werepenguin

Mandatory Failure

After the first game of Galaxy Quest rules I was pushed and inspired by the players to come up with other scenarios. And then circumstances led me to be a guest ST for a friend in Croatia. Between these two things I felt the game needed a new game that was more evocative and less specific. So it now has a name: Mandatory Failure.

The main innovation is that I needed to sell the game concept to a group of players who barely knew me and weren't particularly familiar with player-led games.

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werepenguin

Galaxy Quest rules - playtest

Many years ago, amongst my peak design stage, I wrote the Galaxy Quest rules:
https://picks-at-flies.livejournal.com/21138.html

I managed to run a game for the first time today and it was crazy fun. I don't want to give away the "plot", but the PCs ended up sailing out to sea on a boat full of monkeys.

What worked?


  • The basic concept of the game: characters with no innate abilities adding chaos to a chaotic situation.

  • Player-driven narrative.

  • Having minions was as critical to the success of the game as I anticipated.

What didn't?


  • The system itself. I started keeping track of Irony and Pomposity and I quickly gave up.

  • I am not sure having someone play it straight was necessary.

  • The climax wasn't as epic as I would like.

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Player-driven narrative

As well as the rules on the page (minimal as they are), before the game I gave a slightly expanded version of the following play rules:


  • If you ask “is there..?”, you should assume the answer is Yes.

  • If you ask “can I..?”, you should assume the answer is No, describe how you fail at this.

  • (I was also prompted to set a red flag system if a triggering topic came up up in game.)

I wrote a very brief IC intro which I rushed through, to set the scene. One of the PCs was very vain so I made all the PCs get changed into this horrible clothing, a theme which came up throughout the game. But at that point, nothing else was going to happen until the PCs made it happen.

The players got the hang of this very quickly. I felt there was a little stumbling at first as to what was suitable to inflict on other players, and what was funny, but it wasn't clunky, more like driving one gear out. Once everyone was covered in foam and monkey bites, I think it was all gelling. My job at this point was largely to smooth things forward (e.g. pulling together the PCs, getting everyone involved) and reminding them of the rules ("Sure you can throw that; where's the worst place for it to land?"). I will call this the first act.

After that point I didn't really need to do any rule reminders. In the second act, the players generated their own problems, or exacerbated them, or took actions which happened but with terrible and hilarious costs. They introduced elements that developed the story but with the barest nod to the plot. During this period, my main task was smoothing things along. I introduced the plot element, developed it, brought in NPCs that fitted what was going on. I also skipped time forward when it was appropriate - if the scene is getting stale, or there's travelling with no drama, then skipping forward didn't hurt. Any thoughts or conversations can still be continued in the new location.

The second act was split in two by the tea break.

The third act, was the PCs getting some idea what was going on and starting to show some competence (at least in some elements). There was a high speed chase leading to the climax. Except I didn't really feel like the climax was particularly exciting; I may have contributed to that by getting an OOC steer on where we were going and skipping to that part; but equally I'm not sure there really was the dramatic tension required to make it exciting. But.. it was the ending the players wanted, it came about dynamically and everyone enjoyed the game.

I was a lot more involved in the third act, as the plot came to the fore and to bring in dangers (in this case, all were a direct response to what had been happening), and I used these to force the pace a bit more than previously (by not means truly rushed).

The key thing to note here is that for most of the game, 70% of the story was created by the players and about 25% spawned from who the PCs were and what they did. Only a tiny fraction of the game was prewritten (essentially the plot was 5 bullet points with 4 ideas for solutions in case I needed to prompt the players). One of the reason that it works, and that it works without dice, is that the players knew they were going to fail at everything. Even when they succeeded they failed: e.g. "I throw a life buoy" "It was a bad replica off Ebay, it couldn't save a duck"; also e.g. "I tell them to do X" "They do Y. Which is close to X, but really not what you intended." They can go anywhere they like, they can do anything they like, they can speak to anybody they like - but they will fail. I feel it's liberating.

The other thing about this is that it was uncommon to drop out of character. The game flowed in a way which is very difficult to pull off with dice.

Minions

I said in the original notes that minions were recommended and I stand by that for all the same reasons. However I can't think of a useful way of explaining why beyond that.

Points and why they didn't work and why they are still in the rules

I will note first of all that we were playing online so I couldn't throw poker chips at players and I think that influenced me. Throwing poker chips is slower than altering numbers on a computer and I think if I was playing in person I would be more inclined to wait for truly good fails or comedy gold before assigning points. As it was, as soon as all the PCs were together they just kept riffing off each other and I couldn't keep up. And I was getting confused, and second guessing what was worth a point; or wondering if fully contributing players would object to having fewer points because they didn't hit quite the same notes. Also, without the rewards being handed out on the spot, there was no way for the players to know which things they said had merited or not merited reward.

So I stopped, and told the players that I was doing so. By then it didn't matter. This was the end of the first act, the players were in the swing of the game and they didn't need any further rewards for keeping in the spirit of the game. In the fourth act, when players started wanting to achieve things, I talked about spending non-existent points, to remind them that their ability to be successful with limited, but they didn't abuse it. Success at that point was still juxtaposed with humerous failure and it was done because the players were enjoying it.

I am keeping the points though and, if I were to rewrite the rules, all I would do is add an important caveat: "These points are purely optional. If you find your players no longer need tangible rewards for choosing to fail and for having silly things happen to them, then by all means skip them." In other words: they exist for you to reward your players for keeping on theme; and if they don't need those any more, free up the game further by ditching the mechanics.

On the same topic, we did have a player volunteer to play it straight and she did a fine job of steering the players forward. But actually they didn't need that, the players tended to do move forward (eventually) anyway. I found it much more useful to set the pace with NPCs and time/scene skips than rely on a PC to do it. I also found that the accumulation of pomposity points didn't work in reality as it did on paper. All in all, I would not call out that role in future; at best I would hold the option of asking one or more players to take on a leadership role during the game if I felt the pacing needed it.


The climax

I had assumed that the players would create their own obstacles to overcome at the climax, but I don't really think that's reliable. At best, like this game, obsctacles were brought together collaboratively but it is hard to present them as a tangible threat without ST instigation. In hindsight, I think I could have led the players down a path where their escape was dogged with their opponents; and if we were using strict irony points then their dwindling stash might have led to some tension. Now timing matters here: current politics put me off serious violent confrontation even in a silly game. On top of that, I'm not sure it mattered. The confrontation wasn't actually important to the story, only the idea of the confrontation.

My only conclusion, then, is that it is another sign that the system mechanics don't really work since they largely assume that a climax is what you are leading to.

Bonus

There's a couple of other notes from the original I didn't mention. I think the beginning of the story is the only plot the storyteller needs to flesh out. It doesn't need to be a script, in fact it will rarely be a script. And I am not sure about the random archetypes and motivations, but I suppose they could be useful if you have players struggling to find concepts. If this was a convention, I would think that some very short character backgrounds for the scenario you are running would be more appropriate.

Final thoughts

Two things really pleased me: the players really enjoyed themselves and the game 95% flowed the way I hoped it would. That the points system didn't work doesn't really bother me at all, other than as an intellectual exercise.

If the game ever became a roleplaying book, 40% of it would be trying to explain how to play and run a game like this, 20% would be storytelling tips and ideas, 10% would be example, 20% of it would be story ideas and just 10% would be on the mechanics.

