Go Play NW wrap-up and mini-reviews

We had a very fun weekend, though I’m pretty tired now. We kicked off the weekend, as planned, with the Friday night get-together at The Elysian Brewery. Nice place, slightly yuppie Capital Hill pub, good food and beer, but hellishly noisy. I could only hear conversation from those immediately next to me or the person right across the table from me. But it was pleasant to get to talk to people we had only met online. We didn’t stay for board games after dinner because we knew the next day’s gaming started at 8h00.

Yes, both weekend days we left the alarm clock set at the week-day time in order to go gaming. Silly gamers. Saturday we picked up our friend Ed Freeman and carpooled to Seattle University in time for the 8h00-9h00 “planning”session – in other words, GMs who had gotten their asses out of bed in time wrote on the board what games they were offering, and players signed up.

The Shadow of Yesterday

Edmund, Ed F. and I joined Tony Dowler’s TSoY game, based on a ready-made scenario. I greatly enjoyed playing with Tony and the four other players at the table, but I wasn’t hot about TSoY. It’s an OK system, certainly quick and simple, but even as simple as it is it needs either to be trimmed or shored up, depending on the level of crunch preferred. Here is how it works: characters have a number of skills rating 0 to 4, and they roll three Fudge dice for actions. Fudge dice are six-sided, with two faces reading + or (+1), two reading- (or -1) ond two reading blank (or 0), so three Fudge dice can produce a result of -3 to +3. Circumstances, Pool points, and Secrets can grant bonus dice (in which case you use the top three dice among all you rolled) or penalty dice (in which case you use the three worst dice). Keys are particular goals or attitudes specific to the character that determine when and how you get experience (for example, a greedy character gets experience for indulging in greed).

It’s quick to understand and easy to play. I’m not very fond of Fudge dice, but they work OK. I like the Keys, that allow your character to gain experience and grow based on personal path and player preference. In a campaign it might get tricky for the GM to include enough opportunities for everyone to gain experience, but since you can have several Keys, it’s largely the player’s responsibility to pick some that fit with the campaign style. For example, if the campaign is an old-skool dungeon crawlin’ epic and you pick nothing but Keys related to Diplomacy and Sleuthing, be ready to advance slowly; that would reflect a fundamental difference of expectations within the group.

Things I didn’t like: because skills are rated 0-4 and the dice produce modifiers between -3 and +3, the dice are more important than the characters’ skills. A skill of anything but 3 or 4 feels useless, and it is simply impossible for someone with a skill of 1 or 2 (all I had on my pre-gen character sheet) to beat a character with a skill of 4 (what I was rolling against) unless the latter rolls piss-poor (which didn’t happen). Another thing I disliked: the disincentive for raising your character’s skills to 4 is that if you ever roll perfect success of +3, you succeed but your character is retired. Dull. If I finally get to kick ass, that the end for me? Phoo-ey.

But as I said, the group at the table was pleasant so I still had an enjoyable morning. Story summary: we were all ne’er-do-well pirates on shore leave, who had been assigned various errands: get a key from a Sorcerer, get a key from the madame of a brothel (yes, the same), take a letter to an old crone, collect a debt of 20 silvers, raise a dead guy as a zombie (we had a necromancer), and I forget what. Unfortunately, it’s a scenario for 4 players but the GM belatedly accepted a fifth and gave him an NPC who kicked more ass that the rest of us did, the very bosun who had assigned us most of the tasks (and was written as an unlikable, adversarial character). It was easy, because of his Terrorize 4, for him to succeed against any or all of us.

The pre-gen scenario had one small problem: usually, you need to have plot hooks all over the place so the players will grab at least one or two; but this one was bristling with hooks, while the players were experienced at story games and pounced on anything that even looked like a hook, so we were running around like mad. With an inexperienced group, it might be perfect, though.

Burning Wheel

After having lunch at an indifferent teriyaki place nearby, Edmund and I joined Wilhelm Fitzpatrick’s Burning Wheel game. We were trying to get into games we hadn’t played before; we had played Burning Empires, of course, and read the BW books so we were not completely at sea. Wilhelm is a really nice guy and a fun person to have at the table, so we were in a very enthusiastic mood. He ran the ready-made scenario The Gift, which can be summed easily: the Elves have come to the Halls of the Dwarven Kingdoms to ask for an alliance against the Enemy rising in the East. It’s a scenario for 8 players, 4 each for the Elves and the Dwarves; we chose the Dwarves, of course. There was one woman on each side, and we both ended up being “Prince.”

BEGIN SPOILER: Don’t read this if you intend to play The Gift.

