Monday, December 25, 2017

Getting 13th Age Started

13th Age.

We loved the level 1-10 play of D&D 4th Edition, but this is another one of those games for us that I just can't get off the ground with my group. To be fair, we have had some interest in D&D 5 but that is waning since some of my central players didn't find what they wanted in some of the classes and options. I still have a chance for a D&D 5 game if I can muster some excitement for the rules, but finding something beyond the classic Faerun, Greyhawk, etc, settings revamped just does not feel like it is happening for me.

So 13th Age for me is in a "sit on the bookshelf and read" sort of place, and I would love to dive in. Why this and not an old standby like Pathfinder or even the mildly warm (to my group, not speaking for the game overall because I know a lot of people are super into it) D&D 5?

I would like a game that does a more heroic and story based fantasy experience, honestly, and I would love to revamp our old D&D 4 campaign to come back from the dead and live again in a rules system where the classes and the powers are closer to what our group loved about the old 4th Edition D&D rules, rather than retcon and retool for a more traditional D&D 5 type of experience.

I know, if you have some interest in D&D 5, why not push it and start something? Well, really, honestly, D&D 5 is more of a traditional game, and the premise of our D&D 4 game was that the old ways (3.5 and earlier) were dead and that "equal power" sort of hero championed in D&D 4 was "how things worked" in this new plane of existence. It was a unique, special, and cool sort of place that was more larger than life and epic battled than older versions of the game felt, at least to us. That is, before the imbalances of D&D 4 soured us to the whole game in the later levels and the "turn denial" mechanic reared its ugly head as the path to victory.

So rolling back to a more traditional version of a fantasy game - be it Pathfinder or D&D 5 - is a non starter for that campaign.

13th Age, but the same set of designers and designed along those same heroic story lineages, seems like a great fit for another go-around in that world - at least just for me. It is simple, story based, the classes are similar, the world is one that would fit in that campaign, and the mechanics seem like an evolution of 4th Edition into a strange and exciting direction I have not seen in other fantasy games.

But without player interest there shall be no return to this world. It sucks because there are stories I know I can tell with this better than other games in the genre.

It is one of those things unique to out hobby, you can have a game sit on the shelf for ages until someone finds a spark and it ignites in your group. I am thankful we have the Call of Cthulhu game going as that is getting players around the table these days - if not for just the holidays where people are willing to try new things and hang out in a festive spirit. People expect to have fun this time of year, and it is cool this has taken off and I can referee it in that spirit.

We shall see, I guess. I expect either 5th Edition D&D or 13th Age will take our fantasy game crown at our gaming table in the near future, and that is a big "if" the stars align and that spark of inspiration can be found.

Until then, the Elder horrors lurk in the shadows and we are all in with Chaosium's horror game.

Monday, December 18, 2017

Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition

Meet our new favorite horror game. So our group was playing the older 5th edition of this game just as a one-off and we rediscovered the magic to the Call of Cthulhu "BRP" system and decided to check out the newest, 7th edition of the rules system.

If you are a fan of D&D 5 and how they simplified the game's numerical complexity, I feel you will appreciate this system immensely. Chaosium took a elder weed-whacker to the tangle of interlocked d100 rules and charts of previous editions and presented a version that is really pick-up-and-play and streamlined. While part of me misses some of the older complexities, I can say my group appreciated how straightforward everything is in the 7th edition of the game.

A note, we skipped 6th Edition, so our experience is going from 5th to 7th Edition. I know little about about the 6th Edition, except that they did a lot of great work for it and it has a lot of fans as well. Anything Chaosium puts out is great so you can't really go wrong no matter what version you play.

d100 with No Charts?

And they stuck with d100 in this game, which sticks with that easy to understand "what is my chance to do this" sort of ease of play a d100 roll-under system gives us. 80% is good, 40% is not so, and 20% kinda sucks. Easy. They also introduced a bonus-die and penalty-die system that eliminates huge tables of percentile modifiers in one fell swoop and was really appreciated by my group. It works a lot like the D&D 5 advantage/disadvantage die system but instead of rolling 2d20, you roll two of the "tens" d00 dice on your skill roll and use the lower of the two if "advantage" or the higher of the two if "disadvantage." It is simple and it works and my players love it.

For example, you take an easy shot. Roll two tens dice and one ones die. The results are 20, 50, and 6. The roll is a 26 since you are taking the lower tens dice for a "bonus die" roll.

The system expands to actually using more than one bonus or penalty die as well, so you could get a situation where you are rolling two penalty dice and taking the highest. Bonus and penalty dice also cancel each other our one for one, so there is some play with this system where you can make things harder or negate difficulty with referee rulings or situational modifiers. So in a way, the system advances the advantage and disadvantage mechanic and tosses away the long lists of modifier charts we disliked about d100 games. Well done.

Simplified Character Design

While I love my odd, quirky 3d6 low IQ accountant characters that the older systems created, the score allocation design system for the 7th edition won us over quickly. I am a real fan of character design systems where I can give everyone a character sheet and then do an "all at once" design session by announcing the "next thing to do." We made this a "group participation game" and it went wonderfully. For us, it went like this:

"Look at your ability scores and put an 80% in your character's best score."

"Now, put a 70% in your character's second best...."

And so on down to the worst ability scores. And this was the same way for skills. Pick an "in name only" occupation, and then pick eight skills that define that job. Put an 80% in your character's best skill and so on down the line. Same for the four +20% hobby skills you get. Finally, we all calculated secondary statistics together as a group. I go through each person and ask them, as a member of occupation X, what equipment would you have on hand? Write that down. Now everyone come up with a backstory for your character and then share that with the group.

And eight characters were done in about 15 minutes, as a group, as a part of the game, and we were ready to go on the first night of play. I can't say how beautiful this type of character generation is for us, having wasted one group's entire first 4-hour session on character creation back in D&D 4. In that game we got to start playing the next week, and that is a huge waste of time and energy for a group that large. The game also plays very well from off the character sheet alone, which is a huge plus for us.

When you lose your investigator to the gaping maw of some elder god, a botched skill roll jumping over a pit of spikes, or the padded rooms of the Arkham Asylum, you will appreciate simplified character design greatly. This is a horror game and characters should drop like flies, and the horror shouldn't come from the time spent wading through the character design system.

Get the Quick Start Rules!

Yes, this is another book to buy (for eight bucks), or you could download this (for free) and print it out, but make sure you have a copy of this on hand! You can play the entire game (for the most part) with this book alone, and the game's rules are condensed down into the first 14 pages of this book - including character creation, skill checks, sanity, combat, dicing, and most every rules question a new player would have. I would print these first 14 pages out to hand out as a rules-primer to every new player, and they are that useful.

I reference the quick start rules and the handy reference booklet included with the referee's screen (or the screen itself), and I rarely have to open the main rulebook. Yes, I know, this is another purchase, but one I felt was well worth it in that I could run the game like a professional keeper and not have to be constantly flipping through the rulebook like a noob while my players waited. It saved me a lot of time and made me look smart and well-versed in the rules on my first night refereeing, so I am calling this purchase as a good call for me.

With eight players you get a lot of questions! Each one of those eats up time, either in me or them checking the rule book, me looking up a rule or a chart, or them wanting to know something about the rules. If everyone has a copy of the free quick start rules that answers half of their questions. If I can not open the book and either check my copy of quick start rules or the charts or booklet that came with the referee's screen that covers most of the other questions.

Do you have players in any game that use magic and spells? That is a time and cost investment, but more on the referee's side because the spells are supposed to be more on the "secrets of the game" side rather than a D&D style laundry list of character options. No spells are included in the Investigator's Handbook either, so that is another difference between this and more traditional style fantasy games.

Optional: The Investigator's Handbook

There is an optional player-focused book you can buy that contains all of the player-focused information from the main rulebook. You do not need this to play, and the quick start rules are really all you need here for player reference.

