19 August 2011
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 grâce 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
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
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
|Little Pirates on Parade|
|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.
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.
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
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.