Chill Third Edition: A Review

RPGs are a crowded marketplace. Particularly in the traditional mode: there’s only so many ways to differentiate the idea of simulated avatars moving through an imagined environment. And the thing we do in them almost as much as kill monsters in fantasy dungeons is kill monsters in modern day horror. Which is to say, it’s not enough for the modern-day monster killing RPG Chill to be decent, or even good. It also needs to bring something new to the table. Chill tries hard to rise to this challenge, but its successes are never quite without qualifications.

 

Of course, Chill is something old, not new. Chill was first released by Pacesetter Games in 1984 – an eternity ago in gaming. I never played the original so I’m not sure how much new stuff they’ve added and how much is a relic of the past. The sense I get is they’ve tried to keep as much as possible, and sometimes I fear that might have led to some preservations which might have been better culled or at least cleaned and polished. On the other hand, not all changes are improvements…

 

To pick an emblematic example, let’s talk the core system. Chill was one of the last of the great dividers: nowadays, it’s considered taboo but in the 80s it was commonly expected for players of roleplaying games to be able to do division and multiplication on the fly. Chill is in fact an acronym for how the system works: there are three levels of success – Colossal, High and Low – ChilL (not to be confused with California Highway Patrol, which is completely different). A Low success is rolling under your (usually above 50%) stat on a d%, a High was rolling under stat halved, and a Colossal was rolling under it quartered. New minty fresh Chill keeps the High and Low, but replaces the Colossal with rolling doubles on your percentile dice and getting a success (doubles while failing is a Botch). That means a few things, such as critical successes and failure now happen 10% of the time, which is much more common. There’s now less reason to have stats above 100%, except in the case of modifiers, (although I don’t see why you need modifiers if you have success levels), and now there are five levels of outcome to deal with rather than four. But it does mean you don’t have to divide by four. Better? Maybe. To me it feels like not much really gained and still fiddly anyway.

 

And there’s some more of that around. There’s a gorgeous mechanic where the game has a number of two-sided tokens on the table and the GM turns them to the good side to power up the bad guys and players turn them to the bad side to power up themselves. This allows a visual, visceral sense of how much trouble you’re in and how the tide is turning. But there are six different things that can cause or arise from token turning and they’re not written on the character sheet. Another example is every stat is linked to exactly one skill, which is rated at half your stat. A lovely idea that really helps establish setting: this is your general skill with Perception, whereas Investigation is using it specifically in genre, ie to solve mysteries and hunt monsters. The problem is they couldn’t think of specific examples narrow enough for Strength, Agility or charisma (here called Personality) so those skills (Prowess, Movement and Communication) start at your full stat. Maybe I’m a stickler for symmetry but that just feels messy. It’s the opposite of elegant.

 

Parts of the design and layout of the book also feel messy. Now, RPGs aren’t like normal books. RPGs are toolkits, which is to say when you open them they need to unfold like a toolbox to reveal all the useful tools close at hand, but being books they have to be lined up in a linear order. You can’t understand chargen until you know the rules but the rules don’t mean anything without knowing what the characters are and none of that means anything without a setting. Over the decades different games have solved this in different ways and none are perfect, but Chill’s approach seems particularly off-kilter. To stop you from having to learn the complexities of chargen at the start, the pregens come first, but that means you have the examples before the process (and I’ve never met anyone who likes pregens). Then after chargen we have a huge chapter on setting and the chapter of cool powers before we get to the main rules, and parts of those end up in the GM’s chapter. And because the setting chapter is entirely focussed on the organisation the PCs work for, it’s difficult to get a full sense of the game’s direction until you reach the antagonist chapter at the very end – you get a who’s who before you get what they do. The game is complete (and expansive) but you have to read the whole thing to get that, and at times it almost feels like work to unravel it.

 

But once you get passed the messiness, there is an interesting, well developed and at times beautiful game in here. So let’s talk about the good stuff.

