27 August 2012

A Confession about GenCon

This year, as Nykki mentioned in her previous post, we decided relatively last-minute to be GMs at Games on Demand through Indie Games Explosion.. Thursday night, I got there late because I was being chauffeur for our youngest, missing my scheduled block. I helped at the table for about an hour and then ran a session of Hollowpoint at 8.

The next day, we got there for our 10 am sessions after running the youngest back to daycare. There's a line already out the door by the time we're there. I sorted out our prep materials when I heard Nykki calling over to me asking if I'm up for running Dungeon World. I said sure, as apparently there were already multiple tables for it filling up. I grabbed my materials and head over to my assigned table, diving right into a game. I ended up running it for the rest of my sessions at GenCon.

I loved how easily Dungeon World runs. I have played and run Dungeons and Dragons since high school in its various incarnations (2nd ed, Skills and Powers, 3.0, 3.5, 4.0, Pathfinder). I have a lot of experience in the genre, which I'm sure helped me out. Even so, the system and its inclusion of the players in the creation of the world really opened up new ways of playing. I have become enamored. That said, I have something of a confession to make.

Before my 10 am Friday session at GenCon, I had never run or played in a Dungeon World game.

Even finding the system is a bit of a set of random circumstances. It all started from Nykki's Kickstarter trawling. To be fair, I don't think she just randomly searched for Kickstarters to back, yet there have been a number of them that I have no idea how she found. Sometime in the last year or so, we backed Monsterhearts. It's a RPG/story game about monsters in high school using the system from Apocalypse World. I think it was the setting that got us to back Monsterhearts, originally. The Kickstarter had finished, we'd gotten the softcover, and it was put up on the shelf with other small-publisher RPGs, likely to be read when one of us had the time.

I am a PhD student. This leaves me with virtually no time for extra reading during the fall and spring semesters, but my summers are far less structured. At some point this summer, I decided to take a break from academic reading and pulled down some of the games. It took one read through of Monsterhearts and I was sold on the system. The group character gen, the far more spontaneous GM'ing, the ability for players to interact with the world in ways not done in D&D/Pathfinder; all of these fascinated me. However, we don't exactly have a very regular gaming group, so play-testing was likely not very likely. I put it on the list of games to run at the annual New Year's gaming party we go to, which is where we usually break in small-publisher systems.

Meanwhile, several of the gamers in my G+ stream had been pushing this Kickstarter for Dungeon World. All I had seen on it was that it was "old school style and modern rules," but hadn't really explored what this "modern system" was. After I had read the Monsterhearts book and poked around a bit with the Apocalypse World site, one of these Dungeon World posts wandered by and something clicked in my head. I went poking around the Dungeon World site. Oh, it's that system, my brain thought. Boom. Kickstartered. And I started trolling the Dungeon World forums (discovering the dozens of different hacks out there).

I had no idea how many games I might be called upon to run at GenCon, so I started prepping something in every system I had that wasn't 4.0 or Pathfinder: Hollowpoint, Homcidal Transients, Hollow Earth, Monsterhearts. Dungeon World was on the list I planned to prep, but I didn't have much of a scenario in mind (which is OK, since the book tells me not to prep too much for the first session). But I still hadn't played it or Monsterhearts.

One night, the week before GenCon, our online weekly group offered to hold off on running our actual Pathfinder Adventure Path and I could run something. We ended up with Monsterhearts. I got them through character creation and about an hour or so of them role-playing home room before it was time for several of us to go to bed, due to it being Thursday night. But, I had a lot of good feedback on teaching the system and character creation (mostly: pre-gen them), so I thought I had a handle on the game/system.

And then it was GenCon.

The players were all awesome. The groups worked well together. The biggest problem I ran into was keeping track of 6 players when there were 11 other tables running in the same room. (Which means that the biggest problem was the success of Games on Demand, so I'm not really complaining here.) There was such demand for Dungeon World that I would finish one game and I'd have a new table waiting in the wings. The system drew the players in very early in and there was very minimal need to explain the rules. The players very quickly got interested in what was going on, which in turn got me even more invested in the game. I'm glad I could get some exposure for this great game out into the gaming world. I am very pleased with the game and am eagerly awaiting the actual finalized book/pdf to show up.

25 August 2012

GenCon 2012: Nykki GM’s with GoD

I don't remember who started it.  

Either Angel or I at some point said "Hey, why don't we run some games at GenCon this year with Indie Games on Demand?"  And the other person said "Sure, that sounds like fun."  So we emailed the Games on Demand folks (who are awesome), and after some back and forth we were given the opportunity to trade up to GM badges for running just 7 2-hour sessions each.   In a fit of "We've got two whole days without the kids" we said sure, why not

About twenty-four hours later I realized that I'd just signed up to spend fourteen hours running games for people I'd never met before at a Gaming Con, and I nearly had a nervous breakdown.  But I'd said I would do it, and I'm always super excited about running Hollowpoint, and I had a pretty good handle on Homicidal Transients (it's not a complicated system), so I buckled down and got to work dreaming up some scenarios that I thought I could play out in ninety minutes (reserving half an hour for character generation, rules explanation, and getting people rounded up).  And all the while the imposter syndrome reel was playing out in my head: What makes you think you're going to be any good at this?  You’re not ready to deal with the jerk players who try to break things. Your narrative is going to fall flat.  Do you really know the rules that well?

I've been playing RPG's since I was rather awkwardly introduced to the concept with a D&D 2e Skills and Powers campaign in college (I was the awkward one), playing a twinked-out bow ranger with a pacifist hangup.  I've run D&D from second ed through fourth and abandoned it for Pathfinder in mid-campaign, and my players always come back.  I know in my mind that I'm a decent GM, or at least the kind of GM that gets repeat players – at least, in a fantasy setting with rules for everything that everyone has to look up that I've been playing for fifteen years.   And the imposter syndrome reel continues to play.

I've run fast-paced con-style games every year at a New Year's party we frequent, but it's in the company of friends and a number of folks who only game once a year, and it's always been B-Movie, (which qualifies as an Indie RPG in the small-publisher sense, but not so much in the "you can buy it and support small publisher" sense, since after I bought the game and three adventures in 2002 I've never seen another peep out of Guildhall Press ever).  So I didn't feel like I could bring B-Movie, and the scenarios I use there really aren't the sort of thing I wanted to bring to a con.  I've run Hollowpoint more than once before to general success – generally always with the same steampunk Western scenario, although once at a party in a drunken haze I did try to run a Star Wars ripoff that never got off the ground.

Maybe it was just the memory of that Star Wars attempt that haunted me, but the imposter syndrome reel is a hard thing to ignore: it taints everything with hints of defeatism, and I probably had a hundred good ideas that never got past the "what if I..." phase before the voice-over cut in with "and then everyone will wonder how they got the Worst Game Ever".  It took exhaustion and desperation combined with a particularly tedious work-related conference lecture after a night of hard drinking to shut the whole thing up long enough to whip out two simple Hollowpoint scenarios that I wrote down (in pen, in a notebook I was taking home) before they could get discarded too.  I showed them to Angel, without telling him that I was pretty sure they were going to be the Worst Ideas Ever, and he started chuckling before I'd gotten past the first encounter.

Hollowpoint is supposed to involve about half an hour of referee prep, and under normal circumstances that's about right; for me it involved two weeks of intense self-doubt and soul-searching followed by half an hour of referee prep and ten sessions of revising my referee prep until I wound up with exactly the same thing I started with.  Also, I was growing steadily more terrified of running this game at GenCon for total strangers who were, I was completely convinced, going to think I was the Worst GM Ever.   I had dreams about standing up in front of a group of players and forgetting how to play.

