Category Archives: OtherGames

Dragon Age II, Second Shot

OK, Dragon Age 2 (not to be confused with the Dragon Age RPG 2nd Box set, which is not available for pre-order from green Ronin and, which, from what I’ve read so far, is pretty awesome) . As promised, I finished a second playthrough, trying a different approach and, also as promised, I want to drill into the experience a little.

First, the non-spoiler version. My initial playthrough was as a rogue, my second as a mage. The overall experience of the second playthrough was very satisfying, and a number of things unfolded differently based on my choices and behaviors. However, a number of essential things, especially the big events which I’d hoped to change, did not change substantially. This was a disappointment, but it was offset by the other ways in which the game rewarded a different approach. If you are interested in doing a second playthrough, I endorse three things:

  1. If you played a non-mage, play a mage and vice versa. The delta from rogue to fighter is not as interesting as it is between mage and non-mage..
  2. Do not be afraid that you must make the “right” choice. The game rewards real decisions over caution.
  3. Don’t buy anything but backpacks, gifts and recipes (and re-check all the merchants at the start of each chapter)

Ok, on to spoilers. If you’ve finished the game once, then there may be mild spoilers about branches you didn’t take (though I’ll try to keep them to a minimum) but if you haven’t finished the game, then there will _definitely_ be some spoilers. So, if need be, look away.
The biggest motivation for me in the second playthrough is that the game did a FANTASTIC job of making me feel responsible for Anders’ actions. In my first playthrough, I helped him out, even though I knew it was suspicious, so when it went down, I felt like I had allowed it to happen, and that in doing so I had bollixed any chance of sorting this matter out peacefully.

Turns out, not so much. Even if you don’t help, he does it anyway. This was, honestly, pretty upsetting to me. Similarly, it turns out that your mother’s going to die no matter what. You can kill Dupuis if you want (I didn’t the first time and felt like I’d been suckered, but it turns out killing him the second time doesn’t help at all). Also, Trask’s conspiracy goes to hell, whether it’s Orsino or Meredith who sends you after them, so that’s pretty much hosed too.

These things should annoy me more than they do. These were the big things I was coming back to try to tackle another way, and it turns out they’re pretty much nailed to the rails. But to my (pleasant) surprise, they get balanced out, often in small things.

For example, I was surprised when a different sibling lived. If you play a mage, Carver lives and Bethany dies, while it’s the reverse for fighters and rogues. That alone added a surprising amount of depth to the replay, since it introduced an extra element of character interaction into a game that already excels at that. It also introduces branches in terms of _how_ you lose your sibling (because the fact that you will is on rails). If you take them into the dark roads, they’ll die, unless you bring Anders, who will make them a grey warden. If you don’t take them, they go to the circle and the templars respectively. Either way, you lose your sibling, but it introduces enough variety that I was intrigued.

Also, Carver is a jackass. Bethany is definitely the good twin.

One other unexpected bonus of a replay was that it changes your default party configuration. When I played a rogue, It was usually me, Aveline, Anders and Merril (since I liked the double dose of area attack). As a mage, I needed a rogue in the group, and brought my own firepower, so I went with Aveline, Fenris and either Varic or Isabella. Obviously, this changed from time to time, but with a different default, I ended up hearing different conversations than I had previously, since many of them require previous conversations. Specifically, I ended up liking Fenris _much_ more on this playthrough, and I got some Aveline/Isabella conversations which absolutely knocked my socks off which I’d not heard the first time through.

With all of this, it turns out that different choices were only a part of the difference in this playthrough. Honestly, for the first two chapters, the differences were interesting, but very few of them stick in my head. This annoyed me some because on the second playthrough I did one thing I really hated – I brought the Magister’s son back alive – in hopes of turning it into political support in chapter 3. No such luck, and as far as I could tell, nothing further came of it.

I did, I admit, play through the Feynriel dream sequence several times to see what motivated different characters to betray me in different ways (for the record, Isabella’s was the most awesome, though Merril and Aveline both were good). Pro-tip – if you’re playing a mage, don’t bring Fenris. He kind of killed the entire group in about 3 attacks. Not so good.

The final chapter is where the rubber meets the road, and you either back the mages or the templars. In my first playthrough, I tried to walk the middle road and act as a peacekeeper, and that is what Ander’s blew to hell. The second time I picked a side, the Templars, and it proved interesting. I got a reward for it (armor I couldn’t use) and some different missions than I had previously engaged in, and that was also interesting since they offered some insight into the Templars. I presume it’s something similar for the mages, but that’s the one path I haven’t tried yet.

One thing I will say about the second playthrough is that it expanded my perspective on events, which is perhaps why I’m not so upset about things unfolding as they did. If you support the Templars, you get an opportunity to see how badly Meredith is _trying_ to make things work and failing. Every new thing you find out about what’s going on just makes everything that much more tragic. That’s no small accomplishment.