 

Chill takes its lead from many, if not most, twentieth century horror films: evil is a real, potent force, it takes the form of ghosts, vampires, werewolves, monsters, black-eyed children, creepy old ladies and evil dolls, and all they want to do is kill people and cause pain. The players are members, or “envoys”, of SAVE, a Latin acronym for the Eternal Society of the Silver Way, although Eternal is big talk for a society invented in 1844. But that big talk is part of SAVE’s nature: it feels realistic and human. It’s not a society that somehow magically lasted all of time and whose members are almost always entirely loyal and whose goal always good. SAVE is in fact riven by internal politics disputes, frustrated by its inadequacies and limitations, and possibly entirely betrayed from within. Indeed, in 1989 their world clubhouse in Dublin was attacked in an inside job and still nobody knows how (and nobody trusts anyone either). They’re not the Watchers or the Templars or even the CIA; they’re more akin to the National Geographic Society, only without funding coming in from sales of the magazine. They’re big enough to have people all over the world and keep a mailing list going, but they rely on members to bring their own guns, cars, computers and sometimes even office buildings. And given that every time they gather information and resources in one place it gets blown up, smallness appears to be on their side.

 

This approach has become explicit since 2012 when a new leader emerged in Hayat Nejem, a Syrian woman who discovered the Unknown (capital U, as SAVE calls the force of evil) when she saw demonic spirits surrounding Assad. Her response was to kickstart SAVE back from the torpor of confusion and suspicion since Dublin, but with the caveat that from now on, everyone was going to use a cell structure to stay connected but anonymous. Meanwhile old schoolers want to pretend they’re still an academic gentleman’s club and are resisting the new methods, and some parts of SAVE are still off the grid and don’t know anything about leaders, new or old. Players get to build their own SAVE base and choose which group they fall into, although only brainstorming guidelines are provided, not actual mechanics.

 

It’s a good setting not just because it feels realistically broken and organic; SAVE is designed to be just big enough to get envoys in trouble while small enough to be completely unable to get them out of it. However, the exhaustive chapter on SAVE goes into enormous detail about some things that feel irrelevant and skims over stuff I would have loved to have seen more about. For example, there’s endless information on the first three missions and surrounding life and times of the folks who set up SAVE, and a breakdown of every central office, director and local hotspots for every continent on earth. Having a historical and global view is important to get a sense of things but unless you’re planning on setting your game outside modern day USA, most of the detail is superfluous. Especially since those sections are much much longer than stuff about the modern day and the local, comparatively, and the every day functioning also has a short shrift. I’m fascinated with the idea of a society trying to exist in a post-9/11 world while requiring its members to remain in clandestine contact with military agents inside Syria. I’d love to play either side of that equation. Instead I’m reading about haunted houses in Outer Mongolia and lengthy journal entries of some long-dead Oxford don about whom I could not care less.

 

Nothing is actually absent in this book, it’s just sometimes disproportionate; others hard to find. The real meat is in the rump, in the last and second last chapters. Yes, players need to know what dice to roll but the nature of an RPG is in its structure and tone. To its enormous credit, Chill knows this and devotes much to the art of crafting these elements. And I don’t just mean a long discussion on the relevant sources and the methods of emulating them using the rules. The damage rules are in this section, because it’s in those rules that GMs have the main ability to affect the characters, and drive home the horror. Chill’s setting is one where the characters are really normal people, getting the absolute crap beaten out of them by a dark force they cannot really match, but choosing to fight on anyway, and representing that is all about damage, physical AND mental. The horror checks are more complicated than Cthulhu but not as complicated as Unknown Armies, but either way are meaty and realistic. This is a game where trauma counselling is vital, and the feat giving training in it is as sought after as Great Cleave in D&D.

 

That sets up tone. Structure comes from the investigation model: finding the horror and learning what might be its weakness before it beats the crap out of you. Chill is a high-prep game where GMs develop a series of bread-crumbs which players can find in different avenues to get the important information. The monsters aren’t generally unbeatable without their silver bullet, thankfully, and the structure takes its key from the lesson of GUMSHOE – key clues are available even on botches, although sometimes with extraneous information. Do I want to come up with five outcomes for every investigation avenue? No, but that’s what pre-written adventures are for. The one we’ve seen (in the quickstart) is excellent at this; I hope we’ll see more of them announced soon. Even if not, there’s nothing wrong with this approach to the investigation genre, and by taking you through the process inch by inch, Chill does every bit of heavy lifting it can to help you.

