Masks: Play report and review

Masks

A few weeks ago, our friend AW ran a one-off episode of the role-playing game Masks for me, my husband Edmund, and two more friends, SP and MP. I thought this was a good time to talk about this game since the PDF version just became available on DriveThruRPG. First, I share a play report that goes a bit long, but talks about the mechanics as well as the fiction generated in play. I follow with a review of the game. Continue reading “Masks: Play report and review”

Night Witches: Wrap-up and Mini-Review

Yesterday we brought our Night Witches campaign to a close, as the war ended in Europe with Germany’s surrender. Here is a quick look back at the campaign, followed by my review of the game itself.

Campaign Highlights

  • The 46th "Taman" Guards Night Bomber Aviation RegimentAmazingly, four of the seven original characters made it out alive (Maryam, Elena, Vera, and Oksana, played by Edmund, Steve, Alan, and Sophie.) For a while now Elena had been close to taking her last mark — “Embrace death and find your final destiny” — so we were all trying to keep her from meeting the bad premonitions she’d been having!
  • Of the others, two players had to drop so their characters (Yulia and Valentina, played by Christine and April) were technically still alive.
  • One new character (Anya, played by Adi) had appeared after the earlier tragic death of an airwoman (Sveta, also played by Adi).

Most of us took a turn at being game-master for one duty station or another, which gave us a chance to learn GMing tricks from each other. I really liked that, and I know I will use some of these techniques with other games.

The most marking events in the campaign, the dramatic fulcrum, were Elena forced by circumstances to kill a German prisoner to save him from a worse fate, followed by Sveta abandoning hope and dying in a subsequent mission. We had tragic loves, stormy friendships, splendid bravery, and wistful secrets.

We all stamped our mark on the squadron: Maryam was our fearless leader, fiercely protective of her airwomen; Elena was the career communist, slowly losing both faith and ambition; Vera was the cheerful pragmatist who always had a trick up her sleeve; Yulia was the sweet young recruit painfully hardened by war; Sveta was the tough-minded survivor who lost her zest for life after one too many tragedies; Oksana was the secret romantic who always tried to have her sisters’ backs; Valentina was the wild rebel; and Anya was the gutsy late-addition to the squadron, trying to make her place without being pushed around.

Mini-Review: Night Witches

Hardcover book and card deck, Night Witches RPGThe role-playing game Night Witches was written by Jason Morningstar and released by Bully Pulpit Games in January 2015 after a successful Kickstarter funding campaign ($48,806 pledged, well surpassing the $5,000 goal.) The game is Powered by the Apocalypse.

The Good

Night Witches brings its own refinements to the basic structure introduced by Apocalypse World. For example, the general moves are divided between those taking place during the day and largely involving caring for the regiment, your own squadron, the airwomen and the planes; and moves used during the night missions to accomplish mission objectives and survive encounters with the enemy. Several day moves allow the players, if they so wish, to accumulate “mission points” which can be used one-for-one to add to rolls on night moves.

These general moves are well designed to daisy-chain and create story material. Combined with the handouts supplied by the publisher for duty stations, missions, Witch-y things that can happen, period history, lists of names, etc., these make the GM’s game preparation very easy. No need to plan for complex story arcs, just sow some seeds and the story will happen. Like all PbtA games, it does require that everyone be willing and able to improvise in response to other players’ choices and any triggered moves.

Night Witches book and card deckThe setting is fantastic, of course. The game’s focus on the experiences of women in one of the most brutal theatres of this exceedingly brutal war is new, refreshing, and challenges a lot of role-playing tropes. The fact that it is also historical, documented, real makes it resonate all the more. If you want to expand from the useful notes on the period provided in the book and handouts, there is a wealth of material available (free or inexpensive), including patriotic music and amazing Soviet and German maps of the era.

Finally, I also got the optional card deck that supplements the book with character portraits, play aids for flight missions, medals, and quick-start character background elements. As I’ve said before, I’m a sucker for visual aids and this one combines art by Claudia Cangini (portraits) and Rich Longmore (plane schematics) with vintage Soviet playing card deck backs!