The plot begins as the Elves are walking into the Dwarven Hold and realize they forgot to bring a present for the Dwarf Princess. They have to scramble to find a gift. Our Elves convinced their Princess to offer her most prized possession, her ancestral mithril armour. My character, the Dwarf Princess, was young and inexperienced and relied heavily on the seneschal but wanted to increase the prestige and power of her clan. Edmund played my dear ineffective drunk of an uncle, who realized the Elven princess was unhappy about giving the gift and warned me about it. I struck upon the good idea of accepting the mithril armour but giving it back as a present of equal worth, and I managed to talk the seneschal into this (I had prudently left him fuzzy on details). That allowed us to start the negotiations on a good footing though other incidents later made things less rosy. But it all boiled down to one big Duel of Wits that ended with both sides going under, to -1 (Elves) and -4 (Dwarves), resulting in a compromise treaty.

END SPOILER

So we have a big heavy mechanic to enforce what, as players, we would have done anyway. As with Burning Empires, the system is way too heavy for my enjoyment. The Duel of Wits sub-system (and the Firefight sub-system, but we didn’t play through that) forces a lot of wild-ass guessing dressed up as strategy, but barring dumb luck (good or bad) on a die roll, always results in (1) making people do lots of things that merely add up to one or two extra dice each in someone’s handful; (2) blowing both sides out of the water by the end of Turn One, forcing a compromise we would have reached anyway if we’d just negotiated; and (3) adding up to what sound like completely nonsensical speeches in-play.

Wilhelm is a great GM who mastered the system very well, and the players were great, though the scenario itself is pretty flat; it forces a number of small sniping scenes between pre-gen characters set up as antagonists, leading up to a big Duel of Wits that will end up in compromise (or war, I guess). I had a good afternoon, but I’m not about to yell: “Hey, gang! Let’s play a Burning Wheel campaign!”

Wilderness of Mirrors

After a lovely dinner with a dozen other gamers at Kokeb, a wonderful Ethiopian restaurant, I ran my Wilderness of Mirrors game. This is a spy game designed by John Wick and distributed on an extremely limited basis (you have to run into him at a con to buy a copy, or write to him, send $5 and get the PDF download link; no advertisement whatsoever.) It goes thus: all player characters, or Agents, are James Bond- or Jason Bourne-level spies, so they’re ultra-competent.

There are 5 areas of expertise (team leader, wetworks, face, gear-man, and ghost), and it’s cheap to specialize but expensive to try to cover them all equally well; Agents get one point in each area for free, and can raise them up to 5. The agents receive a one-sentence mission objective and must then proceed to build the mission (how, what, where, when, etc.) For each detail they add, they get a mission point; twisted details may earn more. When they decide the mission plan is complete, the team leader distributes the mission points among the team. That’s it, no more mission points after that. The only way to get more points is to create complications for the team, betray team members, etc. to receive trust points. These act just like mission points, except they are your very own instead of being assigned by the team leader.

Every time you Agent takes a risk, s/he rolls a number of six-sided dice equal to the Agent’s score in the relevant area of expertise plus any mission points spent on the roll. With a dice total of 1-5, Operations (the GM) narrates the result; 6-10, Operations narrate but the player adds a detail; 11-15 the player narrates and Operations adds a detail; 16 and up, the player narrates. Finally, the real-time clock is ticking; for every 20 minutes on the clock, the GM gets a complication point (there are other options, but that’s the one I liked) that she can use to adjust the success level by one on any roll, thus gaining more narrative control.

My mission briefing went thus:

The Skipjack-class submarine USS Scorpion is supposed to have sunk with all but two of the hands aboard after four days of surveillance on Soviet naval activities in the Atlantic in the vicinity of the Azores. Yet one of the officers, Lt.JG Johanssen, has been seen in Istanbul since the disappearance of the Scorpion. Find the unlisted survivor and bring him back – or find out what he knows and terminate him.

The players had the choice to be a U.S. team, Soviet team, NATO, or anything else that would be fun and relevant. They chose to be Americans from different services (Naval Intel, NSA, CIA, etc.); they all gained trust points by creating secondary mission objectives for their respective agencies. They decided that the target was kept in a casino in a resort town outside Istanbul, guarded by Turkish mafia and Soviet agents who mistrusted one another. Not only was the sub nuclear-powered, but they decided it had also been armed with nuclear missiles and one or more of those were now sitting in the casino’s vault. Unbeknownst to them, thieves were also planning to crack the vault; and Natasha, a beautiful Russian spy, was a love interest to not one, but two Agents. They played it very much like a classic Mission Impossible episode.

For the most part, it was a lot of fun. The only disappointment was that between the pressure of time ticking (resulting in more complications) and the late hour, tempers frayed between two players. Edmund was playing the Face, which of course requires a lot of talking to set up plans and therefore can consume relatively more time; and the player who was team leader (and, I must add, new to high-trust story games) got irritated. When he told Edmund to “stop wasting my fucking game time,” Edmund was furious, picked up his stuff and walked out, telling the player never to swear at him again. Now, I think they were both cranky and they later admitted as much. Happily, they exchanged sheepish apologies the next morning. Still, I was disappointed but I had to finish the game for the group. Finish we did, and I think we recovered decently, all things considered.

