Thursday, January 29, 2009

Clerical concepts from Lucy

A month ago, I went to the Lucy exhibit at the Pacific Science Center. Surprisingly, it was really more of an Ethiopia exhibit, focusing on their culture, history, and religion. I learned several very fun facts that I think have applications for fantasy gaming. I've been sitting on them, for lack of a good fantasy campaign to use them in. Perhaps someone out there will find these ideas useful...

  • Kiss the Cross: Old Ethiopian Orthodox tradition dictates that all priests must carry their Crosses prominently. Any of the faithful who encounter a Priest kiss his Cross for good luck. The Priest is expected to touch any stranger he meets with his Cross to bless them. Apply that concept to your next D&D Cleric for some very cool role-playing opportunities. "I walk into the tavern, and make the customary rounds of touching every patron with Pelor's Sunsign." If someone resists, it might mean they're a vampire, or just a follower of a competing God.

  • St George Church in Lalibela, Ethiopia is a work of awe-inspiring architecture. It's a church in a pit, the whole church literally carved out of a single rock. I could picture a world where every Church of Moradin were built the same way - or maybe every Dwarf settlement. Entire castles built this way might be practical in a setting with Move Earth spells, provided more aerial threats exist than burrowing threats in the game world.

  • Red Ink is the Word of God. The exhibit featured old hand-copied Bibles and Korans. In most of them, everything that was the word of God was in red ink - descriptions, narratives, and dialog from other characters was in black. The fantasy gaming interpretations of this are pretty cool. Just as in certain kingdoms only royalty could wear purple, you could have a fantasy priesthood claim a monopoly on a certain color of ink. "Only the words of Correlon may be written in Cyan, you Heathen!" Or perhaps spellbooks / scrolls could require certain colors of ink to function, and so seeing a particular color of writing was a tip off that it was magical in nature. Some Magical Order might have convinced the King into granting them a monopoly on a color, and without access to the orange ink, no other wizards can pass on the secrets of Transmutation spells.

Feel free to use those ideas in your campaigns - they aren't mine, they belong to Ethiopia. :)

P.S.: Go to the Lucy/Ethiopia exhibit at the Pacific Science Center if you live in Seattle. It's chock full of cool information.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Lost Cities (the Board Game)

When I first played Lost Cities (the card game by Rio Grande) I enjoyed it, but I was never a huge fan. It's got a nice core mechanic, but for me it grew kinda stale after half a dozen plays. (Some folks I know have enjoyed it for years, however.) I also didn't like that the theme felt "tacked on" to the mechanics - it could have just as easily been a game about lemonade stands, inventors, or vampire hunters.

Yesterday I played Lost Cities: The Board Game, and I must say I like it a lot more than the original. I think it's got longer legs - the random placement of the little scroll-shaped bits makes certain colors/suits a better investment at certain stages of the game. That's probably enough to keep it fresh for a long time.

If you like the original Lost Cities, you'll probably really dig the boardgame version. If the original wasn't your cup of tea, the boardgame is still probably worth a peek. It plays a little better, stays fresh longer, and emulates the theme far more accurately than the card game did. There's slightly greater options to consider on your turn, and it feels more like you're sending expeditions to locations. It works well with 3 or 4, whereas the original is purely a two-player game.

An aside: the red suit of the original Lost Cities featured artwork I referred to as "Viking Stonehenge in Hell". It was neat to look at and try to figure out, but it was strange. The board game version replaces that with the temple-in-a-canyon from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. I guess it's because it looks more like a city.

One criticism I will level, however, is that (both versions of the game) could use more "up" beats. Both games have a strong random element, and a relatively blind decision tree (since there's a lot of data you can't predict, such as whether or not the other player is hording the card you're waiting for). It's very easy to make a mistake that costs you the game or round, but it's rare you get the sense that a decision you made really boosted you ahead. Same with the random card draws - for every time you say "just the card I needed!" you probably say "I wish I'd drawn that two turns ago" twice and "just what I needed - another dead and useless card" four or five times. I think both games would be better if that excitement happened more often. It's very rare that you actually get excited about something you draw, and big risks rarely pay off. Instead, you just aim to play a solid conservative game and hope your opponents screw up more often then you do.

Another aside: A good future micro-expansion to address the excitement issue for the boardgame could be handled with just 7 cards. They'd come up rarely enough (IIRC, the main deck is 110 cards) that you wouldn't greatly alter your strategy to accommodate them, but they'd almost always be exciting when you drew them.
The first five cards could be a wild card in of each of the 5 colors/suits. These 5 wilds would just indicate a color, and have no numerical value. When you play one, it goes on the bottom of your stack, so it doesn't change the value of your high number, it just advances you along the track. Having one would make that color much easier, and provide more incentive to dip into your 4th or 5th color in a round.
The 6th and 7th cards would be a Wild 4 and a Wild 8. They would be all five colors (I'd say no color at all, but one of the 5 colors is white, so that doesn't work) and could be played on any one of your piles as the 4 or 8 (as appropriate) of that suit.4 and 8 aren't just random numbers, they were chosen so they'd impact suits that were still being developed as opposed to ones that were nearly closed off, or ones you'd just barely started.
I've thought up some other, more complicated, cards, but decided it's far better leaving the game uncluttered. The remainder of the hypothetical expansion (since you can't sell 7 cards profitably) would probably be new scroll-shaped tiles with different rewards to put on spaces.

An area that needs to be desperately avoided in any potential expansion for the game is cards that allow movement but don't go to your piles, cards that recirculate other cards from your piles, and various other graveyard animation tricks. We found that players were constantly moving the wrong pieces, and having piles of cards to simply recount allowed us to fix every error with 100% certainty no matter when we caught it.

In summation: the new Lost Cities is better than the old. It's fairly light, but has just enough variation to keep it fresh for many plays. It's not a game that's going to make you jump up in triumph, but it's a fun "thinker"-style game that won't melt your brain.

Shorter Version of Glass Nebula

The Glass Nebula, my first PlayCrafter Game, had a few flaws. It was kinda long, and difficult, which would be okay if it wasn't monotonous. Despite having been around for a month, and several of my other games getting rave reviews, Glass Nebula had only 2 names on the high score list, one of them being mine. It was 21-levels long, and pretty tough. Late last week, I decided to fix that. I kept the original the way it was, but made a copy. For the copy, I trimmed it down to 8 levels.

Previously, there'd be three similar levels followed by a bonus level. It went in clusters like that, and the 2nd and third level of each cluster were kinda redundant. The new version features only the best level (not necessarily the most challenging) of each cluster and just a couple of the bonus levels. It's much shorter, plays faster, and isn't quite so repetitive. It's only been up for a weekend, but it's already got three people on the high score list, half as many plays as the other version got in it's first month, and someone out there clicked the "I like this" button. I'm thinking my edits were a good idea.

Mathilde, if you're reading this, thanks for the feedback that provoked me to edit and improve the game!

