Saturday, October 4, 2014

Horror on the Horizon

Fright Night is almost upon us again, and there is a fantastic selection of games on offer!  It's a small horror themed RPG convention which takes place over one night of play – consisting of 2 three-hour sessions.  If you'll be in Wellington on Saturday 25 October you should sign up today by contacting the 'con organisers here.  The schedule of games looks like this:
ROUND ONE

The Tribute
System: EPOCH
Blurb: Every 7 years the city of Athens pays a tribute of 7 of its young men and women to King Minos of Crete. These young Athenians are then given in sacrifice to the Minotaur in his infamous labyrinth. This year you were one of the chosen victims. You must face the horror of the Cretan Labyrinth and the beast that dwells within.

The Woods
System: Black Stars Rise
Blurb: The woods have always had a spooky reputation – stories amongst the kids, probably due to those murders back in ’95. Still, it’s a park and you use it for normal park stuff – walking to work, exercise, taking the dog out.

Today, though, something strange is happening…

Flyover Country
System: The Laundry Files
Blurb: On a dead plateau, under unfamiliar stars, behind a wall of impaled, watchful corpses, an alien god sleeps. If they wake, the Sleeper in the Pyramid will set in motion a chain of events which will bring about CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN, the end of the world.

Now, a small band of intruders has breached the plateau, presumably with the intention of waking the Sleeper. And it’s the Laundry’s job to stop them.

A Quiet Day in the Library
System: LARP
Blurb:The workers at a small community public library on what appeared to be an ordinary week day. Only, as they pause for another cup of tea they realise that it’s even quieter than usual. Mr Brockton hasn’t been in to read the paper, and he does that every day at 10.30 am, that young mother hasn’t brought her loud child in to play with the toys in the kid’s area…. and the news reports on the radio are a trifle concerning….
A game of existential horror, self-reflection and books.

ROUND TWO

Dead Horse Corner
System: Trail of Cthulhu
Blurb: The death and suffering on the Western Front provides of the backdrop for many dark and unsettling mysteries. Most of these are dismissed simply as the fears of scared men, but others seem to take on a life of their own.
 
When the British forward observation post at Dead Horse Corner suddenly falls silent, it’s up to the  brave men of the Royal Fusiliers to reinforce the post and work out what has happened to Lieutenant Somerset and his twenty men.
 
However they will soon find that there are far worse things than snipers, gas attacks and artillery strikes to worry about in the desolation of no-man’s land.
 
Silent Night
System: EPOCH
Blurb:I'm dreaming of a white Christmas...
"...shutting down as blizzard conditions come out of nowhere..."
with every Christmas card I write
"...there's a lot of passengers facing Christmas in an airport terminal Chuck..."
May your days be merry and bright
"...please if anyone can hear us, help, please, there's something out there... Please help us! It's coming!"
And may all your Christmases be white
 
Harvest
System: EPOCH
Blurb: "Every year the good people of Hudson’s Point celebrate the bounty of the land with a spectacular Harvest Festival.  This year is no exception; scarecrows are beginning to show up on street corners, in front of homes and stores and just about anywhere you can put a stake in the ground.  It’s all part of the fun, which culminates in a costumed torchlight parade.  This Fall, Hudson’s Point is the place to be!"
 
The Face of Oblivion
System: LARP
Blurb: 2277, May 17, Asteroid Habitat Aoraki Mountain, Captain’s Address to Crew: “People, we’ve done this before. The system newcomer Oblivion, whatever it’s mass, is just another flying rock. Killing rocks is our trade – we have the technology, the manpower, and the will. Earth will not fall on our watch.”

2278, April 4, Asteroid Habitat Aoraki Mountain, Captain’s Address to Crew:
“… in light of Oblivion 3′s failure due to catastrophic equipment malfunction, technical crews will be inspecting Aoraki’s infrastructure early this year. We trust that our crew will behave in the spirit of Aoraki as Oblivion passes through our orbit…”

2278, April 4, Captain’s Private Log
“This isn’t over.”

For more than a hundred years the people of Earth and its surrounding space habitats have been fighting the Rock War – a collection of solid masses are passing willy-nilly through the Solar System, many of which could profoundly damage the mother planet. Most have been neutralised – humanity is winning!

But now the largest planet-killer of them all, code-named Oblivion, has defeated the last three attempts to divert it. Soon it will pass through the orbit of Asteroid Habitat Aoraki Mountain, almost close enough to see, and the Captain has one last desperate gambit in mind…

But oh – this will cost. Join the habitat’s officers in the last two hours before an irrevocable decision is made. Sometimes there aren’t any good choices.