The Bad

Like most other PbtA games, Night Witches‘ character creation process centres around playbooks, essentially templates with a menu of options each character can choose from. There are only five playbooks or “Natures” to pick from: Owl, Raven, Hawk, Pigeon, and Sparrow. You are encouraged to include as many as you can in the game, but you can have more than one player using the same Nature. You can never go back and change a character’s Nature, however. Each has its own special moves.

After picking your Nature, you choose one of six Roles (Adventurer, Misanthrope, Leader, Zealot, Dreamer, and Protector) which will also give you access to a special move. Roles can change throughout a character’s life.

Unfortunately, the Natures did not feel intuitive for anyone in our group and the special moves granted by Natures and Roles were not as fitting as they might have been.Most of us ended up picking very few advancements from the special moves available to use, preferring to get promotions, improve stats, or forge and change bonds. I believe every character still in play at the end had used their one opportunity to go get a special move from a different playbook, reinforcing the sense we got that playbooks did not hang together in a satisfying way.

In some other PbtA games, such as Monsterhearts, Dungeon World, Monster of the Week, or Masks, the playbooks correspond to easily-grasped archetypes and the special moves fit well with them so that you have little trouble figuring out “what my character would do.” Then again, the game that started it all, Apocalypse World, contains playbooks and associated moves that I found difficult to understand (e.g., the Battle Babe that doesn’t actually, y’know, battle), so as they say: your mileage may vary. Nevertheless, if there is ever a second editions I would recommend revising the Natures, Roles, and associated moves.

Overall Assessment

Hero of the Soviet Union medalThis is a memorable game that has produced intense episodes in our campaign as well as in one-off convention games. I have never had a boring session. It’s easy enough for a GM to pick up and run, provided you familiarize yourself with the PbtA style. (For example, a GM has to realize that she never needs to roll dice in these games — the players do all the dice rolling.) Five of us took our turn at the helm during the campaign, including two that had never game-mastered a PbtA game, and everybody did a bang-up job.

This is not the kind of game book that provides extensive setting material (for example, most GURPS sourcebooks); it offers well thought-out summaries and sketches, just enough for the reader to understand the situation without getting mired in detail. (Naturally, our group of geeks immediately turned to historical sources and went down the rabbit hole of research!) For my style of GMing, the amount of material was just right.

Yes, there are wrinkles around the playbooks, but they are not show-stoppers. Perhaps fan-made playbooks will appear and add the finishing touch to this already amazing game.

Moves Snowball

588th

[Note: If you’re not familiar with games that are Powered by the Apocalypse, the terminology in this post will likely make no sense.]

This weekend I took my turn as game-master for the second duty station in our Night Witches campaign. Published by Bully Pulpit Games and Powered by the Apocalypse, Night Witches is a role-playing game about the women of the 588th Night Bomber Regiment. (Edmund’s notes on the campaign are here.) By default, it assumes that the GM duties will rotate every time the regiment switches duty station or when someone’s player character is taken out of the action by events, injuries, or death.

PO-2s_Assembly
Assembling some PO-2 models for verisimilitude

I was willing to take my turn despite my current work load because I know that there was pretty much no preparation involved, and because I’ve run other PbtA games. To be honest, the Apocalypse-based games are not that different from the way I approach GMing in general, except that its techniques are codified and integrated into the mechanics, whereas I just use them free-form. I’m referring, in particular to idea of not planning where the action will go but letting it unfold by itself, generated by the PCs’ actions and the dice rolls.

In my typical games, this involves focusing the story on the consequences of the players’ choices, a logical if-then-else loop iterating constantly. In PbtA games, this is anchored mechanically by the results of certain moves triggering other moves; Vincent Baker called this, in his original Apocalypse World, the “Moves Snowball.” Night Witches is designed to have a lot of that snowballing, especially with the night (bombing mission) moves. Once a PbtA game starts snowballing, you can just let it roll down to its logical conclusion, which makes the GM’s job easy.

