Friday, June 13, 2014

Gen Con

I've just submitted four Fate Core games for Gen Con:

City of Shadows is a Quirky, dark urban fantasy. The characters range from an animated stuffed teddy bear with pistols and a bad attitude, to a student of drunken sorcery. More information can be found here.

Rescuing Dr. Dinosaur is an Atomic Robo game. Behold the power of crystals! Your pathetic mammalian brains cannot possibly understand the inner workings of Dr. Dinosaur's "Time Vortex." But, when something goes wrong, you may be his (and the worlds) last chance.

A Quiet Extraction is a Mindjammer game. You must infiltrate a paranoid, computer-aged world and extract a mass murderer hiding there, while avoiding attention of both the xenophobic government and the Venu agents operating there.

The Tome of Tjar Viscal is a D&Dish high fantasy adventure for Fate Core. You have been hired by a scribe to enter the ruins of a once great city and find the last known copy of a famous book. I'm tentatively planning on letting players create custom characters by selecting index cards: A race card, an occupation card, and one or more Stunt cards.

I'll post more when/if they get approved.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Neuroshima Hex Review (iPhone Version)

Neuroshima Hex is a great little board game. It's easy to learn. Quick to setup, quick to play. With my group of friends, we could often get 3 to 5 games in a single setting.

Needless to say, as a big iOS geek, I was excited to see Neuroshima Hex come to the iPhone--especially since I haven't had a chance to play the actual board game in over two months.

Overall, it's an excellent game. If you like the board game, you'll like this. And even though there's only an iPhone version, it plays well on the iPad in x2 mode (maybe better than on the iPhone itself). But it's not perfect. I find rotating the pieces is a little too difficult. There's no "undo move" if you make a mistake (though you can exit back to the main menu and then resume the game, and if you haven't completed your turn, it will start your turn over).

My biggest complaint, however, is the AI. Don't get me wrong. I've had a blast playing against it. But I haven't lost a single game yet--even when I play the 4-player mode with all the AIs cranked all the way up. There have been a couple of close battles, but there have also been a lot of blow-away games where I just crush everyone.

Like many iOS versions of board games, this makes an excellent travel edition. It's cheaper than the real-world version, if you just want to give Neuroshima Hex a try. I just hope they bump up the AI in the next release (PS: NS Guys, call me if you want some help with that. I've got some ideas.).


Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Gaming in Houston

Hey all.

As you may or may not know, I have just moved to Houston, and I am itching to start gaming again. I've checked out some of the local gaming/comic stores (Nan's Games and Comics Too gets high marks for their collection of board and role-playing game. They even had Burning Wheel and Fate books on hand!). And I hope to check out the Rice gaming club, FASTWARP.

However, if anyone knows of any other good resources, please let me know. I haven't had a chance to do much gaming since Kai was born, and he just turned 3. That's something I need to fix.


Wednesday, May 05, 2010

New Fate 3.0 Games

This has been a very good week for fans of Fate 3.0 RPGs. And I'm a huge Fate fan.

Evil Hat Productions released the PDF versions of the Dresden Files RPG. For those who don't know, this game is based on Jim Butcher's best selling series. If you're at all interested in urban fantasy, you must read these books. Then buy the game.

The RPG comes in two volumes: Your Story and Our World. I've just started reading Volume 1, but I've already run into a reference to a caffeinomancer. Seriously, buy this game.

Next, Cubicle 7 Entertainment has released Legends of Anglerre. This basically brings the Starblazers treatment to fantasy. I haven't picked this one up yet (I have hundreds and hundreds of pages of Dresden to read first), but I definitely plan to.

It's interesting, one of my only complaints about the Fate system was the lack of any magic systems, and now we have two entries with strong magical components.

Life is good.


Location:Waialae Ave,Honolulu,United States

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

New Discoveries

OK, I'm a little bit late to the game here. All of these systems have been around for several years now, but I recently picked up Spirit of the Century, Reign and FantasyCraft, and I must say, I'm now a big fan of the Fate 3.0, the One Roll system and the MasterCraft system. I've since picked up the Wild Talents Essential Edition, Starblazers, Diaspora and all the character class pdfs from Crafty Games. All excellent products. There are a few one-roll PDFs on my to-buy list (as soon as I finish Starblazers, it's a big book). And I cannot wait for Dresden Files to come out this summer.

