Sunday, April 23, 2017

What Do I Know About Reviews? Expanded Worlds (Cypher System)

So, if I review something that just arrived from a Kickstarter that I backed, that counts as lowering my RPG backlog, even if its brand new, right? I mean, that's like part of the virtual backlog that exists in superposition to my theoretical quantum gaming library, right?

What could I be babbling about this time? I'm glad that theoretically someone asked, because I'm going to give you the answer! I finished up my cover to cover read through of Expanded Worlds, a sourcebook for the Cypher System RPG, made some notes, and now it’s time to beat those notes into a review of sorts.

How Does It Look?

A lot of my modern gaming library is composed of PDFs these days, and even when I eventually get a physical copy of a book, I often jump on reviews when I only have the PDF. In this case, I received the PDF just a few days before the physical book arrived at my door, so I could review both the physical copy and the PDF at the same time.

The book is 160 pages, and if you are familiar with any Cypher System game (Numenera, The Strange, Gods of the Fall, Cypher System Core), you will recognize the formatting. It's very clean and easily readable, and has the same sidebar references and definitions that other books in the line have. For those that haven't seen a Cypher System book before, it's very professionally laid out and attractive, but doesn't have some of the stylistic flourish (parchment pages, background images, unique style format based on setting, etc.) that some RPG lines have.

The artwork is attractive, and much of it is brand new, highlighting the new genres, characters types, and creatures introduced in the book. Overall, it is a very readable and very attractive book that maintains the standards other books have set in the line.

Part 1: Characters

Part one is split into two chapters, one for character Descriptors, and another for character Focus. If you aren't familiar with Cypher Systems games, these are two parts of the "sentence" that makes up your character's base mechanics, i.e. you are a [Descriptor][Type] who [Focus]. If you want a loose analogy, Type is somewhat analogous to character classes in other games, and Descriptor and Focus are elements that modify that "class" with background information and additional choices. Descriptors include a section for how your character became involved in their first adventure, while Focus includes a section for how you are connected to other PCs in the group.

Many of both the Descriptors and Foci could be used in a wide variety of games, but if you peak ahead to the genres covered in this book, you can see why many of them were included. There are a lot of interesting rules interactions that I don't recall from other Cypher System books (although I could have easily have forgotten).

I like how some of the Descriptors play with GM Intrusions (like Chaotic or Heroic) to achieve a consistent theme. For example, Chaotic characters might get to reroll some results, but it will cost them a GM intrusion, and Heroic characters tend to have very big effects on intrusions, but those big effects tend to point them in the right direction of even more epic events yet to come. Another interesting element in the Foci section includes an ability that allows a PC to spend points from a pool AND XP to find an artifact. It's a powerful ability, so the XP cost is warranted, but I can't recall seeing that in other Foci up to this point.

Many of the Foci also include "Level X" allies or servants, and it’s almost a deceptively simple rule to introduce. Level doesn't matter when the PC rolls for their ally NPC, so it only comes up to determine how much punishment they can take, most of the time, and almost seems like a waste to assign them a level at all.

Both chapters are similar in structure, although the Character Focus chapter includes a chart showing the recommended genre to which the individual Foci might be grouped.

I don't have too much negative to say about these chapters, other than that some of the "higher concept" Foci seem stranger in less metaphysical games. I'm not talking about Foci that represent hunting the supernatural in a game with nothing supernatural--that's just a matter of not using that Foci in a genre that it doesn't work in. I'm thinking more along the lines of Finds the Flaw in All Things or Likes to Break Things, because while they seem straightforward, it’s easier to see breaking people's will and items as the same concept in a Mythological game more than in a real-world game. Not a major sticking point, just conceptually a bit of a stretch.

Part 2: Fantastical Genres

This section contains chapters on Post Apocalyptic, Mythological, Fairy Tale, and Childhood Adventure genre games. Each chapter has some discussion of the genre and what is common to the genre, as well as some tools to help tell stories in that genre.

The Post Apocalyptic genre introduces the Morlock and Roach Descriptors. The Mythological genre introduces Hellborn and Giant Descriptors, the Fairy Tale section introduces the Changeling Descriptor, and the Childhood Adventure section includes rules for applying modifiers to characters to represent different ages, if players don't all want to use the Young Descriptor in the first section.

Even if you are well acquainted with these genres, each section does a good job of calling out influences (some recent), defining the biggest tropes, and giving advice as to how often to introduce some story elements, what to have happen very rarely for effect, and what to completely avoid.

Straight out of the gate you could probably randomly generate Childhood Adventure or Post Apocalyptic adventures before you even did much in the way of defining a setting, if you assumed that your Childhood Adventure world has the supernatural as an element, and your Post Apocalyptic setting will look a bit like Fallout.

The weakest of all the genres presented, to my taste, is probably the Mythological genre, just because there is a little less advice on structure, what to include, and what not to include, and more about using power shifts and "going big." Even then, it offers some interesting tools, such as the new Descriptors.

Part 3: Gritty Genres

For my money, this is probably the weakest part of the book. It’s still a fun read, and there is some worthwhile information included, but the "genres" it tries to define are way too broad to do much with the amount of space the alloted for them.

