Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Game Chef 2010: Action City! Revised

What with one thing and another, I've revised Action City! for anyone who wants to check out a slightly expanded, much more complete version of the game. You can get it here.

At 14 pages (including a character sheet and a brief explanatory epilogue), it's a wee little slip of a game, but I like it. My only trouble is that I'm not sure I have the narrativist chops to give it the treatment it deserves in play. However, plenty of people do -- people I know, even! -- so hopefully someone out there will give it a shot.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Game Chef 2010: Action City! -- Available for Perusal

I was going to say "Action City! -- Now Complete!" but I kinda doubt that's true. I put the finishing touches on it at about 4:00 this morning, so I'm sure something important is missing or incomplete. Like, if there's a sentence somewhere in those last few pages that just ends, period be damned, it wouldn't surprise me.

So instead, I'll just say that you can take a look at it here.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Game Chef 2010: Action City!

I still question whether I'll be able to finish something in time for submission to Game Chef 2010: Sojourner -- I'm pretty busy with, of all things, writing a musical tribute to an old Top Secret module -- but... I'm gonna give it a shot.

So here's what I'm going with: Action City! With an exclamation point!

The goal is to recreate the most Hollywood action movies Hollywood could possibly come up with. Think Die Hard, Lethal Weapon, Bad Boys II -- even stuff like Escape From New York or Beverly Hills Cop. We're talking about movies that embrace (or invented) the most cliched of action-movie cliches. The heroes are one-dimensional badasses with a humanizing flaw, accompanied by some friends and/or hangers-on, up against crafty villains and seemingly insurmountable odds. Y'know. That kinda thing. I'm taking my inspiration as much from the movies themselves as I am from convention screenwriting wisdom.

