11th of December: Designers and Dragons

Designers and Dragons 2000s

The history of ten years of roleplaying history in one handy volume.

Author/Designer: Shannon Appelcline

From: Designers, Dragons and more

Designers & Dragons is a series of books on the history of roleplaying. Each book focuses on a decade, from the ‘70es to the ‘00s, and takes a look at the trends, companies and designers that were prominent in that time. I took a brief look at the ‘00s one, as that is when I’ve mostly been active, and because I’m most interested in some of the things happening in the Indie scene from the early ‘00s onwards.

The book is divided into eight parts, each focusing on a particular trend. A couple focus on D20 games, a couple focus on indie games and a couple focus on other trends in roleplaying. Each part contains chapters dealing with one of the publishing companies prominent within that part of the hobby.

For each company, the book gives a chronological overview of what happened to that company. The book goes into a good amount of detail, and also describes the important characteristics and innovations of prominent games in the company’s line.

Here and there, the book includes fact boxes, detailing minor developments or tangents to the main topic of that section. For instance, the section on D. Vincent Baker’s Lumpley Games includes an aside about Night Sky Games, which is run by Baker’s wife, Meguey Baker.

At the end of each chapter is a box of suggestions on what to read next, divided into related aspects from the same book, related aspects from other books, and related people present in other chapters of this or other books.

My impression: I will start off by saying that I did not read through all 458 pages of this book before making this review. I don’t think I ever would, either: there are some sections that just don’t interest me. For instance, I have never had any interest in Pathfinder, and I have no reason to read the section about the development of that brand.

On the other hand, the development of the Indie scene is a scattered and confused affair, and I am excited about the prospects of a tome giving a more-or-less coherent overview of that narrative. I am really impressed with the level of detail the author goes into, and I will look forward to when I’m able to spend more time delving into it in a bit further.

Having said that, I’m not sure I’m a fan of the “company” approach. Going through each company in turn transforms the history of the hobby into a number of more-or-lesss connected narratives about this or that person doing this or that at a given time. I would have liked a more coherent narrative. I would also have liked a look that focused a bit more on things outside of the publishing world. What about conventions, for instance – how did they change? What about the roleplaying media? Both aspects are mentioned here or there, but a run-through of the environment of the games’ creation could have been useful.

All in all, this is monumental work, and a very interesting one – if nothing else, then because it (to my knowledge) is the only work looking at the whole history of roleplaying. It’s for geeks, who have an understanding of the hobby as it is to day, but for those geeks, there is loads of interesting stuff here.

How would I use this: This is the kind of book that is interesting as background knowledge, while having almost no impact on the games you actually play. I want to read more, particularly about the development of Indie games, but also the development of GUMSHOE and the White Wolf line of games. Besides, it is fascinating to delve into the genealogy and legacy of many of the games that are at the centre of the hobby today.

9th of December: Atomic Robo


Save the world with Action Science!

Author/Designer:Mike Olson et- at.

From: Bundle of Fate +3

Today, I’m taking a look at the Atomic Robo RPG from the Bundle of Fate +3. This was a difficult one to choose from – I was tempted to go with Baroque Space Opera instead, and Unwritten: Adventures in the Ages of Myst beckoned as well. But I’ve heard some interesting things about Atomic Robo, and so I decided to go with this instead. And by pure coincidence, this turned out to be a fun-house mirror image of Itras By from yesterday.

Atomic Robo is based on a series of comic books about the atomic robot, Atomic Robo. Robo was created by Nicola Tesla, and since his creator’s death, he has been in charge of a company building on all the super-science secretly invented by Tesla. And so today, Robo leads a band of Action Scientists going out to battle nefarious conspiracies trying to take over the world.

(What is an Action Scientist, you ask? The book has a good example to explain it: Imagine an archaologist, carefully excavating some site, or maybe dating potsherds in the lab. Now think of Indiana Jones, going on adventures, dodging traps and discovering mystical artefacts in remote locations. Action Scientists are to science what Indy is to archaeology.)

The Atomic Robo roleplaying game is built on the Fate system, with a few special quirks of its own. As in other Fate games, a character consists of a number of skills, some stunts and some aspects. Atomic Robo organises the skills in “Modes”, gathering a set of skills to do with the same type of actions. Each character has three modes at different levels (one Good, one Fair and one Average), choosing from the four Standard Modes (Action, Banter, Science or Intrigue) or creating or adopting a ready-made “Weird Mode”. Weird Modes are skill sets that are tailored to a concept beyond the generic Action Scientist mould of the gamer. Example Weird Modes include Robot, Dinosaur and Reporter (cause reporters are weird, man).

