Monday, December 28, 2009

Advanced A Touch Of Evil

I played several more games of A Touch Of Evil over the recent holiday. We broke out the advanced rules and added them in.

With all those Advanced Abilities on the villain, I thought for sure it was going to boost up the difficulty a lot. To my surprise, we're still winning the cooperative game just as often as we had been when using the basic rules instead of advanced. The villain's Advanced Abilities are basically watered down by the additional Secrets cards, that make treachery less likely.
In fact, we've only lost the game twice total, once to the scarecrow on Basic, and once to the Dellion Dryad (a "web extra" downloadable villain) on Advanced. That's out of more than a dozen plays. We've had a few close scrapes, but as long as you get to the showdown, it seems the PCs are almost certain to win out in a cooperative game. The villains just aren't as powerful as you imagine them to be. We've decided, starting with our next play, to start using the Optional Showdown Chart to spice it up and add to the difficulty. I'm really glad they provided that chart, because as you get better at the game, it needs a little boost to the tension.
Now that we've transitioned to the Advanced rules, I'm really glad we're playing the cooperative version. If not, I think my opinion of the game may have suffered when we hit Advanced.

In particular, the new Secrets cards have an annoying amount of "gray area". I'm specifically talking about "Hero of the People" and "On The Hunt". In our most recent game, the Lair was in the Fields. Those two secrets cards had assigned one town elder to the PC who was about to encounter the Lair, and another town elder to the Fields space. Both those cards allow the PC to use the town elder's stats in interesting ways. Problem is, neither the cards, nor the rules, nor the FAQ at the manufacturer's website, explain if those interesting abilities apply during a Showdown or not. They also don't indicate whether the elder being with you or at the site of the Lair includes them in the Showdown / Hunting Party, and whether or not you can still bring along other elders in the Hunting Party.

Since it was a cooperative game, this was no big deal, we made a ruling based on objective play balance and variety of play experience. But if we'd been playing competitively, this would have been ugly. In this specific situation, how you interpret it would mean the difference between the PC having +2 dice or +9 dice on the fight, whether the villain split his dice between 3 targets or 5, and whether or not we had to take our chances on revealing the secrets of 2 more town elders. That compiled list of differences is pretty huge, and I could see where that would result in an otherwise enjoyable game ending in a rules argument. Glad we dodged that bullet.

Similarly, we also had a situation in another recent game where a card had resulted in a town elder having 2 secrets. When they were revealed later, that one elder had both "Hero of the People" and "On the Hunt". There were no clear rules in the game to dictate which card takes precedence, and whether the elder ends up in a space or attached to a player. Hopefully, Flying Frog will issue some errata or clarifications about those two cards.

Sherlock's Combat Monologues - in Gumshoe

Yesterday my wife and I saw the new Sherlock Holmes movie, and I have some ideas of how to use parts of it in the Gumshoe RPG System. What I liked most about the movie was the clever way they converted Holmes from "merely" a cerebral character to an action hero, without losing any of his genius along the way. He has these awesome internal monologues where he figures out the badguy's weaknesses and how best to fight them. He's no slouch in the Physical Attribute arena, but it's clearly his Mental Attributes that win the fights for him.

As I was watching it, I kept thinking how easy it would be to work some of that in to Gumshoe, the system used in Esoterrorists and Trail of Cthulhu.

In the Gumshoe system, one could argue that attacks, particularly gunfire, aren't quite as damaging as they could (or should) be. Your typical character can take a gunshot or stab wound and be just fine. That's great if you're running a cinematic adventure game, but most of the rest of Gumshoe is geared towards bookish investigator types and gritty realism. So, a method of situationally boosting your combat effectiveness might not be a bad thing. Putting in a Holmes-inspired system is overall pretty simple and elegant.

Here's how it works: For each NPC, the GM comes up with 1 or 2 weaknesses, and the corresponding skills that could be used to ferret them out. In the film, you might argue that Holmes only used Medicine for this (or only used Evidence Collection, depending on your point of view), but for a campaign it'd be important to spread it around so that no single Investigative Skill suddenly becomes a combat powerhouse.