I will run this again.

werepenguin

Review: Superhero games (lots of them)

I got into Aberrant via Adventure! and I have a soft spot for it, but it always left me a little unsatisfied about the lack of customisation. As such I have taken a look at superhero RPGs when I've had the chance. These are the best of what I have. I discounted Icons since it didn't bring anything new, had random character creation and had lists of powers which all worked differently but without sufficient rules. I discounted Mutants and Masterminds largely because I don't have a copy but what I've seen appears to be a less elegant version of Wild Talents.

Part 1: Book by book reviews

Aberrant (White Wolf WW8500, 1999)

Aberrant was the first "superhero" game I read and it did a good job of showing me options for them other than the classic tropes.

Setting

Aberrant was set six years in the future of when it was written, after the meta-human novas were exposed and alternatively adored and villified by the rest of the world. The core book gives glimpses of the factions and conspiracies that the rest of the gameline fleshed out and there are a lot. Unlike World of Darkness, the factions don't indicate splats (or character classes). Yay.

The setting is very rich and there is lots of game space to choose from but the game is quite dependent on it. Like L5R, the system and setting are interwoven.

System

The Trinity universe system is very similar to the World of Darkness systems - roll your dice pool (typically skill/power+attribute) of d10 against a fixed target number of 7. The more successes (sux) you roll, the better. Layered on top of this (bought with "Nova points") are Mega-Attributes and Powers that novas can take.

Any mega-attribute takes an aberrant above his baseline equivalent (e.g. Someone with Dex 2, Mega-dex 1 is considered substantially better than someone with Dex 5), although mechanically it is about twice as good as a normal attribute; but you also get a free enhancement which can add the equivalent of another dot. Novas can also buy large numbers of normal attributes, skills and backgrounds with their Nova points.

There are a good selection of powers and it follows the historic pattern of giving you a static list to choose from. Each power has a full write-up including how it is used. There are a few gripes.

a) Some powers become extraordinarily expensive to buy. You can spend half the quantum (round up) for a purchase, gaining a point of taint and that does help (especially as the first three points have little immediate effect). It does make some concepts poor to start with.

b) Each power is tied to one (or sometimes two) attributes. This tends to pull you in certain directions (so if you're playing a scientist, you might be drawn to Mental Blast because it also uses Intelligence). It also means you it is often more cost-effective to buy extra dots of mega-attributes than of powers, especially if they share an attribute.

c) It is very hard to modify the powers. There are Extras you can take but they tend to be fairly clunky (and expensive); and the Player's Guide has smaller modifications you can make but the system is quite fragile. It's partly because not all powers are handled the same.

Heroes and Villains

Aberrant more than almost any superhero game makes all factions valid. The Aeon Society/Project Utopia has people doing good/bad for the right reasons and deeper programs which are probably amoral but may or may not be for the right reasons. Aberrants accept all sorts in the name of resistance. The Teragen avow that Novas are above the rest of humanity and wish to maximise the potential of fellow Novas; but are they just following a cult of personality? The Directive stands to protect the national interests against Project Utopia and the Teragen.

Of course there are mercenary groups, popular icons, wrestlers and just individuals out there if you want to get away from the main conspiracies.

Aberrant has a very colourful world.

The Look

The first third of the books is full colour, consisting of different layouts representative of different media (memos, gossip, TV, newpaper, transcripts etc). The artwork itself is good but nothing you're going to scream about. However the layout is pretty spot on and encourages STs to replicate it for their game. The rules section (the rest) is full of pretty decent line- and monochrome art. The superheroes are rarely portrayed as typical four-colour heroes - many novas seem at least a little grotesque (and often much more).

The Good

It's a rich, colourful world with rich, reasonably balanced superhero rules.

The Bad

The powers are pretty rigid and draw you towards certain synergies which may or may not be what you wanted.

The Ugly

It's hard to take the system and use it elsewhere. The limitations (e.g. no rules for gadgets or superscience) and assumptions (taint and Quantum) are very specific to Aberrant and stop it being a good generic superhero game.

There are issues with the White Wolf systems, but that's often a matter of personal taste. Similarly, the use of Mega-attributes with Powers (and the maths behind it) is going to suit some not others.


Supers (Zenith Comics/Hazard Stds, 2012)

If you want a streamlined superhero game, this is one to consider.

Setting

Er... Supersville. Yeah. Some thought went into giving some plot ideas based around a generic city and indeed reminding the reader to include natural disasters in the mix; it's just not particularly rich. There are some sample generic superheroes and antagonists.

System

The system doesn't have much to it either but there's enough crunch to make you feel like you can define your character.

Resistance: You have four resistances which act as both defence and physical/mental/social health.
Aptitutes: Broad skill sets. You automatically get 1 in each but only have three points to add. Any Aptitude over 3 becomes a specialisation.
Powers: You have far more points, by default, to spend on Powers than anything else. All the powers are incredibly broad and then you limit them with complications as needed. E.g. There is no "blast" but you can take Fire Control and get a +2 levels for making it "blast-only". (Almost) all powers can be used to attack, defend and do other stuff but you can only use each one once per turn making min-maxing risky.

The rules do make some powers work certain ways but mostly they are kept nice and simple. Combat itself is straightforward - it's attack vs defence and damage is equal to the number of times the former beats the latter (so a low, reliable defence can give you time to win).

Heroes and Villains

The assumption is that you are a playing a four-colour superhero game where heroes are good and villains are bad and you don't need to know much beyond that. However, there's nothing to force that upon you. The mechanics are subtle enough to let you take it quite a few directions, even taking A Dirty World as inspiration.

The look

Supers may get overlooked because the artwork is pretty simple and cartoony, just a few heroes and villains which are repeated from the sample characters at the end.

The good

A simple system with just enough complexity to colour your powers to fit your concept. Easily adaptable to most typical settings.

The bad

I haven't actually found anything bad, as you can see by the ease by which the sample characters below were created. You could argue that there aren't enough rules to cover some interactions between powers but if you are going for a rules-light system that's only to be expected.

The ugly

The main point of contention is that there is essentially no setting. However, of all the genres, I think a superhero game doesn't really need a setting. Most players will understand the concepts and the ST just needs to show his antagonists.


The Comics Code (Golden Age Heroics, 2014)

If Supers makes everything black and white, The Comics Code sets out to focus on the murky grey inbetween.

Setting

There is not even the pretence of a setting.

Heroes and Villains

The Comics Code sets out to differentiate between a hero and villain but uses mechanics to show the hero slipping away into a villainous mindset both internally and in the public eye. The true fight of the hero is not their opponents but the loss of heroism and status. If you fall too far, you stop being playable in the heroic world of the Comics Code.

Systems

There are only three stats you choose: attack, defence and general. You can use the same effect for each (e.g. ice powers) or different ones (e.g. lightning, winds, erotic dancing). What the powers are is potentially only  flavour, although presumably it does indicate what's possible and what isn't. What's more restrictive is that you can't use your attack and defence powers outside combat without risking status. Nor are there options for world-changing powers (e.g. calling the weather) or non-violent attacks (e.g. mind control).

However the systems for gaining and losing status and heroism look fairly well thought out.

The look

Some nice line art, mainly of the example characters in different poses. It's not going to be winning any awards, but at least it's better than Supers!

