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Roleplaying Perspective Part IV: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

Charles Simon
United States
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I'm starting up a Pathfinder campaign. While I am very excited for the game, it has spurred a lot of thoughts about roleplaying games and what the systems should do as opposed to what they actually do. This will be part of an ongoing series of discussions about roleplaying games and their nature and purpose as I come to grips with my game.

In the third part I talked about how D&D/Pathfinder invest you in your character, or at least it seems to, but the reality is that the systems to not invest you whatsoever. In this final part, I talk about how much all of this matters and will impact my game.

So, D&D/Pathfinder is a system with flaws and whose mechanisms are primarily for the purposes of tactical combat that has no systems in place for roleplaying or storytelling. The question then becomes, "How much of this will matter in my campaign and why am I playing Pathfinder?"

The immediate response to how much will it matter is: a lot. I am running a campaign where the characters are all the third or fourth born children of powerful noble houses in the kingdom. The characters are influential, but too far back in lineage to be in line to become heir. Essentially the campaign is designed to have a political tilt to it.

However, using the systems in Pathfinder, that means that we'll be making a lot of Diplomacy checks and that's it.

I don't want to avoid combat--this is a fantasy world and there are monsters and dangers around. However, I am dismayed that combat is the principle manner of advancement. First level characters can have, at most, 1 skill rank in Diplomacy. They cannot put another rank into Diplomacy until they reach second level. The literally cannot become more diplomatic until they kill fifteen goblins.

Combat in D&D and Pathfinder can be fun. I'm not opposed to them at all. However, too many combats become repetitive and slow down the story. Combats eventually tend to become stale and boring and I found that in my 3.0 and 3.5 campaigns that I would continually introduce new elements into the combats just to liven them up--slick surfaces, torrential downpours, more roleplaying of the monster's actions and movements instead of determining the best tactical position to move them in.

The reality of the game is that Diplomacy will rarely be rolled to determine most things. We will roleplay and act out what is being said and use dice when things are questionable or if I want to keep the reaction to their words a little more random.

As for why I am playing Pathfinder after bashing the flaws on the system, it is in large part familiarity. This isn't just meaning the rules, but also the history that we all have in D&D. Warts and all, we know the feel of the systems.

Each of us has amazing and awesome memories of characters and campaigns that we played in the past. As I pointed out, none of these memories are really supported by the system--they all came from things outside of the system--but we still associate those moments and memories with "playing D&D".

And I'm okay with that.

I love all of the indie roleplaying games that I talked about. I think each of them is far better at creating systems to tell stories and roleplay within. However, I will admit to the fact that I am conditioned to accept D&D/Pathfinder's character advancement methods as feeling "correct".

That is a little sad since I just went through a whole ordeal of pointing out how they are false investments. But they are familiar. Every MMO uses that model. Just about every video game RPG uses that model. I am excited to level up my Squirtle.

That doesn't stop me from wanting more, however.

I would be much more happy with all of the tactical combat rules bloat and the insane power escalations with the challenges escalating at the same insane power rate if at least the game also included systems for story and roleplaying.

I wouldn't mind the D&D advancements that much if they also allowed for systems of ties to other characters and NPCs. I would love to see that the heroes rescued the princess and now have five strings on her.

I would love it if there were systems wherein at the start of the session, the DM could ask the players what their character's goals were for the session. They could be as open ended or esoteric as befits the character. It could be as concrete as "Stopping the goblin raids" and "Sleeping with the shopkeeper's daughter", or as open as "Convincing people that I am not the coward they think I am" or "Trying to be a better person". Then, at the end of the session, have experience be rewarded by means of how well they progressed along their personal goals. Smaller goals reap less reward than larger ones.

Systems like this focus on the character and are meaningful and personal. I could gain a level without ever hitting a single goblin with a stick.

I could house rule that goal-based XP system if I wanted to, but it wouldn't work.

First of all, I stand by the fact that there are so many wonderful RPGs out there, that if I am so opposed to something that I have to make major house rules like that one, they why I am playing the system that I am playing?

But second, advancement makes you better at killing things. So it wouldn't make sense that I'm suddenly a better Fighter because I boinked the shopkeeper's daughter.

The other thing that turned me off to Pathfinder was when I happened to come across their FAQ. I understand where FAQs for systems are necessary for clarification and errors, but the long document is just a treatise of minutiae where there are new rulings superseding previous rulings. Not a single FAQ question was answered with: "Whatever works best for your campaign."

Again, this reinforces the lack of trust between the DM and the players.

But I want to reinforce and rely on trust. We are playing a campaign set in a kingdom where the characters have lived all of their life. I've given some principle characters in their pasts for them to interact and have relationships with, but in reality, they are young nobles who should have friends and know people.

I want to trust my players to add to the story. I am fine with my players entering a tavern and saying, "What do I see and who is here?" But I'm also completely fine with my players saying, "We go to the Branded Unicorn Pub to find Kells Jasper, a kid I grew up with who got involved with petty thievery." The Branded Unicorn Pub never existed before then and I've never heard the name Kells Jasper before.

I don't want to be DM to tell my story. I want to be DM to moderate our story.

I want my players to say, "I jump up and grab the chandelier to swing across the room to get past those guards and reach the fleeing thief," even if I never said that there was a chandelier in the room. I'm there to say, "This is a barn, there are no chandeliers." But I'm also there to say, "Great! The chandelier hangs low in the mansion's foyer. Give me an Acrobatics roll."

It isn't to say I want anarchy and players saying, "I pull a Vorpal Sword +5 from my backpack." But then again, I trust that my players wouldn't do that.

I've talked to my wife about the different indie RPGs that we've played and other ideas and systems. She says that she doesn't like the systems where she has to act as the DM or Storyteller.

But the thing about how I want to play is that the DM is there to be the bookkeeper and arbiter and to set story and challenges and introduce danger and threat. She wouldn't have to worry about being the DM. But she's been the Storyteller a lot without realizing it.

In the first campaign I played with her, her character Erineese flirted and became romantic with the NPC accountant Cromwell. This was the story she introduced. And that story impacted the party and everything else. The NPC accountant who was supposed to be in just one adventure was hired by the party and later, because of her character's actions, became a more dominant NPC in the stories and even had party storylines and adventures that were sparked because of him.

We let the players create stories that affect our world all of the time. In fact, we encourage them to do it.

So why not trust them with a little more power to make a chandelier hanging from the room or a well in the middle of town or to know a little dive of a bar that he used to frequent when he was younger where he met a couple of people who might be able to help him along?

So, in the end, I'm comfortable with the campaign using the Pathfinder system, even though it is a terrible system for everything that I want to do in a campaign.

And that's because there is a trust between me and my players. We'll have fun regardless of the system and we'll all tell some fun and entertaining stories together. But all of this is regardless of the system. I have hundreds of dollars of books consisting of thousands of pages of combat options that will ultimately be the slowest and least interesting part of the game and all of the most memorable parts will be from things not covered in the rules.

But it's familiar. And we're conditioned to the false investment it gives.

I've always said that with the right people, I could have fun roleplaying in any system. And that's true. But maybe one day there will be a fantasy based system that we will have fun roleplaying with it instead of having fun roleplaying despite it.

Originally posted on my blog Do Not Taunt Cthulhu (And Other Useful Tips)
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Wed May 21, 2014 9:05 pm
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Roleplaying Perspective Part III: False Investments

Charles Simon
United States
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I'm starting up a Pathfinder campaign. While I am very excited for the game, it has spurred a lot of thoughts about roleplaying games and what the systems should do as opposed to what they actually do. This will be part of an ongoing series of discussions about roleplaying games and their nature and purpose as I come to grips with my game.

In the second part I talked about what different roleplaying systems do well. D&D/Pathfinder don't really do roleplaying or storytelling well. However, the systems that do those well are often very pigeon-holed into a very specific theme or motif in order to give structured storytelling systems. In this part I talk about another thing that D&D/Pathfinder does well, at least on the surface, which is investing players in their characters.

Beyond the tactical combat, if there is one thing that D&D/Pathfinder does really well, it is investing the players in their characters.

There is something about all those numbers on your sheet. It is by far nowhere near my favorite method of creating characters, but even with my disdain of it, I have to admit that there is a very alluring draw to seeing those numbers and watching them grow.

When I gain a level and suddenly I'm adding all of those +1's to all of the sections of my sheet, it is thrilling. I'm a little better at hitting things now. I have a little more skill in some other things now. My saving throws are a little bit better now.

It is a carrot on a stick as you are constantly chasing more and more numbers to put onto that sheet of yours. But it works. It is engaging to see those numbers on your sheet grow. It is a tangible goal that you can strive toward.

One Thousand and One Nights has a really interesting character creation system. You create your character by describing them with each of the five senses. So I could smell of oranges and sweat, but I always see the best in the people around me despite the fact that I carry the bitter taste of defeat in my mouth. This is further expanded by your character having something that you envy about another player's character.

While this is a fantastic system to create a character who would be wonderful at being a part of an engaging story, it doesn't have the same draw as those damned numbers. Character advancement is a driving goal, a carrot on a stick. And the problem with character systems like this is that you are compelled to advance the story, which is wonderful. However, advancing the character is missing.

Those damn numbers end up feeling comfortable and happy. I know that I have gotten better because +4 to hit is obviously better than +3 to hit. My god, I remember when I only had a +1 to hit. I was such an amateur back then.

But the thing about this is those numbers aren't what makes a character interesting or even compelling. I don't know why we are drawn to them in the game, but we are.

Like I said previously, they aren't even what draws us to our memorable moments. The stories that I will tell about my characters aren't about my 19 Dexterity or my +8 to hit. They will instead be about the accomplishments and deeds that I accomplished. I will tell you about how I snuck past the guards or how I saved the princess or about how I was able to recover the powerful MacGuffin Artifact of Doom.

That's where those numbers become important. Because they make you better at performing the feats that tell the stories.

But they don't. Not really. Because there are systems in place to scale the difficulty. At first level, I rescue the princess from three goblins. At twentieth level, I rescue the princess from a Demon Lord and his pet dragon.

If I send a great wyrm red dragon at a party of first level characters, they will die. So I would really be a shit DM if I were to attack the party with it. So instead, I'll attack the party with a couple goblins. Similarly, if the party were all well geared 12th level characters, I wouldn't attack them with three goblins. We would be wasting everyone's time in resolving the fight.

So why do those increasing numbers mean so much to us when all it means is that the challenges are going to increase at a well-scripted and defined pace to be equal with the current numbers?

It's purely psychological. +4 is obviously better than +1 even though that means I'll be fighting monsters that also have a +4 instead of just a +1. And advancement continues on as it becomes more and more unwieldy.

Games deteriorate after fifth level as players become more and more powerful and combats are forced to become bigger and bigger with nastier and nastier monsters with more and more effects and abilities and resistances. After a campaign ends, people look back at it and think back about how much fun those early low level adventures were.

