A Gnome's Ponderings

I'm a gamer. I love me some games and I like to ramble about games and gaming. So, more than anything else, this blog is a place for me to keep track of my ramblings. If anyone finds this helpful or even (good heavens) insightful, so much the better.

Archive for Lowell Kempf

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Looney Pyramids keep trucking along

Lowell Kempf
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Looney Labs has just started a Kickstarter project called Pyramid Arcade, which is the largest tool kit they've offered for their Looney Pyramids.

I've been playing with their pyramids for so long that Looney Pyramids is the third name that they've had for the system. I first started playing with them back when they were called Icehouse Pyramids. Then, they were Treehouse Pyramids. I have a feeling Looney Pyramids will stick since they finally named them after the company.

Looney Pyramids aren't a game. Instead, they're a game system. Think of them as a tool box, a collection of pieces you can use in different ways to play a wide variety of different games. Just like a deck of cards, only more pointy.

I am a big fan of game systems. Not just because they are a lot of game packed into a small space but because they really let you look at the nuts and bolts of mechanics. When you take away the chrome, you get to see all the moving parts.

Although, having just said that, the colorful stacking pyramids are awfully pretty chrome.

There's a lot of different games you can play with the pyramids, ranging from abstracts to dexterity to deduction to area control to resource management to war games. Okay, light war games. I'm pretty sure that Homeworlds qualifies as a 4X game.

There are a number of reasons I think that the pyramids have become a really good game system.

First of all, the actual pyramids themselves are very versatile. Pyramids that are stackable, come in three sizes and come in a wide variety of colors can be used in a variety of ways. And they make nice eye candy.

Second, the pyramids are really just the jumping off point. A lot of these games use boards, dice, cards or tokens. Alien City uses a whole other game system, the Piece Pack. That does kind of spoil the whole game system standing in its own (Hey, take this handful of pyramids. It's all you'll ever need) but the end result is a lot of fun, different games.

Finally, the pyramids have been supported and nurtured by both a game company and design community. One way or another, it has been supported since 1989. The pyramids are a living system that is constantly being developed by professionals and not-quite-as-professionals.

I've played about half of the twenty-two of the games that will come in the Pyramid Arcade and eight of them I'm pretty sure are original to this set. Just from what I've played alone, I know it's a good collection.

The one glaring omission to the set is Zendo, which is my favorite pyramid game. Unfortunately, Zendo would require a different distribution of colors. On the other hand, you can still use the set to play Zendo, just not using colors. Really, you can use a handful coins to play Zendo if you felt like it.

And one of the stretch goals is to work on a sequel project that would allow people to play Zendo and other older games that used the older color distribution.

Looney Labs has already reached their funding goal. I think they might've done it on the first day. The pyramids have been around for decades and they have really proven themselves as a gaming system.

https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/looneylabs/pyramid-arca...

http://www.icehousegames.org/wiki/index.php?title=Main_Page

Originally posted at http://www.gnomepondering.com
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Mon Apr 11, 2016 5:42 pm
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Alone with just the shogoths

Lowell Kempf
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Monophobia is a collection of three Call of Cthulhu adventures that are specifically designed for just one player. After I already wrote about two player games and Lovecraftian ones in particular, I knew I had to read it.

Since these are adventures, I'm going to try not to give too many spoilers away. After all, there may be folks out there who want to play these adventures.

There are three things I judge RPG adventures these days: Did I enjoy reading it? Do I think it would be fun to run or play? Can they be mined for ideas for homebrew adventures?

Vengeance from Beyond is an adventure about the investigator being haunted by an angry ghost who will drive them to insanity if not stopped. Frankly, it is my least favorite of the three adventures and I think it's the weakest.

That's because it really has the narrowest range of options for the player. There's only one way to deal with the ghost. If the player doesn't figure that one way out, that's it for the investigator. It's a bit like a railroad where you have to find the track.

Frankly, that can be a real problem with Call of Cthulhu adventures in general. Sometimes, they read more like a script than an adventure and this is far from the worst case I've read.

Of Grave Concern has the investigator dealing with a zombie wizard who keeps swapping bodies with them with the long term goal of taking over their body forever.

