Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Tasting Systems, and Taste In Systems

Wherein I think, again, about what I look for in a game:

With a little idle time, I figured that I’d roll up a Dark Heresy 1e character and play through the introductory adventure, solo, as some kind of ‘proof of principle’. And perhaps a ‘rehearsal’ for trying out the game with my group. As a taster.

And it taught me that my prejudice [1] matched the reality; *for me*, Dark Heresy is simply too fiddly, it would not work for my players, and I can no longer imagine having the ‘headspace’ required by this game to do the kind of worldbuilding on the fly necessary for allowing proper player/character freedom. Also, the introductory adventure sucks. Well, I didn't play right through it, but the introduction to the introductory adventure sucks.

Why does it suck? The same reasonthe WFRP2e introductory adventure sucks, and why Caravan, one of the RQ6 introductory adventuresucks. And that is; introducing an RPG with a series of scenes in which the players make no real choices, and make dice rolls that have no consequences is a demonstration of literally the opposite of the exciting and unique features of RPGs: freedom and consequence! 

As I played the introductory adventure, in the admittedly slightly absurd situation of my GM-self narrating scenes to my Player-self with his rolled up Cleric ‘Wolfe Nihilius’, I got very bored. And annoyed. Annoyed because a skill based game ought not ask for skill tests that are not consequential; it is terrible ‘training’ for a GM. 

But this got me thinking. If I couldn't see myself running Dark Heresy, why was that? What do I run? Why do I run those games? What did this bad taste in my mouth tell me about my palette, the tastes that I have acquired over years of gaming. This not to denigrate Dark Heresy, but ask; what do I look for in an RPG? So, here, in order, as I drank a cup of tea looking at the front cover of Dark Heresy, is what I came up with:
  1. Fast character creation – players should be able to get into playing pretty quickly. This is usually coupled with pretty straightforward character sheets – if it can fix on an index card, all the better. This allows replacement PCs to be created quickly, new players to join, and suggests a system in which system mastery is not required. Plus, if I have people coming round to play and RPG, then we want to play that night, not next week. So definitely no ‘session 1 = character creation’!
  2. Fast ‘world’ creation – it should be fairly straightforward to ‘eyeball’ the necessary stats and mechanics for an NPC, a monster, or an environmental hazard. If this is possible, a GM can offer all kinds of choices to the players and their characters. 
  3. Simple, straightforward systems to resolve action, or, even better, a system that ‘permits’ ad hoc resolutions. I know that no game can ‘refuse’, but if it is in the ‘spirit’ of the game to simply roll a d6, eyeball a percentage chance, or test an attribute, etc. as and when necessary, this facilitates fast, intuitive play. As with points 1 and 2, this suggests a system in which the game is in player interaction with the world, not with the system.
  4. Relatively flat character progression – for two reasons: 1/ I want things that are threatening, powerful, etc. at the start of a game to remain relevant once the campaign is established, and 2/ I want to be able to replace PCs which die or 'leave the story', accommodate irregular players, and add new players to the game without too much ‘fudging’.
  5.  A game in which setbacks are possible, even expected, as well as advancement; in other words, in which PCs deteriorate as well as improve. Examples of this would be games with a wound system, games with sanity or corruption systems, and games in which the expected ‘rhythm’ of adventures means that aging etc. comes into play. This also includes systems in which it is in keeping with the spirit of the game for the PCs to (preferably as a consequence of their own decisions) to lose everything, their magic items, their wealth, their space ship, etc.
  6.  A game that eschews fiddly book-keeping. With my group, this is not much fun, just work. But I do want the resources that matter to matter mechanically. I am increasingly drawn to abstract resource management systems, so that such considerations are still part of the game, still part of player decision-making,  but that it is not a case of tracking every arrow, torch, coin, and ration.
  7. A system that presents the tools for sandbox play. For me, these tools come in two forms: 1/ Procedures for handling player/character-driven (off plot, so to speak) adventuring. Encounter tables, reaction rolls, and treasure tables are all useful here. 2/ Procedures that allowing the characters to properly interact with the world and - importantly - become more powerful outside of the personal mechanics of levels, magic items, hit points etc. Here I’m thinking about faction rules, trading rules, rules for holdings and dominions, etc.  

Apologies for all this thinking aloud, reminding myself of what works for me and what, despite temptation, I ought steer clear.

[1]Why, if these are my prejudices, do I own Dark Heresy? Hell, I don’t just own Dark Heresy, but the core books for all the games in the 40k RPG line! Because I would like to run a game in a crumbling Gothic science-fantasy space empire. Just not with these systems.

Wednesday, 11 January 2017

The Warlock of Firetop Mountain for AFF2e

This is not a review. It wouldn’t be fair to review an adventure that I have not run. This is a very short piece to note that, by the evidence of The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, the graphic design standards of Arion’s AFF2e line have come on in leaps and bounds.

