31 August 2012

Our Last Best Hope: Part 2 - The Mercury Key

This is the second part in an ongoing series on Our Last Best Hope. Part 1.

In the first part some key elements of Our Last Best Hope were discussed, particularly those which make it unique and highlight how it emulates the disaster movie genre. This will focus on the setting up of the session we played.

To get started, we needed a Mission (where), Crisis (what), Limit (why) and Plan (how). Everyone wanted to go to space and fight aliens - no real discussion, it was a done deal. A Crisis similar to Prometheus was on the table soon afterwards: aliens created us and now want us dead. Why? It hardly matters, but we are going to need big guns and something inscrutable to stop them. From here it started to get a little weird, maybe go off the rails, maybe get awesome. Aliens in space was too obvious. These aliens were doing something in the center of the Earth, and we had to stop them there.

Now we have our Mission (Earth's core) and a direction to go for our Crisis. Inscrutable devices need equally ambiguous names. Numerous ideas were tossed around the table, but discarded because they were not pretentious enough (we're doing science!), or too scrutable. It wasn't long before the Mercury Key was said enough that it became our de facto inscrutable device.

This lead us to a slight speed bump: we forgot what was going on at the center of the Earth; d'oh! Well, aliens need an invasion and an alien invasion into the center of the Earth needs... another alien device! Of course, it's so simple! Our Mercury Key will do something that we barely understand with an alien wormhole-thing and stop the invasion, but the invasion has already started! Time is of the essence! Also, the alien wormhole-thing that will open and bring the main force needs a name that is clearly a match for the Mercury Key (what is that thing anyway?). We got stuck on Rubicon for a while - don't worry, you'll see it again. In the end, there was really only one name that was clearly the other piece to the Mercury Key: the Infinity Gate. 

The Earth's core is the Infinity Gate and we have to stop the Earth's core! Messing around with two alien devices that we cannot possibly understand and have names like Infinity Gate can in no way go wrong, right? Perhaps another team will need to come after us to clean up the mess that we make down there. Sequel?

Our Mission and Crisis are now complete: Long ago the Progenitors created humanity and they are returning to fix their mistake. Earth's core is the Infinity Gate, a wormhole device that will allow them to sunder our world. Some of their kind are already here.

Nice. To the Limit.

Since we only have one Mercury Key (it's hard to be inscrutable when you can make more), that is easy, but to make things worse, we decide that we are also the only ones that can use it for reasons that we don't understand. It likes us. Or hates us. Hard to tell. The Limit: We only have one Mercury Key to shut down the Infinity Gate and we are the only ones that can use it!

Part of the plan is done, we have a Mercury Key, but we don't know much about what we're doing besides that. It seemed pretty clear that we had written ourselves into a corner - we wanted an alien invasion with the shooting and comrades dying in arms to a power ballad in refrain, but we were staring down the barrel of a long commute through lava. It's hard to justify mounting weapons on something that is swimming through lava because lava. If it can survive in lava, what can we do to it? When in doubt, crib from the best. Obviously the aliens have wormholes and have created a network of passageways through the mantle, Webways if you will, though the grunts call them the "Antfarm".

The Plan: We will use their Webway (the "Antfarm") to travel through the mantle to the Infinity Gate, where we will use the Mercury Key (which we don't understand fully, so nothing can go wrong, right?) while dealing with heavy resistance. And lava.

With all that in the bag, we were onto making characters. There are four roles (doctor, engineer, scientist and soldier) and each brings something slightly different to the table. Having four people, it was pretty obvious that we needed one of each. After a name and a background, there were some specific decisions we had to make. First, the Touchstones: "what you brought with you" and "what you left behind". These Touchstones will come out when resolving Threats and will be brought up later when it's more mechanically relevant.

Our cast at this point:
  • Doctor - Dr. Mohammed al-Rashid: Medical doctor and cultural advocate, Mohammed al-Rashid enjoyed a certain fame for his efforts to reclaim and maintain archeological sites in his home of Dubai. An optimistic and soft-spoken man, Dr. al-Rashid became unexpectedly involved in the struggle for human survival when one of his sponsored dig-teams unearthed the strange and other-worldly Mercury Key. Though unfamiliar with the advanced physics necessary to understand the device, Mohammed was attached to the project to prevent exposing the secret to the world. Mohammed’s methodical intelligence and unflappable faith in Allah proved to be a valuable asset to the project, and when the mission was announced he was the first to volunteer. He has brought with him only his eternal faith, and left behind his surrogate family. 
  • Engineer - Ms. Konaka Takanishi: A technological genius who became involved in the project to shutdown the Infinity Gate by designing and constructing the equipment the crew would use. The repair driod was her greatest creation and proved invaluable in all of her pursuits. Konaka is the daughter of the powerful Takanishi zaibatsu, and working with technology is her way to escape her family's influence. She has brought with her a tricked out quantum laptop, and left behind her psycho ex-boyfriend.
  • Scientist - Dr. Martin Blank: Brilliant physicist known for his strange theories, eccentricities, and cult celebrity status gained from appearances on the History Channel's Ancient Aliens. Dr. Blank's work has always been surrounded by rumors and he claimed was often seized by a government prior to publishing as a "game changer", often to much derision. He was out of the public eye for years until he reappeared prior to the emerging crisis with the "Progenitors" as he calls them. He claims that his greatest achievement is MIMIC and may know more about the Mercury Key than anyone else. A man gripped by fears, regrets and secrets, he reluctantly leads the crew to the Infinity Gate. He has brought with him all that remains of his family, and left behind the litany of his failures.
  • Soldier - Pvt. Richard "Brick" Rodney: Bred in middle America and fed on wholesome corn, meat and love for his country. Brick is down to earth and unflappable, and beyond making some very poor choices over and over at the craps tables, he hasn't done much with his life. That being said, he is exactly the sort of man you want with you when facing the end of the world. He is willing to make the hard choices and will sacrifice whatever is necessary to do the most good. He has brought with him all of his fallen squad mates' dog tags, and left behind his crippling gambling debts.
Turns out there was only one character actually interested in making it out alive.

