Tuesday, February 21, 2017

History of Universal RPGs (Part Six: 2010-2011)

It’s clear going through these lists designers have varied approaches to the idea of an rpg that can do everything. We’ve seen 89 rpgs, not counting pdf-only mentions. Today’s list, in particular, showcases a spectrum of “conceptions.” I have an analogy for this, a way of thinking about what’s happening in these different systems. And it comes from watching The Lego Batman Movie.

On one end of the Universal RPG spectrum we have games with a high density of rules, some dare call it crunch. These game intend to model every element and make those elements feel correct within the mechanics. That means a large number of rules which aren’t necessarily symmetrical, but do fit together. I’ll peg GURPS as the current end point of this approach, with HERO close by. We’ll call these games “Lego Games.” They have lots of building blocks. Most of the pieces share a common logic: four stud brick, flat pieces, headlight brick. But we also have some weird pieces- windows, plates, minifigs. They’re clearly part of the mechanics; they socket up with the rest of the geometry. But they also introduce new elements and require new ways to arrange them. We can make anything with Legos- though to make them look good we may need a custom set released by the company.

On the other end of the spectrum, we have “Play-Doh Games.” You can make anything with Play-Doh. It’s soft and malleable. It has no inherent shape, leaving everything open. More Play-Doh, less Play-Doh, it’s all the same. You know exactly how it all works right away. It doesn’t matter what color of clay it is, it smushes the same. These are usually story game rpgs. There’s a simple set of rules, but everything’s relative. All conflicts are equal; all elements work the same way, characters and objects use the same descriptors, equipment’s just part of the fiction, etc. It may even be diceless. Towards this end we’ll put Fate, Wordplay, Story Engine, and the like.

It isn’t a great analogy, but it helps me think about what’s happening differently in these systems. Savage Worlds, True20, and many others fall somewhere in the middle. I don’t know if I have a toy to describe those. I do think there’s a way to describe PBtA within this schema. PbtA’s the collection of all of the various Lego successors and emulators all thrown together (Mega Blocks, Playmobil, Kre-O, Cobi, etc). Right?

I have a Patreon for this project. If you like it, consider becoming a backer or resharing these lists to spread the word.

I only include core books here. I’m also only listing books with a physical edition. I might include an electronic release if they’re notable and of significant size. At the end you’ll see some miscellaneous entries, covering borderline or similar cases. Some selections came down to a judgement call. I’m sure I missed some releases. If you spot something Universal I missed which came out from 2010-2011, leave a note in the comments. 

A self-published Norwegian universal rpg. Appears to be a storyteller game where the role of the "scene owner" passes between players. For the less literate (namely me) I looked up the title’s translation "L'esprit de l'escalier or l'esprit d'escalier ("staircase wit") is a French term used in English for the predicament of thinking of the perfect reply too late."

Chronology poses a challenge when I assemble these lists. Some designers have a habit of calling something "X edition" based on several self-published or in-house iterations. That’s probably great for version control, but less useful for me when I hit a published third edition of something and can't find info on any earlier ones. But I digress, I was talking about Gaia Saga Universal Roleplaying 2nd Edition.

When I have trouble finding samples or reviews, I turn to blurbs, forum posts, and publisher statements. It looks like Gaia Saga came out of an earlier fantasy rpg developed by the author. A lot of that DNA may have carried over. I'm always wary when I see a universal rpg talk about "thirteen playable races to choose from." That suggests a more specific game world or setting, rather than a toolbox. The blurbs mention spells and magic as well, so I suspect this may actually be a universal fantasy game, with bits left open. In other words, universal but the GM has to build anything non-fantasy.

I found the mention of a "personality and emotions engine" intriguing. In a forum post, the designer describes is this way, "Personality Engine: Keeps track of your characters moods, how they act generally, and helps decide your alignment by how you act. Gives players a focus so they can roleplay their characters in the best way possible. Emotions Chart: Shows a list of friends and enemies, their feelings towards your character, and gives a reference point on how to increase game play and realism." I wonder how mechanical that actually is.

3. Mini Six (2010)
A streamlined game built on the Open d6 engine. This is WEG’s d6 System stripped down to basics. Character creation's covered in two pages and that includes a perk list. While that leaves a lot of heavy lifting to the GM, it’s less than you might suppose. You could run a pick-up session with what's on offer. Resolution's covered in just two pages and that includes two different approaches to combat: Fast Static Combat and Traditional Open d6 Combat. A sample magic system and sample characters get the longest page counts, each clocking in at four pages. The book includes several simple settings, each presented in two pages: Firefly-esque, trad fantasy, Victorian horror, '70's Beat Cop, and an homage to Traveller's Imperium. This is a solid, solid package and one worth looking at if you're hunting for a robust but light system.

A game from John Arcadian, a contributor and co-author of many contributions to Gnome Stew releases. Silvervine's a point-buy system, dense with info and options. Players roll a pool of d10's with 8's as the default success number. Relevant skills reduce that target number. You compare total successes the task difficulty. It's clean and the rules read well. I particularly like the idea that your roll is based on a primary attribute plus another supporting attribute. The former shows the most important element needed, while the latter demonstrates nuance. Focuses- the special powers of the system- can modify the success, results, and fiction of these actions.

While Silvervine has clear mechanics, it also spends a chunk of time talking about collaborative, thematic, and narrative elements of play. There's interesting discussion of where to hand off narration to the players. Despite that storygame talk, is has some crunch. Character creation’s fairly involved. It reminds me a little of Big Eyes, Small Mouth. Players have broad details which they can modify to create their unique abilities. To illustrate character creation, Silvervine uses its example Anime/ Steampunk/ Fantasy “Cyrus World: setting. That's good in that it offers concrete examples. However muddies the division between the generic cc rules and those for this world. That's a problem. Either this needed to be the rules just for that setting or needed to take a much more generic presentation approach.

