Tuesday, November 24, 2015

PUG’BUTTAH: Pick-Up-Games Powered by the Apocalypse

This is a simple framework for handling pick-up games or on-the-fly campaigns 'Powered by the Apocalypse.' In several ways this whole concept goes against the strengths of PbtA. The best adaptations brilliantly emulate a genre (World Wide Wrestling, Monsterhearts). They tune into that play. And generic approaches can feel colorless and ill-suited to some things. I say that as a person who has played lots of generic games (GURPS, Hero, Fate, BRP, etc).

So why do this? For one thing, I have a lot of game frame ideas. I think they’ll work, and I could spend a lot of time building all of the structures. I’ve done that many times before. But I don’t want to waste a lot of energy. If we say “hey, let’s do this,” I want to do it then, not spend days building or rewriting another game it to fit. For another thing, I have people I enjoy playing with who don’t like my go-to pick up game: Fate. That’s cool. They usually have at least a passing familiarity with PbtA mechanics, so I'll use that. Finally I want something easy to run online.

Note that this is influenced by some of the other stripped down PbtA versions like World of Dungeons and Simple World

I want these rules to allow a GM to set things up quickly. Throw down a simple character sheet, drop a reference page, establish some facts, and easily get to playing a one-shot. But more importantly I want this to handle short campaigns with emergent play.  In Pug'buttah you can come up with a campaign concept, build characters, start playing, and have rules evolve over time.

A few years ago, we played a campaign called "Last Fleet." We did collaborative world creation, and I knew we were going to use our homebrew card system as the basis. But I decided not to write up any new modules and rules. Instead I asked the players what they wanted to be able to do: i.e. what cool stunts, powers, feats, etc. they wanted. From that I built each character a set of abilities. I put these on cards, and they could buy them as they wanted. Some had prerequisites, so a structure developed. I checked with them every couple of sessions to ask what new abilities they wanted. The pricing system meant they could never buy everything and had to make hard choices.

Effectively we built talent trees on the fly for individual characters. That’s what improvements are going to look like here as well. It may work even better with this, since GM Moves make the work even lighter.

These discussions assume you’re somewhat familiar with how PbtA games work. Also, as you may have noticed, I use GM in place of MC. Once again I stomp on the spirit of things. But that term's pure habit for me.

In the discussion below I’ll be using names for things like Moves, Stats, and Improvements. Consider these placeholders. One of the easiest ways to establish the genre feel is provide genre appropriate names. Overelaborate terms for Steampunk, with a drawl for a Western, or sharp and edgy for Cyberpunk. This can be a point of collaboration for the group.

This game begins with a conversation about what the group wants to play. I’m going to assume that you’ve generally established the premise or genre beforehand. Here you want to talk about the expectations for the game. In particular, talk about what characters do in this kind of game. What sorts of things happen and what narrative focuses on. That’s important even if you’ve defined what seems to be a commonly shared concept. Genre can be dangerous, with players owning different senses of it. You might say "Paranormal Romance," and have one player come at it from a Buffy PoV while another's thinking True Blood.

Make a list of activities and consider what typical heroes have as goals.

For example in a Star Wars game: Fly Spaceships, Dogfight, Evade capture, Use the Force, Deal with Troops, Overcome the Odds, Swashbuckle, Struggle with Darkness, Draw on Inner Strength.

Or let’s say an X-Men game: Use Powers, Deal with Suspicion, Inappropriate Personal Issues, Expose Conspiracy, Mutate, Avoid Detection, Protect Innocents, Retcon Backstory.

Or Lord of the Rings: Travel the Wilds, Evade Pursuit, Overcome Animosities, Go to War, Ancient History, Resist Shadow, Cut through Hordes. 

These should help form a pool of Custom Moves you can create either before the game starts or during play.

Ask if there are things you wish to Ban which usually appear in this kind of setting or Add which don’t normally show up.

I’ll come back to the actual process of character creation, but here’s the basics:
  • Define a character concept
  • Set Stats
  • Pick three Improvements (Moves, Skills, or Stuff)
  • Establish History between characters.

Characters have five or six stats which are used with rolls. The exact composition of the stats depends on the genre involved. Stats have a max of +3; players begin with these values to distribute: -1, 0, +1, +1, +2, +3. If you want more competent characters for a one-shot go with 0, +1, +1, +2, +2, +3. If you’re using five stats, drop a +1.

Some games use five stats, like Monster of the Week (Charm, Cool, Sharp, Tough, Weird) or base AW (Cool, Hard, Hot, Sharp, and Weird). These are useful set ups for groups highly familiar with the system. For purposes of explanation, I’ll use Charm, Cool, Sharp, Tough, and Weird as the default terms. Understand they represent a concept, rather than a specific stat name.

Other games use six stats include the classic D&D list, useful if you’re doing a fantasy game (Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma). If you want something more abstract, go with approaches from Fate Accelerated (Careful, Clever, Flashy, Forceful, Quick, and Sneaky). I like these because they have a built-in methodology and point to the kinds of complications and costs which can arise from a bad roll.

Consider the focus of the game. If you think play with center on investigation and figuring things out, you’ll want two kinds of Intelligence stats. For investigation games, split “Sharp” into Knowledge and Perception/Observation/Wits. 

If you think it will rely on social manipulation, then you’ll want to split out charm. For a social game, split into Charm and Presence, representing soft and hard approaches. Alternately, consider Charm and Pull, with the latter covering favors, connections, and networks.

