World Conquerers Review

I had the pleasure of doing the graphics and some of the editing for Jeff Siadek’s game about world domination. I received two free copies today and decided to do the old, “look what we have here” box-opening trick.

I hope you enjoy it:

http://youtu.be/0aT5xEHzZBc

If you’re interested in rules or more information on Jeff’s game:

http://www.gorillaboardgames.com/index.php/category/worldconq/

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A Shining Moment

Allow me a moment of self-indulgence while I talk about my character.

I am presently in an all WoD LARP, which allows people to play anything from a vampire to a Promethean to a ghoul to a floating mask. It has it’s issues and being someone who doesn’t like mash-ups (without a good reason), it can pull on my belief suspenders. I can buy-in to some degree, and accept that I’m playing a mage and you’re playing a vampire, but when someone offers me a trip to the goblin market (deep inside the hedge) with their ogrin cousin, I have to stop for a moment and ask…. “But what is that?”

So. Because of my lack of appreciation for mash-ups, I effectively keep to my corner of the multi-verse, solving problems that I can visualize being part of my own character’s story arc. It has ostracized me, but it’s self-imposed.

So. Here’s my character concept with a short rant at the end, and I promise it’s quite original.

Heimdall is the Swedish son of 9 mothers (just like the myth, yes) , an experiment to make a mage from scratch, from a perfect environment. Educated on the role of a mage in society, raised to believe to put others before himself, and taught to ensure the survival of Atlantis. Heimdall was made to be the perfect Guardian of the Veil (mages who keep the secrets magic out of the hands of the mundane and stop paradox).

Because of his background, he believes in the whole, not the individual. He has spent his life forsaking a personal life in order to serve the greater good. He is aware of his value as a tool of this magnitude and has on more than one occasion hinted at his worth. He obeys orders from the guardians without fail (a trait absolutely lost in rpg characters if you ask me).

Recently, Heimdall got involved in a number of storylines. He’s married now, with a child on the way. A very complicated matter. He also had some dealing with high-ranking people in Washington and then a storyline emerged where he accidentally killed a mage from another order. The situation was complex to say the least and we all overlooked that the person I killed was a “replicant” anyway and not real.

This would be learned later.

I missed a session due to being very very sick and I recommended to the ST in charge of the mages that I be abducted and have parts of my memory wiped. This was a month ago. And due to some strange timing issues and so on, we only got to start resolving this storyline last night.

However, this is where things get really interesting.

Heimdall is not vengeful, but he is stoic and kind of a dick. Someone messing with his memories is beyond the pale. A campaign of screwing with the Seers of the Throne began (those most obviously responsible), which led to a very long private session in which I learned about the person I killed, the Seers’ need for me to stay alive, and a possible thread where I wiped my own memory on purpose.

The best part of the evening came when I was chatting with a Timothy Leary-inspired mage turned minister of Unitarianism who was giving me advice about freedom of the mind and being who you are and finding happiness. Heimdall turned to him and said, “You drank from Rousseau’s cup. I did not.”

I told the ST I deserved 100 XP for that. I’m not sure he’ll give them to me.

Heimdall left the minister and finished the evening with a conversation with his boss, basically realizing that his quest for revenge might be futile. With all his angst pointed at no one and nothing, he took a very long break from the mage circle, only coming up for air to help another mage with a problem the might affect the city.

The story isn’t over, but playing a character from another culture, with a completely different value system, that isn’t based on the philosophies of the American value of “freedom” is highly liberating in many ways and challenging in others. As a result, the morality system in the WoD game line comes into question. Clearly morality is different for everyone. I’m not a bio-ethicist, but I have to imagine there’s a lot of mid-Western American values written into the rules for what is Moral and Immoral for WoD. And for someone who isn’t from here, he’s not likely to care too much about things that are important to an American.

Something to think about.

A Growing Gamer Lexicon

For the first half of my gaming enjoyment, I didn’t have terms to describe aspects of game design. Dials, valves, nodes, and comparative form were all foreign to me and it would be years into my career in gaming before I even started to hear them used by other game designers.

