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A couple weeks ago was the tenth incarnation of DC Game Day (which is actually a weekend), and the second one that I attended. The game day occurs twice a year and started out as a group of friends from the ENWorld forums and is developing into a growing local con. I forget how I discovered the con last fall, but have resolved to go every time now.
Dungeon World (GM: Josh Mannon)
My first game was with Josh Mannon running an adventure from Within the Devil's Reach, his recently successful Kickstarter, which will include three Dungeon World adventures. Dungeon World is an Apocalypse World hack which takes the core AW mechanics and throws in some old school D&D twists into the mechanics and feel. For example, when you make a successful aggressive move against someone (called “Hack and Slash”), you roll another die to do damage to your opponent, so characters and opponents actually have hit points. The ability scores are traditional D&D stats, but character creation is based on AW where the players pick choices for their characters from lists.
I enjoyed picking choices from lists. I ended up with the fighter, and noticed that there was no penalty for playing a halfling. Indeed, all the races got some small benefit for playing a fighter, but no race was inherently better at it than any other. So, of course, I went with the incongruous race and class combination. I got even more excited when I realized I could pick whatever weapon I wanted plus enhancements. I ended up with a huge serrated sword, which I decided was bigger than I was.
I really liked the mechanics of Dungeon World. They were clean and simple and represented a good balance of narrative-driven storytelling and old-fashioned dice-rolling. What I especially liked is that they accounted for and even rewarded crazy narrative choices. For example, our party had a halfling thief that jumped on the back of every monster he encountered, even before he knew what it was. The effect and consequences of these actions were determined in a few simple die rolls without a need to look up crazy corner case rules.
I think what worked with both Josh’s adventure and Dungeon World in general is that there was a lot of room to improvise. Although there was a definite sense of purpose and plot, we still had room to create details about the world and our surroundings. Everything was leading to something, but it still didn’t feel linear.
I will almost certainly run at least one of Josh’s adventures at some point, and am considering doing a Dungeon World campaign in the future. The world of Dungeon World is somewhat generic high fantasy, so my not-so-secret desire is to have a world-building exercise using Microscope and then playing in the world using the Dungeon World rules.
Savage Worlds (GM: Bob Bretz)
This was the only game that I played at the game day that I had played before. I am sure that many of you are familiar with the Savage Worlds rules or can easily get the gist. It had been a couple years since I played Savage Worlds, and I think at the time I wasn’t ready for it. I hadn’t experienced D&D burnout quite yet so I wasn’t able to appreciate the fast and furious rules. But this time I really loved intuitive nature of the combats and conflict resolutions. As I have been playing so many games with abstracted narrative combat recently, it was actually welcome to get back to a game that used miniatures and a map.
Bob’s game was a pulp adventure set in 1930s South America. The game came with pre-generated characters and I played “Doc” - a weird scientist with an electromagnetic discharge apparatus (basically a “lightning gun.”) The final battle was unforgettable and included Nazi scientists who created a mind control device for a T-Rex.
Hollowpoint (GM: Jody Kline)
This is a high-octane RPG inspired by action flicks. The characters play a special ops team sent to “do bad things to bad people for bad reasons.” The default setting is late 70s or early 80s and our adventure had to do with tracking down a missing operative in a South American banana republic.
Since character death is a very real possibility, character creation needs to be fast and occurs at the table. I played “Big Brain” Marvin (the name was inspired by Pulp Fiction though not the character). Originally I intended to play a suave con man, but another player jumped on that niche with a incredibly annoying and hilarious character named Max Power. So I decided to play a nerdy type who was good at research and gathering information. Then I got excited that the character sheet had a space for ethnicity. (A frequent complaint of mine is that RPG characters tend to default to white unless someone takes the time to think about it.) So, though I conceived of Marvin as a white nerd, I figured I could just say that he was black. I made a couple jokes about him being a stereotypical black nerd, but otherwise played him exactly as I would have played a white character.
The system is similar to the One Roll Engine (ORE) but incredibly simplified. You roll a bunch of d6s and look for matches. Without getting too far into the details of the mechanics, the player matches and GM matches cancel out, so the side with more matches inflicts damage on the other. One thing that I like about the system is that it flows well and is quite intuitive once you’ve made a couple rolls. It’s also really easy for the players to have occasionally adversarial interests. The combat was narrative and was perhaps a little too abstracted for my tastes, but the genre demands an abstract combat. After all, our party had the aforementioned nerd and con man, but also had a stealthy character and a crazy woman who liked to blow stuff up. The only way to account for these characters with wildly different skill sets is an abstracted combat where the character are trying to accomplish different goals.
One key mechanic of the system, which we didn’t utilize to the full effect, was a dice pool in the middle of the table which, once dice were taken from the pool, were never replenished. The only way to get dice from the central pool was to ask another character for help in a scene and having them refuse. Our group generally worked together, and if I get a chance to play again, I would love to play a Hollowpoint game where the players screwed with each other a little more.
