02 December 2011

Self-Rescuing Princess: Disneyland

  Sleeping Beauty's Castle, Holiday EditionWe were headed to California anyway: there was this conference in San Francisco.  And it happened a lot like it does in the commercials: There was one night where one of us said “come look at this,” and the other one said “that’s not too bad…we can do that”  and then there was a lot of sorting through websites and looking at plans and discounts and things like that.   And the long and the short of it was: we were going to Disneyland with nearly-five-year-old Cups and one-year-old Cap’n.  In mid-November.  Which, editorially, is quite possibly the best time to go.  Ever.

It has been recommended to me that when one is traveling with children to make sure there is “cushion” time on both ends of the flight – time for the little ones to adjust and recuperate.  It is probably not recommended to board a plane at 6 AM EST, get off the plane at 9:30 AM Disneyland time, and be in the park for a full day one hour later.  For the record, Cap’n slept on the plane and both kids were model citizens. 

We arrived at our hotel at about 10 AM or so Disneyland time.  Cups, whose planned highlight of the California trip was a visit to see Pierre the Penguin at the California Academy of Sciences, had been telling everyone along the way all about the story of Pierre (look it up, it’s pretty awesome).  So when we got out of the taxi and unloaded our stuff, I turned to her and asked her “Do you want to go to Disneyland?”

“Naah,” she said,  “Maybe another day.” PB152901

We depend on Amazon Prime and Netflix for our TV entertainment, and it was at that moment that it dawned on me that she might not know about the  commercials.  “Do you know what Disneyland is?" I asked her, curiously.   She shook her head. 

“Nope.”  Then she thought about it for a few minutes.  “Is that,” she asked, “where all the Disney people live?”  I assured her it was, and then the magic happened.  Her eyes got big and the wheels started turning, and minutes later she was counting down until we got into Disneyland itself. 

Many many things have been said about Disneyland and the man behind the empire.  Many many things have been said about the characters – particularly the female characters – and I agree with a lot of them.   I would rather my child not model her life after Aurora or Ariel or Snow White or Cinderella; I would rather she be her own person: and opinionate and willful and trying as she can be, she definitely is her own personality.  But I am coming to grips with her desire for sparkly shoes and fluffy dresses; her insistence that pink is the “best color ever”; she insists that she can “run faster” in a skirt than jeans, wore the toes out of her black Mary Janes in the park, and does not discriminate between tulle and denim as far as climbing gear goes.

Cups enters the Fantasy FaireWe went to see the princesses, but only after we rode Space Mountain, and the rocket ride, and shot up some aliens with Buzz Lightyear.  We stood in line – the longest lines, I will note, in all three days at the park were for the princesses, the fairies, and Rapunzel – in front of a faux-medieval wall with a bunch of little girls (I didn’t see any brothers, besides Cap’n, and precious few dads) dressed up in their sparkly best with their pink sparkly autograph books.  Some of them had princess dresses on.  Some of them had princess wigs, most of which were rather hilariously askew and looked as if they were on at least their second day of wear.

Cups was offered a selection of shirts that morning and chose her Self-Rescuing Princess one, which I thought particularly apropos.  It gathered comment from several  mothers of girls in wigs and tulle skirts, and at least one “where did you get that awesome shirt?”, so I am judging it went over well.  We made friends with everyone in line near us (kids will do that) while waiting, and then it was our turn to be escorted around a turn into the Disney Princess Fantasy Faire.Cups meets Ariel

I feel for the women who play princesses in the Faire.  They have nothing to do but stand and mimic the mannerisms of animated women while talking to excited little girls all day long.  I also admire them: when Cap’n didn’t want to give up his autograph book (ours were plain black sketchbooks decorated with the kids’ names) because he had found out how much fun it was to chew on, nobody lost their cool.  There were still smiles and cheerful voices the whole time, and the photographers had their cameras going to catch the magic while we herded the kids.

And there was magic: all three princesses (Ariel, Snow White, and Cinderella) had to hear about how, after Disneyland, we were going to go to the California Academy of Sciences to meet Pierre.  At the fairy grotto, Tinkerbelle asked what sort of things Cups rescued herself from, and got a little shrug.  “I don’t know.  Stuff.”

We made it the entire day, with a break for early dinner and Cap’n passing out on the table, and were back for accidental character breakfasts in the morning.  We did go to the Jedi Academy, but Cups refused to volunteer for training (“I don’t want to be a Jedi”), although she was interested in watching.  There may or may not have been an argument between Cups and Mommy, who wanted her to get her moment of fame, but in the end the stronger will prevailed and we all sat and watched instead. 

Cap'n gets into the spiritSomewhere in there, we stopped by the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique to do a little shopping, and discovered the source of the tulle and the princess wigs: it appears that you can pay to have your little girl (ages 3-12) primped and powdered and, depending on the package (they start at $50 and end upwards of $200), begemmed, bewigged, bemanicured, and begowned to look just precisely like her favorite Disney Princess, complete with photographic documentation of the process.  Reservations are recommended.  Oh, and on the very bottom of the brochure in tiny print it mentions they do have knight makeovers too.  We left the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique with a solid-feeling shortsword and shield combo, as well as a Mickey Mouse-themed gem bracelet, all hand-selected by Cups. 

I spent the rest of the time feeling faintly creeped out whenever I saw one of these little girls in the $200 fantasy outfits, and wondering privately if anyone ever actually got a knight makeover.  Did that include hairstyling, shimmering makeup, body jewels, a manicure and optional costume?  (Answer: according to the WDW page the Knight package includes hairstyling and a sword and shield for $14.95 plus tax: it is surprisingly inexpensive to achieve knighthood).   And what does it say about my ability to suspend disbelief that I couldn’t just roll it into the whole magical experience?

