Wednesday 29 September 2010

with a whimper - review: apocalypse world

Apocalypse World by lumpley games.

Metric: Doomsday clocks.  The use of this image as a health track and for other game elements is one example (of many) of how this game uses design to devastating effect.  It's more conducive than six boxes and Apocalypse World (AW) is chock full of details like this.

Summary: 5 doomsday clocks.  It's not often you read a game that will change how you play RPGs.  While the collaborative nature of story gaming may not be for everyone, there are adaptable ideas - the use of fronts (collaborative threats defined by plot/character relationship arcs), choice- and question-driven interactions, stakes and charged situations can be applied to established games to take them in new directions. This game deals with mature themes and includes sexuality (implicit and otherwise) with survival in a broken world.  Those looking to re-create games in the spirit of early Mad Max, Book of Eli, The Road, The Stand, Earth Abides or The White Plague will find lots to enjoy.

Contents: 5 doomsday clocks. AW is densely packed with innovative content and evocative language.  The design of it shows considerable thought and how effective monochrome is at evoking mood.  It has it's own voice and this shines into how a master of ceremonies (MC), the AW games master interacts with players from the first session to the end of the game.  A series of player moves (basic and specific to roles) and MC principles and strategies enable improvisational play, cheat sheets for fronts and individual playbooks for the roles facilitate planning and juggling this may be intimidating for those unfamiliar with this style of play.

Troubleshooting options for moves are available to help you and your players differentiate between them.  That said, once you familiarise yourself with the methods, the learning curve slackens and you find yourself looking at the game and thinking about how cool it would be if (insert situation here).  Of particular note is the MC love letter, which presents a choice-based decision process, where benefits and consequences are woven with player-provided names and backstory.  Some players may balk at the additional work (and grumble until they get a killer scene) but for email, forum or blog-based games, this format seems ideal.

Layout: 5 doomsday clocks. Monochrome and simple, section artwork is redolent of good parts of the old World of Darkness, like the game itself, it focusses on characters. The only complaint is that the PDFs lack bookmarks - a minor problem mirrored in a lot of PDF products. This is a relatively minor caveat and overall the design and style of the book is quality stuff.

Support: 4 doomsday clocks.  The game is well-supported by it's website including the wonderfully named Barf Forth Apocalyptica forum.   Playbooks, character sheets and planning sheets for first sessions and fronts are available.  The feeling is that more is coming - given the buzz from ChattyDM and Gnome Stew who have both identified how versatile the principles in AW are - it would be surprising if this game fails to endure. There's plenty of noise about Apocalypse World - deservedly.  Vincent Baker is one of the more accessible designers from the Forge and the post-apocalyptic vogue that's hung overhead like hungry buzzards for the last couple of years is a potent setting.

I'm particularly struck by the resonance with early World of Darkness only with better editing, practical advice on developing in-game relationships between characters and without metaplot uber alles. The game begs to be hacked and a profusion of variants can be found on the forum. The book is as much a toolkit for deepening character development and interaction during play as a game in it's own right. In conclusion, this game will elevate your roleplaying - think of it like going to the gym.  Some temporary discomfort and self-consciousness but soon you'll be doing things you hadn't even believed were possible.  You can acquire your copy from the Indie Games Unstore and PDF fans may want to consider the lumpley games bundle for your device of choice.

Saturday 25 September 2010

inns & taverns: the three suns

The Three Suns is a punning name for the three sons of a retired adventurer who decided to take the money left to them and set up a tavern catering to more of the same.  The Three Suns waits at the corner of the marketplace of a busy market town intent on separating the unwary from their money.  The sign is a blue sky with three sunbursts in a row with the words 'Three Suns' underneath it in yellow paint.  The Three Suns is a sizable three-storey building of dressed stone and oak complete with stable and courtyard.  People are greeted at the door by a pair of imposing gentlemen in spiked leather armour who assess visitors on seemingly random criteria (if you look interesting or like there's a story behind your appearance usually) and then grant access with a friendly bit of advice "Watch your head."  They do not engage in small talk but the observant notice the one on the left looking thoughtful from time to time.