I had dreams about being That Girl GM.  I had dreams about having my qualifications challenged and I had dreams about coming to the table and being ignored and I had dreams about being the one who reinforces every stereotype someone has ever heard about women in gaming (I got into RPG's because of a boy, whom I later married).  And the imposter syndrome reel, in the background, got nominated for an Oscar and I apologized to Steve from Indie Games for being late to the GM party and having to move the schedule (I made Angel write that note) because we couldn't both take a Saturday slot at the same time because Someone Has to Watch the Kids!  And all the time I watched people around me on Google+ and Facebook and blogs talking about gaming and running games and getting excited while I was waiting – getting emotionally prepared – to fail.

So what actually happened was this:

We dropped our stuff off before Games on Demand opened at 10 am on Thursday and hung around until everyone showed up around 9:45 to get set up.  In the meantime, we unpacked the whiteboard and made a lot of introductions and then played a game of Snapshot:1969, which I may talk about in more detail later, but which has some amazing art and was a lot of fun.  Then we took off and did Con Stuff until Angel had to take off and do Kid Transport, shortly before my first session time.  By this point I had found a set of Agency dice (little yellow dice, because asking for help makes you a Little Yellow Coward), lost my prep cards for my Homicidal Transients setup, frantically made backup plans for Homicidal Transients, talked myself out of reworking Hollowpoint yet again, walked around GenCon all by myself, and the imposter syndrome reel had me so nervous I was practically shaking. 

It didn't help that when Steve asked what I was prepared to run and I said "Hollowpoint or Homicidal Transients", I had the shortest list of games on the board.  It didn't help that some GM's brought an entire list of gaming systems, complete with their cell phones and Twitter handles, and left sheets on the table in case folks wanted to get a pickup game together.  It didn't help that there was a line halfway out the door by a quarter to game time. 

What did help was that when I unabashedly admitted to a woman I'd just met standing behind the table that I was terrified, she said "You're going to be fine.  It's lots of fun."  What really helped was that I told my first group that I'd never GM'd at a convention before and got "That's okay, we've never played at a convention before" from at least three members of the group.  And then I started talking, and we started rolling dice, and wild over-the-top ideas started coming out of people's mouths, and it was Hollowpoint just like it always has been, only this time it was fedoras and Mouseketeers with Tommy guns and a power-hungry tyrant instead of steam-powered flying horses and railroad trains and the Johnson Gang. 

Hollowpoint was up for three ENnies this year, and some people came looking to play specifically.  Some people just showed up to see what games they could get into.  Every Hollowpoint table was full, even when I expanded them to five people solid instead of "four, maybe five".  Everyone seemed to be having fun.  And somewhere on Friday, between the moments where I was frantically making up answers to questions I hadn't expected and inventing complications to take on players who ignored blatant hints in order to go their own way, I forgot about being afraid. 

I gave out coupons for discounts at the Indie Press Revolution booth.  I stopped by IPR – an acronym which makes me think of PBR, and gaming hipsters, and wonder if you can play RPG's ironically – and watched the stack of Hollowpoint books slowly getting shorter and shorter.  And then, Saturday afternoon as I was weaving through a line of prospective players that stretched halfway through the elevators (amazing success for Games on Demand!), I was stopped by a frantically waving man.  "I have to tell you!"  He was obviously excited about something, and I recognized him from Friday's table, so I waited.  "We are still talking about your game!  That was so awesome!"

How much better can it possibly get?

13 March 2012

Geeklets: LEGO Travel Adventures

All kinds of Legos!

We had an opportunity recently to give our local Children's Museum money – not very much, about the price of a night at the movie theater, with popcorn – in exchange for a special Donor Preview Night at their newest exhibit.  This just so happened to be Lego Travel Adventures, which was an immediate Must-See for both Cups and Daddy, so we ponied up our movie admission and headed out for "Family friendly hors d'oeuvres" and a sneak peek at the exhibit. 

I'd never been to a Donor Preview Event before, but we did go the night $childrens_hospital rented out the museum from 6-9 PM for all of their referring docs and office staff, and that was pretty bruisingly fun, so we were definitely looking forward to it.  Cups was looking forward to it for an entire week, and the car ride was almost intolerable: at some point when she chirruped "I'm so excited!"  I shot back with

"And you just can't hide it?"  Never teach a five-year-old to sing 80's hits, even in jest.  Try as I might, I couldn't get her to wrap her head around the rest of the lyrics.  The rest of the ride was one-line 80's hit night.

Our Children's Museum is a really nice place and they know how to throw a party, including an open wine and beer bar, which is really vitally important when you are shepherding excitable kids through a Lego exhibit between 6:30 and 9 PM.  For the eats there were ciabatta pizza rectangles and fried raviolis and vegetable skewers and ice cream bars and brightly colored Jello rectangles, and the tables all had little frosted glass candle holders full of Legos on them so we could build while we ate.  It was all themed in primary colors and rectangles.   Our Lego dinner tower

Just to emphasize how excited Cups was, she built a tower instead of eating her pizza and then scarfed it down in ten seconds flat when told there would be no more Legos until she finished her dinner.  And then, three bites into an ice cream bar, she abandoned it to run upstairs to check out the exhibit.  Let me repeat that: Cups handed me a quarter-eaten ice cream bar and said "I'm done.  Now for the Legos."

I am an old-school Lego Maniac: the kind where there were rectangle pieces and flat pieces and square pieces and wheels.  I am bewildered by all the specialized bits that have come out of the modernization of Legos, and at the same time very excited about angles and slopes and things.   Cups, on the other hand, has always been able to build dinosaurs and Jeeps and languished over the untouchable Vader lurking over Daddy's study desk.  It's just the way Legos are for her.

The exhibit was subdivided: there were Duplo cars to build and race (and a Lego racecar big enough to sit in!) as well as some of the larger building blocks, the kind big enough to build playhouses out of, out among some glass-enclosed model cases with clever themes like "San Francisco" and "Paris".  There were also some interactive computer displays for creating virtual models.  Cap'n, either building or preparing to eat.

Cap'n quickly got bored after a few runs of the Duplo car down the track, since he was explicitly banned from either eating it or from sliding himself down in lieu of a wheeled construct, so he and Daddy headed over to one of the other exhibits, which left Cups and I to enter the Building Area.  I am certain that when this particular exhibit is open to the general public that the Building Area will be shoulder-deep in kids, and there will not be room enough to build a two-block tower, let alone the "dream vehicle" they encourage you to make.  But at the Donor Preview there was room, and Cups shouldered her way up to the build tables. 

They were big flat areas to build on with buckets full of disembodied Lego parts, mixed and matched from all the sets.   Scattered over the tables were partially assembled Frankenfigures and half-constructed walls.  Cups grabbed a partial body and started assembling.  It just so happened that the majority of the minifigs on the table were from the Lego Friends set: you know, the creepy friendly new “For Girls” Legos.  They have a size advantage over the original minifigs, as well as being leggier and arm-ier, so maybe that’s why all the kids were building with them, but it was still sort of satisfying.  Cups grabbed a head and a torso and legs and about six different hairs before she found one she liked (blonde, like her), and put a little pink crown on the top of it, and held it up to me.  "This is Princess Leia, Mom." 

All of the pink in the whole world was forgiven in that moment. Cups, Princess Leia, and the Air Vehicle

Princess Leia had a minimalist spaceship, and a dog, and a console, and we headed over to make a greenscreen copy of it to email to Friends and Family.  I wouldn't call the greenscreen camera a quality lens, but we did render the picture you see here, including Cups with the very strange face, and sent it to ourselves.  And then Princess Leia flew around the volcano for a bit before stopping to let her dog out, and we headed off to more Fun and Adventure. 