The expanded perspective also makes the endgame make more sense. On the first playthrough it’s understandable that Meredith snaps and goes batty because of the artifact, but Orsino’s actions seem to come out of left field. Turns out there’s more to it, though even that is interestingly mixed. As a mage, I backed the Templars because I had decided that Orsino was “O” (the unnamed correspondent with your Mother’s killer). The question is answered by the end, and just to add that extra twist of the knife, Orsino may have been worse than he pretended to be, but he was better than thought he was. Ouch.

I mention, more or less as an afterthought, that I handled romance differently this time, choosing Isabella rather than Merril. This was interesting, but it felt like a surprisingly small matter compared to all my other interactions. Not sure if that’s good or bad. On one hand, I didn’t feel any real lack, but that might just be because the rest of the game was so good, not necessarily because the romance was all it needed to be.

I’m not in a huge rush for my third playthrough, but it tempts. Bioware is good enough with the depth of these things that I’m curious what I still have not yet discovered. God knows they seem to have embraced map re-use as license to branch things aggressively, and I’m very happy with that tradeoff. In a big plot way, I’m still curious what happens If you back the mages, but more, I’m curious what happens if you manage to push the other characters into deep rivalry (something I never accomplish – I’m all friendship all the time. It’s a flaw). But at the same time, I worry that the answers may be terrible.

It’s unreasonable, but I _like_ these characters too much to abuse them so. Just to see what would happen at one point, I handed Isabella over to the Arishok rather than fight him. He takes her and leaves and even though it was just a test that I quickly erased, I felt _terrible_ for doing it.

On one hand, that’s kind of lame, but on the other…man, it’s kind of amazing too. So long as Bioware can keep me that invested, they’ll keep getting my money.

End of a Saga

Lately, I’ve been reading the Star Wars Saga RPG books, the square, d20 ones with a system that felt a little bit like a field test for 4e. These are, I have to say, really good books. I got on this kick because I discovered the line had gone out of print, and I wondered if there were any treasures I wanted to pull from it. I was most in curious about the “Galaxy of Intrigue” sourcebook because a book about an intrigue campaign is ambitious and right up my alley.

So, through gifting, used purchases and trading, I got may hands on a handful of the books and started going through them. By and large, they surprised me with how good they were. The rules are actually pretty good, surprisingly so. The layout was clean and stylish, the square format worked far better than I expected it to. The content was fascinating. Where the authors had leeway to talk about the setting and the game, it was this great balance between a love of the source material and a focus on actual games.

Sadly, there’s plenty of gamer detritus as well. It’s clear there was a standard format the books needed to adhere to, which meant that one way or another you could expect to spend a lot of pages on new races (most of whom were uninteresting) new droids, new ships and new gear. In many of the books, Galaxy of Intrigue in particular, I felt cheated of the good content by what I perceived as filler.

Now, the reality is that I’m sure that there were plenty of gamers who viewed things exactly opposite way, and who looked at each new book as a collection of crunchy bits first, with this unnecessary wrapper. Hell, for the completists, much of the information I found interesting was old hat to them. And that’s the sad reality of trying to manage Star Wars as a product – who is your audience and how do you serve them. Hardcore fans? Gearheads? Ignorant enthusiasts? In my mind, they struck this balance as well as it could be managed.

Now, I should note I played the hell out of the old West End Games Star Wars back in the day, starting from the first edition and reacting skeptically to improvements as they came along and cheerfully abusing loopholes. To this day, it’s one of my favorite RPGs of all time (such wonderful character creation!), and I’ve kind of historically flinched at the idea of playing it withs something crunchier, but man, I have to admit that I would play this Star Wars Saga version, and probably enjoy the heck out of it.

Now, there’s a bit of an apples and oranges comparison here. One of the great things about the new system is the expanded universe. Now, don’t get me wrong, I think that Star Wars canon has gotten so big and cumbersome that trying to absorb it all is a recipe for self-destruction. But there’s enough of it to allow for cherry picking, especially if you’re not too worried about violating canon as laid out in some out-of-print paperback. You can really just do a “good parts version” and really rock out.

This is especially true of the _history_ of the setting. I’m really indifferent to the fates of the kids of the heroes, but the fact that they did sourcebooks for Knights of the Old Republic and The Force Unleashed was awesome. A cynic might just point to it as grabbing onto some current (at the time) hotness, but the reality is that the video games were set up beautifully with the ability to play in the sandbox without stepping on the parts worn thin by overexposure. That translates fantastically to tabletop play.

Anyway, as I’ve noted, the books have gone out of print. Some of the rarer ones already go for stupid amounts on the used market, and for all that I think they were a fantastic handling of a very difficult-to-handle property, I’m spacing over the game’s grave, so to speak.

Rumor has it that someone else has picked up the license. I don’t know who they are, and I wish them all the luck in the world with it, but I don’t really know if I’m excited for it. SW Saga did the job really well, well enough that it’s going to be hard for the next comer to measure up.

