Tuesday, July 28, 2015

The Warren: First Impressions and preparing to play tonight

I've been interested in running The Warren (formerly Lapins and Lairs) for a couple of years. It's a game inspired by Watership Down and other 'intelligent rabbit' stories.

Hopefully I'll get to take it for a spin tonight. I've already had a quick read through it and it seemed well organised and logical. Now I'm going to dig a bit deeper. I'll post comments as I go, reflecting on the game.

I'll link, here, to any actual play write-ups or reviews that I do.

The Warren is being kickstarted right now.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Psi*Run: Actual Play

We played Psi*Run last night (I was GMing).

You play ‘Runners’: amnesiacs with super-powers. The game begins with you escaping … and you’re being chased by a shadowy organisation (the ‘Chasers’). The game has a tension between whether the Chasers will capture you or whether you’ll answer enough questions about your past to be able to escape them.

The players all commented on Psi*Run’s brutal, brilliant resolution system. One player said it gave him the opportunity to fail in five different ways on the same roll. Another player said it was so good, it should be in many many more games: he saw it as a worker-placement mechanic.

I’m a huge fan of modern, urban chases, so in terms of Colour this game was pretty easy to GM. I applied a lot of setting details from my recent trip to Auckland: a crash on the beach near the Mission Bay clubbing district, nosy beach-living neighbours, a guard dog from the awesome B&B we stayed at (who was turned into a cuddly zombie by the misapplication of empathic projection powers).

Runners were separated from each other. One of them turned a few drinking teenagers into a kill-squad through switching his danger sense from passive to active mode.

What I learned as the GM

This is a game I feel like I should be able to GM well, but I need to apply a few techniques to in order to make it easy and fun for me.

Throughout it, though I felt like I needed to create more sources of GM antagonism in the story. Without constant tension, there are few reasons for the players to make dice rolls (which create jeopardy and advance the game). Some of the rolls I called for felt a bit arbitrary to me.

Anyone, some potential sources of antagonism include:
  • the chasers (which, of course, are central to the game)
  • traditional law enforcement
  • civilians
  • on-going blowback from psi-powers.

I also felt that ‘Advance the Chasers’ needed to be a GM move: if there's a pause in the game and the players turn to the GM expecting them to say something, advance the chasers by one location. (And the same for if the characters don't move at all: there’s a paragraph about this in the game, but it’s not specific.)

Another thing I’d do differently next time: each Runner has questions they need to answer about themselves. I should've drawn on those questions when they were read out for the first time, writing them down as potential situations to throw the Runners into.

A few rules questions
  • Can the characters narrate advancing through multiple locations quickly, putting lots of distance between them and the Chasers? I think so, but that’s where I need to introduce more antagonism (as above)
  • If a Runner establishes a barricade (as in one of the game’s examples) does it have any effect when the Chasers reach it? The Chasers’ success in bypassing the barricade depends on what d6 the Runner puts into 'Chase' rather than the Runner’s initial success with the goal of ‘Create a barricade’, right?
  • How can one character help another?
  • Has anyone give any thought as to how you’d play a sequel game where the Runners turn the tables on the Chasers? Would it just be the same rules? Would the ‘Chase’ part of resolution system still apply?

(Psi*Run is available here. It’s Game 28 in my Play 51 Games in 2015 challenge.)

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Undying: a hyper-focused vampire RPG about power (review)

Undying by Paul Riddle is a diceless RPG about vampires. It's on Kickstarter at the moment, with a couple of days to go.

Undying is about vampires as predators

It's natural to compare Undying to White Wolf's Vampire or Urban Shadows. However, Undying is a simpler game, focused on two aspects: preying on humans and the way predators fight each other for dominance.

Here are some exercepts from the rules that establish what it's about:

"You are a predator: a vampire who stalks human prey in the night, feasting on their blood. ... Predators are misanthropic, but not solitary. They are a pack of wolves.

"[In this pack of predators], the most cunning and ruthless is the alpha. All predators envy that power and prestige. Each hopes to one night rule the pack. Thus, from the greatest predator to the least, all are embroiled in a ceaseless conflict of intrigue and bloodshed.