The final parts of character creation were to choose two other characters, one that makes you Crazy and one that keeps you Sane, write down a Fear, and a Secret you don't want any of the other crew to know. Since there's no point in writing any of this down if it's not going to come up, interesting is a good place to go. Entertaining if that fails.

Here is what we came up with for the Fears and Secrets:
  • Dr. Mohammed al-Rashid: Fear - Getting trapped in a cave-in. Secret - The Mercury Key may have broken months ago and possibly won't work.
  • Ms. Konaka: Fear - That technology will fail and faith will be needed. Secret - Father is trying to marry me off to political leaders for money and power.
  • Dr. Martin Blank: Fear - This all might be a part of the Progenitor's plan. Secret - The crew are human/Progenitor hybrids and I have been working with them in secret.
  • Pvt. Richard "Brick" Rodney: Fear - Letting anyone else die. Secret - I sacrificed the rest of my team to halt the alien advance.
Now we get to choose our toys, er "Assets". We wanted a variety, though Brick made a compelling argument to just take lots of different guns. It is also suggested that you take a variety of Assets since you will likely be facing a variety of Threats. True to form, we all chose something related to our role: armored encounter suits, dimensional scanning equipment, heavy weapons and a repair droid.


The last thing before starting was for each of us to create a Threat. It's both fun and weird to create the very things that will be your downfall, but it certainly is strong encouragement to at least make your life interesting. There would be no long slogs through 10' x 10' rooms full of faceless orcs aliens. Well, not only that. It certainly did help to imagine the various awesome ways in which the crew could take on the Threat and use your Assets to do so, also prey on Fears of the crew, and generally have things go spectacularly wrong.

Having hand-crafted our doom, the brave crew set forth with the Mercury Key to close the Infinity Gate at the Earth's core. Morale was high and it never would be again.

Next, the first part of the actual play for our session: Crossing the Rubicon!

29 August 2012

Earthdawn: Part 2 - Disciplines

This is the second part in an ongoing series about Earthdawn. Introduction and Index.

The information presented here has been updated for Earthdawn Fourth Edition (ED4).

The path these posts take may seem haphazard, but there is a method to my madness! To continue the trend of taking good advice when I hear it, the plan is to write about the aspects of Earthdawn that I find the most compelling, that are always in my head. To really engage in that, there is some groundwork that needs to be laid first. A subtle aspect of Earthdawn is how intertwined the various elements are. Each topic requires an understanding of attendant concepts and separating them can be tricky. Where this is going: if something doesn't make sense, leave a comment and I will provide some context and try to ensure it is covered sooner than later. The mechanics will be expressed from the perspective of Earthdawn Third Edition and Fourth Edition (ED3 and ED4 respectively) since it is currently they are the most recent editions. Changes from previous editions can be found here: 1E, 3E and Revised.

Magic is everywhere in Earthdawn; it pervades every aspect of the system and setting and is awesome. Magic is based around the concept of threads, it is the basic unit in which magic is expressed. Using magic involves weaving these Threads, and anything that is permanently magical has a pattern, which generally means that it has a Name. These are important concepts and will be covered in detail another time. For now: magic involves weaving threads to patterns which have Names.

Every PC is an adept, someone that can use magic, and every adept expresses their magic through their discipline. A discipline is an archetypal concept that has developed a Name and a pattern, examples include the Swordmaster, Warrior, and Weaponsmith. They are the foundation of every Earthdawn character, which is hardly unique to any class-based system. What makes a discipline different is how it is addressed within the system and the setting. By following a discipline the adept is aligning their pattern with the pattern of their discipline. The threads to the discipline pattern take the form of talents (abilities powered by magic).

Like many things in Earthdawn, disciplines exist in and out of game. If you were to inform another Namegiver that you are a Weaponsmith, this would communicate something specific and intrinsic about you. Telling them you are a Swordmaster versus a Warrior would communicate something very different. The Names are more than just adjectives. Each discipline is also a philosophy, a way of life - truly requiring dedication and focus to follow. Each expression of that philosophy is personal, though often passed from master to apprentice. What this means is that there are certain behaviors which are expected and those which are largely prohibited. Falling outside of these expectations will put the adept into a crisis where their talents will begin to fail them. This is a big deal and will require sacrifice of some kind on the part of the adept, a re-dedication to their discipline and what it means.

Let's take a look at Swordmasters and Warriors to get something of a feel for these differences and what they mean. Both are combat disciplines, but how they go about that and how they see the world is different. The Swordmaster dedicates themselves to the blade, sometimes even one specific weapon, and views life as an adventure, a story yet to be told. They tend to be full of energy and excitement, dedicated to living each day to the fullest and getting in the most fun kind of trouble. Warriors tend towards being more solemn and it is not uncommon for them to gather in monastic brotherhoods. They are more interested in camaraderie than bragging rights, and victory over panache. A Swordmaster that engages in dishonorable combat or without embellishment is in danger of a crisis. A Warrior that betrays their comrades or fails to eliminate a traitor would be in similar danger. This is an example of how these Names, and Names in general, within Earthdawn have meaning, and those meanings are important.

The measure of how aligned an adept is with their discipline is called their circle (virtually the same as a level) and those are divided more coarsely by tier (Novice, Journeyman, Warden, and Master). All of these, including talent ranks, are actual things within the setting. When I first encountered that so many years ago (so very many...) it was a breath of fresh air to me. The cagey dance around classes and levels had grown weary, how to explain your level and class while remaining in-character?

Digression aside, the greater your circle, the more overtly magical your abilities and the higher standard you tend to be held to within your discipline. However, with that experience comes a level of comfort and self-awareness. Through your discipline you understand yourself better and how your perspective can be altered to accommodate competing philosophies. Essentially you can add additional disciplines so long as your paradigm is accepting of the new path.