Castle Ravenloft – The Game

Ok, so now that I’ve drooled over the contents of the Castle Ravenloft game, how does it actually play? Short answer is: pretty well.

Right off the bat, it passes one of my biggest tests: It plays fast. A given session takes about an hour to play. As an old guy with a kid, this is a big deal for me. It means weeknight games (sometimes even, *gasp*, multiple game) are a possibility. We’ve knocked out 4 games so far, both of them in pairs, something that was absolutely delightful.

At a high level, the game plays a lot like a 4e dungeon crawl, with the dungeon building out randomly and each tile equating roughly to an encounter. You play recognizable 4e characters at first level with powers represented as cards, with numeric values like AC streamlined but recognizable. Over the course of play you’ll encounter monsters, traps and random weirdness, all attempting to kill you while you attempt to achieve some objective based on the scenario you’re playing.

The scenario’s are the rub. Over and above the dozen or so in the box, there are more of them online – both official and fan created – and they provide the real variation in play. They also provide a lot of the challenge. Of the four scenarios we’ve played so far, three were cakewalks – straight tactical romps. The fourth very nearly wiped us, primarily because it added extra considerations that kept us from playing optimally.

That’s awesome. One problem I often have with cooperative games is that they can easily turn into puzzles to be solved. Yes, there might be some randomness that could hose you, but given the right kind of approach, a game like Pandemic can be solved more than played. Adding extra limitations, especially dynamic ones, really cuts into that and brings back the game. That said, I’m a little fearful of how the scenarios will hold up to repeated play. I know I don’t really want to duplicate one until I’ve tried them all, but given how fast games play, it’s going to be a problem eventually.

In the end, I can’t really speak to how well CR works as a pure boardgame, but as a streamlined D&Dish experience, it’s great. The random element introduces enough tough choices to keep things interesting, and some very clever mechanics really keep you on your toes. For example, the map is made up of tiles (which in turn are composed of squares). Player movement and adjacency are determined by squares, but pretty much everything else is measured in terms of the tiles. This leads to some fun exploits (fights on tile borders) but it also has a big behavioral impact.

See, the sequence of the game is pretty much 1) Player acts 2) Player reveals a new tile and monster 3) Bad things happen. This means that you pretty much get rushed by monsters ALL THE TIME, and you depend on the next player to deal with the monster you revealed. This means that if you want to be really efficient, you stay together, except there’s a catch. Most bad things happen to everyone on a tile, so if you group up to best fight monsters, you’re more vulnerable. This tradeoff means you need to stay on your toes, staying close enough together to cover each other yet not so close to all get caught in the fireball (This is also why events that move players around can really mess with you).

This revealed something surprising to me. There are several decks in the game, one for monsters, one for loot, one for events, then one for the dungeon tiles themselves. The Monster and loot ones work roughly as you’d expect, but the other two have interesting subtleties. First, while the monsters seem like the most obvious threat (especially in the case of villains – boss monsters of certain scenarios), it’s the event deck that really drives things. No one event really overwhelms things, but it will kill you by inches. It provides a constant drumbeat of menace that really sets the tone of the game.

The dungeon tiles are something I didn’t put much weight on at first. They’re pretty and clever in their interlocking, creating lovely dungeons, but at first they seem like a timer. You have an objective tile somewhere in the deck, usually 9-12 cards down, and all you need to do is churn through the tile deck to get there, right? So I thought, until that one game that went badly – the shape of the dungeon in that one ended up having a big impact of play, forcing us into tactical decisions at times and at other time giving us advantages we could leverage against the bad guys. It was, in part, a function of the scenario, but it revealed possibilities to me that I will keep my eyes open for.

Like most such games, things are nominally equally difficult dependent on the number of players because the rate of opposition action is tied to player action, but I suspect more players makes life a bit easier. More synergies, better ability to cover one another as well as other advantages. It’s not a huge thing, but it seems noticeable. Time will tell.

Anyway, in case it’s not obvious, I enjoy the game a lot, and I totally feel I got my money’s worth out of it. It’s not flawless, but most of my complaints are minor, fixable thing (difficulty to distinguish minis, slightly flimsy cards, a serious need for an official FAQ and a good example of play), with no obvious dealbreakers, except possibly replayability. We shall see.

So, go play it. But when you do, make sure to read the cards carefully. It’s really important to be aware of what is or isn’t an attack as well as what phase things happen in. This is an area where your 4e assumptions may hurt you, so take the extra minute to actually read, not just assume it’s what you expect. We made a few mistakes like this, and each one of them hurt us.

Castle Ravenloft: The Product

After hearing numerous good things, I finally got my hands on a copy of the Ravenloft board game in the wake of the holidays. It is, first and foremost. a very big box. It’s the usual square 11×11 box, but it’s about half again as deep as the ones I’m used to. And it needs to be. The box is absolutely packed to the gills with fun stuff.