For these weaknesses, the GM assigns one of the following opportunities:
  • The weakness represents a way to incapacitate, or more severely harm the NPC. On a successful hit, you may make an appropriate skill spend to get +2 damage.
    Example: A //Use// of the Medicine skill reveals that the foe has a trick knee. If you hit the foe, you may immediately //Spend// a point of Medicine, Scuffling or Weapons to further injure the knee. If you do, you deal an extra 2 points of damage.
  • The weakness represents a whole in the NPC's defenses. If you //Spend// a point of an appropriate skill while attacking, it provides a +2 bonus to hit.
    Example: A //Use// of the Outdoorsman Skill allows you to recognize the specific camouflage pattern the sniper is wearing. Armed with that knowledge, it's easier to tell him from the background as you return fire. When shooting you may now spend a point of either Outdoorsman or Sense Trouble on each shot, and if you do you get +2 to the attack roll.
  • The weakness represents a limitation to the NPC's attack capability. An appropriate //Spend// can increase your own Hit Threshold, versus their attacks only, by 2. Whenever you do this, the affect lasts until your next action, and if you wish to maintain it beyond you must continue to pay Spend points.
    Example: A //Use// of Weapons has revealed the weakness of his fighting style. He over-relies on a handful of moves, and always telegraphs his attacks. You may //Spend// Weapons or Athletics to boost your Hit Threshold to 5 against his next melee attack.
Of course, you'd need the plot or situations suggest to the PCs that using skills to size up the opponent is a good idea. In the first of my examples, you might narrate a slight limp when the character walks. In the last example, you might have part of the investigation take place at a dojo or gym, and the PCs arrive while the NPC is sparring with someone.

If the GM is feeling adventurous, and really trusts the players, you could also do this more free-form. Allow the above abilities to be something the PCs can invoke with their spends, and in fact make up on the spot, at any time. Just say to your players: "At any time you can spend a skill point to create a weakness in any NPC that doesn't already have one. Spend an appropriate skill, narrate in the NPCs flaw, and it becomes part of the character." There's some potential for abuse there, in that a player could build their PC in a very min-maxed way and then always give every foe a flaw that can be exploited with their one particular maxed-out skill. If you think that's likely to happen with your group, then fall back on the first system I described, where only the GM defines the weaknesses.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Teeming With Life mod, version 1.4

I just posted a new version (v1.4) of my "Teeming With Life" mod for Weird Worlds: Return to Infinite Space.

Download the new version here.

I'm much happier with the look of the mod now, but I still really need to go tweak the amoeba-ships. Getting those to the level I want may take some time.

Cyberpunk F#

Last night I ran a sequel to the old Cyberpunk "MOC" campaign, using F# instead of the clunky old rules for CP2020. I really like F#, it scores highly in the flexibility, elegance, and collaborative story-telling arenas.

Tone and Themes:
The setting aspects were:
  • "Dark Comedy" would be the prevailing theme.
  • Cold, harsh world where life ain't fair, the rich abuse the poor, and cybernetics is cheap and dirty.
  • The PCs are crazy enough, or desperate enough, to join a gang that indulges in random mayhem.
It was a lot of fun, but didn't quite capture the feeling of the old campaign. I think that is because the GM doesn't have any real fangs in F#. The GM can give out negative aspects as a form of damage, but the rules strongly encourage only doing that once per session per PC, and you really can't kill off a PC at all. There's no fear of death, which for many settings is actually a good thing, but probably isn't in keeping with the tone of Cyberpunk. In the old campaign, when the big fight broke out at the end, the PCs would have run and probably scattered - heroism in CP2020 gets you killed. Instead, the PCs stood toe-to-toe with the badguys, and there was nothing I could do to really make them sweat. They had fun, and got to be courageous, so perhaps I shouldn't complain.

Plot, such as there was:
Despite that tonal difference, the game was a lot of fun. The PCs were loser punks in a bizarre little gang that gets together for random mayhem rolled up on Morton's List. The List told them that this week's adventure would be to commit a major act of vandalism in another gang's territory. There were hijinks (involving the night city transit authority officers) on the bus-ride into enemy territory, a dead body in the park-and-ride, and then a big gang-vs-gang conflict at the soup kitchen.

The enemy gang was the Kennedy's Posergang. They faced off against cybernetically-enhanced duplicates of JFK, RFK, MLK, Jackie O (in pink), old Teddy Kennedy and Mayor Quimby. Okay, Quimby I probably never would have done in straight-up CP2020, but the improvisational nature of these light systems just takes me over the edge.