While it might not to be to my taste as generic ruleset, Silvervine provides and interesting and flexible approach to this hybrid world. Silvervine released under the CC 4.0 license and currently available as a PWYW pdf on Drivethru.

5. Strands of Fate (2010)
I picked up Strands of Fate on a friend's recommendation. Prior to that I'd only encountered Fate via Diaspora and Spirit of the Century. However made the base mechanics clear. I couldn't put together how the system actually played. Surprisingly it finally came together when I read Strands. Suprising because SoF takes such a different approach to Fate. It feels a lot like Fate 3.0 crossed with Champions or GURPS. There’s a focus on point buy and construction. It clearly wants granularity- the ability to assemble all kinds of powers, devices, and magic. It also has a different approach to skills and aspects.

Strands of Fate didn't click for me, but it did give me a sense of how aspects worked in Fate. By going back to other Fate games and comparing them to Strands of Fate, I started to have a decent sense of Fate's base mechanics. That leaner approach appealed to me more than the engineered systems described in SoF. Despite that, Strands of Fate works. It offers a point-based structure, with lots of statting up and building. If that's what you like, but you still want relatively light resolution mechanics, you could do worse. Void Star released a large supplement the following year, Strands of Power. That offers many new advantages, powers, and mechanics for different genres. Picking that up if you dig the core book.

6. World vs. Hero (2010)
A two-players rpg with random event generation. World vs. Hero echoes the Mythic GM Emulator from the same designer. It leans into an open approach, making it high up on the “relativism” scale and useful for any genre. WvH bills itself as a "strategic" storytelling game. The two players- Hero and GM- compete during play. The player can define The Hero broadly; it might be a single person, an adventuring company, or something in between. They build that character from narrative phrases as well as some numerical stats, called Suit Abilities. The game resolves using playing cards, so each abilities ties into a suit. Those in turn affect different kinds of conflicts.

While the World player seems like the GM, they have limits on what they can throw at the Hero. The intent is mechanical balance. Cards are drawn, the Hero sets the location, the World puts a card forward for the conflict, the Hero uses another to activate appropriate abilities. Play continues this way. It’s an interesting idea and offers a cool option for freeform two-player story games. The game includes a optional rules for adapting this to existing settings, doing play by post, or using it more closely with the Mythic GME.

Not the same as BareBones Fantasy. But I could be forgiven for thinking that, given that the publisher, Scaldcrow Games, has erased Bare Bones Multiverse in favor of other products. You can find archived review pages, but the main product's gone from DTRPG. Those reviewers have wildly mixed reactions; some like the 2d6 system, some loathe the presentation. Others find it middle of the road. The system itself takes up only the first twenty pages of the rulebook, with the rest given over to nine sample settings. Scaldcrow has reworked this into other, primarily pulp rpgs: Rotwang City, Davey Beauchamp's Amazing Pulp Adventures-Role Playing Game, and Bare Bones Beyond: Worlds of Pulp. This last one feels universal adjacent, intended to cover any genre with a pulp filter.

8. BEAN! The D2 RPG (2011)
You make checks in BEAN! by throwing a handful of beans. Maybe…if you want to go all in on the theme. You don’t have to. BEAN! uses a d2 randomizer, so you could use coins or even/odds on dice. Ubiquity functions much the same way, counting up successes for evens on d6’s. Of course using beans has a tactile benefit. More importantly it gives the BEAN! designers a hook for all their artwork- a showcase of anthropomorphic legumes.

That simplicity and humor make it a good choice as a game for kids. BEAN! has default fantasy frame, but is written to be adapted broadly. It falls into what you might call tissue paper or, less judgmentally, streamlined universal rpgs. Simple standard resolution, a few choices for character creation, and just enough mechanics to feel like you have a safety net. Unlike many of these slight rpgs, BEAN! has been supported with several releases: a second edition, solo adventures, modules, and world sourcebooks.

When I first came across this I wasn’t sure if it was a stand-alone game or a bolt on to something else. “obSESSION is more than just a Role Playing Game, it is a set of core mechanics designed for use with any setting, genre or game style…Additional optional rules from Obsessive Compulsive Design are fully compatible with the rules found within, expanding upon rather than contradicting the core rules and ensuring that any optional expansion is usable with any obSESSION game, not just one or two.” Not the deliberate choice to abbreviate the game to OCD. 

obSESSION might be crunchy. “Derived Attributes” is a key warning for me. We have ten-second rounds, a “Soaking” score that you compare damage to in order to determine actual wounds, saving throws with levels of effect, 26 hit locations, encumbrance, character levels, builds & templates, sixteen primary attributes and eight derived. 

To get a sense of the mechanics, I offer this from the one- page rules: “Most of the time in obY the success of an action will be determined by a Skill Roll, an Attribute Roll or a Combined Roll. These differ only in the way in which their Dice Pool is determined. For a Skill Roll the Dice Pool is equal to the appropriate Skill’s Rank; for an Attribute Roll the Dice Pool is equal to the appropriate Attributes Skill Value (full value divided by 20); For a Combined Roll the Dice pool is determined by adding a Skill’s Rank to an Attribute’s Skill Value.” 