If you have players who wonder where their cell phones are in a 1920's universe, or their eyes are somehow allergic to old black and white films, this may be a good book to get to explain things. There's no Internet and there is no Google, all phones are landlines, maps are large folded pieces of paper, and even things like radios are not in cars until after the period in 1930.

Two-way radios in police cars? Not until 1933. Walkie talkies? About 1937. Telephones, telegraphs, and teletypes (telephone connected typewriters) were about it, and the latter were really only in use with larger businesses, railroads, and telegraph companies. You didn't really have one of these in your corner office. Even direct dial long distance wasn't a thing until the 1950's, so you had to go through a living, breathing operator to make a connection.

No Internet. No Interstate highways. No television. No recorded radio programs (other than playing a record to a microphone and broadcasting that), and most all radio programs were done "live" in a studio. Talking films weren't until the end of the 1920's with the Jazz Singer, and before that it was mostly playing a silent film while a phonograph record (or live music) was played alongside. Vinyl records weren't until the 1930's, so the older (and more fragile) shellac style records were about all that were in use.

Oh, and be prepared to hit the library, newspaper archives, and public (and private) records a lot. A lot a lot. If one of the characters plays a researcher or secretary type all the better, and this person will be seen as the 'star' of the group. Kind of like a healer in an MMO, and someone who makes the group a whole lot more efficient and fun. Just handle a lot of the boring library work as off-board activities and get that player back into the action quickly and you will be great.

Or better yet, break everyone in the group up into smaller task-based groups while the researchers do their thing and get a lot done in a little time. Mr. Fix It, fix the car. Sneaky gal, follow the stranger in town around. Doctor guy, heal up Mr. Muscles. You two go to town hall and check real estate records and me and her will hit the library and check birth and death notices. Now...break!

Part of being a great referee in this game is keeping everybody busy with important tasks...before the terror of the horrible creature ruins everyone's well-laid plans. Then, while they are questioning their sanity? Give them more things to do. Trust me, they will be coming up with their own 'things to do' pretty quickly to figure out the mystery (or just figure out how to survive), and they will be happily coming up with all sots of crazy plans and ideas.

The 1920's is a Fantasy World

The 1920's is more closer to a "fantasy world" than it is the modern day in many regards, which is what makes it so fun. Once you know a couple ground rules like this, and get some of the style of movies during the time, you are all set. Although, the 1920's still had trains, cars, guns, ships, and early planes - so a lot of what makes modern games fun is still here. A lot of what makes modern life convenient is not here, and this adds an element of fun that puts us closer to fantasy games. Although some fantasy games take the easy way out and replicate cell-phones and long-distance travel with common magic spells and we are back to square one.

You will get a special thrill when you figure out how to do something without a computer or cell phone and just crafty and smart use of your character's skills and the limited resources available. This makes skills important, and puts a lot of heroic emphasis on figuring out how to do (and know) the impossible.

That said, the Investigator's Handbook is a great summary of what it was to live in these times and recommended for those who may only be casually knowledgeable of the times. Bet yes, treat this as a fantasy world more than a modern one and you will start to discover the charm of these times.

Face to face interactions matter. Trust matters. Getting physical access to places you shouldn't be is a challenge. Being sneaky matters. Being smart matters. Following the clues is a key to success. Sometimes you have to lie to people or rough a few up. Figuring things out early is the path to victory. Being strong in mind and body helps mitigate threats. Taking risks can lead to big rewards. You can't rely on magic or technology all the time. Great threats to the world exist and are out there.

These are all classic almost Tolkien-esque fantasy ideals, and they apply to the world of the 1920's in a strong sense as well.

You Can Play Modern Too!

Yes, this version out of the book supports playing in the modern era, and all you need are different character sheets. We prefer the 1920's setting though, just because the Elder Gods don't have Facebook pages and Twitter feeds. I kid, but you know...that gives me an idea.

On that note, if we did play in the modern era? Give supernatural creatures the ability to disrupt technology, mess with video feeds, make electronic devices go haywire, stop cars, turn off a building's power (or flicker all the lights at once), cut off Internet access, crash cell phones, put images on digital cameras, play strange chanting and screeching noises on the radio, put evil and disturbing images on television, and generally take away all the wonders of the modern world when the big nasty gets close.

I'd be extra mean and let the big bad ones 'see' though web and cell phone cameras and listen in through microphones. We really don't know how that 'other world' works, now do we? They don't play by our rules, and they can 'get at' us through the things we trust. If maybe only, they can access technology through our minds without us knowing how they do it....

That? That is true fear in today's world. That in which you rely and trust can be messed with, used against you, and easily taken away. Now, you can go insane, but you will have to rely on your raw survival skills to live through the night. Go nuts.

Cons? Division by Two and Five

I think the only downside to this edition is there is a lot of work filling in half and fifth boxes on the character sheet. You need these for success levels, but they are a bit of a fun-tax on character creation needed to get the d100 system working smoothly and avoiding the dreaded math during play. If you do all the "division by two" ones first and then the "divide by five" ones all together, you will speed this up, but still it left some players with a sense of heavy math-ness after the end of character generation.

The half and fifth numbers were used though during play, frequently, so this is a little bit of early pain for a lot of later speed of play gains, so we all felt it was worth the effort at the beginning to do early.

Some of us did cheat a little and fill half and fifth values in skills as we used them. It didn't break anything, and once you fill them out that is the end of calculations. This is a small price to get a d100 system working with varying success levels, but it is worth noting.

Earlier Editions? Still Great.

You don't need the 7th Edition to play, and we could have happily played with the 5th Edition - no problems. Though I feel the newest edition has simplifications that a lot of players coming from D&D will like, and some mechanics that are a bit more familiar. That 'ease of use' and familiarity goes a long way from making a game something interesting to something I am really excited to play. It is like using an older cell-phone, you can still get things done, but the newer models are so simple and familiar they create that instant desire to pick them up and play. Simplification is the ease of access, and it also gets a lot of cruft and chart work out of the way so players can look at their sheets, listen to the referee, and figure out what they want to do next.

As D&D 5 has proved, you can create a lot of interest in simplifying things down to their core and essential elements. That is the Seventh Edition to us, still the core rules and play of the original game, with a lot of the older baggage removed and the great and classic experience preserved.


A great edition, just like all the others, but targeted towards simplification and streamlining for today's players and expectations. This still sticks with the classic d100 system, and eliminates cumbersome modifier charts so common to d100 games. A very approachable, modern, and easy to use horror game with a classic and iconic setting.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Gnomish Copper Dice By Norse Foundry

So I spent a little money and got myself the Official Fate & Fudge Systems Gnomish Copper Dice By Norse Foundry – Pack of 4 Officially Licensed Dice Set. Normally, I am a little hesitant on spending $20 on a set of dice, and at $5 per die they are expensive. Then again, FATE dice in general are a tad pricey. But I am glad I did.

Wow. These are seriously cool. The weight in my hand is very satisfying, and just rolling these is a cool and momentous event. My kitchen table will disagree, and I am using a pad or plastic tray to roll these on because they may leave tiny dents in most types of soft wood.

My Best Four Dice

Considering you only need four dice to play the game, ever, why not make these your best? This is not like polyhedral dice, where games eventually force you to roll 6d8 for some damage roll and all of a sudden you (and your players) are toting around buckets of dice. I am a fan of games with 'dice conservation' and the designers are aware of how many dice are being rolled and what types, and try to reduce and simplify dicing to manageable levels.

I still will use my plastic dice for players, and also myself when I don't have a padded surface to roll these on. They roll well on a cushion because of their weight, and I find myself rolling them on my couch or even a blanket and having them lie flat on something that soft.

Heavy Heavy

Really, what is the point of owning dice so heavy they could be used as metal sling pellets and possibly survive a nuclear war? I think that answers your questions.

But seriously, don't use these as weapons - and you are buying these for two reasons: novelty and bragging rights. Novelty, yes, you don't really need these but you want them - like you want an expensive smartphone. These still are much cheaper than a smartphone, and you are getting something that will last for probably a couple hundred years of use. I don't know yet, so I will let you know.

