reverancepavane: (doomstar)

Title: Blowback
Author: Elizabeth Shoemaker Sampat
Publisher: Two Scooters Press
Published: August 2010
RRP: US$10 (pdf @unstore) / Book (?)


Description: Blowback is probably best described as Burn Notice: The Role-playing Game, except without Michael, Fiona, Sam or any other identifiable features that would have the USA network come knocking at Elizabeth's door requesting a licensing fee. Still, the basic premise remains the same, as players play highly competent "burned" spies and the civilians that are their only remaining resource.

Setting: It could be anywhere in the modern world where a burned spy might be put out to pasture, except viewed through the eyes of a spy it is probably not a friendly place. Often this will be the players actual home town. After all, everyone should be familiar with where they live. But remember that there are moves going on in the background. The Agency wants you stuck here, so there must be some reason why this place is important.

However that's just the physical setting. The important setting is all about the relationships between the characters and their relationship with The Agency. The first allows the characters to show off their awesome spy skills, whilst the second is where the true basis of the game lies.

Character Generation: There are three types of characters: Lifers (those spies that are naturals in a business known for short careers), Artists (those spies with a special skill set that is useful in covert actions), and Civilians (those bystanders that care for the spies, and are cared for in return). Lifers are pretty good at the spy stuff, but being a good spy means you are usually bad at forming actual (rather than pretend) relationships. Specialists may not be as good as a lifer outside of their specialty, but are probably not as much as a weasel when it comes to forming relationships with outsiders. And civilians, well, they are not very good at the spy stuff but they are silly enough to care for the spies, so have fairly strong relationships. So as a result, Professionals (Lifers and Artists) get more points that can be applied to the spy skills than Civilians, but Civilians get to have stronger relationships (and almost no spy skills). You get to play two characters, a Professional and a Civilian (who usually has their strongest relationship to another player's Professional).

There are four different spy skills: Pavement (which is all about hitting the street for information), Diversion (which is how you mislead and distract), Provocateur (which is the ability to be a chameleon), and Commando (which is the use of straightforward force). The interesting thing is that the use of these skills changes in each of the three phases of the game. For example, a Provocateur excels at Developing Assets (going undercover, making contacts and charming the right people) in the Analysis phase and Rallying Forces (obtaining help from unexpected sources and tricking the opponents into doing the dirty work for you) in the Operation Phase, but suffers from Control problems (treating friends as assets rather than people) in the Blowback phase of the game.

The relationships on the other hand are the strengths of your attachments to the other characters and even non-player characters in the game. If someone has a relationship with you then they have certain expectations of you. If their relationship is strong enough, they might even have an Agenda (and want you to change in some way). The greater relationship you have with someone, the more stress it can take before it breaks and is worthless – you've asked too much of them.

Mechanics: There are three separate phases in the game: Analysis, Operations, and Blowback. The Analysis phase is where you meet the client, gain intelligence on what is going on, and set up the resources you need to actually do the job. This earns dice for you and The Agency (who plays the opposition, even if they might not be from The Agency itself). You can do this safely, for a minor reward, or take a risk (which has the potential for greater rewards (more dice for you, less for The Agency). The Analysis phase tends to naturally terminate, as the character's either run out of skills they can use effectively, or more likely, they suffer from a loss of Momentum (which reduces the number of dice they can use next). [There is a flow chart that explains this, although it is rather impenetrable without the text.]

The Operations phase is where you actually get the job done. Dice are assigned from the pool generated in the Analysis phase (which represents The Plan) and the players skills (as before, each dice has a 50% chance of success or failure, with the number of dice indicating effective degree of success or failure [by generating Momentum]). Meanwhile The Agency develops it's own plan and assigns dice to it, which it can use to resist the attempts of the players. This will usually be in response to the character's actions in the Analysis phase, so it is possible to mislead The Agency into protecting assets that the players have no intention of threatening. Unlike most story games, there is an actual adversarial relationship between The Agency and the team of players. It may not be possible to complete a mission in a single Operations phase, particularly if the Analysis phase was a bust. But you can always go back to the Analysis phase and try again with generating a new plan.

The Blowback phase always follows the Operations phase. This is where you deal with the fallout from the operation. This includes dealing with baggage from the operation, the stress you put yourself under conducting it, and the stress that you put on your relationships with the other people in your life. It is also where The Agency (the actual one) can start pushing up the aggravation on the burned spies. As you can guess from thetitle of the game, it is probably the most important phase of the game as it deals with consequences.

Thoughts: This game captures much of the feel of the show Burn Notice, particularly with the inability of Mike and Fi to actually form a stable relationship with each other (or in fact, with any other people at all). And while the professionals have awesome abilities to get stuff done, they also have no agency backing them up, and have to rely on the civilians for support, and that is going to stress their relationships. Burn through your relationships and you will truly be left out in the cold with no one to turn to. You need them. They don't neccessarily need you.

There is a lot of good advice for the gamemaster (aka The Agency) in the game, and no denying that there is a considerable workload placed on them. My only concern is that the mechanics of assigning dice to the plan (which is how the game gets balanced in play) means that it difficult for the gamemaster to simply wing it. Or steal ideas from the players... <grimace> Then again this is probably a good idea, since it encourages the gamemaster to write down a plan for the operation beforehand (assuming what will happen if the players don't interfere). That way you only need to add changes to the plan in compensation for the player's perceived actions.

Overall this is an interesting game, and very well produced. It was the beneficiary of a $1000 prize in a competition on the Story Games website for the best concept and deserves it.

Rating: Very Good.

reverancepavane: (Cthulhu)

<giggles insanely>


"I see Ian's finally lost it. One tome of Cthulhoid lore too many I suppose."

"Ian? Sanity? Somehow those two words don't really mesh in my head. At least, not without involving some sort of negation. And Cthulhu? Really? Ian eats squigglier things with his breakfast cereal."

"Oooh. Remind me not to have breakfast at his place then. But what makes you so sure about that?"

"This is Ian, remember. The one who publically sacrificed a naked virgin to Dagon."

"She wasn't naked. She was wearing a nightie."

"It was a see-through nightie."

"That's why the bishop gave it a 9.0."

"There was a judging panel? And there was a bishop on the judging panel?"

"Of course! If you are going to be judged on the performance of religious ritual you might as well call in an expert. Besides, it was all put down to youthful exuberance and high spirits. Even the attempt to serve Roast Fungi From Yuggoth."

"Gah! Who'd have ever thought that serving lobster stuffer with mushroom on a bed of icecream was a good idea. Besides Ian. Still, it did manage to install a proper appreciation for the more nauseous aspects of the Mythos."

"And besides, it's not a serious occult work. It's only a game book. An adventure I believe. For that excellent Trail of Cthulhu game."

"Then why is he giggling? And rather insanely at that."

"Well, it's only a supposition, mind you, but I suspect he finds it rather humorous."

"But there is only one reason that he'd find it at all funny."

"Yep! We are soooo [censored] if he ever runs it for us."

Description: Castle Bravo is an adventure by Bill White for Trail of Cthulhu from Pelgrane Press. Set in the 1954, it is an excellent adventure for a single session game for players with all levels of Mythos knowledge. Those with high Cthulhu Mythos scores will simply cringe faster. Available as a PDF for US$5 from OBS. Overall Rating: Bill White is an evil evil man.

reverancepavane: (Morse)

Title: Starblazer Adventures
Author: Chris Birch & Stuart Newman.
Publisher: Cubicle 7.
SKU: 701
ISBN: 978-0-9555423-3-6
Published: August 2008
RRP: US$35 (book @MGP)/US$20 (pdf @OBS)

Description: Starblazer Adventures is one of two* recent science fiction games that use the FATE system of Spirit of the Century (and the upcoming Dresden Files RPG). The FATE system is an interesting outgrowth of FUDGE that adds the ability to tag and compel various Aspects of a character using Fate Points and Stunts to the basic FUDGE system. There is an SRD for the FATE system that can be found here (as well as rumours of an upcoming FATE core book from Evil Hat). FUDGE and FATE traditionally use a set of 4 unique six-sided dice (although an alternative method is to use 2 normal six-sided dice).

[* The other being Diaspora.]

Setting: Starblazer Adventures, subtitled "The Rock and Roll Space Opera Adventure Game," is based on the 1970/80s British comic book Starblazers. Each issue had a seperate story, although common themes and ideas tended to reappear between stories. It is very much space opera, with blasters, force fields, laser swords, antigravity, and reactionless drives (as well as roaring reaction drives that make no appreciable use of reaction mass).

Given the source material there is no real consistency to the setting, which is fine. After all, it is a Rock & Roll Space Opera game. If you want a planet of giant carnivorous plants, or a mad scientist with an army of uplifted gorillas in powered armour, go for it. This is a game where a single heroic player character agent of the Space Patrol can make a difference and defeat the nefarious schemes of the evil aliens.

That being said, Cubicle 7 have recently released a formal setting for Starblazer Adventures, called Mindjammer, which appears to be a much harder SF universe than that portrayed in the core rules, but very far future SF (AI ships, mental interfaces, reactionless drives, force fields and the like).

Character Generation: Standard FATE. Character's start with a pyramid of 15 skills ranging from Superb to Average in ability. They get to choose up to ten Aspects for their character, two in each phase (Training, Starblazer Legend, and each time they Guest Star in another player's story). They also gain one Stunt for each phase they partake in. In addition to many fine Stunts being listed for specific skills, a character may elect to take a Career track and choose special Stunts from that. Stunts are handled more evocatively than with Diaspora, with titles suitable for a pulp hero, such as "Now You've Made Me Mad" and "Thump of Restoration," and, similarly, there are a lot more Aspect examples, such as "Architect of Destruction" and "Girl in Every Starport," and much more importantly, a deeper explanation of the reasons why you should choose them.

There is also a random character generation system if one wants to start getting a handle on the character, although it is rather superficial.

