Thursday, December 11, 2014

My Top 10 Role-playing Games Ever (in 2014) #7

As if to prove that my top ten is not all nostalgic waffling, my seventh favourite role-playing game ever was published this century, is one that I do not own, and is one that I have played only twice, and that was four years ago.

Twice? Four years ago? What kind of skullduggery is this?

Well, the truth is that if I had played Cold City any more than I have to date it is possible that it would be higher in my list than it is, because the thrill I felt when playing it was much like that I felt when I first played my number one game. It is that good. Or rather, I think it is that good, it just has one near-fatal flaw.

The default setting for the game is Berlin just after the Second World War and the players take the roles of members of a special unit dedicated to rooting out Nazi secrets of a more esoteric sort. It's sort of like B.P.R.D. 1946, except each player-character is torn -- or perhaps not -- between their loyalty to the Reserve Police Agency and their own national government; no two player-characters can represent the same Allied power so competing agendas are in play right from the start.

On top of that each character has a personal goal that can clash with or complement those of their home nation, and a pool of trust points that must be spent on the other player-characters in anticipation of the game to come; in brief, if a player-character you trust helps you during the game you can use those trust points when attempting to complete the task or action, but if they turn on you -- perhaps as a result of competing secret objectives -- those same points can be used against you!

The system is a simple one. Characters are defined by three attributes and a handful of traits and all tests are based on rolling a number of ten-sided dice equal to the relevant attribute, augmented by traits and trust points but reduced by disadvantages or injury. Rolling is reserved for significant events and the success or failure of a roll can affect the character, leading to the development of a new trait; for example a firefight may be resolved in a single opposed roll, with the loser -- if not killed or incapacitated -- gaining "niggling shoulder wound" as a negative trait that would affect relevant rolls from then on.

I could be getting that wrong as it has been four years since I played it and I've never read the rules, but that's more or less how we played it. The point is that the mechanics are simple and get out of the way of the fun stuff, which is juggling all the different, often opposing, objectives while trying to stop some horrible Nazi occult weapon escaping into the Berlin streets, where it is of no benefit to Uncle Sam a danger to civilisation.

The simple addition of both a trust mechanic and reasons for player-characters to distrust each other lifts this great little title above most other investigative horror type games. With that said, why have I not played it more often and why is it not higher in the list? The simple answer -- as Stuart says in one of the summaries linked above -- Cold City doesn't lend itself well to campaign play; given enough time characters can become long lists of special traits that can be applied in some combination to any task and the system falls apart a little as a result. I enjoy the game too much to let it end up like that, so that's why I haven't played it since 2010.

That said, it must be about time for another go.

Next: Dungeons and Dragons' red-headed step-child, but not the one you think.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Thursday, December 04, 2014

My Top 10 Role-playing Games Ever (in 2014) #8

After my tentative and fumbling experiences with Fighting Fantasy I didn't play another role-playing game for about five or six years. Instead there was a bit of a diversion as I contracted discovered the Games Workshop affliction hobby through the mighty HeroQuest then got stuck into Space Marine, Warhammer Fantasy Battle and Warhammer 40,000. One day my friend Tim came to me and said something along the lines of "if you like orcs with guns you'll love this" and he was not wrong.

I fell in love with Shadowrun and it was my group's main game for years before we moved on to something you'll be seeing later in the top ten. The mix of fantasy and cyberpunk rubs a lot of people the wrong way but it never bothered me, perhaps because I was already blending genres with 40K or perhaps because Shadowrun was -- aside from some dodgy early 90's anime -- my introduction to cyberpunk, so I didn't know any better.

It also helps that it is coherent and consistent and that the authors haven't just mashed magic and elves and neon and mirrorshades together without thought. It seems an odd thing to say about a game like Shadowrun but the mix of genres makes a sort of sense; for example, the more metal one puts into one's body -- in the form of cybernetic limbs, and so on -- the more detached from one's own life-force one becomes and since magic is tied in with such forces, the use of magic becomes more difficult, more dangerous, or even impossible. As such, magicians need to be careful about modifying their bodies and even -- here's the consistency again -- about getting shot too many times, because it doesn't matter where the metal comes from or whose choice it was to put it there.

