Tuesday, March 21, 2017

The DunDraCon Review 2017

Masks: A New Generation is a teen superhero game using the Apocalypse World engine. All of these things sounds really cool. I picked this one up because not only did Ken Hite recommend it at his seminar, but the One Shot podcast played it on a recent episode and they made it sound really cool. And it is. It is also one of my major disappointments this time around.

One of the strengths of the Apocalypse World engine is that each character type has their own character sheet that includes every rule they will ever need. This works because those rules (called moves) are very spare and very specific. 1 or 2 pages of information is all you need to play that character in that game for as long as your campaign lasts.

The flaw here is that neither the character sheets nor any of the rules that are on them are reproduced in the physical book. In the section discussing the different character types that the game uses, it's basically "This is a cool character type to pick if you want to X" with a side of "They come with cool ability Y so you can do Z" with no way to know what anything actually does.

Of course, like all modern games since the dawn of the internet, you can download the character sheet from the internet, which does have all of the rules on it as expected. But to have this be mandatory in order to get core rules of the game is incredibly annoying.

Epyllion is another Apocalypse Engine game, this time themed around dragons. You play as dragons of varying types, but the overall playstyle is a little more My Little Pony: dealing with relationships and solving small problems. There is a War of Shadow in the setting's backstory and the implication is that Shadow is a corrupting influence. Preventing the next rise of Shadow is all about seeking out the small evils of life in Dragonia before they have a chance to grow into the corruption of Shadow.

Bubblegumshoe: This is the new hotness of the year. A teen detective game in the vein of the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew or Veronica Mars using the Gumshoe mystery RPG system. On top of a streamlined version of the basic Gumshoe rules engine, it also has extensive rules for relationships and a detailed social combat system. In fact, there's very little to support physical combat in the game.

One of the things that this game takes pains to point out is that you're playing teenagers, who don't have the same freedom of action as adults and much less freedom of action as an adult in a heroic, action-oriented career. When guns come out, it is serious business and any teen detective should take that as a cue to get out of that situation.

The writing feels modern and casual, without using a lot of slang or "of the moment" lingo that is going to make this feel dated in a year or so, so it should appeal to actual teen fans of teen detective fiction. Bonus points for being inclusive, with the sample characters being ethnically diverse and mentions of characters in non-heterosexual romantic relationships.

I was also able to pick up both Trail of Cthulhu and Night's Black Agents in the Buyer's Bazaar, making this year a real Gumshoe-a-palooza for me.

On the subject of Cthulhu, the copy of Call of Cthulhu went directly to a friend of mine, as did the Song of Ice and Fire RPG and a copy of the D&D module White Plume Mountain (I'm sure it's in the picture, but it's very thin, so you might not see it), so I didn't have the opportunity to develop an opinion of them.

Myriad Song (not pictured) is a space opera game from Sanguine Productions, publishers of IronClaw and a couple of other furry RPGs. This game, however, is a departure from that. All of the races are aliens. Sure, some of them are dog aliens or spider aliens, but there are also some really interesting alien aliens, as well as humans and robots available as playable races. I haven't seen the second edition of IronClaw, but the mechanics of this game remind me very strongly of the rules variant used for their Usagi Yojimbo game.

The setting is not specific about where in space and time it is compared to us, so it could be our far future or it could be like Star Wars and its "Long ago in a galaxy far far away." The Myriad Worlds were run by an empire known as the Myriad Syndicate. The Syndics were a race of advanced beings that had mastered the art of xen-harmonics, which enabled them to do all sorts of amazing things. They even had the ability to imbue beings with xenharmonic powers via genetic engineering, so the same principle that powers the setting's space drive can also enable your character to teleport and so on.

Then the Syndics disappeared. Their technology still functioned, but the ability to manufacture or repair it went with them. Various factions struggle to fill the power vacuum, including a faction that is trying to keep the universe in order for the Syndics eventual return.

Rounding out my GURPS collection, I picked up a couple of adventures. Adventures are not a big part of what GURPS does, so these were interesting finds. School of Hard Knocks is a superhero adventure written by Aaron Allston, who did a lot of work with Champions back in the day, though my primary exposure to him was his novel Doc Sidhe. I thought this adventure was interesting because the script calls for the PCs to win some fights, but lose others. While you can't guarantee outcomes where dice are concerned, it seems like an interesting break from the assumption that the heroes must be successful in every encounter.