Starships, Space Monsters and Aliens are treated in the same manner as characters. Alien powers work through the same Stunt system as characters 9although these Stunts may only be available to the specific aliens). Starships have Aspects and Stunts of their own. And Space Monsters combine the two philosophies.

One thing to remember is that the game is much more open to advancement than either Spirit of the Century or Diaspora, since each further grand adventure undertaken would grant two additional Aspects and a Stunt. The Aspects should probably relate the the previous adventure, and may actually be forced on the character. For example, don't go blowing up any planets unless you want the "Oh My God, What Have We Done!" Aspect.

Mechanics: Standard FATE. Although the game primarily uses the 2d6 method of rolling as standard (roll two differently coloured d6 and subtract one from the other), which gives a much sharper distribution of results. Again the main focus is on the use of Fate Points to compel and tag Aspects, rather than just testing abilities. There are only two Stress tracks (Physical and Composure), and again, the emphasis is on taking Consequences to avoid being stressed out.

The interesting addition here is Scale. With organizations this is the extent of the organization (in the galactic arena); with starships and space monsters it is the physical size of the ship or creature. The interesting thing is that things are generally limited to interacting with things that are within two steps of their own Scale, although sometimes specific abilities might counteract this. For example "Torpedoes" ignore the scaling rules when attacking large targets. And thus you'll find antishipping fighters equipped with torpedoes if they want to do anything other than scratch the paintwork. I find this gives a much finer control of interaction than Diaspora split playing fields. For example, a single person will be unable to affect a planet. But if they recruit a large enough organization, that organization will be able to influence the planet (whilst the character influences the organization). And so on.

As mentioned previously, spaceships are designed like characters, except their abilities are defined by their Scale (size). This gives them the size of the pyramid that they use for their Systems (in place of Skills), the size of their Stress tracks (Systems replacing Composure), and the number of Aspects they can have. And like characters, ships will have an apex System at the top of their pyramid which tends to readily define their role. Ship Systems also have Stunts that allow them to violate the normal rules, as well as Aspects that can affect their performance, such as "held Together By Gaffa Tape" and "I've Got A Traaz In My Hold And I'm Not Afraid To Use It."

Thoughts: This is a massive book, and it was apparently rather stressful to put together, which was probably why it's arrival was greeted with less enthusiasm than Diaspora in some quarters. It also didn't feature any real new advances to the FATE system, apart from the Scaling mechanic, so it missed a lot of the Great New Idea surge. But overall I can't help thinking that it is actually the better game. Diaspora just comes over far too mechanical for me, whilst these rules spark ideas aplenty.

The problem is, like the source material which copiously illustrates the book, is that there is no consistency or real direction provided by the base game, which is why I think the addition of a defined setting is vital for the future of this game (although I have yet to fully peruse my copy of Mindjammer enough to decide on the quality of that), even if it just forms a suggestion on how to set up a Starblazer campaign. You have a good toolkit for building any space opera universe, but there is no real seed around which you can form one (but lots of little ideas). But reading the book does makes me want to run (or play in) a game of it. Which is something that, for me, defines the basis of a good game.

And really, I still have no idea what Rock & Roll Space Opera is (apart from Tommy in Space). <grin>

Rating: Very Good.

Two space games, both based on the FATE engine, released almost simultaneously, was just begging for comparison, as unfair as it may be to both, because they are really designed to do different things. But it was interesting that one game had me wanting to design a hero of the Space Patrol immediately, while the other had me going "interesting idea" for a chapter or two, and then getting less and less interested in running the game as I read on. Although an obvious response is to combine the cluster building exercise of Diaspora with the the way Starblazer Adventurers handles the FATE system, filling in the holes each game has with the other. Oh well, roll on the release of Dresden Files RPG and the next expansion for Spirit of the Century for more FATE goodness.

reverancepavane: (semaphore)

Title: Diaspora
Author: B Murray, CW Marshall, T Dyke, B Kerr
Publisher: VSCA Publishing
ISBN: 0-9811710-1-2
Published: 2009
RRP: US$35/US$27/US$13 (HC/SC/pdf @Lulu)

Description: Diaspora is one of two* recent science fiction games that use the FATE system of Spirit of the Century (and the upcoming Dresden Files RPG). The FATE system is an interesting outgrowth of FUDGE that adds the ability to tag and compel various Aspects of a character using Fate Points and Stunts to the basic FUDGE system. There is an SRD for the FATE system that can be found here (as well as rumours of an upcoming FATE core book from Evil Hat). FUDGE and FATE traditionally use a set of 4 unique six-sided dice (although an alternative method is to use 2 normal six-sided dice).

This game is also interesting because the publishers refused to produce a pdf version for a very long time, citing that they felt that the game had been designed and laid out for a physical book, and that they would only produce a pdf by laying out the game specifically to that format. Given their attitude that "they didn't care if they made a profit" and where "just doing it as an act of love" sparked a great deal of interesting internet discussion over the status of amateur and professional game publishers and the role that pdfs have in the game industry. Which is interesting, because the recent pdf release (which is the source of this review) doesn't really feel like it has been released with this in mind), and feels more like a POD source for the original book, with some additional explicit content linking, rather than something specifically designed for ease of use in an electronic version.

[* The other being Starblazer Adventures.]

Setting: The setting is probably the most important thing about Diaspora, simply because there is no setting. Instead of a wide galactic mileau, Diaspora creates a small isolated cluster, with one unique system for each player, as the initial part of the character generation process. Each player rolls dice to determine the basic "attributes" of each system, those being Technology, Environment, and Resources, and then provides the system with two Aspects, such as "Balkanised," "Waterworld" or even something like "Famed for the beauty of it's women" or "Best shopping malls in the cluster." These systems are then linked randomly by slipways (think wormholes that require a "slip drive" to trigger). The players then work out how each world is involved in the microcosm of the cluster and should then add a third and final Aspect to the system to represent this, after which they should right a paragraph or so describing the system. This then becomes the universe in which adventures take place. Each system is likely to be quite different, representing the infinite possibilities that were realised as humanity spread to the stars. Hence Diaspora.

And actually I was lying when I said there was no setting. There are several basic assumptions built into the universe. Firstly, it is a "hard SF" setting that presupposes no paradigm shifts or accidental discoveries in the future, with the exception of the availability of the slipstream FTL drive (which apparently defies explanation). Thus there are no reactionless drives, anti-gravity, force fields, cloaking devices and other examples of technology that requires such assumptions. It postulates a continuous improvement in material science, nano-manufacturing, energy generation, artificial intelligence and ubiquitous quantum-scale computing, biosciences and genetic engineering, but nothing that can't be described by current theories. Except, of course, the slip drive. It also postulates a technological singularity (cf Vinge et al), with the highest tech level being presumably insular Pre-Collapse societies, which are doomed to either extinction because of a failed science experiment, or inevitable ascension.

Character Generation: Fairly standard for the FATE system. Character's start with a pyramid of 15 skills ranging from Superb to Average in ability. They get to choose ten Aspects for their character, two in each phase (Growing Up, Starting Out, Moment of Crisis, Side-Tracked, On Your Own). And three Stunts that aid your character in becoming more awesome than the average character. Stunts are handled much more mechanically than in Spirit of the Century and Starblazer Adventures, where they tend to be much more evocative.

Like Spirit of the Century, this game assumes that characters are really at the height of their abilities, and there is no mechanism for improving the character once it has been generated (although it may be altered). However this is not a problem, after all, Traveller, one of the oldest (1977) and most popular science-fiction games had no mechanism for character advancement.

Mechanics: Standard FATE. The Fudge Dice alter the character's standard ability to gain a result level (eg, a roll of +1 converts a Superb ability to a Fantastic result). Characters and the gamemaster can tag an Aspect to either gain a bonus or reroll, or to compel the character to do something appropriate to the Aspect, by using or awarding Fate Points (which is the effective currency of the FATE system). Damage manifests on one of the character's Stress tracks (Health, Composure, Stress), or a character may elect to absorb damage by taking an appropriate Consequence (which affects future play).

There are interesting applications of the basic system to space travel and combat (a large focus of the game) and, more importantly, economics (something often missing from narrative-based systems), but vitally important for the typical player trained by Traveller. It is interesting that they make a distinction between personal combat and social conflict. The objective of personal combat is to damage something, whilst social conflict acts to maneuver the characters involved in it. In normal FATE these are identical, albiet with different sorts of Consequences taken when one fails.

There is also a heavy wargaming focus, both in the provision of a mass-combat system, and in the fact that things like societal manipulation is handled fairly abstractly. It is presumed that the players will be movers and shakers (or at least wildcards) in the events and social evolution of the cluster.

Thoughts: The fractal nature of the game is interesting, in that the same game system defines the nature of systems, characters, spaceships, and troops. Limiting play to a small cluster allows the players to interact more fully with the universe, rather than passing through a universe filled with cardboard cut-out planets. Putting an upper cap on the Technology index removes most of the "sufficiently advanced" magic-tech from the game and bases it firmly in the realm of physics as we understand it. But for such a small cluster where the worlds are in such close contact I think the negative tech-levels are far too harsh. After all, technology tends to transfer. I did feel that the environmental factors were a bit too generous though, but resources were just about right. Some of the implicit assumptions of the game are not neccessarily ones that I would agree with, but they do make life running the cluster much easier.

And this leads me to what i don't really like about the game, which is the marginalisation of the player character and activities that take place on the personal scale. The vast majority of the rulebook is dedicated to the big picture, involving the interactions in the cluster. Even the example for social conflict was trying to manuever two systems into war or peace by manipulating various political factions. Whilst I have no personal objection to this, it definitely moves it much more into the strategic gaming arena for me. In this regard it does itself an extreme disservice in seperating play into four distinct arenas, with very little interaction between them (say, compared to Reign or Aria).

I also felt that the Stunts were particularly uninspiring compared to the suggestions in Spirit of the Century and Starblazer Adventures. Similarly, whilst the suggested Aspects were more evocative, they did rather run to the pedestrian. In either case, I think the designers have relied heavily on the players of this game already being familiar with choosing appropriate Aspects from Spirit of the Century and felt that they didn't really need to cover it in any great depth. Then again, it is difficult to provide very many good examples of Stunts and Aspects when you really have no idea of exactly what universe the players will come up with.