There's something pleasing about this logical approach, even if it seems contradictory in a game about the return of magic to the world. It feels good to know that if an enemy wizard casts a spell, it is possible to trace that spell back to him and -- if he hasn't taken the right precautions -- enact sorcerous vengeance. It means that games of Shadowrun feel like puzzles; it's not about action -- although using a helicopter to take on a dragon is always going to be a laugh -- but about planning and trying to work out what kind of defences the target has, how to deal with them, and how to respond to the inevitable countermeasures. In a sense every adventure is the Tomb of Horrors, except even if you survive some git in a sharp suit is going to double cross you when you get back to base.

That kind of focus isn't for everyone and while emergent narratives can and do happen the bulk of the game will be mission-based, at least at the start of a campaign. That said, the game Tim ran for all those years back in the Britpop era was more or less a sandbox as we roamed Seattle, picking up jobs and putting powerful noses out of joint, until it sort of dwindled away as open-ended games tend to do.

If I were writing this series of posts ten years ago Shadowrun would have a higher position in the top ten and the reason that it doesn't is that as I've aged I've become less tolerant of everything complicated rulesets. The core mechanics are simple and robust -- roll a number of six-siders and for every one that equals or exceeds a target number you get a success, with the more successes rolled the better -- but Shadowrun's scope is so broad and the applications of those core mechanics so varied and situational that it can be overwhelming. It can sometimes feel like a number of individual games -- one for the gunbunny, one for the rat shaman, one for the hacker, and one for the getaway driver -- all using the same rules, sort of like playing all the World of Darkness games at once.

I've played in games like that and they've been great fun but they're also beyond my ability to, er, run these days, and that's one major reason why I haven't played Shadowrun in years. Every so often I think about digging out the second edition rulebook and running a short campaign, or perhaps buying the latest edition and giving it a try, but that complexity always puts me off. All that said, back when Tim was in charge we tended to ignore the hacking and vehicle sub-games anyway; maybe that's all I have to do in order to walk the neon-drenched streets of future Seattle once more.

Next: willkommen nach Berlin.

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Happy Birthday, Little Grey Waffle Maker

I had been a Sega man up until the release of the so-called 32-bit -- did any of us know what that meant? -- consoles but then everything changed. Sega followed up the Mega Drive -- we don't talk about the 32X -- with the Saturn and that looked good, but where was the old enemy? Where was Nintendo? It turned out Nintendo was a year or so behind everyone else but into the void -- twenty years ago today -- stepped a new challenger.

Sony was an unknown quantity. My father always bought Sony electronics because he had a strong and strange conviction that one could always trust the quality of Sony gear -- where that came from I don't know, nor do I know why he pronounced it "Sonny" -- but I had no reason to believe that the company would be any good at games. Even so I wasted a lot of time and thought weighing up the relative merits of the PlayStation and Saturn, before coming to a decision based on some dubious criteria.

The first was that I was -- and still am -- an Amiga fan and a lot of the better Amiga developers seemed to move over to the PlayStation; indeed, the mighty Psygnosis got absorbed into the Sony hive collective a couple of years before the console launched. This is not a bad reason to favour a games platform, but the other is somewhat more embarrassing; I thought the black discs looked cool.

When a wealthy relative gave me a silly amount of money for a birthday gift I took it straight down to HMV in Brighton and bought a console, some controllers, a multitap, an Atari arcade collection containing the original Gauntlet, and the brilliant Tekken 2. Maybe I should have put the money aside and saved it for something sensible, but I'm glad I didn't; the PlayStation was a great little console and one that brought me and my friends hours of joy, and a few years later begat one of my favourite games machines ever.

And those black discs still look cool.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

My Top 10 Role-playing Games Ever (in 2014) #9

The first entry in my top ten may have come as a bit of a surprise but this next one is perhaps more predictable, if only because like many British gamers of a certain age, if you cut me I bleed Fighting Fantasy.

The Americans all seem to have started their fantasy adventures with The Keep on the Borderlands, but for us on our rainy, windswept isle, it was The Warlock of Firetop Mountain. Well, for me it was Masks of Mayhem and that blasted prairie fire, but my point holds. It was this wonderful -- some entries less so, but on average they were ace -- series of books that fostered my interest in role-playing games, although they weren't rpgs as such.

One day my friend Gareth showed me a new gamebook he'd bought, one that was a bit different to the others in that it was for multiple people to play at once. We sat in his dining room and took turns reading it and trying to make sense of it; we didn't grasp the need for a gamemaster so our fumbling attempt to lead Armstrong, Bigneck, and Crystal -- adventurers, not solicitors -- through a battle with some ORCS wasn't quite right but I still count it as the first time I played an rpg.