 

They also give some help in the last chapter, the extensive bestiary, with most listings have some guidance on tell-tale signs and weaknesses, and a taxonomy that you can see SAVE actually applying in setting. Lest your players crack the code and become bored, many monsters are adjustable and the game also comes with sixty monster powers allowing you to mix and match your monsters to keep players guessing. The powers also allow you to emulate important horror tropes like descending silence, slamming doors and phones breaking, without having to give everyone complicated telekinesis. If the player character sheets look a bit fussy, the opposite is true with the opposition – the stats are streamlined down and the use of the flipping tokens also thins down what each beasty can do and when.

 

The tone of this review has ramped up towards positivity as it’s gone along, and that’s because the RPG works the same way. When I’d finished it, I finally got the sense of all the tools and how to use them to tell a story, but actively trying to learn that from the game proved difficult. It’s certainly not a product to give to your players to teach them. There’s no handy summary tables and back references and chargen doesn’t feel like a step-by-step guide so much as a list of information. There isn’t even a character sheet – or maybe they just took it out of the PDF?

 

Yet at the same time this game goes above and beyond with what detail and support it does provide. The information on the background and antagonists is exhaustive to the point of actual exhaustion. The tools for building investigative structure and intense horror are purposeful and cleverly designed. This is a game built with care, but it is also not very user-friendly or easily grasped, because there are still plenty of rough edges. It’s a claymore of a game: certainly potent but also unwieldy. And like a claymore I respect it and I think it will really suit some people’s style, but it also requires some work to master, and if I was backed into a corner, I’d pick a slicker, more convenient weapon.

 

In the end, the first question was around the wrong way: Chill clearly some nice new things to the table, but it also has to be good. And it is quite good, but in a crowded marketplace, you have to be great to be good, and quite good is only decent.

 

7/10.

Five Reasons You Should be Playing Conclave

Yeah, so I’m writing everything in lists now, because that’s where the money is. Sue me. Also, for context it’s worth pointing out that I don’t like most computer games. As in, find them literally unplayable. So when a computer game makes a dent in that, it’s a big deal. Context.

Conclave is an asynchronous D&D-inspired fantasy RPG in the mould of the old SSI games. You can find it at http://www.playconclave.com and you and three (maybe four?) buddies can team up and play through a pretty awesome fantasy campaign on any device that can run the internet – it doesn’t even use java. If you’re yearning for some old-school RPGing in your life but are worn down by the tyrannies of time and distance, this could be your port of call. But it’s not just Tiny Adventures all over again. It’s much, much better than that. Here’s why.

1. It’s free, for real

Tiny Adventures and other social media type games are free but they don’t want to be. They want to go viral and sell numbers, so they want all your friends to play. Others want to sell you microtransactions, to get all the extra goodies. Conclave doesn’t have any of that. You can pay for it, but it’s a single (cheap) transaction to get the full version, but so far we haven’t seen a need to. What’s more, if just one person in your team pays, the whole team can unlock things. Not only does this suit my budget (and everyone’s budget) this fact filters through every aspect of the game design. It also makes it easier to sell to your friends: it’s not going to cost them anything, and it’s not going to drive all their friends on facebook mad asking them to join.

2. It’s team-based but asynchronous

The game can be played solo, but it thrives in team play – the classes are nicely complimentary (see the below for more), and the text chat supports conversation, as does the cool voting system when the story branches in different directions. This is, as mentioned, an artifact of being really free – facebook games want all your friends to play with you, which could never work for hundreds of them, so when you’re playing Marvel Heroes, you’re always alone. But in Conclave you’re very much both a team of heroes and a group of gamers, sharing an experience, which pulls it closer to the D&D feel. But unlike linking up to play Diablo or D&D online, this is asynchronous. Once everyone has had an attack (or a vote on a story choice), the game will start a new round, and if you’re a bit late getting back on line, your friends can just act before you that round (although that might not be tactically sound). Got a friend who can’t play at your rate? The game will automove you if you are offline for more than 24 hours. Going away for a while and don’t want the game to do that? Set it to vacation mode to wait for you to return. It can accommodate all paces, so you can all share the fun.