JFK had retractable head armor that (once deployed) was described as dinged up and chipped such that you could tell people liked to play Oswald on him. He was the gang leader, and eventually unleashed a very anime-style attack, where he shouted "CUBAN MISSILE CRISIS!" and launched a dozen micro-missiles. Jackie O had souped up Cyberlegs and did a ballerina attack. The "Vote Quimby" sash had a built-in monowire. Teddy's weight problem was actually enhanced Skin Weave. Etc. Governor Connolly was driving the get-away convertible. It was pretty stupid, but quite enjoyable at the time.

Character Sheets:
F# gives PCs 6 Aspects, which I've found is probably more than you need. Most PCs end up with some that overlap, and since Aspects don't stack, there's not much benefit to be gained with it. I tried to mitigate this a bit, by restricting the Aspects into categories to encourage diversity on each PC. It also let me ensure all the PCs were properly CyberPunk. The blank character sheet looked something like this:

+2This space left blank for the player to fill in. Useful piece of cyberware, cool gadget, or bio-implant.
+2This space left blank for the player to fill in. Bizarre useless cyberware, or just something that defines the look of your character.
+1This space left blank for the player to fill in. What type of hoodlum, criminal, ganger or loser are you?
+1This space left blank for the player to fill in. Other background element or character backstory
+1This space left blank for the player to fill in. Catch phrase
+1This space left blank for the player to fill in. Your choice, this can be anything.

Most characters had one major piece of cybergear, some managed to squeak a second out of the bizarre / fashion category, and everyone had the option of using the last category for one more major tech bit if they wanted.

Arkham Horror meets Brotherhood of the Wolf

Arkham Horror meets Brotherhood of the Wolf, only a lot less fiddly and complicated than that implies. That's how to best describe "A Touch Of Evil", a relatively new boardgame from Flying Frog Productions. The plot is very reminiscent of Brother of the Wolf, complete with muskets, tri-corner hats, an evil monster, and conspiratorial noblemen. The main game comes with four big villains - vampire, werewolf, headless horseman, and evil scarecrow - each with it's own minions and events to shape the play experience of that particular session.

It's got all the flavor of a game like Arkham Horror, without the maze of rules to wade through. The turns play out faster, and there are fewer counter-intuitive rules ripples to have to sort out. It's got the same "build up your character so you can defeat the big bad" dynamic of Runebound or Talisman or Arkham, but without the 3+ hour play time that those games demand. It's got scenario variety, unlike Arkham Horror where every big bad uses the same chaotic pool of events. A Touch of Evil doesn't feature as much as scenario variety as Betrayal At House On The Hill, but then it doesn't suffer from Betrayal's completely random balance issues either.

Overall, A Touch Of Evil is a triumph of storytelling in a boardgame. Despite having lighter rules than the aforementioned games, it's got more flavor, and tells a better story. As much as I love Arkham, it's such a chaotic mess of monsters and gates that there's rarely a coherent story out of it, and Allies are mechanically indistinguishable from Guns or Skills. Not so in A Touch of Evil, where the "NPCs" have secrets, different from session to session, which you must ferret out lest they stab you in the back. Will the Reverend be a stalwart ally, a craven coward, a book-burning demagogue, or a traitorous pawn of evil? That varies from game to game, and has a lot more impact than just being "+2 vs Vampires".

The game has Competitive, Cooperative, and Team options, depending on the play style you and your group prefers. Team up to defeat the monster, or seek to impede the others and get all the glory for yourself.

Have I mentioned that I really like the game? 'Cause I do. The gameplay is sweet.