Disneyland itself is a suspension of disbelief: the place is scrupulously clean, stunningly themed, and filled with cast members who have been solidly trained in the art of being pleasant and happy no matter what.  If you stay at the resort hotels (we didn’t), then there’s no spending money in the park – just use your room key.  We skipped the ATM surcharges and bought Disney Dollars with our debit card to keep within budget, but it felt like playing with fantasy money.  The whole thing is set up from the moment you walk in to leave an impression that you’ve entered another world.  Thursday morning on our Magic Morning early passes we were escorted in stage by stage, revealing the park one postcard view at a time, until it opened out and there was room to avoid a potential bottleneck.  It is all choreographed and all thought out in advance.  There is magic promised, and magic delivered: changeouts of characters are handled with grace (“I’m sorry, Alice and I have to have tea! With the Queen!”), and the attention to detail is everywhere.    Even the greetings my children received were part of the show: Cups was almost universally greeted as “Princess”, while Cap’n was “Prince”, or “M’lord”.  But I couldn’t turn my brain off: we met only one prince (Rapunzel was accompanied by Flynn Rider) despite a host of princesses and fairy godmothers. I saw little girls in princess dresses everywhere.  And the ridesCups takes a break

Angel points out that there are all sorts of movie-themed adventure rides and storybook rides – Dumbo, Peter Pan, Pinocchio, Mr. Toad, Buzz Lightyear, et cetera – and yet the only princess-themed ride is Snow White’s Scary Adventures (and, if you stretch, Alice in Wonderland, which we did not ride).  Everything else that has to do with princesses involves standing in line to meet them and get their autographs (a passive activity) or walking through Sleeping Beauty’s Castle looking at pictures (Cups: “Is that the whole castle?”) .   It’s a little thing, but it seems to support back to the idea that there are things for kids to do and then there are things for girls to do.  (One counter-example: in Toontown, the kids’ coaster is Gadget’s Go Coaster, named after a female supporting character).

I have to admit that I was gratified when Cups elected to close her trip to Disneyland with the Matterhorn, Buzz Lightyear, and back-to-back trips through Space Mountain.  It’s exhilarating to hear my daughter cheering for another ride on one of my favorite roller coasters ever.  It’s also a learning experience for me – a tomboy at heart, most comfortable in jeans and work boots and baggy shirts – to let her pick out her own mouse ears (pink princess crown) and her own trading pins (Ariel and Tinkerbelle).  It’s hard to remember sometimes that although I may want her to be tough and independent, there’s no reason she can’t do that in tulle.

29 September 2011

Gaming with Kids: Lego Heroica

The Heroica Board Hit up the Lego booth at GenCon and got to actually play around with Heroica a bit.  It seemed like the kind of thing that Cups would enjoy, and since we are always trying to find new ways to let her feel like she’s a part of the roleplaying circle and to encourage her quick and creative mind, we picked up a set a while later at our Local Big Box Store.  No guilt here about going through an intermediary: Lego is too big for me to feel like I owe them anything.

We got all of the sets right off the bat, after having seen the big setup at GenCon with them all linked, and promptly assembled everything into little modular pieces.  Cups put the dice together and helped find the interesting little specialty bits.  For our first game we set up the main Heroica box just as the book suggested to.  After that, we put away the guidebooks, picked out a bunch of rooms, stuck them together, and picked out some microfigs. 


Rules and Setup:  The game sets consist of a bunch of two-by-two or three-by-three square rooms, with flavor decorations, separated by little bridges that snap into place.  It’s set up with tiles of alternating colors, making each game square pretty easy to identify.  Assembling it is just like any other Lego set: you can follow the instructions or not as you choose; following the instructions guarantees a certain outcome but you can create more interesting ones by deviating from them; there are extra pieces that look like you missed a step – and sometimes that is correct – and it all snaps securely together. 

Each of the Heroica sets comes with its own set of microfigs: inch-high Lego people of varying colors.  It’s pretty easy to distinguish enemies from heroes at a glance, and some of the sets included bats and spiders if you are opposed to killing humanoids.  All of the sets also come with color-coded health packs matching to the hero microfigs that hold four little red cones and, depending on the set, may also have a place to store weapons and defeated enemies. The color of your microfig determines its special powers (more about this later).  On the Heroica site all of the microfigs have little backstories and the special powers seem to match well to the stories provided, making them easy to remember. 

The game also comes with a double-purpose (customizable!) Lego die: each of the six faces serves both as a movement die and as an attack die.  Most of the faces are split diagonally: one side indicates how far you move with dots and the other side indicates the outcome of the battle.  The sixth “special” face is a shield which lets your microfig use a special power or move 4 spaces.  On your turn, you roll the die, move accordingly in any direction until you run out of spaces or come to something that stops you – treasure, locked doors, or enemies.  When you meet an enemy you immediately stop and fight them – again by rolling the die.  Depending on your roll, you either defeat them or not, and you may or may not lose health points even if you win.  When you run out of little red cones on your health pack then you are knocked out and you have to roll each turn to replenish your health until you are at full again.

Scattered around the board are various treasures: gold cones to serve as coins, little potion bottles, keys, and some special pieces as well.   Keys unlock locked doors, and you can carry only one at a time.  Picking them up can be strategic if you are playing to win the game, and it is in fact possible in some setups to completely blockade the other players from achieving their goals through holding a key hostage.  Potions are helpful  – replenishing health, moving extra spaces, and allowing a reroll of the Lego die.  Coins can be used to buy weapons from the shop, which sit cutely on your health pack and give your microfig the ability to use an “almost-as-cool” version of a different microfig’s special powers.

Winning: Although Heroica is a roleplaying-style board game it still provides for a way for a particular player to win.  Different suggested setups have different win  conditions such as defeating a boss mob or getting to a particular piece of treasure or square on the board; we used the classic “defeat the goblin king” in our games, but there are particular pieces such as a protective helm, a chalice or a book that could make perfectly good items to retrieve from a dungeon.  You could also play cooperatively, leaving out the single-player goals and bringing a party into the dungeon.