The individual chapters are Historical, Crime and Espionage, and Hard Science Fiction. None of these have specific Descriptors in them, although Crime and Espionage and Hard Science Fiction have random tables of events that might occur in stories.

The Historical chapter has some interesting sections on time periods that make for good campaigns, many of which have been highlighted as much in the past. Despite having some good suggestions, they don't give a lot of detail. There are also suggested name lists that are very short, and I feel that space might have been better utilized providing some references to more detailed treatments on the historical period being referenced.

Crime and Espionage does a slightly better job of defining some tropes and giving some structure and practical campaign ideas, but the ideas feel very scattered, since the chapter wanders from telling police procedural stories, Bond movies, Bourne movies, and maybe playing criminals.

The best chapter in this section for me was the Hard Science Fiction chapter. While it’s a very broad topic, they do a much better job of identifying tropes and story structure, and giving some rules suggestions to reinforce the feel of hard sci-fi stories. In fact, the more narrative elements, like distances not being precisely measured, helps, because instead of having people argue about exact distances ballistics would be affected by gravity, for example, you are focusing on the fact that it would, in fact, be reduced. Additionally, I love the modified version of the Horror rules from the core rulebook applying to long space journeys to represent the time, distance, and lack of support a crew has on trips.

This section was enjoyable to read, and has a lot of good ideas, but overall, it just feels like practical application at the table is lacking, compared to the previous section.

Part 4: Gamemaster Section

This section is split up into Creatures and NPCs. I always find these sections interesting in Cypher System books, because at their base, you can essentially define an NPC or creature very quickly just by assigning a level, which means in some ways the books have to "work for it" to justify a full entry on a creature, providing roleplaying hooks, tactics, tailored intrusions, and new ways to use the rules.

Some of the rules interactions that set these creatures apart this time around include attacks that move characters down their vitality tracts regardless of the number of points in their pools, attacks that target multiple targets, and the special damage rules for creatures like the hydra and how it plays out in the game.

There is a good thematic range for the creatures, covering the genres detailed in the book well. Some of my favorites are the Crucible (out of control bio computer), Erlking (exiled fey creature trapped in a plant body), Cryptic Moth (creepy sapient super moth), and the Shoe Thief (I'm not going to explain, just read it).

NPCs are less exciting, but practical and useful for the genres mentioned. They don't have as many twists on the rules as the creatures, but there is some solid advice as to where and when to use them in the game and how they tie into the genres covered.

The Upside Down

The biggest downside is that the genre chapter attempts to bite off huge chunks of content with defining Historical and Crime and Espionage as genres, and getting a bit lost in providing guidance to running those gigantic "meta-genres."

Police procedurals alone could have taken up a chapter the size allocated to the Crime and Espionage sections, and the chapter barely touches on the difference between a Bond style spy adventure and a Bourne style adventure. For a game that has often mentioned that discovery and exploration should be at least as important as combat, they fail to give much in the way of guidelines for espionage stories where gathering information and staying under the radar are way more important than ever getting into a gun fight.

Eggo Waffles

The new Descriptors and Foci are widely useful for a variety of games using the system, especially the core Cypher System and The Strange. Several of the genre chapters have enough tools to just randomly generate some sessions if you aren't too worried about deep stories. The book even touches on genres that have only been lightly treated in The Strange, meaning that you virtually have a few new recursions to work with from this book by slapping a name on the world using the rules presented here.

Surviving the Demogorgon

Despite being a bit too ambitious with some of the genres presented in the "gritty" chapter, Expanded Worlds is a solid toolbox of material for the Cypher System RPG. Not only is it going to be something beneficial to just about any Cypher System game, it's going to be a solid resource for The Strange as well, and to a lesser extent for both Numenera and Gods of the Fall. It’s an entertaining read, provides definite value for people playing or running the game, and it puts new twists on the rules in several places. Recommended for anyone even generally interested in Cypher System games.

**** (out of five)

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Recalculating . . . Recalculating . . . Alternate Route Found

Any long time readers of this blog will know that I don't regard my own insights here as anything special. There are many, many people that are much more insightful, and are much better communicators. At best, I'm hoping that I might accidentally say something useful that the reader hasn't run across before. At worst, I'm hoping that when I mention people far better than me at game commentary, that those august sages will get even more attention than they have previously.

I, personally, love games. Maybe it's the pent up frustration of my youth, where very few people cared about the things I cared about. I had few people that I could talk about my geeky passions with, so with the advent of the internet and unlimited geek conversation, I wanted to talk to people about things I loved.

That said, I also have had a constant fiendish creature sitting on my shoulder telling me that no one actually cares what I have to say. It tells me that if I don't offer something of value, I am actively causing harm to the greater gaming and geekdom community, because they could be reading or interacting with better, more interesting, more useful geeks than me.

It also tells me that my desire to have communications with other geeks is purely selfish, and so, barring adding something useful to the conversation, I don't have a right to expect conversation or interaction. That if I don't want to be selfish and greedy, I need to be quiet and let the competent people talk.

Now, the more rational part of my brain often tells me that it's not selfish to put something out there and see if anyone wants to interact with the thing I posted. They can chose to engage or not, and it's not my fault if they "waste" time on my efforts.

Then, sometimes, there is a perfect storm that just breaks down all of my rational thinking, and lets the nasty little imp have complete influence.