Bragging rights are important. At a gaming table, as a referee, you sometimes need to establish dominance over a group of players, and having these goes a long way to setting the 'referee means business' tone. Cheap dice I feel cheapen the game, in a way (especially if they are worn out and falling apart). This is way subjective and doesn't apply to everyone, but in social setting such as conventions it is super cool to show off.

And don't feel that if you can't afford these you can't have fun with FATE. They are silly, cool, and fun novelty items that add to the experience in a social context rather than a gaming one. You talk about them. Other players like to look at them. They add a fun weight to roll and heighten the drama. You talk about why you like them and their drawbacks. They still just are "dice" but they invite a lot of discussion (pro and con) and they are a bit of a status symbol (positive or negative) in the game's universe of thought.

It is not a "I am better than you" sort of status symbol, to me it is a "I love the game and the community, so let's laugh at them or think they are cool" thing for me. I still love and use my plastic dice, they are very cool (and more useful in many situations). Everything has its place.

Fidget Dice? Yes! And No! But Yes!

I find the metal dice get me thinking about the game more, and they are an investment in my enjoyment of the game as a mental exercise. They are almost like those metal stress balls you roll around in your hand to meditate and relax. Here, they are the same thing - for me at least - but with the added benefit of being able to make rolls and think about the game while I chill out.

I think that is why I like them so much. They are both a fidget type item, and then also useful for my hobby and mental free time. What better relaxation device than one that you could use to think about one of your favorite games?


My bother instantly wanted a set for himself, so there is a hidden cost here in jealousy. Yours is coming, dude. Lucky they come a a couple different colors and styles so you can take your pick when buying them for someone else. If everybody used these at the table? Wow. I would consider going back to plastic dice.

Just for my table's sake.

Metal Dice

I like metal dice as novelty items. They are not as practical to play with as plastic dice, but I find they are this sort of thing I use for relaxation time, reflection, and an investment into a game I like. Because I bought them, I will play the game more, because I made the investment. It is like that with any game I play, I have my dice I play one game with and don't use them for any other game.

And you only need to buy four.


You only need to buy four, and then everyone else who sees them does.

Monday, September 11, 2017

FATE Playtest Notes: Playing with Half a Chess Set

Do not wing things in FATE. I know, the temptation is there; this is such a simple and fast game - why not wing it?

Because if you do you will be playing with half a chess set.

We ran into this in one of our last playtests, as a referee, I winged a lot of the enemies and situations, and things felt a little flat. Why? Usually this game is a blast to play! Well, for one, the aspects of the enemies and challenges were not laid out very well. The players had nothing much to go on, no enemy aspects to trigger, and the enemies and challenges themselves couldn't really work that well within the rules.

You need to design your enemies and challenges. You need to create those 'aspect hooks' for players to trigger and for enemies to take advantage of. You need to design those stunts the enemies or challenges can use on the players to ad some excitement, and also up the difficulty level.

FATE is a game where if the players have weak opposition, the players shall roll over said opposition easily. The game will start to bore, and the session will devolve into "my +5 skill against what?"

No, there needs to be moments where the players are forced back on their heels, and they need to start spending those fate points (and regenerating them) to push back. The game simply isn't fun unless the enemies push back.

And they need to push back hard, and have those aspects and stunts to make pushing back hurt.

Consequences beginning to stack up on the player's side is a good sign. They need to look at their character sheets with worried eyes. They need to start using those FATE points to save their hides, not overpower rolls.

But how you get there, and how you get players involved, is by taking a little time and spinning up those enemies and challenges. Not only does this give the enemies tools to push back, it opens up opportunities for the players to take advantage of an enemy's weaknesses and return the favor by loading the enemy up with conditions.

The game works better if everybody in the situation is playing by the same rules, and everything is spun up and working as a machine. Taking shortcuts and winging it, in my experience, makes the game feel like it really isn't 100% there - especially from a player perspective where you want them playing against the enemy's character sheet rather than the referee's whims.

More notes soon.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

FATE Playtest Notes: Old habits, Boss Monsters, and Turtling

We did a wrap-up session last night for our unfinished FATE game, and this time it was a little less crazy and a little more subdued, but we still had fun. We did notice a couple things:

Old Habits!

One of our players started with, " I wait for a car to approach the building's parking garage..."

Not really FATE in a way. I as a referee waited for the player to announce the story action and none came. In a typical RPG, this sort of 'open ended wait for the referee to give me a bone' is a pretty normal thing. In FATE, you need to remember you are narrating a part of the story. What works better?

"When a car drives into the corporate parking garage, I sneak in alongside it, out of the driver's view and the security guard, creeping and walking fast along the opposite side of the vehicle."

Better. You are narrating a part of the movie scene and the skill being used (stealth) is obvious. Me, as a referee still needs to decide if a car comes or not, but in this case cars are coming and going all day so that fact will likely push the difficulty a step easier for the players. Fewer cars? Fewer chances and higher difficulty. No cars? I inform the player to try something else.

Remember our 'actions are better as macro events' feeling about the Star Wars RPG from Fantasy Flight? The same applies here. You don't want to aggregate too much into one roll, but you want the rolls to cover more than a turn-by-turn fine-grained breakdown of every action.

If an event has a chance of going wrong, and it requires a different skill set, make it a separate roll. If it is inconsequential, or you are finding you are making too many rolls for a single event (just to throw sand in the gears of the players), stop it, declare one last roll to clean up, and move on to the next story part.

You can focus 'too much' on one part of the story and slow things down by requiring too many rolls. As a referee, you need to be a little more aware of pacing and not punishing great ideas by layering on too many rolls on the implementation.

Boss Difficulty

When four players focus in on your bad guy, please make sure your bad guy is significantly more skilled and capable than an average starting character. You players can 'pile on' with their best skills, and a character equal to one of them is going to go down fast.

A big part of this game is building challenges, and players know when to pile on, drain an opponent's fate points dry, and finish the bad guy off with merciless abandon. I am trying to come up with guidelines on how tough to make a bad guy, but it is going to take some more time with the game and practice.

Our bad guy went down quick when all of the characters were focused on him and not fighting each other. Next time, I will need to give my bad guy a larger fate point pool and some defenses against a couple common attacks (mental and physical). Mental attacks, especially from an enemy unaware of the manipulation, can be very effective and drain a bad guy's defenses quickly.

One Trick Turtles

We saw a tendency to 'one trick pony' characters with their best skills in situations where they were protected against having to make skill checks in less-optimal skills. Of course, this came about with a great plan, but you don't want a game to devolve into 'I am the hacker and sit off in a remote site while I hack and stay immune to any risk.'

You want players in the facility, on the site, and taking risks. You want them sneaking through the enemy base. You want to force players out of their 'this is my +5 skill' box where all they do is sit there and roll that +5 skill when the proper time comes up.

As a player, don't turtle up! As a referee, discourage turtling!

The computer terminal you need to use is inside the building, past defenses and in an area patrolled by guards. You need to be using a couple other skills to get in and get out, and you those will likely be not your best ones either.

A great plan tends to put experts in places they need to be. But don't ignore the fact that getting these experts where they need to be should require a wide and diverse array of efforts. Create challenge by forcing characters out of their 'easy boxes' and into dangerous places.

More Playtesting Ahead

We are not done, but FATE looks like a solid game in our schedule of things we play. One of the things we love about the game are aspects and consequences, and we keep coming back to  those and seeing how other game worlds would benefit from having such a system. A lot of games out there are really 'cut and dried' where you just need to burn down a pile of defenses and hit points to 'win' and there really isn't any sort of control over temporary or long-term effects inside the narrative (other than GM fiat). FATE gives the players some input, and also forces the referee to consider what happens next because something else happened.

It really is an interesting system of storytelling and consequences that has captured our imagination.

Monday, September 4, 2017

FATE: Playtest Post

I have never laughed so hard since I played the classic Paranoia RPG in the mid-1980s.

