Saturday, April 30, 2016

7th Sea 2nd Edition Kickstarter Review

Well sure this is a few weeks late, but welcome to my life, nigh impossible to schedule in the short term. So if you were looking to wait for this review as to whether to back the Kickstarter for 7th Sea, well, too bad. Of course there's now a pre-order button, so I guess all is not lost.

While the system has its rough spots that I will hope to get worked out in time, I enjoyed the mechanics of the system and it maintain the same feel of what the original edition tried to reach for, and frequently failed to do.

In the original system, it promised swashbuckling, over-the-top action in a dog's breakfast of faux-European countries. And while we got that, the Roll and Keep system, combined by the penalties of diversification of skills, as well as the heavy character point buy-in necessary for either playing with the main two systems (sword schools or sorcery), may entry level character rather ... challenging to get that feel that I, at least always wanted.

This edition seems to have stepped away from that - it ["steals"/is informed by/adapts] a lot of the meta-RPG stuff that has happened in the last 10 years - moving towards a more narrative feel in what is able to be accomplished by a character. Characters feel competent right out of the box, and while there may be some penalties for success, the potential for success is more likely.


The mechanics are fairly simple. Roll a bunch of d10s, group them so they add up to 10, each one is a success or raise, that may be spent for succeeding, buying an opportunity, or preventing a consequence. You can spend hero points to get more dice or activate certain advantages, as well as gain them for either voluntarily failing, or the GM taking advantage of your poor rolling.

While the system has its faults - over 10 dice and it starts being complicated and slows down dice arrangement, I like it in that it allows me to see a non-binary set of results potentially - opportunities allow me to say "yes, and", consequences allow me "yes, but" as my favorite two results (I suppose the player could also choose "I don't succeed, but I get these other opportunities" as well.

The warts were when trying to maximize the number of success with large dice pools. Dice pool games, in my experience, really shine at about the 6-8 dice range, too much more and you've got problems tracking all the dice in your hands. Too few and the results get really swingy.

However, the opportunities and consequences are what will really make the system sing in my opinion. Otherwise, there's no benefit to just not rolling versus a target number and getting a yes/no answer. I suppose I could do the same in a TN system, where I set a fairly low TN, and every 5/10 above is another success. But even then you get problems trying to add up many dice. I don't know if there is a good solution. Perhaps it'll be harder to get above 6-7 dice in a pool, or there will be other suggested speed bumps in the system.

Subsystems - Combat & Dueling

I figure I should call this out specifically. The quickstart game ran through all of the various systems in a fairly straightforward manner. The mass combat versus Brutes (i.e., mooks, unnamed NPCs) went fairly well. Large groups of mooks still have the ability to be a threat; however, we were discussing something like 30 Brutes against 3 players, and the players barely took any wounds. I almost want to think about some sort of Elite Brute so I could have only twice the number of NPCs as I do PCs and have it still be a good challenge versus needing a 10x the number of PCs.

The dueling system sufferings from the decker problem of role playing games. When we had our duel everything came to a hard stop. No one else could participate, no one else could really role play, and everything had to wait for the duelist to finish their duel. And the dueling rules were obtuse, not very intuitive, and frustrating to use. Now some of that is our newness to the system. Some of that is the fact that the quickstart rules really didn't explain dueling well, something I expect to be rectified.

However, as far as the duel itself goes - I don't see there a way around it being a dead stop. That's okay, we just need them to be quick, perhaps no more than 4-6 exchanges and move on. Unfortunately, that's not going to happen due to how the game presents Villains (named antagonists to the PCs). Any decent challenge to the PCs is going to be an ugly grind because of how they simplified the system.

Villains are rated from a rating from 1-Infinite, based on a number of two factors - their own personal ability and their influence. So you could have a badass with no influence being rated at a 8 (7/1), and a weak but influential manipulator also being an 8 (1/7). Both of these guys are the same danger in a duel, and also the same difficult to defeat - they both roll 8 dice in all challenges, and they can both take 8 hits before taking a dramatic wound and can take 8 dramatic wounds before being defeated.

