Archive for the 'Role-playing' Category

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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How to Run an Online RPG Convention

Jul 15 2012 Published by under Role-playing


'Magnum, P.I.' by Mira Hartford on Flickr

‘Magnum, P.I.’ by Mira Hartford on Flickr

Indie+, an online RPG convention on Google+, finished today. I was one of the four sponsors who co-ordinated and ran the whole thing: 21 games and  7 panels scheduled for all hours of the week, including integration with YouTube, Google+, and a wiki.

A few weeks ago, we put out a call for potential hosts, asking them to add potential games or panels to our wiki. Once the new Event functionality appeared on Google+, we switched to that: we asked hosts to create an Event for their game or panel, then share it with our Indie+ page on Google+. We then re-shared those Events with our followers, and updated a Google Calendar and a schedule on the wiki.

Why did we have both a Google Calendar and a schedule on the wiki? Because we didn’t think about having a GCalendar initially, then someone set it up for us. We couldn’t integrate the GCalendar into the wiki, and folks had been told to fill out the wiki. So we ended up maintaining both.

Then we discovered some misleading terminology and unfortunate functionality within Events. An “Event On Air” couldn’t be streamed live, for example, and starting a Hangout (live video chat) from within an Event blocked it from live streaming, too. So we had to ask hosts to manage the Hangout separately from the Event.

Each sponsor took responsibility for one major element of the con: panels for one person, games for another, etc. This turned out to be a mistake, as we had games spanning a fairly wide range of time zones, so the Game Guy (me) couldn’t always be around to help.

So we leapt over stumbling blocks, and stumbled plenty ourselves. The result? 13 games and 7 panels happened, which was recorded into a total of 36 hours’ worth of indie RPG games and discussions.

Because we went ahead and did it. FILDI.

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Quick Promotion

Jul 09 2012 Published by under Role-playing

Indie+ LogoI’m helping to run an online game convention, Indie+. It’s a con run as a set of independently-run games and panels, all organized centrally and run as Google+ Hangouts. It’s running this week.

I volunteered to shepherd the gaming side of things. There are quite a few moving parts, including several different schedules to sync. I figured it’d be no big deal, as we were running this for the first time, so I wouldn’t have too many games to manage.

We have 20 games. Small by most con standards, but a heck of a lot for me to keep track of when it’s my first time and none of it’s automated.

Fortunately, all is going well so far. We’ve got a helpful team running the con, and plenty of interest.

So if you’re interested in RPGs, especially independent ones, head over to the schedule and look for a game or a discussion. Plenty are open for folks to watch. I hope you find something interesting.

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50 Games in 50 Weeks: Shadowrun 4E

Jul 02 2012 Published by under 50 Games in 50 Weeks,Reviews,Role-playing

Shadowrun on My Mind by John McKenna

Shadowrun on My Mind by John McKenna

I’d heard bad things about Shadowrun, that the world was much more fun than the system.

Fortunately, I played 4th Edition, which made complete sense. Character sheets were heavy-laden with skills and stats, but easy to understand.

The system features a straightforward core mechanic: assemble a die pool out of your abilities and roll it against a target number. If you roll a lot of 1s, something really bad happens.

The system benefits from many years of evolution. I felt like the system started with a heavy emphasis on crunch, then over time the more complex parts were re-factored out and storytelling elements were worked in. The current incarnation can handle crunch-heavy and crunch-light games with ease.

I also had the good fortune to play under an awesome GM. He knew the system, he knew the adventure, and he was completely open to player actions. He listened.

We finished in about two hours, which was half of our four-hour slot at Origins. The GM apologized, and offered to throw other stuff into the adventure; we players thanked him and politely declined. We were happy to have some extra time at the con, especially after a fantastic, memorable session. Much better to play a great two-hour session than a four-hour slog.

I don’t actually remember much of the system; I mostly remember having a great time. Isn’t that awesome?

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Best of Many Worlds: Indie+

Jun 27 2012 Published by under Role-playing

Dice illusionRole-playing games let people tell stories. At their best, RPGs encourage imagination and open us up to new experiences that we tailor to our own needs and desires.