Setting up the game

Gameplay: If you are playing with all the Heroica sets open, you can choose between six different microfigs and special powers for your hero: The barbarian (yellow), who can defeat all adjacent monsters and move a space; the wizard (red), who has a four-square corner-turning ranged attack; the druid (brown), who can heal back to full health; the rogue (black), who gets to defeat an adjacent monster and take a gold from the store; the ranger (blue), who can move one space and then has a five-space ranged attack; and the knight (grey), who can move up to 2 spaces and defeat an adjacent monster.   All of the powers can be extremely useful, but none of them is overwhelmingly better than the others.  All of them can be nearly duplicated by a purchased weapon’s power if you can’t live without two different powers.

There’s not much to the game, really: you roll the die, you move, you either fight an enemy or not. you head to the defined goal.   It was easy enough for four-year-old Cups to grasp with minimal explanation, and once she had the hang of the rules she really got excited about combat and rolling the die.   If we had wanted to stack the rules in her favor it would have been easy enough to take the provided tiny plastic crowbar and replace some of the die faces, weighting combat in the heroes’ favor.  We didn’t need to, though; she took getting defeated in good stride when it happened. 

It was during the course of our first game that I discovered that my daughter is in fact a budding roleplayer: she deviated completely from the agreed-upon goal of defeating the goblin king and meandered over to a room that had a leg of meat on a table.   She declared happily that she was going to (a) spend her turn eating lunch and (b) put the meat on her head as a helmet.  Not wanting to disappoint her, we tried it.  It fit.  The rest of the game was played with a meat head, and eventually the goblin king was defeated. 

Replayability is high, mainly due to the immense amount of fun we had building different dungeons and arranging the treasures.  The game itself is really only about half as enjoyable as making it, something that again seems to be common to Lego constructions everywhere.  There are a lot of little pieces, though, even accounting for keeping the rooms intact and only breaking apart the bridges: microfigs and coins and potions and weapons and health cones and keys and special pieces.  Our Heroica set now resides in three boxes, one of which is half full of little plastic containers for sorting different small pieces, so this is probably a game that we aren’t going to introduce the Captain to until he is old enough to understand about not putting game pieces in his mouth.

Playing with a meat head.

 The downside of the gameplay is that this is a dungeon which can be potentially quite extensive, and it is very easy to find your microfig on the wrong side of a lot of corridors with nothing in them, having cleared out all the mobs in the process of getting to the treasure/key/coin/leg of meat that you were pursuing.  Moving across a large board at no more than four squares a turn drags a bit; we tended to roll 1 and 2 square movements more than anything else and so catching up to the party was occasionally tedious.  A couple of solutions were under consideration: Randomly spawning patrols to add a little more spice to the trip; being able to move in a straight line until you encountered an item of interest or crossroads; double moves in empty hallways.  We haven’t had a chance to try any of them out. 

The other downside has nothing to do with Heroica itself and everything to do with Cups.  I want her to grow up without feeling like her gender makes her something exotic or unusual in the gaming world, and unfortunately Lego is not being helpful here.  All the Heroica posters at GenCon featured little boys playing at being heroes; four of the six microfigs have beards or stubble; all the stories on the Lego site – heroes and villains alike – reference male characters (except for the grunts, who are only referred to in the collective).  These are clever and interesting little stories that give a history to the microfigs and make the game just that much closer to a roleplaying board game; the website is interesting and has neat animations.  It would have been a very little thing for Lego’s writers, I think, to make some (half?) of the heroes female – or better yet to tell the single-paragraph stories without explicitly gendering the characters.  It would have been a big thing for my daughter and me to be able to identify with them.

Conclusions: Lego Heroica in its several incarnations is fun to put together and easy to play.  There are a lot of small pieces to keep track of, so I recommend investing in small containers or baggies for these to save you grief in the long run.  There’s a high degree of customizability and the dungeons you create can vary from straightforward and simple to bewilderingly complex.  The rules are sufficient to play and yet easily adapted to a particular playstyle.  Overall, a good fun family RPG boardgame with a lot of potential for storytelling practice with the younger crowd.  I just wish there were women in the Heroica world.

11 September 2011


You might have heard this one before.  But it seemed apropos to this blog, so I am reposting.

My child wears black and denim
   or pink and neon green
She likes Mythbusters reruns
   and her tiny iPod screen
She cheats at Chutes and Ladders
   and makes up words to songs
She knows to hide from Daleks
   and fight zombies on the lawn

We bargain over Xbox
   and Clone Wars DVDs
And sing They Might be Giants
   when we practice A-B-C's
She likes to search the backyard
   for flowers, twigs, and rocks
And in her dresser drawer
   are never matching socks

My child wears purple rain boots
   and flowers in her hair
She reads books after lights-out
   and plays with teddy bears
She knows about the Wardrobe  
   and the wicked witch in white
And we sing Twinkle Twinkle
   when she lays down at night,

- nsb.

Hollowpoint: Wild Wild West

Got folks together the other weekend to play Hollowpoint and see if I enjoyed GMing it as much as I liked playing it.  Threw out the invitation to the winds and got back an OK from two of our Pathfinder regulars, my husband, an old friend recently returned from Places Southwest, and a couple whom we do not get to do RPG's with very often.  It was a big group.  I got to count out a LOT of dice.

Skin: Steampunk Western.  
Mission: (1) Rescue Mister Banks's daughter from the Pinkertons.  (2) Get the deed to the Lucky Star out of the train's lockbox before the Dawson Gang does.

We took a few minutes to get everyone settled - used the toe tag character sheets which amused the hell out of my players - and ran them all through character gen in about twenty minutes, counting chasing kids and asking questions.  There were Complications from almost every player, which definitely made things more interesting.   There were also a lot of questions starting with “can we have…” from my D&D-based group, who were almost obscenely pleased with the idea that they could  in fact have whatever it was they were asking for.