Really, there isn't much to a Lego Exhibit except the bits where they show you the awesome stuff people have built and the bits where you get to make your own awesome stuff, but for the Donor Preview the Children's Museum also roped in some other activities.  Cups with Master Builder Steve Gerling

One was the Master Build, where a Lego Master Builder was working with all comers to generate a huge Space Shuttle model (hint: if you ever want to do something that's fabulously tedious, get a bunch of kids to do it a little bit at a time), and another was the Girl Scouts, and their First Lego League entry.

I was a Girl Scout once.  I quit because my troop was interested in fashion shows and manicures and etiquette lessions, while I was interested in snakes and computers and science fiction books.  I wish that there had been something like First Lego League in my troop, because I would have loved getting involved in robotics, and I think First Lego League goes about it the right way: they target kids of all stripes, rather than dressing their event up in pink and calling it "for Girls".  And then they make it fun.    The Girl Scouts couldn't stop fiddling with their machine, showing off tasks, correcting each other.  They couldn't stop talking about what they were doing.

I stopped to chat.  We talked about Lego Friends, and the marketing of Legos to girls, and the Girl Scouts volunteered that they didn't particularly want pink Legos, because the ones they had worked just fine.  We talked about First Lego League, and snakes, and about being part of a team and making something; we talked a little bit about engineering and science in a roundabout way, but it was clear to me that the competition wasn't about being Girls in Science to these Girl Scouts.  It was about making something really cool.

That's how I would like science (and, incidentally, Legos) to be marketed to Cups: I'd like it to be as easy and natural as showing girls having fun in the photo array on the top of the First Lego League webpage.  I'd like it to be something that girls do because it looks like a lot of fun, and not because someone tied a pink ribbon on it or made it sparkle.  I'd like to stop playing into the divisive ideal that there are "kids" and there are "girls", because that becomes down the line that there are "people" and there are "women", and leads to some people's accomplishments being prefaced with "female" as if somehow being a "female engineer" is a different thing than being an "engineer".  And that leads to people sitting in think tanks asking how to market Legos to girls, when girls were already playing with them.

Cups knows how.  So do the Girl Scouts I met the other night.  And so does Princess Leia in her minimalist spaceship air vehicle. 

03 March 2012

Never Board: Discworld:Ankh-Morpork

I don’t know if you noticed, Albert, but that was a pune, or play on words.  — Death, “Hogfather”

I am one of those people who reads fanfiction only if my friends insist on it, and generally even the best of it is met with a cringing heart.  I am nervous about film adaptations of anything that I have loved, and I feel the same way about board games.  In my experience, once something has become big enough to spawn spinoffs into other genres, those spinoffs tend to fall flat.  Games especially tend to be either so complex in their efforts to replicate the “feel” of the work that even thinking about playing them is a chore (I’m looking at you, Battlestar Galactica), or they have largely irrelevant gameplay designed as a backdrop to “Here’s your favorite characters once again”  (Hello, Star Wars Trouble, Anything-Opoly, Trivial Pursuit Extremely Specialized Nerd Edition, and Risk: with New Characters).

I wanted to be excited about Discworld:Ankh-Morpork, if only because Sir Terry Pratchett has produced a consistently fascinating and varied world with so much stuff in it that I’m never bored with it.  But I was wary – very wary – because getting my hopes up meant risking having them crushed.  I put it on the Christmas Hogswatch list, which is really the best way of getting things that you think you want but are afraid you don’t, and it showed up under the tree in short order.  We broke it out for a two-person game shortly thereafter, and I am happy to say that this game spinoff delivers.

Discworld Game BoxWhat’s in the box: The instruction booklet is a slender eight-page folio that lays out the rules in a clear and concise manner; the majority of its space is devoted to making sure you know what all of the cards do and how they affect gameplay.  It’s illustrated with examples and accompanied by a set of “cheat sheets", one for each player, that reiterate the meanings of the card symbols, the win conditions for each personality (so important!) and the functions of each city area.  Between these two references I have yet to have an unanswered question.

The gameboard itself is a map of Ankh-Morpork, subdivided into twelve regions that will be familiar to anyone who’s spent much time reading Pratchett’s books; the pieces are sturdy cardboard coins and wooden tokens (the Hogfather did not spring for the deluxe resin pieces for me).  There are also a lot of cards.  I would have liked the map to maybe have a bit more color variation: the sepia toned palette is very pretty and very thematic but it does take some looking at times to find the distinctions between regions.  On the other hand, it is very pretty and not at all garish.

I’d like to take a moment to address the designers of the packaging: this is an injection-molded plastic insert in a large cardboard box, so the actual design of the plastic insert should in theory be infinitely variable.  The package designers chose to make three card deck-sized slots (one with a divot in the middle that is sized to hide the die) and one large featureless rectangle to contain all of the other pieces.  I can deal with fitting the five different decks of cards into three slots (three are very small), but this game contains six houses and twelve minions in each of four different colors, four demon and three troll pawns, and twelve trouble tokens. It also contains a bunch of cardboard coins.  It would have been nice to try to design the box to allow these to be separated at least a little bit.  As it is: get some snack-sized zipper bags or you will be sorting forever.

Gameplay: Discworld:Ankh-Morpork is a game about the constant power plays of Ankh-Morpork’s city politics, and about getting on top of the dung heap for just a moment.  To start the game each player draws at random, an identity which determines that player’s conditions for winning the game.  The three Lords (Selachii, Rust, and de Worde) are trying to control territory; Chrysoprase is trying to raise $50 in cash and property; Lord Vetinari wants to get his spies into everyone else’s business; Dragon King of Arms is causing trouble; and Vimes just wants everyone else to run out of options.  Your personality (and therefore your win conditions) are known only to you, so a very important part of the game is trying to guess who’s trying to win and how – while trying to conceal your plans from everyone else.

The game starts with one minion for each player and one trouble token on the board in three separate areas.  How it goes from there is entirely up to the players themselves.  On your turn, the first thing you do is check to see if you’ve won – all win conditions except Vimes take place at the beginning of your turn – and then you choose a card from your hand, play it, and follow the instructions on the card.  When you’re done, you refill your hand back up to five and play passes to the next player.   That’s the whole game in a nutshell.

The actual gameplay is considerably more complex: each card has from 0 to 4 symbols along the top of the card, which tell you both what you may do and what order you may do it in (yes, 0 symbols mean that The Peeled Nuts is a useless card).  With the exception of the Random Event symbol, executing any action is optional, but you cannot go back – you must play from left to right. There are symbols to place a minion in or adjacent to an area where you already have one (if there is already a minion there, you must also place a trouble token and potentially inch Dragon King of Arms closer to his win condition).  There are symbols to remove someone else’s minion from any area where there is a trouble token (also removing the trouble token).  There are symbols to remove just a trouble token from the board.  There are symbols that let you get paid, interrupt play, and play another card.  There are symbols that let you buy property in an area where you have minions, as long as there are no trouble tokens there.  And then there are the Random Events.

There are actually two decks of cards that combine to form the draw pile: the first half are green-bordered and the second half are brown-bordered.  Initially, this seemed like a needless complexity to me, but after playing several games it became clear that this allows the game to proceed naturally from a setup phase to a strategic phase.  Most of the green-bordered cards deal with placing minions, buildings, and trouble tokens (and getting paid).  With the exception of Rincewind (count on Rincewind to be in the wrong place) there are no Random Event symbols in the green deck.  Once the cards move to the brown deck, there is a lot more moving minions around, whether through assassination or actually moving the tokens, and more manipulation of the board in general.  There are also several other members of the Unseen University faculty in the deck, and every wizard comes with a Random Event.

I have yet to be benefitted by a Random Event: they’re generally bad things that affect players at random, so they can come back to haunt you – things like fire, flood, demons, trolls and dragon attacks.  They destroy minions or buildings or place blocking tokens around the board, which can seriously sabotage even the best-laid plans.  They’re best saved for a desperation move, and once you’ve played a few times you see why you don’t get the option to skip a random event.