And it is really this last part that is the killer - the difference between a Level 6 villain and a Level 8 Villain is minimal damage/success output change (6 dice versus 8 dice), but a difference between taking 36 hits versus 64 hits. Early 4th Edition D&D had this problem as well, where Solos would be able to take large amounts of damage, but not dish out a lot, turning fights into grind fests; however, it was fixed later as fights where you had 3-5 rounds, so large amounts of damage and more moderate HPs were found to be more fun.

I'm not sure how to modify. As one of my players noted, the system is designed well for a single bad guy and some Brutes taking on the PC group as a whole. However, when it is 1 on 1 in a duel, the warts definitely show. Hopefully the full version of the rules will take this into account, and I won't have to come up with something on my own.

Other Notable Subsystems - Villains and Intrigue

I wanted to note that there is a subsystem for "downtime" villain actions which can drive plot in and of itself. Villains will risk their intrigue to accomplish goals, which if the players react, they can reduce the villain's influence, and if they don't the Villain will get more powerful. The quickstart system doesn't play with that; however, so I'll just leave that here.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

What Makes A Good Player

Because I certainly don't seem to have it. Reading my friend/sister-in-law/occasional player at my table Morgan's post on being an ender of worlds in light of what happened in the disaster of the Vampire: The Masquerade game I'm a player in makes me wonder.

I have a habit of destroying games as a player. I killed off a Deadlands game by thwarting the Devil by shooting another PC. I killed off the Changeling game by shooting a child (whose dreams were manifesting in reality), the problem being that several of the other PCs were in the child's mind trying to find a more humane solution.

And then on Monday, I accidentally destroyed the Anarch population of the DC. I didn't think my willingness to go along (OOC) with the plot of another PC would kill them all off, I figured it would be a portion, but not enough. Of course, this combined with an Angel visitation, the release of a Mummy dead set (get it?) on destroying Vampires basically made DC untenable for unliving habitation.


Discussing aftermath, a couple characters, including my current one, are being retired. Perhaps killed off, but definitely not participating in the next arc. Discussing what to do next, the ST mentioned, "I thought your characters would be great NPCs, but not PCs."

And I'm wondering if that's because I've done most of my gaming as GM since 2001, or if I'm just bad at being a good PC, i.e., one that fits in well with the table dynamic and increases the amount of fun at the table. I've certainly tried to do so - but apparently I'm falling flat.

Some of this may just be the game - for me Vampire is a game about stasis and stability, and trying to either maintain it or disrupt it. Unfortunately, maintaining it is generally reactive and not much fun for me as a player; and disrupting it is challenging in Vampire because so many parts of the game are gated off due to how the power level works. If you are 13th Gen, you are 13th Gen - and your only hope is that you are recently enough 13th Gen that you have a technological advantage, because you are going to be at every other disadvantage at disrupting the power system.

Yes, there's a reason why I'm continually tempted by Diablerie (i.e., sucking the soul from a more powerful vampire to gain more power) in Vampire games. Unfortunately, in the sort of game where there's minimal down time, the social downside (having your soul stained with your sin) makes that a non-viable option.

I have my suspicions of where I went wrong with the characters, with Oz, he didn't have any distinctive skills as I tried to make him competent at everything, as I'd forgotten how harshly cWOD treats bare competence most of the time. Better to be very good at a few things, and figure out how to use those skills elsewhere. But otherwise, mostly his great sin was going to ground after being attacked randomly, kidnapped as bait, and rescued. The rest of the party went off to Fredericksburg, my character wanted to know what the fuck had happened, who the attackers were, and what he could do to get revenge on them.

The other character was an isolated anti-social Tremere who was good at what he was supposed to be good at - figuring out stuff, and horrible at anything social. I figured it would make for a good play - too useful to ditch, but enough of a hindrance trying to be social to make things interesting. And I think he worked fairly well within the confines of the arc, but perhaps too many hindrances.

I'm not sure what I'm going to do for the next arc - I'm waiting to see what comes out from the ST and I'll probably stick with a more physical, dynamic character. May even play someone who isn't a blood drinking fiend of the night as that's been an option - but that makes it even harder to figure out how to mix well at the table.

