Tuesday, September 11, 2018

The Two-Headed Serpent - Initial Impressions and Bolivia

Following my post on Pulp Cthulhu it's time to crack into the review of the Two-Headed Serpent campaign.

The following is a review of the Bolivia chapter of the Pulp Cthulhu campaign The Two-Headed Serpent (Chaosium: 2017) based on actual play. I intend to review each chapter of this epic campaign as we play through it, highlighting what I see as strengths and weaknesses, and providing some suggestions along the way for what I’d do differently if running it again. Spoilers follow, so don’t read on if you ever plan to play in this Pulp Cthulhu campaign.

Initial Impressions
The book is beautiful, with high-quality art and maps throughout. It is well supported in PDF form with a Keeper Resource pack that includes pre-generated characters, and compiled references and handouts.

Several appendices in the book offer details of key NPCs, monsters and weird science that feature in the campaign. The backstory is interesting (if somewhat convoluted) and well detailed in the opening pages. While there is a definite twist in the plot arc, the campaign anticipates that the investigators may choose different ways to engage with the scenario, and offers different entry points for each chapter to reflect this. There are also notes from the playtest session sprinkled across the book, which can be interesting and insightful.

Overall these factors given the campaign the feel of a modern, well resolved, set of linked scenarios which will be entertaining for players and keeper alike. Unsurprisingly, the Two Headed Serpent was nominated for an Origins and ENnie Award. But how does it play in practice? 

Chapter One - Bolivia
There’s a lot to like about the opening chapter of the campaign which drops the characters into Bolivia and straight into the action. Setting the scenario in the ‘Green Hell’ of the Chaco War and allows groups to explore an interesting piece of history in an evocative setting. There are some great set-piece scenes and the scenario has a nice tempo, with the action increasing in intensity right through until the end.

Starting out as it means to go on, the campaign begins in-media-res; interrupting an NPC mid-sentence with a shot to the head, then jumping straight into a combat sequence as the investigators are ambushed! This is a nice touch that sets the tone well and allows the players to introduce their characters in an exciting and dramatic way.

However, there are also a few drawbacks to this approach. As written, the characters must learn about the true purpose for their presence in Bolivia (and what to do next) by rifling through the papers of the deceased Dr. Ursini and then checking in with headquarters via a portable radio. If they do neither of these things the Keeper has a major problem, and there’s no scripted options to get things back on track. Successful Idea rolls could bridge this gap, but I feel this is an inelegant solution where there’s no reason the plot couldn’t accommodate a more robust option.

This could be solved by dispensing with the radio, and bringing one of the characters into the second tier of Caduceus in advance of the commencing of the campaign and providing them with the orientation package and a briefing for the scenario so they can pick things up to ensure the mission is completed. This has the added advantage of reducing the narrative burden on the Keeper and allowing any doubts and reservations that the character may have to be roleplayed across the table by the investigators.

The remainder of the scenario revolves around three main scenes; the aid camp, the stone wards and the temple of the dreamer, which is ‘unlocked’ only when the investigators have deduced the purpose of the wards and opened a second of them. There’s also an entertaining encounter with a monkey toting a flame pistol.

The description of the aid camp provides some details of the key NPCs who are Caduceus employees, a local hero and details the uneasy presence of the soldiers who are occupying the camp. The scenario includes some local history that relates to the temple of the dreamer, and an associated festival, along with some guidance about how the soldiers are likely to react to the investigators. However as an "opportunity for roleplaying and investigation" ascribed by the scenario there is little here to detail the circumstances of those seeking aid, the impact of the war, or other dramatic opportunities for the investigators to help out. Such details must be supplied by the Keeper.

For me this seems like an opportunity lost. Setting the scenario amidst the Chaco War might have allowed the authors to explore some of the themes of this conflict, through the plight of the refugees. This could have been achieved through detailing the stories of some of the refugees, and perhaps having tensions within the camp linked to the conflict. 

I also feel like the role of the soldiers – who are magically brainwashed by the Inner Night operatives - could have been more thoughtfully addressed. As written, they function as little more than mooks to support the inner-night and make the combat sequences more challenging and ensure the investigators have a good supply of shotguns.