Hollow Earth Expedition (GM: Matthew Glickman)
This was a pulp game where all of us played either famous fictional characters or fictionalized versions of real people. I played H.G. Wells and others in the party were Sherlock Holmes, John Watson, Harry Flashman, Nellie Bly and Lillie Langtry. What really made the game come alive was Matt’s amazing character sheets, which looked like little passport books. (I saved mine and will post a picture later if I get a chance.) Also, I especially liked that all the characters had relationships to the other characters. As Wells, I was trying to impress Holmes, ignore Watson, get Flashman to tell me his war stories, develop a romantic relationship with Bly and set up Langtry with Holmes. In addition, Wells was hard of hearing, which gave me another role-playing hook. I was at a table with very experienced role-players and Matt’s preparation gave us so much to do and say. It’s almost as if we didn’t need the plot to guide us through the adventure. But the story was also a great hook - delivering Tesla’s inventions to London on a zeppelin while trying to stop an alien threat.
It was my first time playing the Ubiquity Roleplaying System, which was another great rules-light system, with a little bit of crunch. I have no complaints or specific comments about the system, except that the Ubiquity dice are really clever. Also, if I ever decide to run a pulp game, it would be a tough choice between this, Savage Worlds (which does pulp really well) and Spirit of the Century.
Getting there is not half the fun. Getting there is boring.
In many RPG campaigns, some players will point to somewhere on the other end of the map and say, “let’s go there.” After all, “over here” is dull; the players are already met all the NPCs in this town and want new NPCs. They want to see other cultures and governments. After all, one of the greatest fantasy stories of all time, Lord of the Rings is based on the journey from one place to another: an epic quest that allows heroes to make their mark on the world. Besides, certain settings explicitly state that the space between cities is wild and dangerous, such as the default “Points of Light” setting in Dungeons & Dragons (4th Edition) or the Dark Sun Campaign Setting, where the world itself is an enemy. And although the “journey campaign” lends itself well to fantasy settings, this blog post was actually inspired by the Diaspora, a hard science-fiction setting.
In Diaspora, there is no faster-than-light travel except for the conceit of “slipknots,” which are small holes in space that allow ships to travel between star systems. Thus, the journey from one world to another is long and dangerous. When we decided to switch our home campaign to Diaspora, we knew that the campaign would be short and only last a few sessions due to external time constraints. The first session of a Diaspora game involves cluster creation, a world-building exercise where the players and the referee build the cluster of worlds where the game will take place. Knowing that we would only have a few sessions, I asked the players to set some fairly specific goals for their characters. After some discussion, the players decided to pick one world on one side of the cluster to start on and a world on the other side of the cluster that was their goal. They figured that they would visit a lot of the worlds on the way and get to see much of the universe that we collectively created. Before the Diaspora campaign, we had just completed a journey campaign using Dark Sun, and I was reluctant to do another one.
SO WHAT'S THE PROBLEM?
There are a few problems with the journey campaign, but the biggest problems are that the structure interrupts the sense of drama and it takes choices out of the hands of the players. Suppose the characters, in a fantasy game, are traveling from one side of the continent to the other, because they need to stop an evil wizard from destroying the world by raising endless armies of the undead. Sure, you can throw certain challenges at the players in the interim, like a village where the children are disappearing in the middle of the night or random encounter after random encounter, but it will be difficult for these to seem like anything but side quests and distractions. Compared to the larger threat of the world being destroyed, helping a little girl find a lost family heirloom seems trivial. Sure, players will nibble at these plot hooks as long as they are put in front of them, but they are unlikely to jump at anything that will completely derail their quest, meaning that any choices that the players make will not be meaningful.
Plus, it is difficult to effectively portray the dangers of the wilds. Games that track injuries to players are generally geared towards “dungeon crawling,” where the characters face several tough challenges without a break. These challenges are difficult for characters, as they should be. However, as some systems do not have serious injuries carry over from one day to the next (a problem that is especially prevalent in D&D 4E), facing one tough encounter every day in the wilderness provides almost no challenge to the players. Besides, these random encounters are tedious and time-consuming and it is difficult to integrate them into the story at large. Although the encounters may be fun in their own right, they will not resonate from a narrative perspective.
ARE THERE SOLUTIONS?
So let’s get back to the Disapora campaign. When the players told me they wanted to do a journey, which would visit each world in the system for one session, I balked. The world that the players eventually wanted to reach was New Babylon: whose previous civilization collapsed for unknown reasons. It currently served as an archaeological dig site for the rest of the cluster. The characters were traveling to the planet for research and exploration. Although I could come up with interesting encounters each step of the way, I felt like it was a foregone conclusion that the characters would eventually reach New Babylon, but once they got to their destination, the possibilities were wide open. So what I did in the first session after cluster creation is assigned each player one leg of the journey to New Babylon and gave them five minutes to summarize what happened on the way there. Although this gave us mixed results, since some players had better improvisational skills than others, it still let us get to the meat of the campaign quickly.