It seems a bit odd to me that two of these game systems (One Roll and MasterCraft) are fairly crunchy systems, given my general preference for story-focused games. But they both have an elegant, streamlined mechanic that I appreciate, and the flexibility to make (and to model with in-game rules) a mind-boggling variety of characters. There's a sweet-spot for me where the rules still provide structure to support my character ideas, but also provide enough flexibility to let me make almost anything I want. All three of these games hit that sweet spot exactly.

And I love the toolkit feel of both Wild Talents and FantasyCraft. I am always more interested in tools that help me make the game my own.

And Fate 3.0 (in all its variations) is almost a perfect game in my mind. I was thinking of developing a game that had many of the same beats, and I've largely lost my motivation. Fate 3.0 handles almost everything I wanted, and often handles it in a more-elegant way than I would have.

Anyway, if you haven't checked out these games, please do. They are well worth your time.


Tuesday, September 16, 2008

D&D 4E Mini Review

I had high hopes about this. I have a lot of nostalgic memories about playing AD&D late into the night (or early into the morning). Some of those stories still stand out, even after all these years. We knew the game so well, it just sort of got out of our way, and let us tell the stories we wanted to tell.

I'd heard some grumblings that made me believe the refresh might be more story-friendly than past editions. So, as soon as it came out, I ran out and bought a set of the core books. I'd hoped to actually play a bit before writing this review, but that's not going to happen any time soon. So, without further delay, here we go.

Starting with the Player's Handbook, I appreciate the way it tries to give every class a unique way to shine. However, I felt most of the actual abilities were quite disappointing, especially for the martial classes. Often, they were only minor variations on a theme. Usually they did some damage, with what appeared to me to be a minor side effect.

The classes themselves are described with an overwhelming bias towards tactical situations, and this is painfully clear in the class abilities. Instead of making broad abilities that could be applied in a wide range of situations, these were narrowly focused, and only really useable in combat.

Want to use a confusion spell to temporarily distract the castle guards? No such luck. The confusion spell doesn't actually confuse someone. It causes damage (making it unusable in non-combat situations), and gives you some control over how the person moves. I guess that sort of models confusion from a highly abstracted perspective, but it really felt flat to me.

That brings up my second major complaint. Maybe it's just me, but I often had trouble figuring out what the ability was supposed to be modeling. Often we are only given a name and the tactical effects with very little description or explanation. It all left me wondering why ability X had effect Y. What was the narrative description of the action? How did it look or feel from the characters perspective? In many cases, I honestly have no idea.

Surprisingly utility abilities are also often only useable in a fight. Sure, they might not do direct damage, but they often had little or no non-combat uses. Some of the movement abilities maybe useable, but that's about it.

Skills are a little better, but they're still overwhelmingly described from a tactical standpoint. Ritual magic stood out as the only real breath of fresh air--but not all characters have access to ritual magic. More importantly, at this point we have very few ritual spells to choose from.

Ok, on to the Dungeon Master's Guide.

I found it somewhat ironic that the DMG started with a discussion of different play styles. They correctly identified that there are many players (like myself) who are more interested in the story and character development than tactical play.

Unfortunately, they gave no useful advice on adapting the game to other play styles. No matter how much lip service it may play to other gaming styles, at the end of the day, it's a heavily tactical game.

For example, D&D 4E has rather formulaic methods for building encounters. They go to great lengths to describe what sort of characters the players should have in their party, what sort of opponents they should be facing, and how to modify the encounter if either of these assumptions are not true. They have rather strict math for determining the strength of an encounter, and for determining the rewards received.

All this is designed to produce interesting, exciting, balanced encounters--and particularly to produce interesting, exciting and balanced combat encounters. That's fine if you're playing a war game or a board game, but for an RPG it feels stifling to me.

In particular, it feels like it would limit my ability to improvise.

I strongly feel that the ability to improvise, and having empowered players are the two pillars for building quality story-focused games. And, it feels like D&D 4E makes both of these hard. GMs are limited by the encounter construction guidelines. Players are limited by restrictively-defined abilities.

Oddly enough, Paul Tevis from "Have Games, Will Travel" said that he felt the D&D 4E skill system would actually encourage improvisation. Normally I highly respect Paul's opinions, and he's played the game while I haven't. So, I'll bow to his experience here. But, I'm sure having trouble seeing it work for me.

And speaking of Mr. Tevis, he had quite a bit more to say about D&D 4E recently, specifically comparing it to Story or Narrativist games. Check out his podcast at Have Games, Will Travel.

I'll give you the cliff notes here. D&D 4E is a great tactical game, but it's not a good tool for building communal stories.

And that's a damned shame.


Sunday, June 22, 2008

Combat Stories.