Buying property allows you to use the special properties of that particular region: some give you money, some allow you to place or remove trouble tokens, some allow you to buy extra minion placements, some allow you to discard cards.   Additionally, a building counts just like a minion for determining who’s in control of a region; very important for Lords Selachii, Rust, and DeWorde.  I’ve found that the money-earning properties go quickly for everyone (who doesn’t want more money in Ankh-Morpork?) but that there are advantages to each, and none of them are really useless.Ankh-Morpork Gameboard, Game in Progress

Winning: The first player to start his or her turn with their win condition on the board wins.  Alternatively, if you’re Vimes, you win as soon as the deck runs out of cards.  If nobody is Vimes and nobody else wins by the time the deck runs out, then there is a point system to determine who the winner is.  We’ve had to use it once, but under most circumstances someone either gets lucky or careless or both.  It’s hard when you have four people going to keep track of how many areas everyone controls, how many trouble tokens are on the board, how many minions are where, and how much everyone’s cash and property is worth.  And all the while the draw pile is dwindling as cards like Leonard of Quirm allow a draw-4 and owning Unreal Estate lets you draw and discard an extra card a turn.

Overall Impressions:  It’s hard to find a good board game for two people, and since Cap’n just eats the pieces and Cups is still in the Star Wars Trouble age range, we’re condemned to two-person games for now.  Discworld:Ankh-Morpork delivers on the two-person front with interesting gameplay that doesn’t suffer from being scaled down, and the changing winning conditions and strategy involved give it great replayability. 

We took it to a game session over the holidays and got some of our friends involved as well, including some folks who’d never heard of Sir Terry Pratchett.  I’m happy to say that you don’t have to be familiar with the Discworld series to enjoy the game, and while the cards are hilarious if you know the characters involved, they’re still funny if you don’t.  Expanding to four players turns an interesting strategic battle into a game that requires your full attention.   It’s just complex enough with four players that everyone’s going to miss something, which means everyone has a chance to win.

It’s extremely satisfying as the winner to start your turn off by saying “And I win”; there’s a tension involved in wondering if you’ve accounted for everything that keeps it fresh.  We played – and played again – and played again, and at least one of our newcomers left saying “I’ve got to go read these books,” which is the best of all possible tributes I can think of. 

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a city to infiltrate.

22 January 2012

Everybody’s Doing it: GM Questionnaire

Zach S. over at Playing D&D with Porn Stars posted a GM questionnaire that we thought it might be fun to answer in tandem.  So Matt will take the plain text and Nykki will take the italics, and we’ll see what happens.

1. If you had to pick a single invention in a game you were most proud of what would it be?

It’s not an invention, per se, but I’m pretty proud of the Meadow.  There’s something about knowing that experienced parties will go hundreds of miles out of their way to avoid a prairieland that is immensely satisfying.

For my case, I think I would have to pick something that required a lot of player participation to pull off. I got one of our players to play a lawful good cleric of the sun god in my world. The campaign revolved around demonic influences in his church. I got Nykki to play a spy (half-demon) following the party on their journey. The players did most of the actual implementation, and each played their part brilliantly. The half-demon needed to eat a sentient being once a week, mostly as a balance requirement (Since she was following the LG cleric, this means she had to keep it hidden.) Months into the campaign, the party did not suspect that she was the cause of the terror that would pop up every time they stopped somewhere. Theories ranged from “she’s a werewolf” to “she is being stalked.” In the end, at the great reveal, she had managed to get the LG cleric to promise to protect her before she told him she killed his wife (which happened in the first session). I did the setup for it, but it really played out so well because of my players, so I suppose I can’t claim all the credit.

I don’t know – I think your greatest accomplishment was as a player, when you rallied the goblins to follow your halfling and turned him into a god.  You invented a whole religion that time.

Well, yes, I am proud of that one, too. The Lightning-bringer will yet raise up the goblins to join civil society!

2. When was the last time you GMed?

Since we had to cancel the last session of my campaign due to player emergencies?  New Year’s Eve.
Last night, actually.

3. When was the last time you played?

Last night, actually.
Night before last, in the Homicidal Transients hangout.

4. Give us a one-sentence pitch for an adventure you haven't run but would like to.

Have you seen the brief TV series Jericho? I have a modern (or perhaps Victorian Era Steampunk) game based basically around being members of a small town who witness the nuclear destruction of virtually every major city (US in modern, Europe in Victorian Steampunk). Originally, I was thinking of using the nWOD Mage system, the characters awakening all at once as the bombs go off. If I did Victorian Steampunk, I’d likely run it in the Hollow Earth/Ubiquity system.

That’s not one sentence.

Details. Then just stick with “Have you seen the brief TV series Jericho?” if you’re going to get technical with me.

Mine: The king is dead, and the army is gone.  It’s up to the common folk to decide: will you be heroes or slaves?

5. What do you do while you wait for players to do things?

Look up rules, sometimes – try to get my monsters statted up.  Browse the news if it is getting particularly long.  Write down what they’re saying.

Prod my players to do things. Recap what happened. If it’s an online game, I skim news/blogs.

6. What, if anything, do you eat while you play?

With live sessions, it varies a lot, really depending on what was brought. Whoever’s place we’re at has usually provided lunch/dinner. There’s not really one snack “just” for gaming.
I haven’t got anything to add.

7. Do you find GMing physically exhausting?

Physically? Not except that we sometimes stay up ridiculously late.  Mentally, it’s sometimes a battle.

Not really. I tend to end up energized, usually, afterwards. Unless we’re up super late.

8. What was the last interesting (to you, anyway) thing you remember a PC you were running doing?

I have a character in the current party who has some dragon blood and breathes acid.  He tends to do this without regard for who is in the splash zone.  He took out 2 of the 3 NPC escorts in the current dungeon singlehandedly.  Almost a shame it was too dark to tell at the time.

One of the more amusing incidents involved what was supposed to be a fairly tough fight with a dragon. There was a halfling fighter in the party out to prove that halflings were not all sneaky thieves, but could be actual fighters. He had engaged the dragon in some verbal banter before we got to Initiative. Then, he beat the dragon on init when combat started. His action? Set his spear against a charge and use his racial Taunt ability to make the dragon charge him. Despite what physics might have said, the dragon impaled itself, taking massive amounts of damage in the process. I am uncertain if it one-shot killed it or just really wounded it, but either way it took a lot of chutzpah.

9. Do your players take your serious setting and make it unserious? Vice versa? Neither?

My players, and my settings, are kind of a mix: we have high drama and total ludicrosity in varying amounts.   I have had good luck with keeping my serious games mostly serious and my light games fluffy. 

My players have always known when it is time for High Drama and when they can be silly. While I have had some players that were on the loonier side of things, they almost never interrupted something serious happening. While my long term games tend to be Serious Business, my one-shots and shorter adventures tend to move quickly in silly-territory.

10. What do you do with goblins?

I talk circles around them until either they give up and start stabbing me or give up and do what I was trying to tell them to do. This is how my halfling wizard got the goblins to follow a Chaotic Good religion (focused around him, but, well, these things start somewhere).

As a GM, I have organized all of the traditionally Chaotic Small races into a hierarchy of the Small, which starts with Kobolds as the kings of the Small and ends with goblins and hobgoblins as the Least of the Small.   This means, of course, that since kobolds are so naturally superior that they have to follow all the rules of anyone in the Small who is taller than them.  Goblins only have to follow goblin rules. 
Goblins also have a complex family and societal tribal structure, which involves a rule of retribution by ten’s: if you defeat a goblin and his family learns of it, his ten nearest relatives are obligated to come and take revenge for his death.  Parties usually figure out that not killing all of the goblins is a bad idea about the second combat.