But, at the same time, no player ever really adds his +1's when they level and sigh and say, I'm too powerful now. We are conditioned to think those advancement goals are good and we want them.

But those advancement goals, however meaningless they are when threats scale to your current level, are important for investment. You want to feel like your character is getting better and improving. Since D&D/Pathfinder has no systems for roleplaying and story, the only way that you can reflect that you are getting better and improving in any tangible way is to add +1 to the numbers on your character sheet.

But I really feel like that is a false investment. Let's say that you are playing Gustov, an 8th level fighter character and you have saved the town numerous times and are regarded as a hero and liked by the local population. You have established a rivalry with a noble house and you believe that they are secretly trying to hinder your goals. You have won the eye of the princess, but you are not royal and as such you're relationship with her is complicated.

Then Gustov dies. You get eaten and swallowed up by a dragon turtle.

You roll up a new character to reenter the game. You get the exact same ability rolls and you make him the exact same race and class. You start your new character at 8th level and you have every single bonus and ability and piece of armor and items that your old character has.

But it's not the same character. Those numbers are exactly the same as the numbers that were on the other sheet. Hell, you even named yourself Gustov Jr.

But the character is different because you lost the stories associated with the original character.

That is the true investment in a character. We get caught up in those numbers and they have an amazing psychological effect. We all want to add the +1's and we are all happy when we can. But that isn't really what the character is.

Many of the independent systems that I wrote about in the last part are really only meant to be played as a single session or over the course of 2-3 nights. They are designed to tell a singular story, but then they are over once the story is over. So there is no real advancement or investment in the characters needed other than to advance that singular story.

But my issue with D&D/Pathfinder is that when you do have that advancement and investment, the only systems in place advance your combat abilities which the challenges are designed to always match. Nothing on that sheet reflects what you gained in story or how your relationships with other NPCs or even the other PCs has changed or increased.

Monster Hearts is a roleplaying game about playing the messy lives of teenage monsters. You could be a witch, or a vampire, or a werewolf, or a ghost, or an infernal, or just a mortal. But you are a teenager who is secretly a monster. And being a monster is really almost just an additional allegory to how difficult being a teenager is.

The game is about loss of control and sex. These are two themes that overlap strongly with both monster stories and being a teenager. But one of the fascinating things that it does is that it comes up with a system to represent this urges when it comes to other players.

Whenever you turn someone on, shut someone down, or lash out physically at someone you gain a String on them. Strings are tangible markers of influence over another person. There are systems in place for using your powers to do many of these, such as turning people on. Now, if I turn you on, that doesn't mean that you will suddenly sleep with me. But perhaps I made you blush and I saw it. I now know that I have that over you. I have a String on you that I can spend later to manipulate die rolls with you, or to manipulate them and ask them to do whatever you want (they can refuse, but if they accept, they gain and experience point), or you can use to it place Conditions on them.

But this is a tangible Story investment I have on my character. If I have three Strings on Mr. Bradley, the high school science teacher, it says something and it is a tangible story reward. If I have two strings on your character, then I have a tangible sense of reward on my sheet, but also something that tells a story.

Characters also have sex moves. Essentially, things that occur when they have sex with another character or NPC. If a Fae lies naked with another, they can ask them for a promise. If they refuse, the Fae gains 2 strings on them. When a Vampire denies someone sexually, they gain a string on them. However, if a Vampire has sex with someone, they lose all strings on that person.

Monster Hearts is amazing at making emotion tangible rewards. Sex and sexuality are dangerous though, because you are teenagers. I may be a straight male, but your male character turned me on. My body betrayed me like teenage bodies often do. As a result you have something over me. As my peer you can use what you know about me now to manipulate me. That is what being a teenager is about.

Now, Monster Hearts focuses on a very specific thing--teenage angst and sexuality. But it shows that systems for character development, relationships and story can have deep and interesting systems to them.

Looking back at Gustov and Gustov Jr. Their character sheets are identical, except for the Jr. added to the second one's name. But the characters are wildly different because of the experiences and stories and relationships that one had. But none of that is reflected in the sheet or in any of your stats.

The things that makes a character a real character are not represented in D&D/Pathfinder with any systems at all. Instead we get more +1's to add.

What if, instead of those +1's, you could spend your experience on things like Relationships or Influences or buying off Rivals? What if your character sheet actually reflected the deeds that you did and the relationships you forged and the consequences that resulted from them?

Instead we invest ourselves in those damn numbers and getting those +1's to sprinkle around on our sheet. That isn't your character. If it were, Gustov Jr. would feel exactly the same as Gustov. But he doesn't.

And my problem is that D&D/Pathfinder invests the players in false rewards. Your encounters will scale accordingly. Those things don't mean anything. But the enter system fails to present any meaningful system for roleplaying and what really makes a character unique and memorable to play.

But I guess the question turns into, how much does any of this matter?

Originally posted on my blog Do Not Taunt Cthulhu (And Other Useful Tips)
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Wed May 21, 2014 5:21 pm
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Roleplaying Perspective Part II: What Does a System Do Well?

Charles Simon
United States
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I'm starting up a Pathfinder campaign. While I am very excited for the game, it has spurred a lot of thoughts about roleplaying games and what the systems should do as opposed to what they actually do. This will be part of an ongoing series of discussions about roleplaying games and their nature and purpose as I come to grips with my game.

In the first part I pointed out what it was that I didn't like about the D&D/Pathfinder systems and wondered if they really could give me the experience that I want in a game. In this part I look at the different systems that I've played and how they structure themselves to give systems to roleplaying and story.

So the question becomes, if D&D/Pathfinder doesn't give any structure of systems for roleplaying, what does it do well? And what are the other options? What do the other systems do that D&D/Pathfinder does not?

As I said in the last part, D&D/Pathfinder does tactical combat. It does it well. In fact, 90% of all of the many, many books are dedicated to giving more and more options and rules to manage that tactical combat piece. There are tactical combat systems, however, that are a lot cleaner and streamlined than D&D/Pathfinder. So if you are really into tactical combat, then there are other options out there that are better. However, D&D/Pathfinder does do one other thing really well. I'll get into that a little later.

But what about other systems then? If D&D/Pathfinder is designed to resolve tactical combat on a grid, what do other systems offer as an alternative?

That is what I've been doing since I last played my D&D 3.5 campaign. I've been exploring other systems. It started with some of the more mainstream systems, but I eventually started to explore smaller independent games. It was the indie games that really opened up my eyes to the potential that a system could have. There were games that included systems for roleplaying. There were systems that were fantastic as certain things.

Beyond all the iterations of D&D and Pathfinder, the system I've played the most are White Wolf's World of Darkness games: Vampire, Werewolf, Mage, Wraith and Changeling. I've run campaigns for each of them. I like a lot about the systems and the character building.

What do the World of Darkness games do well? The systems are designed to present a rounded character very well. You spend points on your background, giving you systems for how wealthy you are, how many contacts you are. You buy merits and flaws to give you more distinction. Your social abilities are not just bunched into a single Charisma trait, but rather spread between three attributes: Charisma, Manipulation and Appearance. Further, when you create your character, it is not random. You don't end up with someone rolling nothing higher than a 10, while the person next to them doesn't roll anything lower than a 15. The character choices in the World of Darkness games are also very thematic, helping to bring out more of a direction of what your character might be like.

The problem with the systems of the World of Darkness games, however, is that they are still all combat games. Not tactical combat, but rather narrative combat. Now, you could have Vampire players argue that they've never been in a fight in their game, that the game system isn't about combat.

But it is. It is still about rolling tons of dice to exert your will against someone else. To illustrate the point, let's take the previous example of a man with a key that you want. You could use combat to get the key, of course.

But if you decide to talk to him, you have a lot more options in the World of Darkness games. If I just want to convince him to give me the key, I roll Charisma + Persuasion. Maybe I want to trick him into giving me the key. Then roll Manipulation + Subterfuge. Maybe I want to seduce him. In that case, roll Appearance + Expression.

So the World of Darkness games run into the same trap. Sure, I have more than just Diplomacy to roll and there are systems for different options. But they are still dice rolls. If we instead decide to just "roleplay" and act it out, then we are ignoring these systems. And, like D&D/Pathfinder, why use these systems if we are ignoring them?

But to the point about combat. World of Darkness games are still very much about combat. Instead of attacking you with a gun, I am attacking you with words. It is the same thing. It is combat and that is the core concept of the game systems. I roll to attack you with my argument and you roll your Wits to defend against it. So, that Vampire campaign that you snottily said didn't have combat in it is full of it.

I will touch on one more aspect of the World of Darkness systems briefly to point out that Mage: the Ascension does one other thing well: It has the best magic system in any game I have ever played. While the system itself has the same combat bias as the other games, I would still eagerly play Mage to explore the depths of the magic system any day.

The other mainstream game that I've played a lot of is Call of Cthulhu. What Call of Cthulhu does well is instilling a sense of knowing loss into the players by adding the attribute of Sanity. Health recovers, but Sanity is very slow to ever get back. Players realize this by their third or fourth session as their 65 Sanity is now 48 and they cannot just use a Sanity first aid kit.

However, the rest of the systems are shit. The game's theme is investigation. Players are called investigators. You have skills like Library Use. However, for an investigation based game, it never resolves this core concept well. As the Storyteller, I have an important handout that the players need to find and read to figure out where to go next. The characters failed their Library Use rolls to uncover the document. They literally cannot deduce things any further until they get this clue. So now I need to come up with some other way for them to come across it. Maybe I can have someone mention it in passing, prompting them to go back to the library and roll again to find it.

The problem with this is that you have terrible systems to propel the clues and therefore the story forward. If they fail their roll, I have to find ways of making them roll for it again. So, logically, it makes sense that if they need this clue to forward the story, why don't I just hand it to them when they research in the library without making them roll? But then, if I am not using the systems of game, why I am playing this game?

That isn't to say that I haven't have tons of fun experiences in either the World of Darkness games or Call of Cthulhu. But those memories aren't from anything that the systems produced. They are from the characters and from the story. And that is where most mainstream roleplaying games fail. They don't give you any systems for roleplaying or storytelling, just die rolling for conflict resolution.

Fantasy Flight's Star Wars: Edge of Empire roleplaying system is a mainstream system where everything is still resolved through dice like all of the others and there aren't any real systems for roleplaying. However, it takes an interesting innovation in making conflict resolution add to the story.

Conflicts are resolved with rolling dice in dice pools. The dice have symbols with successes and failures on them and each failure rolls cancels a success rolled. However, the dice also give results for advantage, triumph, despair and threat. This means that you could fail a die roll, but still have rolled advantages for something good to come from it. It also means that I could succeed, but bad things happen from it. And if rolls are really difficult, the GM could also assign setback dice to your pool, which have a much more likely chance of rolling failures, despair and threat.

So I could try to hack into a computer terminal and succeed, but I rolled enough threat that the GM decides that just as I downloaded the files, a Stormtrooper came through the door and fired his blaster at me and missed, hitting the computer instead and destroying it so nothing more can be obtained from it. Plus, now there is a Stormtrooper to fight.

