Monday, September 27, 2010

Vincent Baker's Apocalypse World

Vincent Baker has a real knack for taking subjects I have little or no interest in and turning them into games I really want to play. First, he did it with pseudo-Mormon moral enforcers in a West that might have been in his game Dogs In The Vineyard and now he does it with post-Apocalypse survivors in his new game Apocalypse World.

He's done other games as well, but these are the two RPGs he's done that I'm familiar with.

Another thing Vincent Baker has a knack for is coining one line rules for RPG play that can be applicable to just about any game. In Dogs In The Vineyard it was "say yes or roll the dice" which is more or less self explanatory: either say yes to players or have them roll dice. Don't say no, and don't have them roll the dice if you want it to just happen.

There's several candidates in Apocalypse World for one-liners that can summarize a style of play, but my favorite is this: "look through crosshairs." This one might not be as immediately obvious in its meaning as "say yes or roll the dice," but it really emphasizes something that I can be bad at. What it's saying is to look at your NPCs and other GM creations through crosshairs, and don't be afraid to pull the trigger. In fact, when in doubt, pull the trigger.

As a GM I often become too attached to my creations, to the point that I will actively protect them from harm in the game. Baker tells the GM in Apocalypse World (he calls the GM the MC for Master of Ceremonies, but I will continue to use GM) to always consider killing or destroying the stuff he owns in the game whenever that stuff appears.

While this attitude is especially appropriate in a setting like Apocalypse World, it's also something worth keeping in mind in any other game. Nothing works as well to signify that the characters' actions have consequences than watching the world change around them in response to those actions. Nothing signifies dramatic change better than death and destruction.

Besides this possible new universal guideline for running games, there was one other thing that really stood out for me. The GM in Apocalypse World never rolls dice, ever. There is one optional rule where the GM can roll dice for the player in the one instance where rolling high is bad, but this is suggested only if the players are having a hard time accepting that in that one case it's bad to roll high.

Instead, the GM plays off what the players roll. At its most basic, if the players attempt to attack someone and they fail, then they are the ones that end up getting hurt instead of their target (it's actually more complex than that in terms of possible outcomes, but I don't want to just regurgitate the rules here). The GM never rolls for the NPCs, instead determining their actions and reactions based on what the players roll, and a set of guidelines (the latter of which is where the "look through crosshairs" line comes from).

Overall, the system is fairly simple at its core, but innovative enough that it wasn't until I got near the end of the book that a lot of it started to click. I'm not sure when we'll get a chance to play it given that it's campaign oriented, but I hope to do so some day!

One final note: A third thing Vincent Baker has a knack for is creating games with mature themes, and Apocalypse World is very much for "mature audiences" on more than one level. There's the ultra-violence of the post-apocalypse setting. The complex look at human relationships where everyone is at least a potential threat, even other PCs. And of course, there's also the naked woman on the cover (the picture above is an interior illustration, the cover is a photograph), and the fact that characters have an ability that keys off having sex with another character. You have been warned.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Dresden Postmortem

There's a reason I haven't been doing any actual play posts of our Dresden Files games, and that's because I haven't been all that pleased with how they've gone. I do want to go into what I think were the reasons behind this, as well as the handful of interesting events, both good and bad.

The first problem was the power level. We decided to go with the highest starting power level because we wanted to play with all the toys, particularly with the spellcasters. This was a mistake on a couple of levels. First, playing with all the toys meant playing with all the rules, which I'll talk about more later. Second, the sheer power of a group of five Dresden level characters is enormous, and the books do little to help you deal with this.

The rules mention the possibility that the books are an account of a solo adventure, and I think our play confirms that. The entries in Our World are all woefully underpowered when it comes to challenging a group like the one we had. It more or less takes a plot level NPC to make the characters break a sweat. With more experience I'm sure I could have dealt with this, but I didn't yet have that experience, so that's why this was a big mistake.

The second problem was the players, in which I include myself. I'm not blaming the players, they were all a great bunch, both the regulars and the ones new to the table. Unfortunately, the couple of guests we had to the first two sessions had playstyles that didn't quite mesh with the existing group. Our group tends to be more narrativist and they were more rules oriented. Specifically, they knew the rules better than I did in most cases, which is something I'm not used to, and was unprepared to deal with.

Combined with my need to confirm things, this led to a great deal of page turning and rules reading when we should have been playing. It had the plus of leaving me much better acquainted with the system by the time the first two sessions were over, but the minus of making those sessions less enjoyable.

A third problem was that I'm just not that big a Dresden fan. I like the books well enough, but they don't generate a great deal of enthusiasm for me. I actually read the books because I'm a fan of the Fate system and knew that the game was coming out rather than having read them first and then gotten the game because I was a fan. This led to a certain level of apathy on my part when it came to preparing for sessions, and that was reflected in how the sessions themselves went.

A factor that wasn't necessarily a problem, but which became apparent in play is that the Laws of Magic are a "Big Deal". Now, the novels say they're a big deal, but in practice they're simply a plot device that either restricts Dresden's actions or triggers important plot twists. They don't work that way in the game. In the game they present a big massive potential for unintended consequences. This can be a cool thing as long as the players are prepared for it, but I don't think that the game books do an adequate job of portraying the potential pitfalls.

