Monday, May 31, 2021

6 Games I'm Loving Right Now (and a runner-up that's probably working its way on to the list)

 Been keeping pretty busy lately. Running two RPGs on the regular, each meeting online every-other week. Also playing in two RPGs, also biweekly. And then cramming in board games, computer games, and even solitaire miniatures into my late evenings. Here's the seven games eating up the majority of my time:

1. Night's Black Agents has been ongoing for several years now, since 2017. Two sessions ago the PCs crashed a meeting of Renfields and a motorcycle gang all working for a vampiric cabal. They created a lot of chaos, got the gang fighting itself. They realized in the process that one of the biggest vampires (Count Orlok) is making some sort of move on the territory of one of his biggest vampiric rivals (the intel was a little vague as to whether his move is against Elizabeth Bathory, or Dracula). While all the feuding vampires are busy in Romania, there's an opportunity for the PCs to strike at one Orlok's properties that they'd identified in Munich. This will probably be the most dangerous target they've gone after, so I'll need to roll out the big guns for the next couple of sessions. What I love about NBA is the tools for building intricate investigative plots and complicated enemy organization charts. We're 5 years into a mystery/detective game that has occasionally had to skip sessions for two months at a time due to schedule conflicts, and yet the game still has momentum largely because of the tools the system provides to the GM and players. We were recently discussing the idea of taking the game back to face-to-face analog sessions, and realized that whatever we do, we absolutely want to keep the Roll20 Adversary Map even if we do start meeting back up in-person.

2. I'm also GMing an Amber Diceless Roleplay campaign. It's about 20 sessions in, despite my only getting around to posting the campaign logs here of the first 7 sessions so far. A huge backlog of material, but hard to summarize or talk about without spoiling upcoming plot surprises. Crazy colorful characters, byzantine multi-layered plots and schemes. The universe imperiled, as it often is in such games. Lots of fun. What I love about Amber is the narrative freedom. The story can go literally anywhere, riff on any pop culture icon or break new ground. The rules are so minimal that, as GM, I can spend all my energies on plotline and character, never having to spend even a minute thinking about whether an upcoming fight scene will be sufficiently challenging yet not roll over into a TPK if the dice fail. GMing Amber is pure creative joy.

3. I'm playing in an Unknown Armies game. What I love is 70% my GM's take on it, 20% the weirdness other players have injected, 10% the setting and game itself, and 0% the mechanics. I'm at best a little "meh" on the mechanics. I've written most of a lengthy analysis post about it, and keep not quite finishing it because I'm having trouble getting blogger to properly format my charts. Deep data number crunching has convinced me that the game would be much better if the PCs started with a little more numerical oomph out the gates. More on that if I ever get the charts working. I will say this, I'm digging the weirdness and open-ness of the setting, and what the participants of the game are doing with it. Our party/cabal of characters isn't making much progress on our goals just yet, but we're definitely chewing the scenery and finding it delicious. My character is a Chief Medical Examiner in her community, who keeps doing autopsies of people she thinks are her dopplegangers. That was part of my character introduction, and I told the GM that I was happy with however he wanted to interpret that. At this point, it seems to be that my character is from a parallel universe and is only just starting to figure that out, and that other parallel me's are also ending up in this reality. The GM even enlisted me to surreptitiously play one of my dopplegangers in a single scene, which the other players didn't see coming. They gave not-me a gun registered in one of the other PC's name, and just a ton of intel that we really didn't want the opposition to have. It felt kind of dirty, but the fallout from this bait-and-switch moment is shaping up to be narrative gold. What I love about Unknown Armies is definitely the GM's doing. I've been gaming with him for years, and this is definitely the best, most engaging, game I've seen him run. One of the best I've ever been player in, honestly.

4. Dungeons & Dragons, an oldie but a goodie. I'm running a once-or-twice-a-year D&D game for friends in other cities, but that hasn't had a session in a few months, so nothing new to report there. The other D&D game I'm in is biweekly game where the GM throws the challenge ratings out the window and doesn't pull his punches. It too is great fun, but it is really tense at the same time. It almost has a horror-game vibe in that every week I feel like my character is just about to die... but it's not using any horror tropes at all. It's mostly about politics, at least on paper, as the big-bads who keep sending assassin after us include a couple of Senators of a powerful city-state. The GM is pretty good at applying the thumb-screws.  What I love about this campaign is getting to navigate against the storm, to struggle onward in the face of insurmountable odds. Assuming it doesn't all end in a TPK, it's gonna feel like a hell of an accomplishment when we dethrone those baddies. 

