Showing posts with label review. Show all posts
Showing posts with label review. Show all posts

Monday, June 16, 2014

The Fate Companion : iOs app

The Fate Companion
Rating: ★★★★

So you have gotten into FATE?
You might want to plunk down a few bucks to get this app then to make character creation, and maintaining your character, including the stress tracks, your Fate points and Refreshes a breeze!

You a Paperless Person?
The FATE Companion is a solid app which players can use to keep track of their character sheets without needing to worry about bringing paper and pencils to your games.  Even more awesome, the app is a beaut to look at with large fonts for easy reading.

The app has a built-in dice roller for  convenience, and even allows you to save rolled dice for reference when need be.  The app allows you to create custom Aspects, Skills, Approaches and even Stress tracks.

Even more awesome, conversion between Fate core and Fate Accelerated is a breeze with this ap.  You can even export the sheet as a PDF when you want to.

So for all of you who love going paperless, this app is definitely worth checking out.

The Fate Companion
by Joshua Barron

by Fred Hicks of Evil Hat Productions

Friday, February 28, 2014

Review: The 13th Age

The 13th Age
by Rob Heinsoo and Jonathan Tweet
Pelgrane Press and Fire Opal
The Archmage Engine
Rating: ★★★★★

Disclosure:  I hate Dungeons and Dragons 4th edition.  I hate how it feels more like a table top version of a MMO.  I hate how the game itself approaches the concepts less as a fantasy world and more as a computer game (with the Striker, Support and the like).   I really hated it.

That is admittedly a huge admission I had to make because The 13th Ages is a game that I really love.  Rob Heinsoo was the lead designer of the game I did not like, but with Jonathan Tweet at his side, had come up with an incredible game system which makes me swoon.     In many ways, I would say The 13th Age is the game I wish 4th Edition was instead.

So, tell us how the game works?
While most fantasy role-playing games throw you the setting first then encourage you to come up with your own character to explore the world, this game the Icons are the first things introduced.  Best described as the movers and shakers in the world the players are bound to encounter (directly or indirectly), the Icons are forces in the world that the players will find themselves working for or against in one way or another.  Think of Sauron, for example, in Lord of the Rings, or perhaps Elminster from the Forgotten Realms.  Or even Darth Vader for you non-fantasy rpg fans who might be reading.  The Icons are key characters in the world whose very actions (or inaction) can have great ramifications in the world.

Once the Icons are introduced, the players now have a greater idea of the kind of world they will play in.  This then leads to character creation.  The game's rules are very reminiscent of the Dungeons and Dragons approach, with characters choosing a race and a class (Bard, Barbarian,Cleric, Fighter, Paladin, Ranger, Rogue, Sorcerer, Wizard), allocating points to build their stats, then rounding these up with some old ideas and some cool new tricks.

Characters will all feature a One Unique Thing which sets them apart from anyone else in the world.  For example, consider Tanis Half-Elven as the only half-elf with a full beard.  Or how Harry Potter was the Boy who Lived (although admittedly, Harry Potter has way too many One Unique Things).  This opens up a lot of fun opportunities!  A player of mine just opted to be a Cleric who constantly has nightmares of how he will cause the end of the world.  Another wants to be a Paladin whose shield is possessed by the spirit of his beloved wife.

Relationship points are then allocated to the desired Icons by the players.  This is basically the players having the freedom to tell the others "I want to be in stories that relate or interact with this Icon."

Skills are nicely eliminated from the game and replaced with a system called Backgrounds.  Much like how Aspects work in Fate, backgrounds act as an umbrella item to determine whether or not you have bonuses to a skill roll.  Someone would have a bonus to her roll to try and poison someone if she had the background Former Assassin of the Guild, for example, compared to the background Loyal Knight Of the Realm.  Since players actually come up with their own Backgrounds, they end up helping the group build the game setting itself!  For example, someone opting to be a Diplomat of the Northern Elves has just established that there are elves in the game, that they have some in the North and some else where, and that they have some troubled relationship with others to the point of needing a diplomat.   And even more, they just established that something had happened to cause him to stop being one.  Pretty smart!  

The game then approaches the system very much like Pathfinder, with Feats (divided to adventurer, champion and epic tiers) Armor Class, and the like.  The mighty d20 is still the die of choice in this game, and the game does dip backwards into some of the less popular aspects of the 4th Edition game (such as Healing being under Recovery dice and "Free Recoveries" rather than just actions/spells you unless, and certain bonuses/skills being usable At Will, Daily, and the like.)  Thankfully, they are presented nicely enough to work with a more established table top direction compared to 4th edition.

Interestingly, damage is approached differently.  Hitting a monster is not really the point of rolling.  Instead, the roll represents whether or not you hit wonderfully.  The game has "miss damage" to represent still inflicting the basic level of injury to the enemy even on a missed one.  Enemies don't roll damage either.  Instead, if they hit, they deal a specific amount of damage.

And finally, you have a bunch of monsters to throw at your players, a nicely shaped setting to explore in, and a cool list of magic and spells to get your fingers dirty in.

The Love Child of What?The 13th Age grabs the best parts of Dungeon World, with shared narrative responsibility, as well as smoother introduction of information and system, with the nice tactical crunch that Pathfinder and Dungeons and Dragons 3.0 added.  The players can join in the fun of shaping the world, while the Game Master draws inspiration and ideas from their Backgrounds, Icons and more.  It sounds confusing, but guess what it actually works out very well.

What About the Art, the Look, the PDF?
Top notch.  Lee Moyer and Aaron McConnell bring the scenes, rules and character classes to vivid life with wonderful art pieces that capture the thrill and danger of an adventurer's life.  Each page looks gorgeous with the just right amount of color and graphic elements to keep it a tight clean layout.  The page numbers in the index page are hyperlinked to the correct pages, which makes it easy to navigate through the chapters.
There is even a section on how to stat up your own monsters, which is just a new level of awesome since the game has just given the gamers the tools to create more challenges the players can face.  The provided setting has fantastic places and adventure modules such as Drakkenhall, Glitterhaegen, New Port, Santa Cora and more and this just reminds me of the lush setting of the Forgotten Realms.  And finally, the darned Index doubles as a Glossary which really makes the book very approachable even for those not accustomed to role-playing games.

Rating Breakdown:
Concept:  A very well-crafted fantasy world that deserves to be explored.  The Icons are a great way to further invite the players into the world on the onset.  This reminded me of how The Flight Of Dragons movie did the same thing, introducing the four wizards even before expounding on the fantasy world.  And yes, we were hooked!
Crunch:  Incredible in achieving what it sought to.  The game has an almost perfect balance of crunch and narrative sharing  which makes it work well whether for first time gamers, or for old time fogeys who might not be comfortable with shared narrative control.
Layout: This game deserves high marks for the artistic direction it has taken.  The use of "runes stones" is an elegant touch as well and I did find myself envious of how each of them had their own "rune stone" design.  I want one too!
My favorite part: Backgrounds.  They work very much like Aspects yet are a different system of their own given the ranking they have and how they are approached as both story developers and skills.  The closest to this was how Dresden Files approached the Aspects as well (although that game still had skill lists).
What I wish was better:  Healing.  I really just don't like the idea of Recovery dice and Free Recoveries.  Just feels too odd.  Too strange to me.

Time to dive into the 13th Age and see what you have been missing:
Available at Drivethru rpg.

My first attempt to run this lead to a player having a bit of a traumatic moment.  Here's hoping my second stab at it (as part of our upcoming Game Mondays with three other office mates) will have less of the tears and more awesome moments.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Review: WOD The God-Machine Chronicle

The God-Machine Chronicle
by Dave Brookshaw, David A Hill Jr., Danielle Lauzon, Matthew McFarland, John Newman, John Snead, Stew Wilson, Filamena Young, Eric Zawadzki.
World of Darkness
Rating: ★★★★

What has risen may fall.
What has fallen may rise again.

When the World of Darkness was reborn (an event preceded by the Gehenna and Time of Judgment books that lead to the close of the time we refer to now as Classic World of Darkness), there were some pieces of fiction that stirred the imagination in what felt to be a totally fresh and new direction.  Voice of an Angel was the name of that piece, written by Matthew McFarland and Rick Chillot, and in that tale the concept of a strange divine presence which manifested in a much more mechanical material state was introduced:  The God-Machine.  What was it?  Why did it exist?  How did it function?  What purpose did it serve?  These were questions that the reader was left to speculate on.  To explore on their own.