Given the inherent magical nature of each discipline, some traditional assumptions regarding areas of effectiveness are different. For example, the Warrior is an absolute beast in combat; nothing else can really compare. Spellcasters do not shine in a fight, at least not consistently. They are more likely to prey on the weaknesses of particular enemies, or support the more combat-savvy members of the group. It is outside of combat where their spells begin to carry the day. This explicit nature of what you see is what you get also works for me. There are very distinct cues that tell you what your character is about, however there are also very subtle ones that will guide you on how they work through their Talent interactions.

Here is a list of the core 15 disciplines and a brief description (full list here):
  • Air Sailor: Deeply invested in the ideals of teamwork and civilization, these swashbucklers of the skies are consummate travelers. Abilities in combat and social settings, they are particularly team-oriented in their capabilities.
  • Archer: Very focused with an emphasis in direction and vision in all things, they are the masters of missile weapons. Missile combatants with a number of perception/searching abilities.
  • Beastmaster: Often attended by a collection of animals they share a bond with, they tend to find greater comfort in natural surroundings and are fierce unarmed combatants with their claws.
  • Cavalryman: Deeply bound to their mount of choice, these mounted warriors are fearsome and varied. They heavily emphasize mounted combat with some social elements.
  • Elementalist: Spellcasters that gain their power from manipulating the basic elements. They are more support-based than the other spellcasters.
  • Illusionist: The most social of the spellcasters, they emphasize deception in their pursuit of truth. Tricky to master, but they have some of the most interesting spells.
  • Nethermancer: Specializing in the magic of other planes, they are considered to be a little "off". Much of their magic is oriented towards undead, Horrors and Horror constructs, they tend to have the most combat applicable spells.
  • Scout: Gathering information and blending into the surroundings, whether it be the city or wilderness, no one is their peer in this regard. While they can engage in archery, combat is not particularly an emphasis.
  • Sky Raider: Ruthless sky pirates that favor strength and honor in all things. Typically, but not always trolls, very few are their peers in combat and none in sheer power. These guys base jump without a parachute onto other airships.
  • Swordmaster: The classic swashbuckler, emphasizing swagger and style in all things. They favor a grand entrance and shun stealth. In addition they have excellent access to social and combat abilities. In combat they specialize in one-on-one confrontations and have a more complicated playstyle than most.
  • Thief: Whether stealing out of greed or to teach a lesson about the attachment to material possessions, stealing is what a thief does. They fulfill all of the classic thief tropes: sneaking, traps, backstabbing, etc.
  • Troubadour: Entertainers and scholars, they travel the land spreading knowledge and gathering the same. The most social Discipline and also the best access to information.
  • Warrior: Often trained in monastic groups, they know all too well that violence is best used as the last resort, but are never afraid to do what is needed. Honor and loyalty are vital concepts and the understanding of death becomes important as comrades are claimed. All-around the most competent in combat, varied emphases depending on preferences.
  • Weaponsmith: Often the central figure in any community, the Weaponsmith places a high value on the trust given to them in that role. They are relatively balanced in access to knowledge and social abilities, along with some combat options eventually. Their greatest contribution to any group is the ability to improve weapons and eventually gain access to spells and crafting magical items.
  • Wizard: The classic spellcaster has a place, they emphasize knowledge over the others. Their spells are varied and often eclectic in application.

27 August 2012

Earthdawn: Part 1 - Introduction

This is the first part in an ongoing series about Earthdawn. Index of articles.

Earthdawn is likely my favorite game of all time. Over the course of many years I have playing with the thoughts ofwhy it always figured at the top of that list, warts and all. There is something about it that conjures all of the joy and freedom of my childhood, but still has grown up with me to reveal deeper elements. It has all of the mechanics and material to tell rich and vibrant stories, the world is one where you do something, and there are just so many things that it can do.

This is what I am getting at, the passion that I have for this game. When I first started this blog, a very good friend of mine told me to write about what I care about and everything will come from there. He's absolutely correct, of course. This series about Earthdawn has been put off for a while; half-written drafts and proposed outlines that went nowhere. I was afraid to do it a disservice, to not get the format right. It's not about any of that, it's about that I really love this game and I want to get other people to love it too.

That is where all of this is going. Until I have nothing left to say about Earthdawn, I'm going to be writing about it and hopefully you are willing to give it a read. If there is any particular topic or analysis that you would like to see, leave a comment and I will be more than happy to address it.


The line's travels have been more curious than most and have recently come full circle.Released in 1993 by FASA, the line was closed in 1999. The final release was Dragons, an e-book that I vividly remember printing out at the campus library after a chemistry final. That same year Living Room Games (LRG) acquired the license and released a second edition in 2001. In 2003 Redbrick acquired a license as well and released Earthdawn Classic, while cleaned up the rules and compiled many of the supplements into enormous POD tomes. In 2005 LRG stopped publishing Earthdawn and in 2009 Redbrick released the third edition of Earthdawn, now the sole holder of the license. On 26 Aug 2012, publishing has reverted to FASA in something like a merger between FASA and Redbrick. Currently Earthdawn is available in the third edition rules, along with Pathfinder and Savage Worlds editions.

Earthdawn is best described as a love letter to D&D. It crafts a world to support and give consistency to many of the classic D&D tropes (e.g. the ecology and appearance of bizarre monsters, the prevalence of dungeons and why treasure is at the bottom, the drive for adventure despite the inherent dangers, etc.). As well Earthdawn addresses many of the complaints that have been voiced over the years with regard to D&D (e.g. constantly upgraded magic items, the continual need for clerics, supremacy of wizards, etc.). The influence from many of these innovations can still be seen in game design today.

The setting, in brief, is post-post-apocalyptic; civilization effectively ended, but has since been rebuilt to an extent. Around 500 years prior to the assumed start all of the many people retreated into kaers, magical bomb shelters, to hide from what would otherwise be a mass extinction event called the Scourge. During this 400 year period the magical reality (astral space) and physical reality grew close enough for otherworldly entities known as Horrors to cross into our world. The Horrors feed off the pain and fear of sapient creatures and have a great interest in cracking into the kaers, to no small amount of success. The survivors emerged into a world that was very different from the tales they had been raised on. It was a twisted version, filled with monsters and Horrors.