After being ambushed in the jungle, it seems fairly likely that the investigators will also assume the soldiers at the camp are enemies and carry the fight on to them immediately. This has the potential to remove the role of the roving patrol to participate in the climax of the scenario. It’s also not immediately clear why, if they are willing to tolerate the presence of the Caduceus doctors a the aid camp, the soldiers would attack the supply column in the opening scene of the scenario.

If I were to run this again I would give this a slightly different treatment to highlight the more insidious and parasitic aspects of the serpent people’s interaction with the humans they consider so inferior.

  • Rather than being ambushed initially, the investigators would first encounter the battle scene and the first ward The formless spawn would attack quickly, killing Dr.Ursini mid-sentence as scripted giving the high-action opening.
  • Whether the investigators flee or defeat the spawn, they would seek refuge at the camp. Here they encounter the soldiers – but rather than being enemies from the outset, they might be more ambivalent. Perhaps they may even offer to supply the investigators with explosives to defeat the monster. Amidst their number is the disguised Karnassh who pretends to have suffered some facial wounds in a previous battle to conceal his imperfect disguise. 
  • As time passes the serpent man would slowly exert his influence over the soldiers. 
  • The investigators may note the gradual changes in their behaviour with unease, but unless they provoke events the soldiers do not fully become the pawns of Karnassh as scripted as the investigators approach the temple. 
  • In the interim Vorsinnish has been trying to locate the remaining wards with a clutch of serpent hounds (allowing for an additional combat encounter in the jungle and for the investigators to retrieve the serpent map). 
This reasonably significant re-structuring of the scenario may lead you to conclude that I believe that the opening chapter is fundamentally flawed – that’s not the case at all. 

The chapter is perfectly serviceable as written, and if your investigators are playing action-oriented types who just want to be pointed in the direction of danger, and who wouldn’t bother with the motivations of the NPC’s anyway, then I wouldn’t suggest that these changes are necessary at all. But if you have investigators who are likely to be interested in the wider story, the motivations of NPC's and who may want to spend time roleplaying in the camp then I think these changes will provide a more fulfilling experience.

The remaining sections of the scenario; the wards and the temple are excellent. The mix of monsters and traps is likely to lead to some thoroughly entertaining scenes that really plays up the strengths of Pulp over vanilla Call of Cthulhu. The only challenge may be in ensuring that the characters actually retrieve Tyranissh without simply dispatching her as another ‘snake-monster’. Here, again, having stressed to one of the characters the importance of retrieving her intact from the temple in advance of the scenario starting, may tip the balance in favour of completing the mission as intended.

What works:
  • The setting is unique and interesting, and the plot (while simple) has a nice increasing action tempo
  • Beginning the game in-media res lets the investigators jump right into the action
  • Temples, traps and monsters are a great way to showcase the Pulp genre and are likely to make for a really entertaining time 
What could have been better:
  • The initial link from opening scene to chapter plot is a little tenuous 
  • Not exploring the setting in more detail feels like a missed opportunity 
  • The role and motivations of the soldiers could have been used to better effect 
Overall, this is a solid opening chapter that is likely to prove entertaining and really get the players in the right mindset for the escalating action of the rest of the campaign. It conveys the key themes of the campaign (the enemy within, ancient civilisations, lots of snakes and monsters) in a clever way that’s woven into the action. At the end of the session the players may wonder if it’s possible to top this heady mix of action and adventure – but rest assured, the campaign is up to the challenge.

Sunday, September 9, 2018

RPG Awards

The ENnie Awards are currently undergoing a review.  This post serves as an open submission to those undertaking the review.  I've posted it online with the hope of providing some insight to those who are looking to self-publish their own RPG products.

Awards are important for all RPG publishers - particularly small, independent publishers. To illustrate why, it might be helpful to briefly describe my view of the wider industry.  

Games sell by reputation. A small portion of people are willing to try new games and experiment, but the bulk of the market buy based on word-of-mouth.  There are a couple of ways that you can generate 'buzz' to drive sales:
  • use an established retail network
  • leverage an established internet following
  • demo it at large RPG conventions (which are almost all in North America or Western Europe).
  • win, or be nominated for, a significant award
For self-publishers who aren't based in North America or Europe (like me) awards represent a significant opportunity to get much needed exposure. They also represent an important way to showcase diverse voices and encourage people to participate in the industry.