11. What was the last non-RPG thing you saw that you converted into game material (background, setting, trap, etc.)?

New Year’s: game system is RPG-13 (B-Movie); this year I borrowed characters from Firefly and Star Trek and put them on a spaceship with a homicidal Siri-9000 computer.  Hilarity ensued.

Not sure here. Several of my names for characters come from languages that I’m studying (I’m a PhD student). I’ve an idea for a game based off Jericho. I don’t always trace where some of my ideas come from, so I’m sure there’s something in my current game that wasn’t lifted whole-hog from a “game” source.

12. What's the funniest table moment you can remember right now?

The New Year’s game I ran this year was Hollowpoint in your Standard Fantasy RPG-World. The first group I ran through created Sesame Street-inspired characters. Yeah, and it wasn’t that late at night yet.

B-Movie a few years back: I was a lazy GM and just rolled up stats for the pregen characters without paying attention to what they actually were.  As a result the Stoner wound up with a Clumsiness of 4.  B-Movie requires you to roll over your flaw on 2d6 to accomplish anything, while the opponent needs to roll under or equal to.  The setting was every Evil Dead inspired movie ever, and as the zombie hordes (attack penalty of 2) rolled in, the Stoner got the munchies.  The climactic final battle took place with a spatula at the grill in between burger flips.  The stoner won. 

13. What was the last game book you looked at--aside from things you referenced in a game--why were you looking at it?

Jade Regent: Brinewall Legacy.  I’m planning to run an online campaign for some friends, and we’re going to work off of that adventure path.  If we’re talking about things I am not running at all, then it was probably Toypocalypse, which I am scanning over because I hear it’s fun.

The last book I read was Homicidal Transients, which is short. It’s an interesting satire of the fantasy-adventurer trope in RPGs. (Though, at first glance, it looks like you’re playing mentally disturbed hobos.) If you count things I’ve been flipping through for character gen, it might be also Ultimate Magic.

14. Who's your idea of the perfect RPG illustrator?

I’m afraid I don’t know many current RPG illustrators. At least, not by name.
Stumped here, sorry.

15. Does your game ever make your players genuinely afraid?

Good question.  I think I’ve creeped them out a few times (vampire kittens, little girls in faux distress) but I don’t know about genuinely afraid…although apparently my GladOS voice one year had players treading very very carefully.

I know I have disturbed them. (Fountain in the castle of the villian, shaped like a hero pierced with spears, water flowing from the wounds. The water was iron-heavy and tinted itself and the statue red.) As far as scared? I don’t know, I’d have to poll my players.

16. What was the best time you ever had running an adventure you didn't write? (If ever)

I’m not sure here, as I usually run my own adventures. There have been a few times we intended to run a pre-made, but I’m not sure it stayed on the rails well enough or if we ever actually got started.

D&D 3rd edition came with a little intro adventure.  I has a group of tipsy college roleplayers who wanted to run through it.  It didn’t stay on the rails, but we had a blast storming the castle.

17. What would be the ideal physical set up to run a game in?

No budget constraints?  I want a GeekChic table with a Surface built into it for maps so we don’t ever have to set up or tear down or draw out the dungeon.  I want it to have its own room, with a sound system.  I need wifi; I can’t GM effectively without a computer any more.  I want big comfy chairs.

See above. Also, with a separate (but monitored) room for the kids to play in while we game.

Oh, yeah. Kids.

18. If you had to think of the two most disparate games or game products that you like what would they be?

The two most disparate games… I think might be anything White Wolf (where RP is Serious Business) and HOL (Human Occupied Landfill – you play convicts sentenced to a planet of garbage).

B-movie is sort of the bottom of the barrel when it comes to serious, as noted above; I would probably contrast that with Vampire, where I once made an angst-resistant Toreador and almost got booted out of the game for it.  I’m with Matt on the White Wolf stuff, especially the LARPing.

19. If you had to think of the most disparate influences overall on your game, what would they be?

As for influences, I suspect they would be things from my schoolwork (Ancient Israel, Assyria, Babylon, Egypt) and modern TV series. I’m pretty sure bits of everything get merged together, as I tend to put my players (and my characters) into moral dilemmas that I don’t have a clear answer for either. The dilemmas tend to come from anywhere, though, source wise.

 I come from a long line of draft-dodging hippies, which has definitely influenced my game world and the societal structure therein – there’s a lot of puzzle and conflict resolution.  On the other end of the spectrum, I’m fascinated by human psychology, and I love turning the “good guys” into homicidal agents of evil.  I find it very interesting to watch the interplay when you have a good roleplayer or two with an evil character in a party.

20. As a GM, what kind of player do you want at your table?

I want players who are there for the story and the interactions; people who understand that not all rewards are tangible.  I want folks who are willing to let the rules be bent on occasion, but who understand what kind of occasion that is.  I want people who also realize that real life sometimes trumps the best of plans.  I want people who blue book and let me watch, who write character journals and session summaries so I don’t have to.

I want players who are invested in the story we’re creating. While I want them to remember it’s a game and they should be having fun, I want players who are completely fine with, say, selling their souls to a demoness to free their friends or loading up on everything explosive the party has and jumping into the mouth of a dragon. So, I want them to respect the story we’re trying to tell while at the same time being all right with taking things a bit less-than-seriously.

Okay, the explosives-into-the-mouth-of-a-dragon was an awesome player moment, I will grant that.  I just don’t want them getting the idea that’s the best way to beat a dragon.

21. What's a real life experience you've translated into game terms?

The one that comes to mind for me would be having a character go through becoming a father. While I’m not sure how close his experience and mine were (I didn’t have healing magic to help my wife give birth), I would like to think my own experiences at becoming a father informed how I approached it with my character.

I would have liked healing magic.  That would have been extra cool.  For me, I don’t know that I’ve taken a lot of real life experiences to game terms – other than Matt and I always having to negotiate our characters’ relationships beforehand.

And that doesn’t always mean “are we already lovers/married.” Since our characters usually end up allying with each other, we have to establish how they know each other already: are they siblings, friends, what have you. And then we have to work out where we think things will go.

22. Is there an RPG product that you wish existed but doesn't?

Beyond an affordable Microsoft Surface table? I’d like a way to use my xBox’s fancy Kinect and the TV it’s attached to for remote gaming. More of my “table top” sessions are ending up in the computer these days, so I’d like to use the technology we have to do cool things.

I’m with that.  Also: I want dice that you can roll physically on a table that transmit the rolls to a computer server/program.  There’s something about dice – physical dice – that I just can’t give up (it’s like books), but the more Internet resources we use for gaming the more we rely on virtual dice.  It’s so unsatisfying.

23. Is there anyone you know who you talk about RPGs with who doesn't play? How do those conversations go?

Everyone in my profession?  Once in residency I embarrassedly confessed to an orthopedic surgeon that for Father’s Day I got our D&D group together as a present to Matt.  He got so excited: “You play D&D?!?!”  We had a great time ever after.  Most of the time, though, I just have gotten the reputation for being a nerd: my office staff all thinks cosplaying and gaming tournaments are sort of cute.  My teenage patients can relate, though.

I don’t have much chance to, sadly. While at school I don’t often have time to talk much gaming, though there are a few fellow students who are nerds with me. Most of that conversation revolves around Dr. Who and other sources, though. Gaming conversations, when they do happen, are usually brief and go well enough.

21 January 2012

Gaming for Grownups: Homicidal Transients

imageWe backed a Kickstarter a while ago for a new little RPG called Homicidal Transients.  Despite a name that seems designed to engender a sort of shocked and somewhat self-conscious amusement, the premise is heroic fantasy roleplaying distilled down to its finest and most basic element: You and your friends are roaming the countryside, killing people to get stuff.  The actual setting of this really doesn’t matter.  While the game as it’s flavored lends itself to a “railroad barons and dust bowls” sort of feel, there’s nothing laid down to say that’s how it has to be. 

