#RPGaDay 22: Blades in the Dark

I really don’t like this question, “Which RPGs Are The Easiest For You To Run?”

The ones I run of course. There are more RPGs out there than I could possibly run or even play. But if they look difficult to run, then I rarely even try. And if I do try, and they are difficult, then I don’t ever think about them again. But I can pick up pretty much any game I own now and run it with equal ease. So I can’t, and won’t, answer this question.

Instead I’ll talk about a game I played on Sunday. I was invited (slightly at the “last minute” because someone else had dropped out) to a demo  game at my FLGS of Blades in the Dark. We turned up at 11 am, and Dan, the very competant Blades GM and Kickstarter backer, offered to take us through the whole set up, creating characters and a “campaign”, creating an adventure and going through the downtime actions too. You couldn’t ask for a more complete demo. The only limit he imposed was that we should play the basic group type (groups get their own group character sheet), Shadows, rather than pick one of the other types. 

We all got to choose our characters though. Like “powered by the apocalypse” games, you start character creation by choosing a “playbook”.  I went for a Slide which is a “face” type. Completing the playbook is perhaps a little more complicated than many PbtA games. You get to add some pips to a list of twelve “actions” or very broad skills, or FAE approaches, like finesse, for example which covers sleight of hand, pick pocketing and fencing, among others. The first pip you add to an action also adds to your rank in that actions stat – like many games nowadays there are three: insight; prowess; and resolve. You choose your heritage (where in the world you come from) and your background (I chose a down on his luck noble from vaguely Arabic Iruvia). We each got to choose one of the list of special abilities in our playbooks. I chose one that said I could alway tell when other person was lying. We also had a list of contacts in our playbook and we each chose one as a friend and one as an enemy. 

Then we tackled our group’s character sheet, choosing a lair, area of activity, and factions with which we had relationships, good and bad. These choices and our choice of group shape the campaign we would end up playing. After a little thought, simplified by the initial restriction upon our choice of group, Dan came up with a client, and a mission – to retrieve a dossier from a police inspector before he takes it to the capital city. 

The dice machanic owes less to PbtA, than to the latest version of Gumshoe121: roll a number of dice equal to the pips you have in the approach, take the value of the top scoring die. Six is success, four or five is a partial success, or with consequences. Three or less is a failure, with appropriate consequences. The GM never rolls.  Like PbtA, it’s a system designed to create tension and story through failure, rather than emulate heroic myths. Though there is a nice exception, if two dice roll six, that’s a critical success, which served my faceman well, when I audaciously tried to convince the policeman we’d just robbed to escort me to freedom. 

Though the target number is always the same, more difficult challenges have tougher consequences. The are three ranks, controlled challenges have the mildest consequences, risky challenges tougher consequences and desperate challenges the thoughts of all. If you fail at one of the lower levels you can retry at the level above. Consequences can often take the form of a countdown clock, split four, six or eight ways. Fail at a risky challenge and you might be two steps hear to the moment when the alarm is raised. If the challenge was controlled, failure might also move you one step closer. 

Downtime happens between sessions, and the choices  you make re: experience, recovering from your wounds, stashing your coin etc. help the GM in defining the next adventure. It’s an easy system for time limited GMs who want an almost prep-free game. 


And … we‘re back on topic. 

#RPGaDay 21: Fate (Accelerated Edition)

Which RPG does the most with fewest words?

My real answer to this is: “let’s pretend”, roleplaying in its purest form. Two words = everything a child can imagine. Beat that, Lady Blackbird. But the problem comes when two children imagine different things: “BANG BANG! I shot you, you’re dead!” “No I’m not! You missed!” So the hitherto collaborative, story (no GM in sight) breaks down in recrimination and somebody crying all the way home.

A few years back, my kids were building an intricate Lego world, with bases, trading, raids and treaties. They fell to arguing eventually. A offered as a system to resolve their argument, Fate Accelerated Edition. It’s more than two words, more than Risus, The Black Hack or many shorter rulesets. But the imagination is unlimited.

#RPGaDay 20 – Sourcing out of print RPGs

I don’t.

I like the new shiny, and I’m fifty, my home is full of stuff – I don’t need to go routing about for stuff I didn’t buy in the past… erm, except for one or two boardgames.