But deep down, many of us wanted more.  Much much more. And back then, we were teased with a few more glimpses to the truth.  Stories such as Residents (World of Darkness: Mysterious Places), Road Gospel (World of Darkness: Midnight Roads) and Diamonds (World of Darkness: Aslyum) were then released, and each hinted at a larger untold story.  The Righteous and the Wicked (World of Darkness: Antagonists) was one of my favorites, with its tattooed cultist and the apocalyptic message given in bold 14 point font on the End of Days.  First they came out with an Anthology book, which really added more ideas to the pot.

Then they hit us with a whole new book.  And that is what this review will focus on.  (For those curious about the other half of the book, which was released as a free Rules Update download, check out my review on that here.)

So what does the book contain?
The book opens with a new story which connects the concept of the God-Machine to something we all dearly love - the internet.  What starts out as a cautionary tale on the dangers of clicking links transforms to a frightening narrative that tells us there are worse things than receiving spam.   Then the book has chapters dedicated to explaining the concepts behind the God-Machine, a generous helping of tales you can use to jumpstart, add to, or wrap a chronicle around, which involve the God-Machine and its many Infrastructures (oooh, new shiny term, eh?) and finally a chapter dedicated to the many servants of the God-Machine itself.  An appendix then wraps the book up with the host of new Rules Updates and as I mentioned above, you can check out my other review for my thoughts on those.

So We Finally Know What the God-Machine Is?
Well, yes and no.  And that's not a cop-out answer.  Yes, because Chapter One: Storytelling the God-Machine very nicely explains how the concept of the God-Machine can be introduced into a game.  It introduces the ideas behind having a God-Machine as an antagonist (or any other role) in your stories, and the many "parts" the comprise its presence and influence in the world.    Those familiar with Hunter the Vigil (as well as the expansions added to Vampire the Requiem in The Danse Macabre), the book brings back the idea that the threat may be rated in Tiers; Local, Regional, Global and Cosmic.

Yes, smart readers now realize that this means the writers did NOT just outright say what the God-Machine is (Hence the "no" in the first statement above).  This is because even this book is embracing the new design philosophy present in White Wolf Gaming Studio games, which is "Everything we release form now on is intended to be tool kit in nature.  You can choose, mix and match the portions you like.  And I personally feel that's a great thing.  It allows you to keep things unpredictable.  And it doesn't tie players to stick to a meta-plot the way the classic World of Darkness did.  While the meta-plot in the past did have its merits, I am happy that the World of Darkness now is sticking to its guns and keeping things tool-kit friendly.

Chapter One: Building the God-Machine Chronicle
Boy does this book expound on options in Chapter One: Building the God-Machine Chronicle and throw even more in the second chapter called Tales of the God-Machine.  (Oddly, the table of contents shows Chapter One to be Storytelling the God-Machine.  I wonder why the sudden change?)  The first parts  explore why the God-Machine book was made, and lead to how the God-Machine most likely has its arms in the world.  It offers many ideas, many concepts, but leaves it for the individual Storyteller to decide on which one stands as the truth.  This was done before, in the Time of Judgement, Gehenna, Apocalypse and Ascension books, which offered multiple ways for the final arcs to be approached.  Some hated the idea since it gave no "true ending" while others (like myself) applauded the move since it allowed storytellers to use what they wanted, and allowed even the same kind of story to be explored without feeling like the same earlier game since you can approach it now using an angle offered in the book which you haven't tried.

What is impressive is the huge list of idea generating concepts they list out in this chapter.  Page 24 to 38 is filled with all these interesting snippets for encounters, people who are against the God-Machine, those who worship it, and so forth that I cannot help but wish MORE of these were explored in the next chapter.

They also introduce The Network, which is a simple system to ensure that the player characters have related connections or shared backgrounds to allow more interaction and reasons to reach out to one another, which I feel is something I am happy to see finally written down as a technique to use.  Many games slow down to a halt due to players not... interacting with each other.  The section also talks about Chronicle Tracks, which explores the various themes you can embrace for your God-Machine chronicle, and even suggests what Tales you can use (and in what order) from the next Chapter to build your game.  They're cool sections that give new game masters loads of ideas to form their own game summaries.

Chapter Two: Tales of the God-Machine  
Tales of the God-Machine throws in a total of 20 possible story ideas that you can incorporate, mix-and-match or explore in your games.  Some (like the 300 Block, Urban Wanderings, Do-Over, Sister City) are tremendously cool, throwing a Fringe-meets-The Lost Room vibe without forcing players down a narrow path.  Others (like Operation: Bell Jar, the Key) are less flexible but no less compelling and interesting to explore.  With the twenty laid out among the four tiers, the Storyteller can nicely scale events from local to global (or wider) nicely at a glance.

Each Tale is broken down to its component parts, with mentions of what Infrastructure of the God-Machine are vital in the tale, what parts are Interchangeable, what Skills or Merits might be useful to lead into or be used in the story, and Escalation ideas on how things get "worse" if the players don't intervene.

These are remarkable doses of information that can prove to be extremely useful to Storytellers who aren't certain yet on what direction to have their game take.  Each one nicely throws in ideas and suggestions which makes it very enticing to find ways to incorporate each Tale to one's game.  Blackhattmatt kindly throws in a teaser of one of the Tales, The Key, in his blog.  I highly recommend you read it to get a gist of one of the Tales.

Then Comes Chapter Three.
Admittedly, I felt let down by this chapter.  Chapter Three is called The Cogs in the Machine, and it explores the many characters and antagonists you will face in a God Machine Chronicle.  This is where I felt the game goes a tad flat (hence my lower than happy rating above).  I really wanted to find cool monsters or unique ideas, but sadly I felt the ones presented here were just not interesting enough.    Some, like the Polis Men, offered great visual concepts but system-wise seemed lacking.  Given this chapter explores 27 characters, I admittedly felt disappointed because the Angels presented didn't catch me as inspiring or unique.  (Maybe I'm just too spoiled by Dr. Who admittedly, but I really wanted to see Angels that felt more God-Machineque than just spirits who were doing the God-Machine's bidding.  Each one was tied to a certain tale, and yet many of them felt like the could be thrown into any other non-God-Machine Chronicle, which in my opinion worked against this Chapter.   And while some were moving in the direction, the final result seemed bland and uninspired.

The book does offer two more Angel ideas, both of which were not tied to any of the Tales.  Ironically, these two seemed to show much more promise and I wish they wrote more in this vein instead.

So, Overall Assessment?
The book is lovely.   It definitely is a font of ideas on how to approach the World of Darkness without having Vampires, Werewolves, Prometheans and the like.   The book, especially with the new Rules, can give you the options to run games that are inspired by shows like Fringe or Alcatraz.  But I really wanted a bit more... machine in this book.  For example, how about ideas on whether hacking and computers can play a larger role in such a setting.  Or given the idea of a God-Machine, I wish they introduced analogies to viruses, malfunctions, fuel, replacement parts and the like to a spooky context.  Admittedly, part of me even feels slighted that the God-Machine concepts never really explain why they would be or refer to themselves as Angels.

I also kind of hoped for some kind of iconic villain or threat to be added to the game.  Many of the antagonists in the third chapter just seem to be too.. lackluster.  I would have wanted even some hint of an actual cult of the God-Machine.  Or an example of how they approach their worship and the like.

Rating Breakdown:
Concept:  Still incredible and mesmerizing.  The ideas presented on the many possible backstories are fun to consider.  But given this is a main book for the God-Machine I kind of wished they went up to eleven.  On a scale of 1 to 10 on awesomeness, they sort of settled at five.
Crunch:   Again, the Rules Update part has its own review.  That said, the rest of the Crunch was unfortunately not as exciting.  And while the Banes of some of the Angels were interesting, the fact those things were typical of spirits kinda made the concepts given even cheaper since they were just using rules for Spirits.
Layout:  Not bad.  And admittedly, the table of contents was helpful.  Polished lay out.  Great artwork.  And nice touch on the fiction inside.  The way they laid out the fiction was pretty cool.
My favorite part:  The list of ideas in Chapter one.  And the Chapter two Tales.  They really explored the concepts of the God Machine in many directions and I like that.  Honestly, I was surprised they didn't come up with more.   Need space for that?  See below.
What I wish was better:  I would have been willing to remove the third Chapter entirely, and just have any characters or angel write-ups in the respective Tales.  After all, save for two, that's what they did anyway.  I would have doubles the Tales.  And maybe wrote up three major God-Machine monstrosities as well for players to be afraid of.