One criticism that has been levelled at AFF2e, and particularly the core rulebook, is that the design and layout is not up to standard. That there were entirely blank pages in a couple of places was a particularly egregious example. See,for an example, Dyson Logo’s mini-review. But note what he has to say that is positive about the game as a game, and remember, I wouldn’t have, in recent years, run more AFF2e than any other system if I didn’t tremendously enjoy it.

An aside: In part, this post is inspired by the arrival, just this morning, of Arion’s republishing of Titan and Out of the Pit. I hadn’t bought these yet because I already own copies of the originals published by Puffin. Of course I did. Importantly, I own Titan in the original larger format, and can confirm that the Arion publication has a layout that is almost identical to that of the original. Some of the art has ‘faded’, and a couple of items of ‘page furniture’ have shrunk, but otherwise it is a faithful reproduction. I suspect the same is the case for Out of the Pit, but I only have a very battered / well-loved paperback sized version so can’t compare. This is just to say that the ‘boring’ two column layout is a legacy of the original books.

Here is a comparison of pages from the Puffin and Arion publications of Titan:

But this post isn’t about those books, but The Warlock of Firetop Mountain. I confess that I bought this ages ago. While I have run the Crown of Kings adventures, I’ve never done more than read The Warlock of Firetop Mountain. But what did strike me, from when it first arrived, is the way in which the graphic design has improved immensely, while keeping with the general style. Have a look at a few pages from the book to see what I mean.

The art from the book is mostly well-reproduced, the ‘page furniture’ is well done, there are some fantastic page borders, a new map of the Pagan Plains, and the character portraits for the pre-gens perfectly in keeping with the Fighting Fantasy aesthetic. I’m not a big fan of the computer-produced dungeon maps, but that's a personal preference, and they are certainly serviceable.

Congratulations to Graham Bottley, and especially to Brett Schofield, for ‘translating’ the gamebook into AFF2e and providing some good quality art that fits in nicely alongside Russ Nicholson’s original illustrations.

Monday, 2 January 2017

Gaming in 2017 starts with a... meh!

Bank Holiday Monday, I gave my wife some quiet time and headed up to my Mum's with a stack of boardgames (and the girls, who were happy with Matilda on DVD).

Why did I choose Zombies!!!?

From this stack we choose - as my Mum and sister have been binging on series one, two, and three of The Walking Dead - to play Zombies!!! To no great satisfaction. Unlike so many contemporary games, Zombies!!! has the potential to drag on, and on, and on. Perhaps this is an accurate simulation of a zombie apocalypse, as the initial excitement fades into the routine of survival. Or not. In order that no player is eliminated from the game (unlike, say Monopoly, which not only drags, but also leaves so many players spectators as the end game runs on forever), in Zombies!!! a player whose 'shotgun guy' dies simply respawns at the starting point. Which, again, simulates good zombie apocalypse strategies - increasingly distant 'patrols', returning to base when short of resources or needing a rest. Not tremendously fun, though.

Now, I have played in pretty fun games of Zombies!!!, but this isn't the first time that the game has played out in this fashion. So much of Zombies!!! depends on the way in which the map tiles are drawn, and laid out. In this game, quite by accident, we ended up with an almost entirely linear map, meaning that any feeling of exploration was lost, replaced by something that felt more like zombie snakes and ladders. This is made worse as all the buildings containing special items we down one long 'zombie highway', meaning that the weapons and other items that tip the balance in favour of the 'shotgun guys' were very difficult to get, and keep.

Oh, and we also rolled terribly, more than once players lost their 'shotgun guy' from a pretty good, well resourced position after rolling a series of 1s and 2s.

Given that the game ended with all of us barely interested, and quite relieved when my brother announced he was off to the pub to watch West Ham v Man U, well, on this play alone I could only give Zombies!!! one braaaaain out of five.

Friday, 30 December 2016

Gaming 2016, and into 2017

I don't care what happened to anyone else in 2016. What I know is that I didn't game enough.

I ran quite a bit of Advanced Fighting Fantasy 2e (AFF), a few sessions of Labyrinth Lord, and I think we also squeezed some OpenQuest 2e in at the start of the year. All fantasy - no other genres, despite constantly toying with the idea of running a sci-fi game, a historical fantasy game, or a pulpy horror game. Things for 2017 then?

We did a bit more boardgaming, playing Pandemic and its variant, Reign of Cthulhu, Ticket to Ride, a game or two of War on Terror, Munchkin Conan, X-Wing, Elder Sign, King of Tokyo, Sun Tzu, Jaipur, Commands and Colors: Ancients, Memoir 44, Antidote, and gods knows what else. Probably a few rounds of Settlers - which has become a bit of a standard for the wider family.