In our first episode at the training duty station, Engels Aerodrome, we rolled plenty of middling or low dice results which kept us snowballing. But at Trud Gornyaka, the dice rolled magnificently for the first two missions, which unfolded in textbook fashion (flight manual kind of textbook, not GMing!) The snowball simply wouldn’t start rolling because the airwomen succeeded at every piloting and navigation roll.

But at least, they had lower dice rolls during the day, which got me a chance to start brewing a conflict between Maryam and Sveta on the one hand, and the Deputy Politruk on the other. We wanted to go through a third mission during the episode so we could be halfway through the stay at this duty station, and we wanted it to be one of the two missions for Trud Gornyaka which provide advancement for the PCs.

To shake things loose and provide some adversity, I use the Deputy Politruk’s enmity and the poor supply situation described as reigning at Trud Gornyaka to send the Section out during daytime to fetch supplies, thus limiting their opportunities to gather mission points, forcing them to deal with lack of sleep and German flights, and generally putting the airwomen on the defensive a bit.

Sure enough, the last mission (with only one point in the mission pool!) was a nail biter. As soon as they fell short due to lack of mission points, the snowball started. In the end, all three planes that had gone out on that mission were totalled, three NPC airwomen were killed, and all three PCs (Maryam, Sveta, and Elena) were wounded. They earned their advancement, and the undying resentment of the Deputy Politruk…

The thing that I found interesting as a GM is that despite the mechanical elements favouring the moves snowball, I still had to nudge it along (like a real GM and stuff.) It suddenly felt a little arbitrary to make a hard move without being specifically directed! Yet it was in fact relying on the results of (disastrous) daytime moves, so it was in the spirit of the game. I had no guidelines for how to treat daytime flying, which moves to use. Since they didn’t have any bombs to drop during the supply run, I had them roll Tempt Fate to escape the German patrols.

The conclusion from all this is that even with the built-in moves snowball, the GM has to remain mindful of the fiction, of its cause-and-consequence flow, in order to provide sufficient challenge to make the game fun for the players.

The PO-2s, painted as an air ambulance section.
The PO-2s, painted as an air ambulance section.

Saying Yes: Firefly RPG

Firefly RPG coverIn recent weeks I wrote a series of posts on game-masters who say “No” to player ideas, and how GMs can dramatically increase everyone’s fun at the table by learning to listen and say “Yes.”

Then came Big Bad Con 2014, where I was scheduled to run events using three different games: Atomic Robo RPG, Tianxia: Blood, Silk & Jade, and Firefly RPG. Let me be honest: after all these years, I’m always jittery about my convention games right before I run; but this time, I had just increased the pressure by kvetching about bad habits of GMs, and how it should be done instead… Thankfully, Big Bad Con is particularly notable for the incredible calibre of players it attracts. Three tables full of superb players was just what I needed to restore my nerve, and we had great adventures. I can proudly say that I successfully stuck to the advice I’d been giving, and things worked out magnificently.

So I thought I would turn the experience into posts where I would share mini-reviews of the three game systems, step-by-step examples of my game preparation and GMing, and my original game notes for anyone who might want to use them.

Firefly: The Baboon, the Browncoat, and the Chrysanthemum

1 – Prepping

A few weeks before the convention, organizer Sean Nittner was looking for someone to run the Firefly RPG, so I volunteered. Sean puts a lot of effort into lining up a good variety of games and recruiting GMs so that there will be plenty of choice for attendees. He even lent me his beautiful autographed book, then contacted Margaret Weis Productions to ask if I could get a PDF convention kit. Thanks to David Robins and Monica Valentinelli at MWP, I got everything I needed to run a game.

So I had to add my game to the schedule ASAP but I did not have a plot in mind yet, so as for my Atomic Robo game, I went for a title that would sound intriguing, and a generic game pitch:

The Baboon, the Browncoat, and the Chrysanthemum
They can’t take the sky from you, but the Ching-wah TSAO duh liou mahng sure can make it ruttin’ uncomfortable. How were you to know this little job would blow up like that?