To back this up a little, I have always been huge fan of adventure boardgames, the ones with just enough RPG trappings that play is all about fighting monsters, gaining treasure and such. A mostly blame Talisman for this – I cannot even begin to estimate how many hours of that game I played in my youth. It’s not a great game – arguably it’s not even a very good game – but it planted a seed. An *expectation* that boardgames might be able to deliver this kind of fun.

Better games eventually came down the pipe, especially the fantastic Buffy the Vampire Slayer board game and the classic Space Hulk. Some were great but just more work than I was ever willing to engage (Arkham Horror is the poster child for this). I missed a few – I never got to play the D&D board game that came out in the 3e era – and found some winners in strange places – the cardgame The Testimony of Jacob Hollow is a favorite. Most recently I’ve been impressed with the games from Flying Frog, creators of Last Night on Earth and A Touch of Evil.

Ravenloft lands solidly in this space, providing an interesting contrast with the Gamma World boxed set, which was released at nearly the same time. Where GW streamlines 4e play to the point of being pickup-play friendly, Castle Ravenloft streamlines 4e right out of the realm of RPGs and into boardgames, keeping just enough to keep it recognizable. Some might feel this is no great feat, considering that 4e is full of board game influences, but it’s trickier than it looks. Knowing what to get rid of is always harder than knowing what to add.

Someone, Chris Hanrahan maybe, suggested that CR might be a better introduction to 4e than the red box, and the the truth of that becomes apparent as soon as you crack open the box. The minis are 4e minis. The map tiles beg to be used in a 4e adventure. Many of the tokens, even some of the cards, suggest easy repurposing. For all that WOTC may seem to be erratic in their search for a strategy for their games, they’ve really managed to get their hands around the idea of usefully synergistic content. Like Gamma World, Castle Ravenloft suggests fruitful ideas for 4e play (and 4e in turn makes the CR experience richer).

All this from just opening the box? Well, yes. It’s interesting to me as a product as well as a game. But since most of you are curious to play the game, not the product, I’ll get into my play experience a bit tomorrow.

But the Crack Came Back…

So, Cataclysm dropped yesterday. For those unaware, this is the latest expansion for World of Warcraft, and it has successfully drawn me back in. I lost interest a little while after the last expansion (Wrath of the Lich King) and turned my account off for a while, but I turned it back on just before Thanksgiving in anticipation of Cataclysm.

In fairness, most of what I wanted out of the game came in the pre-release patch they issued in November that updated the world and introduced everything but the new content (The ability to level up to 85, opening new zones and so on). That may not seem like much, but it was actually quite huge. Basically, they rewrote the whole setting from the ground up.

In game, they have effectively moved the clock forward. How much is a bit of a question, as I have so far seen indications of it being anything from five to twelve years, but the net result is that the world has changed in ways that are _intensely_ satisfying to someone who paid attention to the lore. Important NPCs have died, boundaries have shifted, and as a result of the eponymous cataclysm, geography has been drastically altered in places.

At the same time, Blizzard has taken the opportunity to fix…well…everything. Virtually every zone has been scrubbed and rebuilt according to the lessons they’ve learned from running the game for six years. They’ve made travel easier, clustered quests more intelligently and removed a lot of the busywork of play without removing all of it. That last is perhaps the most brilliant of them – some busywork is necessary to help maintain the addictive nature of play, but striking just the right balance with it is essential. As an example, I will point to mining.

In play, there are little nodes of metal deposits scattered throughout the world. If your character is a miner, you can click on one of these and, after a few seconds of animation, you’ll get some metal. Originally, you did this once, got one piece of metal, and the node disappeared. The result was that metal was fairly scarce, and at some point Blizzard patched it so you could do this several times per node (usually 3) before it disappeared. This was better, but you had to do the click and wait 3 times. Now, you click and wait, and you get several pieces of metal – the same reward as doing it several times, but without the extended wait. It’s a small fix to a small minigame element, but it’s the kind of attention to detail that makes a game work.

Even if you never play WoW, there are lesson in Cataclysm that you can probably take back to your game. To my mind, the big three are:

Make Fun Easier With the Right Kind of Challenge – Cataclysm does this by restructuring quests by putting the guy who gives you a quest much closer to where you need to do the quest. Similarly, the game makes it easy for you to find where you need to go to do it. Now, this is not to say that you should start saying that your game should start collecting 10 wolf ears to give to Hornswaggle Beltbuckle, but you should look at the structure of it. Challenges which are difficult, but which have a clear course of action are FAR more satisfying than challenges which are frustrating because the course of action is unclear.

For example, if you are given a quest to kill goblins until you find 10 goblin beads, then bring those back, there are two ways you might be stymied (beyond the goblins’ objections): The goblins aren’t dropping[1] the beads fast enough, or you can’t find the goblins. In the first case, you might be annoyed, but you know what to do: just keep killing goblins. In the second case, you will quickly end up frustrated, maybe check an offline resource or otherwise completely break your flow (there’s an even worse version of this where you’re killing the _wrong_ goblins, but that’s a whole other thing). WoW has minimized the likelihood of this second kind of problem, which means that most problems that remains are ones you address by playing the game. Presuming the game is fun, that’s as it should be.