As for how all of that relates to the parameters of the contest:
  • Journey: I'm interpreting this metaphorically as the character's narrative journey, or story arc, which provides a sub-plot to parallel the main conflict of the story. Every character begins with a pre-existing problem in his or her life to be resolved. The starting point of this arc is determined randomly (I hope), but the resolution -- the endpoint of the sub-plot -- is determined by another player. So if your sub-plot is "Trouble with the Ex," when the story starts you and your ex have something contentious going on, but your resolution could be anything from winning your ex back to just getting on with your life. Progress in your sub-plot is measured on a stress track; the fewer checks in your stress track, the harder the opposition will be.
  • City: Everything takes place in an urban environment. That's it. Plus... Action City! It's right there in the title!
  • Edge: An advantageous personal trait, like "Crazy Like A Fox" or "Die Hard" or "I Know Kung Fu." I realize this is going to be the most common interpretation of this ingredient, but it's too perfect to pass up.
  • Skin: When a character is in a conflict, the player chooses how difficult of a challenge it is. There are three degrees of difficulty: Cakewalk, Close One, or Skin of Your Teeth. (See? Skin.) These difficulty levels are always relative to the character's own odds of success. There's a mechanical incentive to make things harder on yourself: Winning a roll by the Skin of Your Teeth gives you another Edge relevant to the scene.
Some important non-ingredient components:
  • In addition to a sub-plot, each character also has a Hang-Up -- some personal quirk or challenge that can potentially interfere with his or her life. Though distinct from the sub-plot, the Hang-Up should interface with the sub-plot in some significant way. For example, if your sub-plot were "The Ex" and your Hang-Up were "The Bottle," well... that might give you an indication of why The Ex is The Ex. I'd like to determine these randomly, too, but that might not be practical.
  • Each session consists of a number of discrete scenes: Talking and Setpieces. Talking scenes deal with either your sub-plot or your Hang-Up. You might use a Talking scene to have a conversation with your ex, or explore your self-destructive fascination with alcohol. Either one would have different mechanical ramifications going forward. Setpieces are for directly tackling the central conflict. Regardless, all scenes involve at least one die roll.
  • Ah, the dice. Action City! uses d6 pools; you're looking for matches, or sets. Biggest set (i.e., the highest number of matching dice) wins. Ties go to whoever rolled the fewest dice.
  • There is something like attributes, although I'm not sure what I'll collectively call them (hopefully not "attributes"). These are Action (any sort of physical activity), Brains (planning, foiling security systems), Mouth (talking, lying), and Guts (courage, mettle). Each of these is rated from 2 to 4, and any given roll involves two of them. The rating is how many dice that attribute adds to your pool, so if you have Action 3 and Guts 2, you're rolling 5d6.
  • Every applicable Edge adds another die to your pool. This is why it's especially good to rack up additional edges by the Skin of Your Teeth.
  • About those difficulty levels: If it's a Cakewalk, the opposition rolls two fewer dice than you. If it's a Close One, you roll an equal number of dice. If it's by the Skin of Your Teeth, the opposition rolls two more dice than you do. Still trying to figure out a mechanical disincentive for a Cakewalk.
  • Every player has a role. At the start of the game, everyone rolls 2d6. The high roller is the Hero. If there's a tie for Hero, there are two Heroes -- it's a buddy movie. Everyone else is a Friend of the Hero's. A Friend who rolled doubles for this roll, though, will betray the Hero at some point during the story. The low roller is the Antagonist: half GM, half competitive player. The Antagonist doesn't have to play all the NPCs, but... odds are he'll play more than the other players, since he's the guy actively working against them. Plus, the Antagonist does have a character -- specifically, he's the villain of the story. He also gets to determine when a traitorous Friend will turn on the Hero, though he's mechanically incented to do it later rather than sooner.
  • In addition to scenes, the game also has a three-act structure (I think; I'm still waffling on this). Each act has at least one Talking scene and one Setpiece.
  • If your Talking scene relates to your sub-plot and your roll succeeds, you get to check off a box on your sub-plot track. If you fail, you don't -- and in every Setpiece, the Antagonist gets a number of bonus dice ("consumable" dice that can be added to a single roll, one or more at a time, then discarded) per scene equal to the number of unchecked sub-plot boxes at the table. So it's a good idea to deal with those sub-plots.
  • If your Talking scene is about your Hang-Up and your roll succeeds, you get to use that Hang-Up as an Edge in the next scene. You've overcome it temporarily, or learned something from it, that helps or inspires you later on. If you fail, one of your Edges is unavailable in the next scene. Your Hang-Up has bested you for the time being and is preventing you from operating at peak efficiency.
  • The more beat-up you are, the harder things are for you. Something like "Health" will measure a character's general physical condition. Every failed defensive roll (for lack of a better term) in a Setpiece means checking one of those three boxes. If one box is checked, your lowest difficulty is Cakewalk. If two boxes are checked, your lowest difficulty is Close One, and if all three are checked, the only way you can overcome a challenge is by the Skin of Your Teeth.
  • Each game has, say, five Cliches. Preferably, these too would be determined at random at the start of the game. (I'm big on the random thing for this game -- I see it as a pick-up one-shot kinda thing.) Examples include Outrun the Explosion, Crashing Through the Window, and One-Hand Helicopter Hang. Incorporating a Cliche into the action means... uh... something good. For every unused Cliche, the Antagonist gets a bonus die in the last Setpiece. So maybe the good thing they do is denying the Antagonist another advantage.
That's about it, for now. It obviously needs a lot more work -- it's about 80% conjecture at this point -- but it feels like a pretty solid base to me.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Game Chef 2010: Now More Than Ever

So the ingredients for this year's Game Chef are up:
The Basics
Design and submit a playable draft of a roleplaying game between Sept 11th-19th, preferably inspired by the theme and ingredients listed below.
2010 Theme
Game Chef 2010 is official known as Game Chef: Sojourner, and the theme is Journey. As always, you are free to interpret that however you like.
2010 Ingredients
In addition to the overall theme, pick 3 of these 4 ingredients to design your game around.
City
Desert
Edge
Skin
First thoughts: City, Edge, and Skin all jump out at me. I'm picturing a very scenario-focused game along the lines of The Mountain Witch or Lady Blackbird about accomplishing something very specific in a city. Probably getting from one place to another safely. More than that, though, I just can't say right now. Hell, something like Escape From New York or The Warriors isn't completely unreasonable.

Second thoughts: Fred Hicks, Ryan Macklin, Willow Palacek, and Josh Roby are all participating, I believe, so... I'll just consider this a learning experience.

Third thoughts: Damn it, why couldn't there be any mechanics-focused ingredients? I mean, I can make a mechanical element called Edge, and possibly Skin, but I'll be honest: I like constraints, especially mechanical ones. They spur more creativity in me than total carte blanche to do whatever I want. Total creative freedom absolutely ruined last year's Game Chef for me.