And then I've been doing a bit of solitaire gaming in the background on free nights. 

5. I've played a fair chunk of Stellaris lately, which is a sci-fi-themed "4X" game. Basically you start with one world, and expand out into the galaxy. It's a pretty long run-time for each game, and only worth cracking open when you have an evening to set aside for it because you'll spend the first 45 minutes just refreshing yourself on the state you left your empire in last time. What I love about it is how much it has going on at once. Actual play is kinda slow and chill, but punctuated with "oh crap" moments when you get invaded, and interesting little event chains of events when your archaeologists start uncovering the ruins of ancient extinct civilizations. It's got a ton of different sci-fi tropes stirred in.

6. This weekend I dove back in to 5 Parsecs From Home. It's a solitaire miniatures game with emergent narrative structure. The third edition just came out, and I love the major upgrade to the look and feel of the game. What minis you use are up to you (or you can very easily run it in your favorite virtual table-top), as it has no official minis, so I'm mostly talking about how I love the visual upgrade to the rulebook. I'd played half a dozen sessions of the previous edition a year and a half ago. That edition was fun, but not much to look at. The new edition is a cooperation with Modiphius, and is a pretty slickly produced product. Could maybe use a better index, but the search function on the PDF is your friend. What I really love about the game is the freeform way a narrative emerges as you play the campaign mode. Last night, I found myself making intentionally bad decisions for the long-term success of my ship full of charming space rogues, because I felt it was what the characters would do. If a game that is mostly charts and die-rolls gets inside your head like that and inspires Firefly-esque drama, it's achieved something powerful.

7. And lastly, I'm playing an asynchronous game of Beyond The Sun on Board Game Arena, taking roughly a turn per day. The game is very interesting. I'm not quite going to say "I'm loving it" quite yet, but I'm intrigued, and it's growing on me. It's pretty novel, and was bordering on overwhelming at roughly the 5th turn of the game, but I'm starting to get the hang of it now. What I really like about this game is how the technology tree develops uniquely in each game, it's a pretty compelling little puzzle with a constantly changing solution. I suspect I'll want to play it again soon, and if it's one of those that gets better as you get more comfortable with the decision trees, it may well end up becoming a "I love it" recommendation.

So that's what I've been playing lately. How about you? Any games you'd endorse?

Wednesday, May 26, 2021

A Horse Of Another Timbre - Campaign Log: Session # 7

  The following is the campaign log for the seventh session of my current Amber Diceless RPG campaign, entitled A Horse Of Another Timbre. One of my players keeps a log of the scenes, and another maintains a quote list.  As usual, I have combined them with a few extra notes of my own after the fact.

You can also Start from Session #1 or just pick up at Session #6.

Campaign log: November 23, 2020: Session #7

Setting the Scene: Caine's ships continue to assemble out in the bay, raising the specter of war. The King has returned after saving the life of the the ambassador from Chaos, but is keeping her son in the dungeons. Medore had just seen a mysterious Black Unicorn, and chased it down a dimensional tunnel that opened up inside the castle where Maarit and Fiona were having dinner.

The PCs are:

  • Dalziel, son of Bleys of Amber. A scientist who has been in Amber for several months.
  • Maarit, daughter of Sand. An orphan with a magic pendulum.
  • Spinturnix, son of Julian. Grew up in Forest Arden.
  • Medore, nonbinary offspring of Dierdre
  • David Weyreth is a retired officer from the militaries of Amber.
  • Abn Haram, the human-shaped son of Lady Nykae of Chaos, and the long-dead Prince Osric of Amber 

Most of the NPCs are from the novels, such as Julian, Fiona, and Dworkin. 

One new character is "Margholo", who is a companion of Dworking. It's not a coincidence that her name is an anagram of hologram.  

Another is the Black Unicorn, which is much as the implies, a darkly-colored somewhat larger version of the mysterious living emblem of Amber.

Two characters from Chaos are mentioned below. One is Nykae of House Moen, the ambassador from Chaos, and mother of one of the PCs. The other Chaos character mentioned is her brother Severan.