The good

It's a simple system that allows for most characters. It lets you explore the fall from grace if you wish to.

The Bad

It took me a while to realise but I think they have dramatically oversimplified the powers. In doing so they narrowed the useful character- and game- concepts so much that the importance of combat is increased. This seems unfortunate in a game that revolves around the fall from grace.

Additionally, where Supers lets you define your powers and then restrict which functions each can be used for, The Comics Code restricts your functions and you have to define your powers around them.

The Ugly

While you can use any standard superhero setting, the game forces you to tell its story. That makes it good for stories about losing heroism, poor for doing Cool Things and a bit meh for doing other things. The ways to gain and lose Heroism and Status are so long they go over the page each time. It makes sense but it would have been really hand to make it exactly a page each.


Wild Talents Second edition (Cubicle 7, 2010)

Another submission by Greg Stolze (from whom I have already reviewed A Dirty World) and it's enough to make me look out for his other games.

Setting

Wild Talents is largely settingless, i.e. it is intended for you to use in whichever setting you choose and it has the tools for this. I tend to view this as a good thing for the genre.

That said, there are two large setting elements offered. One is a sample setting, an "overview" of the Godlike world rethought for Wild Talents. It is 100 pages long and goes into sixty years of history of "talents" and their involvements in world affairs. It does in fact rewrite history and has a lot of content. I will confess I found its overly detailed date-by-date approch quite dry, comparable to reading the Silmarillion. It doesn't stand up well compared to the multimedia approach of Aberrant. That said, it is very thorough and incorporates an epic world so it shouldn't be dismissed just because it's hard to get into.

Much more unusual is the 40 page "Building Superheroic Histories" chapter which divides itself between historial inertia (red), the inertia of worldview to Talents (gold), mystical/alien quotient (blue) and moral clarity (black). What's interesting to me is how other games work these in e.g. The Comics Code is high gold, medium black but doesn't care about the rest; Supers is high blue and black but doesn't care about the rest; Aberrant sets all colours at low deliberately. This is one of those sections that explains in words what most readers will probably be aware of but not have necessary focussed on; and gives a structure to thinking which few will have.

It follows this up with help choosing numbers of Talents and various setting concepts that STs can build on (e.g. a Talented World War II and beyond).

Heroes and Villains

As per the building histories comments, Wild Talents gives room for every point on the scale so the nature of the protagonists and antagonists is completely up in the air. The Godlike scenario doesn't seem to end with any obvious place for Talents other than in a fight against aliens.

System

Character creation is somewhat complicated and requires substantial maths. It's a point buy system but the book doesn't give any guidelines over how those points should be divided between human Stats and Abilities vs Hyperstats and powers. Creating the powers is quite well documented but equally quite complicated. You have to understand how the system works then build a power from Qualities, Capacities, Extras and Flaws; and while in some games Extras and Flaws are optional and used sparingly, here they are a necessary (often in large numbers). Because of this it's fairly easy to overcost or undercost Powers and I would suggest that power creation is handled by/with the ST so the cost balance is about even. The player can still choose which dots they want.

Wild Talents uses the "One roll engine" complete with "Hard dice" (always a 10) and "Wiggle dice" (you choose after you roll the rest). I still need to test it but it appears to have a suitable curve for success and is pretty easy to grok once you have tried it a few times. Moreover, all the hard work is in character creation. Once you know how your power works you normally don't need to worry too much about the details you spent so long sorting out. In fact the only two things you need to track mechanically are Health and Willpower.

The Look

The layout of Wild Talents, while similar to other books, just appears to work well (good choice of fonts, the borders etc). It is full colour and mostly computer drawn/finished with lots of lens flare. It seems to give it a "realistic" edge for quite unreal scenes.

The Good

The system is efficient, adaptable and easy to use once characters have been created and, as long as *somebody* understands character creation, you should end up with the character you want.

Moreover the worldbuilding chapter is second to none and is well worth reading for anybody running superheroes with any system.

Finally, it just feels nice to read (mostly).

The Bad

Character creation is, without doubt, a bit of a headache. I still prefer it to buying equipment in Shadowrun but you will need a handy geek.

The Ugly

The world presented was too dry for my tastes, despite (or perhaps because of) the detail given.


Part 2: Sample characters

To illustrate the differences between the games I built four different characters in four different systems (albeit I have hand-waived the less involved parts in some cases). Hopefully they show the strengths and weaknesses of the systems.

1. Buzzbee

Buzzbee likes nothing more than hanging with her friends discussing fashion. Hence when it comes to combat, she tends to just hang about in the air shooting things. Powers are based around force beams (which send a ripple through the air) in an offensive (and sometimes defensive) capability while she hovers, only moving out of the way if she really needs to. She also is superhumanly attractive which she uses to get what she wants.

a) Aberrant (30 Nova points)

This is a pretty straightforward superhero for Aberrant:
Social/Physical/Mental
Flight 1 (3)
Nova Blast (Bashing; up to 15)
Mega-Charisma 1 with the Seductive enhancement (3pts)

The difficulty comes with her defence. The nearest fit is Forcefield. There is a stat called Quantum which increases a variety of different power-related options, and some powers have a minimum quantum level. Forcefield would require Quantum 2 (5 extra points, 3 if tainted). Then Forcefield 1 (3).

To help Nova Blast and Flight and the overall concept, I would take Mega-Dexterity 1 + Enhanced Movement (3); and similarly, Mega-Stamina enhances Forcefield more than taking points would, and gives more toughness so take Mega-Stamina 1 + Regeneration (to keep her perfect body; 3 pts).

Not worrying about boosting other skills, since she's not particularly focussed, that means she can take Nova Blast 4 (12).

The only problem with this build is that there is no wave effect on the blast. To give Nova Blast an area effect requires a non-standard boost which would cost 5 per dot. Another alternative is to only have it when Buzzbee Maxes her power, but she would only have two dice; and would need two successes. Maybe the best option is to use multiple action rules if you want to hit multiples, and leave the rest to flavour.

Note also that there is an alternative build which uses Gravity Control, which is one of Aberrant's "Do All The Things" level 3 abilities. Three ranks of this (15 pts) gives a blast, shield and flight as standard abilities, and can develop other techniques that can be used for more. It requires Quantum 4 (another 15 points), but this does give more options when Maxing out. To get the Mega-Appearance, some of these would have to be tainted - taking 3 taint saves 6 points.

b) Supers

Flight 3. Complications: movement only (-2)
Energy Control - Gravity 5. Complications: +1 for attack, -1 otherwise; Split attack +1; Knockdown +1

Composure 3
Fortitude 5
Reaction 2
Will 2

Presence 3 (6 - persuasion)
Performance 2
The split attack, although they would both be small attacks, can be used to represent the wave of energy hitting another character (or Mooks).

c) The Comics Code

There are a lot of subtleties of Buzzbee you just can't capture in The Comics Code, but actually it's one of the best for handling the force ripples she generates. It only comes into play when she rolls a double, when it will be either good or bad which is about right.