So we did a playtest of the FATE Core System last night and we had an absolute blast, we had players having characters laying down aspects on the bad guys, and then in a moment of pure backstabbing greatness, on each other.

For a group of self-centered con-men and thieves trying to pull off the ultimate heist like something out of TNT's Leverage series, this was an absolute blast. At one point the mastermind of the caper was talked into killing off the band of criminals working under him he put together - by the bad guy they were trying to steal from.

"You work for me now."

Madness ensured.

Fun was had by all.

Not for Stat Crunchers

One thing to remember is FATE is not really a system for those who like their +1 longsword, AC 18, +6 initiative modifier, and 17 hit points. It is not that type of game. Your character's story, skills, and special 'stunts' are not there for singular "did you break down the door" type skill rolls, they are there to measure how much your actions impact the flow of the narrative.

And the narrative means the story itself, the room you are in, the situation around you, and even the stories and backgrounds of other characters with you - good or bad. The illustration on the cover of the book is a bit misleading, you may think this is a game about being that magic-wielding spy, samurai thief, or gorilla monk kung-fu guy - but it is not a game of personal min-maxing power at all. This is a game about how "whatever your power is" can push a story forward, sideways, or backwards and have a blast doing it no matter which way things go.

It is really a freeform "story simulator" and it excels in letting players delightfully mess things up for everyone at the table, good guys and bad guys included - and even your own character should you wish to take a setback for a couple extra hero points (so you can mess with things a little later in the scene). Yes, you will even find reasons to set your own character back if it advances the story in a way, or gets your character captured so you can finally be taken to the villain's secret lair.

You will start your own brand of trouble once you are there, trust me.

This is hard to simulate in a traditional style of pen-and-paper without a lot of GM fiat or "it is written into the module that you get captured" sort of stuff going on. Here? No, there are times you crave being set back because it opens the door to more trouble. We had a character try to sneak into the evil corporation's high rise fortress only to blow the roll spectacularly, where I instantly ruled, "...and they walk you into the evil CEO's office and say look who we caught trying to sneak in...."

And the player smiled in glee because "he was in" anyways, and then proceeded to go about his nefarious original plan when the bad guy offered up a new angle, and the player smiled at the chance to backstab all of the other players around the table with a double-cross.

And after an entertaining attempt of this player trying to eliminate the other high-tech thieves around the table with multiple chances to eliminate players, a devious triple-cross plan was formed and we are back at square one-hundred with the traitor serving as a part of the plan to pull off the biggest back-stab the world has ever seen on the evil CEO.

Oh, and now the evil CEO has devised a plan to tap all the city's phones and search for the player's characters throughout the city by monitoring every electronic device.

This was a simple heist. Get in the building's computer room, steal the plans, and get out.

The game has turned into a cross between Christopher Nolan Batman movie, The Exorcist, and The Matrix.

And we love it.

Player Directed Energy

So if you think about this game as "stats drive narrative" you begin to get it. We walked into this game thinking "traditional rules light game" and we were wrong. While the game itself has rules-light elements, there is a structure there around the basic four actions in the game (and subcategories of rules that control them) that is pure genius. You have to wrap your head around these concepts a little to get started, and about halfway through our first session it clicked.

You are not using "strength" to "bust down a door," you are using your strength to push the narrative along by busting down a door. You may additionally create an aspect (situation) for the scene stating "everyone suddenly ears the door crashing down" and use that short-term story-changer to your benefit. Or someone else may use it for their benefit.

You could use it to shock the group of baddies in the room on the other side into inaction.

They could use it to sound the alarm for help.

Someone nearby could use it to figure out where you are.

But the concept is the players use the situation, modify it, take advantage of it, or succumb to it (for their benefit) to create player-directed energy into the center of the table. This is not a one-way game where the referee tells the players what happens next. The players have direct input into what happens next, what is going on, and where the flow of the story is moving next. You may think in a traditional game this would be the case, if the players weren't in the goblin-infested tower rescuing the princess "they are driving the narrative!"

But in reality, they are not. They are playing through the referee's narrative and moving along a set path of events laid out in the adventure. Even if the adventure is free form, the only impact the players have on the story is through the result of skill and attack rolls.

In FATE, you lay down aspects of varying lengths of time on the story, create them, use them up, let them expire, or create long-lasting ones called consequences that stay in play for the entire adventure.

You make rolls with your skills to stir the pot, add new ingredients to it, and change the nature of the soup. The goal is not individual, atomic success that accumulates towards a conclusion. Here, you and your friends are aiming at changing the story through your individual skills and specialties. This game is not about winning X number of battles, collecting treasure, getting XPs and levels, and defeating the final boss.

Here, every player is a gamemaster in a way when it comes to writing the story together The players' stats rate how good they are at changing and adapting to the story. The gamemaster plays the bad guys, lays out the combined narrative, and is the final decider on how all this chaos comes together.

Silly, but also Serious

And we walked away realizing this is not just a silly party game. You could dial down the insanity a couple notches and have a really serious and satisfying game where you play spies, gangsters, space explorers, horror adventures, or any other sort of normal situation with normal characters. There would still be that subtle 'change the story' thing hovering around there in the background, but it would be used in different ways.

In a horror game, your character may suffer a consequence 'afraid to go in the basement' as a result of being scared by a sudden shock.

In a gangster game, your character could start a soup kitchen with some illegally gained dough and gain a 'loved by the working class and poor of the neighborhood' aspect.

In a spy game, you could talk an enemy agent into 'mistrusting a trusted source' of information and gain an advantage in a situation where that information becomes critical to the mission.

You can dial this down and play it straight. The characters do not need to be fate-alerting gods of chaos, and the insanity can be set at a manageable but still realistic level. It was a strange and sobering moment for us, that there was actually 'more there there' after a night where we laughed our heads off at the potential and insanity of what we just experienced. It was one of those door-opening moments for us that we experienced a few times, like when we first played role-playng games and realized 'you can do that?'

Here, with the narrative and story, yes, 'you can do that.'

Some Mental Assembly Required

As noted, it takes you looking at gaming and the story in a different way. There are a number of terms and interlocking pieces here you need to understand to get the most out of the game. You need to let go of your fear of spending "precious" fate points, and accept the fact you will be playing against your own best interest (in the short term) in order to get fate points back. You need to abandon some of the learned behaviors that traditional pen-and-paper games train you in, like some weapons being better than others, stat building, or min-maxing.

We had one player looking at their character and wishing they could be more than a single-purpose combat expert, that he had some social and technical skills when the situation called for a different approach and their influence wasn't as powerful. The player made up for it by spending fate points, playing smart, and steering the situation back towards what his character was good at - but still, that feeling 'you need to be good at many things' stayed with us. Also, that feeling of 'move the story to where it can be affected by your character the most' also became a tactic, and the bluffing and poker game began between players when they each tried to steer things their way.

But understanding the story-related aspects is key here, and letting each player have that 'ah-ha' moment where they realize the story-shifting parts of the rules are the most important parts of the game. Boosts, stunts, free uses of aspects, triggering them, creating them, and shifting the narrative playing field is where this game shines. If you play this as Basic D&D looking to see what's in the next encounter key you are not going to have as much fun, because you will limit your exposure to the best parts of the game with limited in-the-box thinking.

The more you understand and master the story-based aspects of the rules and how they are used, the more fun you will have with FATE.

Yes, we are Coming back to This One

We are planning a regular weekly game with this rules set, which is a rare thing. It is rare to find a game like this, that allows a high amount of energy to be directed into the game session from all of the players, and for pure chaos to send the story down a path nobody expected. That is the magic of roleplaying to us, not the stat-crunching or MMO simulation a lot of modern games get into, but the free form, 'we gather together to tell a story' thing that makes us feel like we are sitting around a campfire and kicking back with old friends.

FATE cerebrates the narrative. It gives everyone a chance to tell their part of the story. It gets this whole 'shared storytelling' thing that attracted us to the hobby long ago. Nicely done.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Great Article: 15 Key Differences Between Starfinder and Pathfinder

Check this out:

...a great article on the differences between Pathfinder and Starfinder. This goes into a lot of great technical and rules info so it is a handy one to reference and link to Pathfinder players who may be thinking about making the jump.