Bili the Axe: Up Harzburk is a solo adventure to support GURPS Horseclans. The format is fairly similar to a Choose Your Own Adventure book, but sometimes where the story goes is dictated by a die roll rather than a choice. The storyline here is actually a military campaign, so it could definitely be run as a group adventure as well.

While I haven't had the opportunity to find any of the Horseclans novels since I bought the GURPS Horseclans book last year, I have read some of Robert Adams' other writing. I have little interest in tracking down any more of it.

Robotech: The Shadow Chronicles RPG from Palladium Books was an interesting read. Palladium had the Robotech RPG license back in the 80's, but it seems that they have reacquired it about 10 years ago. The new book is "manga-sized" to catch the eye of the new generation of fans. The order in which the material is presented is odd, starting with game stats of the Invid, who are presumably the primary enemy in the Shadow Chronicles (making this the game's "Monster Manual"), followed by details on the humans and their mecha with the nitty gritty nuts and bolts of the game coming in very last. While it makes sense to catch the eye by starting with the good stuff and things that build the setting, it feels a little odd (and maybe even refreshing) to my experienced RPG-reading eyes.

Also from Palladium was After the Bomb, a supplement for their Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles RPG. It features an alternate, post-apocalyptic setting for the game, in which Gamma World's weird gonzo mutants with 6 arms and 2 brains and psychic powers are replaced with mutant animals of various kinds. There's a sample adventure included featuring a conflict with a cadre of rabbits with punny names, such as Bug Bunny and Gun Bunny.

A standalone After the Bomb game was released after Palladium let the TMNT license go. Maybe one day, I'll find a copy of that somewhere.

Dungeon Crawl Classics is an Old School RPG who's primary gimmick seems to be randomness. Players are encouraged to create a plethora of level 0 characters that then go through a "character funnel," a starter adventure that will kill off most of them. Once they have proven themselves worthy, they then achieve level 1 and gain a class.

The magic system is the most random thing in the game, with each spell having its own table to roll on which can determine if you cast the spell and exactly how much bang you get out of it. Spell failures lead to misfires and corruption, each with its own table to roll on. But fighters also get their own critical hit and critical miss tables to roll on during combat.

Warriors of the Red Planet is another OSR game that takes a different approach. Rather than a big sprawling book, it's a very slim volume. It covers only the barest essentials while letting your imagination do the rest. 4 classes with simple mechanics, a few maps and random tables followed by an interesting bestiary and you're off to the races.

The publisher had a few other OSR-style games at his table, but I picked Warriors of the Red Planet because I thought that sword and planet adventures were something that was right up the OSR alley without being too beholden to classic fantasy.

The picture also includes the Adventure Time Fluxx card game, making Adventure Time one of 2 franchises where I have the Fluxx game and the Munchkin game (the other being Oz). Also another Noteboard. Now that I have 3, I have the same surface area as my conventional battlemat in a form that fits in my pocket(s). Though it did wind up being roughly the same cost.

I was very disappointed in the lack of Star Trek merchandise available this year. Notice that there are no Star Trek shirts among the stash (though there is a cool Star Wars one, but that's my wife's). If you look closely at the white bag shopping it has little Enterprises on it, and the lining is command gold. I also got a bag with a Walking Dead fabric featuring the show's logo and a grasping hands pattern. That's another gift for another friend. (If you are my IRL friend, I will spoil you with convention goodies. Just saying.)

The black bag is actually a very deluxe dice bag called a d-bag. Not only is it nice and sizeable for dice collectors, it also has smaller pouches inside it, so you can keep your cool dice sets together without keeping them in their bulky plastic boxes.

I did, however, jump on some of the other Star Trek merchandise where I found it. I know the guy in the bottom right corner is not from Star Trek, but if you don't love the Flash Gordon movie where Queen did all the music, then we just can't be friends.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

The DunDraPost 2017

As is my tradition around here, I'm writing about my annual trip to DunDraCon. As I mentioned previously, Adventures in Oz: Fantasy Roleplaying Beyond the Yellow Brick Road did not have a presence there this year. So this was more of an actual vacation than the working vacation it's been the last few years.

Unlike last year, there was very little to criticize about the trip. Everything went fairly smooth, with connections occurring in a timely manner and no expensive redirections. In spite of the fact that California's weather has been pretty rough this week, my wife and I made it through the trip without getting thoroughly soaked.

