Archive for the '50 Games in 50 Weeks' Category

50 Games in 50 Weeks: Castellan

Dec 10 2012 Published by under 50 Games in 50 Weeks,Reviews

Castellan, courtesy of GeekDad on Wired

Castellan, courtesy of GeekDad on Wired

Castellan is an unusual building game. Each player lays out plastic towers and walls, connecting them into courtyards, limited by the pieces listed on special cards (new cards are added and old ones removed as the game progresses).

As soon as you enclose a courtyard, it’s yours, and you get points based on the courtyard’s size and the number of towers around it.

However, both players are connecting their pieces to the same structure, so you’re both building the same castle.

It’s a neat concept: each player is happily slapping down little walls and towers, imagining the little people who live there, eyeing large spaces. You enclose a courtyard. Success! But your opponent encloses another space. How could you have prevented that? How might you take advantage of that new courtyard’s walls?

As with so many of the Steve Jackson games I’ve played, Castellan has solid, clear mechanics and an unusual premise.

It also has the appeal of building something. You mold a castle with your own hands, seeing it grow over time. Shades of SimCity hover in the game’s shadows.

It’s also a game that took some getting used-to. The limitations placed by the cards combined with the different towers and walls kept me off-balance. I liked that; I felt like I could play the game a number of times before my mind could map out the connections.

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50 Games in 50 Weeks: The Hangout RPG

Nov 12 2012 Published by under 50 Games in 50 Weeks,Reviews,Role-playing

'Sexy Jen Lounging in the Hammock Hangout' by SanFranAnnie on Flickr

‘Sexy Jen Lounging in the Hammock Hangout’ by SanFranAnnie on Flickr

New online video tools provide new opportunities for tabletop role-playing. Games that used to require face-to-face meetings can be played by people from around the world.

However, these games are still being played with systems built for heavily scheduled, face-to-face gaming. What would a system built for this new world look like? That’s what I asked myself when building Hangout.

I began with a few assumptions about online video gaming:

  • Expect new players frequently. It’s much easier for someone who’s merely interested in a game to fire up their webcam on a whim than to drive 20 minutes to a stranger’s house.
  • The players may not have the dice you expect, and players may not have access to useful online dice-rollers or other randomizers.
  • The rules should be easy to grasp and use, at least initially for basic gameplay, even for those who’ve never played tabletop RPGs.
  • There should be a free version of the rules.

Those assumptions generated the following core system concepts:

  • Dice and other randomizers are optional, and can be introduced later in play.
  • Players don’t need to stat out their characters prior to play.
  • Character stats are defined during play.

This implies a pretty high-level system. If you need to crunch a lot of numbers to accomplish basic tasks, you’ll spend most of your first few sessions stopping to define stats and bonuses.

The Hangout system takes some ideas from Risus and some ideas from FATE and applies them as follows.

The Basic Rules

Your character will have a few Dimensions, which are catchphrases that define his or her personality. Example Dimensions include “Never tell me the odds” and “It belongs in a museum!” Each Dimension has a couple of points associated with it, and each player character has a total of 10 Dimension points. Most player-characters will have about 4 Dimensions.

You can start play with no character concept, and define Dimensions as you approach conflicts.

A conflict is a simple contest between two characters. Each chooses the most appropriate Dimension; the one with the highest points wins. The winner gets what he or she wants, while the loser takes a negative ongoing Condition (like limpingdazed, or drunk).

A player can also invoke a Dimension to win a conflict, and loses 1 point in that Dimension. (All Dimensions get reset to their full point values at the beginning of each session.)

How This Worked

This worked poorly in my diceless playtest, where the characters were investigating a strange hacker in the Grid of TRON.

Player-characters’ Dimensions were usually close to an enemy’s Dimension, so they’d just win. If they were clearly outmatched, they’d invoke a DImension, and there weren’t enough conflicts to nearly exhaust anyone’s Dimensions.

Several possible solutions spring to mind:

  1. Reduce the number of points available in each Dimension.
  2. Increase the number of conflicts.
  3. Increase enemy’s Dimensions.
  4. Increase the expense of invokes. Perhaps an invoke reduces a Dimension by 50%, then to 0.

Each has its pitfalls. I’ll have to playtest them to find out.

What would you do?

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50 Games in 50 Weeks: Warrior, Rogue & Mage

Nov 05 2012 Published by under 50 Games in 50 Weeks,Reviews,Role-playing

Warrior, Rogue, & Mage cover

Warrior, Rogue, & Mage cover

I love Warrior, Rogue & Mage because of its statistical approach to fantasy role-playing.