We received Starfinder last week, and I want to post some thoughts on it soon.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Great Article: ‘D&D BEYOND’...

Check this out:

This is an article about the new digital tools suite for D&D 5 and it looks pretty slick. I have HeroLab for Pathfinder, and that program has become the only way to play for us. I want to check this software suite out and see what it can do for my group - so, nicely done and written - thank you!

Now, my thoughts and feelings. The problem I have with both Pathfinder and D&D is the character generation time, even in the article, they mention it took a GM and seven players three hours to create a party of characters. Even the author says it takes him 30 to 45 minutes to create a character by himself, and that is with proficient rules knowledge.

And here I was thinking Pathfinder was the one that took a lot of time, and that D&D 5 was actually faster. I guess as time goes on, those 'critical path' choices become clear and the game's balance and mechanics push players more towards 'good choices' for combat and critical game activities. It is like hard drive space in a way, you always find a way to use it all up no matter how much you have. In pen-and-paper games, character generation time seems to go up to an hour no matter how hard the designers try to streamline.

I have been through those 'where did the three hours go' character generation sessions way too many times, and it is hard to get players to go through that and come back the next week. In my feeling, it throws a huge wet blanket over that first, magical 'getting started' session that should be about adventure and having fun, not filling out a character sheet the length of a tax form and then having to come back the next week to see if you made the right choices.

Yes, pre-generated characters help - but they take the critical 'player creative input' out of the game. We are in an age of 64-bit smartphones that do amazing things and connect the world, how hard could it be to design a rules system that gets you started in 5 minutes?

In a perfect world, I would never use a computer program to wrangle complex character creation systems, and it could all be done as we did it when the game started. Throw 3d6 in six scores, pick a race, pick a class, grab some gear, and go.

The simplicity of the retro-clones calls to me, I know.

But the new games allow so much customization!

True, but unlimited choice is not always a good thing in games nor in life. It can paralyze and cause people to not choose anything rather than make a choice and go with it. I would rather have my complexity creep in after level one (in character advancement) than force it on players before they get started with the game.

Just my feelings of course, and I still appreciate robust character design systems - but there is a point where I feel complexity starts hurting the 'new player experience' and also play-ability.

It is why my shelf still holds a nice collection of retro-clones and they continue to inspire me to this day. Sometimes the original ways we did things need some respect and study, and that those simple times had a merit of their own.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Mail Room: Blue Rose RPG

Look what came in the mail today, the Kickstarter version of the Blue Rose RPG. The book is too beautiful to open, so I am using the PDF to learn the rules. I know, it sucks when a game comes and the darn thing is too pretty to open up and use. I am a fan of the old three-ring bound D&D books that were meant to be snapped into a Trapper Keeper in middle school and smuggled into lunch room dungeon sessions. To further accentuate the point:

The sides of the pages are gold-leaf color. Nope, damn it, too pretty to use as a gaming book and I will more likely print out the first hundred or so pages of rules of the PDF so I can learn them and have something I can fold, bend, scribble on, and hand to grubby players. Or she better be wearing white lace gloves with this for me to hand it over.

The book even has a little cloth bookmark built into the book, so that is a cool extra touch.

It looks to be a fun game with rules that won't scare off people, and it also has some fun mechanics where the corruption of the world directly is responsible for some of the monsters there. Does the mayor have a dark secret? If so, watch out, as the inherent corruption of the world may overcome the poor soul and turn him into an evil NPC, or worse into a lich. It is admittedly cool stuff, and I like to see world-specific mechanics integrated into the rules like this.

The only downside to this game is that it isn't D&D or Pathfinder. That is also an upside as well, given the group. It uses the AGE system as seen in the Dragon Age RPG, so it shall be familiar to some, which helps get a group interested. Some may see the 'romantic' theme of this game as possibly a bit silly, but I really don't care - we could stand to see some fun and interesting themed RPGs on our shelf these days. There should be something for everybody, and I am happy tabletop gaming is getting a bit diverse in the experiences we can share with groups.

More soon as we check things out.

Monday, May 1, 2017

200 Multi Color d6

I don't know what it is about multi-color dice and me, but here I am loving this set of 200 (that is a lot) dice I picked up recently. Two-hundred dice is a lot, well, maybe it is not a lot if you are considering playing the new Tunnels and Trolls RPG, but there is something to having a big bucket of these and digging in to grab some for a roll. I don't need this many dice, but they are fun to play with, stack, stick your hand in, and pick a set of fresh ones out for each roll.

I like the colors too, when I am refereeing there is something very quick about having that color recognition going on in addition to the pattern recognition. Do our eyes recognize colors or patterns first? I would think colors, since maybe there is less brain activity needed to see a color than a pattern, though there are studies saying babies take several weeks to see their first color - but they can see light and dark before that (which would suggest patterns). But I like the color recognition, and it helps me sort the dice quickly.

I am trying to find some sort of standard for pip coloring, but there doesn't seem to be one - maybe. I have at least three sets here with different standards, so pick a brand and stick with it if you go colored pips. I do prefer the hotter, green yellows and reds to be the low numbers, while the cooler blues, purples and blacks are up at the high numbers.

These are also standard board-game sized dice, but they also sell the smaller 16mm type dice, with this set below (which I also like a lot):
You can see on this set the 4's are green while the 2's are yellow, when in the above the 4's are blue and the 2's are green. This set actually sticks to my color preferences better, but that is a minor point - once you get used to a set the color matching takes over in your head and it matters less. The edges of these are rounded, so they tend to roll a bit more versus board-game dice. These I can't "place" a roll on a table as well as I can dice with squarer sides. If I am playing a complex game where stray dice can knock pieces over, I will use dice that do not roll around as much.

Overall though, I love these dice and love using them at the table to speed up play. With either set you can't go wrong.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Elitism and Hardcore Play

I stumbled across this article about Overwatch team balance and how there has developed an entire roster of 'less desirable' characters. And them "meta" which is the current play-style intended to maximize the chances of winning. An example of that? this is a good one:

And then I got to thinking of Pathfinder and character builds. I run a game where "you play what you want" and if you pick some non-optimized, my-favorite, sort of 'free love' build where you are a fan of a non-optimal class - you can play that. I will adjust the adventure so you have a chance to shine, like if you want to play a shape-shifting druid and have a chance to make your animal form matter in the adventure. Things will be cool. Build what you want. I can adjust.

It is the power-gamers that I have more of a problem with, to be honest. Especially in a group comprised of new and experienced players. You know, the ones who come in expecting to do MAX DPS and build a character off a forum post, and then have their character swagger in with the PWN-age confidence of that same forum post into my world.

I can do 250 hit points of damage per turn with this build!

My first reaction, as a dungeon master, to that sort of attitude is to knock them down a little. I am sorry, I just can't stand it, and I am probably a worse DM for feeling and saying that. In a pen-and-paper game, I can find a million ways to kill off a single-trick pony build, because the character build is typically only good at one thing.

Sure, your mage or archer or whatever can do sick amounts of damage, and then the evil gnome living in the back of my dungeon master's mind is going to say, "hit them with a poison trap behind an illusion, and then drop in a monster into the party's rear rank where LoS is going to be blocked."

And a part of me hates that feeling of playing against some of the players. I really do because it is ultimately unfair and targets someone for their rules knowledge or design skills (versus the rest of the group). But if I present everything as a straight up fight to a group of mew-players and min-max'ers, you know what is going to happen. The min-max'ers are going to absolutely own the encounter, that archer is going to finish off the encounter in two or three turns, and the rest of the party will be sitting there feeling the following:
  • My character sucks
  • I could not contribute
I love min-max'ing too myself in games, especially in video games where there isn't other people to upset - just the computer and me, But when there is other people involved, I get this feeling that min-max'ing is just being selfish and hurts the group more than it does the monsters. As a player in a group, I would rather design a well-rounded character when I play with others, especailly in a group of new players. I don't want to show off or outshine them, because all that does is make them feel bad and make me look good. I feel selfish when my character blows through the encounter and the other players are all sitting there wondering why their characters couldn't contribute.