Also I found the rules to concentrate far too heavily on detailing the mechanics, at the cost of failing to evoke a feeling about the game. In short, eading the rules didn't want to make me immediately want to play the game, which given the large number of other games that do make me want to run them, means that a Diaspora game will never see the light of day (it's not even really suitable for a short, off-the-cuff, pick-up game at a con).

It's a game with a single Great Big Idea, in that it allows the players to own the universe that the players are adventuring in, sharing the wonder of universe creation that was previously the sole province and joy of the gamemaster. This also effectively allows any of the players to take a turn at gamemastering the game, since it doesn't privilege one player over another. However I feel, now that the idea is out there, others will run with it more successfully.

Rating: Good (Minus). [But I'm much more likely to use the ideas contained in it in my next strategic space campaign than my next space-based role-playing game.]

Two space games, both based on the FATE engine, released almost simultaneously, was just begging for comparison, as unfair as it may be to both, because they are really designed to do different things. But it was interesting that one game had me wanting to design a hero of the Space Patrol immediately, while the other had me going "interesting idea" for a chapter or two, and then getting less and less interested in running the game as I read on. Although an obvious response is to combine the cluster building exercise of Diaspora with the the way Starblazer Adventurers handles the FATE system, filling in the holes each game has with the other. Oh well, roll on the release of Dresden Files RPG and the next expansion for Spirit of the Century for more FATE goodness.

reverancepavane: (Omegahedron)

Title: The One Roll Engine (ORE)
Author: Greg Stolze
Publisher: ARC Dream, Schrödinger's Cat Press
Published: December 2001
RRP: Wild Talents: Essential Edition* US$5 (pdf @OBS)

Description: The One Roll Engine (ORE) is the resolution system that Greg Stolze originally developed for Godlike (at that time published by Hobgoblynn Press). It has since been used as the basic resolution system for a number of his own games, and a number of games produced by Arc Dream, including Wild Talents, Monsters & Other Things, A Dirty World and Reign. All of which I intend to review at some point or another, so I might as well mentio the glue that holds them all together.

[* The current incarnation of the ORE is available in the Essential Edition of Wild Talents. This is the second edition of Wild Talents with all the game world information removed. However you should be warned that while the base system is recognisable in each game and setting, it is often implemented in different ways. This is an example of the extreme flexibility of the system.]

Setting: This system has been used in a superhero game set in WWII (Godlike), a more generic superhero game originally set in the Cold War (Wild Talents), a game where you are a kid with an imaginary monster who happens to be your best friend (Monsters & Other Childish Things), a game of film noir detectives (A Dirty World), a sword & sorcery game (Reign), a game of the Gifted in the US Civil War (This Favoured Land), a game of legendary Victoriana (The Kerberos Club), a game of modern urban fantasy (The Grim War), a game of cyberpunk-style mods (eCollapse), and, hopefully, many more future games.

Character Generation: Each setting has it's own method of generating a character. The standard system as used in Wild Talents gives each dice a cost, based on the powers that the dice represents. This cost is doubled or quadrupled for the special dice used (more on this later). Other games simply assign them as characteristics. The final result is the same.

Mechanics: A character makes a test in the ORE by rolling the appropriate number of ten-sided dice as determined by the abilities being tested (up to a maximum of 10d10). The character then sorts these dice into "sets" of multiple dice with identical numbers. Normally, rolling any set of two or more identical dice means the test succeeds. If you don't roll a set, you fail.

Each set will have a "height," which is the value rolled, and a "width," which is the number of dice that rolled that value. The height is a measure of the quality or effect of the roll, whilst the width is a measure of the speed of the test. For example, in combat the height is the effective hit location, with "10" being a head-shot. On the other hand, width is a measure of how fast something happens, so if you have a choice of two sets, you might want to use the wider one to act before your opponent. Useful if you want to win a race, for example.

And there are lots of options in how you may want to use your sets. For example you could use them defensively to attempt to break another player's set (if it is wider). If the task requires a certain minimal difficulty then you need a certain height to succeed. Or maybe you need a certain width to disarm the bomb before it explodes. Or perhaps you want to use multiple sets to attempt multiple actions?

There are two types of "special" dice. Hard Dice have a preset value (usually a "10"). They usually cost twice as much as a normal dice. If you have two hard dice then you automatically have a set (usually with a height of "10") without the need to roll any other dice. Wiggle Dice can be set to any value after you roll, making it easier to complete a wider set. For example, an expert in Reign has a skill that includes a Hard Die, whilst a master has a skill that includes a Wiggle Die.

Everything is measured in dice in the ORE, including superpowers. In fact the number of dice in your power pool is a measure of the strength of your power (such as how fast you actually can fly). But in order to succeed in the use of any power you need to generate a set with the appropriate dice pool. The easiest way to do this is to simply buy 2 Hard Dice, which automatically gives you a width 2 set (a 10x2 set to be precise). However that won't make you a very fast or powerful flyer, and it would be easy to knock you out of the sky with the appropriate powers.

Thoughts: I like this system because it is quick and rather flexible. For instance, the standard character generation system in Reign requires you to roll 11d10 (guarenteeing at least one set), and then you build your character from the sets you generate, with the height representing the social status of the position and the width how fast you have risen within it.

The other reason I like it is that you roll your pool and then use the resulting sets to determine what exactly you are going to do. This gives you a fairly good narrative control of the action within the round, especially in light of what your opponent is doing. Although it is not quite as flexible as, say, using the River in Weapons of the Gods.

The only problem I find is, conversely, the flexibility of the system, especially when dealing with fully-detailed superpowers, since the cost of each die depends on the power and whatever benefits and limitations you put on it. This can lead to a lot of calculations, which seems to be a common thing in the superhero genre (Champions and Mutants and Masterminds in particular). On the other hand, Monsters & Other Things eliminates the whole thing by just giving you 50 dice to define your monster's powers, whatever they may be. I personally prefer the latter approach, but I know people who would be exquisitely happy calculating the exact cost for a power capable of permanently extinguishing the sun (roughly 42 points per die). In either case, any variation between the two schemes tends to come out in the wash of play, so why not go for the simpler idea anyway? [Then again I am a firm believer that balance comes from play, not character generation in most role-playing games, so this probably influences my opinion. But it is also the opinion of the authors of Wild Talents it seems.]

Rating: Very Good. [Although it is used in a number of Excellent products.]

I first bought Godlike because the ideas of superheroes (called Talents or Ubermensch) in WW2 was interesting, creating an alternate history that really wasn't really that alternate. But it did allow people to play WW2 heroes and likely survive the experience (always a problem with realistic modern or futuristic warfare games).

reverancepavane: (Morse)

Just curious, are people finding my quickie pseudo-reviews of role-playing games that strike my fancy interesting? Understandable? Too much information? Not enough? Anything you'd like to see?

Admittedly there isn't much in the way of critical thought behind them, just, excited shouting of "this is kewl." <grin>

ETA: Well it seems that I am hitting the right sort of level for people's interests. I was worried it was becoming rather overcomplicated. But the problem is these games are full of chunky goodness. Kind of like Luncheon Meat #1, except in reverse. Maybe I should try reviewing something uninteresting, but then again I say any game has something useful to offer, even if it is simply "please for the love of the Goddess, don't ever do something like this!" Hmmm. Maybe I should review Elderad or The Iberian Tribunal. Unfortunately I'd need a video camera to record it. But the flames sure are pretty. So the good is where you find it.

The reviews shall continue, my loyal reader!

reverancepavane: (Default)

Title: Agon
Author: John Harper
Publisher: One Seven Design Studio
Published: August 2006
RRP: US$20/US$10 (book/pdf)

Description:"What would the world be without the agon – the agonistics of one man against another – to show everyone the order of precedence among men, just as no two other things on earth are alike? How could any of us alive know quality if competition and personal combat did not let all the world know who embodies excellence and who merely manages mediocrity?" – Odysseus, OLYMPOS

Setting: Agon takes place in an ancient Greece that never was. Like the mythic, ancient world as described by Homer in the Iliad and Odyssey, the gods are alive and very present in the lives of humans, appearing often to intercede directly in mortal affairs. The lost islands that the heroes explore are similar in some ways to those they know in their homelands of the Aegean – the people speak proper Greek, they worship the Olympian gods, and they practice the other customs of civilization. However, the islands are also magical places, filled with supernatural monsters and fantastic beasts.

When they approach an island they will usually be given three quests by a god that they must complete. Success will earn the heroes divine favour; failure will incur divine wrath. Each of these quests will usually have a number of challenges that the hero must complete in order to finish the quests. An interesting thing is that the game master is only given a limited budget to actually build these challenges. This is important because the players are really competing amongst themselves for the limited glory and fame available with each challenge, not against the game-master, who merely is providing them with the opportunity to prove their prowess.

Character Generation: A hero has a name and lineage, which may be divine. This is so important it is actually given a ranking (initially d6 or d8), and increases with the character's eventual fame. They also have a trait that marks them as a hero, such as Fleet-Footed, Monster-Slayer, or Clever-Eyed, which gives the hero a powerful bonus in certain situations.

Sixteen attributes define the hero. These are grouped into four areas of possible contest (Arete, Craft, Sports, and Battle). For example, the Battle group contains the abilities of Aim, Shield, Spear, and Shield. These start at a level of Adept (d6), although a player may increase an ability in a group to Master (d8) at the cost of reducing another ability in a group to Novice (d4). The player also has the option of increasing two of the abilities by one level, up to a maximum of Champion (d10). With experience they might even raise their ability to Legendary (d12). Thus a character has some measure of ability in any possible contest.

Finally the hero must choose a patron god, equip themselves with their preferred weapons and armour, and reveal their previous achievements (which should create a network of oaths binding the player heroes together). Oaths are important as they form a type of inter-player currency.