This industry is notorious for not having a shared-language of design terminology. In fact, a few game design books have been written about this, even going so far as to express the amount of resistance the people in the industry put up against the creation of a formative lexicon. That notwithstanding, some gamers and designers are doing just that, making a lexicon (for this ephemeral pen and paper side anyway).

In my attempt to be part of the process I’ve created two of my own, that sadly only express social phenomenon in the gaming industry, not actual design. But, it’s a start.

Reliant Focus Play. Games that are designed to be gamemaster dependent also breed conditioning that leads to players becoming reliant upon that play focus. Reliant Focus Play describes the style of game where the players expect the gamemaster to interpret every action, die roll, and interaction in the game. Essentially, the voiced authority of play rests with the gamemaster AND the players do not or cannot play any other way.

Reverse Optimization Engineering. While this term was inspired by the MMO crowd, its definition extends beyond the virtual game world. ROE describes the gameplay perspective that the game is about breaking down and optimizing every mathematical aspect of play to the extent that without this focus, there is no fun. This subset of player draws their enjoyment of play from actually not playing at all, but the reverse mapping of the game math architecture. It is, for lack of a better word, puzzle-solving and not gaming (in their truest definitions).

The Haranshire Campaign : Part 6.

If the last session was a stinker, this one made up for it every direction possible. Everyone got to shine. Everyone got to see just how bad things could become in the Haranshire valley.

The game opened seconds after the last one ended, with the PCs arguing with the dwarven miner foreman (Grim) about exploring the mines (owned by Darius Carmen, who you may remember from Part 4). Using the Dogs in the Vineyard conflict resolution mechanic, it was clear that Grim wasn’t going to risk his job for these four guys and their two dogs, as I dropped a ton of dice on the table. Three people argued with Grim, but he wasn’t budging.

Then Crandel produced a bar of silver he’d been saving for a rainy day and Grim sent all the men on break and proceeded to inspect a tunnel beam.

The party proceeded with the dogs down the mine shaft (6% grade). The dogs retrieved Skye’s scent and led the party down a series of tunnels, eventually reaching a walled-off section of tunnel. They could feel a breeze coming up from the tunnel, so they knew something was down there, but they debated for a while about squeezing through the gaps in the planks.

Stauf was reticent, but decided against arguing the point with the other three. He would grow to resent this decision.

The dogs followed the scent into a section of the mine that was no longer in use and had been picked clean. It was clear this part of the mine was unsafe, but they continued on to a plank of wood that was being used to cover a collapsed section of earth. Below was darkness.

Bear in mind at this point, these characters are aged 14 to 20. They have no mining experience. No spelunking experience. No nothing, really.

Anyway.

They gathered up some lanterns and oil, climbed down into the whole, which lead to a N-S tunnel obviously cut by cruder tools. The dogs took them south and after a while lost the scent when they encountered a red tide odor that was extremely out of place. The party meandered in the tunnels for hours, trying to make sense of where they were. They only had a small pot of oil, so they had to be careful or they would lose all orientation.

They found a tunnel that lead to a cave that obviously led out, but not to where Skye was. So, they double-backed and found a section of tunnel where someone dug too close to the bedrock and water was seeping through the ceiling. Slowly.

Eventually the party found a set of stairs going back up. Crude, crude stairs just dug into the earth. The stairs led to a large chamber where three orcs were. The party had not been quiet and their lantern light was noticeable about 1/2 mile away in these tunnels.

A deadly fight ensued very quickly. Crandel was ambushed by some kind of magic that was choking the life from him, while the others looked on in horror. Noise echoed from the chamber and flaming arrows emerged striking the cavern walls. Verner and Stauf were nearly hit, but the fear of death took it out of them and they weren’t much good in the fight against two orcs and their witch.

Crandel continued to choke and sputter as the orcs started down the stairs. This is where the fight turned even uglier. The two orc fighters came at the party with rocks and shillelagh/war club thing, fighting in a very primative way. But the group was unprepared for a fight. Crandel passed out from whatever was choking him, Verner and Stauf struggled for a bit, but didn’t last and collapsed with the orcs. Finally Ian grabbed his staff and stood toe-to-toe with the last remaining orc witch. It came down to just a few die rolls as Ian knocked the witch back, grabbed his injured colleagues, and ran for it; back the way they came.