The System

It’s a beautifully simple system. Instead of various attributes, races, and classes, WR&M uses three attributes: Warrior, Rogue, and Mage. Each player-character has 10 points total to divide among these three attributes. A character with many points in Warrior and few in Rogue or Mage is naturally a fighter of some kind.

In addition, each character has a few skills — which are simply on or off; no ranks or levels — as well as a few talents (special abilities), and four derived attributes: Hit Points based on the Warrior attribute, Fate Points (allowing for re-rolls, ignoring deadly attacks, etc.) based on the Rogue attribute, Mana based on the Mage attribute, and Defense based on Warrior and Rogue. That’s it.

To attempt an action, roll d6 and add it to the appropriate attribute. If the character has an appropriate skill, it adds +2 to the roll. If the result is equal to or higher than a target difficulty level (or the opponent’s Defense, for attacks), the action succeeds. Damage is rolled based on the weapon, and subtracts from Hit Points.

How It Works

Character concepts translate very directly to stats, as do actions. If I want to do something fighty or brawny, I use Warrior. If I want to do something sneaky, I roll Rogue. If I want to use magic, I use Mage.

Even better, you can easily create a character that mixes two or all three of these. You can be the jack-of-all-trades, or an acrobatic fighter, or a hard-hitting battle sorcerer.

Perhaps this is just because of how my mind works, but I found WR&M incredibly easy to grasp. The system got out of the way, while remaining closely relevant to characters’ actions.

You can download it now for free.

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50 Games in 50 Weeks: Action Castle

Oct 23 2012 Published by under 50 Games in 50 Weeks,Reviews

Action Castle logo

Action Castle logo

You may have played early text adventures like Zork or, well, Adventure. They feel strange to those who didn’t play them at the time, like Victorian mechanisms: quaint contraptions for which one can see the intended use, but appear hopelessly outdated and silly.

But there is an ineffable power to interacting with words.

Action Castle brings this experience back to the modern gaming table. Each Action Castle adventure is a short, choose-your-own-adventure style story that one person narrates–as though he or she is the computer–while the player calls out commands in the style of text adventures (“move west”, “take wand”).

Each adventure includes directions to the “computer” about how to respond to queries, to fully replicate the experience of figuring out a text parser’s vocabulary.

As such, games tend to end very quickly, within a few minutes. You can always try again after you die, of course.

My exposure to Action Castle was a single game with a friend who’d bought a few adventures. We ran through the main adventure, “Action Castle.” It was an odd experience, to talk directly to the “computer,” wrestle with the accepted vocabulary, and ultimately die after three rooms.

It wasn’t fun in the sense of joy or happiness. It was a unique opaque puzzle. It burned itself into my memory.

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50 Games in 50 Weeks: Microscope

Sep 29 2012 Published by under 50 Games in 50 Weeks,Reviews

'Map of ancient Seoul' by sociate on Flickr

‘Map of ancient Seoul’ by sociate on Flickr

One fun thing about the role-playing hobby is its kaleidoscope of worlds. I get to leap into so many interesting, thought-provoking worlds.

Players often move into world building at some point. And, of course, world building is hard. There are so many variables.

Microscope is a structured game of cooperative world-building. It’s a game you play with friends, but instead of exploring worlds or telling specific stories, you’re creating the history of a world.

One interesting thing about Microscope is its emphasis on writing history. So many world-building tools focus on nailing down details of physics and planet size, while Microscope encourages players to keep the physical world relatively ill-defined.

On to gameplay. Any world needs a few ground rules, so a game of Microscope begins with the Palette. As a group, the players list things that they adamantly do want to include or don’t want included in this world. The palette can include tropes, themes, concepts, and even specific items (“no singing swords”).

Then, each player adds a high-level Period to the world’s history (“The Age of Dragons”) or an Event within an already-defined Period (“The Fall of the Water Empire”). These are commonly written on index cards and laid out on the table in chronological order. (Online games just use a shared document.)

Play proceeds in rounds. At the beginning of every round, one of the players is chosen as the Lens, who directs the action of that round. (I hope the term is an E.E. “Doc” Smith reference.)

The Lens chooses a Focus for the round: “a person, a place, a thing, an institution, an Event, a Period, a concept–anything you want.” Every addition during this round must reference the Focus, however tangentially.

Each player in turn now adds a Period, an Event, or a Scene (Scenes are part of an Event). After everyone’s played this round, the Lens gets an extra turn, then the round is over and the group begins another round with a new Lens.

This continues until the history is sufficiently fleshed out, or you run out of time.

That’s pretty much the entire system. The rest of the book is devoted to implementation details and, more importantly, advice on approaching each of the elements above.