Alternatively, I could fail at the attempt to hack the computer for the files, but rolled enough advantage that maybe I couldn't get to the files, but I found the security systems and I was able to turn off all of the alarm systems near the detention center.

Now the problem that I foresee with this is that, while it makes rolling the dice exciting and fun, it also slows down the pace as you have to stop and read them like tea leaves to figure out what happened.

The system also has points that the players can use to change the story. They can be used in minor ways, such as suddenly having a piece of equipment you needed. But they can be used in other ways to further alter aspects of the story.

And while the system is still based in combat and doesn't have the framework for roleplaying as part of its systems, the game is at least looking at adding story to every roll of the die. Focus on story is one thing and it is an amazing step, but systems for roleplaying are still absent.

Story and roleplaying systems are where the independent roleplaying games have really shined. This isn't to say that they are without their flaws. However, I learned a lot from their merits, especially in player trust.

Most independent roleplaying games are really great at telling one kind of story and nothing else, however. Most also are meant for smaller stories and not extended campaigns.

Fiasco is amazing at telling a story of something gone horribly wrong. There is no GM. Characters are not defined by any stats, but rather their relationships to the players on their right and left. That is the only thing defined by your character: your relationship to your neighbors at the table. Everyone has equal chance to propel a scene forward, becoming the director of the movie for a moment. There is no die-rolling for resolution. Everything is resolved in the narrative. If I suddenly pull a gun from my pants, I do it because it propels the story forward. It isn't written on a character sheet. And if I fire it at your character, you die if it makes story sense.

You see, the players all have the same goal: to tell an interesting story. It isn't about getting the most XP or loot. Because of this, you learn to trust the other players at the table. They have equal power in this story as you do. In fact, the direction I thought I and my character would go in often ended up radically different because of how other players involved me in the game.

However, Fiasco cannot tell anything other than a story gone horribly wrong. It is utterly fantastic at recreating a Fargo-like story, but it utterly fails at everything else.

Dread tells a horror/suspense story and it manufactures tension like no other game I've played. Characters are not defined by attributes and stats, but instead are created by answering a series of questions given by the storyteller. Questions may be leading, such as, "You have always been the strongest of any of your peers. What happened in your past that makes you hold back your strength?" So, you end up defining your character by creating his background. This helps to personalize the suspense.

Dread's core mechanism is a Jenga tower. Whenever you need to succeed at something you cannot automatically succeed at, you pull a Jenga block and put it on the top. Over the course of the game, the tower gets more and more unstable. If the tower falls when you try to make a pull, your character is removed from the story, most likely in a grisly, horrible death. So, when you hear noises outside of your tent at night, you may hesitate to investigate as you see the wobbling, unstable tower before you.

However, Dread's systems fail to tell any other kind of story than those in the horror/suspense genre.

Shooting the Moon tells a story about a romance and two suitors courting the same person. It is absolutely amazing that there is a game that systems romance and Shooting the Moon does it so very well. Characters are created with pairs of contrary adjectives or descriptors, for example, if I take Strong, then you have to take the opposite. It could be Puny, Small, Weak-willed, or Vulnerable. But then these descriptors get exceptions added by the players. You took Strong, but I could add "...but cowardly." I took Small, but I could add "...but scrappy".

The actual mechanisms of the romance are primarily narrative and acted out. However, if you are narrating your scene with the person of our affection, I can interject with "As luck would have it..." and then barge into your story and have some kind of bad or mood-breaking event change the course of your romantic setting. Dice are used to resolve the situation and the current suitor wins, he narrates how he turns the bad event around and still continues on with their evening. If the rival wins, he gets to narrate how the date was ruined or how that special moment was lost.

Shooting the Moon is fantastic in idea and design, but it cannot tell anything other than a romance story.

Lady Blackbird tells a single story. There are five pregenerated characters, each with their backgrounds and abilities set in stone. Every game starts the same way, with the party's ship captured and the party in the brig of the Imperial ship. Even though every single story of Lady Blackbird starts with the exact same characters in the exact same situation things will unfold differently. Each game is played on its own, but collectively, when you look back at the games being played and see how things branched out differently, it turns into something more akin to Groundhog Day or Run, Lola, Run.

The GM is supposed to come into this game with nothing planned. Instead, the GM listens to the players and both the players and the GM are encouraged to ask questions. Players are rewarded by taking the opportunity to ask questions when the action die down. Asking Lady Blackbird (played by another player) what it is about the man she loves that drove her to flee her home refreshes the player's pool. The GM also plays the NPCs and introduces conflict, but the game will unfold differently every time.

Obviously Lady Blackbird tells the story of Lady Blackbird amazingly well, but it cannot tell anything else at all.

There are literally hundreds of independent roleplaying games out there that do this kind of thing and give you systems for actual roleplaying. They are fantastic and what they have done for me is to reinforce that these storytelling games should be a collaboration between the players and to trust them more and more.

The problem with D&D/Pathfinder and most mainstream RPGs is that they are built with a lack of trust. There are concrete rules and systems in place to make certain that the players cannot cheat and that they DM cannot unfairly interpret situations and rules.

But this focuses you on the rules. You will have players who will try to manipulate every rule and most D&D/Pathfinder games will have those moments where the play suddenly stops because either the DM or players need to look up some rule, or an argument and debate breaks out over determining if someone in a certain square technically threatens another square. All of this intrudes and breaks the narrative.

The thing is, in almost every indie RPG I've played, we've never had those moments where things stop suddenly because of this. And that is because the focus is on the story and not on the rules and using the mechanisms and systems to your best advantage.

When I sit down at the table, I'm there for the story, not the tactical combat. That's why when a character said he jumped down a well that I never said was there, there was suddenly a well. It was a great escape moment and wild and fun.

But the more modern iterations of D&D/Pathfinder have moved into the realm of systems before story. In fact, there are no systems for story at all.

So, why is our group still attracted to playing Pathfinder when there are so very, very many other systems out there that tell stories so very, very much better?

And that is because of the other thing that D&D/Pathfinder does incredibly well: Investing the players in their characters and in their world.

Originally posted on my blog Do Not Taunt Cthulhu (And Other Useful Tips)
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Wed May 21, 2014 4:39 pm
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Roleplaying Perspective Part I: Ditching D&D and Pathfinder

Charles Simon
United States
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I'm starting up a Pathfinder campaign. While I am very excited for the game, it has spurred a lot of thoughts about roleplaying games and what the systems should do as opposed to what they actually do. This will be part of an ongoing series of discussions about roleplaying games and their nature and purpose as I come to grips with my game.

My return to D&D has felt strange. It isn't because the 3.5 that I last played years ago was now 3.75 and called Pathfinder. But it is because of where I've been in the meantime.

I am going to bash the hell out of D&D and Pathfinder. This isn't because I hate the systems or that the people who play them are terrible and those games are "beneath me" now. No. I'm getting ready to run a Pathfinder game now and I'm going to enjoy the shit out of it. However, I am not so blind as to not recognize the flaws of the system.

My primary complaint with D&D/Pathfinder is what the system is designed to do. Here is the copy of the front of a character sheet. Highlighted in red are all of the things that are related to combat or have rules about how they can be used in combat:

Here is the same character sheet. Highlighted in blue are all of the things that are designated for roleplaying. This isn't including things that aren't systems, such as picking your hair color or your eye color.

In other words, there really aren't any mechanisms for roleplaying in the game. There are no systems for it in the core design. In reality, the books are just massive tomes of rules for tactical combat.

The problem can be further illustrated by this example:

A man is standing in front of you, holding a key that you want. You have two options on how to obtain that key.

OPTION #1: You can try to take it by force. In which case, everything highlighted in red on the front of the character sheet is potentially in play.

OPTION #2: You can try to talk to the man and ask him to give it to you. In that case you can use what is highlighted in the blue. You can make a Diplomacy check. If you succeed, he gives you the key. If you fail, he doesn't. That's the end of your options.

Now, there are some that would argue that just rolling a Diplomacy check to see if he gives you the key isn't what you should be doing. Instead, you should "roleplay" the scene out and have the player act out what he is saying to convince the man. This is what my groups would tend to do. However, the problem with this is that you are no longer using the systems of the game to resolve something. In fact, if you are ignoring the game systems for all of the roleplay bits, then why are you using that system? For the tactical combat?

And that's what it comes down to. D&D and Pathfinder are not roleplaying systems. They are tactical combat systems.

This was not always the case, however. Older systems of D&D were not as bad as later systems. They still weren't great for roleplaying, but they at least were more narrative systems. D&D 3.0 killed that and every iteration since then keeps hammering more nails into that coffin.

Examining it further, you see that previous versions of D&D didn't use grids and big maps for everyone to lay their miniatures on. There were no hard and fast rules for movement. Sure, you could try to break out rulers to simulate movement, but there weren't systems in place for it.

This, admittedly, had drawbacks. With no physical representation of where everyone is, everyone could easily visualize things very differently. That Orc could be right on top of your magic-user in the DM's eyes, but you thought that it was obvious that you were standing behind the fighter.

However, it was a narrative system and that tells a much better story.

D&D 3.0 and later moved to a grid movement system. Now, characters move six squares per round.

Sure, you know where everything is, however, the narrative and storytelling is lost in this.

In the older systems, you had to tell the DM what you were doing. This is an amazing difference in creating atmosphere and a narrative arc for a battle.

In the old systems, when the DM asked you what you were going to do on your initiative, you would have to give a narration. Even if it was as simple as, "I charge the orcs," you have narration there. You are telling part of the story. But that is simply lost when you rely on a grid.

On your initiative in the old systems, you would say, "I rush onto the bridge to try to block the Balrog from passing to let the others escape."

However, in the new systems, this is, "I'll move two squares forward and one square to the right since if I move diagonally twice, it'll count as three squares. Now I threaten the eight squares around me ready with attacks of opportunity."

This matters in games. This is why I have come to hate combat in D&D. There are tons of great tactical combat games and tactical miniature battle systems. If I wanted to play one of those, I would. But I'm ostensibly playing a roleplaying game. So I would much rather have narration and challenge players to describe what they are doing and run with it.

In what should be a game that thrives and focuses on narration and storytelling, the newer systems took the largest section of the game--combat--and took all of the narration and storytelling out of it. Cynically, I could say that it was to sell miniatures.

The other problem with grids and maps to track combat is that it takes away the creativity of the players. You may not realize how much it does, but it really takes away a lot.

I remember running an old D&D game where one of the players had gotten in trouble with the city watch and was trying to fight them off while still on the run. He turned and entered the courtyard and I quickly gave a description of it, the guards on his heels. His response was, "I jump into the well."

I didn't say that there was a well in my description. In my little town map, there was no well there. Maybe he misheard me or maybe he just assumed that there was a well. But it was a brilliant move and very fitting for the scene and the moment. So, suddenly, there was a well there for him to jump into. He had to make a roll to stop from falling all of the way to the bottom and it became a quick, wild, fun twist.