If you think it will lean on combat, you’ll want to break up physical traits. For action oriented games, retool “Cool” and “Tough” into split physical stats like Strength, Agility, and Toughness.

This is a decision the GM will probably want to sketch out before sitting down with the group to plan the game.

I’ll be using the following terms mostly as they appear in other versions. Forward +X: Add that to your next related action. So in combat, usually another attack or escape. After uncovering info, a bonus to an action using those details. In some cases, what I’m calling “Set Up”, you can pass that bonus wholly or in part to another character. Hold X is a currency, spent to achieve an effect, ask a question, or gain a benefit. Hold may decay over time. Ongoing +X: a bonus to rolls for that character for the rest of the scene (or until something major changes).

These moves cover a lot of ground. Distinctions occur in how the action’s described, the actual situation, and the stat called for. For example trying to read a person through conversation might be rolled with +Charm instead of +Sharp. Indirectly trying to bring someone’s organization down might be rolled with +Sharp or +Charm, instead of +Tough.

Principle: When you do something, you roll the relevant Move with a stat appropriate to the situation.

Principle: Give the player a chance to say and justify why a particular stat fits. 

Roll this when you talk and engage with a person or group in an attempt to gain something. Gain an ally, create a strongly favorable impression, instill jealousy, obtain a favor, fool them about a fact, get them to give you something, arrange for support, and so on

10+ You move attitudes sharply towards what you want. That may…
…establish a significant fictional change
…make the person or group do as you wish for a general effect
…create a debt for later use (Special Hold)
…have them immediately assist with something (+2 Forward or +1 Ongoing)
…“Set Up” something (+2 Hold).

7-9 You move attitudes slightly towards what you want, but greater results come with a catch, complication, or cost.

Attitude shifting and relationship building require time or leverage. Persuasion always requires leverage or a debt of some kind, which may be spent by the transaction. Note that this covers PCs acting on NPCs. The group will have to decide how and in what way Interaction skills can be used on other players.

Roll this when you’re engaged in a conflict and attempting to deal Harm. This assumes an active and dangerous opponent. When you fight, you take 1 Harm unless you negate that through an effect pick. You also deal your base Harm (see Harm and Damage below). Fights don’t have to be physical, they could be political struggles, debates, or a hacker clashing with a system. In these cases, the GM will establish special Harm tracks, as well as damage/armor for the event.

10+ Deal take/standard harm and pick three effects

7-9 Deal take/standard harm and pick one effect
…deal extra Harm (may be taken multiple times)
…gain +1 Forward for yourself or another (Set Up)
…take no Harm
…Change State/Position

What about Shooting? If you’re under no threat—no one nearby to affect you and no shooting enemies—the GM may say you take no harm. (Note: Should that reduce picks?) Alternately they may say it isn’t really a Move and simply have the player deal Harm.

Roll this when you want to learn something. This can be doing research, hitting the streets, looking around, sensing danger, considering your own experiences. General information should be obtainable without a Move. But if someone wants to use their expertise to discern something they make this roll.

10+ Gain 2 Hold to spend on questions. Take +1 Forward for an action based on that information. This may be passed to another
7-9 Gain 1 Hold to spend on questions.

Each Hold spent allows the player to ask a single question. The GM should answer this clearly and directly, allowing for some follow up and clarification.

What kinds of questions can be asked? Usually the Who, What, Where, When, and How of things. That sounds broad, but this covers a large range. What they can ask is only limited by the fiction of their character and how they’ve narrated their discovery process.

Players and GMs may have to walk through the process and limits. In my experience, players tend to go less meta than I expect (or would allow). If unclear, GMs may ask players to explain how they would learn something and permit them to reframe if necessary.
Specialty knowledge and discovery processes with added benefits make great Custom Moves (see later).

Roll when you’re acting directly to do something. That means most everything else not covered by the previous three moves. Your opposition may be active or passive. Trying to avoid a landslide, hacking a computer terminal, repairing an engine, training horses, organizing your troops, putting out a fire, leaping a crevice.

10+ You succeed in your attempt.

7-9 You succeed, but at a cost or with a complication.

In order to use this move, the character must be able to perform the action. So a normal person can’t flip a loaded semi-truck. An untrained person can’t perform brain surgery. A human can’t survive in the vacuum of space for hours, you can’t write the great Russian novel in an afternoon. Logic and drama should equally be your guide. Define success clearly. In some cases, succeeding may simply be mitigating or stalling.

Sometimes the Act moves involves aiding or setting up another person. In this case mechanical success confers a +2 Forward for that person. The cost on 7-9 may include getting more deeply caught up with the results of the other character’s action.

How you handle Harm depends on the genre and tone you’re going for. I’m going to present a simple version, but then I’ll talk about some other approaches.
  • Characters have seven boxes of Harm they can take.
  • Most attacks do 1 Harm. However strong and more potent attacks do +1 Harm. These are usually bigger, bulky, or non-concealable weapons.
  • Heavy armor can be worn, but this is also bulky and hard to hide. It reduces damage by 1.
  • Character are taken out when they have no Harm left. Circumstances determine what happens next. If they can be treated, they can wake up after a scene. Harm clears after a scene of recovery.
  • A character may reduce any damage taken down to 1 Harm, by taking the condition “Injured.” An injured character needs hospitalization and is open to GM Moves playing on how messed up they are. If an Injured character is taken to no Harm left, they’re taken out and Crippled.
Crippling either reduces the rating of a stat or puts a cap on one of the four basic Moves, meaning they can never get above a 9. The GM and player can negotiate what this means.
If you want more detail, create a weapon/attack list with weapons doing 1-4 Harm. Weapons may have narrative tags which the GM can use for complications and the player can use for narration (i.e. “Reach” for a Halberd, “Unwieldy” for a minigun). In this case, you’ll also want to have several degrees of Armor, say 1-3. Depending on how brutal you want that, you’ll want to increase the amount of Harm characters have.