This is my favorite adventure of the lot. The player has a lot of avenues to explore and ways to go about their investigation. It has much more of a sandbox feel. And, while there's only one way to put the zombie down, it's a lot more reasonable than Vengeance from Beyond.

Robinson Gruesome has the investigator become a castaway on a desert island where they have to resonantly Mythos cultists and the horror they worship. It's actually a very simple adventure with a fairly tight timeline for what all the evil types are doing. However, the investigator has a lot of leeway in what they can do.

But what I really like about this adventure is that it can be mined for more ideas for adventures. While the Cthulhu genre is no stranger to Robinsonades (Dagon by Lovecraft for instance), I haven't seen a lot of adventures that use it. You could build a whole campaign around being a stranded island.

All through out all three adventures, there's advice how to handle only having one player and how to make sure that bad dice rolls don't kill them. After all, poor planning and bad decisions on the part of the player can take care of that just that fine.good advice goes a long way towards making this a good supplement.

Monophobia isn't perfect but it does a good job tackling the idea of running one-on-one Call of Cthulhu in three different ways. It's pretty much a must read for anyone interested in that.

http://www.unboundbook.org/?p=82

Originally posted at http://www.gnomepondering.com
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Fri Apr 8, 2016 10:07 pm
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Exploring different kinds of distance

Lowell Kempf
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One Missed Call is a short form role playing game for two people trust explores physical and emotional distance. Seriously, some of these short form games are one researcher short of a psychological experiment.

(My wife pointed out to me that there is a movie called One Missed Call, which is an adaptation of the Japanese horror movie, with the distinguished rating on Rotten Tomatoes of 0%. Which means taping two people playing this game would probably garner better ratings.)

In One Missed Call, the players play two people are are far from each other and are either drifting apart or coming together. You sit back to back so you can't see each other and play out phone calls.

At the start of the game, you decide how physically apart you are and each person secretly decides if you are coming together or falling apart.

You then will phone each other. Note I don't say take turns. Let's be painfully honest, life doesn't act so fairly either. The non-calling player has a choice of answering or not. If they don't, then the other player has a choice of leaving a voicemail or not.

Each player has a list of phrases. Comes with the game, you don't pick them out yourself. They include things like I love you and I'm sorry I couldn't make it. When you say them, you check them off your list. After you have checked all of them off, you can't make any more calls or answer any calls.

After you have three minutes of silence, probably awkward silence, the game ends.

One Missed Call strikes me as the kind of game that I don't really want to play but I think does a good job doing what it sets out to do. On paper, it is about physical distance and physical separation. Of course and obviously, it's about exploring emotional separation.

As with any game like this, the players are going to get as much as they put in the game. The rules freely admit that you might be very casual and flippant with your phrases. And that works too because that's another way of coping with emotional separation.

There are even rules for playing via email or real phones or even the post office. Frankly, I think that might be a good way to make the game real. Perhaps too real.

One Missed Call really reminds me of Slower Than Light from Twenty Four Game Poems by Marc Majcher, which is a collection of very short forms. In Slower Than Light, you were communicating with the other players by passing notes. However, with every turn, everyone grows farther apart. You have to wait more and more turns in order to read a note until, at the end of the game, you leave with one note unread.

While I am not a fan of every game in Twenty Four Game Poems, I do think that Slower Than Light is pretty brilliant. With a very simple mechanic, it does a wonderful job of demonstrating growing distances.

Physical distance and, more importantly, emotional distance are very powerful things. Both One Missed Call and Slower Than Light create a way for people to discuss them.

http://lessthanthreegames.com/onemissedcall/

Orginally posted at http://www.gnomepondering.com
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Thu Apr 7, 2016 2:53 pm
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Role playing for just two

Lowell Kempf
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Role playing games that are designed for two people has always seemed like an odd design space for me. Since my earliest experiences with games like Dungeons and Dragons, role playing has always been a group activity. Even mechanics light, narrative driven games likes Fiasco or Microscope benefit from having more voices and imaginations thrown in.

