Continuing with the review of games I did a deep dive in thanks to the pandemic, today I look at a group of games Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA). I have talked before about PbtA games, particularly in a compare-and-contrast with Fate.
To be honest, this is a difficult set of reviews for me to write because I love all the creators and publishers involved so much, but I have some criticism to level. Please bear with me, this is written with love.
I recently talked about how I’ve been able to play longer game series during the pandemic; this provided me in-depth views of several systems. Today I focus on “trad” games, RPGs rooted in the early years of role-playing even if they have been published in the last decade: 13th Age, Paladin (Pendragon),Cypher (Numenéra), and Dragon Age and The Expanse (AGE).
Buckle up, if you know my tastes in RPGs you know this is going to be rocky.
What do you mean, “trad systems”?
I played in four campaigns, and ran one, using systems that have a direct lineage to the early days of role-playing and still foster the same kind of experience. I would characterize them thus:
They use pass/fail mechanics: you succeed at a task and advance in the story, or you fail and nothing happens. In limited cases, you can get extra-good successes (“critical” in common RPG parlance) where you get a cherry on top, or extra-bad failures (“fumbles”) where disaster strikes.
Player ideas and narrative authority are filtered through PC skill rolls: you may have a brilliant strategy or a rousing speech but the impact on what happen in the fiction depends on a skill roll result, not player creativity.
The GM is the primary author of the game. By default, information is secret until revealed by the GM. The players’ decisions on the fictional background is limited to their characters.
PCs can only accomplish things that their character sheet and the rules give them explicit permission to. PCs are presented with challenges (e.g., a locked door or an adversary in their way) and players check their character sheets to find out what they can do about it. Do you have the lockpicking or fighting skill? Then you can roll. Some games may let you roll certain actions unskilled at a penalty (i.e., the explicit permission is in the rules.)
This latter point is the sharpest contrast with more modern or story-driven games: in PbtA or Fate games, for example, you figure out what you want to do and then determine which mechanics to use in order to support the fiction, in other words, you do what makes sense in the story. In traditional games, you figure out what you’re mechanically allowed to do, and the fiction is what is left after the dice are rolled, in other words things happen because of the way the rules are written regardless of whether they make sense in the story.
Yesterday I mentioned the silver lining of pandemic gaming, being able to play a lot of games (since no one had any social activities anymore!) and being able to play them in more depth. I have had a chance to give a thorough look at several titles and I want to share my thoughts on them. Some of these thoughts are going to be less than complimentary, but I wanted to start with a game I have nothing but praise for, Lady Blackbird.
Lady Blackbird by John Harper (One Seven Design Studio) is the first in his Tales from the Wild Blue Yonder series. It’s a name-your-price (including $0) download that has been around for over a decade but updated periodically, providing five ready-made player characters, a scenario, a mini-setting, and light-weight rules spun off from The Shadow of Yesterday (Clinton Nixon).
Lady Blackbird is on the run from an arranged marriage to Count Carlowe. She hired a smuggler skyship, The Owl, to take her from her palace on the Imperial world of Ilysium to the far reaches of the Remnants, so she could be with her once secret lover: the pirate king Uriah Flint.
HOWEVER, just before reaching the halfway point of Haven, The Owl was pursued and captured by the Imperial cruiser Hand of Sorrow, under charges of flying a false flag.
EVEN NOW, Lady Blackbird, her bodyguard, and the crew of The Owl are detained in the brig, while the Imperial commander runs the smuggler ship’s registry over the wireless. It’s only a matter of time before they discover the outstanding warrants and learn that The Owl is owned by none other than the infamous outcast, Cyrus Vance.
How will Lady Blackbird and the others escape the Hand of Sorrow?
Within its 14 pages, the PDF contains all the play aids to run a one-shot adventure or even a little campaign: five ready-to-play character sheets and one blank one, with all the rules and choices for future character advancements; a ship for the player characters to fly around in; GM prompts and advice; and scenes for the GM to run at the drop of a hat based on players’ decisions.
It’s completely open-ended, meaning there is no end scene you need to struggle towards, only a starting situation and characters with their own motivations; but it’s full of hand-holds to help the game-master improvise with confidence. The GM advice is excellent and much of it is applicable to any RPG, not just this one. In short, it may be the best role-playing game ever published to learn how to GM without railroading.