At the start of the game players begin with three improvements. They can decide these at the start or in play. During play, players tick off advancement boxes. Every five advancement boxes they gain an improvement. Generally players should be moving at close to the same rate. If the group doesn’t want to track things, then the GM simply tells the group to take an Improvement after significant sessions.

Tick an advancement box when the following happens:
  • You botch a significant roll, 6 or less, which has serious consequences. This is a learning experience. You can do this up to three times per session.
  • Each player should write down a) a character cool moment they want to see happen and b) something their character’s really reluctant to do. When you do either of these, mark a tick and cross it out. At the end of the session, come up with a new one for each crossed out element.
  • If you come up with a new, non-character specific, setting-appropriate Custom Move for the game which everyone likes, mark a tick.
  • History use require it (see below)
  • The GM tells you to.

Players can create one of three things when they gain an Improvement: a Custom Move, a Skill, or Stuff.

On Terminology: I know Moves usually refer to a wide class of abilities in PbtA. In this case, I’m using the term Move to refer to the roll 2d6 +Stat structures. I know that’s an artless distinction, but everything about this is heavy-handed. The same with the term “Skill.” PbtA studiously avoids that. I’m using it because it has a fairly clear definition.

Custom Moves
Players can come up with Custom Moves. These follow the usual 10+ succeeds; 7-9 succeeds with cost formula. The player and GM work together to define the stakes, range, and limits of these moves. They should be cool and fit with the character’s concept. Sometimes the player may come up with a Custom Move that seems to fit the genre broadly, rather than being tied to a specific archetype. If so, add that to the general pool of moves, mark an advancement tick, and come up with another move.

Note: Players can come up with Custom Moves for themselves, others, or the group as a whole at any time. Write them down if everyone likes them (and take an advancement tick). General Custom Moves become available immediately, others have to be taken as Improvements.  

Variant Moves
As you can see above, the four basic moves cover a good deal of territory. These can be used as the basis for a character’s custom move. The general rule is that if the custom move covers a narrower range, the player may have the success create greater effect.

If your character’s good at doing something specific, you gain a +1 doing it. This should be a narrow range. Driving a car, climbing, surviving a hostile environment, spaceship gunnery. Skills never stack.

This is the “everything else.” It can be anything that a) isn’t a rolled move or b) isn’t a flat bonus to a narrow activity. It might be additional Harm or Armor, if you want to go down the combat route. It could be a gang of henchpersons you can send out to do things. It could be robotic legs which change the fiction of your character, allowing them to make crazier act moves. It could be owning a spaceship. It could be super-powers.

If something’s pretty potent, it should have a limit. It takes a Move check to use, always creates a costs, can only be used once per session, etc.

Advanced Moves
Monster of the Week has “advanced moves.” These give a special bonus for a roll of 12+ on a basic move. That’s an option, but should still have a defined range. For example, if I’m a Gun-Bunny, I might get a special bonus when I roll a 12+ while making a Fight move with my guns.

Emergent Play and Outright Theft
Go look at other PbtA rules and steal from those. Borrow, reframe, and modify bits from other games that work. The key concept is that the rules evolve just as the characters do.

Putting the Weight on the GM
If the GM’s comfortable with it, early on they may come up with the Improvements. Ask each play what they’d like their character to be better able to do better. Make them prioritize. Come back the next session with three things for each player: a Custom Move, a Skill, and a Stuff. This takes some work. You can usually build up a nice backlog early on, and later have the players come up with more of this once they’ve seen how it works.

At the start of the game, each player should establish a Positive and a Conflicted relationship with other players. Mark down +1 History with each of these characters. Positive relationships mean good feelings, background of assistance, infatuation, whatever. Conflicted relationships mean jealousy, hidden resentments, and past unforgotten slights.

During play, when you sacrifice (an action, a resource, an opportunity) to aid another character they add +1 to their History with you. The maximum a History can be is +3. If you ask a favor of someone else and they refuse, reduce your History with them by 1.

When you “Set Up” another character, you may roll your History with them instead of another stat. This reduces the History stat by 1 (and doesn’t increase the other person’s History). If this is the person you have a conflicted relationship with, you may reduce the History to 0 and gain an improvement tick.

Players may “burn” their History with someone if they have a +3. This may be done after roll is made and resets the History to 0. Describe how the player you have the History with is suddenly assisting you or intervening. The other player may agree, in which case you bump the success up one level Fail to Partial, Partial to Full. If they disagree, you gain no bonus, but may tick an Improvement box.

Note: This is the roughest part in my mind. No sure about how I want to handle this. May well depend on the genre more.

In addition to the usual options, gamemasters should follow these principles:

Negotiate Moves: When players suggest new Custom Moves, either for themselves or for the group, work with them. Get agreement about the appropriateness of it. Define the limits and successes. Be open to the possibilities. Once a Move has been created, accept that as part of the fiction.

