Ashen Stars First Session – Off to Pleasure Planet

Laws-AshenStars

I’ve long had an urge to try out one of the GUMSHOE systems. I played a lot of investigation roleplaying as a teenager, and the genre still holds a certain appeal. That made me curious to see GUMSHOE in action, to see if it makes for fun and interesting roleplaying. There are two implementations of GUMSHOE I’ve been particularly interested in trying out. First and foremost Trail of Cthulhu, particularly in the Bookhounds of London setting. Trail of Cthulhu is, as the name implies, the GUMSHOE variant of Call of Cthulhu, and in Bookhounds, you play sellers and procurers of rare tomes and manuscripts in 1930’es London who get lured into the occult world of the Mythos by the hunt for old and valuable tomes.

The other is Ashen Stars, a space opera investigation game. In it, you play Lasers, lawmen-for-hire in the slightly lawless outer fringe of a galaxy that’s fallen into chaos after a great war. It has a feel that is too law-abiding for Firefly and not moral enough for Star Trek.

Now, while Trail and Bookhounds appeals more to my feelings of nostalgia, I have a soft spot for space opera. And so, when Niels asked me if I wanted to play Ashen Stars with him, I knew I had to say yes. Continue reading Ashen Stars First Session – Off to Pleasure Planet

Review of Midsummer

Most of the games that take part in the board game competition at Fastaval are unpublished prototypes. A fair number of them end up being published later on (one of them was recently on Kickstarter). However, one of this year’s crop, Midsummer by Nathan Hook, was already available on the print-on-demand service thegamecrafter.com by the time Fastaval rolled around. And if you like strategic hidden identity games, you might just want to give this one a look. Continue reading Review of Midsummer

Scenario ideas for Fastaval 2017

After coming home from Fastaval, I’m always filled with a great desire to write more roleplaying games. This year was no exception. In no time at all, I spurted out a number of scenario ideas. Now, the synopsis deadline is early this year, which means that I’d better get started on developing an idea for a scenario.

And so, in this post, I am going to sketch out some ideas for games. I would love to hear your feedback on them, so that I can tune my ideas. Continue reading Scenario ideas for Fastaval 2017

Fastaval 2016 Retrospective – The Board Games

Previously, I posted about my roleplaying experiences at Fastaval. Well, after discussing it with the other judges, I’ve decided to give you a look back at my board gaming experiences from Fastaval – that is, my experience playing some of the games designed for Fastaval. I played four very different games, at varying degrees of completeness. I also played two games before Fastaval, but I’ll skip those here. And so, I give you here below my four boardgaming experiences from Fastaval. Continue reading Fastaval 2016 Retrospective – The Board Games

Fastaval 2016 Retrospective

This year, I took a step down from being activities coordinator last year. Instead, I was “merely” a board game jury member. Plus, I wrote a scenario, Death of a Playwright. Being a member of the board game jury, I played more board games than roleplaying games – but again, being a jury member, I don’t feel like I should talk about my play experiences. In other words, I am only going to talk about my roleplaying experiences here. Continue reading Fastaval 2016 Retrospective

18th of December: Terminal X

Hillfolk-TerminalX

Please do not leave emotional baggage unattended at any time.

Author/Designer: Hal Mangold

From: Bundle of Hillfolk

I heard about Drama System, by Robin D. Laws, and decided to get this bundle, which included the Hillfolk implementation of the system (the primary implementation), along with several other “pitches” for the game. And since I’ve just flown in to Denver International Airport (DIA), I decided to go with the one that takes place there: Terminal X.

The premise of Terminal X is this: DIA is not just another soulless airport. It is a magically charged place, a botched ritual to harness magical energies. That’s why so many weird and unfortunate things happened during its construction (and they really did). Now the airport serves as a gateway, not only to the South-Eastern United States, but also to the world beyond through the otherworldly Terminal X. This means that loads of people “in the know” travel to DIA to transfer through Terminal X to magical destinations beyond this world.

This whole mess is overseen by the Gatekeepers, a cabal of mystics who have divided up the airport, and are exploiting the energy of the many people travelling through the airport. They on their part are opposed by the Movers, a group of adepts who get their energy from travelling, and who want to exploit the energies from Terminal X.