Here's the new and improved Glass Nebula (Short Version)

P.S.: I also made Big Bad Fly and SWAT vs Kaiju both a little easier than they had been. The final levels on those had been really tough, and only myself and one or two members of the PlayCrafter staff had beaten them before I made the minor edits that reduced the difficulty.

On Big Bad Fly, I added some health packs to the later levels where the rocket launchers get so dangerous. In some cases the health packs replace crumble blocks in the building walls, but I also added a few to formerly "dead" airspace that the player was unlikely to spend much time in previously.

On SWAT vs Kaiju I tweaked the final boss. He's takes a little less damage to destroy, and his second weakspot is possible to shoot with missiles now, whereas before you had to "trick" him into belching nuclear fireballs into his own weakspot. It also says "King of Monsters" in big letters, so you know you're on the final fight. Hopefully more people will get to the epilogue now.

Hypothetical LOST RPG

Talking with my wife the other day, the topic came up the other day of what mechanics I would use if I were to adapt the TV show LOST into an RPG. There was no existing system that I felt would work especially well for it, so I'd probably start from the ground up making something new. The brainstorm of a hypothetical system has gone pretty far...

Attributes :
I'd start with an attribute auction, kinda like in Amber. The auction system in that game does a great job of establishing rivalries right out of the gates, and that sort of "uneasy truce" feeling, that tension where the characters alternately cooperate and backstab, is something you really want for LOST.

However, LOST should not be diceless. Characters on the show can and do fail on a regular basis, and the mechanics need to simulate that. There's no guaranteed competence - Jack can lose a patient, and John can get tusked by a boar. So, you'd start with a 100 points to bid in the auction, and after the auction was finished, there'd be a chart/scale that the GM would use to convert bids into dice pools. Exactly how the conversion chart works... I'm still workin' on that. Thinking out loud, I'd aim for ranking determines average/maximum roll, but number of points invested determines whether it's one big unreliable die or multiple small dice.

As to the nature of the Attributes & Skills... I'm leaning towards things that feel more Skill-based than Attribute-based, as far as theme. Watching the show, it's hard to rate the Strength and Endurance of the various characters, but you know who's got the most survival training, who's the best liar, who can administer first aid better, etc. Off the top of my head, I'd be tempted to use 6 Attributes - probably named Hunter, Caregiver, Charmer, Interrogator, Scientist, and Shaman.

Hunter is used for tracking, hunting, fishing, setting booby traps, and attempts to injure another character via ranged combat or ambush.
Caregiver is used for surgery, herbalism, foraging, and providing care or comfort.
Charmer is used for persuasion, leadership, lying, confidence games, and efforts to be social or friendly.
Interrogator is used as a lie-detector, and to coerce or force behavior against someone's better judgment. It is also valuable during point-blank stand-offs, and attempts to injure a character via close combat.
Scientist is used to diagnose illness, handle sweaty dynamite, jury-rig a radio transmitter, or determine where the Others camp is based on an electrical diagram or the crazy map painted on the blast doors of a hatch.
Shaman is used for interpreting visions, building sweat lodges, and fending off the smoke monster. On this island, anyone might see a ghost, but it takes a good Shaman roll to compell the ghost into revealing something meaningful.

There's a certain amount of flexibility and overlap between those 6 attributes. This is intentional. Often there will be more than 1 trait applicable to a task, but the trait the GM deems most appropriate will get a bonus. See also "flashbacks", below.

Sidekicks, Wards, and Obligations:
Michael has Walt, Sun has Jin, and Boone has Shannon (or the other way around). In each case, there's a minor character attached to the major, primarily for the purpose of generating conflict. I'd like to incorporate this into game in some way without needing a ton of players, or swamping the GM with a ton of extra minor NPCs.

Having one of these attached characters doesn't seem to be a boon - the interactions mostly hose you, though they provide for fun secondary conflicts and subplots. It's not a flaw in the standard RPG sense, either, as you definitely don't get bonus points for having a sidekick. If anything, the characters who are saddled with sidekicks seem even weaker for it - Jack and Locke certainly have more character points than Michael, Sun, Boone, Nikki or Rose.

From your initial 100 points, you may reserve from 0 to 30 for a secondary character. Points reserved in this way are doubled when making the second character. If you set aside 30 points, you'd have a 70-point main character and a 60-point secondary. If you set aside only 5, you'd have a 95-point main character, and a 10-point sidekick. You get more points this way, but there's a couple drawbacks. First off, since each individual character has fewer points, you'll probably be better off making specialists instead of generalists - you just can't spread the points around as far per character. In addition, secondary characters are made after the first auction is done, and they must bid lower than 1st rank. So Jin may be focused on Hunter, but he's not going to eclipse Locke. And actually, there's a third wrinkle.

The third trick is, your secondary character isn't your sidekick. Instead, you pick another player, and your secondary character is the ward, significant other, sibling or obligation of the other player's (primary) character. You're all PCs, so some amount of working together is to be expected, but it's also understood that the person playing your sidekick is going to occassionally make life "interesting" for you. Probably by dissapearing into the woods with that bald guy who has all the knives. It's considered very bad form to just decide your character doesn't care what happens to the sidekick they were assigned. Doing so will result in penalties of some sort (details still to be worked out).

Example of character generation with sidekicks:
  • Michael is created from 80 points in the auction, leaving 20 points unused. Those are doubled to 40 points, from which Michael's player creates a new character named "Shannon" - 40 points makes a well-rounded, but not powerful, character with just a little of everything. He thinks Shannon is just perfect to be someone else's spoiled kid sister.
  • Sun is created from 95 points in the auction, leaving 5 points unused. Those are doubled to 10 points, from which Sun's player makes a new character named "Walt" - since he's only 10 points, Sun's player decides that Walt will be someone's estranged child, too young and weak to defend himself, and sinks the 10 points all into Shaman to give the kid just a touch of the mysterious.
  • Boone is created from 75 points in the auction, leaving 25 points unused. Those are doubled to 50. For his new secondary character, named "Jin", he puts nearly all those points into Hunter. He wanted to put them all into Hunter, but was handicapped by not being able to surpass the highest bidder (Locke) in the primary character auction. He put the remaining couple of points into Charmer, but really didn't use them in the first season.
  • One person is playing Michael and Shannon. One person is playing Sun and Walt. One person is playing Boone and Jin. They'll get involved in each others plots and scenes, and create a very lively social dynamic.
  • Meanwhile, Locke's player and Jack's player did not set any points aside, and thus did not make Secondary Characters. This allowed their primary characters to be real bad-asses, but also deprived their players of an opportunity to influence the flashbacks and subplots pertaining to the other players. As a result, Locke became a bit of a loner, and Jack overcompensated by sticking his nose in everyone's business.
  • Note, however, that not creating a sidekick in no way innoculates you from being saddled with one. If the players had so chosen, they could have made Walt be Locke's kid, or Shannon be Jack's half-sister. However, if two or more people try to attach their secondary characters to you, you may choose to deny all but one of them, and pick which one is connected to you, or you can choose to just have a big family. If you do so pick just one, the creators of the extra sidekicks must then choose someone else to attach their secondary character too.