Develop Improvements: If you’re building the improvements for the players, listen to what they want. Work to come up with clever versions. If players ask for something large, consider breaking it up into chunks. Provide hard choices: good things on both sides they’ll have a hard time deciding between. If a player’s identity changes through play, develop for that new identity, not the old one.

Protect Niche: When developing Improvements, make sure that new additions don’t invalidate earlier ones. Talk with players about what they see as their identity and try to support that.

Focus on Theme: Come up with game concepts related to the theme and actions, AS THE PLAYERS DEFINED IT. Often you’ll come up with Custom Moves which are mostly a reskinning of the Basic Moves. Why do this? Why not just use those? Because it adds to the flavor and feeling. At the same time, if you’ve come up with a Custom Move and players forget it repeatedly, talk about cutting it. 

Pick Appropriate Stats: Use the choices of stats in combination with the basic Moves to create flavor. Consider the players intent and description. 

Consider Balance: Don’t worry about balance. EXCEPT if a player or players seem bothered by the ease with which another player gets to do awesome things. Listen for those grumbles. Sometimes, it’s because a player has accidentally or deliberately built a character which doesn’t work in the context. They may be perversely stick with that conception. Engage them about that. Other times it’s because something’s broken. In this case, work to make other people cooler, rather than nerfing. That’s usually awful advice, but we’re talking about a short-term campaign. Who cares?

A New GM Move:
Introduce Custom Move: Just like the players, you may see a new custom Move which fits with the genre. Sketch it out and see what the players think. Discard if there’s no agreement.

Need to think about this part more. As I’ve sketched it here, this seems like something for a short term campaign. A true pick-up game might require more sketched out options (improvements) for players to pick from at the start. Have to narrow the choices to make entry easy.

Thoughts? Changes? Suggestions? Things I Missed?

Friday, November 20, 2015

Sky Racers Unlimited: Progress Report

We’re six sessions into our Sky Racers Unlimited campaign. The players have hired on as pilots aboard a massive sky vessel taking part in a transcontinental race. You can see the campaign world background here. In short it’s an early 20th Century disrupted by the rule of a cabal of Mad Scientists. They’re gone but the world has only just begun to recover. It’s a mix of Crimson Skies, Great Races, Alt History Post-Apocalyptic, Sky Captain, and general pulp tropes. We use another variant of Action Cards, our card-based & Fate-influenced house system. In particular we’re using minis for aerial combat, which I’ll come back to.

We did a session of character creation and then opened with the PCs aboard The Osprey De Acero. The party got called up to deal with a group of dragons! The monsters had torn through the “A” team of pilots. The PCs distinguished themselves, fighting off the last beasts, and found themselves promoted to the lead role. They also learned that one of the seven competing sky-ships, The Glorreiche Reise, had vanished on their trans-Atlantic crossing.

The party settled into their new role- establishing connections and meeting the crew. The PCs had all been orphans, most of them Demi-Humans who had grown up in a facility managed by Goldens House, who owned the sky-ship itself. So they had a shared background, although they’d had very different careers as a Courier, a Monster-Hunter, an Operative, and a Pirate Radio personality. The characters made some friends and a couple of enemies thourhg their interactions. The Captain made sure they participated in social events, including a grand feast with members of the Russian sky-ship.

The race got underway and the PCs flew forward recon scouting. Just before the lost city of New York, they picked up a weak SOS. It seemed to be land-based, but when they responded, the signal cut out abruptly. The frequency matched that of the Glorreiche Reise. They radio’d back and Captain Al-Taneen briefly debated. She decided to divert her vessel (and lose her place in the race) to support the group checking out what could be a trap. The players spotted a sky-bus from the lost Glorreiche Reise, captured by a group of Sky-Pirates. The party snuck into the clandestine airfield on foot and rescued the survivors. They then flew the slow passenger craft out, under heavy fire.

Back aboard the ship they learned much from the handful of survivors. In particular it seemed that the Glorreiche Reise had been done in by sabotage and that someone had alerted the sky pirates ahead of time. The players recruited the survivors into the crew, even a slightly shady fellow they roped in as a “spy” in the criminal underworld. They also noted that the Chinese sky-ship which had been ahead of them would have received the SOS, but had ignored it.

Next the Sky-Ship had to pick up the European Middleweight Champion and transport him to Baltimore. There he would fight the American Champ in a showdown intended to raise the the Osprey De Acero’s profile in the race and her massive ballroom and broadcasting facilities. That led to discovery of mafia involvement, killing an assassin, conflict in Baltimore with Spanish Revolutionaries, breaking into a Syndicate warehouse, and finally using their planes to conduct a daring rescue operation atop a speeding train.

The game’s gone well- I dig the setting and playing with the pulp tropes. The most significant change has been the miniatures and dogfighting mechanics. We’ve done two fights with that so far: a skirmish and an escort mission. I was really worried, but they’ve been fun and fast. They haven’t eaten up the whole session. Here's my original post on the system and my more final version and plane sheet
  • I need to glue the Crimson Skies planes to the X-Wing posts. The holes I drilled in them are decent, but come loose too easily.
  • Most of the mechanics work fine. Altitude’s a little wonky. I have it so players can set that when they move. That doesn’t quite work- in effect it means that altitude doesn’t have an impact. I think planes need to set that during maneuver picks.
  • A couple of plane systems seem fairly potent. I’m not sure if they’re too potent and need a fix. Turrets are awesome- and they make things much easier for positioning. Perhaps I need other arc options or raise the cost. Autocannons also change the dynamic, as they can still be effective without set ups.
  • The PCs haven’t taken too much catastrophic plane damage, so I can’t speak to those rules yet. I’ll be curious what it will be like if they have to do two fights in a row.
  • Moving the planes is fun and a real difference from the abstract play otherwise. And because it doesn’t take that long, it feels like a fun diversion rather than a slog.