The document is only seven pages, and details the basic premise, ideas for characters and some possible ideas for issues, conflicts and themes to explore through play. The character ideas fall in three ranges, either regular people who have run into the mystical happenings by chance, mystically enlightened people trying to use the energies of the airport, or members of the Gatekeepers who run the place. The characters in the document are nameless ideas for characters, rather than actual characters, and it’s up to the group to flesh them out. The document is designed for Drama System, but through the very systems-light approach of Drama System, there is no actual system specific in the text, and it could easily be adapted for another system.

My impression: This is in many ways a fun little setup for a game. I do feel like it is a little generic, and I would want to spice it up a bit before actually running a game in it – though that can happen in character generation.

Ironically, from what I know of Drama System, I’m not sure it’s that good a fit for that system. Drama System seems best for people who have a close relationship with each other, while Terminal X features a more scattered group, each doing their own thing.

On the other hand, it seems like a good basis for a number of other games. The one that first springs to mind is Unknown Armies, using the three types of characters as ideas for the three power-levels in Unknown Armies (and you could actually combine it with Break Today to include a game of Mak Attax’ers in the Scotsman’s Steakhouse franchise in the airport).

Another good adaptation would be Mage: the Awakening, using the airport as an access point to beyond – the traditions perhaps represented by Native American Dreamspeakers, Sons of Ether aircraft engineers and Virtual Adepts running computer systems, or the Technocracy using it to ship out resources.

Finally, there might be a GUMSHOE game hidden in here in one of the occult mystery variations, like Trail of Cthulhu, Nights Black Agents, Esoterrorists or Fear Itself. This requires a substantially larger amount of work in order to adapt it, but it could be a fun campaign, centred around trying to figure out what is up with DIA. For Esoterrorists, the Gatekeepers and the Movers would obviously be turned into cabals of Esoterrorists.

How would I use this: I think this might be a fun starting point for a game of Unknown Armies. I think UA benefits from having some structure to it, and this could be a fun basis.

17th of December: The Esoterrorists

Esoterrorists-Corebook-2e

Protect reality from human fear

Author/Designer: Robin D. Laws and Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan

From: The Esoterrorists Bundle

GUMSHOE really became famous with the publication of Trail of Cthulhu, but Esoterrorists was the first game to feature these rules. That was my reason for picking up this bundle: I was curious to find out what Esoterroists was all about.

The premise of Esoterrorists is this: supernatural phenomena exist. Wherever and whenever humanity becomes sufficiently unsettled and frightened, and they start to doubt reality, the Membrane separating this world from the world outside – dramatically called the Outer Dark – starts to thin, and beings from outside can communicate, and can even be summoned into our world. And of course a bunch of people have decided that doing just that would be a great plan of action. These people are called the Esoterrorists, and they are a very disparate group of people who have the common goal of weakening reality, so the Outer Dark Entities (or ODE’s) can get through).

If that was the end of the story, the prospects for humanity would be grim. Luckily, a number of people know about this and are trying to stop the esoterrorists. These people are members of a global, semi-official conspiracy called the Ordo Veritatis (OV). The OV is backed by several world governments, and many of their agents are law enforcement officers, crime scene technicians or similar for most of their lives, but ready to spring into service as OD agents whenever they are called.

The game comes with a very particular structure for a game – even more structured than its little brother, Ashen Stars, has. Agents are called, meet up with each other in one place, then meet up with “Mr. or Mrs. Verity” (a generic cover name for a briefer) for their mission briefing. Then they go out, investigate, and neutralise anything they find. Then, before they leave, they conduct the “Veil-Out” – cleaning up the mess, removing evidence and disseminating a cover story for what happened. The last bit is important, because rumours of the truth would weaken the Membrane.

Characters in this game are experienced and capable investigators, who have training from somewhere. That is reflected in character creation. Each character has two kinds of abilities (like in other GUMSHOE games): investigative abilities and general abilities. Investigative abilities deal with investigating – not just things like Evidence Collection and Forensic Accounting (yes, that is an ability), but also things like Impersonate and Intimidation that might not usually be considered as belonging to that kind of category. These abilities are not rolled – instead, you always get clues you have the right skills to get, and can spend points for better effects.. General abilities, on the other hand, are rolled, and deal with things like fighting, stealing things and being prepared.

