Monday, July 21, 2014

ENnie Awards - The Beautiful Agony

Being nominated for an ENnie Award is a big deal for a little publisher.  For those not familiar with the process, publishers of roleplaying game, podcasts, websites and the like can submit their products from the previous year for consideration by a panel of elected judges.  The Judges then read each publication, and debate amongst themselves which 5 of these products are sufficiently awesome to be nominated for an award (and in which category).  For a really interesting insight into the process of being an ENnie Judge, you might like to read this account on the Iron Tavern.

Once the nominees are announced the public have 10 days to vote for their favourites, with the top two products in each category being awarded a prize at the ENnie Awards Ceremony held at Gen Con.

Both of these mechanisms  are a little controversial - the selection of nominees is obviously a subjective assessment, albeit moderated somewhat by a group of people.  The voting process meanwhile is often seen as a popularity contest, with the big publishers being able to mobilise overwhelming support.

Last year EPOCH products were nominated in 4 categories (Best Rules, Best Electronic Book, Best Free Product & Product of the Year) and these nominations were both very gratifying and proved a big boost to interest in the game.

This year I was extremely pleased that War Stories, a collection of 5 scenarios set during wartime (a 155 page book or PDF with an RRP of $7.99, currently half price)  was nominated in the category of Best Adventure.  I was particularly proud when I reviewed the other 4 nominated titles:
  • Eternal Lies; an epic campaign for Trail of Cthulhu  (a 400-page hardback book or a 396-page PDF with an RRP of $49.95)
  • The Sense of the Sleight-of-Hand Man, A Dreamlands Campaign for Call of Cthulhu (a 294-page book or PDF with an RRP of $49.99)
  • Rise of the Drow, a mega-module for Pathfinder (a book of nearly 500 pages, with an RRP of $41.99 or $99 in print)
  • Razor Coast - Heart of the Razor, a collection of four adventures for Pathfinder (a 160 page book currently available for $29.99)
Some serious competition to say the least! All of these look like great products (so much so that I already own the first two).  So how does War Stories stack up? 
  • The first scenario in the book is FROM ABOVE AND BELOW, by Marcus Bone.  A thrilling plunge into the darkness and the horror that lurks beneath the trenches of the Western Front during the Great War.  I had a great time playtesting this scenario, and would love to try running it in the dark with each player wearing a head-lamp that is extinguished when their character is eliminated.
  • Next up is THE COLDEST WINTER by Mike Sands which thrusts the characters into the hostile climate and freezing forest in a brutal struggle for survival during the Russian invasion of Finland.  When I ran this game it had the feel of a true Russian epic which spanned the entire war experience for the surviving characters, and culminated in a suitably bleak ending.
  • Then it's HOME FRONT, Andrew Millar's homage to Dad's Army where the well-meaning Home Guard of the British village of Blakely are sent to secure the wreckage of a German bomber.  Although this scenario is truly creepy, I most remember the Inglorious Basterds style shootout, which was the epic climax to the tensions between the characters. 
  • Next is my scenario MASS DESTRUCTION which blends modern catastrophe with ancient evil, and which I've recently ran at Kapcon to good effect.
  • Finally, Liam Jones presents BEHIND THE MASK OF EVIL which draws on his own experiences of Peace operations in the Congo and adds a supernatural twist.  I loved playing this so much I used our playtests as an example of how to structure flashbacks.
So, although these scenarios were contributed by friends,  I think they've delivered an excellent package which will provide you with hours of quality gaming.  Can we win?  No. Like many small games EPOCH simply doesn't have a fan-base which can compete in a popular vote.  But I think it's clear that just being nominated is a victory in its own right.   

Voting for the 2014 ENnie Awards is open for the next 10 days, so no matter who you vote for, spend a few minutes to participate in the Beautiful Agony that is the ENnie Awards.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Games within Games

