Queen For A Day: A DramaSystem Session

“The difference between you and me is I want to be the guy, and you want to be the guy the guy counts on” – The West Wing

Despite contributing to the immense Hillfolk kickstarter (by setting appears in Blood on the Snow, the companion volume), I have never had a chance to play the Drama System contained within – until last weekend. Even better, it was with five amazing players and a brilliant, unexpected set up: instead of a setting, we were given the lyrics of all the songs off Queen II, an amazing concept album of fairies, ogres, white and black queens and the seven seas of Rhye. With that as our palette, we painted.

I took the role of The Master Marathon, and decided that I wanted to be a character who had what everyone wanted – or wished he did. I decided he was the keeper of the power of Endurance, that all who wished to Suffer And Go On owed homage to him. Another player crafted Mother Mercury, also an elemental power, but in charge of hot and cold, now lost in an endless winter from which she seemed unable – or unwilling – to awaken, despite her need to be rekindled. We soon learned she was the ex-lover of the Fairy King, ruler of all the lands of fairy, but weary of his throne and eager for his son to replace thim. That sond was Sir Tristram, a young prince called the Killer of Queens. He was cursed to love the White Queen while the prophecy spoke that if he married her, she would die. Last was General Grimtooth, the King’s trusted long-serving general, also keen to retire so he can spend time with his grandchildren. King and General and Mother and Son, all waiting, all wanting things to finish forever, or start at last, but stuck in time until then, and Master Marathon keen to sell them suffering so they needed him more…

Convention Rules for DramaSystem involves setting up each character via introductory scenes where they ask another character for what they want from them. We began with General Grimtooth asking the King if Grimtooth could train his successor. Grimtooth’s player asked if the King had a name, and someone – doing that fantastic ingame improv worldbuilding that works so well – said “If you knew his name, you wouldn’t have to ask for freedom”. Boom, world creation. The King, by the way, said, in his usual wishy-washyness that it was okay but there had to be contest first to make sure Longfang was the best choice.

On the verandah of the King’s hut, styled not unlike a viking longhouse – Master Marathon begged Mother Mercury to make winter go on forever, for cold men need endurance. She said maybe, if there were other ways to awaken her senses – and what she meant was a rekindled love from her once-husband, the King, but though she begged by the frozen stream’s side, he could not give it. Meanwhile the King begged his son to either marry his love or cut her loose, so he could take the throne unhampered, but Sir Tristram refused, not while the curse hung over him and the Black Queen was still at large, plotting. He went to Grimtooth’s cave to ask the ogre for an army to crush the Black Queen, but Grimtooth refused.

Generally, as is the way of DramaSystem, everyone was being a dick.

DramaChar

Master Marathon, a god who just wants you to want him and needs you to need him

The GM lit the fuse by announcing the Black Queen was coming to seek alliance and continue the ongoing peace, and in the King’s ear she whispered that this would be best sealed by her marrying Sir Tristram his son. Looking down on the two royals meeting in the throne room, Master Marathon whispered to Sir Tristram that what instead was being said was the words of lovers, and Sir Tristram should urge his father to love the Black Queen freely. On the other balcony, knowing the King would visit the Black Queen to cement the peace, Grimtooth demanded Mother Mercury – for her own safety – be his spy within the Queen’s Obsidian Castle. She agreed, fearing too that the Queen would steal her King. To guard against that, she begged the King to let her accompany him in his private pegasus-drawn carriage on the journey, but he said propriety would be violated. And since he was now committed to affairs of state, seeing in their settlement a way out of his eternal agony, he summoned Sir Tristam and told him once and for all to choose the Black Queen or the White Queen, or no longer be his son. Tristam promised to choose by sundown tomorrow.

Huffy and annoyed, Mother Mercury and Sir Tristram made plans to ally against the Black Queen. Mother Mercury then found herself summoned by the White Queen, who begged Mercury for her Winter Touch to end the love Sir Tristram has for her. She had already asked Master Marathon for a gift of strength to lend Sir Tristram which he gleefully gave (for Master Marathon wished Sir Tristram to be slain by the Black Queen, causing his father to be heirless and be forced to go on forever enduring). Sir Tristram, having pledged to choose Black or White needed to ensure he would, if he wed his White Queen, not take her life, so the next morn as the procession of pegasi flew to the Obsidian Castle, he ordered Grimtooth to promise one act of total obedience when called upon. Grimtooth promised his obedience, but bristled at the order.

Seeing his bristling, I (Marathon) suggests that to protect a king’s life, it is no treason to kill a prince. Grimtooth is not at all happy about that, either. Scurrying for protection I decide to ride by the King, who orders me that, when instructed, I pass his Immortal Heart to his son. Pretty sure that the prince will be dead soon I promise to do so. Grimtooth leaves the travelling party and seeks out Longclaw, his best soldier, and orders her, if he moves to strike his masters, to stop him any way she can.  Longclaw knows the only way to stop Grimtooth is with the Sea of Winter, one of the Seven Seas of Rhye, held deep beneath Two-Way Mirror Mountain, and he sends out the Blue Powder Monkeys to find it.

Having reached the Obsidian Castle, Sir Tristram walks the gardens in his grief for his terrible choice – marry the queen he loves and be sure to kill her with his hand, or marry the queen he does not and kill his love with a broken heart. But the White Queen appears and tells him his pain will end if he kisses her. He refuses, even though she says he does not love her if he denies her. Then Mother Mercury joins the party and tells her step-son to kiss for his stepmother, if not for his love.  Forced to it, he kisses his love and Mercury’s spell cools his ardour. Cut to him in his father’s guest chambers in the Obsidian Castle: “I will marry Black” he swears.