But the idea of two player games have been around for a while. One of the earliest examples that I remember running across was Paper Chase, an adventure for Call of Cthulhu who specifically designed for one keeper and one player. Heck, that one was in the third edition basic rule book.

I have heard it argued, quite convincingly, that horror games are best played with only one player. After all, everything is scarier when you are all alone. There is an entire Lovecraftian system called Macabre Tales designed for two-players and a noted collection of Call of Cthulhu adventures called Monophoboa.

And, over the last few years, I have found some interesting two player systems. Beast Hunters, Martian Colony, and Murderous Ghosts to name three very strong examples. Incidentally, all three of them have fairly tight structures for play.

Beast Hunters has the players swap the role of GM back and forth with a budget for threats. Murderous Ghosts actually uses a paired set of Choose Your Own Adventure style books for the mechanics, although you fill in all of the narrative details with your own imagination. Martian Colony's mechanical structure resembles a resource management, push your luck board game!

While there are some obvious benefits to only having two people involved in a game (like only having two schedules to worry about), there's a lot of issues as well. For instance, a lot of systems are designed to have a variety of abilities to tackle problems. (I cast magic missile/swing my sword/backstab the kobold! You kill it! And the other eight kobolds swarm you.)

Also, and this can definitely be the case in a Call of Cthulhu adventure, is that having only one brain working on a problem means the lone player can miss clues or other plot points. (Monophobia actually recommends using idea rolls to let the keeper flat out give clues player)

Two-player games also can have a stronger level of intimacy than group games. I've read more than a few which are actually about romance, with Emily Care Boss's Breaking the Ice being the one I'm the most interested in reading and researching. Whether or not this is a good or a bad thing depends on whose playing, I guess.

Two player games don't interest me as much as GM-free systems do. However, there's no denying there's a wide variety of them out there, both from a mechanical angle and thematic angle. It's a sub-genre of role playing games with some interesting ideas.


Originally posted at http://www.gnomepondering.com
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Thu Apr 7, 2016 2:50 pm
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The Final Girl - having fun with slashers but no GM

Lowell Kempf
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While I have yet to play The Final Girl, it's been a game that has been discussed in my circles for years. And, while its focus isn't something I am deeply interested or invested in, rereading it has made me appreciate it more.

You see, The Final Girl is another GM-free system, something I spend a lot of time writing about. I promise that I'm going to write about games that actually involve using a game master one of these days. Since I've been looking at so many systems based around that idea and The Final Girl makes some very smart voices for making it work.

First off, The Final Girl is an RPG about creating a B horror movie. While the title implies that you will be pulling out a slasher of some sort, the system will work with zombie apocalypses or alien invasions or even giant radioactive dinosaurs from under the sea.

It uses a Troupe System, which is honestly how most GM-free systems work. In a lot of Troupe Systems, the players take turn being the focus of the scene while everyone else acts as a collective game master. In The Final Girl, players take turns playing the slasher (or monstrous killing force of some kind or another) and directing the scene. So you take turns being the game master for everyone else.

And no one actually owns character. Characters are just names down on index cards and put in the middle of the table as a pool for everyone to draw from. Characters will develop relationships with each other, which can be friendship or rivalry or screwing, which counts as both friendship and rivalry. (Horror movie, remember?)

These relationships can influence a character's chance of surviving an encounter with the slasher, one way or the other. When the slasher decides to kill someone or everyone, you basically play War with a deck of cards to see who dies.

Of course, you reach endgame when you're down to X number of characters, which depends on the number of players. You can only have so many characters in the final showdown, after all. Which could result in everyone dying, by the way.

There are a number of things that I like about the design of The Final Girl. I like the variation on Troupe Play. The player playing the slasher could end up being game master entirely for that scene or the group could come together to create the scene with the slasher just picking who to kill.

I also like the fact that it has a playing time of under two hours. Part of the reason why I even started looking into games like this is because I don't have time to play in a campaign.

While I do enjoy the occasional horror movie, it isn't a genre that I'm really focused on. Really, I tend to go in more for cosmic horror, like good old Lovecraft. So that's something I'm pretty indifferent about when it comes to the system. I do realize that, with the right group of people, it can really inspire.