I've previously described the ENnie Awards as the beautiful agony.  A self-publisher may be able to gain a nomination through the review of the judges - which is huge.  But the chances of actually winning in any category but those of free game or supplement are remote, due to voting.

In some ways I like the idea of public voting for awards - after all what can be fairer than a democratic process?  But there are obvious considerations.  Awards can be divisive, particularly for those who feel their voices aren't being heard, such as in the case of the Hugo Awards.  

Then there's the scale of competition. For example, let's imagine there are awards for soda drinks in the same way as the ENnie Awards. In 2010 Coca Cola released Coke Zero, Pepsi released Cherry Vanilla Pepsi, and Hosmer Mountain Bottling Company released Hosmer Dangerous Ginger Beer. All three are nominated for an award.  Even if 90% of all the people who have purchased Hosmer Ginger Beer vote for it to win, they will be vastly outstripped if only 1% of those who have purchased Coke Zero vote for that.  And based on market share in 2010, Pepsi will always come second. 

Public voting will always favour bigger publishers, or those who have the ability to leverage large audiences.  It may not reflect quality, innovative or important works. The ENnies do award the Judges Spotlight awards, which are awarded to products not nominated for an award, selected by individual judges.  From the perspective of a small publisher these are actually better than a nomination where you have no chance of winning.

Public voting aside, there's also an obvious disparity in comparing a product which a single person has created, with something that has multiple writers, professional art and layout, and editing.

It's all well and good to critique something, but I always appreciate it when people provide suggestions at the same time, so here are my recommendations to address the above points:

  • Retain Public Voting for Judges, Fan’s Choice - Best Publisher and create a new award for Fan's Choice - Best Product
  • All other categories to be based on Judges deliberations (perhaps also include a judge who won an award in the previous year and has nothing in contention this year).
  • Make a summary of the Judges deliberations available after the awards
  • Create categories in some awards for small, mid and large publishers with guidelines based on revenue (i.e. small = less than $1,000 per year, large is $100,000 or more and mid is everything in between).  Publishers pick the category when they submit.
  • Create a new Award for Best New Talent, for anyone who hasn't submitted a product before, and ask those who wish to be nominated to submit a small bio.
  • Create a new award for Services to Gaming to be awarded to anyone who has made a significant contribution, in terms of supporting diversity, promoting charity or doing good works in gaming.

Full disclosure: I've had products nominated for 6 different ENnie Awards and won a Judges Spotlight Award.


Saturday, September 8, 2018

Pulp Cthulhu

It's been a while since I posted here, but now it's time to blow off the dust and add some new content.  As I posted back in December, we spent the first part of the year playing through The Enemy Within campaign for Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 3rd Edition. It had it's high points, some neat set pieces and more than a few problems, but overall it was a fun time.

Now we've returned to Call of Cthulhu, or more specifically (the ENnie Award Winning)  Pulp Cthulhu to play through the Two Headed Serpent Campaign.  I'll shortly begin a chapter by chapter review, as I did with Horror on the Orient Express.

Before I get into it, I thought I might start with a few reflections on Pulp Cthulhu itself.  First, the obvious - it's a beautiful book, brimming with content and ideas.  A worthy purchase for any Keeper, even if Pulp isn't to your taste.

At a more detailed look, Pulp Cthulhu sells itself thus:


"Tired of your investigators dying in quick succession when jaunting around the world in a desperate bid to save humanity? Wishing that sometimes your investigator could make a stand instead of hiding and waiting for the eldritch horror to pass? Pulp Cthulhu ups the ante and provides you with tougher, more capable heroes—ready to take on the villainous machinations of the Cthulhu Mythos!"

In my view, the core Call of Cthulhu System is focussed on investigation and sanity mechanics.  Other things, like combat, are serviceable but not really intended to be the meat of the game-playing experience.  To meet the pitch set out above, Pulp Cthulhu imports a point-spend mechanic, using the Luck system from the 7th Edition Rules with a suite of new options and significantly increasing Luck accrual between sessions.  

This means that, for every skill based roll of the game, players must decide whether to spend points to increase their result, knowing that they will have their Luck Pool replenished to some extent at the end of the session.  So long as players keep 30 Luck in their pool, the are guaranteed that their investigator will survive certain death.