The antagonists fall in two categories: Esoterrorists, and ODE. Esoterrorists are people who are dealing with ODE and trying to break down reality. They are usually organised in cults, and there is a system for classifying both cults and members, to help you better detail them. ODE, on the other hand, are supernatural beings, inhabiting some form of biological, but strange, body. These are described with stats for what they do and how to fight them, and often also a drawing.

The last half or so is an in-depth look at an example of an alternative kind of scenario for the game, called Duty Station: instead of being assembled to deal with one specific issue after another all over the place, this cell of OV has been stationed in a particular city, and will be trying to weed out the Esoterrorists hiding in the community. This section includes several fully fledged NPC’s. Also, while the book is peppered with little story seeds, this part has a whole scenario ready to go.

My impression: I’m a bit ambivalent about this game. On one hand, it looks like a good setup for a really classic, straightforward supernatural investigation game. On the other hand, the game seems rather bland, particularly compared to many similar games.

The game doesn’t really put the player characters in focus. Instead they are mostly just competent proxies for the players. There are no drives, player arcs or similar features in this game (as opposed to Ashen Stars, and also Trail of Cthulhu). Just characters and their abilities. This meshes well with many investigative games I played as a kid, where the story was the important thing, and the investigators were pretty flat.

On the other hand, I think I might prefer having player characters with built in conflicts and personal goals that I can play with in the game. Particularly in a campaign game, where we’ll be hanging out with the characters for a long time.

The scenario structure is also a little stiff for my taste. It meshes well with the premise for the game, with the very structured police-like agency of the OV, and it’s also a good help for quickly getting a game off the ground. On the other hand, it seems the different cases would feel disjointed, and I’m not sure whether a campaign would feel at all like a coherent story.

The Duty Station setup seems more likely to accommodate a cohesive story. Not only will we be dealing with many of the same NPC’s over and over, and to some extent the same enemies, the player characters will be living in the community of these NPC’s, so anythings that happens will hit much closer to home.

On the other hand, I do quite like the way the game introduces the antagonists. The human antagonists are presented as real humans, and asks the GM to consider the history and motivations of the NPCs. In many of these kinds of supernatural investigation games, there is a tendency to skim over the reasons for the evil foe being evil. It’s good to have a game encouraging the GM to make their antagonists into whole and believable characters.

The ODE’s are also well designed. They are weird creatures, but have a distinctly unique feel, different from Cthulhoid horrors or other “creatures from beyond” that would help Esoterrorists stand feel different than other, similar games.

Ultimately, though, I’m not sure this game is for me. I don’t have enough interest in police procedure, and I would prefer characters with a bit more flesh to them.

How would I use this: I could see myself using this game for one-shot investigation games, particularly if I ever went back to teaching adolescents. I could also be persuaded to run a short campaign of Duty Station – I could see it as a great basis for a game that is part Twin Peaks, part X-Files and part undercover police drama.

Other than that, I might lift the Esoterrorist creation chapter in a Cthulhoid game, when creating the cults that are summoning the horrors from beyond.

16th of December: Break Today

UnknownArmies-BreakToday

You want fries with your enlightenment?

Author/Designer: Greg Stoltze with Chad Underkoffler

From: The Unknown Armies Bundle

I remember being very fascinated with Unknown Armies. It was a modern, urban horror/mystery game with a very different feel than the World of Darkness. It has a very weird and slightly tounge-in-cheek feel to the rather straight and sombre WoD. And I remember that one of the aspects of the game I thought was really neat was the organisation Mak Attack – a secret cabal, spreading enlightenment by loading up burger meals at the world’s largest fast food franchise with magical energies. Well, lo and behold – here’s a whole book, just about them.

The book first describes the cabal, including write-ups (fictional biographies and stats) of many of the movers and shakers. It has some tips for running campaigns with Mak player characters, including some scenario-seeds to use in Mak campaigns. The book also includes new rituals as well as new types of magick and new types of archetypes for the players to play. This includes the Plutophage, who gets power by consuming money or expensive items, and the Anagram Gematrist, who works magic by making anagrams.

