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.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014


Spiders are intelligent. At some basic level everyone knows this, even if they don't admit it to themselves, because admitting it invites all sorts of existential horror.

The little ones aren't much for conversation or philosophy but have a keen and innate understanding of geometry and structural engineering that dwarfs that of any other species except for perhaps the, er, dwarves.

The big ones -- the ones the size of people -- are as intelligent as people, if not more so. The phase spiders are geniuses but they're also weird, even by the standards of spiders, because they're thinking in more than one dimension at once.

The problem is that spiders are obsessed with order and see everything in terms of its place in the grand structure of the universe -- thanks China MiƩville! -- so when they try to interact with other sentient species they come across as detached and a bit alien at best, and AIEE! MONSTERS! at worst.

Being clever sorts the spiders realised that they needed some sort of go-between to help them deal with other species and convey their great plans without the encounter descending into stabbing, which is just the sort of inconvenient and tiresome business that upsets the order of things. No spider would be able to deal with the limited and erratic viewpoints of the non-arachnid species for long so they created the ettercaps, hybrids of spider and humanoid and the intended ambassadors of spider kind.

Ettercaps are created when a humanoid is captured -- elves and orcs are favoured because they're the most chaotic and removing them is seen as an efficient way to tidy up the universe -- and encased in a cocoon which is then subjected to a phasey-wasey process that changes the creature within. A few days later the cocoon rips open and an ettercap is released.

Alas, ettercaps are frightening creatures in their own right and despite their best attempts at peaceful discourse often invoke the AIEE! MONSTERS! response -- and that's before anyone finds out how they're made -- but the spiders are working on that.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Avenged Twofold

This got leaked today.

I think I'm more excited about this one than I was the first.

Over past few months people have expressed worries about the main actors coming to the ends of their contracts, or deciding that they didn't want to play superheroes any more, and other such doom-laden prophecies. The general sense seems to be that it would be a disaster of  Onslaught-like proportions if Robert Downey Jr refused to play Tony Stark again.

The thing is, it doesn't matter in the slightest.

This issue came out in 1965, just two years after the first issue of The Avengers, and in it the founder members decide to leave the team and new heroes are introduced to the world. There was a great gnashing of teeth and much moaning about the inevitable death of the comic -- the letters pages for months afterwards read much like the message boards and forums of today -- but what in fact happened was that the title carried on and is still going today, and the team reshuffle has happened again and again over the years, so much so that it became one of the classic Things Avengers Do, in the same way that the X-Men are always playing baseball.

Films are different aren't they? Audiences won't go and see a blockbuster full of new characters will they? Well, Marvel released Guardians of the Galaxy, a film full of new characters -- none of which had any solo films to introduce them to the general non-comics-reading audience, as the Avengers did -- and it turned out to be one of the most successful films of all time. They have proved that it doesn't matter if normal people have never heard of Rocket Raccoon or Drax the Destroyer, and by the same token as long as Avengers 4 is good it won't matter if the main characters are Doctor Druid, Firestar, and Triathlon.

Okay, maybe not Triathlon.

Besides, the new Avengers team introduced in that issue includes Hawkeye -- who we know already -- and Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch -- who both happen to be featured in Avengers 2 -- so if Marvel does want to do something similar with the film franchise, I think they have it well in hand.

Anyway, enough of that. I didn't realise until today that I hadn't posted anything all month. Oops.

Next: ettercaps.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Throw Your Hands Up at Me

Benito Cereno, writer of excellent comics, proposed the following exercise on twitter earlier this month:

My knowledge and experience of the Justice League is based on some vague memories of Grant Morrison's run on JLA in the mid-to-late-90's and a small number of Justice League Unlimited episodes, so I was never going to be any good at picking an all-star team.

So I cheated.

It's a good team, although I suspect it's also a leadership crisis waiting to happen.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Still Bored of the Dragon Queen

Yesterday my good friend and occasional game-master Ben told us a little bit about what he thinks of Wizards of the Coast's new campaign for their new edition of Dungeons and Dragons. Today he tells us about chapters two and three, in which the quality improves to such an extent that Hoard of the Dragon Queen can be counted alongside Masks of Nyarlathotep and the first two thirds of The Enemy Within as one of the greatest role-playing campaigns ever written.

I am dissembling of course. It's terrible.

Episode 2 – scouting the cultist's lair and liberating the prisoners.

I skipped the part at the start of this in which a disciple of the captured monk gives the pcs a quest (the disciple has a boxed text to be read out whilst Nighthill has no scripted words) since the pcs already had been given the mission from Nighthill. Instead the pcs would see the poor monk (whom I had crucified – it wasn't clear in the text – but it was from the art) and seek to liberate him.

The pcs had captured a cultist in Episode 1. Between interrogating him, and the robes of dead cultists, they developed a plan to pose as cultists to enter the camp. They eliminated the rear-guard stragglers of the cultist army and got some new robes.... And at the "gate" bluffed their way in on their wagon. Their ruse was to be posing as cultists who were collecting the prisoners for the sacrifice. It involved Pythonesque dancing and singing to "All Hail Tiamat", drawing on the fact Manoj’s pc Lorseen Liadon had chosen "Cult of the Dragon Infiltrator" as a background which meant he had infiltrated the ranks of the Cult of the Dragon previously, spying on the organization for quite some time, giving him some familiarity with its inner workings and customs.