10. Other Worlds (2011)
Other Worlds came as a nice surprise. It looked very trad at first glance. Instead you get a system built on player-defined abilities and flexible narratives. It opens with discussions of story and "shared creativity." Other Worlds signals its intent to share power and "give everyone the power to drive events forward and introduce new elements to the plot."

Characters consist of Abilities with associated ratings. Players define these, breaking them into General Abilities, Personality Traits, and Relationships. Those slot into one of several templates: cultural archetypes, professional archetypes, individuality, and trademarks. Example abilities include, "Speak Japanese, Curious, Loves Roberto, Chase Suspect, and I Ain’t Getting in No Plane." To build your character you choose four templates, each with a set of abilities. Then you create your “individuality” by choosing up to 24 additional abilities. These all have a default ratings which you can modify.

The resulting character record looks dense. I'm used to lighter systems having easy-to-grok sheets. That's what we get from games like PDQ and Fate. Here you have lots and lots of things to sort through once your character's put together. It looks like a GUMSHOE sheet. This may work for some gamers. I'm less a fan of having to hunt through my many, many lists to figure out what I need to roll.

And you'll likely be doing that hunting quite a bit. When a conflict occurs you figure out your rating by assembling a total based on a primary ability's rating, modified by bonuses from any supporting abilities. That means scanning through to get the maximum effect from the ability sets you've crafted. Some players will get fast at this, others will suffer from analysis paralysis. The opposition also creates a total, meaning the GM’s doing a parallel hunt. Both roll a d100 and it to their final rating. Higher roll wins and chooses the outcome.

The base system is simplicity itself, but the steps require some crunching. I'd have to see it in play. I do like the way Other Worlds frames conflicts as universal and then slots that into a larger structure of "set pieces." There's some neat tech here. It's well written and has echoes of HeroQuest, Fate, and PDQ. But it feels more elaborate than any of those.

Wow. Before I start be aware you can get a free copy of the Paraspace Basic Rules from DTRPG. Looking at that may help disentangle what I'm about to say. Because this game...this game...

The cover has a photo of a d10 with added flame effects burning a streak through a side-of-a-van-worthy fantasy collage painting. Every page uses a variant of that image as a one-inch, full-color page frame. The pages alternate space-ships & moons at the top, dungeon doors & tunnels at the bottom. Throughout it all the still-burning d10 appears as the page number the backdrop. The actual tight, double-column text sits on a greyed-out frame, a palimpsest below. You can just make out the image lying beneath the text. Occasional odd stock-art choices break this up, but you're more likely to be interrupted by a table or chart.

OK. I have to take a break.

I'm back. ParaSpace uses d10's, for single rolls, percentiles, d1000's, d10/4 etc. Characters have eight stats plus Skills, Abilities, Techniques & Manoeuvres. Note: The stat Physique is abbreviated PH, that appears before they define it, so I initially assumed they tracked the PCs’ acidity. Also, pro-tip: be consistent in your abbreviations. If you use three letter codes for six the eight stats, don't then have Quickness shortened to "Q". Also, the stats aren't called stats, characteristics or attributes. They're "manipulations." Also…*takes a breath*…

Skill checks take stat+skill+1d10 vs. a target number. Unskilled use can divide that die result by 2 or 3. Look, I'm not going to drag this out: there's a lot crunch and granularity here. Characters have a figured stat called KDV to determine if they're knocked down by an attack. Different skills and abilities have different experience costs. Axe is divided into four skills: Axe, Axe (Thrown), Axe (Two-Handed), Axe (Two- Handed Thrown). ParaSpace has 132 skills. Some seem more like talents, but they're lumped in. Skills include Odour Scenting, Held Respiration, Car Mechanic, and Supplementary Defensive Manoeuvre. There's an appropriately over-detailed equipment and magic section. There’s…*takes a breath*…

It feels like a strange mix of 1980's design combined with first-gen indie 1990's DTP efforts. The character sheet...sorry, I'm not even going to try to describe it. Here's the thing-- I'm sure the designer got a lot of great gaming out of this system. He lists 34 guys (and one woman) as playtesters. This probably clicked for the level of crunch they wanted. But wow: this is hard to read and parse. It's so far outside my comfort zone-- and I was still playing Rolemaster up to the beginning of the year.

This offers another one of those moment when I must simply turn to the author's blurb: "Everyone has, in one point of time or another, played a Role-Playing Game. This is Story Teller's Version 1.5 of The Story, a 3D6 gaming system, closely related to D&D and GURPS." So that’s helpful.

13. Miscellaneous: Revisions
These two years saw major revisions to existing universal rpgs. Savage Worlds Deluxe is another tinkering with this venerable system. According to the publisher it, "includes rules updates, new rules material, new art, more examples, an expanded Setting Rules section, Designer Notes to give you an insight into the development, and much more. It does not, however, invalidate prior printings of the rules, which you can continue enjoy." This appears to be the most current edition as of this writing.

After a decade Story Engine Plus revises and cleans up the original Story Engine. This edition received two Indie Game Design "Runner Up" awards. The main stated difference seems to be a refinement of the adjective-based character creation. MADS Role Playing Game (Revised) expands this system with a 40% larger page count. Finally Paragon HDL is the new name of the Paragon Tactical RPG. This updated version also now powers their Demongate High, Perfect Horizon 216X, and LUCID: Dreamscape Reality games.

14. Miscellaneous: Universal Adjacent
Several games come close to being "Universal" but have a more subtle thematic approach. Skullduggery takes the oppositional mechanics from The Dying Earth rpg for a game of negotiated backstabbling. It can cover many genres and the book includes several different set ups, including the selection of a Pope (timely now given HBO's The Young Pope series). It’s like a complicated Fiasco. Microscope's a game I’ve talked about and played extensively. It offers an rpg about any history, though some debate the rpg nature of it. Microscope can cover any genres, but players move from character to character in scenes across times. Finally Idee! Das Universalrollenspiel: Edition Ad Astra is a German card-based systems for telling rpg-like stories.