The Three Suns is a sunken-level tavern with high ceiling supported by wide beams large enough for a gnome or halfling to sit comfortably.  Three wagon wheels decorated in yellow and gold paint serve as candelabrae.  There are benches and trestle tables capable of seating eight each side lined up under each wheel with sufficient space for two people to walk side by side between them.  The walls show almost no sign of their original plaster having been scrawled on with significant layers of graffiti, leaving a banded effect on the walls notable for bardic doggerel, gnomish puns, halfling recipes and scurrilous rumours about various public and private figures as well as a quantity of magical script that appears to resist casual vandalism.  Those wise to such will discover the inn's patronage by a number of reputable wizards.

Over the bar is a carved slate with the motto "You break it, you pay for it." and a list of beers with prices that are a bit expensive (+15% on normal) ranging from a simple nut-brown to a smoky-red dwarven ember ale to a black stout.  A collection of tankards, some of remarkable provenance surround the slate in a carved wooden case.  The ales kept here are deserving of the price and no less than six beers at any time as well as a collection of liquors and spirits bordering on the obsessive.  A large barrel of rough red wine is also available, served by the jug and watered according to taste.  When it comes to wine, the Three Suns policy is that you have one kind - rough red.  This policy appears to be sponsored by a criminal guild and those bringing in their own learn such behaviour is discouraged.  While salted nuts and pickled gherkins and onions are provided, there are no meals served at the Three Suns.

Obriana the landlady, is a former first mate and natural at her trade.  Scarred, tattooed and full of stories, the cat-o-nine-tails worn at her hip is a well-used warning.  The concealed silver knives remain that way until someone does something stupid.  Five working staff keep drinks flowing and run events like arm-wrestling tournaments, small lizard races and hopboard game tournaments.  All are fiercely loyal, capable of hefting a barrel of beer, holding their own in a fight or talking a drunkard out the door.  They dislike violence but are pretty good at it, each carrying a concealed knife and a sap.  Gambling is a common vice here and the house protects it's own and it's odds.  Most patrons don't mind and those who do find the door quickly enough.

Accommodation is provided on the implied understanding is food is consumed in a number of small rooms (maximum occupancy two people) on the top two floors. Prices are expensive to encourage short stays.  Simple straw mattresses and wooden furnishings are low-maintenance and the walls are regularly re-painted and once a year see some repair due to peepholes being repeatedly drilled into the walls.  The chambermaids at the Three Suns are not discouraged from plying other trades and one seamstress regularly offers to repair clothing as a sideline while working in the rooms. Older trades are tolerated with Obriana and her staff with the help of some off-duty watch officers carrying out an occasional purge to ensure the Three Suns doesn't get a reputation.  This 'turning of the sheets' is almost a public spectacle with screaming women and scurrying patrons seeking to keep their honour. 

Apart from the active gambling, the Three Suns encourages bards to perform.  Obriana has a weakness for music and this has led to more than one minstrel getting a 'lucky break' here.  If a bard has the nerve to ask Obriana for a table, she will take 20% of the earnings for doing so.  The audience is tough and more than one minstrel has left for adventure after a bad night here.  Obriana takes this mixture of fortune in good cheer, often using the minstrels as cover to get rid of beer that isn't selling at cheap prices.  To the locals, the Three Suns can be forgiven it's occasional mis-steps on this point alone.  The presence of bards leads to gossip and as a source of information, few places can rival the Three Suns in terms of value.  This has resulted in the Three Suns becoming the first inn visited by those new in town and looking for work.

Wednesday 22 September 2010

autumn festivals

Autumn Festival - A procession through town, marking the boundaries of a community or property towards the site of a trading fair is typical.  Showing off the fruits of this year is normal and competitive streaks are encouraged by nobles to exhort commoners towards excelling in the field.  Martial prowess is also celebrated, after the harvest and before the winter is often chosen by ambitious lords as a season for battle. 

