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.
  • M.  He's previously played "Joy and Sorrow" from One Shots, and that's it.
  • S.  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 S.  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 M.  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 (6-2-2016): This mini-campaign now has its own Obsidian Portal page.  Read about it if you're into that sort of thing.

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