3. The system is very good

Some might say this is a no-brainer, or that it’s most kept invisible, but the system the computer is running is a really solid RPG system – so much so it would definitely be worth playing off-line. It has the D&D 4E cleverness of making every ability interesting, but without going over the top, and of focussing on status effects, but not being crippled by them. Like 3E and WFRP, it breaks down into minor and major actions, some of which have the 4E conceit of only triggering once (or twice) per encounter, or only when wounded or acquiring some other status. In the few cases where it might get as fiddly as 4E with all the effects, it doesn’t because a) the computer is doing them and b) they’re almost all elegant and simple, just a single modifier or such. Yet in this simplicity the choices are extremely meaningful, especially because you can’t win an encounter (in fact, you must restart it) if even one party member dies. This nicely balances out the advantage of having extra party members and keeps the tension high and the tactical choices extremely weighty. Sometimes, who moves precisely when will change everything, and that’s fantastically engaging.

4. The character building is strong

Characters have a familiar race/class build, but both options are strong and have options within. Niche protection is high, and the standard roles of 4E/MMOs are present, but in a way that has a new feel to it. Clerics (Buffers) are now Beacons, which means their role as a “leader” (as it was in 4E) is built into their in-setting explanation, and provides them with Warlord-esque ways of leading others to greatness. The fighter is the Vanguard who is basically the tank, but not in such a way that he can sit on the front lines without thought, especially at low levels. The rogue, runecaster and truebow are the striker-types: high damage, low squish, but in different ways from each other. Extra skills unique to each class add to make each feel distinct, as does weapon access. It is hard to make a pole-arm vanguard as a result (Beacons have that option) but you can respec if you go down a dead-end and with a simple but decently sized trait list, no two Beacons need to feel the same. Races too, are strong archetypes but with a new twist: the lumyn and the nix are mostly just high elves and gnomey-halflings, but then we have the chameleonic stealthy lizardmen, the satyr-esque wood-elf-sort-of-trollish trow and the gigantic living furnaces of the forgeborn (not like warforged; more like klingon-Azers)

5. The writing is fantastic throughout

I’ve played Mass Effect and Dragon Age and Guild Wars and more, and this is the best writing I’ve ever seen in a CRPG. The world design is elegant and clever: for hundreds of years, empires have fallen, one after the other, until only Bastion was left, the last free city, which just so happens to be where your characters come from. Why they’ve fallen and who caused it is still becoming clear; the game does not make the mistake of doing infodumps about the world but reveals it in elegant inches, as you explore and gain allies and respect, but at the same time never makes you feel small. One lovely twist is that whatever force of darkness is out there has taken away the ability to dream – except in rare, magically important situations: a perfect macguffin to draw your PCs into the story, and to trigger lovely subplots (like the cult that develops around another Dreamer who believes his nightmares have made him a messiah).  It’s not just the structure and world that are well written though: the characters and language are vivid and direct, and each quest or scene introduced with short, clear vignettes that deliver powerful emotion and clear goals in the minimum of words, then vanish – just like a good GM should do.

And that’s the real glory of Conclave: it is the best D&D game I’ve ever been in, including all the ones I’ve played on the tabletop, because it feels like a tabletop game, and what’s more, one being run by an excellent GM. Here is a CRPG that hasn’t tried to reinvent the wheel but rather taken all the best lessons on good GMing from the table, and implemented them as elegantly as possible on computer, and then stepped aside to let you fill in the blanks. It’s not, of course, an RPG. You don’t get to act in character or make any choices you want. On the other hand, if you do that in the textbox, it is as much an RPG as anything Gygax ever wrote, and certainly as much as anything from SSI was, or even Planescape: Torment was. So-called narrative control and on-screen dialogue does not necessarily the RPG experience make, and if you’ve found things like Dragon Age to be glorified adventure games that don’t feel anything at all like gathering around a table to match wits with hideous enemies in dungeons foul, then all is not lost. Conclave is here, and it is OFF THE GODDAMN HOOK. If it was any more D&D, it would make cheetoes shoot out of your screen, plus you can play it on your goddamn phone, even if your buddies are at the North Pole.