Keep in mind, I'm not blaming anyone else for my personal hang-ups, but in short order, I listened to a podcast about gaming that causally mentioned gamers "taking gaming too seriously" by spending too much time listening to podcasts about playing and running games, reading GMing advice books, etc. Then I ran into a gaming blog entry that essentially talked about how worthless most posts about gaming advice or observations were because they were nothing new. It also mentioned how bad most people are at running their games. Finally, I went off, fully defensive, on another member of a gaming community that I greatly enjoy and respect. I didn't call names or anything, but I did assume his personal motivations without carefully reading what he had actually said in a post.

I felt terrible when I realized that I hadn't carefully considered what was said. That's when it all came rushing back at me.

  • I don't say anything worthwhile to anyone in any gaming community. It's all been said before, and better than what I can say.
  • I run mediocre games, and there are so many GMs better than me at what I do.
  • I read and listen to a ton of GMing advice, but I never get any better at what I do, so I'm wasting a lot of time and energy.
My initial impulse was to delete the blog, delete my YouTube channel, and force myself to quit posting on social media about games of any sort.

I calmed down a little, but realized I needed to get a grip on myself.

Now that I have had a good night's sleep, and have apologized to the gamer and the community that saw my lack of control on display, I have a better handle on myself. I have gained a bit more perspective.

If I'm not feeling like I have enough time for reviews or game journals, I need to not feel like I'm failing anyone. I need to make sure I'm having fun running the games I'm running first and foremost. Some of the things I post will be for fun, and while I hope people get some use out of those things, that can't be my primary focus. I'm not the best at what I do (sorry Logan), but I do enjoy what I'm doing, and it's a part of who I am.

If you are a long time reader, you've seen me go through this before, and I apologize. Sometimes I go through thoughts like these when times get tough, but ironically, sometimes when life is too good, I start to have those same thoughts. I've got a great wife, a really good job, and two fun gaming groups. I'm a member of multiple great gaming communities online, and it's a great time to be a gamer. It's not the gaming environment I deserve, but it's the gaming environment I need (in a good way).

And to complete the Nolan Bat-movie quotes, you either die the moderator, or live long enough to be the problem child. You just adopted the internet, I was born to it? Okay, I'm done.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Downtime In a Galaxy Far, Far Away

I haven’t mentioned it yet here on the blog, but I’m really enjoying the Tales from the Hydian Way podcast, a podcast dedicated to discussing the Fantasy Flight Star Wars RPGs. In their most recent episode, the subject of downtime came up, and that discussion spurred some ideas in my mind.

So How Long Are We Talking, Here?

My thoughts are that—as presented—these rules for handling downtime work best when looking at gaps that take from weeks to months in time. If you want years to pass between sessions, you might look at repeating this process up to three times, moving from each character in a series of rounds.
What Will You Do?

In general, to represent significant downtime, present the characters the amount of time that has passed between sessions. Ask them what they plan to do with that time, but make sure to mention any proscriptions that their chain of command might put on them. In other words, if they work for a specific crime lord, they might be told to avoid another crime lord’s territory. If they work for the Rebel Alliance, they might be assigned to a specific system or sector.

If the description incorporates their Duty, Obligation, or Motivation, they should gain 5 XP for the downtime. Essentially, this is a “good roleplaying” award. If the description includes Motivation + either Duty or Obligation, you may allow them to make a relevant skill check, taking into account the Duty or Obligation at play.

If the check is successful, you may want to add 1 to their Duty for each success, or subtract 1 from their Obligation. Alternatively, if the PC only narrates their downtime in light of Duty or Obligation, but not motivation, you may ask them if they want XP or a chance to change their Duty or Obligation score.

The difficulty of this check so be in proportion to the size of their Duty or Obligation. Larger debts are hard to pay off with minor side jobs, and it’s more difficult to impress your commanding officers with routine missions.

Duty or Obligation Score
Difficulty of Check
20 or lower
Impossible (must spend a Destiny point to attempt the check)

Force and Destiny characters will have a harder time, because Morality isn’t something that should be casually modified based on a narrative. Even the best player is going to have a hard time assigning themselves Conflict in a downtime narration, and Conflict really should come from active roleplaying.

Instead of using the above system, if a Force and Destiny character narrates downtime that incorporates their Motivation, the gain 5 XP. If they incorporate their Morality into the narrative of their downtime, the GM may grant them 10 XP instead.
Inspiration for Downtime Activities

Another topic that the Tales from the Hydian Way episode touched on was inspirations for the types of downtime activities a character might engage in. While Star Wars sources are good to look towards, I think it’s also helpful to look at wider narratives with similar themes.

  • Any show that deals with bounty hunters, professional criminals, or frontier living might give inspiration for downtime for an Edge of the Empire game. This means that westerns, crime dramas, and heist based media could provide inspiration. Watching a show like Leverage could provide context for the kinds of things professional criminals do when not working a job, for example.
  • Any show that deals with professional military or espionage will be a good inspiration for Age of Rebellion characters and downtime.
  • Force and Destiny characters and their downtime is probably best modeled by watching shows that deal with martial arts training. This is particularly true where the master and student dynamic is emphasized, or where the martial artists are traveling from place to place. The Tales from the Hydian Way mentioned Avatar the Last Airbender, but many animated series exist that examine martial artists in training, and even martial artists with supernatural powers.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

What Do I Know About Reviews? Adventures in Middle-earth Loremaster's Guide (OGL 5e)

After reading through my copy of the Adventures in Middle-earth Player’s Guide, it was with great anticipation that I started my long wait until I could dive into the Loremaster’s Guide. I skimmed it as soon as I received my PDF, but I’ve only recently been able to give it a cover to cover read.