Night falls and the silver moon makes the Obsidian Castle shine with black light. I find Longclaw on the parapets awaiting word of her Blue Powder Monkeys but the truth is, I tell her, that I possess the Sea of Winter. Marathon launches into a big thing about how Longclaw will dance for him but Longclaw is a soldier and just beats up Marathon and takes the chalice. Marathon however is not without back up plans, and in the Throne Room that evening he demands either Fairy King or Black Queen deliver justice against uppity ogres who dare assault his regnant person. Sir Tristram gives his Black Queen a proposal gift of Longclaw’s head, after taking it from Longclaw’s shoulders. The Black Queen accepts. Grimtooth grimaces in agony for Longclaw was his daughter

Grimtooth now begs his King for release so he can turn on Sir Tristram. I point out that Grimtooth has no successor now and her soldiers are unruly savages who attack their betters, so the King cannot let his servant free. Grimtooth loses his shit at the traitor Marathon and begins beating the living hell out of him. The King begs us to stop and I see my moment and tell Sir Tristram that Grimtooth will never be his obedient servant when he is so wild and urge Sir Tristram to establish his new kingly reign with proper justice. Sir Tristram challenges Grimtooth to a duel – and uses his promised favour from earlier to force Grimtooth to comply.

But Sir Tristram wonders if the bloodshed is too much and hesitates in battle. Grimtooth smashes the young prince’s sword and mortally wounds him. Seeing his son dying, the King orders me to transfer his Immortal Heart into his son, and I must obey. I lose the chance for the King to go on enduring, but perhaps the now scarred, dark, immortal Prince Tristram will need aid in his endurance. Determined never to harm a Queen with his hand, and shocked at his murderous ways, Prince Tristram adds to his stigmata by ordering Grimtooth take his victory prize by severing Prince Tristrams hands. Grimtooth obeys, but having harmed his prince, ignored his king and lost his daughter, Grimtooth then cuts off his own head.

In a lake of blood, the lack-handed but immortal Sir Tristram marries the smiling Black Queen, free of his curse but shrouded in blood and darkness, and with Master Marathon as his mentor.

But not all is sadness. Freed of his Immortal Heart, the King’s heart of flesh beats anew. And he leaves the Obsidian Castle arm in arm with his old love Mother Mercury, leaving the responsibilities of immortality and reigning behind to love her again. Mother Mercury is reborn, the snows break, and winter ends. What then, of the summer to come?

Perhaps that tale will be told elsewhere.

 

Estalia Preview #6: New Spells

I have to tell you that the book is stalled again. Layout is a fiendish and complicated beastie now we’re down to the last few chapters, because it’s in those chapters that we have tables and lists and stat blocks (if anyone wants to help out, let us know! Many hands make faster work!)

What’s that you ask? Do we have new rules in all those tables and statblocks? Why, what would a sourcebook be without cool new powers to use upon your enemies? Poorly reviewed and undersold, that’s what. So no, we don’t just bring you setting information. There are a set of new monsters, new chargen tables, fencing powers and of course, new spells for the servants of the Maiden. 33 to be exact. Here’s six to give you a taste:

Apprentice to Master

 Casting Number: 12

Casting Time: Special

Duration: Special

Range: You

Ingredient: A tool used to build a great temple (+2)

Description: As part of the casting of this spell, you must watch another individual creating something using a Perform or Trade skill.  Until the next sunrise, you gain the skill you observed. You may use this skill as many times as your Magic characteristic, then the knowledge fades from your hands.

 

Arena of Reckoning

 Casting Number: 14

Casting Time: Half Action

Duration: Instant

Range: Touch

Ingredients: A circlet of gold (+2)

Description: When you cast this spell, you and one target are locked in combat to the death. An immovable magical aura rises surrounding only the two of you (just enough to cover your two squares with about a foot of give around) – any others that might be caught are flung out. Aside from a Dispel spell, the aura remains totally impenetrable to anything and anyone until either you or the target are dead.

 

Arms of the Sister

 Casting Number: 10

Casting Time: Half Action

Duration: 1 minute (6 rounds)

Range: You

Ingredients: A broken arrow (+1)

Description: When you strike, you strike with the arms of Shallya, Myrmidia’s merciful sister. When striking to Stun, you automatically succeed on the Strength test. If you strike to wound while the spell is in effect, it immediately ends.

 

Beacon in the Tempest

Casting Number: 9

Casting Time: Half Action

Duration: 1 minute (6 rounds)

Range: 24 yards (12 squares)

Ingredients: An owl’s beak (+1)

Description: While Myrmidia’s faithful command soldiers, they must also look to those who cannot fight. All allies within range can hear your voice as clearly as if they were standing next to you, and can understand you whatever language they speak. Your voice sounds calming and wise, and those who hear it gain a +10% bonus to Willpower tests to resist Initimdate tests, and Fear or Terror effects for the next hour.

 

Beautify Object

Casting Number: 9

Casting Time: Half action

Duration: 1 hour/Magic

Range: Touch

Ingredients: A paintbrush (+1)

Description: You apply a beautifier’s eye and hand to one object you nominate. The object’s Craftsmanship goes up one level (Poor to Common, Common to Good, Good to Best).  You may Beautify as many objects as your Magic characteristic. Weapons enhanced in this manner gain the standard bonuses. However, Myrmidia frowns upon deception for profit and any attempt to sell items enhanced by this spell cause the glamour to immediately vanish and the deception to be revealed.

 

Blade for Blade

Casting Number: 10

Casting Time: Half Action

Duration: 1 minute

Range: You

Ingredients: A silvered blade (+2)

Description: When you cast this spell you can see the attacks of your enemies coming towards you as if in slow motion. You may parry as many times per round as your Magic characteristic. You may still only parry once per attack.