This is strengthened by the recent trend of “indie” RPGs, many of which include in-game rewards for moving the story forward and otherwise making things complicated for the characters.

Indie RPGs have always had a fundamental problem: exposure. Tabletop RPGs are already a niche market, with indies huddled in a small corner.

Along comes Indie+ to pull indie RPGs out into the limelight.

Indie+ is an online convention planned for the week of July 9 through July 15. Hosts will run a variety of indie RPGs, from the space marine game 3:16 to the Tarantino film simulator Fiasco to the classic dungeon crawl system Searchers of the Unknown. There’ll even be panels about defining “indie,” art from the buyers’ and the makers’ perspectives, and depictions of women in RPGs.

Since it’s entirely online, all you need is a microphone of some kind (and a Google+ account) to attend. We’ll even run everything through Google+ Hangouts on Air, so video should be available afterwards of all games and panels.

Yes, I wrote “we;” I’m helping to organize the con. I think this is a great chance to broaden one’s horizons, and I hope you’ll sign up for a game!

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50 Games in 50 Weeks: The Play’s The Thing

Apr 23 2012 Published by under 50 Games in 50 Weeks,Reviews,Role-playing

'Shakespeare' by mariateresaadalid on Flickr

'Shakespeare' by mariateresaadalid on Flickr

If you can imagine a Shakespearean role-playing game that’s riotously fun even for those not steeped in Shakespeare, you’d be imagining The Play’s The Thing.

The players take on the roles of small-time Shakespearean actors in a play that changes underneath their feet. That, indeed, is the fun: not only can the director interrupt and tell you to do the rest of the scene in Japanese accents, but all the other players can bid to have their own suggestions implemented, using Story Points that act much like Fate Points in FATE.

Each player has two main things to keep track of: his actor and his character. There are several different archetypes of actors available, from the Ham to the Ingenue. And, of course, each actor is playing one of the characters in the Shakespeare play.

As part of setup, each player chooses an actor archetype, then there’s a round-robin mechanism wherein each player is offered the option to either choose a character, or to add some plot point to that character and pass to another player. So, the GM might offer you the role of Macbeth; you can accept or decide that Macbeth, say, has a secret with three witches, and pass to the next player.

Actual gameplay is split into five acts, each of which is introduced by the GM. This is why the game works for those unfamiliar with Shakespeare: the GM tells you what’s supposed to happen before you start the act. The plot changes drastically anyway, so you don’t need to even have seen or read the original play to play the game.

Oddly, given the subject matter, The Play’s The Thing quickly turns into a beer-and-pretzels game. Players stumble through scenes as others suggest changes serious and silly. You don’t even have to improv, but you are working to incorporate some really fun material.

Moreover, there’s a built-in incentive to keep the story on track: you have to play your own character, too, and the sillier the plot, the harder that is.

I had a blast with The Play’s The Thing. The players quickly got over their Shakespeare jitters (most of us barely remembered the vaguest outline of the plot) and just dove into our story: Macbeth. We soon had Jewish Witches, the world’s shortest soliloquy (“Och!”), and a plot so focused on Macduff that we renamed the play after him.

The system’s still a little rough around the edges. Players get Story Points to influence the story, but it wasn’t clear when we could or couldn’t use them. However, the problems were minor, and never kept us from enjoying ourselves. It helped that we had a fantastic GM, Tom Cadorette, who knew exactly when to go deeper and when to move on.

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50 Games in 50 Weeks: Marvel Heroic Roleplaying

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

Marvel Heroic Roleplaying cover

Marvel Heroic Roleplaying © 2012 Marvel, Margaret Weiss Productions

Marvel Heroic Roleplaying is a new tabletop role-playing game that’s garnered a lot of interest lately, partly due to its impressive roster of designers and developers: Cam Banks (Smallville and Leverage RPGs), Rob Donoghue (Spirit of the CenturyDresden Files RPG), Matt Forbeck (Lord of the Rings RPG, Deadlands RPG), Will Hindmarch, and Philippe-Antoine Menard (The Chatty DM).

MHR takes an interesting mechanical approach: to perform an action, build a set of dice (a “dice pool”) from elements on your character sheet. Almost every rule centers around building that dice pool.