Songs and prayers to Corellon, Erathis, the Raven Queen and especially Sehanine, are offered to celebrate hearth and home, offering thanks for the harvest and acknowledging the oncoming winter.  Offerings are made to honour the dead who have fallen this year and those dear to the living.  Gifts of nuts gathered during this season are often made to guests.  At ports, Kord and Melora are commemorated together. While many sailors batten down for the coming winter, there are games of strength and skill to keep them from sinking into idle drunkenness.  Those lost at sea are also commemorated.

The Burning Weave - In the Feywild, processions are made with great woven effigies of animals led through those communities held by the Green, Gloaming and Winter Fey.  These effigies are finally brought to a stone circle where they are burned.  Reprisals against the fomorians and goblins (who themselves prepare for great sieges) are launched before winter takes it's toll and in Brokenstone Vale, great hunts mark territory.

The Candle's Wake - In the Shadowfell, the procession is a slower affair, almost funereal, each bearing a lit taper in commemoration of those who have died.  The shadar-kai set great wicker men alight holding chained corporeal undead to send them to the Raven Queen and her compassion - some even dare to leap the flames of those corpse-fires in order to feel exhilaration and warmth.

Saturday 18 September 2010

three things: dwarven weapons

Joyous Axe - This +1 battleaxe favours dwarven warriors, when wielded by a dwarf it grows in power and becomes a +2 battleaxe.  When a dwarf wields it in two hands it confers a +2 morale bonus to saving throws and ability checks.  The head of the axe is often crafted to resemble a smiling dwarven head.  The blade or the beard, is patterned after a dwarven beard and the haft carved with glyphs.  Different clans use specific blade designs to identify their craft, leading to some dwarves adopting those designs for their own beards!
Market Value: 16710gp   
Creation: 6th-level dwarf, Craft Magic Arms & Armour, good hope, magic weapon.

Spear of Stala - This +1 spear is narrow-bladed, weighted at the tip and has a triangular cross-section that is designed to pierce mail and armour plates.  It gains an extra +1 to hit against foes in brigandine, scalemail or heavier armour.  Natural armour of scales or bony plates may grant this bonus at DM's discretion but thick hides like those of an elephant do not.  The design of the spear  makes it a poor thrown weapon however, all such attacks with it get a -2 penalty.  Dwarves favour the spear of Stala against foes prone to charging them or when they themselves must rush headlong into battle.  A normal spear cannot be turned into a spear of Stala, these are made from new.
Market Value: 4740gp
Creation: 6th-level dwarf, Craft Magic Arms & Armour, magic weapon, Craft (Weaponsmith) 8+ ranks.

Spike-Driving Warhammer - This +1 warhammer has a stylised head that on a successful critical extrudes a puncturing strike that increases the critical multiplier to x4 and converts the damage to Piercing.  The spike retracts once the hammer swings back ready for the next strike. Though the hammer has been outlawed for personal use by some religious orders, dwarven warriors appreciate the deadly craft involved.  A normal warhammer cannot be upgraded to a spike-driving warhammer, these must be made from new.
Market Value: 4812gp
Creation: 6th-level dwarf, Craft Magic Arms & Armour, Craft (weaponsmith) 8+ ranks, magic weapon, keen edge.

Wednesday 15 September 2010

make your own adventure

Choice of Games offers a number of multiple-choice text-based adventure games of the 'choose your own adventure' type as well as ChoiceScript, a simplified programming language so you can roll your own multi-choice adventure and possibly get paid for it as well.  This can be uploaded to the Choice of Games site and converted into mobile-friendly formats.  For fans of Fighting Fantasy, Lone Wolf or solo games for D&D, RuneQuest or Tunnels & Trolls, this is good.  Some may sneer at the linear nature but few sneer at their success - particularly on Facebook.  Many Basic D&D players still have grudges with Bargle The Infamous who spawned his own mini-game.