15. Miscellaneous: Significant PDF only
This period saw some striking and larger pdf-only releases. d6 Int├ęgral is a French take on the d6 Open system. They supported it with several Lulu-only supplements. Pangenre RPG Core offers an adapted d20 system for universal gaming. It has several different “final” and “beta” versions, plus some topic-specific supplements. Sundered Epoch is another game with many different versions and "editions" out there. It seems to be a d6 stat plus skill system. RPGGeek lists a couple dozen supplements of various lengths for this. Finally Polyverse appears to a more detail heavy universal system. It has a supers supplement available.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Game Tech: Mook Methodologies

7th Sea has smart game-tech that sticks with me. These mechanics don’t overburden players but instead encourage certain play. More than anything these strike me as clever bits that actually work at table. It’s as simple as calling the ranged skill “Aim.” I’ve always calling that Ranged Combat or Shoot. Aim works and feels right. There’s much to love in 7th Sea including novel takes on mooks, advancement, teamwork, and more. They’re bit that contribute to an awesome whole.

There’s been recent discussions the idea or mis-idea of something being a PbtA game. Do we label it that holistically or from the discrete components? Like many, I suspect it doesn’t matter much. But some games get it right, putting the pieces together so something greater emerges. Consider The Watch, currently kickstarting. It pulls together tech from many sources: a strong AW base, conditions (MH and elsewhere), a “day/night” split (Nightwitches), and adds to that new kinds of choices for moves. There’s more, but the final result is both amazeballs and wonderfully inevitable. They’ve done a great job of seeing sub-systems and picturing how they could come together.

Anyway I love thinking about sub-systems how they might work elsewhere. In this series I want to “inventory” the approaches to these niche mechanics. I’ll try to cite an example for each one. I’m hoping others will chime in with different mechanics I haven’t seen.

Feng Shui gave me my first and most enduring label for the concept of mass low-level foes: Mooks. That game considered the architecture of a fight scene: environment, challenge, motion. I demonstrated that, while not exactly window dressing, mooks existed threaten and provide satisfying punching-bags. I’d never really thought about it that way. I’d had agents or low-level foes, but they operated like any other adversary. They could drag a fight out or create problems through sheer die roll volume. Nothing like getting K.O’d by a lucky stray shot from a punk. To avoid problems, I usually focused on an equal number of adversaries or a single large foe.

New “mook” mechanics opened up my combat. I strated simply. In GURPS I declared certain minor foes took double damage. I could have just halved their Hits, but it proved infinitely more satisfying to tell the players to multiply their damage. After that Mooks became a standard element in my repertoire, allowing me to including many more foes without increasing fight length. We used minis, so it made things look awesome and terrifying.

Anyway here are eleven approaches I’ve seen in games. Some of these overlap; some represent primary approaches and others add-ons. I’ve provided a single example, I’m sure there are many more for each of these. If you see an approach I have considered, please leave a note in the comments.

LOWER LEVEL (Baseline)
Used in standard level-based games. Lesser foes are simply lower HD or the like. Otherwise they work the same as any other monster or adversary. Certain kinds of swarms may have individual rules. Level difference means these foes represent less of a threat, especially for advanced PCs. They’re still dangerous at starter levels because of the relative ranges there. (Dungeons & Dragons)

A whole group of foes is modelled as a single character. That group together might be equal in power to a single named foe. They may have access to different abilities based on the fictional positioning (i.e. can occupy more space). Can be used for more nebulous effects. (Fate)

Foes operate on a different scale from PCs. The PCs get an extra damage die to roll. They don’t have to hit with an attack. Instead each round, this takes out nearby foes of equal or less HD. Imagine it as the casual effects of combat: minions thrown about without the PC’s even blinking. Called a “Fray Die” in Godbound. (Godbound).

Mooks attack and defend as normal characters. However, a collective mook group is reduced by one warrior for every X HP done. For example, a ten person group with 8HP each. The player targets one of the mooks and does 35 points of damage. The GM/player describes taking down four of them (and nicking a fifth). (13th Age)

Mooks and henchmen are modelled as armor, hit points, or even weapons. This abstracts these forces into stats and bonuses attached to a primary foe or situation. Alternately may be part of a major foe’s skills, for example in building a dice pool they might throw in dice based on their henchgroup. (Exalted 2e’s Mass Combat)

Used in point-based games. Lesser foes are simply built fewer points or picks. Otherwise they work like standard characters. Guidelines in the rules often suggest point caps or ranges for agent-type foes. (GURPS)

Mooks cannot affect PCs until these minion do something: invoke an advantage, gang up, make a maneuver. Then they can cause an effect (damage, restraint, etc). Related, PCs may be able to buy defenses which shrug off attacks of a certain rank or below. (Mutants & Masterminds)

Not explicitly defined as “anti-mook.” Some games have options for multi-fire or split attacks. Usually a PC can try to hit several foes with a reduced attack and/or damage value. This makes the option less useful for significant or named foes. Instead it’s most effective in dealing with weaker targets like mooks. (Champions)

The system includes mechanics for foes breaking, fleeing, or surrendering. These systems have been geared to remove mook groups from the table once they take significant damage. There may also be options for the PCs to attempt to activate morale checks. Judd Karlman reminded me of this when he ran Godbound. (Various OSR).