The way this came up in our game was in the climax of the first adventure. The players had to stop a ritual that was threatening to waken a great evil. The ritual was taking pace in a field and one of the casters used a fire spell to roll through those casting the ritual in the hopes of disrupting it. What wasn't apparent, because of the high grass in the field, was that there were a number of victims lying bound in the grass awaiting sacrifice. These victims were incinerated in the blaze and the end result was a rather massive breaking of one of the laws.

This could have been a very cool thing to explore, but the important thing is that none of us in any way had intended for it to be a possibility. It didn't dawn on me what was going on until after the action was taken, and I was the only one with a grasp of the overall situation. In fact, it wasn't until after the session was over that I fully grasped the implications. This is largely my fault for not fully grasping the significance of the laws in the game, but it's a mistake that I think could be made by a lot of GMs.

The biggest disappointment with the game was that fate points proved meaningless. The players could simply deal with the stuff I threw at them without needing to use them. The players took them from me because they liked being compelled, but they didn't need to.

Things I'd do differently if I had to do it over again? I'd start by going with the lowest recommended power level. This means fewer rules to deal with, and you can use the stats straight out of Our World to challenge the party with. I'd only go with the highest power level if I was playing with one or two players, or if I had a lot more experience with the system.

The group became disenchanted enough with the game that we ended up deciding to forgo our final planned session and instead made characters for our upcoming Pathfinder Kingmaker scenario/campaign. That probably says more about how enthusiastic we are about Kingmaker, but I'll talk about that in an upcoming post.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Here We Go Again...

Despite not having any chance to play miniatures games in the past several months, and despite saying on multiple occasions that the miniatures didn't appeal to me, I've given in to the siren call of Malifaux.

There were a couple of factors involved in my downfall. The local miniatures crowd has been developing some interest in the game, which I've been observing on the local miniatures forum: Hogs of War. One post in particular proved a tipping point in that it mentioned a crew of Asian ghosts. I didn't recall any Asian ghosts from my previous looks at the game, so I went and checked the site and found that they'd released a lot of new models with the second book, and that there was indeed a crew of Asian ghosts.

I was still able to resist until the FLGS, Castle House Games, got in a rule book and some starter boxes. My friend Gary at Black Diamond Games, my old FLGS, had tried to get me to order the book from him a couple of times, but without it being physically in front of me I'd been able to resist. Once I could actually pick up the book and flip through it that resistance crumbled. I bought the book and a deck of cards and went home to read it.

I'm not really sure why I bought the deck of cards, I was 90% committed at this point, but still wanted to read the book to see for myself whether it was a game I thought I might enjoy, and whether there were any factions I thought I would find interesting to play.

It only took me a couple of hours to read the rules, skipping the fluff and miniature stats. I was impressed, and I knew by the time I finished that I wanted to give the game a try. I then read the fluff and was impressed even more. I still want to try the Asian ghosts, but they're in the second book, and I wanted to start with a crew from the first one. I decided I wanted to get the Rasputina boxed set.

Rasputina is basically an ice mage with a bunch of ice constructs as allies. None of the miniatures in the set are grotesque, and she's part of the Arcanist faction, which is probably the least evil faction in the game, in my view (none of the four main factions can really be considered "good guys").

The problem was that the FLGS didn't have one of those sets in stock, and I didn't want to wait on a special order, so I ended up getting a couple of other sets instead: The Victorias and the Redchapel Gang.

My focus with this new game is to actually play if I get the chance. As such, I have no intention of painting the models. I may do so eventually, but for now I'm satisfied just having them assembled. If I can actually get some games in, then I might bet more serious about getting some painted.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Another Quick Word on D&D Essentials

I see one big missed opportunity with the new Red Box: 1 on 1 play.

In order to describe what I'm talking about, let me give you a little personal history. My first RPG was the predecessor to the original "red box", the version I call the "purple box" with the Erol Otus cover. My first GM was my mom, and my first adventuring party was, well, me. I was an only child and we were on vacation at my grandmother's house when my parents got me the game, so there was no one else to play.

My mom used the very basic dungeon creation rules to create a random adventure, the details of which completely escape me, but thirty years later I'm still playing RPGs so it must have been interesting at the time.

The new "red box" starts with a solo adventure, which could be run by a GM for one player easily enough, but it then jumps to an adventure written for a GM and four players... WTF? Isn't this supposed to be aimed towards people completely new to the hobby? How often do five people, completely new to the hobby, just happen to get together to play a game? I think that something similar to my personal experience is much more likely to happen.

Now, it can be argued that a DM can scale the adventure, or that a player can play more than one character, but that misses the point that this is supposed to be for completely inexperienced gamers. Scaling up an adventure is generally easier than scaling down. Write an adventure for one player, and if there's two it's just a matter of tossing in more monsters. Write an adventure for four, and if there's only one you've got to completely redesign any "big bads" in the adventure. That's not something a DM completely new to the hobby is going to feel comfortable doing, especially not with the minimal guidance given in the material included in the new Red Box.

Maybe my personal experience is a thing of the past, maybe with roleplaying more widespread it's easier to find a group and so this isn't a big deal. I disagree.

Back to my personal experience, this time some of my first impressions going through the new "red box". As I'm looking at the stuff in the box it dawns on me that this might be something I could get my non-gamer wife to try. The whole thing with the cards and map and tokens might just be something she'd be willing to play with. Then I look at the main adventure that's designed for four players and I set that thought aside with a sigh. Another missed opportunity.