Immediate Feedback is Powerful – Feedback is a curious two-way street in MMOs, because it applies to both play and design. Blizzard mines data on play like mad so that they can judge the impact of changes they make, and while GMs might take a general lesson from this (pay attention!) we tend to lack the tools and sample set to apply that sort of rigor to our games. However, we can take a lesson from how WoW handles feedback to the players.

Characters in WoW level as you would normally expect in an RPG, but they also are progressing in dozens of other ways at the same time, between their faction with other groups, their profession skills and the assorted accomplishments and awards one can get throughout the game (such as for exploring a zone completely). Because there are so many of these in play, if you don’t pay attention to them, then the rewards they give when you achieve something come as pleasant, semi-random surprises that occour with fair frequency (more often early in play than later). That’s powerful by itself because it hits the same part of the brain that wants to give slot machines money. But what makes it more subtly potent is that if you _do_ pay attention to one or more of these, there are concrete actions you can take which will improve the one you pay attention to. It can take work and time, but the ability to generate immediate, measurable improvement triggers a feedback cycle that does not limit itself to paying out once per session or once per level, but rather, rewards the activity. So given that, how often does your game give rewards?

A Changed World is a Richer World – Bumping the timeline forward is incredibly rewarding both to players (who can appreciate the changes) and to GMs (who benefit from re-purposing old materials), and even if not done as a dramatic jump, it is incredibly cool to come back to the town outside the dungeon you cleaned out a few years back and see how its changed (for better or worse), especially when those changes tie directly back to the PCs an their actions. If you look at a lot of published adventures, they often depend on the backstories of the people involved which do not touch up on the PCs at all. Being able to make the PCs part of that backstory? Priceless.

As a bonus, this is a great way to take ownership of a published setting. Even if you started in Eberron as published, Eberron five years later is much more clearly YOUR Eberron. It’s perhaps not as dramatic a statement as killing Elminster, but it is more widespread.

Anyway, enough of that. I have goblins to kill.

1 – For the MMO ignorant, “drops” are loot. You kill something, loot the body, and find what it’s carrying, usually some coins and junk. If it has a bead, it is said to have dropped the bead.

Of Stars and Whales

With the publication of the Leverage RPG I have caught my white whale. The prospect of a caper RPG was one of those ideas that had pricked at my brain for years as something that could be done, but hadn’t. It was the big challenge, and if the opportunity to do Leverage hadn’t come along I would have had to make something on my own. Leverage was a perfect opportunity though, and I’m happy with it. Happy enough that I intend to mess around with hacks and modifications for it as time goes on, but for the moment I’m just going to bask in the joy of it being out.

Well, mostly bask.

The problem about white whales is that they’re a lot like good snack food. One isn’t enough. I find myself pondering the next real challenge.

By coincidence, I have recently started sating my curiosity about the Star Wars Saga game. This is the recent d20 version of the game released at the end of the D&D 3.x life cycle and is a weird sort of bridge product between that iteration and 4e. It’s a good game, full of good ideas, many of which were real improvements on 3.x. In some ways it seems to represent a a path not taken for 4e.

This has lead to me hunting down the more interesting looking supplements for the game, which have been by and large the slightly fringy ones. I cannot for the life of me imagine wanting to play a game in the movie eras. I did it in college in the old d6 game, and it was fun, but I really feel like there’s nothing I particularly want out of the setting. Similarly, the post-movie material has been a pretty serious turn off every time I have delved into it. However, the period between the movies (the era of The Force Unleashed) and historical periods (as in, Knights of the Old Republic) both are fun. So I got to looking at books.

It’s been interesting, and it vindicates all the worst part of my collector’s instincts. Specifically, the little voice that tells me that if I don’t get something now the opportunity will pass me by looked at the prices for some of these out of print books and laughed. That instinct used to be a big motivator for my my purchasing, but I’ve gotten more chill about it over the years, especially because most things either stay in print or are available in PDF. The two big exceptions are licensed products (because licenses expire) and anything WOTC puts out (because they just don’t do PDFs). The Star Wars games are a 1-2 punch in that category, and the net result is that some of the books are going for more than $100.

Anyway, I mention all this because one of the books I picked up on a lark was the quite fantastic Galaxy of Intrigue which may have set up my next white whale. It’s a good book full of interesting thoughts about how to run an intrigue-centric game. I’d like to talk about some of the ideas from it later, but it ends up falling a bit short of what I would like it to be because of the necessities of it being a Star Wars product. Those necessities include races and tech and trivia, all of which is excellent Star Wars material (and there’s even a page on the Tapani Sector, one of my big weaknesses) but is separate from the nugget of intrigue at the center of things that really holds my interest.