Hardcore Play

There is a special case when you get a group of players that are entirely min-maxers, and you get into this death-match mentality with them that (as a DM) I find as a different level of enjoyment. If they are all min-max-ing - then all bets are off. I am going to find a weakness in your defenses and exploit it, because that is what you are trying to do to my adventure. And that is what, frankly, is what a player rolling a min-max'ed character is going to expect.

As a min-max'er myself, at times, I want to be challenged. I want my build's weaknesses exposed and take advantage of. I want my 'perfect build' to fail spectacularly against the evil dungeon master. I want it tough, and I am betting my character can survive your worst. As a player, I love that feeling, and it is a thrill to me.

There is, and I am not ashamed to say this, a fun in that style of play. Using the rules to your advantage. Knowing a rule better than the DM, and then as a DM, admitting defeat and saying "I have learned something," letting the player have that victory, and getting on with the next encounter. You know, really hardcore, competitive play that absolutely uses 100% of the rules to their limit, deadly traps, unfair encounters, the rules matter, and seat-of-your pants play.

And then smiling and thanking the players for dropping by today, and realizing we all love this hobby so much that we appreciate every chance we get to play together. Even in the "hardcore" style of play I like sometimes where players and the DM are in this hyper-competitive state, I like the thrill and the competition of the game. I want new players, if they so choose, to be able to join us in that elite club.

But not an elitist club.

If you played Warhammer Fantasy Battle or 40K competitively you know what I mean. There is this expectation, "When you come to the table, bring it." A good opponent with a great army is hard to find, and it is a joy playing against them. Someone who knows the rules well is a treat to fight, and especially one who takes the time to explain things to a newer player - despite the match taking longer than it should. I respect those players and love fighting them, since they bring out the best in me. My best build, my best sportsmanship, and the best fights on the table no matter who wins or loses.

But I feel there is a time to tone it down.

With new players at the table just looking to experience an adventure, I can shift gears and adjust to casual play. A good min-max player can sense this too and relax, build a whatever never-tried before fantasy character, and have fun as well in that setting. It is the players who continue to min-max in a mixed casual-hardcore group like that, who have no sense of toning it down, who tend to get on my nerves. Sometimes we are all here to have fun and not try to outwit each other, because we have some people playing that don't know the game as well. Chill. Tone it down. Have fun and play something you never would.

Maybe some of those new players will start to get the itch, and want to play in a hardcore game. We can move them up to that level later, and foster another elite player out of them. Welcome to the club, and I will do my best to challenge you.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Some Games are Just More Fun, For Us, Part #1

I was sorting through the boxes of games we put away because of the shelf disaster here, and I came across this:
And left it out on the shelf. This was our first Star Wars game with the Fantasy Flight rules, and this one has stood the test of time with our group. In fact, we had more fun with this book than we did the other two big-book games in the series:

It is an interesting question, and part of me loves the smuggler in us all, but the question felt like it had an answer. Why did the first book work for our group so well, while the other two books kinda fell flat? I mean, there is nothing wrong with the second two books, it is the same rules system, things work well, but something just felt off about the sequels compared to the original. The other two books sit by it on the shelf, but they really don't compare - for us.

It is one of those things you say, "If all I had were dice and this book, we could have some fun." For some pen-and-paper role-playing games, that isn't the case for us, and movies and video-games would be a more attractive proposition than playing a game that doesn't have that instant appeal. I put away a lot of games that didn't "sing" to us and just filled shelves for storage. But, what makes this fun for us? What criteria did I use to sort through the games we have out now versus what got put in the box?

Settings Matter

I have a shelf specifically for world-books and gazetteers, front and center. I love reading about peoples, places, and things and I feel these fantastic places matter. Part of what we didn't like about D&D 5 was the lack of a new setting, or a fun world-book introducing us to a new world that fits the rules and says "you got to play this because..." And this is part of why D&D 5's books are in storage now, along with a bunch of other generic systems we collected over the years. It is still a fun game, it just didn't catch on for us, so I don't feel too bad about putting it away (and I may still rediscover this years from now, who knows).

I just feel Wizards needs to reboot its classic settings and get over with the war on high-level NPCs. Give us all the characters from the books again. Give us Eberron again. Give me classic AD&D era Forgotten Realms. Either that, or come up with something new. Don't make me find campaign source material on EBay (though the D&D Classics PDF store is still nice and appreciated). It is tough for us to "buy in" to a new rules system without a setting to support it.
Pathfinder? All the books are still out on our remaining shelves, just because of the strength of the campaign setting. We don't play it all that much, but damn that game is fun to read about all the cool places and people in the world. The campaign setting matters, and it kept Paizo's creation out of storage, at least for us.

For Star Wars, especially the Edge of the Empire book focused on the seedy underworld and smugglers, the setting is probably one of the best known and engaging universes in fiction. The Empire makes for great bad guys. The music rocks. Everything about the game is iconic and inspires great feelings. But, the other two books in the series cover the same stuff, so while the setting matters, there is something else here.

Alignment Sucks

"Oh, he's a paladin, he has to be lawful good, he isn't going to betray us."

We just, no, okay, alignment systems suck the life out of the game for us. Forget it. We loathe them. I don't care if they are in the rules. They suck. You get a game like Edge of the Empire and you are dealing with 1001 different personalities and who knows what in terms of motivation, no alignment system, and all of a sudden - role-playing matters again.

Who is that guy? What does he want? Where are we? Can we trust them? Has he shafted anyone in the past? Would he? What's in it for him to keep his word? What can we do to make sure? Do we have insurance? What is the worst thing that can happen?

In D&D? Someone cast know alignment. Okay, we kinda know what he is going to do. It is an extreme example, but in games without alignment and systems to detect it we have more fun because nobody can take anything for granted. Someone's word matters. Motivation matters. Trust is a valuable thing. Legwork and social role-playing is needed to know someone.

I think the Jedi-focused book fell flat for us because Jedi have that "must do good" thing where they continually walk the path of light. Sure, they can fall, but if you meet a Jedi you know they are by default a do-gooder and they just have this "lawful/neutral good" feeling to them.

Not so with the characters and motivations of the Star Wars types found in Edge of the Empire. I could have an Imperial officer more interested in lining his own pockets than serving the empire. I could have a Hutt who doesn't want to cause too much trouble and attract attention. I could have a Rebel on the take from Imperial Intelligence just selling out enough information to keep himself rich while trying to keep himself out of the battle.

Greed is a big equalizer.

And most people in this world are in it for themselves.

For Rebels and Jedi, you have these preset sides. We just felt both of these factions were better background organizations than something a player would want to play inside. When you have no clue of who you can trust, the roleplaying gets really good for our group, and we eat that stuff up. I feel alignment puts a "code of conduct" on everybody, and we feel people use that as a crutch. It replaces role-playing and interaction. It replaces having to find out about a character's motivations, judge if you can trust him or her, and then take a chance either way.

Yes, you can play both the Jedi book and Rebel book with "shifting allegiances" but that doesn't feel right for us. Being a smuggler and playing off both sides is really fun, and it takes a lot of great roleplaying to pull stunts like that off. While flying an X-Wing and blasting TIEs is fun, I feel that can be done better by videogames and GeForce cards. Where pen-and-paper games shine are in the human interactions, and for us, the setting needs to support that crazy, shifting alliances, who is this, let's find out more, don't land there, I know someone, trust me, and classic succeeding through the strength of your performance at the table role-playing style of play.

You may like alignment, and I know there are groups that have fun with the concept, but for us, we like playing without the safety net. Sure you can say they are just guidelines, but really, I don't need them and we like the extra fun of having to role-play and make careful mental notes about who people can trust.

Next Time...