Stunts are ways your character can bend the rules of the game. The game recommends building stunts on the fly, and provides a list of sample benefits a stunt can provide, like a bonus to a roll or an exception to a rule. Weird Modes often provide mega-stunts that provide benefits beyond those of a regular stunt, but a mega-stunt also comes with drawbacks to counterbalance.

Finally, each character will have five aspects: one concept aspect (like “I am the atomic robot” or “Ape professor”), one aspect for each of the three modes, and finally an “Omega Aspect,” giving the character a direction or a goal. The concept aspect should be created before the game starts, but the other can be created during play. Each aspect gives you one Fate Point that allows you to influence the game. You gain more in different ways, including when you surrender a fight or when your aspects complicate things for you.

The GM version of this is the Budget and the Reserve. For each scene, the GM receives a certain budget of points to spend on making lives difficult for our heroes. When an NPC aspect is compelled, the GM gets a point into his “reserve”, to bring to bear in a dramatically appropriate scene.

Throughout the book, bits of the comic is used to illustrate aspects of the game. So when explaining the use of Compels, it shows a scene from the comic where Atomic Robo is compelled. This visualises the mechanics, and gives the book a lot of colour and interest.

My impression: This is in many ways the opposite of Itras By. Where Itras By allowed for a wide range of stories and characters, but did not really give enough guidance for how to do so, Atomic Robo gives a lot of guidance and step-by-step instructions on how to use the system, but it seems a bit narrow in the kinds of stories and characters you can play.

This may well be because the game is supposed to be a beginner’s introduction to Fate. The game seems tailored to helping both players and game masters get into the game as quickly as possible. For the players, there’s a quick and easy way to build characters that allows you to begin within twenty minutes. Saving the creation of advances, aspects and stunts for during the play allows the players to create mechanical elements for when they need it, and hopefully have a good sense of who each character is, and what they need to work. There is also a more in-depth mode of character generation, for when you want something a bit different.

For the GM, there are random “plot generators”, loads of useful advice (both generic and specific to Atomic Robo), plus the financial aspects of the Budget and the Pool. I think this might help inexperienced GMs to understand the game better. On the other hand, I think I might be annoyed at the restrictions inherent in the very mechanical way this is built.

The game has a very particular kind of story in mind, and has a couple of neat little sub-systems to assist that. First of all, the Brainstorm. This allows the players to come up with a hypothesis for something in the game – which is then true! It’s potentially a fun tool to putting some Science! into the game, and making players help give the world flavour.

Second of all, Tesladyne, the company the characters work for, has skills, and can be developed by the players. This is a great way of giving some cohesion to the game, and making everyone feel like part of something bigger

All in all, I like the game. In some ways, it feels a little like a modern version of Spirit of the Century, and I think it does a good job of capturing a certain kind of science fiction story. Also, it’s a very easy and accessible version of Fate, and I wouldn’t hesitate to hand this to an inexperienced GM, knowing the budgeting system and the other structures in the game would help them make a good game. Similarly, building characters with modes makes it very easy to create solid characters, without spending hours poring over lists of skills and stunts. Creating things on the fly means I could help players by saying “What do you want to achieve right now”, and then creating an aspect or Stunt in the moment.

On the other hand, it lacks some of the charm of something like Spirit of the Century. The more firm structure is also more rigid, and I suspect I might get frustrated with the ways the game wants me to run things. Also, I’m not sure I like the GM budget – while it’s a good way of helping new GMs make a balanced game for the players, I think I prefer fudging things when playing a relatively traditional game like Atomic Robo.

How would I use this: I would play Atomic Robo with a group of newbies, to introduce them to Fate, particularly if I ever teach adolescents again. I might also try taking it out for a spin if I ever wanted a one- or two-off game of enjoyable action to play with more adult players. On the other hand, I don’t think this would ever replace Spirit of the Century as my game of choice for silly, pulpy adventure fun.

8th of December: Itras By

08 GiaeverGudmundsen-ItrasBy

Wonderous adventures in the surreal city.

Author/Designer: Ole Peder Giæver & Martin Bull Gudmundsen

From: The Indie Sprimg Festival Bundle

I believe I first really heard about Itras By (Itra’s City) back in 2010, when Niels Ladefoged Rasmussen and Anne Vinkel (of recent The Good Roleplayer Must Die fame) wrote a scenario for Fastaval called The Boy and the City, which was set in Itras By. Also, I know one of the authors, Ole Peder, so I was curious to look at the game he’s made.

Itras By is inspired by the surrealism movement of the early 20th century. It takes place in Itras City, a wondrous place of (literally) bull headed people, vanishing streets and anarchists smoking cigars made from flakes of the sky. It’s a city of beauty and humour, but also of strife and tragedy.