Now hand-waving the actual journey and “traveling by map,” so to speak, is just one option. In my D&D 4E Dark Sun campaign, the eventual goal was to save the world, but the characters were unaware of the goal when the journey began. I packed the journey with plenty of optional (and hopefully interesting) side quests along with a cruel and capricious High Templar NPC who traveled with the party. But most importantly, I divided the campaign into “chapters.” The characters were not permitted an extended rest until the chapter ended, even if that chapter was comprised of several days or even weeks. So the actual travel through the Dark Sun desert was one chapter, which had no set length. The players were allowed to pursue side quests or treasure hunts for as long as they wanted, but every day they added to the journey drained their health and resources. Now although artificially disallowing extended rests solved the mechanical issues with journeys, it was dificult to make all the encounters mean something within the larger narrative. But perhaps we just have to accept that sometimes a randomly-appearing mekillot will create its own excitement without the need to have it mean something more.
Wed Mar 21, 2012 10:17 pm
I am working my way through a box of clementine oranges on Thanksgiving afternoon while watching football. I'll see my family soon enough, but it's nice to have my first moments of quiet time since returning from BGG.CON to sink back into BGG and RPGG.
Since I have the blog, it feels more natural to write a post than to put up a GeekList.
Those of you who are on Twitter might have noted that I created a new account shortly before the con. It's @GamingMeerkat so check it out if you're on Twitter.
HELLO NEW FRIENDS!
This is my first trip to BGG.CON and the best part was the people of course. I expected to meet a lot of nice people who were passionate about games. But the best part was meeting all the weird, funny and entertaining people who seemed to be around. Practically everyone I met were people I would be happy to play with on a regular basis and it's sad that I may only get to see them once a year.
Having said that, I didn't write down the names of people I played with and can't remember everyone. So, instead of mentioning some of them, I'm not going to name names in this post. I don't want to offend people whose faces I can picture, even though I have no recollection of their names or avatars.
So, if I played a game with you and you're reading this, then you're my favorite of all the people that I met. Really, you were the best person at the con. I worship at the altar of you.
THOSE ZOMBIES JUST WON'T DIE
Since this is an RPG blog primarily, I'll start with those.
I really wanted to establish an RPG presence at the con, so I ran a game of Dungeons & Dragons (4th Edition) using the Neverwinter Campaign Setting, since I felt it would be a typical and familiar setting for people new to D&D. (Yes, I called Forgotten Realms "typical and familiar." Feel free to disagree.) I used pre-generated characters at 1st Level that I found on Kiel Chenier's website. I really like how the characters were built mechanically, though we didn't emphasize the jokey tone on the character sheets.
(As an aside, I have nothing against humor in role-playing, and I love comic relief characters. I just don't think it should be forced onto a game if it doesn't fit.)
I mostly concentrated on the game mechanics instead of story, which worried me a little. Fortunately, I think I gave exactly the right mix of story and combat for the players. The plot was a fairly straightforward one: Red Wizards of Thay stealing bodies from graveyards in order to raise an undead army. The combats were a little tougher than I intended, but everyone survived. And the players got a taste of a pulse-pounding combat where a couple of die rolls the wrong way would have turned it into a TPK. Though it's maybe not the best first experience, I'm sure it was a memorable one.
The best part is that one of the players was there because he was starting up his own D&D 4th Edition game and wanted to see it run since he had never played or ran a 4E game. I am happy that the session had practical value in addition to being a fun thing.
I also have to compliment the designers who designed the D&D Essentials versions of zombies. Whenever a zombie is dropped to 0 hit points (on a non-critical hit), the DM rolls a d20. On a roll of 15+, the zombie doesn't actually die. It was very flavorful, though frustrating for the players when the zombies needed 4-5 additional hits to go down.
THE ANCIENT PERUVIANS CALLED IT THE END OF DAYS, EXCEPT IN THEIR OWN LANGUAGE, WHICH I DO NOT KNOW
I also got in two games of Fiasco at the con - one pre-arranged game and an impromptu game at 5am. They were very different experience. The first game was a game of JL01: Objective Zebra with a group of experienced Fiasco players and the second was a game of The Ice with people who had never played.
The Objective Zebra game was driven by the fact that one of the needs was for one character "to tell him that he is the Chosen One." It was a silly game (though not completely gonzo) which turned really dark at the end. One thing I also liked is that the game could have gone in a completely realistic or supernatural direction until the last pass of scenes, where we finally decided on the supernatural.
The 5am game was completely gonzo game of smuggling illegal bacteria out of Antarctica since, well, it was 5am. I did convince other people to play by telling them it was the only game I had the brain space for at that hour. What I meant was that I wanted something without structure and rules - though I neglected to realize that even though the Fiasco rules were familiar to me, it is a little bit of effort to get new people to wrap their head around it. It was still fun, and both of the other players seemed interested in playing again in the future.