The problem with grids are that you become confined by what it before you. It's not set in stone, but it's set in dry-erase marker. I would not have drawn a well onto our battlemat and so there would not be one. No player would look at that map and say, "I jump into the well."

So moments like that are lost. Newer editions took away the "just go with it" rules and attitude and structured everything to the point where roll for your downtime checks.

My wife pointed out that D&D used to be something that you could play lounging on the floor together in someone's room with a few books and dice. But now it's that thing that you play at the table with a battlemap in laid out on it and miniatures prepared for every possible encounter for the evening.

But ultimately, the map takes away more options of narrative.

D&D shouldn't take away storytelling in combat and replace them with computer game combat mini-games.

My other biggest problem with D&D/Pathfinder is advancement.

First of all, it is a genius way to invest the players into their characters. A carrot is dangled in front of you as you constantly move toward more abilities, higher stats, more spells, and more hit points. And they are very liberally given out like candy along that endless route. And it feels like you are getting more invested in your character, but you're not. You are getting excited over having more abilities to kill shit so that you can become better at killing other shit. But that's not your character.

If you are excited because your character now has ties to the Thieves Guild and they have two noblemen both trying to court you at the same time while really spying on both of their houses for a rival prince from another nation, then, yeah, that's your character. However, D&D/Pathfinder has no actual systems for any of this stuff. So, since there are no systems for it, why bother using this system?

Another problem with advancement is that you pretty much exclusively do it by killing shit.

Player 1 spent the session courting the princess while pretending he was someone else. During the course of it, he was challenged about the truth of his story and, without rolling a die, he came up with an amazing tale that made his credentials seem beyond reproach. Later, he saw a beggar and felt such mournfulness in his heart as he remembered his father the smithy's collapse once he lost his arm and could no longer work. The player got so into character that he cried while he sat next to the beggar throughout the rest of the night, talking to him while the princess's party continued on without him.

Player 2 saw three goblins and killed them with his axe.

At the end of the session, Player 1 earned 0 XP and Player 2 earned 405 XP.

D&D/Pathfinder has no real systems for advancement in this manner. There are arbitrary mentions of story rewards, but it is not defined in any way like how it is defined for killing shit.

My other issue with advancement is the power creep. Or, actually, as it really is, the power rush. Admittedly, however, this is more of an issue of personal preference than an issue or flaw in the systems themselves, so I'll just touch on it briefly.

Early in your career, your party fights 3 Orcs and it is a good, tough slugfest. Then you level and you fight 5 Orcs. Then you level. And now those Orcs also have a Shaman. But you'll eventually hit a point where you leave the Orcs behind altogether. Twenty Orcs eventually become a joke, so why bother?

My problem is that you should never be so tough as to shrug off being outnumbered 20 to 1. But unfortunately the massive power gains forces people to just creep up the Challenge Levels to the next set of baddies.

I'll end this part of this discussion with this:

Think about your favorite memory or memories from your D&D or Pathfinder games. Seriously. Stop and think about them.

Now what are they?

Did the mechanisms and systems in the rulebooks create that situation? Or was it from something not covered in the books?

Was your favorite memory when you rolled and succeeded at your Climb skill check? Was it when you rolled a natural 20 (something so amazing that there is a 1-in-20 chance of you doing it) to hit the baddie? Was it when you moved 6 squares in such a way that you were able to avoid any attacks of opportunity?

These are the things supported by the rules and the systems.

Or was your favorite memory when you came up with that speech on the fly and convinced the king to send his men to help you? Maybe it was when you swindled the merchant and tricked him out of his money? Or maybe it was the bond you had with another player's character and how you felt when his character died and you rushed to your certain death to try to avenge him?

None of those things are supported by the rules and the system.

And if our favorite memories from the game aren't from things that the game actually supports... then why are we playing that game instead of another one that supports the things that become your favorite memories?

Originally posted on my blog Do Not Taunt Cthulhu (And Other Useful Tips)
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Wed May 21, 2014 1:13 pm
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Invest Me (Getting me to engage in a game)

Charles Simon
United States
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When talking about Eldritch Horror's lack of focus on the character and personal stories, discussion came about on whether or not it is the job of a board game to force roleplaying onto the players. I agree that a board game should not. A group should be willing to bring that to the table themselves and our group does that in spades. We play Ladies and Gentlemen wearing tiaras and chomping on real cigar. Give me a dwarf character and I'll grumble in a gruff dwarf voice all night, bitterly complaining about everyone else. We'll build back stories for our characters and I'll help you to try to romance you. We've played String Railways speaking as train barons, trying to greedily expand through the land.

Basically, we bring the roleplay to our games and I love my groups because of that.

But what I want a game to do, and Eldritch Horror fails to do in my opinion, is to invest me in my character. If I have a character in front of me, I will play as that character, but the game should help me invest myself in the character.

But even without talking in a funny voice or doing actions that are sub-optimal, but totally in character, using props, or any other gimmicky shtick, games benefit from the player being invested in their characters. It makes decisions harder and more visceral. It makes the gaming more tense and the victories more stunning and the defeats more woeful. It enhances so much about a game well before anyone decides to talk in a crap accent for the next two hours.

So I just wanted to collect my thoughts and throw out there the different ways that board games can work to invest a player.

Give Your Character a Name
This is the simplest step to investing a player, but one that surprisingly pops up now and again. If I am playing Claustrophobia, I'll send the Condemned Brute off to hold the lines while I make my escape. But it would feel so much more challenging and raw if I had to decide if I was sending Gorik the Blacksmith's Son off to die for me. I mean, what would I say to his father, the blacksmith about his son's sacrifice? Even the main protagonist is simply called The Redeemer. Hell, Josh the Redeemer would be better. Level 7: Omega Protocol has a tactical roleplay feel to it, but the game would be improved so much more by simply naming the character "Team Leader" to Captain Reginald Greyson. Yes, we could name the characters ourselves, but without control of the stats and without that psychological impact of having a name on the sheet, I'll always just see "The Condemned Brute" staring back at me instead of "Skippy the Glanduarly Impaired".

Give Me Something Unique
This covers a lot of ground. I could have a unique history. I could be a unique race. Or I simply could have a unique talent or skill or item. All of these makes a character stand out. If you are different from everyone else, then there is a reason why you would be better than others for some reason. A lot of games miss an easy opportunity to do this. In Eldritch Horror, Trish Scarborough begins with a .45 automatic pistol. That's great. But if she's not in play, that item is just shuffled into the asset deck. What if she began with a unique item of "Trish's Modified .45 Automatic". Keep the generic item in the deck, but now I feel more attached to this character. If she dies NO ONE else will ever get that gun. Most games with characters do, at least, give them unique roles and abilities which is good. But personalizing the character just a little bit more would make it so much better. Witch of Salem is a game that had a few problems, but a big one would have been solved by giving each character (who had their own name and portraits) anything to distinguish themselves from others. Each were exactly uniform in stats and ability.

Give Me Something to Relate To
Do you know what separates our game from video games? More of our female characters wear clothes. Sure, we still have those eye-rolling chainmail bikinis, but we are better than video games at capturing (or at least not offending) female gamers with our representations of female characters. And this helps female gamers to play as they have something to relate to. My daughter is seven and when she games, she is drawn to the female characters to play. She enjoys the game much more when she can be a girl. My wife is in her thirties and when she games, she is drawn to the female characters to play. She enjoys the game much more when she can be a girl. Robinson Crusoe: Adventure on the Cursed Island didn't name their characters, but they gave a character sheet with a bit of character art on them. I could be the Cook and see a gruff, burly male cook. Or I could flip the sheet over and see a female cook. The stats are completely identical, but players can choose their gender and you can relate to the character. I'm fine with characters being set when they are named and have backstories, but this simple act allowed you to relate to your character more just by simply flipping the sheet over. It also broke down the awkward gender yin and yang role assignments.

Give Me Choices (Even if I Choose Random Draw)
I like taking random characters, but I like being able to choose from a large selection. There should be different choices in characters, not just in play styles and roles, but also in appearance and race and gender. Nothing is more dull than my selection of characters being a bunch of white guys whose differing physical characteristics is their hair color. I want to be excited by the opportunity that I might play a female half-orc warrior wizard. This combines the desire to play something I can relate to as well as the desire for something unique. I might just feel more comfortable playing a female character and the choices allow for it. Or I might want to play a goblin berserker with rifle proficiency. The more diverse options you have, the more likely you will give someone the chance to playing something they want and invest them in their character.

Engaging Backstories
When done right, everyone will enjoy reading their character's backstory on the back of their card or sheet and it'll give you ideas of how your character might think or act. However, more often than not, the backstories are just banal fluff text. Here, I don't even care if you tread into tied, worn tropes. At least it is something we can relate to. Let me read my character's history and find out that I am the last survivor of my race. Or let me find out that my family was brutally murdered by the man I rescued and set free a year before. Or end it with the line "And he never thought he would love again." Anything to make the character's history compelling and interesting.

Character Art
Sure, art in a game means paying artists. However, your money is then supporting an artist. These days there aren't too many games that fail to produce character art. I don't mind bad artwork, but I of course, like it when it is pretty. But the art should show a bit of the character's personality or flair. Level 7: Omega Protocol's art is everyone in full body suit with their faces covered. Let me see my character's face. Flying Frog's games of Last Night on Earth, Fortune & Glory, and A Touch of Evil have somewhat cringy-worthy art design choices at times, but I love their character sheets. I look at the picture and I know so much about the character I am playing. It tells you a LOT about a character to portray them well. Although less common, this can also relate to miniatures. Claustrophobia has two Condemned Brutes in it. They are exactly the same models and builds and paints, except one is Condemned Brute with Brown Hair and the other is Condemned Brute with Blond Hair.

Personal Motives
This could be written into the backstory, but it can also be presented to players in much more engaging ways. Innsmouth Horror introduced personal stories for each of the Arkham Horror characters in existence. You had a backstory and a goal that you had to fulfill with trigger to pass or fail the backstory challenges. This was incredible. Players would have to try to save the world, but would also stop and try to resolve their pasts. We always played where the pass/fail card was hidden and only read once you passed or failed. This way, you didn't know what was on the line and the stakes were so much more higher.

But even non-customized, random personal goals help a lot. They give the character a unique purpose and direction, thus making your experience different from everyone else's. Secret goals or agendas can work as well, but once you start hiding information, the Battlestar Galactica traitor mentality pops into players mind and you might start playing a different meta-game.

Threat of Cinematic/Thematic Death
You know what invests me in a character? The chance that he might die. I will innately fight to keep myself alive. But you know what invests me even more? The idea that I might die in some horrific, fantastic and thematic way.

What I love about Last Night on Earth is that Amanda the Prom Queen could be holding the keys to the truck to leave, but have five zombies in her space. So, Billy rushes to her space to defend her (I mean, he's always had a crush on her, but never said anything before). He gets an extra die in combat for being in the same space and Amanda and when the zombies attack, he can try to hold each of them off to let her escape. Yeah, he'll probably bite it and die horribly. But what a fantastic way to go out and the game allows--and even encourages it. And you know what the best part of it is? If Billy manages to fight off the zombies and survive and save Amanda, well, you know he's getting laid tonight.