The book contains a fair bit of fiction, portraying the main players of Mak Attax, and a number of rather disturbing images. In between chapters are often emails or similar, sent between members of Mak Attax.

My impression: I like Break Today – it gives a very nice intro into the organisation of Mak Attax, and provides an example of what the world of Unknown Armies should feel like. The book has a lot of details about specific people in the UA world. This means the GM runs the risk of turning the player characters into extras in the story of these movers and shakers in the Mak Attax world. On the other hand, it gives a good impression of the feel of the world of UA, and some neat resources to help you make the world of Mak Attax come alive.

A great thing about using Mak Attax is that it gives some more purpose and structure to Unknown Armies. One of my problems with the setting is that I find myself wondering what the goal is for the characters. With Mak Attax, that becomes much more obvious. Not only in that they share the common goal of Mak Attax – it also becomes much easier to develop individual goals that can mesh or conflict with those goals. It provides a great basis for a game where players are each others’ greatest allies – most of the time. At least until one of them has an opportunity to further their own goals, to the possible detriment of the others in her crew.

The book has pretty good guides to starting a campaign based on a crew of Attax’ers. There is a lot of background information on Mak crews, and some advice for creating a crew that will play together. I also like the story seeds included. They vary a fair deal, providing stories for many different kinds of games, and all of them seem interesting. They’re not too detailed, but give a good basis for turning it into actual play.

On the other hand, I lack guides on creating a cohesive campaign based on Mak Attax. The book suggests stringing the story seeds together into a campaign, but that is not really what I’m after. I would like some hints on creating a campaign with an overarching plot and some good story development. That is mostly absent from the book.

Break Today is a great resource for a game of Unknown Armies, particularly if the premise of using the world’s largest – and probably most controversial – fast food chain as a vehicle for enlightenment strikes you as a fun concept to develop. It could also be a great resource for creating NPCs for a campaign not featuring a crew of Attax’ers.

How would I use this: If I ever get around to playing some UA, I might very well use this as the basis for such a campaign. My problem with that is that this probably benefits from running at least a short campaign, and running a long game of UA is not first on my list. I like many things about the game, but I think it’s old school enough that I would grow frustrated with it pretty quickly. Still, with the right group…

15th of December: Bulldogs

TaylorEngard-Bulldogs

Tempt your Fate in action packed space adventures!

Author/Designer: Brennan Taylor and Brian Engard

From: Bundle of Fate

Fate has gone through a lot of development, from the main breakthrough with Spirit of the Century to the current wave of games using Fate Core and Fate Accelerated. Bulldogs! lies in the middle of that evolution, coming out after the success of SotC, but before the birth of Core and Accelerated.

Bulldogs is a space opera game, taking place in The Frontier Zone between two competing empires. Big interstellar corporations are among the movers and shakers in this region, and the players are employed by such a corporation, manning a Class D freighter carrying cargo around the frontier and encountering all sorts of mayhem.

When starting a new campaign, the players and the GM create the ship and the captain together, assigning aspects to them and talking about the basis for the crew. The book stresses that the GM should have no more say in this than the other players. It also recommends that the captain be controlled by the GM, and not be a player character. Then each player will create their own characters, choosing a species from the list or making one up, devising aspects and assigning skills and stunts. Stunts work much like they do in Atomic Robo: The book comes with examples of stunts, but the idea is that you should design your own stunts.

The book is neatly laid out, with clear headings and a logical structure. As a nice little touch, each chapter has an associated picture, and a circular cutting from that picture is in the top corner of every even page of that chapter.

My impression: In many ways, Bulldogs! seems to be a mix of Ashen Stars and Atomic Robo. Just like Ashen Stars, you are travelling around your section of space, solving problems and having adventures. It also features a similarly varied set of alien species. But the tone is much lighter than in Ashen Stars, and more like Atomic Robo – the same ridiculous attitude and silly hijincks. The alien species would also be more at home in the zanier world of Atomic Robo than in Ashen Stars: one is a race of mad, trigger happy teddy bears, for crying out loud! Many of the others are anthropomorphic animals of different kinds, like a race of big cats, a race of humanised snakes and a race of a-sexual, cloning slugs. I suppose this goes with the more gung-ho, action oriented kind of space opera featured in this game.