The game presents you with a very open frame for creating your characters. You can be anything or anyone you want, from a beggar in the street to something akin to a god. Before you create your characters, though, the game tells you to talk with the group and come up with a concept for the characters, and for the campaigns. Are you a club of revolutionaries, the crew of a ship embarking upon a voyage, maybe bored rich youths out for adventure – or just a group of neighbours living in the same house?

Each character is made up, first, of a concept. This is similar to many other games, but even more important, as the rules place so few limitations on your character. You will then write a background, “dramatic qualities” (aspects that you will be able to bring to bear in dramatically loaded situations) “intrigue magnets” (that the GM will use to create plots you are interested in) and supporting characters connected to your character.

Resolution is done by drawing from a special deck of cards, giving results such as: “Yes, but… The character succeeds, but there’s a tiny detail that doesn’t go quite as planned.” Or: “No, but… The character fails, but another positive thing happens instead, unrelated to what she was aiming for.” It is then up to the GM and the players to interpret the card in the situation.

The game starts off with a long setting chapter, and finishes with several sample scenarios and sample campaigns, to give you a feel for how the game works. The prose of the book is very literary, quite poetic and a tad dreamy. The whole book is liberally sprinkled with some nice drawings of some of the weird creatures and places in the book.

My impression: The book of Itras By is a beautiful thing to behold. I’d almost wish I had a physical copy, just to be able to take it out and look at. It could almost serve as a coffee table book. The art style is very appealing, and helps underline the feeling of the book exceedingly well. Meanwhile, the layout of the book is pleasing, and also supports the mood of the book.

The setting, meanwhile, is equally wonderful. I am the kind of person who has bought many a role-playing book, not with any intention to ever use it for play, but simply to read the descriptions of the setting. The setting of Itras By is like that. Each section is wonderful, and filled with great ideas and inspiration. I would love to delve further into the setting.

Which brings me to the weak point of the book: the part where you actually sit down to play with the game. This whole part seems very vague, and doesn’t really give the reader the tools to create a good game of Itras By. To be fair, this is probably at least in part because they want to give the players as much freedom as possible to create the game they want in the setting.

On the other hand, when the game tells me to come up with a concept for a character, it gives me just one short paragraph to do this. Now, in a game like Vampire, that would be fine – the game has already given me several constraints to work within, like the clans of the game and the city the game is set in. But in Itras By, anything goes. That means that a lot more work goes into figuring out who and what you want to be. This doesn’t just go for character concepts – creating a campaign concept is left very vague as well.

The problems continue when we get into Dramatic Qualities. These are the only “crunchy,” mechanical bits of your character. But the game gives very little direction as to what you’re going for here. Anything can be a Dramatic Quality – or not, depending. Depending on what? On what you feel like! Well, how many do I get? Oh, as many as you like, but between one and four is a good number.

And then, once we have our characters and get into the actual play portion of the game, the vagueness continues. The whole chapter on playing the game is mostly filled with general roleplaying advice, like how to get into character and not to try to prevent interesting things from happening to your character. All of it is great advice, and I might well give those pages to anyone playing any kind of roleplaying game – not least traditional games like Vampire or Unknown Armies. But it doesn’t really tell me how playing Itras By is different from any of those other games. The game does put a lot of emphasis on improvisation, which is not commonly found in other traditional games. On the other hand, it’s still not really something special about Itras By.

The resolution mechanic is probably the most innovative thing about Itras By, in all its simplicity. The resolution cards are simple and easy to use, but it seems like they give a lot of fodder to the story. It’s a really clever way of introducing very nuanced input to the story, without just going into different degrees of success. A “Yes, and…” result is radically different from a “Yes, but…”, and gives the players and GM some good cues for how to adapt it to the story. It also focuses on the story-based, improvisational nature of the game.

The game also comes with some “Chance Cards,” allowing you to introduce some randomness into the game. These look interesting, though I’m a little worried they might not always be beneficial to the game. I’d have to see them in play to pass judgement – it’s certainly an interesting concept, and if the group can handle them, I think it could be a great boon for a game.

From the above you might conclude that I dislike Itras By. That is not the case. I’m intrigued by the game, and I can see the possibilities for some great games in this city, using these rules. But I would have liked some more guidance for both the players and the GM, to ease them into the world of surrealistic roleplaying. As it is, I would love to play this game with players who have played a good number of Story Games and Indie rpgs before, people I know will be able to spin good stories within the loose framework of the game. On the other hand, I would not give this book to players who are not used to communal storytelling – that might well lead to disaster.

How would I use this: I would love to play a short campaign of a few sessions of this. I think this game would be very well suited to campaigns of a limited span, exploring one main storyline. On the other hand, I don’t think I would want to do a campaign with no agreed end-point – I don’t think the structure would hold up to long-term play.