Will you be the malfunction to the God-Machine's machinations?
Decide at Drivethru rpg.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Review: Monster Hearts

Monster Hearts
by Joe Mcdaldno
Buried Without Ceremony
Rating: ★★★★

I wasn't really interested in Monster Hearts when I first heard about it.  But then again, being told it was "the perfect game to use to run something inspired by Twilight" was clearly the worst way to get a first impression on a game.  This game, to be honest, is devilishly fun and even better, so easy to teach to even those who have never ever played a role-playing game in the past.    For fans of shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Being Human or TruBlood, this game system nicely captures the sexy dangerous darkness that such franchises offer without cluttering the fun process with far too many rules to keep track of.

Messy Lives
Based on the Apocalypse World system, Monster Hearts is billed as "A story game about messy lives of teenage monsters" and to be honest, I get confused when some seem to insist on separating role-playing games with story games when I always felt story games are more like Atlas Games' Once Upon a Time.  The moment players are part of a group that is creating an evolving story while they portray specific roles, I feel, they are playing a role-playing game.  It isn't about whether or not there are stats, or dice, or experience points.  It is about playing a role and experiencing a story unfold as a group.   But I digress, Monster Hearts is a game of teen angst, of darkness looming, of dangerous excitement, of mesmerizing whispers and unveiled secrets.   Each player chooses a Skin, the game's term for a character type, to portray and from the list of options quickly and easily generate the character they will use in the game.  The wonderful staples of Apocalypse World's system are there, with the Stats, the Moves, and the prepared options readily available and easily selected with a circle or a check.

The System
Two six-sided dice are used whenever a player needs to resolve an action.  Actions tend to fall under specific Stats and the game has the following:  Hot, Cold, Volatile and Dark.  Hot actions tend to be about Turning people on or Manipulating them.  Cold actions are about shooting someone down, or maintaining a steady facade.  Volatile actions are for combat and other physical actions.  While Dark explore gazing into the Abyss.  Rolling 10+ means you typically get the result you wanted.  Rolling 7-9 means you might get what you want, but at a cost.  Rolling 6 or lower means you fail, and the repercussions of the failure are then revealed.  A lot of the language of the rule book can be confusing to those who never played a Dungeon World/Apocalypse World game before, but in many ways the confusing talk about Soft and Hard Moves are actually just a different way of saying light and heavy consequences for the actions chosen.  

The Skins
Each Skin nicely covers a supernatural concept that is typically in many shows and books now.  Vampires, Werewolves, Witches, Ghosts are there, as are Fae folk, the Chosen, Mortals and Infernals.  The Ghoul is an odd addition since it seems to be a strange twist to the zombie concept (but I guess after the movie Warm Bodies, its a very welcome addition.)  But admittedly my favorite is the Queen which gives a nice quirky approach to giving the game the Mean Girls treatment.   Each Skin has interesting moves that they can use, and a great idea to how their Darkest Self manifests.  In Monster Hearts, one can allow their Darkest Self to manifest to keep from dying, and it is such a wonderful bonus that the Skins throw in the necessary role-playing activity to regain control from it.

Sex Moves.  
There, I said it.  This is probably one of the more controversial aspects of the game for some people.  I will confess to being uncertain about including it my game at first, given I was introducing the hobby to a non-gamer and I wasn't too keen on letting this new person have her first impression on gaming to be "playing a devil worshipper, and finding ways to have Sex with another character to get some magic going."  So yes, the Sex Moves were a concern at first.  But once the game was clearly toying with the idea of adolescent and young adult supernatural drama, it easily all fell into place.   I will give the game bonus points for a very interestingly written section gender concerns nicely touched on some sensitive issues without sounding preachy.

The concept of Strings is an interesting one.  A natural evolution of Apocalypse World's Hx ratings, Strings shows how certain characters have already affected your character in the past, and how these "strings of influence" can be used to help or hinder the same people.  I do wish, however, they were written to be as modular as Dungeon World's Bonds system, given Strings in this game might not be useful beyond the first session.

And finally, the MC section is wonderful.  For people who have never tried running a game before, the book extends to the reader a very well explained section on how to run games, the importance of asking questions, and the ways to invoke dramatic moments into your game.

Rating Breakdown:
Definitely turned my opinion around, this game is crazy fun and is awesomely good at making it stay that crazy fun.  And I am very impressed at how much Skins are now out there for this line too.

Crunch: Tremendously lean that non-gamers can learn in a few minutes.  The Strings can get confusing at times, but over all it is a wonderfully made game.  I would have wanted to see more moves, maybe sort of a generic listing of other move options.

Layout: Very pretty and I have to admit, the logo is just beautiful.  The approach to the art, which clearly took from Apocalypse World's visual stance, worked wonderfully here.  I'm surprised they didn't include suggested theme songs for each Skin (hence when I ran the game, I made sure each character's scene had a theme song.)

My favorite part: The Darkest Self.  Just a wonderful way to add such a concept without being too pretentious about it.  And yes, the Queen is just awesome.

What I wish was better:  The Sex Moves.  I guess I wish the game also offered clear alternatives to them, for groups that would rather separate their gaming exposure and their concerns on games that have a sexual presence. But don't mistake this opinion to suggest the game is soft core gaming porn.  Trust me, the game is definitely a far better version of Twilight.

So find that inner monster in you, and let it fall in love.
Available at Drivethru rpg.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Review: Castle Falkenstein

Castle Falkenstein
by Michael Pondsmith
R. Talsorian Games
Rating: ★★★★

Castle Falkenstein was a game I first encountered way back in the early 2000s.  I was not quite that interested in steampunk games (and admittedly, I've never heard of steampunk back then) and thus this game pretty much zipped past my radar.  It wasn't until my friend Adrian brought over his collection of books one day to have me hold on to for the time being within the last two years or so that I found myself having a chance to explore the game at last.  And man, I have to say, this game is very impressive, and on first glance, extremely intimidating.

How Can a Game be Intimidating?
Well, first of all, the game does not use dice.  Now at this day and age, many gamers out there are probably not as fazed as I was to hear about a role-playing game that does not use dice.  But for old timers such as myself, not that many games back then were brave enough to enter a diceless approach (I can only recall Psychosis and Amber to be diceless systems during that time.  I'm certain there were probably others, but I was not aware of them.)  In Castle Falkenstein, two decks of cards are used - because you see, Gentlemen and people of Nobility play with cards, not dice.

What?  Why Should That Matter?
Oh, sorry.  Let me back up.   Castle Falkenstein is an incredible role-playing game set in a mythical Victorian Age New Europa where Dragons exist, Steampower fuels the world, Sorcery shapes fate and Swords clash in the name of High Romance.  In Castle Falkenstein, a world of swashbuckling adventure crosses paths with exotic Faerie powers and Fictional Characters come to life.    The main book contains 224 pages, with many of the pages beautifully rendered in full color as the narrator, a computer game designer named Tom Olam attempts to explain to the reader the magical world he has been pulled into, and how everything he has learned in this world is now the game which you are being invited to play.

Character Concepts for Dramatic Characters (their term for Player Characters) in the game range from sword-dueling Gentlemen to Criminal Masterminds, from Sorcerers to Faerie Lords, from Secret Agents to News Reporters, with character sheets being small notebooks that are intended to be updated as the players explore more New Europa and write down their diary entries of their experiences.   At the very onset, players are asked to decide if they are Good or Evil, for in Castle Falkenstein you are either one or the other.  A very generous list of questions follow, to help you get a better grasp of your character concept, appearance, and experiences even before you consider the character's stats.  Then, from a list of over twenty abilities (more if you add the other source books), players choose the skills that will have ratings.  One ability is given the rating of Great, four then have it at Good, and one is at Poor.  Everything else remains at Average.

These ratings are important in that the game's system relies on seeing if the appropriate ratings plus a played card to match the difficulty of an attempted action. Poor equals two, Average equals four, Good equals six, up to Extraordinary, which equals twelve. For example, a Dramatic Character might attempt to leap from a zeppelin to the roof of a tower.    If the act was deemed to have a Difficulty of Good , and the Dramatic Character had an Athletics of Good, then the played card becomes tremendously important in determining whether or not the character will succeed.    

Sounds Very Interesting!  So, you mentioned Cards?
The game uses a standard deck of cards (not a Tarot deck) and the first deck is intended to be used for all resolutions necessary save one:  Sorcery.  For Sorcery, a second separate standard deck is needed.  The suit of the card is tremendously important, with each suit allowing you to add the face card's value to the ability rating if applicable.  Diamonds apply to Mental and Intellectual challenges, Spades apply to Social challenges especially when social status is vital, Hearts apply to most Emotional challenges, and finally Clubs apply to all Physical challenges.   So if you were attempting the said leap above, playing an eight of hearts only adds one to your final result, whereas playing a five of clubs would add the full value of five.  For face cards, Jacks are 11 points, Queens are 12 points, Kings are 13 points, Aces are 14 points, and Jokers are a whopping 15 points.