Overall I’m quite happy with things.

Below are my notes on the vessels.

Captain: Krastovak Arceneux, Northland “Goblin” who fought his way to the top. Mean and dangerous.
Key Character: Danntje van Rijssen, engineer who legendarily escaped from the clutches of the Mad Scientist Avedis Sahakian, though the details are fuzzy.
Concept: A Dutch-Scandinavian Collective with a Strong Demihuman Revolutionary Contingent
Other Aspects: Resilient flight squadrons, most advanced scientific instruments, robotic drones, refitted vessel, secret project.

Captain: Budek Vazdoka, first among many with the grand White Russian contingent. Part of a group that wishes to install a dynasty over the current revolutionary set up.
Key Characters: Iris Piip, said to be a former Security Services officer and older than she looks.
Key Aspect: Russian Collective vessel sent as a Great Work to put quiet to the disturbances in the workers paradise.
Other Aspects: Nimble flight squadrons, strong connections, rowdy parties, vast wealth, brewing rebellion, problematic design, political infighting, hidden sections.

THE SHENGFENG (Victorious Wind)
Captain: Teng Zhiyuan (m), a veteran officer of the many conflicts among the warlords of China. Sided with the current Imperial fragment and gained great staus.
Key Characters: Feng Ah Cy (f), a daughter of the current Emperor of the Xiaong Dynasty, one of the largest provinces outside of Cabal control. Borders on Korea and holds portions of that.
Key Aspect: Many “Chinas” exist. The Warlord-Emperor of the largest province hopes that a victory here will demonstrate his region’s superiority.
Other Aspects: Fast vessel, robotics technology, quiet infiltrators, striking appearance, rivalry with the British.

Captain: Dame Cornelia MacArtain, veteran and decorated hero from the raid on Bryde Island.
Key Characters: Artgal O Tuathail (m), Deadly Pilot with Fake-Out Bionic Eye
Key Aspect: The English suffered the worst of the Aurichalc activities, leaving the other provinces in a postion of authority. The marriage of the Crowns of English and Scotland cemented this change in power. But many still harbor resentment and the efforts of the Century’s Verdict are to make clear a new era has arisen.
Other Aspects: Well Rounded Flight Squadrons, Wondrous Entertainments, Anarchist Underground, the Spoils of Bryde Island, Sense of Superiority

Captain: Sara Matsedisho, late changing Demihuman who already had demonstrated promise when she changed. She has made many sacrifices for her success and will not let them go to waste.
Key Characters: Sibren Kapic, the Wraith, legendary and mysterious arc pilot with a record 37 Kills in Continental skirmishes.
Key Aspect: A collective, trans-Atlantic effort. It joins together some of the new West African Industrial city states with some American East Coast communities. They hope that significantly increased travel speeds will raise up both economies.
Other Aspects: Deadly flight squadrons, American Connections, surveillance drones, pressure to succeed, experimental engines.

The lost German-Hindi vessel under Frang Stienbacher

Aspects: Solid and Responsive, Financed by Entertainments, Shake-Out Cruise, Spanish Investments, Resented by the Old Nobility
Captain Nur Al-Taneen
Aspects: As Good as Any Man, Cross-Dressing Muslim, Morality Dictates
  • Chief Engineer: Montrell “Pops” Häberli (m) Aspects: Precision trumps speed. What’s with all these Hotshots?
  • Helms: Valros Rannversdottir (f) Aspects: Sleepless and Steady
  • Lead Scientist: Domhnull DeFrietas (m) Aspects: I’m Sorry, We’re You Talking?
  • Reporter: Emilia Caetano (f) Aspects: In Your Face, Earned Her Due
  • Cruise Director: Joseph Porden (m) Aspects: Absolutely, I Can Get That for You
  • Purser: Odette Barbosa (f) Aspects: Eyes and Ears Everywhere
  • Surgeon: Adela Gibbs (f) Aspects: Youthful Replacement
  • Literati: Teo Lehmkuhl (m) Aspects: The New Mark Twain, Never Met a Drink He Didn’t Like
  • Marine: Jerome de Castro (m) Aspects: Hmm, Whatever.
  • Scout: Sokhatai Yul (f) Aspects: Experienced Mongolian-Korean Scout-Hunter, Don’t Cut Them Loose

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

The Year in Post-Apocalyptic RPGs 2014

Since I finished my history of Post-Apocalyptic RPGs, now I get to examine the games of 2014.  I'll be doing lists breaking down last year's releases in the genres I've previously covered (PA, Supers, Steampunk, Horror). I'll try not to go into as much detail with these entries; I want them to be a quick survey. The sheer volume of gaming goodness produced each year is staggering. And 2014's a year with some awesome releases (Mutant: Year Zero! ftw)

Of course Fallout 4 came out last week. Where others lost productivity, I gained it. My niece picked up a copy and has been playing non-stop. She's monopolized the TV, so I've been relegated to my office. Sherri sits and watches her because she loves the scrapping system. I'm not a big Fallout fan, but it's been awesome to see those who dig it celebrating the release. Some folks in my G+ feed have been commenting and narrating their travels. I love reading Jeremy Kostiew's tales of the wastelands. 