Combat System:
Seems like anyone can lick anyone in LOST. It's mostly about initiative and weaponry. Such unlikely warriors as Charlie and Shannon manage to get the drop on people. Even Hurley manages to be useful in a fight in a few episodes. To get the right feel, fight scenes should be short and bloody, and reward sneakiness and treachery. Gun fire needs to be deadly, and pointing a gun at someone needs to be a significant deterent.

However, wounds heal quickly on the island, and what does not kill you will only make you stronger. Provided they don't die, all PCs begin every session at full health.

Obviously the game needs these to capture the feel of the show, but we don't want to spend too much time in the past, especially since flashbacks almost always focus on just one character at a time. We aim for short and sweet, but frequent.

I'm thinking flashbacks are linked to the experience system. You spend experience to initiate a flashback, and gain narrative control of some backstory element that relates to what you were about to do. You then gain bonus dice based on two factors: amount of experience spent, and how badly the flashback screws your character with secrets/shame/enemies. How we rate that second factor, I'm not sure yet, but making it work is vital. You shouldn't get bonus dice for just having been a surgeon - you get bonus dice for being a formerly-wheelchair-bound fugitive surgeon-turned-drug-smuggler with a price on your head.

The bonus dice do not alter your initial attributes - they're locked in at the end of the auction during character creation. Instead, the bonus dice become skills or modifiers which could concievably be used with several attributes. For example, if your flashback revealed you to be a surgeon for the mob, and it got you +d6 (just throwin' out a number) in a skill called "Surgery", there'd be times you'd roll that along with Caregiver (to ease someone's pain), with Scientist (to figure out what's wrong with them), or maybe even with Interrogator (to strike a pressure point and make someone beg for mercy).

Island Economics: Luggage, Debris, Hatches, etc
I can see two ways of dealing with the economic system of The Island.

  • One way would be via charts. You make a big chart for randomly determining the contents of a piece of luggage. A different chart tells you what you find amongst the fuselage and debris from a plane crash, and another for a ship wreck, and either of those charts can turn up luggage (which would then be rolled on the first chart when you open it. You make a bunch of rolls as people search and recover in the first couple sessions, and a fairly organic barter system should develop. Later, you make a "What's In The Hatch?" chart, and a "Dharma Supply Drop" chart. There's two downsides to this system. Prepping the charts will take a long time, and it'd be very easy for random charts to put all the real wealth in one player's hands. At the cost of those two flaws, however, you'd get a very detail-oriented system with a great deal of verisimilitude. People who enjoy the accumulation of treasures would get a good kick out of that, and it'd give the game an oldschool RPG flavor.
  • Another way (and this is the way I think I'd end up doing it) would be to make resources behave more like Schroedinger's Cat. Instead of worrying about the specific inventory of your 3 suitcases, instead we just assume that 3 suitcases equals 30 clothing points, 12 entertainment points, and 6 medical points. Need a bandage? That's 2 clothing points or 1 medical point. Good running shoes? 15 clothing points, and they give you +1 to all movement rolls. A book to read is 1 entertainment point. An iPod costs 10 entertainment points - but you can break it apart into 5 Tech points. Need fuel for the signal fire? 10 points of entertainment or clothing will burn for a night, or you can forage for Nature points to burn. The hatch you just blew open has 600 tech points, 100 entertainment points, 2000 food points, and 500 points of guns. Improvise whatever you need out of those totals, and we'll just adjust them downward till the hatch has no more secrets.
    We'd need charts for this system too, but rather than being detailed charts, we mostly just need categories of resource points, and guidelines for how much various items cost.
    This version would also need some mechanical way to get a monopoly on things - since every couple episodes someone gets their hands on all the medicine or all the guns.

Plot, Setting, NPCs, Etc:
Obviously, we're setting the game on The Island, and there's some familiar aspects to the backstory. That said, the GM is under no obligation to include any specific NPCs, and parts of the Dharma saga might be different. The players are under no obligation to play characters from the show, either. Personally, I'd probably have the PCs be Danielle's group, and set the game 16 years before the story depicted in the show. Thanks to Desmond and Faraday, you could work in time-shifted cameos if you like, or just make entirely new stories and characters. Heck, it might not even be the same Island - maybe there's more than one of them floating around out there.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

(If I'm smart) this will be my last post about Scion...

...but I'm a glutton for punishment, so I'll probably think about it more again sometime, and when I do, I may feel compelled to blog about it.

I love the concepts behind Scion. The idea of an overly cinematic game about playing the modern child of a classical god and the ascension to divine/mythic proportions is awesome. There's some great stories to be told within that setting/theme. I was absolutely gonzo about the game for a long while. In my last few months at the game store I used to manage, I hand-sold Hero to several dozen people. It was our top non-d20 RPG by a wide margin.

I remained happy with the game for most of Hero. The flaws were noteworthy, but didn't appear insurmountable. Vampire had a lot of flaws, but I'd still had great fun running it (both tabletop and LARP) for years. The longer we played Scion though, the more pronounced the flaws became. Creating a balanced action scene was nearing impossible by late Demigod, as a variation in just one dot of Epic can mean a task goes from guaranteed to impossible, or a fight from stalemate to murder.

I have a certain amount of time I'm willing to spend on GM-prep between sessions. Normally, I spend that time working on not just plot, but character motivations, scenery, artsy descriptions and other fun surprises to work into the game. With a wide-open setting like Scion, there was a lot of freedom to push the envelope. You'd think I'd have been spending my time happily crafting a campaign that was full of artistry. Instead, as things progressed, it took more and more of my time trying to create action scenes that wouldn't fizzle out anticlimactically, nor wipe out the whole party in 5 ticks. You can't balance that game, at least not without a lot more work than I was willing to put in each week, and I'm a kept man!

In the early stages, I would apply little band-aid fixes as problems cropped up. By mid-demigod, I was proactively searching out problems, since we'd had such headaches from the ones that had blindsided us. At God, I rewrote large sections because I could see the default interactions (and math) at Legends 9-11 were just plain broken. Problem was, the more house-rules we threw at it to fix the problems, the more unstable the whole thing became. Yet I kept trying, because I loved the setting and concepts so much, I was dedicated to making the darned mechanics work somehow.

Two computer crashes, NaNoWriMo, and holiday scheduling conflicts made it hard for us to get together for our weekly sessions. Once I got away from the game for a little while, I was able to see:
  • how much energy and fun that mountain of prep-work was sucking away,
  • how the campaign wasn't living up to it's potential because of my having to focus on mechanics instead of theme, setting or character,
  • and how happy I was to not work on it for a week.
Once I'd done that analysis, it was clear it wasn't worth my running Scion anymore. I needed to get away from it.