Attack: Force bolt. 3x5=15
Defence: Flight. 2x4=8
General: Inhumanly attractive. 1x6=6
Health: 6
Status: 5
Heroism: 5
Special effect: Wave of force.

d) Wild Talents

Stats: +3hd in charm (24pts), otherwise normal (focus on Charm and coordination)
Skills: Normal
Powers: Flight, Force beam
Flight is straightforward, since Buzzbee can't use it for attack or defence.
Useful quality (flight) (speed): 2
8 points gives 2 hard dice which will normally be sufficient.
Force beam is also fairly straightforward, although not as simple Flight.
Attack quality (range): 2, Daze +1, Limited damage (shock) -1, Spray* +1 = 3
Defend quality (self): 2, Obvious -1 = 1
Total = 4

The obvious quality is because of the ripple that follows the beam; everything nearby is shaken. *Spray is more tricky, but is the nearest representation of the main ripple that can cause chaos in its wake.

Because it needs to reliably be able to do two actions, we'll take two wd, giving us:
8d +2wd = 64pts


2. Leafman


Leafman really likes his trees and plants. A lot. He loves playing with them and growing new things and sometimes making lots of money by selling them. If he gets angry though, he will grow plants REALLY BIG which attack you.

a) Aberrant (30 Nova Points)

Aberrant has what would appear to be a great ability called Animal/Plant Mastery but actually it just lets you talk to plants and weak animation of whatever foliage is already present. There is no way, as printed, to grow plants in special ways. There is no way to make this creature has requested. So...

Let's change his powerful ability to turning into a giant, angry tree. That's actually straightforward:
Mental/Social/Physical
Bodymorph - Tree 5 (15 points),

containing Sizeshift - Growth 4 (free, part of Bodymorph)

and also some Body Modification - Spines and Tendril (again, free)

Plant Mastery 1 (3 points)

Quantum 3 (6 points, if tainted; required for Bodymorph)

Mega-perception 2 with Analytic Taste enhancement (6)

b) Supers

The risk of a list of powers is that it doesn't have what you want and yet here is exactly what we were after. I wanted to give him 9 points, but the cap is 5 before complications so I need to complicate it somewhat.

Plant powers - 5 (Balanced complications: +1 attack, -1 rest; +4 Area Effect)

And we'll give him some defence as well, some bark skin:

Armour - 3

Composure 3

Fortitude 3

Reaction 1

Will 2

Survival 2

Presence 3

c) The Comics Code

I've min-maxed Leafman because he does feel like someone who could slip into villainy. In The Comics Code that gives him low starting Status and Heroism - although after that it has no immediate consequences.

Attack: plant attack! 5x6=30

Defence: Bark skin. 1x2=2

General: Plant mastery. 3x4=12

Health: 6

Status: 3

Heroism: 3

Special effect: Plants shoot up in unexpected places.

d) Wild Talents

Stats and skills: nothing exceptional

Powers: fun with plants! Armour

Attack Quality (plants grow and destroy things) (range):

2, Attack Levels +6, Delayed effect -2, Go last -1, Horrifying -1, Obvious -1, Radius 160m +8, Scattered Damage -1, Slow -2, Uncontrollable -2 = 6pt

Useful Quality (talks to plants): Dud = 1pt

Useful Quality (grow plants): 2, Delayed effect -2, Permanent +4, Radius +2, Slow -2, Touch only -2 = 2pt

Total 9pts

Effect: Leafman can grow plants in new and interesting ways, then talk to them. He can also get very angry and, if successful, grow huge plants that do at least 8 damage to everything in a 160m radius. It takes time (Delayed effect, Slow) and hits in random places (Scattered damage, Uncontrollable).

The wooden treebark form is a variant on light armour that only lasts for a scene.

Defends quality (light armour) (self): 2, Armoured Defence -2, Duration +2 = 2

5 dots is about right for 10 points, with 10 points of Fun with Plants! He doesn't have any wiggle or hard dice since he's somewhat random.

3. Dr Gates


Dr Gates is a Physicist who studied string theory and through genius managed to find a way to open portals through space. As a hero, she mainly acts as transport and scientist, but her love is to find new things to do with space. He knows an unusual martial art, largely because of its novelty.

a) Aberrant (30 Nova Points)

This is again fairly straightforward for Aberrant, if you assume that Dr Gates manage to trigger her own eruption. If you want her to do superscience, you're out of luck since there are no superscience rules. Mega-intelligence does allow you to do develop technology super-humanly, but there are no particular rules of how it might work.

Mental/physical/social

Warp 1 (5)

Quantum 3 (required; 10)

Note that you roll Perception + Warp for normal transport, but with one success you can go 2000km, or 20000 with 2; this seems plenty. In combat, you can use Dexterity + Warp. It's not cost effective to get more than one dot unless you want to travel to other planets.

For her science, you have two choices depending on how super you want Dr Gates. You can just use nova points to give her 5 dots in all the relevant normal stats (giving her 10 dice combat, science and technology pools and 10 Willpower). Alternatively, you can push her more into superscience by giving her Mega-Intelligence (up to 4, at 3 nova points each) and the Scientific Prodigy enchancement. You could also give her Mega-Perception (w/ High-End Electromagnetic Scan) or Mega-Dexterity (w/ Fast Tasks; I envisage this as using mini-Warps to do everything from one place).

b) Supers

Teleport 5 allows transport to the next state/country (or can be used as an attack/defence). Complications: +1 for creating a portal, -1 for using a gadget.
Super Brain 5
Super Science 4
Composure 1
Fortitude 2
Reaction 3
Will 3

Fighting 2
(Academia 3, +2 Physics, from Super Brain)
(Technology 3, +2 Electronics, from Super Brain)
I note that Super Brain seems a little unbalanced since Aptitudes like Technology are the same cost as Powers. If you're going to take Technology, why not take Super Brain instead? Similarly, as written you could just take 1 point of Super Science and the rest as Super Brain with the same effect. Just a small point though. (Update: I'm fairly certain Super Brain is meant to cost 2, but it's not stated.)

c) The Comics Code

The Comics Code penalises heroes using attack/defence powers outside of combat which is a really sticky problem for Dr Gates. However the rest fits pretty well. I've used the special effect here to add some plot.

Attack: Warp away. 1x4=4
Defence: Warp away. 2x6=12
General: Scientific genius. 3x5=15

Health: 6
Status: 4
Heroism: 5
Special effect: A separate gate opens to a mysterious place.

d) Wild Talents

Skills: focussed on science, otherwise normal
Stats: focussed on mind, otherwise normal
Power: teleport

Teleport is one of the sample abilities which costs 6 (two per quality). We need to mix it up a little. E.g. all capacities here are Range, it needs to affect an area and it has a duration. In reality, the area affected is small and is both a benefit and a drawback so we probably can ignore that.

Useful quality (portal) (range): 2, Booster (Speed) +4, Duration +2, Power Capacity (Speed) +2, Willpower bid -1, Willpower investment -1 = 8
Defends quality (portal away) (range): 2, Power Capacity (Range) +2, Willpower bid = 3
Total: 11 points per dice.

Effect: Dr Gates can create portals that last for up to a scene and can travel 700 miles away (this distance is what dramatically increased the cost). This can be done in combat but is risky and range has to be offset with distance. It can also be used as an all-purpose defence agains herself and allies in combat.

Since this is Dr Gates's main ability, she should take as many points as she can; the minor flaws seem appropriate and let her take 5d + 1wd (99 points0. As expected, it's not great in combat but it works and is balanced by willpower flaws. Note that we have no points left for hypermind.