I'll figure out something, I usually do.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Changing What I Skim To Review Later

I realized borrowing a copy of Edge of the Empire to take a look at, I realized that I've apparently gotten old - I would have used to read through the book cover to cover to get an idea of how the game ran, what it included and what it didn't include.

Not this time. This time? I quickly flipped to the skills section to read over the few skills I actually care about the resolution system resolves, then quickly checked the basics of the rules overview to confirm what I assumed the symbols meant. Then to combat, particularly vehicle combat to see how a Star Wars game handled that particular quirk.

And really? That's about it. The rest, I don't really care about. I mean if I was prepping for a game, sure I'd read everything and do the prep work, but my assumption is that the system is fairly solid as I haven't heard too much grumbling about it (other than the joys of reading a different set of coded dice) so I'll presume the system works, by and large, for what it needs to do.

So what's left? What's left is what I actually care about. How does it handle social interaction? How does it handle investigation? How does it handle shooting and getting shot?

One of my favorite players to game with is an amazing table top thespian. She handles just about any system or role, so I look for "how does it support her play style?" not because I always want her at my table gaming (though I do), but I want a system that supports that sort of character and does so in a way that I think she'd enjoy, plus most of the problems that the players will face at my table are generally social or intellectual, so I want the game to have the tools to help mechanically solve that.

Investigation is much the same - my games tend to a lot of "find some facts, figure out what to do about it," and I just want to know what I'm in for.

Finally combat - I like my combats to be no more than about 20 minutes, and everyone gets a few turns, so how does it flow, what sort of paralysis of choice sets in. I like there be at least a few interesting choices.

How did the game do?

The game as regards social resolution is does its job, it depends on the dice to provide the non-binary solution sets; however, I feel like I'd want to have the book open continually (or create a cheat sheet) for what you can spend the different results of the dice. But that may just be the price of one pays for having the dice provide complicated answers. There are a variety of social skills, so I can have characters who are variably good at a variety of skills, rather than having one member just be the face and be able to run off one or two skills.

The game as it handles investigation is funny - it has no investigation skill, which leads to some interesting choices - rather than defaulting to "Investigation", there are skills like "computer", "streetwise" as well as "perception" and "vigilance" for your more immediate needs. I could see this getting to be a headache if I wanted someone to do actual forensics, where we start defaulting to something else. I'd want to make a decision about what that something else was early, so people knew ahead of time.

Finally combat - combat seemed to be smooth enough. Initiative is a big quirky, but easy enough to handle. Limited number of actions, and taking unusual actions seems to be handled in a practical way of, "Well it isn't this, and it isn't that, so we'll call it this catch all." And reading the vehicular rules had me thinking of ways I could be starfighter pilot, so I'll call that a win.

So all in all the system looks like it does what I like - mechanically diverse and defined character creation, the oddball dice give me all of the "yes/no/sort of" results I'm looking for in my games these days, and it isn't modern horror or high fantasy so it would be a nice change of pace.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Night's Black Agents: A Ticking Bomb in the Ukraine (with mini review)

This past weekend I ran Night's Black Agents (NBA) for some friends at a small gaming convention. Now I've been interested in NBA for some time because it uses the Gumshoe system, and I have a thing for playing or running games involving characters that are assumed to be competent. While I want to play character that still can become more competent/skilled, I have grown to dislike the zero-to-hero model. From my experiences with NBA this past weekend, while I would have some learning pains with the game, I would definitely be willing to suffer through them while running or playing in a game. It runs fast, we rarely had any moments where someone couldn't do something, and even towards the end, when the chips were down, there were always options. And that's without using all of the options (it was a convention game, none of us had played the game before, so I wanted to cut down the number of the options we had to deal with).

Rather than running the short introductory scenario in the back of the book, I decided I would just run my own small creation because I wanted to see how much of a pain it was to create a scenario for the players, and deal with the power of the Investigative abilities. It isn't so much that I don't know how to handle basic clues, but a constant fear of mine would be coming up with useful information when a player spends a point to get enhanced information.