 

Boon of Surrender

Casting Number: 15

Casting Time: Half Action

Duration: Instant

Range: 24 yards

Ingredients: A ring of silver (+2)

Description: When you cast this spell, you demand that your enemies surrender (making Charm or Command tests as the GM directs). All enemies you can see within range of the spell who cease fighting immediately heal 1d10 Wounds. They also cease to be Frightened, Terrified or subject to frenzy if they were previously.  Those who do not surrender suffer -10% on their next WS or BS roll. For the next hour, if the subjects of the spell attack or direct harm towards you or a number of your allies equal to your Magic characteristic, the subject loses 1d0 Wounds.

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.

Little Bit Of Smallville Chargen

I do love chargen: you start with a blank page and you end with a story. Or in this case, several intersecting stories. Our setting idea was some sort of grand shadow-government alien-fighting conspiracy. Like the kind of people investigating the Ark of the Covenant at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Top Men are working on it. TOP MEN

The Cells Episode Two: Drink To Remember

“I just bring you ideas. I leave the execution to you.”  Agent Quiver

The Citadel at night. A sepia tone tells us it is the past. Young Zak and Umbrito are boosting rundown tenements. A siren rings out and the two burst out of the door of their target. As they run, Umbrito yells “If Mok ever finds out this was you, you’re dead”

Roll credits.

The same street, maybe, but the time is now. A spirit of Carnivale lingers on the streets of the Ditchers, still recovering from the Band-Aid-esque event. “What’s Up, Ditchers” t-shirts wave in the wind – and the face on them is Zak, who walks the crowd with his white suit and his bodyguards. Zak is spreading good will and food tokens, a new system to try and curb the abuses of food banks, and Zak is the perfect face to hand them out to ditchers. But then there’s Umbrito and Joanne on his arm. They embrace and Umbrito says they should go catch up. Zak throws his remaining food tokens into the air and ditches his security in the fracas – the party boy is still here.

Back at Central, it’s also a bleary early morning. Hal and Kate sit in the dining room, having Awkward Pauses for breakfast. If their marriage wasn’t perfect before the war, and before the cells, it’s gone into a kind of shock now. Kate directs the conversation onto the suffering of the city, and how, although Hal has done some good work so far, a city has to do more than just survive but thrive, as Pavani had said at the press conference (before rushing off to find her girlfriend, or something – quick cut to Pavani finding an empty room and a left note). Hal takes this as a personal slight, and decides Kate is suggesting he resign. He ponders a sense of fated failure and stares at the bottle of bourbon on the kitchenette shelf.

Close up on the bottle, now with less in it. Reverse to show sitting opposite is now Quiver, in Hal’s seat (ahem) talking to Kate. Quiver is trying to deal with the PR SNAFU that Hal retiring would cause and asks her if she can change his mind, because their secret could push him over the edge. Kate demands he stop thinking about PR for once in his life and give a damn about her, about their future, and until he does, she will be elsewhere. After she leaves, Quiver slams his palm down on the table and the glasses clink. It’s the first time we’ve seem him anything but worried or oleaginous.

The glasses clinking mixes over to the same at Zak’s impromptu party, which has turned from a reunion of old friends into a warehouse festival. Zak is the returned hero, festooned with women and flunkies. The 37s – as they are known – are flying high: their favourite son is running the city, and there’s talk of them being deputized like other gangs to help with keeping order. On the other hand, this doesn’t look like a very upstanding gangland. There’s an extra roughness to it. We pivot from a 37 tattoo to the same sign spray-painted onto a house perhaps not far away, where Knight-Father Paige is leading a new Citadel Police Force in dealing with gang activity. The dialogue indicates that there’s been a rash of murders turning up in the Ditch and the 37s are believed responsible. Paige dismisses his crew saying he’s going home, looking at a house at the end of the street.

Back at the party, the big black cars pull up and Quiver enters, uncomfortable and unable to hide his anger as he jostles through the crowd. He tries to be polite and get Zak to cut things short before the press turn up but Zak can’t go against the flow of so much belonging. Quiver snaps and tells Zak he’s being a child and he’s sick of cleaning up after a spoiled brat. Zak gives him a push to suggest he calm down and Quiver pushes back. Zak falls off his seat and Zak’s crew respond by jumping Quiver and beating him down. Zak stumbles up, looks at the situation, and decides to go with the flow and let Quiver suffer, suggesting the gang go hoist him up a flagpole. Umbrito smiles and tells Zak to follow him. Zak grabs a drink and does so, only to be jumped from behind and thrown into a car boot.

The thump of the boot matches to the thump of the door of Paige’s house closing behind him. The house is domestic and tidy. Polished. To the point of being unlived in. The pictures on the wall show a family – Roland and his husband Alex and their daughter Joanna growing up together. Then Alex’s ashes. We follow Paige through the kitchen where he grabs a bottle of bourbon into the bedroom where he sits and drinks and pulls a picture from the nightstand and starts to talk to Alex in a broken voice.

From the quiet to sudden noise: a room full of movement and noise. Computers churn, printers bubble and data is mined. The extent of cameras and maps reveals the true extent of which the city is under surveillance. And being given a guided tour of Central Data is Lazarus Moore, who has spent the last few days finding this place, a place kept secret from the five by the General. Who sits amongst it and succeeds mostly in hiding his displeasure of seeing Lazarus. The two trade barbs. Lazarus reveals he is decades older than he appears but the General is not cowed by this and buries Lazarus in pointless data, leaving him to slip off and be briefed about the mysterious vial.