I missed out of the last copies in the shop of Fury of Dracula and when into my FLGS to pick up one of the two copies I knew they had, the week after Wil Wheaton had done a TableTop episode all about it, consequently, they were sold out. I also bought their last copy of Ikusa, previously known as Samuri Swords, previously known as Shogun for a mate’s 50th. WE played a game at my house before I let him take it away, and my son loved it so much (he won) that I then hod to find another copy.

Both of those I sourced through a rather lovely Facebook group: https://www.facebook.com/groups/RpgUK/?ref=br_rs . They do roleplaying games too, so getting back on topic, that’s one source that’s very friendly and well run. Its full of people looking for a fair price and and good home for old games, not profiteers hoping to make a quick buck.

My FLGS has a good stock of second hand RPGs too. But as I said at the top, my bookshelves are full. And for things that I might want as reference, PDFs are fine, so I am happy to but them on DriveThru (some which I guess are technically “out of print” if they are ONLY available as PDF), or when I want to look up something really old (like the exponential power mechanic of the old DC Heroes RPG) I’ll look it up on Scribd.

#RPGaDay 19: Feng Shui

I love this cover, its not great, but I love it

Day 19: Which RPG features the best writing?

How do you define “best” writing? Best writing in a technical manual sense, explaining how to use the rules (the tools of roleplaying) as clearly as possible? That might throw up a “best” RPG that was clear and simple, short, and well laid out too possibly, but would it be imaginative or entertaining? One that (arguably – best is so subjective and I know plenty of people that just don’t get this RPG) manages that technical clarity is Fate.

So, should we look to the most entertaining writing? All of this is subjective of course, but we would that exclude RPGs that don’t include short pieces of fiction? Personally I find much RPG fiction tiresome but a clear winner if I was judging a writer on entertainment value alone would be Greg Stolze and Unknown Armies.

Maybe I should judge the writing on how informative it is, when a game does more than tell me how to play, but lets me discover facts about the world around me too? Then Ken Hite would be the winner. And since I must remind myself it’s an RPG I should name, not a writer, I’ll plump for Nights Black Agents.

Or should it evoke the genre? No is probably the answer, but one that should be recognised for its efforts to do so is Firefly, mostly by Monica Valatinelli.

But all these questions are just teases, prevarication, because otherwise this would be the shortest post ever. I knew as soon as I read the question, what my answer would be. The only RPG book I have read, voraciously, cover to cover, beginning to end. The only RPG book that was entertaining (hilariously so), imaginative, informative (it taught me about HK cinema) and technically clear too. Robin D Laws’ Feng Shui. The first edition mind. Not even his Feng Shui 2 is as good.

#RPGaDay 18: Traveller

Day 18: Which RPG have you played most in your life?

Easy. Traveller.

Oh? You want more? OK I can’t quite remember, but I think it was the second RPG I ever played. (Runequest might have pipped it to the post, but I don’t think so.) I do remember that first time creating a character, in the “new dining hall” at school, where our quaintly named “wargames club” met. It was 1978, so I was expecting laser swords and evil empires. I don’t recall what I ended up with exactly (an engineer?) but I do remember not being able to afford a laser sword and buying a cutlass instead.

AD&D was discarded, and instead we explored Azhanti High Lightning. I killed a character trying to recreate a BattleStar Galactica Viper launch from that ship, and being told I should have opened the blast door at the other end of the hanger.

I got better at it. And we played a lot. Andy B became our regular GM. Through the lean years, when our group was scatter across the country and I didn’t know any other gamers, we might play only two or three times a year. But those get togethers we usually Traveller.

We played in the Imperium, in 2300, in a home brew setting based on Revelation Space. We played, low-born, high-born, Cossacks, customs-men, businessmen, Vargyr trekkies and cyborgs. We played little black books, New Era, MegaTraveller, the whole lot.

It was Traveller that brought in into my local gaming scene. I heard a plaintive complaint that young people didn’t want to play Traveller, on a podcast, and tracked down the correspondent, joining a University based club to play first a female pre-gen in the railroady Secrets of the Ancients campaign and then an Aslan black panther (in a political sense) in a more sandboxy adventure. I’ve been gaming locally every week since.