Contrast this with, say, Dungeons & Dragons, which has at least three different dice-rolling mechanics: attack rolls, saving throws, and skill checks. This means there’s a lot to remember, and many potential effects, but at least they all point to the same place.

The Core Mechanic

In Marvel, the dice pool is built out of four areas on your character’s sheet:

  1. Affiliations — How well you work solo, with a buddy, or in a team
  2. Distinctions — Three taglines that define your character. If a distinction applies to the situation, you can grab a d8, or use it at a disadvantage by grabbing a d4 and getting an extra Plot Point (more on those later). You can use several of these, if they apply.
  3. Power Sets — Your powers, like claws or energy blasts. You can use several of these, if they apply.
  4. Specialties — Skills, like medicine or acrobatics. You can only use one of these per dice pool.

You choose your dice out of each of these areas. If you have Plot Points, you can spend them for extra dice (and other things, but more on that later). You roll all your dice, and here’s where things get interesting:

You add two rolled dice together for your result (bigger is better). You then choose another die for the effect, but it’s the number of sides on that die that are important, not what you roll on it. So, if you roll poorly on a many-sided die, you’ll probably use that as your effect die.

The result is compared against the opponent’s result to determine if you succeed. If you do, the size of the effect die is the size of the damage dealt.


Here’s where things get weird if you haven’t played, say, Savage Worlds. Each character has three stress tracks: physical, mental, and emotional. Each stress track is tracked by die size. If you’ve never experienced this, imagine a stress track with five slots labeled 4, 6, 8, 10, or 12. If you choose a d6 as your effect die, then the opponent would shade in the 6 slot on his or her stress track, and would have “6” (or, in Marvel‘s parlance, “d6”) of stress.

An example: Cyclops is facing off against Venom. Cyclops’s player builds his dice pool, using Cyclops’s Optic Beam power, and ends up with a result of 15, with a d8 effect die. Venom rolls a result of 12, so Cyclops blasts Venom with his optic beam. Venom now has d8 of physical stress.

If a character goes above d12 stress on any track, he or she is knocked out.

Plot Points, Opportunities, and The Doom Pool

There are three other major elements to the system: Plot Points, Opportunities, and the Doom Pool.

Plot Points are player resources that can be used in many ways to build up a character’s dice pool. Plot Points can be used to add a d8 to a power, activate a special effect on a power, add more effect dice, etc. The “cheat sheet” that comes with Marvel lists 12 things players can do with Plot Points.

Opportunities are triggered whenever anyone rolls a 1 on any die. If a player rolls a 1, the Watcher (GM) can offer the player a Plot Point. If the player accepts the Plot Point, the Watcher adds a d6 to the Watcher’s Doom Pool (or swaps an existing Doom Pool die for a larger die). On the other hand, if the Watcher rolls a 1, a player can spend a Plot Point to get various bonuses: an extra d8 for the next dice pool, a larger effect die, etc.

The Doom Pool is kept by the Watcher (the Game Master). The Doom Pool starts with two d6s, and increase as the players roll 1s and accept Plot Points. In practice, the Doom Pool grows rapidly. The Watcher can add Doom Pool dice to any of his dice pools as desired.

Marvel Heroes

© Marvel

How Well It Works

There’s a lot more to the system than this, and that’s the primary thing to know about Marvel Heroic Roleplaying: you’re not going to grok the system in one session. There are too many rules and exceptions, all of which affect the construction of dice pools. Everything modifies the one core mechanic.

However, you will absolutely be able to play Marvel in one session. It simulates American superheroes beautifully, and within an hour you’ll be constructing dice pools with ease.

During my first game, I had a grand time. I ran a modified version of the “Breakout” event listed in the book. The players were able to use their characters effectively. The mechanics supported play of the characters.


The basic rule book provides an event called “Breakout.” It’s a two-part story intended to be told over two sessions, but each part can also be run solo.

The event structure provided in Marvel is better than anything else I’ve seen.

Each event has several Milestones. Side explanation: Each hero has two character-specific Milestones that he or she can pursue. Performing certain actions that fall within the Milestone gets the character Experience Points (XP). Each event has its own Milestones, and characters can choose to pursue those Milestones instead of their own.

