Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Dogs in Shepherd's Rest

We had our first session of Dogs in the Vineyard on Monday. I can't go into too much detail, because the story of Shepherd's Rest hasn't yet finished, but I can at least describe the cast of characters so far.

To start with we have the dogs. Melissa "Missy" Whitehoof (Liz) is a half-breed with a mountain-folk father who comes from a troubled family. David Snow (Jonathan) is a pious student of the Faith. Kimble Smith (Seth) is a not-so-pious young man with a temper. They're all newly initiated members of God's Watchdogs out to do good, and their first stop after leaving the temple is Shepherd's Rest.

Shepherd's Rest is a small community overseen by Steward Matthew, a middle aged man that the dogs have not had a great deal of interaction with yet, although he was the first man they talked with upon arriving at the town.

Next they met Widow Joanna, the woman who is providing them with room and board while they stay in Shepherd's Rest. She is frustrated by the lack of attention that the available men of the town are paying to her.

Brother Silas is one of those available men, an older gentleman recently granted permission to take a third wife by the Elders of the Church.

Brother Caleb is the other available man, a young man looking to find his first wife.

Sister Sarah is the young woman that both men have set their sights upon, but who desires neither of them.

Sister Mary and Sister Rebecca are Brother Silas' first and second wives respectively.

Finally, Brother Giles is Sister Sarah's father, who wants to see her married to the relatively well-to-do Brother Silas.

Oh, and there's something about some bandits who have robbed a supply wagon, killed the driver, and stole some sheep.

So far the dogs have dealt with relatively mundane matters, but we still had a good time exploring the mechanics of the game and getting to know Shepherd's Rest. I'm looking forward to seeing how the dogs decide to resolve the problems of Shepherd's Rest in our next session!

Monday, February 15, 2010

NWARG Game Day

Game Day 2/13/10
The Northwest Arkansas Roleplaying Gamers puts on a quarterly game day. It's sort of a one day mini-con where people throw out pitches for one-shot RPG sessions they'd like to run, and then if enough people express an interest they run them. From what I've seen on the boards there's usually only a couple of games being run, but the people who attend always seem to have a good time.

This past Saturday was the first time I was able to attend, and I am glad that I did. There were two games being run, one was "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies!" (shown above) and the other was "3:16 - Carnage on Pandora." I don't know anything about the former other than the name and that it was being run by a guy I've gamed with a couple of times who is a fun guy to game with. I played in the second, which was a sequel to the recent movie Avatar in which we played part of a force sent back to Pandora to secure unobtanium, and teach those blue monkeys a lesson!

The game went quickly, but was a lot of fun. Lots of mindless mayhem which ended with our winning the day for the forces of capitalist imperialism in something close to a replay of the finale of the film, but with us grunts better prepared to deal with traitorous grenade wielding avatars than was the previous garrison.

Once again, a complete session of the game went by in about two hours. If you have limited time for roleplaying then 3:16 just might be the game to try given how quickly it plays. It's a straight up bug hunt at the beginning, but after a couple of plays I'm starting to see how it could develop into something a bit more interesting by the end of a campaign, with characters really starting to question just what it is they are doing.

If you want to participate in a future game day you can check out the NWARG forums.

Game Day 2/13/10

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Comments on the history of Diaspora

In writing my review of Diaspora I started with what I know of the history of the development of the game, and my interaction with it. As I continued writing I realized that it didn't really contribute to the actual review of the game, so I removed that section and included it in this separate post instead, as I feel it still might be of some interest to those who are unfamiliar with the game.

I first became aware of this game back when it was called Spirit of the Far Future, which was an attempt to develop a version of Traveller using the Fate system. This was a couple of years ago, just before the release of the Mongoose published version of Traveller. It had been announced that Traveller would be released under the OGL, and I believe that the designers of Spirit of the Far Future hoped that the application would be broad enough to allow for a version of the rules to be developed using the Fate system. When more details came out about how the OGL would be applied I believe it became apparent that this wouldn't be the case.