It is not, however, completely without flaws. So far I've found three, none of which is major. Here's the problem areas, and how we dealt with them in the two games we've played so far:
  1. Tide of Darkness: This Mystery Card can be interpreted in one of two ways. Either you place one monster in 1 space, and some investigation points in three spaces; or they might mean you place both a monster and investigation points in each of three spaces. We were playing the cooperative game, and wanted the bigger challenge, so we placed three monsters. It worked well, but that interpretation seems like it would be a very swingy card in competitive play, shutting off half the board to the player(s) who were already behind in the arms race.
  2. Muskets: There's no rule stopping you from using 2 muskets at once. Setting this up is relatively difficult (much easier in cooperative than competitive play), but seems cheesy. It'd be easy to house-rule this for the sake of reality, but the absence of fiddly corner-case rules about item stacking is part of what makes A Touch Of Evil so much more elegant than Arkham and it's ilk. Since the musket bonus isn't huge, we chose to just hand-wave it and assume the die bonus didn't represent actually shooting, so much as the fact that you were equipped and ready to take a second shot if the opportunity presented itself. The first musket's bonus is the potential damage of a gun shot. The second musket's bonus represents the reduced psychological pressure of knowing you aren't screwed if your first shot misses.
  3. Lair Cards: You can only have one Lair Card, which makes sense, since it represents tracking the Villain to their den of evil. But there's this unfortunate sentence in the rule book that heavily implies you can buy another lair card and discard whichever is worse. Late in the game, the Lair Cards are cheap. In our second game, Sarah discarded about 6 Lair Cards in one turn. Nothing in the rules stopped it, but it felt lame. If swapping Lairs is that simple, you'd never use the more harrowing lairs, at least not in Cooperative play, because someone will always have the spare Investigation points to keep discarding till you get an easy Lair. So we house-ruled this for all future sessions: you can't buy a second lair card, but can still get a second one via the particular Event that gives you a free Lair, which shouldn't come up too often.
If you like flavorful, story-driven boardgames like Arkham Horror, Runebound, or Betrayal at House on the Hill, you should check out A Touch Of Evil. I don't know just yet if it has as much replayability as those games ('cause I've only played it twice), but it's faster and more approachable, which is a huge plus. It strikes me as being the best of the bunch thus far.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Return to Infinite Modding

My favorite video game is once again Weird Worlds: Return To Infinite Space, the game that lets you explore an entire galaxy on your lunch break.

For nearly a year I couldn't play it. My old computer died, and I'd somehow failed to backup my download of it.

A couple weeks ago, I got the game again. So! Much! Fun! I'm left wondering why I didn't rush out and buy a new copy the second I lost the old one.

And, of course, I immediately felt the desire to mod welling up inside me. Feeling the creative urge...

I very quickly released a new version (v 1.3) of my old "Teeming With Life" mod. No real new content, but several bug fixes. It's amazing how problems and solutions stand out so clearly after taking a year off from something. Download Link

I followed that up with a quick and dirty little mod called "Tech Transparency". It's significantly less ambitious than my other mods (and you can tell by the generic text-only banner).

After a year off, I just found I no longer knew which weapons and items were worth the trouble, and which ones were total junk. I realized it'd be a simple task to make a mod that displays all the relevant game data in the pop-up-window for each item. If I was going to make such a tool for myself, I might as well make it available for others, and thus Tech Transparency was born. Download Link

Now, some would say this mod is almost against the spirit of the game. Weird Worlds is all about style and mystery, not comparing game stats to maximize your efficiency. Those folks are right, but they have the main game and plenty of other mods they can enjoy. I will admit the mod certainly lost some of the cleverness of the original game, even a few of the sci-fi in-jokes had to be cut for space reasons, but I think it's worth it to figure out which three-coin beams are worth installing, and which ones are just trade-bait.

Does this mean I'll return to full-blown modding? I don't know. Those were both easy to implement, and took just a couple of hours. I've got plenty of ideas for mods, but the loss of my Weirdyssey mod before it could even be released was pretty heart-breaking. I'd put way too many hours into that thing, and never got to show it off. Not sure I'll try anything that extreme again, especially considering how dead the WW:RTIS modding community is. I'd love to see the mod forums become active again, but that seems unlikely. Then again, I wasn't playing for a year, so maybe some of the other prolific modders will return, too. It's hard to mod with your fingers crossed. :)

Friday, December 11, 2009

Now with less Pirates!

Yesterday, about 5 hours before my weekly one-shot group got together, we all realized no one had volunteered to GM that day. Throwing out ideas quickly, I said "I could run pirate-themed wushu."

My day was a little busy, so I didn't have much time to prepare. I didn't think it'd be a problem, because I'd written a little 7th Sea / Wushu hybrid adventure several months back. Or so I thought. I hunted and couldn't find it in my notebook, on my computer, or on my blog. Luckily, it was wushu, so I didn't worry. I figured I'd just put the PCs on a ship, have pirates attack, and improvise from there.

I spent the rest of my limited prep time grabbing some props. I grabbed a few painted minis from roughly the right era (there's not nearly as many pirate minis out there as you might expect), and a few of the little Pirates of the Spanish Main ships. Wushu isn't the sort of game where minis are needed, but I wanted them on-hand in case it was ever unclear where things were.