Mechanics: In a simple contest the heroes roll their Name and the appropriate ability against the difficulty of the challenge (which is generally a two dice roll). The highest roll wins the contest. If that is a player then they achieve the objective of the contest, and gain the glory for doing so. If that is the gamemaster, then the players have failed, and in doing so run the risk of temporarily reducing their ability and even possibly taking damage. Players that beat the gamemaster's roll, but don't make the highest roll, gain a small amount of glory for the assist. Heroes can increase the odds of their winning by working to ensure that they have some measure of advantage from previous challenges. For example the heroes could attempt to scout out the enemy's camp before sneaking in. This may grant them a bonus die to use in subsequent tests in the enemy's camp, including the one that may be the ultimate objective of the challenge.

There are also Battles. Normally used for portraying actual physical conflict, it can also be used for any form of extended challenge, and heroes always have the option of escalating a failed simple contest into a full blown challenge. In this case the heroes gain glory for the opponents that they actually defeat. Combatants can affect the battlefield by making positioning rolls (important because weapons are only usable at certain ranges). It is also interesting that a character must divide their available dice between their left hand (signifying defence), and their right hand (signifying offence). Weapons will provide the heroes with extra dice for these contests.

Not only can glory be used to increase abilities, it also serves as a measure of the heroes legendary status, which effectively doubles as the character's score in the game. This is important, because eventually the character's fate will catch up with them, and they will be forced to retire.

Thoughts: This game is really evocative in capturing the feel of the heroic struggle common to Greek myth. Whilst seemingly a very regimented game in how it handles the mechanics of quests, in actual play this is generally not the case, as players narrate what happens and seek to gain the best advantage for their heroes, both in terms of actual Advantage dice and channelling the challenge into their preferred ability, so it is their character that wins the challenge and gains the glory for doing so.

The idea that the heroes are actually competing amongst themselves for the greatest glory works very well and is very genre-appropriate. Do players cooperate, possibly giving the glory to another hero, or do they seek all the glory for themselves? The problem is that you will probably need the other heroes in order to complete the quests, and if you don't complete the quests the gods can get ever-so-slightly miffed, which tends to lead to a rather short and unhappy life.

The fact that the gamemaster has a limited budget (of Strife) to work with in designing the challenges is a very interesting aspect of the game. The gamemaster can spend Strife to buy monsters and opponents for the players to defeat, or to raise the difficulty of the various challenges that the heroes will face. This serves rather nicely to focus the game on the contest between the players, rather than the contest between the players and the gamemaster that is more common in other role-playing games.

The rules are very nicely produced, well laid out, and full of examples and random tables to make life much easier for the gamemaster. There is a lot of mechanical crunch in this game (more so than I've described above), but it is coupled with an overriding simplicity that makes it extremely playable.

To sum up:

"You're as good as dead, you sorry bastard. You may have put me out of commission, but this is the last day on earth for you. Flattened by my spear you will give glory to me and your life to Hades." – Odysseus, THE ILIAD.

Rating: Excellent.

reverancepavane: (Alchemy)

Title: A Dirty World
Author: Greg Stolze
Publisher: Schröedinger's Cat Press
Published: 2008
RRP: US$17/US$10 (book/pdf @IPR)

Description: A Dirty World is Greg Stolze's take on the film noir detective genre.

"The idea of this game is not to present a setting with the noir trappings, but rather to present rules that facilitate stories about betrayed trust, corroded virtue, easy evil and rare, difficult justice. In it, players enact the roles of people with something to hide and something to lose. They come into conflict with mysteries, outside forces, and often each other. Perhaps they reach a resolution you could call ‘right,’ if you squint from its good side. Perhaps the mystery never unravels and they have to walk off into the shadows unsatisfied. Perhaps when they reach the core it’s writhing with the most human kind of rot, and all they can do is turn away in despair."

Setting: None provided, with the explanation that noir is a difficult genre to pin down, and means different things to different people.

Character Generation: Characters are composed by a mixture of Identities (an essential element of who your character is) and Qualities (which are akin to the character's actual mood), which are measured in up to 5 "dots" on your character sheet. [And you will need to use a character sheet.] These are paired into opposed values, such as Purity and Corruption, with a small overlap. This means it is possible to be both a little bit Pure and a little bit Corrupt, but it is difficult for a very Pure character to be Corrupt. A character may also have Specialities which represent special expertise (such as Pilot). These don't add any game mechanically bonuses, they simply allow the character to do something beyond the reach of the average character (such as fly a plane). Finally there are the various Professions that the character can have (which create extra links for traits to slide along).

Mechanics: The base resolution system is the One Role Engine, but like most implementations of ORE it is highly customised. The dice available to a character making a test is equal to the sum of the appropriate Identity and Quality. So for example, making an illegal purchase is a test of Cunning Generosity, whilst playing a heart-breakingly sad song on the piano is a test of Persuasive Honesty. Every attempted action can be reduced to a combination of an Identity and a Quality.

The very interesting thing about the game system is that your Identities and Qualities are not fixed values. In certain circumstances they can increase, decrease, or slide (becoming the opposing value). So as the game continues your character shifts and changes in response to what is happening (and even to what the character is expected to do).

Conflicts, in particular, act against your opponents values, forcing them to change, and changing your character in the process. This often leads to a very tactical conflict as character's try different approaches, especially in response to changes to their character. For example, a character might use Persuasive Corruption to convince someone to sleep with them, while the target uses Understanding Purity to be oblivious to their approach. If the character succeeds the target will be forced to slide a point from Purity to Corruption, reducing their resistance to future attacks. But the opponent could then respond by using their just augmented Understanding Corruption to reveal the base and dastardly nature of approaching a married woman in this manner. Or she could walk out, and change the conflict from an emotional one to a physical one. Or even give in to the advance if she feels that she can't afford the attack against her Purity and Understanding.

Additionally characters often get the opportunity to consciously affect their various traits. For example, raising an Identity is normally hard work, but raising Selfishness is easily done by stealing something valuable from someone who trusted you.

This all leads to some interesting game mechanical effects that feed back into the story. For example, if you don't think that your traits are sufficient to take down the Big Boss, you can hassle his minions and lieutenants in an attempt to raise the appropriate traits so that you can eventually take him on. Your character also reflects what they actually do. If you start acting like a thug your abilities will change and you will find it difficult not to continue acting as a thug. Be suave, and you will find it difficult to reduce yourself to someone's crass level. And those oh so subtle little temptations that can powerfully augment your character, but at a considerable story cost... I really think that all these ideas capture the spirit of noir perfectly.

Thoughts: My first thought at getting the book was that it was rather small (70pg 6"x9"). But after reading it my opinion was it was in fact extremely concentrated. It's not necessarily a simple game to play, as it requires that the players truly understand the nature of the Identities and Qualities they have in order to make the best use of them, and cope with how they change. But that understanding grants a freedom in itself, as players try to decide how a high Patient Generosity can help them in this particular situation. But it comes naturally, the more you play.

The idea of a dynamic character without fixed capabilities works very well, although it may take some getting used to. Especially since losing a conflict can cause drastic changes to your character (it's far better to withdraw from a losing fight than continue to the bitter end). But it also means that you can work your character up by choosing the appropriate fights, until you are ready to deal with the situation.

My only complaint is that there are no generic NPC stats to make the gamemaster's life easier. Even some sample characters would have gone a long way to helping decide the appropriate initial Identities and Qualities that might be considered appropriate. It's easy enough to do, but it does require extra thinking time (which reduces the ability to suddenly improvise a professor that the characters turn to for help and who then gets caught up in the action, for example).

It would probably make an excellent set of cover rules for a LARP, however, where everyone has a pregenerated character.

Rating: Very Good (Plus). Increasing to being truly Excellent if more resources (ie sample NPC stats) were made available.

reverancepavane: (Omegahedron)

Title: The Fantasy Trip
(In The Labyrinth, Advanced Melee, Advanced Wizard)
Author: Steve Jackson
Publisher: Metagaming
SKU: MG3102 (In The Labyrinth), MG3103 (Advanced Melee), MG3103 (Advanced Wizard)
Published: 1980
RRP: [Out of Print]

Description: The Fantasy Trip is composed of three separate products released at the same time: In The Labyrith, Advanced Melee, and Advanced Wizard. As the "Advanced" part of the title indicates, they were expansions on the systems originally presented in the Metagaming microgames Melee (1977) and Wizard (1978), also by Steve Jackson.

Melee was a simple man-to-man combat system played on a hexgrid. Wizard added wizards and rules for magic to the game system. Both have been through a number of editions, both before and after the publication of The Fantasy Trip, with slight revisions to the rules in each edition. The Fantasy Trip was supposed to expand the boardgames into a full-fledged role-playing game, which is why the first book in the series was In The Labyrinth. Advanced Melee and Advanced Wizard expanded the combat and magic rules presented in Melee and Wizard respectively, and thus all the games should probably be considered as a single system.

However creative differences between Steve Jackson and Howard Thompson (the owner of Metagaming) over the project led to Steve Jackson leaving the company, and the eventual publication of a simplified version of the game (as The Dragons of Underearth). Metagaming collapsed, and whilst Steve Jackson offered to buy his game system back, the asking price was impossible. Steve went on to found Steve Jackson Games and produce GURPS as a substitute system (which is why the early GURPS rules had a great focus on the tactical battle aspects of role-playing than is apparent in later editions).

Setting: The Fantasy Trip is set on a generic sword-and-sorcery fantasy world called Cedri. The diversity of life-forms were explained by postulating an elder race, the Mnoren, who had constructed gates between worlds, and then subsequently mysteriously disappeared. Very little official support was given to this setting however. Metagaming continued to publish microquests for Melee and Wizard however, and a couple of these (Treasure of the Silver Dragon and Treasure of the Gold Unicorn) were set in a rather interesting world that, amongst other things, mixed dinosaurs and prehistoric mammals with Native American cultures (such as the Toltecs), and which had intriguing possibilities and potential. There is a very rich, and very underdeveloped, world setting here.