7th of December: A Penny For My Thoughts

07 Tevis-PennyForMyThoughts

Remembering other people’s lives

Author/Designer: Paul Tevis

From: The Bundle of Holding +2

Today I’m bringing you a game from the very first bundle I got from Bundle of Holding: The Bundle of Holding +2. I think Monsterhearts was what persuaded me to get that bundle, but that’s not the game I want to talk about today. Instead, I’ve taken a look at A Penny For My Thoughts, a game I remember Oliver talking about back when we were playing Indie games together when we lived in Aarhus. I’ve never played it, though, which is why I decided to read through it for today. The game is a product of the Game Chef competition, an annual design challenge, where participants are asked to design a game based on a number of ingredients, in this case “memory”, “drug”, and “currency”.

A Penny For My Thoughts is a game about memory and personal stories. In the game, you play a group of amnesiac patients who have been administered a dose of a drug that allows you to see each other’s memories. The idea is that the others are free of the emotional trauma that caused the amnesia, and as such can get into the memories that the person are shutting out.

In the game, you write a number of “Memory Triggers” – brief phrases that will spark a memory. Everybody writes a number of triggers and put them all in a hat, a tin or something similar. Then, on your turn, you draw a trigger and read it out loud. You will then ask each of the other players in turn to ask you a “guiding question” – a yes or no question about the memory, to which you must answer, “Yes, and”, and then elaborate on the answer.

When you are done asking questions, you will narrate the memory. There’s a catch, though: you are free to narrate other characters and the world around you, but whenever you take considerable action yourself, you must ask two other players: “What did I do or say then?” Each of them will give you an option for what you did, and you must choose one of them, giving that player a penny from a little stash in front of you. When you are out of pennies, the memory is finished, you wrap it up, and take one penny from a central stash.

Then the player with the most pennies (sort of – there’s a more complicated rule I won’t explain here) takes the next turn. This continues until each player has done three memories. At that point, the game is over, and each player will decide whether to retain their pennies – and their memories – or give back the pennies, going back into amnesia.

Most of the book is written from the point of view of the doctor administering the drug, explaining to the patients how to carry out the procedure they are about to undergo. The game text is designed to be read out loud while playing, such that you can pick up the book and play with very little preparation. The last chapter of the book is written from the author’s point of view, giving some advice and explaining the inspiration and design process of the game.

The game is intended to be played in a realistic, present-day setting, and in the appendices, there is a “Facts & Reassurances” sheet to that effect. “Facts & Reassurances” is the game’s way to coordinate expectations about setting and tone, to avoid clashing visions causing a problem for the players. The game does provide other versions of “Facts & Reassurances”, allowing for instance a Bourne Identity style secret agent game, or a game of Lovecraftian investigators in an asylum.

My impression: First off, I want to mention the tone and layout of the game. It is designed to look like a case folder, and the tone of the doctor comes through quite strongly. On one hand, this is a bit silly. On the other hand, it sets the mood for the game, and I think it will help ease the players into the game very nicely.

The game itself is clearly heavily inspired by improvisational theatre (something Tevis himself acknowledges). I’ve done some improv myself, and I recognise many of the moves that the game uses. Drawing cues from a hat and getting heavy prompting from others are both ways that improv helps participants get into the scenes. This seems like a very good way of doing a game like this, as it effectively stops the players from planning, and instead gets them into the flow of the story. The storyteller knows as little as the other players about where the story is headed.

On the other hand, this may also be a turn-off for many players who like more control. And while I think it might be good for them to learn how to relinquish control and go with the flow, a game that rotates so heavily on that mechanic needs players who can accept that premise for the game.

All said, I like a lot of things in this game. It would seem the game has some very sound mechanics that give good support to storytelling, and teaches some good habits that could be good to have in other games.

I’ll be honest, though. While I like the game, and would be perfectly happy to play it, it doesn’t really get my blood flowing. I think part of that is not having experienced the game in full flow. But part of it is also the way the game seems a little like an exercise, and not quite as much as a game. I’d have to try it to really pass judgement on it.

How would I use this: I would love to give this game a try, just to see how it works. I would prefer to do it with some players I know to be good storytellers, though, as I’d be worried the game would drag with players who are not comfortable with this way of storytelling.

On the other hand, I could also see myself using this game as part of a storytelling or writing workshop. The game aims at fining the emotional content of a scene and making problems for a character, and could be a good exercise in writing potent scenes. Also, you could definitely use the game as the basis for a short story, or even for a novel.

5th of December: Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple

5 Solis-Do

Let’s get in trouble with the flying pilgrims!