4. Control Monkey


Some aliens landed near a farmer, who now finds himself turning into a powerful ape* when feeling threatened. They also left behind a mind control gun. While one of the pellets is embedded in a target, Control Monkey controls its actions (although only at a crude level).
* I realise apes and monkeys are different creatures but Control Ape isn't so catchy.

a) Aberrant (30 Nova points)

The good news is that the "change to super-monkey" is straight-forward in Aberrant. Taking a high level of Domancy lets you hide and turn off all your abilities.
But then we come across Aberrant's limitations. No technology; and the mind control (Domination) requires Concentration to use. It also really shows up another weakness: all powers are based on an attribute. The effectiveness of your power depends almost as much on that attribute as the power. In this case it's Manipulation and I think high manipulation would change the concept completely.
Alternatives to Domination are Disorient (also uses Manipulation), Hypnotic Gaze (Mega-Manipulation enhancement) and Hypnosis (requires intelligence). The latter is pretty appropriate - you don't get full control, but with four successes the target can do something easy for you; and it can last for 5 days without concentration. However, it still requires intelligence to use and is resisted by willpower. You could make this power with all of 8 points, leaving the rest for physical traits, including mega-strength/dex/stamina.

You could change the concept to make Control Monkey intelligent, but I don't think Aberrant can make the original concept.

b) Supers

Mind Control in Supers is pretty much what we need. It doesn't require anything outside itself, it just lets you direct the target with thought (albeit once Will is 0). Shape change doesn't actually help much except in Supers it lets you heal between forms.
Mind Control 7. Complications: Balanced complications - +1 for full control, -1 for rest; -1 gadget
Super Strength 3 - Complications: Only while in Monkey form (-1)
Shape Change 4 - Complications: One shape (-2), Uncontrolled (-1)

Composure 1
Fortitude 4
Reaction 5
Will 2
Athleticism 3
Survival 2

c) The Comics Code

In The Comics Code, Mind Control only falls under General powers (attacks are always physical). General powers have almost no indication of usage, so we have no idea how long mind control is meant to work. The closest we have is the Difficult Level table, but that is almost all ST fiat. As such, this is an awkward fit for The Comics Code.

Attack: Monkey swing 1x3=3
Defence: Bark skin. 2x6=12
General: Mind control. 4x5=20

Health: 6
Status: 4
Heroism: 4

Special effect: A possessed character starts developing simian characteristics.

d) Wild Talents

Source: unknown, Permissions: Prime Specimen and One Power (Mind Control)

Skills: Control Monkey has normal skills.
Stats: Control Monkey gets lots of Hyperbody and some Hypercoordination in Monkey form.
Powers: Mind Control using a unique alien device, shapeshift to monkey form

Mind control: The mind control listed costs 2 per dice, but is only for one round and doesn't let you give verbal commands. However, that is fairly easy to work around.
Quality: Useful (Mind control)
Useful capacities: Range
Endless (+3), Focus (-1), -Irreplaceable (-2), -Durable (+1) If/then: Requires shooting with the gun first (-1)
Quality: Useful (Mental commands)
Duration +2, If/Then: Mental commands only (-1), If/Then: Only if Mind Control is active (-1)

Total: 4/dice. It's a powerful effect, so let's take 9 dice and a wiggle dice to make it 52.

Effect: Once you have shot a target with the gun, you can mind control them (opposed by Stability). Once control is established, the target only acts on your mental commands (sent separately).
Generic shapechanging is listed in the powers, while a case of specific shapechanging is listed for one of the sample characters. They contradict each other somewhat - the former uses successes from shapechanging (using Variable Effect) to gain dice or abilities, while the latter just lists shapechanging as its own effect, stacks extra effects on that and then lists stat bonuses seperately. Since the first option cost between 24 and 40 points just to change to one other form reliably (a given, I think we can agree) I am going with the second option.

Useful (change form): 2, Endless (+3), Loopy (-1) Self only (-3) = 1

"Loopy" covers the loss of mind that comes with the shapechange. We can take 10 dice (or 5 hard dice) in this to be confident of changing forms almost every time.
The example puts the cost of conditional hyperstats as 4, only in Monkey form (-2). The ST would have to decide if monkey form merits -1 or -2, but considering the Loopy flaw let's go with -2. We have more than enough points to take all the stats we need, so let's take:
Body: 3d +1wd
Coordination: 4d +2wd
Total: 38
Effect: Control Monkey can turn into a super-strong and dexterous urang-utan at will, a creature not too sensible but hard to take down.

Part 3: Summary

Aberrant is pretty good at what it does but it's limitations should be recognised. I have to be slightly careful on scoring because I am only reviewing the core book not the whole line. It nevertheless scores highly because it has an ambient background; and because it has such a detailed list of powers and enhancements.
Execution: 8 - Covers everything you would expect and more
Ideas: 8 - You have plots for a chronicle or two without too much thought

Supers is the game I would turn to if I wanted a rules-light superhero game since it has enough depth without overcomplicating it.
Execution: 8
Ideas: 4

The Comics Code I just think defeats itself by simplifying the wrong way. Good effort though.

Execution: 5 - has enough good material not to be bad
Ideas: 5 - It will influence aspects of your chronicle

Wild Talents has a lot going for it both as its own game and as inspiration for others. If you have one or more people happy to help with character creation then the rest should be straightforward. As such it's my crunchy superhero game of choice.
Execution: 8
Ideas: 9 - You have plots for 4-5 chronicles without effort.
werepenguin

Review: Broken Gears

Broken Gears (Cambridge University Roleplaying Society, 2005)

If the blurb is to be believed, the bulk of Broken Gears was written in 24 hours (by members of CURS). This is impressive. So is the book. (It's also free. http://www.r-hansen.com/broken/)

I'm not really a fan of Steampunk; all the other settings I've read seem to be horribly artificial in order to produce the suped up world and characters the authors wanted. They have never felt cohesive.

Broken Gears starts with the history of the world, rewriting history from 1940 to 2052 (and backhistory) in a wholistic and realistic way that makes good use known history to produce an anachronistic future. Large grokkable nations form in a coherent manner that lends to all the sorts of stories you would want to tell.

Setting

Mechanical technology and electricity are not founded on physics as we know it but by "chaids", spirits of technology. Technological achievements remain the same but the knowledge behind them is obviously quite difference. In 1944, Bletchley Park creates Colossus to solve the problems of the war. Once started, it creates superior radio-controlled war machines to win... but then never stops, leading to the War of Broken Gears.

In the aftermath, radio and electricity are forbidden. With the world in ruins and communication difficult, four nations dominate (the British empire, the United States, Russia/China and the independent Australia). I should add that this is a vast oversimplification, since these empires are definitely not cookie cutters and come with political histories that put everything into context.

The technology that's left is guns, large guns and massive guns. Giant war machines. And a thriving industry in innovative technology.

System

The basic system is a single page, although particular elements have their own section. There are five stats and 20 skills + any others you want to include. It is a simple roll under Stat+Skill-penalty (using a d12) with a minor but nice twist on critical successes.

This isn't a system you will take away but it's simple enough to just get on with. Combat is inevitable, but vehicular combat is encouraged (partly since healing is often tricky).

The Heroes

Most PC groups will be from a particular faction tackling internal or external challenges, e.g. working for British Secret Service or the Australian mercenaries. There are however options, especially in the US or the Buffer nations, for being ragtag groups facing a joint threat. The power level is low but can be increased through technology depending on the whims of the ST and players.