If you’ve not played Dogs, the fallout mechanic is inspired, and this is where everyone rolled to see just how injured they were. It turns out Ian was the worst of them and Crandel didn’t suffer any wounds at all. The party got about 15 minutes away when exhaustion caught up with them, however. Fearing they were being followed, Stauf and Crandel offered to stand and fight while Ian and Verner tended to their wounds (Ian had many contusions and Verner suffered a concussion).

After a while, Ian made a poultice (he’s an herbalist) for himself and fed some stimulants to Verner to stop him from sleeping. The tension was really high here because the party was separated now and no one knew if the orcs were launching an assault (none of the orcs died in the fight and the party knew this).

After a short wait, Crandel and Stauf returned to the stairs and peaked into the chamber to see that they were indeed getting ready for a fight. This was all the incentive they needed to run. They caught up with Ian and Verner, grabbed the dogs, and ran down the tunnel that lead to the cave that lead outside.

The group climbed up some rocks, found a place to rest, and contemplated just how much danger they were in. They had to hope beyond hope that the orcs didn’t track them down this tunnel and/or find the collapsed ceiling where they came through.

Exploring the cave, they found it lead out into the Great Rock Dale where they found the second of the two obelisks in Part 5. Knowing this one had positive energy, Ian placed his hand against the stone. His body tightened up, his eyes rolled back, and he had visions of a archetypal paladin fighting a horde of enemies to the last. Verner followed suit, but instead had a vision of a young couple having sex in the valley.

The party debated at this point returning to the village of Milbourne or warning the miners of the tunnel (and getting their horses). So they split the party and went in two directions.

Fast Forward to the Mine. Grim and his miner buddies are taking a smoke break, the horses are gone, and the miners are shocked to hear about the orcs. “Board up Tunnel A, boys.”

Fast Forward to the town of Milbourne. Crandel and Stauf steal the game session here, pretty much at the same time, Crandel goes to the pub and Stauf goes to see his friend Strom, who runs the kennel and loaned the dogs. Crandel has a conversation with Roth in the pub about everything they’ve seen, but his credibility is shot and none of his story makes any sense. Roth quickly tunes him out and leaves.

All the while, Stauf breaks down (remember he’s 14) and tells Strom about everything that happened. He speaks from a place of hopelessness about everything that has happened to them. About how every warning was there not to go underground. About how the others just continue to do everything they can to make things worse. He cried about never getting to go home. “I was supposed to be a farmer. I was supposed to settle down. I should have joined the gypsies.” Absolutely stole the evening. He went on for a good 5 to 10 minutes. And all Strom could say is, “We’ll get you out of this.” All the while, Stauf was saying, “I can’t go home. I’m going to die here.”

Cutting back to Crandel, he goes to see a priest named Oleg (not the local town priest) and confesses all his sins. Another moving scene, but just not even in league with Stauf’s.

Brilliant finish.

an outline of 5th edition : your mileage may vary

I previously posted about how I feel 5th edition won’t serve the consumer and that the game hasn’t been a GAME since 1st. It is now a product. As such, I don’t expect it to do anything it promises. At the end of the day, the people making it need to work and whatever Hasbro tells them to make, they will make.

I also haven’t played since 3.0 (minus a brief session of 3.75, which I barely even asked for rolls), so I really don’t care what they do with it.

But.

That doesn’t stop me from writing up the top 10 things I would do to fix the game. Everyone knows what they would change, usually without reading a single design document or note on why AC works they way it does. But what I’ve written here are fundamental issues with the structure of a game that really should have been made by 2nd edition (all the even-numbered editions are bad).

So, here’s my laundry list of changes. I can guarantee not a single one of these changes will happen. They are just two sweeping. But. These are my notes and let me remind you they are just notes. I’m not interested in writing up a scholarly paper on each bullet point (numbers actually), albeit I could fill a couple of books on the first item…

1. Charisma is out. Gone. Dead. Banished. It is a worthless part of the game. I’m not interested in any conversations with people ever again about how it’s still useful for some classes. It is not. It is “artificially” useful for some classes because the designers can’t figure out how to make it useful for all classes. It is everyone’s dump stat. And if it’s not your dump stat, you are bad at math. I mean, trouble with long division kind of bad at math, not confused by factorials.