 Scene 1: David's Pub-Crawl

David has watched the ships gather in the harbor, many around Caine's flag ship. David has learned a bit about Dalziel and Maarit: both have made a generally warm impression on the Amber public, though the public knows their lineage.

In a pub, he notices an veteran soldier who works down in the docks, who wears a full-face helmet all the time because he's horribly disfigured, he mentions "Julian's runt, someone Julian doesn't like."  He's veteran infantry, but the others around the bar shush him a bit; he continues in this way, trash talking Julian's "bookish" whelp, whom he calls "a sneaky little dink, and Shitternix."  

Elsewhere in town, David learns that the Chaos delegation has been arrested. He feeds and participates in the rumors. He leaves them seething.

David makes his way to the dungeons, where he discovers guards on heightened alert, noting down the names of all who come by. David reveals that he has "items belonging to the prisoners," and attempts to put the guards at ease. David asks after Niekye, but learns that Abn-Haram is the main prisoner being held; he proceeds down to visit, and follows the guard down the hall toward Haram.

Scene 2: Dalziel Finds the Primal Pattern

On a plateau in a wide open space, Dalziel finds the pattern, and notices a gust of uncomfortably warm air. He finds an enormous dragon curled up behind him, with one eye open and goat breath. As it sees Dalziel, it opens roughly twenty eyes. Dalziel bows and the dragon stretches, waking up. Dalziel tries introducing himself, name dropping King Random. The dragon sniffs strongly, then edges Dalziel away from the pattern a bit. He too looks about a bit, and the dragon answers with a low growl/rasp sound. Dalziel notices differences between Amber's forest and this one.

As Dalziel tries to climb up to get a better view of things, he hears a woman behind him say "hello there." She's wearing a white dress with greco-roman style white dress with black trim. Dalziel suggests he's her nephew, and she laughs. She says she's Margholo. She says she's impressed he got this far, that most people "stop one world back". She says she's taking "a short walk from her game, and invites Dalziel to 'meet him.' "

Margholo leads Dalziel down a mountain to a cave, where she says she'll introduce Dalziel to "him," who will be impressed and happy to meet him but also upset at having his concentration ruined. Inside the cave are signs of plenty of traffic, along with a large chain that could have been used to hold the dragon, maybe. In the heart of the cave is a little hunch-backed man sitting at a stone table (Dworkin), near a large pile of colorful stone playing pieces. He has a growth on the side of his face. Margholo reveals that Dalziel is the son of Bleys. The man asks what he's there for.

When Dalziel mentions the King, the man goes back to studying the board. Margolo seems to be giving some sort of signal to the man when he looks at her. The man molds his own face like it's clay and fixes his growth. He invites Dalziel to play a game, and suggests that the rules come from observing the universe. 

Here's what the board looks like:

  Dalziel guesses what some of the pieces are, and Dworkin does the same. In talking with Dalziel, Dworkin touches the white unicorn piece inadvertently and is forced to move it. Dalziel blames Margholo.

Scene 3: Medore and Maarit chase the Black Unicorn

As they chase the black unicorn, it encounters a white unicorn and flees. It turns out to be bleeding as it runs, and they're upset as they had already healed it.. While Maarit feels like she can get ahead of it, it eludes her and reveals that it has a very precise mental map of the castle. Medore realizes they have to decide whether to trap or release the black unicorn.

Maarit sends the guard who is following them after Medore to help the black unicorn. Medore goes outside and catches their breath, deciding to help the black unicorn escape rather than catch it or let the white unicorn catch it. The guard is amazed to have seen the unicorns.

Scene 4: Nix's Pub-Crawl

Trying to learn about Caine's machinations, Nix goes to town and visits the docks and the pubs, stopping into the "Crusty Typetray," a popular hangout for printing press operators, reporters, and printer's devils. He plies a printer's devil with food and drink to learn about the latest news. Caine has been hiring people for the navy, the visitors from Chaos have been arrested, and one maybe murdered. He learns that bandits have been spotted, there's trouble in Garnath, as well as mirror trouble in Rebma. (The devil goes on about this for a while.) He also reveals that the Mercantile Advisory Board has gained additional power and has great new shipments of jewelry in.

He wanders down to the beach and finds a secluded place, then uses his card to reach out to Julian. He gets no answer, so he desists. then he tries one of his spells and discovers, surprisingly, that it works far, far better than it should. He contacts Fiona and lets her know about this trouble, but she scolds him for being so open with his knowledge, then tells him that there are plenty of things afoot, and that sunset may change the situation. Fiona suggests that someone may have been doing some re-writing.