Fourth Thoughts: I absolutely don't have time for this, but I'm doing it anyway.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Sigils [was: Icons & Sorcery]

This is a little tardy, but: I've updated and renamed my swords & sorcery hack for Icons. Now it's called Sigils, at the suggestion of someone on RPG.net whose name escapes me. The big change for this version (v0.4) is the addition of rules for summoning and the detailing of three types of spirits, three types of demons, and 12 types of elementals (really, it's just three tiers of the same four elementals, but still).

That was the big piece of the puzzle that was still missing, in my mind, so it's satisfying to have it taken care of for the time being. ("For the time being" because I haven't playtested those rules or anything, and I'm relatively sure I left out something very important somewhere or other.)

Even though I haven't been able to play or run it yet, I can at least say that it's fun to roll up characters, so go check it out and get back to me.

UPDATE: It's since been replaced by Sigils version 0.5, and will soon be replaced again (but look for that in a new post).

Monday, September 6, 2010

Gateway 2010 Wrap-Up

So! As I expressed elsewhere, this year's Gateway was an unfailingly fun convention. The least-fun game I played in was still a lot of fun, so I have no complaints. Plus, I tied for the win in a game of Dominion, which was notable primarily for how unlikely it was.

I'll go in chronological order (Friday afternoon through Sunday afternoon) so I don't leave anything out.

Beyond Thunderbowl (Leftovers): I'd never run anything in the Friday 2:00 slot before, but with the 8:00 slot taken up by a game I didn't want to miss, I didn't have much of a choice. Thankfully, I had a full table -- an overfull table, actually. I advertised four slots and ended up with five players, including Leftovers fan and super-playtester Larry Harala, who's run a five-session Leftovers campaign with his group in Utah that sounds like a lot of fun and about which I'd like to hear more. Of course, since I only see him at these conventions twice a year, there isn't much hanging-out downtime, so... yeah.

Anyway, "Beyond Thunderbowl" starts with the PCs captured by Grafters and forced to fight in a series of gladiatorial games on behalf of their captors. It's sort of how the various Grafter gangs earn prestige and settle disputes. Everyone had a good time (especially me), and it ended the way I'd expected it to: with hundreds of creepers flooding the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and (most of) the PCs barely escaping with their lives. My only reservation was that I feel like I pushed them too much toward that resolution, but as I said at the beginning of the game, "Welcome to the beta test for tomorrow night's Leftovers game." Afterward, Larry (I think) wanted my autograph on one of the ashcan copies of the rules I gave out, and I obliged under protest.

A few situations came up that required some off-the-cuff rulings, including one that's likely to find its way into the published version of the rules because I've encountered it so frequently. I've been referring to it as a Circumstance die. Basically, it's a one-use die that comes about as the result of some player-created advantage. This first arose at Hyphen-Con, when a map was used to gain advantage in a negotiation with some Grafters. The ruling then was to compare the Resourceful roll to the difficulty table, with each difficulty corresponding to a die size (Tricky = d4, Challenging = d6, etc.). The more resourceful you are, the better the map.

In this session, it happened another way: Someone wanted to climb up on the side of the big metal dome in which they were fighting to get an advantage on an opponent by dropping down on them. I had him make an Athletic roll, which produced a die he was able to include in the next round when he made his attack. It worked great. It's basically the Leftovers equivalent of a Maneuver in FATE, except instead of an aspect you get a die. As soon as I figure out a succinct way of explaining it, it's going in the book.

One last development of note: I'd previously been stumped for why anyone would voluntarily take a "negative" Bond with another PC. This led to some thoughts on how I could mechanically encourage that sort of thing, but I didn't like where it was going. Finally, I realized that there's a simple solution: Make it mandatory that each PC not get along with one other PC. Ta-da. Works fine.

The Treasure of Hoth (Smallville): Smallville designer Josh Roby started in on a Star Wars hack for the game about a month ago, and I was damned if I wasn't going to experience it for myself at Gateway. The setting was Hoth in the Old Republic, with a lot of political maneuvering and intrigue (which Josh always does well, and which I never even attempt). I played EX-47, an assassin droid with orders to kill this NPC labor union leader. How did that go for me? Well, we made repeated comparisons to Michael Palin in A Fish Called Wanda. So... about that well, but without the guilt.