Essentially decision trees, plotting your own is something that can get complex.  Fortunately the Internet has tools to help.  Mind mapping software like XMind or sites like can help grow the tree for a game.  Sources of inspiration include the IFWiki and Social sites like Protagonize may also offer some collaborative fun - a useful spur for those considering the NaNoWriMo challenge in two months.

The practice of creating structured plot and character arcs is a good habit for writers and game masters alike to get into - using constrained situations to engage creativity is appealing.  Tempting as sandbox play and freewheeling improvisation are, there can be comfort in structure and knowing your role, particularly for new players - a subject close to the heart of the games industry of late.

Saturday 11 September 2010

inns & taverns: the crooked walk

The Crooked Walk is notorious. For the miners who drink their toils away, the gossip and intrigues and the sleeping drunks.  The carved wooden tankard sign has warped in the rain.  The Walk is two four-storey wooden tenement buildings back to back listing slightly to the left.  The fronts are whitewashed with scarlet painted shutters, often guarded by a sleeping drunk.  A smell of sour beer, smoke, sweat and other odours seems to emanate from the place.  Within hailing distance of the Walk, small flies gravitate to the brightly-coloured or sweet-smelling in a matter of minutes.  It is noteworthy a number of regulars avoid this by being neither. Dwarves and other underground denizens will quickly work out that the building's slant is in part due to subsidence.

Entering the Crooked Walk from either side reveals a crowded open bar.  Inside the floor lists slightly to the left except for doorways to the right whose flagstones stand proud.  This floor is treacherous, doubly so when drunk, moving quickly or balancing drinks.  Unless you walk slowly or are at home underground, you risk tripping and stumbling.  Stairways lead up to smaller rooms for six to eight people to drink, gossip or play games of hop-board (a simplified draughts or checkers) or shovepenny (a game of pushing a copper coin over a wooden board).  These rooms are filled with miners and extended families as well as rogues hoping to fleece a weary miner of their hard-earned wealth.  Rumours and gossip is prevalent, by working the upstairs rooms and the main bars, a great deal can be learned about anyone in town.

The beer here is passable, a selection of ales from town brewers who know they will be well-received - some of the newer brews are tried on the Walk's clients first.  Typical ales include a dark, nutty stout and a sharp russet ale with a hint of floral aftertaste.  Other drinks include a rough red wine (watered down according to taste) and a herbal genever that women have a love-hate relationship with.  The food served here is a bowl of greasy brown stew capable of keeping the starving alive and curing hangovers.  Identification of it's ingredients is difficult at best but for a copper, it's cheap fare.  The first bowl is the hardest and those used to it actually enjoy the taste in time, with the help of a few pints of ale.

The landlord is a nasty piece of work, a former mine overseer called Astell capable of breaking most anyone who tries to defy him.  Tall, raw-boned and bald, his growling voice can move from a snarling whisper to a basso roar capable of cowing a black bear.  A skilled brawler and thug, Astell distances himself from most day to day business leaving it to his managers, Homar and Hotin.  These identical twins are related to Astell by blood and manage each bar, rotating between them each day to keep the customers guessing.  Both are skilled managers and versed in the arts of cheating measures so that the most is gotten out of the goods sold to a customer.  All three are smarter than they look.  They work the four barstaff and pot boys hard while playing favourites with customers to get something out of them.

The third and fourth floors are used by the owners but a small room has been rented to those willing to pay and keep their mouth shut after being vetted by one of the bar staff as being 'straight-up'.  What goes on in there is the source of much gossip.  However, the real secrets would be discovered by those visiting the cellars, where among the barrels and bottles can be found a small dungeon and torture chambers.  The caves under the Crooked Walk are often the last thing seen by those taken down there.  A locked grate over the midden keeps those who died here from trying to take their revenge and in some cases, they help to silence those who haven't quite died yet.