At this point they shifted gears and decided to take the work they had put into Spirit of the Far Future and apply it to the game that eventually became Diaspora. Unfortunately, I also chose to stop following the project at this point. In my defense, I was really excited about the concept of a Fate powered Traveller, especially how it was being developed in Spirit of the Far Future, and was thus equally disappointed when that project ended.

It wasn't until a few months ago that I again became aware of the game as I started hearing rave reviews about a game called Diaspora, and it gradually dawned on me that this was the game that came out of Spirit of the Far Future (although I wasn't sure of that fact until I actually had a copy in my hands). For the record, I believe that credit goes to Paul Tevis and his recently ended podcast "For a Few Games More" for first making me aware that the game had been published, while Chris Hanrahan and Brian Isikoff's podcast "2d6 Feet in a Random Direction" caused me to pull the trigger on ordering it.

Most of the systems developed for Spirit of the Far Future are still present in Diaspora, although they tend to be better developed, while others are completely new to Diaspora, like the cluster generation system.

I'm still a bit sad that Spirit of the Far Future will never see the light of day, but Diaspora appears to be a more than worthy successor, and if you haven't already done so, I encourage you to check out my review of the game in the previous post.


Diaspora is self-described as a hard science-fiction role-playing game. One of the biggest issues for me with role-playing hard science-fiction in today's world is the trans-humanism element. If you're unfamiliar with this concept, it's basically the improvement of human mental and physical attributes through technology that seems probable based on where modern scientific research is headed. Combined with the tendency of scientific progress to increase exponentially, and it becomes hard for me to identify with what my descendants are likely to be like in just a few centuries.

This contrasts with what hard science-fiction was like when I was younger, where the characters were pretty much identical to modern humans, just transported into other settings.

Diaspora gets around this with the concept of "collapse." Basically, the authors postulate that once technology reaches a certain point it inevitably leads to the collapse of the society that develops it, at least from the point of view of societies less technologically advanced. Whether that's because the people in the society ascend to a higher level of consciousness, or destroy themselves with their folly, is irrelevant. From the viewpoint of the average human the society collapses and a new one grows from its ashes. As a result, humans in the game are basically the same as humans today, without the kinds of changes that could result from certain advances in technology.

In terms of the setting of the game, the development of faster than light travel occurs some time before the collapse, and has led to humanity spreading to the stars at some time in the past. How long ago this first happened is up to the individual game, and is likely unknown. The nature of the way FTL travel works means that it tends to be confined to clusters of a half dozen to a dozen systems. In game terms these clusters are created at the start of a game by all the players involved in a collaborative process that both creates the setting and begins to define what the players expect out of the game.

This process is continued in character generation. The game does not assume that a gamemaster has yet been chosen at this point. All the players are equally involved in creating the cluster, and all of them create characters. Even if the group does know who will be the GM, the GM has no special authority at this point in the process. By the end of the process, whoever does become the GM should have a fairly clear picture of what kind of game the group is looking for based on the decisions everyone made in cluster and character generation.

Mechanically, the game is based on the Fate system, most famously used in Spirit of the Century, and I think the way they've tinkered with the core system is excellent. My favorite bit is how they handle stunts. The biggest problem I have with Fate as implemented in Spirit of the Century is how stunts are handled. They're presented as a catalog of abilities which means it can take a lot of time for a player to browse through and find the ones he wants to take for his character. In a system that's supposed to be designed for pick-up games, this has always seemed to me to present problems.

The designers of Diaspora decided against the catalog method, and instead distilled stunts down into four categories that many of the more detailed stunts seemed to fall into, plus the ability to make up stunts that don't fall into one of those four categories. So, instead of going through a whole catalog, players just have to look at four things, or better yet, decide what they want their character to be able to do, and then with the help of the other players create a stunt that allows them to do it.