I don't mind dying in a game at all, but give me a chance to have my dying moment be spectacular or cinematic. I won't seek it out, but I'll be invested post-mortum.

Chances to Act in Character
Give me a dwarf character and I'll be talking like a dwarf for the rest of the night. True, some groups might not play this way and would roll their eyes at me. That's fine. I don't need them. All I need is me grog anyhow.

But beyond silly voices, giving character decision points creates narrative. It isn't enough that a game has a location deck for each space. Then my decision is merely which space do I move to. When the location cards offer choices, it becomes more interesting. Arkham Horror and Eldritch Horror does this with their location decks. When I have an encounter in a location, the person to my left reads my card for me. They stop reading when I am required to make a decision or make a skill check. I don't know what the results will be if I fail, so it becomes more tense as I have to decide if I want to spend my hard earned clue tokens or not. In Arkham, it is even more tense because choices or bad rolls could easily see you devoured. However, we are making choices and we are making choices in character. I'm not reading ahead to see what would happen if I were to accept aid from the mysterious stranger. Maybe I'll get a spell. Maybe I'll get a spell but be delayed. Maybe he'll remove a Doom Token from the Doom Track, but I'll gain a Dark Pact. I don't know, so I can't weigh the results to the state of the game. Instead, I have to make the decision in character. The games we can do this in are so much richer.

Leveling Up
I am a roleplayer. There is nothing in the world as beautiful to me as being able to level up a character. Adding points, gaining health, getting a new ability... These are the nectar of the gods.

But as I level up a character, I am getting tokens and reward for the effort that I put in with that character. It is physically represented in some manner. But more than that, if my character were to die, I would now lose all of that hard work. Leveling up is good enough, but leveling up with a threat of death is even better.

I'm down to two health. I could fight that zombie, but if I fail, there's a chance I could die. But then I'd lose those four skill points I put into this character. I'd better back off and heal up first.

Right there, you've made a sound decision mechanically that also represented investment in your character and also provided a good, realistic story point. You've decided that you want to live. You might be a bit of a coward for it, but the game is more real because you don't want to die. And that's wonderful.

Phat Lewt:
This is another simple, basic way to invest players. I don't want to die because then I'll lose all of my cool shit. The real investment, however, comes from you dying and it being gone forever. Eldritch Horror does something where if a character loses all of their health or sanity, you can go to their location and pick up their belongings. Sadly, this loses that investment in keeping characters alive since you know you can always go and pick up their stuff if you need to.

Campaign Mode
Some of these ideas (especially Leveling Up and Phat Lewt) can be extended through multiple scenarios and the stakes of them are risen as they go. However, a campaign generally tells an over arching story and, hopefully, takes into account the victories and losses of the characters along the way. But playing the same character also builds familiarity, which means you are more knowledgeable about how to play your character. This also builds investment since you playing the same character invests you more.

Most games with a campaign mode don't allow for permanent death and equipment loss from it, and it is understandable since coming in with a first "level" character with starting equipment halfway through the dungeon puts everyone on their side at a disadvantage. However, there are games that still allow for it and I commend them. I don't think that the mechanisms or gameplay of the Pathfinder Card Game really invest me that much, but the idea of permanent character death during a campaign does. It hasn't happened yet, but we have an unspoken "no do-overs" rule in place for when it happens and that idea weighs on our decisions the further along we get.

So, at the end of the day, I want to feel invested in my character. We are an easy-going group of gamers who are eager to jump into any role. But there is nothing like feeling like it when a game brings that around and reinforces a character's worth by investing the player in it. And if I'm invested in my character, I'm invested in the game. I should not expect a board game to force me to roleplay. But have the expectation that a game will invest me into my character isn't too much to ask for. I'll do the rest. And quite possibly, with a shit fake accent.

Originally posted on my blog, Do Not Taunt Cthulhu (and other useful tips)
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Sat Dec 14, 2013 4:40 pm
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Social Deduction Games: How Many Different Ways Can I Tell You That I Am Not A Werewolf?

Charles Simon
United States
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Social Deduction games really covers a large range of games. Most of them involve hidden roles and perhaps even hidden team or hidden traitor mechanisms, but usually they all require some amount of bluffing. And I like bluffing in games. Why do I like bluffing games? I don't know. You see, I am a terrible liar. I am absolutely miserable at it.

Aha! I fooled you. I am actually quite a good liar. That was proof right there.

But anyhow, my wife is amazing at deduction. Logic games are her forte and she'll suss a logical deduction problem before I've even really parsed the question. But, when the human element is added, it becomes something completely different. I love social deduction and bluffing and trying to determine who is lying.

Social Deduction games tend to be able to be grouped into two different types. The first are large games with many mechanisms and moving parts. There is gameplay there beyond simply trying to determine teams and roles and who the traitor is. With a slight bit of tuning, these games could become pure cooperative games. Games like the excellent Battlestar Galactica (reviewed here) and Shadows Over Camelot fit into these categories.

However, the second type of game strip away most of the mechanisms and the game is really how players interact and determine information. These are the purest of bluffing and social deduction and, currently, among my favorite games.


Werewolf is probably the most well-known of the pure social deduction games. Everyone sits around as one person moderates the game and gives everyone a random role, which also assigns you to a team. There are two basic teams in the game: the Werewolves and the Villagers. The moderator passes the rounds in the game by moving the game from night to day. During the Night everyone closes their eyes and only the Werewolves open them. They choose one Villager to kill in their sleep. When the moderator moves it to the day phase, everyone opens their eyes and that player is revealed to have been killed and is eliminated from the game. Now everyone still alive engages in a discussion to determine who to lynch during the day.

The Villagers win by lynching all of the Werewolves, while the Werewolves win if ever there are more Werewolves alive than Villagers in the game. The Villagers, however, also have a Seer. Each night, the Seer can point to one player and the moderator lets them know if they are a Werewolf or not. However, the Seer cannot reveal information too bluntly, since then the Werewolves will simply kill him during the next night.

With newer versions of the game, more and more roles have been added to the game, giving it a lot of diversity. Werewolf is one of the most pure social deduction games, as there really is little to go on other than following conversations and relying on hunches and hoping someone's words or even body language reveals information. I love Werewolf even though I have never actually played it. Each and every time it's been played, I've been the Moderator and, frankly, I love the role. It is such a fun game to watch, which is part of the reason why player elimination is not so bad.

Games are usually short, but if there is a downside to it, it is the fact that it requires a lot of people for a really interesting game. I would not play it with less than about twelve players. However, the positive side of that is that there are plenty of other social deduction games that span a smaller range of players.

Werewolf is a classic game that is deserving of its status. There is a reason why it is a classic. This is a game that can be introduced to non-gamers and it creates situations and circumstances that are very fun and memorable. Five years ago, at my daughter's second birthday party, we entertained the adults with a game of Werewolf. It was a group that was mainly made up of non-gamers. We still talk about those half dozen games to this day. However, to keep the game fresh, I would highly suggest using one of the Ultimate Werewolf editions since they offer such a variety of roles.

The Resistance

The Resistance is another pure social deduction and bluffing game, though it plays with only 5-10 players and runs in about 20-30 minutes. In this game, players are either members of the resistance or they are secretly spies working against them. The Spies know one another, but the game revolves around the each round's leader choosing teams to go onto missions. If there is a Spy on the mission, he can sabotage it secretly and the mission will fail. There are five missions in total, and if 3 of the 5 succeed, the resistance team wins. If 3 of the 5 fail, the spies win. There are really no special roles in the game and it is pretty pure.

After my first plays of the Resistance, I was not impressed. However, I warmed up to the game and played it more and enjoyed it. But, I've reached a peak with the game and I've stopped enjoying it.

Because of the lack of roles, there is little variation and our games follow a bit of a script now. Mission 1: Pass whether there are spies on it or now. Mission 2: Include the members of the first mission and add another one. It should likely fail now. Mission 3: Slight variation to the team to test members. Essentially, I could flow chart out how each game would play. Part of this is that I play this with the same three groups of players, so we have developed patterns to "solve" the game. However, this exists because of the lack of variation in the game.

The game desperately needs more roles and special powers to create a more dynamic feel after many games. It is a decent game, but ultimately one that is surpassed by a number of other social deduction games that have come out since.

The Resistance: Avalon

Avalon is a little more than a reskinning of the Resistance theme to a King Arthur setting, though that is what it primarily does. The gameplay remains essentially unchanged, but the game has introduced a few roles to the teams. Most of the roles are basic, but it has given enough of a dynamic feel to the play that I would not go back to playing the Resistance if Avalon was an option instead. The problem is that the game doesn't have enough roles and variation to fully push on past the flowchart feel, but it does still create situations where something dynamic can occur and throw people for a loop.

Between the Resistance and Avalon, I feel that Avalon is the better game between the two, but it still didn't quite solve its own problems. I wouldn't turn down a game of Avalon if offered, but I would be less likely to suggest it knowing that other short social deduction games without player elimination exist in my collection.

Two Rooms and a Boom

I did a full review of Two Rooms and a Boom here. I've now played the game with as few as six players and as many as thirty-eight. The game is surprisingly resilient. However, the game is still best with more than ten players. While I am a fan of the game, there are certain limitations that it imposes. First of all, the game requires more space to play it in and having at least two rooms really is optimal. Next, the game offers so much variety in roles with such a range of powers that it really takes an experienced player to figure out which roles work best with others and which roles negate other roles' powers. The game can be played without a moderator, but I still prefer moderating it. It really is a fun game to simply watch. In a lot of ways, this has replaced my suggesting Werewolf to be played when I am at a large gathering. However, space is key, so Werewolf can still end up being the more advantageous play. The other downside is the theme. With some players and non-gamers, it is hard to convince them that playing a game where someone is a suicide bomber trying to murder the President is a fun activity. I've also probably been placed on many watchlists for reviewing the game now.

Still, Two Rooms and a Boom is a lot of fun. However, this is one of the few social deduction games where you can blatantly show your card to another player. So, to be honest, it is less a social deduction game and more of a social negotiation game. However, it still has the elements of bluff and hidden roles and pure lying that endears it to me.

Ultimate Werewolf: Inquisition

Inquisition fits in nicely for the Werewolf theme if you don't have the twelve players I would prefer to play the game with. It plays 3-12 and plays in about 30-60 minutes depending on the number of players. Unlike most social deduction games here, Inquisition actually has a bit more of a set up. Players are either on the Werewolves' team or the Villagers' team and are sent to a village to try to find out who the werewolves are. In this case, the villagers are represented by face down cards. Players take turns using locations in the village to either peek at the cards, move them around, or amass vote cubes which will be laid at the end of each day to determine who the players lynch. Then, during the night, one column of cards is chosen by the leader player and is passed between players with their eyes closed and the werewolf players may open their eyes to change their order. Once the stack of cards has made it around the group, everyone opens their eyes and the bottom card in the stack is killed and removed from play. Werewolves will be trying to put villagers down the bottom, but they are in a bad position if the column only contained werewolves and had to kill one of their own.