Both the games leaned towards the silly, which is fine. With new players and with strangers, as the Fiasco Companion astutely points out, gonzo is the easiest way to go. My games with experienced players are moving more towards the serious, and I think it's a testament to the system that it can handle so many modes of play.
BOARD GAMES! BOARD GAMES! BOARD GAMES!
If you're looking for an excruciating recap of everything I played, then I'll give you my phone number and I'll tell you more than you want to know. I will log my plays when I get a chance, so you can look at that if you're curious.
I liked most of what I played so I'm not going to talk about the games that I actively disliked (I'm looking at you Panic Station), but let's talk about the highlights.
Newer games - The highlight of the con was Quarriors!, which I never played before. It's a deck-building game where you're building a pool of dice rather than a deck of cards. I played three times at the con and then bought it and have played it three more times since then. I like that it's fast and has interesting decisions in it. And unlike other deck-builders, there's enough randomness to balance out inequities in skill level. I think better players will still win more often, but everyone has a chance. It still may be lacking a little depth, but it's still a blast.
I was surprised by City Tycoon, which came out of nowhere. It's a tile-laying game where you have the draft the tiles. The heart of the game is choosing your tiles and then choosing which ones to build (it's unlikely that you'll get to build everything).
I really think that Alcatraz: The Scapegoat is a cool concept, though I'm still unsure how I feel about the game. It's a great twist on the semi-cooperative game. Instead of having a traitor, you have a scapegoat. It's public information who the scapegoat is. And in the game, even if the players win, the scapegoat loses. So either one player loses or all players lose. Also, the scapegoat gets extra powers and can change every turn. I played twice, with mostly the same group of players. In the first game, we played it like a typical cooperative game, which made the game easy, but the scapegoat on the last turn (me) was pretty bitter about the whole thing. In the second game, the scapegoat performed active acts of sabotage, and the game was nearly impossible. I think in subsequent plays, the right balance between cooperative and cutthroat play will be found but my final verdict on the game is still unclear until that balance is found.
I am really hoping that Kingdom Builder will become a staple gateway game. The rules are simple and intuitive and it's easy to teach and play. This is a game that I am going to buy because it will be really easy to get to the table. It's almost completely abstract, but that doesn't bother me.
I also have to mention 1812: The Invasion of Canada, which I jumped into fairly randomly and enjoyed. It's a hybrid wargame/Euro where three players are playing the British/Indians/Canadians and the other side is playing the American civilians/militia. It has really clean and simple rules with a decent amount of depth. Plus it plays in about an hour. It really only works with exactly two players or exactly five players, but that's the only negative thing I have to say.
Older Games - I can't believe I hadn't played Rattus before. It's a light game with elegant mechanics. Plus, who doesn't like the plague? Besides Medieval Europeans, of course.
I jumped into an annual game of Indonesia. The game was good and the players were even better. It was just a great group of guys joking and laughing through the whole experience. I didn't even feel the considerable length of the game. But what I liked was that typical economic games are fun for me, but I feel like they're over just as I get the hang of them. That wasn't a problem in this game. Also, insert obligatory complaint about the map here.
One of the most memorable games of the con was Clue: The Great Museum Caper. I sat down because I couldn't believe people were playing it. It's completely unlike Clue. One player plays an art thief and the others are trying to find him on the board. It's like a simplified version of the Scotland Yard mechanic.
So maybe I like racing games? I played TurfMaster with a group of drunk obnoxious guys and loved the mix of simplicity and subtlety in the game. Again, I'm not sure if I would have had fun if it wasn't for the company.
Finally, I have to mention Freeze. If an improv acting party game sounds appealing to you, this is a good one.
So I did expect to meet new people and play games with random strangers, and I did that. But honestly, before the con, I expected to hang out in the hot games room and start working through older games that I never played. I even had a list of 100 or so games that I had never played but wanted to. By Friday, I had completely abandoned the list and started jumping into any opportunities that I had. And this was the way to go.
I am not going to go so far as to say that the games you're playing don't matter, because I think they do. But I think the con reaffirmed my faith in the fact that people are more important than games. The right group of fun players can't turn a bad game into a good game, but they can turn an okay game into a great game and a bad game into something that wasn't a complete waste of time.
Thank you for everyone who made BGG.CON a success. If you can afford it (in terms of both money and time off) but are on the fence about going since you're wondering how much fun it could actually be, then I have to say that I expected the con to be a lot of fun and it even exceeded those expectations.
So, as mentioned in a previous post, I had a particularly bad session with my gaming group last week which led us to abandon our Mutants & Masterminds (3rd Edition) game and made me wonder if we were even going to continue at all. We scrapped the M&M game and decided to do a one-shot this week before deciding what to do next.