As we make our way through The Frozen Reaches for Rogue Trader we have used the starship combat rules a little more frequently than in our last outing with this system.  These rules are interesting, as they exist as a completely separate subset to the core rules governing characters and their actions, and even the rules governing life on a starship not involved in combat.  To play these rules in the way the designers intended you need to use a grid and tokens or models to reflect the ships.  Characters then take specific roles – either direct (moving the ship through piloting rolls, and firing the weapons) or indirect – (boosting crew morale, making repairs etc.).  All of this is intended to combine into a dramatic and balanced battle which plays out like a movie, with each character getting a cut-shot of their activities during the action.
So does it work?  I’m a big believer in having a system which reflects the core function of the game – and for me Rogue Trader is a game about exploration and commerce, with a little diplomacy and action thrown in for good measure.  Accordingly I think that the system should reflect this, and to its credit, it does in many places by providing abstract rules for things like crew population and morale, establishing a colony, determining your cargo etc.  Shifting from this activity to a game of grid squares and tables - effectively a mini-wargame -  seems to jar with the rest of what this game is trying to achieve, not to mention being extremely time consuming.
My real gripe with these rules, however, is how difficult they are to reference.  A tabletop wargame (or boardgame for that matter) needs to have rules that are extremely easy to reference, unambiguous, and will ideally include examples which reference all the key activities of that game.  The Rogue Trader rules by contrast are written into the long paragraphs of text that are typical of the rest of the book.  This makes finding key rules time consuming, and even then, some of the wording is ambiguous.
Perhaps the greatest irony of this is that Games Workshop (whose IP is licensed in Rogue trader) are established market leaders in wargaming, and Fantasy Flight Games (who published Rogue Trader) are established market leaders in boardgaming.  So if ever there was a product which should have robust and well considered rules which optimise space combat, it should be a marriage between these formidable companies – like Rogue Trader.
Instead it feels like the space combat rules for Rogue Trader were hastily bolted onto the core book, as were the combat rules, and equipment – all taken from an assembly line of 40k RPG components.  A feeling reinforced by the GM screen (which for Rogue Trader includes only combat rule summaries – no skill summaries, exploration or space combat rules are in evidence).  You might argue that this situation was the result of the speed to bring this product to market – the core rules are a sizable product after all.  But Fantasy Flight has subsequently published many expansion books for Rogue Trader over several years, and had ample opportunity to revise and improve these rules (in publications like Battlefleet Koronus for example). Instead they use additional books to layer yet more complexity to an already ill-fitting system.
In fairness, we have enjoyed the game to this point, and the space combat rules certainly add a high level of interest to proceedings, forcing the characters to agree a joint course of action under some degree of pressure.   But as with many aspects of this game, it leaves me to wonder what might have been...
Can you think of any other examples of games within roleplaying games?

Friday, May 9, 2014

Back Into Space - The Warpstorm Trilogy begins

Following Chaosium's announcement that the publication of the 7th edition rules for Call of Cthulhu has been further delayed, I discussed with my group whether we should wait until the finished rules are published, and run Horror on the Orient Express in the way it is intended, or continue to play using the quickstart rules, or even go back to 6th Edition.  The consensus was to wait, so in the interim we have returned to a campaign which has been on my list of things I want to run for some time: The Warpstorm Trilogy for Rogue Trader.
"In Frozen Reaches, the Explorers find themselves facing an impending Ork invasion and working to save the planet of Damaris. But first, they will need to organize squabbling factions and establish a united front. This is no easy task, as powerful forces are working against them from the shadows...  The exciting adventure continues in The Citadel of Skulls and culminates in Fallen Sun. Do you have what it takes to brave the dangers of a warpstorm?"

Re-entry to the Rogue Trader system was a little rocky.  I had forgotten just how much complexity exists in such an old school system.  While not radically different from other Old School style games, Rogue Trader requires players to reference multiple sections of the core rules, and if they want to utilise all the options the system provides, reference specific sections in multiple books across the range.

On top of that, fairly routine actions (such as travel through the Warp, acquiring new items etc.) require a 3-5 stage process, each with a discrete set of mechanics, tests and modifiers, to say nothing of combat in both space and interpersonally.  It led me to wonder - what is the point of all this complexity?  What is this game doing (intentionally or otherwise)?

My conclusion is that all these mechanics and details provide a veneer of balance, and serve to effectively camouflage the degree of GM fiat that occurs in most traditional games.  To an extent the mini-outcomes these micro-systems produce can be used as a creative crutch by the GM, fleshing out details to add to descriptions and providing some colour.  However, as these systems also require the GM to specify difficulty, other variables and then situate the outcome in a meaningful context, they do not check GM fiat in any meaningful way.

Thus far, the mechanical complexity of Rogue Trader has been tiresome, convoluted, and just a little bit wonderful.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Reports from the Orient Express - The Blood Red Fez

This week we completed the prequel scenario, “The Blood Red Fez” which is a new addition to the epic re-booted Call of Cthulhu campaign Horror on The Orient Express.  As people have recently posted, asking me to share my thoughts on the campaign, I’ll start here with a review of this scenario.  As a warning there will be some spoilers, so please don’t read on if you plan on playing this scenario.