BUT the other big post-apocalyptic news is Into the Badlands, a martial arts series set in a weird, collapsed America. It looks awesome. And it almost makes me regret cutting the Cable cord. I want to watch the first episode online, but what if I get hooked? I hope Badlands ends up being amazing-- and that someone does a game up for it.  

This lists mostly core books, but also significant setting material or sourcebooks. I consolidate “spin-off” and miscellaneous supplements into a single entry. For example at the end you'll see round-up entries with post-apocalyptic elements. I try to list revised editions which significantly change a line or present a milestone. Generally I only include published material- print or electronic. I skip freebie or self-published games. I'm sure I've left something off without adequate reason; feel free to add a comment about a line I missed from last year. 

I only learned about this game via my friend Derek, who works for Eden Studios. He mentioned it a kid-friendly, card-driven rpg which had done hugely well for the company, selling through several printings. It was one of those moments where I realized how large and varied the RPG community could be- and also how niche. I'd certainly never seen Adventure Maximus! discussed in my gaming circles locally, in forums, in G+, or even on the rpg blogs and sites I follow. I hadn't seen it being brought up in lists of rpgs for kids. That cements my conviction that most RPG gamers blindly grope the elephant. We have a image of the community and "industry," but huge swathes of gamers and enthusiasts exist we never see, playing things we either don't know about or underestimate the popularity of.

Adventure Maximus! uses a simply and colorful system, combining unique dice and cards. It has a board-gamey feel, but offers an easy rpg, able to accommodate many players. Here's why it's on this list despite looking like a fully fantasy game. It takes place in a post-apocalyptic world called “Ex-Machina.” That setting’s post-apocalyptic in the same way that Adventure Time is. There's an old world lost and transformed by events. Relics remain, but they're secondary. Instead you act in a weird, wonderful, and wacky land. As an unabashed AT fan, I'm glad to see that approach.

A kitchen-sink game, with a magic/psychic/mutant-infested wasteland. Breachworld uses Mini 6, a streamlined adaptation of the old WEG d6 system. In the setting, gate technology leads to rips in the fabric of reality, resulting in disruptions and incursions. We’ve seen similar approaches with Rifts and the most recent version of Gamma World. Breachworld isn't as dark as the former or as gonzo as the latter. It came about through a Kickstarter campaign, and several pdf supplements have been released for it.

The Broken Earth Player's Guide came out in 2013, but the bulk of the core material appeared in ‘14. That earlier guide acted as a teaser; all of that material appears in the main volume. Broken Earth’s event itself seems nuclear, with people a generation or two out from the collapse. It includes oddness like psionics and mutations. Broken Earth offers a post-apocalyptic setting with a narrow geographic focus. It centers on the Midwest and a little bit of adjacent Canada. A bit over half the book's devoted to presenting the locations, along with plot points and NPCs. I will admit the "Kingdom of Geneva" and "Wizards of Geneva" entries made me groan a little. Broken Earth has two versions, one for Pathfinder and the other for Savage Worlds. All of the products (Players Guide, Core book, pdf supplements) can be picked up in either flavor.

As I've discussed in previous lists, much post-apocalyptic science fiction contains strong social and political commentary. Consider Canticle for Liebowitz, The Last Wave, or The Handmaid's Tale. That's less so now in modern zombie tales, where the message seems to be humanity sucks. Post-Apocalyptic RPGs have generally stayed away from these kinds of commentary. The most overtly satirical, Paranoia, is an unfocused firehose of Juvenal-esque commentary. You could point to a conservative streak in games like Twilight 2000 or Freedom Fighters, but that's obscured by pages of weapon listings.

Then there’s Dream Askew, from Avery Mcdaldno, creator of the amazing The Quiet Year. This short game lightly borrows mechanics from Apocalypse World. But it goes diceless and GMless. It focuses on questions of gender and sexuality in the aftermath. That’s the striking social question at the center of play. Dream Askew has a token exchange economy and handles relationship elements more lightly than Mcdaldno’s earlier design, Monsterhearts. I first heard of this when Kira Magrann cited it as a small game deserving of more love in a recent panel. Shawn McCarthy has an interesting review of Dream Askew on RPG Geek.

Inflorenza is a hefty, self-published French RPG (352 pages in A5 format). Google translates the subtitle to "Heroes Martyrs, and Bastards in the Forest Hell Millevaux." To unpack that I have to step back a little. Sombre: Fear Like in the Movies is a French generic modern horror system, released in 2011. It apparently came out in pieces using a magazine format. In 2013 Millevaux came out, a setting supplement for Sombre. It apparently showcases a deeply Metal post-apocalyptic world. le Grog says that the author calls that, "post-apocalyptic, forestry and sludgecore." I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT THAT MEANS. In any case, Millevaux released under a CC license. It contained background, GM advice, a scenario, and (of course) game fiction.

Which brings me back to Inflorenza. This seems to be a reworking and expansion of Millevaux. It breaks away from its roots as supplement for Sombre and offers a completely new system. It looks quite good and has a wealth of good material, despite the author apparently using the first person throughout. It looks grungy, but I can't really figure out the full premise. Here’s how Wikipedia describes “Sludgecore” aka Sludge Metal.