"Game play revolves around brief periods of intense conflict, where old rivalries and new slights spark an inferno, and long stretches of intrigue, where intricate plots are set in motion. ... During the course of one or two sessions, the PCs experience tumultuous events initiated by a galvanizing crisis. The story unfolds hour-by-hour, night-by-night until the conflict resolves with a new status quo."

Undying's simplicity also comes from the way there are only a few 'dials' to keep track of: humanity, blood, debts (to other vampires), and status (relative to other vampires). Coupled with a fast moving conflict resolution system to deal with violence and with interfering in another vampire's plan, Undying looks like it will play quickly and create nasty conflicts of interest between the characters.

Predators are not inherently sympathetic characters

I initially thought this game would be perfectly tailored to my tastes. I like the idea of vampire conflicts (both political and physical), and the relationships between vampires over decades and centuries. 

This game deals with that time-frame: it divides the action into 'nightly play' where a conflict is resolved, and 'downtime play', where years can pass in a few minutes of real-time, vampires execute a long-term plot or strategy, and a new crisis is created. That new crisis becomes the basis for another round of nightly play.

It's a well-executed structure for a game.

However, I had a really unsettling reaction to the character creation section. The game's playbooks (character classes) are things like the Devil, the Nightmare, the Puppet-Master,

Reading them, I recoiled and went "I don't like most of these archetypes". As in, when I'm reading/watching fiction involving these sorts of characters, I think of them as the 'enemy'. After reflecting on what I liked about the Vampire games I played in the 90s, I realised I liked seeing new vampires caught between their old human society and the new and alien vampire society. Tested loyalties, tough choices, terrible mistakes in ettiquette and alliances.

So, Undying is nailing its vision of play: these characters in this situation aren't wish-fulfilling gothic superheroes. They are predators ... and they prey on humans and on each other.

The closest match in fiction I can think of to what a game of Undying looks like is the vampire plot in the first Blade movie. You focus on the soap opera of the entitled and ambitious vampires, screwing with each other for dominance.

The GM prep advice seems perfect for engineering these sorts of situations.

Undying is really about power

Thinking more about why I was alienated, I realised characters in Undying still have 'humanity' (which varies between 0 to 3). So, despite each playbook's theme, you're able to be human inside that

And each playbook showcases one way of handling power.

That opened my eyes. The game is about power, and now I can see other playbooks in that space that I'd love to have in a game of Undying.

  • The Diplomat - who builds alliances between groups
  • The Follower - who works as a soldier for someone more powerful
  • The Kingpin - who relies on brute strength to intimidate others
  • The Anarchist - who tries to destroy the power structure
  • The Outsider - who tries to remain aloof, unaffected and neutral.

I've written more about my thoughts on Undying here. It's a brilliantly-crafted game. I can only imagine the amount of playtesting that's gone on in order to focus on its core so successfully. I'm looking forward to playing it.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Preparing a .pdf for DrivThruRPG's print-on-demand

I've been encouraged to provide a print version of Soth. So I'm starting to investigate what that would involve.

In this initial phase, I only have three one concern:
  • Will my current .pdf layout work for the print version? Are my margins wide enough? (Answered, below)
  • How do I create a cover? (Answered, below)
  • What will happen to my page numbers (which are currently on the outside corners)

I'm also aware that there's tonnes of other stuff I don't know that I don't know.

After looking at DriveThru's 'Publish' section, I've found a checklist that hopefully covers all these unknown unknowns: Print checklist (.pdf). Here are some other concerns I have after reading that:
  • Do I need a barcode? (Answered, below)
  • What is 'bleed'? And do I need it?
  • Are my page numbers evenly-divisible? (Answered, below)
  • What does "Last page removed for use by LS" mean?

One of the things that baffled me in that checklist was the acronym 'LS'. This seems to stand for 'Lightning Source', based on this tutorial video (not embeddable) I've also found at DriveThru.

So I'll need to download a cover template from LS. Heading over to the site, it gives me a choice between 'Independent Publishers' (using a service called 'Ingram Spark') and 'Medium to Large Publishers', using LS. So, I have two more questions:

  • Do I need to set up an account with Lightning Source, and then link that to my DriveThruRPG account?
  • Am I in the 'Medium to Large' category, because I'm with DriveThruRPG?
  • (After I've done that) Where is the cover template?