I also brought a gaudy piece of costume jewelry from one of my wife's old halloween costumes. The pirates would attack to get this family heirloom of one of the PCs. I figured the large amber-colored glass "gem" in the middle of it could be a lens for reading the hidden code on a treasure map or something. PCs have tons of narrative power in Wushu, so I didn't really want to plan out too much.

During character creation, it was bandied about that the PCs might be Pirates, so while they hashed that out, I started thinking that I'd need to jazz up the game a bit. I decided the villains would be creepy supernatural pirates, so that even if the PCs chose to be pirates I'd still be able to have an evil villain. I mentioned that I'd nearly run 7th Sea, and that I'd be okay with PCs having magic, as long as it was flavorful magic.

The PCs ended up not being pirates afterall*, but by then I was already excited about the potential of my supernatural baddies. I didn't want to just go with skeleton/zombie pirates - that's too mundane. So I decided to fixate on the term "crow's nest". I decided the villains were evil crows that pluck out men's eyes. It was sort of a riff on vampirism - if your eyes were plucked out, you became an evil pirate who could turn into a murder of crows. Your pirate form would be blind, because it had no eyes, but being able to turn into big flock of birds had some fun possibilities.

Shortly into the session, I had the Crow's vessel appear on the horizon and start chasing them. I said it was a chase scene, and treated it like Mooks. PCs could take actions to sail off or fight, and either would reduce the Threat Rating. I expected more of a chase, but it turned into a fight, which was fine by me. When a player eliminated the last of the Threat Rating, she narrated that the Crow ship was on fire and burning and turned away, but two more ships were now on the horizon.

There was a groan across the table. No one veto'd, but it was clear that 3 out of 4 players had had enough ship-to-ship combat for the moment, and weren't looking forward to fighting two more boats. Since no one reacted in-character, I took the reigns and identified the two new ships as English pirate-hunters who'd been chasing the Crow-pirates. To apply a bit of foreshadowing or tension or whatever, I had the pirate-hunters say the Crow-pirates had hit several ports, every place the PCs ship had stopped to resupply in the past two months of voyaging. Players instantly made the connection that the Pirates had been chasing them for a long time, and I think that everyone had figured out (at least out-of-character) it had something to do with the gaudy jewelry prop.

Around this time, one of the PCs narrated the "land ho!" They moored at an unexplored island for a day or so to make repairs to the ship.

One of the PCs had a fancy (almost steam-punk) spyglass he'd been using, and had "Student of the Sciences" as one of his traits, so I told him he could see an ancient temple in the jungle. I was picturing some stone ziggurat or aztec-y temple, but my actual description was foolishly vague. Next thing I know, the PCs had described it's a Greek Temple, meaning that the Classical Ancients were actually a world-wide power. Thanks to wushu's Principle of Narrative Truth, that's what it was. I could work with that, it was an idea with merit.

The PCs narrated they started hacking at the underbrush, cutting a path to the Greek Temple. So I improvised wildly. The underbrush was populated by Dryads, who were being harmed by the chopping. So one cries out in Greek "Father, avenge us against those who butcher us!" That's when Pan (or at least a Satyr) shows up. It ended up being a pretty cool fight, but kinda weird. The PCs were against a Satyr, Dryads, animated trees, and the tropical flying squirrels that Pan's pipes had whipped up into a frenzy. At an opportune moment I had the Satyr point at the gaudy family heirloom (with it's huge amber gemstone) one PC was wearing, and shout out "They have the Eye of Demeter!"

As that fight was winding down, one of the PCs narrates that the Crows are flying in again. Unfortunately, on the Satyr's last action, he and one of the other PCs killed each other. I'm now down one PC, with an hour left in the one shot, and no convenient place for a new PC to come from. So, I have the crows land and pluck the eyes from the PCs corpse. He arises as a blind Crow-pirate, but not yet turned evil. There's some negotiation, and the Crows decide not to attack the PCs this time. They explain to the newly "crowed" PC that they're trying to get the Eye of Demeter, because only it can open the temple, where the Golden Fleece is contained. Only the Fleece can return their humanity.

The PCs head up to the temple, and rather than being locked in some way, they describe it as pretty airy and open, but there's a statue of a goddess with one amber eye and one empty eyesocket. Rather than insert the family heirloom into the statue, though, one of the PCs steals the other eye!