"I THROW A STICK OF DYNAMITE INTO THE HAND OF SORROW'S ENGINE ROOM."
We played Lady Blackbird. If you're not familiar with the game, go ahead and download it right now. This blog will be here when you're done. It's easy to find people to sing its praises, so I won't go into details. But everyone should download it. After all, it's free!
The session went fairly well and the players had fun. There was one especially crazy scene where The Owl was spinning around in the cargo bay shooting at guards as well as the cargo bay doors while Cyrus and Kale were clinging to its hull. A refueling pump was leaking all over the cargo bay and the fuel was ignited by the gunfire, causing everything to be coated in fire extinguishing foam.
The players did make a concerted effort to improvise and think on their feet, though some players were quicker thinkers and more experienced players. I am also a mean GM and tended to ask questions out of left field. For example, Who has decided to stow away in the The Owl?. It was actually some goblin floozy that Snargle picked up at The Owl's last port, who was hopelessly enamored with him. This led the player to depict Snargle as a womanizer (a goblinizer?). The great thing about the goblin female is that the details came entirely from the players with only my question to prompt them.
As for the game itself, I really need to play this game with someone else running it to see how they handle it. I have a general idea of how it's supposed to go, but I feel like I was struggling to find the right balance of giving narrative and asking questions. Also, when the party split, I found it difficult to keep everyone engaged simultaneously. Admittedly, the latter is more of a general RPG problem than a problem with Lady Blackbird.
THE NEXT STEP
Afterwards, I presented them with several choices to continue, mostly rules-light systems. I had a couple ground rules: I didn't want something too expensive and I had a fairly strong preference to avoid d20 based systems because I really wanted to do something different than normal. I did solicit their genre preferences over e-mail (since finding out that two of the players didn't find the super hero genre in the least bit compelling), to make sure that everyone would be engaged.
The winner of the poll was actually Science Fiction (Post Apocalypse), though we couldn't find a good game for that system. I didn't want to run Gamma World Roleplaying Game (7th Edition) and as this group is fairly light and jokey most times, I didn't think Apocalypse World would be a good fit. And although I thought Paranoia 25th Anniversary would be perfect for this group, one of the players had played it a few times and hated the backstabbing in the game. Plus, they didn't want to give me more opportunities to torture them.
As another player didn't want to play a Horror (Cthulhu Mythos) game, we moved to our third choice, which was Science Fiction - the space kind. The players seemed interested in both 3:16: Carnage Amongst the Stars and Diaspora, but they thought that 3:16 would have played better as a one-shot. As most of the players had played FATE before, it was an easy choice.
The game doesn't start for at least three more weeks since I'll be out of town (Yay BGG.CON!) next week and then comes Thanksgiving. But I'll definitely post updates here.
A FINAL THANK YOU
Thanks to everyone for your wonderful suggestions and encouragement on last week's thread! I got a lot of great advice and a lot to think about. The friendliness of the community on RPGGeek continues to floor me.
Earlier this week, I played one of the most fun games of Fiasco that I've experienced so far. Most of us had played before, but we had one new player so we used the "Tales From Suburbia" playset from the book.
For lack of a better term, we had two "white trash" characters in the game: Eustus and Wheeler, despite the fact that we generally tried to keep up with the upper middle class suburban setting. Eustus was a church-going fanatical Christian who was dim-witted and tried to atone for his past sins in fairly questionable ways. ("The drugs were to help me get closer to Jesus. You know communion wine? This was communion LSD.") Wheeler was trying to get out of a blackmail situation for something that had happened in the past - though the details were never fleshed out, it was certainly the murder of some kid, possibly accidental. Rounding out the characters were Preston, a spoiled rich kid in his early 20s who was also involved in the murder and Detective Kowalczek, who ran a crystal meth operation along with Preston.
One of my favorite elements was an unsavory object of "100 feral cats" between Preston and Wheeler. We decided that the cats didn't belong to either of the characters who it was connected to, but they were being blackmailed for the murder by the woman who owned the cats. The scenes with the woman were a lot of fun, and one of the scenes was punctuated with screeching cat noises courtesy of a smart phone.
The other element that was really fun was the need between Detective Kowalczek and Preston of getting even with "those dirty immigrants" - who we decided were competing Canadian drug dealers.
The game culminated in a shootout at the Canadians' house, set against the backdrop of the fallout from Eustus blowing up the meth lab with a purifying fire.
There were a few reasons that I think I really enjoyed this game in particular. We had a blast with a relatively mundane playset. In fact, the most unusual element did not dominate the entire game. When I picked "100 feral cats," I was slightly worried that they would overshadow the rest of the plot. But, although there were references to the cats throughout the game, they only dominated two scenes - enough to make it fun, but not enough to derail the whole thing.
Finally, I think it goes without saying that the game really does get to be more fun every time it's played. The hallmark of any great game is its replayability and Fiasco has that in spades.