I’d flipped through the game rules (13 pages, including table of contents and acknowledgments) a few times, trying to piece things together on my own.  The layout is fantastic: all sticky notes and index cards, with headings like “Watch out this stuff will eat you” and “Who the hell are ya?”.  The text is sparse but adequate to explain the effects of skills and abilities; there’s no wasted fluff talking about how to think or how to play in Homicidal Transients.  This is a game made for people who know all about roleplaying games and have played enough of them to recognize a certain basic symmetry. 

I frequently refer to myself as “having a steep learning curve” with regard to rules: after playing D&D for years I am still frequently out-lawyered by my players, and I regard all new systems with a certain trepidation.  I flipped through the rules, and back through the rules, and I thought I had a feel for how to make my character, but I really didn’t feel very confident about it.  The rules are terse and self-explanatory, but for someone accustomed to the “Pick race.  Roll stats.  Pick Class.  Pick Select X items from Y skills” chapters on character generation, it felt like there ought to be something else that I was doing – something I was yet missing. 

Turns out, I had it all right, right off the bat.  Characters, like the rules, like the game itself, are distilled versions of Ye Olde Hero – so there’s really not much to them.  There’s your Homicide style, which is the specialized way you kill things; there’s your Transient style, which is the specialized way you interact with everything not immediately capable of being killed.  One of them is primary – either you are a killer or a talker – which determines the order in which you are going to receive bonuses to your abilities.  There’s your Health, which is always at full at the beginning of combat, and then there are your skills.  There are no random stats in Homicidal Transients; everything is reduced to the skill list, which reads like a list of everything that most adventurers do in any case: Drudge (for when you need muscle), Impetus, Talky Bits, Tamper, and Scrounge.  

Once I actually made a character, the creation process crystallized, but it is not quite intuitively obvious from the rules as they stand how to put everything together.  I understand the principle behind the way Homicidal Transients is arranged: it strips out all of the “how to roleplay” fluff and limits itself to just the rules.  It just doesn’t work for me as well as I think it could.  The biggest help for me in clarifying this would have been a character sheet, which would make the simplicity of the design just a little more evident.  During last night’s game, I mocked one up which met with Creator Miles’s approval, so hopefully that will help with future newcomers to Homicidal Transients.

We live in the middle of nowhere, so getting a gaming group together for playtesting is always a difficulty affair.  Fortunately, as part of the New Year, New Game initiative, Creator Miles hosted a game over Google Hangouts and we had a chance to participate.  Despite an issue with my sound drivers which resulted in me only hearing about half of the game, we had a great time.

Gameplay – another thing I wasn’t certain I understood – is as simple as it sounds.   You use one die (any size, as long as everyone has the same size) and roll, add half your level (round down) and any bonuses.  Your opponent does likewise.  High roll wins.  Ties go to the defender.  Uncontested rolls are against a target, difficulty anywhere between “Very Easy” and “Very Hard”.  The mechanics are simple enough to stay out of the way of the narrative, which is really what it’s about anyway.

Speaking of narrative, it went a little something like this:

In a fantasy world – no, wait,the height of the Dust Bowl – no wait, someone said Sweeney Todd, let’s do neo-Victorian (“I can totally rock those fingerless gloves”), three (and occasionally four) raggedy semi-protagonists escaped from a factory and wound up on the docks in front of a would-be press gang.  After a little discussion, mainly involving the name of the press gang’s employer so as to know where we could find work, we went at the other gang with broken two-by-four and stolen knife and hobo stick.  By the end of the combat we had one dead transient (that would be me, forgetting to Defend), a name, a plan for getting some money and stuff, a set of goggles (+1 Scrounge!) and a couple of eyeballs on a stick (“That’s a proper Mangle, that is”). 

We picked up the only mostly-dead transient (“You get one pass”); the goggles went to Matt, who was a Bum Slayer type and therefore good at Scrounging, and off we went to find Frank the press gang leader and get a job as shanghai artists.  Along the way, we encountered a toff in nice shoes but no cane and no cape, by which we were to know he was only sort of a rich toff.  He offered us a job.  This engendered some more discussion, seeing as how the words “Job” and “Transient” are somewhat exclusive in nature, but it was finally decided that as long as it was an odd job that we would be willing. 

It was a very odd job indeed.  We were sent to find Tom, who was not at his home, and return with either the man or – failing that – with proof of his demise.  We started at his home, despite – or perhaps because – he was not going to be there, which is where we Scrounged up a diary.  There was some discussion at that point about whether or not we could, in fact, read at all (“We’re transients!  Who needs to read?”  “You can if you want to be able to…”) which resulted in everyone looking at the guy in the goggles.  “He’s got glasses.  He can read.  That only makes sense.” 

So the Professor read the diary, which told us that there were two choices for what to do next: go seek out the pirates that Tom had traveled with, or go to the library.  That led to basically no discussion at all; off we went to see the pirates.   They didn’t know where Tom was, but they knew where he’d been: here and there and everywhere with the pirate captain, all around the world.  Forget Tom.  Let’s be piratesIt appealed to the homicidal and to the transient among us.  Problem was, the pirates weren’t hiring, not even if we killed off three of the less-necessary crew members.    Not even if we killed off three of the more-necessary crew members.

We went off to the library, instead.  They also didn’t know where Tom was, but they did have his collection – which we couldn’t see.  And they wouldn’t tell us anything at all, really, and as we were facing off against some kind of library sub-administrator with bloody 2x4 and eyeball on a stick and resurrected knife-bearing Slaughter Grifter, someone mentioned “You know, we really haven’t done any homicide lately.”

There wasn’t much stuff to be gained by killing the sub-administrator, so the conversation naturally drifted back to pirating.  See the world, they said.  Kill people and take their stuff, they said.  It really did feel like an occupation custom-designed for a bunch of homicidal transients.  It was decided that the best way to get around the hiring freeze on pirates was to kill some extra pirates and take their ship, then press gang ourselves a crew. 

It was unfortunately about this point when real life attacked: midnight in the Midwest combined with gamers who have kids (I told you it was terrible, getting older) meant the subsequent carnage will have to remain in the strictly theoretical realm.  Despite the shortened session, we had a good group and great fun.

Overall impression: This is a streamlined system that, despite the surface appearance, is fairly setting-agnostic.   The game rules could be easily adapted from trains and hobo camps to almost any locale, with minimal changes in the names of things.  It’s all about paring down roleplaying to its roots: killing things, getting stuff, and moving on. 

The rules are completely free of fluff and laid out in a nonstandard fashion, which makes them a little intimidating at first read and can lead to some confusion about their implementation.  Don’t give this book to someone who isn’t very familiar with roleplaying games – it’s not for beginners.  In stark contrast to initial impressions, though, actually playing the rules was intuitive, and there was little to no interruption of gameplay for clarifying questions.  This is a game that is, in its current format, best understood by just grabbing some dice and playing.

It is also a portable RPG that could be played, for example, in the ludicrously long will-call lines at your Favorite Gaming Con.  The core rules cover only five pages of the PDF (the rest is setting, bestiary, and loot suggestions); your character will fit on a sticky note (I made six character sheets on a page, comfortably); and the group could make do with just one die if need be.  Character generation is quick and painless – no rolling up stats, no purchasing gear – and leveling is by GM fiat, which is just the way I like it. 

In short, this is a game for when half your gaming group bails on you, or for when you’re sitting around drinking and get the urge to roll dice (this is always a dangerous combination), or – as was decided last night – if you’re running a bit of a fever but it’s not quite high enough to see purple elephants.  It’s quick and brutal and pared down to the barest bones: not a system that I would want in a campaign, but a lot of explosively violent fun on its own merits. 