For a social deduction game, it is rather fiddly. It is a slightly awkward and convoluted set up and passing the stack of cards with your eyes closed is awkward. The game works best when each player helps the game by holding the stack for a few moments, whether they are werewolf or villager, in order to create tension and suspicion. But ultimately, I've still played with players who quickly pass the stack to the next player as fast as possible while loudly declaring, "Here," so that everyone knows that they did not mess with the stack order.

The other oddity of the game is that even if you are determined to be a werewolf, the other players cannot stop you. They simply don't trust your word anymore when you peek at a card. But a team out outted werewolves can still win by good choices and blocking options of the other players to stop them. The game then becomes one of determining how to best manipulate the mechanisms to win, rather than figuring out who is on which side.

Ultimate Werewolf: Inquisition isn't a bad game, but it the hidden roles can be less important than determining which mechanisms work most to your benefit. It's like getting a handjob from a really good looking girl. You can't really argue that it isn't fun, but at the same time all of the elements of something much better are present and you'd rather being doing that instead. I'd rather be playing Werewolf or one of the other social deductions games instead.


Mascarade is another odd social deduction game, because often your own role is hidden from you. At the start of the game, everyone is given a role, face-up so that everyone can see who you are. Everyone begins with 6 coins and the first to get 13 coins win. Now, some roles give you powers such as collecting 2 or 3 coins from the bank. Other roles let you steal coins from your neighbors or take 2 coins from the person with the most coins. One role lets you get the coins amassed in the Courthouse (more on that in a bit). Another role lets you switch your coin stack with another player's stack. There are other roles as well that let you change roles of other players or peek at them or so forth. Now, once everyone has looked at their role and everyone else's, the cards are flipped face down. And during the first round, you take your card and any other player's card and hold them under the table and switch them... or not. You then place one card back in front of you and one in front of the player you took it from. They have no clue if they have their start card or your card now. And you, hopefully, know who has what.

Once the swapping round is completed, players take one action on their turn. They may a) Peek at their card and see what it is, b) They may swap cards (or not) under the table once as they did in the set up round, or c) Declare their role.

Now if I declare that I am the King (who gets 3 coins as his action) and no one challenges my assertion, then I do not flip over my card (I might not be the King--I may not even know what I am) and I collect 3 coins. However, if anyone else challenges me and claims that they are the King, we will have to reveal. In fact, several people at the table might claim that they are the King. It is even possible that everyone will. But anyone who has declared themselves the role in question then flips over their card. Whoever was the King, gets three coins, even if it was not their turn or action. Everyone who revealed and found out that they were not the King as they declared has to pay 1 coin from their stock to the Courthouse. However, they have flipped their card and now know what they are--unless someone swaps with them before their turn arrives.

Mascarade seems like such a random game--and it is--but it also has such discrete and clever mechanisms to it that you don't even observe as you play. For example, the games will never go on to long because the Judge's power is to claim all of the coins in the Courthouse. So, as more and more people incorrectly claim a role, the Courthouse becomes richer and richer and eventually the Judge will be able to win. Other roles add money to the game and make it competitive.

Unlike most social deduction games, however, this is a game not of pure bluff and strategy, but rather lying and chaos. Personally, I do not think that this is a bad thing. I have a lot of fun with chaos and lying, but any attempts at long term strategic manipulation are thrown right out the window the second someone grabs your card and pulls a possible switch under the table and you are left as helpless as any other player.

I like Mascarade a lot. It is very accessible to new players and it also levels the playing field between them. I may have 100 games of Mascarade under my belt, but the moment the rookie potentially swaps my card, I've lost all of my knowledge and they have more power over me because they know which card they gave to each player. Mascarade is a wonderful and fun game and while not a pure in the social deduction as most of the other games here, it is still a marvelous time. I also highly recommend the promotional character of "The Damned". When someone reveals their card and they are The Damned, they are eliminated from the game. This adds a level of tension and strategy to the game and I really wish the role was included in the base set for how much it changes the play and makes the game more interesting.

One Night Ultimate Werewolf

One Night Ultimate Werewolf tries to bring in the tension of the last rounds of a game of Werewolf and condense it into a ten minute game experience. To me, it doesn't quite do this. The last rounds of Werewolf are full of paranoia and hunches and really a lot of luck. It is quite fun and quite tense, but One Night creates a different experience.

Here, players have perfect knowledge of what occurs, but it is just a matter of who is going to share what.

With One Night, players are given their roles and there is a team of Werewolves and a team of Villagers. There is only one lynching round. If a Werewolf is lynched, the Villagers win. If a Villager is lynched, the Werewolves win.

Everyone receives their hidden role and three extra roles are placed face down in the center of the table. The game begins with the Night Phase. Everyone closes their eyes. The Werewolves open their eyes and spot one another. If there is no other werewolf player, a lone wolf may peek at one of three cards in the center. This is important because he can bluff to be that role since no one else will be it. The Seer then looks at one other player's role or two of the face down cards in the center. The Robber then takes one other player's role card and gives them the Robber. The Robber looks at the new role and they are now on that team. This means that if the Robber stole a Werewolf's card, the player who was the werewolf (whose eyes were closed) still thinks that they are a werewolf, but are instead now a villager and the Robber is now secretly a Werewolf. The Troublemaker then switches any two players' roles without looking at them. If you are a generic Villager, you keep your eyes closed the entire time. Players then all open their eyes and try to figure out who to lynch.

My first games of One Night were difficult. None of us were certain on how much information to share. My first game, I took the lead and as the Seer, I knew who a Werewolf was. I declared it openly and as we all declared our roles, I found out that the Troublemaker swapped my card with the Werewolf player's card and I had now adamantly proven to the group that I was the Werewolf and should be lynched.

It took a few games to learn how much to lie and hold back and see if you can catch other players in their lies. Because of this, it has a little bit of a learning curve. If everyone is honest, the game has perfect information for you to track back and figure out who is who at the end. However, this perfect information can be to your detriment because you begin uncertain if you are still on the team you began on. I've been a Werewolf and lied that I was a Villager. Once someone claimed to be the Troublemaker and swapped my card with another player, I immediately said I was the Werewolf and that they now were. I would have been screwed, however, if it turns out that someone was bluffing as the Troublemaker to see if they could get more information.

While the game isn't easy to "master", I love it. It is simple and despite the elements of perfect information being present, it really is one that relies upon bluff and trust more than most of the other games listed here. Making the game even easier to run is the fact that there is a free app that will walk you through the night phase in the beginning.

Scaling from 3-10 players, One Night Ultimate Werewolf is probably going to be my go to social deduction game for 5-10 players. I have about a dozen or so games of it under my belt now and I am still learning how to lie in this game. Numerous roles exist beyond the basic ones I mentioned as well to offer a large amount of variety without creating opportunities to "solve" it.

Originally posted on my blog, Do Not Taunt Cthulhu (and other useful tips)
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Tue Dec 3, 2013 6:58 pm
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Hidden Movement Games: So You Want To Be a Sneak?

Charles Simon
United States
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Hidden movement games are an under-appreciated genre of game. When done right, the games are amazingly fun and tense for both parties. However, when done wrong, there is a disconnect between the hiding and the seekers and no real evocative feeling of tension, which diminishes the theme. However, when done right, they are also among my favorite games.

Scotland Yard

Scotland Yard is one of the first real hidden movement games and it was a mass-produced game, so there is some childhood nostalgia that comes with it for many gamers. However, I hadn't played it until after playing games like Fury of Dracula, so it seemed rather weak in comparison to the modern improvements in games.

In the game one player takes the role of Mr. X and the other players try to track down where he is. The type of movement that Mr. X takes (bus, underground, taxi) is public to the detectives tracking him down. There are several rounds where Mr. X must publicly declare where he is and place his pawn on the board. While this mechanic could be defined as Mr. X being spotted by passer-bys and reporting it to the detectives, I don't really like the mechanic. Most of the hidden movement hunt games have mechanics for players to pick up pieces of the hider's trail, but this one just has random pop ups.

I respect the innovations of the game, but ultimately there are more modern games that do it better.

Garibaldi: The Escape

Garibaldi is one of this historical figures that tends to be glossed over, if mentioned at all, by Americans. But the game recreates General Giuseppe Garibaldi's escape and hiding from Austrian forces hunting him down. The events drawn in the game represent real circumstances and boons and hindrances encountered during Garibaldi's flight for his freedom.

Garibaldi's player have to navigate through a long, thin map to escape his pursuers. Garibaldi's movements are handled by his player playing his movement card openly, showing if he moved by foot, by horseback or by boat. After his movement, Garibaldi's player can play an event card which can aid or benefit his escape.

The Austrian forces follow after, each either playing a moment card or playing an event card to try to hinder Garibaldi's escape. After their movements, if any of the Austrian forces are on any of the spaces that Garibaldi has been in over the last four turns, they find a trace of his trail and it is marked on the board. If the Austrian forces end on Garibaldi's space, they capture him and win. If Garibaldi reaches any of the escape spaces, he wins.

Strategies for the Austrians can vary between a mix of pure pursuit to blocking exits to try to drive Garibaldi along certain routes.

This is a very decent game, but ultimately I find that the tension is very one-sided. As Garibaldi, the game is tense and tactical and you will find yourself sweating an awful lot at the escape board narrows at certain points and terrible events hinder you. However, the tension is rather one-sided as there is less of a feeling of threat for the Austrian forces. They simply play a strategic play and wait. I find that both Fury of Dracula and Letters from Whitechapel do a better job of bringing tension to both sides of the table.

Fury of Dracula:

I haven't played the original Fury of Dracula, but I've logged in many games of the Fantasy Flight rereleased edition. From what I understand, the original game is more of the pure hunt and chase, while Fantasy Flight has (surprise!) added a lot of mechanics, bits and rules bloat. That isn't to say that it is bad, but it is definitely fiddly.

One player takes the role of Dracula, while the other players take the roles of the four hunters. Dracula's movement is hidden and takes the form of playing location cards from his deck. Cards are added to his trail, but after 6 are laid, they oldest ones start to come back into his hand again. This introduces an interesting circumstance where Dracula cannot backtrack along his own trail. However, Dracula can also lay encounters along his trail, so as the Hunters move to a card along Dracula's trail, they reveal where he has been, but also have to contend with the traps left in his wake.

When a hunter finds Dracula, the game does not end. Instead, the hunter battles Dracula. If they found him during the day, Dracula is weaker and the Hunter has a stronger chance of beating him back. If it is during the night, however, Dracula has a lot more powers available to him and it really makes battling him a dangerous game unless the hunter is fully armed and prepared.