There are five possible levels of success in the game:  Fumbles are when the player has half or less than the needed number.  Failures are when the player merely has less than the needed number.  Partial Success happens when the player beats the needed number.  Full Success happens when the player's total is half again or more of the needed score.  And finally, a High Success is when a player's score is double the needed number.

Since a player can only have a hand of four cards, and all players and the Host (the term for the Game Master) all draw from the same deck, some level of tactical planning can help you calculate the risk and chances of winning.

For Sorcery, the cards work in a similar matter, but the suits determine instead the type of magical effects the cards resonate with.  Drawing more cards for Sorcery takes an amount of time to "gather up" the energy, and using cards of the wrong suit can "taint" the final manifestation of the effect.

Combat Is A Tad Tricky

At its most basic, the game uses the same system for combat, however, the amount of damage dealt depends on the weapon used and the level of success accomplished in the attack.  It is not uncommon for Dramatic Characters to possibly be felled by two or three good hits.  But working with the genre, felled characters are not dead unless the attacked then delivers a deliberate killing blow (similar to how in DC Heroes, Killing Combat has to be declared).  Given the genre, women are also typically not attacked physically.  Instead, they are subject to being disabled by making them swoon, which happens due to rough treatment, intense social confrontation and the like.

For duels, the two characters have a hand of six cards (made of two red cards, two black cards and two face cards, their values here are irrelevant).  Each beat of the duel, both reveal two of the six cards, with red cards representing as attacks, black cards representing defenses, and face cards as rests.    The Fencing skill of the character determines how often a character must take a chance to Rest after a number of exchanges.  As part of the fun, it is recommended that players stand up during duels, and take positions as appropriate during the exchanges.  Once one does not have enough room to move back, wounds can then be dealt.

Adventure!  Ambition! Action!Castle Falkenstein is definitely a game that will thrill you in more ways than expected.  And while the book is filled with lots of character concepts and pre-written templates, players are welcome to come up with their own spin on how to stat the sky pirates, arcane wizards and the like.  The book even specifically suggests that players talk with the Host on coming up with their own Abilities to fit their own games better.

Rating Breakdown:Concept: A definite win.  I love how the game nicely mixes mythology, fiction and real world touches.  This is literally a game where you might consult with Sherlock Holmes and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  In this game, you might duel with a Daoine Sidhe while atop a crashing zeppelin that is being flanked by fire-breathing dragons.
Crunch: There are a lot of concerns in reviews online about the rankings being confusing for the player to connect to the numerical ratings, but I personally feel this is a tiny concern.  The bigger concern I feel is on getting used to a game where dice aren't rolled, combat is different depending on actual combat and dueling, and where men and non-heroic women approach damage differently.
Layout: The book needs an index.  I am not sure if the Drivethru PDF versions finally have an index added to them, but it really is hard to tell for certain.   It can be a tad challenging also to go through the book to learn the system since the book wasn't laid out the way most books are with the crunch in one area and the fluff in another.
My favorite part: I definitely love the Dueling rules.  They very nicely capture the feel of a duel, with moments of wondering if its time to strike, defend or take a breather.    The "larp" aspect makes it even more awesome as the player has to be sure there's enough space to maneuver and adjust when necessary.
What I wish was better: The support the game got.  Really.  This game deserves more love.

Are you ready to face those dastardly scoundrels?
Available at Drivethru rpg.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Review: DC Heroes Role-Playing Game 3rd Edition

Review: DC Heroes Role-Playing Game 3rd Edition 
by Greg Gorden, Sam Lewis & Brian Reid, Ray Winniger with Thomas Cook, Bryan Nystul and other contributors.
Mayfair Games Inc.
Rating: ★★★★

This is an ancient game.   Published back in 1993, this game might seem strange to the new generation of gamers out there who are much more used to rules-lite games, but trust me when I say few games can approach the super hero genre and scale well enough to represent young human characters like Robin as well as godlike personalities such as Morpheus, the King of Dreams himself.  This game succeeds in that.  And that is saying a lot.  It doesn't mirror things in a realistic level.  Rather it captures how it feels in comic books and that is one of the best places where the game shines.

Once again, note the date of publication.  This is an out-of-print book which I personally wish more people can get a chance to play.  The game system was kept alive by the Blood of Heroes RPG, but given it no longer uses the popular heroes of the DC Universe, your fun mileage may vary.

The MEGS System
The game uses the MEGS system, which means Mayfair Exponential Game System.  The system has all measurements in a logarithmic scale, to allow them to be easily scaled up and down to represent threats and complications as appropriate in a scene.  The unit of measure for the scale is called APs ("Attribute Points") with each unit on the scale representing roughly double the previous unit.    So if a hero, for example has Strength at 8APs, someone with 9APs was roughly twice as strong as the first hero.    For a better written write up on how this system works across measurements of weight, speed, and distance, check out this wikipedia page.

But basically, thanks to this scale, having a group of players who are using characters based on the Teen Titans, for example, can be sent to challenge someone with a power level equal to Superman, and still be played with out the system falling apart.

Characters have nine main Attributes (three for Physical, three for Mental and the last three for Social/Spiritual stats), with these divided into three specific columns.   The first column represents the Acting/Opposing values (for example, Dexterity for Physical actions) while the second column represents the Effect values (such as Will for Mental Actions) and the last column represents the Resistance value (such as Spirit for Social/magical actions).  When a character tries to do anything, they usually cross-reference the Acting value against the Opposing value of the other character to get the target number for a two ten-sided dice roll.  The sum of the dice are compared to the target number (there's a chart to make it easier, but there's actually a way to mentally do it with just math) to see if you succeeded.  And for every three above the target number, you earn what are called Column Shifts, which can modify the success.   If you succeed, you then compare the Effect value to the Resistance value on the second chart and see the amount of RAPs you score.  Column shifts adjust these as appropriate, and the final value of RAPs earned are then applied to the appropriate Resistance value as damage.  Once that value is reduced to zero (because, yes, the game has three "damage tracks" to consider as you can be defeated physically, mentally, or social/spiritually), you are in danger of falling unconscious.

With this universal approach to the system, it can become very quick to grasp once you get past the initial hurdle of understanding it.  

It can sometimes boil down to Hero Points
To represent moments of great luck, heroic focus and the like, we have Hero Points.  Heroes earn Hero Points for doing heroic acts and for fulfilling subplots.  These points can then later be spent to increase the character's overall stats, or be used up during a game session to boost one's rolls.  (You are allowed to boost any four of the values for one round, but only up to double the rating.)  This allows those moments when Bat-man uses his Martial Arts to misdirect Solomon Grundy's punch, for example, or for Robin to use his gymnastics skill well-enough to dodge the super speed-empowered blows of an enemy speedster.

Genre Switches
Given the black and whiteness ideally explored in comics (although the game system does provide options for more grayer games), heroes are expected to never engage in Killing combat.  All attacks and strikes are assumed to be intended to just knock an opponent out, save for certain key attack types (such as edged attacks) and the player MUST declare they are engaging in Killing Combat to kill a foe.  Heroes who engage in Killing Combat automatically lose ALL Hero Points as punishment, which acts as a nice reminder of the cost of being a hero.  But again, the game does have small rule adjustments for those who want to run something less like Silver Age superheroism and something more like the Mature Reader lines that feature more violent anti-heroes who do embrace killing as a necessity.

We Got LOTS of Powers 
The main book offers a LOT of powers to choose from, and these can be modified with the Bonuses and Limitations system to further tailor the powers.  For example, a typical power is an Energy Blast, which can represent everything from a blast of force from one's hands to an explosion of energy from one's mouth, etc.  But if you wanted to represent something like Darkseid's Omega Beams, which act like heat-seeking eye blasts, you can purchase your Energy Blast power with the appropriate Bonuses to do so.  These overall make the power more expensive to buy, but nicely allow for such variety and personalization.

Skills do still exist
And yes, they have APs ratings too.  Some Skills act to enhance one's natural talents, so their ratings are added to one's APs where appropriate.  While others replace them to represent the Skill allowing you to go beyond your usual limitations.  Batman, for example, might have only the appropriate endurance of a healthy man, but thanks to his Martial Arts training that is many magnitudes higher than his actual Body rating, can use it to replace his Body rating when he takes a hit.  

