Wednesday, May 11, 2016

On the 7th Sea Quickstart

About two and a half weeks ago, Arashi at the Felling Blade ran the 7th Sea Quickstart.  I missed out on 7th Sea during its original run (although I have a couple of the books), and so knew little about it apart from what friends have told me.

I don't have a whole lot to add — his review hits most of the salient points — but I will reiterate a couple of things he mentions.

It's definitely of the new-wave school of narrativism common in a lot of indie games.  The rules are simple and the PCs are pretty competent from initial character creation.  I understand the initial rules used the roll-and-keep system from Legend of the Five Rings (both being John Wick and AEG, it makes sense), and you can see that system's province here.  Roll your dice pool (add a stat and a skill, plus any modifiers, just like new World of Darkness).  Instead of looking for a target number, this one uses funky dice math like, say, Wild Talents — you're looking for groups of ten.  So, say you roll a 3, 8, 7, 4, 5.  You rolled two successes — one 7-3 pair, and one 8-4 pair.  (Or 7-4 and 8-5, or whatever).  If you have any dice remaining, the GM can purchase them (so that oddball "5" in the above example is fair game) by giving you a plot point.  The GM gets to keep those dice in a bonus pool and use them at inopportune times.

It's a neat system, and lets you unpack a lot of data from a roll, but the downside is that interpretation of results (especially if you're trying to avoid giving the GM dice — in the above example, you could avoid this by using 3-4-5 as a set and 7-8 as a set) can take a little while as you're studying handfuls of dice.  (I think T. S. Eliot said it best when he said, "I will show you fear in a handful of [dice].")  This is probably the sort of thing that would get quicker as you go, though.

And then there's dueling.

One-on-one fights are hard to model in RPGs; by necessity, one character is dueling while the others are watching, and watching stuff happen for a long time is death in an RPG.  (Most RPGs don't really do one-on-one fights — D&D, for example, usually models skirmishes and a lot of the higher-level enemies are too potent to take on solo.)  Optimally, you want to make duels a psychological, collaborative effort, or otherwise make them tense and fun to watch while being quick to resolve.  Most games that come to mind (Deadlands and Legend of the Five Rings, for example) try the latter.  This game does neither — the example duel is a long, unwinnable slog in which the other PCs are not to interfere.  (The PCs are supposed to win it, but Nicole played the duelist and didn't win, and we know another person who played the duelist in the quickstart and didn't win.)

The big problem comes down to enemy stats.  PCs can cut through hordes of enemies, because dealing a point of damage to a Brute Squad (that is, getting a single success on your attack roll) takes out a guy.  Since big dice pools can easily hit five to ten successes, taking out a horde of mooks in a round is relatively straightforward.  Villains, however, have hit points that scale with their level — so a level three villain is going to effectively have nine hit points (3×3), a level four villain will have sixteen (4×4), and a level eight villain will have sixty-four (8×8).  (Most of the PCs in the quickstart had somewhere in 15 to 20 range, if I recall.)  This, by the way, represents generic dangerousness — a level 8 villain who is a potent and skilled manipulator surrounded by a web of intrigue and a network of contacts has the same 64 hit points as a level 8 villain who is a swaggering brute of a man bristling with pistols and axes.  (I suppose the difference in a duel is that the manipulator probably doesn't have a lot of melee experience.)  Sixty-four hit points is a bit of a slog, but appropriate for a group as three to five swashbucklers gang up on one unfortunate bastard.  But one-on-one combat between two relatively evenly matched opponents?  All else being equal, 64 hit points are going to outlast 20 hit points.  Maybe you're supposed to game the system in a way that the fight is winnable, or maybe you're not supposed to give the GM so many plot points that he makes everything difficulty 15 (oops), but I'm not sure how much it would have helped.  (I mean, I was playing the Fate-witch, and I gave the duelist +5 dice to all swording rolls during the duel.  It didn't help.)

Arashi and I were talking about possibly translating villains' dramatic wounds into a different system in a duel — so instead of the 8×8 scheme for a level 8 villain in group combat, maybe he just has eight hit points, or sixteen.