Another innovation is the addition of a wealth track to the health and composure tracks. In Fate, damage is handled by the use of tracks. Health for physical damage, and composure for damage taken in social situations. Diaspora adds Wealth to handle the monetary economy of the game. It makes for a nice abstract system that creates economic pressures for the characters without requiring actual bookkeeping by the players. Damage to the Wealth track represents debt. Take enough damage and your character could be taken out of the game just as he could be with health or composure, in this case sent to debtor's prison, or stuck in a dead end job to pay the bills.

I'm not quite as enthusiastic about the four combat mini-games: personal combat, space combat, social combat, and platoon combat. This may just be because I haven't yet had the chance to use them in play. They are all map-based to some extent, and I have a preference for more narrative combat systems. There are also some issues with how range is handled in personal combat that I initially had a hard time wrapping my head around but I think I understand it better now. Of the four, I think space combat is my favorite based just on reading it, possibly because as GM I don't have to come up with maps for each encounter (it uses a simple range band system).

I'm probably most leery about the very mechanistic social combat system, but I think the key there is the advice they give on using it as a tool when the roleplaying is bogging down and isn't going anywhere rather than as a replacement for traditional roleplaying.

I don't want to overstate how I feel about the mini-games. I suspect that my reservations are mostly due to not having had the chance to actually use them in a game.

A brief note on the production quality of the book itself: it's excellent. Currently only available as a hardcover from Lulu.com, the bindery is very well done. The layout is attractive and functional. There is both a table of contents and an index. The contents are black & white, and the artwork is sparse, but this did not detract from the product for me.

I do wish the authors would work through their issues with releasing a pdf of the game, if only because my likely players would appreciate having one available, but they have released pdfs of the charts and forms useful for playing the game, as well as making an SRD available online.

Overall, this is an excellent book, both as a stand-alone game and as a toolkit of ideas for anyone who wants to tinker with the Fate system to create other games.

I hesitate to mention, but feel it is my duty to do so, that the authors are working on a revised edition of the game to be released in both hardcover and softcover versions. I've gotten the impression that this will be released shortly, but I have no insider knowledge as to exactly how soon this might be, especially given that "shortly" is an extremely flexible unit of time in the world of indie RPGs.

Edit: The corrected version is now on Lulu. You can safely order the book knowing you are getting the most up-to-date version. They're describing it as "corrected" rather than "revised" as it's apparently mostly fixing typos and grammar.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Board Game Night Update

Board Game Night 2/3/10
Our weekly board game night at Castle House Games is still going. The regular group is just three of us, but I've been assured that part of that has just been that people have been busy with the holidays and other things. I also suspect that my often waiting to the last minute to post what the featured game is has had some negative effect on attendance, so I've been trying to post that information earlier in the week, and we have indeed had at least one extra player the last couple of weeks, possibly as a result.

We have been getting a good variety of games in, as you can probably tell if you've been checking the sidebar showing my "Recently Played Tabletop Games" as nearly all of the games that have shown up there, other than RPGs and miniatures games, have been played at board game night. I've been trying to encourage the other attendees to suggest games to play, but as the person with the largest collection of games, they seem to trust me to make that call most of the time.

For a while we were trying to stick to the idea of playing games at least twice in a row. I borrowed this idea from my friend Joe at Black Diamond Games. That was the method used when I played there, but the feedback I've gotten from the players here is that they'd rather not play the same game twice two weeks running. Instead I'm going to try to intersperse games that are new to the group with games that we've played before so that we still get at least two games in of each game played, just not always in a row.

For example, last week we played Dominion, a game that was one of the very first games played at board game night, and long overdue for a return. This week we played two games new to board game night: Conquest of Paradise as the featured game, as well as Sorry! Sliders as a filler game. Next week we'll likely play Finca, a game that we first played two weeks ago. We won't always alternate between new releases and old favorites, but something close to that will probably become the norm, rather than the two weeks in a row of the same game that I had originally planned.