The scenario I presented was simple - a group of concerned actors had hired the fixer to provide a group of deniable assets to enter into the Separatist region of Ukraine, and intercept a suspected bio-weapon that had been obtain within the boundaries of Russia from a Romanian arms dealer. While it probably wasn't a Soviet era weapon (the lack of markings was a clear give-away) it was a too serious a threat to go away. So the group needed to get in, retrieve the weapon, the scientist traveling with the weapon, and get out. Preferably without getting on the evening news.

I had planned basically three basic stages - the meeting and getting into the region, finding the safe house and the assault, and the vampiric twist. After that I figured everything would have gone to hell, and why bother planning.

As it turned out, I was totally accurate in my assessment.

The PCs took the job, did some preliminary research and set-up, obtaining a TV van for a cover ID, and headed off across Ukraine. Being super spies, there was a montage of the group traveling and bribing various guards of the government and separatist factions.

Once arriving in Luhansk, they triangulated the cell signal to find where the hot headed rebel was hiding, and retasked a satellite to provide updated intel. Note: As the GM, I had absolutely no clue how they were going to find the safe house, I just trusted that they were going to find a way to do it.

And hey, that worked.

They assaulted the dacha, and that's when things started to go bad. Combat is rough, and I think I may have overly estimated their competence with killing things - I had expected the players to go combat heavy because it was a convention game, and well I think I had one universally deadly character, and one fairly deadly character, and everyone else apparently took the "if the guns come out, we've already fucked up, route." And I forgot to calibrate till halfway through the assault and turn the soldiers into mooks.

Though with how poorly the PCs rolled, there may have been no saving them ultimately. One of my players managed to roll something a "1" on a d6 five or six times in a row. "Anything but a one," got to be a curse at the table.

The PCs started in a rough spot and slowly started to pull forward, and then a third group entered the scene, but the PCs stayed upstairs, and eventually they went away.

The PCs captured the scientist, captured the hot headed rebel, made it downstairs and discovered that the third group had been apparently after the bioweapon, which the scientist admitted wasn't a traditional weapon, but something far weirder, a "Dracul."

"A Dracul? I'm not familiar with that organization," the team face said in a perfect response.

And the chase was on, they cornered the leader, his five zombie assistants, and one still sedated ghoul strapped into the passenger seat of a pick-up truck in an alley and the fight went .... poorly. The previous fight in the dacha took most of the points they had to spend for reliability, so when the shooting started here, success was at the mercy of the dice's grace.

And see the previous statement about their luck.

The fight was brutal, and I'm sure if we all had more familiarity, they could have gotten at least partial refreshes back, but the fight was suitably climatic which ended with a dead Renfield, five dead zombies, an escaping, but re-sedated, ghoul, and of the five agents? Only one was in positive health, the rest, were various levels of hurt, included two within a stiff breeze's worth of death.

I call that a win. They all, barely lived, and if this was the start of an actual campaign, they all would have been introduced to the realities of vampires in the world, and have a place to start dealing with the conspiracy.

As I've mentioned, the game runs quick, and like other single die systems, is fairly brutal. By default the chance of most actions is either 3+ or 4+ on a d6, which makes it fairly likely the players will succeed. I definitely will be looking at using the Gumshoe system, at least as an inspiration, as it removes a lot of the "Gee, the game stops if the player's fail their investigation roll." There are definitely lots of bits and pieces (Heat, Mental Health) that we never engaged in, but for a 4ish hour session, including character creation, I will probably be adding this to my "to buy" pile.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Advancement Schemes (Brainstorming)

When it comes to character advancement, I'm mixed. I love getting new doodads and "stuff" for my character to do; but I've always wanted something that made sense. However, most games are absolutely horrible at incentivizing downtime for advancement - there's always one more emergency to deal with, you never get downtime to heal and recover. There's also the idea of just creating the character you want to play, and then minimal character advancement after that point - however, those games don't ever seem to grip what a lot of players want.

