Monday, June 17, 2019

Playa Got Game

This popped up on Twitter the other day:



I replied with a list. Then remembered a few more. Then another few more. Then some more, then I gave up and decided to post the list here instead. I knew I'd played more than four. I didn't realise it had been more than ten times that.

This list doesn't include the games I've owned and never played -- which is a smaller list, but only just! -- nor the games for which I've generated characters and then the game never happened.

13th Age
Adventures in Middle Earth
Barbarians of Lemuria
Call of Cthulhu
Cold City
Conspiracy X
Cybergeneration
Cypher System
Dark Conspiracy
Deadlands
Deadlands Noir
Delta Green
Dragon Age
Dragonlance: The Fifth Age
Dungeons and Dragons
(Basic, 2, 4, and 5)
Elric!
Feng Shui
Fiasco
Fighting Fantasy
Golden Heroes

Hot War
Lamentations of the Flame Princess
Legend of the Five Rings
Middle Earth Roleplaying
Mutant
(Year Zero, Genlab Alpha, Mechatron)
Mutant Chronicles
Nephilim
The One Ring
Pandemonium!
Paranoia
Pathfinder
Pendragon
Phoenix: Dawn Command
Red Box Hack
Rogue Trader
RuneQuest
Savage Worlds
Shadowrun
SLA Industries
A Song of Ice and Fire
(sort of; Ben used the rules to run an Arthurian game)
Star Wars (d6)
Trail of Cthulhu
Traveller: The New Era
Vampire: The Masquerade
Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay


I think that's it, but I expect to remember half a dozen more games about thirty seconds after I click "Publish".

Monday, June 10, 2019

Inspirational!


My group is always forgetting about Inspiration when we play D&D5 so here's an idea to make it more memorable:

When a player gains Inspiration, give them a d30 and when they "cash in" the Inspiration they get to use the d30 instead of the usual d20.

(To clarify, instead of rolling two d20s and keeping the highest result, you're rolling one d20 and one d30 and keeping the highest result.)

This method gives the player a unique token that stands out amongst the usual table detritus, plus Inspiration itself gets a bit more oomph, both of which should make the mechanic less forgettable in play.

Thursday, May 23, 2019

With a Little Bit of SKILL/STAMINA/LUCK, We Can Make It Through the Night

This is a review of the new edition of Melsonian Arts Council's Troika! but first, a bit of a digression. It will be relevant, I promise.

Fighting Fantasy is one of my favourite role-playing games, but it is not without its problems. It was designed to run the Fighting Fantasy solo gamebooks and while it's just about fit for purpose for those, the ruleset struggles when taken out of that context.

In the gamebooks there is some freedom of choice -- which is what makes them fun after all -- but it's not like a tabletop rpg, where you -- or YOU -- can take a beating, return to town for a rest, then return to the dungeon for more donnybrooking. Fighting Fantasy gamebooks are almost always about forward movement, with branching paths that nonetheless carry you forward.

It's also rare to have allies, and when someone else does turn up to help, they either hang around for a couple of fights then run off, or they get eaten by a GIANT CRAB (SKILL 10 STAMINA 11) after two paragraphs. I was surprised to discover that the recent Port of Peril features a non-player companion who not only hangs around for a fair chunk of the book, but is also somewhat competent.

All of this means that gamebook characters verge on the superheroic; they have to be to have a fair chance against the individual book's many challenges.

You can perhaps see where this is going. Translate that to a multiplayer rpg and you have problems. Now there's a group of four or five titans -- ho ho! -- wandering about, cutting through monsters and shrugging off traps; there's fun in that -- I ran a short and self-explosive campaign along those lines and it was brilliant -- but it's not sustainable for extended play.

The other issue is -- and I'm aware of the irony here -- that the randomness and simplicity of character generation means that some characters are much better than others. When you have only three player-character statistics and those are generated by dice rolls, you can end up with characters with wild differences in competence and survival prospects. Again, this isn't a problem with a one-off adventure but it can cause problems for a campaign. Advanced Fighting Fantasy makes the issue worse with its advanced skill system; your SKILL score also determines the points you add to your SKILL to determine the value of your special skills, so if you roll well, you get even better, and if you don't roll well, you never catch up.