Character Generation: As befits something that was originally a microgame, character generation is extremely simple. There are three stats: Strength [ST] (which determines the size of weapons you can wield and thus the damage you do in combat, as well as being the amount of damage or fatigue from spell-casting you can take), Dexterity [DX] (which determines your ability to hit with both weapons and magic), and Intelligence [IQ] (which determines both the number and power of the spells and talents you can know). A human has a base score of 8 in each, and gets to add 8 points to the abilities of their choice. So a typical fighter would be ST 12, DX 12, IQ 8, equipped with a broadsword doing 2d6 damage, and possibly in leather armour, reducing his effective DX to 10. Most players didn't even bother with visiting the shopping lists to purchase equipment and simply equipped characters with the attribute-appropriate equipment.

Mechanics: The basic resolution system was simple. Roll a number of dice and attempt to get equal to or less than the appropriate attribute. For average tests this was 3D6. For increasingly difficult situations the number of dice went up. For example, an opponent could decide to "defend," in which case the difficulty to hit them went up to 4d6 (the opponent's actual skills being irrelevant in this situation).

That being said, it was very much a tactical combat system played on a hex map, and tactical manoeuvres often trumped the simplicity of the resolution system. For example, actions were resolved in descending DX order, so a high DX character could always strike first or even withdraw from combat, before the lower DX character gets to strike. Getting hit by that wizards spell was difficult if the wizard couldn't see you. And firing arrows past your friends was a quick way to get them annoyed at you (and having to explain why their only injuries are on their back...).

Thoughts: This was one of the most popular role-playing games* amongst my peer circle at the time (exceeded only by the various forms of D&D that were in play at the time, and possibly by my regular Runequest games). The reason was the utter simplicity of the game mechanics, combined with the tactical and strategic complexity of the actual play. For the first time you had a role-playing game where tactical decisions were the core of the game, rather than something added to the original game. The difference is something subtle and yet highly significant. No subsequent game has managed to capture the feel of this game, because either the tactical elements of combat are an add-on, or the actual system became overcomplicated with special rules and exceptions, and thus lost a vital immediacy of play.

Character creation was also so easy that it was trivial to create both player-characters (and opponents), leading to lots of dungeon crawl style play. After all, it didn't really matter if you lost your newbie character as it was easy to make a new one. [Although that definitely didn't stop people from trying to survive to become an experienced veteran, and a few heroes being carried back in pomp on their shields.]

The only real problem with the game was it's reliance on the hex map, which didn't necessarily mesh well with standard orthogonal architecture. Still, that was easy enough to compensate for.

And interestingly enough, the lessons learned in playing The Fantasy Trip often made combat in other role-playing games more enjoyable and much more realistic.

Rating: Excellent (as a tactical boardgame); Good (as a role-playing game).

Addenda: Whilst legal copies of this game are difficult to find nowadays, Dark City Games are publishing a simple pseudo-clone of the Melee/Wizard games called Legends of the Ancient World [pdf], as well as a number of microquests and adaptations of the basic system to other genres.

* Although it could equally be reasoned that it was a boardgame (albeit with intense identification with your game piece on the part of the player). As one who has leaned right in an effort to get his Warbird to make that turn in SFB just a bit faster, I feel the difference is really moot. <grin>

reverancepavane: (Default)

Title: Sufficiently Advanced
Author: Colin Fredricks
Publisher: Valent Games
Published: January 2008
RRP: US$1 (pdf @OBS)
[This book has now been released under a Creative Commons licence.]

Description: Sufficiently Advanced is a game exploring transhumanism and the conflict of of ideas and memes amongst the diaspora of augmented humanity. It is a world were nanotech replication and ubiquitous computing power has changed the very fabric of society, and were social science has finally become viable psychohistory where correctly choosing one's words can compel behaviour modification. Cultural groupings are no longer a matter of nation, but one of philosophy. And it is the intense competition between these competing memes that sets the tone of the game.

Setting: Superb. The book details fourteen of the major civilizations of the human diaspora, each of which has developed according to certain philosophies. There is The Eternal Masquerade, who use masks to completely change their personality. [And thus lead us on explorations of the idea of identity.] The Cognitive Union are all cyberslaves linked together by the slave mesh in their heads. [And never has the idea of slavery been presented so attractively as in here. And who are really the slaves?] Mechanica is a loose collective united by the fact that they have replaced their frail human bodies with powerful and unique cyborg bodies. [Is it our brains that make us human?] Meanwhile, The Disciples of the Void are still searching for the Godhood they have yet to find. [What is the role of belief?] The Tao of History are historical re-enactment societies gone completely mad. Whole settlements dedicated to recreating a specific period of time, not as it was, but as it should have been. [Where have I heard that before? Is it looking to the past that makes us what we are rather than our looking to the future?] The Illustrious Stardwelling Armada believes that space is our heritage and have adapted themselves for life in space (on spaceships, in the main, otherwise they might have a closer kinship with Mechanica). [Are planets really necessary any more?] The Association of Eternal Life replicate themselves at need (limited only by the available resources). [How can you tell a copy from the original? Is there a difference?] The Rationlist League believe emotion is holding back humanity, so they have done away with it. [Are they still human?] The Association of Stored Humans have retreated almost completely into computer simulations, although they can use remotes and ghost-ride on friends to experience the "real" world. [Are virtual worlds actually unreal? What is reality anyway?] Then you have Roamers (a gypsy culture), League of Associated Worlds (an alliance of independent worlds), Old Worlders (the root stock of humanity preserved on earth), Spacers (STL colony ships on journeys from the beginning of the diaspora). All of these are supported by specific game rules and wonderfully evocative prose. But that's not all there is. In addition to a number of alien races, one of which composed of strange matter, there are countless unique independent worlds, as well as whole civilizations that have turned inward rather than outward and take no part in galactic society. And speaking of societies, there are trans-civilization societies that support certain beliefs and agendas of their own.

And into this glorious melting pot of ideas we add The Patent Office, who, by treaty, sends Inspectors (the player characters usually) to investigate claims of violations of intellectual property laws. The fact that the controllers of The Patent Office are sentient Transcendantal Artificial Intelligences that are in contact with their future selves can make the life of a Patent Inspector rather bizarre at times.

Character Generation: The important decision is what civilization that a character hails from. This not only sets the limits on the character's possible capabilities, but provides the character with two Core Values that represent the character's beliefs. And you can set them to whatever level you like (from 1 to 10). A low value indicates you are unsure of your beliefs, whilst a high value indicates the your beliefs are the bedrock of your existence. Since much of the game boils down to a conflict of the various philosophies a low value can endanger your philosophy. But a high value indicates a certain lack of flexibility that may make it difficult to actually deal with those that don't share your beliefs.

The character's Capabilities (attributes) are actually based on the technologies available to the character's civilization. Thus, instead of strength we have Stringtech, instead of constitution we have Biotech, intelligence becomes Cognitech, charisma becomes Metatech, and perception and dexterity is often a matter of Nanotech. These are also rated from 1 to 10 (exponentially, with 2 being the average human and 3 being the very best unaugmented human ability possible). And whilst a Stringtech score of 10 might be rather impressive, and mean that you are capable of successfully prosecuting a war against an entire planetary population, it also means that you are probably a Mechanica cyborg in an Ogre [viz Steve Jackson Games] body equipped with fission-fusion beams and vortex sinks – not exactly subtle.

Characters also get to choose their Professions, which extends their capabilities in those areas.

However the most important aspect of the character is embodied in the various Twists and Themes, through which the character can manipulate the world, and defines how important your character is to the plot.

Mechanics: Most tests involve both a Capabilty and a Profession. Roll 1d10 for each, and multiply them by the result. The higher value is your test result. However both Capabilities and Professions also grant the character a Reserve. You can use points from the appropriate Reserve to reroll dice or add bonuses to the die roll. There are various methods of replacing Reserve (our Mechanica Ogre for example, might need to cuddle up to a nuclear power station for the night). Conflicts will also tend to reduce the character's Reserve.

There are lots of examples of different types of possible conflict, from the simple idea of hitting someone, to using memetic assualts, nanotech blooms, hacking their mesh (computer interface), political debate, biowarfare, political ad campaigns, open warfare, and even playing baseball (amongst other things).

To this you start adding the ideas of powerful Twists that you can use to directly affect the course of play, Story Triggers and Complications, and enabling Themes.

Thoughts: I thought this was an excellent game when I bought it at full price. Now it is only US$1. What are you waiting for? Go get it! Even if you have no intention of running an actual transhuman game, or one which examines the interplay of ideas and philosophies, it is an absolute mine of good ideas for a far future game. And to cap it all off, the prose that it used to provide examples of each of the major civilizations is wonderfully evocative, truly giving a sense of the nature of each of the civilizations.

The use of The Patent Office (and Transcendentals) is an interesting approach to allowing characters from different Civilizations to work together, although not one that is really needed. One could easily be a diplomats, and in fact I can see a live-action freeform of a diplomatic meeting between the Civilizations being fun to run (and play in, of course).

I find how the various civilizations are evolving their ideas and philosophies to be very interesting. They are not static, and there are shifts, both internally and externally, as they explore their philosophies more deeply. The growing axis between the Open and Closed Civilizations is an obvious rift for potential conflict. It is for this reason that I describe the game as transhuman rather than posthuman, as they have not left their ideas of what it is to be human behind. Although that is not to say that one of the Hidden Civilizations (those who have chosen to withdraw from galactic society), has not already made the transition.

For myself, I have found my true spiritual home in The Eternal Masquerade (although I also found The Cognitive Union write-up so enticing it made me seriously consider wanting to become a "slave").