I bought my first rulebook only last year, and even then only in PDF. I’ve only played, never run. And there something about the system, it’s relative simplicity, and it’s flexibility that as a player I never felt a need for the rules or for splat books. I got given a second hand Aslan book once, and a dodgy PDF of the first Mongoose edition, so it was guilt that made me buy the second edition. The creators of a game that bought me so much pleasure deserve a few creds.

Everyone should have a copy. And the second edition Mongoose version (pictured) is the perfect distillation/evolution of the rules essentially the same as the very first GDW edition, except in all the places where the GDW version was crap. I played in a short campaign as a crippled Vargyr astrogator, with a massive medical debt to pay. Only Traveller can do this.

Re#RPGaDay 17: Unknown Armies

I’m struggling to remember, which did I buy first? It was pretty close I bought both as cheap bundled PDFs around the same time. They were Unknown Armies (2nd edition) and Godlike. Looking back, it seems Unknown Armies pips the other to the post. Which is good, because I want to talk about Unknown Armies, a lot. Followers of this blog will be aware that I’ve been talking about it quite a lot already. (Incidentally, my “where I read” posts are on hiatus while #RPGaDay I’d on. I’m struggling to do a post a day, any more than that and my brain will explode.)

Obviously, today’s question being about games I have not played, this can not be a recommendation.  But I can use this post to say where I am coming from. I’m a big fan of the Invisibles, Grant Morrison’s magical contemporary (though time-hopping) drug fuelled adventure. It’s a story about becoming, transforming, and through it we learn how each of the characters makes themselves, and through their making, they make the world. Go my god, that last sentence reads like pretentious gubbins, but sod it, I’m leaving it as it is. It’s a comic that taught me stuff, and made me go out and learn more. It’s a comic that I wanted to live, that in small way, through reading it, I have lived. (Crikey, the pretentiousness is unstoppable.)

Look, what I mean to say is, it means a lot to me, OK?

Back to games though. A decade ago or more I would never have considered buying a game and not playing it. In fact, I think I can recall a moment, standing in a shop looking at the first or second edition of Unknown Armies (I honestly can’t recall which, all I can remember,beer things was “This could be good for playing The Invisibles”) and not buying it precisely because I knew there was no way I was going to get an opportunity to run it for ages. (I was getting to game only a few times a year.) What changed since then is the invention of the iPad in 2011, and the increasing utility and so popularity of PDFs. I wouldn’t spend back then I guess £20 or £30 on a book that was just going to sit on my shelves. I had neither the money, nor the storage space. But with PDFs, the storage space of dozens, or hundreds of books even, is insignificant, and PDFs are half the price or often considerably less than paper versions.

I even bought a PDF before the invention of the iPad – the original Cortex system – to roll some of the rules into the Serenity RPG. That proved unwieldy though, to use as anything other than a reference. But with the iPad (other brand tablets are available) you can use them at the table. I still prefer a paper book in many cases, but PDFs of games I might play became a lot more attractive. Offers though make them almost a no brainer. I chanced upon the PDF of L5R for £5 on Drivethru once, and bought it out of pure academic interest. AEG profited many times over on that discount, because I loved it so much I spent many, many pounds on print and PDFs from that range afterwards. Unknown Armies 2 came at a very reasonable price from Bundle of Holding, so even though I might now play it, I eventually picked it up that way.

So, one of the reasons I bought this cheap PDF version of it was because I wanted to play “the Invisibles.” But when I started reading it, it became apparent that the cosmology was so ingrained in the system that it would take a little bit of work, not an impossible job by any means but more than I had time to give, to turn it into the Invisibles game of my dreams. Given that I was the only Invisibles fan in my games circles, it may well have been a wasted effort. But I liked what I read. The system was a bit of a 90’s mish-mash between old school stats and an elegant d100 dice mechanic. I said to myself “maybe one day”…

That day has come. The Kickstarter for third edition sold me an even more elegant stripped down version of the system, with the deadwood of the 90s chopped away to leave the the sparkling core of what made the earlier version interesting. The world itself is updated too. I backed the PDF version, then with a little “non-buyers remorse” bought the print version when it hit retail. (It workout out cheaper than the Kickstarter with delivery and exchange rate fluctuations taken into account). And I will be running it. Very soon.

#RPGaDay 16: A rant

Is this a n RPG I enjoy using “as is”? Frankly my dear, I have no idea!

Day 16: Which RPG do you enjoy using as is?