We used the proof copy of the scenario supplied to backers at the end of 2013, so it is possible that there will be revisions and changes before the final campaign is published.  So, on to the review – ‘The Blood Red Fez’ is a scenario by Geoff Gillan, one of the original authors of the Orient Express.  It covers a whopping 55 pages, including a small section detailing the Gaslight era of the Orient Express. 
It is suggested that the scenario be run as a flashback during the first part of the main campaign, however, the complexity of this scenario and the time involved (it took us 4 sessions) meant that I didn’t believe this to be feasible.  For the record, I like the idea of a prequel, triggered during the campaign but believe that this would need to be limited to a relatively simple plot, so as not to detract from the campaign investigation.  Instead I chose another suggested option – to run the scenario in advance of the main campaign, and give the players the option to play any surviving characters thirty years on

The scenario takes three parts.  An initial investigation in London, followed by a tense journey on the 1890’s Orient Express, then a final confrontation in Constantinople.  
Overall the scenario has a mix of both highly structured elements, and relatively open sections.  For example it is assumed the characters will diligently investigate a nefarious artefact, then board the Orient Express, but they have relative freedom to determine the way things play out on the train, and what happens once they reach their destination.

I felt that the train section of the scenario was reasonably well supported, and I liked that the villain is travelling openly, and that his relationship with some of the other passengers provokes the characters moral outrage - although it might have been nice to get a sense of what the NPCs are doing during the trip, and how they will react to both mythos and mundane violence, should it occur so the Keeper need not carry the entire descriptive burden.
I think the main drawback of the plot as structured is that the villains have two key artefacts on the train necessary to undertake their ritual in the final section of the scenario.  However, it is possible, if not likely, that proactive investigators will recover one or more of these – potentially dispatching the villains en-route. 

If this occurs there is scant guidance on how to adapt the final section of the scenario with regards to the capabilities of the villains.  The scenario remarks that this eventuality is unlikely, but should the social constraints of the Victorian era be broken, and combat occur, it is the most likely outcome, as the main villain has no real protection against mundane weapons (this is also true for the final confrontation, where it seems that buckshot and bullets are a more reliable method of defeating evil than spending hours deciphering a Mythos tome).

A simple solution (and one which I will employ if running this scenario again) to make this less likely would be to place a famous detective or other military or law-enforcement authority figure amongst the other passengers to provide an outlet for tensions and conflict, reinforce the rule of law, and force the characters bent on violence to adopt a more surreptitious approach.

The final segment of the scenario feels very much like the conclusion of a Chapter of Masks of Nyarlathotep, detailing a host of villains, their lair and their plans (perhaps not surprising given Gillan worked on this venerable campaign as well).  While there is a list of possible investigative sites, the detail of possible resolutions to the scenario seems light.  There is no discussion of possible allies the characters could recruit to help them defeat the villains (once they realise they are outnumbered and outgunned), nor of what should occur if the characters seek the help of the authorities to dispatch the cult (by making allegations of white slavery or the abduction of royal prince for example). 

In my opinion the scene which covers the climactic exchange with kidnappers would have benefitted from the presence of a map and a few more details, and it might have been good to detail whether the characters can monitor the cultists lair from the surrounding islands (and perhaps explain why the villains had ferry tickets in the first segment of the scenario, if no ferry actually goes to their island).  The scenario might also have provided some options for the villains to be proactive (attacking the investigators in their lodgings to try and recover the items they seek for example).
I also think it’s necessary to discuss the centrepiece of the scenario: The Blood Red Fez itself.  While I appreciate the hard work that the author has undertaken to research all things Fez related, I think for some people the idea of horror headwear is simply too ridiculous to be taken seriously.  The Fez is at once described as loathsome (costing Sanity points to view for prolonged periods) and later openly worn on the Orient Express.  In my opinion a Keeper will have to work pretty hard to ensure the players take the Fez as seriously as the scenario requires.

Finally, we ran this scenario using the 7th Edition Call of Cthulhu Quick Start rules, and I didn’t appreciate just how deadly combat has become.  In previous editions, villains usually had less total attacks than characters, and a well-timed Dodge test could save an investigators life.  Under 7th Edition, in close quarters combat there is the potential for both sides to damage each other with every action, and a successful dodge roll will not necessarily negate damage if the attacker secures a ‘hard’ success (one fifth of their chance). 

In this scenario there are several instances where close quarters combat is likely, and the investigators are likely to discover just how dangerous their enemies are.  In addition First Aid no longer works in the same way as it did and injured investigators no longer get a boost to restore in hit points following a combat. 