The fact that the system is designed to create your own horror movie without a lot of flexibility beyond that doesn't bother me. Seriously, a lot of these games are tightly focused and I'm not going to knock an intentional design choice like that. Not every game can be a sandbox.

Truth to tell, the focus of The Final Girl is both a strength and a weakness. On the one hand, you're using a genre that most people understand. It won't be too hard to get a game going. On the other hand, between the horror genre and that no characters belonging to anyone, you're not going to get a lot of serious depth.

In comparison, while Fiasco also embraces movie genres, it's a lot more set up for character development. And other GM-free systems like Polaris or Ribbon Drive really make character development the primary focus.

That isn't necessarily a weakness of The Final Girl. It's just something that you have to know going in.

The Final Girl isn't a deep game that will change your life or redefine how you see role playing games. It should be good for a couple hours of silly fun with horror movies, though.

Originally posted on http://www.gnomepondering.com
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Thu Mar 31, 2016 3:03 am
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Exploring and defining your very own cold and uncaring universe

Lowell Kempf
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Imagine, if you will, that you are an escaped convict from an intergalactic prison. You and your fellow escaped convicts have managed to take control of a spaceship of mysterious origins. You are now wandering alone in the vast universe with no one but with other conflicts you might not trust, searching for a place where you can be safe, a place you can call home.

That is the basic premise of Vast and Starlit, a role-playing game that basically takes up four large business cards if you include all the expansions. No game master is required to play, which is something of a theme for the games that I have been looking at lately, but you will need plenty of imagination and the ability to collaborate.

Vast and Starlit uses a Troupe System, which was first described in Ars Magica. It means players take turns being the focal character in a scene while everyone else handles the setting and all the other characters. So, you could call in GM by committee. It still means that one of the biggest reasons to use a GM-free system still applies, no one has to spend hours outside of the game setting everything up.

Like Astrorobbers by the same designer and The Name of God which Vast and Starlit helped influence, a scene ends when there's some kind of tough decision that needs to be made, particularly when someone could get hurt. One of the players sets up the consequences of that choice and you move on to a new focal player and a new scene.

Which isn't a bad core mechanic. It keeps everyone involved and encourages creativity. It also, interestingly enough, doesn't involve any random elements, like rolling a die or drawing a card. I've gotten to the point in looking at quirky RPGs where I take that in stride.

But that's not what makes Vast and Starlit interesting. Oh, no. The system has a whole bunch of smaller systems to help you develop alien races and worlds and technology, as well as handling long term conflict and relationships.

Which is kind of impressive, considering how short the whole thing is.

The various world building mechanics are really what is interesting for me about the game. It takes a very round robin approach. For instance, when creating aliens, players will take turns choosing animals and cultures while other players choose aspects of other players' choices. Not design by committee but refinement by assembly line. It's a system that shouldn't get bogged down and should come up with something interesting.

I really like the idea of world building like that. There is a definite process, so you're not just all sitting around, hoping to start brainstorming. It gets everyone involved but no one gets to veto anyone else. That last bit is big. Ideas keep getting built up, not torn down.

Vast and Starlit definitely has some potential. I can even picture being able to play it as a campaign rather than as a one shot, even though I'm not looking for campaign play right now. The theme reminds me of the start of Blake's 7 or the first couple seasons of Farscape but there's a lot you can do within it. When the universe is your cold and uncaring playground, the stars are the limit.

That said, I'm more interested in trying out The Name of God. I think it has a tighter structure and more tightly interlocking systems. When so much of a game is free for, what structures you do have are very important. But that's just me.

Vast and Starlit opens up a lot of creative doors in just a few pages.

https://dig1000holes.wordpress.com/vast-starlit/

Originally posted on http://www.gnomepondering.com
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Fri Mar 25, 2016 11:38 pm
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Is Print and Play regional?

Lowell Kempf
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I've been interested in print and play for years. For me, it's been a niche in my personal hobby. It's become more of a focus over the last couple years but I don't think it will be ever central to my gaming life.

However, I also live in the US. That's not quite the center of the gaming universe but it's pretty darn close. We have a lot of homegrown companies and a good chunk of the European releases make it over here within a year via local distributors.