The Villains

Many villains will be Other Factions or random bad guys; human enemies with human motivations. However, there are also powerful chaids determined to wreck the world - or those trying to summon demons of the same power level as Colossus.

The Look

Home produced, with some stock photos run through a filter. They may not reach the quantity or "fantasy" level of other Steampunk games but they fit the humanly anachronistic feel of the game.

The Good

Have I mentioned there is a rich history here?

The Bad

While the stat choices are good, the skill list is fairly poor and awkward. While I have my doubts about a flat system, I couldn't really say more without testing.
The bigger problem is that it lacks pizzazz. What they have created is a pseudo-realistic setting, which is great, but people don't turn to steampunk for that. Two things that would help would be a more exuberent system (Adventure!, FATE or another pulp system would be fine) and some examples of exuberent technology (other than vehicles) which players may come up against or acquire.

The Ugly

The game leaves a lot to the imagination, but that is true of lots of similar games.

Execution: 6
Ideas: 7
werepenguin

Review: Don't Rest Your Head

Don't Rest Your Head (Evil Hat, 2006)
A small indie game by Fred Hicks, a horror story that could be Dark City meets Alice in Wonderland (and lots of other inspiration I don't know but am really tempted to track down). Your worries and stress overwhelm you to the point where you... awaken. Now you are awake you cannot afford to sleep again or you will leave you open to the Nightmares of the Mad City.
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Execution - 7
Ideas - 6
Not bad for 87 pages!
werepenguin

7th Sea kickstarter: actual play.

Three of us and an ST sat down to the 7th Sea 2nd edition kickstarter quickstart. We are all currently involved as PCs in a 7th Sea larp at the moment so were already piqued by this project. This is an actual play review of the quickstart.

We chose our characters based on the essentials. I took Domenica Vespucci, the Fate Witch, as it's not something I am likely to have an opportunity for in larp (I don't think cross-dressing would work). To my left was her brother, the swordsman Ennio Vespucci. To my right, her afficanced Alexsy Grajan Nowak, heir to the Samartian throne.


The threads come crashing down. It's a new experience, interrupted all to quickly by the physical effects of one of my fiancé's nobles smashing into the throne room. I didn't even finish the wine. A glance is all it takes to know that fighting is not an option. My brother, always one for drama, brings down some tapestry to cover our escape. Alexsy tells me later it was made to celebrate the uniting of the country under a single king. For now, he dives across the room and out through the window to the balcony below. Me? I whip a rafter and sail out the window and down. The whip holds long enough for my brother to slide down moments later.

Poor Alexsy. He wants to save his father, but then we see the lights in his room and know that any move in that direction would lead only to further disaster. "Alexsy, Alexsy, Alexsy," I say, "You must run." And then my brother grabs me. Most undignified, but he does at least make a stylish retreat over the chandeliers. Alexsy merely rampages through the middle of the confused guards. I do like a determined man.

A short run futher and we are in, it seems, a study. Some books, some maps, a desk, a woman with a lamp. I don't hear what she says, but she clearly has aims on my fiancé and that I can't allow. I draw her attention and she starts to introduce herself. Estera Sabat I think she said; I will get the story from my fiancé later. She clearly wants to help and just needs the right incentive so I offer her a favour from my family. She's young, her favours won't mean much to my father but a lot to her. It's a good bargain and we have an understanding. And respect. And then my brother happens. He just studies her. As she notices, she turns a shade of pink. THEN he turns it on. She almost skips out of the room.

From here, Alexsy points, it's just out the window, across the courtyard, down the gardens and to the waiting ship. Just a few guards in the way. At least he seems sure of himself in his old play area. I refuse Alexsy's offer of help and immediately regret it. Getting down from here seems easy for the boys. Oh well, I'll just have to tidy the scratches immediately. Now I believe the plan was to sneak through the shrubberies...

Oh wait. Alexsy has seen the head guard. The trusted head guard ordering his troops to find seize us. And he chooses to... go to the statue of his father. He gives a mighty good speech, mind you. Enough join him to drive the guard back into the building and lock the door. Just a few guards left to deal with then. Alexsy fights well, but my brother has to do one better and dive into the middle of them all. For some reason the two left are quite happily to change allegiances for money. But they are twice turn-coats and not to be trusted - I will give them to my brother when it's quieter.


Oh weary time. We cannot return like this so we seek alliances. I go to my cousin Elena, who is married to one of the local nobles. We chat but as we get to asking for help we find that blood isn't as thick as it used to be. She has betrayed us to love. Alexsy seizes the moment and explains the facts of changeable politics to the man. We have an ally, sort-of, and confirmation of another. Alas, on the way to Alexsy's uncle we are ambushed in a tavern. Only Ennio's alertness saves our bacon, as he gives the innkeeper a chance to be a hero. As we slip away, we hope his grandchildren hear it from his own lips. Allies are slippling through our fingers so Ennio tries a merchant contact, but his fingers are in another's purse. I'm all for just seducing the wife, but Ennio is much more ingenious. We leave, with the wife indebted to the fatewitch who gave them a child and blessed him. They will work for me now.

For more allies we really need to return home where Ennio and I know people. A masked ball seems like a discreet way to do this, or would be if it were not for the stupid people. While Alexsy follows a lead, Ennio sweeps the floor and quite a few of the skirts (married or not). He gains lots of insight into the current state of Vodacce politics but can't resist making a spectacle. Surprisingly, it is the Sabat woman who challenges him via a drunken proxy. I can't resist the seeing what comes of these two and even offer to help her to even the odds (she doesn't accept; Theus, she is furious). She should have accepted - I've rarely seen his steel move so fast and she is pinned before she knows it. I am not exactly sure what she thinks of Ennio's impromtu rosebed, but she certainly seems impressed by his swordplay.

Alexsy explains his predicament to The Count Nicostrato, weighing heavily on how his marriage is in tatters. Promising he can act as toastmaster, he wins his support. For myself, I know that a deal with Baroness Rosa to embarrass my father will only help both of us so that's what I propose: she gets in on a political triumph and benevolent trade agreements, I get her men. It goes well - I get an additional lead and drop the damage of our arrangement on her.

There's always one loose end though. In this case Zyta, bodyguard and hired killer for Sabat. Ennio steps forward to duel her before her words can do any more damage. "Ennio, Ennio, Ennio," I say, "Fight well. Also, she will block high first." Alexsy brings his own threats to bear; I am not sure what he did but her will seemed shattered. The fight lasted a long time, but it was quickly clear that Zyta was no match for my brother on our home turf. She just needed to learn the lesson the hard way. She ended up pinned to the table by my brother's sword and butter knife. By Zyta.

Time to resume the work of gathering our army.


BEHIND THE SCENES

That was fun! We made full use of significant amounts of our character sheets (as is intended). It was a bit of an odd place to stop but it's in line with other tasters. The name repetition is when Domenica uses her Fate Witchery; the last roll made two raises, two extra dice for the whole duel which made a huge difference; but not as much as Alexsy's Willful virtue. Apart from the fact I couldn't pronouce it, Perspicacious didn't seem so useful as the other virtues but that is probably just timing. Ennio used his taking down the brutes in the garden (sure, he cut himself to shreds too but who's counting?).

