First Impressions – Cthulhu Confidential

Cthulhu Confidential is an elaboration of a version of GUMSHOE, an investigative RPG by Pelgrane Press. Let’s untangle this a bit. GUMSHOE is the engine upon which multiple games are built. It’s core idea is as follows: it’s not fun, and therefore shouldn’t be possible, for investigators to fail to solve a mystery because they failed a roll to find the crucial clue. To that end, character abilities are divided into investigative and general ones. Characters are masters of ther investigative fields, and automatically succeed whenever their skills are applicable. In the core GUMSHOE system, there’s a resource/spotlight management element involved, but it is entirely absent in Cthulhu Confidential for reasons which shall become apparent momentarily.

Trail of Cthulhu is one of the games based on GUMSHOE, and portrays, unsurprisingly, investigators of Lovecraftian mysteries. Finally, Cthulhu Confidential is an adaptation of Trail of Cthulhu to a new variant of GUMSHOE, GUMSHOE one-2-one. One GM, one player, all the horrifying mysteries between them.

It is a very light system. The book itself consists of 70 pages of rules, of which 8 are dedicated to a primer on Cthulhu Mythos, followed by 220 pages dedicated to 3 scenarios. I’ve run the first scenario so far, and, as an experiment, have recorded it for my friend and player’s youtube channel. If you so wish, you can follow Dex Raymond, a hardboiled detective, as he tries to solve the mystery of Fathomless Sleep, or listen to our post-game discussion.

How it Runs

The scenario is excellent. Not once did the player get stuck, not knowing what to do next – there was always a clue to follow up on, something else to investigate, all the way to the resolution. Оn the flip side, the scenario made my job as a GM easy as it offered a scene for every thing my player had tried, and an answer for most questions he’s asked. And a good thing, too – this game isn’t meant to be improvised.

The three scenarios in the book are set in three different cities and time periods, following three different detectives, with plenty of setting details and potential story hooks provided for each. Should you decide to continue the adventures of a detective you liked, you’ll find everything you need there.

I found it very interesting (and this is a very slight spoiler) how little supernatural elements there were, at least in Fathomless Sleep. Majority of the time is spent on Dex simply talking to various unsavory characters. When the supernatural does show up, it is all the more efficient.

The book warns of the “intensity” of this game: the player has no one to hide behind, no one to take the spotlight or responsibility from them. They’re it. To mitigate this intensity, the PC can turn to their sources, friendly NPCs offering expertiese in the investigative skill fields not covered by the PC. There is advise on using them to break up the tension a bit, though I’m not sure how practical that is: the player is the one initiating contact with sources, typically when there is something they need help with, and not when pacing would suggest they need a break.

Intensity works both ways. Just as the player is constantly in the spotlight, so is the GM. You don’t get a chance to look up the upcoming scene or plot what comes next while the players argue with one another. And in this game every detail matters, you really don’t want to mess up what clues you give out. As we were recording the game in 30 minute episodes, we had natural breaks which were very convenient. I’d suggest calling for an occasional pause as you play, even if you’re used to running uninterrupted sessions in other games.

How it Works

Scenarios are well and good, but what about the mechanics? In addition to the investigative abilities at which the character simply succeeds, they get a bunch of general abilities, rated at one or two dice. These cover the “action” side of the game: Fighting, Sense Trouble, Shadowing, Stability, etc. Most of the time, these are used in Challenges, which provide branching outcomes to a scene. On the face of it, it’s a standard Success/Success with Complications/Failure mechanic, but there are some fascinating subtleties.

If you haven’t rolled high enough, you can take on a Problem in order to get an extra die. Reaching the “success” value usually grants you an Edge in addition to accomplishing whatever it is you were doing, while failure often saddles you with another Problem. These Edges and Problems are represented by cards detailing how they work. Cards impose penalties or offer benefits on rolls, restrict your options in some way, or merely remind of their existence in the narrative.

While there are generic Problems and Edges in the appendix of the book, scenarios provide their own cards specific to the situations within. This underscores the need for GM preparation: ideally, you’ll have your own tiny decks written up, covering the likely eventualities.

As the GM decides what the outcomes of a Challenge can be, it doesn’t get a chance to derail the game. The PC can’t die due to an unlucky roll, but neither can they beat up an entire mob.

Taken together, the cards and the way the Challenges are framed essentially replace all the other mechanics the game might have had. There’s no damage or sanity system – if you get wounded, you’ll likely have a Problem card that tells you what it means. Why was injury on the table in the first place? Because the Challenge was set up that way. There are no antagonist stats of any kind. It works, and the game flows quite smoothly, but there isn’t even a shade of “simulation” as the result, and it does feel a bit lazy, especially once you find out how the target numbers are assigned – more on that in a moment.

First, some more thoughts on the nuances of this mechanic. Unlike Fate, where you get “karmic credit” by accepting problems that you later spend on overcoming other problems, here the Problem you get is a direct consequence of your actions as you push yourself further in order to succeed, e.g. a pulled back as you dodge a blow. It’s Edges that often act as somewhat specialized fate points, as many of them can be spent for an extra die on a particular kind of a Challenge. But Edges are earned by rolling high, not by choosing to make your life harder.