Zak’s kidnapping ends at a danker, nastier, more crime-purposed warehouse and he is dumped in front of Mok, a more tattooed and more pierced 37er than we’ve yet seen. He accuses Zak of killing his brother, but Zak says he loved Mok’s brother much more than he ever gave a damn about Mok, and suggests that Umbrito did the hit because Joanna also loved Mok’s brother. Umbrito spits daggers at Zak but Zak sells it – when his life is on the line, Zak will sell out his old friend to save himself. The gunhands turn their attention to Umbrito and a haunted-looking Zak slips away.

Meanwhile a haunted Hal drinks in a seedy bar – the seediest bar closest to Central, anyway. He finds a one-armed veteran to talk to and tries to reconnect with the city and its people, but they get stuck in the same veteran’s loop of being able to do nothing but share war stories.

Back to Zak, he runs into the street to find Lazarus in a Big Black Car waiting for him. Zak seems changed, subdued now his old life could get him killed. He apologises and confesses to Lazarus, who is playing the confessor and mentor. Zak directs the car to retrieve a bound and gagged with tape Quiver, who is being hoisted by a crowd. Zak tries to connect as the ganger of old but the wind has gone out of his sails and – on Laz’ advice – sends in the government goons to clear them out instead. Desperate for new friends in his guilt, Zak becomes the government man.

Back at the house, Roland hears someone enter and draws his gun reflexively – but it is Joanna and Umbrito, on the run and arguing. Roland dismisses Umbrito and has a big old shouting match with his daughter. He’s trying to make it what it was, but to Joanna it was broken then anyway, because she got the parent she didn’t like raising her and the one she did absent, and it certainly can’t go back now anyway. Roland accuses her of forgetting her values, her religion, her upbringing, and that of course, is her point too: she’s a different person than he wants her to be. She leaves, with no sense she will return.

Back at Central, Lazarus pours Quiver a drink as the nurse finishes his stitches. Lazarus is curious as to why Quiver is tense and offers himself to hear a confession. Quiver tries to hedge around the details but then it all comes out, the truth about him and Kate. And in the end, Lazarus offers no help or absolution, just enjoys the new information. Quiver storms off and runs into Zak. There is a soulful apology and reconnection. Zak says he’s ready to play ball. Quiver says he’s on Zak’s side, that’s his whole job. Zak says there’s a man called Mok who has taken over the 37s and needs to be stopped. Quiver says that revenge by the ex-bad boy looks bad, but suppression by the saintly soldier Roland looks good. Quiver assures Zak that the best story of all is a redemption story, about people who have done bad things but are more than their sins. He’s not talking about Zak.

Lazarus provides – somehow – a lock on Mok’s location. Quiver takes his idea to the bar where Roland has joined Hal to drink. Hal says it has to be done by the book, with a trial. Quiver says “We will make sure we have all the evidence we need” because Quiver loves double meanings. Roland likes it, he wants order. The decision is made. Quickly we cut back to Lazarus working angles, and meeting with the Cardinal (who gets a first name now, Erasmus) – he’s found out the General’s secret. We cut to the General recruiting someone explaining he has a special demolitions job for him.

Back to the operation, which is shot in parallel with Quiver performing another insurgency: a romantic dinner and seduction of Kate. A search light flashes on, and Quiver lights a candle. Roland and others point at maps, Quiver sets the table. Roland gives the “go” signal, Quiver presents dinner with a flourish. SWAT teams move in, one places a finger on his lips, and Kate does the same to Quiver. A 37 goon guard is taken out with an arm around his neck pressure hold, as Quiver moves his arm around Kate from behind. They cut the lights on the gangsters, and Quiver flicks off the light. A gangster gasps as a shot takes him in the chest, and Kate gasps for different reasons. And then an interlude.

Later, Zak stands outside the jail as the perps are led in in cuffs. Zak has moderated his rebellious white suit with an official flak jacket. Mok is the last to walk in, and the two lock eyes and stare. Back at Central, Hal pushes open the door and locks eyes with the man in his wife’s bed.

Roll credits. Zak’s theme here is Sabotage.

Next time on The Cells:

  • Quiver blinded by the flashbulbs of the press, raising his hand in defense.
  • Behind a chain fence, a protest reminiscent of Occupy shouts and marches. A reporter is heard saying “Jason King has galvanized the ditcher community”
  • Quiver arguing with Mr Grey. “Dammit, these are good people.”
  • Zak strutting in Central, in a grey suit, looking at home with power. He comes into his room to find a woman holding a baby and his jaw drops.
  • Mok threatening Joanna across a prison meeting table. “This goes further than you know” he says.
  • A building explodes in fire.
  • Livinia standing at a grave. She says “I’m still going to go through with it”
  • The General stands in a hospital room. “I might have found a way”

The Cells Part One: Starting Our New Prime Time Adventures Game

So I’m back in the player-saddle for a campaign and it’s time to talk about it here. We’re using the clever (and even better mechanically now in 3rd edition) Prime Time Adventures, an RPG which emulates television shows mostly with a mechanic that focuses everything on “screen time”. If it’s an episode about you, you get to do more. If you’re peripheral you get to do less. Simple and elegant.

The nature of the series though is left open, and our GM has taken an interesting approach to that, above and beyond what the rules suggest. As a result, we’re playing a game with more player input in setting than I’ve ever done, and a setting so obtruse it has an almost anime feel. Also, the process we took to get there has been as interesting as the game itself, so I’m going to record that process as well.