Rating: Excellent (as a game). Plus (as a setting which explores the idea of what it is to be human).

reverancepavane: (tarrant)

Title: Runequest II
Author: Lawrence Whitaker & Pete Nash
Publisher: Mongoose Games
SKU: MGP8170
ISBN: 978-1-907218-15-6
Published: February 2010
RRP: US$40 (book @MGP)/US$28 (pdf @OBS)

Description: Runequest is a venerable old game that has been around for quite a few years and a number of different publishers. The original version, developed by Steve Perrin for play in Greg Stafford's world of Glorantha, was published by Chaosium in 1978, where it, and it's supplements, set benchmarks in quality that are still rarely met today. The game system, formally renamed Basic Role-Playing, formed the basis of a number of popular licences such as Stormbringer/Elric, Hawkmoon, Ringworld, Elfquest, and, most importantly, Call of Cthulhu.

It was later licensed to Avalon Hill, where it was supposed to be the flagship of the boardgame giant's new roleplaying game franchises (which included Powers & Perils and Lords of Creation). Unfortunately a decision to remove Glorantha from the game setting, and really terrible production values, made the title languish heavily. [Although Games Workshop, who was licensed to print their own version, did go on to enhance the franchise in the UK, at least until they decided to only support their own games.]

Business problems with Chaosium then created an interesting dynamic. Greg got the rights to Runequest and his world of Glorantha, whilst Chaosium kept the rights to Basic Role-Playing. Gloranthan development continued essentially in a different system (Hero Wars, later renamed Heroquest in honour of the Runequest expansion that never was ("coming in 1983!"). Greg (through his company Issaries), then licensed Runequest to Mongoose Games. Mongoose wanted to use it as the basis for their own house system of fantasy role-playing games, in addition to using it for Glorantha and a number of the old Chaosium licences thay had also acquired. Which definitely led to an interesting dilemma that they wanted produce "a generic system" where the actual ownership of the game system they were using was vested in another company (Chaosium, who had just produced the 4th edition of Basic Role-Playing). This may account for the slightly schizoid nature of the original Mongoose edition; it had to retain enough Gloranthan content to be Runequest but it also had to be open enough to be used in other products that had nothing to do with Glorantha.

Meanwhile, development of Glorantha continued apace at conventions and online, eventually resulting in the production of Heroquest II (which was actually supposed to be a generic system), and more importantly Sartar: Kingdom of Heroes which adapted the HQ2 system to the best-known piece of Sartar.

Runequest II is Mongoose's attempt to reconcile their game with the current theory of Glorantha, and incidentally, clean up all the mess they made of the first edition.

Setting: Runequest II is still written from the viewpoint of it being a generic system, although it does embody considerable Gloranthan sensibilities in it's portrayal of the magic system. The approach to cults (an important element of Runequest) has been redone, also generically, but also by presenting a tool set where it is comparatively easy to construct cults to your requirements, in or out of Glorantha. [One of the problems of the Mongoose 1st edition (MRQ I) was that it exported Gloranthic things such as "cults" and "rune magic" to non-Gloranthan worlds, such as Llankmar, Elric, and Hawkmoon, probably as a necessity to continue claiming it was actually RQ and not BRP.]

Character Generation: Essentially Basic-Roleplaying. Random characteristics, with percentage-based skills whose initial value is determined by the characteristics, and to which previous experience is added. One important change is that characteristics aren't tested directly. Instead there are various skills that serve as characteristic tests.

Mechanics: Definitely cleaned up from MRQ1. Opposed tests now use the higher quality of success wins (which means you want to roll low), or, if the same quality of success ensues, the higher roll wins (which means you want to roll high). This cures the old "hit!/parried!" problem of original RQ, but at the potential of making the game more deadly. If you or your opponent have skills over 100% then the amount the highest skill is over 100% is subtracted from all skills, which is a better mathematical approach than the previous "divide by 2" method.

The idea of actually needing to find physical runes and align with them (ala Swordbearer) in order to cast basic magic has been dropped. Instead the idea of runes can be readily seperated from the magic system. Runes may still be invested, but this is much more in the nature of a heroic ability than a default approach. This allows the magic system to drop all Gloranthan references with ease, and yet still allows the game to officially not be Basic Role-Playing.

The system proposed by Lawrence in MRQ1's Cults, Guilds & Factions (derived from the MRQ1 version of Elric) is now the default standard, and looks quite workable, especially in relation to Divine Magic (traditionally sourced through the cults).

The system remains, as was the original, intensely simulationist.

Thoughts: One has been a Runequest devotee since early 1979, when I first saw a set of rules with a lizard gnawing on the shield of a female greek hopalite. It was really several generations (depending on how one measures such things), ahead of the curve. For example it had a single simple resolution system that was used for everything, rather than the customary hodge-podge. It treated NPCs the same way as PCs, essentially allowing players to play "monsters," and even more importantly, encouraging the treatment of "monsters" as beings in their own right and with their own motivations. One enjoyed the world of Glorantha as well, although my campaign rapidly diverged from the official one, so much so that in it's latest incarnation names have been changed to encourage people that they aren't really in Glorantha anymore. Runequest always had problems with high skill levels, and this version seems to have hit a workable approach to the problem.

The production values on this edition are very good, and even better, they've managed to keep a consistent approach to the standard Gloranthan ideology. Some of the earlier MRQ1 expansions, such as Legends, weren't really suited to being part of the game's core identity (and more reminiscent of Mongoose's old D&D supplements), and had all the signs of being hurried into production in order to support the line. [Then again, I believe that Mongoose, like Avalon Hill before them, have effectively only licensed the name; only specific Gloranthan product is actually vetted.] Even better they are attempting to maintain fairly close compatibility with the Heroquest II development of Glorantha, albeit as a simulationist rather than narrativist game.

Unfortunately it is their second attempt, and the idea of investing again in a product line I'm not really going to use* is less than attractive (the next few planned books are essentially reprints with a couple of additional new things). I just wish that they had gotten it right the first time (considering they had an extensive history of different solutions to various problems to draw upon). Still, for people wanting to take up this game for the first time, I do actually recommend this version. It's very well done, much more approachable than Heroquest II (and without the vehemently fanatical supporters of that game that you will find online), and I hope they can keep up the quality an attract new people to the wonderful shared world that is the modern Glorantha.

Additionally there are a number of third party developers of Runequest II product, such as Clockwork & Chivalry (alchemy and clockwork "steampunk") in the English Civil war, and Deus Vult (a crusade era historical game). In this regard they've managed to create something on par with Chaosium's 4th edition of Basic Roleplaying, albeit one that is not as customizable (which is probably an advantage for an inexperienced gamemster).

Rating: Very Good. Much better than their first attempt anyway.

* I really didn't like Hero Wars when it first came out (it wasn't helped by the fact it made old White Wolf products masterpieces of copy-editing), and had picked up a game called Ironclaw. Unfortunately my regular players are rabidly anti-furry and so playing an anthropomorphic game was out of the question. However I liked the Ironclaw system and wanted to use it, so the obvious solution was to translate my old Dragon Isles (nee Glorantha/Dragon Pass) game into this system. And so was born my Runeclaw game which has been working extremely well ever since. [And it was interesting to watch the ideas behind Glorantha shift to the stuff I had adopted in this new game, so it still retains close compatiblity with the new Gloranthan ideology.]

reverancepavane: (Zim)

Title: 3:16 Carnage Amongst The Stars
Author: Greg Hutton
Publisher: Box Ninja Games
SKU: BOX0316
ISBN: 978-0-9959945-0-0
Published: July 2008
RRP: US$20/US$10 (book/pdf) [@IPR]

Description: You are members of the 16th Brigade of the 3rd Army of the Terran Expeditionary Forces, whose mission is to venture into the galactic wilds and ensure that no alien species ever can become a threat to Earth. It's a classic space marine bug hunt. (or teleporting vampiric teddy bear hunt). And it's a one way mission, because you are never going to see Earth again. Not if your officers have any say in the matter.

Setting: It's a classic war movie with science fiction tropes (and weaponry). [Although people have kitbashed it to fit other genres, including WWII.] Each planet (and the alien species thereon) is a separate scenario. There are lots of lovely tables in the gamemaster's section of the rules to determine the nature of the planet you encounter and the aliens that inhabit it. Sometimes the aliens are harmless and innocent of the fate that is about to descend on them; in other cases they are super-fast nightmares that eat Mandelbrite Armour for breakfast.

Character Generation: Characters have two abilities: Fighting Ability (FA) and Non-Fighting Ability (NFA). FA is your ability to directly harm an alien; NFA is your ability to do anything else, such as digging trenches, calling in air support, and even manoeuvring to open or close the range with the aliens. You have 10 points to divide between them. One of you is a Sergeant, another is a Corporal, and the rest of you are lowly Troopers. Draw you kit from the armoury and prepare to drop on a new planet. Every day is paradise in the Expeditionary Forces!

Mechanics: Decide what you are going to do, roll a d10, and attempt to roll as high as possible, but not over the appropriate ability. Successful actions are resolved in die roll order, so high rollers get to go first (and may even elect to abort the round of lower-rolling players).

Aliens on a mission are represented by Threat Tokens. Successfully "fighting an alien" removes a Threat Token, and contributes a random number of Kills to the character, the exact number depending on the type of weapon and range that it is used. Since awards and promotions are based on the number of kills to the character's credit, it's best to use a weapon that gives the most kills in that range bracket.

Aliens also have access to special abilities (that cost them Threat Tokens to use). just to make things interesting.

Players get a unique saving throw in the form of flashbacks that reveal the strengths and weaknesses of the characters. If a character gets in serious trouble they can narrate, in flashback, some sort of circumstance that allows them to escape the tricky situation. However a character only gets a limited number of these, so eventually the character's luck will run out.

Thoughts: This game is extremely simple and great fun as a break from more serious campaigns. There is something extremely relaxing about blowing away aliens, as any veteran of Doom will tell you. And while trying to cope with hordes of bloodthirsty aliens overwhelming your position may not be as relaxing, it is certainly is fun. The flashback mechanic is a great idea for capturing the spirit of the war movies on which this game is based, as it slowly turns idealistic young troopers into cynical hardbitten veterans. Plus as a bonus, you can finally make all those Aliens and Starship Troopers quotes you've been saving without everybody around the table grimacing in pain.