I played my game of Microscope online with a group of friends. Initially, we took turns in strict order (one turn per day), but eventually opened it up to one round per week, and anyone could take their turn at any time that week after the Lens had defined the Focus.

We built a sprawling, unique world of scattered islands in a populous ocean, the legacy of ancient and evil Sorcerer-Kings, and three distinctive non-racial empires all vying for control. Microscope delivers.

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50 Games in 50 Weeks: 1974 Dungeons & Dragons

Sep 17 2012 Published by under 50 Games in 50 Weeks,Reviews,Role-playing

'040 Witchcraft and Sorcery' by cthulhuwho1 on Flickr

‘040 Witchcraft and Sorcery’ by cthulhuwho1 on Flickr

While at PAX East this year, I was determined to play a game of original 1974 Dungeons & Dragons, primarily to be able to say that I’d played it.

Fortunately, I was at PAX East with the Gamer Assembly, and they were interested in the idea, too.

We played the Temple of the Ghoul scenario, my go-to adventure for old-school gaming. It has a skittish village population, an abandoned temple on a hillside, stirges, powerful supplies if the heroes are aware enough to notice them, a kitchen heaped with eviscerated adventurers, and of course, the ghoul.

In the months leading up to PAX East, I spent many hours poring through the original 1974 D&D pamphlets and gleaning the relevant tables and mechanics for the players. The system felt like a dark dungeon itself, full of confusing passages.

At the con, I gave the players a one-sheet summary of the core rules, and that’s what we used in play.

Everyone died in the first fight. Fortunately, the players took this with good humor, and everyone re-rolled characters and dove back in. Within a few hours they had found the ghoul and finished him/it off.

As expected, the system is relatively light and flexible, combat grows dull quickly if all you do is swing your sword, and there are a lot of awkward wargame-y mechanics (most of which we ignored in using my “core rule” sheet).

The system felt half-formed, like a child’s version of D&D. This is nothing against Gygax and Arneson; they were still feeling their way towards a completely new mode of play. Expecting an elegant system by modern standards would be like expecting the Model T to drive like a Jaguar.

Original D&D is a fine bit of engineering, though, that provides the raw mechanics needed to explore a dungeon and quell ancient terrors. If you want a bit of fun, you can find it in D&D.

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50 Games in 50 Weeks: Take 6

Sep 10 2012 Published by under 50 Games in 50 Weeks,Reviews

Take 6 is a card game that relies on two left-brained skills, math and probability, which usually cause my brain to leap out of my skull and run away screaming.

The game involves taking a hand of cards, each of which has a number on it from 1 to 104. Each player then lays out a card, in turn, building six columns. When building a column, a higher-value card must go on top of a lower-value one. Once a column contains six cards, the player who laid the six cards gets all the cards in the column (which is bad). The value of all cards in that column are added to that player’s score, along with multipliers represented by flags on the cards. Higher scores lose.

It’s a neat design. I particularly like that there’s only one of each card, so every card is higher or lower than every other card.

There’s a fair amount of tactics to the game, as you’re trying to minimize columns’ value…which may be changed by other players’ cards.

Its fun is directly proportional to how much you like math and probability. So. Best of luck there.

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50 Games in 50 Weeks: Pathfinder Arena

Sep 03 2012 Published by under 50 Games in 50 Weeks,Reviews

'Slaying the Dragon' by fireflythegreat on Flickr

‘Slaying the Dragon’ by fireflythegreat on Flickr

I have a difficult time reviewing this without getting snarky. So I’m going to get a bit snarky.

While I was at PAX East 2012, a friend and I walked by a table the size of a Mini Cooper. It was ringed with miniature walls and its surface sprayed with a sandy finish, so it looked like a miniature gladiatorial arena. Beautiful work.

We approached the two men who stood nearby and asked them what it was. They explained it was designed for an ongoing gladiatorial game they’d designed using miniatures. Anyone at the con could walk up, pick up a character, “enter the arena,” and fight until their character died.

We agreed to join, and asked about the system. Here’s where it got weird.

The referee explained that they had designed their game around D&D 3rd Edition and Pathfinder. They made it clear they had not used 4th Edition, which they hated; they had taken Pathfinder/3E and adapted them for this. Then they handed us our character sheets and explained their system.

Now, my friend and I played a lot of 4th Edition D&D. As these two men talked, my friend and I glanced at each other, our eyes full of meaning.

Every single change made to this system was a 4th Edition change. This game looked almost exactly like 4th Edition.

The prime complaint about 4th Edition was that it made D&D feel like a war game. And this revision did exactly that: it adapted 3rd Edition for grid-based tactical combat.