Our GM started by asking us to name one or two stories we enjoy. The focus was on television, or comics because they are also very similar serial media, but could be anything. The list we generated was quite awesome, and I kept it for homework to watch and read all the things on it that I hadn’t yet. The list:

  • Locke and Key (Comic)
  • Ergo Proxy (Anime series)
  • Shade the Changing Man (Comic)
  • I, Claudius (TV show)
  • Rome (TV show)
  • Blake’s 7 (TV show)
  • Firefly (TV show)
  • Saga (Comic)
  • Rat Queens (Comic)
  • Desperate Housewives (TV show)
  • Pleasantville (Film)
  • Dark City (Film)
  • The Americans (TV show)
  • Black Sails (TV show)
  • Vikings (TV show)
  • The Prince (Book)
  • Interstellar (Film)

We also talked about what particularly we liked about these shows, and we developed some key themes that kept coming up over and over again in this discussion, such as:

  • Power of families and cultures effecting individuals
  • Multiple viewpoints on agendas and missions and duty
  • The mundane, human elements brought to the central focus of fantastical or cinematic stories
  • The normal, small, everyday and human becomes critical to larger, epic, superhuman stories
  • The facade and pretence of cultures and environments, which can even extend to brainwashing or near-as
  • Facades to the point of false memories and unreliable narrators, creating great mystery
  • People being caught between two worlds, or travelling from one into another, returning to their home

With that list of seven things (for six players and one GM), the GM asked us each to write one sentence. Not quite a pitch, he didn’t want us to be that specific, but just an idea to explore. Our sentences were

  • With the last chance of humanity in their hands, every decision has the weight of history
  • An OId West town with divided power is thrown into greater turmoil after the discovery of an alien artifact
  • A boy-band is about more than just fame when they are all metahumans
  • Civil servants must maintain the facade under mad or absent masters
  • Teenagers are forced to carve their own path when their parents or mentors vanish
  • After peace is declared, opposite sides must work together to preserve it at all costs
  • People are randomly paired up and forced to share a cell for a year to experience other viewpoints

What happened next was a strange discussion where we tried to jam as many of the ideas together to create an idea. The last idea really captured people’s imaginations, and we were able to combine it with the peace and the weight of history and the civil servants and the lost mentors. The Old West and the Boy Bands fell, but we kept the idea of spooky aliens and metahuman powers. We decided on a political thriller show, not unlike Kings or Homeland – mysteries, intrigue and human foibles in the face of holding humanity together – but in a world very different and very confusing, which makes me think of anime but then there’s stuff like Orphan Black too.

We decided to call it THE CELLS. I went away and made this picture to sum it up. The GM went away and came up with our pitch:

The war ended in a flash of white light. That much we’re sure of.

There was a flash of white light and then everyone on Earth lost a day of their memory. And when they came to, they stopped fighting. They had to. Most every weapon of war in the field had melted. Every piece of body armour had burnt free of its wearer. Every drone and war jet had crashed. There was fire everywhere; the casualties were astronomical.

Some places were luckier than others. Some people fought the fires, even though they have no memory of doing so. Some saved important supplies and infrastructure though they have no memory of doing so. Some pulled wounded soldiers from burning tanks though they have no memory of doing so. Some were heroes though they have no memory of being so.

Then the word came down from Global (the Global Alliance High Command but no one calls it that). There would be no more war or the white event would happen again. The remaining military would enforce order for a period of one year.

During that year, those who wished to contribute to the running of their city-state were required to submit to a year of defactionalisation, spending the year in confinement with members of competing ideologies. From this pool of willing prisoners would emerge a new generation of leaders into a world without war. Or else.

The willing from the Cells.

Stream of Consciousness Game Design: SUPER SHOWDOWN

So most RPGs kind of focus on players playing one character at a time. But most comics these days are ensemble affairs, where half a hundred guys criss-cross continuity in continuity-shattering events. About time we simulated that. And thus: SUPER SHOWDOWN (with a foreword by Ilan Muskat)

Foreword by Sexy Game Designer Ilan Muskat:

I’m ruggedly handsome, but I don’t have any design credits. I’d better design some games in time to write a foreword for your next one! – Ilan

Chargen:

Everyone makes up a team of superheroes. The team can be just one person (The Hulk, Spidey) or a big team of guys (The Avengers, the X-Men). Say no more than six characters each though. Each hero in your team is represented by a single die: a d4, d6, d8, d10 or a d12. The smaller the dice, the less subtle you are. Someone who just pours out power like Cyclops would be a d4, someone who has a lot of little tricks and is hard to pin down, like Nightcrawler, is a d12. The number of dice represents endurance, how much you can bring that power to bear. Cyclops might have like 4d4 because his visor gets knocked off all the time, but the Hulk might be 20d4. Write down on a piece of paper (A4 or foolscap in size) who is in your team and which die represents them. So you might have something like this:

Iron Fist (4)d10
Power Man (10)d4

Put the die for each character next to that character. Just one! That die itself is a stand in for that character. IMPORTANT: each player should use dice all of one colour, different to colours/designs used by others at the table.

Come up with a name and an ethos and a niche for your team. Eg Heroes For Hire: They are mercenaries on the mean streets of Hell’s Kitchen.
Event-Gen

Now take all the dice from all the players and throw them from one of the table so they roll hard across the whole thing. Any dice that end up on your piece of paper are in your comic during this event. You may claim one character of your team that didn’t end up on anyone’s sheet back onto your sheet as well, but you could totally get a whole new team. So why is Daredevil and the Wasp in Heroes For Hire? That’s what you have to figure out. Meanwhile the guy who came up with the Avengers has to figure out why Power Man is working with Herbie in Stark Tower.