As a mechanic, the 'Luck economy' it works well because it puts the decision making in the hands of the players, allowing them to decide where their characters will enjoy ridiculous success or survive certain death.  The only criticism that I'd make is that the calculation aspect encourages players to muse different possibilities and can break the flow of narration and is somewhat at odds to the free-flowing style you might typically associate with epic pulp combat.

There are a variety of other innovations, and a 'pulp-o-meter' which allows the Keeper to tune the options to their pulp preference - and that's great.  I recommend the ever-quality Reviews from R'lyeh post if you'd like further information.

But I want to pick up on something else, that I'll raise again in relation to my review of the campaign.  That's the tension between the pulp and investigation themes.  The origins of pulp are about 'lurid, sensationalist and exploitative" tales.  In many cases they more closely resemble a superhero story, than a police procedural.

The question for me is; in an investigative game should pulp scenarios be necessarily more simplistic than non-pulp scenarios?  Each of the four scenarios included in the Pulp Cthulhu book have a decent investigative component, but only one of them is a sandbox, where the investigators have full freedom of movement.

I can understand the temptation of streamlining the scenario to an extent, as it allows the Keeper to dictate the pace and limits the scope of the characters to engage with things that aren't relevant to the scenario - but the luck economy means that many of the frustrations of typical Cthulhu investigations are not a factor for Pulp Cthulhu.  Or, put another way, if I really want to play a primarily action rather than investigative outing, is Pulp Cthulhu actually the best system for this?

This is a theme I'll touch on again, in the context of the Two-Headed Serpent, a 'globe-spanning' campaign which presents an ambitious plot set in a variety of interesting locations.  Stay tuned for chapter one.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Running great convention games

With Kapcon around the corner, I've been pondering what makes a good tabletop roleplaying convention game (from either side of the table).  I've had some hits and misses in my time running games at conventions and spent a fair bit of time discussing and de-briefing with others. 

In the following section I outline 5 common challenges that often undermine convention games, then propose a solution you can employ to account for such obstacles and allow your convention scenario to achieve its full potential.

1. Insufficient character agency
The time constraint of convention games often leads GMs to construct scenarios where there are limited choices.  This can be fine, so long as the characters can genuinely make some important decisions, and those decisions are the focus of the game. 

Consider the first 20 minutes of  any contemporary horror movie - there will almost always be some constraint that limits the characters options and separates them from wider society when the horror strikes.  That's not a problem necessarily, so long as the choices the characters then make have real meaning for them and their story (in game terms this means that the story of the characters should be the meat of the action).    
Another common type of 'con game with limited agency is the high-concept scenario, where a GM has a vivid and detailed idea about a setting (usually inspired by fiction) but only a rough idea of how the characters will interact with the setting (beyond exploring it) and no backup plan to adapt the story to the characters if they reject some or all of the premise, or simply find it dull.

2. Too little structure
The flip-side of a low-agency game is a game where there is simply too much scope for unstructured character interaction.  Consider most investigative scenarios: usually the characters must follow a sequence of clues to solve the mystery.    The problem with such scenarios in a 'con environment is that people (and their characters) are likely to have very different approaches to what may seem (to the GM) like a very linear set of clues, and could easily spend the better part of an hour discussing one particular clue and its implications, or following false lead.  

Equally scenarios which invite the characters to form plans can fall into an endless planning cycle as characters consider every possible eventuality.  This is often not the intent or focus of the game, but an inevitable outcome of a particular set of elements.
3. Assumed character cooperation
Irrespective of whether the players are strangers or not, if the characters are not known to one another, most players will want to 'ease into' character relationships and shared decision making.  Some will not want to participate collectively at all, and prefer a 'lone wolf' approach if they feel this fits their character.

That means that most con games need to allow characters space and time to meet and interact, and not count on character cooperation unless this is clearly and explicitly stated from the outset.

4. Poor system fit
Unless a convention game is intended to teach a system it needs to be very light touch, and focussed on only the core activity that will occur for the characters during the few hours of the scenario.  Many traditional systems have rules that cover far more ground than that, and this can confuse and bog-down play.

There are many, many different systems out there, and it's well worth shopping around to find one that is well suited for the needs of the scenario.  Ideally a discussion of rules is a very short part of the game establishment phase, and players have quick reference sheets handy (or incorporated into their character sheets) to refresh themselves of the key points.