Mooks generally act like other characters, but a single hit from a PC removes them. They attack and defend as normal vs. the players, but typically have lower skills. However they can still deal serious damage. (Feng Shui)

A mook group defined as a challenge of X strength; it doesn’t act with individual members. Instead players reduce the strength of the mob through actions/damage. The remaining strength at the end of a round is dealt as damage to players. Squads may also have some special abilities triggered via a resource spend. (7th Sea).

Mooks function normally, but the PCs can take build options: advantages, feats, powers, stunts, to take them out more easily. Do double damage, K.O. on a hit, spend a hero point to defeat a mob, etc. (Fate Versions).

Mooks take additional damage from PCs. Could be flat number, multipliers, or extra dice. As mentioned above, an alternative to simply lowering the average HP of the foes. A variant is to have mooks take maximum effect when taking a hit or failing a save. (Mutants & Masterminds).

What have I missed?

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

7th Sea: Into Something Rich and Strange

I’ve never been a pirate guy.

Not the Pirates of Penzance, nor Caribbean, nor Treasure Island, Nor Muppet Treasure Island, nor Yellowbeard, nor Sid Meier’s, nor even Dark Water.

So when I got offered a review 'ding & dent' hardcover of 7TH Sea, I went for it with a firm meh. I liked Wick’s work and I thought I could find some things to lift for my magical Renaissance setting. Plus it would be an interesting game for my TGI Thursday online series.

When I got the books, I read it cover to cover. I almost never do that with a core book. Instead I skim until I need to run it. I turned around and bought the 7th Sea pdf so I could easily make cheat sheets. When the Heroes & Villains supplement came out, I bought pdf immediately. I’ll keep buying them as they land. Now, today, I regret not backing this Kickstarter. I have a bunch of projects I’ve supported- fulfilled and unfulfilled- I’d have dropped in retrospect to support this one.

In short, I dig the new 7TH Sea.

I ran two sessions of it online. I’m basing my impression that plus my read-through of the core book and Heroes & Villains. You can see the actual play videos here (Session One, Session Two). Again, I received a review copy of this, so feel free to take this with a grain of salt. But I’ll tell you, I absolutely dig not expect to like this as much as I do.

My knowledge of the original 7TH Sea setting extended to skimming splat books and looking to cannibalize the Freiburg boxed set. While I once had the core books, I never got far with them. That’s mostly because 7TH Sea echoed the mechanics of Legends of the Five Rings, a game loved for setting but not system. Also, as stated above: not a Pirate guy. I did like the idea of swashbuckling and musketeer RPGs like Lace &Steel, But 7TH Sea seemed super-Piratey. The CCG did nothing to disabuse me of the notion.

I’d followed the discussion when John Wick first got back 7TH Sea. The original setting had been problematic- laced with weird stereotypes, exoticism, and erasure. Wick promised to fix that. I can’t say if he has completely, but it feels pretty solid to me. The nations seem vibrant and, while they have historical analogues, possess their own character. That’s complemented by art that feels much more inclusive than most rpgs.* Good art, solid art, compelling art—all of which opens up the world and the stories to anyone.

Since I only planned to run the two sessions, I didn’t intend to delve deeply into the background. I wanted to know enough to get by. I’d slogged through the morass of too many rpg worlds. But that didn’t happen. I breezed through. The book opens with a little set up and then runs a quick cavalcade of the nations. There’s no massive timeline and footnoted research. Instead we get short but substantive discussions of each country. These offer perspective and don’t overstay their welcome. You can jump around or read through; the book doesn’t punish that choice. Instead it rewards you with intriguing puzzles. There’s much suggested but not fully explained, leaving enough imaginative space for the GM.

This set up smoothly transitions into character creation. That character begins by discussing what Heroes look like from each place. Then you have some easy choices to quickly assemble your PC. Backgrounds give starting elements, players spend to set their skills & traits, and then choose from a not overwhelming list of advantages. You’re over halfway through the book before you even realize it. That’s a combination of style, layout, and graphics.

THE RULES   To cover this, I’m lifting from my 7TH Sea cheat sheet
Dangerous or important actions are called Risks. When you make a risk, you roll a number of d10s = Trait + Skill.

In a Sequence, the GM sets the scene and you narrate your approach. Sequences can be Dramatic, Action, or Combat. That determines the Trait + Skill combination used to complete your action. It’s a tight list: five traits and sixteen skills. The GM may also establish Consequences and Opportunities for the sequence. All Risks have at least one consequence. Consequences can be things like breaking equipment, opposition arriving, taking wounds, etc. Opportunities are the “If you do well, you can X” bits. I’ll come back to that Opportunity idea later.

When you roll your dice, you assemble the results to make sets of ten. Each set is a Raise. Sometimes, you may use dice that add up to more than 10. That’s okay; it’s still a Raise. But if you don’t have enough points to make a 10, you can’t use those dice. Luckily there’s a mechanic for those extra dice.

You then use those Raises to complete actions. Consider them an action currency. Spend them to complete the task, avoid consequences, and get the benefits of opportunities. In combat, they’re a countdown clock as well.

Several small rules make this work well. First, players don’t have to spend their Raises only on their chosen Approach, they may Improvise. If a Hero wants to take an action outside the scope of the skill or trait rolled at the beginning of the sequence, they must spend an additional raise. Additionally if they don’t have the required skill, they pay an extra raise. High Skill levels (3-5) also offer extra dice tricks for those rolls, a small and easy to track mechanic.