Villain-Gen

Two options here:

1) Hero v Hero. All heroes not on pieces of paper have gone rogue. Divide them equally and randomly among the players. The team possessed by the player to your left is who your team will be fighting this issue.

2) Hero and Villains unite. Everyone makes up a small rogues gallery for their team using the rules above (at least one fewer villains than they have heroes). Then everyone draws a line down the middle of their paper. Then all the villain dice are rolled again, across the table. Any villains on the left side of your sheet have teamed up with the heroes for this story. You get to decide why! Ask the people who invented the villains for tips. Villains not on paper become the enemy of your team using the method above: collect them up, divide them equally and randomly between players, fight the villains on your left.

In this case, heroes in the first big roll that don’t land on anyone’s sheet are Not Appearing In This Story. The same goes for villains on the right side of your paper. Maybe they’ll be killed in a big fight. Maybe they’ve been captured. Maybe they’re off in their own storyline having a Secret War or Annihilation or somesuch. Put them aside for the NEXT event!

IMPORTANT: for a good, balanced game, you want about equal numbers of heroes and villains, so when you roll the dice, try to make sure the area covered by everyone’s pieces of paper is about half the area where the dice will fly.
Combat:

“Villains” (aka the guy on your left) always roll their dice first, and announces some kind of scheme to destroy the world. Then heroes roll to respond. Here, both you roll all your dice for that character ie, roll ten d4s for Power Man. Or roll one d4 ten times and note the results.

Compare all your dice to all their dice.

Matched results: If one of your results exactly equals a villain dice, that’s confrontation! KATHOOM! POW! The die you matched with yours is knocked out of play! Yours isn’t!

Villain dice lower than yours: You get in their way somehow, but don’t slow them down. They don’t do evil. Nobody loses a die. The battle looked awesome though!

Villain die is HIGHER than yours: Choose: either you get beaten up (lose a die) or something bad happens. The evil plan takes shape. Aunt May marries Dr Octopus. Dr Doom kills a puppy. Something like that.

Flexible villains are more likely to succeed but generally don’t do quite as much damage. Abomination with his chunk of d4s hardly ever rolls higher but when he does he totals a city block, kills hundreds. Mystique (1d12) gets the better of heroes all the time but just runs off and does more planny plans stuff, or sleeps with Wolverine or whatnot.

After all dice are assigned, any dice left get rerolled, for act 2! Keep going until one side runs out of dice. If it’s the Heroes, the villains win, or at least conquer the heroes (but perhaps their plans to murder innocents is foiled, so it’s not bad. The heroes may teeechnically win, maybe retreating to their hide-outs all banged up – but villains aren’t punished. If the villains run out of dice first, they are totes foiled and all either killed or arrested (genre-permitting). If a character has no dice left for themselves, they don’t make it to round 2 or the end of the story. Decide what happened to them! Peeps with lots of dice hang around longer! But cost more to build (just work out what feels right for point buy, I trust you).

Of course, you can duck the hit and pass it on. The question is, how many times will they let Bad Things Happen to keep their dice around to go the distance?

If you’re getting hammered, ask for help from another team! CROSSOVER EVENT!  Problem is, if you do, then their villains come into play as well! Doh! Or, swap one of your characters for one of theirs! If you do this, you MUST invent a love story to explain why! (“Kittie Pride come and help Spiderman instead of Thor! Because THOR LOVES IRON MAN! and Iron Man is DRINKING AGAIN!”)

When you (and any of your buddies) have done your event, someone else does theirs! While Daredevil and Wasp were fighting Giant Man and Magneto, what were the X-Men doing? And why? When everyone’s done, retrieve the other dice and play with them, or start from scratch!

OPTIONAL RULE:

If at any time, a die falls on the floor, that character permanently dies or is massively depowered or something. CONTINUITY IS SHAKEN FOREVER! Everything else is resettable.

And that’s how you play the game.

The Five Worst-Named Products in Roleplaying

Last week we looked at the five Best-Named products and as warned, now it’s time for part two. The flipside. The missteps, mistakes and wtf moments in titling over the last forty years. As always, this isn’t about the product, just the name. A rose by any other name would still have new class feats, right? Things that inherited bad names because of a pre-existing license are off the hook, too, and so are people trying to avoid last minute threats of litigation. The first one means I can’t ping Dragon Age for having very few, if any dragons. The last one means I have to be merciful to Lejendary Adventures. And yet it sickens me to even type that. Direct all bitching to the internet, it loves that stuff.

#5: The Annoying Acronym – G.U.R.P.S.

There’s nothing necessarily wrong with acronyms, but like everything good, geeks love them so much it becomes creepy and wrong. As a result the RPG industry is full of unnecessary and painful acronyms and abbreviations, from companies like BTRC and ICE and LUG and TSR to games like FUDGE and FATE and ORE and CORPS and QAGS and JAGS and the poorly fudged CHIL-L (the last L didn’t stand for anything). Maybe we weren’t supposed to pronounce EABA (it sounds like someone popping a hamstring while pooping), but after GURPS could we ever be sure? GURPS became a household name which proves it doesn’t matter if you sound like a bowel movement if your content is good enough. Maybe you think I’m being unfair but the final nail in the coffin comes from the games full title: the Generic Universal Role-Playing System. Generic and Universal is very redundant. No points.

(Yes I know it originally stood for “the Great Unnamed Role-Playing System”, but that’s no excuse. TORG originally stood for The Other Roleplaying Game and it sounds much less like belching, and doesn’t stand for anything.)

Acronym Runner Up: OSRIC. Because not only does it have nothing to do with minor characters in Hamlet, it also has none of the letters of Dungeons and Dragons which it is basically a rehashing of, and it takes me ten hours to remember what any of the letters mean. The 5 slot would have gone to OSRIC but it slides on the technicality of not actually being a product.