Several of the players took low to nothing in Kill, so they schmoozed their way past the engineer  (Complication: I am the engineer’s daughter) and the Pinkertons before settling into the real meat of the adventure.  There was a lot of throwing people out of train windows.  There was a lot of Terror and Dig and Cool being used, with the occasional gunfire battle.  There were Pinkertons hiding in the restrooms and using earpiece microphones to transmit information down the train.  There were traits being burned in new and interesting ways as the players realized that a scene was headed for a Wash or that they just needed One More Hit in Terror to make things happen.

I was surprised at how much the players had to do with creating the scenes; I almost didn’t need to be there except to roll handfuls of dice and watch them get torn apart.  But the best part for me was setting up a Retribution. 

They had Miss Banks in friendly custody after Terrorizing the Pinkerton agent holding her hostage (Complication: I rescued Miss Banks from a brothel in Juarez once).  They had successfully Conned some of the Dawson Gang into watching her for them (Complication: I left the Dawson Gang under friendly circumstances).   And then the rest of the gang showed up, on flying steel horses, and shot the hell out of Agent Jayne.  “It was like they were gunning for him or something.”  Chalk one up to Complication: I left the Dawson Gang under unfriendly circumstances, and bring in an Operative loaded on Cool to help finish out the show. 

Jeffery Dawson learned an important lesson about being out-Cooled (do not stick a deed down your pants to keep it away from an Operative) and an Agent learned about getting Conned by a fast-talking pretty boy, right up until he got his deed taken away anyway.  Everyone got to play a role: Operative Sylvia may have been the one doing the crotch-grab, but she couldn’t do it without backup – and backup was provided in full.

Everyone left the table feeling satisfied, accomplished, and having thoroughly enjoyed themselves.  My quiet players opened up with very little prompting, and as promised the scenes pretty much ran without my guidance.  I still very much enjoy the dice mechanic for making scenes flow smoothly, and it was clear and easy for the players as well.  “Not so much math” was the main take-home comment.

We did notice that unless I am splitting my dice pool for a Principal or a Catch that I will never have more than 6 actions (one per side), so the massive dice pool of the GM tends to lend itself to longer runs which means I get to go first most of the time.  However, once the players get a turn they are likely to wipe out everything I have left, so it evens out.  I’m not attached to NPCs because I haven’t spent more than twenty seconds statting them up by deciding how many dice they get, so I don’t get as defensive when they get out-cooled because my investment is low.  As a GM, my biggest hurdle is getting over my fear of killing PC’s in mundane ways.  Shooting the hell out of Agent Jayne was, in fact, extremely satisfying for all of us and Operative Sylvia was statted up by the time the scene was completed. 

Still love this system and the next time we are looking for a one-nighter it will probably be the first off the shelf.

19 August 2011

Split Personalities

When I was in college, we experimented with playing Shadowrun instead of our usual D&D game (2nd Edition, Skills and Powers, for those who are keeping track).  Our GM, who is a fantasy writer by trade and a phenomenal storyteller, learned enough of the rules to manage the game, and we set out to raid a corporate stronghold – a decker or two, a mage, a street sam, a rigger, and a couple of other supporting cast whose classes are lost in the mists of time. 
The raid went well, relatively speaking; as well as a Shadowrun ever goes, really.  We all got out alive.  The base was still standing.  The Matrix was fantasy-themed with kobolds for guard programs and dungeons for data storage, but that was sort of nice flavor.  When we were done, none of the electronics worked and something horrible had happened to the guard bots and most of the employees of the stronghold, and I do remember taking over a security cannon at one point and just opening fire randomly while I worked out the controls, but we got what we had come for and got out alive again.  We were expecting to get paid – maybe we did get paid – and we bought new things with our hard-earned cash: cyberware and new deck parts and explosives and such. 
And then Bad Things started happening.  Deck parts were booby-trapped.  Cyberware blew up.  Explosives did.  Our net for the entire Shadowrun was negative.  And we as players complained: we had bought these things with our reward money.  Why were they being taken away?  And our GM shook his head and said “I can’t reward you for what you did.  It’s just not right.”
Lesson learned: When playing under someone with an epic fantasy background and a strongly developed sense of literary justice, stick to epic fantasy.  Don’t be bad guys, because bad guys will get it in the end.
Compare this with the conscientious amorality of Hollowpoint (“Bad people killing bad people for bad reasons.”) and its positive delight in antisocial mayhem of all kinds, and it got me thinking about my own tabletop game (Pathfinder, for those keeping score) and the interplay between player and character morality.  It’s an ongoing game, and I know I have players who read the blog, so I’m not going to spoiler anything that shouldn’t already be adequately clear, but the current campaign arc deals primarily with big questions regarding alignment, actions, and their effects on one’s character.
My players are old friends: many of us have known each other for more than a decade, and some of us have been gaming together that long.  Some of us are married, and several of us have children, so our sessions are planned around work and graduate school and babysitting duties.  Many of us attend church together, so Sunday afternoons when everyone is in the same place anyway are an ideal time to game.  These days instead of pizza and Mountain Dew, we potluck or put things in the crockpot; we drink homebrewed beer or IBC from the bottle.  We have dice trays that were hand-turned by one of our players.  They are my friends: people who I know spend their time teaching youth and making families and working for social justice and being Good People. 
And they are playing characters whose moral spectrum rages from Vengeful Crusader to Ravening Sociopath.  Case in point: Party reaches next destination along the path to their end goal.  They discover that the inn in question has been burned to the ground and its inhabitants butchered; the scene is designed to engender maximum outrage.  I know my players pretty well by now, so filled with outrage they head off to the nearest town to track down the perpetrators of this particular heinous deed.
Turns out that the perpetrators in question are a frighteningly zealous cult purporting to follow the Lawful Good god, and one of the main instigators is the high priest.  He’s arrogant and obnoxious and unlikable and claims he’s doing his moral duty by exterminating evildoers in the realm.  He is absolutely certain – and even states he’s found proof – that the philanthropic organization the party is working for is actually a nest of evil.  So the party kills him, raids the treasure chest, pillages his memories and sets out to mop up the rest of the raiders. 
One of the party members has one of those one-off artifacts that get thrown into campaigns because it seems like a good idea at the time.  This particular one siphons memories: the last hour before death.  It is an evil thing and a corrupting thing which I give to parties periodically just to see what they will do with it.  Sometimes they destroy it.  This party, or at least the party member who has it, uses it – and frequently – to serve in lieu of interrogation.  At one point, he sat down next to a prisoner, tied and bound, and just rambled off all the keywords he knew of for twenty minutes or so before performing a coup de grĂ¢ce on the poor man and then taking the next twenty minutes to sift through the information provided. 
Thus armed with information that once again indicated that the Zenith firmly believes the Phoenix Dawn is an agent of evil, and in possession of actual holy symbols of evil taken from the destroyed inn, the party proceeded to hunt down and exterminate all of the ringleaders of the raid, one at a time, in a night of terror.  Their only concession to justice was to ask a teenaged boy whether he regretted what he’d done before cutting him down.  When I mentioned that there was an infant child in one house they were plotting to burn down, I was treated to actual groans of irritation from my players that I’d dared to stand in the way of their fun. 
They stopped about two-thirds of the way down their list because they were running out of nighttime, hijacked a boat, and took the captain out onto the lake.  There was some debate about how far out to sail before dumping him overboard, at least, but the faction that wanted almost too far to swim seemed to win out.  As I was narrating the poor man’s swim back to shore, I was interrupted: “I cast Daze on him before he’s out of range.”  Very thorough, this band of vigilantes. 
This is probably the sort of behavior I am not supposed to condone.  But this sort of behavior is so very interesting to see, which is probably why the campaign is built around grey moral areas and dilemmas with no good answer, and why I let them run rampant without artificially imposing the rule of law on them.  After all, there is a curious symmetry to what the party have done to the Zenith, in light of what the Zenith did in the first place.  It’s more dramatic to let them figure that out all by themselves than to make someone explain it to them.
Besides, they were having so much fun.