What more can you ask?

How I Write RPG Reviews

Way back in 1999, I started writing my first published material by sending game reviews to RPGNet. Back then it was pretty much the only game in town for reviews. This, I think, was my first one published. Since then I’ve reviewed for a few other sites, and been pleased to succeed in my goal of getting into reviews in the first place: getting comp copies. As I was and am too poor to afford any kind of games, my dream was always to be the guy who got free stuff, and I succeeded.

Unfortunately, nowadays almost all review copies of RPGs are PDFs so I’m giving up reviewing them for the most part. I can’t re-sell PDFs if I need cash, and I find them a pain to read. I’m also giving up reviewing for RPGNet because not many people read them any more. RPG reviews are not really in demand, I feel, on RPGNet or anywhere. People would rather go to a forum and ask everyone’s opinion then read a detailed review, I think. So low audience, low return.

However, over the last twelve years I’ve written more than a hundred reviews, and been lauded for them often – often enough to get noticed, get free stuff, and even, in a few cases, get writing work with the companies. So that’s my qualifications for saying I obviously am doing something right. I must know how to write good reviews.

But until now, nobody’s ever asked me how I do it. But now they have, so I’m thinking about it.

Really, like any writing, your first rule is know your audience and know yourself. If you’re writing for a particular outlet, you have to match their style and their audience. If you’re writing for yourself – which, thankfully, RPGNet lets me do – you need to know what kind of reviewer you want to be. For myself, the goal was always to be a critic as well as a reviewer – in the best and highest sense of the word. As Oscar Wilde said: “The role of the critic is to educate the audience. The role of the artist is to educate the critic.”

If that’s how you see yourself, then your role is not just to describe but to illuminate, to not just make a declaration of worth, but to convince your audience you are correct in your declaration. It is not unlike being a travel writer; you are selling them on a book not just through facts but through a journey, an experience – your experience. It doesn’t always have to have personal context, but it should always be about your journey and what you found there. I find that the best way to leave signs behind to others, and lead them to the gems you discover, and away from the dross.

Enough waffle. Some more – and more concrete – rules I’ve learnt along the way – sometimes painfully taught. Whether they are good rules or not, they’re the ones I’ve used, and since the reviews have been well received, they may be worth something.

  • Set the context. Whether personal or historical or thematic. No product exists in a vacuum, and no review should either. The audience benefits from the background, because it gives them a landscape in which to situate your comments and understand the conception of the book better. And if you talk about your background, they know how and why you came to the book, giving them greater insight in how to compare your views to their own. An authoritative voice is important – your opinion matters, and don’t let anyone tell you different – but if you make it a personal voice rather than a universal one, and an illuminating one rather than didactic, you give people room to have their own opinions and experiences, and to use your review to understand how they might feel about the work, rather than be told how they will feel about it.
  • Ask (and answer) the three questions. Early on, I read something that said that a review must answer three questions: What are the goals of the work? Were those goals achieved? And Was that a worthy goal to begin with? These formed the backbone of all my reviews, and really, they’re what make a review more than just a description of contents. They also give your review coherence, direction and structure, which can be important when you’re five thousand words into a review of a five hundred page tome. By keeping the goal of the work in mind, your review gains focus and direction, and it stops you from being biased, because you remember that just because you don’t like the goal doesn’t mean the product has failed. The questions also encourage you to analyse and evaluate, which is critical. It is not enough simply to describe.
  • Respect the work – but respect your audience more. A roleplaying game is, or can be, a hefty product, the output of great toil, even a work of art. It deserves your respect. You owe it to it, its creator and your audience to come to it without to much bias, to read it cover to cover, and take time to evaluate it fairly and fully. However, do not under any circumstances think you owe it or its creator any more than this. I have in the past made the mistake of being too nice, and it is a terrible idea. You feel bad because you lied, your audience doesn’t get the truth, and in almost every case, you annoy the creator or company anyway because they still don’t think you’re positive enough. Your audience demands nothing less than your total honesty. Their time and money (and yours) is vital and precious and should not be wasted on the mediocre or insufficient. Your audience is also, you must assume, intelligent, experienced, refined, and deserves the best.  Any thing which does not meet those standards should be called on it, not molly-coddled or equivocated upon. This isn’t nursery school, there are no points whatsoever for trying hard or enthusiasm, and even fewer for tact.
  • Respect the artist – and yourself. If it is a comp copy, let them know when you receive it. Get the review done as promptly as you can. When it goes up, take the courtesy to let them know. There’s no reason why you can’t have open communication (and comp copies and all the rest); it doesn’t taint your opinion of the work. You can still imagine what it would be like to pay for the work, and you can still suggest the artist is off his rocker if you think he is. He won’t take it personally, and if he does, then you don’t do business with him any more. A professional artist, someone worth reviewing for, someone worth your time, will never begrudge a bad review. That, indeed, is perhaps the most important sign of a professional, mature artist. And what I mean about respecting yourself is understanding that you don’t have to put up with anything less than pure professionalism. If anybody gives you any attitude about a negative review, they’re not worth dealing with ever again. Likewise, if any of your audience get their panties in a bunch because you disliked their sacred cow, ignore them entirely. Anyone who actually loves something knows its flaws, or comes to love it more when it discovers them – or has good enough arguments to refute the flaws that others see.