It's not all complaints and bad news, though.  The game really models the narrative in the way a lot of modern indie games do.  Characters start out quite competent, and as with a lot of modern games, if all you have is a hammer, any situation can be a nail.  (I'm pretty sure I took out mooks by flirting at one point, because my combat stats were low.)  Fixing the rough spots would let the system do exactly what the authors want with it, and as with so many things, experience with the system likely speeds it in play.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Unknown Armies, third edition: Actual Play

(Before we get started, further information is available: interested parties can read my Unknown Armies 1st/2nd edition review, or my review of the UA3 Gamma playtest.)

My playtest group and I haven't had much of an opportunity to play yet (and the rules we did use encompass all the standard make-a-skill-check stuff that you don't really need a playtest to discuss), so this will primarily cover character creation.

For background, the group is a subset of the Bread and Circuses group (just myself and three players, solely on the principle that three are easier to schedule than four or five, particularly when the players are two couples, so you're functionally only scheduling around two groups), and comprises the following:

  • Me, with all the nonsense that entails.
  • "Croitus."  He's previously played "Joy and Sorrow" from One Shots, and that's it.
  • "Dhavita."  She has also just played "Joy and Sorrow."
  • Nicole.  Nicole has previously played several Unknown Armies one shots (five, I think), as well as my Truth Shall Set You Free campaign.  (As a side note, we updated her UA2 character to UA3 in about ten minutes.  It seriously took almost no time at all.)

We've so far played two three-hour sessions about a week apart; character creation took four of those hours, with the understanding that everybody looked over my handouts and their character sheets in the intervening week to understand the concepts a little better.  (Call it four or five hours, maybe.)  On the one hand, that's a long time for character creation — I ran a UA2 one shot where an avatar of the Merchant was holding an occult Swap Meet, and we had time to create characters and play the adventure.  On the other hand, the character creation mini-game is its own thing, and at the end of it, you have a sweet prop like this:

Pins on a corkboard.  Click to enlarge.
So that's probably a feature rather than a bug.  Being older types who cut our teeth on World of Darkness and Call of Cthulhu (and for one of us, AD&D), a lot of the new-wave indie design is different enough that it requires a bit more headspace.  Other than taking a while, though, it worked really well to get everyone into the mindset of Unknown Armies.  (The character sheets, which look like badly scribbled psychiatric charts, also help.)

(One note, though: if you're GMing, bring lots of pictures in case your players don't bring any.  Although I probably went overboard.  Still, it worked out nicely.)

So, from there, we determined that line producer Jasper Fitzroy is giving his production company (1574 Productions) over to his ditzy second wife, Pamela Kruse-Fitzroy, and there's only a week before the deal is finalized.  He's grown more reclusive as his new right-hand man, Iggy Williams, increasingly performs day-to-day business.  Amid this growing situation is the fact that Los Angeles apparently has weird holes in its spacetime, such that an appropriately aware person can use them to hide or teleport.  (And an untrained person can fall into them and end up somewhere else.  Like, say, Long Beach to Malibu.)  Those two things don't appear to be connected, but you never know.

Into this situation, we have:

  • Jones, played by "Dhavita."  An air traffic controller at LAX.  Jasper's plane should have crashed into another plane a couple of years ago, but he was the only one who witnessed the two planes phase through each other.  No one else noticed.
  • Kevin, played by "Croitus."  A bike messenger on a weird trip.  Ever since he surfed from Long Beach to Malibu in a matter of minutes, he's been searching for the hidden doorways that pockmark L.A.  He likes to draw weird maps, trying to discern the Pattern he knows is just on the edge of his perception.
  • Leah, played by Nicole.  Jasper's daughter, she's on her own New Age bent; these days, she's following the example of Valeria Lukyanova and turning herself into a living, occult doll.  She learned that things were weird when she had a bad drug experience a few years back, and the guy who sold it to her described the exact trip she just had.

I'd say the fact that they all picked New Agers and occultists and conspiracy theorists without much prompting by me is a success of the system.

There are a couple of snags in the rules, though.  Some of the players didn't fully get the balance of shock gauges and abilities at first (although that may have been a failure of my explanation rather than anything else; my cheat sheet was apparently helpful).  Objectives, too, were difficult; the player group is supposed to determine their group Objective first, even before characters are made, but we did it last because that seemed more natural.  (And we haven't done milestones at all; that probably seems even stranger to a group used to the traditional plot structure of RPGs before, say, 2010 or so.)