Author/Designer: Daniel Solis

From: Bundle of Holding +4

Today I bring you a storytelling/writing game from Daniel Solis, who also designed the cute writing game Happy Birthday Robot (which we converted into Happy Birthday Zombie by mashing it together with Zombie Dice). Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple is a slightly more advanced game, but similar in many ways.

In this game, you play Pilgrims – teenagers sent out from the Flying Temple in the middle of this universe to solve problem and grow up on the way. (This is actually somewhat similar to Vincent D. Baker’s Dogs in the Vineyard, though the similarities more or less stop there). The world of the game is heavily inspired by Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s The Little Prince, with loads of little planets, each with their own community to encounter and interact with. The Pilgrims can fly from planet to planet, and will encounter a situation to solve on each planet they visit.

Generating characters in Do is simple: just make a name for your Pilgrim. A Pilgrim’s name consists of three part: First, the title “Pilgrim”, then a Banner, and finally an Avatar. The Banner is an adjective or descriptor, and indicates the way the Pilgrim gets into trouble, while the Avatar is a noun that indicates the way the Pilgrim helps people. So Pilgrim Green Tree gets in trouble by being inexperienced, while she helps people by nurturing and growing things. At the end of each session, either the Banner or the Avatar will change to reflect what has happened to the Pilgrim during the session – and when the character is ultimately retired, she will have undergone many changes, and be a more grown up character than when she started.

Once you have your characters, you need a world with problems for he pilgrims to solve. To this end, the game comes with a number of letters, written by people desperate for help by the Pilgrims. The letter will describe the situation the writer finds him or herself in. Besides that, there are 20 Goal Words that the Pilgrims will be trying to get through, and some round icons, indicating what kind of issues the letter is likely to involve.

While playing, the players will take turns being the Storyteller, the other players serving as Troublemakers. The storyteller will draw three stones from a bag of white and black stones – 20 of each. Then, he will select to keep either the black or the white stones, and put the others back in the bag. Depending on how many stones he kept, the Storyteller will write a sentence about helping the locals, getting into trouble, or getting back out of trouble. Maybe the Troublemakers add a sentence to the story, and either the Storyteller or the Troublemakers may get to cross a Goal Word off the list.

You continue taking turn as Storyteller until someone has eight stones, at which point you end the session. If you managed to cross off all the Goal Words, you get sent off with a parade – otherwise, you get chased away with pitchforks. Then you do a brief epilogue and change your Pilgrims’ names.

The book is beautifully decorated, with a nice parchment look and loads of pretty and evocative drawings. The letters in particular are presented very nicely, in a way that is not only inviting, but also helps set the scene for the particular world the Pilgrims are visiting today.

My impression: I am quite charmed by this book. The setting is nice and very inviting, and it seems to invite some lovely storytelling about the Pilgrims. There are a fair number of moving parts, but I think it will be easy to keep it going, even with relatively young players.

Speaking of, the game itself states that it is designed for players of age 12 and up. On one hand, I think the story of the Pilgrims would appeal to slightly younger kids. On the other hand, writing out the story of the Pilgrims in a good way, while accepting the bad things that will invariably happen to your Pilgrim, requires a relatively mature player.

The game comes with a lot of advice for the players. This is a good thing, in that it can help inexperienced players get into the game. On the other hand, I think the game requires an adult to communicate the advice to younger players, and help them understand the advice.

My main concern with the game is whether it will feel rewarding in the end. Writing down sentences takes a fair while, and I’m a bit worried that it will drag down the game and make it feel slow. Particularly as you’ll only do one sentence whenever it is your turn. This means that the game will probably last 3-5 rounds, amounting to somewhere between nine and 25 turns. Granted, nine is quite unlikely, but it is certainly possible, and would hardly be enough for a satisfying game. Of course, players can willingly extend the game by taking the lesser number of stones, which may be needed to get the parades ending.

This is of course purely speculation. It is a bit difficult for me to predict how the game will feel when you play it. As it stands, the game is a compelling invitation to a fun session of storytelling. And the book itself is a beautiful and very inviting piece that makes me feel welcome and in good hands. As such, I could definitely see myself recommending this to teachers and parents, even those without storytelling, writing or roleplaying experience, to use with their kids.

How would I use this: I would love to do a session or two of this. I doubt I’d want to do repeated plays of this with the same group of adult players, but if I ever go back to teaching creative writing for adolescents or young adults, I might very well consider bringing this along. I am also considering taking it along to play with some of my family over Christmas – this game could certainly appeal to people without any roleplaying experience at all.

4th of December: Kobold Guide to Worldbuilding

4 Kobold-GuideToWorldbuilding

A bunch of advice and insight by gaming industry insiders.