Beyond that: if in doubt, follow the work. Keep an open mind, give your hand to the artist, and follow him down the rabbit hole, and then be prepared, some times, to get sweaty and dirty digging yourself out again. It’s not always pretty. Sometimes, it’s miserable. But the journey is almost always worthwhile, I find. The teacher always learns more than the student, and I inevitably find I understand and appreciate a product more at the end of a review than at the start. If I don’t, it’s probably a bad review, and I need to fix it or start again.

 

Game Chef 2011 – Last Reviews

As promised, the reviews of the other three finalists. Bit short because well, life has not been kind to me of late.

Globe Records by Mike Olson is basically a freeform/LARP, as in it’s about pre-written characters with differing agendas. It’s set in a record company where the major players are all Shakespearean characters – Lady Macbeth the current big star, Juliet the new talent, Hamlet the flakey poet, Richard III the power-hungry boss. This is a fun twist on Shakespeare, crossing the familiar with the new for both fun (grungey Dane’s band is called Sea of Troubles) and good drama (who wouldn’t want to see Tricky Dick go up against Lady Mac?)

It uses a cool mechanic like Smallville’s where the strength of your relationship determines how many cards you draw (and thus how likely you are to succeed) and also uses Smallville’s relationship statements.  The values of relationships can shift back and forth as the game goes on, allowing for a nice organic LARP flow, although like most LARPs I imagine it wouldn’t play out much differently each time – EXCEPT for a lovely little mechanic that generates three different plots each game. What’s clever about this is the authors model soap operas by having one plot just starting, one developing and one hopelessly convoluted. I really like the idea of starting with some stories already well underway, and drawing not just a random event, but what happened next, and then after that. Classy and stealable!

A Midsummer Night’s Scheme by Nat Barmore and Caitlin Doran has a very clever set up worthy of its very own play. Titania and Oberon have come down to check if any of their fairies have gotten attached to any mortals. They must prove they haven’t by playing a prank on mortals to impress their lord and lady. This is done by picking the appropriate fairy magic stat related to the prank and rolling against the appropriate appreciation stat of the lord and lady, and the more you succeed, the more points you get, leading to a final winner. If you’re going against your own favoured mortal, however, you get a lot fewer dice to roll – but if you still win, you get a lot more points. There’s also a few stats that can shuffle up and down, as you get closer to your mortal or to the mortal world.

It seems to work and is nice and complete, but it ended up leaving me a little flat. There are a few suggestions for what your fairy might be and who your mortal might be and how they all ended up together, but it’s all a bit vague in the execution. And you have to do a lot of heavily lifting as a player – invent a fairy, a mortal, a relationship, and then weave every other players’ mortals together at the same time and place and come up with some amazing prank – without any real help from the system, which just does success and failure. It was the opposite of so many others – excellent structure and clear rules, but no scaffolding or verve. But these things could easily be added with a bit more time and of course, space.