I don’t say this to shame the designers; I do this because the game worked extremely well. Combat moved quickly, and we had a few useful choices at any given time, while combat remained unpredictable. The designers made the right decisions, which made their game almost exactly like the 4th Edition they claimed to despise.

Unfortunately, I don’t know the name they gave their game, so I call it Pathfinder Arena. As a minis-based arena combat game, it works very well.

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50 Games in 50 Weeks: Old School Hack

Aug 27 2012 Published by under 50 Games in 50 Weeks,Reviews,Role-playing

Old School Hack logoHoly guacamole, do I love this game.

Imagine if Arneson and Gygax were teleported from 1970 to the modern day, and shown all sorts of modern RPGs. Then teleport them back to 1970. Old School Hack is how they would have designed Dungeons & Dragons.

OSH is part of the Old School Renaissance, but rather than re-using the mechanics of early D&D, it provides modern approaches to the classic swords-and-elves experience, without turning it into a completely modern game. OSH feels retro.

For example, distance in combat is represented by arenas, a.k.a. blobs of terrain. An arena’s exact size or shape isn’t important; they simply represent relative proximity. So, players can easily use existing maps without wrestling a grid on top  of it, while the map can still be subdivided into meaningful arenas.

OSH provides seven classes. If you pick one, you’re the only player this game with that class. This ensures that everyone has a unique role. You also get a character sheet representing just that class’s abilities and talents.

Talents are spell-like powers that can be used periodically, much like D&D 4th Edition’s powers. At first level, you choose one talent and may use it during the game. At each additional level, you choose an additional talent. Simple.

Speaking of leveling up: there are only 4 levels in Old School Hack. This strikes me as wise; the designer didn’t try to design beyond his experience or play-testing could reach.

Interestingly, turn order is determined by the type of action your character takes. Those choosing to hunker down in total defense go first, followed by ranged attacks, spells, movement, melee attacks, and physical grappling. This speeds up combat, to my surprise, because you deal with similar actions at once, leading to fewer context switches. It also gives combat a different feel. If two PCs both stand in the back firing arrows at the enemies, then they’re doing both at the same time both in-game and out-of-game. This adds a sense of camaraderie.

The game’s old-school aesthetic is greatly enhanced by its presentation. The PDF is full of sketchy pencil art. Not illustrations: titles and borders are “drawn in pencil.”

More importantly, the entire system combines to provide a play experience that’s simple to grasp with just enough tactical richness to make each fight unique.

You can download the full PDF for free.

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50 Games in 50 Weeks: Houses of the Blooded

Aug 08 2012 Published by under 50 Games in 50 Weeks,Reviews,Role-playing

I’m building an “RPG Tour,” a set of RPGs that, if played, will give one a broad appreciation for different approaches to tabletop gaming. The list includes DreadFiasco, Old School Hack, and Dungeon World.

I ran my second session of Houses of the Blooded last night, and I’m adding it to the list.

detail of Journey start by jiuge

detail of Journey start by jiuge

Houses is a game of high court intrigue. The players are all powerful nobles struggling to get their way in a complex society.

In many ways, it’s the opposite of D&D. There’s very little combat. The player-characters are so strong they could easily kill dozens of normal people, but are evenly matched against each other. There’s no point in attacking regular people or nobles.

Most of the rulebook isn’t rules; it’s explanations of Blooded society. The game is all about getting into your character’s head and risking yourself.

The game’s mechanics support this, and may blow the minds of traditional RPG players. If you want to risk something, you use different elements of your character to add dice (always six-sided) to a dice pool. Your name is worth one die, one applicable virtue adds as many dice as your score in that virtue, and you can tag one of your Aspects for three dice. (Aspects are taglines that describe your character, like “Aura of innocence” or “Death before dishonor.”)

Before rolling, you may set aside any number of dice from your pool as wagers. You then roll the dice you didn’t set aside and add the results; if you roll 10 or higher, you get to narrate the result. If 9 or lower, the Narrator (GM) narrates the result. If you rolled 10 or higher, then for every die you wagered, you get to add one fact to the result, such as “…and our Houses have a secret pact” or “…she’s actually my wife in disguise.”

This changes the GM’s role. As GM in a game of Houses, I spent 90% of my time playing NPCs. The players truly drove the story.

And by “drove the story,” I mean that we were essentially writing the story as we played. Characters attempted all sorts of investigations and asked all sorts of questions that prompted refusals, confessions, and further plot threads.

Once the group got used to the system–which took about one full session–collaborative storytelling felt easy.

John Rogers once said that the three elements of storytelling are “What do the characters need? Why can’t they get it? And why should I care?” Houses of the Blooded pushes the players to ask and answer those questions in play.

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