Friday was the first official day of the con, but it's usually more of a warmup to the main event that is Saturday and Sunday. Check out the people selling used games for a song in the Buyer's Bazaar, check if there are any cool seminars on Day 1, that sort of thing.

This year came with a new wrinkle, however. It turns out that my younger sister was living just a few hours drive from the convention location. She reached out to me on Facebook and we met for a late lunch/early dinner during the lull in con activities. It was also a good chance for me to finally meet her new husband. I had met him once previously, but only for long enough to shake his hand before they moved away.

Since her husband is from India, we went to an Indian restaurant. (If I were to talk about my family more, we'd probably have a very Modern Family sort of vibe.) I hadn't really had Indian food before, so this was my chance to try it out.

We made it back in time to discover that the official Dealer's Room was open. It normally isn't open until Saturday morning. We wasted no time in making our initial purchases of new stuff.

Then it was time for our game. Yes, "our." My wife and I had signed up to play in the same game. It was a game using the Arduin system, and I knew my wife was a fan of the setting. And it was run by someone who was close to the original designer, who has passed.

It was not what I expected. My reading of the Arduin books in my collection, including some written by the fellow running the game, was of a sort of pulp/sword and planet/fantasy world. What we got instead  was a metatextual genre mash in which the characters were self-aware protagonists of bad, half-written novels who wind up traveling through each others stories. My character was a Wonder Woman sort of superhero, while my wife got a character that was a joke about Mary Sues, who could bend the narrative around her to her wishes. It actually came in handy a few times.

If you've played RPGs long enough, you'll meet the guy who says that their game of choice can do anything. Even if it's some old game that use different dice for different things, some rolls you want high, other things you want to roll low on. But because this guy has been playing this one game for the last 10+ years, he's achieved a sort of bond with the system and knows how to fold, spindle and mutilate it to get the results that he wants. This was one of those sorts of games.

On Saturday morning, I did not play in the annual Mythos Trek game. Not that I didn't want to. It's always been great fun. I was not assigned to the game by the convention's Sorting Hat. It happens sometimes. I could have just shown up and probably could have gotten in that way. But it was early in the morning and the nearest fee-free ATM was about a mile away, which meant about 40 minutes of walking before I could have my morning coffee. (I know I can use my bank card to just buy coffee. But limiting myself to cash that I pull from the ATM ensures that I pace my spending so I don't run out of money on the first day.)

I took advantage of the free time during the day to get some shopping done. As per tradition, I'll spare you the boring details in this post and then go into some exciting details about what I bought in a separate post. Needless to say, I am overall rather happy with my purchases this year, with only a few disappointments.

It also meant that I was free to catch some of the seminars in between bouts of game shopping. Ken Hite did his typical City Building seminar, this time with a post-apocalypse theme. Then shopping before a seminar on indie RPGs by Jason Walters, the guy who runs Indie Press Revolution. I'm regretting not staying after the seminar to introduce myself, since I do sell my game through his company, but I had signed up for a game that was starting immediately after the seminar on another floor of the hotel.

And that game was Mecha vs Kaiju, a setting for Fate Core. Although I didn't realize it at the beginning of the session, but the GM was the setting's designer. Always cool when you can do that sort of thing. The other fun thing is that we generated our characters during the play session.

As I've said before, most con games I've played in have used pregenerated characters. The interesting thing this time was that Fate character generation can be an intensive process. Not a lot of math or anything like that. Just a lot of examination of "Just who is my guy, exactly?" And part of that process is talking with your fellow players and figuring out "Just who is my guy to you, exactly?"

Needless to say, this took a lot of time, so the adventure proper was very simple. The formation of a sentai team, told in 2 fight scenes with some exposition in the middle. It was fun, but a little frustrating. My concept was of a guy who is very modest, but keeps finding himself in the middle of events. But the sentai fighting style that he wound up using was very showy and uncomfortable for him, so at the end of the session, I declared that my characters was officially the "Sixth Ranger" of the team.

Sunday morning was my wife's chance to play in a game without me. Another Fate game, this time using pregenerated characters in an established universe. The Steven Universe, actually. (If they don't call it that, they should.) My wife went in wanting to play Amethyst, but after some negotiation settled on Steven's friend Connie.

While she did that, I checked out Ken Hite's "What's Cool" seminar and adjusted my shopping list accordingly. Which did lead to one of my disappointments, but more on that later.