As do Advantanges and Drawbacks
The game takes these things into account, so being Famous or having a Secret Identity can help or hinder you when appropriate.  Rather than be a stickler for keeping track of "power points" or "ammunition" for example, characters with powers that supposedly have limited stores of energy (like say Green Lantern) might have a Disadvantage to represent this, which kicks in when the player happens to roll very badly.  The same is used to represent certain Weaknesses (such as Superman's vulnerability to Magic and Kryptonite).

Subplots are present
Players are encouraged to come up with subplots for their characters to explore (for example, Batman might have a subplot regarding his need to find time to visit his parents' grave) and these many be stories that last only for one game session.    In many ways, this can be used as a way for the player to say, "I want to explore this facet of my character's concept too."

Wealth, Gadgetry, and Magic
The game system also has interesting systems for Wealth, Gadgetry and Magic and these three are still tackled using the MEGS approach (so a character with Wealth at 4 is twice as rich as the guy with Wealth at 3) and nicely integrate these with Skills and Advantages whenever appropriate.

Hero Points are also spent for Gadgetry and Magic since these two, given the system's approach, mechanically allow you to "create new powers" for your character.  Batman's gadgets, for example are mechanical representations of existing powers (Bat Call: Animal Control power, Rebreather: Sealed Systems power, etc)  Magical spells also act in the same way.  So to balance it out, the need to spend Hero Points is part of the equation.

But this game is OLD, will finding books be a problemIt might.  While I can mention many legal and illegal ways that exist as options, I will state that the fan-love for the system is so strong that one can still find many online resources that you can use to enhance your games. is filled with TONS of character write-ups and these are not limited to just comic characters.  Wanted to run a game based on H.R. Giger's Xenomorph Aliens and pit them against the cast of Buffy the Vampire Slayer?  This site has their stats.  I am serious.  This is a fantastic resource that is sure to keep your gaming life using the MEGS alive and well.

An online free character builder exists too, to help you handle what may seem like frightening math at first for character creation.  The game system gives a Factor Cost Rank for everything on the character sheet, so you  can compute on how many points it will take to increase certain powers compared to others.   After all, the power to run very fast (Running) should not cost the same as the power of Super Speed.

All in all, even for a very old system, I feel this still captures a lot of what I felt made comics magical: the freedom to embrace challenges and tackle opponents far greater than yourself, and the capacity to go all-out and try to save the world.  

Rating Breakdown:Concept: While newer comic-based systems do exist, such as Margaret Weis' recently ended Marvel Heroic RPG line, I always enjoyed how the MEGS system of this game has been very versatile and easy to grasp.  It, for me, captures the joys of a comic book world and encourages players to be the hero.
Crunch: The math might frighten some players, or the charts might turn some people off.  But trust me, they become very easily to embrace once you're used to it.    In my games, I even tell the players to focus on their sheets and leave me to handle all table work.  (I'm not good with math, but I love it!)
Layout: The book is nicely laid out, and I love the shoulder charts which give you a glimpse of the various heroes and villains and where they'd stand on the chart.
My favorite part: The AP system.  It is a real ingenious way to represent the huge scale of comic book action without making things unwieldy.  I know some will hate how it abstracts things, but I prefer my comics to be dramatic than real.
What I wish was better: I guess I would have loved to see this system find a way to tighten up somehow.  I don't know if its possible though, but given the power lists, each character sheet literally needs to be referenced to various pages for every Advantage, Power, Skill and the like.  

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Review: Dungeon World

Dungeon World
by Sage LaTorra and Adam Koebel
Sage Kobold Productions
Powered by the Apocalypse World engine
Rating: ★★★★★

I highly approve of Dungeon World.  And by highly, I do mean this has replaced Pathfinder and D&D as my game of choice for running stories set in a non-modern fantasy setting.  I make no secret of my lack of interest towards Dungeons and Dragons 4th edition and Next.  While I am certain the two games have a lot of fun to be found in them, I simply feel they are games that clearly have a target market in mind:  one which I am not part of.  While I might have wonderful memories of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, as well as fond thoughts of stories which we explored using Dungeons and Dragons 3.0 if not Paizo's Pathfinder, I always found it a struggle to help new players get into the games given their massive compendium of rules, errata and  balance issues.  While I'm the kind of GM who does not mind having godlike player characters mingling with mortal human player characters, when it came to the two system I used to use for fantasy games, the need for balance was imperative given the crunch of its system.   Dungeon World takes the BEST of those game worlds, and serves it in a dish with just enough rules to make it fun without making it tedious.  And even more awesome, provides it in a way that you can literally start gaming with fully-made characters within ten minutes of sitting down and telling your players what the game will be.

Dungeon World has made the concept of trying a fantasy role-playing game a modular, easy-to-dive-into-without-any-prepwork experience.  And that, my dear readers, is an incredible accomplishment that cannot be overlooked.

So, tell us how the game works?
Okay, in Dungeon World, you have your standard fantasy character classes: the Bard, the Cleric, the Druid, the Fighter, the Paladin, the Ranger, the Thief, and the Wizard, and you have one of the players being the GM (the "Dungeon Master" if this were a D&D game).    As mentioned in the book's first few pages, in Dungeon World the objective is to have the characters do amazing things and struggle together, because the world still has so many places to explore.  With the focus on having fun as a group, the game presents things with very simple rules, and while the jargon might seem confusing at first, once you get the hang of the very basic system things very quickly fall into place and become one of the easiest things in the world to learn.

Dungeon World still retains the expected fantasy game Stats of Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Wisdom, Intelligence and Charisma. But rather than over-complicate things with random dice rolls for stat generation or point buy systems, you simply choose from a small set of scores to assign to the six stats.    The game uses two six-sided dice which are rolled and added together with one of the Stats to determine the result of one's action.  And the results range from three possible kinds of results:  A roll of 10 or higher is the Best Outcome.  A roll of 7 to 9 is Good Outcome (which always comes with either a compromise or a cost).  A roll of 6 or lower means trouble, but in return for the troubles you will have to face, you get a point of XP.  So that roll + X is the main system of the entire game in a nutshell.  While there are other smaller systems (such as hold, when you Defend someone, and forward, which means it applies to the next roll) in the game, you've pretty much learned the main necessary rule to do any moves in the game.

Yes, this means right now, you my dear reader, can already PLAY a Dungeon World game.  Amazing, ain't it?

Character Creation?
Now, unlike most games where you roll up stats first, then choose to allocate points or skills, then by the end have a character, in Dungeon World, you start character creation by choosing a playkit.  In this game, a playkit is a character sheet for a specific role in the game (such as a bard, or a thief, as mentioned earlier) that you would like to play.  Every playkit of the game has been wonderfully designed to be extremely easy to dive into and use given all the necessary systems of that character type are already in the sheet and all you have to actually do is mark the appropriate box to show that you have "unlocked" a selected power.  The game gives very cool options in each playkit, showing how an Elven Bard differs from a Human Bard, for example.  The sheets already contain a list of Gear you would have and even list options for names, and appearance details to choose from to flesh out your concept with the least of fuss.  While these options can be interpreted to limit customization (if one chooses to insist that "if its not written, you cannot do it" which I think is foolish), I felt they allowed the game to become user-friendly to the point that a person who has never tried a game before can look at it and quickly grasp how the sheet will work and be filled up.  And that, I feel is an incredible achievement to accomplish for a game intended to make role-playing an accessible hobby to more people.

The game's main book can sound confusing to some gamers, because it presents what are called Moves for the players to use and for the GM as well to utilize.  While players have a selection of Basic Moves (which represent things any character can do, such as Hack and Slash which means to attack with a melee weapon, Volley, which means to attack with a ranged weapon, Parley, and the like) players also have Special Moves (to represent actions taken typically outside of scenes that interact with others, such as setting camping, travelling.. this even includes actions done when the game ends such as calculating XP at the end of a session and levelling up) and Moves based on the class they have selected.  The class related moves are divided to two types: Starting (which represent the basic training and abilities one gets by being of that class, such as a Druid's ability to Shapeshift, a Thief's ability to locate and disarm traps) and Advanced (which represent later moves that you can learn as you increase your levels).  All these moves are part of your Playkits, making them character sheets that double as your reference notes for anything you might want to do in the game.  Once again, a genius move in making the game accessible!

Much Less Clutter, they say?
The game throws away a lot of the clutter which overly complicated Dungeons and Dragons-type of fantasy games, such as Feats, Initiative, varied rules for tactical positions, grappling, and even varied target numbers to hit opponents and Challenge Ratings to "maintain balance."  Instead, the game highlight game fiction, a term which might also confuse people, but basically means for the GM to make rulings which was seems appropriate and dramatically logical in the scene.  Given the very generous helping of monsters to choose from (150 from my count), the GM has a very good variety of challenges to throw at his players for a fun romp of an adventure.