I could still see myself running a game in the Scion setting some time, but I'd no doubt use mechanics from Wushu (or some other really light-weight narrative game) instead, so that we could focus on the story rather than the mechanical imbalance.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Bitching about Scion

I'm in a mood. Where to start?
  • Turns out the system "they stole from me" wasn't nearly as stolen as I thought. :) I missed one really important thing they changed from my old Improvised Weapon System: the Damage calculation.
    Damage went downhill, pretty seriously. Big skyscrapers are now (at best) +13 dice. Smacking someone with an entire Armored Personel Carrier now does less damage than a mundane axe. A 3,500 lb dumpster full of garbage dropped from +4 autosuccesses (and a bonus die) to being merely +3 dice. Across the board, the damage bonus on everything dropped by at least half, and in some cases down to a 1/3 what I'd had it at.
    This is worth mentioning, since by far the most common complaint my system ever got was "things don't do enough damage" - the new official version of the system actually amplifies that flaw. At the risk of sounding a bit pompous, my system is better.

  • Scion: Ragnarok released today. Turns out the fixed version of Jotunblut they'd promised us isn't better. The problems with Jotunblut were that it was narrow, underpowered, and had no real basis in any of the norse myths. I'm told they only addressed the underpowered part, and made it stronger only if you also have corresponding boons in the Animal Purview. Perhaps I'm being hasty, since I haven't read it myself yet, but it sounds like a big failure. Sidhe16's alternate version is much better. Unless I hear something wonderful about some other portion of the Ragnarok book, I'll be passing.

  • White Wolf just announced they're getting replacing their forums, and all the old threads will be going away. If there's anything there you'd like to keep, copy it to your computer before March 1st. Man, if only I'd heard about this during National Threaten To Stop Posting Week, then I could have threatened my little heart out. The fact that my threads, posts, and username will all be deleted from their site might just be enough to stop me from compulsively checking their forums every couple of days. I mean, my campaign wrapped up months ago, why do I keep putting myself through this..?
    Answer: 'Cause there's some cool people there, and I love gaming, and the core concepts of Scion are pretty nifty even if half the mechanics blow.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

More PlayCrafter good news!

Turns out my game "Big Bad Fly" won the latest contest at PlayCrafter! It's now one of the featured games that shows up all big at the top of the mainpage. I'm on cloud nine!

Update: I realized I didn't really say what the contest was. It was for the best game made in the 2-week period between Dec 25th and Jan 9th. All the games made during that time were automatically entered. The prize is getting my game at the top of their main page - it's not like I won money or a trip to Hawaii or anything lavish. It still makes me pretty happy, though.

SWAT vs Kaiju (and other Playcrafter news)

My latest game on Playcrafter is "SWAT vs Kaiju"

In the game you play a police helicopter, battling against various big ugly monsters of the sort you'd expect to see in a Godzilla movie. Each has a weak point you must shoot to destroy them - random body shots typically accomplishes nothing. They wave their claws at you, spit atomic fireballs, etc. It's kinda short, and not that great of a game, but it was fun making the custom graphics and setting monsters loose on downtown Seattle. It's worth taking a peek at and blowing up few levels just so you can see my monster designs. The two-headed spider-lizard is pretty neat.

The "Attack Choppa" player piece is incredibly hard to build good games for on playcrafter. This was my third attempt, the other two games were so bad I never even published them.

The problem is lack of enemies. There's only one flying bad guy on playcrafter's default piece set - the UFO. It flies randomly. It's aim is horrible, with short range and a bullet that's hard to see. If you put more than one on the level, they'll probably kill each other before getting in range to kill you. Other enemies behave in completely non-airborne ways. Most are land-bound, so they're no threat to the Choppa. Those that are a threat generally out-gun the choppa, so level design becomes very trying. Unless you supply custom graphics, most bad guys seem out of scale with the choppa - such as spear-carrying giants that are bigger than the helicopter. Those that are essentially in-scale are top-view enemies, where the choppa is side-view. And then there's little oddities like the choppa can't turn around, only shoots forward, and is so wide you can't make a good maze for it. As I said, it's a really tough piece to build for, and I know because I tried three times and failed miserably twice.

In hindsight, I should have made simpler monsters in SWAT vs Kaiju, and put some work into making custom city and population pieces. Killing the monsters is rather formulaic and unexciting once you figure out a couple of simple tricks. On most levels, you can stay pretty much out of harm's way and take pot-shots at your leisure. Someday, perhaps I'll make a sequel where you have to kill the monsters before they collapse buildings and kill innocent civilians. That'd be more exciting, and thus make for a better game.

In other PlayCrafter news, they just trimmed down the Staff Picks list. It was well over 500 (I think it was over 900, but don't quote me on that), and is now down to just 140. So, at least 75% of the previous picks were purged. I'm assuming this means they've raised the bar on what it takes to get picked. Three of my four previous games made the list before, and all three are still on the list post-purge. My work makes up 2.14% of the list. Needless to say, I'm feelin' pretty good about that. It's a nice little ego boost. Thanks, PlayCrafter!

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Skill Challenges

I found an interesting post (and comment thread) at Tales of the Rambling Bumblers, concerning Skill Challenges in 4th Ed D&D. If you're familiar with the latest D&D incarnation, and have some time to kill, it's a good read.
The basic mechanism is ... a Skill Challenge of a particular difficulty: you need to score N successes before M failures (N >M in most of the examples I’ve seen) or you fail. N and M, and the difficulty of the skill rolls (DC in D&D terms) are determined by the difficulty of the Skill Challenge.
After a bit of rambling, he narrows in on about the "M-Strikes Rule", singling out the fact that if the group fails M rolls they fail the challenge as a whole, regardless of what the Mth roll was about.

The example challenge involves catching some Kobolds, and you can roll Nature to track them or Athletics to climb a tree and spot them. If a PC loses sight of the tracks, if it was the Mth roll, then the other PC can no longer roll to climb a tree. That's a bit odd - logically, climbing a tree to spot the kobolds is the sort of thing you'd do if you lost their trail, not necessarily the sort of thing you could no longer do because you lost their trail. Because of interactions like that, he's a big critic of the system.

I absolutely agree with him that the "M-Strikes Rule" is the fatal flaw of the Skill Challenge system. Suspension of disbelief is easier if individual actions had their own consequences, as opposed to an overall success/failure ticker (where-in, as you point out, my failed history roll stopping us before you can make your climbing check). It would make more sense and be less metagamey. In that sense, I feel "M-Strikes" does much to undermine the very thing that skill challenges are trying to accomplish.

That said, it'd be very difficult (and might even require a book of it's own) to balance all those possible consequences of every individual action. One of the design goals of the Skill Challenge system is to provide rules by which skill rolls and logic puzzles can be rated and compared against each other and against combat encounters to determine relative degree of difficulty and appropriate XP awards. 4E's Skill Challenges system is attempting to do for problem-solving, skill use, puzzles, and role-playing what 3.X had done for traps.

In other words, the designers want to give out XP for using your skills, but they don't want it to be a flat rule in which the danger or difficulty involved had no impact. (25 xp per skill roll would be trivial and pointless to track at mid-to-high levels, 200 xp per roll would be way too generous at low-level.) Nor do they want it to be a tremendously complicated system, where ever possible factor and consequence needs an entry in some gigantic reference section.