The player isn’t rewarded for screwing themselves over in an entertaining fashion, neither are they expected to do so. Instead, they accept Problems as a means to an end, to succeed and hopefully gain Edges. And as Challenges resolve a scene’s worth of conflict, you’re going to need all the Edges you can save up for that last roll or two which decide how it all turns out.

Overall, while it is a narrative system with seeming similarities to Fate, the underlying dynamics are quite different.

As there is only one character, the adventure is custom made for them. Their abilities are known, and so all the Challenge difficulties are set with them in mind. The table for choosing these difficulties is based on how the different outcomes will affect the plot, and comes with two columns, for one or two dice the PC has in the general ability used. So what does having two dice even do for you?

Mainly, it safeguards you from the randomness of dice. Two dice are a tiny bit less likely to screw you over than one, simple as that. Preciously few rolls are made each session, and they are prone to feedback loops: roll poorly once, and you’re saddled with Problems making it harder to roll well next time. Roll well, though, and you have an Edge which may help you get more Edges in the future. Thus even though having 2 dice in a skill doesn’t actually make you better at it, it makes you more reliable at it, and given the feedback loops that is extremely important.

First Impression

Running Cthulhu Confidential is like having a conversation. The rules get out of the way to let the player be engulfed by the story. There’s no bookkeeping, nothing to reference, just the very brief character sheet and the cards you gain. There’s no one to hide behind, either. It is a perfect set up for a horror game. Just you and the mystery.

First Impressions: Goblin Quest

Goblin Quest

Oi, listen up. I found this here Goblin Quest game. That makes me the Goblin King Boss. Y’all gottsa do what I say, or else I’ll hit you with it. And I say we’re gonna play Goblin Quest. 

Task One: Explain what goblins are

That’s us, dummy. Look at yourself. Small, green, smelly and stupid. But you have brothers! Or maybe sisters, no one bothered to check. We run around and get into trouble. We also die sometimes, but that’s not too bad. There’s always more goblins. We are foot soldiers in the army of Evil. That means we fight people’s feet, mostly by having them trip over us. There’s also other Evil folks here, black wizards and orcs and hobgoblins and bugbears. The book talks about them, so we know who we’re dealing with. But we are the most importantest, that’s why the game’s about us. 

The world is our ostrich. What we think goes. We are like hyperactive five-year-olds that way, finding treasure in dung heaps, cobbling warmachines out of cooking pots and getting ourselves gruesomely killed. If we think we can do something, we probably can. Or we could die. There’s lotsa dying. 

We have clutch-names and just names and Ancestral Heirlooms and Expertise and stuff. We write it all down, and we draw ourselves on the goblin sheet. That’s important. It’s also very important, the book says, to speak in goblin voice. Silly book, how else would we speak. 

Task Two: Explain what Goblin Quest is

It all starts with a plan. We make one. Mine is better, because it has more boom. But maybe we can add boom to your plan, that also works. Once we know what we want to do, we make a list of three tasks. No, that’s four fingers. No, that’s six. Where did you get six fingers? Awesome, I’m sure that bugbear wouldn’t mind. We make a list, and for each task we make another list. Lotsa lists. We can also have a Goblin Master order us around, but we don’t need one. 

Then we roll some dice, Fiasco-like. Fiasco. That’s like. That’s like when other people pretend to do things like us, but not as awesome. There are tables with Things Wot Can Go Wrong, and we pick some from the ones rolled. Then we are off on a quest!

Going task by task and stage by stage, we describe what we do, and then we roll a die. If some of our things from the goblin sheet apply, we roll more dice. That’s good and bad: all results apply. Which means we could succeed more, or we could get ourselves killed quicker. Make that good and good. Each stage has a difficulty, we only need that many successes to move on. It don’t matter what we do, as long as we advance the plan. And eventually we’ll have advanced it all the way to the end. We’ll all be a little wiser, and a lot deader by then. 

Task Three: Play Goblin Quest

It’s that simple, even a goblin can play it. With three goblins (at a time), we finished the game in under three hours, including rules and setting explanation. The game doesn’t outstay its welcome. And it’s funny, because it gets out of the way and lets us be funny. The octopus-wizards and the idiot orcs and the irrepressible goblins help. And speaking in goblin voice is important. It breaks down the barriers, making it that much easier to be silly with your ideas.

Sometimes, the dice can screw you: we found the bugbear kitchen to be a deadly place, full of hungry bugbears. Sometimes, the dice can be on your side: panicking, jumping up and pulling on a wizard’s fake beard actually works. Walking through a magic circle with said beard because you’re now a wizard doesn’t, though. It’s also possible for the dice to stall you on a single scene, until you start running out of ideas. But eventually they relent, and you move on.

Two of us have actually run out of goblins by the very end. One of the goblins had shown up on a trapeze as we were flying away on a griffon, rolled two wounds on his first action to steer the griffon, and failed to stick the landing. A very swift goblin, that one was. There’s very little strategy in the game, very little one can do other than have fun with it. Which is liberating: you don’t worry about making bad decisions. Of course you’re making bad decisions, you’re a goblin.

It’s possible to make your goblins too silly, though. If none of the things on your chara-, er, goblin sheet apply, you’re stuck using only one die. But it’s also in your hands to change the situation so that you can get that Expertise: Competitive Belching into play. I did stall a very slowly moving gargoyle with it. The gargoyle may have been roaring slowly, but I think I won that competition.