Regardless, I had a good time, and really enjoy the mechanics of this game. It's something I think I'd love hacking to bits (in a good way). Just by changing the characters' Values, you completely change the tone of the game. What I particularly liked about Josh's pre-gens was how the Values were worked into a statement instead of set apart from them -- e.g., "Nothing is more important than my Duty to my Master" instead of "Duty: Nothing is more important than obeying my Master." Not every Value was like this on every character (although all of 'em were for mine), but it really gets me thinking in terms of using Cortex-K for other settings.

I mean, imagine bog-standard fantasy gaming in the vein of D&D using Cortex-K. It'd be a hilarious subversion to plug in the ol' six abilities: I can always rely on my Strength. I've never had much use for Intelligence. Wisdom's better than luck. Etc. That, to me, is very funny.

Smallville is one of those games like Houses of the Blooded that makes me want to use it for dungeon-crawling, just because it's so not made for that -- but can absolutely handle it.

The Doom of Damocles (DFRPG): I talk about this game here, just to keep all the FATE stuff together.

To Steal the Orb of Orwand (Shadow, Sword & Spell): I have to say this up front, just to get it out of the way: I'm increasingly dissatisfied with this book. First of all, many of the mechanical elements feel wonky and poorly thought-out. Much has been made of the game's treatment of skills elsewhere, and even the game's author seems confused about how things should work, but that's such a huge part of the game's mechanics -- really, characters are defined almost exclusively through an extensive skill list -- that it isn't easy to ignore. Second, the way it's written reads like it was translated into another language and back again. The result was that everything we did felt houseruled, like we were banging the game into a usable shape as we went. It's one thing to do that after you have a bunch of experience with a game and feel like you want to tweak it here and there to make it do what you want it to, but this was our first contact with SS&S. We weren't going for a nuanced version of the rules -- we just wanted something playable and reasonable.

None of that, though, could slow down the adventure Andy had prepared, which was a classic S&S tale about stealing a thing from some guy. The setting had a vaguely Middle Eastern or Indian tinge -- f'rinstance, we were breaking into the raja's palace. We had a Cimmerian-type barbarian with us, but I figure he was part of the 13th Warrior Exchange Program.

Two especially funny things happened in this game: I freed a guy from a prison cell in the bowels of the palace who'd been locked up there for decades. His name was Manfred, and we almost completely failed to find a use for him despite dragging him around with us wherever we went. Andy did a great job with him -- he was always asking us quite sensible questions in a quavering old-man voice, like "Shouldn't we be trying to get out of here?" and "Why are you bringing me with you everywhere you go?"

The other funny thing was when one of the players, a 10-year-old kid, said that D&D 4E was "not even a roleplaying game" and "like a boardgame now." If you want to think that about D&D, fine, but hearing it from a fifth-grader was just too much. "Yeah, it's not like it was back in '74, right? Those were the days!" A 10-year-old grognard. Now I've seen everything (until someone comes along with a 9-year-old grognard, I guess).

Castle Ravenloft: Woot! I figured I wouldn't have time to try out this new boardgame, but Scott and the Vegas/Utah contingent busted it out during the dinner break. We thought it'd take an hour... it took almost the entire two-hour dinner break. But that's okay, because it was a lot of fun (and we had pizza delivered in the middle of it, so dinner was taken care of). It's a very well-designed, super stripped-down version of D&D 4E bolted onto a tile-placing boardgame. It also reminds me quite a bit of DragonStrike, which I ran at Gamex this year, in that there are distinct characters with individual abilities and a book of different scenarios using a variable map.

Actually, in terms of gameplay, it honestly isn't all that different, apart from a few important points. One, there's no GM. Every player will be responsible for controlling one or more monsters at some point, but since the monsters have such basic scripted attack routines, there's no fudging things to your advantage. Second, the characters can level (only once) using an Arkham Horror-like mechanic that involves trading in XP gained from defeated monsters. Third, each character has a selection of D&D-style powers, and can get more as the game progresses. Fourth, as soon as one character dies for good, the game's over and you lose. Fifth, the tile-placing thing and a very effective mechanic that encourages you to keep moving forward and exploring (placing tiles) instead of just hanging out and taking it easy (which is nearly impossible anyway).