Another French post-apocalyptic rpg, set in Europe. The world has been devastated by environmental changes. Humans survive in enclaves, but the world outside is wild, dangerous, and transformed. Some lucky few have the skills and powers to pass through these dangers between enclaves. They must contend with the short and rapidly shifting six seasons of the world. The game fiction and mechanics tie to those seasons, with characters influenced by their birth aspect. Krystal seems to be a less grim, more optimistic setting. The game has been supported by a decent campaign module, Daughter of Winter, as well as a "Notebooks of Europe" series of pdf short supplements.

The English translation of the Swedish rpg, Mutant: År Noll. Modiphus brought this out in a lovely edition, with supplemental dice, cards, and a zone map available. It offers a wasteland future, with characters surviving in The Ark. Humanity has devolved and the world outside is lawless and chaotic. Characters have randomly generated mutations, but those can change throughout play. M:TZ has simple rules and organizes character picks a little like playbooks from Apocalypse World. The game splits between characters exploring to locate resources and PCs helping their enclave to grow. It bakes in community-building, even while having all the classic conflicts of this kind of setting. This is a great game and I highly recommend it.

If there's one thing Monte Cook Games can't be accused of, that's not supporting their game lines. 2014 saw MCG release a ton of Numenera products. Perhaps the most notable are the large volume supplements The Ninth World Bestiary, Numenera Character Options and Technology Compendium. They also released a host of great and interesting pdf only products like Strange Creatures of the Ninth World, Beyond All Worlds, and the awesome Injecting the Weird. They've covered an amazing range of ideas in these releases. Numenera has also seen support from third-party publishers, like Ninth World Assassins and Whisper Campaigns. I hadn't realized that other companies have made that move.

Another Kickstarter project, OmegaZone offers a Fate Accelerated setting. The publisher blurb's pretty evocative, "Post-apocalyptic Los Angeles meets Cimmerian Pulp Adventure with a heavy dose of Gamma World." It offers a weird, fallen world with uncertainty about just what happened and what the past actually was. While the material is built for Fate, it's open enough to be adapted to other systems easily. OmegaZone really consists of two parts. The Instant Setting Deck (54 cards) comes with a variety of mutation details, approaches values, and so on. Players use these to shape characters. It includes other material for things like gear, and the only complaint I've seen is that buyers want more of everything. The connected OmegaZone Guide's a 64-page digest. It talks about how to use the deck, gives ideas for options, and outlines the setting a little more. The guide pdf's a little pricey at $10- you're probably better off buying the physical copy for $15. The cards run about $12 and you can only get PoD blanks from DriveThru.

A Spanish rpg, based on the work of Luis and Rómulo Royo, Both are striking graphic artists, with styles that remind me of Heavy Metal, Brom, and Giger. Apparently there's a whole set of elements to this Plenilunio universe including comics and a novel. I think the setting’s actually called "Malefic"*. The game itself takes place in a devastated New York of 2033. The devastation comes from a supernatural war between...well, I;m not sure. Google translate didn't help me out too much here. Maybe between Angels and Demons? Maybe other gods involved? There's something about the Moon attacking. The game's a stand-alone core book with a simple d6 resolution system. No supplements have been released so far.

*There's a certain irony to that name given the cheesecake nature of much of the art.

jim pinto has been releasing Protocol Games, a series of small, tightly-themed rpgs with a shared system. Several of his 2014 batch have a post-apocalyptic themes. System Failure offers a dystopian world of rebel robots using humans to fuel themselves. The Plague takes players to a world where disease has ravaged the population. The game centers on the tension of survivors in the immediate aftermath dealing with isolation and despair. Zombieskin has a corrupted future caught in a war between mutants and zombies. Mutants must protect an untainted child without destroying themselves via their powers. pinto also took his earlier game George's Children and reworked for both a Protocol and a zero-prep "GM Zero" version. It covers a single day in the lives of children left behind after an apocalypse has killed off the adults. Another GM Zero game, The Carcass has the players taking on members of a dying tribe in the fallen wasteland.

Additionally pinto also created two post-apocalyptic Protocol series. Deadlands Tall Tales, as you can imagine, offers quick stories set in the Deadlands. It has six parts, each with a distinct theme. The post-world game series has the group playing themselves after the end of the world. That story's broken into three evolving parts.

12. Rotsystem
Or in English, “Rootsystem.” A Swedish post-apocalyptic rpg. It presents the age-old story: Man meet Nature, Man Ravages Nature, Nature Ravages Man, Man Retreats to Mega-Cities, Nature Takes Over. Within the cities, humanity battles against dominance by corporate overlords. In an interesting twist, the game also calls itself "retro-cyberpunk." In this world people have "no wireless networks, no satellites, no cell phones, no GPS." The Green World outside has a form of communication which can bore into and take over systems using those frequencies. So I think they have a more “hardware hacking” approach. I like that, and it suggests an interesting Dieselpunk tone. The artwork's striking as well. A cool done-in-one game which I hope will eventually see an English translation. The Swedish original can be purchase PWYW from RPGNow.

I missed this one on my 2012 list, the year they released the Rogue Mage Player's Handbook. That includes the rules for character creation and the basic system mechanics. The setting itself appears to be a Divine Apocalypse (plagues, disasters, ice age, and then angel wars). It reminds me of Eden's Armageddon, but further down the timeline. Rogue Mage is apparently based on a series of novels by "Faith Hunter," a prolific author I'd never heard of. They concern a neomage named "Thorn St. Croix."