And the story you get in the end, ridiculous and hilarious in equal measure, it’s a kind of story that can be retold to others. Rarely does this happen with other games. Most other games have distinct cool moments, and sometimes an enjoyable plot that’d take too long to convey. On the other hand, “so, we were goblins and decided to steal the shiny thing in the sky because it was destroying our night. We liberated fighting roosters from bugbear kitchens (they may have been ducks, we kept calling them cockatrices), climbed to the top of the Black Wizard Tower borrowing chairs along the way, did a countdown (hardest task in the game) as the armies of Good attacked, and flew up on our chairs tied to flightless birds. We did kiiind of get the shiny, and actually killed the elf queen in the end by landing on her.”

It’s not a kind of game you can play often, though there are plenty of rules hacks in the book to give it a different flavor which we are yet to try. But as a back-up plan for when someone fails to show up to the games night, it’s wonderful.

First Impressions: Fate Core

Fate is not exactly new. The system has been around for over a decade, in many different guises and variations. The latest iteration, Fate Core, was released in 2013 after a massively successful kickstarter, and I finally got around to running it. We’ve played through a small campaign of superheroes in Sydney which started off ridiculous and lighthearted and ended up ridiculous and dramatic. Here’s how it went, and what I thought of the system itself.

Origin Story

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We’d spent the first session on character and setting generation. Following the advice in the rulebook, we made up setting troubles and aspects, and just talked of the overall mood and elements we wanted to see. There’s a lot of emphasis on group consensus and player creativity in Fate, and this initial session is a great introduction for players unaccustomed to having a say, not to mention GMs unaccustomed to having to listen.

This is currently my preferred method of starting a campaign: I still have the week between sessions to come up with plots and ideas, and players have all contributed and know what the game will be like. A marked difference from the start of a more “traditional” game where a GM shows up with their own pre-written campaign and players take part in it. No, it is our game in Fate.

Which is not to say that the game creation session is necessarily a smooth experience. The intertwining first adventures of the characters you are meant to make up, from which their aspects are to be derived, felt too restrictive or too insignificant to base an aspect on. The initial independent adventures were fine, but coming up with the way other characters tied into them turned out to be a drag as not all original ideas supported the suddenly complicated multi-faceted plot. I don’t think we’ll use this approach next time, as discovering aspects in game is more fun anyway.

The setting aspects we’ve created at the start had barely been used as actual aspects in the campaign, but were there to tell us what was important. It’s an area I’d like to work on some more, as it seems like a fascinating idea. Chalk that up to inexperience.

Aspects

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Already mentioned a few times, aspects are a major element of Fate, the thing that ties the narrative to mechanics. Each aspect is a pithy phrase describing a character or a situation. It’s something to shine the spotlight on, the important part in a scene. When aspects help you, you can spend fate points, a meta-currency, to improve your roll. When aspects disadvantage you, you earn fate points for going along with it – the aspect compels you.

This is a crucial part – because aspects are tied to the fate point economy, there is little reason to be concerned about their “misuse”, the broadness of their interpretation. Players still pay precious fate points for it, and it’s up to them to say what is an appropriate application of an aspect. But should they go to far, it’s up to the group consensus to call them on it, not just the GM.

Aspects are how I thought about my scenes and my characters before I knew aspects existed, much less played Fate. They are the noteworthy, stand-out, cool parts. They are the plot points, what stories revolve around. It’s a cheat in a way, a short-cut. In other systems, I’d come up with a distinctive idea for a scene or character and then figure out how to express it mechanically. In Fate, aspects translate that very idea into mechanics on their own. They are not always the most appropriate tool for the job, of course, and Fate offers other mechanics to represent different ideas.

Aspects are also very tricky to get right. Another thing that requires experience, figuring out what ideas and phrases work, and which never get used. Thankfully, the rulebook is full of suggestions and advice on this and other topics. It really goes out of its way to teach and demonstrate how the game is meant to be played.

Vagaries of Fate

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The system uses weird 6-sided dice, with a minus on two sides, two sides blank, and a plus on the last two. You always roll 4 dice and add up their values, which means the bell curve they form is very sharp, the result likely being within 2 of the skill value. Together with the low variation in skill values (lowest is 0, max for starting characters is usually 4), this means each skill point is important and the ability to add +2 or reroll by spending a fate point is of huge importance, while still preserving the possibility of an outlier roll which shakes things up.

Should things not go your way, you have multiple ways to mitigate this. The already mentioned fate points; the stress boxes which let you soak up some harm; consequences which let you soak up even more harm but become an aspect for some time, thus having an impact on the further scenes; succeeding at a cost. All these, the costs and the consequences, are what you pay to stay in the scene, to have your say. But if none of these are enough, if everything fails and things are gloomy and you’re no longer willing to pay the price, you can concede, and be rewarded for it with fate points. The victor will determine how it ends, but you still get a say. Unless you pushed it too far, ran out of everything and are taken out. That’s the ultimate price you may be willing to pay – risk anything and everything happening to your character.

That’s another major element of Fate: something always happens. No matter the roll, no matter the action, one way or another, things always progress. The story doesn’t stall. Well, almost always. The Attack action is distinct in this regard, as it doesn’t normally offer any options for the attacker or defender to do anything if dice indicate a failure. It’s the only part of the game where you can “whiff”, wasting your turn and your time, and I look forward to Fate Core: Core Harder that solves this.