By the way, I enjoyed both Conquest of Paradise and Sorry! Sliders, although the latter was probably the bigger overall hit. It's a surprisingly fun dexterity game, especially given that it's a mass market game. Not as good as Pitch Car, but not nearly as expensive either.

Board Game Night 2/3/10

Monday, February 01, 2010

The Future of Retail RPGs

My friend over at Black Diamond Games has been musing lately about the future of RPGs from a retail point of view. Sadly for him and other retailers, I'm beginning to think that there isn't much of a future for RPGs in the retail market.

I've been saying for years that tabletop RPGs are destined to follow the same path as tabletop hex and counter wargames. Wargames got started in the fifties, grew in the sixties, and were really becoming a big deal in the seventies. In the late seventies and early eighties you could find Avalon Hill games in major bookstore chains and other retail locations, but in the early seventies something happened that was destined to cut short the popularity of wargames: tabletop RPGs.

Most know that tabletop RPGs grew out of wargaming (in fact, while D&D is the first published RPG its roots can be traced not only to Chainmail, but the unpublished wargaming/RPG hybrid Braunstein). Many people, in fact the majority of people, who had once been consumers of wargames, found RPGs to be more to their liking. The development of the personal computer further hurt the wargaming industry as those for whom RPGs weren't to their liking found that computer games often were. Computers could both streamline the handling of complex rules as well as provide an AI opponent, both big attractions for people dealing with games which were both hard to learn and difficult to find opponents for.

From a retail perspective, wargames were dying. First SPI disappeared, then Avalon Hill was eventually acquired by Hasbro, and today traditional hex and counter wargames are effectively dead in the retail market.

At the same time, there are more and better hex and counter wargames available today than ever before. New companies with different business models arose from the ashes of SPI and Avalon Hill. GMT Games, Multiman Publishing and Avalanche Press are the big boys, with a host of smaller companies also in the field.

They thrive in a market that sells directly to consumers, mostly over the internet. They still sell the occasional game in the retail market, but it's not their focus, and they seem to treat it more as a marketing expense than an opportunity for direct profit.

I think that RPGs are destined for a similar, but not identical, future. I think that we will see the industry go down two different paths. The first is being pioneered by Dungeons & Dragons and their DDI program. Whether or not it was deliberate, having so much information available online for a subscription is cannibalizing the sales of print products at the retail level. If this is not also cannibalizing the bottom line of Wizards of the Coast, then this trend will likely continue and may come to replace the "supplemental" model of RPGs that most "mainstream" RPGs now follow. This model involves the release of core rules followed by regular release of new content in the form of supplemental books until such time as it's felt that sales would best be served by a new set of core rules.

The second path is one of small press publishing, and more importantly, print on demand. The "indy" model where a game often consists of a single book, and where if additional books are produced their production is usually based more on what the game needs than on increasing sales. Few are likely to make their living designing games this way, but then few make their living designing wargames anymore either.

Small press games have always been around, but the availability of print on demand changes things. The difference between small press and mainstream used to mean the difference between a hardbound book and a bunch of photocopies stapled together (or bound with a plastic ring binding if it was "fancy"). Now the only difference between a print on demand book and one from a major publisher is the use of color, and maybe artwork.

I just received a copy of Diaspora, a game only available for purchase on Lulu, and its production quality beats anything that I've seen from mainstream RPG publisher Mongoose (admittedly the whipping boy in the RPG industry for poor production quality). Only the lack of interior color separates it from other major releases, and the creativity and editing quality is arguably far better than most.

Alternate paths, like that being followed by Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, with its custom dice, are unlikely to start a general trend. They seem too gimicky, and are too obviously an attempt to solve problems with the business model through game design. If they were operating in a vacuum then they would likely succeed, but they're operating in an environment where others are simply abandoning the business model in favor of ones that work better.

Personally, I would like these alternate paths represented by Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay to succeed, because I think it's important that RPGs maintain a retail presence, both for the health of RPGs and the health of the retail game industry, but I suspect that they will instead become increasingly a niche within a niche.