Somewhere in the back of my head, there's a game brewing about playing mercenaries and troubleshooters, people who solve problems for people at the edges of society, probably using Cortex Plus (which powers Smallville, Firefly, Marvel Heroic). So I'll be using Cortex Plus lingo here.

I picture the game having three phases - planning for the mission, the mission, and civilian life. 

Planning for the mission is where the players generate the game session, preferably through email, where being given a premise by the GM, they set the obstacles and challenges. The better they know the problem, the less challenge it is worth. In short the players create the payoff for their characters. This is done preferably during email so the GM has time to prep some related materials, though I'm sure some GMs could just improv a session from spending 10-15 minutes.

The mission itself is your standard play session full of hijinks and chaos. 

Civilian life can be less stressful - this is where you spend those dice that the group generated during the mission phase, as well as any bonus dice generated during the mission per the GM's choice (or perhaps some sort of in-game action). Spend dice to advance your character, or spend dice to reduce stress/wounds taken. Each spend of dice is a scene where a character is highlight, and other characters can join in to assist.

Generating the payoff would look like the following, lifted liberally from Smallville:

  • 2d6 - baseline difficulty, can be raised to any combination up to 2d12 (the hardest of all missions). 
  • 1d6 - an obstacle that is known and with an in place countermeasure, "We don't need to worry about the access control system, I have a skeleton key card."
  • 1d8 - an obstacle that is known, but will need to be worked around on the mission, "There's an access control system, but we're going to need to get a passcard from somewhere."
  • 1d10 - an obstacle that is only vaguely known, "They have to have some sort of system in place to control what the access system is, but I don't know what it is."
  • 1d12 - There's something unplanned that is going to happen. It is going to suck.

Once the mission succeeds - during the civilian downtime you get to work on your character, healing wounds, learning to skills, recovering your spirit. Mechanically, these involve dice rolls of the PC vs the GM.

The GM's dice pool is generated from the following:
  • Stress: d4 + Stress Eliminated 
  • Asset: d6+Asset Created/Modified
  • Skill: d8+New Skill Rating
  • Distinction: d10+New Distinction Rating
  • Attributes: d12 + New Attribute Rating
The Player rolls a dice pool equal to the existing rating, or related skill and a number of dice from the payoff - note there is only one payoff pool for the party, so any dice spent are spent entirely. 

Advantages: The players will be in a better place to set the stakes of the challenges they'll face, and be in a position to screw themselves over. 

Disadvantages: Very easy to generate stress during a mission, could pose some some challenges if the characters aren't significantly advanced. 

I know I personally hate playing the character that will eventually someday if the game progresses far enough will be the character that I want them to be. So maybe a game where it is very much a case of "design the character who you want to play at the start of the story, and we will see where things go from there." Maybe something to work when generating the characters - Marvel Heroic had the problem of not having enough structure to hang character creation off of for a great number of people, "design the character that feels right to you and your table and here are some guidelines" apparently wasn't enough for a number of people.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

When Will My Daughter Receive Her First Rape Or Death Threat?

My wife says before she's a teen, I fear she's right. Even if I keep her off social media, someone might find a way to threaten her because of something I've said. There's enough of that going on.

And while the catalyst for my thoughts is GamersGate, this isn't about the primary first causes of debacle, per se.

Instead, it is about the ugly side, the trolling, doxxing (posting personal information, such as address/location), death and rape threats that seem to be present any time a woman posts anything that is remotely controversial.

In the past, I've passively supported some horrible people who have done some horrible things by not speaking out clearly enough. By not calling them on their shit. And that is done, I regret, on some level, it took looking at my daughter to motivate to change my stance, but so be it. So if you are a troll, whether for the lulz or great justice, I'm done with you in my social circles.

If you support the people who do these sorts of things, expect me to call you out, I'll do it privately because no one reacts well to being publicly called out.

If you associate with various forums online that generally promote/generate/originate these behaviors, I'm going to be wary of you.

The only way to eliminate activities is to make it socially unacceptable to engage in them.