Where Ashen Stars and Atomic Robo both have a very firm description of what you will be doing, Bulldogs! has only some vague indications. You will be delivering goods, often of a dangerous and unstable kind. And then? Well, then action happens, of some unspecified kind. Th game does indicate that it might be a good idea to involve players’ aspects in the creation of scenarios, but that is about it. There is no recommended structure for a scenario, and no outline for how you should put a campaign together. This is somewhat disappointing, not least because the players’ immediate circumstance – as something akin to galactic FedEx’ers – doesn’t naturally lead to great games.

To be frank, I was somewhat surprised when I saw what the basic premise for the campaign was. You are hauling stuff, which is a trade that is most successful when you just land, unload and take off again. Not what you’ll want to be doing every Wednesday night for some excitement. Now if you were freelance haulers, you’d be negotiating contracts and sometimes ending up with a deal going south. But no, you are corporate wage-slaves, getting your assignments from HQ. Granted, you are going to be transporting dangerous and volatile cargoes, but that also seems to have a limited novelty factor.

At the back of the book are some alternative suggestions for campaigns that sound more interesting. You can be a mercenary crew, explorers, an espionage crew or perhaps even pirates! I am left to wonder, though, why none of these were chosen as the basic model for a campaign, or maybe just written into the chapter as equal ideas. All of these seem to more readily afford a varied series of exciting adventures.

As stated before, the captain is supposed to be an npc. This doesn’t seem an obvious choice to me either. The game states that in this way, the captain can be an adversarial force who can help create problems for the players. Fair enough. But it also means taking a fair deal of agency away from the players. Unless the first part of the campaign involved getting rid of or sidelining the captain, I think I would prefer to have a player assume the role of captain. That way, it will be a player having to deal with HQ, making unpopular decisions and taking the spotlight during a tense dogfight. And I’m not worried about one player nominally having authority over the others – a bit of PvP can mean hours of fun play that the GM doesn’t have to initiate.

I like the universe of Bulldogs! and the tone of the game seems fun and very appealing. Having the players and the GM make the space ship together as part of character creation is a great idea, as it makes the ship a unifying part of the party, and implies a conversation about the kind of game the group wants to play. I could easily imagine Firefly as a prototype of a campaign of Bulldogs! where the ship is like an extra character in the party.

Unfortunately, the game seems unfinished, or at the very least, unpolished. To my mind, no modern roleplaying game is complete without some form of instructions in making the kind of scenarios and campaigns it wants you to play. This game provides mostly alludes to the kinds of situations that could arise, without really telling me how to put it together. The whole GM-section of the book is 9 pages out of 170, with several going to general moment-to-moment advice on running a game of Fate – much of which is practically identical to advice from the superb GM-section in Spirit of the Century – and two pages being the alternative campaign ideas. “Adventure Design” is barely half a page of vague advice. A pity they didn’t adapt some of Spirit’s excellent advice on creating adventures.

I do have faith in my abilities to create an interesting campaign of Bulldogs! But with so many cool and interesting games beckoning, I’m likely to skip it for a game that provides me with more structure to create a good basis for fun and engaging games.

How would I use this: If I ever wanted a fun game of rogue operators in space, in the vein of Firefly, I might very well look to Bulldogs! (I might even think this game would better emulate that series than the actual Firefly roleplaying game). I’ve said this a lot throughout this advent calendar., but it might also be a good game for young roleplayers with an experienced GM.

14th of December: The Clay That Woke

Czege-TheClayThatWoke

Play Minotaurs caught between the city and the jungle.

Author/Designer: Paul Czege

From: The Indie Cornucopia +3

The Clay That Woke caused a bit of a stir in RPG-circles when it came out. It had a successful Kickstarter, and in a time where pdf’s are becoming more and more prevalent, it delivered a fancy book with 90 tokens to be used with its resolution mechanic, the Crater of Lots. All this made me very curious, so of course I wanted to take a look at it.

The Clay That Woke is a game about minotaurs living and working as an servant class in a once-great society. The minotaurs adhere to a strict honour code called the Silence, detailing what a minotaur should and should not do. A minotaur who breaks Silence too much will be seized by uncontrollable urges and run out into the jungle until he has regained his composure.