As if this wasn’t enough, there is a great character sheet made by Jakob Oesinghaus on Roll20 that allows you not only to create your own characters from scratch, but also to load one of the ready-made characters by entering their name:
So in order to set up for an online one-shot, all I had to do do was:
Read the scenario and become familiar with it;
Set up the five pre-gen characters in Roll20 by typing in their names;
Create a couple of handouts by pasting the stats for The Owl and a few paragraphs of setting information from the PDF into Roll20.
In all, less than an hour to get a nice-looking game in place and be ready to run. And we had a blast! It was easy for players to learn the system, they had plenty of cues to role-play their characters, the system supported fun action and interaction, and the GM support made it easy for me to improvise in the face of player choices. This is a model of how I want ready-made scenarios to be structured: an exciting situation to start the adventure with, clear agendas for both player and non-player characters to act upon, and lots of support for the GM to respond to the unfolding story.
For details on how the game works, see this extensive review by MJ Harnish on Wired.
Visuals and special effects: 4.5. It’s extremely well done, but I’m docking it half a point for borrowing the dour DC palette too often. Give it back, Marvel, you don’t want to play with someone else’s dirty cast-offs.
Soundtrack: 4.5. Lots of good use and reuse of both orchestral and pop music. Alan Silvestri’s work is solid, and there are little musical jokes in the soundtrack.
Writing: 4. Unlike Avengers: Infinity War, which I thought was a jumble of good scenes tied by a weak excuse for a plot, Endgame actually has a plot that hangs together, at least in a comic book way. Also lots of good lines.
Casting and acting: 4. Not a whole lot of new faces, but nearly all of the old ones are there, even minor ones. Solid acting, with some actors once again showing more range than they often get credit for; made me cry a few times (that’s an easy feat right now, though.)
Direction: 4. Smoothly moves back and forth between moments of drama, humour, and action. The character development moments felt like they received special attention. Directors Joe and Anthony Russo’s vision seemed much clearer, much like it was in Captain America: Civil War.
Editing: 4.5. Tight. There is a lot of material packed in there, and segments that could get mired for a long while are resolved briskly; yet poignant moments are given the time they need to unfold. Good sense of comedic tempo as well.
Superheroics: 5. Although my favourite superhero group action scene remains the fight at Leipzig-Halle Airport in Civil War, there are a lot of quintessential superhero moments in Endgame, so many that it may take repeated viewings to catch them all.
Diversity and feminism: 3.9. Characters of many different origins, orientations, genders, etc. appear, but the lion’s share of the focus is still on white (straight, cis) men. There are even some scenes that deliberately highlight this, I’m not quite sure what the message was. However, three of the female characters in particular do have serious moments of deep self-realisation, and that was cool. Also, thank you Wakanda for putting up with white people’s messes.
The Sean Bean Award for character I will most miss in future Marvel movies goes to Stan Lee.
Like most other Marvel movies, Endgame offers a lot of cool little touches for fans, whether they are the long-time comic book fans or the newer fans who have followed the movie franchise. I enjoyed the many call-backs to scenes from previous episodes and the way they were spun, some times in parallel and sometimes in contrast.
As others have said, this really felt like the end of a season and the ushering in of the next one. I enjoyed, will likely see it again, would recommend.
Love, Death & Robots is a collection of animated short stories (5 to 10 minutes) of genre fiction (science fiction, fantasy, horror), just released on Netflix this week.
Since the episodes are so short, it was easy to binge several in one sitting. Over on the dying Google+, I commented that this resulted in watching more male gaze filming than I have allowed myself to in a long time. Here are my spoiler-free mini-reviews for the episodes I have seen. When I say “spoiler-free” I mean that I only give away as much as you have in the episode title and pitch. (Spoilers may be discussed in comments below, however.)
I had a chance during the holidays to play with one of my online groups. You know how hard it can be to get a group together, especially when they are spread in different time zones; when the friend who was supposed to run the adventure had to ask for another week to prepare, I offered to run something in our original time slot so we would not lose our precious gaming time.
Since this group has greatly enjoyed Golden Sky Stories, I first thought I would try running Chuubo’s Marvelous Wish-Granting Engine, but I just can’t quite grasp how play proceeds, let alone explain it to others. So I decided to playtest Turn: A Game of Shapeshifters in Small Towns instead.