14 August 2011

Dice and things: Square Shooters

Square Shooters Play Layout

We spent a lot of time in the dealers’ hall at GenCon – this year with two whole days sans enfants we actually had time to demo some games.  The other two days were our “two minute demo days” – we’d play a game until the kids started screaming, which was usually about two minutes.  Cups is old enough to be bored if she’s not included and young enough to have a hard time with anything but uncomplicated rules; she is also in that awkward gamer stage where cheating is viewed as something that just bypasses all that waiting around to win, and not as an actual bad thing.  This is adorable when she uses it to shorten a game of Candyland (seriously?  On random chance you can get sent back to the beginning at any point?) and intensely frustrating when she does not understand why she shouldn’t. 

One of the games we demo’d with Cups around and then did not get back around to buying at the Con itself was Square Shooters, which is rather cleverly based on mathematics.  In essence, if you count the two jokers, there are 54 cards in a deck – which is a precise multiple of 6.  According to the story, creator Carmelyn Calvert then spent a night of innovative fury rearranging those 54 potential faces onto 9 six-sided dice such that it was possible to roll every conceivable 4-of-a-kind as well as every conceivable straight flush.  In the morning, she had nine dice and a game that is sort of like poker and sort of like Yahtzee. 

Unboxing: The basic game set, which we found post-Con at our friendly neighborhood Big Box Store while browsing for something completely different, has a “storage bag”, nine dice, a small deck of cards, 100 dime-sized plastic poker chips and the instructions.  It all fits into the bag with a little creative packing (put the instructions in first) and can then slip onto a small to medium wrist or into the pocket of a pair of cargo shorts for portability.  The chips and bag are fairly light construction, but the cards themselves are about the sturdiness of your average Bicycle playing cards, if only about half the size, and the dice have a good solid heft and roll to them.  We spent a while turning them around and the claims regarding what can be rolled do appear to be true.

Gameplay: We picked up the set on the way out to a friend’s house for a bonfire, where we snagged her just-starting-middle-school son for a test run game.  I rolled out the dice and the first thing out of his mouth was “But I don’t know how to play poker!”  We were prepared for that.  The game requires you to know or be able to learn what some basic poker terms mean: straight, flush, royal flush, two-of-a-kind, four-of-a-kind, and full house.  It also provides a cheat sheet including scoring rank in its instructions, which are clear and concise.  It also contains a conversion guide, in case you want to play rummy or twenty-one with the same dice.  “Holding” card games such as Gin would probably be unfeasible, but anything that depends on the turn of a card is probably doable with the set of dice. 

In the basic game, you turn over the top card from the deck and take three tries to meet one of two goals on it.  There is a low goal such as “two pair” or “straight flush”, and then there is a high goal, which challenges you to match a specific set of faces with your dice.  For example, in the setup above, the low-goal – a royal flush – is worth 6 chips and the high goal – a royal flush in clubs – is worth 12 chips.  There are two jokers as wild cards, and you can save or reroll any of the nine dice during your three rolls.  If you match one or the other, you get the chips and play passes to the next person.  If you don’t, you get nothing.  There are some modifier cards: a Joker card that can be used later in play; Quickdraw that allows you to chip in on someone else’s potential gain and win the same number of chips they do (playable just before or after someone else’s first roll only); Double Down to double the stakes of any given roll, and Showdown, which lets you challenge another player to a roll-off for high hand, winner takes six chips from the loser.  Gameplay continues for a set number of rounds (they suggest 8) and the winner is the player with the most chips.