I’m going off-topic on this, but I guess my short answer is “pretty much all of them”. After all Fate, which yesterday I claimed as the RPG I most enjoyed adapting, s game that you play “as is” by adapting! That’s the rules.

But my point is I think you should play every game “as is” a couple of times before you start mucking about with it. One thing that really bugs me is a GM that brings a new game to the table and says “I didn’t like (insert rule/s here) and so I changed it.” Here’s an example:

A while ago a friend wanted to play a western. I was well up for this. I have always wanted to play a western set game, And long wondered why there are so few such games being played. (Side rant here: I contend that D&D as played at many (most?) tables is actually an iconic western, a bunch of ne’er do wells wandering from town to town getting into trouble with the law, doing odd jobs and stealing treasure)

He’d checked a few out and mentioned Aces and Eights as one we might play. I looked into the ones he suggested and voted for Aces and Eights. It was (is) a bit old school, but it had a to hot mechanic that I felt fitted the genre perfectly. Every shot is a called shot, you roll to see how much you miss by, but the direction of that miss is determined by drawing a poker card and consulting the shot-clock. The shot clock is a transparent overlay that you put over a silhouette of your target (a number of coyboys in different poses and behind a variety of covers) are supplied. So, if you were aiming to shoot the gun out of the villains hand, you can call it. Hit and you get what you wanted, miss and you still might hit him, in the thigh or of your shot was really off, in the head. Or your bullet might fly off past him.

The character generation was really fun too. It’s old school enough to be random stat generation, but you also get point-buy help you build the character you actually wanted. Actually, who am I kidding? The character generation system is, by modern standards, absolutely dreadful! Get this, you don’t just roll 3d6 for each stat, you roll d100 to see how far off the next number you are. So you didn’t just roll a 9 for Dex, you rolled 9.41 or whatever. It takes a couple of evenings and a spreadsheet to roll up a character properly. And by modern standards, that counts as a big fat FAIL!  By “properly” I mean using the optional “Priors and Particulars” random background generation tables. If I’m in for a penny, I’m in for a pound, so by the roll of many many dice, I found out that I was Jacob Deveraux II, a Confederate citizen of York County, South Carolina. The son of a Doctor, and one of a family of four brothers, whose mother died in childbirth, and who doesn’t get on with the youngest, Robert, his half-brother from his father’s second marriage. Lusty, I moved out west having killed a man in a naked whorehouse duel the year before. Anyway I had fun going old school and creating the character and was looking forward to play.

Imagine my disappointment when the GM said, “I don’t like the shot clock or the wounds system, we’re just going to use hit points.” I’d spent hours, days creating that character and in a moment, the GM has turned the game into a D&D variant.

Yes the shot-clock system might have turned out to be cumbersome. We might have ended up pleading with the GM to simplify combat. But we didn’t, because we never got the chance to find out. Here was a game that was trying to capture some of the spirit of the western genre, partly through the aiming/wound system, and we didn’t even get a chance to play it “as is” for a couple of sesssions.

So, just to clarify – despite my use of an image of Aces and Eights to illustrate this piece, I can not say this is a system I enjoy playing “as is”, because I never got a chance to play it that way.

I wish I had.

#RPGaDay 15: Fate

Day 15: Which RPG do you enjoy adapting the most

A lot of people seem to have a problem with Fate’s “complexity”. I don’t. I can’t claim to be a very good Fate GM, or even to have read the book cover to cover. I probably have by now, but I definitely read it in pieces and I might have missed a bit. Perhaps the bit I missed was the complex bit. But I muddle along, and my players seem to have a good time. 

And it’s strength is that it can be adapted to anything. It’s isn’t even a game until you’ve created one out of the tops it provides. You can’t pick it up and say “this is a game about space cowboys, and this is how it works” but you can most definitely pick it up and say, “lets play a game of shape cowboys, how should it work?” And with the help of a few universal rules, you are off! Not maybe within ten minutes, but it takes less than an hour to create a world, and your characters, and thet hour is also fun. 

Perhaps it’s the lack of numbers people don’t like, the emphasis on words. “How do you know how high the cliff is?” They cry. I’d reply: “They are called ‘The Cliffs of Insanity’, they are very high.”

I’d argue that games with more numbers (and don’t get me wrong, I like games with numbers) are trickier to adapt, because you have to have a go at balancing those numbers out. 