#4: The Unpronouncable – SLA Industries

We’ve done some truly horrible things to the English language and its list of characters to make game titles. The endless love affair with colons and ampersands lasted well beyond the boundaries of good taste, but then there was the pointless inanities like the little, up in the air “o” in C*ntinuum (which I can’t even write on this blog), or the lower case reversal of deadEarth or the dollar sign in Vampire$. Or the never-explained circle in Mark Rein-SPLAT-Hagen’s name. Dear game writers: stop that, it’s incredibly annoying, and it’s also bad business. I don’t want to pick up a game that I can’t read, or have trouble trying to pronounce. But there was no greater offender then the game that wanted you to pronounce things incorrectly to make it work. In no universe ever would the word SLA be pronounced “slay”. It looks like a hard A, it quacks like a hard A. At best it could be SLAW Industries, which might explain the guy with the pumpkin on his head.

Unpronounceable Runner Up: H.O.L., unless it was a deliberate parody of SLA, which is definitely plausible, forcing it to sound like a hole in the ground was just annoying. Everyone I have ever met uses the name to rhyme with “toll”. Again though, maybe that WAS the joke.

#3: The Terribly Under-Selling – Underground

Okay, so imagine the best cyberpunk setting you’ve ever seen, something that is built on the rules of political and social satire at its fundamental level, like Transmetropolitan and Judge Dredd got married and had a super-powered baby. And it poked fun at roleplaying as well, casting the PCs as in-genre murder-hobos, cybernetic superheroes built for war and now turned lose on the streets with nothing but bystanders to kill – but subtle and low-key, unlike other satires like Violence! and Power Kill. And more playable too. And clever. And sexy. And with awesome rules. Now name it Underground. I guess it’s about moles? Or alternative music?

Under-Selling Runner Up: Feng Shui. Most people get that it’s not about moving furniture. Eventually. Eeeeeventually.

#2: The Inanimate Object – The Window

Okay, maybe I’m being unfair. The Window was a system, so it didn’t have any cool ideas from a setting to use for its title. The Window was free, it didn’t have to try and sell itself. It was a metaphor about a window into drama, or narrative. Sorry, not good enough. Even if it’s just a generic system, that’s no excuse to name it after an inanimate object. Even a game engine deserves a good name. Like The Amazing Engine. That works. D20 is succinct and clear, and doesn’t make me feel like the sequels will be called Door and Wall. There was, of course, an RPG called The Ladder, but it actually had a justification for that in its dice ladder. The Window doesn’t justify itself at all, but does – ironically – make heavy use of a ladder.

Object Runner-Up: Burning Wheel. It’s just plain false advertising. There’s no fast cars, no auto-racing, and the rules offer no real guidelines for chariot duels. The Wheel is vaguely hinted at as being involved in the system, kind of like the ladder, but they don’t try very hard, and it ends up feeling like it was named by a random generator. Two more rolls and it might have been the Fisting Banana. Man, I would play that.

#1: The Oh My God Did Nobody Edit This At All Insanity – Panty Explosion

Seriously.

It has a new name now, because obviously. I know hindsight is 20-20, but you should at least squint into the future sometimes. Try and make out the blurry shapes. One of them is a train coming to punish those stupid enough to play on the tracks.

Oh My God Runner Up: there is a supplement for Silver Age Sentinels called Country Matters. That’s old fashioned slang for fucking, made famous by Hamlet, the most famous thing ever. The book is also about female superheroes because we wanted that book to have the letters C U N and T right front and center to make that clear. Is that better or worse than the gynecological exam of Exalted’s Savant and Sorcerer? You decide. I still need to point out that nothing in the Forgotten Realms seems to have been forgotten…

Oh, and one final thing: nobody has ever, EVER, called Denver the City of Shadows. And nobody ever will, no matter what your setting says.

 

The Five Best-Named Products in Roleplaying

Because the listicle is Cthulhu: it rises and we worship it, and we need more of them about RPGs. Now, understand this has nothing to do with the quality of the product. Just the name.

#5: The Imperative – All Flesh Must Be Eaten

Nothing’s better in a title than an imperative. It grips you by the throat by its very nature. Verbs are exciting but turning them to the imperative commands attention like nothing else. And this is isn’t any small demand. Eden Studios Zombie RPG is very clear that ALL flesh is involved, and it needs to be goddamn eaten. This is as unpleasant as it is all-consuming, if you’ll pardon the pun. You’re left with no false illusions. All flesh is going to be eaten. Whose flesh? YOUR flesh. Chills the blood just to say it.

Imperative Runner Up: Don’t Look Back: Terror Is Never Far Behind by Mind Ventures. This little-known horror title had a doozy of a command, with a great reason. But it’s a little long, and when it comes to a command, you want it punchy. Of course, length can also be a plus, as we see below…

#4 The Quote – Lawyers, Guns and Money

True story: I discovered the music of Warren Zevon because of this supplement for Unknown Armies. Oh sure, I knew Werewolves of London, but that was it, and boy, was I glad I found out. And Lawyers, Guns and Money is one of the best of his incredible collection, which is important: if you’re going to do the quote, you have to take from the best. Zevon’s catalogue tends to deal with rogues, vagabonds, mutineers, losers, sinners and junkies, plus the occasional undead machine gunner and psycho killer, so its amazing he’s not an RPG on his own, and that it it took twenty something years to borrow from his work for a title. Tynes, you are a glorious son of a bitch.

Quote Runner Up: Nasty, Brutish and Short. It was a good joke applying Hobbes’ quote to a book about orcs, but it was for Columbia Games’ Harn so nobody gave a damn, and also, depending on when you saw the book, the pun got pretty old.