(If anyone noticed that I had sneaked the Big Bad Con initials in the title, no one mentioned it.)

My first decision to make: use the characters from the television show, or some of the many customizable templates provided in the book? I asked around in my online circles and received much useful advice. In the end, I agreed with the majority who recommended using the Serenity crew in order to build on  players’ shared understanding, but set the adventure a little prior to the television pilot and limit the cast to Mal, Zoe, Wash, Jayne, Kaylee, and Inara. Continue reading “Saying Yes: Firefly RPG”

Saying Yes: Tianxia – Blood, Silk and Jade

Tianxia Front CoverIn recent weeks I wrote a series of posts on game-masters who say “No” to player ideas, and how GMs can dramatically increase everyone’s fun at the table by learning to listen and say “Yes.”

Then came Big Bad Con 2014, where I was scheduled to run events using three different games: Atomic Robo RPG, Tianxia: Blood, Silk & Jade, and Firefly RPG. Let me be honest: after all these years, I’m always jittery about my convention games right before I run; but this time, I had just increased the pressure by kvetching about bad habits of GMs, and how it should be done instead… Thankfully, Big Bad Con is particularly notable for the incredible calibre of players it attracts. Three tables full of superb players was just what I needed to restore my nerve, and we had great adventures. I can proudly say that I successfully stuck to the advice I’d been giving, and things worked out magnificently.

So I thought I would turn the experience into posts where I would share mini-reviews of the three game systems, step-by-step examples of my game preparation and GMing, and my original game notes for anyone who might want to use them.

Tianxia: To Live and Die in Băo Jiāng

1 – Prepping

On Saturday afternoon I ran my first game of the wuxia fantasy Tianxia: Bood, Silk & Jade from Vigilance Press, which builds on the Fate Core system from Evil Hat Productions. I believe this was the only Tianxia event at the convention. I decided to expand on one of the story starters provided in the book, setting it during a big Moon Festival for colour and action. Here is what I wrote for my game summary in the program:

To Live and Die in Băo Jiāng
Forgery, theft, treachery, ambition. Diplomats, courtiers, and Imperial scions. A holy day and a parade. And kung fu. All of Băo Jiāng is topsy-turvy when a secret treaty is negotiated under cover of the Moon Festival — while daring thieves plan to rob the Imperial Seal. And did we mention kung fu?

The scenario in the book includes a premise (the imperial seal which is in the hands of Princess Ju, travelling incognito, will be “borrowed” and counterfeited by a master forger), suggestions of ways to entangle the player characters and possible consequences, and the stats for the two main non-player characters (the princess and the forger). While I liked this beginning a lot, I needed a backdrop that would incite to action as well as additional story hooks, because I had to drive all this to have lots of action and some sort of resolution in a four-hour time frame with a group of relative strangers at the table. Hence, adding the secret treaty negotiated under cover of the Moon Festival. Continue reading “Saying Yes: Tianxia – Blood, Silk and Jade”

Saying Yes: Atomic Robo RPG

Atomic RoboIn recent weeks I wrote a series of posts on game-masters who say “No” to player ideas, and how GMs can dramatically increase everyone’s fun at the table by learning to listen and say “Yes.”

Then came Big Bad Con 2014, where I was scheduled to run events using three different games: Atomic Robo RPG, Tianxia: Blood, Silk and Jade, and Firefly RPG. Let me be honest: after all these years, I’m always jittery about my convention games right before I run; but this time, I had just increased the pressure by kvetching about bad habits of GMs, and how it should be done instead… Thankfully, Big Bad Con is particularly notable for the incredible calibre of players it attracts. Three tables full of superb players was just what I needed to restore my nerve, and we had great adventures. I can proudly say that I successfully stuck to the advice I’d been giving, and things worked out magnificently.

So I thought I would turn the experience into posts where I would share mini-reviews of the three game systems, step-by-step examples of my game preparation and GMing, and my original game notes for anyone who might want to use them.

