarter campaign. I also see announcements from Onyx Path since backing the fascinating but virtually unplayable Mummy reboot(1), but for the most part that's a matter of curiosity.

This image is relevant to so much in this post.
Okay, I backed the game about anthropomorphic cats, but it's a game about anthropomorphic cats(3).

In broader terms, I get my news on game releases from social media, either because someone (not always Robin, sometimes it's Eleanor Hingley(4)) has taken a shine to something, or is pointing out a Lovecraftian thing to one of the serious Lovecraft completists on my friends list, or because Grant Howitt is releasing something new, blast his enviable blend of creativity and productivity(5).

So, before I get lost in my own footnotes(6), on to the second question.

As is well recorded in this blog, I don't get to game anything like as much as I would like. In the past year, the bulk of what I've managed to play has been the winding down of my online Fate game, Operatives of CROSSBOW, which suffered immensely from something I commented on on Ellie's blog the other day, and in an earlier post about letting other people design your character, which is the ill fit between the spontaneous, near-anarchic back and forth of Fate's core mechanics and the necessary formality that makes online video conferencing so much better for steering committee meetings than casual chat once you involve more than two people. The fundamental problem with CROSSBOW was embodied in the way the players declared their action. Seven in ten times, they would begin 'can I...?' The core concept of Fate is that yes you can, if you tell us how.

Well, that and I think one of my players had been burned once too often by GMs insisting that anything not explicitly mentioned during the planning session – like torches, lockpicks, a spy's pistol, or a hacker's laptop - wasn't there at all.

"All right, so can we get one of these?"
"Do you have an aspect called 'I'm a Spy' on your sheet(7)? Then keep going; I'll tell you when you need to spend a Fate point to have something."
"Cool. What about one of these?"

I'm not judging my players here. Learned behaviours are hard to escape, is my point, and especially when you add the social constraint of that screen and only have a fuzzy webcam image to judge other people's responses by when they're not speaking. There is simply no way that remote gaming of this sort will ever truly stand in for proper tabletopping; at least until immersive telepresencing becomes a thing.

This is basically the online gaming table and I wants it.
The only other game I've played any of is, as I mentioned last time, Tails of Equestria, with which we are introducing my daughter to roleplaying (well, that and Empire,) and that has barely got going thanks to our schedules.

(1) It joins old-school White Wolf's Wraith in the centre of a Venn diagram of 'fascinating mechanical conceit', 'mega-high concept' and 'there are maybe three conceivable combinations of people who could play this without it going off the fucking chain(2).'
(2) Not that I'm saying 'off the chain' is a necessarily bad play style, but it doesn't seem to be what they're going for as a default.
(3) I'm still a little disappointed that they went with Monarchies of Mau instead of presenting the cats as a communist collective under the guiding paw of Chairman Miaow, but I suppose a working game setting was higher on their list of priorities than a one-off pun.
(4) Very occasionally someone else, but like... 80% from that one household. 90% if you count the cats.
(5) Because envy, rather than because I want him to stop producing, although if he could slow down I might be able to afford to back more of his stuff. Or if I hadn't slipped and backed the cats thing. Oh, Kickstarter regret! Such grief you bring me!
(6) Seriously, they'll be in small type once I upload this, but right now they take up pretty much the same space as the text.

(7) Yes they did, pretty much for this reason.

Wednesday, 2 August 2017

RPGaDay – 'What Published RPG do you wish you were playing right now?' and 'What is an RPG you would like to see published?'

In the game of ponies, you win, or you
try again.
I'm only really involved in one game at the moment, and that's 'A Game of Ponies', my oft-in-hiatus campaign for the Tails of Equestria RPG. The PCs managed to not-quite destroy the Castle of Friendship when entrusted with guarding the Cutie Map, received a Cutie Compass – sort of a MLP version of the aleitheometer – and were guided west, past the mountains of Griffonstone to a city on the edge of a desert. They defeated Pie-rats on the way, although my daughter has requested no more of those, but have been stalled in Koto-Kolia for a long time now, as it's hard to find time to play around LARP and life.

For the same reason – plus my general, although obviously not absolute, aversion to licensed games – I don't really have an answer to the second question. It' hard to want something that is completely undefined, especially when it would ultimately just be another thing I don't have time to play. I'm hardly going to sit here thinking 'man, I wish there was a low magic horror-fantasy game out there,' especially if I don't have a group I might want to run that for.

So, what these two questions really highlight for me is that it's hard to get hyped when you know that you aren't going to have a game. If you've just got your Wednesday night group's schedule locked up for the next five years, you can still get excited that maybe you could slot Marvel Supers in for March 2023, but it feels very different when there's no real prospect of getting a game in at all. It's not something I know how to remedy, because in the general sense I would really like to have a game again, it's just that I'm not all that mobile and Arya's much too young to leave on her own.