The Lost Years by Matthew Nielsen is very clever indeed – it made me smile the moment it opened with an in-setting letter to the new time agent. In another universe, Shakespeare’s life was different, and so were his plays, but that universe never really existed. So some of the characters from those unwritten plays have been recruited as Time Cops to guard the most important person in history from time criminals. That man is Shakespeare, and he’s at his most vulnerable during his “lost years”, when no records exist of where he was. This is a great concept for a game – a clear, direct mission, with obvious badguys, but you can put the story anywhere in the medieval world. Likewise you can play anyone, as long as they are the kind of figure who might appear in an unwritten or changed play. A lot of chargen is “I want to be like guy X in a movie, but if he was Y” and now you can do that. Play Hamlet with less whining or Lady Macbeth after she ruled all of Scotland.

I also really love the mechanics. Of all the games I read they are the simplest and easiest but cover pretty much everything. Every character has three stats: Comedy, Tragedy, History. Comedy is used to make things better, Tragedy to make things worse and History to keep things the same. This is to be interpreted harshly – killing a bad guy counts as tragedy, as it is a destructive and bloody end, even if it leads to good. Players roll d6s equal to each trait to do things, but can also spend traits to do Dramatic Editing, with History modifiying the past, Comedy the Present and Tragedy the future. Tricky to adjudicate but a lovely balance between having better rolls vs making defining statements. Also, characters get bonus dice or points back if they act against Shakespeare’s protection and rather for themselves, because being from plays, they have implicit goals. And there are two types of goals – things they want and things they have been scripted to do. Whining or not, Hamlet has to die, and with such a high Tragedy score he has lots of points to spend but recharging them means taking actions which drive him towards that death.

I have always adored the idea of playing characters who are caught up in stories beyond their control and in the history of gaming, this is the best mechanic I’ve ever seen for it. I am going to steal the hell out of it, combine it with Walk the Line and write a whole game about being stuck between what you want and what the story wants. Which is not to say the Lost Years doesn’t do an excellent job on its own – it’s clever and unique, it works, it’s clear, it’s simple, it’s fun and it’s just full of understanding of the right amount of control/freedom balance to produce excellent gaming opportunities, in both system and setting. Forsooth was probably more shakesperean, but this one I think is the best game. The setting alone deserves the gong, and it may be the heart of my next con adventure.

And we now return you to your regularly scheduled lives, already in progress. Until next year.

Game Chef 2011 – Star-Crossed Lovers and Durance

These are my last two assignments.

Star-Crossed Lovers was probably my favourite, not least because it seemed the most concrete (no handwaving here). Players take the roles of suitors trying to woo the daughters of a rich patriarch – but they must also woo their father as well. The daughters care about the passion of their beaus, the fathers about how wealthy the son-in-law will be, and you go through the game earning points in each category by risking the last points you got in the hope of earning more – although the goal is not to have the MOST points but for your scores to be as close as possible, so your love is equal to the suitability of your marriage. Also nicely, there are set rounds (through the five Acts) when certain scenes work better than others, and we get a nice progression through a Shakespearean structure (eg in Act 4, you find out a secret about your background, so the Patriarch now knows you are richer than he thought, so you get +1 to impressing him). The only problem with the game is the only way to distinguish each suitor is whether they start with more Passion than Wealth, and a mechanically-unbalanced classification of their Humour. At least it is an attempt though, and if you fix this, this looks like awesome fun. What I think I like the most about it is it has fortune at the start. There’s none of this “set a scene, tell a story, roll a die if it matters” or “a messenger arrives and then you make up the rest” – the rules say You’re At a Party, you’re Suitor A trying to impress a Daughter or a Patriarch and then you roll and then the roll helps you come up with ideas. Plus the GM/Patriarch gets to have a lot of fun in a supervisory role, which is what I like too.

