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.

Monday, 27 March 2017

A World of Assassination

It makes me very sad that I haven't yet sniped anyone from this church tower.
Okay, so I am now three levels into Hitman: No Subtitle, and it's going pretty well. There are bits of it that are tougher than others, but it's never yet frustrating and insoluble. The nearest I got was trying to sneak into the Swedish embassy in Marakesh. It took me three tries to get an unconscious guard into a box unnoticed, and even then apparently Swedish diplomatic protection is unusually hot on its security guards knowing each other's names and faces. Less so on local masseurs, as they all took me for the man with the golden touch despite the eight inch height disparity, lack of hair and bar code. So it goes; in Paris I successfully masqueraded as the world's most famous male model.

For a game that is basically about killing people in inventive ways (on one notable occasion in Sapienza I just left an exploding golf ball in a box and walked away. Ten minutes later I got the kill confirmed(1)) Hitman: No Subtitle really appeals to the explorer type. The levels are huge and open, and full of people discussing things directly or tangentially related to the main plot of the game. There's this whole counter-blackmail thing going on in the Paris mission with a magazine editor trying to get dirt on the IAGO blackmail ring to keep from going under in the face of the advancing world of fashion blogging, which frankly seems reckless, but you can also stumble on her agents and overhear them bricking it, and on IAGO's models/spies discussing their assignments, some of which involve people we'll meet later in the plot and a so-far mysterious cult that seems to tie things together. None of this is essential, but it's also never discussed in the cut scenes or main briefings; it's purely there as background information that you can pick up if you want.

Well, I know what I'm doing this evening...
The other thing I've really noticed is that, for a game about an assassin, it really never wants you to feel good about killing people. Sure, most of your targets are bad people on one level or another, but even the nasty ones are pretty nuanced. The least diabolical of the six targets I've gone after so far, the least offensive are the scientists devising a genetically targeted virus designed to infect and move from person to person until it hits the one person it will kill, and one of them hired the ICA to off a local right-wing politician in one of the seasonal special missions. I guess the Wet Bandits from Home Alone maybe didn't deserve to be killed in the Christmas special(2), but you know how it is; play the gig, stay away from politics. Actually, the 'just play the gig' attitude is challenged by this game as the arc plot shows that the ICA is being manipulated into a series of seemingly unconnected hits aimed at bringing down a group called Providence. Maybe it would pay to look at the politics a little closer.

None of the targets are diabolically evil; that's the point. The serial blackmailers are on some level trying to go straight, the scientists are mostly in it for the science (evil science, admittedly.) The general angling for a coup de tat and the banker who ruined thousands of people and destabilised the Moroccan government I am less concerned about, if I'm honest. There's also just enough detail to the supporting NPCs(3) that murder seldom seems an easy option. Despite their apparent policy of sheltering wanted financial fraudsters who happen to be Swedish, there's a definite lack of relish on those occasions when I screw the pooch and just start capping off at consulate guards before reloading (although I confess, when I finally got fed up of the one guard who flatly refused to move, just stood there playing with his phone and waiting to witness you if you attacked the masseur, and just beaned him in the bread basket with a thrown hammer(4), that was satisfying.

Traversal in Hitman is definitely less satisfying than Assassin's Creed's signature free running, but the complete focus on the business of patient, meticulous assassination more than makes up for it. Played wrong it would feel like a particularly unsatisfying version of Ubisoft's occult murder simulator, but if you embrace the nature of the game it comes out more like a particularly strangley and non-judgemental game of Portal.

(1) I got two non-target kills for the level, but I don't know if that was that the golf ball got the golf coach and one of the guards, or because the box I later hid two unconscious scientists in was – as I only realised as the second one vanished in a flurry of bubbles – full of evil, biohazardous goop well above the tolerance levels of their hazmat suits.
(2) Quite by chance I ended up putting them in the same cupboard, which was satisfying.
(3) They really only ring false when they react to seven foot of cueball muscle putting someone in a mistimed chokehold by pointing and saying sternly 'you let him go now' rather than screaming for the police or even throwing things at you.
(4) Throwable blunt objects are a godsend in this game and I routinely load my pockets with hammers, wrenches, bricks and coconuts far more than guns or knives.