Fighting Fantasy is a great little game and I love it, but these are major issues that can make it unviable for a long-term campaign, or at least a sensible long-term campaign.

I mention all this because Troika! is more or less an alternate Advanced Fighting Fantasy -- see, I told you it would be relevant -- and is going to be vulnerable to the same issues, unless author Daniel Sell has found solutions.

He has. Sort of. I think.

The SKILL problem is solved by acknowledging the inherent imbalance and randomness in the system and embracing it as a feature; maybe your rolls are crappy but look, you're a space giant with a magic map! It's a gutsy approach; adding even more randomness with the Backgrounds system and sort of trusting that things will balance out, or at least will be more interesting.

If we're thinking in terms of pure numbers then I don't think the problem is fixed -- it may even be worse -- but the strength of the addition of Backgrounds is that they give players interesting things with which to play that are not just numbers to plug into the combat or skill checks or whatever. The other advantage of this approach is that it adds no mechanical complexity, so the game remains simple. I approve.

(A quick aside: I'm playing in a D&D5 game at the moment using the revised ranger class and it comes with a bunch of special abilities that aren't mechanical as such -- they don't interact with target numbers, dice rolls, character statistics, or anything like that -- but still have a significant impact on the game world. It almost feels like cheating and I'm loving it.)

The STAMINA problem is tackled by inflating damage output. In Fighting Fantasy a GOBLIN (SKILL 5 STAMINA 5) with a sword can hit you for two points of STAMINA damage. In Advanced Fighting Fantasy the same GOBLIN can do between one and three points. The Troika! GOBLIN can ruin your day with up to ten points per kidney-poke! It's swingy and brutal and it's not the approach I would have taken but it looks like it should work, and will make for fast and exciting combat.

The other big change to the original Fighting Fantasy is a new initiative system. You add tokens, such as dice, to a bag -- player-characters get two each, henchmen get one, opponents get a varied amount -- and then characters act as their token is drawn from the bag, until the "End of Round" token is drawn and everything resets. This mechanic is tactile and unpredictable and I adore it, but I can imagine that the unpredictability of it could prove too much for some.

Elsewhere the game is much the same as Fighting Fantasy. It's simple, quick, and with the major issues of the original resolved, it seems quite robust. That said, Troika! isn't just a new edition of a venerable classic, as it abandons the generic fantasy of Jackson and Livingstone's Titan for something somewhat more exotic.

The setting is implied through the Backgrounds and the monster list, just enough to give a feel of the world without pages of maps and historical data. It's a strange world, a little bit Planescape, a little bit Book of the New Sun, a little bit Spirited Away. It feels decadent and almost febrile, the same way David Lynch's underrated adaptation of Dune does; I imagine the world of Troika! is hot and sweaty and everyone is struggling under some sort of summer cold.

The light touch to setting elements means that it should be easy enough to switch them for those with a closer match to your own campaign backdrop. I suspect it would be a significant amount of work to come up with d66 new Backgrounds, but I doubt it would be arduous.

Sells' writing style is infectious, arch and playful, without coming across as pretentious: "Notice that [starting Backgrounds] only touch the very edge of specificity." At times, when explaining rules, this dancing, slippery tone can border on obfuscation but for the most part it's entertaining and fun to read.

There is less art than I expected from this deluxe release of the game; there was a fanzine-style edition a few years ago. I would have thought the upgrade to a fancy hardback would have meant the book would be drenched in pictures but aside from the Backgrounds section art is scarce. It's all good stuff though; I'm quite fond of the aforementioned Background images by, I think, Dirk Detweiler Leichty. They have this mad, angular, almost abstract look, sort of like the face cards in a standard fifty-two card deck; the style probably has a name but I'm too much of a barbarian to know it. Now that I think of it, a deck of character generation cards would be a lovely little gimmick.