Is it nostalgia then that puts Fighting Fantasy at number nine in my list? In part, yes, but I think there's a lot to be said for the game itself, not least the simplicity of the system, which is more or less a straight port of that of the gamebooks without much in the way of modification for a multiplayer setting. This limitation becomes a problem in campaign play -- there are no rules for experience or healing between adventures because those weren't relevant concerns for the gamebooks -- but I'm not sure the original game was ever intended for such; the advanced version tries to remedy this flaw and expand the game into a "proper" rpg and is a brilliant failure, although the second edition is much more successful.

A Fighting Fantasy character has three statistics: SKILL, STAMINA, and LUCK. That's it. STAMINA is the character's health, as one would expect, and is reduced by damage and restored by scoffing food, a mechanic that is absurd but also endearing. SKILL is the character's active ability; if Bigneck wants to jump across a crevasse he rolls 2d6 and tries to get a result equal to or less than his SKILL score, and if he wants to hit an ORC he rolls 2d6, adds it to his SKILL, then compares that total with that of the ORC, who has done the same. LUCK is what it says on the tin; does the rope bridge break as Crystal crosses it? Roll 2d6 and compare to Crystal's LUCK to find out; where it differs from SKILL is that LUCK diminishes each time it's used, a beautiful little mechanical twist.

That -- aside from a PIXIE-sized handful of specific combat and situational mechanics -- is Fighting Fantasy in a nutshell. It's basic -- and oh, how I've come to appreciate simple rules -- and yes, it's also blunt, but it's more than good enough for an evening's gaming when there's nothing else to play, or for those rare and joyous occasions when one is introducing new people to role-playing games.

I'm going to be bold and say that Fighting Fantasy is the best introductory rpg there is. The rules are simple and make sense, and the book is full of good, jargon-free advice and even two complete adventures. When those are done there's The Riddling Reaver -- a campaign that's much better than I remembered -- and about sixty gamebooks from which to draw further inspiration. Second-hand copies of the book are abundant and cheap but even so this is one game that should always be in print. I don't play it often these days but that does not diminish my affection one smidgeon.

Next: buckets of dice, a machine gun, and a dragon.

Monday, November 24, 2014

My Top 10 Role-playing Games Ever (in 2014) #10

A while ago I posted a list of the top fifty role-playing games of all time, as voted by the readers of arcane back in 1996. At the time I promised I'd post my own top ten list but that didn't happen because I wanted to give it a bit more thought. It is possible that I've given it too much thought, as you will soon see.

Anyway, at number ten is Dragonlance: Fifth Age.

No, really, it is.

I suspect that this game was doomed from the beginning. It was always going to be a tough sell even if its troubled publisher didn't implode a year or so after the game's release. Existing Dragonlance enthusiasts were asked to convert to a new -- although not unrelated, as we shall see -- ruleset to continue playing in their beloved setting. Except it wasn't quite the same setting because of a soft reboot killing everyone off and pushing the timeline thirty years into the future, the kind of move that never, ever alienates long-standing fans, honest. Just ask DC Comics. Those who already hated Dragonlance for its infamous railroading, its twee eschatology, and all of the embarrassing dragon sex were never going to be won over by the new game, and as it shirked dice in favour of cards, cynical gamers saw it as a blatant attempt to cash in on the popularity of Magic: The Gathering, a game that was at the time killing the role-playing industry, which is why no one has published an rpg since.

I'm not much of a Dragonlance fan myself -- I read some of the novels as a child, but I got better -- and I've never played the game in its intended setting but even so I like the system a lot. Enough to put it in my top ten, but you already knew that.

One of the main things I like about DL5A is how its components and mechanics perform multiple functions. For example, the player's hand of cards is the engine that drives the game, and it is an elegant and versatile engine, like the [INSERT REFERENCE THAT MAKES IT LOOK LIKE I KNOW ABOUT CARS AND THAT]. The hand size represents the character's general ability, like character level in D&D, and increases in size as the character completes adventures, giving them more options when they need to complete a task. The hand also represents the character's health, with cards being discarded -- and hand size decreasing -- to absorb or deflect damage. Yes, it's not much of a leap from how D&D levels are associated with hit dice and how hit dice generate hit points, but putting all of that in a set of cards held in the player's hand rather than in a set of numbers on a piece of paper lends it a pleasing tactile immediacy.