I gave each investigator a fate point (meaning they could negate a killing injury once) and this proved the difference between a hard won success and brutal defeat in the final session.  My party of 6 investigators all spent their fate points, and a further two were killed subsequently (meaning that 8 investigators would have died without fate points).
In Summary:

  • The settings (Victorian London, The Orient Express and Ottoman Constantinople) are very atmospheric
  • The scenario is well supported with descriptions and details, nice maps and a good cast of NPCs
  • The conclusion of the scenario allows the investigators agency to resolve the scenario on their own terms
  • The scenario neatly foreshadows several elements from the main campaign
  • This is a sizable scenario, and pre-generated characters are provided
  • Some people are likely to find the idea of horror headwear too ridiculous to take seriously
  • The scenario is too long and complex to be easily run as a flashback
  • There is not sufficient scripted motivation for the investigators to drop everything and risk their lives in a fight against an odd cult (I’d make this same criticism of many Call of Cthulhu scenarios)
  • More detail about how the NPCs respond to likely events on the train, and options to keep the hostilities covert would assist the keeper
  • Under 7th edition combat rules, run as written, this scenario is likely to be extremely lethal to the investigators, and result in a brutal defeat
  • The conclusion of the scenario is not sufficiently detailed to support the Keeper in detailing all the options it invites
In the final analysis, I did enjoy running this scenario (more than I thought I would when I first read it), and with the use of Fate Points the conclusion was genuinely tense and climactic.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

2013 in Review

Around this time every year, I review my gaming achievements over the past year against what I had planned.  Then I set some goals for the next 12 months.  So how did the actual 2013 stack up against the projected?  Let’s see:

1. Write and publish more EPOCH scenarios.  I’d like to see a total of 20 scenarios in print by this time next year.

Check, I didn't manage 20 scenarios, but there are now a total of 16 published EPOCH scenarios, which seems a pretty respectable effort.

2. Write and publish the EPOCH companion.  This includes some expansion rules and new cards for EPOCH as well as my mini-series rules and scenarios. 

No, I am still working on the companion. Several sections are drafted, and Doug is working away at some amazing cover art, but there is more to do - particularly developing some alternate rules, rules for a TV mini-series and a couple of additional scenarios.

3. Write a scenario for Esoterrorists.  Marcus has been talking about this, and if he still wants it, I’d be pleased to repay some favours and write an Esoterrorists scenario for him.

No, although it's still something I'd like to do.

4. Run the Warpstorm Trilogy for Rogue Trader.

No, although it's still something I'd like to do, but given the heavy rules prep required to get back up to speed with this game I probably should accept that this won't happen soon.

5. Attend Day of Games and Buckets of Dice in Christchurch.

Partial check, I missed Day of Games but Buckets was great.  I also managed to attend Fright Night and Kapcon.

So, what goals for the next twelve months?  Here's my list (slightly reduced this year due to family commitments):
  • Write and publish the EPOCH companion
  • Run the revised Horror on the Orient Express campaign for Call of Cthulhu
  • Attend Fright Night and Kapcon
Do you have any goals for the next year?

Thursday, March 6, 2014

On the Rails

Last night I began running Horror on the Orient Express, which is one of the epic campaigns for Call of Cthulhu, recently revised as part of a Kickstarter.  If you’re not familiar with the campaign, this is the description from the back of the box:
"Orient Express contains a massive adventure for the Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game. Beginning in 1920s London, the investigators journey to Paris and thence to the ancient city of Constantinople. With luck, they may also return home."
My plan was to use the new campaign, which includes a significant amount of new material, to provide a complete package for my players, and end to end run of the Orient Express including all the new material.  The new campaign is now designed for 7th edition of the Call of Cthulhu.  However, there were two hurdles – first, the campaign has not actually been published yet (originally scheduled to be published in August 2013).  However, Chaoisum were good enough to send out a PDF proof version of the campaign books to backers prior to Christmas, so that was enough to get started with. 
Second, the 7th Edition Rules have not yet been released either (the Kickstarter was originally scheduled to be published in October 2013).  Once again there is a work around – Chaoisum have published a free quick-start set of 7th edition rules, which, combined with the playtest rules, provide enough to get underway.  I am just keeping my fingers crossed that Chaosium soon release the published campaign and, at the very least, PDF versions of the 7th edition rules so I can run the campaign as intended.
As I mentioned earlier, the new material written for this campaign is significant   This begins with a Gaslight (1890’s) era prequel.  There is a neat idea in the campaign – that this prequel feature during the campaign as a flashback – rather than simply reading a handout which summarises the information, the players take on pre-generated characters and play through several sessions which features a trip on the Orient Express on its pre 1913 route.  Although the material is not directly related to the main plot of the campaign there are a couple of intersections.
However, I decided against using this material as a flashback, opting for another of the suggested approaches – to run the Gaslight section in advance of the regular campaign, offering the players the opportunity to use the same characters for both, albeit 30 years older.  I did this primarily because I felt that the plot and clues relating to the campaign were complex enough, without distracting the players with (another) unrelated plot during the first chapter – particularly one which spans several sessions and which involves a trip on an earlier incarnation of the Orient Express.  This allowed me to start the campaign now, allowing more time for the full campaign and 7th edition rules to be released.
I will confess to having some reservations about the Gaslight prequel.  The notion of horror headwear (which is central to the plot) seems more than a little farcical and the plot is fairly linear -  a railroad if you will.  In addition the author seems to have made little use of the 7th edition rules in setting the difficulty conditions for skill checks etc.  On the other side of the coin, the scenario is reasonably well supported, does provide some options and timelines to guide the Keeper, plus it comes with a small non-fiction section detailing the Gaslight era Orient Express which is very helpful in describing the trip.
The first session went well, although the 7th edition combat rules, which allow a combatant the opportunity to damage enemies in hand-to-hand every time they attack, made the initial encounter extremely brutal and left 3 of the characters seriously injured.  However, the new rules also ensured that characters were able to gain the upper hand through weight of numbers, something which would not have had a clear mechanical resolution under the 6th edition rules.  It remains to be seen whether the rest of the prequel will sustain this momentum.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Structure Your Fun