But coming back to the Something Always Happens dogma, there is an incredibly important advice given in the book which applies to all games, not just Fate: only roll if both success and failure are interesting. If only failure is desirable, offer a fate point to have the PCs fail without a roll. If only success is interesting, offer a success at a cost.

Another achievement of Fate, due to rewards for compels and conceding, is that a failure of PCs is not a failure of players. The story goes on, and the system gives players fate points to regain the upper hand and succeed. In fact, fate points can be viewed as a reward for players for going against the interests of their characters for the sake of a better story.

Deceptively simple to learn

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We’ve covered aspects and dice. Other than that, there are skills which offer flat bonuses to activities, stunts that modify them (or the rules, which is trickier), four types of actions and four types of outcomes, and that’s pretty much it. We’ve had a player entirely unfamiliar with the system join us for the last quarter of the campaign, and jump right into the action. The game is very easy to pick up. But that simplicity is deceptive.

The problem, at least for me, is that Fate makes sense. You nod along as you read the rules. You see patterns in the way the four outcomes are almost identical for the four actions, with understandable variations. It all fits together. But because it makes sense, the little details don’t stand out. And once it comes to actually applying the rules you have to remember if tying on an Overcome roll is meant to give a success at a minor cost or a boost (the former), or if you can check multiple stress boxes at once (you cannot). I’ve read the rulebook several times, and only by the end of our 10+ session campaign was I somewhat confident in my rule knowledge.

On the other hand, it doesn’t really matter if you give out a boost or a success at a minor cost. Nothing will really break. As long as you understand the overall intent of Fate, you won’t go wrong.

Hard to master

TeamVanquish_cover_4_3What Fate offers are simple versatile tools. It’s easy to pick up a brush and smear paint onto a canvas, it’s much harder to actually paint something worth looking at. The system may offer all the brushes and paints and whatever it is painters use (you can tell I’m not one), but it’s your clumsy hands that will be fumbling with them. Coming up with good aspects is hard. Judging which mechanic to use is sometimes hard. Offering good compels is hard, offering good costs is hard, integrating player aspects into the plot is hard. But many of these difficulties are not actually difficulties of using Fate. Rather, the are the difficulties of cooperative storytelling. The rules help in this endeavor much more often than hinder.

It’s easier when you don’t have to worry about players running out of fate points, but that just means you’re not worrying about PCs being uninvolved with the plot. Weak compels mean you’re not really putting your PCs in trouble. Weak aspects mean you can’t identify what’s important about your character. It’s not your fault, either. Cooperative storytelling is hard. With a decade of roleplaying experience under my belt, I’ve learned to get my ideas out onto the table reasonably well. But mixing them up with the ideas of others is something I’m still learning, and Fate is pushing me in this direction.

Facets of Fate

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Not only is Fate a toolbox, it’s a customizable toolbox. Unsurprisingly, the book on customizing it is called the “Fate Toolkit”. Remove stress, change the way skills are distributed, do whatever you want with it. Just like you can unsuspectingly break the rules without breaking the game, you can purposefully change them to better suit your needs. And there are plenty of existing settings and mods out there for you to use or steal from. This has actually been a source of some confusion for us: a player had tried the Dresden Files version of Fate before, and another has seen Fate Accelerated. Similar but different, they compounded my shaky knowledge of the rules.

As we’ve played a supers game, we referred to the Fate supers book, Venture City Stories for its mechanics. It left a bit of a mixed impression, in that we’ve never used some of the rules it suggested, the drawbacks of powers or their special effects, and barely used the collateral damage ones. In part they were too fiddly, but mostly I think it was that we were still learning the system and having those extra bits was just too much to keep in mind. And then we’d already established how things worked, and re-introducing these elements just didn’t seem worthwhile. Still, the overall idea on how to represent superpowers worked, and worked well.

Another comic book adaptation of Fate has recently come out, the Atomic Robo RPG. Being the latest iteration of Fate, it actually solves some of the issues I’ve mentioned, and makes a few other interesting changes. It makes for a great introduction to the system.

Playing the same game

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That’s what it comes down to, all the talk about collaborative storytelling and player input. In other games, the GM adjucates, guides, decides, prepares. The roles are fundamentally different, it’s a different game the GM plays. In Fate they do all this too, but not from a position of power. They negotiate, they consult. Together with the GM, the players gleefully conspire against their characters. Together with the players, the GM drives the story forward – to where they all want to go. The campaign we’ve played wasn’t just our game, it was the same game.

Take a closer look at the illustrations of this post (aren’t they gorgeous? They were all made by one of the players, Oinkfrog). In the credits box on the side, under “Story”, it lists all the players, not just the GM. This wasn’t the result of some discussion, that was just the way Oinkfrog felt about it. And I couldn’t be happier.

So what are you waiting for? Fate Core is Pay What You Want, so you can get it for free if you’re still unconvinced, and pay them later. Try it!

 

First Impressions: 13th Age

A lot has been said about 13th Age in the last  month or two. It’s the hot new thing (along with Numenera). If you want to find out about it, I recommend an excellent and highly detailed write-up by Rob Donoghue. Instead, I’ll provide just what the title promises: impressions.