Friday 10 September 2010

volatile compound - review: secrets of the alchemist

Expanding the horizons described in Pathfinder's Advanced Player's Guide comes Advanced Feats: Secrets of the Alchemist.
Metric: Bombs.  What else?
Disclaimer: This review is based on a PDF copy provided by Open Design.

Overall: 3.5 bombs.  Sigfried Trent knows the feat mechanics and how to build characters well.  Optimisers will have a field day and GMs may need to review some combos before letting them play.  The analysis and builds are good, solid stuff.  If anything, there are too many feats (odd considering the title!) and more builds would take it from good to great.  That said it's great value - I've seen sourcebooks four times bigger with less usable content.

Layout: 3 bombs.  Clean and functional.  Given the subject, the minimal artwork is unexpected - classical woodcuts of alchemists are plentiful but in all other respects, this is good quality.

Content: 4 bombs.  The analysis of the class is a good thumbnail sketch though some subtleties may escape casual reading.  The feats are many and varied. Some augment alchemist class features like Sundering Bomb, Modify Mutagen and Extra Extract while others offer bonuses suited to any class such as Fire In The Hole or Opportunity Shot.  Some feats outshine signature class features (e.g. a low-level fighter with Primeval Fury vs. a low-level barbarian) or create possible problems (a 1st-level human wizard with Craft Anywhere and Frugal Casting is a scroll factory even during an adventure) but players and crafty GMs will see options to explore.  There are absolute gems like Bottoms Up (drink potion as a move action) Hardy Brawler (non-lethal damage reduction) and the terrific Create Wondrous Creature will have some GMs (including me) rubbing hands in glee at the potential story hooks.  Other feats speed play and if you want Final Fantasy in your Pathfinder game Secrets of the Alchemist lets you wield absurdly large swords.

The builds are logical extrapolations from the core concepts of the class.  Options on races and feats are suggested.  A discussion of multi-class combinations would be a useful addition to this section and perhaps another build would have rounded things out.  That said, there's only so much room to play with.

For the price, it's a keeper and will be a popular option for players and GMs as well for those games where alchemists are found.  I expect some games will crawl with alchemists and an all-alchemist party is viable for games with gothic or steampunk trappings.

Wednesday 8 September 2010

toolkit: five act structure

Writers from the ancient Romans to Shakespeare to Noh playwrights rocked the five-act structure long before TV and it's enduring appeal is evident, even when using the three-act structure as camouflage. Even if you're using the three-act structure, some of these points seem awful familiar...

Act 1 (Exposition)
- Setting details (place and time) are defined, whether by a simple byline ("Normandy, 1941") or courtesy of a character.  Characters are introduced and their history outlined, hopefully to present them in a sympathetic light.  Tensions between characters or against their environment, intrigues form and future conflicts are highlighted moving to the inciting incident that provokes the story.  While Egri criticises the need for exposition, dropping inductive clues on setting into narrative is a fine art and sometimes the best way to tell someone is to, well, tell them.

Act 2 (Complications) - Things get complex as the characters develop alliances, bonds and ties.  The plot develops with situations that relate to, or which represent the conflict characters face.  Adversaries other than the main antagonist appear here, whether as extensions of the antagonist's will or pursuing their own goals. Interests clash, intrigues tie up and develop, tension builds and momentum is gathered. 

Act 3 (Climax) -  As the momentum in Act 2 reaches it's high point, our protagonist stands at the crossroads and facing conflict, either soaring towards victory or crashing to defeat.  At this point, for better or worse, the plot turns, either towards redemption for comedy or judgement for tragedy.  Irreversible actions are taken, some secrets revealed and for the protagonist, the world changes or hangs off the edge of a cliff.