I mean, there's more, but those are the big ones, IMO. Our party ended up victorious, but it was extremely Pyrrhic -- I think all but one of us was dead when Rob's wizard fireballed that room.

Beyond Thunderbowl (Leftovers): Saturday night, I ran Leftovers again. As expected, the previous day's game greatly informed and improved things on the second go-'round, including not making certain things too obvious. The party composition was significantly different -- three pure-human mechanical-types and two Grafted-up ass-kickers -- and I didn't roll nearly as well (Friday afternoon I was routinely rolling in the high teens or low twenties on three or four dice), but the end result was exactly the same: a boiling sea of creepers rising up to throw things into an utter panic and obliterate at least one PC.

For whatever reason, this session involved quite a bit more talking. The PCs managed to convince Blackbeard (the Grafter gangleader for whom they were forced to fight) that the Thunderbowl itself was badly in need of maintenance before it fell apart completely. After some cajoling, he let the three mechanics in there to fix it up, but in the process they set it up for a future sabotage -- which meant a d12 Circumstance die to their later efforts to collapse the metal-grate floor into the seething pit of creepers below, allowing them to come tumbling up out of there and etc. So yeah -- that Circumstance die thing is in.

Dominion: Then we went back to the room and played some Dominion. I suck at that game. Moat it up!

Treachery in the Skies (Swasbucklers of the 7 Skies): I'd been dying to play this for a long time -- since before it came out, really -- and it didn't disappoint. I'd read PDQ# and got a feel for how good it was, but actually experiencing it in action was something else entirely. Chris (the GM) loves games with intrigue, inter-party conflict, and romance, so needless to say that's what this game was all about. I played a Sha Ku Ruqrider -- a sorta primitive island-warrioress type who rides what's essentially a giant parrot -- in love with the first mate of a pirate ship, who was in love with this princess-type who we were "rescuing" from her wedding and taking to safety somewhere.  Turns out the pirate captain wanted to sell her to some shady types on Floating Pirate Island to pay back a debt of his, while the sorcerer wanted to deliver her to his master for a ritual sacrifice.

The final conflict of the game, after a number of double-crosses and backstabbings (and frontstabbings, for that matter), was convincing Hamish's first mate (now captain) to choose me over the princess type, and according to the dice, he did. So I'd like to think that I won that one.

Chad Underkoffler says that S7S is his love letter to every bit of swashbuckling entertainment out there, and I'm happy to say it shows. I don't own the book and only got to flip through it a little, but it's well-written (as is Zo) and loaded to the brim with quotations from relevant movies and books. That latter bit was just as fun to read as anything else. I'm picking this up at my first opportunity, then hoping against hope that I get a chance to play or run it.

Vanguard: Rookie Year (FATE Supers): Amply covered here.

Dominion: We played a little more Dominion before heading home, and this time I tied for the win. Boosh.

All in all, a great convention. My thanks to everyone who made it that way. I'm definitely re-inspired to finish off Leftovers and get it up on Lulu by the end of the month. The plan is to finish off those final few chapters (of advice, really) this week and get it into final layout ASAP.

Coming up next week: Game Chef!

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Gateway 2010: Beyond Thunderbowl

Hola amigos -- I know it's been a long time since I rapped at you, but...

Wait, I've already done this bit once, haven't I?

Anyway, this weekend at Gateway I'm running two sessions of Leftovers: Friday at 2:00 pm and Saturday at 8:00 pm. Pre-reg slots are all full, which leaves only two seats per game for day-of participants to sign up.

Here's the blurb:
Captured by Grafters, stranded in an irradiated wasteland, beset by Horrors -- and the only way out may be... the Thunderbowl! Do you have what it takes to make it through intact, or will they send you back to the Trench in a series of small leaky boxes? Leftovers is a roleplaying game of post-apocalyptic survival in a world of Lovecraftian Horrors... one of which is probably you.
The name "Thunderbowl" is ripped off from a loving homage to "the largest table top Blood Bowl league in the western hemisphere," run in part by a good friend of mine up in Vancouver, BC. Those guys love Blood Bowl.

If you're going to be there, come on by and pull up a chair. Actually, go sign up at RPG HQ, then come on by and pull up a chair.