It’s D&D

Very much so. Or at least one of its many aspects. More kick-the-door-in, less character optimization. This unmistakable D&D nature of 13th Age is what lead to our group being so excited to play it. We’re the exact target audience for this game: most of us have started with the 3rd edition, moved on to 4th, then branched out in search of narrative fulfillment and different experiences. After half a year of playing indie games, flipping through class descriptions of 13th Age is like coming back home. Remarkable, how imprinted D&D is in our gaming DNA.

We’re also the only target audience. It relies on the understanding of D&D, of its methods, cliches and even terminology, that other players simply won’t have. All the playful commentary designers have put in the book is based on the assumption that the reader knows what they’re talking about. I have no idea if a newbie player will be able to make heads or tails of it. Another fact that can be considered a drawback is that at times 13th Age is unnecessarily D&D-like, reproducing not just the core experience but some of the trappings as well. There is a fine line between nostalgia and repeatedly stepping on the same rakes.

Still, 13th Age offers a number of “fixes” to long-standing D&D issues. They are elegant and, like many other elements of the game, can be stolen. In fact, many feel like someone’s house rules. For instance, PCs only get the benefits of full rest after they’ve had 4 fights (even though spells and the like are still called “daily” abilities, which causes some confusion). Or take resurrection: a cleric can only bring a soul back from the dead a few times over his or her life, with the process getting harder and harder. Similarly, a soul can only be brought back a few times. Suddenly, death matters without removing the option of  coming back to life.

Vigorous handwaving

13th Age puts a lot of trust in its GMs. After 4e, it can come off a bit jarring at times, as there are plenty of abilities with only the barest of guidelines followed by “the GM will make up something appropriate”. These work more often than not. I particularly loved Vance’s Polysyllabic Verbalizations, a wizard talent that lets the player make up long-winded names for their spells in order to gain a thematically fitting benefit. That’s the sort of vancian casting I can get behind. In the very first game we’ve had, hold portal was worded as Empress’s solid rejection. It not only closed the door, but filled whoever tired to open it with feelings of inadequacy and sudden sexual frustration.

Another example would be the game’s approach to monsters. Monsters are balanced in terms of numbers such as defenses and attacks appropriate for their level, but their abilities are left up to the GM: many monsters come with “nastier specials”. Feel like monsters die too quickly? Use them. Or not, up to you.

That’s the strength of the game: it recognizes when the flavor is more important than the rules, or when the rules cannot actually support the flavor and it’s better to vigorously handwave the issue away. It is also a cheap way out.

For the love of d20

13th Age goes out of its way to use the d20, more so than any other d20 system. Many classes have so-called flexible attacks, which trigger if they’ve rolled specific values on the d20. Similarly, many monsters have abilities that trigger on specific rolls. This results in a lot of information being compressed in a single d20 roll, removing some of the analysis paralysis so prevalent in 4e.

The drawback, of course, is that players may feel like they don’t have a choice at all at times, just rolling the die and seeing what happens. While monsters function almost on an auto-pilot, players are somewhat better off. They do get intersecting triggers, as well as the choice of which abilities to take during character creation. The trade-off of choice in-play for speed of play seems to be working out so far for us.

When 4e just came out, the very idea of encounter powers caused some players to do a double-take: “if I know how to do this maneuver, why can’t I just keep doing it?” The correct answer to this particular dilemma was “that’s the way the game works, don’t think too hard about it”. But if you must, imagine the circumstances for the maneuver only occur occasionally in the chaos of battle. It just so happens to be right at the time when you decide to use the encounter power, a retroactive justification. Flexible attacks of 13th Age remove this discrepancy: you do know how to do whatever it is you do, but the flux state of the fight represented by the d20 roll may or may not enable you to use your skills.

Which makes me think of a system taking this idea, d20 as chaotic state of battle, to its logical conclusion. You roll the d20 at the start of your turn, and it dictates what you can do. High rolls are attacks (probably automatically hitting), low rolls are defensive, middle ground is utility. You never waste your turn because you never fail a roll. But you may not be able to do what you really wanted to do, or at least to do it well. Something to ponder later.

Escalation to victory

Another innovative element, the escalation die is fantastic. It is a d6 that at the start of the second round of combat is set to 1, and incremented each round thereafter. It is added to attack rolls of PCs, making sure fights don’t drag on while at the same time providing a disincentive for alpha-striking. But it does more than that. It unlocks some abilities of characters, or makes them more powerful or reusable. Similarly, it can also be used as a pacing mechanism not just for the violence characters inflict, but the state of the encounter. The idea is awesome, but I’m not yet sure just how flexible the single constantly incrementing d6 is, especially considering some abilities can affect it.

There is a more subtle element to it. The escalation die provides a dramatic swing in PCs’ favour as the fight progresses. They may start on the back foot, but, armed with the escalating attack bonus, will bring the fight back around, again and again. A simple yet efficient mechanic.

Icons

Yet another new element, Icons are a different way of interacting with the setting. They give players control over which major NPCs will get involved in the story, thus shaping it with their interests. While the idea is great, the mechanic itself is a bit simplistic: you roll a d6 for each Icon relationship at the start of a sessions, and get a benefit on a 6 or a complicated along with a benefit on a 5, at some point during play. It takes getting used to. So far, we’re just managing to get the Icons (or their organizations) involved, not necessarily deriving benefits from them. It’s certainly a different way of running games. Its purposeful simplicity makes it feel like an add-on, tacked on top of the system.