The rules encourage creative approaches. Every time you use a skill you haven’t used before in a scene, you get a bonus die. Every time you give a quip or awesome description before taking an action, you get a bonus die. Not doing that means leaving money on the table. Characters can also apply “pressure.” They choose a particular action (“Attack Me,” “Run Away”) and spend a raise. If the target wants to do something besides that action, they must spend an additional raise.

You start with one Hero Point. You gain one when: you activate your Hubris (like a disadvantage or trouble aspect); you say “I fail”; you play in line with your Quirks (1 per session); the GM buys unused dice. This last one you’ll see most often. The trick is that when a GM buys those dice, they also get a Danger Point which they can use to power the opposition. Players can use hero points to add a bonus d10 before their own roll; add bonus 3d10 to another hero’s roll (limit one per round); active a special ability; act while Helpless.

If multiple characters take actions at the same time, the game goes to rounds. The GM sets the stage, again laying out any Consequences or Opportunities. Players declare their Approach for the round and roll raises. The player with the most raises describes their action and spends what they want. You may spend multiple raises on an action, but can’t later go back and add to it. Then play shifts to the player with the next most raises. This means that you may “act” multiple times in a round. Villains always go first when tied with players.

If the action isn’t about combat, but instead about something like crossing a burning room, you don’t have to go to order. You can instead check if players have enough to do what they want and determine how they spend their raises.

These operate like Action Sequences, but turn order isn’t as important. Players roll to get raises to spend on the cool things you want to do: infiltrate a household, be awesome at a ball, pick up word on the streets, etc. The GM states the circumstances of the sequence in general and what you can expect. This includes the sequence’s scope, any dangers you’re aware of, and generally the sequence duration. These facts aren’t set in stone, and can change as the sequence progresses.

Causing wounds is a Risk. In a combat, you spend 1 Raise to cause 1 Wound. You may spend additional raises to cause additional wounds. You can also spend raises out of action order to negate wounds 1 for 1. You can take wounds for allies by spending those raises out of order. The dueling mechanics are closely connected to this. There’s a set of standard maneuvers for duelists, with each style having one unique move. Duelist can spend their raises in combat to create additional effects.

Players mark wounds on a spiral track of twenty tics on their sheet. There’s a Star every fifth box. That’s call a Dramatic Wound. When you’re shot with a firearm, you always take a Dramatic Wound in addition to other effects. You can’t negate that with raises. Thankfully it takes 5 raises to reload a gun. A Hero with one or more Dramatic Wounds gains one bonus die on all risks. A Hero with two or more Dramatic Wounds grants two bonus dice to Villains rolling against them. A Hero with three or more Dramatic Wounds has exploding 10’s on all risks. In this case, if you roll a 10, you immediately add another d10 to your roll. A Hero with four Dramatic Wounds is Helpless. There are special rules when this happens. Standard wounds heal quickly, Dramatic wounds slowly.

Overall it’s a clean and basic system. Everything above is the backbone. They are some twists and sub-systems, like the dueling mechanics, but 7TH Sea is easy to pick up and explain.

Running this as a two-shot meant we didn’t hit some of 7TH Sea’s interesting elements.
  • I’ve never seen an experience system quite like this. You write up a story for your character—a goal with a set of steps. You work through the story in play. The number of steps determines the kind of advancement it can be spent on once completed. The book offers several pages of ideas and templates to build these. It’s the most character-individualized development system I’ve seen.
  • There’s a set of structures for creating Villains. They have a Villainy rank split between Strength and Influence. Villains can invest Influence into Schemes, which can pay dividends. They can also use Influence to purchase secondary villains, Brute Squads, bribe officials, gain information, etc. Heroes can undermine a Villain’s stats indirectly or directly. The Heroes & Villains supplement offers rules which revise and replace some of these.
  • There’s a cool sorcery system. Several different styles exist and they’re completely different. I mean completely: conception, rules, effects. Each arises out of a particular national tradition and reflects that ethos. There’s destiny magic, portal control, gifts from nature, sinister bargains and more. We had a single sorcerer in our game, using Porte magic. Unfortunately we didn’t get a chance to see much of it executed.
  • There’s a rich section on Sailing. Players can gain a ship, which can have its own advantage-like Background. There’s good detail of sea bound life in addition to the mechanics. Like the rest of the rules, these don’t bogged down in detail.

I enjoyed running 7th Sea and I would run it again. I ran my own story, inspired by the first moment of the quickstart: an explosion. I went in another direction after that. I focused more on action than social scenes, something I’d like to correct next time I run. For PC pre-gens I picked twelve Heroes from the Heroes & Villains supplement. I tried to have a nice mix of nations, sorcerers, rogues, and duelists. To kick everything off I had the players define the villain they all hated, resulting in “The Viper.”

Part of my prep was reading Rob Donoghue’s sharp posts on the game. He helped me visualize some of the elements. I recommend checking those out if you’re interested. I don’t have a central thesis about the game beyond “It’s excellent.” But few details struck me as I ran it:

The adversary structure works for me. I like simple tracking for foes. I’ve also come to enjoy villain elements tied to an activation: PbtA’s hard moves, Coriolis’ darkness points, Chill’s tokens. Here Danger Points serve that purpose. I like that they come mostly from player choices. If the players want to sell their extra dice back for Hero Points, the GM gets equal Danger Points. These can also be used to add dice to a Villain’s pool and a few other options. I would like additional GM elements to spend these points on. RD has some suggestions and I’ll look at that before I run again.