Turn (Daedalum Analog Productions) is “a slice-of-life supernatural roleplaying game set in the modern era”; I think of it as Northern Exposure meets Teen Wolf, or Twin Peaks done by Studio Ghibli. It’s written by Brie Beau Sheldon and recently had a successful Kickstarter campaign (where you can find the beta playtest version, freely available.) Here is what the author says:
Players in Turn are shapeshifters in small, rural towns who must balance their human lives and habits with their beast needs and instincts in quiet drama. Their baser natures will challenge them as they strive towards goals from everyday tasks to life-changing experiences, and they will need to find comfort in one another to make it through without becoming stressed out.
Turn is part of the family of games Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA), which means that a lot of the setting and story creation comes from the players, not just the game-master. Starting a game involves group creation of the small town where the stories will unfold, and player characters are designed by picking one human role and one beast archetype and selecting from their menu of options to customize your characters.
We saw Black Panther and it was even better than I had hoped. It’s now a strong contender for best Marvel movie ever, and therefore, for best superhero movie ever.
Visuals and special effects: 5. The most gorgeous eye-candy delight Marvel Studios have ever brought us. In scale and poise it holds its own against Asgard, and is much more joyous and colourful. Every visual choice was very carefully made. The tribes of Wakanda feel very different yet true and (mostly) unified.
Soundtrack: 4. Good mix of pop, traditional, and orchestral music.
Writing: 4.5. I have very few quibbles; the main one is that some characters I would really have liked to see again appear to have died the Final Death. But the dialogue is fun and smart, and the pace is good. Also, reflections on insular and and nationalist attitudes well-suited for our times, by a film-maker who cut his teeth on current events.
Casting: 5. There was not one actor I didn’t love, the choices were excellent all around. The characters’ personalities shone brightly and the lines were well delivered.
Direction: 4.5. Superb attention to detail and sense of an overarching vision. Ryan Coogler assembles the funny, dramatic, sad, tense, and absurd moments into a lifelike tapestry. I really enjoy the glances that characters exchange, the little non-verbal moments. Some exposition, but really not that much considering the amount of material the movie brings in, and well handled.
Editing: 4.5. Tight. Even the slower or more solemn moments did not feel like self-indulgence.
Superheroics: 4.5. The only problem is that the Black Panther suit is, well, black and can be a little hard to follow in the action. But the fights were definitely larger than life.
Diversity: 4.9. As the meme says, they even had two Tolkien white guys (Andy “Gollum” Serkis as Ulyses Klaue/Klaw, and Martin “Bilbo” Freeman as Agent Everett Ross.) Gender, orientation, and ability diversity not really showcased.
Feminism: 5. It passes the Bechdel test as well as the Strong Female Protagonist benchmark. Female characters have their own agendas and goals, their own opnions and methods. You can’t swing a dead panther in this movie without hitting a cool female character doing cool stuff.
The Edward S. Curtis Award for Anthropological Detail goes to Ryan Coogler and the set design team for the futuristic Wakandan buildings in the style of the Songhai and Aksum empires.
My take on it: who says intersectional social justice is dour? This is the bomb!
I finally ran Alas for the Awful Sea (Storybrewers Roleplaying) at Big Bad Con. This is a game Powered by the Apocalypse, built to tell dramatic tales about the characters’ needs, feelings, and conflicts; it’s set in poor coastal villages of the British Isles during the 19th Century and includes elements of history, legend, and supernatural.
Created by Australian game designers Hayley Gordon and Veronica “Vee” Hendro, the game was funded through a successful Kickstarter campaign back in February 2017. I was really excited about the focused theme, the promise of a streamlined approach to PbtA, and the team of women and non-binary people putting together the main book and the digital stretch goals. Besides, I don’t have very many Australian role-playing games (I can’t think of anything except Hunter Planet right now…)
They delivered right when promised and this beautiful book arrived in time for me to prep a game for Big Bad Con. It fit well, since I had decided to run only games made by women and non-binary people.
So here is a description of how I prepare the adventure, how it turned out in play, and finally a review of the game itself.
I check out a lot of reviews from friends in my social media feed on Google+, Facebook, and Twitter. When I know I have a lot of tastes in common with the reviewer, I check their new write-ups as soon as they are posted. If it sounds like my cup of tea, I put the title on my list of games to try.
If I’m looking for reviews of a specific game, I usually start with the official website of the publisher, then big distributors like DriveThruRPG or even Amazon, then do a general search to see what the word is. If it’s an older title, I also check RPG.net’s Game Index; if it’s a small press/indie/non-traditional sort of game, I’ll search a bit on the Forge and Story Games forum archives.