Things I've answered, so far

  • Looking at my Scribus file, it looks like my margins are fine.
  • LS should have a template I can use for my cover.
  • Even if my page numbers aren't evenly-divisible, it should be easy enough to change that.
  • DriveThru has another printing checklist that says "We do not include barcodes." 

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Ryuutama: preparing to run it for the first time

Ryuutama is a fantasy game of travel and exploration. I've been looking forward to digging into it for a while, to see how it works.

Here's what I know at the moment:

  • Players portray non-traditional fantasy RPG characters like tinkers and bakers. They are not adventurers.
  • Every character is hit by wanderlust (this is a normal and expected part of the setting) once during their lives. A game of Ryuutama covers the travels of a group who get wanderlust at the same time
  • Wilderness travel is a big thing in the game (which situates Ryuutama near games like The One Ring and -- I think -- Chuubo's Marvelous Wish-Granting Engine)
  • The GM portrays a dragon who looks after the travellers
  • There are four different types of dragon a GM can control. A ... Winter (?) Dragon is one that signals a dying world.

I'll post my thoughts in the comments as I get a chance to read the game. Which, by the way, looks beautiful and (on an initial skim) clearly-written and logically-presented.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Wield: a fun game that I need to get better at GMing

I ran my first game of Wield last night, for four players. You play vatcha (intelligent magic items like The One Ring or the Luggage from Discworld), and the poor saps who own them.

One of the players described it like so:

"Tonight, Matt and I had a duel of wits as adversarial artifacts and their bearers. I played a magical finger and a scholar bearing a magical gauntlet. He played the magical gauntlet and the owner of the magical finger.

Some observations, in no particular order:
  • The central tensions between the vatcha (the magic items) and the heroes worked well.
  • It wasn't quite as easy to let the players generate their own stories as I thought. I may need to steal the idea of player-generated Bangs from Sorceror and my own 'take note of highly charged situations and play them immediately' technique from Monsterhearts.
  • The web of social relationships in the game challenged my savannah-optimised primate brain. With four players, it was just on the edge of what I was able to handle. Most team-based games (eg. D&D, Shadowrun, Leverage) have an easy-to-track 'us versus them' dynamic. In terms of games with (fictional) social complexity, I think it goes: Monsterhearts --> Wield --> The full version of Left Coast
  • I definitely needed to create my own play aids, in order to understand the combat rules. I've broken it down into a 5-step process, which is easier to follow and adjudicate.
  • Combat and overcoming obstacles are lethal. They're great situations to force vatcha players to decide whether to give the heros more power (and therefore more control).
  • After consulting with some Wield GM-gurus, I can see the following player arrangements working:
    • A 3-player game where everyone plays artefacts and heros
    • A 4-player game where everyone plays the hero for the vatcha on their right or (for a far more focused game, you have two vatcha players and two hero players) 
    • For 6+ players, have half the players playing artefacts and half playing heroes.
  • I found it much easier to invent destinies for all the heroes. Those destinies also gave me tonnes of NPCs and locations to track (which is a good thing). ... The rules say to randomly assign heroes to the vatchas. When I created heroes, I riffed off what the vatcha players were coming up with. That made me suspect I could be better for the GM to assign heroes to players (at least at first).
  • As well as creating a relationship map, I probably need to track the history that the vatcha players create. I definitely need to track each vatcha-hero combination: I was getting really lost in doing that.
  • There's nothing that really points the vatchas at each other. As a result, the stories can drift apart a bit. That's probably fine in a multi-session game. I'll need to think about how you'd optimise it for a convention game.

So, I'd run this again ... after I refine some of my player handouts and streamline some of my 'how to introduce and frame the game' notes.

I'd also think about providing some pre-generated vatchas (to speed up a convention game). I've created 'playbooks' for the vatchas but I think it probably needs to be even faster to hit a climax in a three-hour slot.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Undying: preparing to run it for the first time

Undying by Paul Riddle is a diceless RPG about vampires preying on humans and fighting each other for dominance.

I've been interested in it for a couple of years now. It's currently being kickstarted and the rules are available for free over there: Undying kickstarter

I'm going to read through it over the next couple of days, posting my notes in the comments. I think this is something it'd be fun to run, soon.