We then spent the evening taking advantage of the hotel pool and doing a little pre-packing to make checking out in the morning a little easier. We actually bring an extra, empty suitcase along with us that always makes the return trip full.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Time Out!

For those of you wondering if I will be at DunDraCon this year, have no fear. Unfortunately, Adventures in Oz will not be there in an official capacity. It seems that real life intruded at just the wrong time and I missed the event submission deadline this year. Unofficially, if anyone wants to play Adventures in Oz, I and my adventure notes will be there and there's lots of space in the Open Gaming room.

In the meantime, I've been catching up on expanding my podcast listening to the System Mastery podcast. They review old and (best left) forgotten tabletop RPGs with a healthy dose of humor.

It should also be noted that they have a few biases and pet peeves regarding the games that they review. The one that I want to address in this post is the requirement of extensive downtime, especially with regards to healing and recovery. It was a common feature in games for quite some time and some treatments of the subject are indeed worthy of mockery (How it's discussed in the Prime Directive RPG is something of a running gag for these guys).

But it doesn't have to suck. I ran an Old School campaign for many years with all of the downtime rules switched on and that was overall a success. Here's a few tips that I've picked up from my experiences.

1) Give every player a character to play. The first time I did this was back in my Cartoon Action Hour campaign. The party was split, with only one character remaining at the site of the big set-piece battle I had devised. So I decided to give each of the players whose character was not present a temporary character to play for that battle.

For the run of my Old School campaign, each player had several characters, some of whom were in downtime at any given moment. When the characters were high enough level to attract henchmen, those henchmen were also available as alternate player characters while their main character was unavailable.

2) Make downtime worthwhile for everyone. My earliest experience here was kind of a bad one. By Third Edition D&D, most of the required downtime rules from earlier editions had fallen by the wayside, except for those required by wizards. Spellcasters still had to take time out to make magic items, like scrolls and potions, as well as to add newly acquired spells to their spellbook. So for the megadungeon game that Kris Newton ran, the party wizard tended to be something of a drag on the rest of us. It didn't help matters that we had a rival party exploring the dungeon, so whenever we took downtime, we felt the need to negotiate with the rival party to keep them out of the dungeon as well.

I had better luck running the Pathfinder version of the Castle of the Mad Archmage. By the time i got that organized, Paizo had published their book Ultimate Campaign which featured, among other things, a detailed downtime system. Now, while the spellcaster was making magic items or was otherwise holed up in their sanctum, the rest of the party has activities that they can do as well. Earning a few gold pieces, building credit with the locals, or even catching up on experience points for when the player misses a session.

3) Use downtime to provoke dramatic choices. At least some of the problematic treatment of downtime, specifically as it relates to injury, is the assumption that attempts at recovery must happen immediately after the injury. But what if there are still things to do in the adventure? The System Mastery guys suggest that the injured character must go into recovery mode immediately and the player must avoid the gaming table because their character is functionally useless.

But what if the character doesn't go immediately into recovery? While I didn't have this happen due to injury, I did have players make the choice to not take the downtime required to level up immediately in my Old School megadungeon game. Because leveling up not only takes time, it takes money in those rules. In the early levels of the dungeon, there was not a massive amount of treasure, so it did sometimes happen that a character would earn enough XP to advance in level, but not enough money in the bank to pay for the training.

In a slightly different game, that could be a dramatic choice. If the villains of the adventure are working on a timetable, the heroes will have to act quickly and decisively to thwart them, which may not leave significant time to heal up between fights. The big fictional example is the first Die Hard film (The only Die Hard film I've seen). John McClane is increasingly battered in his fights with Hans Gruber's henchmen over the course of the film and the increasing difficulties those injuries cause him are not shied away from. And since he is isolated in the building, the best he can do for healing is some improvised first aid.

The Burning Wheel RPG makes this sort of decision a little more interesting. Since skills only advance in those rules when they are used for increasingly challenging tasks, characters are encouraged to attempt more difficult things. But there are also a lot of mechanisms for making tasks easier. The result is a tension between making the task you're rolling for hard so you can advance your skill, or get lots of help so the roll is easier and you're more likely to get what you want.

When a Burning Wheel character in injured, they take wound penalties to their die rolls, making things harder until they recover. So again that tension comes into play. Do you take the time to recover and remove those penalties, or do you accept the penalties and use them to make tasks more difficult and therefore more likely to improve?

Any other thoughts on making downtime a more natural and interesting part of your game?
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...