The Pages Between the (Virtual) Cover
This review is based on the PDF of the product, which is all that is available currently (March 2017). The PDF is 160 pages long, which includes an errata page for the Player’s Guide, a multi-page index, an ad for another Cubicle 7 product, and the OGL itself.

The pages have the same wood and brocade borders at the top and bottom, and parchment colored pages. The artwork continues to be of the professional, but more simple design that most of the Tolkien products (that aren’t associated with the movies) have utilized. There are common assets with The One Ring line, although I can’t speak to the number of reused pieces without going through all the products in the line. Given that this is essentially an alternate way to experience the same “setting within a setting” that is defined by The One Ring, this makes perfect sense. The overall appearance is impressive.

Setting and the Tale of Years
The opening of this book details the timeframe that the game is attempting to detail—the years between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. The core products also assume the Wilderlands setting, essentially the region traversed by Bilbo and the dwarves in the events of The Hobbit.
Just about every region that this section touches on has adventure hooks, and they do a very good job of coming up with exactly what adventurers would be doing in the setting. They feel like worthwhile enterprises without becoming alternate quests to destroy Sauron a few decades early, and they help to highlight how wide a region just this section of Middle-earth is.

Lake-town gets an especially large section, as it serves as an example of where to start out new adventures in the game. The various sections of the town itself also have a few adventure hooks sprinkled throughout. The only real downside to these hooks is that they do feel distinctly low to mid-level in nature. I’m sure this is somewhat intentional, since Cubicle 7 has longer term campaign adventures coming out for the system.

Before the Game
This section gives a few guidelines for how a Middle-earth centric game might be different than other fantasy games involving levels and adventurers. Essentially it points out the underlying themes in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings explicitly and mentions having PCs operating as agents of a patron to point them in the right direction from time to time.

The Adventuring Phase
This chapter has some useful information, but it’s oddly named and organized. In game, the Adventuring Phase is the part of the game where people travel from place to place and have what would be in D&D terms the main adventures happen, while the Fellowship Phase is the section that is largely guided by the players that explains what the characters do in their downtime. However, this chapter has general rules information, Loremaster advice, and optional rules. I mean, I guess all of this is more relevant to the Adventuring Phase of the game than the Fellowship Phase, but it’s also pretty much general Loremaster information.

The first half, called The Loremaster, deals with running the game, best practices, how to evoke the feel of Middle-earth, and a discussion of Tolkien canon and how to rely on things like unreliable narrators to give you some leeway in your game (for example, The Hobbit is essentially a translation of Bilbo’s account of the journey, so it may not be 100% accurate).

After mentioning that you should be flexible with canon, however, there is an area of this advice I find I disagree with. They mention that the person in the gaming group that is the most well versed in Tolkien-lore should probably be the Loremaster. I cannot more vehemently disagree with this. In fact, there is one paragraph where this advice is given, and the sections on Tolkien canon and getting the feel of the setting right seem to pretty much throw this idea right out the window.

The second half, called Adventuring Rules, is a bit scattershot as well. It is all valuable information, I’m just not sure why it is included in this chapter, organized this way. There is information on unsuccessful journeys (further elaborated on in the next section), Inspiration, Multiclassing as an optional rule, and optional Cultural Virtue rules for three of the virtues presented in the Player’s Guide. I didn’t go back to look at the original forms when reading this, but having optional versions without explaining why you may want to use this version of the virtue seems to contribute to the random feel of this section of the book.

Journeys Expanded
As you might expect, this section elaborates on the rules for Journeys presented in the Player’s Guide, and gives some more Loremaster facing rules to modify those rules to a variety of needs presented by a given adventure.

One question I heard when presenting Journeys to my players in a standard D&D game was “what happens if we end a Journey early?” which is one of the things this chapter addresses, along with interrupting journeys with scripted encounters to further the plot, and a discussion of how to modify the results on the table for specific Journeys in an adventure.

This section is a nice elaboration on the basic rules presented in the Player’s Guide. There is still a bit of advice I disagree with. When interrupting a Journey with a scripted “plot advancing” encounter, the section advises the Loremaster to roll some dice and act as if this was a random result that came up as part of the Journey’s normal progression.

I’m increasingly less happy with GM advice that tells you to ignore rules and deceive players. It hearkens back to a time when the GM role was at least partially adversarial, and games pretended to model real life with their rules, so dice rolls on table had to appear inviolate. If you are running the game, and you feel this encounter needs to happen now, run it. If the PCs think it’s on the table, fine. Tell them or don’t, but I’m not sure you need advice in a GM section to say to fake a die roll and act like it was all random.

Despite all of that, this is section does a good job of more fully explaining the Journeys rules and how and why they are structured the way they are.