There’s no betting in Square Shooters, which is a nuance that I appreciate: the flow of chips is essentially a point-scoring system rather than an interplay between the players themselves (Showdown excluded).  It’s easy for one player to get ahead – some combinations are worth far more than others, and your stakes are determined by the card you draw.  Despite his reservations, our friend’s son turned out to be a natural with the dice (he won by a factor of two), and as we worked through teaching him how to play some of the strategy of the game became apparent.  Because not every die contains every possible card face – and two of them have a wild side – selecting which dice to keep versus reroll can change your chances for success significantly.  I suspect familiarity with the dice would be as beneficial as knowing your cards is in a regular game; as we were all new to the dice there was a lot of picking them up and studying the non-playing sides to find where target faces were. 

Summary:  As packaged, Square Shooters is a quick and fun game for older kids and adults.  Altering the number of rounds you play can raise or lower the stakes, and there is enough chance involved that an experienced player is not necessarily going to demolish a new one.  We had a good time and entertained some other folks at the bonfire while taking up minimal table space.  Setup is quick, the rules don’t take much explaining, and the instructions are clear and complete.  Since the dice get passed from player to player there’s really no upper limit to how many can play.

The game is adaptable out of the box: the website has a number of other games to play with the dice – mainly new versions of classic card games – and Cups was entertained for quite some time at the dealer’s booth by just trying to roll a match for a given card.  She’s probably a little young to play the full game, still, but a two-player shootout between the adults is entirely feasible.  For our family with four-year-old Cups and nine-month-old Cap’n, the downside is probably the number of small pieces involved: this is a game for playing on high tables and picking up very carefully, lest a die or a chip wind up becoming baby food.

07 August 2011

GenCon Update: Hollow Earth Expedition

We've played the Hollow Earth Expedition/Ubiquity game system before in a few of their sample adventures which we enjoyed, and I have been watching Doctor Who since I was a child, so when it happened that the two coincided here at GenCon we signed up for slots.  A good time was had by all.  This is a little review of the Ubiquity/HEX system game Doctor Who: Is There a Doctor In the House?and mostly a review of the system itself.  There will be spoilers for Doctor Who in this review, I can't help it.  Feel free to skip the Game Specifics section if that bothers you.

Game Specifics: GM Scott had pregenerated Companion character sheets ranging across the time spectrum; it so happened that we selected our sheets so they were arrayed around the table in chronological Companion order - from Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart to Sarah Jane Smith to K-9 Mark III to Ace to Captain Jack Harkness to Amy to Rory.  GM Scott had done something interesting with the characters: on the back of the sheets was the timeline reference for that particular character, as well as some keynotes to remind what precisely each character knew. Sarah Jane had not yet met K-9.  Jack was placed shortly after the events of The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances, well prior to gaining immortality.  Rory (wearing centurion gear, of course) had the entire span of his very long memory available to him, but Amy was taken from the time shortly after Rory had been erased in Cold Blood and so effectively did not know who he was.  We spent a few minutes figuring out how up-to-date everyone was on the current season so as not to spoiler anything on accident, and then the action rolled.
In short: timey-wimey stuff happened and the companions were all dropped onto the fields of an 1860's British isle. The Doctor was trapped.  The Tardis wasn't working.  It had all the makings of an episode, and GM Scott did an excellent job keeping the action moving.  There was the Brigadier heroically facing down a very large tree-person with his service revolver.  There was Sarah Jane being handed a robotic dog and told to "aim the nose."  There was a can of Nitro-9 and a successful check to get the fuse mostly right.  There was Captain Jack informing Rory that there was no need to get period-appropriate garb as "I like you just fine in that."  There was a lot of Rory protecting Amy against her will, and Amy stomping off on her own affairs.  There were gadgets and gizmos with odd names and blinking lights.  There was a Sonic Screwdriver and a lot of pointing it at things and waving it hopefully.  There was also, as always, a last-minute wrapup just as things seemed to be running out of time to end happily.
I walked away from the session very satisfied and entertained, also wondering where four hours had gone so quickly.  We had a great time and I think that thanks for that are due both to GM Scott's prior playtesting and careful preparation and to the players he got, who made their characters really come to life.  High marks for the game!

Second Round:  Later that night we picked up a handful of our gaming friends and a few six-packs of cider and craft beer.  Flush with new Ubiquity system toys we decided to give another sample adventure a try, using the pregenerated sample characters (HEX actually comes with a lot of pregenerated characters - downloadable here if you are interested - which serve both to save time for playing with first-timers and to demonstrate well-built characters with a lot of variety.)  The results were no less spectacular despite only about fifteen minutes' worth of prep time on GM Matt's part: when our plane went down through a rift in the sky and landed in the Hollow Earth, there was larceny and gunslinging and giant moving steamer trunks with fangs (Flaw: Poor Vision and Perception 6, played with an exquisitely humorous touch).  Much like the Doctor Who game, the story is in the story - a collective narrative formed that sometimes threatened to take on a life of its own and leave without worrying about any silly GM adjucation.   We got through the scenario in 2-3 hours with adventure to spare.

Gameplay: This was my first time under an experienced Hollow Earth GM, and I am no less a fan of the system because of it.  The flexibility of Ubiquity at base makes it fairly setting-agnostic: characters are a collection of stats and traits that can be customized to fit your particular needs.  This is a system in which the character sheet describes the character rather than defining it, allowing you to craft a character whose stats actually add depth and personality.  Furthermore, the Ubiquity system deliberately rewards good roleplay with tangible effects.
There are motivations and flaws: playing either well (For example: Amy's obstinacy causing the party trouble; Rory doing something foolishly heroic for love) results in gaining Style Points, which can be traded in down the road to either gain extra dice on a roll or to soak damage.  Exile Games actually makes physical Style Points, which look a lot like repurposed poker chips, and GM Scott had a pile of them to fling at players as the game progressed.  We gained a lot of them.  We spent them just as freely, whenever a little more oomph was required to keep a suitably epic feel to the action - or, in the case of the Brig, whenever his service revolver failed to stop the advancing tree-people.  On my part, having a pile of Style Points in front of me gave me more leeway to send Amy charging headlong into danger despite my player's inclination to protect the character, which lent itself to more accurate roleplaying.