Anyway, not sure where this is going to go yet, just wanted to kick it around to see what it knocked loose.

Gamma World Impressions

So, Fred ran some Gamma World last night, and in addition to an opportunity to play with some locals who I usually only see at conventions, it was a chance to change the game from hypothetical to actual. We had a good time on the outskirts of the Baldy Moor, seeking the fabled All-Mart. and getting into some trouble along the way, and my impressions follow.

  • The Gamma World box is nice, but it’s awkwardly sized to use as an actual box (A point that was reinforced by Fred showing off his Monster Vault and City Tile boxes). For any future play, I will certainly migrate it into something more compact. If I was younger, I would see if it all fit in an ammo box.
  • We only had one death, but it was a very near thing – several other characters came very close. This was expected – GW has a reputation for lethality – and I was curious to see why that was so when compared to a D&D group. Having seen it now, I think I have a sense of it, and I think it’s two things.
  • First, there is less overall alpha strike capability, which 4e provides with its encounter and daily powers. This is not so important in terms of general output so much as the ability to respond to specific threats (since it is often the case in combat that one enemy proves a disproportionately high level of threat) by concentrating fire on a dangerous enemy to tip the balance. Alpha mutations and Omega tech fills some of this niche, but unreliably, and in fact we had a generally stronger draw of tech in the second fight (which was nominally harder than the first) which proved much easier. I don’t think these facts are unrelated.
  • Second, there is less synergy between the characters than there is in 4e. This is partly a result of how the powers are structured, but it’s also a result of the more freeform chargen. Without roles or clear ways to make other players more awesome, figuring out how to get a group to work as an effective team takes some time and experimentation.
  • The random gear table is actually a surprisingly powerful tool for telling you what your character’s story is. If anything, I wish it had more stuff – we had a lot of repeats, and certain things (like canoes) suggested more about the character than more practical things (like flashlights).
  • This didn’t come up, but does anyone know: When you hit 6th level do you get both crit effects at once, or do you get to choose which one applies on a per-attack basis?
  • Doppelgangers, BTW, are particularly awesome, especially when paired with a good secondary power. Having now seen more of the templates in action, the logic of their balancing makes a little more sense. It would be very easy to create new templates of a certain type (like the pyrokinetic or radiation ones) but others, especially the ones with odd novice powers (like Doppelgangers) or novice powers that are encountered rather than at-will (like Rat Swarms) are often balanced against something less obvious.
  • While the Alpha Flux rules (which kick in on a 1) are nice in theory, the don’t help much when everyone is rolling 3’s.
  • Having now seen it in action, the temptation of the custom deck is very clear to me now, for two different reasons. The first is thematic – After I finished making my character (Doppelganger/Mindbreaker) I quickly pulled all the biological mutations out of my deck – I did not see this guy growing spines or spitting acid, so I themed the deck to that. I didn’t feel this was terribly abusive or cheaty. The second is practical – the range of utility of the mutations and tech is insane. One mutation might mean you get to attack twice every turn while another means you can breathe underwater[1]. The range in Alpha Tech utility is similar. This means that over and above the temptation to stack the deck in a way to suit your character, there’s a temptation to just make a deck out of “the good stuff”.

    I cannot decide if I consider this a hurtful design decision (effectively designing cards to not be used) or a profoundly cynical ploy to drive players to buy cards, rather than leave them at the whims of the GM’s deck, which is going to be neither thematic nor optimized.

  • Despite the specifics of its implementation, the deck idea is pretty fantastic. One thing Fred and I were discussing is that you could easily tweak things into Torg by doing a GM-Deck game where the GM’s decks change depending on the Realm you’re in. The decks already have the hints of the ability to do this (with the various power and tech origins) and it would be a lot of fun to explore that. Unfortunately, cards are more work to mess around with than rules.

All in all it was a very fun game. A few warts that come from learning a new system and having a full table, but since the full table was full of fun players, it was quite worth it. I suspect I may take a hand at running it soon, and I’ll be curious how it looks from that side.

1 – And since the GM doesn’t know about these too far in advance, it’s not liek he has time to make the scenario account of such things.

Apocalyptic Ramble

I was going to write about podcasts, but my brain kept turning this over and wouldn’t let go. So, apologies that it gets a little rambly. I’m still pinning something down myself.

Apocalypse World continues to gnaw at my brain, which probably speaks well for it. I expect I’m just going to have to run it to get it out of my system, sooner rather than later.

I had an interesting exchange with Vincent Baker on the 6 session topic. There’s a bit of the text that suggests that after 6 sessions is when the game gets good, which stuck me as a weird (and problematic) sentiment. Turns out it might more aptly say that something particularly cool happens around then, though I sort of took Vincent at his word for that. What caught my interest was another comment he made (and I’m paraphrasing) that the only thing he objected to was people thinking the game was an treadmill of bleak hopelessness before 6 sessions.