Despite the snags, though, character creation ran relatively smoothly — I'd say the length and the rules questions are problems that could be easily remedied by either character creation summaries/handouts or the character creation tutorial video that was funded as part of the Kickstarter.

As for the rules, we only made a couple of rolls, but as with previous editions, the game system largely runs in the background.  I only consulted the book once in play, and it was to determine how a supernatural ability (the Versatility identity, for those of you keeping score at home) worked.  I'd imagine I may have consulted the book a little more if we broke into Relationships or coercion (combat's the same from the previous edition), but I'm sure that will come with time.  (And will get easier with increased familiarity.)

So, in summary, the system is solid — we basically just need a finished book that's easy to reference in play to smooth out the rough spots.

Edit (5-10-2016): I'm archiving the session writeups in narrative format in this Dropbox folder.  Check it out, if you're into that sort of thing.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Dungeons & Dragons and Magic: the Gathering Crossover

So a while back, I posted a thing about a D&D 4e Planeswalker splat for Magic: the Gathering.  Now there's something more official: on Wednesday, Wizards of the Coast put out a free pdf detailing the plane of Zendikar for D&D 5e.  It has an overview of the world, as well as new races and some new monsters.

While I wouldn't want them to go all-out and start monetizing D&D the way they monetize M:tG, detailing the planes as adventuring worlds for D&D is hardly a bad thing.  (Further information is available here, and in The Art of Magic: the Gathering—Zendikar)

Check it out, if you're into that sort of thing.

Unknown Armies Kickstarter

As of this writing, you have twelve hours remaining on the Unknown Armies Kickstarter.  At any level you get the playtest rules (which I imagine are close to the final rules), and it doesn't take much more to get the official rules.

You did it.

(If you want the lowdown on the playtest rules, I wrote a thing over here.  Don't take my criticisms too seriously; I'm only hard on Unknown Armies because I love it.)

Get hype!

Strange things are afoot in the City of Tiny Lights.  Click to enlarge.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Review: Unknown Armies, third edition (Gamma playtest)

Note: You've got about nine days left (as of this writing) in the Unknown Armies Kickstarter, so jump on it to get some weird, neat stuff.

Although I gave my initial thoughts about twenty days ago, I finally got through the whole thing and can actually report on it.  This, by the way, is the Gamma playtest available to all backers of the Kickstarter, so it might change before final publication.

It's good.  As I said before, I don't love it the way I loved second edition when I first discovered it about a decade ago, but it's solid.  (Then again, it's a tough act to follow one's favorite RPG.)  I like most of the story stuff, but I don't love the rules the way I did previously.

So, the rules: They're solid, but don't grab me the way the old ones did.  The old ones seemed fast and innovative (like Call of Cthulhu on speed), while the new ones look like someone remixed Unknown Armies, Fiasco, and Apocalypse World.  It's got the whole indie, new-wave game design all over it, which seems overly intrusive and trendy in some places, and a perfect fit in others.  (Likewise, some of the writing seems like an Unknown Armies pastiche rather than Stolze and Tynes' elegant and punchy prose.  Again, the dangers of coming back to something after a decade, and putting fans at the helm.  They know and love the material, but they're going to take it and run with it.)

No more minor, significant, and major checks — you just roll d100 against your ability, whatever it is.  Don't roll if it's not important.  No more governing stats, either; instead, you just have ten abilities that fluctuate with your Madness Meter (now called the Shock Gauge, which as much as I love the alliteration of the Madness Meter, is probably a more sensitive and accurate name).  The idea is that mentally healthy people have a set of skills they cultivate (like interpersonal interaction and holding down a steady job and noticing things in the environment), whereas traumatized people have a set of skills they cultivate (like fighting and lying and hiding).  If you don't want your skills to jump all over the place, you protect them with identities — the custom skills Unknown Armies is famous for.  So if you don't want your ability to Connect with people to fall as you suffer more mental shocks, come up with an identity like Smooth Talker or something that will always take the place of it.  Identities can level up (they get rid of XP and replace it with skill checks like in Call of Cthulhu and Continuum, which I always prefer to the World of Darkness-style arbitrary XP system), and can do more than just replace abilities; they can let you use firearms, let you cast rituals, protect a specific Shock Meter, whatever.  If you want to do something, you can probably come up with an identity to simulate it.  Obviously, they're broader than the old 2nd edition skill system, which means fewer (but higher) skills.  Good so far, although I still dig the more traditional skill setup of previous editions.  Then again, I wouldn't have changed a thing here, so I'm probably a bad judge.