16 January 2012

Gaming with Kids: Pathfinder Beginner Box

When we were in college, gaming was a sprawling affair – sometimes in the lounge of the dorms, sometimes crowded onto someone’s floor – that started late and ended early, sometimes only when the players could no longer keep their eyes open.  These days, that seems to be around midnight on a good day, and setting up a map for adventures requires some advance planning and a height advantage, lest children spawn and rearrange the minis in the middle of combat. 

GM Daddy and Cups, with the flip mat laid out for combat.Cap’n is young enough that there’s no malice in him and short enough that he can only just reach the tops of tables, but Cups is at that curious age around five when she wants to be part of what the grownups are doing, but only if they play by her rules.  Most of the time, one or more of the other gamer kids is along to distract her, but not always.  We’ve sat her down and told her it was a grownup game.  We’ve banished her up the stairs (she can’t get over the baby gate) to her playroom.  We’ve told her she can watch, but only if she’s quiet – but there’s something about a five-year-old observer that stifles my party members’ creativity. 

And then someone linked a video of a very proud gamer dad and his three-year-old daughter with the Pathfinder Beginner Box, and we had the germs of an idea.  Cups is bright (isn’t everyone’s child?) and knows her numbers; she has a collection of dice all her own from GenCon; she can read small words and sound out larger ones.  Why not let her play a bit, so she knows what we’re doing?

Cups likes to have things to hold when she plays, so that she can visualize what’s going on.  In a game like Pathfinder, where normally everything is written on paper, this could prove difficult – except that I had purchased a moderately large quantity of Paizo’s Item Cards as a Black Friday binge.  We haven’t used them in our real games yet. mostly because I hadn’t gotten them organized enough to use them in my sparse pre-game planning, but they seemed just the thing to help Cups out. 

For those who aren’t familiar: the Item Cards are system agnostic (but generally medieval fantasy-themed) cards with a picture of an item on one side and some flavor text on the back, along with space to make your own notes if you can get over your fear of writing on the cards, which I have not yet done. They come in regular and Shiny! Foil! Collectible! varieties, because everyone is jumping on the CCG bandwagon, but they are overall very pretty and have nice little descriptions on them.

We found a night when there was no school the next day and got Cap’n to bed while Cups and I went through the contents of the Beginner Box.  It’s a nice set, and contains everything you need to run your very first Pathfinder game: a full set of polyhedral dice; a game mat with one blank gridded side to draw on and one side with a classic dungeon laid out for the playing; a players’ guide (“Hero’s Handbook”) that starts with a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure-style adventure to introduce the game, and continues with character gen and the basic Pathfinder rules; a GM’s guide with a premade adventure to play out either by yourself or with a group, as well as a number of other useful rules, magic items, and monsters; character sheets both blank and premade; and a whole bunch of tokens to serve as your miniatures. 

As two experienced players and GM’s I’ll admit that the spouse and I skimmed over the player’s guide, and Cups is just at the Gerald and Piggy stage of reading, so I can’t give a novice view of the books.  What I can tell you is that the books are well-organized and written for readability (I scored some sample passages between grades 7 and 10), with a useful index and explanations of all the common esoteria of gaming-speak.  Most of the book is character generation and combat rules, but there’s a discussion of roleplaying and it’s not just about the numbers.  The GM’s guide has information on building cities and towns and mentions roleplaying encounters on a par with combat encounters.  And then there’s the adventure.

We used the pregenerated characters from the box (Fighter, Wizard, Rogue, Cleric) with no modifications whatsoever.  Cups picked first.  I read her the information on the front of each sheet – “Play this character if you’d like to be good at…” – and she picked the Rogue (“I want to be sneaky!”).  Following the rules of good party building, I took the Cleric and the spouse did double duty as a Fighter. 

Character sheets are coded to match with the Hero’s Handbook, so that you can quickly reference where things go (“B” is ability scores, “D” is skills, etc).  The premade sheets are double folios with explanations and combat references out to the sides; the standard sheets are double sided with space for character history, monsters killed, and most damage dealt (for the budding munchkins) on the back.  They’re not quite laid out like the traditional sheets, but it didn’t take long to  pin down where everything was located.

We sorted through the cardstock miniatures, which are really quite sturdy, and found the minis corresponding to our characters.  Paizo thoughtfully provided generic miniatures for the pregens, as well as for each race/class/gender combination  (your race options are Human/Elf/Dwarf), and the art is actually a step up from the usual fantasy drivel.  I was gratified to note that all of the fighters are suitably clothed, and the majority of the female characters are not showing an excessive amount of skin.  We set them up on the flip mat as instructed and GM Daddy got the party started, straight out of the provided adventure.

Some basic setup and party sticky are provided, including the party’s motivations for getting to the dungeon in question, before the game really starts.  There’s no mucking around in taverns trying to get your roleplaying feet here: the adventure runs on rails right through the first encounter.  The GM is instructed not to let anyone go through the moss curtain, and the first combat comes with no alternatives.  It’s clearly designed to be an introduction to the game mechanics, and as such it works very well indeed.

Our novice roleplayer didn’t know the difference, and she certainly wasn’t quite certain what she was supposed to do, but the concept of “what would your character do” proved surprisingly easy for her to grasp. We got some basic roleplaying of the “Hi, how are you” variety done before getting jumped by goblins, and then it got into the number fun.

Playing a dice-based RPG means that there will be math to do.  We tried to keep it simple, and thankfully at first level there aren’t a lot of strange bonuses, but Cups only has ten fingers – even if she can count to a hundred.  At first she tried recycling her fingers to add up roll + attack bonus, and then took to laying out dice pips to help her with her math.  It wasn’t fast, but we wanted to make sure she did the things she wanted to do.  It wasn’t until halfway through the adventure that we hit on the idea of skipping the math and just telling her what number she needed to roll to hit the monsters, which sped up combat immensely.

Paizo as a general rule puts out quality adventure products that allow for quite a lot of GM and player flexibility, and the introductory adventure didn’t disappoint.  There was a little more linearity and a little less choice than in a full-fledged adventure module, but for beginners (and five-year-old heroes) too much choice can spoil the fun.  But there were options: parlay instead of combat; which door to choose; how to approach the boss at the end. 

We made a decision at the beginning at the adventure that we didn’t really want to have Cups involved in killing creatures – she is a softhearted thing and I don’t really want her adopting the kill-or-be-killed ethos so often seen in high fantasy games – so at the terminal blow, all of the monsters puffed away into blue smoke.  It wasn’t a perfect solution, but it was akin to turning down the gore settings, and it made us feel a bit better.  We needn’t have worried.  After a couple of combats, she took her first turn to run away.  “I’m afraid of spiders.” 

Game stop.  Cups is not much into creepy crawlies, so we explained to her that these were just pretend spiders, not real ones.   She shook her head.  “I’m not afraid of spiders.  I’m playing a character who is afraid of them.  She’s running away.”

Don’t you want to help the others?  “No.”  Why not?  “I don’t like fighting.”  So much for worrying about Cups absorbing a violent mindset. 

We talked for a while, but not about fighting.  We talked about teamwork and cooperative games, and how when you are playing with other people they depend on you to help them out.  We asked her if she thought she could maybe play a character who would help her friends when they were in trouble.  She thought about that for a while, and then agreed.  “But I don’t want to fight all the time.”

As it happened, the next encounter was open to parlay, which GM Daddy and Rogue Cups did a very nice job of.   She negotiated with skill, and only a little prompting; we left happy goblins behind us and brought a happy Cups to the final boss battle. 