The cards themselves take the place of dice with their values added to a character's statistic and the total compared against a target number, but there's more to them than a simple numeric value. Cards are organised into suits and certain suits work better for certain tasks or with certain statistics, giving the character a bonus when those synergies come into play, the rough equivalent of a critical success or an exploding roll in Savage Worlds, except with a set of cards there's an element of planning for success more akin to the spending of action or story points in one of those fancy story games the cool kids bang on about.

Cards are also divided into black, white, and red types -- matching the three moons and three wizard groups of the setting -- allowing for positive, negative, and neutral readings or even something as prosaic as determining which moon is in ascendance, if you're playing in the stock setting. Each card also features a description of a personality type, a feature that has a bit of the feel of a cheesy inspirational poster to it -- it is Dragonlance after all -- but is nonetheless useful for determining non-numeric details in the game; flirting with a duchess at a ball may succeed or fail based on the value of the cards played but the duchess' personality -- beyond her susceptibility to flirting -- can be generated there and then by one of the cards played to woo her. Is Duchess Siebenundachtzig clever and demure or belligerent and hungry?

The game doesn't just switch cards for dice; it makes the cards earn their place by providing all sorts of different options for task resolution, character definition, and storytelling. It's strong design rather than the half-arsed gimmick it could have been.

I also like that the mechanics are player-focussed. For example, when a player-character attacks an orc the player, er, plays cards to hit the monster; when the orc hits back, cards are played to avoid the attack. I've seen lots of praise of late for Monte Cook's Numenera taking this approach but DL5A was doing it in 1996. To be fair, even Pathfinder has had official rules for something similar for at least a couple of years but Pathfinder isn't -- SPOILERS -- anywhere near my top ten, so we'll just note how much I like player-focussed mechanics and how they let the gamemaster get on with running the world rather than the rules, then we'll move on.

The game takes an abstract, story-based approach to money and equipment -- rather than waste game time on shopping, characters are assumed to have what would be reasonable for them to have -- and to experience too, with characters increasing in ability upon the completion of an adventure rather than through accumulation of points. I don't think it's an inherent improvement over keeping strict records of every copper piece and experience point but it is the kind of laissez faire approach I favour when I run games so it's good to see in a rulebook from TSR of all people.

Of course, DL5A is by no means perfect. Few things are, aside from banoffi pie and John Carpenter's Halloween. The game's freefrom magic system is flexible and rewards inventiveness -- and seems a little inspired by Ars Magica but I may be way off, having never played that venerable game -- but is also a bit vague and more practical guidance would be useful. At the same time it's full of arbitrary restrictions left over from the setting's origins in AD&D; if a spellcaster can generate a fireball then they can't also heal the friend they caught in the blast, because those are different types of magic even if the old arcane-divine divide doesn't exist as such.

(It can become a bit of a philosophical rabbit hole if you let it. A wizard can't cast healing spells because healing is a life effect and wizards can't affect life forces, but blowing someone up with a fireball is affecting their life force, isn't it? ISN'T IT?)

The game also suffers from some wonky maths here and there; for example, by the rules using a sword to hit a cave bear is an epic feat equivalent to defeating the setting's Satan analogue in single combat. Oh dear. That said, the game's glitches are minor and a couple of sensible house rules fix them. Indeed, the core system was used again for the Marvel Super Heroes Adventure Game in 1998 and tweaks were made to alleviate some of DL5A's rules problems, amendments that can be transferred over to the original game with little difficulty.

A revised or second edition of the game -- perhaps divorcing it from the setting -- would have been welcome but TSR's demise and the arrival of D&D3 put that out of the question. As far as I know it hasn't been cloned and I imagine the big obstacle to doing so would be the deck of cards. I have seen similar systems -- such as Tab System Classic -- that have used standard playing cards but that approach misses the extra functions of the deck and doesn't show all of the game's strengths, of which it has many. Those many strengths are why Dragonlance: Fifth Age is my tenth favourite rpg ever. In 2014.

Next: two dice, a pencil, and an eraser.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Inside Out

Click on it. Look at it.