More games like this and more about why they stayed out instead of getting put away. There are a number of things about the games that survived the great shelf collapse and storage purge that they all share in common - what we see as fun - and it is just fun to discuss these subjects with you.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Forward Looking versus Retro Arcanum

In my post one-of-four shelf collapse Armageddon culling of pen-and-paper RPG books, I carved out a shelf for retro-clone old-school games, and now proudly display Basic Fantasy, Mutant Future, Labyrinth Lord, Starships and Spacemen, Stars Without Number, and a number of other new-school old-school classics. I am omitting other classics such as Castles and Crusades and Swords and Wizardry because I have not had the time to invest in them as I would have liked, and I want to focus on fewer games rather than spreading myself too thin.
And then I began reading about Basic Fantasy and the community ever since I last checked in with them, and I am impressed. They are like a large-community open-source project and way different than a role-playing game made for profit. They are trying to be the Linux of pen-and-paper gaming, and while the rules are more simple and retro-focused, the entire creation is surprisingly modern and forward-looking. Support and the community over there has grown, and it looks like a great, accepting, and creative place to participate - and that is a huge strength.
Compare this with Labyrinth Lord, which aims for backwards compatibility (with one style of mixed system play) and purposefully adopts some of the more difficult aspects of old-school games (descending AC and to-hit charts). In this respect, Labyrinth Lord is backwards looking, like an operating system that focuses on maintaining compatibility with DOS, older CRTs, tape drives, floppy disks, and dot-matrix printers because that is the experience fans are looking for in this game. When you go all-in with Labyrinth Lord, you want to experience the strange and arcane pain points of the older games because those are a part of the package.

It is like those kids sitting around the table in Netflix's Stranger Things playing and wanting to have to decipher the concepts of descending AC and some of those fiddly bits in order to be a part of the 'cool kids club.' The strange and backwards parts of the game are a part of the game's arcane and strange way the world works - and they are a part of the initiation process of knowing how this world works. Of course you roll to-hit off a chart! If it were too easy anyone could play this.

Basic Fantasy adopts the 3.5-style roll-high ascending AC system, and then goes towards a backwards feel from there. it is like an OS that recognizes modern developments, like USB drives and high resolution monitors, and then presents those advancements with a retro-feeling and style. It discards parts that don't make sense and goes for the simple, intuitive way things should work. Discard the strange arcane hand-gestures and let's just play something that is easy to grasp for everyone.

It is an interesting thought and comparison and I feel there are good reasons for each. Sometimes you want that complete retro-feeling and experience, complete with the strange jumps in logic and "latch key" portals of understanding that you must get through in order to enter this strange world. There are other times when you want to be more forward-looking, and you care more for simplicity of experience and the unification of methodology to appeal to players used to the more modern concepts.

In the case of Basic Fantasy, the system is not compatible with older modules, nor is it important. New adventures inspired by the old materials are out there and ready to be played. To be fair, there is a lot of new content out there for Labyrinth Lord as well, but all the old content works as well. Both are great games, but I find understanding the "why" of each helps me play them better and discuss them with others.

Myself? Leaning towards the simplicity and unified base of Basic Fantasy while still appreciating the strange and flavorful mix and arcane craftsmanship of Labyrinth Lord. If I were refereeing? Basic Fantasy wins, just because I have to explain less and the concepts are more straightforward. The game I would love to explore all the dark nooks and crannies of? Labyrinth Lord, of course, given the right group that appreciates the somewhat arcane nature of the rules and appreciates the backwards elements as a part of the retro-themed experience.
And then there there is this amazing pile of Basic Fantasy goodness (sans dice) I picked up for less than $30 on Amazon that is just waiting to be explored, and this collection is now sitting on that coveted spot on one of my three remaining book shelves.

Either way you go, there is a lot of adventure to be found, and both are great choices.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Design Room: Mutant Future

You can't really talk about Mutant Future without being familiar the early 1980's post-apocalyptic games such as Gamma World and Aftermath. Even TV shows such as Thundarr the Barbarian and movies such as Planet of the Apes or The Road Warrior apply here, and one could throw in the original WestworldThe Omega ManTHX 1138 and even Rollerball or Sleeper in this category.

And then there is the Fallout universe, a lot of which applies here, but I am careful about saying "this is like Fallout" because Fallout is almost too familiar to everybody. Fallout is also a lot less gonzo and wacky as the Mutant Future game, so there is a bit of superhero gaming mixed in with this genre, along with concepts familiar to readers of comic books like the old X-Men comics of the 1970's.

The premise is, "Let us think about that the future could be like, and then let's destroy it and create a new world out of that." We are two steps removed from "today" in these games, one in that we have little idea of the alternate future that was destroyed, and we have even less of an idea of the world that comes after that.

I love this genre because it is totally mind twisting, and you are constantly asking yourself if a place you are encountering is part of the unknown future-past or the maniacally twisted now. I get the "now" part a little better, since survival and the medieval-like state most of the world has devolved into you know from traditional fantasy gaming. A sword is a sword and a village is a village, people ride horses and the blacksmith bangs out horseshoes and other metal objects.

Then things get different. Bits of old technology are passed around, books, magazines, and small household items re-purposed in novel and different ways. You see a mix of the familiar in the everyday use, a record turntable used as a potting wheel, forks and knives, a necklace made of bottle caps, an old wind-up watch, horse carts with automotive tires, and bits of today and a possible tomorrow in everyday medieval life.

And instead of elves and dwarves; we have mutants, talking animals and plants, and even androids and robots living in these places. They live simply off the land, and the society is your typical fantasy medieval world - but the inhabitants are all over the place. A talking lion with bat wings and telepathy. A half-human cyborg. A six-foot dandelion man. And while there are normal humans to ground things, the weird and wacky live here, but yet the "high fantasy" world model mostly applies. Different kingdoms rules the land. Savage tribes live like primitives in forgotten places. Wars and conflicts between feudal kingdoms go on when resources are scarce. Bandits raid settlements. Treaties are made and primitive life, colored a little by strange changes, goes on.

The fun twist is the magic isn't magic, it is the remains of super-technology we do not understand. Also, the forces which destroyed the world mutate and change creatures and even the fabric of reality itself in strange and deadly ways. Swarms of man-eating ladybugs can plague the land. A giant mutated potato plant can lurk under the ground and feast on unwary travelers. A bat with radioactive eyes that eats metal can terrorize travelers. A psychic badger can sit by the side of the road and force people to leave their food on the ground and walk away. A crazed building-sized farming robot could treat all life as pests to be eradicated. Anti-gravity warbots, still fighting the war that destroyed the world, could be flying around out there, somewhere.

And the ruins of civilization are dangerous places that should not be traveled to. The weathered, radiation-blasted, overgrown, nature-reclaimed wastes of giant cities stretch on for hundreds of miles of destroyed land, with mountains of rubble overgrown by forests, giant fissures and canyons blasted through the earth, and changes so drastic they turn the familiar into something that was once organized and civil into a hellish and broken wasteland of civilization tossed in a garbage dump, turned over on itself by terra-forming bulldozers, and turned into a deadly jungle of the broken remains of civilization where deadly creatures live, radiation storms blast, and machines wander the wastes in varying states of disrepair. You should not be wandering around on a map of New York City with a couple spacy looking buildings, this place underwent a tectonic upheaval a couple thousand years into an alternate future from today - you wouldn't recognize the place before it got destroyed, and afterwards you should be worrying about the tectonic plate that created a mountain range, jungle, and ocean through the heart of the city.

Welcome to Mutant Future

This is Mutant Future, and this is also the same gaming genre as (to an extent) Gamma World. The one thing I like about Mutant Future is that it keeps the original WTF feeling of crazy science fantasy, where the later editions of Gamma World were more high-fantasy influenced with mutant replacements for dragons, fairies, elves, gnolls, and other fantasy tropes. If I want fantasy elements in Mutant Future I can always put them in, but if I want to keep things less D&D I can without having to say "kodo dragons and the fairy-like lils do not exist." Even for players familiar with Gamma World, Mutant Future is a lot more unfamiliar and unpredictable, and I feel that is actually a strength when playing in the genre.