Mechanics: This session was advertised as "no experience needed" and we got some players who had never heard of HEX/Ubiquity before.  Explaining the character sheets and game mechanics took perhaps ten or fifteen minutes at most, and some of that was repeating it as players trickled in.  There's not much roll playing in the system at all.  The die system in Ubiquity is a stripped-down dice pool mechanic: you take your rating in a skill, if you have it, a number based on an appropriate attribute if you don't; you apply any bonuses or penalties from your character sheet or special circumstances; you roll that many dice and you count successes.  Each die has a 50-50 chance of success or failure; you choose your mechanic.  I use evens.  Rory switched from evens to odds halfway through the game after failing repeatedly.  Some people use high-low, but that's too much math for me.  If you really don't relish the idea of rolling a handful of dice and picking through them you can just take the average: use half of your die pool as your number of successes, flipping a coin if your dice pool is an odd number.  Compare your successes to a target number.  It's quick and easy and I still get to roll whole handfuls of dice, which I find to be extremely satisfying.

Combat: Taking out the tree-people the first time was smooth and juicy, aided by K-9's nose laser and Captain Jack's 14-die sonic blaster.  We lost two players to family obligations before the next combat, which did showcase the downside of the Ubiquity mechanic: combat can drag.  It's up to the players and the GM to keep things interesting  as you roll a handful of dice, and the GM rolls a handful of dice, and you cancel out your defense successes against their attack successes and take some generic damage or not, and then do the whole thing again.  The Brig had an inspiring stream of orders going which did give us extra dice, but we were far less well-armed than the first encounter and I suspect the plant people were stronger as well; it began to turn into an endurance test after a few rounds.  Thankfully, this did not go unnoticed: GM Scott had the insight and skill to gracefully wind down the combat several rounds before it probably should have ended, and handwave aside several guards later in the adventure to spare us another slug-fest.
I believe that combat should be an integral part of an adventure, not an interruption in its flow: too long and players are exhausted and lose the sense of high epic drama; too short and it's hardly worth doing.  Our first encounter was scary and satisfying, the second not so much so.  I'd estimate that for me Ubiquity gets three, maybe four rounds before there is a definite need to add spice to avoid the endurance test factor; this is a little too short for my tastes but your mileage may vary.
There are some built-in mechanics for making boss fights palatable: a flanking mechanic means you are subtracting defense dice every time you add an additional attacker against a single target.  I have not looked at the magic supplement yet so there may be spice aplenty in that as well.  It may be that Amy's single weapon was a dead tree branch and so there wasn't much variety I could work with.  Regardless, I am far more satisfied with the Ubiquity mechanics as they relate to actual roleplaying than I was with the combat in the system. It's far from terrible, but it is definitely designed to be an underpinning to some epic narrative skills rather than stand on its own.

Replayability: The characters in Ubiquity are designed as people rather than collections of statistics: they have goals and motivations and hopes and dreams and histories.  The system revolves around playing those out, and I sense a high campaign quotient out of it.  Character advancement is done through an XP purchase system rather than leveling, allowing players to customize how their characters grow and change.  The sample adventures that HEX provides are all keyed toward trapping characters in the Hollow Earth itself, with a goal toward a sustained campaign arc - probably of moderate to epic length; there are endless possibilities for what happens inside - partly dependent on how or whether the party gets out. 

Verdict: We already had the HEX core rulebook, and so the decision being made was whether to invest more money in the system.  Both Matt and I tend to run games more focused on roleplaying than combat, and we were satisfied enough that we picked up the GM screen, an Enny-nominated module, and the Secrets of the Surface World expansion (sorcery, psychic powers, and weird science).  It's the best GM screen I've ever seen: sturdy enough to stun a rabid lemur with and loaded with four pages of useful information.  I haven't read through the expansion or the module yet.

If you are a GM with a heavy storytelling focus and you want to run an adventure or a campaign with a lot of character development and high pulp drama, I'm happy to recommend HEX/Ubiquity despite the combat - just plan ahead and read some good old-fashioned pulp novels (Ian Fleming's James Bond books are also a good resource) to get your "bam" and "pow" up to speed.
If you depend on the game mechanics - magic items and skills and powers and weapons - to keep things interesting, this may not be the system for you.  Shame, though.  I still recommend some pulp novels.

06 August 2011

GenCon Update: Gamers and Kids (Picture Post)

Little Pirates on Parade
Pirate Princess
 Last year we took Cups to GenCon for a  Marc Gunn concert and she left very upset.  "Why don't we have costumes on?"  So we brought her back in a dragon costume the next day.  Couldn't get ten feet without stopping for pictures, and she loved the attention and the exhibit hall.  She did very well for a three-year old, so we were comfortable expanding her exposure this year to two days.  Yesterday we all dressed as pirates and went to the exhibit hall for the kids events.

Cap'n Cap'n Sir

 I hear a lot about - and GenCon promo materials perpetuate this stereotype - how gamers don't have any social skills.  Some of it, perhaps, is claiming the pejoratives for ourselves, but some of it has a sort of self-deprecating well, that's just how we are: we game because we're not cool enough for normal stuff feel to it.  And maybe it's that sense of being a fringe community that colors the way that gamers interact with children, but I have been pleased and gratified at the way that my now four-year-old and the nine-month-old Cap'n have been treated by everyone we've encountered here.  At GenCon, they are people too.