So the results of the 2011 Critter Creation Contest are up here: 2011 RPG Geek - Critter Creation Contest - The Results!. My entry, the Patchwork Salamander, finished 8th out of 28 entries. I wanted to talk a little bit about my inspiration for the design and have my entry posted here before it disappeared into the ether.
So first off, here's the entry (with a couple of typos corrected):
Genre: Steampunk (though easily adaptable to other settings)
Attack: 7 (1=Tame, 10=Fierce)
Defense: 3 (1=Weak, 10=Strong)
Stamina: 8 (1=Weak, 10=Tough)
Speed: 2 (1=Slow, 10=Fast)
Description: The patchwork salamander is surprisingly massive, slightly larger than a clockwork pygmy elephant but smaller than a whirlybird flying apparatus. Its distinguishing characteristic is its skin: a mish-mosh of fabric and discarded clothing overlapping in patches. Those generally familiar with historical biology will recognize many features of the classic salamander: a somewhat flat head with a stunted nose and a relatively slender body with four legs jutting out to the side. Its external body is entirely made of cloth except for two glass eyes. Unique among all creatures is the salamander’s long metallic tongue, several feet in length, which is coated with a gooey residue that ensnares prey rather nefariously.
As patchwork salamanders grow, the cloth on their bodies tears and separates, forcing them to find new fabric to cover those gaps. Their bodies secrete a glue-like substance, which may be related to the residue on their tongues. As the salamander rolls on the fabric, it will attach to its skin, eventually becoming part of its body.
Origin: On the edge of the dream-blue sea was a small island, lush in vegetation but devoid of fauna except for insects. An eccentric engineer lived there with only his young daughter and clockwork creations for companionship. The daughter grew lonely and so the engineer made her small salamanders as pets. Glass and gears were cold and uninviting and so the engineer covered them with cloth. So that they might behave like real pets, the engineer gave them the ability to eat, breathe and reproduce. In the generations that followed, the salamanders grew to an enormous size in the absence of predators.
Strangely enough, the salamander is completely unrelated in origin to the patchwork newt.
Ecology: Originally confined to one island, the patchwork salamander was brought to civilized nations as a curiosity. But as a mated pair of salamanders escaped the wondrous exhibition that they were part of, they quickly bred and spread throughout cities of the world. Today, patchwork salamanders haunt alleys and sewers of urban environments, mostly feeding on small rodents and felines. However, they dastardly hunt humanoid races for both their flesh and their clothing.
Encounter Notes: The patchwork salamander lies in piles of refuse and is especially drawn to alleys behind tailor shops. Their long tongues dart through the air, striking their prey with such force to render them in a supine position. The residue on their tongues latches on to the victim as the salamander retracts its tongue, bringing the poor fellow into the salamander’s jaws.
Its primary flaw as a predator is din of whirring and clicking noises as it moves. Their bodies are particularly susceptible to weapons that cut, such as a sword or a good pair of battle scissors.
So I have recently been interested in Steampunk as I've been toying with an idea for an RPG that has a lot of steampunk elements. One thing that always occurred to me was that steampunk "monsters" either tend to be mechanical (especially clockwork) in nature or other humanoids. Although the Patchwork Salamander does have a clockwork feel, I was going for more of a "stitchpunk" aesthetic, such as in the creepy animated film 9. I think most of my favorite creatures from the competition were not the ones that tried to create critters that were adaptable to any setting, but those that felt like they belonged in a specific genre. (My Patchwork Salamander only works in other settings since steampunk itself is a mash-up of different genres.) So I was working towards evoking a particular time and place.
For me, what I'm most proud of in the entry is the voice. I very much had the idea of "implied setting" in mind. (Ryan Macklin has an excellent post on his blog on implied setting and how it relates to Lady Blackbird.) The amazing thing about that game is how it hints at a world larger than it is, which is what I was going for in my entry. I wanted to toss in details of the world without explaining them. My goal was to write about the creature in such a way that someone who actually inhabited this fictional steampunk world would describe it.
The other inspiration came from an excellent book on biogeography and evolution: Here Be Dragons by Dennis McCarthy. As I was working on the entry, I got to the part of the book where he started discussing island gigantism. Once I wondered what would happen if a mechanical creature could reproduce and evolve, everything fell into place.
Anyway, the results thread has a link to a zip file of all 28 creatures. There is definitely some good stuff in there so check it out.
So I am currently running a short campaign of Mutants & Masterminds (3rd Edition). Last night's session was not fun, and I was discussing possible improvements with the players. Much to my surprise, except for one player, none of them were having fun with the campaign. Now, there were a lot of individual opinions factoring in here, but I think I need to break down exactly what went wrong. It's really a huge combination of factors.
I am going to be somewhat careful about what I say here in case some of my players are reading. It is one of the reasons that I'm not going to provide many specific examples.