How do you prepare to run a game for the first time?

There's that moment when you've read a game you haven't played before: the moment you decide you're actually going to run it.

What sort of techniques do you use?
My process is to try and build up a mental picture of what a play session would be like, and what information I'd need in order to run it well. I do that by:
  • asking questions
  • identifying gaps in my understanding
  • clarifying the designer's intentions--through my own reading of the game, if possible
  • looking for reference sheets I can use while I'm playing / running
It ends up being a bit like a reader's commentary.

This is something I think I'm going to be doing regularly here. I'll use the hashtag/label: #gameprep

Here are some examples:
I've just analysed Wield by John Wick and Gillian Fraser, which looks like a great game and got rave reviews at Kapcon this year.

Here's the second half of one for Circle of Hands by Ron Edwards.

I'll make an initial post here, and then put my follow-up comments on Google Plus as I read and ask questions. I think that's the best way to keep all of my observations in one play, that's still searchable later on.
That may or may not be followed up with an actual review of the game.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Restless: a freeform survival horror game

Played Restless last night: 's freeform horror game of survivors being hunted by an unstoppable evil force. This was a one-off game arranged via Facebook for a university games club. Every time I emphasised how lethal it would be, my prospective players would laugh and say tell me it sounded great.

They were right.

Players divide into 'survivors' and 'desolators'. Desolators describe the world and portray the Restless (the monsters who are hunting the survivors)

I played a desolator, along with Chris. I had some thoughts going in that were heavily influenced by The Darkest Hour (invisible electricity aliens).

Chris was interested in a different angle, and mentioned the Reavers from Firefly as a touchstone. We took that idea of frenzied humans as our starting point. Then I said I'd like there to be something unnatural about them: like they can hide in shadows or crawl on ceilings. Chris came back with the idea of 'possession' and we locked it in.

Not too much detail or backstory, but just enough for us to start jamming with.

The game is played out in sequences (or set-pieces from a horror movie). These are called 'verses'. The game gives you strong guidance for what happens in each verse. The order of verses is randomly determined.

Each verse provides prompts for actions to describe or settings or memories to invent. It felt a little like the verses encoded hard and soft moves into them.(*)

* Apocalypse World terminology.

Starting The Game

Our first verse was called 'Dreams and Nightmares': it made for a great opener, as it deals with memories, flashbacks, and difficult emotional terrain for each of the survivors. It really humanises them.
Right from the start of that card, we realised that (for the survivors could choose where to camp and how to defend themselves) the desolators would have to provide some setting details that weren't in the verse:
  • What are the Restless?
  • How long have the Restless been destroying the world?

It also seemed like we needed to empower the desolators to ask questions that:
  • Lead the survivors into danger
  • Explore the survivors misery, miserable lives
Giving desolators the power to ask those types of questions kept the game flowing smoothly, and steered clear of violating the Czege Principle ("When one person is the author of both the character's adversity and its resolution, play isn't fun.").

Specific Feedback On How Verses Work

I also wonder whether the desolators should be the ones to read out the information on each verse. I suspect that could:
  • preserve suspense about what will happen next
  • encourage immersion in the survivors
  • simplify some of the instructions you need to read out (I'm thinking of "The going is tough" from 'Bushwhacking') ...

... but I'm not sure how important that is to Jonathan's vision of play. We just rotated players reading out cards and it worked fine.

The game is very very late playtest, so this probably hasn't come up for any other groups. While we played I did wonder about the phrasing of the cards. Because they're read aloud, some sections felt like they could be phrased as very specific questions to the survivors or using the imperative.

An example.

In the 'Bushwhacking' verse, it says "The survivors then quickly decide on an alternate route", but maybe making it "The survivors need to decide..." or "You need to decide..." would make what's required clearer.


Developing What The Restless Are

Between verses, you can swap from playing a survivor to a desolator (and vice versa), or choose to play a new or returning  survivor character.

This was great, creatively, for our group: two survivor players in the first verse leapt at the chance to play desolators in the second. And they were fantastic at it: much better than me. I love the idea that the game allows you to rotate how you creatively feed into the game based on your enthusiasm and energy.