Adepts are the heroes of the setting: individuals that can use magic through natural talent and force of will by aligning themselves with archetypes known as Disciplines. Because of who and what they are, it is their responsibility to explore this new world, protect the people trying to rebuild, banish the Horrors that remain, and find and rescue those that have not yet emerged from their kaers. The magic employed by all Adepts involves Weaving magical Threads to Patterns. Everything with a Name has a Pattern, and those that can give Names have a special place in the universe. They are collectively known as Namegivers and all of the player races belong to this group. Weaving Threads to an object with a Pattern requires knowledge of them, so many Adepts expend considerable effort to learn the history of the item in question so that it will gain power as they do.

These are a few of the elements of Earthdawn which will forever capture my imagination. I'm going to expand on these and many more. Please leave a comment if there is anything you would like to see, or if you are enjoying what you read. My hope is that others can be inspired like I was.

25 August 2012

Our Last Best Hope: Part 1 - Review

This is the first part in an ongoing series on Our Last Best Hope. Part 2.

Our Last Best Hope, by Mark Diaz Truman of Magpie Games, is a cooperative story game which emulates the disaster movie genre (e.g. Armageddon, The Core, Deep Impact, Sunshine, Dawn of the Dead, etc.). It can handle groups from three to six people (though I would consider the "sweet-spot" to be four or five). The session for four people we played took three hours, but that included dinner and introducing the players to the game. We figure that a future session would take around two hours, which is exactly what the book claims.

As a cooperative story game, there is no GM, but there are still two roles to be defined a the beginning of the session: Captain and Supply Officer. The Captain should be the player with the most experience with the system and willing to take something of a leadership role. They will be responsible for setting the stage and choosing Threats when no one else is available. The Supply Officer gets to control the flow of Story Points, acting like the banker for Monopoly, but also as the final arbiter of access to group resources. Ideally the group will be making these decisions as a whole; if not the path ahead will be a very rocky one. Also, the Supply Officer has the role of portraying MIMIC when no one else is available.

MIMIC is the first artificial intelligence and contains the sum total of humanity's knowledge. This does not mean they cannot be wrong or are infallible. Whenever you want further information, you will consult MIMIC (and whoever is portraying them for that scene). It's a very cute way to give every player a stake in developing the story and have something to do even when not directly involved - MIMIC is typically played by someone not taking part in the scene.

To start the game you need to define the story you will embark on by selecting a Mission, which would be the setting for the story. Space, snow and zombie apocalypse are the Missions discussed in detail with extensive examples. Following the Mission you define the Crisis: what exactly is going to end the world? Then the Limit: what makes your group the only one that can tackle the Crisis? Finally, the Plan:  How are you going to fix this?

Strong themes that are easy to fit things into are recommended here. A failing on our part was, perhaps, to provide too much detail without real discussion as to where we wanted to go with the story. It worked out well in the end, but it occasionally felt like we each may have been trying to tell a different story at different moments. As the session went on, we started to work more to make the story a coherent one and were more explicit about what we wanted. A second play would likely go much smoother as the system would be almost entirely in the background; the focus would be on the roleplay and addressing each Threat.

There are two types of scenes within Our Last Best Hope: Spotlight Scenes and Threats. Spotlight Scenes are the interludes between Threats which will reveal more about the characters in fleeting quiet moments. When you are in the Spotlight, you get to choose at least one other character to be present in the scene and then give an outline regarding what you want this scene to be about. These are also the opportunities to reveal more about your character, by your choosing or not (everyone has a Secret), and provide the primary opportunities to generate more Story Points. The scene will come to a dramatic close when the next Threat erupts, which must be dealt with immediately or the Mission is doomed!

Threats are something that cannot be avoided and is occuring right now. Running out of food is not a good Threat; it will take too long to have serious repercussions, but running out of air needs to be addressed immediately. Having interesting and relevant Threats is an important aspect of the game and will be one of the main external sources of drama. When a Threat is announced, one character must volunteer to take the Threat. They suffer the primary consequences of the Threat, for better or worse, and are the lead for choosing resources to bring to bear against it, often asking for help from others in the crew.

They are another chance to roleplay during times of pressure, bringing out other aspects of your character than the things that matter to them, including what they brought with them and left behind. Using these Touchstones generates additional dice against the Threat, while facing Fears generates Story Points, but at the cost of making the Threat worse. Failure against a Threat will cause Harm and success will reduce the effect of the Threat until it is eliminated entirely. When the Threat is resolved, the player that took the Threat will get to write a new Threat and play proceeds as normal. Threats also present the timing mechanic of Our Last Best Hope and just because things are going great in Act I, does not mean everything will be rosy when you round the bend to Act II (which we found out the hard way).

Story Points are the primary currency that you use to resolve Threats, through skills, assistance from others, or by bringing an Asset to help. You start with two and the group has access to two more per player, and can gain more throughout play. There is a finite number, but unspent Story Points won't help anyone and hording them can lead to serious trouble down the line. Maintaining the flow of Story Points is vital to the long-term success of the Plan. 

The Threats worked really great to bring everyone back together after what could be some antagonistic Spotlight Scenes. To get through each Threat you have to work as a team and carefully measure your resources. This entire process goes a lot faster than we had anticipated; with four players we did a total of six Threats before Act I came to a close. We were probably too conservative, which resulted in never failing a single roll, but being in a very bad position at the end of Act I. It's definitely a balancing act and it can be rough to really anticipate how things will turn out; planning for the future is difficult when there are problems demanding your attention right now and the future will hardly matter if you cannot get there. That is particularly true once you move to Act II and things get real

One of the most innovative and genre defining elements of Our Last Best Hope is the Death Card. This is very important and will strongly shape Act II, the endgame, and define the story arc for most of the characters. Your Death Card details a general situation for you to die; e.g. "...at the hands of another". If you are going to die and don't want to, you can cheat your death for a time, but if you are going to die and it fits with your Death Card, you can confirm the death to some significant mechanical benefit. You also have the option of choosing your fate at any time: dying during a Threat to save the day. Even after you die, you can still participate in the story through flashbacks, selecting Threats, portraying MIMIC, and see that the Plan succeeds.