5. Doesn't cater for player styles
People approach games in a lot of different ways.  Some are particularly extraverted and likely to enjoy and proactively engage in almost any style of game.  Others are less likely to try and grab the spotlight.  For some folks having something structured, like an initiative sequence with clear specified actions that are weighted to be equal to those performed by other characters, provides assurance that they'll get an equal level of involvement to their more glib companions.

Irrespective of the system and setting, some players will try and win, or defy the odds, others will try and participate indirectly, playing their characters more as spectators than protagonists.  How a GM responds to such approaches will be noticed and reflected upon by the other players, who may change their own approach if they perceive there is a more favourable option. 

Creating a scenario sideboard
All of this may seem a little overwhelming, especially for a GM who feels that the players should simply be grateful that they've offered to run a game at all.  All too often the temptation is to blame the players if a game doesn't go well, or live up to the expectations of the GM.


But you can do more to ensure that you run the best version of your game possible. When I played Magic: The Gathering, many years ago, decks had a thing called a sideboard, which was an extension to the deck that had a series of additional cards that you could add to your deck to better optimise it once you knew what you were up against.

I suggest that a good convention scenario can have something similar.  A series of ideas and options that you can port into your scenario to better adapt it to your players.  What options are there for the characters to interact and get on the same page and how can you facilitate this if it doesn't happen organically?  What time pressure can be added if the characters seem to want to spend ages planning something?  How can you ensure that everyone is involved at the table, and what option might you employ to park a noisy player for a few minutes, to allow quieter players time to be heard?

Because you won't necessarily know what challenges you'll face, the unsurprising advice behind all of this is to playtest your game if at all possible.  If you can playtest it with strangers, or people you don't normally game with, so much the better.  But a robust playtest should highlight some of the things you need to include in a scenario sideboard.

Friday, December 22, 2017

Gaming in 2018

Here's a look ahead at my plans for gaming in 2018:

1. Complete The Enemy Within for Warhammer 3e
I recently posted my impressions of Fantasy Flight's 3rd Edition of Warhammer.  My group has completed the first of the four chapters of the campaign.  I plan to knock out the other three before finding a storage solution for the acres of cards that make up the game.  Thus far the campaign has had some great moments, although the layout and lack of maps and other documents and relatively linear plot make running the game harder than it need to be.

2. Pulp Cthulhu: The Two Headed Serpent
Call of Cthulhu is a staple in my gaming group, and I'm keen to dive into a new "high-octane globe-spanning" campaign using the new pulp-action rules for Cthulhu's 7th Edition.  If you're interested in a chapter-by-chapter review, as I did with Horror on the Orient Express, please let me know via the comments.

3. Playtesting Instruments of the Chrysanthemum Throne 
The secret to writing good games (in my opinion) is understanding the diversity of approaches, expectations and experience that players (and GMs) bring to the table.  The best way to do this is to test your game as widely as possible.  The initial playtests of Instruments have already revealed some major opportunities for improvement and there's plenty to do before the game is ready to be released.

4. Warhammer 4e
If there's any time left by the end of the year, and sufficient material has been published for Cubicle 7's new edition of Warhammer I'd ben keen to give it a whirl.

Friday, December 1, 2017

A Small But Vicious Dog

Over the last few months we've been exploring the world of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay (3rd edition) from Fantasy Flight Games.  Described by the publisher as: "an new, exciting way to experience the popular Warhammer Fantasy setting... a grim world, constantly at war", I think WFRP 3e is an important game, albeit an imperfect one.  The following text contains my reflections of the game thus far.

Why WFRP?
There are many, many fantasy games on the market, so why does Warhammer have enduring appeal?  For me the answer is in several parts.  One part is nostalgia. For anyone who played the Warhammer Fantasy Battle, or earlier editions of the roleplaying game, WFRP is a familiar, well resolved, interesting fantasy setting, that contains most typical fantasy tropes alongside some tongue-in-cheek humour.

The second major appeal of the game has always been the idea that instead of playing a fledgling hero, you play a character just trying to get by.  Careers like Rat Catcher or Servant are the norm, and darkness is everywhere.  Perhaps the characters will survive the adventure and prosper, but they may simply end up mutilated, mentally scarred or diseased, trying desperately to get into a more respectable career.  If you favour a dark fantasy game, WFRP has always been a good choice.