Editor: Janna Silverstein

From: Worlbuilder’s Toolkit

This book is an anthology of essays on various facets of worldbuilding, written by veterans of the gaming industry like Monte Cook, Keith Baker and Wolfgang Baur. The book starts out with some more general essays on worldbuilding as such, and then progresses to more specialised topics like options for religion, technology or magic in a Fantasy world , designing a mystery cult or how to write a “world bible” or work within someone else’s intellectual property.

A couple of highlights:

Chris Pramas’ “Worldbuilding Outside In or Inside Out”, about two ways of doing worldbuilding. Do you start with the great strokes of the world, or do you start with the specific setting for your story?

Joshua Roberts’ “Here Be Dragons: On Mapmaking”, about creating maps for your world. A quick and accessible guide to creating good, believable and useful maps for your setting.

Michael A. Stackpole’s “They do what now? On societies and culture”, about creating interesting cultures, and thinking through the consequences of small cultural differences.

My impression: This is a very interesting book, and one that holds a lot of inspiration for someone embarking on a worldbuilding project. There is a lot of general advice, and the more specialised articles would be quite useful when designing those certain elements of your setting. The essays are short, which makes it easy to blast through one if you are in need of a creative pick-me-up. I might have wished that some of them were a little longer, but there you are.

My main objection is that they are rather focused around a certain kind of setting: the standard D&D Fantasy setting. While many articles refer to other kinds of settings (like Wolfgang Baur’s “How real is your world?”, which lays out a taxonomy of Fantasy worlds), it is clear that the focus of the book is that particular kind of world. I would have loved an article or two about science fiction world, or maybe on Urban Fantasy or contemporary horror worlds.

Other than that, the book might have benefited from perspectives outside of the very D&D-focused world of heroic Fantasy games. Maybe a Fantasy author, or perhaps even an Indie game designer. Or just someone from another corner of the “trad” rpg sphere – maybe someone from White Wolf/Onyx Path, or perhaps someone like Kenneth Hite or Robin D. Laws, who have been responsible for a number of different games.

I do like the book, though, as an inspiration for creating worlds for either Fantasy fiction, or for role-playing.

How would I use this: I would turn to this book when I need inspiration for a world – like when I’m about to start preparing for a new campaign – or during the process of designing a setting, in order to get some inspiration for things to consider.

3rd of December: Sorcerer (Annotated)


3 Edwards-Sorcerer-SpreadsScreenviewThe grand-daddy of indie-games, with commentary by the creator
Author/Designer: Ron Edwards
From: Indie Treasure Trove

Today I’m looking at the annotated version of Sorceror, taken from the Indie Treasure Trove
bundle. This one has a number of classics, including 3:16: Carnage among the stars and Annalise, just as I was tempted to go with the western game, Dust Devils. But in the end, there was no getting around this game.

See, Sorceror was the game that started it all. The first certified Indie RPG, by the man who created The Forge himself: Ron Edwards. Today, the web is teeming with story games and indie games building on the ideas that grew out of The Forge, but back then, it was a revolution. Now, I haven’t played Sorceror, nor had I read the book till today, so this book was too obvious to pass by.

In Sorceror, you play more or less regular people in an ordinary world. At least on the surface – because in reality, you possess secret knowledge that allows you to summon and bind demons to carry out your bidding. Of course, that is not an uncomplicated thing to do, and so you are fighting to keep up your cover while trying to sate your demon’s needs, just as it helps fulfil yours.

The book is divided into chapters, with each chapter detailing a certain part of the play. Edwards has a little graphic describing this that I thought described it pretty well, so I’ll include it here:

Diagram from Sorcerer
Edwards has a neat little diagram showing both the structure of the book and the flow of the game.

And so, Chapter 1 describes the initial discussion as you’re sitting down to play Sorceror – where and when are we, and how do we envision the magic working? Chapter two is Character generation, while chapter three deals with generating Demons, something that is mostly a task for the GM. Chapter 4 then describes the overall framework for playing the game, while chapter 5 deals specifically with how you deal with demons, and chapter 6 is all sorts of other kinds of conflict you might end up in. I liked the clarity of this visual way of describing both the structure of the book and the flow of the game.

This is the annotated version, so on the left hand side of the book is the original page, while on the right you’ll find present-day Edwards’ commentary on the old text: praise or condemnation for his earlier self, along with clarifications and better ways of doing things.

At the centre of the game are two concepts that have become very famous in indie game parlance: the Kicker and the Bang. The Kicker is created by the player during character generation, and sets out the beginning of the character’s first story arc. It details a conflict, an opportunity or a threat that the character will deal with during play. This should be enough to fuel the character’s story for a few sessions, and by the end of it, the character will have undergone significant changes.

The Bang, on the other hand, is a loaded situation here and now that players have to deal with. Anything from “Ninjas come barging through the door!” to “Your mother is at the door, and the escort you picked up last night is still in the bathroom, freshening up.”