Maybe I should offer to run some Tails of Equestria for her and her friends on a Sunday.

RPGaDay 2017

It's that time again, when a series of quesations are asked to provoke positive discussion in the RPG community. Here's this year's sexy, sexy infographic:

823 8476 09

Wait... that's the VAT number for the University of Cambridge. Here's the infographic:

Entries to come... soonish.

Friday, 16 June 2017


Boom! I shot a red dude.
SUPERHOT is one of weirder first person experiences I've ever played, for a whole bunch of reasons. The product of a game jam, I am given to understand, it's sort of like The Talos Principle, but bitter and nihilistic. First of all, it begins with a fictional set-up where you're breaking into a company server to play a supposedly boss computer game, which is actually just - in the game's own words - shooting red dudes. Secondly, the game is basically just shooting red dudes, and in a stark, white environment filled with black objects that can be picked up and shot, thrown or swung to kill red dudes.

Oh; and nothing moves unless you move.

That's the twist of the game, you see. Well, one of them. The other is the emergent plot, such as it is, of which more below.
This is looking bad.

But, yeah. You start a level and everything is still (almost, anyway; if you hang around too long, eventually something will kill you.) Things move slowly when you turn, and full speed when you move. This includes the red dudes, their bullets, and your bullets. The action of firing or throwing lets time run a little, but then you need to go somewhere for your bullet to actually reach its target. Interestingly, this means that targeting the time-frozen red dudes is actually harder than is usual with an FPS projectile weapon, because the bullets actually take time to travel.

Also, you can throw katanas at people.

Blam! His head exploded and... Wait; is this okay?
Anyway, then there's the plot, which emerges through play, and suggests that you are being sucked into some sort of virtual world to be a disembodied, electronic agent of change and sucker others into doing the same.

On the upside, you get access to the endless mode once you shoot yourself in the head.

I should probably add that it's more designed for VR, but it's still a decent, novel little shooter.

Thursday, 6 April 2017

Tails of Equestria

Bit of a change from Hitman, I know.
I decided last week that I could economise elsewhere, and I was going to buy Tails of Equestria, the new My Little Pony tabletop RPG from River Horse games, created by Alessio Cavatore. I wanted to do this primarily as a means to introduce my daughter to roleplaying through a property which she is invested in, and which offers some serious opportunities for teaching her.

As RPGs go, Tails of Equestria is pretty simple, as you'd hope for a game aimed at children and families, but not simplistic. Three stats and an open-ended number of talents are each rated by die type from D4 to D20. Rolls are either to beat an opponent's roll or a static difficulty. Combat is there, but while a 'scuffle' can – indeed will – have consequences, they are never outright lethal. If you have a talent that applies to a roll, you typically get to roll an extra die and pick the better result; points off for removing a maths teaching opportunity, but more than made up for by the gain in pacing. In addition you get a quirk, which is a non-mechanical drawback that the GM can use to create interesting trouble for your character, which is one of the ways of regaining Friendship Tokens.

Friendship Tokens are the game's fate/drama mechanic, and tie into the franchise's 'friendship is magic' theme. You start with more tokens in a larger group, because more friends means more friendship, and players are encouraged to donate their tokens to help a friend out with re-rolls and other bonuses. Easily the best and most innovative mechanic in the game's simple system is that if two players are willing to pool their tokens, they can be counted as more valuable than the sum of their parts to represent the fact that Equestria almost literally runs on friendship. A little less successful is the last-ditch 'exploding hoof' mechanic, allowing for a slim chance at impossible seemingly impossible tasks, which is one of the more complex elements of the rules (which is, I think, its failing.)

Secret Ants Midget Mother Cheese.
Character creation is simple – we generated three characters in half an hour, including my daughter's first PC, Secret Ants Midget Mother Cheese(1) – and plays to the strengths of the series. Mechanical variation and niche protection is slight. Earth Ponies are strong, Pegasi can fly and Unicorns can do magic, but the game encourages open problem solving and represents many approaches with a handful of mechanics to let the story shine and to ensure that the characters will tend to be on an equal footing. After a few level-ups there is likely to be more distinction, but everyone levels up together so the PCs should always be equals, although some may choose specialism and others range, and everyone will benefit from doing things together.

Without testing the system to destruction, the game seems a good fit to the license and target age range. This may well be my favourite licensed RPG now, although it's not a high bar. 

I'll report further on the adventures of Secret Ants Midget Mother Cheese and friends and they happen.

(1) Her second choice for a kind Pegasus with 'The Stare' as her cutie mark talent, after I suggested that 'Fluttershy' was taken.