Wisdom takes over for any skills that might seem “interactive.”

2. Skill list of 12 skills. That’s it. I’ve written ad nauseum on the ridiculousness of a class-based game have 50 skills. It’s like someone doesn’t even understand the medium they are publishing books in. A fighter can pick up any weapon and kill you with it, even if he’s never seen it before, but he has a different skill for Listen, Spot, and Search. Inane.

Athletics (replaces Balance, Climb, Escape Artist, Jump, Swim, Tumble)
Craft (replaces Craft, Profession)
Disable Device (replaces Disable Device, Open Locks)
Knowledge (replaces all knowledge)
Notice (replaces Listen, Spot, Search — allows for Scent)
Religion (includes understanding and performing rites and rituals)
Ride (replaces Ride and Handle Animal)
Social (replaces Appraise, Diplomacy, Gather Information, Intimidate, Perform, Sense Motive)
Stealth (replaces Hide, Move Silently, Sleight of Hand)
Subterfuge (replaces Bluff, Decipher Script, Disguise, Forgery)
Survival (replaces Heal, Survival, Use Rope)
Theory (includes all non-ephemeral Knowledge; replaces Concentration, Spellcraft, Use Magic Device)

3. Resources instead of money. You can still roleplay “4 gold here, 8 gold here” but the lack of game balance with equipment lists and weapons vs. their gold cost makes keeping track of how much people spend annoying. Which brings me to…

4. Thematic equipment and weapons. Weapons gain traits like small, big, fast, deadly, etc. Each weapon has one trait. Characters can now fight with a dagger (because it looks cool) and still be useful in a fight. Equipment is the same with anything that helps in a fight.

5. Actual socialization rules. Appeal, Blackmail, Bribery, Charm, Coercion, Extortion, Intimidation, Solicitation, Subterfuge, Supplication. Each of these has it’s own rules OR it all obeys the same rules. Either way, there are steps. You can’t kill a dragon in one roll, why are you bribing a senator with one roll? Look to Torg for amazing rules on Dramatic Conflict Resolution.

6. Macro-gaming. There have never been good rules in d&d for running nations, guilds, and so on. At a certain level people want to run a castle, which should feel very different from killing orcs. Vampire does this extremely well, so we know it can be done here.

7. Rewards for things other than combat. Why is this still not in the game?

8. Actual tool for writing a story. Not just adventures with a plot you must “win.” But tools for building your epic. No. D&D had never done this. Along with those tools, we’ll have some juicy juicy charts. Like mother used to make in 1st edition. Find those guys who made all that great Judges’ Guild stuff and offer them knighthoods. Just photocopy the last 30 pages of the DMG.

9. Alignment. Gone. No one uses it. It means nothing to anyone except to Clerics. It’s archaic, cumbersome, and usually just reflects the ideology of the GM, anyway. Morality and ethics change from society to society. An alignment wheel is good for a small country and changes as soon as you enter another country. Does anyone study sociology anymore? Which brings me to my #1 complaint about d&d….

10. Why is a Cleric of the Death God using the same character class as a Priest of the Tree of Life? This is lazy, lazy, lazy design. It start in 2nd edition with cleric spheres and in 2000 someone phoned it in with spell focuses. Oh good. Evil priests can INFLICT light wounds. Good ones can HEAL. Well. That about sums up the difference betwen Luke and Vader. A different cleric class for each major THEME of religion: Animals, Chaos, Death, Earth, Life, Sea, Sun, Underworld, War. Make them in groups of five and now you can tie them to each of the stats. Wow. Marrying your game design ideas. Who would have thought?

Game on.

Cycles : Part II

Character sheets in this game will be very different. Each player at the convention will be given a different prop

A day planner
A business card
A job application
A steno pad of notes
A letter from home

How the players interpret these props during the opening acts of play will determine their relative “traits,” which I will mark on my notes as we play.

The first Chapter of the story will have each character waking alone in a foreign place, like a hospital bed or next to someone they don’t know. I am still mapping the rest of it.