Yes, you read that right.  No Initiative.  Because in Dungeon World, battles do not have initiative, nor number of actions.  Instead, everything happens as if the "fiction" of the scene was being written that very moment.  The GM acts like a camera, zooming through the battlefield and choosing what events matter, highlighting the moment when the Wizard turns to see an Ogre crashing towards him.  As the Wizard player announces his plan to cast a spell, the focus shifts to the Ranger who is overheard and leaps atop the Ogre to fire a number of arrows into its head.  The idea is, the GM helps direct the players to the events of the battle that are key as it unfolds, and these events always have one or another player character, if not their enemies or goal, at the center of that spotlight.    This embrace of the game fiction is very important because it is fully supported by the Dungeon World's key system:  Whenever the players roll less than 10, the GM get's to use his moves to make the battle more engaging, and more deadly in an exciting way.    As the Ranger, in the example above, unleashes his arrows, the player of the Ranger rolls a seven, meaning a Good result with either a compromise or cost.  The GM can then describe that the attack enrages the Ogre, and in its rage, it runs wildly towards the Wizard, who also happens to be ready to cast a spell.  The Ranger must choose:  remain on the Ogre, but risk getting caught in the Wizard's spell, or to leap away, and be safe, but leave the Wizard to handle the Ogre alone.   The system helps generate the drama, and the players are all engaged.

How does XP work?
Well, each playkit has a set of incomplete sentences which are called Bonds.  For example, the Paladin's Bonds are written as follows:
(blank's) misguided behavior endagers their very soul!
(blank) has stood by me in battle and can be trusted completely.
I respect the beliefs of (blank) but hope they will someday see the true way.
(blank) is a brave soul, I have much to learn from them.
Each blank is to be filled with the name of one of the other player characters in the game, and these immediately create a sense of connection with the others in the game.  These also, when "resolved" in a way you feel appropriate, are cashed in as XP in the end of the game session.  Other than through bonds, failing rolls also nets the character XP, suggesting they learn more from their mistakes.  Once a character as 7+level XP points, they can take the Level Up move during a downtime scene.

Okay, it sounds pretty cool.  Tell me one thing I will feel very odd about the game though.
Well, given how the playkits are the characters' major roles, each kit has a set damage die that is rolled whenever they succeed in an attack.  So it does not matter if the Fighter uses a dagger, or a broadsword, or if the Wizard punched the monster or used his spear, they roll the same damage dice.  While this can be jarring for some, giving the feeling that weapons are irrelevant, I felt it simply was a reminder that ultimately, these characters are good at what they are meant to do well, and are not so good in things they aren't meant to do well.  And that damage die represents that.  A fighter, for example, will always be deadly when it comes to combat regardless of what weapon he wields.  Likewise, a wizard, even if trained with a blade, will never be as good as a fighter holding one.  And that makes sense for me as far as in-game fiction is concerned.

Rating Breakdown:Concept: I love it!  I can't wait to see more games developed for this (and I've joined some friends in supporting the Kickstarter for an upcoming Dungeon World expansion book called Inverse World.) and I do hope to someday be able to try the original game that developed the system, Apocalypse World.
Crunch: Light enough to be extremely easy to teach, without feeling too light that it doesn't matter.  Getting used to the 10+, 7-9. 6.. system might confuse some, and challenge other GMs but once you get the swing of things, the system really makes you look at how games are approached in a cool way.
Layout: Beautiful.  Absolutely beautiful.  I wish I had an actual copy of the book (and I believe I am to get one soon since my friends ordered a copy).
My favorite part: Coming up with things whenever a 7-9 is rolled.  It is just crazy fun seeing players know they have to choose among the options and take what is coming to them, given it is something they chose themselves.
What I wish was better: The way the rules were explained.  Admittedly, I had trouble with this when I first tried reading the book.  I have a lot to owe this link for helping me grasp the game better.

Special thank you to Erich who got me to try running this system.
You have changed my view on fantasy games in a great way, my friend.

Dive into a whole-new yet familiar way of exploring dungeons today.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Review: WOD The God Machine Rules Update

The God Machine Rules Update
by Dave Brookshaw, David A Hill Jr., Danielle Lauzon, Matthew McFarland, John Newman, John Snead, Stew Wilson, Filamena Young, Eric Zawadzki.
World of Darkness
Rating: ★★★★★

It has been quite some time since the World of Darkness excited me to this degree.  Admittedly, I had mixed feeling with the new line.  Some, like Changeling the Lost and Promethean the Created are incredibly well-written games that inspire and impress.   Some of the other releases were not as notable for me.    It was nice to see The Onyx Path now embracing one of the most thought-provoking concepts introduced in the main book now being given a much more fleshed out treatment:  The God Machine.

With it, however, was the need to revise some of the rules in the game system.  This review will focus on the free Rules Update that was released.  A review of the Chronicle book will follow at a later date.

So Rule Changes?
Yes.  The pdf is pretty much an update to the new World of Darkness rule set.  While some games would have a whole new edition and number requiring books to be repurchased, here, the rules are introduced and allow for the playing groups to shift to them when they are ready.  A lot of things are adjusted, and I will try to share my comments on them here without spoiling them all.   But this was a free release of 104 pages worth of cool stuff, and that definitely is an awesome thing. 

The pdf's page corners match those of The God Machine Chronicle book still, which might confuse some readers.  But I like it since it means those using this or the other pdf can refer to the same page easily.

But I will say the rules are a welcome sight.  Many of them polish things which felt odd before.  While the Storyteller System is still far from true narrativist supporting games where players have much more narrative control, the new rules do a lot to help in the development of drama, the encouragement of mood and are a step in the right direction.

The Cover and Artwork
The cover is the same as that of The God Machine Chronicle book.  Which is understandable given the rules were actually part of that book and just released for free as a second pdf.    Inside, the art pieces are exceptional (although I will admit to finding the chained woman in page 213 a bit... odd).  

I must admit to being impressed that the artwork avoids the trope of looking like something from the movie, The Matrix.  I do wish there were a bit more gear/machine elements shown in some of the pieces to make them clearly relate to this release and not seem "vanilla World of Darkness."

So the Changes?
I'll try to tackle all of them without sounding like I'm retyping the free book.  But yes, I highly recommend you guys get it at drivethrurpg whether or not you plan to use it anytime soon.  The ideas presented within are worth a look.
For Character Creation, they've removed the two dot cost to the fifth dot for anything, which is a step in the right direction.  I never understood the need for that rule, to be frank.    Specialties now work better, removing that weird +1 to +3 ranking they used to have.  Instead they are areas of expertise in a Skill, and multiple specialties can apply to a single roll.  Ironically, these were both house rules I've applied a long time ago in my other games.

Aspirations is one of the new additions to the game, which represent goals which the character has for herself and function as an in-system way for players to tell the Storyteller what expectations or goals the player hopes to achieve within the session.  Oddly, the book clearly gives an example of using them to benefit from NOT making use of things on your sheet, which I feel was contrary to the spirit of the idea.  I also found it odd that changing it requires Storyteller approval when I felt it might have worked better as something the players had the freedom to change at the start of every session.  

Vice and Virtues take a huge shift in the game, with them less being based on the seven Deadly Sins and now sort of being pseudo-Aspects focused on personality traits.  It was interesting how the book reminds players to avoid traits that describe Attributes, Advantanges or Skills and even stress these should not be linked to Integrity.  Recovering based on your Vice no longer requires you to act detrimental to your character's well-being.  Instead it merely shows you indulging in your more selfish or short-term sense of fulfillment.  I found it odd still that they'd limit recovery of Willpower through the Virtue to twice per chapter/game session.  It feels like a step to avoid abusing it, but at the same time does sort of tell players to limit acting virtuously.

Morality takes a huge shift with it being approached now as Integrity, a measure of how one copes with Breaking Points in one's life.  Instead of having a list of sins that one checks against, the rolls on Integrity are based on whether or not an event violates the character's moral code, experiences or witnesses something that can traumatize or scar his psyche whether it is something supernatural or intensely horrifying.  Players now create a list of breaking points based on the key questions in the book, but the players are reminded that this list is not a strict list and serve merely as a guide for the Storyteller.  There is some concern how the lower your Integrity is, the more likely you are to suffer from breaking points since it kind of goes against the idea that someone who's been going through horrible things should start to get numb to them.  But maybe it works better long term in practice?