Our Last Best Hope is a really great game for a evening with some friends. It doesn't take long to put it together and there can be some great moments to come out of it, no matter how disjointed things are - it's your mess that you all shared. The only criticism that I can levy against the game is that it doesn't read very well. The pieces just didn't click right away in my head and I generally enjoy these kinds of abstractions. That being said, once you start putting things together at the table, it just makes sense. As well, there are QR codes on the bottom of pages with key points of gameplay. When you scan one of these codes, it will send you to a Youtube video that gives a brief talk about that particular item. This is pretty fantastic, but they weren't all up for us yet (sad panda). I have been assured by the author that videos will all be complete by 01 September, when the game releases. A very neat thing about Our Last Best Hope is how it bridges the boardgame and roleplaying-game styles, which means that it may appeal to different people and even grow the hobby. If you like cooperative story games, do yourself a favor and pick this game up.

Up next, the setup for our session.

20 August 2012

Kickstarter: Part 6 - Updates, Numenera, Tenra Bansho Zero and 13 True Ways

This is the sixth part in an ongoing series on crowdfunding. Overview and Index.

Almost a month has passed since my last update on crowdfunding projects, so let's jump right in.
If this was White Wolf and
the 90's, I would think it was art.

A couple of projects have arrived: Outlive Outdead and Our Last Best Hope. The former is a zombie survival game and my copy was... curious. But let it never be said that Mr. MacGuffin is nothing less than a gentleman and a new copy should be on the way. Our Last Best Hope is cooperative storytelling game for the disaster movie genre. A game has been scheduled for tomorrow, so look for more on that later this week.

Moving on to updates for projects that have been previously discussed. SteamCraft has been successfully funded and Dungeons Unleashed really needs some help. I think that this game looks adorable and positively a lot of fun, but I wish the creator would post some more information about it. Leave a comment if you would consider backing it if you knew more about the game; there is just over a month left, so we can still get it funded. <Update> Dungeons Unleashed has been cancelled. Better Angels has succeeded at all of the stretch goals, which means a full color hardback for $35, as well as a hell of a great game (pun intended). There's five days left, which means you can still get in on it.

The three most recent projects I'm watching are Numenera, Tenra Bansho Zero and 13 True Ways.

Numenera is Monte Cook's new sci-fantasy game. I don't know how much really needs to be said about this game, it is already well over $100,000. The premise is that it is in the far, far distant future (1 billion years, give or take I would assume) and works on the premise that any science, sufficiently advanced, becomes indistinguishable from magic. Art for this game is what really sold it to me. It is difficult to describe, but evocative and makes me want to know more about the setting. The system is advertised as being fast and character creation simple. It, of course, uses a d20 for resolution.

Tenra Bansho Zero is a Japanese game that has been in translation for around seven years (!). The art is amazing, though clearly manga in nature (this may not be for everyone). It is described as hyper-Asian fantasy, taking place in the far future with both super tech and magic. The game play is fast and cinematic, designed to be more like a movie, and there is a strong emphasis on interpersonal relationships. Also the craziest character types ever, like Onmyuji that use abacus-computers to summon and bind demons, or the beautiful Kugutsu that are crafted from tree-spirits to be art, but want to become human.

13 True Ways is an expansion for 13th Age that includes druid, monk, chaos shaman, multiclassing, summoning, and... dragon riding. The last bit is really what sold me, I will be honest here. 13th Age is a re-envisioning of 3.5E D&D done by Rob Heinsoo and Johnathan Tweet and if you like fantasy gaming in anyway, you owe it to yourself to at least take a look at this game.

17 August 2012

Monsterhearts

The tagline for Monsterhearts is "a story game about the messy lives of teenage monsters", and it pretty much delivers just that. Based on the Apocalypse World engine and inspired media such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Craft, Ginger Snaps, Jennifer's Body and Lost Boys, it is a big, sexy, dramatic, teenage mess. This is a dark game that travels all of the places your parents warned you about.

This is one of the projects that I backed and before I get into the game too much, there are some pretty great things that Buried Without Ceremony is doing in general. One of the milestones for the project was 5% of everything raised donated to Egale Canada's Human Rights Trust. This is pretty awesome to me and ties into the themes of the game which we will get into later. That is not the only thing they are doing to make the world better: a number of their titles are offered for purchase with the non-monetary currency of good deeds. The Monsterhearts pdf can be yours for picking up garbage for an hour at a local park and baking a dozen muffins for a family on your block. Amazing.

The system is very straightforward: you roll 2d6 and add your appropriate stat (Hot, Cold, Volatile and Dark). A result of 7-9 is a partial success: you get what you want, but there will likely be conditions. At 10+ the action complete success: you get what you want. Anything less than 7 is a failure and the GM will likely complicate your life. The GM does not roll dice, only the players. These stats don't do anything on their own, but to represent roughly your attractiveness and presence for Hot, composure and cunning for Cold, strength and speed for Volatile, and your connection to potentially sinister otherworldly elements.

Any action that you want to take that explicitly has repercussions for failure (like someone resisting or looking into the Abyss for answers) is represented by a Move. The Moves are explicit in what they do and what happens when you succeed. When you fail, the GM will get to make one of their Moves. How this plays: state your action and goal (i.e. where is this going), from there you and the GM will determine the best Move to represent what you are trying to accomplish. Every player character has the basic Moves (Turn Someone On, Manipulate an NPC, Shut Someone Down, Hold Steady, Lash Out Physically, Run Away and Gaze Into The Abyss) and probably some Moves specific to their character type (referred to as a Skin).