You've got *World-style relationships now, and like relationships in the various *World games, they alter and enhance your ability to interact with those people.  (They're rated 1-100% just like regular abilities, and they can stand in for your abilities with those relationships.  You might be a broken individual with Connect 20%, but your boyfriend ranked at Favorite 70% always understands you.  Of course, your effective Struggle to hit him or Lying to deceive him is also 70%, too.  People are fucked.)  I like it, but it seems like some indie thing that was thrown in because statistics for relationships are the new hotness.

Objectives are a new thing I rather like, as they keep the PCs focused.  (I think my games could have benefited from it, as they tended to flounder.)  They're ranked from 0-100%, and whenever you complete some goal for your objective, you get ranks in it.  When you hit 100%, you succeed.  Of course, other factions can oppose your objective, robbing points from it, and you can always decide to abandon it in favor of some newer, shinier objective.  Also, you can risk it and try to complete your objective before it hits 100%, but then the dice come out, and uncertainty risks failure.

The last bit is character creation, which is probably the best change.  To overcome the inertia of "What do we do with this system?" the players all come with a portfolio of pictures, phrases, whatever they want.  They then build their characters and build their starting objective.  What do you want to do in the occult underground?  (Or not; one of the example objectives is running a mayoral campaign.)  You set it up deliberately like the String Theory trope: put everything on a big board and map out the relationships among them.  The PCs obviously don't know everything (that's where the GM comes in, of course), but they have a pretty good picture of the local situation and where to insert themselves into the structure.  This is brilliant, and really gets everyone invested in the game.  (At least, I hope so; I haven't playtested it yet.  Soon, I hope.)

So, the fluff: Apart from my complaints about the writing tone and some of the mechanics, I really enjoy pretty much everything else.  (Some of the monsters and stuff — I'm looking directly at you, Slender Man — are a little too pop culture, and the whole Human Eternal/Old Mother Apocalypse thing rankles me because the First and Last Man is supposed to literally be the only constant in the setting.  It's a rad concept, just for some other game.)  Some old avatar archetypes return, and the new ones are pretty cool (some examples include the Captain, the Firebrand, and the Star, as well as the Naked Goddess; I'm not sure how I feel about that last archetype's inclusion, as it removes some of the mystery, but then again, we all secretly wanted it).  The new adept schools are really exciting, though: gun-wizards who use guns as tools rather than weapons, farm-wizards who control the natural order, camera-wizards who use sympathetic magick, clothing-wizards who believe the clothes really do make the man, and suchlike.

The changes to the old factions all make sense (strangely, the Sleepers get the most radical makeover, from occult bogeymen and monopolists to an occult AA), and new factions are all imaginative and creepy and weird like one would expect (like a network of sleeper agents run by an artificial intelligence that sends you invasive quizzes for magickal power, or a bootcamp for avatars comprising kidnapped children).  The rumors are gone, unfortunately, but Book Three is similar to the old rumor portions of the book, so that's partial compensation.

They talk more about Otherspaces in this edition, which is a bonus, and give players rules to make them, which seems an appropriate (if rather difficult) goal.  Still, making your own private Idaho is totally a thing you can do in the new edition.

Overall, it's solid, and I'm excited to read it and to be part of it.  It just feels less like a breath of fresh air and more like any other horror RPG you could find over at IPR or the unstore.  (One of the posters at the Unknown Armies Fan Club suggested the new adept-building system, using the concept of Ω, felt like something from a totally different game.  I feel like that about a lot of the concepts in this edition.)  Still, it's good to be back, and my brain is afire with strange, sad ideas.

Edit (5-9-2016): If you liked this, I wrote a review of Unknown Armies 1st/2nd edition many years ago, and I now have a UA3 actual play report available.

Monday, April 18, 2016

State of the Madicon 2016: Better Late Than Never Edition

The state of the Madicon is strong.

Nicole and I made the annual pilgrimage to Harrisonburg, VA for Madicon 25.  (Interested parties can read about Madicon 22 and Madicon 24.)

