Agon: Death of a Prince

On Friday we held the fifth session of our beta playtest of AGON 2nd edition and visited our third island.

The lying in state of a body, terracotta pinax by the Gela Painter, latter 6th century BC.

Our heroines landed on the island of Nimos, where they were surprised to learn of the untimely death of the crown prince, one of their companions during the War. The royal family and the whole island were in mourning.

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Agon: Seeds of Democracy

Tonight was the fourth session of our beta playtest of AGON 2nd edition and our second island. Dolia’s player was unavailable so our heroes were Antiochis and Phaedra.

Our heroes landed on the islands of Ion and Soros, linked by a land bridge. Usually there was a gate on the island but it had been destroyed and masses of people were fleeing from Ion into Soros. Orta, the giant who controlled Ion, was raging; his cries of rage and stomping could be heard from afar and every stomp was accompanied by a ground tremor.

Seeing something big going on at the royal palace on Soros, the heroes went to check it out. King Vlakas was preparing to pronounce judgment on his daughter and leader of the Soros army, Commander Tyla, for failing to stop the Ionian refugees by force. The King assumes that the heroes were sent by the gods to restore order on Soros. Tyla recognized the heroes and called them by names and deeds, asking them for support.

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Agon: Boarding Action!

And now for a recap of our third episode of the AGON 2nd edition beta playtest (see the first and second episodes.) Thank you to Kim for taking notes during our games!

In the final thrilling episode for this island, an epic naval battle took place between the heroes and Thesekyra the pirate queen!

Attic pottery, 6th c. B.C. (Musée du Louvre, Paris)

Battle!

When last we saw our heroes, it was just before dawn; the storm was rising again and Thesekyra’s ship was coming fast for them. The masses of dark clouds coalesced on the horizon, evoking the shape of a gigantic but stately woman which the heroes recognized as Hera. The storm cloud woman extended a staff in the direction of the pirate ship and the heroes heard, reverberating in their minds: “Retrieve my gift!”

On the opposite side of the horizon, the clouds were even darker but crackling with lightning. They moved to evoke the shape of Zeus, pointing to the pirate ship, and the heroes heard: “Sink the abomination!” For a moment, the silhouettes of the deities looked like two combattants about to throw themselves at each other, then dissolved into cloud masses. [I felt I had not made the gods present enough and wanted to give a little mythic boost.]

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Agon: Stormriders

Quick recap for our second episode of the AGON 2nd edition beta playtest (see also first episode.)

When last we left our heroes, they were about to give chase to Thesekyra the pirate queen, who had sailed away with the stolen Pillar of Storms. Before leaving the panicked inhabitants of Kryos, Dolia convinced the villagers to hide in the mines from the harpy attacks.

Our heroes set sail after the pirate queen, with a captured harpy attached to the mast with a length of yarn as a guide. The closer they got, the stormier the sea was, thanks to the stolen artifact. Unfortunately, the attempt to outmaneuver the pirate queen was met with abject failure and the heroes’ ship was driven into the magical storm.

Odysseus, Norman Lindsay 1925.

Dolia attempts to call upon Hekate for assistance, pouring a sacrifice of sacred oil onto the waves, but the sacrifice did not go so well and the ship capsized in the towering waves. Phaedra rescued the bound harpy rather than let her drown. Antiochis rallied the boon companions and Phaedra shamed the harpy into not abandoning everyone. With her help, they were able to find a nearby island and tow the capsized ship there.

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Agon: Amazons and Pirate Queens

On Friday night I ran the first episode of an AGON mini-series for a beta playtest of the second edition. I had three wonderful players: Misha Bushyager, Sandy Jacobs-Tolle, and Kimberley Lam.

The Heroes

Heroes are created by giving them an Epithet, which translates to particular ability in a Domain (Arts & Oration, Blood & Valor, Craft & Reason, or Resolve & Spirit) and a specific Strength (e.g, Authority, Ferocity, etc.); a deity, which lends them another specific Strength (or increases their Strength if it’s the same they get from their Epithet); and picking their lineage, description, and weapons. 

We had discussed characters online and they had created the following characters:

Open-Hearted Antiochis (Kim), daughter of Helene and devotee of Aphrodite. She is large as a bear, with short, wild white hair and a playful quirk to her lips. She wears piecemeal armor and she prefers to wrestle rather than use weaponry. (d8 Resolve & Spirit, d8 Daring, d8 Beauty.)

Phaedra the Clever Eyed (Misha), daughter of Sophia, devotee of Athena, known at a glance by her panther-like stride, piercing amber eyes, dyed braids, shining dark armor, and paired khopesh. (d8 Craft & Reason, d8 Cunning, d8 Judgment.)

Dolia the Wayfinder (Sandy), daughter of Polytropos, devotee of Hera, never at a loss to man or spirit. Lean, rangy woman, tanned and tough from the hillside ranges and simply dressed, with an oak staff at the ready. (d8 Resolve & Spirit, d10 Cunning.)