Moreover, each event has “unlockables” which can be “bought” for XP. So, if a character gains 5 XP, he or she can unlock extra help or information to further the story along.

From there, the book describes various locations involved in the story, and Scene Distinctions (another element that you can use to add dice to your dice pools) that apply to those locations.

The book then lists suggested starting places for various heroes. In this case, the action centers around a prison for super-villains in New York’s East River, so Matt Murdock is visiting as a lawyer, Captain America is flying overhead on his way to a security conference, Peter Parker and Tony Stark are on business in New York, the X-Men are on a pier investigating a tip, etc.

The book goes on to describe the action of the event, along with stat blocks for each villain. It’s basically a series of encounters, but only the final encounter is required. All the others are treated as optional encounters, with plenty of options and ideas to power the conflict up or down (such as extra villains, innocent bystanders, or additional environmental problems).

It’s beautiful. It provides so many options that it’s easy to pick a direction, but none of it kills the game. The book assumes that the Watcher is smart enough to adjust if the game’s going poorly.


I love this system. It’s easy to play and easy to run. The rules provide enough complexity to let smart players gain significant advantages, but it’s not so complex as to be inscrutable or confusing. It takes a while to fully understand all the bonuses and effects, but you can have great fun with even a basic understanding of the system.

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50 Games in 50 Weeks: Paranoia

Jan 30 2012 Published by under 50 Games in 50 Weeks,Reviews,Role-playing

Paranoia RPGRPG players are conditioned to view PC conflict as an absolute bad. So how can I describe the fun of an RPG that assumes players will attempt to kill each other at every session?

Paranoia is set in a 1980’s dystopia where Friend Computer directs humanity with a scented iron fist. It’s 1984 crossed with Discworld.

The player-characters are all troubleshooters (“tasked to find trouble and shoot it”), given a job by Friend Computer to resolve some minor problem. Of course, failure to comply is treason and subject to immediate death. Your job is typically to track down commies, mutants, or traitors.

Unfortunately, you’re also secretly a commie, mutant, or traitor. Or all three.

Fortunately for you and unfortunately for your comrades, they’re all probably commies, mutants, and/or traitors, and you’ll get points with Friend Computer if you expose them and eliminate them before they do the same to you.

Your character gets a large array of interesting and goofy stats, and to use them, you roll a d20 in hopes of rolling at or under your stat’s score. There’s little in the way of damage; the weapons with which Friend Computer provides you rarely leave much residue.

Our group didn’t roll much; we were too busy dealing with an unfamiliar sewer transport, a surprise loyalty test, and of course, accusing each other of treason. The GM handled most of the rolls.

I had great fun playing Paranoia, but it was a very particular kind of fun. I felt “inside the action” more than I do in a typical beer-and-pretzels game, but I wasn’t taking any of it seriously.

It’s an odd game. A memorable, weird, hilarious, crazy, fun, odd game.

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50 Games in 50 Weeks: Fudged Mouse Guard

Jan 16 2012 Published by under 50 Games in 50 Weeks,Role-playing

Image from 'Mosue Guard,' copyright David Petersen

Image from 'Mosue Guard,' copyright David Petersen

My game group played Fudged Mouse Guard a few weeks ago. It takes the excellent Mouse Guard RPG–a game of intelligent mice with medieval-level technology–and converts the system to Fudge (every stat is a score from -4 to +4, and you roll dice that modify your score up or down for a final result, which is compared to a target difficulty).

The original Mouse Guard system is a simplified and heavily modified version of the odd Burning Wheel system. The conversion to Fudge can’t be exact.

It isn’t, but Fudged Mouse Guard fits the world well, and converts all the important statistics. We were able to play in the Mouse Guard world effectively, using skills and abilities, and combat involved simply trading blows. It works.

I did encounter one problem: The Fudged Mouse Guard document lists no example enemies, and provides no guidelines for enemies’ power level. I guessed at the stats for enemies, which turned out to be low. The PCs defeated all their enemies within three rounds. The original RPG’s unique combat system doesn’t translate directly to a traditional RPG’s mechanic of trading blows, so more direction there would be helpful.

Overall, though, the game went smoothly and we had fun. You can view our character sheets to see the stats used in the system.

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