Non-Player Characters and Audiences Expanded
When I first read the Audiences section of the Player’s Guide, I was a little disappointed, because the system felt like a standard version of a D&D “Influencing Attitudes” chart, with the addition of shifting the chart down by one row if the PCs blow their Cultures check.

This section goes a long way towards making the Audience rules feel a lot more like what I was expecting out of them. There are example NPCs given, and those NPCs have things they expect, and things they want, and depending on the approach the PCs take, they get bonuses or penalties to their final checks.

While I’m not normally a fan of lots of negatives and bonuses being tallied up on the same roll, when it comes to a social encounter, it makes a lot more sense than in combat. It also introduces the element of finding out more about the NPC to avoid what offends them, play up what they like, and offer the right gifts (if any).

NPCs have multiple items that might give a bonus or a penalty, and you can’t hit the same “note” more than once. For example, if the NPC values bravery, and one PC favors bold action, the final roll will get a +1, but if someone else also talks about facing down danger, they don’t get an additional bonus. If that next PC mentions that there may be treasure involved, however, and that’s something the NPC is interested in, that’s another +1.

In addition to these items that might grant bonuses or penalties to the check, several NPC types that the PCs may negotiate with are fully fleshed out with stat blocks. Since some of these include archetypes like Thug or Outlaw, this means they have some utility beyond just the Audience section of the rules.

Adversaries and Battle
This section is a treasure trove of rules widgets even if you aren’t running a Middle-earth based game. While there isn’t a huge range of creatures given (multiple variations of orcs, wolves, spiders, bats, vampires, werewolves, and trolls), the sections on scenery in combat and creature actions and abilities are amazing.

Essentially scenery in combat involves creating “templates” for different battle scenes. For example, if there are lots of twisted roots, it may not count as difficult terrain, but it may cause you to make a dex check to avoid sprawling on the ground if you move more than 10 feet in a round. You may cause spores to shoot out of mushrooms you disturbed that could impair you, or you might gain levels of fatigue from fighting in certain terrain after a few rounds of combat.

Creature actions and abilities are similar to monster templates. A monster might be larger than normal for its kind, and a creature that doesn’t normally have a bite attack might have one because of its individual oddities. Some traits are general for all potential adversaries, and others are particulars that can be added by type, with a few special actions reserved only for orcs and goblins, and others for trolls, still more for spiders, and some for wolves.

This section wisely advises you to avoid more than a few extra elements in a scene that have rules elements attached to them, and to avoid adding too many extra abilities to a monster. They also mention that you can have extra abilities “shut off” under certain conditions, such as once a creature takes damage, or once they no longer outnumber their opponents.

While I know this RPG and The One Ring are firmly focused on recreating the feel of the books, I couldn’t help but notice that you can very easily create unique orc captains and chiefs not unlike Shadow of Mordor using these rules. They even mention that if an orc escapes the party, it might come back later with one of these abilities added to their stat block.

Wondrous, Legendary, and Healing Items
This chapter has an odd opening. I realize that zooming out and thinking about it, it is addressing that in some forms of d20 level based fantasy gaming, you can get gold and use that to buy magic items. But without directly addressing that, jumping into the opening topic is a little strange.
That opening topic is kind of a mixed message. While it’s appropriate to have characters that are motivated to be treasure hunters, wanting gold is something you are to teach the players is wrong, because Thorin and Smaug. I guess.

I understand making sure that players are--at their core--heroic, even if motivated by wealth. I’m not sure you need to make them think ever getting monetary reward is bad. I think it’s one place where the book overcorrects for trying to make sure they aren’t just “D&D with Tolkien proper names.”

The section on wondrous artefacts is fascinating in its open-ended nature. Essentially, they give a bonus to a skill check, and maybe even advantage on those checks, depending on how powerful they are. However, there are guidelines for spending hit dice to power more impressive effects when successfully making a check. Have a magical ring of Animal Handling? Spend enough hit dice, and you may be able to convince a horse to ride back to Lake-town with a scroll in its mouth and drop it at the feet of an important NPC to warn them of impending doom.

I like the feel of the Legendary Weapons and Armour section. In general, you could give PCs a powerful ancient weapon or shield at low level, and its abilities “grow” with them, with just the base levels available to start. This removes the need for multiple items, and gives them a reason to hang onto Orc’s Lament for their entire career.

That said, some of the example traits can get fiddly. “In this instance, the bonus is this, but under this circumstance, it turns into this, but then in this specific circumstance, it is this plus a wider crit range, but only at this particular time.” It feels a bit cumbersome to track. Given the fact that PCs won’t be tracking spell effects most of the time, this might free up some cognitive space.

While those stacked abilities may feel a bit fiddly, I’ll certainly give them credit that they feel very Middle-earth. There are some qualities that are native to Numenorean items versus qualities that Elvish items would have, which are distinct from qualities that Dwarven items would have.

There is also a section that expands on the healing items presented in the Player’s Guide. This adds a few more options for items that are rare, but might be given as a gift from the appropriate source. These are items that can heal and remove fatigue under the proper circumstances.

The Magic of Middle-earth
This section discusses what magic usually looks like in Middle-earth, how powerful it usually is, and who typically wields it. They describe the tone and feel that you should aim for with overtly magical effects, to keep within the guidelines provided in the source material. There is also a list of Middle-earth appropriate spells from the core 5th edition D&D rules.