Desecrating a statue in a temple on a heavily-supernatural island seems pretty crazy to me, and needed to have consequences. I'd said Eye of Demeter on a improvisational lark, but sadly Demeter is a Goddesses I don't know jack about. Rather than worry about that, I just decide it's an older pre-myceanean form of Demeter lost to the mists of history. So the goddess that shows up is a naked-breasted snake-wielding bull-dancing Minoan goddess. That seemed to be historical enough for people to grok it, but unusually cool enough no one would quibble over cultural accuracy.

We were running short on time, so the battle was perhaps not as epic as I would have liked. Devon was playing the youngest of the PCs. Her character was a teenage urchin boy, who'd never seen a topless woman before. So instead of helping fight the Goddess, Devon's character tried to placate her. The urchin stole the family heirloom from the other PCs and gave it to the Goddess. She said "It's been centuries since the villagers gave me a virgin sacrifice," and that was pretty much that. Fade to black.

I'd gone in expecting a pirate story, perhaps with some minor supernatural elements, and instead ended up with high-fantasy alternate history in which pirates were only a very minor background theme. We didn't really use the minis (ships or people) at all, either. So nothing at all like I'd planned, yet it was a lot of fun.

*: Well, most of the PCs weren't pirates, anyway. Erik's PC, semi-retired, drubbed-out-of-the-navy "Uncle Evilbeard" was pretty piratical. I should add that "Uncle Evilbeard" is probably the coolest character name I've heard in a long time. It captured the heart of his character perfectly, and defined the tone of the game more than any other detail in the initial set-up. Well done, Erik!

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Fantasy Companion Bullets

More than a month ago, I picked up the Savage Worlds Fantasy Companion, and recently used elements from several chapters for my thanksgiving gaming, so I'm pretty familiar with the book now.

Here's my point-by-point observations about the Fantasy Companion -- and apparently, I have a lot to say about it:
  • It's a good book, and you'll be happy with it, provided you understand how it came to be. It's compiled from several pdfs the company had released previously. As a result, sometimes the 4th chapter doesn't know what the 3rd chapter is doing, and vice-versa. If they'd integrated these documents better, it would have been a far more cohesive and immediately useful book. If you already have the pdfs, the print version doesn't add anything. I only had one of the PDFs, so I found the book well worth the money.

  • At first glance, it would seem races in Savage Worlds are far less fiddly than in D&D. A Savage Dwarf, for example, is elegant and entirely unlike the complicated package of racial bonuses seen in just about any edition of D&D.

  • Then you get to the Saurian and Rakashan races, which have no direct D&D analog, and for whatever reason they are significantly more complicated. It's an odd choice to simplify elves and dwarves so much, but make the new races very crunchy. I suspect there's some sort of copyright issue at work - if they'd duplicated all those dwarf bonuses from D&D, it could have been lawsuit bait.

  • I'm skeptical of the ability of the "Racial Enemy" flaw as a way of balancing the Rakashan race. They already have -4 to Charisma from one of the other flaws, and that -4 is pretty heavy. You'd never dream of building a Rakashan Diplomat PC, for example. Instead, they'll certainly be the parties muscle. So, then piling -4 to Charisma vs Saurians as an additional modifier is dubious. You're already talking about a character who desperately wants to avoid social rolls, so giving him an extra social roll penalty against 1 specific race feels kinda munchkiny to me.

  • I also don't like that that results in a situation where you can't just add one of the these two new races to the game, you have to add both or come up with some other major flaw to balance them out.

  • At least they follow that up with a really good system for creating your own races. That system is very sweat, and a GM's dream.
  • I kind of feel like Troubadour should be it's own Arcane Background, and not a second Edge. The little bit of cash you can make out of it doesn't really justify having to take a Major Hindrance to afford the second Edge to go with your Arcane Background (Miracles).

  • The list of possible Familiars is a little extreme. I'm not sure how I feel about a PC having a Rhino or Great White Shark as a familiar. It definitely out-performs the Beast Master edge from the main book, even before you start adding in the powers a Familiar can give you.