There is a warning to the GM regarding the battle: “Black Fang is a very deadly foe.  He can easy reduce PC’s hit points below 0 with just a few attacks.  You should be very careful when running this encounter.”  It should have read something more like:  “Black Fang is a very deadly foe.  Do not allow the rogue to flank him and roll a critical hit with the special weapon provided elsewhere in the dungeon, whose main purpose is to assist the party in defeating Black Fang.”  He lasted three rounds.

During cleanup, GM Daddy handed out treasure.  Cups wanted to count the coins in the hoard (indicated by a circle on the map).  “You count for a long time, because there are six hundred of them.”

Cups stared at the map, and reached for a dry-erase marker.  “I’m going to draw a bigger circle.”

Verdict: A nicely put-together box of introductory gaming tools.  The cardboard minis may be a boon to even experienced players (you can never have too many skeletons).  If you’re going to spend $35 on the box just for the minis, though, I might recommend checking out Inkwell Ideas’ Kickstarter for Monster Stand-Ins instead. The included dice are nice – if basic – and a gaming group with no supplies at all could share them and play.

Using the loot cards for Cups was a good idea: it let her keep our party loot list and she liked being able to trade weapons when the opportunity arose.  I’m still not sure how much I’ll use them in my regular game, but there are some ideas brewing.  And they are very pretty indeed, especially the Shiny! Foil! Collectible! ones.

As far as gameplay goes, the game is Pathfinder streamlined: the rules aren’t any different, but there are fewer choices to overwhelm the new player (most notably in the spells).   My five-year old didn’t really understand flanking and flat-footed, but she loved rolling a bunch of dice.  We had a blast, and Cups is already asking when we can play again.  I think next time we’ll try letting her make her own character.

01 January 2012

Fantastic Adventures in Hollowpoint

At the annual New Year's Eve Eve role-playing party, I ran Hollowpoint. This particular party has been going on for over a couple decades now, and the spouse and I have been attending for over a decade. December 30, we meet for RPGs of all colors and sizes and usually run it con-style these years: GMs prepare a short (~4 hour) adventure and characters if the system requires any sort of elaborate character gen. Then the players are divvied up among the GMs and then circulate, with some of the GMs swapping in and out as needed. When we were young, we might have managed 3-4 sessions a night (starting around 6-7 pm) but these days we usually manage two, maybe three if one of the GMs is feeling punchy and not quite unconscious.

This year, as I said, I ran Hollowpoint using a very basic skin. I set it in a Forgotten Realms type fantasy RPG setting. Rather than reskin the skills, I had each player pick a fantasy character archetype (Fighter, Paladin, Wizard, Rogue, etc.) and then their skills related to the abilities that archetype might typically have (Kill for a Fighter might be a greatsword, for the Rogue, poisons and daggers, for the Wizard, fireballs, etc.). The characters were all adventurers with the Agency, which contracted with clients to resolve problems they were having.

The mission for both session I ran was that the Town of Northhaven had contracted with the Agency to deal with a necromancer who had moved in, started robbing the local graveyard, and caused zombies to show up and attack the town.

The first session went off the rails the instant I had them name their characters. The first person to speak named his character Elmo and immediately adopted the appropriate voice. The others all jumped on this and soon I had Elmo the kleptomaniac rogue, Snufalupagus the dual-wielding warrior, Charlie the sneaking Rogue, and Big Bird the Bard. (Later, after Charlie bought it, the Count joined us as the undercover agent.)

When we got to town, I also realized this was the Agency you only called once. (This theme carried over to the second group as well.) The mayor led the party into the Inn where they were getting rooms and introduced him to Larry, the town drunk who first saw the zombies. What was supposed to be a simple conflict with the NPCs trying to Con the party into leaving immediately to deal with the issue, culminated with Snuffy slamming her swords into the bar and demanding an ale, Big Bird singing completely random campfire songs in order to confuse everyone, and Elmo bodily throwing poor Larry along the bar into cellar and announcing that “Everyone needs to get in the *$*% basement or lose a *%&*$ ear.”

Leaving the mayor and the others locked in the cellar of the Inn, the party leaves and encounters a cadre of zombies wandering into down at sunset. After briefly considering luring the zombies into the Inn (and setting it on fire), they decided they would likely not get paid if the mayor died in the conflagration. So, instead, they took the bells off the door into the Inn and Elmo strung them onto the zombies. Meanwhile, Charlie found most of his long-lost family among the zombies (his Complication), Snuffy started mowing some of them down, and Big Bird played Pied Piper and led them into Town Hall. Which was promptly locked and set on fire. Just before the building burned down and the last of the zombies bought it, they opened the door and let the few remaining ones out, which started immediately retreating toward the necromancer's home, bells ringing along the way. (See? The bells were not completely random...)

Arriving at the necromancer's tomb, they were met with a mess of skeletons setting up palisade and a Death Knight (Snuffy's newly raised father, her Complication) leading. Meanwhile, there are yet more relatives of Charlie among these undead and the undead that come streaming out of the tomb in retaliation. The party handles the Death Knight and his minions well enough, Big Bird continuing her ongoing attempts to confuse the enemies with random camp song lyrics. Charlie does succumb to the onslaught of the undead retaliation to be replaced with the Count, who has been serving as an undercover operative in the necromancer's army.

The party descends into the tomb and there encounters the flesh golem (Frankenstein's monster for the non-D&D'ers). However they also see the necromancer disappearing into a door at the far end, yelling about having to give chase or save the mayor's son. At this point, they see the mayor's son hanging by a quickly dissolving rope over a vat of acid (the conflict's Catch).

Combat ensues, with Big Bird's continued Con assaulting the monster while Elmo rigs his security blanket (a Trait) into a lasso and saves the boy, just before the rope snaps. The monster ends up with whatever was left of it's brain fried into dysfunction by the ever sung lyrics.

Beginning the final confrontation with the necromancer, the party marches into his laboratory. He is busy casting a really bad-ass spell (Cool) while his collection of ghosts turn their Terrorizing assault on the party. Elmo begins randomly Taking vials and bottles from the necromancer's lab and mixing them together, before throwing them at the ghosts. Snuffy is in her usual bladed fury and Big Bird continues her aural assault. The party eventually slays the necromancer and his ghosts and the muppets return home to their well-earned money.

The second session of the evening fared a little worse. Rather than homicidal muppets, this party consisted of a necromancer (a former colleague of the enemy one), his grave robber, his “corpse creation specialist” assassin, a pair of rogues and a warrior. (I think, this session started at something like 11 pm, so it's a bit more fuzzy for me.)

The plot progressed through a similar set of scenes, though this group manged to kill everyone in the inn without really getting information out of them. (Though the party's necromancer raised them all, so they still had what they needed, I guess...) They also simply slaughtered the zombies that came in, rather try to corral them. Of course, their necromancer then raised the newly re-corpsed into their own growing army.

This was the groups modus operandi for the night: kill everything and then make it into their own undead. The necromancer then used his own in-conflict successes to have his army soak hits for the others as needed (Agent special ability). There were two fatalities in this one, one being replaced with a cleric, the other with a similar rogue (as I recall). The cleric used Turn Undead (Terror) quite efficiently.

Overall, Hollowpoint worked well for this one-shot style of fantasy RPG, however the trappings of the genre hindered it a bit. A good number of my players were used to D&D, Pathfinder, etc. and the weight those games place on spending much time crafting a well balanced character and careful resource management during an adventure. Since characters (and thus their Traits) are supposed to be expendable, my veteran RPG players were slightly less willing to embrace spending often and freely, until the final combat. This left some of them feeling a little frustrated early on, as even in their best skills they could not match the length of runs I as GM would manage. This cleared up as they began to realize that making a new character was not the time sink it would have been in D&D/Pathfinder. Additionally, I had to overcome my own reluctance to assault the weakest player in each round. However, after the first round or two in each session, play began moving much more freely. Everyone certainly seemed to enjoy the free-form chaos that ensued.