As a result he had developed a second identity as an initiate of the cult, enough of a facade to blend in as a simple grunt or servant. This was roleplayed to the hilt. We had a great hoot with the pcs entering the cultist camp, spreading malicious rumours to different "wings" (sects) of Tiamat (blue, black, and red sects were encountered) an attempt to sow seeds of discord to foment internal strife and do the party's job for them (which they think should earn them xp whenever a cultist is killed by another as a result of their ruse!)....They managed to bamboozle the dragonclaw guards (it would be nice to have some blurb about dragon claws too – their culture, how they relate to half dragons, dragonborn, kobolds etc)....the guards are bamboozled by the pc's bluster, sending them off to clean their livery and polish their weapons, liberating the prisons, knocking out the whingers, and hiding the malcontents within the covered wagon, and having others up front.

They then travelled to the crucified prisoners and manage to get them down in the twilight and vamoose. They take out the gate guards and plant some torn fabric from a rival claw of Tiamat on the dead cultists.... To help fuel tensions they have tried to exacerbate in their brief visit. Officially the monk was meant to tell them "Leave me alone, I have it all covered....don’t rescue me or you will spoil my cover and my master­plan to spy on the cult" which I told the guys....memories of the Black Knight "come back here and I will bite your legs off"... "it's only a flesh wound".... With the monk absconding later despite being tortured and reduced to near­death....the PCs return to Greenest and report, and ker­ching they level up to Level 3!

[We had great fun with this section of the adventure. Once we'd established that the cultists used an elaborate series of hand signals and body movements as their secret greeting we decided to use that to our advantage and spring surprise attacks on them while they were busy gesticulating; Ben didn't have to let us get away with that -- and I suspect that the text of the adventure wouldn't allow it -- but he was having as much fun as we were.

The crucified monk was also hilarious but for all the wrong reasons. I can't believe nonsense like that got into a published adventure, let alone the first major adventure release for the new edition of Dungeons and ruddy Dragons.]

Episode 3: entering and looting the dragon hatchery!

The PCs are asked by the monk Leosin to enter the cave complex at the back of the camp and if possible steal the dragon eggs if they are still there. He is aware the bulk of the army will move on but that the eggs will be left behind, guarded, since they are close to hatching .....though later we discussed the import of them hatching/not hatching for the purpose of the plot.... The Draconomicon I finally referenced today tells me it takes a wyrmling from a hatched dragon egg 100 years to mature into an adult dragon.... 100 years – an immediate tipping of the scales (boom boom) in favour of dragonkind!

This was our first "dungeon­bash" in D&D5. I didn't let their ruse as cultists work – not being of draconic origin, they were attacked throughout the complex. I made the entrance to the chief npc area a secret door thus the pcs were funnelled into the fungi forest, bat/stirge area... It was not described in an atmospheric fashion.... And it didn't make much sense.... Why have your larder so close to the stench of the rubbish, as well as the stirges and violet fungi? It didn't!

[Ye gods, the dungeon. You know those first dungeons you made back when you first started playing when you were ten or so? The ones that made no sense at all but were still great fun? The cultists' temple complex was just like that, except without the fun bit.

Well no, that's not fair. It was fun, but only in the sense that we had a good laugh about how dangerous it must be to be a cultist of Tiamat. Who decided it would be a good idea to trap the curtain in the doorway to the larder? Has there been a spate of food thefts? How do the cultists even get in and out of the temple when the second room is full of homicidal fungus?]

The pcs slogged their way through the combats. Maya's pc had been changed after Episode 1 from a bard into a sword and board fighter – giving the party a "face". Which was just as well – since she was able to act as a blocker in combat. Sleep is still a really powerful spell at 1st level - taking out hordes of kobolds within the complex. The fight later in the Temple to Tiamat was more deadly. The blue half dragon Langdedrosa Cyanwrath and his 3 berserker henchmen dragonclaws (I made them draconic creatures) were a tough drawer for a resource depleted party... yes they had taken a short rest prior to the encounter... but still it was nearly a lethal encounter ....I opted not to use his breath power.... Otherwise it would have been curtains for the pcs... the first few rounds were brutal until Cyanwrath and one berserker were taken down.

Time was short after a late start that evening thus the dragon hatchery was run as an atmospheric encounter and no fighting happened there.

On to the trail of the cult....and trying to sandbox that as far as is possible!

Verdict so far:

On the positives ­ am liking D&D5 a lot overall. Need more variety in the monsters. Am hoping the Monster Manual does to critters what the 13th Age one does - making each unique (13th Age Kobolds RAWK! whilst so far in D&D5 they are so LAME!).

HotDQ....? Whilst having some hidden gems, it leaves a lot to be desired coming from professional game designers. It needed a serious playtest.... And really – I would have been far happier with a softback adventure with more depth/help and advice, a better layout, and no railroading! Some decent playtesting should have thrown up some serious problems with the design that should have been fixed before publication. I was despairing earlier in the week but now have worked out a way to make it work by the next session on Friday. Am very glad for the help so far from Hack and Slash – however I am now over­taking the blog's write up! ARGH!

Thanks Ben!

I like D&D5 too and I think it's a great shame that the first major adventure release is so poor. Not only is it full of nonsense like the crucified monk or the absurd deadliness of the cultists' hideout, but there are lots of instances of invalidating player choice, like having to escort refugees into danger for no good reason, or Cyanwrath's twin brother turning up to read his lines if the players manage to defeat Cyanwrath himself. It doesn't seem like the adventure was playtested at all; I rather suspect no one read it before publication either.

I have read worse adventures than Hoard of the Dragon Queen but I think it may be the worst I've ever played. To be fair we have enjoyed playing it but it's only because we've been subverting and ridiculing it as we go and if we took it seriously I suspect it would be a miserable slog. It is a terrible, awful adventure and it should be avoided.