Turn Someone On and Manipulate an NPC are both based on Hot and do largely what you would think. The former applies when you are using your sex appeal to get something from someone, possibly future leverage. This is important in Monsterhearts, as a basic tenant is that you do not get to decide what turns you on. If a character successfully turns you on, then you are turned on. You get to decide how you react, but it still happened. This is a fairly direct and powerful way to explore some of the questions about sexuality when a teenager. Much like its predecessor Apocalypse World, Monsterhearts is very direct and powerful. Manipulate an NPC is what you use when you want something specifically.

Shut Someone Down and Hold Steady are both based on Cold and used for control in a situation. Shut Someone Down can remove leverage on you, or give you leverage on the target; it's also not nice - it's direct and obvious. Hold Steady allows you to gain (or regain) some advantage in a scene where things are not going well for you, but likely before things well and truly go sideways.

Lash Out Physically and Run Away are both based on Volatile. The consequence to violence from Lash Out Physically can be subtle in addition to the more vulgar results - those involved can often learn something about the person on the other end. Run Away is at the other end from Hold Steady an involves fleeing from rather than facing danger or confrontation. Success means you get away clean, though a partial success means you might not end up somewhere safe or make a scene; out of the frying pan and into the fire.

Gaze Into The Abyss is based on Dark and gives you visions that can be useful in some way. They can also be alarming. The specifics on how this Move functions is unique to each character: maybe a trance, communing with demons, or getting really high.

A major piece of in-game currency are Strings. Typically generated from Moves, they are attached to a particular character and represent your leverage over them. They can be spent in specific ways, such as giving bonuses or penalties, offering experience if they do what you want, or just generally making life more difficult. Against NPCs they are more powerful, but NPCs can also have strings against the players.

Each of the Skins has it's own character sheet (referred to as a Playbook) with everything you will need on it, including character creation, Skin specific Moves, advancement, etc. After five XP you will earn an advancement and select an option from the Advancements: increase a stat,  ake another Move of your Skin, take a Move from a different Skin, or join a gang (a group of your "kind" that will help you in need, but also place obligations on you). The Skins also have two other things unique to them: their Sex Move and Darkest Self. The Sex Move is a special Move that takes place after a period when things fade to black. They will often define a relationship in a new way and involve the exchanging of Strings.

The Darkest Self is the destructive part that every monster has deep inside (everyone is a monster here, even the Mortal) where all of your rage, bitterness and depression live. Your Darkest Self is most commonly brought out by Moves; possibly your's, another player's, or the GM's Move. It is not a good time to be around when they do. Every Darkest Self has an escape clause that will bring you out of it. For example, the Chosen must protect their friends at all costs and to do so will face down the biggest, strongest opponent head on, consequences be damned. To get out of this someone needs to come to your rescue, or you wake up in a hospital, whichever comes first.

Each of the Skins has two stats that they are good at (getting +1) and two that they are bad at (getting -1). The high stats for each Skin are listed below, with the unlisted stats being correspondingly low:

  • The Angel (special)
  • The Chosen (Hot, Volatile)
  • The Fae (Hot, Dark)
  • The Ghost (Cold, Dark)
  • The Ghoul (Volatile, Dark)
  • The Hollow (Volatile, Dark)
  • The Infernal (Volatile, Dark
  • The Mortal (Hot, Dark)
  • The Queen (Hot, Cold)
  • The Selkie (Cold, Dark)
  • The Serpentine (Hot, Cold)
  • The Vampire (Hot, Cold)
  • The Werewolf (Hot, Volatile)
  • The Witch (Cold, Dark)
When making a character you make some selections from your Playbook: an appropriate name (there are examples and guidelines - this is high teenage melodrama), look and eyes, origin, add +1 to one stat and choose one to two Moves from your list. Then you go through your backstory which will give you some Strings on the other characters and give them Strings on you. No one is truly an island in high school.

At the end of a Season, you earn a special advance: the season advance. These represent a major change that you go through during this downtime (ostensibly the time between seasons in a TV series). You can change your character's Skin, rewrite your Sex Move or Darkest Self, start a new character, or gain two Growing Up Moves. The Growing Up Moves (Make Someone Feel Beautiful, Call People On Their Shit, Intervene Against an Act of Violence and Share Your Pain) aren't more powerful, but they allow you to do something fundamentally different than the other Moves previously available: you can try to make things better. Through them you can start to rise above the petty things that dragged everyone down. This is really thought provoking to me and raises some questions about what it means to grow up.

The task for GMs in Monsterhearts is a very specific one. If you're familiar with Apocalypse World, it is very similar. If not, I don't want to wholly ruin it until you experience it. Essentially, there are principles that will guide how you do things. They do an excellent job of showing how and when to apply the Moves you have access to. Everything is built around making things messy and complicated for the characters. Nothing is safe and each action should increase the stakes and the drama, right up to the point that it explodes in a hot mess. A very important part of this is having the players dig their own graves. Generally speaking the tools they have at their disposal don't really solve problems in the long term, not until they grow up a little at least.

With all of this in mind, let's make a character. I'm going to make a Queen - they have a clique which does their bidding in a rather creepy way. You know the type and if you don't, watch Heathers (it's always a good time to watch Heathers, actually). I think that my Queen (King, in this case) is going to be the frontman for the most popular band in town - they're so close to getting signed, it's going to happen. From the list of names, I can choose Burton, Drake, Raymond, Reyes, Varun, or choose a lordly, cool-sounding, harsh-sounding, or name evoking leadership. Drake it is. For my look and eyes I go with stunning and brooding eyes. He's gorgeous and looks like he has a lot of very deep thoughts. Drake's origin is that he is the most dangerous person around. I'm not quite certain how yet, but I'm sure this plan cannot possibly go wrong. For his stats I add +1 to Cold, giving him a +2 total - he has a bassist and drummer to get into fights for him. Drake starts with The Clique Move, which gives him his gang, and they are one of the following: armed, connected, talented, or cultists. The band is clearly talented and will probably need a name, but I decide they are currently between names and going by "Drake". Looking at the other Moves that I can choose one from, I go with Sheild - when my gang is around, everyone acting against me is disadvantaged; they have my back! My backstory requires three NPCs from my band - Isaac, Taylor and Zac. I get a String on each of them. I also find someone threatening: I get two Strings on them and they get one on me. Drake is ready to run this school from his beat-up van with wall to wall shag carpet!