I also appreciate the system for the lowest level foes: the mooks. Here they’re called Brute Squads. Each squad has a strength, representing the number of fighters involved. A Brute Squad isn’t treated as a character, but instead as a Risk. If you’re facing a Strength 6 Brute Squad, you need to deal six raises worth of effect to negate it. That would be wounds from combat, morale cracking from intimidation, or positioning from acrobatic trickery. If you only partially reduce a Brute Squad’s strength, they deal wounds equal to that remainder at the end of the round. It works well. Brute Squads can also have special abilities. I love the one where the squad can lose a strength point to carry off a vulnerable NPC.

I tend to be pretty loose with “skill calling.” I usually give players a couple of options depending on how they frame things. I’ll listen to good arguments about applying an offbeat skill to a situation. Most GMs do that, but I’m really loose. I don’t think that’s a great approach with 7th Sea. You only have sixteen skills, so they each have a broad reach. Not sticking close to the book definitions means that the improvisation and ‘no skill’ mechanics have less meaning. I’m going to tighten that up if I run again.

Ahead of the game, I worried most about the Duelist rules. I’d heard they trumped everything else in earlier 7th Sea. I’d also seen Rob Donoghue mention they required some special handling. I saw that a little in play. Bottom line: a duelist is significantly more dangerous in combat. They have many options and deal more damage. That means when you have a combat sequence, you need to have challenges for them (large squads, duelist villains, etc) as well for as the non-duelist characters. If you watch the AP you’ll notice that when dealing with Brute Squads only, I had the duelists abstract a bonus to the wounds they dealt, rather than going tic by tic. That’s not something in the rules, be aware of that. Brian mentioned to me that he’d heard dueling was a slowdown point for the rules, like Netrunning in Shadowrun. I don’t think that’s true. The GM just need to keep things moving.

While I dug 7th Sea, it presented a challenge to my usual GMing approach. The book has excellent examples of play, well worth reading through. (On dueling in particular, you should check out the sample duel from the Heroes & Villains. Some sequences frame a differently than I’m used to. At the start of a non-combat sequence, the GM lays out the situation and costs if there’s a Risk involved. The players declare what they’re rolling (skill & trait) and then spend raises to avoid consequences and gain opportunities. That’s a moment that can potentially break the flow. Instead of players declaring actions, rolling and then narrating results, the order shifts a little. The GM sets the stage more explicitly.

With multiple people working in the action sequence, I had to pause and configure the situation. How many opportunities do I need we have multiple players in the scene? How do I give the players a chance to narrate their results? Does it seem interesting to go through each person’s result? Dramatic Sequences present a different problem. They generally occur over a wider range of time. I haven’t quite got a sense of the scale—especially if different players in parallel end up working in different spans. How many rolls are we expecting? Just one for the whole sequence? The example in the book seems to suggest that. But if one player uses up their raises in an interaction and another’s slowly working through their’s what happens? I’m not sure about that.

I suspect with play, I’ll figure this out. At the table I stumbled over it in session one where I had two parallel groups operating. One triggered combat, so I pushed the other forward to involve them. For action sequences, I probably need to think about them in a more trad way. Picture it as the players needing to get at least an X result, and having the potential to do better if they roll well. Overall I need to run more and/or watch others run it. I may be making this more difficult than I need to.

One of my big stumbling blocks was opportunities in sequences. On the one hand, the GM’s expected to put some forward. The rules say they’re optional, but you’ll want to have them there to add color. Raises are a currency in the game. If you have a currency in play, the GM needs to give the players something to spend that on. On the other hand players can generate these opportunities themselves. Several of the PCs’ talents relate to that. The book calls these “narrative permission slips,” but doesn’t explain much beyond that. That left me (and the players) uncertain about the scope.

Here’s where that’s a problem. I mentioned above my tendency to be loose with skills. I’m the same way with scenes and elements. “Is there a chandelier?” Yes. “Can I see something heavy to put against the door?” Yes. “When I push the captain of the guard to safety, can I slam the door behind him so no one can reach him?” Yes. In some of these, I could have said, “Yes, if you spend a raise for that opportunity.” That gives the players something to buy, encourages thinking, puts pressure, and works with the rules as written. That would also have modelled the kinds of opportunities players could have explicitly asked for.

If I ran again, I think I’d spend some prep time brainstorming opportunities. It might be worth just doing a big list of interesting details for sequences. It’s a reverse of thinking about costs & consequences or soft moves. I need envision memorable and useful opportunities. That’s assuming I’m thinking about opportunities correctly. I’m not entirely sure I am. I’d like more guidance on that and I’m hoping later books will consider that.

At the end of session two, we did a round of Roses & Thorns, giving our impression of the game. Rich said an interesting thing, that my experience with Fate gave me a leg up in running this. I don’t think he’s wrong—there’s a parallel openess in the approach. But 7th Sea is just different enough that I can just fall back on my old tricks and style. It requires some thinking. I’m looking forward to doing that more because I can see a definite payoff.

If you’re interesting in the genre at all, I recommend buying this. Consider getting a hard copy, because it’s a lovely book.

Reminder: I received a review copy. But then I went and bought the pdf and the pdf of the supplement.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Cheaty Bastards: My RPG Cheat Sheet Collection

I’ve been running a bunch of different games over the last few months for The Gauntlet hangouts. That’s meant learning new rules and teaching them to players. I approach this by creating one-page cheat sheets for the games. I want to get all the basic mechanics on a single page. It doesn’t cover everything, but enough to get started. Distilling that gives me a better grasp on the rules. I usually spot a couple of things I overlooked in my initial reading.