Nix returns to the library and finds Dik showing books to King Random, who is accompanied by his blind wife, the Queen.

Scene 5 + Scene 1b: Abn-Haram in jail, David visits

Abn Haram is visited by a guard, who brings paints and news and offers some comfort, perhaps. They discuss the situation about Haram's companions. He offers Haram a key to a disused door. David arrives, guided by the other guard.

They chat about their lives and their homeworlds while David paints Abn-Haram, though Abn-Haram suggests he's getting very little out of the conversation. David mentions that he's of House Weyland and served in the military for 946 years. Today is Abn-Haram's birthday. David toasts him, and Abn-Haram worries perhaps David has endangered himself. They keep chatting for about 45 minutes. David leaves his painting of Haram and some food when he leaves, a bit out of sorts due to the surprising thing Abn-Haram said in the conversation.

Scene 2b: Dalziel goes Grandmaster

Margholo adds a new red piece to the board, just above the other pieces already on the board. Dworkin says the white unicorn captured the black one, but now she removed it because of "outside interference." Next she moves the Green Narwhal, next to the red door. She says "The pattern in Rebma is sealed. Black will have to retreat across the board to its own territory."

Dworkin asks Dalziel what shape his piece would be; Dalziel doesn't know. Dworkin says he's the board. They discuss the realities/metaphors of the pieces. Dworkin says "Silver wants to beat Yellow."

Dalziel asks about the fire in the forest. Dworkin says there was a fire in his heart. If he were to pick up a piece, what would happen? Dalziel asks what would happen if he swept the board clear? Dalziel asks what the board is--Dworkin says it's a tool, a complex bit of math, a lens. He laments his decision to make the pattern, says it cost him a lot. He suggests he hasn't much control over the worlds or the pieces.

Dalziel asks about the pieces being Chaos and Red, and Dworkin then rants about Cyan.

Scene 3b: Medore at the Gate and Maarit on the Stairs + 1c David on his way

Satisfied that the black unicorn escaped, Medore allows the gate to be opened. Maarit overhears the guards debating the meaning of the two unicorns in the castle. She interrogates the guards about where the white unicorn went. They indicate that it disappeared on the stairs.

One of the guards goes with Maarit down the stairs, the other stays back to fill in the log book. They discuss where the unicorns came from (one on the stairs, the other through a TAPESTRY.)

David, leaving Abn-Haram's cell, passes Maarit on the stairs, notices fresh blood on the landing, and then learns from the guards that there were two unicorns (which David missed). The guards share the story of the unicorns' arrival, and their fight. David heads up to the roof to try and spot the unicorns from the roof.

Scene 4b: Nix in the Library

Upon arriving in the library, Nix finds King Random and Queen __ and Dik going through books in the library. Random has a bandage on his hand, which he reveals is a wound caused by an angry pig. Nix says he wouldn't have pegged Random as a Pollonaise du Hameau. Random says that isn't it. Instead, it was a pig whose magic had been disrupted by Random (using the magic ruby). Random and Nix go to the guard house by the stables where the pig is imprisoned. Random, after asking carefully if Nix is truly being helpful, enhances the magic in the air so that Nix can do a spell. Nix uses "Mind Touch" to reach out to the pig...

 Random: "Wizards don't tend to spend much time in Amber, because it doesn't work here. Anyone with a lick of magical knowledge or talent here makes their way out to the Golden Circle, usually Begma or Hepania. I can do a few tricks myself, but usually active work, not stored energies like this was. I need to know if its related to Nykae's magic armbands, and if I'm about to be flanked by an army of magical beasts. I know your dad has dabbled in this sort of stuff, thought maybe he'd have taught you. I can't call him directly under the circumstances."

Scene 3c: Medore

Medore uses his Tarot to call Corwin, and tells Medore the story of finding the two unicorns, that the white unicorn wounded the black one, that Medore brought them to the castle, and they escaped. Corwin indicates that he found a corpse, killed by rapier. Corwin tells Medore he should go be a spy with the Pirate kings. (In other word, Corwin thought Medore should go talk to Caine as an intermediary on behalf of King Random.)

Medore goes looking for Maarit.