We even started a regular gaming night - playing every week on Wednesday nights for the last couple of months up until Christmas.

So, what for 2017?

1. Resurrect this blog, with at least a couple of posts a week. Shouldn't be so hard if we're actually playing regularly, should it?

2. Play some new RPGs. In particular, I would really like to see if I can run Fate, and if my group takes to it - which is more or less the same thing. I've been reading Fate books for a few years(!) now - I couldn't help but buy Starblazer Adventures way back when - and think that in some regards it might work for my group of players, who aren't really interested in learning crunch, or games of bean counting (which is why my preference for an OSR sandbox, with resource management being a key aspect of player decision making, isn't a goer for us). In conversations with people on G+, especially Paul Mitchener - author of Age of Arthur and Hunters of Alexandria, Fate has solidified a little in my mind as a pretty traditional game, all in all, which offers a system for giving mechanical weight to things that aren't contained in standardised skills or special abilities. We'll see.
2.2 Other systems I'd like to have a run at include Barbarians of Lemuria, as well as dusting off Traveller and keeping some AFF going.
2.3 Play (well, run) RPGs in some other genres. Whether I use Traveller, or Diaspora, or Stars Without Number, I'd like to get some sci-fi gaming going. I might even get the chance to use Stellar Adventures, the AFF2e sci-fi ruleset! I'd also like to run some historical fantasy, which is perhaps where I will be able to differentiate my experiments in Fate from my more fantastical AFF games. I doubt we'll be able to squeeze in any pulp horror, but as that is well suited to isolated one-off games (whereas fantasy and sci-fi games shine in campaign mode) it might be an effective 'filler'.

3. Actually get an Advanced Fighting Fantasy fanzine off the ground - this will depend heavily on the rhythm and intensity of my actual work. But as I'll be playing AFF, I should be creating content for AFF. Shouldn't I? 

4. Paint some miniatures, and play some miniature games. I could easily(?!) rattle off a couple more BloodBowl teams, which would be an accessible game for most of the players in my circle. And I have enough painted fantasy miniatures for some healthy games of Songs of Blades and Heroes. I doubt we'll be able to do much more than that, but that is something.    

5. Keep up with the boardgaming, basically. Play Small World - my 'Christmas game' - and find a couple more 'standards' from my cupboards that everyone enjoys and is familiar with, so we can get some gaming done whenever we have a quiet night with no deadlines the next day.

What does this leave out? Well, there is no mention (with the exception of Stars Without Number) of any OSR games! Gasp! Horror! I've juts bought the Frog God Swords & Wizardry bundle too! No doubt I'll rest my AFF games (and maybe other games too) on my hefty catalogue of OSR adventures. I might even run some, depending on what my players enjoy. But it is not my ambition for 2017. Ditto a d100/BRP game, though again I could see us breaking out the percentile dice if, for instance, my players don't take to Fate. The thing I'm most reluctant to leave off this list is WFRP, and if that reluctant grows to remorse, my 'gaming resolutions' for 2017 will end up being tossed in the bin!

Tuesday, 8 November 2016

New Players and Magic

Lister: All we've got is us guys, us and our own resourcefulness.
I play with new players a lot. As well as players of some experience who are seemingly unable to read a rulebook. I can’t blame them. Rulebooks are for GMs. The trend to producing player-focussed rulebooks – AD&D2e, you started the rot! – has exploded the crunch on both sides of the table. That’s not for me, or for my players.
One of the things that I find hardest to deal with in any game is magic. And high-technology, but, let’s face it, that is the same thing as far as matters in a sci-fi RPG. It is particularly difficult with new players. It is one thing for a player to say, ‘My character does X, where X is something within the ranges of human potential’ as a GM and the players can use a combination of common expectations and a – hopefully – straightforward resolution system to adjudicate the success of this action. Magic tends to create ‘exceptional’ rules, introduce new resolution systems, and threaten the common understanding shared by the table, at least until the table has absorbed both the rules and the setting.
This is just a long way round to saying that I tend to find it easier to GM games for my group in which access to magic (for PCs and NPCs) is pretty restricted, at least at the start of a campaign.
So, you know, WFRP!
Cat: My God, it's worse than I thought!

Saturday, 27 August 2016

A player's view of Kakabad

In lieu of a post about contemporary gaming, what with the sunny weather, afternoons in the pub, and the odd barbecue - and for anyone not in the UK, we get so few really sunny days these must be seized upon - I thought I'd dig out some old player maps and let you see how one of my players interpreted our journey across Kakabad in pursuit of the Crown of Kings.


The Baklands


Thursday, 25 August 2016

Preparation for a jungle expedition... delayed

I was busy making my own version of a very familiar map, and adapting the encounters for Advanced Fighting Fantasy, when my brother invited me down the pub. Ah well, hangover cleared, that gives me time for a bit more polish then...