A single battle is not enough to defeat Dracula, as he will be able to escape a couple of times worse for the wear when defeated. For Dracula, he needs to wait out the clock. However, the clock is advanced in his favor if he laid new vampire spawns on location cards that were never found and fall off the map and by his victory in battle over the hunters.

Fury of Dracula is an incredible game and it doles out the tension equally. Hunters may be close on Dracula's trail and ready for battle, but are racing against the setting sun, knowing that once night arrives, their battles will be that much harder. They will also see portions of his trail and as a card with an encounter is about to fall off of his trail, they need to decide if they want to provoke the encounter just in case it is vampire spawns. Dracula meanwhile will be sweating as more cards in his trail are uncovered and will find himself licking his wounds, trying desperately to survive through the day to make it to the night.

The problems with the game are the fiddliness and a few random event cards that are simply unbalanced. There is one card, when drawn, allows Dracula to instantly teleport to any location on the map. This is infuriating to the Hunters who may have worked hard to corner his and run through his trail up to this point. The game also can run a little long if there are little confrontations and no vampire spawns drop.

But overall, it is an excellent game that deserves to be on the shelf.

Clue: The Great Museum Caper:

This is another classic mass produced game that actually had clever mechanics. I've only played this recently, so I don't have the nostalgia that many gamers have with it. That being said, I still think this game holds up.

One player plays a thief who moves with secret movement tracked on a map. His object is to steal at least three pieces of art and then escape. There are cameras and motion sensors which can give away his location if they are rolled on a die, but these can also be disabled, though this gives away information on the thief's trail.

The detectives move openly, searching for the thief's movement and hunting his trail, working together to try to cut off his movements.

While a good, fun game, mechanically there is a little too much randomness in the game. The detectives move via a die roll, so even if the thief is plainly visible and within reach, rolling a 1 instead of a 6 on the die really makes a huge difference. Cameras or motion sensors are also determined by a random die roll indicating which one gives information for that turn.

It is a good game, but the randomness cuts into the strategy that comes with most hidden movement games. It is also worth mentioning that it has a beautiful 3-D map, though I'm sure those production costs would pretty much prohibit a reprint of it.

Nuns on the Run:

I did a full review of Nuns on the Run here.

Nuns on the Run flips the role of the hidden movement game. Usually these games are about one player with secret movement as the others hunt him down. However, this game has the majority of the players taking the hidden movements with one player as the hunter.

The theme of the game could easily be changed to that of trying to escape a WWII prison camp, but instead it is themed around novice nuns stealing pieces of cake in the middle of the night.

I like the game, but it is odd that there is really no teamwork. Most hidden movement games have teams, but here the novice nuns hiding don't even know where one another are. It makes the game ultimately feel a little odd.

There is also a disconnect from tension, as being unaware of where anyone else is, there is never a sense that someone is about to win so you need to hurry.

It's definitely not a bad game, but everyone's actions end up being so private that it creates a disconnect between everyone else. The determining of line-of-sight is also a little clunky, but I still enjoy this one with large groups.

Escape from the Aliens in Outer Space:

This is a small game that brings a lot of tension with it. The game works best with more players than few and it combines hidden roles with hidden movement. This also is different than most hidden movement games because EVERYONE's movement is hidden.

Half the players are humans trying to escape a ship in pitch black, while half the players are aliens trying to hunt down the humans.

There is a chance with each step that you make that you make a noise and have to reveal which hex you are in on the map. However, you could also draw a card that allows you to bluff and lie where the noise came from.

So as a player states that there is a noise in hex M05 and you are in M06, you have to think. Are they bluffing? Are they also a human? Or are they an alien? If you move and take a step, you might make noise and give yourself away. If it is an alien near you, he could move to you and eat you.

The thing about it is that when an alien moves onto a space and declares an attack, he kills whatever is in that space (if anything), including another alien. So there are also questions as to what to do as an alien. Do you declare that you are an alien so that you can get the other aliens to help you? But in doing that, any noise that you make will send the human players scurrying away. Do you feign being human? Perhaps you will not cause others to flee your noises, but you may be pounced upon by your own team.

Adding to the tension is that there are a few items that humans can find and use (alien players can find them to pose as human, but never use them). Among these items are weapons, where they can attack a space just like the alien and potentially kill an alien pursuing them (or unknowingly, it might be a human following them).

Once they make it to an escape pod, the human player declares where they are and draws a card... Not all of the escape pods work. If this one malfunctions, then they must hurry to another, but they have given away where they are. And even if it does work and they escape, there is no longer an escape pod there, so the human who might have been two steps behind now finds that he must turn around and go somewhere else to escape.

This game is the epitome of tension in hidden movement and hidden roles, but it works best with lots of players. There is player elimination, but the games are not too long and it is still work watching what happens at the end.

Letters From Whitechapel:

For me, this is the pinnacle of hidden movement games. It simply is a masterpiece. I did a full review of it here.

While Fury of Dracula builds tension on both sides with combat and bloated mechanics, Letter from Whitechapel does it with minimalism. The two player game of Whitechapel is a chess match of player against player. One player plays Jack the Ripper, as the others control the Investigators trying to hunt him down after each kill before he can reach his hideout, which remains the same each night.

There is a lot of tension as Jack when someone finds your trail, but there is also a lot of tension as the Investigators. For some reason, removing a white prostitute pawn and replacing her with a red crime scene counter feels tense. The simple removal of a pawn starting each night creates a sense of loss for the Investigators. More and more clues are discovered as the nights pass and there is a great tension as Investigators decide if they want to look for clues or make an arrest in a space. And nothing in any game I've ever played comes close to the immediate sense of tension during the third night as Jack in Whitechapel where you must make two kills in one night and you cannot move away before the Investigators move.

This is the best of the hidden movement games and it deserves to be in every collection.

Originally posted on my blog, Do Not Taunt Cthulhu (and other useful tips)
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Tue Nov 12, 2013 5:00 pm
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Charles Simon
United States
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A flood of new games have been coming in, so the best way to tackle them is with a bunch of mini-reviews!

Firefly: The Game:

There has been a lot of unnecessary lauding and tearing down of this game online. A number of those who laud it would also adamantly defend a leaky coffee cup as being the best damned thing ever if it has a Firefly logo on it. That sort of kneejerk fanboyism also brings out those who would pick apart anything to crush the hearts of tubby neckbeards wearing browncoats calling everything shiny just to see them cry.

But at the end of the day, Firefly is a game with both theme and mechanics and somewhere along the reviews and defenses and criticisms, this seems to have been forgotten as reviews now attack reviews instead of looking at the game.

The end verdict, Firefly is a good game. It falls short of great, but it definitely has it's merit and a place on the shelf.

Firefly, at its heart, is just a pick up and deliver game. However, it does a lot of things right.

First of all, the emphasis isn't on the ship. It's on the crew and how the crew works together. It doesn't matter if you have the prettiest ship with the most mods and add-ons--if your crew is a mix of moral and immoral folk, there's going to be problems and some of them will end unhappy and you'll have to try to pacify them or they might leave. Working your crew to be balanced gives you both a sense of theme and personality for your ship.

There is randomness in the game. Movement is done through drawing of cards to see what happens. Movement in the border space runs the risk of coming across the Reavers, while flying in the Alliance space risks having the Alliance show up and delay and possibly commandeer your cargo. However, there is only one Reavers attack card in the border deck and only one Alliance Cruiser card in the Alliance deck, each one forcing a full reshuffle after it is drawn. While still random, it actually makes the movement more of a press-your-luck type of affair. When I see that the border deck is running thin, I might stick to Alliance space or take things real slow and careful if I don't want to risk my crew. Same thing with the Alliance deck when I'm running illegal cargo. So, in this sense, the randomness works.

To perform illegal actions, you need to draw a certain number of cards from the Misbehavin' Deck. Here is where your crew will usually have to try to get past an obstacle and it will often force a skill check, or can be benefitted by having just the right piece of equipment. This is the most random portion of the game since there is no real foreknowledge of what you might have to go up against. But I don't mind it because it is thematic. The deck represents the things that come up that you can't plan for--it is the sudden appearance of an Alliance patrol or an unexpected bar fight. These cards work as random and with a little knowledge of the game, it is pretty easy to know roughly what works best to make sure you can at least get away.

The game, however, has serious issues with length and downtime. This tends to be the case with a lot of pick up and deliver games, however. Merchant of Venus with 4 players is a long drawn out game. They introduced a starter scenario online which seems to be closer to the "right" length, but ultimately the scenarios need to be modded to make the game work without outstaying it's welcome.

There is also no real exploration. It doesn't limit replayability, per se, but it does mean some repeat players will take on more set strategies for who to deal with and where to upgrade. After about 2-3 plays, the game will no longer hold any new surprises.

The game can be unforgiving. With experience, you start to see how to best mitigate against the worst threats in the game (having a Pilot, a Mechanic and fuel to spare allows you to Crazy Ivan away from the Reavers and making certain that you have Transportation when Misbeheavin' means you can always flee if the Alliance shows up). However, for newer players, you could suddenly see your entire crew devoured by Reavers or arrested by the Alliance and get set back and almost be knocked out of the game completely. Experienced players definitely need to make newer players aware of these strategies if they want them to enjoy their experience.

Ultimately, however, the theme really shines here. It is a pick up and deliver game, but it feels like a lot more than just that because of it. The theme definitely is not tacked on, but the mechanics of the game were really made with the theme in mind in most every step.

I'm not certain what people expected from a Firefly boardgame, but as a pick up and deliver game works. Then again, that's mostly what the crew was doing on the show anyhow. Picking up and delivering. We just liked it because the show was about the crew's interactions. And you have to manage and build your crew in just the same way. The only thing missing from the Firefly experience is the witty, snarky dialogue. But not to worry, I'm sure that your friend across the table will by shoehorning in Firefly quotes whenever possible.

Skull and Roses:

Skull and Roses is the most amount of tension that you can possibly get with six sets of coasters. It is a bluffing game where you have four cards (coasters). Three have roses on the face and one has a skull on it.

Players lay down one card face down, then take turns either adding another card to their stack or declaring that they can flip over a certain number of cards without hitting a skull. It then goes around the table and any player can declare that they can flip more. Once everyone passes, the highest bidder then flips that number of cards. They must flip through all of their cards first, so when someone declares they can flip, they might be bluffing, hoping someone will raise the bid and flip their skull.

This is a quick, light game, but it has a surprising amount of tension. I love bluffing games and this game strips away just about everything else and it is a game of pure bluff and reading the other players. There is no ambiguity in moves where someone may or may not be a Cylon to create false suspicion. It is pure bluff.

For that, I love it. However, it builds a surprising amount of tension that might be too much for some players as there is no way to justify your actions. You just have to look another player in the eye and try to determine if he's laid a skull or not in his pile. It's a simple game that feels heavier than it is. It's is a strange game, but if you want look your friends in the eye and try to read their soul and have 10-15 minutes feel like three hours of tension, then I highly recommend this game.