But over the years, I've read about how expensive if it is to get games in some regions. (Yes, Australia, I'm looking at you)

if I lived in Australia, which is not going to happen, even though I do have family there and I think the Wiggles are some of the greatest children's entertainers in the world, would print and play be a much bigger part of my hobby?

Originally posted on http://www.gnomepondering.com
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Fri Mar 25, 2016 3:09 pm
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A child's journey to the moon

Lowell Kempf
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The entire time I was reading A Trip to the Moon by Matthijs Holter, I had 'I'm Your Light in the Night Sky' from the Pajaminals running through my head (I am a parent of a toddler) and when I was done, I found myself thinking that that was the closest I have come so far to reading the Little Prince the RPG.

A Trip to the Moon is a very simple short form RPG. It borders on being a GM free system, although one player will play the moon and that borders on being the game master in some ways. It is also a very sweet game with one of its guiding principles being that you should treat each other well.

In A Trip to the Moon, almost all the players will play children who are somehow magically visiting the moon. The one person who doesn't play a child is going to play the moon itself. The ultimate goal of the game is to tell the kind of bedtime story that will help a child go to sleep and have sweet dreams.

While each stage of the game has a different set of rules, there are three rules that always apply. Always listen to each other. Accept with the other people have to say and work with it. Always create something that a child would like to hear.

At the start of the game, you dim the lights and everyone sits down on a pillow and snuggles up in a blanket. The game is entirely spent as a conversation, with everyone having a turn to speak. You will use something like a tennis ball or other token so you know whose turn it is to speak. You should use simple, clear sentences with one idea.

The game gently progresses in stages. The players create children and choose which children they will play. They describe how they go up to the moon and then the moon will interact with them. When the children grow sleepy, the moon will send them home where they can go to bed.

I have looked at a lot of games that don't require game masters and play with storytelling and push the limits of what you can do with role-playing. In many ways, A Trip to the Moon succeeds in doing all of that but by going in the opposite direction then I am used to.

Honestly, I think the biggest hurdle a group will have with this game is that there is not only no conflict, but an active requirement to be nice to each other.

I have also looked at a lot of games with an eye for playing them with children, ignoring the fact that my son will probably only be interested in baseball. While the goal of A Trip to the Moon is to have adults embrace being childlike, I think it would work well with real children.

Part of what makes the game so accessible to my mind is that, despite the amount of free-form it allows, it also has a very tight structure. There are distinct stages that you go through as you play the game. I think that would make it work well with people not used to role-playing games, as well as children.

A Trip to the Moon is a game defies most of what I expect in an indie game and it's even out of the Nordic School. But it's one that I think would be a really good one to play. It's a game about creating a safe environment and I haven't seen many like that.

https://norwegianstyle.wordpress.com/2007/12/06/a-trip-to-th...

Originally posted on http://www.gnomepondering.com
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Fri Mar 25, 2016 3:08 pm
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Getting ready for Skype-based board gaming

Lowell Kempf
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Every year, a group of my friends get together in Ohio in order to play games. A little, private micro-convention we call Nitro Billy. However, since we moved to Arizona, going to that gathering of friends has really been impossible.

However, last year, I was able to pay them a visit through the power of Skype. Ever since we moved across the country and away from almost all of our friends and family, both Skype and FaceTime have been really wonderful ways to keep in touch. Seriously, I don't know how my parents did it back in the day when long-distance calls were expensive and the only other option from writing letters snail mail.

Truth to tell, there are a lot of boardgames that you can play via Skype. Last year, while I was visiting the gathering via Skype, I got in a really good game of Pentago and several rounds of Galloping Pigs. If I really wanted to, I probably could have supplied them with a long list of good games.

However, this year I decided to suggest just one game that I felt would be very easy to play via Skype, even in a crowded room full of people playing lots of different games. Instead of trying to push the bar, I try to set the bar at something that would be the absolute easiest to play.

Sometimes, you need to seek out the challenge. Other times, you have to avoid the challenge in order to make sure that everyone has the best time possible.

