12 RPGs for the 12th Month: Roadblocks

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 7: 13th to 14th December

Is there an RPG genre which you sort of like but gives you severe mental blocks. What do you like about it? What are your mental blocks?

Not really. I can play, run, and write in just about any genre, although I may have to tailor it heavily to my preferences; a good example is making steampunk less colonialist.

I do have the same problems with certain fiction genres or  subgenres that I have in other media (books, movies, etc.) For example, I’m not terribly fond of horror, except in a relatively narrow band, and I hate gore-fest horror. I’m also not a big fan of magical realism, it just doesn’t get me engaged.

But I can’t think of an actual mental block, let alone a severe one.

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New Releases: Harlem Unbound, Sins of the Past Revisited

Today I take a quick look at a couple of new releases in two different genres: horror and superheroes. Both can be used to expand an existing campaign or as the backbone for a whole new campaign. These will be overviews, not full-fledged reviews since I have not had a chance to run either campaign.

Harlem Unbound

Cover of Harlem Unbound

If you want Cthulhu Mythos horror that flips the standard Lovecraftian view of minorities on its head, putting them in the roles of heroes who must struggle against cosmic horrors while also fighting for a chance at equality, this is the sourcebook for you.

Harlem Unbound is a 274-page sourcebook for Cthulhu Mythos role-play written by Chris Spivey and published by Darker Hue Studios, which provides setting history, locations, characters, adventures, and game-master advice for the Harlem neighbourhood of New York City during the 1920s, the era known as the Harlem Renaissance.

System-wise, elements are detailed for play with both Call of Cthulhu 7th Ed. (Chaosium) and the GUMSHOE system (Pelgrane Press). In fact, you can play it as a GUMSHOE standalone, it contains the necessary rules; or you could play it with a GUMSHOE game such as Trail of Cthulhu, Fear Itself, The Yellow King, or The Esoterrorists.

However, the materials offered in Harlem Unbound are rich and well-formulated so that in my opinion, there should be little trouble adapting them to another system of your choice. Mechanics are the least of your worries—doing the material justice in play is the GM and players’ true challenge. This is exactly the game supplement you need to run adventures in the vein of The Ballad of Black Tom (Victor LaValle) or Lovecraft Country: A Novel (Matt Ruff).

The art is of course strongly influenced by luminaries of the Harlem Artists Guild and precursors. Some of it is not my cup of tea (the gorier images), but it is nevertheless well done. I am particularly fond of artist Nino Malong’s contributions.

If you missed the Kickstarter funding campaign, you can still pre-order Harlem Unbound on Backerkit.

Sins of the Past, Revisited

Sins of the Past Revisited - coverThe original Sins of the Past adventure, published back in 2010, is one of the best scenarios ever written for the superhero game ICONS. Since its release, however, the system has undergone a revision and expansion published as the Assembled Edition in 2014.

Sins of the Past, Revisited is a 52-page adventure written by Theron Bretz, illustrated by Dan Houser—the same team that created the original edition—and published by Ad Infinitum Adventures for ICONS Superpowered Roleplaying: The Assembled Edition.

It does not only update the mechanical bits to reflect the most recent version of the game; it offers new material, game-master advice, and notes on the playtest games. There is more art and new maps, everything a GM needs to run exciting scenes of superheroic action.

To top it off, if you prefer to run ICONS using the original rules, this comes with the 2010 version of the adventure for free. This means you can enjoy the new materials without major system adjustments.

The adventure connects modern-day superheroes (and villains) with those of the Golden Age. I think the adventure might have the most impact if its chapters were introduced one at a time over the course of a long-running campaign, when some of the GM characters have become familiar figures of the game setting. This could create fantastic buy-in for the players, inviting their characters to shoulder a legacy.

You can get the PDF on DriveThruRPG, and I understand that the print version will be available soon.

What makes a good horror RPG?

FearJeremy Kostiew asked on Google+:

What makes a good horror RPG? Rather, what has made a good horror RPG?

Was it atmosphere? Something about the mechanics? Hammer Horror soundtrack? Creepy GM? Haunted playspace? […]

I posted my answer there but it go so long, I realized I should turn it into a blog post! This also gives me a chance to provide links.