  • For that matter, this Familiar edge suffers from a similar problem to that which plagues the Shape Change power in the main book. For either the edge or the power, your choice as a starting character is between hawk, rabbit, or cat (or snake as a 4th option for familiar). Both provide reasons why the GM would need stats for those three animals - as they result in the PCs stats being increased if the creature chosen would naturally have higher stats. Problem is, hawks cats and rabbits aren't given stats in either book. How do I know if my rabbit familiar/form has higher agility than the d6 my PC started with?

  • I wish the Assassin edge had defined "unawares". The +2 bonus it gives is certainly not as devastating as the backstab in D&D that it's emulating, so it's hard to judge how hard it should be to earn the bonus. I could see some GMs interpret this to mean the bonus is only in cases where the Assassin had The Drop on a foe, whereas others would allow it to work with a mid-combat stealth roll, and my own inclinations would be to allow it vs Tricked or Shaken characters.

  • The gear section is pretty good, I especially love how they handled Studded Leather. I'd been thinking there was no good solution, because the main rules had truncated all armor down to a 3-point scale, but they found a way that works for me. Bravo.

  • The gear list includes both Hunting Dog and War Dog, at different prices. Seeing as how there's only one set of Dog stats in the rules, I wish they'd explained the difference.

  • Love the expanded siege rules. If I ever run a major war plotline, these will see serious use.

  • While I like the Deific Templates for Cleric-types, I was puzzled by the spell lists.
    Example: Bolt is Savage World's premiere attack spell, the equivalent of Magic Missile in D&D. So which of the following clerics should have access to it: A cleric of the Goddess of Healing, a cleric of the God of the Sea, or a cleric of the God of War? As it turns out, it's on the spell list for all three. Other oddities show up, like Burrow on the spell list for the God of the Sun.
    As mentioned above, the book was assembled from several small PDF releases, and this magic section is where that starts to show. If they'd actually used any of the spells from this book on their spell list for clerics, they could have made lists that had less overlap and strangeness. Instead, that work is left for the GM to do.

  • The section on Spell Trappings is certainly desired, but could have been better with more concrete advice and another editing pass. It was full of examples, but no actual guidance on how to balance those examples. No attempts were made to explain how much of an advantage was worth costing one more spell point, for example. If they'd given the trappings system the same treatment they gave the race-building system, the results would be more useful.

  • The expanded Grimoire has some very good spells in it, but also a lot of filler that seems to be redundant, especially given the trappings system that immediately proceeds it. Several of the new attack spells could have just been an old spell with a trapping tacked on.

  • I mostly like the Magic Item system. It's something the game really needed, and I'm a-ok with being a large section of the book. There were plenty of ideas contained within, and it has a pricing system that I found very helpful for my campaign.

  • However, the pieced-together nature of the book is again obvious. You can roll up a scroll with any of the spells from the main book, but not with any of the new spells introduced in the previous chapter. I find that very annoying.

  • Not sure having Minor Artifacts have their own pool of power points is a good design decision if your mantra is "Fast! Furious! Fun!" If a PC already has his own pool of 10-20 power points, I'm a little apprehensive about separately tracking the power points available to each of his two wands. Speaking of which, some of the wand descriptions are missing any indication of how many power points they should have, and only list how many points the effects use.

  • Loved the Tomes entry, and would have liked to see it expanded on. It's a great fix for one thing I consider a minor problem of the core rules. Savage Worlds is pretty much unique in gaming in that wizards actually lag behind fighters in the late campaign. Tomes give the GM a way to fine-tune and course-correct the wizard power level over time, so I'm very much in favor of them.

  • Moving on to the monsters section, I'm impressed. There's far more than 100 monsters here, including equivalents to many of the staple monsters from D&D that you're likely to have distinctive miniatures of.

  • My only real complaint about the monster section is the fact that again they've neglected to include any sort of rating system for the monsters. I understand that the authors of Savage Worlds prefer the sandbox feel where the PCs can sometimes pick fights they can't win. I'm okay with that. But as a GM, I'd like to know when this is happening before half the party dies. And yes, given the unstructured nature of the experience / level-up system, it's hard to say what "level" of characters are a good match for a particular monster. But what's not hard, when you're making monsters, is to put them into 3 or 4 categories based on relative power. Would it really have been that big a chore for them to do so? Or to just include a short list of the dozen weakest monsters, so the GM doesn't have to scan over 150 creature entries trying to find something appropriate for his first session of the new campaign?
Overall, I'm glad I bought the book, and feel I got my money's worth last week.