#3 The Insanely Literal Description – Cute and Fuzzy Cock-Fighting Seizure Monsters

Sometimes, legal injunctions and similarity to licenses cause terrible copywriting disasters (Lejendary Adventures, anyone?). Sometimes, though, it causes genius. When it came time for the clever people at Guardians of Order to turn their anime RPG Big Eyes, Small Mouth to the wonderful world of Pokemon, Digimon and Monster Rancher and all the rest, they decided to explain exactly what was going on with a duty to precision that leaves the reader gasping for air. It’s like being bitch-slapped with a dictionary, and you’ll never think of Pokemon as anything other than that. For the sake of propriety, some were issued without the Cock-Fighting in the title, allowing gamers to righteously walk into their stores and demand more cock.

Insanely Literal Runner Up: TWERPS, aka The World’s Easiest Roleplaying System. Gutsy, and precise in what it is gutsy about. And it tried hard to live up to the claim.

#2: The Exotic – Comme Il Faut

There’s an old saying that if you served boiled boots in a restaurant but put them on the menu in French, they’d taste fantastic. The same pretty much goes for roleplaying games. But it’s not just that it’s a classy French phrase that suits a classy-as-all-fuck game like Castle Falkenstein so perfectly, it’s that it’s a French phrase that says it better than English. Literally it translates as “As it Should Be” and it refers to etiquette and appropriate behaviour. What made Falkenstein so special was how it made social manners front and centre of the gaming experience, like say, Pendragon, but in a very different way. A way that needed an entire supplement to communicate. A way that could only ever possibly be expressed in French.

Exotic Runner Up: Parma Fabula. It might sound like a ham and salad sandwich but anyway you slice it it’s more exotic than “GM’s Screen”. Ars Magica doused itself in Latin, but nowhere so perfectly in making something that sounds stupid sound mysterious and otherworldly.

#1: The Exquisitely Mysterious – The Yellow Clearance Black Box Blues

A title is like lingerie: it’s what it hides as much as what it shows that makes it so enticing. This behemoth that graced a Paranoia supplement suggests a great deal of specification – the box is black and only available to Yellow Clearance clones or higher – but then again, tells you nothing at all, because what’s in the box? What’s in the box??? Brad Pitt would later say the same thing as your players did back in 1987, and with the same mixture of dread and sure knowledge. And what’s more, this title has cadence. It trips off the tongue. You can dance to it. Heck, you could write a song to it. I got the blues, you got the blues, we got them yellow clearance black box blues….

Mysterious Runner Up: Deeds Not Words. Scott Lynch’s minor entry into D20 superheroing evokes great depth with three tiny words, but leaves all the details hidden – but you want to know more.

That’s my list, but like any list, it exists to miss things out and include heresies. What did I miss? What did I wrongly include? Let me know in the comments! And tune in next week for the five WORST named products in roleplaying!

Friend of the New

I’m a critic, and I’m proud of being one, because I agree with Oscar Wilde that art and criticism is a symbiotic relationship, each informing and improving the other. And I’m a game critic because I think gaming as an art form has far too few critics (although plenty of good reviewers), especially in the realm of table top games. Being a critic has its price, but also a great appeal, and that was never said better than by Anton Ego (Peter O’Toole) in the climax of Pixar’s film Ratatouille:

In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little, yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face, is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the *new*. The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations. The new needs friends.

Of course, even being a friend of the new is rarely a risk for the critic, but it is one way we can have a great effect on things. To quote Wilde: “the artist’s job is to educate the critic, the critic’s job is to educate the public”. Pointing out greatness that might otherwise have been missed is a pleasure and a privilege, a way to shine light on things in shadow and illuminate the world a little. You can link the artist to the audience like a matchmaker, resulting in a relationship just as intimate and pleasurable for both.

One does not, of course, expect honours and laurels for this. It is par for the course, and not anything special. But not everyone is content to leave the critic uncelebrated, it seems.

Back in February I sung the praises of an incredible new game called Night of the Crusades, a game which applies a few elements of fantasy (and an evocative, elegant system) to bring forth the tales of the Arabian Nights into its own setting, with all the narrative power of Pendragon and all the historical richness of Warhammer. It rightly ended up being nominated for both Ennie and Origin awards in this year’s season, and has also produced some excellent supplements to follow up. It’s latest work is The City of 10 Rings, a city guide unlike most others. Not only is it the perfect balance of the unearthly and the logical (a city built in a fallen meteor with dreamlike, concentric architecture, yet divided into sensible districts with a natural evolution) and full of the same kind of haunting imagery as the core game, it is built primarily on random encounters. Ten rings in the city, ten locations in each ring, ten events in each ring, for 200 entries in total, or 1000 if you combine them. Some of them are a bit empty, but all are evocative and clever, elaborating on the specific district and the flavour of the city as a whole.

Too many products in the RPG world are encyclopaedias to read, assuming that somehow, the information will enter the reader and be magically turned into an evocative game. As always, Nights believes in providing tools to create their setting, and that’s the approach of this book – random tables not only useful to throw in to buff out a stroy, but to form the basis of the entire story, filling the city with tales that in the end create the tale of the city.

My review might  be a little biased however, because as I mentioned, not everyone believes the critic should go uncelebrated. This book is dedicated to me in the frontspiece, which is an honour as a critic and a thanks unrivaled in my experience. So I’m making sure I earned it by once again recommending you take a look at Night of the Crusades, an extremely polished and rare gem in the RPG world. Also, the core book is still 100% free, and Pathfinder conversion rules are now available, too.