There is a pseudo-expansion, So Few, dealing with the dropship pilots, and in couple of months 316BC Carnage Amongst The Tribes will be released.

Rating: Excellent.

reverancepavane: (Delenn)

Title: Ganakagok
Author: Bill White
Publisher: Consensus Games
Published: December 2008 (final version)
RRP: US$15/US$10 (book/pdf) [@IPR]

Description: Ganakagok is the name of the great island of ice upon which a tribe of primitive, fur-clad hunters called the Nitu eke out a tenuous existence beneath a black sky ablaze with stars.

The Nitu live on a vast snowdrift-covered ice-pack that surrounds a gigantic central iceberg whose upper reaches have at some point in the past, far beyond living memory, been shaped into enormous towers and cascading stairs, intricate labyrinths and soaring spires. The Nitu say that it is the work of the Forgotten Ones, vanished beings of immense power and mysterious purpose whose relics are sometimes yet found out on the ice. But the glacial plains are haunted by dangers, such as monstrous creatures called the cannibal-ghouls, and they are fearsome and terrible.

But now the Stars begin to fade. And in the counsels of the wise, the visions of the far-sighted, and the mutterings of the mad comes a new refrain. Dawn is coming. Night is ending. Soon the Sun will rise.

Setting: The game uses a customized tarot deck to generate both characters and actual setting. These cards are interpreted by the players in order to generate the story of the coming Dawn. Each card has a name which sets the tone of the card, a mythopoetic meaning, and a numeric value and suit, each of which has it's seperate meaning. For example the Seven of Flames is ganake onarta (melting ice), which has the customary meaning of "to possess temporarily," but is also associated with the sun, rage and blood (suit of Flames), and evil, ill omens and bad judgement (the number 7). So there is plenty of latitude for creative interpretation of each card.

As players determine the initial situation facing the world and the people, the players draw a map of both the World (Ganakagok) and the People (Nitu), which graphically shows the various relationships. As the game progresses, during character generation and beyond, more relationships will be explored and more details will be added to this map, creating a visual representation of the world. Even the stars in the sky are added, for these mark the time until the Dawn as they are slowly disappear as characters take actions.

In addition, the cards are also used to determine the initial Good Medicine and Bad Medicine, which are the scores that will eventually determine the fates of the characters, the Nitu, and Ganakagok, when the Dawn eventually comes.

Character Generation: Once the character's initial situation has been determined, the character determines their actual abilities divides points into Body (physical prowess), Face (social prowess), Mind (intellectual prowess), and Soul (spiritual prowess), and takes three Gifts and three Burdens (which can enhance or inhibit a character in certain situations respectively). Finally the character's mana is divided between the Ancestors, the Forgotten Ones, the Sun and Stars. This is the character's basic capability in the game, used when dealing with situations in the village, on the ice, with one's hopes for the future, and with one's fear of the future respectively.

Mechanics: Players take turns to draw a card and interpret that card (in conjunction with the established situation), as a basis to determine what is happening to them. Eventually they will reach a crisis point in their narration, where their character faces a particular challenge. A new card is drawn to reflect this consequence. The character then rolls d6 equal to their appropriate mana and compares this to the relevant ability. Each die will be Good Medicine, Bad Medicine, a Gift, or a Burden. Each player, and the gamemaster, then has one or more opportunities to start altering the values of the dice (possibly changing their nature), by invoking gifts, burdens, and relationships. They will do this to optimise the result for themselves (not necessarily the active player). Once this has been done the winner of the contest (player or gamemaster), gets to narrate their interpretation of the consequence card, and the Good Medicine, Bad Medicine, Gifts, and Burdens are distributed appropriately.

The actual mechanics are more complicated of course, as the active player may draw on extra dice from a variety of sources, usually at a cost to themselves or others though for example a selfish action may not help the people as a whole). Players must be able to narrate how they are affecting the situation when they alter the dice. Burdens and Gifts can be used to create new things on the maps of the people and the land. But despite the seeming complexity (it's actually simpler than it sounds here), it is a very powerful system allowing everybody considerable creative control, as they balance their needs between winning the ability to actually interpret what happens, the amount of Good and Bad Medicine created, and even the number of stars that disappear from the sky (when all the stars are gone the game is over, and the effects of the accumulated Good and Bad Medicine determine what happens to everyone).

Thoughts: This is indeed mythopoetic roleplaying in it's finest form. You really do get the sense that you are creating the myths of the time before the first sunrise. In fact, the stories you eventually derive have many of the same sensibilities as the various Dreamtime myths, and it probably wouldn't be too hard to convert the game if one wished. However the stark imagery of the Ice and the Forgotten Ones and Cannibal-Ghouls has it's own stark beauty that I would be loathe to abandon.

The use of the tarot cards to guide narration is excellent, and whilst you can substitute a normal deck of playing cards, the visual imagery of the dedicated deck can only help players conceptualise the card. However I think that the true genius of this game is in drawing the maps that pictorially represent the relationships amongst the Nitu and the mythical lands of Ganakagok, especially if you decorate each "place" on the maps with delicate iconography (don't just map what happens, draw a little picture to represent it; here there may actually be ice dragons). This stimulates the part of the brain that is rooted in symbology and visual identification, enhancing the play experience from being one of simple storytelling. And when you finish the game, you will have created a map that tells the story of the myths you collectively created, which will be obvious to you who have been initiated into it's mysteries, but suitably esoteric and arcane to those who haven't lived it as you have. And that really does capture the hidden powers behind myth.

As far as game mechanics go, the requirements that each player wishing to affect one of the dice must personally relate how they themselves affect the outcome for the spotlighted character, even if it is done in flashback (as in, for example "Nimatuk remembers the time when Issu..."), means that the interaction mechanic is still firmly based "in character," strengthening the relationships (positive and negative) between the characters.

And if the nature of this game seems similar to that of Polaris (Tao Games), it is simply the fact that they are both products of the same Iron Game Chef competition (2004), which drew on the possible theme ingredients of Ice, Island, Dawn and Assault.

Rating: Excellent.

reverancepavane: (tarrant)

Title: Swordbearer
Author: Dennis Sustare
Publisher: Heritage USA (1st ed)
Fantasy Games Unlimited (2nd ed)
Published: 1982 (1st ed) 1985 (2nd ed)
RRP: US$18/US$10 (FGU boxed set/ FGU pdf)


Description: Swordbearer was a role-playing game by Dennis Sustare (with Arnold Hendrick), who is perhaps best known as the author of that infamous rpg, Bunnies & Burrows. Initially released by Heritage USA, a company that was perhaps more famous for the miniatures that it produced than it's boardgames or rpgs, and it was later re-released by FGU. The content of the FGU edition is essentially the same as the Heritage edition, the main difference (apart from numerous typos and at least one missing lines) being it was produced in two US letter books, rather than three 7x8" books. Illustrations are by Dennis Loubet (who later went on to produce the Carboard Heroes line for Steve Jackson Games), and David Helber.

Setting: Swordbearer is set in a generic fantasy world. It does include a number of unique creatures, such as the Bunrabs (in presumed homage to B&B) and Moonspiders (giant intelligent spiders). There are two distinct magical systems, one based on the eight Elements (Light/Dark, Fire, Metal, Crystal, Water, Wood, & Wind), and the other based on the four Humours (Choleric, Phlegmatic, Sanguine, & Melancholic). In both cases magicians need to seek out a "node" containing the essence of the magic that they seek and bind it to them. Elemental nodes are found in pristine places associated with the element. Spirit nodes are found in the body parts of living intelligent creatures.

Character Generation: Rolled attributes and skills. Dice rolled vary by characteristic and race (technically any intelligent race can be played, even dragons), and generally follow a 2d10 distribution for humans. Skills are either rated (percentile based) or yes/no. Percentage skills have both minimum and maximum values, either predefined or set by characteristics). Beginning characters spend experience to add dice rolls to specific skills.

Skills are gathered into eight Spheres of activity (Fighting, Stealth, Town, Country, Magic, Leadership, Knowledge, & Arts/Crafts). A character may specialise in one or two Spheres, and initial experience grants larger dice rolls in these skills.

A character's Social Status determines their wealth, general standard of living, and the equipment they can have access to. A character is limited to only having ten items of equipment whilst adventuring, although these "items" may be retainers who look after equipment for the character.

Interesting Mechanics: There is no money. A character's Social Status determines the resources available to them. Minor purchases of items beneath the character's Social Status are readily obtained. Major purchases (items near the character's Social Status) can be obtained after a number of days of haggling and trading). Expensive purchases (over the character's Social Status) can be obtained only at the risk of the character going into debt (which reduces the character's Social Status). Characters may risk a level of Social Status in ventures of note (such as a wealthy merchant's caravan trading with a far city), with success gaining the character a level of social status and failure dropping a level. Treasure was also measured in the equivalent Social Status, so that a treasure that might allow a peddler to buy a shop and become a shopkeeper would only be incidental pocket change to the local baron.

Elemental Magic requires the magician to locate and capture an elemental node in an appropriate container. The magician then aligns this node with a specific spell allowing it to either be actively cast (with the risk that the node will become exhausted and useless), or passively enchanted into the object (with a reduced risk that the the node becomes exhausted, but at the cost of permanently alienating the node). The more nodes already possessed by the character the easier it is to align a node, and the more powerful a node (and spell) may be aligned.

Spirit Magic is similar except it makes use of the spirit nodes found in living creatures. These must be harvested from dying creatures (usually in the original container, such as the heart for humans), and are associated with a random spirit magic spell. It can be actively cast or, more importantly, bound into the spirit of the magician, allowing them to automatically wield rather powerful magics, or be transformed thereby.