Though this game is 100% compatible with Labyrinth Lord and the Advanced Edition Companion, so if you want extra fantasy based creatures - there they are. Roll some mutations on them and you are good to go. Or just take a normal animal or plant, give it an AC and hit dice, and roll some mutations and you are good to go.

Need an example? Let's take a giant green jellyfish, give it 5 HD and an AC of 7, make it float through the air, and let's roll some mutations - density alteration (self), psionic flight, poison susceptibility, and temperature control (freezing). So these things float through the air in large forms, freeze their food with psionic powers, and they can shrink down and become dense rocks when threatened - and they are also susceptible to different toxins. There, a new monster nobody has ever encountered before, and something completely unique and original.

The same thing goes for robots, technology, hazards, monsters, and everything else in the world. Remember this point, since this will come up later.

Sometimes I feel the unique and iconic D&D monsters (mind flayers, beholders, drow, etc) have gotten so tired and overused the appeal of having them wears off (sometimes, I still think they are classics, but there are other times I want something new). The familiarity may attract players since it is always preferable to play a game you are familiar with, and against monsters you know how to deal with. But those strange floating jellyfish that freeze-dry their food? If I saw those as a character I would have no idea what they can do until the temperature started dropping around my character and they started shrinking down into dense, tiny rocks that sat on the ground like a psionic refrigerator turret. And I wouldn't know what else they could do, or even what their weaknesses were.

I love these moments at the gaming table, where the group of players is sitting there slack-jawed and wondering if a floating green jellyfish is something completely innocent or the beginning of a total party kill. The smart players will find a way far away, while the not so smart ones will start poking and prodding the floating abnormality.

Anything is Right

The fantasy-game compatibility is a huge strength here, since it gives you more to pull from. Mix fantasy and magic in there and enjoy a strange Rifts like mix of everything. Maybe a sci-fi world collided with a fantasy world and all hell broke loose. Replace magic with technology and mutations, or re-color the existing fantasy creatures with mutations and technology. A medusa with robotic, laser-eyed and stunner-eyed snake tentacles for hair? Fine, do it. It is your game.

The only way I feel you can go wrong is by basing this more on grim and gritty realism, and move more towards The Road Warrior and The Walking Dead sort of realistic worlds. I feel when you de-emphasize the strange and fantastical, you lose a lot of the wonder and charm of the game. When you take out the "whatever goes" feeling, it becomes something any modern rules system can do, and you lose that wonder and danger of the unknown. You don't want to make this predictable. You want the ruined world to come alive through that "anything can happen" feeling.

I would avoid traditional high-fantasy magic though when mixing (unless this is a collision of worlds type game), and keep the fantastical powers more mutation and technology based. You want one source of power, and I feel you don't want to all of a sudden throw "magic powers" into the mix as an extra power source that makes everything easy. You want the source to "fantastic power" to be the same for everyone (mutant powers and tech), and avoid giving players the traditional "high fantasy easy out" where fireball, teleport, and magic missile take over the game.

Two Worlds in One

Save the "normal" feeling for the settlements though, since you still want that fantasy medieval model to apply to the character's home bases and the feudal civilization around them. I find this game's focus on medieval construction, travel, and commerce a perfect fit for this genre, since I can create a miniature "feudal world" that coexists alongside the "places of ancient ruin" and have those two worlds collide and compete. I love having little "kingdoms" and "tribes" fight for scarce resources and farming land while the dangerous ruins of ancient cities loom over them. I love having players worry about "that is the red eye kingdom's soldiers, stay away from them" sorts of things. I love having the drama of the survivors play out and influence the adventures of the players - and even have these dramas become adventures themselves.

For example, if you have a blue kingdom run by a benevolent robot king, you could make his battery running out and the kingdom going to hell a constant worry for them. You could have a totalitarian red kingdom run by a mutated houseplant who thinks he is Napoleon that is well-run but brutal and confiscates any form of technology from subjects or travelers. The conflicts between these kingdoms becomes the backstory and focus of the game, and the "strange world around it" becomes the source of power for the characters (and also unexpected new sources of conflict).

I like the "two world" setup for these games, and I have had many post-apocalyptic games break down because the entire focus of the game was on "go into the city and get loot." There was no other story there, and when the characters found the ultimate weapon and armor upgrade and could beat all the enemies, the game was over. With another story happening that players can invest in, there is a reason to gain character power to influence the outcome of the world's stories and factions.

Keep the cities dangerous though, so dangerous the kingdoms have given up on these places as hellish, forbidden, ancient places where no one should go. I feel you don't really want organized bands of scavengers in these areas, since you want the focus of the conflicts between the factions to center on the scarce resources outside of the cities and the competition for them. Those areas should be so dangerous if a large group moved in to strip it clean, the monsters, hazards, and robots that are there should wipe them all out. You want to keep that "forbidden place" myth strong in both the character's minds and also the inhabitants of the world.

The Shadow of Gamma World

One thing that keeps this game difficult for me is we were big Gamma World fans, so the shadow of that game always looms large over our thoughts. One of the easiest ways to deal with this, I feel, is to say, "Gamma World is dead." If you want to pull in elements from that world into your games that cross the dimensional barrier, do so, and keep it strictly to mystery and lore of 'another world that may have been.' Maybe survivors from that world crossed the dimensional barrier. Maybe their spirits float in the nether and all of a sudden, some of the familiar pops up in the new world.

But celebrate the new like this was a new game. Everything you loved about that world, sans some of the pieces of gear and monsters, is here in one form or another - plus more. In fact, I think this game is better because it is more "anything goes" than Gamma World, which was moving towards a D&D like "iconic monsters and items" sort of marketed and pre-made high fantasy experience.

But in another way, I feel it is a bit unfair to just compare this to Gamma World, since this game is more than that. Where Gamma World was more of a set experience with a defined list of iconic monsters and technology, this is more of an old-school science fantasy post-apocalyptic toolbox where your ideas are more important and celebrated than what the game's designers give you. I feel that is the difference here. Gamma World was more of a World of Warcraft type experience where you played for the lore and iconic features - and I say was because the game has spanned multiple incompatible versions and it is out of print (to the best of my knowledge). It is tough for us to let the game go, but let it go we must.

Your games need to be more than what's in the old books. You need to take what you loved about the old game, and expand and improve on those elements. Love the old Gamma World death machines? Make a better one in the new game. Make two. Call it something else. Don't copy - improve. Make something new. Do something different. Put your creativity into the game. Into this game.

This is more of a game where your creations should shine, your creativity is the reason to play, and your imagination is more important than all the pre-made stuff. This game is in print. This game has a free no-art version available for download. If we support this game, it supports a game in print plus all the future players who may discover it. I feel it is more socially responsible plus forward thinking to support the new and in-print games.

It is tough letting a piece of your gaming history go, but I feel it is ultimately for the better. The original spirit of our first gonzo post-apoc adventures can live on in our games (along with some of the things we love, pick and choose), but this just feels like a better place to be.

A Brand New End of the World

I like Mutant Future. I feel this is one of those new-era old-school forgotten classics. It is an open sandbox you can drop infinite ideas into. It pulls in the fantasy elements directly from Labyrinth Lord, and is 100% compatible with that game. Also, this game starts with a more based and low-level fantasy world than does other games - this game starts in medieval fantasy and then goes into science fantasy. The rules here start with that 'medieval world' assumption with castles, horses, carts, rafts, primitive commerce, and men-at-arms fighting battles. The default world and how it works (in my mind) is the same as Labyrinth Lord, with a couple differences. A feudal society living in the ruins of a more advanced ancient world - and be it magic or technology, this is the same story told by fantasy authors a million times before.

That is the strength of this game, but with the added bonus of being able to put your own imagination in the game through the strange and wonderful creatures, robots, technology, hazards, and places you create. It starts in a familiar place, and then it goes anywhere your imagination can take you.