I really like this game and what it does: it's decadent and indulgent in all the right ways. With friends, this provides some amazingly tawdry fun. I have a particular weakness for supernatural high school drama, but only if they go down the darker roads and engage in more adult themes - which doesn't necessarily mean sex, but deconstructing what it means to be a confused teenager. It's about making terrible decisions while being fully aware that they are terrible and will have serious consequences, but not really being able to comprehend or care. The major weakness for me with Monsterhearts is that I don't think I could play this kind of game with just anyone. The level of trust I need to really explore this game is fairly high. There is a lot of comfort required for these themes.

15 August 2012

Bespoke Gaming: Psi*Run - Part 1

After my review of Psi*Run, a reader asked about my thoughts on turning the game into something suitable for campaign-style play. I told them that I would get back to them and here are the efforts towards that end.

Just extending the story with the mechanics in place doesn't appeal to me. One of the things I love about Psi*Run is how tight it is, that it pressure is always on and you are running to the crossroads. I didn't want to tamper with that experience, I wanted to try something different.

Things which make Psi*Run a unique experience (to me) include: the cooperative nature, making hard choices, explicit consequences and the constant visible pressure of the chasers. The elements in a game that keep me engaged in a campaign, even a limited one: a mystery that advances, and character improvement.

With that all in mind, here is my first draft of proposed changes and some discussion on them. The primary changes are to the Risk Sheet and how the Risks play out, as well as some personalized Risks. I would love to hear thoughts on these modifications. If anyone decides to use them, that would be great. Let me know how they turned out for you. Leave a comment!

Goal:
6: Runner achieves goal and finds a clue. Player has first say.
Other results as per book.
Special Addition: If the runner’s goal is resolving a Clue, Goal leaves play for that action and Clue is used instead.

In play I never found any reason to put a high number on Goal, which isn't a bad thing as there are plenty of ways for things to go wrong besides this. I wanted to include a reason to put a good roll there and this also seemed like a great way to also introduce further Clues into the story.

Reveal:
4: Runner finds a clue. GM has first say.
Other results as per book.

When given the option to have reveal that answers a question, a player may always elect to select a new question instead (no runner may have more than six unanswered questions at a time). First say is determined as normal. Alternatively, the player may also elect to find a clue regarding whatever is going on (first say is determined as normal). Every question that is answered gives each runner 1 experience point, regardless of whose question was answered.

The range of reveals was reduced to both slow that process down - it would yield too much XP too quickly - and increase the emphasis on the evolving group nature of the game. Ideally the first session or two will be more reveal-centric with sessions after that focusing more around clues and working together to resolve them. Memories would still feature prominently, but they would become something that evolves from the story, rather than directing it as they do initially.

Clue: Do I make progress on solving this clue?
6: Unexpected find: runner may add a token to the clue and a token to an additional clue. GM has first say.
4-5: Progress: runner may add a token to the clue. GM has first say.
2-3: It could be worse: runner does not add any tokens to the clue. Player has first say.
1: It’s worse: runner removes one token from the clue. Player has first say.

Clues are additional story points that are added through the actions of the runners. They can be an item, a place, a name, even a memory. A clue should never be in the form of a question, but a statement, nor should it be possessive (it isn't anyone's clue). Questions can, and often should, arise from clues. When a clue is brought into play, write the clue on a notecard and perhaps some details about when, where and how it was found. Resolution of a clue involves a series of actions specifically dedicated to uncovering what the clue means. The successful actions taken to resolve the clue ideally will inform the nature of the clue that is resolve (e.g. resolved from investigating the sewers should be related to something sinister happening, or winding up, down there). When there are a number of tokens on a clue equal to the number of runners, the clue is resolved. Every clue that is resolved gives each runner 1 experience point. The objective of clues is to give structure to what is going on and provide a longer running narrative.

Psi:

Power E
6: Powers cause no trouble. Player has first say.
5: Power blip: things go mostly, but not entirely, as intended. Other players have first say.
1-4: Power flux: something goes wrong in the immediate area and things are broken or people hurt. After dropping dice as appropriate select one of the following: goal is achieved on 5+, or no more than a 4 may be placed in chase or harm. Harm may be risked if it was not initially risked. Other players have first say.

Power D
6: Powers cause no trouble. Player has first say.
5: Power blip: things go mostly, but not entirely, as intended. Other players have first say.
3-4: Power flux: something goes wrong in the immediate area and things are broken or people hurt. After dropping dice as appropriate select one of the following: goal is achieved on 5+, or no more than a 4 may be placed in chase or harm. Harm may be risked if it was not initially risked. Other players have first say.
1-2: Power rush: something goes wrong and engulfs the room. People may be injured, things broken. After dropping dice as appropriate select one of the following: goal is achieved on 6+, or no more than a 4 may be placed in Chase or Harm. Harm may be risked if it was not initially risked.GM has first say.

Power C
6: Powers cause no trouble. Player has first say.
5: Power blip: things go mostly, but not entirely, as intended. Other players have first say.
3-4: Power rush: something goes wrong and engulfs the room. People may be injured, things broken. After dropping dice as appropriate select one of the following: goal is achieved on 6+, or no more than a 4 may be placed in chase or harm. Harm may be risked if it was not initially risked. Other players have first say.
1-2: Power surge: people may be injured, things broken - it would make local news. After dropping dice as appropriate select one of the following: no more than a 4 may be placed in chase or harm. Harm may be risked if it was not initially risked.GM has first say.