Scene 5b: Abn-Haram Receives a Call

Chillin' like a villain in his cell, Haram feels the connection of a Tarot, though weak. The call is from Nykae, who looks pretty bad for her injuries. She warns that a gate was opened in the cabinet in her room. Haram demands that Nykae tell him "something" she should have told him before. She acknowledges skullduggery.

She reveals that she wanted him to have the chance to try and live with the Amberites or to make a play for the throne. The two specialists she'd hired to do a task were killed on the ship, so she recruited Steward to steal things from "his father's wing of the castle" and told her Valet to do things. Nykae passes Abn-Haram a card for Severan, and asks if he wants a rescue. He says he would prefer not to leave, and finds the people here baffling. She hoped he would serve as a peace bridge between their peoples. He reveals that the King knows his ancestry.

She reassures him that when she's healed, she will back whatever play he wants to make.

Scene 2c: Dalziel and the Madman

Looking to the floor, Dalziel examines the discarded chess pieces.

 - The magenta pieces are mutants, cthuloid abominations, multi-headed monstrosities. There also seems to be a long snake-like piece broken into five or more pieces.

 - Yellow: Four pieces - a bishop, a queen, a 1970s supercomputer stack, a d4 point down, with three tiny legs.

 - Red: Five pieces - Doorway (on the board), a dragon, a queen (though not particularly tall), a knight, and a king (knife in the back).

 - Silver: Four pieces - stylized queen, can can dancer, bishop who paints, the eiffel tower

 - Black: Detailed carving of a woman, can't imagine how it would stand up, in a free-fall.

 - White: Some regular chess set pieces, but lots and lots of pawns

 - Cyan: One of the pieces seems to be family (looks like Osric)

 - Green: Some ships, seahorses, Kraken, dragons, ravens

Dworkin and Margholo's Chess Board

Dalziel asks if Green were the Shadows that rose up to prominence; Dworkin suggests that Green are "interferon." Rebma is being menaced by a Narwhal, Crab, and Anglerfish (in chess piece form). He suggests that Red reaches in from spaces beyond the table. The fact that Green has a foothold means that Random's position is not great.

Dalziel has offered Dworkin an excuse for leaving the board and going walkabout. Margholo (the hologram?) gets confused when Dworkin leaves. "Coup is successful, Green takes Rebma." Dalziel explores the cave and finds a door, through which he finds an apartment, with several rooms. Within he finds bookshelves, a big deck of Tarot cards, and paintings galore. He finds cards for the player characters, and a double-sided card for the unicorn. Dalziel borrows some of the cards for people.

Next, he examines the paintings. One of them is a field of black with tiger stripes around the edge and a grey squiggle in the middle. The other painting is similar to the other, but still creepy. Now the gray squiggle is 3 sentences long. The next has a silhouette in front of a glow. The next is closer, now the silhouette is holding onto a man, covered in blood, chopping him up with an axe.

Quote Log: Session 7

"In my culture as well, being locked in a cell is a sign of good faith." - Abn Haram

"As I understand the situation, the King is afraid of his subjects, so I am to be imprisoned here indefinitely." - Abn Haram

“Never let it be said I don’t know how to make an entrance” - Medore

“Another drink for my wet-legged Friend.” - David

“I think I”ve met the man, thought I thought his name was “Sphincterneck!” -David

Dworkin: Have you met my lovely wife Margholo with an H?
David: I have, just moments before she led me here.
Dworkin: I think long after she began leading you here.
-Dworkin and Dalziel

Guard: Stop, Stop! What’s going on here?
Marit: We don’t know!
Medore: Unicorn Escort!

“D: Did you take the position?
A: Oh that’s right, you were there.
D: I’m afraid I have no intention of taking that position.
A: Well, you certainly made a great breakfast”
-Abn Haram and David

“I see Amber as the immovable object to the Unstoppable Force of Chaos.” -David

D: I feel like I am giving everything and receiving nothing.
A: On the contrary, the lion’s share of the questions have been yours.
D: Yes, but all of the answers have also been mine.”
-Abn Haram and David

“Today is my birthday, would you like to toast me?
Of course…
-Abn Haram and David

N: What happened to your hand!
R: A fucking pig!
N: Did one of your guards do this?
R: No! A literal pig!”
-Random and Nyx

“Is there anything you want to tell me. Is there perhaps anything you should have told me before?”
-Abn Haram to his mother