I’m not a fan of horror in general because it rarely reaches me. In movies in particular, it usually pairs violence and gore with repetition and cliche. For me, well-done horror is something like Identity (2003) or even some of the better X Files episodes: a lot of atmosphere, and threats that are not just about brutality and death.

Atmosphere: I’ve been in a few successful horror role-playing games, and many unsuccessful ones. The best I played was a campaign based on Clint Krause’s Roanoke game (Clint Krause Games 2006, out of print). My husband Edmund was the game-master and ran it at our local game club; we had a large ensemble cast that could change from week to week based on attendance, and a group of players known for their banter and kibitzing (including me), so horror was a challenge. Edmund payed a lot of attention to atmosphere. He talked to us beforehand about the genre, and asked us to play only if we were willing to get in the spirit, not goof around; the mood of the game was described as Brotherhood of the Wolf meets Lost. He had a soundtrack, sound effects, props, low lighting, etc. I posted detailed actual play reports on RPG.net, where you can get a better sense of how the game felt.

Tension, Transparency, and Temptation: It’s useful to have some sort of mechanic to keep track of and ratchet up the suspense. Examples include the Humanity/Taint/Corruption tracks in a number of horror games, which generally apply to individual characters; or the countdown clocks in Apocalypse World (lumpley games 2010). It’s most effective if the players see their fate coming incrementally closer, and if they have an incentive to court danger.  Roanoke uses the Doom pool, which allows players to gain a maximum success on a die roll at the cost of adding one Doom point to the pool that will determine the endgame phase of the campaign: Heroic Escape, Tragic Escape, Heroic Death, or Terrible Death.

Threats: Successful threats may vary from person to person. If you’re not familiar with the “passions” as used in Unknown Armies (Atlas Games, any edition), you should go take a look, I think they provide a good model. Basically, every character’s personality in UA is defined by three passions: a rage passion (what will unfailingly get under their skin); a noble passion (even a monster may love animals); and a fear passion, which is codified into five categories (violence, helplessness, isolation, the Unnatural, and the Self.) Reading about the types of fears can help a GM think of more varied threats, and identify ones more likely to get a response from the characters and players at the table. In Roanoke, each player has to pick a fear as one of their character’s traits, so they’re directly telling the GM how to draw them in.

Misinformation: A lot of the mood and tension rely on the characters’ imperfect understanding of what is going on. In our Roanoke game, the GM used the Bag o’ Rumours: he wrote little snippets of rumours and had us draw them in secret at the beginning of a game session, as something only that player’s character would know. Some were true, some were false, but most were a little bit of each. They worked very well to sow doubt, provide foreshadowing, and serve as bargaining chips (“I know a secret!”)

Clickable relationship map, Roanoke
Clickable relationship map, Roanoke

Tangled Relationships: A lot of the player buy-in, the spread of uncertainty, and the ratcheting up of suspense comes from or is greatly enhanced by a web of relationships — positive and negative — between the cast of characters. Even if the game is planned as a one-off, I recommend taking the time to establish some allies and antagonists among player characters as well as with primary NPCs.

Boundaries: Because horror gaming relies so much on (A) playing with our darkest fears and (B) shared mood, it’s prudent to have some way of controlling content so that the players will have fun even as the characters are being put through the wringer. In Roanoke we used what we called a Veto card (that was before we had heard the expression “X Card“). Each player got a card they could flash when they felt someone was bringing in elements inappropriate to the setting or the group. It didn’t matter whether it was for mood, story, or personal reasons, it was non-negotiable (although it was okay to ask questions to clarify the scope of the veto.)

RPG a Day: Scary tales

roanoke20. Favourite horror RPG

I’m not a big fan of the horror genre in literature, movies, or games.  But I love Clint Krause’s Roanoke, which uses the very simple Wushu system. I have fond memories of the series my husband ran for our gaming club some years ago, and the great atmosphere it had.

(By the way, sneaky of Dave Chapman to pick the 125th anniversary of Lovecraft’s birth for the horror theme day.)

#RPGaDay2015

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”

Spoiler-Filled Review and Musings: True Detective

I repeat: lots of SPOILERS here but I’ll place them after the cut.