Power B
6: Powers cause no trouble. Player has first say.
5: Power blip: things go mostly, but not entirely, as intended. Other players have first say.
3-4: Power surge: people may be injured, things broken - it would make local news. After dropping dice as appropriate select one of the following: no more than a 4 may be placed in chase or harm. Harm may be used if it was not initially risked. Other players have first say.
1-2: Power eruption: people are dead, things destroyed - it would make national news. After dropping dice as appropriate select one of the following: no more than a 2 may be placed in chase or harm, or no more than a 4 may be placed in chase and harm (harm must be risked). Harm may be risked if it was not initially risked. GM has first say.

Psi powers are closely tied with advancement and as you grow more powerful, so do the opportunities to cause horrific damage with increasingly dire consequences. At the crash each runner has the following psi limitations: One effect (e.g. movement, destruction, healing, creation, stealth, information, interaction, etc.) and may only affect their self, or a very small effect/range if self is inappropriate. Use Power Risk E.

Harm:
2: Runner is hurt and impaired for the rest of the session. GM has first say.
1: Runner is hurt and impaired for the rest of the game. GM has first say.
Other results as per book.
Special Addition: Another player may elect to take the Harm from this result instead of the acting player. The hurt player will have first say for all aspects of this action (except Chase).

Impaired:
Special Addition: Triply impaired: You may not take actions until you have recovered to at least doubly impaired. Another runner’s action must always include moving you when advancing to the next locale. If another runner is not present at your locale, then actions must be spent to arrive at your locale before the chasers do. If chasers are at the locale of a character that is incapable of taking actions, they are automatically caught unless another player spends their action to move the character. Alternatively, Help may be used to resolve this. See “Help” below under other uses for experience.

Given the goal of having long-term play, I wanted character death to really be in the control of the player and have capture be the far more serious long-term consequence. As well being impaired for the rest of the game is a pretty big deal when that game is more than three sessions. That being said, things can still get very rough for everyone if you get very roughed up.

Chase:
Results as per book.

Capture:
Results as per book.

Disappear:
Results as per book.
Special Addition: If a runner disappears, players immediately receive a clue regarding where the character has disappeared to. Character that has been captured may participate in actions once a scene in a limited fashion until they have been rescued by the other characters (which really should be all that they are doing until resolved). This is can be an excellent opportunity for the captured character to have reveals and gather clues.

Help
At half the cost of an advancement (rounded up), a runner may instead purchase Help. Any runner may only have one unused Help at a time. After a roll, any player may decide that the acting runner receives Help from an outside agency that will be defined at the time. The player that makes this decision will be expending their help. The player may then adjust one die to a 6 to represent this help and the nature of the help provided should be directly related to where the affected die was placed. The die may not be adjusted any further by other advancements the runner may have. Once defined (e.g. cab driver), there can be no other Help from another cab driver, only that cab driver. Each time that helper is used another defining characteristic must be added by the player being helped.


Given the proposed cost of advancements below (equal to the number of players), an astute reader will note that once you have enough experience points to purchase help, it can then quickly be leveraged into providing increasing amounts of experience points to the group as a whole. Since the cost is half the number of players (rounded up) and will provide experience points equal to the number of players, this can be used to provide a lot of reveals early on. As things proceed, it should taper off as the costs will break even at best once all of the initial questions are exhausted. This seems to be a feature to me. It encourages players sharing experience points early on and thinking more as how their actions can benefit everyone instead of just themselves. As well it introduces NPCs to flesh out the setting as well as potentially make them relevant to the plot if they were used for a Reveal.

Example of Help: Jesse is in a pickle and is about to be captured by the chasers. He calls on the Help he previously purchased in the form of a rogue chaser that is secretly on the runners’ side (or so they think). The chaser helps Jesse by giving him an opportunity to flee. Later, Jason is in danger of dying from some psychic surgery gone horribly wrong. He calls on Help and decides that the same chaser from before arrives to provide a first aid kit. Jason decides that not only is he a “rogue chaser”, he is also “widowed”. Something about the chaser indicates that fact. Noting that the help (a 6) has been placed in Goal, the GM decides that the clue will be the widowed rogue chaser saying “27 September” before leaving.

Advancements
Advancements cost a number of experience points equal to the number of runners. Advancements may be purchased at any time prior to the dice roll for an action. You may only select an advancement once unless stated otherwise. If you want faster or slower advancement, adjust the cost of advancements down or up respectively.

Here are some examples, but this list is by no means exhaustive and any input would be more than welcome:

  • Talent: +1 to your goal die for a specified type of action: Movement, healing, destruction, building, stealth, interaction, etc. You may select this advancement more than once, each additional selection must be for a different type of action and the bonuses will not stack.
  • Skill: if the die on goal is 7+, you may improve any other die by +2. Must possess talent.
  • Investigator: +1 to your clue die. You must have a relevant psi power and be risking psi, or have a relevant talent advancement to use this.
  • Revelations: if the die on reveal is 7+, may choose the following result: Runner has a memory and answers one of their questions. Afterwards they may ask a new question. Other players have first say.
  • Tough: +1 to the harm die if you will be suffering an injury. This may explicitly work if you are taking an injury for someone else, but will not work if someone else is taking an injury for you.
  • Help: you may receive help at a future date. This advancement is removed when used. After this is removed, you may select it again. This advancement costs half the normal amount (rounded up).
  • Psi effect: add another effect to your psi power: Movement, healing, destruction, building, information, stealth, interaction, etc. You may select this advancement more than once.
  • Psi control: Power blip is eliminated: "5-6: Powers cause no trouble. Player has first say."
  • Psi aptitude: +1 to your psi die for a specific type of effect. You must possess the associated psi effect. You may select this advancement more than once.
  • Psi gift: if the die on psi is 7+, you may improve any two other dice by +1. You must possess the associated psi aptitude.
  • Psi capacity: you may now affect your immediate area, up to a room, with a proportional increase in power. Use Power Risk D.
  • Psi potential: you may now affect a large area around you, up to a building, with a proportional increase in power. Use Power Risk C. You must possess psi capacity to select this advancement.
  • Psi power: you may now affect a significant area around you, up to a city block, with a proportional increase in power. Use Power Risk B. You must possess psi potential to select this advancement.