That got me thinking a bit. I admit, the sense of bleakness I got from reading the rules was a bit off-putting. Not that it was bad so much as it proposed a game I was not necessarily interested in playing. Still, the prospect of things turning a corner is a compelling one, enough so that I gave it some serious thought. Part of the rub is that sometime around session 6 (or more precisely, after 6 advances) you can buy your own happy ending. That is to say, you can retire the character and he is guaranteed some protection from the awfulness of the world. So by retiring your character under your own terms you makes the world a better place.

This is, I admit, kind of cool, but it put me back to thinking because, for me, that wasn’t quite right. I don’t want to save me – I want to save someone else. It’s just one of my play sensibilities.[1] Now, it’s an easy thing to change: Add the ability to “retire” someone as an option and you’re good to go. Yes, technically, it’s not a new move, but I feel like it’s probably a reasonably in-bounds change with the knowledge that it makes for a drastic change in tone. But that’s not important.

What interested me as I thought about that tweak, it struck me that AW’s rigidity really makes for some interesting hackery. Like 4e, the fact that the mechanical moving parts are right on the surface and closely interact means that it’s a lot easier to make small changes to great effect. And the fact that AW has fewer moving parts than 4e makes it possibly even better suited to such things.

As an example, I ended up mapping the characters to Firefly (which works suspiciously well) and I realized that one thing I found lacking in the characters was interaction. I really love the Savvyhead’s “Oftener Right” move (which gives a benefit when people come to you for advice and take it) and I love First Quest’s Banners[2] so it seemed the obvious thing to do was say each character adds a move for other characters. Bang. Done.

Now, the counterargument here is that as easy as it is to say “bang, done” the reality is far more fiddly, which seems apt. There is a bit of deceptiveness to the simplicity of AW as a lot of the moves, especially on the GM’s part, are a lot more complicated than they appear. They are easy to do, but also easy to do poorly. I think they dovetail wonderfully with a certain level of GM skill or experience, but I have occasionally heard people talk about how the simplicity makes it a great training game for a GM and I admit that prospect makes me wary. Barf Forth Apocalyptica is a great principle, but it’s easier said than…er, said.

Of course, the game’s not necessarily supposed to be a set of training wheels. It’s probably more aptly an intermediate or master class, and that’s a good thing. It’s an under-served slice of things.

Anyway, the bottom line is that AW is good enough to make me think about it, and about other games through its lens. It has, for example, inspired some very solid thoughts on Aspects of radically different persuasions. But that is, I think, a topic for another day.

1- Fred wants his heart to bleed so bad it comes out his eyes. I want to eat bitter to make a difference. Everyone’s got a lever like that.

2 – It’s a TSOY expansion from Judd’s First Quest. In TSOY you can get XP by doing certain things in keeping with a Key (so if you have the Key of Anger you may get XP for losing your temper). Banners expand this so other people can get XP for playing to your key (so they may get an XP forpissing you off). It’s pretty awesome.


Reading Apocalypse World also crystallized a few other thoughts for me. This is not going to be a post about Apocalypse World, mind you, but it is at least tangential to it.

Part of the reason I end up dwelling on the importance of setting in play is that I want my play to have meaning. Not in any grand, deep sort of sense, but rather the small, mundane sense of satisfaction I might get out of finishing a good story. The events and people involved may be fictional, but despite that I am made happy that they have faced their problems, resolved them, and brought matters to a close. Life is, of course, hardly that tidy, and the emergence of new problems is fodder for sequels, but those are matters for another day. Today we have overcome, and we have earned our rest.

This is surprisingly tricky in RPGs. A good ending is something I’ve talked about before, but it’s only part of the picture. The problem is this: the GM has an infinite budget of trouble. There are always more dungeons, new threats and fresh problems to throw at players. Since dealing with those things is the basis of play, that’s mostly a good thing. With an infinite budget of trouble, there’s no reason anything should ever get boring. However, it is very easy for that budget to turn into a treadmill. Your victory today can become meaningless because the empty spot will get filled by some fresh trouble.

When it reaches that point, that’s where I get dissatisfied. The treadmill of trouble usually means that any change I can make in the world is transient or meaningless – it’s just new fodder for trouble. In the worst sort of situations, this is why some players end up making lone wolf orphans. It’s not that they don’t _want_ to have connections to the world, it’s just that they’ve been trained that any connections they have will be used against them as a blunt instrument.

All of which is to say, it’s a balancing act. If EVERYTHING is trouble, players have no incentive to invest in anything.[1] But if nothing is trouble, then the game is going to get pretty dull. Finding the path between those things is one of the challenges that every table must face because there’s no one right solution.

This is where I come back to the quest for meaning. I invest myself in the setting so that I can, in turn, find meaning in the losses, victories and changes. That helps me find a path towards more trouble, but gives me some anchors to keep me from going over the ledge (as I perceive it). Since other people gravitate towards different paths, the fact that meaning is such a soft idea allows me to plant a flag in a _general_ area without pinning it down precisely.