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Next playtest: AGON 2nd edition

AGON is a game inspired by the Iliad and the Odyssey where you play heroes of antiquity having adventures and tossed by the whims of capricious gods. John Harper (One Seven Design) published the original game in 2006, but a new edition has been in the works for a year and a half, this time written in collaboration with Sean Nittner (Evil Hat Productions), as well as the design chops of Jason Morningstar (Bully Pulpit Games)..

The intensive alpha playtest resulted in a streamlined but also more structured system to create episodes with minimal preparation. The game has now been released outside the development team for some beta playtesting, and I was invited to participate.

According to the playtest document, the game plays best with one Strife player (game-master) and two to four Hero players. The default setting is Ancient Greece, but it’s easy enough to re-skin for another pantheon of Antiquity or fiction, such as the Egyptian, Tagalog, Norse. or Marvel’s polynesian pantheon.

We chose to stick with the default. We’re merely in character creation for the moment, but I look forward to our first episode. I have three players right now, three great ladies who I only ever get to play with at conventions or online because we’re scattered across great distances. It looks like this will be a Themysciran Odyssey—and maybe for the characters too. 😁

Since Google is closing G+, stripping down Google Groups further, and tinkering with Hangouts, we decided to go for a Discord server for both chat and voice; and I started a great big Pinterest board of visual inspirations.

12 RPGs for the 12th Month: We have some history

Paul Mitchener came up with a new writing challenge on role-playing games called “12 RPGs for the 12th Month” (see the full list of questions here.)

Question 5: 9th to 10th December

You’re running a historical or alt-historical game. What place and time in history do you choose? Are you including fantastical elements of any sort, and if so, what?

Where to begin? I love so many (alt-)historical. I particularly love the ones that make me learn about a time and place I am not familiar with. Over my 35 years of gaming, I have learned about so many cultures thanks to reading spurred by games, from Tokugawa-era Japan (playing Bushido Hero) to the Roanoke colony in 1587 (playing Roanoke, of course), to the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 (prepping for my Monster of the Week campaign), etc.

Actually, screw that—I know exactly where I would to play: in one of the great African empires we never hear about (except as inspiration in a handful of setting books like Nyambe or Spears of the Dawn.) I would like to walk the streets of Koumbi Saleh, capital of the Ghana Empire, meet envoys from the Malinke Kingdom or the Mali Empire, and Takruri traders bringing gold and cotton from Bambuk. I would like to see Axum and Carthage, the Kongo Kingdom and the Mutapa Empire. I would like to walk where I never get to, even in a role-playing game.

Would I include fantasy elements? Yes, I would use legends from the time and place in question, and take them at face value. Shapeshifting, sorcery, monsters, ancestor spirits, orisha… They all sound like wonderful elements to include.

DramaSystem/Hillfolk: A Brief Review

Blood On The Snow cover Hillfolk coverOver a year ago I posted a book review of the two-book set, Hillfolk and Blood on the Snow (Pelgrane Press.) I loved both as source material, but I wanted more experience with the game mechanics in play before I could review the system itself. Since I gave a pretty lengthy description of the two volumes last year, I will concentrate here on the mechanics and the feel of the game.

I experienced the system in two modes: I hosted a game at Big Bad Con 2013 using the “Colony Wars” setting pitch by Emily Care Boss; and I played in a mini-series inspired by Kevin Allen Jr.’s series pitch “To End All Wars.” Both groups of players were just fantastic.

The system relies on shared narrative control between all participants, everyone taking turns at selecting theme and setting scenes, starting with the game-master. The focus of the game is the cast of player characters, which are created in the first session and are linked by a web of relationships established by the players. These relationships are deliberately held in balanced tension and constitute the dramatic underpinnings of the game.

The character creation process is also largely the setting creation, and with a group of people who enjoy shared narration, this turns into pure magic.

Two types of scenes are used: dramatic scenes, in which one character tries to obtain something—an emotional reward—from another who presents some opposition; and procedural scenes, in which the characters confront and overcome external obstacles.

In most role-playing games, we are used to paying attention mostly to procedural resolution: opening the door, killing the monster, escaping the larger monster, and so forth. However, in most dramatic fiction, there is a lot of time spent on dramatic scenes: will President Roslin get Commander Adama’s support? Will G’Kar agree to help Lando Molari? Will Detective Marty Hart trust his creepy partner Rust Cohle?

A majority of the scenes in DramaSystem are expected to be, well, dramatic, with characters pushing and pulling on each others’ motivations. Each scene is set by a player in turn, with their character trying to get something from another. If the petition is granted, the player whose character yielded gets a Drama token; if the petition is refused, the one who was turned down gets the Drama token. In other words, you either get what you want or get a Drama token as consolation prize. Drama tokens can be used to force concessions later, to crash a scene where your character was not invited or, on the contrary, to avoid a scene you are called to, and so forth.