THE GOOD

a) Being able to dictate more than your immediate actions is fun, and is nice to see it borrowed from John Wick's own Houses of the Blooded (and elsewhere, obviously). The first scene with Estera Sabat is a perfect demonstration as both Domenica and Ennio got an ally; Ennio put three additional raises, from what was just meant to be a body language check, into winning her over.

b) We really liked playing the consequences game. Ennio ignored consequences when he was dancing for Moar Drama; Domenica averted her own consequences but not Baroness Rosa's when negotiating, because she put her own needs first. (I intended, if other negotiations went well, to do something about that; but we never got to see that.) Alexsy was too straight for this kind of thing. It's why he needed a wife!

c) Flexible combat is cool. Ennio rolled Panache+Tempt vs Wits+Weapon(sword) and spent his ton of successes to cut a path of roses from the rosebeds, before planting one on Estera. He took the damage.

d) Simplification. I have only recently read 1st ed so I'm not expert, but those that did were clear that a lot of things were more straightforward (e.g. sorcery). This is a Good Thing.

e) Skill rerolls. There remains a definite field of trait+skill RPGs and they often find it difficult to answer why you would take one not the other. Little edges like giving higher skills little benefits make me happy.

THE BAD

The dual took 30 minutes we think. Ennio had lots of extra dice and could gain five Hero Points per round, Alexsy had stopped Zyta spending Danger Points (and the ST had a dozen to spend): it was clear from the beginning that she was outmatched. But the damage just didn't come very fast so there followed round after round. Luckily Ennio's player passed the dice round the players for each round (two rounds each) so we all got to play.

The delays were, I think, twofold:
a) Choosing the moves. It would speed up with practice, at which point the choice would be less confusing but the options would feel even less exciting. It might work better if moves were chosen blind and simultaneously (like the Rage card game) so it felt like something was at stake.
b) Constantly counting the dice.

THE UGLY
(This is the stuff where it's opinion is highly subjective.)

a) Hero or morally grey?
Our ST was uncompromising that 7th Sea should be about heroes; after all, that's what they are called. We should be heroic and he frowned at unheroic behaviour. Apart from our natural inclinations, we both followed where our character sheet led. Ennio explicitly states he prefers a lethal way of negotiating; Domenica has an ability called "Come Hither" at the end of which an antagonist is ... unavailable. We don't know what she did but we know what she was promising. Plus they were both from Vodacce family.
I have spent quite a lot of time thinking about 7th Sea (before the kickstarter), and in the end concluded that despite ripping off historical events it is actually wonderful to have this playground where you can change the world without worrying about implications. But as the LARP is showing, one man's hero is another man's villain; plus it would be boring if it was only about pure heroes. I just hope this juxtaposition can be addressed.

b) Dice
Opinions on the dice rolling varied between like, to ambivalent to dislike . I'll be honest, that last was me. At first it seems cool to group all your dice; but by the end it was just a drag. It might have a very interesting bell curve, but otherwise it feels like a gimic. Because of the way dice roll, you are generally going to pair up two dice with the occasional 10 and or some excess dice. It ends up mostly being (stat+skill)/2 +- 1

Here are three alternatives that would leave all the good stuff in:
1) Target number = 6
Any d10 that rolls 6 or more is a success. You still roll lots of dice and you average out the same number of successes. Downside: the range of successes is much broader; but then that might be a good thing.

2) FATE dice
Roll a fate dice + one for every multiple of 5 in your pool. (e.g. 10 dice = 3 fate dice) Add to your pool and halve the total (round down). Advantages: quickest option. Disadvantages: no glorious mountains of dice, involves fractions.

3) Borrow further from Houses of the Blooded
This is probably what I would do if I was house-ruling this. Using D6, divide your pool into raises (kept) and risks (rolled). You succeed at your task if your rolled dice add up to 10 or more, and can apply raises normally except for risks. For every five after that, you counter one risk.
I like this version because it barely touches the total number of raises made + consequences countered, but it does force you to choose between them. Choose your level of heroism here.
werepenguin

Werewolf: the D20 Apocalypse

In one of my brain's meanderings I stumbled across the idea of running werewolf as a D20 game. It would be a natural pairing between a combat-oriented system and a combat-orientated game. It draws on Spycraft quite a lot.

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werepenguin

Kidneys

It's worth noting that there's been some rain. Bits of Britain are flooding that haven't flooded for 100 years and the highest water marks on bridges are finally being rewritten. This hasn't been good for me, nor for many people with CF. Admitedly this has been worse for those whose homes are submerged but that is a very different story.

Two weeks ago my lungs had phlegm and they had heat, which soon after would have become damp heat (leading to fire poison). I was out of my main cooler, 29, so I took 27 (cools and moistens lungs) but as before it didn't help me clear my rather cluttered chest. I stepped up to no.14, a large cooler which is normally a precursor to IVs if it fails. In fact I thought it WAS failing until I realised that my diabetes was getting worse but not following my lungs. After a very shaky weekend, I realised that my lungs were no longer suffering heat from excess but had moved onto being deficient.

A quick reverse ferret to a tonic, no.21, helped a little but not a lot. And I was getting drier and drier. On Tuesday night I literally couldn't sleep because both my lungs and throat were horribly dry. After getting up for a firearm forced me into thinking mode, I took the last dregs of the rehydrating formula, 26. Finally I could sleep. But I was so tired and ill by that point I had to take Wednesday off work.

Acupuncture was already planned for Thursday, sooner rather than later in this weather. I was consoled by three things:

  1. There wasn't much heat

  2. There wasn't much phlegm

  3. I had, eventually, got the diagnosis correct

Well, sort of. I get confused between my kidneys and my spleen. I had been taking a tonic for the spleen (21) which is why it wasn't helping. We discussed a new formula since I don't have much for the kidney. 29 helps. But so does 30, which last time gave me a headache. No 30 cools kidney and lung, is a tonic for both and has something to keep things moving. It's my most complicated formula since it has a couple of other herbs in there. However, considering that it screamed 'THIS IS WHAT YOU NEED' we agreed I would try it again with some others as options (the other rehydrator, 23, is on order; and 29 would be a little help).

I tried a little 30 last night, with a touch of 29. As I lay in bed afterwards, I kept being disturbed as my lungs wanted clearing. It was disconcerting, but even as I was clearing it my head and lungs both seemed clearer. I didn't get a headache.

I'm going to keep taking 30 over the weekend because although I have stopped the rot, I need get back into working order (I could barely think yesterday, slow but progressive today). Not my favourite week, but at least I could solve it with non-invasive options.

Onwards and upwards!
werepenguin

Brief roleplaying reviews

Some books I've read and don't want to review properly. Because they're not worth it.

Transylvania By Night (White Wolf, WW2808, 1997)
Jerusalem By Night (White Wolf, WW2821, 1999)


Two different Dark Ages setting books for Vampire written by different authors and different developers yet they get the same review.

The Good: There is nothing intrinsically wrong with either of these books. They give you a balanced overall picture of the setting, paint some atmosphere on top and there are some reasonable plot ideas. The cover art, especially the Brom cover on the first of the pair, is gorgeous.