Lack of Backstory
Although there are a couple of well-conceived characters, most of them lacked an interesting and complicated backstory. Part of the problem is that we're coming off the heels of a very plot-driven Dungeons & Dragons (4th Edition) campaign, where less emphasis was placed on character development. I think that some players have gotten lazy about it and others just aren't interested in developing their characters in terms of personality and backstory. In addition, I blame things on a rather poor decision on my part: to allow players to rotate in between multiple characters. My intent was to give room for guest stars and for people to explore myriad superhero tropes, but the effect was that people didn't think their characters through. Finally, there was a distinct lack of setting. I was hoping to set things in the default M&M 3E setting (Emerald City), but the sourcebook got pushed back to next year. I decided to place things in the real world, but I wasn't able to give the players enough of a sense on how the world has been changed by the appearance of super heroes.
The System Itself
Now I don't mean to criticize the system, but only suggesting that perhaps the system isn't right for us. Part of our problem is definitely the unfamiliarity with the system. Combats took a long time at first because we were constantly looking up rules.
But I think there are larger problems that I am having with the system. First of all, there are not a lot of tactical options. Sure, you can subtract points from your attack to add some damage and vice versa, but a lot of the maneuvers don't necessarily add any depth to the game: just complexity. The system is not robust enough to be an interesting tactical exercise in its own right. A good superhero combat needs to have a healthy sprinkle of quips and plot hooks which are difficult to insert when the players aren't interested and I'm too busy looking up rules to add a lot of flavor. But it's not rules-light enough to de-emphasize the dice rolling and make it all about narrative. M&M 3E falls in this weird hybrid area where the clunky roots from Dungeons & Dragons (3rd Edition) are showing but the system hasn't been streamlined enough to just be quick-and-dirty dice-rolling.
Secondly, combat is very swingy. For those who do not know the system, an attacker makes a roll see if the attack hits or not. If it does, the defender rolls a check to see how much damage it does (called a "toughness check"). In that toughness check, anything could happen to the defender, from completely shrugging off the damage to instantly dropping unconscious. After a few rounds, players often have figured out their most effective course of action and there's no reason for them to not repeat it every round.
Blame In the Right Place
And I realize that it's easy to blame the players and the system, but part of it is my fault. I really could have spent more time creating a world or giving the players interesting hooks. Our sessions take place on weekday evenings, and I'm often too tired and too busy from work to prepare things to the level that I need to. Also, as I mentioned above, I made poor decisions in allowing people to switch out characters and not having a well-defined setting.
So, this is the crux of the post. Some of the players want something rules-light and narrative-driven while others want something with a little more tactical crunch (i.e. back to D&D). It's hard to say with this group, though, because I think everyone is pulling in different directions. The only other things besides D&D and some board games that I've played with these guys is one session of Fiasco with two of the players: one of them really liked it and one really didn't. And Spirit of the Century, which various people disliked for various reasons: a couple didn't like the setting, a couple thought it was too rules-light and one person said that he thought it had too many rules (???) - and this coming from someone who plays D&D.
So I'm at a crossroads where I can't please everyone. It's a stereotype that D&D players don't transition well into other RPGs, but in this case, it's turning out to be true. No matter what direction I go in, someone is going to be unhappy. I guess the important thing is that the unhappy person is not me.
I can't force people to insert "acting" (for lack of a better term) into their play. Also, it's difficult to just scrap the group as I've known everyone in it for at least two years.
Something drastically needs to change though. When your leisure hobbies are becoming stressful, you're doing something wrong.
This past weekend, I had a chance to run Monsters and Other Childish Things for some friends as I felt it would be something appropriate to run for Halloween, and it was my first chance to experiment with the One Roll Engine (ORE). My thoughts here are not a full-fledged review nor a session report, so I feel a blog post is more fitting.
I feel like I need to discuss the setting and the game mechanics separately. Even though they feel integrated, my impressions of each were quite different.
For those of you who don't know, Monsters is a setting where the characters are children who have horrible monstrous companions who love them dearly. Think of them like imaginary friends if the imaginary friends were actually real and the friends were bloodthirsty killers. We used pre-generated characters, whose monsters included a giant flying cephalopod, a vaguely humanoid pile of trash and an inky blackness from the depths of time and space.
The setting is amazingly inventive and is instantly appealing to anyone who was marginalized as a child. The idea of having a horrible monster to do your bidding and possibly swallow your enemies and teachers is a real crowd-pleaser. I used the adventure that was in the book, which was set in junior high. Most of the players thought that the game would have worked better set in elementary school.
Perhaps my unfamiliarity with the system as a GM showed, but I don't feel like I pushed enough with the monsters. Although the monsters are loyal, they do have a mind of their own, and I rarely had them disobey the children. Still, you cannot deny that everything about this game is simultaneously both charming and deeply disturbing: a tough combination to pull off.