I’ve put together a list of all the cheat sheets I’ve created. They're in pdf form with Dropbox links. If you’re playing/running these games you might find them useful. I may have overlooked crucial bits; give me a heads up if you spot something. If you’d like the text
version of these to modify for your own use, send me a message.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Art Imitates Game: My RPG Pinterest Boards

Our game room holds archaeological evidence of elder campaigns, shrouded in the mists of legendry. We have relics which fell into disuse as technology passed them by. At the deepest layer you’ll find gallery photo albums and pocket folders. They contain cut-out images from the days when I had access to a work color laser printer. For several campaigns-- notably Exalted in Crux and GURPS Steambuckler, I hunted down images online, These came mostly from anime, WotC, and obscure video games. They were hard to find and slow to download. It was here I first saw Magna Carta’ “striking” illustrations, Range Murata’s work, Shining Hearts, Narsilion, Lineage, and beyond. Today these albums look like strange collages. Images come in vastly different sizes and you can see the rough edges where I cut them out close to shape.

Another layer up you’ll find an even larger collection. This is the era of the Kodak Easy Share 5100 inkjet printer (RIP). I bought it after the fire; it had cheap(er) ink and it printed amazing images on photo paper- better than I’ve seen anywhere else. Over the next few years I printed, printed, and printed more 4x6 character shots. I assembled collections for different genres. These I sorted in file card boxes, ready to pull out. Tucked on the shelves are real, sorted photo albums from many campaigns: Changeling the Lost, L5R, Wuxia, Libri Vidicos, The Last Fleet. Beyond that you’ll find hundreds of unused images in those card boxes.

But at some point I fell out of the habit of printing images. The feed on the still-awesome Kodak printer became stubborn. You had to nurse the paper just right. That meant just doing a half dozen shots could take an hour. We also had a couple of games cut out short after I’d done a ton of prep work and image printing. That made me gun-shy. I looked around for another, electronic solution. I tried displaying on my tablet, but that became awkward. I tried using a TV screen., but finding & displaying individual images ate time at the table.

Eventually, I found Pinterest. Not exactly revolutionary, but I can explain my late arrival. All I’d ever seen from Pinterest were recipes. I honestly thought it was a cooking app. Once I found it, I loved it. I’ve used it in several ways. First as an inspiration for myself and players. Second as an NPC image resource. Third as a slide-show source. For this one I save the images to my Dropbox. A program called XView allows me to customize the display. I run that over my shoulder on a large second-hand TV. It add flavor and doesn’t distract too much.

While I dig Pinterest, it does have one problem. There’s an embarrassment of riches. When I return to a board after time away, I’ve forgotten what I added. It doesn’t stick with me even if I review it. Pinterest’s good about telling you “You’ve Already Pinned This,” but often the same image pops up in different forms. Truly an abominable problem.

Below are my current “campaign collections”:

We tried a short run of this online. I GM’d so I assembled this collection of odd images. I ended up using a few for specific characters. However, we only got a through character creation and a single play session. So I have this weird assemblage for what? Maybe for a Changeling game?

Our ninja cyberpunk campaign. I’m pretty happy with the images I’ve found. There’s a ton of catsuit & cleavage images out there. I haven’t avoided that entirely, but I think the set holds together.

One of my favorites. This is for our dieselpunk, Crimson Skies-inspired OCI portal. I looked for images which weren’t too steampunk. That offered a challenge. I tried to lean into a 1930’s vibe. Since the game featured an international cast, I wanted to showcase multiple ethnicities. That’s an additional challenge, especially with illustrations of the fantastic. Still I think I did a decent job.

Our magical Renaissance campaign. It has more than a little of Assassin’s Creed to it. This is a weird one. It has some great stuff, but also some boobaliciousness. I kept some of those images because they had striking clothing or a cool vibe. Overall in going back, some of the pieces feel a little too high fantasy. I might go back to excise those.

A counterpart to the AotGA board above. In the later sessions, the players travelled the Sorcerer Czar’s Moscow for their mission. I tried to pull together anything and everything that looked vaguely like classical Eastern European. It’s not bad, though because of the way the ordering working on the board you can see me pivot with the search terms.

Someday I’m going to run some version of Fading Suns. This is my collection for that inevitability. Searches done based on “Dune” and “Fading Suns”.

I ran a three sessions trial of this this weird-tinged post-apocalyptic PbtA game. Legacy has a Numenera vibe to it, so I ran down those boards and lifted from there. I might move some of these images over into the Fading Suns collection. It feels like there’s overlap
Our game of adults returning to the fantasy world they rescued in their youth. I wanted a nice mix of cute and sinister. You’ll see some heavy overlap with the Mythic Russia collection. This one came first. Brian Fround and Tony DiTerlizzi served as heavy inspirations.

Used for our post-apocalyptic game. This posed several challenges. First, guns and ammo are in short supply in the setting. That meant I had to skip tons of heavily armed character images. Second, the PCs are mutants. They aren’t necessarily pretty or clean. So I tried to steer away from anything too glossy. In the end I included some just to round things out. Third, the characters’ home Ark isn’t in an urban setting, so I wanted to minimize the number of ruined city-scapes. At the very least I wanted to balance that with images of isolated buildings and locations.

For our f2f Middle Earth campaign, I knew I didn’t want character pictures. That distract and remind players too much of the actual books. There's a truism in film that you shouldn’t show people watching a good movie. It reminds them what they could be watching. That holds true here as well. Any tabletop game will have immediacy, but lack the depth of Tolkien’s iconic works. I still wanted flavor so I went with environments. Some come from Middle Earth illustrations, others just felt right. They couldn’t be too fantastic, but they had to have that feeling of age.

Have great collections? Other approaches to images?