"Time Is A Flat Circle," illustration by Ibrahim Moustapha, 2014Edmund and I just finished the first season of Cary Joji Fukunaga and Nic Pizzolatto’s True Detective; we’d saved it all because we had been told by friends that it was very good but the pace was slow. Since I end up having a hard time remembering who was what and what went on when this sort of show is stretched over many weeks, I wanted to watch it all over the course of a few nights.

I liked the visuals, the non-linear story-telling, the foreshadowing, the casting, the soundtrack, the editing, and the attention to detail. I always have a measure of trouble understanding some of the dialogue when thick Southern accents and mumbling are involved, but it wasn’t too bad.

I appreciated the references and influences in both the writing and the cinematography. I found it interesting that the show has sparked a good number of high-quality fan art homages, from classic illustration to tongue-in-cheek mash-ups.

On the down side, as with most shows of this type and especially on HBO, it fails to do more than squeak a pass on the Bechdel test when two little girls chatter to one another in one episode. There are relatively few female characters (except as dead bodies), and they are not all that important to the plot; they are there to cast light on the two male protagonists’ mindsets. And being an HBO series, there is plenty of gratuitous female nudity and sex workers.

That’s it for the non-spoiler section. Continue reading “Spoiler-Filled Review and Musings: True Detective”

Mini-Review: Knights of Badassdom

Knights of Badassdom movie posterOn Thursday night we attended a showing of Knights of Badassdom organized by the Ace of Geeks podcast. They sold out the projection room they had secure at the AMC Van Ness 14 theatre, 152 tickets all sold to complete geeks like us. The audience brought costumes, props, and Monty Python references; it made Rocky Horror Picture Show events look a little staid.

It was a treat for all of us, I think, to see a gamer movie with real actors — unless you count Mazes and Monsters, which after all did have Tom Hanks. The four Knights of Badassdom are Tyrion Lannister, River Tam, the guy from True Blood, and the guy from Treme.  No, wait, sorry—now that I have access to IMDb to compensate for my woeful memory for names, let’s try that again:

  • Peter Dinklage (The Station Agent, Death at a Funeral, Game of Thrones) as Hung;
  • Summer Glau (Firefly, Serenity, The Sarah Connor Chronicles, Arrow) as Gwen;
  • Steve Zahn (Treme, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Dallas Buyers’ Club) as Eric; and
  • Ryan Kwanten (True Blood, Summerland) as Joe.
  • Also notable was Jimmi Simpson (House of Cards, Psych, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia) who played the game-master, Ronnie Kwok.

I was not familiar with Joe Lynch, who directed, or with first-time screenwriters Kevin Dreyfuss and Matt Wall. Clearly, though, they knew they Live-Action Role-Playing. Except for the superior quality of the props and costumes, the setting felt quite familiar. The story revolves around LARPers who accidentally summon a real demon, which then proceeds to attack unsuspecting participants in the weekend-long LARP. When the authorities fail to respond, a few brave/weirdo LARPers decide to meet the menace with steel. Hilarity ensues.

I remember that while the movie was being filmed a few years ago, some people in the gamer and LARPer community fretted that this would in fact be another Mazes and Monsters or a Revenge of the Nerds, making the hobby look stupid. I thought that Knights of Badassdom did a good job of making gentle fun of the hobby’s quirks while still making it look cool. The general footage of actual LARPer extras and staged battles looks, well, badass.

When we get to the real monsters, they’re mean and horrible and we wince because they kill some of our favourite geeks. The special effects are no more sterling than one would expect, but they get the job done competently. It’s a horror comedy, and as the lady behind us put it at the end, “The ratio of murder to LARPing was a little high.” The music is good, and the mock-documentary feel of the connecting scenes is well used to make us chuckle without diminishing the main characters.

Everybody seemed to have a good time, and I was certainly happy I’d decided to attend. As I told my husband, “The part that would be hardest to understand for some people is that no one here was perplexed by any of this,” be it LARP protocol, references to John Dee, or death metal. It made perfect sense to us — and from what I see of the few reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, to no one else. Highly recommended for gamers.

Some Links:

Board Games and Movie: I’m Bad

LotR card game: the Spirit deck, with heroes Eowyn of Rohan, Dunhere, and Eleanor.
LotR card game: the Spirit deck, with heroes Eowyn of Rohan, Dunhere, and Eleanor.