Cycles : An Experiment

I don’t have any information to give out just yet, but I stumbled upon a design idea tonight while I was at the movies. I am scratching out notes as we speak, but I will be running the game at OrcCon 2012. We’ll see how it goes. Feel free to ping me for details if you’re interested, but right now in my head it’s a mixture of Psychosis, Fiasco, and Unknown Armies.

The Haranshire Campaign, Part 5.

We had a disappointing session tonight, trying to coordinate skype with a player in Lancaster (he’s there for work) and the energy just wasn’t the same. All in all, the party meandered around the valley trying to make sense of everything they witnessed.

In short, the party argued for a while about what to do next, traveled with the Herald (Aidan) back to Ingram’s cabin where a note was left for them, written in a flowing elven script by a woman named Viviene saying they had gone south to deal with the missing Wallace, deal with rumors of more disappearances, and investigate talk of an orc camp in the vicinity.

After escorting Aidan all the way back to the keep, the party returned to Thurmaster, witnessed the unloading of a great deal of stone, brick, and lumber at the docks, and snuck into Luther’s tower to investigate his whereabouts (and if there was any sign of Skye). Well. Crandel snuck into the tower.

Afterwards, the party gave the dogs something of Skye’s to smell and the party headed north into the Hardlow Wood (a very dangerous place) once the dogs found her scent. The journey took them on a strange course through the wood, up into a desolate and damaged landscape, to some dead bodies, then to an obelisk, and then to the Great Rock Dale (I didn’t name that).

From the north end of the Dale, they could see down into the chasm of stoney earth that the dogs were heading into. The path down looked treacherous and the conditions of the Dale appeared very dangerous — any number of creatures could be hiding in there ready to strike. But the party headed down anyway and the GM had to basically pretend nothing was in there this day (ugh).

The journey was slow-going and the party found a cave to sleep for the night. During the night a scuffle between orcs and goblins took place outside of the cave and by morning two goblins had been stoned to death.

The party headed south and upon reaching the south end of the Dale, encountered an obelisk much like the first, although this one radiated positive, soothing energy. Everyone but Verner touched the obelisk and immediately felt better.

The trail for the dogs continued up and out of the Dale, across the plains again, and over into the Carmen mines (just north of the city of Milborne). The session ended with the party squaring off against the dwarven foreman (Grim), who the party had met before. A gruff stand-off occurred as the party wished to enter the mine to investigate the missing Skye, but Grim refused to allow entry.

The session ended there and we promised each other we would not try to do a skype/telephone game again.

The Haranshire Campaign, Parts 3 and 4.

Upon arriving in Milbourne, the party noticed a few things about the village.

One. It’s a tiny nothing on the edge of an insignificant valley. It would be so easy to miss this place as no major roads some through here and the river is too shallow for anything but barge traffic. If it weren’t for the copper ore coming out of the hills, no one would live here.

Two. The land is unsuitable for tilling and farming. Many people have lost their farms to swamp water rising in the south and those north of the village must deal with polluted ground-water.

Three. The people are not sociable, or even interested in meeting the newcomers. I did require that each character take a relationship with someone in the town, so they’d have some kind of history with the people here. They didn’t necessarily ever have to visit, but it would give them some “roots.”

After an exhausting meeting with the local miller and reeve (Vromme) and wife (Brandy), the group split up for a short while meeting their respective friends. News of a local girl going missing — Skye, daughter of Vromme and Brandy and apprentice to Luther — soon echoed through the village. Panic set in among some of the townsfolk and the local constable and carpenter (Roth) set about making a posse. A few misunderstandings led to Roth suspecting the party and an interrogation followed. Eager to prove their innocence, the group offered to aid Roth as they were on their way to Thurmaster anyway.

Verner also had a short meeting with an old business rival named Engel, who had taken over the exporting of copper from Milbourne into Divers. He also came to learn that his father might be in the vicinity.

Not wanting to rush and/or pay for the ferry to Thurmaster, the characters walked overland, passing a cottage in the middle of a field on the north side of the river. It looked more like a hunting lodge than anything, so the party rested there and fished in the morning before heading on.

Upon reaching Thurmaster, the players were in for an even bigger shock than before. Thurmaster was nothing more than a cobbling together of huts, surrounded by a wooden fence, with a single stone tower on the south end. In no time it was apparent that there was a strong garrison in the town, with nothing to defend. Poor people sputtered about in the dirt, shuffling to and fro as they collected wood from the abandoned farms outside the walls.