The book's design and layout are neat and functional and it's quite easy to read and navigate; the use of old-school rules organisation -- "6. Actions... 6.1 Hit Someone... 6.2 Shoot Someone", and so on -- is a bit excessive in a game of this complexity but is a cute stylistic flourish. The book is a sturdy hardback and is presented in A5, the One True Format, so extra points there. I will dock a significant number of points because the character sheet doesn't have "Adventure Sheet" across the top but you can't have everything, I suppose.

While I have some quibbles with Troika! they are minor, and on the whole it's a solid and entertaining update and enhancement of one of my favourite role-playing games; should I be lucky enough to once again run a Fighting Fantasy game in the future, I will probably use Troika! because Troika! is ace.

Arbitrary numeric score: 87

Troika can be purchased in digital and physical forms.



Tuesday, May 21, 2019

It's Been Ages

Stuart asked me a question about the 13th Age Rogue class yesterday and to answer I dug out my copy of the rulebook; I also found my GM notes for the campaign I ran back in 2014. The campaign went on hiatus as my group moved on to other things but it did not finish; what surprised me most as I looked over my notes again was how much was going on!

Characters in 13th Age each have One Unique Thing, some aspect of themselves that no other character in the setting shares. Stuart's character Sartheen was the only red dragonspawn. Manoj played Amras, an elf wizard who was in fact not an elf at all, but a sort of flesh prison for the soul of the Devil, imprisoned in an earlier Age. Ben played Ne-0n, a robot monk -- well, he was a monk-flavoured sorcerer as the monk rules weren't out at that point, despite there being a monk on the cover of the rulebook! -- with a sort of cosmic awareness that allowed him to see the underlying structure of reality; I imagine this was probably represented in binary code.

13th Age characters also have relationships with the Icons of the setting; these are the sort of powerful NPCs that every fantasy setting has, like the Archmage, the Orc Lord, and so on. Player-characters can have positive, ambiguous, or negative relationships with certain Icons, and there are various ways the relationship can play out in terms of mechanics; there's more detail on Icon relationships here.

I tended to use the relationships as background plot devices. The Three, a trio of powerful dragons, were interested in and a little scared of Sartheen, because there weren't supposed to be red dragonspawn. The Diabolist was watching and sort of protecting Amras, in case something happened and the Devil got out. Ne-0n was a servant of the Great Gold Wyrm, except the robot had suspicions it was being manipulated and, for the greater good or not, this clashed with the mechanoid's desire for self-determination.

(This led to a wonderful statement of intent for the second half of the campaign, as Ne-0n emerged from a period of meditation with an intention to free the player-characters -- and perhaps the world as a whole -- from the influence of the Icons. This kicked things into a higher gear and I was excited by the prospect of the players seizing control of the campaign narrative, but then we stopped playing.)

There's no alignment in 13th Age; rather the Icons have relationships with each other, and the player-characters' relationships with the Icons in turn suggest where they stand in terms of the larger philosophical and physical conflicts in the world. The Three and the Elf Queen were engaged in a cold war of sorts, so the elves were interested in the fact that the dragons were interested in Sartheen; as such they asked Amras to spy on his ally. The Great Gold Wyrm and his servants -- even disgruntled servants like Ne-0n -- stand against demonic incursions, but the robot was unaware of what was inside Amras. The players were under no obligation to go along with their Icons' plans, but all this going on in the background made for interesting dynamics.

That's just a brief summary. There were a couple of other characters, each with their own Unique Things and Icon relationships, and Sartheen, Amras, and Ne-0n had other relationships I haven't discussed. Even so, you can see how a tiny handful of numbers and words on a character sheet generated a complex web of histories and politics, none of which was planned when I started running the game. It's very old-school in a way.

Even if I never play 13th Age again -- and I do hope that is not the case -- I will have a serious think about pinching the One Unique Thing and Icon mechanics for the next game I run, because they generate so much potential fun.