A couple of things have me thinking about combat lately. I've been reading a lot of Robert E. Howard's Conan stories. I really admire the way he handles the fight scenes. They're more than just the hacking of limbs and gouts of blood. The battles grow naturally from the plot and support the theme and atmosphere of the story.

Meanwhile, I went ahead and purchased the new 4ed D&D books. I know, I know. I'll write more about them once I make my way through the books, but let me say this up front. They are incredibly tactically focused--more so than 3.0/3.5, if you can believe that's possible. I'm not sure I could run a story-focused game given these rules. It would be incredibly hard to run combat without maps and miniatures on the table.

OK, one more comment. It's interesting how many of the ideas from the indie/story games worlds have made their way into the 4ed books, but they have been badly warped towards this purely tactical paradigm.

Anyway, between these two, I've been thinking a lot about the cross section of combat and stories.

Combat has long been the default source of conflict in role playing games. In part, combat is just too easy. You don't need to spend a lot of time plotting out motivations. You don't need to lay the proper groundwork with clues and foreshadowing. One side simply pulls out knives, and then tries to cut pieces out of the other. Voila, instant conflict.

Combat also emphasizes the tactical/gameist side of role playing games. Building tactically interesting combat encounters is often quite easy, and tactical play can be quite enjoyable.

But, building good story content into a combat scene is incredibly difficult.

I've addressed the basic rules before. Each scene should do at least two things. Don't just have combat for combat's sake. The fight should reveal vital information about the character's opposition. Or it should fulfill a promise made earlier in the game.

Also, players should be less concerned with winning the combat, and focus more on the result of the combat. How will the scene effect the story? What does losing really mean for the characters? What does winning mean?

For example, in "The Scarlet Tower", Conan's army is smashed through betrayal and trickery. He finds himself on foot and injured, his back to a mound of dead horses and men, as his enemies circle around him. He has lost the combat--but that's just the beginning of the story.

Indeed, the tactical difficulty of a fight is often unrelated to the fight's story content. The characters may win or lose easily. But the fight itself doesn't matter, it's the emotional after-effects that drive the story forward.

However, tactically challenging scenes can also build the story.

I think this is an area that is too-often ignored by many story-focused gamers. At least, I'm guilty of this.

A lot of stories rely on action to drive the story forward. Oh, they aren't exclusively about action--but the raw challenge of hero vs. villain definitely shapes the plot.

The rules I listed above still apply. The scene should be about more than just a simple fight. But, few things get my blood pumping more than honest fear for my character's survival. Threats to life and limb have a way of grabbing a player's attention, forcing them to engage with the story.

Indeed, the best combats have the same features of other scenes. The characters must be forced to make hard decisions. Do I press my luck and try to take out the ogre? or do I retreat and drink a healing potion? The wrong choice might doom my friends or myself. They're no less important to the story, just because they're tactical decisions.

It seems to me, there is a place where the tactical elements and the story elements meet. A place where having a good tactical challenge can produce good stories.

This does present problems, however. In general, I want my players to de-emphasize the immediate result of combat, and focus on the combat's effect on the story itself. If they are defeated, they will be knocked unconscious or taken prisoner or saved by the cops or something. Players often know that they will live to fight another day. So, how do I project that, in this particular fight, the immediate results really do matter?

One option is to set the expectations explicitly. A lot of games build this into the mechanics themselves, where players explicitly set the stakes at the beginning of each combat. However, I'm not a big fan of this approach. I feel it somewhat neuters the conflict, by setting limits at the beginning. I prefer systems that allow you to increasingly up the ante as the conflict evolves.

You can sometimes imply the stakes by having the bad guys kill off an important NPC. Or have one of them bad guys pull back to strike a PC who has surrendered or who is incapacitated, and then let the others have a chance to react and interrupt the action. But, it's not always possible to weave these clues into the story in a way that is both obvious to the players without being too heavy handed.

Also, what do you do if a character dies? The story might be able to move forward, with the memory of the fallen friend driving the other characters onwards. However, what do you do if the character is vital to the main plot? Or if a large portion of the party dies?

For action scenes to work, the players must believe the threat is real. Of course, loss does not necessarily mean a loss of life.

If a thug leaves you bleeding in an alleyway, you won't make it home in time to prevent Jimmy-One-Hand from throwing your sister from your third-story window. Here, the emotional result of combat largely mirrors the tactical result. If you can make the players feel real pain in their defeat, both the players and the characters will remain fully engaged in any combat scenes. Seems to me, that's the best of both worlds.