Anyway...this adaptation's unusually based on Mutants & Masterminds 2nd edition. That's kind of cool since that's one of my favorite games. 2014 saw the release of the other core book, Rogue Mage RPG Game Master's Guide. This volume includes more details on the world, all kinds of monster/race guides, NPCs, and most of the setting detail. Misfit Studios has also released several pdf supplements for the line as well. If you're a fan of the books, you're probably already aware of this game.

The major reworking of the "World of Aden" setting for Pathfinder. That was originally 1996 WEG game based on an SSI computer game. As I said in my earlier comments, "World of Aden appears to be a sword & sorcery game with a Thundarr or even steampunk vibe to it. It’s actually built on a trilogy of novels I'm having a hard time finding anything about. Only one volume appears to be in print...with a review by Shawn Carman on Amazon. West End Games, in their explosion of licenses for MasterBook, went into production just based on those novels and a pair of games. In Aden There's an event called the Darkfall destroying civilization, making it an Aftermath game, but there's also hints of lost technology."

The difference in presentation and tone between the two versions remains hilarious. This new edition was created by industry veterans Shawn Carman (see above) and Rich Wulf. This is a 220+ page book, split evenly between PF mechanics and background for the setting. The company has supported the line with a variety of pdf releases. Thunderscape's gotten generally favorable reviews. If you're a Pathfinder enthusiast interested in weird fantasy with fallen tech, consider checking it out.

An interesting trade-sized Post-Apocalyptic game with a couple of uses. It offers your classic Mad Max style future (although without the cars as a central feature). You have wastelands and various communities and bands competing between them. The rules split between a gang-style miniatures game and an RPG. The minis game feels like Necromunda or Mordheim. You manage a group of warriors which gains experience through skirmishes. You have downtime and community management between sessions. The RPG side narrows things and offers skills and more rp elements. The group runs the PC band through adventures- aiming to gain territory, find lost tech, and support your enclave. That side's still very tactical, but looks like it could be a fun diversion for groups who like crunch. The company created a line of miniatures for the setting. However that seems fairly limited and my sense is that it didn't gain any real traction. Still worth checking out for fans of old GW style games and mini RPs like Inquisition.

Once again I'll point out that RPG Geek declined to list this as an rpg despite it actually being one and self-declaring itself as one. Because they're dumb. 

16. Miscellaneous: New Editions
Four games of note received new editions last year, some more substantial than others.

The Metamorphosis Alpha Deluxe Collector's Edition offered a lovely new reprint of the original game done as a hardcover. This includes material from Dragon Magazine, new stuff by James Ward, a new adventure, plus Ward's playtest notes from 1976. The campaign succeeded and even got a few stretch goals. A product aimed at the nostalgic collector.

The Degenesis Rebirth Edition came out in three formats: an Artist, Limited, and Premium edition. Marko Djurdjević reworks his "Primal Punk" game for a new era. Quick start rules for it appeared in '12. Apparently the English edition's available for pre-order. You can check out details on the site and what seems like clips from the Mutant Chronicles movie. Degenesis has the look of a property that the designer wants to expand into other media.

On the other hand Golden Age RPG (Second Edition) is a revision of an rpg based on a series of radio plays. It ditches most of the original system and rebuilds it with a new stand-alone engine: the Cascade Studios Role Playing System (CSRPS). The fallen fantasy setting remains intact. Lastly Dystopia Rising Live Action RPG Survivor's Guide seems to be a codification of the Dystopia Rising LARP rules, though not complete. That's apparently a licensed live-action setting, which they made into a tabletop game, and then rereleased as a LARP. The Dystopia Rising organization has been the subject of controversy recently, with questions arising from their handling of sexual assault allegations.

17. Miscellaneous: Supplements
Several existing lines expanded their range in 2014. Eclipse Phase released a half-dozen supplements. Some of these re-bundle older material and some offer short adventures. The most significant new release was the Morph Recognition Guide. Dystopia Rising also released several setting sourcebooks Diaries of the Rum Coast, covering the southern coast and Axis of Blood & Iron describing the Great Lakes region. Infestation served up a short module for the German RPG Godchild. Pelgrane concluded their Cthulhu Apocalypse line with the adventure Slaves of the Mother.

The French pseudo-Arthurian post-apocalyptic rpg Wasteland released Good Old Ingland. This setting book as you might imagine covers England and includes two modules as well. In adversary sourcebooks we got Mutant Bestiary One for Mutant Epoch and Heroes & Villains of Mega-City One for Judge Dredd. The former's as gonzo as the rest of the line, while the latter retreads earlier material. Rotted Capes released a module, Mind Games, for their zombie supers rpg. Finally while formatted as a series pitch for DramaSystem, Shikagek, is a short, generic PA campaign premise.

18. Miscellaneous: Fringe
Finally here are a few other smaller and/or pdf only releases I found:
  • Bounty Hunters of the Atomic Wastelands, a pulpy, drifters in the aftermath style game. Has a strong, self-declared B-Movie vibe. Uses a version of Fate.
  • Caustic Trollworld is a frame for Tunnels & Trolls 7e. The short booklet has a tainted world with survivors battling for survival.
  • The Dawn of Tomorrow is a tiny post-apocalyptic setting for the Adventurers! rpg.
  • Dogs of War, an adventure for something called the “Entropic Gaming System.” Seems to be set in a fantasy world after a devastating war.
  • Neon Sanctum Playtest Kit, a pnp kit for a "tactical card based role-playing game set in a deadly cyberpocalypse world." They attempt to Kickstart this in 2015, but were unsuccessful.