It's impressive and clever and brilliant. From Phillipe Buchet and Jean-David Morvan's Sillage -- Wake in its English translation -- volume five.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Advanced Fighting Gumshoe

A few weeks ago my group had a go at Gumshoe -- why do they capitalise it? Is it an acronym? Are they shouting? -- with The Esoterrorists and in the past few days Doctor Bargle has been thinking about alternative skill systems for Advanced Fighting Fantasy. As is the way with these things some cross-fertilisation occurred in my addled mind and I started to wonder how a Gumshoe -- I'm not doing it -- type system would work with AFF.

The first edition of AFF has a skill system that could be considered a little bit broken. In the basic game a character has a SKILL -- okay, I'm a hypocrite, what of it? -- score that is used to determine if she could jump a crevasse, climb a wall, or hit an ORC; for general use 2d6 is rolled and a success is a result that is equal to or less than the character's SKILL, while in combat the roll is added to the score to generate an Attack Strength -- italicised but not capitalised, because I don't know why -- that is compared with that of the opponent. Simple.

In AFF special skills are introduced. If a character wants to be better at jumping her player can spend points and add those to the character's SKILL score to get a new value, so Alice of Zengis may have a SKILL of 9 and spend two points to get Jump 11. Fair enough, except the number of points available to spend is equal to the character's SKILL score, so someone who has a good score gets more points than someone who doesn't and their skills will all be better too, in a spectacular cascading clusterfudge of wonky maths.


In Graham Bottley's second edition of AFF starting SKILL is not random and does not affect the availability of skill points, the same number of which are available to every character. This is all much more sensible and doesn't need fixing, but I will propose an alternative anyway.

There are many versions of Gumshoe -- stop it -- but in general active skill -- something like jumping, climbing, or fighting -- use succeeds on a d6 roll above a number determined by the gamemaster; skill points are spent before rolling to reduce the target number -- or add to the roll; I'm not sure which and I'm not sure it matters -- to increase chances of success. If the difficulty is 4+ a player can spend three points for an automatic success, for example.

Let us now put AFF in one Brundle pod and Gumshoe in another and observe the results. Open your copybook now.

In this misbegotten hybrid of two games systems that were doing quite well enough without my tinkering Alice of Zengis would have a SKILL of 9 and Jump of 2 as before, but that latter value represents not a constant bonus as it does in AFF but rather a number of points that can be spent to influence a jumping roll. In other words, Alice could spend two points to give her an effective SKILL of 11 for one jump or one point for a SKILL of 10 on two different occasions; once out of points Alice would have to rely on her raw ability for all her leaping needs.

The pool of eight or so skill points given in AFF2 is a bit stingy in this context so I would perhaps allow sixteen to twenty points to be allocated during character generation. Spent skill points would be restored at  the end of the adventure -- however that is defined -- just as LUCK is in AFF2.

I have a suspicion that this is an elaborate fix for a problem that doesn't exist -- a charge I've often laid at the Gumshoe system, as it happens -- and it seems a bit of a mean-spirited limitation, or "nerfing" as the Colonials would have it. I also have no idea how or if it would work in play as I haven't played AFF this century but it was buzzing around in my head, clamouring for release, so there it is.

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Three Ways Wrong Oreo Ice Cream Milkshake

I hate Oreos. They're dry and tasteless things that have only one redeeming feature: they're not unpleasant as an ingredient in an ice cream milkshake. The Oreo is the poor American cousin of the majestic Bourbon and I began to wonder what the latter would be like in a milkshake, so I made one.

This recipe makes enough to 75% fill a pint glass or one of those fancy metal milkshake things.

It is "three ways wrong" because this Oreo ice cream milkshake does not contain Oreos, ice cream, or milk.

Stuff to Put in It:

About 300ml of soy milk.
3-4 scoops of vanilla frozen yoghurt. I recommend Lick if you can find it near you, otherwise Yoomoo is an adequate alternative.
3-4 Bourbon biscuits, broken.

How to Make It:

Chuck all the ingredients and DESTROY for around ten seconds, longer if you want it smoother.

Bosh! Done!

Saturday, November 01, 2014

Forgotten Phandelver

Undeterred by our previous experience with the game, tomorrow my gaming group will have another go at Dungeons and Dragons 5, this time using the mini campaign from the boxed set, Lost Mine of Phandelver.

There's no way I'm going anywhere near the Forgotten Realms though, so we're going to be adventuring somewhere else instead.

That's better.