The base assumption is not that you will allow spellcasting classes in the game (although it mentions that you can do this if you want to), but to give an idea of what NPCs or magic items that produce more traditionally defined effects might do, without going too far afield of Tolkien’s stories.

The Fellowship Phase
Unlike the Adventuring Phase, this section stays focused on that aspect of the game. It explains how the Fellowship Phase is more player driven, how long they should last in game, what sanctuaries are, and what patrons are for. There are also some optional undertakings--special rules elements that a PC can work on during the downtime of a Fellowship Phase.

Much of this advice is about the pros and cons of having people go back to their homes during a fellowship phase, coming together at a sanctuary for the start of a new adventuring phase, and what it means to get a patron that can point them in a specific direction. There is also a sample of important NPCs in the setting that can serve as patrons in the game.

I personally like the emphasis on patrons, not only because they are NPCs that can direct PCs in a given direction, but because it is a tie to the setting, as well as consistent with the source material. Gandalf serves as a patron in both The Hobbit, and the beginning of The Lord of the Rings, nudging the characters in a direction, even if they move that direction in their own time and in their own way.

The World is Indeed Full of Peril and in it There are Many Dark Places
There are a few places where the advice seems a bit strange, especially in the modern era of RPGs. Some of the organizational choices are a bit confusing. Some rules reintroduce the multitude of minor pluses and minuses largely removed from 5th edition.

Yet Dawn Is Ever the Hope of Men
The rules do a wonderful job of utilizing 5th edition rules like Inspiration, Fatigue, and Hit Dice in new ways. The scenery in combat and creature abilities and actions section is a treasure trove for any D&D 5th edition game. All the things that I was hoping would get more detail from the Player’s Guide have gotten those details. The rules have a firm grasp on the feel of Middle-earth, and the campaign sections have some great adventure hooks and advice on how to structure the game to support play in the setting.

The Tide Has Turned!
If you are a Tolkien fan that wants to experience the setting through the familiar lens of D&D, this is a great resource (coupled with the Player’s Guide). If you are a D&D player running games, and want some solid advice on how to utilize more subtle magic, or you want some great rules to supplement combat and monsters, this is a source you may want to check out as well.

**** (out of five)

Thursday, March 23, 2017

What Do I Know About Reviews? Worlds Numberless and Strange (The Strange RPG)

Monte Cook is a well recognized name in the RPG industry, and when he launched the Numenera RPG in 2013 . . . I kind of paid attention to it. It sounded interesting, but at the time, I didn't jump on board. Both the setting and the mechanics sounded intriguing, but not in the way that forced me to drop everything and check it out.

Then in 2014, another game using the same core mechanics, the Cypher System, came out. That game was The Strange, and it was the brainchild of Bruce Cordell (another well known name in RPGs). It didn't take too long for The Strange to become one of those RPGs for me. And by that, I mean one of those RPGs that I really have a lot of affection for, that I have never gotten the chance to play or run.

The Strange itself posits a sort of sub-space underneath reality, called The Strange, and inside The Strange floats multiple pocket dimensions. The kicker is, the pocket dimensions tend to get warped and modified to resemble humanity's imagination, so most of these pocket dimensions begin to take on the traits of various fictions throughout time.

Some human beings have the ability to focus really hard on these pocket dimensions in order to send their consciousness into them, and upon arriving, the new reality essentially builds them a new body that makes sense in the context of the rules of the fiction that inspired the pocket dimension. The personal travelling remembers who they are, but they also pick up some clues about what the "theme" of the dimension is and what the general rules are.

That is the kind of setup that hooks me. It's the best part of stories like Dr. Who or Sliders, with just a little bit of a twist. Anything human beings may have imagined throughout history could spawn it's own pocket dimension to be visited.

I'm not reviewing the game itself here, but I'm putting all of that preamble forward to warn you--I'm a total mark for the setting. Please take anything I say in this review with that in mind.

What I am reviewing in this post is Worlds Numberless and Strange, a book of recursions (those pocket dimensions I mentioned above) for The Strange, to supplement the material presented in the core book.

How Does It Appear In This Reality?

The PDF of this product (it is available in print as well) has 226 pages, with the last few pages containing ads for other Cypher System products. The artwork is a mix of re-purposed artwork from other Cypher System products and artwork used to illustrate new recursions and elements presented in this book. The art is very polished, high end RPG industry standard. While there is nothing wrong with re-purposed artwork in an RPG line, it makes a kind of thematic sense in The Strange, given how much the setting deals with iconic elements and archetypes.

Much like Fate products, Cypher System books have a very clean and consistent look to them across RPG lines, and they tend to look very polished and lack overtly artistic flourishes while still being attractive. Monte Cook's self-published books have often had wider side margins that contain things like definitions and page references, to cut down on page flipping and to ease overall use. Monte Cook games continues this tradition, providing definitions, factoids, and page references in the side margins of the book.

Overall, its a nice balance between readability, functionality, and artistry.

Part One

The first section of the book provides an introduction, a primer on what is and isn't part of the science fiction of The Strange, and ideas on creating recursions from popular media.