The trick with meaningful things is that they merit respect, and respect is more nuanced than a simple “on the table/off the table” split. Meaningful things are always on the table, but in a way that _reinforces_ their meaning, not in a way that simply uses them as fodder.

To illustrate, let’s say your players have rebuilt an orphange. They’ve put time and effort into this, and it’s an important element of the game. If the orphanage is protected (that is to say, immune to trouble) then it’s not going to be threatened by events in play except in purely cosmetic ways. If it’s “on the table”, then it’s now a valid stake in play, so plots threatening its destruction are a valid way to engage the players.

If the orphanage is meaningful, then it can be threatened, but it should not be _existentially_ threatened. That is, the stakes should not be that the orphanage is destroyed or irrevocably changed, but rather that the orphanage is the source of other plots. This may sound familiar to folks who saw my last trick – rather than use the thing itself as the hook, find the things around it and connected to it. This way, the threats _reinforce_ the importance of the meaningful element rather than just treating it as a punching bag for the GM.

1 – Even if they’re willing too, it’s ultimately meaningless, since everything is fuel for the great machine of trouble.

Exception World

I had put off my post-gencon purchases for a while, and that combined with some curiosities of timing to result in a bundle of truly fantastic looking games to cross my threshold at roughly the same time: Dark Sun, the new DC Adventures, Blowback, Remember Tomorrow and Apocalypse World. I’m still working through the pile, but the gravitational pull of AW was too strong for me to resist, so I’ve pretty much devoured it.

This isn’t a review of Apocalypse World. I might make one at some point, but others are doing a fair job of talking it up. But in the interest of summation, I would say that it was absolutely worth it’s (Slightly High) price tag. This is a complete Vincent Baker design (as opposed to some or most of a design) and while it’s worth it as a game, the reality is that the biggest interest is going to come from rules wonks and design theorists looking to see the shiny newness. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. This is not to say my enthusiasm is unreserved, but my turnoffs are few enough and idiosyncratic enough to have no place in a nutshell.[1]

Rather, I want to zero in on a particular element of the rules that really struck me as interesting, that is to say, how strongly the rules seem in keeping with those of a Collectible (or non-Collectible) card game.

Ok, so for all the interesting things to say about AW the one that explains the most things is that there is a rule for everything. This is not necessarily to say there are a lot of rules (there aren’t) but rather that every action taken is represented with a rule. There’s no soft, interpretive space – if you’re doing something, there’s a rule for it.

These rules are called “moves”, and there’s an explicit set of them handling basic actions (Threatening people, helping, perception checks and so on) as well as class specific ones (like healing). If you want to add a new rule to the game (or make a ruling to handle a special situation) then you add a new move to represent it. This idea that everything is rules is a pretty powerful one[2] and may merit its own post at some point, but I want to zero in on a specific bit of structure to it.

The quiet workhorse of the game is a specific move called “Act Under Fire”. You use this move when you try to do something hard, and the rules are basically this: Roll 2d6 and add your cool. 2-6, you blow it and the GM does something bad. On a 10+ you pull it of. On a 7-9 you don’t quite pull it of and the GM can do things like present you with a hard choice or a diminished outcome. There’s some game-specific terminology at work, but that’s the heart of it.

It’s presented like every other move, but the trick of this particular move is that it’s the true baseline of play. Everything else is some manner of variation on this idea of success, failure and modified success. That is to say, this is the baseline rule, and every other move is basically an exception to it.

Some of you might see where this is going: Apocalypse World is a fantastic (and somewhat unique) example of exception based design. This is an idea in game design that a game will have only a very simple core set of rules, with all of the intricacies and complexities coming from rules for explicit situations (that is to say, exceptions to the normal flow of things).

This comes up a lot in the context of CCGs because most CCGs are exception based designs. The basic rules tend to be very simple: rules for drawing and playing cards, maybe some basic actions, but its all very straightforward. However, each card has a little bit of rules text on it which applies when it’s played. That’s how it gets interesting to play.[3]

Apocalypse World’s play could pretty easily be boiled down into a deck of cards, probably with less material effort than goes into most boardgames. Cards for the key elements of the character sheets and to track a few things, then cards for the moves you have personally available. And that’s pretty fascinating. The RPG that successfully incorporates CCG elements has been something of a holy grail for a while, often discussed but rarely achieved in anything but a peripheral fashion. AW’s structure suggests a clear way to do so. Not only could you easily play with the rules as is, if you want to add a random element for a different type of game entirely, the move structure would make that very easy indeed.

In any case, AW gives a lot to talk about, but this particular bit absolutely has me turning over potentials in my head.

1 – Ok, except the 6 sessions thing. That’s weak sauce.
2 – It’s also the engine behind 4e.
3 – Elizabeth S. very reasonably compares the moves to menu selection in a CRPG rather than a CCG, and rightly so, but the principal is the same, just adding menu items rather than cards.