That is my goal - to make this behavior online as socially unacceptable as casual racism - I don't believe I can stamp it out, but I can eliminate it from my social circles. And that will have to be enough.

I need to apologize for my part in assisting in that culture - and it is thanks to a post by Kathy Sierra who was apparently a target of Weev's tender ministrations. Yes, that Weev. Internet folk hero for his time in jail, and general internet asshole. I knew him before he was an internet darling, he went to the same college I once attended, and we were at the same gatherings. I socialized with him, not closely, but enough I knew what he was like online.

"Eh, he's just an asshole online," I used that to shrug off comments, plus I wasn't close to him.

And that enabled him to some degree. No, there's nothing I could have done to restrict him or stop him. My friends speak admirably of him in someways, but always with the caveats "well he is an asshole and a troll online." And you know what? While I am content that justice was done in case, in my opinion, but I'm done lauding him in whatever small fashion I did. No more posting articles where he shows up. No more commenting on other people doing the same. This may be a bit of closing the barn door after all the animals have fled, but it is what I can do at this time.

If someone is an asshole and troll online? They are an asshole and jerk. The extra caveats aren't needed. We spend enough of our time interacting online that there should be no difference in our expectations of our behaviors online and on the street.

Some of this is fighting rape culture. Some of this is fighting the culture of online anonymity. No, this won't come easily, it won't come quickly. But it can be done. It will take a lot of effort. It will take community action.

So this is my start. Keep me honest.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Zeppelin Attack! Review

I actually had a Kickstarter arrive on time, so I got to play Zeppelin Attack! over the weekend

We had a lot of fun, and aren't sure whether the few snags we hit were intentional or whether we just had poor strategies. Reactions around the table went from "When can we buy this?" to "I probably won't ask to play it, but I will happily play it again." So I will call this a win for my need to pick up more games that are lighter in mental load than what I generally enjoy playing.

My wife and I played with another couple, and all of us are regular board gamers, and we get together regularly to play games - everything from Firefly to a bunch of smaller games. Being the new game in the house, I explained the rules (as best I understood) and we were off.

The first few rounds were frustrating - none of us could reliably attack (Snag #1), and the mercenaries for purchase were relatively expensive - I think the cheapest was a 7 or 8 (Snag #2). This meant that we had several rounds of desperately trying to find the two Fate Point cards that would allow us to buy stuff (Snag #3).

As noted, there were a few snags, and whether these are issues baked into the design or just us playing the game for the first time, I'm unsure - we'll be playing again, so I'm sure we'll figure it out.

Snag #1: None of us could reliably attack. I went into the game expecting to land hits reliably, and discovered that it was going to be rare for me to do so. It seemed like unless we ganged up on one player, there were enough spread defense to ensure that attacks just didn't land often. Or we just had bad luck in picking who to attack.

Snag #2 and 3: Probably could be the same snag - we start off with one 3-point and one 4-point Fate card, the currency that allows us to buy cards. Unfortunately, unless you manage to pull them both together, you'll have one sitting in your hand taking up space while you wait for another card - and the two operative cards that allow you to generate more cards were relatively slow to fill.

I think this is where our inexperience with the system bit us - even if you want to play a more aggressive deck, you need to buy a fair number of operative cards to generate sufficient Fate points to purchase - and being as the Fate cards range 2-5 points, and the cards generally run 4 (rare) to 6-8 (normal) to as much as 9 or 10 (rare). So you need to have a good engine for obtaining those cards.

Like you do in any deck building game - it is just that the variance obtaining the points is a bit higher in Zeppelin Attack!

My only other critique of the game is the rule book - it is generally fine; however, the back page is an ad, while the "Summary of turns" is inside the front cover - this meant that at the table I had to constantly open the book to reference the book. Big deal in the end? Nope. Annoying? Yup. I'll probably be printing out, or modifying the summary page from the online book for this purpose.

While the game ran long, everyone had fun. My wife wasn't having as much fun, and then she had a single turn where her massive 4-zeppelin armada wrecked destruction across the table and her sounds of delight could only be heard by bats and other small animals.