While many of the concepts addressed in this book were touched upon in The Strange core rulebook, I have to admit that giving the concept of recursions it's own book, without the added extra focus of introducing factions, general RPG advice, and the core game rules, really does a lot to make some of the concepts in the core rulebook make more sense.

Part Two

This section of the book has chapters expanding the two most well known recursions in the game, another section that introduces recursions in the same detail that many of the recursions in the main book received, and a section that gives a quick "soundbite" version of many more recursions. The recursions in Chapter 6 are often quirkier than the more fleshed out recursions in Chapter 5.

I have to admit, I have never really been able to warm up to Ardeyn, and page count dedicated to it doesn't do much to capture my attention. It may just be my personal tastes, but for a setting that is suppose to be seeded by a fantasy MMO, it doesn't work for me. The setting feels more like it is trying really hard not to be a standard fantasy setting, while still being a fantasy setting.

Many of the recursions in the setting embrace their tropes and either throw a twist to the setting or mash it up with another genre, with the real gameable material coming from the fact that the world isn't real, and outside forces may be manipulating the tropes. It may have been fun to have seen a fantasy setting that leaned hard into MMO tropes, but instead, Ardeyn is presented as a distinct fantasy setting, and I guess that creates a disconnect in my mind that makes it hard for me to warm up to the recursion.

Chapter 5, however, is pure gold for me. In here we get a ton of new recursions. Not all of them work for me, but most of them do. Nearly all of the recursions have enough plot hooks in them that players will have a reason to go there, they will have reasons to deal with plots "within" the fiction, and some elements that involve a plot from "outside" of the fiction. This takes the form of other organizations that have established agents in the recursion or awakened natives.  Of the total page count, 134 pages are found in this section.

The fiction that populates this section is drawn from sources like stories of Atlantis, Arthurian legends, Nazis winning WWII, Halloween towns, lost world dinosaurs, shrinking down to live inside another organism, superheroes, alien contact with modern society, Star Wars, Big Trouble in Little China, Miyazaki movies, Samurai movies and anime, epic fantasy novels, and zombie apocalypse stories. That's a pretty wide range of recursions to visit. Not only does that provide a lot of play space, but each recursion has a selection of artifacts thematically appropriate to that setting included at the end of the entry.

Chapter 6 is filled with quirkier settings with shorter write ups than those that appear in Chapter 5. Some feel similar to those recursions, in that they come from identifiable fiction with a twist here or there, and some are even directly connected to other recursions (such as Avalon, which touches multiple Arthurian themed recursions). Others are just really weird. Like recursions where you turn into a liquid or office supplies.

There are a lot of good ideas for places to visit in this section. There is a really interesting concept of a new faction introduced in the book and how they use a particular recursion as a sanctuary for agents that suffer from PTSD, and other similarly interesting ideas. That said, more than any other chapter, I wish we could get a bit more "meta" commentary on how these "recurions-lite" are meant to be used. Some don't seem like they should actually be visited, but are they suppose to exist as horror stories told to agents of various recursion travelling groups, or is the GM suppose to come up with some clever way of using what amounts to cosmic dead ends?

A good GM is going to come up with their own answers. In this day and age, especially with the amount of forward thinking advice that the Cypher System games tend to provide for people running the game, it almost feels like a bit of a throwback that we can't break the "in game" presentation of information to directly address GMs. It would be nice to give them a head's up on what the best way to use some of the quirkier recursions might be.

Part Three

This section of the book introduces new foci for players, and stats for creatures first mentioned in this book. Essentially, this is where the new mechanics are introduced in the book, but it does make me wonder--if the mechanics are reserved for this section of the book, why do the artifacts go with the individual recursions? It's not a major problem, and I can understand that some artifacts aren't just thematically appropriate, but very specific to the setting, but the organizational division still feels a little arbitrary to me.

Several of the Foci are very specifically keyed to some of the recursions introduced in the book. For example, in the recursion where you are humans shrunk down inside another organism, you can actually become a bacterial creature instead. In the Halloween recursion, you can become a Trick or Treater, which has special connotations in that setting. Other Foci are broader, such as letting you be a ninja, samurai, tattooed spellcaster, martial arts monk, and other themes related to the recursions introduced, but not super specific to one recursion's quirks.

While it's not mechanically more complicated than the rest of the game, being a spellcaster that tracks their spells does make for more bookkeeping that I would have preferred. The bacterial and Halloween foci are so specific that it would be a shame not to use them if you use the recursions they are tied to, because they don't seem broad enough to get use elsewhere. That, however, brings up another slight issue. Foci have at least a few moving parts, so players should have access to them fairly regularly. But players don't need the vast majority of this book. The line has a separate player facing set of rules that can be purchased by players, and I almost wish anything that  has player facing mechanics in it also had a separate option for players to get just that content.

Like the Foci, a few of the creatures are very specific to their setting (like the Glass Dragons), while others will have wider purpose (like the multiple flavors of zombies presented).

Part Four

This section includes the index, and, more notably, the inspirations page.If something in one of the recursions might have sounded familiar, but you just can't quite remember from where, it's likely explained in this section. It makes for an interesting read, as well as providing some ideas on new media to consume.