So I told them that we should play Cities, a game that I've already mentioned in this blog. Cities is literally multiplayer solitaire, with everyone placing the same tiles on their board in order to build their own city in place their own set of meeples as tourists in the city.

We don't even have to see each other's boards. In fact, as long as everyone has their own set of tiles and meeples, you could play this game via conference call.

And I know the group has at least one set of Cities because I gave it to them. And I, of course, have my own set.

As I said, there are a lot of games that you could potentially play. Really, any game without hidden information and board isn't too big to fit on the camera could work. And if someone wanted to set up a scrabble tile holder for the cards and set them in front of the camera (which we have done), card games can work too.

But, as I've already said, I think it's best if we go with something that is easy and doesn't create additional complications.

And, yeah, we could do something like online games with headsets or the like but it's isn't the same as actually using real cardboard tiles and real wooden meeples.

Originally posted on http://www.gnomepondering.com
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Fri Mar 18, 2016 10:17 pm
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Astrorobbers might push minimalism too far

Lowell Kempf
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While I had been looking for Astrorobbers after Alessandro Piroddi referred to it in his design notes for The Name of God, I stumbled upon it completely by accident.

You see, the game is actually in a free pamphlet called 'What is a Roleplaying Game' with no hint that it might be called Astrorobbers. Heck, for all I know, the game might technically not have a name and Astrorobbers is just a knick name. I found it when I was looking for Vast and Starlit, another game by Epidiah Ravachol, and decided to take a look at it.

Astrorobbers uses a stripped down version of Vast and Starlit. The original version of Vast and Starlit was designed to fit onto a large business card and Astrorobbers is a stripped down version of that. Wow.

Astrorobbers is basically a heist movie, a la Oceans Eleven or the Italian Job or Reservoir Dogs. The players are a group of criminals who are planning a big job. The twist is that they are also astronauts since who's going to suspect a bunch of NASA astronauts to be robbing a bank on the day that they are blasting off into space? Of course, since this is a heist movie, there are going to be complications and things are going to go terribly wrong.

Mechanically, Astrorobbers is a GM – free system with the players basically acting as a troupe. You take turns playing the focal character while everyone else fills in the world around them. The scene ends when you reach a critical decision, with the non-focal players offering consequences for the decision.

The theme really only comes into play with mechanics in a couple of ways. One player has to plan the heist while another is the commander of the space mission and one person has to plan to turn themselves into the authorities. Beyond that, the game ends when everyone is captured or dead or in orbit.

Since the game consists of a cover page and one page of rules, it only took me about a minute to read through it. And I don't regret taking that minute. The theme is certainly kooky but not so kooky that you could use it. And it is always interesting to look at a minimalist system, which Astrorobbers definitely is.

At the same time, Astrorobbers is really more of a thought experiment for me then a game I could never see myself playing. Simply put, I want to see more structure.

Technically, a game like Baron Munchaussen has fewer rules. You're a bunch of nobleman drinking in a bar and telling stories with the only mechanic being away to interrupt each other. However, in one sentence, I've described the framework that the game works around. With Astrorobbers, you pretty much have to build the framework yourself with the theme just being a suggestion.

And yes, with the right group of players, that won't be a problem. Heck, I have played with that right group of players more than once. However, a framework and a structure gives you the parameters of what you are exploring. Astrorobbers is so free-form that you can do anything with it. The author freely admits that you can use the rules to do something completely different.

A good narrative game should give you a lot of freedom. However, it should also give you the tools that you use to create the story. A good set of rules should not restrict you. A good set of rules should inspire you and guide you, challenge you to find different ways to think outside the box. Unfortunately, I just don't think there's enough to Astrorobbers to really do that.

However, I'm not going to knock it for that. Both the Name of God and the author's own Vast and Starlit build on these rules to make much more interesting and inspiring games.

The ideas in Astrorobbers are fine, they just don't go far enough. But, hey, it's a free giveaway. Asking it to change the world seems a bit much.

https://dig1000holes.wordpress.com/what-is-a-roleplaying-gam...

Originally posted on http://www.gnomepondering.com
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Fri Mar 18, 2016 8:36 pm
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