Is it necessary for RPG scenarios and adventures to have a pre-established structure?  And more importantly, how does having a structure help a GM both read and run a game?,
Scenarios with a compartmentalised structure are - in my opinion - much easier to read, assess, compare and then run.  When looking for a scenario to run a short notice, my preference is to skim through the pages – looking for what seem like great scenes, then backtracking to check that the detail of how the scenes link seems to be coherent and workable for my players.  Then I skip to the end and check the finale, to see if it seems suitably memorable and pitched appropriately.  Passing those tests, I then read the scenario and make notes about how I’ll run it.  When the text runs together this assessment is much harder, and I need to make many more notes in order to run the game.

When I created EPOCH I set a set structure for scenarios - this was a layout that I felt had a dual purpose, both to provide a coherent story, while providing a clear vision for how the game would unfold, and to be usable when facilitating the game - allowing GMs to access information with ease.  This structure was based entirely on my own preferences, although I assumed the utility would be apparent to all.
I was wrong.  When I worked with other authors, I found that few of them submitted scenarios in any form that resembled the structure I had established for EPOCH scenarios.  Indeed most were in sharp contrast the rigorous divisions I had established.  
But what about other games?  Here are some examples from scenario collections, selected at random from my bookshelf.
Example 1: Call of Cthulhu (Terrors From Beyond)
In the past I have found scenarios for Call of Cthulhu to be a leading benchmark of quality in scenario structure.  They (almost uniformly) follow a similar structure, setting out a Keeper Background (which usually serves as a background and synopsis) followed by a section on 'Involving the Investigators' or 'Investigator background' which establishes the role of the characters in the scenario. Statistics for NPCs and monsters are usually found in the back (although sometimes on the body of the text as well).  This is pretty good, but the coherence and layout of the main body of each scenario can vary greatly.
Example 2: Trail of Cthulhu (Out of Space)
Expands a little on the traditional CoC format by including sections titled  'Hook' (how the characters are involved) 'The Awful/Horrible Truth' basically the same as a Keeper background section, then 'The Spine' (a paragraph by paragraph summary of the scenario scenes) then some variance between scenarios but generally a section titled 'Scenes' which contains the bulk of the scenario.  I think the addition of 'The Spine' is a significant improvement on the CoC formula.
Example 3: The Laundry (Black Bag Jobs)
No real coherent uniformity beyond a 'Mission overview' section which is usually a page or two into the scenario text, following a discussion of background elements.  Player handouts are at the end of each scenario. Thankfully most of the paragraphs are small and easy to digest.
Example 4: Rogue Trader (Edge of the Abyss)
No coherent uniformity beyond an appendix containing adversary statistics at the end of the book.  Ironically scenario two in the collection systematically establishes the setting, objectives and rewards for a series of encounters the characters can have providing a small oasis of order (and I found this was one of the easiest sections to facilitate when I actually ran this game). 
Example 5: Paranoia XP (Crash Priority)
No coherent uniformity although most scenarios have a 'Mission overview' section somewhere close to the beginning. 
My conclusion: few RPGs I examined imposed a systematic and consistent structure on scenarios written for their games.  I think this makes it more difficult for GMs to rapidly assess information and use it in gameplay, and increases the variance of the experience for players.  The ability of the GM to remember, prepare or bookmark key sections becomes much more significant and it is more likely that key details of the scenario are omitted, or changed on the fly by the GM.