My impression: I can see the appeal of this game. Even today, after so many other games have developed these ideas further, there seems to be a number of really interesting aspects to Sorcerer. Not least the basic premise of being pretty ordinary people, except you can summon Demons to do your bidding and get you everything you desire… for a price. The basic rules seem pretty simple, and I think it provides the tools for interesting play.

Having said that, though, it feels somewhat clunky. The text seems longer than it needs to be, and it doesn’t always explain the concepts of the game very well. At one point, I searched through the whole document for the proper definition of the Bang and how they should work, but it turned out that the book only had a very vague definition and a loose discussion of their role in the game. At other times, the book seems to spend far too much time on concept that are, all things considered, rather straightforward.

Of course, part of the clunkiness comes from the fact that half the book is commentary. This means that in order to understand a concept, you often have to read the original text, then read Edwards’ comments on it to understand how he would do it know, then skim the original text again in order to see how it relates to the commentary. The commentaries are interesting as part of a study of the development of these kinds of games, and the development of Edwards as a game designer, but I found myself wishing he would write an updated version instead, streamlining the rules and integrating 15 years of experience into the main text, making it more accessible.

Speaking of… Something about the commentary bothered me a little as I was reading. It seems a little as if Edwards is ignoring the development that’s happened over the decade and a half since this game out. This particularly stood out to me during the commentary to the start of the first chapter. Edwards writes:

You simply cannot begin preparing and playing in the same old way you’re used to because you “understand role-playing,” and rely on looking things up as you might in many other RPG texts. This goes double for people who’ve been GM for many different games and who consider themselves experienced. (Sorcerer, p. 13)

And a few lines later:

A lot of games shoot for the initial, necessary inspiration by providing a detailed setting. However, Sorcerer begins with building characters. And since the character creation process necessarily wraps them into in a crisis situation, you only need a little bit of setting to make this go. In other words, setting exists at the outset only to supercharge the characters’ immediate hassles, not for the characters to explore. Play itself will make lots more setting (the “complete” setting if you like), which is fine.

Now, I can see how this holds true if you’ve only ever played “trad” games, with complete GM control and great big setting tomes. But take a look at games like Prime Time Adventures, Fiasco or Apocalypse World, and this is exactly what they do. And honestly, the people who are most likely to read this book are the people who are already familiar with the Indie scene, and who will know about the development over the intervening years. As such, it seems odd for Edwards to write like this. I am certain that Edwards is aware of the development in the scene. So has he misjudged the audience for this book so severely (or, I guess, am I misjudging it?), or does he really think that sorcerer is so different from all the games it inspired?

All in all, this is an interesting game, unfortunately presented less clearly than it could have been.

How would I use this: This annotated version of Sorcerer is interesting as a historical document. I wouldn’t mind diving into it a bit more, seeing which lessons Edwards drew, and trying to figure out what that says about the development of the Indie- and Story-game scene.
The game in itself is also interesting, both as in itself and because of the historical significance of it. I would love to try this game, perhaps just for a couple of sessions, to see how it works. It seems like the game might provide a good basis for some interesting and rewarding stories.

2nd of December: Adventures on Danger Planet


2 Metzger-AdventuresOnDungeonPlanet

Science Fantasy Dungeon World on a weird planet.

Author/Designer: Johnstone Metzger
From: The Indie Cornucopia Bundle

For the second instalment of my Advent Calendar, I’m looking at the book Adventures on Dungeon Planet, a sourcebook for Dungeon World. I got it in the Indie Cornucopia bundle, a bundle that also held the main Dungeon World book, The Planarch Codex (another reskin of Dungeon World), Apocalypse World, some Fiasco playsets and a number of smaller games.

This book takes Dungeon World and adds a Science Fantasy layer to it. It has a tone to it that reminds me of Jack Vance, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon. The game tells what is essentially a Heroic Fantasy narrative, dressed up with weird aliens, clangy metallic robots and weird, nefarious overlords (possibly played by Max von Sydow).

The game comes with new playbooks, including the Earthling, lost far from home, and the Engine of Destruction, a robot built to kill. It also adds new Dangers for the GM to use, three new races to use as adversaries or PC’s (Android, Alien and White Ape), stats for space ships and rules for creating a planet. At the end there is a bunch of Science Fantasy monsters to use in adventures.

My impression: I like many of the things that Dungeon World does with the apocalypse engine, but the standard Fantasy classes seem too bland to work as PbtA playbooks. Transposing the whole thing to a strange new planet and adding the new character options to the mix changes that to a large extent. It seems to me that the new classes in this document has a lot to play on, and I would love to play a game in this setting.