At the same time, while at a glance this seems like the idea that’s easiest to steal, that may not be the case. It’s set up for a world with 13 major NPCs. Depending on your setting and the scale of your game, you’ll probably want different numbers and, in fact, different definitions of just what an Icon is.

Icons are also prone to the syndrome of goblin dice: the rolls are extremely infrequent, and their influence is potentially massive. If you don’t roll 5+ for a few sessions, your Icons do absolutely nothing – especially unpleasant in a one-shot. And on the other end of the spectrum, if players have rolled too many “successes” at the start of a game, it’s almost impossible to meaningfully incorporate them all. There’s a simple fix I’ll have to try: instead of rolling a die for each relationship, roll a single die, with values on it corresponding to your Icons. Typically, a d8: 1 means no relationships trigger; 2-3, 4-5, and 6-7 correspond to your three Icons, even numbers being complicated benefits and odd numbers being just benefits; and 8 lets you roll twice (duplicates rerolled, if you care). For a one off, or if you don’t care to reproduce the full spectrum of possible results, don’t bother with 1 and 8, and instead roll a straightforward d6 with 1-2, 3-4, and 5-6 corresponding to Icons. You could further refine this, and perhaps use a d12 once PCs get 4 relationships (10+ being a roll twice result).

Try it!

Overall I’m rather enjoying my foray into the 13th Age. It feels somewhat raw at times, and overly nostalgic at others. But it’s full of charm and quirkiness and energy. It makes you want to roll up a character just to see how a class would play – an almost forgotten feeling. If you liked D&D, any D&D, check it out.

First Impressions: Mythender

Mythender is a silly game, let’s just get that out of the way.  It’s also free, that’s important. In it, characters wield utterly ridiculous power to End gods. Individual rationale may vary, but basically “fuck gods” is sufficient. The main conflict, however, is not with the gods, but with the Mythic world itself. Mythenders can draw on as much power as they want, accomplishing the impossible and even refusing to die. But each time they do, they risk losing another bit of their mortal soul, and slide ever closer towards godhood. Gods have been Ended many times before, only to be replaced by their erstwhile enemies, and all the while the Mythic world thrives.

Other games play – Mythender kill

It’s a metal game. It’s metal to such an extent that my players, not into metal at all, specifically requested a metal soundtrack. Mythender drips with flavor. The rulebook even has occasional swearwords in it, something I’m not used to seeing in one. Just reading it will have you grinning at how absurdly over the top the game gets. For instance, there are three tiers of action PCs can freely choose between in combat, with escalating power and risk associated with them. Take Legendary action: the suggested example is kicking over a tree and tossing it at high-flying Valkyries. That’s the lowest tier of actions. See? Grinning.

As a highest-tier action, titanic, one of my players had split the mountain on which the battle transpired all the way down to the Underworld, sending all combatants plummeting down. Another soon followed it up by picking up what remained and slamming it into the god of war, pinning him down, and then had lightning strike an ore vein and travel all the way down to electrocute said god. By that point the first player was inside the god, tearing out his heart to make a new page in the Book of Life and Death. Mostly Death.

Rules terminology is utilized fully to convey this over-the-top flavor. Terrorizing Mortals for Power; Epic, Badass Feat; Gathering Rage. Those are all actual game terms. Even the lately popular bonds between characters are called “I hesitate to slaughter … because…”

To End a Myth

The game knows what it wants, and it doesn’t waste any time telling you. It’s there in the name. The proposed structure of a session is to fight a lesser myth, optionally interact with mortals (usually to their detriment) and then kill a god. All that build-up and justification you might have used in other games, just getting to the point where PCs might challenge the Divine? “Fuck gods”.

Ten thousand fists

Anything is a Weapon as long as you can figure out a way to be awesome with it. And as you’re fighting gods, it doesn’t have to be a stabbing implement – you could be assaulting their divine essence with sheer symbolism. Each mythender has three Weapons to rely on, intrinsic and inseparable, even if the Weapon is an unholy spear or an army of orphans.

Weapons are character defining, to the point where they are the character: each round you will be using one. Weapons also necessarily determine the scale of conflict. You could have the usual band of “heroes” rampaging through the world, or armies clashing: all it takes is one army as a Weapon.

Mythic Heart

Another character defining element is the god you’re fated to become. As part of character creation, you come up with 3 stages of your progression, 3 ways you look: mortal (yet awesome!), supernatural, and god-like. Each time PCs decide to draw on their Mythic Heart to do something particularly badass, they suffer the risk of corruption and taking another step towards their fate. The choice here is crucial: if you only do Legendary actions, you will remain mortal. On the other hand, there is power to be grasped, and Gifts to be abused, and the gods you face look particularly punchable. Which is, of course, just what the Mythic Heart wants.

Even interactions with mortals are forever tainted. That’s another theme of the game: Mythenders are so powerful, they warp the reality around them, burning out fragile mortal psyche even if they don’t want to. Even if the PCs choose to seek sympathy and healing from a mortal in-between deicide to regain some measure of their own mortality (and lose some power!), there is a very real chance said mortal won’t survive the experience.