External challenges are resolved using procedural scenes, using three types of Procedural tokens (red, yellow and green) and ordinary playing cards. The Procedural tokens grant a certain number of card draws, and do not replenish until all three have been used (i.e., you won’t get another red token until you’ve used both your yellow and green ones; when you’re out, all three replenish.) Procedural scenes are normally resolved with two sides, either GM against one lead PC, or two lead PCs squaring off, and all other PCs either supporting one of the two sides or abstaining.

In addition, there are seven very broad skills (e.g., Talking, Fighting, etc.) and using one of your strong skills versus someone else’s middling skill grants an additional redraw, while using a strong skill versus a weak one means automatic success. In practice, of course, creative players always find a way to use their strong skills.

There is some back and forth between the two sides, taking turns describing the results of each action, and a stronger position can allow one side to knock high cards out. However, the truth is that the whole system, with its multiple tokens, unclear descriptions of card draws, and high luck factor just doesn’t feel very exciting. It’s not horrible, it’s certainly workable, and sometimes the cards even cooperate. But most of the time, procedural resolution ends up being rather anticlimactic. This was particularly highlighted for my husband and I recently by the contrast with another card-based resolution system that provided high suspense and interesting tactical options: the Motobushido RPG.

On the other hand, Hillfolk and especially Blood on the Snow provide a number of alternate rules options that we have not had a chance to try. I did use the advice for single-session play contained in these books when I ran “Colony Wars” at a convention, and found it very helpful. But reading the Advanced Procedural Rules presented in appendix in Blood on the Snow got our group somewhat confused.

In short, the tension and pacing supported by the DramaSystem structure, and the drama that resulted, were highly satisfying. However, the mechanical resolution of procedural scenes was lacklustre; in the future, I am likely to either tinker with the mechanics—perhaps using some of the plentiful ideas provided in the two books—or use the structure with a different system altogether. Nevertheless, I greatly enjoyed the games, I would certainly play this again with a suitable group, and I am glad I bought the books.

This is a great game for people who like to think about how a story is constructed and what makes dramatic characters tick, and who enjoy creating a lot of the setting material in-game. You may enjoy this game if you like Primetime Adventures, Fiasco, Universalis, or In A Wicked Age, or if you read Robin D. Laws’ Hamlet’s Hit Points and found yourself nodding in agreement. It’s probably not a good choice for people who prefer richly detailed sourcebooks, procedural action, lots of mechanical options, or dice rolling.

DramaSystem: To End All Wars

German Advance

We recently started a DramaSystem campaign set in Kevin Allen Jr.’s “To End All Wars.” DramaSystem is system which Robin D. Laws created for his role-playing game Hillfolk last year, with a Kickstarter funding campaign that took off madly and generated dozens of alternate settings or “campaign pitches.” I wrote some thoughts on the books a while ago, but I excluded discussion of the system as such because I wanted more play experience with it first.

Everyone’s been so busy, it took a long time to set up a campaign, but we finally got one going. One of the first challenges was to pick a setting, with an embarrassment of riches to pick from. First we narrowed it down to history and alternate history, because several players were in that mood; thn we cut the short list down to five titles, and finally voted for “To End All Wars,” in which a small group of magically gifted individuals fight the secret battles of the Great War. Continue reading “DramaSystem: To End All Wars”

Overview: Strange Tales of the Century

Strange Tales of the Century: coverMy replacement Kindle has arrived so I picked up my e-reading list where I had left it off, which included Jess Nevins’ Strange Tales of the Century (Evil Hat Productions). This book is just stunning; I suspect the reason we have heard so little about it is that it’s overwhelming with goodness.

As publisher Fred Hicks described during the Fate Core Kickstarter funding campaign when STotC became a stretch goal, what was planned to be a 60,000- to 70,000-word resource turned into a 200,000-word tome! The sheer amount of material is staggering and even intimidating when it’s time to review the book.

The Author

Author Jess Nevins is both an über geek by inclination (I say this with a sense of fellowship!) and a research librarian by profession, so he collects amazing stacks of fascinating resources which he shares generously. I first became acquainted with him and his work when he was creating lavish annotations to comic book series I was fond of, like Alan Moore and Gene Ha’s Top Ten, Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neil’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, etc. Jess would research the rich subtext and allusions, and share his notes online. When he first started publishing some of this material in book form, I was delighted that more people would get access to his clever work.

With his long-standing love of pulp and encyclopedic knowledge of the vintage years of the genre, he has written many fascinating articles on the hidden treasures of the genre, dispelling some of the clichés we have come to associate with pulp literature—particularly the notion that pulp lacked diversity. So Jess was the perfect person to write Strange Tales of the Century for Evil Hat, a resource book to expand the scope of their best-seller game Spirit of the Century. Continue reading “Overview: Strange Tales of the Century”