The book has a pretty nice layout, and the illustrations really underline the mood and setting of the book. Some of the monster stats in particular are not the most nuanced, but that is not a big deal. All in all, a rather nice basis for a (slightly silly, over the top) game.

How would I use this: I could definitely see myself bringing this game to the table, maybe for a one-shot, maybe for a short campaign. I don’t know that I would want to do a long campaign in this, but that is perfectly OK – I can be satisfied with less.

1st of December: Legacy: Life among the Ruins

A Powered by the Apocalypse game about families surviving in the generations after the Fall.

Author/Designer: James Iles

From: Apocalypse Engine Bundle

Legacy is the illegitimate love-child of Apocalypse World and Microscope: A game about families surviving in the generations following a great apocalypse, laying the old, advanced society in ruins, and leaving people to make their way in the mess that’s left behind, digging out old technology when they can. The game is intended to take place over a series of ages. Throughout the ages, each player will control a family as it develops, creating a particular family member to play in each age.

My impression: The first thing jumping out at you when leafing through the book is the wealth of full-colour, very evocative images that saturate the book. They are not strictly necessary, and they would make it more difficult to print out the text for use at the table (a print-friendly version of the pdf might have been nice), but they definitely make the idea of the game come alive. Particularly the images of the different Family- and Character playbooks really communicates what each is all about.

I bought this bundle, not least because I was really curious about the concept of the family playbook. It is a way to do a powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA) game that I haven’t seen elsewhere, and it sounds like a really interesting adaptation of the system. As it stands, the families clearly provide the flavouring of the game, the Character playbooks being much more about providing a certain function for the family. I like this concept, and I quite like the different Family playbooks, as well. The Character playbooks seem a bit more bland to me, but that’s OK; they are not the main focus of the game.

Unfortunately, it feels like the game has negated this part of the game a little too much. I have only skimmed the game book, and as such, I may easily have missed something. Still, I have a difficult time telling you precisely what you’ll be doing with the character and why. Encountering threats to the family? Sure. But where do they come from? And why are all these characters going at it together? What if one family has a radically different objective to the others this age? Do we then tell two parallel stories, bearing in mind that an age is supposed to take 2-5 sessions? I lack some more guidance to help me – either as player or as GM – kick off the action of the age.

That’s a pity, because the rest of the book indicates a careful attention to making the book accessible to beginners, particularly to GM’ing PbtA games. The game is complex, but I think the mental barrier to entry is lower than for, say, Apocalypse World itself.

How would I use this book: I do like this game, and I would not mind trying it. Unfortunately, it seems like the kind of game that needs a good number of sessions for it to really fly, and that is not likely to happen any time soon. And if I got the chance, I have other things I would probably prioritise: Apocalypse World if I wanted a post apocalyptic game, Kingdom if I wanted to tell a story of a community, Microscope if I wanted to tell a story spanning long stretches of history.

As such, I am most likely to only ever use the book as inspiration, stealing the concept of the Family Playbooks to use in another game, whether PbtA or something else.

Advent Calendar: What my bundles held

In Denmark, we have a strong tradition of advent calendars. They’re in the TV, on the radio, on the internet, all over the place, for both kids and adults. And they are also in the role-playing blogosphere: over the last several years, several Danish bloggers have run advent calendars, posting a series of posts on some topic leading up to Christmas. I sort of did it last year, but I didn’t follow through on it. This year, though, I’ve decided to do an official one. The title of it is: What my Bundles held.

See, over the last three years or so, I’ve bought a surprising number of Bundles of Holding. 24, to be exact. Which fits with the number of December days until Christmas Eve, which is what we celebrate here in Denmark.

A Bundle of Holding, for those who don’t know, is a bundle of role-playing books, sold together at a low price with a percentage of the money going to a charity. The concept was inspired by the Humble Bundle, which is the same thing, but for computer games.

You can pay what you want for the bundles, but the more you give, the more you get. Bundle of Holding usually has a minimum price that will give you access to some components of the bundle, while paying more than the average that people have paid up to that point will give you more content. In that way, there is often an incentive to buy early, before the price goes up. No matter what the average is, you always get a pretty good deal – sometimes even the average price is below the price for the more expensive parts of the bundle. That means that it’s tempting to buy the bundle if there’s one thing you are interested in, and a few you are not actively disinterested in.

And so, long story short, I’ve ended up with a bunch of bundles with loads of books I’ve not even looked at. And that is what this bundle is going to do: I will go through the bundles, and select one book from each that I will look through and give a very quick review of. I’ll describe what it is, what my immediate impression of it is, and what I might consider using it for. I might also mention other books in a given bundle that I find to be an interesting honorable mention.

The posts will go up here at some point during each day. Feel free to comment on the posts if I’ve misunderstood the book, or if you have questions or comments about them. Also, happy December!