Combat was detailed (1/6th of the rules) and dangerous. If you didn't wear armour it was easy to permanently crippled or even instantly killed. Each weapon was associated with two skills, Weapon Speed and Weapon Use. Weapon Speed was important because it allowed you to strike first (and if using a shield, automatically block an incoming attack). Of course, you still needed to hit with your super-fast attack (and a shield could only cope with so much damage before it splintered).

Craft skills made use of two categories of tools: the portable toolkit and the shop. Essential the portable toolkit allowed the craftsman to make repairs, whilst the shop allowed the character to actually make things. In some cases the shop also included access to the appropriate resources as well. For example, the portable tool kit for the scribe skill was a calligraphy set and parchment, whilst the shop was a facility for making paper and ink for refilling the portable tool kit.

Thoughts: I really liked these rules when I picked up the Heritage edition back in 1983, and you can tell by how well "loved" the booklets are. Which is why I also picked up the FGU version recently. The Social Status system, in particular, was an excellent mechanism for changing the nature of the game. It didn't just remove accounting from the game, it changed the way the players viewed their role in the community. After all, if you didn't actually invest your treasure in something it would slowly fritter away. I'm always thinking back to how this system worked, when constructing wealth systems in my current games. Even the ten item limit worked well in practice, no matter how ridiculous it may seem when simply reading it ("Only ten items! No way!").

The skill system works well, and is perhaps a bit more cohesive than similar systems (such as Basic Role-Playing with which it shares many similarities). Categorising the skills by sphere of activity works really well too.* The magic system was perhaps overly complex, but certainly captured a unique feel. It took effort to find, identify, capture and align a node, before it could even be used (although characters specialising in Magic would start with some aligned nodes). Many of the ideas in the spirit magic section found their way into my ED&D game, particularly when dealing with necromancy.

The only real problem is that these rules retain both the complexity and randomness of games of their era, which will tend to put off the New School gamer who likes their characters to be balanced and better than the common herd.

Rating: Excellent. Albeit rather dated by now.

* One idea I had was to replace the rather standard eight characteristics (Strength, Dexterity, et al) in Dragon Age with these spheres. I probably won't, but I definitely thought about it.

reverancepavane: (Default)

Title: Spectromancer: League of Heroes
Author: Alexey Stankevich (and others).
Publisher: Three Donkeys
Released: March 2010


Description:Spectromancer is a computer duelling game between two wizards that has been around (in various forms) for several years. Duellists take turns summoning creatures or casting spells in an attempt to reduce their opponent to zero life. Very similar to Magic the Gathering, except mana is generated automatically, and there is a room for a maximum of six creatures on the battlefield at once (and how they are placed on the battlefield will affect game play). Spectromancer: League of Heroes is the first expansion.

Setting: There is a campaign included in the game which probably counts as a setting, and explains why each wizard has only a single specialty, but ends up allowing the wizard to become the titular spectromancer and wield all the magics. There are cards and settings not available in the straight duel (which shows the basic engine should be customizable). However the game is primarily a dueling game, either against the AI (which is rather good at Archmage level), or against another player (there is an online "arena" for duellists).

Character Generation: Players choose one of a number of wizardly specialists: Cleric, Necromancer, Mechanician, Dominater (aka Control Freak), Chaosmaster, Illusionist, Demonologist,* Beastmaster,* and Sorceror.* Or they can enter a duel as a random character. Each wizard knows a random four spells (out of eight or so) associated with the four elements (Fire, Water, Air, and Earth), and their specialty. Each spell has a different mana cost. The randomness of the spell lists makes the game play more interesting.

In the campaign game you learn new spells from the opponents you defeat, but your actual spell list is still generated randomly from your known spells.

[* These are introduced in the expansion.]

Mechanics: Each turn the player's mana pool in each catagoury that increases by one each turn. They and their opponent take turns either placing a creature in the battlefield, casting a spell, or occasionally sitting back and watching your army tromp your opponent into the dust (or desperately waiting for enough mana to do something about the creatures assualting you). Like Magic the Gathering, the summoned creatures may have abilities that affect the game and may not attack on the turn they are summoned.

Thoughts: The idea of duelling wizards is a popular one,* and this game scratches the itch quite well. It's a lot quicker and simpler than the Magic card game, and I tend to use it a lot to clear my head after doing serious work. After all there is something so innately satisfying watching your legions advance on your enemy's citadel (not that you actually get to watch this; I'm reviewing this as an RPG, so use your imagination), or watching the devastation as you release arcane magics against the enemy. <bwah hah hah ha ha ha ha ha>

That being said, they made the classic mistake with the expansion of uprating the power of the spells for the new specialty classes. This tends to be a natural mistake to make when designing expansions to games, especially computer games, because you become so used to people playing the old classes in an optimal manner that you create opponents that can face them, forgetting in turn that these new cards can then be played in an optimum manner. Rather disappointing in this regard.

They've also changed a lot of the original creatures attack and hit point values. Where before the numbers were rather finely balanced, and definitely showed the influence of a mathematician (aka Richard Garfield) in their selection, it appears that these changes were essentially generated by forum comments, and all sense of the subtlety and balance in the original mix has been lost. And then there is the basilisk, a new creature with this expansion, which is probably the ultimate creature in the game, which totally perverts the play balance of the original game with it's special ability.

The other thing is the game system is locked, with no potential for modding or creating your own campaigns, and this irritates the gamemaster/world-builder in me. I really do wish they would open their game engine so that people can create their own campaigns with exotic cards and challenges that could then be swapped.

Rating: Very Good in it's original form, dropping to merely Good with the addition of the expansion (the power-gamer in me likes the new creatures and spells; the rest of me feels they are very unbalanced, especially when used against me).

* One of my favourite old boardgames (City of Sorcerors) [so good someone actually stole my copy!] was based on this premise. Except first you spent 3 years at the University trying to learn the spells and forge the magic items you would need, and then you would hide your tower in a random terrain arena and summon creatures to search and kill your opponents. I miss that game. The best fun wasn't the arena, but scrambling around the school trying to learn stuff and forge runeswords in metalwork.

I've used the graduating mage idea in a AD&D tournament before. The idea was to see how a party consisting of 5 specialist mages with restricted spell lists would work together (both in and out of game context). I must say that all the players (about 120 or so) were quite courteous about it and cooperated well. Lots of actual role-playing was involved, and the mages generally attempted to solve the problems set before them (social, combative and otherwise). [Most of my tournament games are rather antithetical to the standard idea that combat is central to D&D, in that if you think about what you are doing, and use your abilities creatively, you can succeed without the need to engage in overmuch of it. It's a character flaw, but it also means I definitely won't be writing any 4E tournaments for local gamers!]

Still, it might be fun to run a magical university game, except for the fact that a certain icon with glasses and a scar has entered the collective cultural zeitgeist, and combating that inertia probably isn't worth it. <sigh>

reverancepavane: (semaphore)

Title: Fiasco
Author: Jason Morningstar
Publisher: Bully Pulpit Games
ISBN: 978-1-934859-39-1
Published: December 2009
RRP: US$20/US$10 (Book/PDF @ IPR)


Description:Fiasco is inspired by the cinematic tales of small-time capers that go incredibly wrong. Films such as Fargo, Blood Simple, Burn After Reading, and The Way of the Gun. You play ordinary people with powerful ambition and poor impulse control. Things won't go well for them, as their dreams collapse in a glorious heap of jealousies, murder, and recrimination. Lives and reputations will be lost, and if you are lucky, you might just survive to end up back where you started. [Paraphrased from introduction.]

Setting: Fiasco has no implicit setting of it's own, although the choice of setting is an important part of setting the context of a game. It provides a number of fully realized settings, called playsets, that are suitable scenes for a fiasco: Main Street (a "Nice Southern Town"), Boomtown (Wild West), Tales From Suburbia, and The Ice (Antarctic Research Station). Generating additional playsets wouldn't be that hard, and may in fact be a fun pregame activity in and of itself.

Character Generation: Fiasco is a storytelling game. There is no explicit character generation – rather the character (or lack thereof) of the participants is revealed during play.

Mechanics: Uses a shared pool of black and white d6 (4 per player) as the currency of the game. These are initially rolled to determine the possible relationships in the game during the Set-Up phase. Players take turns to choose dice out of the pool, consulting the relevant setting Playset to determine what it actually represents. Once all dice have been chosen all characters will have some sort of Relationship (eg: "Friendship/Bitter Enemies") with the character of the adjacent player, and each Relationship will be complicated by some sort of Need, Object, or Location (eg: Object/Transportation/Ice Cream Truck). The dice are then returned to the central pool.

The players now take turns to spotlight their character in a scene. At some point an outcome, either positive or negative, is determined, either by the other players (if the active player established the scene) or by the active player (if the other players established the scene). The outcome is signified by taking a dice from the pool (either white or black) and awarding it to the player. Depending on the stage of the game, the dice is either kept or handed off to another player. For example, a scene might focus in flash-back on how two long-time friends decided to invest in an icecream truck, only to have the business fail, and each now bitterly blames the other for the failure. Now this is probably not a positive outcome so a black dice is awarded. In the First Act the player would probably give the black dice to his "friend," in the Second Act he would get to keep it himself.

Once all dice have been handed out the game has almost ended. All that is left is for players to roll the accumulated dice they have earned to determine the eventual fate of their characters. Having a mixture of dice is bad, since the white dice total reduces the black dice total, and vice versa, and to get away with a non-tragic ending usually takes a very high roll. This is supposed to be a fiasco after all.

Thoughts: Fiasco looks like it will be an excellent game to play. It is the sort of game that is an ideal pick-up game at a gaming con, and should fit easily into a single gaming slot. The rules are very easy to pick up. However it does require the players to get into the spirit of the genre to be truly successful; a player unwilling to actively embrass failure might affect the play dynamic, although I do think it will handle it. I do however think it is an excellent introduction to storytelling games for the gamer that hasn't previous come across this concept. Especially given that if the player is running on empty when it gets to their turn, they can always ask someone else to set their scene for them.

Rating: Excellent.


reverancepavane: (Default)
Ian Borchardt

October 2012

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