Unrelated to gaming, I collected samples for thesis research.  Still, I did it on the road to Madicon, so it belongs here:

I should probably get around to testing these; grad school is nothing if not time triage.
I was able to meet with an old LARPing friend of mine whom I haven't seen in years.  We didn't get to hang out much, but it's a thing.

Depicted here as Miley Cyrus speaking with Agent Baccarat of MJ-12

This foray into the dealer's room made up for the lack of purchases last time.  I managed to get a bunch of Gale Force 9 battle maps, as well as weather dice and more Dungeonmorph dice (the city sets).  Nicole, unsurprisingly, got more dice.

rushputin ran Colossus, Arise! which is an interesting introduction to high-level Dungeon Crawl Classics for me.  (You can get a brief comment on the session here.)  I think DCC might be a hair too swingy for my tastes, and there's a little frustration in the fact that you can't predict what a spell is going to do.  Examples follow:
  • I kept setting my fellow adventurers on fire because I rolled a little too well.
  • I protected one by turning him into a fire elemental.  For several hours.  With the only way to turn him back being to cast polymorph again.
  • I barred the exit.  For a year.  Note that "barring" the exit is an understatement — I erased it.  Just a brick wall where the door used to be.
Basically, we went into a ruined city, made a fine mess of things, lost the fighter, and left.  The cleric kept pissing off his deity (there are at least five 1s on a d20, it turns out) and most of the party was almost killed because our enemies were not open to negotiation.  On the plus side, I enjoyed being able to cast spells with impunity (although the dice hated us; fumbles seemed to be a worse enemy than the giants and demons and whatever we were fighting, and I certainly forgot a couple of spells as the night progressed, only to remember them by spilling my own blood).

Protip: if magic doesn't work, you're not using enough.

Saturday involved Death Frost Doom, which is a misnomer, because it was just the barest hint of DFD.  Having previously played Death Love Doom, the group talked to the creepy woman, climbed the creepy mountain, investigated the creepy cabin, and finally got spooked when they saw the Dead Sign in the second room of the dungeon.  (The last time they saw it, they were attacked by mutilated body parts.)  They took the key to the dungeon (smart) and left — making sure to suggest to the villagers that they found what they came for, so that anybody passing through and looking for the Emerald Tome of the Devourer will come looking for them (hopefully) rather than traversing the mountain on their own (also smart).

Unfortunately, an assassin tracking them since the aftermath of Death Love Doom finally found them and caused a rockslide.  He took out most of their mercenaries and almost killed two of them, but the group managed to track him down.

Interested parties can read about the whole thing here.

The rest of the weekend is the blur of socializing that one has come to expect from Madicon.

Friday, April 1, 2016

Unknown Armies, Third Edition Kickstarter


It went live Wednesday and funded within two and a half hours.  As of this writing, it's tripled its goal, and they're still talking about additional stretch goals — mostly extra ebooks of content.

Currently, I'm reading the playtest documents (primarily Book Three: Reveal — the book of story hooks and such), and I'm not sure I love it.  Then again, I didn't expect to love it again — Stolze and Tynes already made the perfect game in 1998 and 2002.  Just looking at the story details, they pulled back the curtain.  A lot.  (A lot of things that were just intriguing rumors buried across sourcebooks now get a whole section explaining them.)  They changed some stuff that was supposed to represent the setting's cosmological constants.  (Which is a good way to shake things up, I suppose.  Even if the new metaplot stuff comes across as an obligatory The Lost Room pastiche.  With shades of The Booth at the End.)  The Slender Man gets stats.  So does Kuchisake-onna.

Basically, it looks like what you would expect after a decade's worth of age and a distinct lack of John Tynes' dream-like haze over everything.  It's a bit less on the high-concept and a bit more on the gutter magick and weird horror.  (And like a lot of reboots, it sounds like a pastiche of the thing originally described.)

So I don't love it, but I didn't expect to love it.  I expected a solid modern horror game with a lot of cool, creepy plot hooks, and it appears to deliver.  I don't know anything about the system yet, but a lot of the plot hooks are solid, and get me excited to drop them in some future game.  (Whenever that happens.)

You've got about a month left, but check out that Kickstarter so this thing can get bigger and crazier.

Addendum (4/2/2016): I do know at least one rad thing about the rules, though.  Character creation now looks like this:

Ripped from Greg Stolze's Twitter
And this:

Also ripped from Greg Stolze's Twitter

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