The Bad: Half the book is taken up by the vampires already in the city. In some ways, that's part of the drawback of the old WoD, there are so many clans and they all need to be represented. So the first problem is that where Europe by Night, and indeed Iberia by Night, had so much space for the rich setting it is far too cramped here. There's barely room for anything but the barest facts. TbN gives each country/principality a couple of pages at most, which is hardly enough to describe a city. JbN's best section is the history of Jerusalem, but has only the most mechanical space for the present day.

The other problem with this is that all the vampires are self-referential. It's great to set up rivalries but, for such large write-ups (almost as much space per vampire as there is for Poland), there are comparatively few plot seeds or spaces for PCs. They could have accomplished much more with a relationship map and a series of sample antagonists like those found in nWoD's Night Horror's series. They could have done something similar with locations. This would have given them a chance to do more with the younger (or lower generation) vampires.

TbN Execution/Ideas: 7
JbN Execution/Ideas: 5

@ctiv8 (Postmortem Studios (James Desborough), 2005)

This is basically Anonymous: the roleplaying game. While it shows great foresight, I think real life has trumped it. The mechanics are fine but don't really rate a review. If you want to run a game along these lines and want inspiration for the practical structure of the organisation, it's a reasonable resource - but not really necessary.


Curse the Darkness (Play Attention Games, Inc, 2012)

I got into this on Kickstarter because I am a fan of Matt McFarland's White Wolf work.

The Good: the setting is really unique. Somebody/thing had stepped in to play god. If you do anything he doesn't like, you will (probably) be dragged into the darkness. The old structures have all collapsed, most people have died and the survivors are trying to get by, somehow.

The Bad: For some reason, Curse the Darkness just didn't resonate with me. It's a game about telling stories, but there doesn't seem to be much time to grow the stories. Character death is so sudden. I will admit that part of my dislike is the system: it seems remarkably random and lethal; and I suppose I ought to try it in practice before I criticise it too much. It's just I've read Fiasco and that just seemed right.

The Ugly: curiously, I think the system would be good for Cthulhu. The types of challenges fit it perfectly, and the ease of elimination would be good for the horror aspect. It would certainly make a different sort of Cthulhu game!

Execution: 6
Ideas: 5


Active Exploits (Politically Incorrect Games, 2004)

This is a diceless roleplaying game but, for me, if I'm going to play diceless it needs to be simple. This really isn't. By the end I was scratching my head quite a lot.

Hackmaster (Hackmaster Basic, Kenzer and Company, 2012)

This is billed as a more balanced D&D. Maybe, but it soon appeared significantly more complicated. Considering it uses the basic D20 engine, I didn't get anything new from this.

Clockwork and Cthulhu (Cubicle 7, 2012)

The good: what I like about this book is that, although it focuses on three adventures, it does more than that. The first third of the book is setting material that, while incorporating setting-appropriate elements of the Cthulhu Mythos, also sets up plenty of antagonistic factions to be part of. The theory of the setting chapter then gets used in the adventures which make up the second two thirds. If this reflects the quality of the Clockwork and Chivalry books I would be tempted to explore further (but only tempted; too much other stuff to read first, and I am not such a fan of the genre).

The ugly: it's focuses on three adventures. Not really my favourite kind of book. It just happens to work here.

Execution: 8
Ideas: 8


The Book of Madness (White Wolf WW4251. 1994)

The good: I do have problems with Mage: the Ascension, largely about the factions and how the rules don't match the prose descriptions. This book, however, isn't one. In particular, the sections on infernalists and temptation give tons of ideas, and the Marauders (crazy mages!) get a great section.

The bad: I am not saying the Nephandi section is necessarily bad, it's just not very good. Qlippothic magic doesn't seem very tempting at all; and some elements aren't really explained satisfactorily.
I could have done without the mythological beastiary; in fact White Wolf never did a good job at making such beasts actually interesting.

The ugly: lots of the book ends up replicated in later books, such as the spirit sections and umbral rules; and the sorcerous paths that end up in Sorceror: revised start here (and never get much better). The paradox section is hit-or-miss and could have done with less very-rare paradox spirit and more interesting examples of the other flaws.

It's still a really fun book for lightweight Mage fans.

Execution: 6
Ideas: 8


The Wild West Companion (White Wolf, WW3704, 1998)

Previously missing from my Werewolf: the Apocalypse collection. Yay!

The Good: The first two chapters, on life in The Savage West and on the Storm Umbra are well written and very tight. All good, considering it's new information. The new stuff sections are solid, there's a nifty section on warfare (and how werewolves can be incorporated) and there are a few other fun surprises.

The ugly: there are a few sections which largely get duplicated in the Changing Breed books, although that's somewhat inevitable. They aren't bad if you haven't read up on the werespiders etc before. On the other hand, the tribal sections are a bit meh.

Execution: 8
Ideas: 9

There may be some others I missed or want to do a fuller review on.
werepenguin

Review: Spycraft 2nd ed

Spycraft roleplaying game: version 2.0 (AEG, MGP 6100)

Setting

Spycraft is any over-the top spy game you can imagine. Mostly you will think James Bond, but also The Ipcress File, The Man from UNCLE and Enemy of the State.

System

Spycraft is the game which made people sit up and say D20 (aka D&D v3) can be adapted to a non-fantasy game. So you have the same six stats, you have classes, skills and feats. You also have Hit Points, except it's called Vitality (the effort need to avoid damage) as well as wounds. They did at least make Vitality more balanced and less explosive. The skills pretty much cover everything you expect, with some having narrow focuses.

Added to this mix, they add Action Dice as beenies, and a comprehensive chapter on gear and how you acquire it.

The heroes

Freelance spies. Or you work for an agency. Spycraft 2.0 is written without any real background. Which is fair really, it doesn't need it.

The villains

The main conceit of the book is that villains are larger than life, which is why the James Bond reference is so prominent (especially the Roger Moore and Pierce Brosnan eras). Nobody will be surprised to find a lair within a volcano with an obvious, easy to activate self-destruct mechanism.

The look

What art in the book is reminiscent of the better mainstream comics - clear line art with textured colour. Stereotypes are present but mixed and non-sexual (there isn't a 'sexy spy' class or stereotype).

The good

The authors really, really thought about this. If feels like it there are a lot of options all of which are viable and all of which are in-genre. If you like the number-crunching side of roleplaying and the genre suits you, this game will suit you.

It also has some very good advice for running games within the genre. It's a small section but helps a lot.

The bad

I don't feel there is anything intrinsically bad here. I think if I was 13 again I could happily absorb this book and spend hours poring over different options.

The ugly

My major beef is personal: this is far too complicated. There are tables upon tables upon tables. There are 12 basic classes and a similar number of expert classes. There are so many skills you don't know how to pick them (partly, I'll confess, because there are very few truly niche skills which you can ignore, like in D&D). The feats.... so many feats. Worse for me is that you have to pick Talents and Specialities at the beginning, sort of like nature and demeanor from White Wolf books except that they come with substantial rules effects. Then there are the Action Dice: STs have 12 ways to use them, and then the way the players can use them on top. So about 20 ways.

Looking back, D&D is just as guilty of this (hello spell tables). I just don't like it any more. My mind would explode.

It does inspire me to play in the genre, but I would like to adapt it to the Houses of the Blooded system. Not least because I love the idea of the players using Cunning and Learning to define the plot for me. Probably much better than anything I would come up with. And because I think Style points work much better than the distracting Action Dice.

Execution - 6
Ideas - 9