Experience Points have been replaced with a new system which I feel nicely feels more natural and appropriate   In the new system, certain actions, the resolution of Conditions, and choices can lead to the earning of Beats.  Beats are defined as "a unit of drama" and for some gamers, this might remind them of Savage World's Bennies, or Houses of the Blooded's Style Points.  By taking actions that add to the drama of the game (such as accepting a Dramatic Failure instead of just a failure, taking damage that leaves you in a critical state, exceptional roleplaying, or resolving a Condition you happen to be in) you gain a Beat.  Every five Beats earned you gain an Experience.  And through these Experiences, you can advance your character's stats.  Yes, you still always gain one Beat at the end of every game session.

The number of Experiences required to increase stuff is still similar to the old Experience point chart, but only if you remove the past multiplier.  So instead of having to gather and spend around 10 Experience points to increase a skill from four to five, now you merely need two Experiences in total since the cost is the same whether it is the first, or the fifth dot.  I like how this simplifies things, since it does make character growth feel more present compared to before.  And while some might worry about balance issues, I've always felt that while this can be abused by unscrupulous gamers (any rules can be) for those who wanted a system that allowed characters to show growth even if the game was set within a single week of game time,  this works nicely.

I like the optional rule of Group Beats which has all the Beats gathered into a pot and these are distributed evenly at the end of the game.  Rather than make it feel like a contest between players to earn Beats, this rule makes it feel more communal and cooperative.

Merits are given a huge overhaul, with many of the fighting styles given a while new look.  I'm happy to see they've formally made rules about the "sanctity of merits" which means if you lose a merit (say a retainer or a mentor), you can reallocate those dots to reflect how you react to the loss (such as allocating them to get a safe house or training yourself in a new way to defend yourself.)  They've also formally allowed one to cash in Merits for Experiences if they reach a point where they prove useless or have run their course (like a Contact who no longer is someone the player needs to be in touch with).

Professional Training is one of the cool new Merits, with each rating giving the player bonus advantages that better reflect their chosen professional role in the game.  For example, a lawyer with Professional Training at one would have two free Contacts related to law.  While another lawyer with Professional level at three would have the two Contacts, 9-again on Asset skills (which likely would be Politics and Persuasion)  and a third Asset skill, as well as two Specialties within those skills, making him a much more effective Lawyer than the first one.  Fighting Merits are now a category of their own, and they add interesting new options given the fact combat too has been given an overhaul.

Conditions are another new thing in the rules, which in its most basic essence are a consequence and reward mechanic added to the World of Darkness system.  Conditions are gained in many ways, be it due to Integrity Breaking Points, or events in combat (these, however, are called Tilts).  Typically, achieving an Exceptional Success in a roll gives the character a Condition which tends to have a positive effect, while certain negative experiences and moments can garner negative Conditions.  Resolving them earns the character a Beat.  For example, you might try to research about ghosts and score an Exceptional Success in your research roll.  This can give you the Condition: Informed.  Later, in a scene where you try to roll in relation to your knowledge of ghosts, if you fail, you can then "resolve" the Informed Condition to make it a success, or if you succeed, boost it into an Exceptional Success.  In simpler terms, since you researched so well, you're being "informed" increases your likelihood of being knowledgeable of the subject matter in a later scene.  And this gives you a  Beat.  Its an interesting system and sounds elegant to use, but so far in my attempts to use it has been a bit unwieldy to keep track of.  I feel, however, this is one of those things that gets easier to keep track of given time and frequent use.

The list of Conditions is pretty nice, with stuff such as Addicted, Bonded, Disabled, Informed, Inspired, Shaken, Spooked and my favorite, Swooning.  The Environmental Tilts are a bit strange, however, but I guess its a fast quick and dirty way to represent certain environmental twists during the battle (such as floods or heavy rain).

Soul Loss is a tricky matter.  It seems to be a system to allow players to have characters who have lost their souls one way or another. I would presume this was in the updated rules because The God Machine Chronicles relies on this as one of the major events or kinds of Conditions characters can suffer from in the game.

The Extended Actions rules are okay.  They added rules for Near Misses, which I feel was sort of complicating something which I felt the Storyteller could have very easily just ruled on the fly based on how gritty their game was.   

Social Maneuvering is the "new" social combat rules with players now having a clearer rule set on how to convince other characters with the stats having a bigger role than before.  I liked the approach of Doors, which represented the target's resistance to coercion and attempts to sway them from their preferences.  The use of Doors removed the strange "will power eating aspect of social combat" which existed in the Exalted rules approach.  Doors are the number of times you must succeed in social rolls in relation to a goal you've set, and these successful rolls must be in separate scenes.  So for example if you were in prison and were trying to convince the guard to smuggle you in an illegal object, you might need to open two Doors, which means two separate scenes where you broach the subject and succeed in your rolls.  The number of Doors increase if the desired actions go against their Virtue or Aspirations but get lower if you toy with their Vice.  The system nicely covers for bribes as well, and should serve as a great way to handle player to player social maneuverings when one player might want to convince a second to do something and have their stats help reflect how convincing he gets.

Combat gets some nice new twists with the game now acknowledging that some scenes might have combat, but shouldn't be treated as full fledged combat.  The system calls for the player to declare their intent (which reminds me of John Wick's Houses!) and make the contested roll to see if it happens.  This is an even quicker and smoother way to handle all those scenes with the hero beating up the mooks for the montage moments where the actual fight is not life threatening but added drama.  

Defense has been modified, and in many ways this has been one of the greater sources of debate online.  Athletics now adds to one's base Defense rating, which for some seems like making one Skill too "powerful" than others.  Although there are Merits to allow you to add instead your Brawl or other related combat skill, the added boost to defense is balanced in part by the change of making Damage Ratings in weapons as automatic levels of damage instead of extra dice in attack rolls.  So that 4L pistol now does not add anything to your Dexterity + Firearms roll to hit, but when it does, it deals at least 4L damage plus any successes you scored.   This pretty much suggests all combat is very deadly, and while missing might happen a bit more frequently ("just like in dramatic movies") it does show that once someone is hit, things go south VERY quickly.    Dodging, which used to be just doubling one's Defense rating, now has become double the rating, then roll the dice and the successes rolled are SUBTRACTED from the attacker's successes.  

Weapons were adjusted to reflect the new lethality of the system, with weapons now also having Initiative modifiers (usually a penalty) for these weapons.    Targeting Specific Locations now is connected to the Combat Tilts, so shooting someone in the arm has a clearer system to how it impairs the target.  But like before, the focus of hit locations is to generate these effects, and not to kill the target "better".  

Armor reduces the successes of damage that get through, rather than the successes of the hitting roll, which is nice.  And of course, Armor Piercing gets a nice write-up on how it works against Armor and against Cover.  All in all, the rules sound very well thought of and nicely work with the new systems they've devised for the game.  Practically everything except bare hand to hand combat has become lethal now, and I agree they should be.  I've always liked that explanation in the forums about how being hit by a baseball bat is not something you can shrug off as not having ever happened an hour later.

Then you have a large portion of the rules on Ephemeral Beings.  Interesting they list Ghosts, Spirits and Angels here.  So yes, this clearly does make one see the revision is intended directly to support The God Machine Chronicles and not merely a generic update.  Many of the descriptions remind me much of how Spirits were approached in Exalted.  Ghosts feed on Essence and have Anchors which allow them to remain among the living.  Angels of the God Machine are described as being dormant and resting in the world, and once awakened are very single-minded in their goals.  They are described to be subtle and specialized and can remain unnoticed even when fully manifested.  Here these spirits are given Ranks, and the Ranks quickly determine Trait Limits, the number of Attribute dots to allocate, Maximum Essence and the number of Numina powers it possesses.   Ranks also determine how much memories a Ghost can retain.   Many Conditions are used to represent the stages on influence a ghost has towards a human host, with some becoming prerequisites to others in the degrees of how much control can be achieved.  Add to this the concept of Resonant as a Condition, to reflect that something has now fallen within the sphere of influence of a spirit.   They actually include a flowchart to help explain it better.

Of course, you can't have new spirit rules without new Numina and I will have to give bonus points for the ones here.  The ideas in the Numina provided just made me smile so much and as my partner puts it, "Sounds like someone's a fan of Doctor Who."  I mean, Aggressive Meme?  I love it!