Act 4 (Falling Action) - The consequences of Act 3 play out as characters and events respond to what happened at the climax, momentum slows while tension is built again by uncertainty, by false hopes or fears.  Reversals of fortune take place and the emotions steering characters are played out and resolved - grudges are incubated and alliances are renewed or broken.  If it's a tragedy, it looks like the protagonist can be saved.  If it's not, it looks like all may be lost.

Act 5 (Catastrophe) - The conflict is resolved, be it by one last battle, catastrophe, protagonist downfall or by a victorious transformation caused by a turn of events made probable by what has gone before and must leave the character in a different place to where they were before.  While the word catastrophe has negative connotations, the final act can be a positive experience.  The final act also includes the denouement (literally an untying of knots), intrigues are unravelled and final secrets are revealed. 

Saturday 4 September 2010

quick and dirty geomorphs with inkscape

As part of this month's RPG Blog Carnival and inspired by the excellent and numerous geomorph pages and Bat In The Attic's clueful tutorials on mapping with Inkscape, I had a bash at some geomorph floor plans.  Getting to grips with Inkscape was relatively painless and in short order I had some blank geomorph templates that scale with most miniatures.  Trying to recall old TSR map keys was nostalgic fun until I found ideapod's Omnigraffle stencil and some old modules.  Then I had a minor epiphany when I stopped for a cup of tea.

Why not create the symbols once on stencils, then cut and paste them into new geomorphs?

Assembling the stencils took a little while and a lot of leafing through old modules.  A quick explanation - the SVGs have four layers (floor, walls, fixtures and grid). If you place walls at the wall layer and things like doors and windows at the fixture layer, you don't need to worry about a wall showing in your door when you open it in true Looney Tunes fashion.

Now I can throw out some quick and dirty geomorphs when I have a minute and if I want to prep player floorplans, I can move some of the map information onto a new layer and hide that.  Who said this mapping stuff had to be difficult?  A zip of all the stencils and a couple of blank templates can be downloaded here.  Some fully-built geomorphs will be appearing in due course.  Have fun with these!

Wednesday 1 September 2010

preparation - everything or nothing?

This month's RPG Blog Carnival is about preparation.  For some a necessary evil, for others a breeze and for the brave few, something they've heard of - once - but have no truck with. Preparation varies with a number of factors not just the quirks of the person running the game.  There are common elements that resemble story creation - the who, what, where, why, when and how of a situation.  Putting the whole thing together may be as simple as having three distinct events or working up something a bit more elaborate.

Then there are variables based on system of choice and overall game duration.  Some people enjoy one system only while others prefer a bit of variety in their gaming.  These variables include but aren't limited to:
  • complexity of game system (compare 3:16 with D&D 3.5 with high-level Rolemaster)
  • session duration (D&D Encounters vs. tournament vs. an evening's gaming)
  • if the game is a one-shot or part of a campaign
  • nature of the setting (pre-generated module vs. self-created sandbox).
Time to prepare can be a precious resource. Making it easier to prepare a game is one of the strongest ways a publisher can support the growth of their game.  Tools to simplify and automate the process makes even the most intensive preparation easier.  Checklists and templates can spark ideas not just for stories but also for characters, locations and even items met on the road. 

Extremes in preparation can be a game killer.  Too much can stifle the ability to say 'Yes' when you need to and lead to burnout through exhaustive preparation of unused items.  Too little leads to chaos unless you're down with improvisation, keep it up while making notes of what went before and getting your story straight.

Relevance to the characters (and to the players) can elevate a game.  Making it personal is a double-edged sword, some thrive on the challenge, others resent such base attempts at manipulation.  In some cases, there are hot buttons you just don't press.  Knowing what your players want is half the battle.  Providing it is the other half - talking good game is one thing.  Delivering may need slightly different capabilities.

Everyone who runs a game has their own way of doing things.  Share what worked or what you learned from your failures.  If you've got tricks, tools or even opinions on how to make preparation easier, better or just plain quicker now's your chance to shine.  Let's see what September brings...
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