I had a packed to-do list for the weekend that included tax filing, layout work for the Dragonflight game convention, course work for online classes, editing the War of Ashes RPG draft in response to reviewers’ and playtesters’ comments, posting my notes on the playtest of Do: Fate of the Flying Temple, responding to other mail, taking care of bills,  plus social commitments for both Saturday and Sunday which I had backed out of at the last minute.

But after a long work week with rough commute hours (two to two and a half hours each way), I felt I had to have a day off. I decided to re-accept the Saturday social, which turned out to be two board games and a movie. I had my first encounter with Fantasy Flight Games’ Lord of the Rings “Living Card Game,” we played another session of the old warhorse Arkham Horror, and we re-watched Galaxy Quest.

Lord of the Rings Card Game: Three players with decks built on Leadership, Lore, and Spirit respectively, tackling the introductory scenario. I was surprised at how easy it was to learn to play after the initial explanation of the rules had bewildered me.

Arkham Horror: All-female roster, all starting in the North End.
Arkham Horror: All-female roster, all starting in the North End.

Arkham Horror: Three players, using the “King in Yellow” expansion. We managed to hold four gate trophies (six, actually) and seal five gates with Elder signs on the very turn when the Doom Track would fill up and Hastur was going to show up. We also kept the terror level to 0 most of the game, 1 point on the final turn; and we cleaned up most of the monsters. This is the game where I’ve felt most confident we were ahead throughout, thanks to some excellent luck in drawing our characters’ random equipment at the start.

The four characters (we had a dummy hand) were coincidentally all female: Zoey Samaras, Wendy Adams, Lola Hayes and Agnes Baker. Zoey started with a randomly drawn Elder sign; Wendy also starts with one by default plus she drew a Press Pass card that allowed her to double up on clue tokens; and Zoey started with two perfect items: a magical weapon and a Healing Stone, both of which saw much use.

On the one hand, I will pay for this; on the other hand, I would have paid if I had tried to work through the weekend and keep going through the week, so I ended up picking the more fun option. Oh, also: we won both games.

GalaxyQuestCast

Comic Book Art: Ian “I.N.J.” Culbard

Ian Culbard - Bat

Someone started a meme on Facebook:

To help us appreciate comic book art we have this Facebook game. Click “like” and I will will assign you a comic book artist. It doesn’t matter if you don’t know their work; just Google the artist and choose an image of the one you like most, and put it on your timeline with this message. Make comments or just let the art speak for itself.

Steve Dempsey assigned me Ian Culbard. I did not know him, but learned that he’s a British artist and writer who has also worked or been translated in French, and done some cover art for “The New Deadwardians”, a DC title under the Vertigo imprint. His speciality seems to be, wait for it, Edwardian-era literature translated to graphic novel format: Oscar Wilde, Arthur Conan Doyle, H.P. Lovecraft, Edgar Rice Burrows, etc. He talks about some of his favourites on his blog, Strange Planet Stories. He does pencilling, inking, colour, animation, illustration, and just about everything else.

Style-wise, he favours a “clean line” approach I like, but seems to make his characters a little cartoony for my preference. But then I set these preferences aside for artists that grow on me like Mike Mignola and Kevin O’Neil, so maybe if I could read enough of his books his style would sway me too.

I will leave you with the cover I liked best from his work on The New Deadwardians: the combination of a bloody handprint and a vintage map of London’s Whitechapel district already conveyed its theme very effectively, even before the addition of the bizarre skulls.

Ian Culbard: The New Deadwardians #2 cover

Board Game Day: Eldritch Horror

Eldritch Horror box coverOn Saturday we had some friends over and we tried the recently released board game Eldritch Horror from Fantasy Flight Games. This game is the heir and “streamlined version” of Arkham Horror—also from FFG—which I’ve mentioned a few times here.  Game Informer has an excellent and detailed description of the game, so I’ll give you my own impressions.

The Game

Like its predecessor, the game is about brave investigators shutting down inter-dimensional gates to prevent Elder Gods from erupting into our reality and eating it. It’s a very Lovecraftian setting, except that it’s possible to win. Not easy, mind you, just conceivable enough that it’s worth playing. Instead of concentrating on Arkham and its surroundings, it goes world-wide. The rules feel familiar but you have to build your sense of what is likely to happen in any given location or mission all over again. Continue reading “Board Game Day: Eldritch Horror”