Non-gaming kids under 8 are registered and tagged at Special Services: that is to say their names are entered in the GenCon register (and they are apparently tracking how many kids are here specifically) and they're given one of those super sticky fairground armbands with their parents' phone number written on it.  That's all basic stuff and I'm glad the staff do it, but both years now they have also taken care to explain to my daughter who to look for if she gets lost, show her the GenCon staff shirts, practice telling them that she's lost, and then remind her that she should not give out her name to anyone, but that she should let her mom or dad do that.  Last year she was told: "From now on, your name is 'ask my mom or dad'."

This is advice that Cups routinely ignores.  She is outgoing, sociable, and doesn't know a stranger - even when surrounded by people in costumes who are playing new and interesting games.  As a parent, I know that for some people the last thing they want to do is explain how to play "Blood Bowl" to my child, let alone tell her that's what they're playing, but she has been met at every turn with grace and polite conversation.  Her questions have been answered with small words and simple concepts, and my near-constant apologies for interrupting have been smilingly brushed aside.  In short, my children have been embraced and welcomed in the public circles at GenCon, not just tolerated as small intrusions.

Some of that may be because we have scheduled our gaming for days when they are not with us, knowing they will not be able to sit for two hours of Hollowpoint or go through a True Dungeon with us, so their interactions with the gaming community are mainly limited to the hallways and exhibit halls instead of the sacred spaces, but at nine last night we went to one of the halls to watch the opening rounds of the Dice Age tournament.  We had bought a mugful of dice and a bag for Cups so she could have her own dice, and she moved from table to table every time we let go of her hand, talking about her dice bag and its contents - and, as I discovered a few minutes later, asking if anyone had more dice for her.  Several of the gamers that night not only explained their games to her but willingly gave up some of their D6's to add to it, including someone's commemorative con die, and waved off my apologies as I scolded her for asking.

For Cups, this is the face of gaming.  This is what will shape her view of gamers and cosplay and geeks and nerds down the line.  I couldn't be happier about how it is playing out.  So this is an open thank-you to the people who've taken extra time out to talk to an excited four-year old, and answer her "what are you being?" questions, and exclaim over her bag of dice.  It's a community that she's going to grow into, and her first forays have been welcoming ones.

05 August 2011

GenCon Update: Hollowpoint

GM Jeremy offered to run a Hollowpoint session at GenCon.  Here's the review.

Short version: Rules-light, action heavy. The mechanics are nicely tuned to accomplish precisely what the game is aimed to do, which is get through problems with brutal efficiency. It is *not* all about killing everything in sight (I went Con and Dig heavy), although I will admit to a real enjoyment of being able to take down a helicopter with a set of brass testicles.

Long version: Had a great time with a group of strangers - we took about ten minutes to go over basic mechanics and character creation, threw together our notecards, and hit the ground. As has been previously mentioned, the speed of character gen had me worried I was not going to make a character I could connect with, but the Traits really add depth and nuance and personality very quickly. 

Three players, one GM. Only two of us have ever played together before, but we had a rhythm going by the end of the first scene. It just fell into place, which was very satisfying. 

We hit the ground running and didn't stop until we locked down the research base and mowed down a bunch of innocent bystanders just for tagging along. There were interrogation sessions with brandy and gunpoint. There were unfortunate episodes with C4. There was the bit where Steve got tired of negotiating and just shot the schmuck with the car we wanted in full view of the security guards at the gate, and realizing I had just enough pairs left in Con to keep them thinking we were Special Ops. There were a lot of oh s**t moments and fast thinking to get out of them. There was the bit where Matt ran out of Cool and slid the car sideways into the defense perimeter after it got closed to us. There was trying to figure out how to keep in the storyline and burn your traits (hence: brass testicles). There was a lot of killing innocent bystanders and not a lot of comparing hit points or armor class or mucking around with special abilities. This is a streamlined game that is as efficient as the professionals you are playing.

It's interesting how knowing you can just toss your character aside when they become useless to you makes you willing to do all sorts of silly high-risk things. There's some strategy to gaming the game mechanics - particularly when it comes to asking for help from others and whether you want to give it to them or whether you want to deny them for more dice. There's a definite advantage in teamwork, which is really nice to find. 

It's a game for grownups: for mature roleplayers who know what roleplaying is about and are comfortable with playing ruthlessly efficient people who do not worry about scruples or morals. It's a game for experienced people: this is probably not the game to start out someone new to gaming with (unless they have a lot of improv experience), since so much of the story is player-driven and requires audience participation, and because there are so many dice being thrown around that I can see a complete newcomer being overwhelmed. On the other hand, I have a pretty steep learning curve for rules systems, and by the end of the first scene I felt comfortable and competent at what was going on, so either GM Jeremy is a stellar teacher or the rules are slick and easy to learn - or maybe a little of both. 

Do not plan to be running a long-term epic campaign in Hollowpoint. That's not what it seems to be designed for. It is a fast-paced bloodbath where one faceless agent replaces another at need: you do not need to be too attached to your character because there isn't a lot to be attached to and you may have to toss them aside for the good of the team. I can see setting up a campaign, but it would have to be more about story than about characters, which is not how I normally think as a GM, and I wonder whether the heavy action focus and cycling of characters would get exhausting over the long term. 

On the other hand, there is something immensely satisfying about finding a system that seems custom-built for a one-night one-off playdate, or for those times when you are waiting in a 90-minute line at GenCon for your Will Call tickets and need something to do. There is mayhem and humor and action, and the players have a lot of control over the situation, which leads invariably to Complications. There isn't a lot of that out there, and especially not with the sort of setting-agnostic flexibility that Hollowpoint displays.

Final verdict: Gritty, gory, full of stories and for grownups only. Hollowpoint is the kind of game that will create "remember when you..." moments, and lots of them. Absolutely loved it and absolutely recommend it.