Tzolk'in: The Mayan Calendar:

Tzolk'in's been around for a little while and it was a darling game for a bit. I think it's faded somewhat in obscurity, however, as the flow of mid-level mediocrity in games is an ongoing tsunami that is not stopping.

That isn't to say that Tzolk'in is mediocre, but it is hard for any game to remain relevant for more than a month after its release anymore because of the flood of new titles that thrive on anticipation more than game life.

Anyhow, worker placement games are not my cup of tea. I can enjoy them, but I generally do not seek them out. However, I have friends who really like them, so it's always good to have a few good ones on hand so that I don't have to end up playing one that sucks.

Tzolk'in is a keeper for me in that regard. The big gears are really just a gimmick that moving along a track would represent just as well, but the core mechanics of it are still entertaining enough. Like most Euro worker placement games, you place your figure to get a cube that you can later place a worker to turn it into a card or another cube, which ultimately can be turned into some victory points.

In this regard, there really isn't anything new or interesting in the game and the theme is a disconnect at best. But it isn't as plodding or tedious as many such games, so I'll give it a go now and again and it'll be on my shelf so that my worker placement friends can choose between this, Agricola, Dungeon Lords or Dungeon Petz (though that one is pretty much for my daughter who loves it).

The Cave:

Repeated plays of The Cave have diminished some of my feelings for the game. I still think that it is a solid game and it can be rather thinky as it requires a fair amount of planning to be efficient at what you need to do with your limited supplies. However, the more I play the game, the more I realize that the game doesn't offer anything new with repeated plays.

For a lot of games, this isn't really a problem. And for a lot of players, this isn't really a problem. Many players really enjoy mastering a game.

I suppose the problem here is that I have access to so many games, I don't feel the need to master The Cave. It is a good game and thematic enough, I suppose. But ultimately the theme isn't one that I feel too attached to.

It is a tile laying game of cavern exploration, but you need to make certain that you maximize the supplies in the limited room in your backpack to be most efficient and limit your wasting time to return to base camp to resupply.

While I do like the game, I don't think it is something I would play with the same players again and again. I like introducing other players to new games, but ultimately, I find that I have gotten more efficient. So with new players, I am much more efficient than them and I can easily win now. So I need players at my level, but I don't see playing it with the same people again and again. I have better games that I would rather do that with.

So, while I like the game, it doesn't stand out enough for repeat plays with the same group and I think this'll go into my trade list.

Originally posted on my blog, Do Not Taunt Cthulhu (and other useful tips)
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Fri Nov 8, 2013 11:57 am
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Gaming Weekend Round Up: 10/13/13

Charles Simon
United States
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Duel of Ages II:

Anyone learning DOA2 with me will now be forced to listen to
me tell them about this character of mine.

This game continues to impress me with how fun it is each time I play it. The game itself has a few big problems, so I warn people in advance of teaching them not to worry about points, but to just enjoy the ride. The mechanics of the game are mechanically sound with combat needing certain levels of strategy. However, everything, from character draws to starting items are completely random. This means that one side could start out with a moped, Fluffy the cat and a pair of boxing gloves, while the other team draws sniper rifles, plasma cannons and grenades as their starting equipment. So there are problems with the game because of this. However, it is exactly that kind of randomness that makes it fun for me.

I've come to realize what kinds of games I like the most. Pure Euro-style games are essentially a very dry masturbatory appreciation of clever mechanics. While I really appreciate good, clever mechanics, they are too dry and dull to be very much fun and only have a picture of an explorer on the box and the fact that we call the cubes "Goods" separating them from being true abstract games. The other end of the scale is pure Ameritrash games. They are games that delve so deep into theme that often times it is to create a story and narrative to hide how terrible the actual game mechanics are. While I still enjoy it to a degree, Arkham Horror falls into that lot for me and I am less enthused to play it.

What I really enjoy is hybrid games. Games that use clever mechanics to enhance the theme and narrative. Robinson Crusoe: Adventure on the Cursed Island fits this category. The Euro-style mechanics are genius because they make sense and create a fitting narrative. Every piece I move, every cube I place is done for a reason to further the story instead of simply creating an artificial threat or timer. Things make narrative sense. Middle Earth Quest and Stronghold also both carry that thematic narrative with their mechanics.

However, there is another class of game that I really enjoy. It is when Ameritrash randomness goes so over the top and embraces what it is, balance be damned. Cosmic Encounter fits that description. When I pass out the starting races for everyone, you can look around the table and immediately see who is at the biggest disadvantage. The game hasn't started yet and it is plain as day. But, Cosmic Encounter embraces that. I love getting the terrible race and realizing that I am so fucked, but having to have to try to cajole, bribe and weasel my way for a few colonies.

That is what Duel of Ages II is. There is no balance. You might have Coach Quinn with a hockey stick and I may have the colonial Space Marine with the laser howitzer. There is no apology for this imbalance. It just is what it is and I love it for that.

The thing with these kinds of games are that you end up with stories. Sure, it is fully possible that a game is completely unbalanced and ends up being not very fun. However, with the right attitude, what is more likely to happen is that you will end up with amazing stories.

The game we played last weekend now holds one of my favorite gaming moments in it. My Dainty Princess Sunglow, armed with Lawn Darts and a Buckler and accompanied by her pet, Fluffy the Cat, was able to take an opportunity shot at futuristic Terran fleet Commodore Blaylock with her lawn darts.

The dainty princess threw lawn darts at the space commander as he ran by her.

I missed, but it didn't matter. The fact that I did it was the high point of my Sunday gaming day.

During all of this a showdown was occurring the Tombstone as Napoleon rushed up a plateau and high school football Coach Quinn ushered three of his teammates into the colonial caverns to try to coach them on how to overcome the obstacles ahead of them.

There is enough in the game to balance this chaos on solid mechanics, but this game should never, ever be played to prove someone's superior strategic play.

Instead, you play it so that you can tell people how your dainty princess threw lawn darts at the space commander. And right now, I am still loving every moment of the game for this fact.

The Cave:

Apparently Speologist, Spelunker and Caver are three
different things.

I was curious to get the Cave to a table of five players, since I had only played it with two up until this point and eventually need to review it. I still enjoy the game a fair amount (probably more than my wife), but I was a little disappointed that five players didn't make the map seem any more crowded. It was too easy for everyone to move out into their own directions and that is what we essentially did.

Reid brought up the idea was in mathematics with Action Points. It was almost designed that your final action each turn would be to reveal a tile, but not have the AP to claim whatever was on it. Therefore it made more sense to split up. Since otherwise you will always be giving an opponent an opportunity to steal something you've uncovered, or you are wasting AP and not exploring any tiles with your last moves.

There is some validity to that, but perhaps with more plays we will find that there is benefit to teaming up/stealing for one another.

I still enjoy the game and while thematic, it feels more puzzley than narrative driven to really put it in the top tier of my favorite games.

We finished the evening by playing out a five-player Pathfinder party going through the entire first Adventure, beating all three scenarios, though the first two were pretty close.

I like Pathfinder a lot and playing it with the people I also roleplay with makes it all the better. However, my wife and I have finished a campaign (up to this point) and have played at least 8-10 one-off adventures with one another and other players.

Ultimately, that frequency of play has made me realize that a lot of the game is a bit too repetitive. With the exception of one of the later scenarios, all of the scenarios are essentially a track down and hunt of the villain. The locations vary, but probably don't give enough of a feel of variety because they are still seeded randomly.

Who would have thought that a game based on an RPG system would
have so little narrative?

The paradox of the game is that it needs variety (gained by random seeding) to create replayability. However, the game needs set stacks to create a more thematic narrative. It seems a little odd that I found the shopkeeper's daughter in the deep dungeons and you encountered an Ogre in the weapons shop, and later fell into the pit trap set in the town square. However, if you knew that the Ogre would always be in the dungeon and the shopkeeper's daughter would be in the shop, then it would be too easy to figure out who should go where equipped with what.

Cohesive narrative also wasn't aided by the fact that my dwarven ranger would track his location and apparently find the tracks of a warhammer ahead.

None of this is to say that I don't enjoy playing the game. However, since it is based off of one of the two biggest RPG names, I am just disappointed that cohesive narrative wasn't built deeper into the design of the game. It is a good, fun game, but it is not evocative of a RPG dungeon crawl.

That being said, I'm still on board with the expansions and look forward to advancing my characters.

And I suppose that is the saving grace of the game and winning over roleplayers to really appreciate it: I can level up my character.

Give any true roleplayer a game where they can level up their character and they are all in. It is in our genes.

This entry was originally posted on my blog Do Not Taunt Cthulhu (and other useful tips) at
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Wed Oct 16, 2013 4:14 pm
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In Which I Discover Something Better Than Being Right

Charles Simon
United States
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I tend to think I have an open mind about board games and gamers and pretty much think that there is a game out there for anyone. That being said, I'm overly conscious about trying to bring new people into the right games. If I know the make up of a group, I'll try to find something that fits right for the collection of people. I've got tons of gateway games and lighter games to bring people in to ensure that they can have a good time while the "veterans" are still enjoying themselves with the chosen game.

That being said, I took my newly acquired of Space Cadets: Dice Duel with me camping. I hadn't played it yet. Anyhow, it is a team game that is frantic and involves everyone rolling a lot of dice for their station and trying to get everything accomplished in real time against the "crew" of the other ship.

So we started with 2 vs. 2 teams, each of us regular, veteran gamers. I started to explain the rules when casual gamer that we knew who had also come on the trip passed by and peeked in to see what we were doing. I invited him to join us. However, that left us with uneven teams, so we looked around for another player. Sitting at a table near us under the pavilion was an older man--longer white-grey hair and a long beard and my estimate would be that he was about 70. He wasn't a gamer, but he was nearby and invited to join us.

My first thought was that this was going to be a bad fit. The game isn't complex, but there is a lot going on all at once and it can be fast paced, which isn't something good for non-gamers to jump into.

In explaining the theme, someone asked him, "Do you like Star Trek?"

He laughed and our guts were that he was scoffing at the idea and someone said, "I guess not."

He laughed again and said, "I LOVE Star Trek."

I was still nervous that this was a bad fit and my demoing the new game would fall flat. I explained the rules, trying not to sound like I was talking down, but overly explaining them. Everything was explained and with a shout of "Begin!" we started rolling dice.

Nothing made me happier in my gaming experience in a long time than hearing that grizzled old man shout, "Fire One!" as he got a weapon lock onto our ship and let loose his missile and drew first blood.

He jammed my ship's locks on his and he got several beads onto our ship. The old man was an ace weapon's officer and his team won as our ship was destroyed.

I pride myself in finding games that fit and I think I have a pretty good track record of making things accessible. However, I found out today that I like it more when I am proven wrong and my stereotypes are broken.

I salute you, grizzled old weapon's officer whose name I never caught. Thanks for a great game and for reminding me that it isn't just the games that we play, nor simply the people that we play with, but it is also the variety of people that we play with.
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Sun Aug 18, 2013 11:04 pm
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