I ran the game again on Sunday afternoon, simply changing Istanbul to Rio de Janeiro, and we had a completely different game. Instead of Mission Impossible, it went all Delta Green! The remnants of the Thule Society, South-American nazis and South-African Boers had captured the sub to help raise Atlantis and something Elder God-like. The Agents were a Soviet, a Brazilian and a Japanese from a United Nations special operations team. It was fun too, though I think the first run made a better scenario.

Overall, the system is delightful for a convention game or to really give a group a chance at shaping the story while preserving suspense. When I run it again, however, I will adjust a few things:

  1. I will limit area of expertise scores to one “5” per area for the entire group, so the specialists really shine.
  2. I will define better what is covered by each area of expertise, on a little reference sheet.
  3. I will draw one complication point per 10 or 15 minutes instead of per 20, and use them generously.

Everyone seemed to enjoy the games, and Laura wants to use WoM to run a Shadowrun mission now (I think it will rock.)

The Zorcerer of Zo

On Sunday morning, we picked up both Ed F. and Laura, and again headed out bright and early, knowing full well we were foolishly optimistic in trusting the schedule. 🙂 Edmund ran an episode of the Tales of the Playful Watch with six players. The way he has the games set up, we all play Forgotten Toys who have become member of the Zorcerer’s personal guard, the Playful Watch. Edmund buys weird toys at the Dollar Store, wraps them (well, I wrap them) in Christmas paper, and lets the players pick their box. They unwrap the presents and make a character. (Since the time blocks were only three hours long, this was a little much for yesterday’s game, but on the other hand it produced such excellent characters!)

Laura and I still had our previous characters: Philban Detmer, ex-Darkness Warrior turned productive member of society, and Watanabe Hideko, the Happy Family Vacuum Cleaner. Wilhelm had retired Dak, so he played a squishy Honduran poison dart frog named Chuy. John Kim () had a knight figure bristling with weapons… with almost no knightly skills but great interest in marketing, Sir Sellsalot. Jeremy played Loue, a sort of faux-Barbie roadster who believed the princess and prince on the sticker covering his windshield were real (kind of like Buzz Lightyear thought he was for real). And Jackson Tegu… Jackson got the most difficult toy, a plastic tea set, which he turned into a kick-ass character with personality to boot, Good Old Values (one of his qualities was “Robot Impersonator” — the saucers and cups would form up to mimic a robot, and Jackson did demonstrate this by assembling the set!)

Edmund had decided to make the game very player-driven, so we all brainstormed to list a series of elements we’d like to include in the story (e.g., Romance, A Daring Rescue, An Undefeatable Foe, an Undersea Treasure, and Wind-up Robots Who Aren’t Very Smart). Players got Hero Points for setting scenes which included our plot building blocks. Edmund did a wonderful job of mixing and meshing those elements so that this would turn into a (mostly) coherent story. We ended capturing the leader of the Devil Duckies (yay, Philban!) and freeing the Blue Fairy, who had been captured by the Devil Duckies and forced to turn them into Real ducks (thank you, Bill Willingham, for the inspiration). King Glamorgan of Rosso adopted a daughter, Good Old Values got romantically involved with Opal the hook-handed pirate lass, Chuy became a Real frog, and Sir Sellsalot opened his very own flower shop.

The funniest moments were possibly when Chuy was negotiating with a group of goblins who wanted to lick him in exchange for a nugget of gold, while Sir Sellsalot was learning from more goblins about their hard-sale techniques. The interesting part about that was that the goblin market was a side-trip Edmund had absolutely not planned on and was at first hard-pressed to fit in the story, but it produced side-splitting scenes. All in all, ZoZ plus player narration was pure goodness.

* * *

Other games that looked like an awful lot of fun this weekend: Tony Dowler’s Principia: Secret Wars of the Renaissance (formerly Mathematica), John Harper’s Danger Patrol, Jake Richmond’s Sea Dracula, Christian Griffen’s Beast Hunters, Jason Lutes’ Thrilling Tales of Adventure!, and Clinton Nixon’s Reign, Inuma, and Princes’ Kingdom games.

After lunch at the cafeteria, we had the second WoM game (the Delta Green-ish one), then headed back. After dropping off Laura and Ed F., Edmund and I had dinner at Zaika (mmm, tandoori) with Mark, just to shoot the breeze. All in all, a successful weekend. Tonight, I run the third episode of Seven Leagues: One if by Land, Two if by Sidhe.

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