Friday, April 26, 2019

They Mostly Come at Night... Mostly

I remembered, halfway through the morning, that it's Alien Day today, so I did a quick sketch as my morning tea was cooling down.



I quite like the idea of cooling tea as a timer for a sketch; a time limit forces me to draw without indulging in fiddliness, and means I can't hide deficiencies in my drawing behind detail. I also get a cup of tea out of it, which is a nice bonus.

I used to draw these aliens all the time, as I got a bit obsessed with Trident Comics' old Aliens magazine, which reprinted Dark Horse's comics. This is the first time I've drawn one of the creatures in at least ten years, I think.

Friday, April 19, 2019

Homage to Barovia

My GM didn't like the player handout map in Curse of Strahd so asked me to draw a different one.


(click here for a high resolution version for printing)

I think it's probably a bit too fancy to be an in-universe map drawn by feckless peasants, but maybe it's the equivalent of those gaudy tourist maps you get when you go on holiday.

Monday, April 08, 2019

Death Cave Doom

I've been drawing some people dying in horrible ways. This is for Lamentations of the Flame Princess, of course.






Friday, March 22, 2019

Something Familiar, Yes?

It's #DrawDeathsHeadDay today and it's #HellboyDay either today or tomorrow, depending on whom you ask, so this was probably inevitable.


The image is based on the cover of Thor #126, by Jack Kirby.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Thanks Larry


Larry DiTillio wrote many of my favourite things, including Babylon 5 and He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, but it's the brilliant Masks of Nyarlathotep that I thank him for most of all. Thanks Larry.

Tuesday, March 05, 2019

Danger Illustrated


I last saw The Prodigy in 1998, I think, at a chilly Reading Festival. I always meant to see them again at some point, but I never got around to it.

Thanks for all the mad clowning, Keith.

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Master of None

"Make bards funny," they said.

"I'm not sure I can," I said.

"It doesn't matter, the project's been cancelled," they said, which is probably for the best, as I am not a natural comedian. Or even an unnatural one.

Anyway, here are some jokes about bards. Except the third one, which is about bards, but doesn't qualify as a joke, even if you squint.




Monday, February 25, 2019

Testing in the Shadows

I am writing a new adventure for the Lamentations of the Flame Princess role-playing game; well, in truth I seem to be in a constant state of writing three or four adventures for LotFP, but I don't tend to mention it unless one is nearing publication. I'm not quite there with Terror in the Shadows, but it exists in complete enough form to be tested, which is lucky, because I started running it for my group on Saturday.

It's set in Paris in 1625, and is an investigation-based adventure; our first session consisted of lots of wandering around the slums, talking to people and looking for clues, and the closest the party got to a fight was when they apprehended a randomly-encountered pickpocket.

My goals with the test are to see how robust the mystery is in general, and also how well an investigative adventure fits into a D&D-like ruleset. So far the players haven't made use of any character mechanics -- no one's cast a spell yet, for example -- but the investigation seems to be progressing well, with no bottlenecks or dead ends threatening to scupper play.

The test has been useful in showing me where there may be gaps in the adventure -- no major holes so far! -- and in giving me ideas for further details to make it more interesting. The most enjoyable bit for me was seeing the players putting together bits of information and turning them into a series of -- sometimes contradictory -- theories about what's going on; since I've written the mystery, the solution is obvious to me and my fear was that it would be clear and straightforward -- and thus boring -- to the players too.

I suppose what I'm saying is that playtesting is good; that is something that's rather obvious and no one needs to be told, but there it is.

We should be meeting up again this weekend to continue the investigation. I'll let you know how it goes.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Bones

The Dead City wasn't always known by that name. Once it was a thriving metropolis full of scholars that mapped the world and the stars, and were as arrogant as they were wise.

The wizard-kings of the Dead City foresaw the End and found a way out. It will surprise no one at all that this plan went wrong, and ZAP! that's how you end up with a city full of intelligent skeleton people. These skeleton people are known as Bones.