Atomic Robo and the Invisible Invaders of Inverness

1 – Prepping

On Friday afternoon I ran my first game of the pulpy action science game from Evil Hat Productions, Atomic Robo RPG. It is based on the Atomic Robo  comic book by Brian Clevinger and Scott Wegener, who were also involved in creating the game along with Mike Olson.  I confess, I had never read the comic until Evil Hat started announcing the upcoming game, so I caught up by reading the free samples on the Atomic Robo website, then buying a few of the collected trade paperbacks. When it was time to schedule games for Big Bad Con, I thought this would be a good choice since the RPG would only be a few months old and a lot of people might want to check it out.

We ended up having several other Atomic Robo RPG events at the convention, but I think mine may have been the only one set in the current day. Anyhow, at the time I put my games on the schedule I did not have a plot in mind yet so I went for a title that would sound in-genre, and a generic game pitch:

Atomic Robo and the Invisible Invaders of Inverness
TESLADYNE INDUSTRIES IS HIRING! All departments — Armory, Intel, Research & Development, and Transport. We need capable young Action Scientists who have what it takes to get the job done! From its humble beginnings in Nikola Tesla’s lab on Houston Street in New York City, the company formerly known as Tesla Heavy Industries has grown into the global phenomenon it is today. Tesladyne offers competitive salaries, a matchless benefits package, and the opportunity to travel while working on cutting edge Science!

This is actually important to my approach to GMing. If I have a more specific idea for a story hook, I will certainly throw it in; but I try not to go too far down the scripting path. Continue reading “Saying Yes: Atomic Robo RPG”

Playtest Report: Monster of the Week

Monster of the Week coverI’ve talked a few times about the role-playing game Apocalypse World (Lumpley Games, 2010), especially here and here. This month, I get to playtest Generic Games’ hack of the AW system, Monster of the Week, in its most recent version. It’s a short turnaround playtest effort organized by Generic Games’ partner in the U.S., Evil Hat Productions; my understanding is that this new edition will be a chance to release a high-quality print version in the U.S. at reasonable cost, rather than have the choice between good printing but expensive shipping costs from New Zealand, or more affordable but lower quality print-on-demand copies from Lulu.It’s also a chance for author Michael Sands to fine-tune his game.

Like the popular AW hack Monsterhearts, Monster of the Week is meant to emulate urban horror series like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Supernatural, The X Files, The Dresden Files, or Twenty Palaces. However, where Monsterhearts focuses on the teen angst aspects, MotW places the emphasis on action drama. This is much more to my taste, I like Scooby-Doo stuff for grown-ups.

The game provides a re-write and re-skin of the AW moves, completely different playbooks, a richer History phase that solidly ties the player characters (“Hunters”), and a new stat called Luck that provides resilience but also moves Hunters gradually towards the ultimate fate. Experience is changed from the first edition; while it originally followed the AW model with experience gained for using stats highlighted by other players each episode, it’s now earned for every failed roll instead like in Dungeon World (Sage Kobold Productions, 2012), an approach I like much better. Instead of your character growing for acting out other people’s choices, you now have an incentive to accept failure, which is very true to genre and easier to track.

Another change is that the GM (“Keeper”) uses “mysteries” instead of fronts to create the opposition. They’re mysteries in the most basic sense that they start with something unknown with an agenda, not in the sense of necessitating involved investigative skills like an Agatha Christie murder mystery. Each mystery includes at least one monster, one or more minions, some bystanders, and some locations. A starter mystery is provided, and Generic Games & Evil Hat Productions requested it be playtested, along with the Keeper advice for how to set up a first session. The mystery is called “Dream Away the Time” and is set in the cute New England town of Handfast. This review will contain spoilers, so I’ll place the rest after the cut.