And finally you have the Equipment lists and Services.  Pretty comprehensive list, with some key entries that made me smile.  I liked how they even specified stuff as Mental Equipment (stuff that grant bonuses to Mental Skills), Physical and Social Equipment and its amusing how they incorporated a Services list in this area to represent when Allies and other social merits deliver certain benefits.  Your contact tells you of a Black market surgeon to help take those bullets out of your friend's arm?  That's a three dice bonus to the medicine roll.  Of course, Supernatural Equipment gets a spot too, with everything from EMF detectors to Salt, which while fun to see here, I feel were not that necessary to list out so much.  Maybe this part could have just been a chapter on how to "create" our own representation of such things, as well as rules on how to assign values to them.  There's a Making Custom Tools section which spans a very short paragraph which I feel could have been more expansively written to be in line with the tool kit vision of the nWOD books.

The Bygones then follow, which are objects with strange magical or supernatural effects tied to them.  They nicely intriguing in their own way, and are undeniable plot seeds for games to be developed around.

So it is just rules?
Nope!   There's a few fiction pieces, and they're all (of course) set in The God Machine Chronicles setting, so expect nice juicy ideas and hints of what to expect in there.  

For a free PDF, this offers great new approaches to the World of Darkness Storyteller system, and in some ways, tries to step closer towards being more friendly towards letting players gain some level of storytelling freedom (at least in the sense of Aspirations, Vice and Virtue, Breaking Points and Beats).

Rating Breakdown:
Concept: I like many of the rules changes.  I do wish though some will keep from blowing up the way the number of Martial Arts Charms in Exalted did.  The Conditions concept is cool, and echoes the use of Aspects in FATE and Houses of the Blooded, but the way they exist til resolved is a nice mechanic.  It did, however, feel wrong when the Spirit rules added a whole new set of Conditions to keep track of.  What's next, a single PDF with all the Conditions in one place?  Then again, that actually WOULD be useful.
Crunch: Many systems sound like they were trying to make them simpler, but also added a new layer of mechanics into the scene.  So it kinda is harder to say if the changes overall reduced the crunch or added to it.  Many of the rules do, however, make sense for me and are welcome changes.
Layout: I understand this is a free update of the rules system which was portions of a different book separated into a free resource, but would it have really hurt the people behind this to ADD AN INDEX?  As a rules update document, I would have loved to have an easier way to navigate the thing.  Thankfully there is a fully functional bookmark system.  But that does not remove or replace the need for an alphabetical index one can peruse.
My favorite part: Beats.  Loving the beats.  Really loving the beats.
What I wish was better: An index.  Really.  But otherwise, I am a happy gamer!

Update yourself to the new mechanics of the World of Darkness today.
Available now at Drive Thru RPG.
You must comply.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Review: Lacuna

Review:  Lacuna Part I.
The Creation of Mystery and the Girl from Blue City

by Jared Soresen of Memento Mori
Rating: ★★★★★

You must PLAY this game.

Yes, I will admit I love this game that much.  You MUST play this game.  IF you are a gm, then you must RUN this game.  But if you are a player, then heaven help you and find a game master RIGHT now to get this game and actually play it!  This game is incredibly engaging and intensely fun.  You MUST play this.

Okay, now that all that is out of the way, let me try to explain why I love the game so much without spoiling it.  Because that's where the game really works well.  It spoils the players.  It spoils the game master.

The game is so frigging awesome I cannot stop gushing over it.

What is Lacuna?
The website describes the game as follows:

Sinister secret agents with shadowy employers and mysterious pasts. A bizarre landscape built from six- billion human minds. Arachnid-headed beings that guard a war-torn borderzone. And all the worst that Mankind has to offer, stalking the alleys and crumbling buildings of a place called Blue City.
Is it a dream? Is it a nightmare? Or is it just a game? And are you already playing?
A quick search in the net will throw a nice list of movies that match the feel of the game with Christopher Nolan's Inception leading the pack.  I personally found myself remembering Tarsem Singh's The Cell, as well as Satoshi Kon's anime Paprika.  The game will remind you of Matrix, of Dark City, of the Adjustment Bureau and many other movies.  And that's what makes the game really awesome.  

Memory Loss is Common in the Blue City
The game has players portray the role of Mystery Agents, and while in most games one has to come up with a cool character concept, in Lacuna you don't.  You actually instead start the game during the process of character creation itself, with some dice being rolled in order to determine certain details for your character, INCLUDING your name.  

As the players are oriented on the basic rules as well as the roles they are expected to portray during missions, the players pretty much dive into the game with what they know as players pretty much matching what the characters know.   Secrets, revelations and more mysteries abound in the game, as players learn of the many layers of Clearance they can gain, the depths of the Blue City they can explore, and the strange Personalities - both Hostile and not - that inhabit the non-place.  

Basic Rules System
At the most basic, the game uses six-sided dice to determine whether or not characters succeed in their actions.   Characters are called Mystery Agents and all have three Attributes (Force, Instinct and Access) to allocate nine points to which determine the number of dice rolled for appropriate actions.  If the dice total 11 or higher, then the Mystery Agent succeeds in their action.  Characters also have a Talent, which reflects an area where they can roll an extra dice.  This is important because of the second major rule: The Heart Rate.

All Mystery Agents have a starting Heart Rate, a Target Heart Rate and a Maximum Heart Rate.  Whenever they fail a roll, the player can opt to "push" the roll, which means rolling again in hopes of hitting 11.  The balancing factor to the system is that the rolls (save for the results of a Talent die) are added to the Mystery Agent's Starting Heart Rate, and as the rate increases, the characters learn to function better and in a more optimized way.  Think of this as people nicely getting into the flow of things, with their adrenaline pumping and their senses in focus.  While within their Target Heart Rate, they can freely reroll as many dice as they want to push any failed rolls.   While this relatively means they ALWAYS succeed in their actions, this also does mean their heart rates rise faster.

Once a Mystery Agent hits their Maximum Heart Rate, however, all rolls are considered Risky Actions.  Failing a Risky Action causes an Agent to lose Force or Instinct by one.  You do not want either of them to reach zero.

Mystery Agents, by dint of their training and mentor, gain access also to Techniques which can range from being aware of Safe Locations while in the Blue City, to knowing how to Meditate and bring down their Heart Rate even during a mission.  Some Techniques add to the mystery of the game, such as Reader which allows you to read while in the Blue City (yes, everyone else without this Technique CANNOT read while in the mission!).

And the Game Master?
The Game Master pretty much runs the game like most typical role-playing games, with him portraying any other Personalities and non-playing characters the players come across.  But unlike most RPGs, in Lacuna the Game Master is not even required to come up with the actual Mission details.  The GM can actually simply come up with the basics of the mission, and let the players develop it further with their speculation.  I personally prefer to run my games in real time, giving each game session a three hour maximum to accomplish their mission.   It keeps the feel of the game tense and the adrenaline pumping.

In Lacuna, the GM never roll dice.  It took a moment for me to really grasp that idea, but it really works nicely in this game.  Given the game has the Mystery Agents as the focus of the story, it really works that they can always succeed in their actions (so long as they accept the consequences) at the early parts of the game, but later on they start worrying about their Heart Rates and start failing on some things just to keep their hearts from bursting!  So you only call for rolls when the drama requires it.

What about these things I read about in other sites?  About Spider Men.  Or Static.  And stuff like that.
I would love to say more, but such things are beyond your Clearance Level.

I will say this, the book is absolutely worth the price.  Some reviewers raise the fact that the game is listed as Part I, and while there have been many years since its release, there does not seem to be any Part II in sight.  They feel, therefore, that the game is incomplete and still needs more information to be worth playing.  

I would simply have to disagree.  For me, the book itself already houses so much story potential.  The game offers so many ideas and concepts that you can explore in the game.

But Yeah I LOVE This Game.
You can find my actual play summaries in this blog.
Not to mention see the kind of stuff I've come up with to make my Lacuna games even more immersive.

Rating Breakdown:
Concept: A pure win.  Few games out there make me feel am seeing something new.  This one succeeds wonderfully in doing that.
Crunch: Light yet perfect for what it wants to achieve.  Admittedly, there's precious little I see in terms of system that I would want to add to the game.
Layout:  The PDF is very impressive, and while I do wish there was more to explore (translation: More material) the way the book paces the info helps.  I did notice, however, in practice, I kept having to jump back and forth between the page for the Talents and Techniques during sessions.  Maybe it would have been nice to have these info reiterated and in a condensed page for Control to use as a guide during games.
My favorite part: The Heart Rate system.  This is just cinema gold.  Absolutely incredible.  How I wish I could use this in another game or officially write more material for this game.
What I wish was better: Well, I want PART II.  And PART III.  Heck, I'm game if it goes all the way to Part XXII.  I want more Lacuna!  MORE!!!  But seriously there's little complaint to be found in this game as far as I am concerned.

So there you have it.
Lacuna, Part I.
Increase your Clearance Level today.
Available at Drivethru rpg.

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