A quick primer on the one-roll engine: you build a dice pool out of d10s using your ability score and relevant skill and then possibly throw in extra dice based on your relationships. When rolling you're looking for matches. So on four dice, getting 1,1,1,1 is better than 7,8,9,10 (though four tens is better than four ones). The number of matching dice is the width and the matching number is the height. So, three sixes would have a width of 3 and a height of 6, written as 3x6 for short. In this system, width represents speed and damage (in combat) while height represents finesse/accuracy and hit location (in combat).
The unique aspect of the one-roll engine is that in that one roll, everything is determined: initiative, whether or not you hit, how much damage you deal to what location. In fact, all players as well as the Game Master can roll simultaneously.
The great thing about the one-roll engine is that it's fairly intuitive even though it's quite different than any other system I've seen. Once we got the hang of it, everything was resolved quickly and we moved on to the next round of actions.
However, sometimes I felt as though so much depended on that one roll. In the system, if you take damage then you lose a die off your best matching set. So, since both damage and initiative are based on width, a width of two rarely resolved.
Are monsters better?
This topic touches on both the setting and the game mechanics, but I wonder if the children were overshadowed by the monsters. In combat, the answer was clearly yes. When I had the monsters disobey, it was frequently in combat and so at least the children could spend their actions trying to handle the monsters. But it seemed like a cop-out to do that every round. The children were no match for other monsters or any real threats and so their actions often seemed irrelevant.
In role-playing, I think the children worked better. The players really got into their roles, loosely based on archetypes from The Breakfast Club - in my game we had The Brain, The Narc and The Basket-Case. And the interplay between the children and monsters was probably the shining moment.
Yay, this post is finally over!
Most games where the characters are children don't interest me, but this is one system where it works. I also have to give major kudos to the book: the adventure was fantastic. Even an element that I was unsure about (an extremely creepy anti-drug dog character: think McGruff from your worst nightmares) turned out to be fun and memorable. It had a great plot and NPCs and really gave everyone a good sense of what the setting and game mechanics were all about. It even had some quick encounters towards the beginning, including being called to the principal's office, to give players a chance to get comfortable with the dice-rolling.
I will admit that one play is simply not enough to reach a final verdict on Monsters and Other Childish Things or the one-roll engine. I don't think I will run a game any time soon, but would definitely jump into a game at a con given the opportunity.
So, I've had several aborted attempts at blogging in my life. I've created at least three personal blogs as well as a movie criticism blog, many of which had moderate success.
What is different this time is that I'm not creating this blog for the purpose of recognition but because I feel like I have something to say.
I've recently found my interest in RPGs reawakened recently. Although I've played D&D consistently for the past eight years (starting with Dungeons & Dragons (3.5 Edition) and then converting to Dungeons & Dragons (4th Edition)), I had gotten in a rut where I would still play D&D, but lacked curiosity about other game systems.
I credit my exploration of other RPGs on a couple factors. First of all, I was experiencing general burnout with D&D, perhaps because I've played it too much. But I think the big problem was that I always said what I liked about role-playing was the balance of story-telling and tactical play. And I felt like, in my campaign at least, the tactical play had started to overshadow the story-telling aspect. Secondly, feeling this burnout, I posted here on RPG Geek asking for RPG recommendations. I received many wonderful suggestions, opening my eyes to a world beyond D&D.
Like many in my generation, I started off by playing Basic Dungeons & Dragons (more popularly known as "The Red Box"). However, in elementary school I don't know how much dice-rolling we actually did. I was the DM and I think I looked at it as more of a collaborative storytelling project. In junior high, a friend introduced me to GURPS (3rd Edition). Again, I don't have a strong memory of playing the game, though I do remember that we would get together for sessions and that we would create characters.
It wasn't long before my life was entirely consumed by chess and I had forgotten about RPGs for a little while.
Then, one day when I was in graduate school, I was at my parents' house for Christmas break - this was probably 1999. I was going through some old stuff and found my old RPG books. I wondered if I would still enjoy it. Having fonder (or at least more recent) memories of GURPS, I found a GURPS group in my area and I was hooked. Since that time, I don't think there has been a gap for more than a month or two without RPGs. It was also in this group that I discovered my love for being the Game Master.
I got back into D&D mostly because I had trouble finding GURPS players after moving to a new area. I was at Gen Con 2003 (which was practically in my backyard in Indianapolis) and found D&D games aplenty! Also, 3.5 had just been released and so there was a lot of buzz about it. I took the plunge into D&D and didn't look back until earlier this year.
I also would love to get back into RPG design. Anyone who regularly acts as a Game Master probably has a passing interest in RPG design. And it's an interest I always wish I pursued. I have written two adventures that were published by the RPGA, but never pursued things beyond that. I am hoping that this blog will provide me a place to explore ideas and hopefully finally write something.
So I want this blog to explore my journey deeper into the world of RPGs and into new experiences.