[SPOILERS BELOW.] Continue reading “Playtest Report: Monster of the Week”

Fiasco: Bravazzo – The Gazpacho Legacy

Bravazzo: coverThis weekend I sat down with five friends to play Fiasco; since the game is for 2-5 players, Edmund was kind enough to act as facilitator for the rest of us. We played Pete Douglas’ free playset “Bravazzo”:

Bravazzo! is set in the Italian city-state of Ferrara in 1435 at the dawning of the Renaissance. It fuses together the vain ambitions of the nobility, the desperate brutality of the peasantry, the venal profiteering of the merchants, and the mystical corruption of the priesthood in a con-fuse-ion of double-dealing, back-stabbing, empire building, and courtly intrigue at a time when the Reason of Man was slowly emerging from the darkness of the Middle Ages. Players will assume the roles of corrupt bishops, murderous nobility, ambitious bankers, pious priests, desperate brigands, virginal maidens, and coarse peasants, in a sordid medieval fiasco.

The Cast

We set up the following characters: Father Benedetti (Steve W.), confessor to the rich and powerful.

  • Relationship: He and François were related but didn’t know it
  • Object: A pit filled with stakes and lime.

François de la Porte (Paul), spy and duellist.

  • Relationship: He was the spy, Lady Armida was the spymaster.
  • Need: To win renown as a great duellist.

Lady Armida di Aramonte de Firenze (Maureen), artist and spy master.

  • Relationship: She was the genius artist, Count Luigi was her patron.
  • Object: Letter of excommunication.

Count Luigi Bacciagalupi (Steve P.), noble dilettante.

  • Relationship: He and Contessa Teresa were rivals at court, vying for power and land from the Duke of Ferrara.
  • Location: The Hall of Games at the Castello Estense.

Contessa Teresa de Sinterra de Cavole (Sophie—that’s me), schemer always purporting to be acting on behalf of a husband never seen.

Relic: Stupid Dice!

Relic: Gargoyle encounterWe played Relic again, the recent release from Fantasy Flight Games; I’ve talked about it in a previous post. That little bastard here, the gargoyle? It was emblematic of how unfair the dice were. We had the classic spread that Edmund was complaining of in a comment on one of my other recent posts on board gaming: the breakaway player who levels up every two or three turns, the middling player just about holding his ground, and me—rolling only 1s unless I’m rolling on behalf of someone else’s enemy, in which case I get 6s. I levelled exactly once.

The gargoyle became the flag-bearer for this phenomenon. With a score of only 2, it should be easy to get rid of, but it rolled two 6s and a 5, handily crushing one player character. Then a second player fought it, and the same thing happened: two 6s and a 5 (rolled by a different player.) Then it was banished by an event and we never got our revenge!

Stupid dice.

Fate: A Tale of Conversion-on-the-Fly

Randy's truckThis tale is late, but my writing time in the last quarter has been spent primarily on the War of Ashes RPG. Despite the lateness, I want to share this gaming experience because I think it may be useful to others. It’s on my mind because I’m wrapping up one of the last details for the draft of the War of Ashes RPG, the creation of short sample adventures.

When I was on Games On Demand duty at Big Bad Con in October, I had two options prepared: a FAE Muppet Show game or an octaNe game. Players sat down at my table, interested in trying Fate Accelerated Edition (FAE) for the first time but not too hot about the Muppets. Two were actually in the wrong age bracket, too young for the original Muppet Show and too old for the Disney re-launch; and one was my husband, who had recently played the Muppets game and had not played octaNe in a long time, so was ready for some post-apocalypse mayhem.

I wanted to give my players the game that would entertain them most, and somewhere in the back of my mind I had been making connections between the two systems; the spark went ZzzaPP! and I decided to run the game I had planned for octaNe but using the FAE system.

I’ve already talked about the game premise here: Eternal Earth-Bound Pets, USA contract employees, hired to retrieve the pets left behind by policy holders who were Raptured. The game writes itself! I had prepared an EEBP_brochure which I asked the players to fill; this would obviously be our adventure, the pets they had to save. The key points were these: Continue reading “Fate: A Tale of Conversion-on-the-Fly”