Yet within those constraints, they also needed some element of danger and/or chance of failure. Without some way of doing so, Skill Challenges would become a source of easy no-threat XP, and large sections of game mechanics would buckle under the weight of that overflowing XP chalice.

So they hit on an abstraction - that abstraction being the "M-Strikes Rule", and the Complexity Rating - to determine when you fail and the consequences kick in.

Just like hit points, M-Strikes isn't realistic enough for some people's tastes. As I said, I'm one of those folks who'd rather have detailed consequences stemming from specific actions rather than an overall out-of-character ticker.

I wouldn't have made the decision that 4E's designers did, but I can still see why they made that call, and why they felt it was beneficial to go there.

While I'll probably never use the M-Strikes Rule as written, I still think the core idea of Skill Challenges was a step in the right direction. It provides a framework that is a good starting place, encouraging the GM to make your skills not just something you roll once every 3rd session, and empowering the player to role-play a character whose Intelligence and Charisma exceed their own. Provided, of course, that the GM has a flexible mind and isn't too inclined to say "no" when the PCs come up with unique actions and solutions that are outside the script of the Skill Challenge.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Vampirism in a One-Shot

This situation keeps coming up at our weekly one-shot RPG group. Given lots of latitude on character concept in various scenarios and systems, people (including me) keep being drawn to Vampires.

Depending on the system (and I'm talking about some very rules-lite "hippy games" - Risus, InSpectres, Fudge/Fate, various homebrews, etc), being a Vampire could potentially be giving the PC a ton of power, but it's generally tempered by at least one very significant drawback - you're vulnerable during the day.

Of course, there's a problem there. Since we're doing one-shots, the last thing you want is for the players to squander time and dally and never get around to the plot. There's an out-of-character clock ticking, and the most common way to deal with that reality is to throw some challenge at the players that must be dealt with on an immediate (and unforgiving) time table.

Of course, that makes Vampirism all the trickier than it is normally. If your whole scenario must be dealt with in the next few in-character hours, the sunlight drawback gets either over- or under- emphasized. Either they never get to use their cool powers, or they never face the only source of real danger. This matters to me, because I plan on running some games (with this group) with fairly open character generation rules, and it seems likely to come up. It's probably less of an issue than I'm making it out to be, but it occupies my brain none-the-less.

There's several ways I can think of to deal with it:
  • Don't let PCs be Vampires.
  • Let it slide - set your game at night so they aren't restricted, and just not sweat the power they've gained.
  • Make 'em pay - set your game in daylight so they're in constant danger or at reduced power.
  • Do the Buffy thing - a heavy blanket, thin paint on the windows, or crappy blinds will protect you, but get thrown outside and you start burning.
  • Lean on Vamps other weaknesses - set the game at night but introduce vampire hunters, garlic eaters, priests, running water, etc.
  • Length of day: Prep every scenario so it takes roughly 24 hours in-character-time to resolve, or starts a couple hours before rise/set, and any potential Vamp will be at full-strength in some scenes but vulnerable in others.
  • Scale back Vampirism: Disallow vampiric "bundling", and make them buy healing, shapeshift, hypnotism, etc as seperate powers. On the plus side, they won't get the drawbacks unless they want them too. (Though, I can't think of any games we've played where a PC would have that many powers/options if Vampirism weren't a semi-nebulous package deal.)
I'd love to hear some opinions on what you'd do in this situation. There's probably options I'm completely overlooking. Please let me know (in the comments) section what you'd be inclined to do.

Are there any options on that list that would piss you off if a GM did them in a game you were playing?

Crazy Characters

Last night's session at Wayward was a one-shot (sort of an opening to a once-per-month ongoing game) called Omniverse.
Setting: It was described in advance as being vaguely Sliders-esque, but turned out to be actually more Farscape-esque, bordering on SpellJammer-esque. Minor quibble, really doesn't matter, as even with that unexpected change, the game was great fun. We were encouraged to come to the session with a bizarre character concept in mind - nearly anything would be okay. We could steal from any show or genre, blend them mercilessly, or make up our own unique character.
System: The GM had said he'd be using a modified version of Risus. He'd run Risus for this group once before. In that game, he'd allowed a very liberal definition of our Cliches (that's Risus-speak for Attributes), and also had house-ruled away the prohibition against using the same Cliche for attack and defense in a round. The end result, I'd discovered, was that having as few Cliches as possible, and thus all highly rated, was significantly superior to diversifying into several medium-ranked Cliches. Since Risus is famous for the unforgiving spiral of death that starts whenever you fail a roll, this conclusion was fairly important.

Going into this game then, I knew I'd want a character that was fairly simple, with just a couple things they could do - though, those things might be fairly broadly defined. For example, it'd be far better to be a rank 4 scientist, then to be both a rank 2 chemist and a rank 2 physicist.
First Concept: My planned character was going to be named Larva. He'd look like a big rotting dinosaur. In reality, he'd be a couple feet long, and grublike. He'd be a child form of an advanced alien species, capable of reanimating the recently dead. However, to do so, he'd have to burrow inside the dead body and attach his sensory organs to the corpses degrading nerve center. This would mean he could only reanimate one corpse at a time, and it would have be big - at least the size of an oxen. I figured I'd wear the biggest dino the GM would let me get away with.

My cliches would be something along the lines of "Gentle (but rotting) Giant", "Reanimator" and "Looking to Prove Himself". As a youngster, he'd not yet earned a name. In his culture, you were all just called "Larva" until you'd proven yourself worthy of becoming a named adult. He'd have a big inferiority complex, and not be completely aware of his own (borrowed/rotting) strength.
GM's curve-ball: Turns out Malachi (the GM) wasn't just using normal Risus character creation rules. Instead, he wanted each person to use the following structure to describe their character.
(Name), the [Descriptor] [Species] [Profession] of [Planet]
You'd fill in the blanks, and things you dropped in the brackets would become your Cliches. Each different bracket had limitations as to what sort of thing you could fill it with. Descriptor had to be an aspect of your physical body or your personality. Profession needed to be a job.

Planet was fairly open, but if it wasn't immediately grokkable to the rest of the group you wouldn't be able to roll it for much. Species had a similar hurdle. Being a Fzghuhoyt of the planet Snizlukka would be sub-optimal, but being a Werewolf from The Death Star would give you lots of abilities and story hooks.

Larva, the Puppy-Like Body-Snatcher-Bug Child of Bugworld just wasn't going to work. I could probably get away with putting in something dinosaur-related into one of those brackets, but it was an awkward match. Chances are my Descriptor and Profession would be redundant, as would my Species and Planet. It was the whole Chemist and Physicist problem I'd previously identified, except worse because being a child is not so helpful as being a scientist. My concept was just too narrow.

By contrast, if you were (as one of my fellow PCs was going to be) Despotron, the Badass Motorcycle Politician of Cybertron, you were getting combat skills, a mode of rapid transit, social skills, a robotic body and shapeshifting powers out of your required 4 Cliches - that's pretty sweet.