My biggest complaint with the book is the one I made again and again above. It feels like a tacked-together collection of other documents, and not a coherent whole. That's a natural outgrowth of how the book came to be, but I really wish they'd spent some editing efforts integrating the parts better.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Chronic Spanning-Related Achronal Nascency Syndrome

When I converted Continuum to Gumshoe, I wanted to include rules for flaws / hindrances / limits. Whatever you want to call them, I tend to like the things, as they allow for some differentiation of the characters. Gumshoe has nothing like it, so I had to invent a system whole-cloth.
An armless aside: Continuum had a Limits system, but it wasn't much to my liking. All the flaws were of equal value, and you rolled up the specific flaw at random. I was always stunned by the notion that you take a flaw for 2 extra character points for some Firearms or Athletics skill, and then have a 2% chance of rolling up "no arms". I mean really, no arms? As a random flaw on a character you're already committed to play and have finalized all other details of? I find myself having to check the cover of the rulebook. It is Continuum, even if this chart seems borrowed from Hackmaster.
So I made a very open-ended flaw system. Everyone must create one flaw for their character, and may choose a second flaw if they'd like. The mandatory flaw starts rated at a "1", and if you'd like a few extra points, either flaw may be raised as high as "3".
Numerical Values, and how the flaws work: The number value corresponds to roughly how often it will come up in the game. At the time, I'd been expecting 4 hour sessions, and the idea that a really bad flaw might sometimes bite you 3 times in 4 hours seemed believable. I now know we're running fairly tight 3-hour sessions, and the most I've activated someones flaw was twice in one session - and that just once out of 4 or 5 sessions we've been running now.

The idea was supposed to be that I'd activate the PCs flaw, and they'd have to roleplay it or pay several points of something to overcome it. If you had taken "kleptomaniac" as your flaw, and the GM activated it, you'd either have to try to steal the obvious trinket, or pay a few points of Stability to fight off the impulse. I was trying to recreate something that felt a bit like the Hubris system in 7th Sea, with some back-and-forth mechanics manipulation by pPlayer and GM alike.

So far, because of my awesome group, every instance the person has chosen to just play it out and give in to their flaws. I'm a little worried that by the time a situation comes up where someone wants to resist their flaw, they'll have forgotten it's even an option.
The point of all this rambling is that one of the players came up with this crazy notion that her character would have a flaw that was inspired by the movie The Time Traveller's Wife. Her character hasn't mastered how to span,
Spanning, for those not familiar with Continuum, is the art of time-travel and teleportation. All PCs can blip through time and space more-or-less casually.
and instead ends up at the desired place and time, but naked and suffering from temporary amnesia. I almost veto'd this flaw. It flies in the face of some major aspects of the setting - that the Spanning tech is second nature to the PCs, and that exposure of time-travel to the ignorant masses is a big no-no. The player in question is a great role-player, however, and was no doubt going to be an asset to the game, so, with some trepidation I said yes.

And thus was born Chronic Spanning-Related Achronal Nascency Syndrome. It's a rare disorder, and a flaw that plays with the definition of what spanning is. Are you really the same person you were before you teleported? If all your cells ceased to exist, and then were rebuilt somewhere, somewhen else, would you still be the same person? In some sense, one could argue that a spanner is reborn everytime they span, and her character's flaw is evidence in support of that argument. The true definitions of "self" and "birth" are something the Midwives, Physicians, and Thespians could debate in some cloistered Corner somewhere, so in that way it fits the setting.

It has resulted in a slower start to the campaign than I'd envisioned. My plan was to zip through Span One as quickly as the players could handle. Instead, everything's taken longer, because the PCs have to maneuver around the reality that one of them will end up naked and confused everytime they span somewhere. It's slow-going, but it's fun.

Catching up on a couple weeks

It's been pointed out to me that I haven't posted much here lately. Rest assured, this is a temporary development. We've been very busy. I started a new Continuum campaign within the past month, and we spent a week in Portland over Thanksgiving, for which I had to prepare a lot of Dungeons & Savages. So, all my hours where my wife isn't home have been spent prepping for games, instead of blogging about them. The hours when she is home, or rather the non-telework hours after she gets off work, have been spent re-watching 5 seasons of Lost so it's all fresh when we get into the final season that starts in about a month.

So, my apologies for this place being so slow, and hopefully that will change soon.