Stormbringer

All this talk of fluff and awesomeness of characters, but how does it actually work? Mythender is a tactile and visual game. Describing a vengeful god pick up a mountain and bring it down on the PCs is one thing, but seeing the GM gather 30-odd dice to do so is another thing entirely. You’ll need a lot of d6s. A LOT. 100+. Everything is resolved with handfuls of dice, but there are several steps and thresholds to get to any effect, making sure you won’t be fatally screwed by one terrible roll.

First, there are Lightning dice, of which Mythenders normally have 3. Each success (4+) on them grants a Thunder die. Thunder dice are a direct measure of power: successes on them generate Lightning tokens, used to create effects such as wounding enemies or creating Blights (in a moment), and they are rolled when you’re in turn wounded, with failures discarded. Out of Thunder? Out of luck. Unless you really don’t want to die like a mere mortal, then you can take on some permanent corruption and come back.

Repeatedly getting wounded increases the difficulty of that check, until only 6s are good enough. Getting corrupted through use of Mythic power increases corruption score, which increases the likelihood of getting further corrupted and advances Fate, which eventually introduces and increases the chance of turning into a god after the fight. Speaking of which…

Stone Dead Forever

If you suspect your comrade might be getting too close to becoming a god, it might be the time to End them first. For their own good. PvP is handled in a remarkably brutal fashion. Everything is suspended until the challenge is resolved. Each side gets 3 dice, or 5 if they tear their bond (which is odd – why wouldn’t you?). Whoever rolled the least successes (5+), dies. If both rolled an equal amount, both die. And unlike regular death in combat which only inconveniences Mythenders, this one is permanent. Explaining this rule to your players may get some nervous laughs.

Rise and Fall

But coming back to the regular gameplay. There is a flow to it, a certain rhythm, with build-up and release. Each time you use a Weapon, you either charge it or drain in. Same with Blights – effects inflicted upon the world, like “earthquake” or “hail of burning spears” or even “vengeful cries of the wicked dead”. They are charged for a couple of turns, and then drained for extra power (read: dice). Even the Legendary-Mythic-Titanic actions you will undertake follow this pattern: Mythic actions get you extra Thunder, while Titanic actions get you extra Lightning (and could kill you). So you will spend a couple of turns building up power, then unleash it spectacularly with a bucketful of accumulated dice.

Lost and Damned

And then there are Gifts, powered by Might. The closer you are to godhood, the more Gifts you have. To get Might you either charge your Weapons or do Titanic actions, which brings you closer to godhood. It’s a nice cycle. Gifts themselves are probably the element I like the least: they allow you to cheat a bit by succeeding on 3+ this round, or rerolling failures, or gaining Lightning for each Thunder die lost to wounds. They are decent in and of themselves, but require constantly looking up, as a Mythender can have up to 9, and gods even more. Even though some of those slots can be filled with upgrades to other Gifts, it’s still a sizeable number to keep in one’s head. Sure, there aren’t that many Gifts altogether, and after a few games everyone will memorize them… Except the game is supposed to be good for one-shots, and it certainly can’t sustain a long campaign.

Another thing to dislike about the Gifts is that they don’t have any physical representation on the board. Unlike the pile of dice in front of you, they’re just a line on the character sheet.

The character sheet itself deserves a mention, though. It’s good. Really good. Other than the aforementioned gifts, there isn’t much you’d need that’s not on it. As you become wounded or corrupted, you check off boxes that tell you the relevant numbers. As your corruption grows and you fill out a row of those boxes, you change to the next form described on that row. As your fate progresses and you check off those boxes, you not only get Gift slots on one side, but Apotheosis number on another. Apotheosis number is what you need to roll to become a god after the fight. Single die. There’s that nervous laughter again.

Mythmaster

There are a bunch of gods in the book, with some explanation of how they differ in play (great!), and advice on reskinning them from their Nordic origins by replacing their Weapons and keeping the rest the same (makes sense). In addition to their gifts selection, they differ in their Wound Number progressions, how much Lightning, Thunder and Might they start with, how much Might they gain each turn, and what they do at the end of each round. Oh, yeah, gods cheat like that, creating Blights, wounding Mythenders or killing them outright at the end of 5th round. Cue nervous laughter.

Here’s what’s troubling me about these mechanics. There is no explanation as to the value of these small differences. Is it better to have higher Might recharge rate or slower Wound Number progression? How does an extra hit at the end of each round measure up against those? Thought and experimentation has probably been put into this, but we are not privy to it. And I can’t help but feel many of these differences should have been modeled by Gifts, so we could estimate the difficulty of gods.

It also doesn’t scale very well. The book is adamant against having 5 players, with 4 being the target number. We had 2, and followed the scaling guidelines to the letter. Granted, the party had made a mistake of underutilizing Blights, and was somewhat corrupted by the time they got to fight their god. They won in the end, on the last possible action, with one player killing himself off through dodgy reading of the rules, and another ascending. Not exactly a victory. It’s not at all bad that they’ve lost, but it didn’t feel like the dice were against them. No, they just were outclassed. Hopefully, the 4-player game behaves better.