In Fate you can make anything, a character, a world, a game, with just three sentences.  

#RPGaDay 14: Legend of the Five Rings

Day 14: Which RPG do you prefer for open-ended campaign play?

If only. If only I had the time, and some of us could have the commitment to the sort of regular session that enables a truly open-ended campaign. My first thought was “well, I wouldn’t be running it, that’s for certain”. But then, I realised that that might be the challenge. What is I was running an open-ended campaign? How would I do it? I’m a low prep GM (and player) now, how could I sustain a never ending story?

I’d want a world that I understood well enough to come up with stuff on the fly. I’d want a world where my favourite antagonists (other people) could reign supreme, but with capacity for monsters and dungeon-delving when the mood took the table. And that world exists. And its called Rokugan.

Legends of the Five Rings is an almost perfect game for open ended play, as it evidenced by the “living” nature of a game world that evolved over years of AEG’s custodianship of the game(s – there was a CCG as well). What I don’t want are lots of splatbooks, and they did make a few over the years, but the core book is complete enough that I don’t think you need any. I would recommend the Atlas of Rokugan though, for reasons I explain here. With those two books you could play for years and years and years. The mix of politics and action, the structure of clans and (can’t beleive I’m about to say this) levels and the prospect of marriage and generational stories, all lend themselves to open ended play.

In fact I do have an ongoing campaign, in my head.

I ran the third edition adventure, the Hare Clan, for a group at a university based club. It can be a bit railroady, but using the (I think lovely) battle rules in the 4th Edition corebook, we ran well and truely off those rails.  A lucky shot from a player character (lucky even to be able to take it, never mind the exploding dice damage) took out the Scorpion general, defeating the overwhelming army and saving the Hare clan. The players were keen to find out what happened next and so I took elements of the follow-up adventure Bells of the Dead, and to uncover a Rokugan wherein the scorpion were disgraced, Crane and Lion sharing governorship of their lands and out players uncovering Kolat plots to try and restore Scorpion honour. The Kolat had been identified and their champion defeated (at the cost of two PCs), but we never got to expose them to the Emperor.

There’s adventure to be had … one day.

#RPGaDay 13: Play to find out!

Day 13: Describe a game experience that changed how you play.

It didn't go how I expected. I was running Fate. We'd created the campaign in the manner described in the book, through conversation, and had ended up with "first world war veterans vs. cannibal body-snatchers from space." The first session saw a PC death and his body being taken over by an alien, which that player played until its inevitable discovery halfway through the second session.  At which point, his new character was introduced as a liaison from a nascent anti-alien intelligence unit. I thought we were heading in the direction of a conspiracy thriller, but with overtones of possibly co-opting alien tech to give the Brits an early start in the space race. When the PCs killed the rocket scientist I introduced, because "he knew too much" I realised that wasn't going to happen.

Indeed that session, I'd prepped a load of leads and hooks which the players (literally) burned through. And I realised that, although the aliens might indeed be real, this was the story of coping (badly) with PTSD, and paranoia. The aliens wore their human flesh like skin-bags, cut them and you could see the chitinous armour underneath, so our crew quickly got into the habit of regularly cutting their fore-arms to prove they were human. The self-harm analogue did not not go un-noted.

I filled a house with clues, and they burned it down, straffing the escaping (innocent) occupants from the air "just in case". I didn't care that all my prep was destroyed in that fire, I was sitting back and enjoying watching the paranoid characters rationalise terrible, terrible decisions. It was the easiest GMing I'd ever done.

Afterwards, my face ached from grinning.  I'd had such fun without doing anything. The players were having fun too, and yet we were also affected by the profound trauma the characters were experiencing. These were truly broken people.

What it taught me, or rather reaffirmed, is what they say among the "Agenda"s of Powered by the Apocalypse games:

Play to find out

I am absolutely converted to low prep now, both as a GM and as a player. In my teens, I used to spend hours crafting the worlds and histories that we explored around the table. As an adult with jobs and other responsibilities, that level of work was no longer possible for my GMing, but I still enjoyed thinking about my character's backstory. What I've learned is that all that prep, and a GM or as a player than actually limit what goes on at the table.

All you need (as a player or GM – I can't say this enough) is the situation. Play with show you what happens, play will uncover your backstory.