Needless to say, I was going to have to think fast and change my concept. I needed something with a broader skill base and more than one schtick. More importantly, I needed to belong to a species and world that communicated something to the GM and my fellow players.
Thank my lucky Starr: A friend of mine once made a really cool Amber character that was a Narwhal - well, sort of. Technically they were a Kangaroo-Legged, T-Rex-Armed, Parachuting Psychic Narwhal from a Non-Euclidean world, suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder as a result of having been kidnapped by a Dimension-Hopping Circus. Actually, the backstory was far more complex than that, and involved shape-shifters and secret parents, a Matriarchal society where males were forced into breeding programs, a magic parachute, multiple personalities, secret magical soul names, and a huge opening bid on Psyche.

I wasn't going to need anything nearly that complicated. But it did occur to me that I could take a cue from Starr's old character, emulate (aka steal) a few of the better (aka simpler) bits, put my own twist on it, and have a character I was comfortable with in under a minute.

That's how I ended up playing Dr. Fiddlesticks, the Bat-Winged Narwhal Parapsychologist from MCEscherLand - a concept which communicated volumes to everyone.
The rest of the cast: I don't remember every bracketed Cliche from every character, nor most of their names, but here's what I do recall (and my best guesses) about my fellow PCs...
  • I already told you about the Badass Motorcycle Polititician from Cybertron
  • Nard, the Space-Faring Glow-Jellyfish Combat-Specialist from some planet I'd never heard of. (She'd originally envisioned the character as using a mini-mech battlesuit and a fireball cannon, but instead ended up using Jellyfish Kung Fu.)
  • Buck something-er-other, the Two-Fisted American Fighter-Pilot from WW2World. (He later clarified his version of earth had just two continents: "America, F*** Yeah!" and "Over There", and that, yes, American was his Species.)
  • Farnsworth, the Dashing Human Explorer from Steampunk Victoriana. Or maybe his descriptor was Brave and his Profession was a Gentleman. Or his job might have been an Officer, and his description Gentleman. The exact details escape me, but was the sort of character who'd be perfectly at home wearing a Pith Helmet and a Smoking Jacket while firing an Elephant Gun from the deck of his Airship. He was decidedly British.
  • and a Mutant Half-Vampire from the Marvel Universe. For some reason, I'm blanking on this character's name and profession, as she was more cerebral and understated then you might expect from a Mutant Vampire of the Marvel Universe. Part of that may be because most of the session was daylight, but she did get to turn into mist, hypnotize mooks, and have Wolverine-ish healing factors.
Overall, the characters were awesome, and the game was a blast. What might not be obvious from those descriptions was what a disfunctional band we were. Everyone had lots of skills and powers, but the GM also gave us the option of choosing a flaw to get some extra perks, and we happily handicapped ourselves in various ridiculous ways that nearly imploded the scenario more than once. Luckily, our GM was also a skilled improviser.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Is Pandemic Not Complicated Enough?

In addition to BSG and Dominion, we also played Pandemic last weekend. Since I kinda panned the other two, it just seems fitting that I smash Pandemic as well.

But I can't.

I guess I can criticize it for being a little too simple. It's rules light, and pretty elegant. It was easy to learn. Once we'd removed the accidentally duplicate cards from the deck, it felt like we had a shot at winning. We lost, but not by much, and I could see things we could have done better. Those are all good things. Due to that simplicity, however, it might possibly grow stale after repeated plays. Possibly, down the road.

That's it, though. I enjoyed it quite a bit. Nothin' else bad I could say about it.

Well, I suppose some might feel it's kinda morbid. Personally, I found a game about the CDC fighting multiple outbreaks (that are threatening global catastrophe) a fun change pace. I could however, easily imagine any number of real-life scenarios where that stops being fun. Then again, aliens could invade tomorrow and make all my sci-fi games take on a not-so-fresh feeling.

But that's it, that's all the gripes I can field, and one of them half-heartedly.

Okay, the random element feels kinda high...
...but as I type that I realize it isn't really. Not any more so than most games. Any game with a die or a deck of cards is at least (and probably more) random then Pandemic. It may feel randomization-heavy and luck-dependent, but it really isn't. Once you get the rhythm of the game under your belt, you'll be able to intuit the rough odds of really bad stuff happening, and plan accordingly. That's pretty cool.

The random element most likely to swing a game is determining which character you play. I'm not sure they're all balanced terribly well. But, it being genuinely cooperative, that probably doesn't matter. Unlike Shadows Over Camelot and Battlestar Complexica (and certain Lord of the Rings Variants), you aren't secretly competing with anyone. Therefore, as long as all the characters have something fun to do, they don't need to be terribly-well balanced.

Between the relative simplicity and the cooperative nature, Pandemic makes it a good intro game. You could easily teach it to anti-competitive, non-gamer types. I may end up picking up a copy. It wasn't as much pure enjoyment as BSG, but it was quick and easy, short and sweet.

Honestly, it's just a solid game. One that could use an expansion, somewhere down the line - but not till after I've played it a couple more times. :) It didn't "wow!" me as much as BSG and Dominion while I was playing it, but I also didn't feel like it had any major flaws when I reflected back on it the next day - and I tried.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Battlestar Complexica

This past weekend, between games of Dominion and Pandemic, we played the Battlestar Galactica boardgame from Fantasy Flight. I'm still trying to figure out if I truly liked it or not. It was a lot of fun, but it was also needlessly complicated.

The game plays a little bit like Shadows Over Camelot, in that it's mostly cooperative, but has traitors (in this case, they're Cylons).

Yet, they don't feel alike. In a typical game of Shadows, you're keeping an eye out for the traitor, but mostly everyone's trying to solve the challenge of the game. There's one Traitor card amidst all the Loyalty cards, so in a 5-player game of Shadows, it's not unheard of for no one to be a traitor. Happens fairly often, actually.

In Battlestar Galactica, the math is a little different. In a 5 player game, you use a loyalty deck of 11 cards, 2 of which say "Cylon". At the half way point, you add a "Cylon Sympathizer" card to the deck, and deal out the remaining cards - everyone gets a second card, and if it's a Cylon card it overrides your previous human card. So, a 5-player game could actually have more Cylons than Humans after the half-way point, and it's actually impossible to go the entire game without a "Traitor". That certainly captures the feel of the show, but I haven't played enough to figure out how well it works mechanically. There's a traitor for certain, so you should be even less tolerant of shady behavior and poor decisions. However, I could also see it be a lot less tense, since there's no false hope that we might be traitorless this time.

As I said, the loyalty system certainly scores well in the "recreating the feel of the show" category. So does the space combat system. Galactica gets ambushed, spools up her jump drives, waits till the last civilian ship jumps (or is destroyed), manages viper squadrons, etc. That part of the game is incredible. I wish the whole experience were as good.