What compromises will you make, in the Face of Oblivion?

Thursday, September 4, 2014

The Frozen Reaches

Last night we completed The Frozen Reaches, the first book of the Warpstorm Trilogy for the Rogue Trader RPG.  It took us 9 sessions, and while I don’t think we ever entirely came to terms with the system ‘crunch’, it was overall a fun time.  What follows are my reflections on this scenario and do contain some spoilers. 

The setup for this scenario is set out pretty clearly in the blurb:

“The Frozen Reaches throws the Explorers before an impending Ork invasion as they work to save the planet of Damaris... Use all your charm and influence to prepare a planet’s defences as the Ork fleets close in on Damaris. Fight the xenos in space aboard the bridge of your starship, or meet the bloody Orks in brutal hand-to-hand combat on the ground! The choices you make ensure success, or guarantee defeat. Choose wisely, and reap the rewards of your victory.”

So the explorers have a job in three acts, organise and prepare the planet, fight the siege, then take the fight to the Orks to end the threat once and for all.  It’s a nice idea - to have the characters directly involved in a massive global siege, able to spread their influence to different parts of the fight to tip the balance.  This is achieved through a series of structured missions, and a bespoke system for resolving each aspect of the siege, modified by the actions of the characters.  That seems pretty cool, and a different approach to the Star Trek style episodes of Lure of the Expanse, promising to really invest the characters in the richness and complexity of a planet.  However, in my opinion the book fails to adequately deliver on its potential.

This set-up becomes a victim of its own ambition.  The authors clearly wanted to have the explorer’s ship, and crew, have a major impact on the scenario – so a planet with a population of 3 Billion is described as having a military strength of something in the order of 150,000 including some tanks, a moon defence base, several system ships.  That means the explorers crew can make a meaningful impact if deployed to man the city walls, but it does stretch credulity a little far (at least for my group).  The moon defence base, in orbit around the planet, also seems to have some fairly obvious drawbacks in terms of being a meaningful obstacle to preventing invasion to a specific part of the planet.

In addition several other Rogue Traders are described as having responded to the planet’s distress call, and as their ships are reasonably powerful, it does seem unlikely that the explorers would actually be anything but bit players in the forthcoming events.  However, the characters are expected to discover the motives of the other Traders, and merge them into an impromptu coalition. So the scenario seeks to make the planet worth saving in terms of future profit for the explorers, but at the same time arranges events so that a Rogue Trader and their ship could significantly influence the outcome of the battle, and this comes at the expense of some in-game realism.

This could have been addressed if further details were provided – perhaps the Imperial Levy has recently been particularly heavy and stripped the planet of soldiers (picking up on the thread of simmering ambitions for independence presented elsewhere in the scenario)?  Perhaps there is an evacuation already underway, and the Imperial fleet is en-route, but the Explorers have a critical role to play in the interim.  Unfortunately there is simply not enough detail provided to facilitate this, and the GM is left to find their own meaning in the void.

In short; Frozen Reaches feels like a rushed product.  It weighs in at just 70 pages, and would have been so much stronger if it had spent more time detailing the city, the major players in it, and what happens within the city as the invasion rages (providing an additional suite of social challenges for the explorers).  A layered approach like this would have allowed a GM to run each part in as much, or as little, depth as appropriate for their group.  Nowhere is the rushed nature of this product more clearly evidenced than in the mysterious relic contained in a stasis casket, which the Bishop begs the characters to safeguard as the siege reaches its zenith.  The nature of the Relic is also apparently a secret from the GM:

“Just what really resides in the stasis casket will be revealed in future instalments of the Warpstorm trilogy…”

To conclude; The Frozen Reaches provides a fairly innovative and interesting set-up for the characters, allowing them to engage with a specific planet, and play a significant role in an epic Ork siege.  However, the GM is not furnished with enough detail to really bring any particular aspect of the scenario to life outside a narrow railroad of expected PC actions, and accordingly a large creative load is put on the GM to help this scenario deliver on its vision.  We had fun playing this scenario, but some characters (like the Navigator) were significantly disadvantaged in their potential to be useful, and the final conclusion, with outside aid coming from the Eldar, feels like an unrewarding way to repay the efforts of the characters, and their persistence with the relentlessness of the Ork attack.

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:

PROS
  • 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
CONS
  • 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?