In passing on the desolator role, I felt I had to brief the new desolators on what we'd established... and then give them permission to establish a fact each for themselves. We applied that protocol throughout the rest of the game. It led to some creepy imagery, including:
  • Thick black streams of oil announcing the arrival of the Restless
  • Anyone who had an open wound had a chance of becoming a Restless, regardless of whether a Restless was anywhere nearby.

Establishing A Social Contract For Tone?

Initially, people took the game's situation and character creation very seriously. Over the second and third verses, it became a little comedic: perhaps people were distancing themselves from the significant chance of character death? It became serious again towards the end of the third verse and during the fourth.

Next time I play this, I think I'll introduce the social contract from EPOCH (and adapt it a bit):

At the beginning of the game you inform the players of the purpose of EPOCH (a game of character-driven horror) and emphasise that during Tension Phases it is inappropriate to ‘break character’.

By making this explicit and securing agreement from everyone present, you and the players share the responsibility for building game atmosphere. You can remind individual players of this during the game, should you be faced with a specific instance of player blocking.

Again, I'm not sure if that maps to Jonathan's vision of play, but it certainly maps to what I want out of playing each verse. Because each verse is reasonably short (in our game, 20-40 minutes), I think that social contract would be pretty realistic.

---   ---   ---

All in all, a great game. It'll be going into my go-bag for things to run at Games on Demand and at short-notice.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

My criteria for reviewing Game Chef games

I have a simple structure for reviewing Game Chef games,

First, I record my stream-of-consciousness, reading-it-for-the-first-time impressions.

During that first read, I take notes and divide them into sections that match Edward De Bono's Six Hats process:

    • Structural thoughts: What do I think the designer's 'vision of play' is? What will a session of the game look and feel like when the game is working perfectly?
    • Information: What don't I know? What do I have questions about?
    • Feelings: I tend to find I write this section last, as it ve synthesises my other thoughts.
    • Insights or Ideas: What would I like to see next from this game? What would I suggest in order to achieve the vision of play?
    • Positives: What is the game doing that I find fun, worthy, well-executed, interesting, or unique?
  • Issues: Is there anything that I'm unsure about? Perhaps I don't think it fits with the game or that it won't work.

How does it apply the theme: A Different Audience?

What ingredients are used? How effectively are they integrated into the game? Personally, I don't give this much weight: I see the benefit of Game Chef as encouraging people to write a game. Sticking too closely to the ingredients may inhibit developing the game further.


Am I inspired to run the game? Is there anything missing that I need in order to feel like I can run it? If I don't want to run it, is that because I'm not the target audience for the designer's vision of play, or is there another reason?

I then take a few hours break from the game. I let it settle, before coming back to it.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Nearly halfway through the "51 Games in 2015" Challenge

In January, Epidiah Ravachol (of Dig A Thousand Holes) issued an open challenge to play 51 games in 2015 ( #51in15 ). The 51 in '15 challenge has a great constraint: you can only count each game once.

I'm about halfway through, and that constraint is really starting to force me out of my comfort zone.

Games played in last week:

21. The Princess Bride: Prepare To Die: a family-friendly Cards Against Humanity hack. It's OK, but doesn't scale super-well to 8 players using the rules as written. Our game took maybe 90 minutes to finish (maybe longer), and felt a bit gruelling. It's very dependent on the judge (the player judging a particular round) asking a question / setting criteria that help the majority of other players create a good card combination.

Bad Family: this playtest doesn't count towards my challenge total because I've already run it this year. However, I learned a lot about the value of drunk playtesting a game.]

22. Space Team: This continues to be super-fun. I think I've cracked an optimal strategy for how to play it, though.

However, as great as SpaceTeam is, it's still just a place-holder until I can play Artemis: The Spaceship Bridge Simulator.

23. Epic Spell Wars of the Battle Wizards: Duel at Mount Skullzfyre: I enjoyed this a lot more than I thought I would after watching it on Tabletop. Fairly low complexity and the randomness is actually fun because it's offset by selecting your initiative (when your spell will occur), spell design (whether you go for offensive or healing effects), and target selection.

24. Space Fluxx: It's Fluxx, but with all manner of science-fiction references from 1950s B-movies, Star Trek, Doctor Who and many more. I like Fluxx and thought this was good. My favourite Fluxx variants are Zombie and Monty Python.