And so, the game changes between life in the civilisation of humans, and strange encounters in the jungle. In human society, they live among the humans and are party to the turmoil of human society, while in the jungle, they encounter weird creatures and terrible dangers.

Whenever a player minotaur encounters a sufficiently loaded situation, they will draw from the Crater of Lots – krater meaning a large bowl used to mix wine and water in ancient Greek society. First, the GM will load the crater with a number of tokens, representing the challenge faced by the player. Then the player, and other players present in the situation, may add tokens to the crater from their own supply. Finally, the player will draw four tokens from the crater and then consult a menu of options to determine what the draw means.

The book is structured rather unusually, in that sections of rules or instructions for the players and GM alternate with sections of fiction that gives an insight into the society and mindset of the game world, as well as the kind of story the game wants you to play. In order to help you find your way around the document, the table of contents is structured more like an index, or maybe a reference guide, telling you where in the document to go look for details on this or that aspect of the rules or the game world.

My impression: So. Let’s get this out of the way. The text of this game annoys me mightily. The alteration between fiction and game text is not in itself bad, but that, combined with the vague and oblique way the game text is written, means I never really felt certain what the game wanted me to do. I don’t really know when to draw from the crater, I certainly don’t what the significance of a certain token in the crater is, and I have no really idea of what the players will be doing in the game.

There are many aspects of the game that intrigue me. The world seems fascinating, the minotaurs are an interesting concept for player characters – particularly with the duality of servility in the cities and ferocity and strangeness in the jungle – and the Crater of Lots is a novel resolution mechanic that has a lot of potential for providing fuel for the story.

As such, there is a part of me that aches to try the game, to see if the gold I can see gleaming in there comes out in play, or will turn out to be nothing much at all. But the game does not help me reach that point. It teases and obfuscates, and seems to assume that I will glean the meaning behind the words.

The main motor of the game seems to be the economy of the tokens and drawing from the Crater of Lots. But I’ll be honest – I don’t really have a feel for how the tokens should flow. You regain your life token when the jungle comes for you in the civilised world or when the civilised world comes for you in the jungle – what does that mean? How does it look in play? It seems an important part of the game economy, yet it is explained in not even two lines of text!

The same is the case with the instructions for the gamemaster’s prep. Czege tells you to prepare a number of things before play, but only gives oblique instructions on how to do so. You need to create “life and employment circumstances” for the players in your group – but what goes into such circumstances? What is a good starting point for a minotaur? I must also make situations for the Jungle excursions – but what makes a good encounter in the jungle?

Czege remarks in a post on the Kickstarter for the game that he wrote the game this way deliberately, in order to entice people, to make them want to play the game. That is a noble sentiment. And I would agree – making people excited about a game is definitely one of the goals when writing a roleplaying game.

But Czege also says that it is not important that a roleplaying game book is written as a good procedural text. And this is where I most certainly disagree. Once a text has drawn me in, it needs to take me by the hand and help me make the game come alive. The game needs to help me find the kind of play the creator envisioned – or, failing that, at least one my group will enjoy. Vincent Baker’s Apocalypse World is an example of a game that achieves both: every page oozes the post apocalyptic mood the game wants to portray. But at the same time, it is one of the most accessible texts I’ve ever encountered in roleplaying.

It’s not easiest game to run, mind you. Apocalypse World is a challenge to run, but an enjoyable one. I keep finding myself leafing through the tome, picking out advice and finding new aspects to bring into the game.

And that is where The Clay That Woke seems to fail: its challenge is not in running the game, but in accessing it, and finding out how to get it to the table in the first place. And no matter how enticing it is, there is a limit of how much you can frustrate someone before they give up and go play something easier instead.

How would I use this: I could probably cobble something together and run this game if I poured the time and energy into it, sifting through the book and filtering out the elements needed to make the game work. But for the moment at least, I’ve been turned off by the writing style and deliberate obliqueness of the text. As such, I’m unlikely to run the game any time soon. I’d be perfectly happy to participate in someone else’s game, because I’m still curious to see if this works, though.