Depletion Roll

Ardeyn and Ruk rack up a lot of pages in the game products, especially if you never end up using them. A few places in the book get a bit repetitive, such as the multiple places in the Rebel Galaxy entry where you are reminded that the recursion isn't the size of a galaxy. The player facing rules aren't easily accessed for players, who don't have a lot of incentive to get the book except for a relatively small section. Some of the player facing mechanics are super narrow in scope.


The book expands on the best ideas from The Strange core book and gives them even more depth. New organizations are introduced in an organic way. There is an amazing variety of locations presented, with tons of adventure hooks.

Gaining the Spark

Reading through some of my criticisms, it might not be apparent how much I like this book. None of those "negatives" are major issues, but the book introduces so many concepts and ideas that it's hard not to ponder all of the various tools that appear in the book and how they might be used.

Despite a few minor concerns, I've got no problem recommending this product to anyone with even a passing interest in The Strange. Not only does it provide some great GM material, but it explains how elements work in the setting with even more depth than the core book, and in ways that spur the imagination.

**** (out of five)

Friday, March 10, 2017

Autopilot Verus Stick Shift--Campaign Edition

When I was younger, I didn’t have the shared experience of playing similar adventures. I didn’t go to conventions, and for me, it was kind of hard to “follow” how adventures worked. I was always afraid that there was some perfect, magic way that they were to flow, and if I couldn’t do it exactly so, I didn’t want to risk “doing it wrong.”

I’m not sure why the actual rules of the game were less intimidating to me. I know I got things wrong when I was running D&D or Star Frontiers, but I only worried about “doing it wrong” when it came to running published adventures.

Flash way forward to me being an adult, and coming back to RPGs after having been away for years. While I loved creating my own campaigns, my brain started trying to convince me that I would save time if I ran published games.

I tried it a few times. I can’t help but tinker with adventures as written now. I don’t so much worry about “doing it wrong,” and instead, I need to put my fingerprints on it. So, I’ll swap out encounters, get rid of the types of encounters I don’t like, look for alternate resolution methods for aspects of the adventure I don’t love but don’t want to get rid of. 

But I’ve noticed a weird thing happen when it comes to running published adventures. I am way more likely to get thrown for a loop if PCs do something off the beaten path in a published adventure than if they do it in a campaign that I’m designing myself.

My campaign design theory is to look towards the end of a longer arc and see what I want to have happen for a resolution, in broad terms, and to see a few highlights that I want to have happen between the start of the campaign and that resolution. I like having a “hook” for why the characters are together and doing something. I don’t get too hung up on exactly what happens between the beginning and the big resolution of the story arc.

If characters follow up on a lead that isn’t a lead, I’ll look and see if the BBEG might have something going on logically in that direction. I don’t go full Quantum Ogre. I just think about if it’s likely I overlooked something that might logically be going on there, that might serve a similar purpose to what’s going on in the other direction. If I can’t see anything like that, then I have one of those “events” go off to show that the BBEG is doing stuff to advance their goals, and the PCs kind of wandered into an illegal cyber-cockfighting tournament that had nothing to do with the plot.
I have fun, and it seems to work, although I know there are people better at both keeping a more focused campaign entertaining, and people that can fully improv a campaign that turns out awesome. I’m neither of those, and I’m just kind of okay at what I do.

What does all of this have to do with published adventures? My brain doesn’t work the same way when I’m running published adventure as it does when I’m running my own campaigns. If players go off the beaten path, I have a harder time correcting for that behavior. I think my brain starts to run on autopilot a little bit. That’s not to say I’m not engaged with the story, or putting effort into it. But I’m not engaging the part of my brain that’s constantly recalculating the living campaign world as it exists in my brain in reaction to the players.

I’m noticing this a lot with my D&D Storm King’s Thunder game versus my Shadow of the Demon Lord game. I think everyone is having fun with Storm King’s Thunder, but right now, I’m doing a lot of “running the encounter” and not modelling the world in my brain. It’s fun, but it’s not as deep as engaging with other parts of my brain, and while they “need” to do the things they are doing for the story, I’m not as invested in personalizing things too much, because I want to get them to where I think the fun parts of the adventure are.

In my Shadow of the Demon Lord game, I’ve picked what the Shadow of the Demon Lord is (the way the world will end if the PCs don’t stop it), and I’ve seeded some NPCs from various factions around, but based on how the players have latched onto on aspects of a session versus another, I’ve already started to pivot from “this is the most obvious place to get this information” to “these guys would have it as well,” and “if they never get it, I’m changing this part to reflect it, and this session will deal with the fallout.” 

Both groups are a lot of fun, and I have one person common to both. I’m having fun with both. But running the Shadow of the Demon Lord game is reminding me that I’m missing running campaigns of my own devising.

The most positive experience I can say that I have had with both Pathfinder Society and D&D Adventurer’s League is that I now have that shared experience of being able to discuss how different bands of adventurers faced the same adventure. That’s a great feeling, and I’m glad I have it. And I still like to read through published adventures, because I think it is enormously valuable to see the way the designers expect the game to be played, and even the ways they push the game out into different directions with adventure design. But I’m thinking after Storm King’s Thunder, I’m hanging up the published adventure hat for a while. Part of my brain has been itching, and I just remembered how to scratch it.