Venter had a short and useless meeting with Squire Kent, the local authority in Thurmaster before determining that 1) Luther was not in town presently and 2) it would be prudent to visit the local Baronett (Uther) in order to procure aid. Uther’s allegience to the Baron was not in question until the players arrived in Thurmaster. But it was clear, something was amiss.

The four-hour walk uphill to Huntley Keep revealed that the east end of the shire was worse off than the west end. Abandoned and burned out villages revealed recent raids and poor crop outputs. Many families had vacated the area and others were driven out. In the worst case scenarios, they were burned with their homes. The players learned that the most recent orc raids on this side of the valley were four months ago, but many farms appeared to have been fallow for up to two years.

Once at the keep, the characters came face to face with another garrison of troops. They were armed and trained (although not amazingly so) and stationed in a very small two-story keep that could hold at best, 50 men. There was no official count, however.

A short introduction to a 14-year old herald/page by the name of Aidan and a long wait for their meeting inside the keep played on the character’s patience, but eventually Ian was an audience with the regent, Barclay. A meeting with the Baronet was out of the question of course, but Barclay would hear what Ian had to say. Ian disclosed that he was a scholar seeking out Luther (in order to conceal their true motives) and that Skye had gone missing in Milbourne.

News of Skye’s disappearance concerned Barclay (for a number of reasons) and he immediately formulated a plan. He issued a letter and asked that Ian deliver this letter to Roth in Milbourne. Aidan would escort them back to Milbourne. The party spent the night inside the courtyard of the keep, among the stabled animals. At night, they encountered a lone man (Brother Nigel) taking a late-night constitutional around the compound who spoke briefly to Crandel about other faiths and metaphysical points of view. Crandel didn’t understand any of it and proceeded to talk enough to drive the man back into his room inside the keep.

Verner also noticed his father’s saddlebags (and insignia) in the stables, indicating he was either inside the keep or nearby. Verner’s need for revenge did come up as a topic. He found a pendant inside the bags that he did not recognize, probably from some sort of gentleman’s fraternity or order.

The next morning, the party headed back across the Shire toward Milbourne, with Aidan as their escort. This time, their stopped at the cottage brought them face to face with Ingram, the local woodsman who lived there. Gregarious and selfless, he seemed the antithesis of everyone else they’d met in the Shire. They shared some broth from a stew Ingram was cooking and the six men talked of the missing Skye. Ingram reported that another child had gone missing — Wallace; from a farm on the south side of the river — and that news of a second child going missing was cause for concern. Ingram offered to talk to a woman he knew about it all and would meet with them again upon their return through to the Keep.

And this is where things got very interesting for the party.

Upon returning to Milbourne, news of Barclay’s letter reached the important people of the town and a meeting at the Carmen estate (largest house in town) was called. Vromme, Roth, Darius Carmen, Aidan, and all of the player characters were present, during which time it was learned that

One. The Baronet had recently asked people to start calling him the Count, a big self-promotion.

Two. Aidan was Uther’s nephew and a shoe-in for the throne.

Three. Milbourne had always maintained some semblance of autonomy from the keep (unlike Thurmaster), but that Barclay was looking for any excuse to annex the town to the Baronet’s lands. Missing children would reflect that the townsfolk could not govern themselves and that they would need protection. This is not something anyone in Milbourne would want.

Four. Aidan would be more than willing to be the voice of reason on behalf of Milbourne — for the right price.

Five. A large farm was going up for auction tomorrow and Darius Carmen was sure to win it, but the farmland was among those submerged in the growing swamp.

Six. By the looks of Carmen’s parlor, he was nouveau riche and didn’t know how to spend his money. Among his tchotchkes was a book called “Songs of the Hammer of the Gods” (a purposely annoying title), detailing a time before the human gods when giants roamed the earth. Ian sat alone with the book for a time while the other’s argued about the fate of Milbourne.

The session ended with Aidan and the key people of Milbourne leaving the room in various intervals as the conversation grew more and more hostile, leaving the party alone in the parlor.

We play again in about 18 hours.