Where it fails for me is the cards. There's tons of cards in this game, which should be a plus. Most are based on events from the first season of the TV show, and have photos and quotes that reinforce the flavor of what's happening. Problem is, you never read them. The rules require reading the quotes out-loud, and certainly the game will be more fun if you're in-character, but it's hard to see it as anything but a diversion. The problem is, the cards are too complex. They're bordering on overwhelming, and the flavor text is only distracting.

I'll describe a typical Crisis card. At the top of the card is the name of the event, below that is a picture, below that is a quote. On the left hand side of the picture is a number - this tells you the target number of the skill challenge. Below the number are 2 to 5 colored blocks, corresponding to various decks of resource cards. Below the quote is a section that tells us the results of passing the skill challenge, and of failing the skill challenge. Below that is an icon indicating which Cylon ships act, and what they do. To the right of that is an icon telling you whether or not the jump drive spools up this turn.

Let's deal with just the skill challenges for a moment. In order to pass the skill challenge, the group needs to play resources of the right colors and combined number value. Every player has access to different resource decks (and thus different colors), so sometimes you just won't be able to help the group complete a challenge. The cards vary in power from 1 to 5, as well, so knowing that 4 cards have been played face-down on the challenge so far means you're at a total of anywhere from 4 to 20, which isn't much to go on when the skill challenge has a target number of 13.

However, cards of the wrong color count negative, and, you'll recall, there's at least one cylon hidden amongst the crew. So, really, 4 cards having been played means a total of anywhere from -20 to +20. It all depends on who the Cylon is, how many there are, how subtle they're being, and who's got what color of cards. And then two random cards from a destiny deck get added as well, bouncing the number by another +10 to -10. In other words, you really don't have a fuzzy clue whether or not you'll accomplish any given skill challenge.

I haven't yet mentioned the resource cards don't just have a color/suit and a value, they also have a special power. So, when deciding what to contribute to a skill challenge, you have to weigh it's value in the challenge against it's potential value as an action on your turn. Guess wrong and you'll squander a resource that will prove vital later.

A lot of times, the Skill Challenges will have decisions that can be made by one particular player. Sometimes it's the President, sometimes it's the Admiral, sometimes it's the active player. Often, these decisions let you skip the skill challenge entirely, and sometimes they let you pick between two different outcomes if you succeed.

Like I said, it's a little overwhelming. Trying to judge the severity of a given Crisis card is really tough. You have to factor in all those details of the Skill Challenge, it's consequences and the potential gains to Cylon traitors who chose to sabotage. It doesn't stop there, as the commands at the bottom of the card concerning Cylon attack fleets and the Galactica's jump drive can make an otherwise non-critical card absolutely devastating at the wrong moment.

Everyone plays a character. All the characters have special powers. One of them is "once per turn, look at the top card of the Crisis deck and either put it back or put it on the bottom of the deck." There's so much data for them to consider, it easily doubles the length of their turn, and they'll probably miss some important factor that makes the card more or less dire than it appears. I don't ever want to have that power! It'd be terminal information paralysis, I suspect.

This complexity permeates the game. Even the loyalty cards are over-complicated. Each different "traitor" card includes a different power you get to use if and when you're revealed - but if you stop to read yours, everyone will know you're a Cylon. Knowing what your power can do, however, would let you know when the right time to make your move is.

The game didn't need to be that complex. It could have been just as flavorful and more enjoyable without so much data being shoved down the player's throats. If so, it would have been a better gateway game for converting BSG fans into gamers. It also would have played much faster, and been a lot easier to master. The learning curve is so steep. If we didn't have so much data to parse, we'd be more impressed by the quotes and eye-candy - so it'd actually be more flavorful. It just feels like it had so much more potential - if only the skill challenges and crisis cards (and everything else) were just a little less byzantine and subjective, you might feel like you had a hope of actually making a better than average play once in a while. Honestly, the characters in the rather bleak show have more hope of making a difference than players of the game do.

Yet it still manages to be fun. (It would have been more fun if it weren't so darned complicated and fiddly, but I think I've already made that point.) I'd gladly play a second game of it, I'm just not sure I'd buy it. Luckily, a friend owns it, so I'll likely get another play or two without having to fork up cash myself.

Apparently, I'm Addicted

There's other things I was supposed to do today, but instead I made yet another game on PlayCrafter. That makes four, for those who are keeping track at home.

(Two of which, by the way, are now on the Staff Pick list and have lots of peoples names on their scoreboards. That makes me happy.)

In my latest game, you're the Big Bad Fly blowing down the houses of the 3 Little Pinks. What, that's not how you remember the story?

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

First I liked it, then I loved it, now I hate it...

...and that was off of just two consecutive plays. (Admittedly, not much to base a review on, but I think the analysis below is probably accurate anyway.) Okay, "I hate it" is probably a lot stronger than is accurate. "I'm no longer interested" is probably more accurate.

The game is called Dominion.

I'd heard a bit of a buzz about it. Half the (large) group played it at board game night two months ago, and they were all raving and insisted on playing it again and again.

This past weekend, we go over for boardgames, and someone brought it. I played once, and thought it was a pretty fun. It felt like the fun of deck-building and side-boarding in Magic had been distilled down into a little game of it's own. Trying to figure out the combos was neat.

Then we played a second game. The player who owned the game took off the kid gloves. His turns tended to involve playing 3 or more Laboratories, then buying a Province. We were completely blindsided when his deck went off the first time. The rest of us flailed about uselessly, trying to find combos of our own, or just ways to stop him. Though I lost terribly, I was hooked. I wanted to play more.

Instead, however, other folks arrived on-site, and we ended up playing something else that could handle more players. That was okay, as I was sure I was going to buy Dominion and play it again soon. I'd go pick the game up at Gary's sometime in the next week or two, I told myself.

As the night went on, and we played other games, I kept thinking back on Dominion. Specifically, I was thinking about his combo deck that had won. It wasn't a complex combo. It had at it's heart, just one-card. Laboratory into Laboratory into Laboratory into Laboratory into Gold, every turn thereafter the same except ending with Province instead of Gold. I thought about the other cards I'd seen in my two games of it, and realized that nothing in the 16 action cards (that I was aware of - out of 25 cards total in the game, of which 10 chosen randomly show up in any single game) would actually shut it down.

That's when I realized that for any given set of 10 action cards, the game was solvable. They caught the fun of Magic's metagame, but not a healthy fun season of the game. They caught the exasperation of combo winter, or the Mirrodin affinity era, when there was just one or two decks worth playing and games ended 20-0 on the third turn. Dominion's not quite that bad, but it's along those lines.

So that no one misunderstands me, I'll clarify that I'm not saying that Laboratory is the best card in the game. There's actually several one-card combos, and at least as many two-card combos, most of which are every bit as good as the Lab. I'm also not complaining that the game is essentially just multi-player solitaire. The combo potential appeals to me.