Durance is not eligible this year, not sure why. It didn’t end up having much to do with Shakespeare so maybe that’s it. Instead its a tale of a colonial planet settled by convicts, with the planet being far more hostile than anticipated – ie its Australia. The game focusses on the chain of authority – or rather two chains, the legal, from Governor down to enlisted guards, and the illegal, from the Dimber Damber and his lieutenants down to the weak as dirt prisoners. What you get then is a prison drama like Oz – brutal and bloodsoaked and full of bullies. Characters break their promises to themselves and conflicts are resolved with dice labelled Servility, Savagery and Desperation (highest wins, ties causes Random Events to occur instead, from a cool table). It’s one of those “frame a scene, maybe roll a dice” thingies which again lacks a bit of concreteness (and shares the GMing around, each turn somebody else gets to set the scene and just sit back and watch, which is, for me, the whole reason I am a GM, so I don’t have to do, just enjoy as an audience) but at least here it is very very clear what the game and each scene is going to be about. Shared world design and character design (your neighbours give your characters his oaths) complete a very polished package. It’s dark and bloody but if that’s your thing, it’s worth a look.

 

 

Game Chef 2011 – Quick Review of Daughters of Verona

Just to help spread the word about what I read (and it will pass the time while I wait for the lazy bastards to finish reviewing my game, damn them)

The Daughers of Verona was, according to the author, an attempt to make a comedy version of Montsegur 1244, which is a very story-oriented game about burning Cathar heretics. I’m told the original has preset characters randomly dealt out and then random story events come from another deck. DoV uses a similar idea, however the characters are just names and pictures – the game has an enormous amount of hand-waving at the moment – you are supposed to arrange your characters into a series of love triangles, villainous blockers and comic relief, and then tell the story through five acts. Apparently a lot of entrants this year read the same website about Shakespeare’s five act structure (or there’s some indie rpg that is also huge on acts they’re riffing off) because they’re all madkeen on it. In each act you have a general sense of what to establish but not a specific sense, you’re supposed to get that by choosing an event from three dealt out and a location from four dealt out. The events are quite evocative (Rumours of War, A Messenger Arrives) but still not really specific enough to help the idea-lacking. There’s no resolution mechanic, you just assign parts and “make a scene”.

Despite this vagueness the cards are excellent and the advice on structure is first rate and if I was going to randomly deal out a Shakespearean comedy, I’d use them. But it’s not much of an RPG, as it stands. RPGs need more meat on the bones. If I have to work hard, the system isn’t pulling its weight nearly enough. A nice idea at the core though. Much like with Fiasco and In a Wicked Age, it’s nice to see random encounters coming back in style, it’s just Montsegur and Daughters use cards instead of dice.

 

Death of the Review

A postulation cross-posted on RPGNet:

Once upon a time, I used to edit and write for a webzine, full of articles about how to have more fun gaming. Eventually, we packed it in mostly and I commented that I thought the internet was kind of killing the gaming article in general. Why? Because if you wanted to gain a new perspective on gaming you could read half a million blogs by Super Famous Game Designers themselves, and if you wanted advice about a specific thing, you’d just go to a forum and ask about that specific thing. (eg “Should I let my players eat pudding while attempting a backstab?”)

Seems to me the latter is true about reviews too (and the former; if Bob the Famous Designer twitters that he likes XYZ, there’s your review). Generally I see people coming to the RPGNet forums and asking questions which are clearly answered in my reviews. That ticks me off because it feels like I’m writing reviews for no god damn reason (except the free pdfs, of course, hi Cam!)

Now I’m sure some people read reviews, I’m sure the medium’s not dead. But the question is: do YOU read them?  And if so, why?

To put it another way: if you know you hate pudding and there’s a film out that might have pudding in it, do you a) read ten online reviews to see if pudding gets a mention or do your b) jump on Films-With-Pudding.net and ask “Does Space Goat Fights Back have extended pudding scenes?”

Obviously, sometimes you want a holistic view from non-crazy people, but on the internet, as somebody said, all opinions are equally worthless and holistic views are generalist ones. Forums give a personalised answer to YOUR specific needs. In that light, is the review dead?

Games With Hayden

I review games for a living, so I recognize the skills of others. Then sometimes you see someone who is just better than you’ll ever be, and you can only give thanks that you were born in an age to view such a maestro at work. And sometimes, it’s a kid who can’t be more than eight years old, kicking ass and taking names.

Salient quote, on Small World:

“This game has flying skeletons. NOTHING has flying skeletons, but this game does.”