Finally the game has always been well supported with a large range of sourcebooks and scenarios.  Some classic campaigns, like The Enemy Within are considered classics and extremely innovative for their time.

Pick a card, any card
The most striking difference between the 3rd edition of WFRP and it's predecessors, is the use of cards.  The bespoke card decks are used for the entirety of the options available to players during combat, reflecting wounds, insanities, diseases, madness, mutation, monsters and even in-game locations.

The cards are neat.  They take a lot of the load from the GM to manage the rules for the players, and make clear the potential outcomes for most results.  On the down side, the cards take up a lot of space during the game, and require careful management between sessions to prevent hours of searching later, and make second hand versions of the game a touch-and-go option.

It should be noted that, toward the end of the license, Fantasy Flight published a series of books which enable the game to be played without many of the cards previously required, and allowed players to plan career development at a glance (rather than scouring endless card decks).  The utility of these books make them an important addition to the smooth operation of the game.

Other innovations
There are several other neat elements of WFRP 3e.  The game is practically bursting with little innovations, such as the stance tracker, which tracks whether a character is more conservative or aggressive and allows you to swap dice in your pool accordingly, social combat rules, a descriptive range tracker, and overall party tension measure.  And of course, the special dice which so polarised gamers when the game was released.

Although many of these elements are not smoothly integrated, they are extremely innovative for a traditional system with such a long history.  For these reasons I think the game is important in the history of roleplaying game design, and many have been influential on subsequent designs.

Quirks and peculiarities
WFRP 3e is not without some eyebrow raising limitations.  For example, High Elves are included as a core character race, but widely marginalised in the settings for most of the scenarios written for the game.  In addition, no elf expansion was ever made limiting elf-specific career options.

The game was originally designed for just 4 players with card options to match.  These days this problem is easily resolved by finding the basic card summary online and printing one for each player.


While the materials included in the scenario and expansion boxes are beautiful, there's a criminal shortage of usable maps and the organisation of the scenario books is not always ideal.  Should the card decks become separated from the scenario books they are almost unplayable in some cases.

The party tension meter is a really nice idea, but unless your players are rigorous in staying in character, most bickering around a game table happens 'out-of-character' and punishing players for bickering in character actually works against a richer, more fully realised, game.

The bespoke dice mechanic is a nice way of randomising several possible outcomes in a single throw, but dice outcome cancelling each other out, means bigger pools (as the character advance their careers) complicate the resolution of this mechanic without any additional benefit.

Freeing careers from a tree-progression system and allowing an almost unlimited ability to pick up new cards means that players have a lot more options in terms of character development, but this also means players face a bewildering array of choices, especially when they start playing the game.

In summary
WFRP 3e is an eccentric game.  It is bursting full of ideas and neat tricks, but much of the way these work together at the table feels unfinished, and doesn't live up to their full potential.  Indeed, you might say that Fantasy Flight refined the system when it made Star Wars: Edge of the Empire and again for Genesys.

If you like the setting, and can get past the challenges inherent in the game collateral (bespoke dice and large numbers of cards) you'll find a surprising accessible system, that delivers a solid gaming experience, particularly for early-career characters.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Vote Machine in 2017

Hi there

You've probably always voted human up until now, which is entirely understandable. But I'd like to tell you about an exciting new machine option for the 2017 ENnie Roleplaying Awards.

Fragment is a game which explores the increasingly complex relationship between human and machine.  It's been nominated in the category of Best Electronic Book and here's why I think it deserves your vote:
  • Fragment is free, like many of the machines in your daily life, it exists only to make you happy.
  • Fragment is a story game that supports you to tell the stories of discarded machines, and their human creators, while exploring the Last City.
  • Fragment was written in a single week as part of the 2016 Game Chef competition, and from these humble origins, it's mounting a scrappy campaign to compete for your vote against best-selling titles.
Did you know voting is free and doesn't require registration?

To cast a vote, all you need to do is go:
http://www.ennie-awards.com/vote/2017/

Rank your choices in order from the list provided, and click vote.  Like so many things in life, machines are working tirelessly to make this process as easy as possible.

This ENnie Awards, please consider a vote for Fragment in the category of Best Electronic Game and give hope to machines everywhere.

- Votebot 2050