The problem is that the combos are too simple, and in many of the possible 10-deck set ups, there'll be one combo that's just undeniably better than the others. I thought with 10 different random stacks in each play, the game would keep up it's variety, and there'd be the fun of finding the combos. But the truth is, many of the best combos are self-evident. While it would take some actual plays to find the exact perfect balance for true mastery of the game, the analysis that was making my first two plays of it so much fun could actually be completely wrapped up and finished in 20 minutes of observing the card list. The distinctions between a Village, Laboratory, Market, Festival, etc, are just numeric - they can be mathematically ranked and valued without much effort. One will prove better than another, and will always (or nearly so) prove a better choice. The player who figures that out first will win.

Now, that would be okay if we were talking about Tournament Magic, playing for money (or bragging rights) against a large group of mostly strangers. In that environment, there's nothing wrong with keeping the "tech" of your analysis to yourself. Why tell this complete stranger how to be a better player if it means a higher chance of him walking away with the plane ticket and prize cards you came to the Tourney to win?

Since I'd be playing it with my wife and various friends instead, that's not really an option. I could keep the analysis to myself, and thus win nearly every game - which would only be fun for a short time, and only for me. Should someone else do a better analysis, but keep it "secret" while whupping me in game after game, I'd quickly grow resentful.

Alternately, I could share the analysis with my wife (and anone else I play against more than once) - but if so, the game becomes purely random. Not the good kind of purely random, either.

You see, most of the potential combo engine cards cost 5 copper. When the game starts, you have your own deck of 7 copper cards and 3 estate cards. The estates are useless (except as victory points), and your first two hands will be either one of 4 copper and one of 3 copper, or one of 5 copper and one of 2 copper. Of those, the second arrangement is far better - it let's you buy one of the really good combo pieces on the first or second turn, which sets you up virtually guaranteed to do so again on the third or fourth turn. If one player gets the 5/2 split and the others don't, he's almost certainly going to win.

The game lasts half an hour or so, but is decided by the random deal of your initial hand of 5 cards and a single strategic decision made in the first minute of the game (a decision that is mathematically solvable in the majority of plays). I suspect there'll be plenty of times where by turn 4 the winner is evident, but another 16 turns have to pass before it's official. That just doesn't sound like lasting fun to me.

A quick check of the geek reveals I'm not alone in this opinion - but anyone who passes judgment on the game at boardgame geek gets treated pretty harshly, and is told they judged it too soon, whether that's after 3 plays or 30. My dropping it after 2 plays (both of which I enjoyed) would raise some eyebrows there.

Monday, January 5, 2009

It's Like Pinball

I made another flash game at PlayCrafter (this is my third). It's a much shorter, simpler game than the other two. Basically, I just tried to create a pinball game within the constraints of what tools Playcrafter has. It's a bit sneakier (and more involved) than it looks at first blush - you can do a lot more to affect your score than the first two levels might lead you to believe.

As with my other PlayCrafter games: if you enjoy it, please click on the ads, since I could eventually accumulate some revenue from it. Thank you!

Friday, January 2, 2009

Hobbit Mafia and Blofeld's Cat

We'd all got sick and tired of being cooped-up and snowed-in, so when the weather turned nice for New Years Day, the Emerald City Game Feast group got together for TWO one-shots. Both were really top-notch.

The first scenario: Goodhobbits
Setting: Freeport (a published Fantasy / Pirate city)
System: Savage Worlds

This was a well-crafted mystery scenario. The PCs were corrupt (is there any alternative?) officers of the City Watch, and the "crime" we were investigating looked to be a death threat on the Sea Lord (Freeport's equivalent of Governor) from a legendary mafia-ring known as The Finger Of Baggins.

As I said, the adventure was well-crafted: there were multiple leads, and even the red herrings revealed information that helped figure out the big picture. There was enough clue/lead redundancy to prevent a couple bad Investigation or Notice rolls from miring us down. Crafting an RPG mystery scenario that plays anything like a Detective novel or film ain't easy, but John did a great job with it.

My Character: Smeagol Fairfoot, more corrupt than his fellow Watch-men, but with an honest face and good family reputation. I managed to ingratiate myself to two different mob bosses in one night, and came *this close* to making away with something like 10,000 illicit gold pieces I would have had to melt down (because they were marked with The Yellow Sign). Despite all my greed and corruption, I managed to come out looking clean (or at least unobtrusive and unthreatening) to my superiors on the City Watch.

Second Scenario: 007: The Teeth of Fenris
Setting: James Bond films
System: InSpectres (with modifications)
An aside: This is the third time I've played InSpectres, but since every time the games suggested scene structure has been abandoned, so I still don't know how vanilla InSpectres plays. From the reviews I've read, the suggested structure is dynamite. Man, am I ever looking forward to playing it with the default rules sometime.
That said, Peter did an awesome job with the game. He diverted from the suggested format, but did so in a clever and unique way. The players weren't working together, we were at cross-purposes. Two PCs were members of MI-6. Three PCs were villains (and encouraged to backstab each other repeatedly). The last PC was a Mexican Intelligence agent - he was ostensibly allied with MI-6, but had secondary goals that conflicted with them. Bond was a communal NPC - anyone could narrate his actions, as long as they were in-character. The villains would narrate him falling in to our traps, and the heroes would narrate his escapes. Very cool.

The two sides had seperate franchise dice and resource pools. Rather than having a total we were all working towards to resolve the whole story, each scene had a (much smaller) franchise dice goal. Which ever side hit that total first got to narrate the conclusion of the scene as they wished. This worked beautifully - the villains won every scene except the last one of the night. That meant that the plot just continually thickened and got more dire, but Bond triumphed in the end despite phenomenal odds. Beautiful. One of the most genuinely cinematic RPG scenarios I've ever played in.

My Character: Sugar, the cat owned (and pampered) by Ernst Stavro Blofeld. That meant I got to narrate all of arch-villain Blofeld's actions, but had to frame them all as things he did to make his cat happy. Blofeld himself wasn't my character (per se), so I refrained from putting words in his mouth, but I made sure all his computers were touch-screens (so I could brush up against them to initiate or deactivate the automated defenses), and my litterbox was placed in the room Bond was most likely to infiltrate. It was fun.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Possibly the best flash game ever made

(No, it's not one of mine. What kind of self-absorbed pompous egotistical windbag do you think I am?)

It's called Gemcraft, available at Armor Games and Game In A Bottle. This holiday vacation, while mostly snowed in, Sarah and I played it's entire run. We won 168 battles, killing a total of 45,336 monsters. The game was good enough to spend all those hours. ...and it's even free.

It's kinda like the various Tower defense games, but spruced up with:
  • something very reminiscent of the gem and socket system of Diablo II,
  • a skill-point and experience system,
  • a compelling story and a cool ending,
  • deeper strategic decisions then most of the Tower Defense games,
  • 48 tactical battlefields to fight over across the strategic map,
This highly addictive and satisfying game kicks some serious booty. Each individual level is 5 to 30 minutes, so you can cram in a quick battle between other diversions.

The only complaint I have is a minor thematic/flavor complaint: why do the monsters respect and obey traffic laws? (The answer, of course, is that they do so because it makes for better game play, but it's still a little goofy.)