And Then There Was Silence

Strong interesting flavor, workable mechanics, does that mean I like the game? Weeeell… Its biggest problem is that these two parts don’t actually connect all that much. And when they do, it’s not always for the best. Take Weapons. 3 cool things your character does, 3 ways they can answer to any narrative threat. Except you’re best off charging a single Weapon fully in the first 3 rounds and draining it on the 4th (given there’s no Gift shenanigans or other effects). The combat lasts at most 5. So the mechanics strongly suggest you spend 4 of them using only one of your 3 Weapons.

But even so. On your turn you will describe being awesome with a chosen Weapon and a chosen Blight if there is one. In our game Blights ended up always being incidental to the main description: “I leap through the air, tearing into the god’s flesh with my claws. Oh, also, that river of lava totally flows somewhere below and burns him some more”. Then you will take all of your dice and roll them. If you’re using Gifts, you’re supposed to add extra flavor to your descriptions, for instance making them particularly gruesome if its Grievous Harm. But when wouldn’t you describe it in the most gruesome way possible? No sense in stabbing gods in the face halfheartedly. Then, if you have enough Lightning, you can actually wound them. You always succeed at what you do, it just doesn’t achieve much unless you pay Lightning.  Everything else is fluff and busywork. Whatever you describe, you’ll roll your dice. As long as you’ve made use of a Weapon you’ll charge or drain it, same with Blight. Gifts are a purely metagame mechanic.

In other games the build-up of tension and tactics that allows to strike the deciding blow is handled through narrative and/or mechanical positioning. In Dungeon World, you may need to get on top of the enemy (proving you can do so with dice), and only then you can actually try and kill it. In D&D 4e you might try and get Combat Advantage as well as any other bonuses before unleashing your daily attack; which sounds mechanical, but also involves running around the battlefield and cooperating with actions of other PCs. In Mythender you will do your massive attack on turn 3 or 4, no matter what’s happening in the narrative. As long as you can use your charged Weapon (and given the freedom a Titanic action grants, you always can), you’ll be fine.

This is not to say there aren’t tactical choices in the game. When to use which Gifts, which Weapon bonus to charge first (in case you decide to drain it before it’s fully charged), whether to risk a Titanic action or if a Mythic one will be enough. But that’s exactly the thing: you use a dangerous, corrupting, desperate Titanic action not because narratively you’re down and beaten and a vile god is about to incinerate your loved ones. You use it because your Fate is not too far gone and you’d like some more Lightning tokens. It doesn’t click together. As much as the game encourages you to be inventive and awesome, there’s no traction between the description and the mechanics. You’re playing two separate games: in one you talk of leaping over the raised spears of the legions of undead to gut their goddess, in another you roll a bunch of dice and consider which of the abilities will maximize your output. Corruption is the only proper link between the two.

Still, those games aren’t bad, and we’ve had two fun evenings telling ridiculous stories. We may get together again once we’ve recruited 2 more players to End the ascended goddess of Fate who used to be a Mythender. She has it coming.

First Impressions: tremulus

Continuing my tour of roleplaying systems that started with the previous post, today I look at tremulus. You may have heard of it’s progenitor, Apocalypse World, or of its sibling, Dungeon World. tremulus is a “storytelling game of lovecraftian horror”, and is, from what I understand, a fairly straightforward hack of AW, with some bits screwed on top. The result is called “haiku”, and is said to also draw from FATE and Fiasco.

Still, much of what I’ll be saying here likely applies to AW as well. Perhaps I’ll get around to playing it on its own one day. As for my experiences with tremulus, we’ve played a 5-session game, that was initially meant to finish in 3. And it was amazing, one of the best games I’ve been a part of. But how much of that was due to the game itself? I am, as ever, dubious. Lets dig in.

Quick note first: I don’t think you can currently buy the game, as it was a result of successful kickstarter. But as the finalized pdf was recently made available, it’ll probably be up for sale soon enough.

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First Impressions: Marvel Heroic Roleplaying

As long-time readers may remember (and new readers would not care), I’ve recently finished a massive D&D campaign that lasted several years. Having done that, I’ve set out on an odyssey, to try out some of the other systems out there. My attempt at combining Don’t Rest Your Head with Portal is an example of what I’ve been up to. But I’ve been neglectful of this blog lately, and the reason is simple enough. As I only spend a few sessions on each system I’m trying out, I don’t build up enough system mastery to write the in-depths posts I tend to. But staying quiet for so long is bad for my writing skills, and defeats the point of the whole exercise: to learn and analyse new games.

Hence, a different approach: I’ll document my first impressions. Immediately, a very important caveat, and one that I want to avoid typing every other sentence. With experience, a gaming group would learn to mitigate many of the issues I’ll be raising, whether through tricks, rules interpretations or not thinking about them too much. And of course, some of them may not even be issues, but rather demonstrations of my limited understanding. With that in mind, I’ll call ’em as I see ’em. I can criticize other games, not just D&D! So. Not an essay, not a review, just my thoughts.

And what game best to start with, but the one that’s no longer in production. Perfect timing. Yes, sadly, Marvel Heroic Roleplaying is not being published anymore, and all the announced supplements won’t be released. They don’t even appear to be selling the pdfs anymore, which confuses me to no end. It’s not like the ones out there will magically disappear; only the ability to actually pay for them has done so. But hopefully this is a temporary snag while the licensing details are being worked out, and the books will be sold again soon. Continue reading