The Dead City is somewhere far away on the left side of the world map and most Bones have either been away for so long that they have forgotten where it is, or have no desire to return.

It is, of course, full of fun things for adventurers to find, including the spells needed to create more Bones, piles of treasure, and unhinged skeleton-wizard-kings.

If using races, treat Bones as human. Bones can be of any class or profession.

Bones do not need to breathe, drink, eat, or sleep -- although can mimic those actions -- and are immune to disease and poison. Bones age, but suffer no ill effects and can live forever if careful.

Bones do not heal, and healing magic -- if used in your campaign -- harms them by the same amount it would heal a living creature. Reversed healing spells may heal Bones, at the GM's discretion.

Specialist artisans, sometimes called bonesmiths, are able to repair damage to Bones, including age-related deterioration.

If your campaign includes the turning of undead, this works against Bones, but as their life force is stronger than most undead creatures, they are never destroyed by turning, but flee instead.

Some Bones remember the End and the rituals that changed them into their current forms, and have been scarred by these memories. A Bone player can choose to roll on the following table to generate a psychological issue relating to those memories.

I SURVIVED THE APOCALYPSE AND ALL I GOT WAS THIS LOUSY PSYCHOSIS (d12):
  1. "I survived, so I must be special."
  2. "My grasp on life is fragile and everything is dangerous!"
  3. "I survived death itself; I am invincible!"
  4. "I do not deserve to live when so many others did not."
  5. "I did not survive; this is some sort of hell."
  6. "The wizard-kings caused all of this. No magic can be trusted."
  7. "Every living thing must be made like me before another End occurs."
  8. "What do you mean I look like a skeleton? How absurd!"
  9. "I can return things to how they were. All I need is..."
  10. "One day I woke up like this. I remember nothing before."
  11. "Life is meaningless. All life. Including yours."
  12. "All life is precious and must be preserved."

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

From Hell's Heart, I Stab at Thee

Dallas M asked on the zombie social network that is G+ "What's your favourite B/X death condition? I usually do 0 = death."

The first thing that sprang to mind -- because there's something wrong with me -- was this:

At 0 Hit Points you explode, doing d6 per level damage to everyone within a radius of feet equal to your Constitution score.

It's more or less the Heart of Woe magic item from Warhammer, but everyone gets it because exploding player-characters are great fun and you shouldn't be stingy with fun.

Tuesday, January 08, 2019

Fukken Das Fisch?

Here are some Germans talking about the adventure I wrote last year for Lamentations of the Flame Princess:

(This video is not safe for work, as it does mention the title of said adventure.)



Alas, although I did get an A in my German GCSE, that was twenty-two years ago, so I have no idea what they are saying. They are smiling, so I assume it's good.

Saturday, January 05, 2019

Bruce WIllis Is a Ghost, Probably, but What Do We Do About It?

We are going to play Call of Cthulhu a bit later today; this is excellent news as it is my favourite role-playing game. It's modern day one shot, and our GM, Ben, has sent out a pdf handout to get us prepared.

The thing is, the handout has -- unless I'm way off, which is possible -- literally given the game away. I've been playing Call of Cthulhu for years and I have written a horror adventure or two in that time, so perhaps I just have the mindset for this sort of thing, but that raises an interesting question.

If I am right, then how do I play it? I think I probably know how to "win" the adventure, but my character isn't going to know that. Do I play him or her straight, even though if they were a character in a film I'd be tutting at the screen at their lack of insight? Or do I make out-of-character "hunches" and blow through the adventure's obstacles?

(There is another option: I could be wrong about the handout, but make out-of-character "hunches" anyway, leading to a series of hilarious mistaken assumptions. Call of Clouseau, if you will.)

I suppose this is a subset of the character knowledge versus player knowledge question that has been part of role-playing games since the beginning, but I've always seen that stated in terms of mechanics or monster statistics rather than genre conventions.

I'm playing in a few hours, so we will see what happens.

(Oh, and happy new year, everyone!)