Tuesday, August 22, 2017

RPG A Day 2017--Day Twenty-Two

We're up to day twenty-two of the RPG A Day questions. so let's look at what our question is for today.

Which RPGs Are The Easiest For Your To Run?




Alright, fairly straightforward question, but with the zinger of implying more than one answer. I can do this. I've got this . . .

By no means does this question indicate that the games involved are easier games to run than other games. These are games that have a confluence of concepts and rules that I'm comfortable with, and themes that are imbedded in my brain.



With that out of the way, I'd have to say that it is fairly easy for me to fall into running a game of D&D 5th edition or Monster of the Week. Yes, those are two very different systems.

D&D 5th edition is easy for me to run because I can go through most of a session without looking at rules (not counting stat blocks). It reminds me a lot of AD&D 2nd edition, which I ran so much back in the day, and could quickly write up an outline of an adventure 10 minutes before a game and just look up stats in the Monster Manual.



In fact, 5th edition reminds me so much of those old days of D&D, it's actually tougher for me to run things like Storm King's Thunder, even though I'm running that so that I have an "end point" for the campaign. I mean, I can come up with individual adventures, but coming up with a satisfying ending for a campaign isn't always easy.

I've loved monster hunting media for so long that Monster of the Week just feels like home to me when I run it. I can draw on watching Ghostbusters when I was too young to get the Cthulhu homages, my 3,578 viewings of Fright Night*, watching X-Files, Buffy, Angel, the Ghost Whisperer, and 12 (!) seasons of Supernatural. There is just something fascinating to me about monster hunting as a sub-genre of horror. But I've gone on about that before.

Star Wars just barely misses this list, for one reason. I can come up with single missions or dungeons for D&D. I can come up with one mystery with a weird monster and a strange situation for the hunters to deal with for a one shot. I have a lot harder time telling one off stories in Star Wars without wanting to create more of a story arc. So it takes a little bit more effort.

Monday, August 21, 2017

RPG A Day 2017--Day Twenty-One

Only ten more of these to go!

Let's jump into question number twenty-one of RPG A Day, and that question is:

What RPG Does The Most With The Least Words?


This is a really difficult question. If definitely seems to lean towards asking "what short form RPG is technically complete but way shorter than most RPGs," but its not quite that specific.

I guess it would be tempting to just pick a very short indie game and point out some of the really amazing play experiences that those games provide.

I haven't played nearly enough of those games to be fair to any of them, and I feel more like leaning into "what strikes a balance between being a relatively short game, but with a satisfying amount of content that allows for a good amount of versatile playtime."

As an aside, I'm increasingly playing the side-game known as, "how much can Jared rephrase these things to answer a different question than the one asked."



On that note, I'm going to give the nod to Fate Accelerated, because it's a pretty powerful set of rules for the number of pages used to detail those rules.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

RPG A Day 2017--Day Twenty

Well. It's day twenty. I applaud anyone for coming up with 31 questions that don't look like the exact same 31 questions from the previous years. I respect that quite a bit. So, disclaimer in place, let's get to the answering.


What Is The Best Source For Out-Of-Print RPGs?

A few days back Brandes Stoddard made a comment about one of these questions feeling more like market research than an actual discussion question. That is exactly what this question feels like to me. As I said, I appreciate the effort it takes to make this list, but for some reason, this question really bugs me.

I'm not even saying it's a bad topic in some other context. It just feels really weird, when the rest of the questions circle around "what's you play experience," "what do you wish your play experience to be," "what games might you have in common with others," "what new games should people look at that they may not have seen yet," and then you get--"Hey, where should people shop?"

It's like getting into a discussion on dice probability in a given game system, and then having someone interject that the color of the dice is important, or discussing inspirational movies to watch for a genre, and having someone mention that they always drink Mountain Dew at the table.

So, I give my utmost respect to people trying to come up with 31 relatively new questions every August. That is awesome, and I love the conversation that these questions generate. Its just every once in a while, the conversation they generate in my mind is about the direction the questions have been going, and if they all fit into the same sphere of discussion.


Saturday, August 19, 2017

RPG A Day 2017--Day Nineteen

Everybody's blogging for the weekend. Everybody needs a little question number nineteen. Oh yeah.

Hey, it's been nineteen days of trying to come up with opening comments. Sometimes you're going to leave the audience a little cold.



Anyway, our  question today is:

Which RPG Features the Best Writing?

This is a big huge gigantic question that can in no way be satisfactorily answered. Next question!

Okay, fine, I'll twist it a little.

Everybody that had the first edition AD&D books remembers Gygax's prose and dungeon master advice. What I had forgotten about, until I recently started reading through it again, was the tone of the Marvel Super Heroes game.



When I had only been exposed to very serious commentary on rules, Marvel Super Heroes talked to me, directly, as a gamer. It make jokes. It even admitted when it made bad jokes. It used the personalities of the characters in the setting to illustrate things, sometimes by having them introduce sections.

It was a neat change of pace, not just because of the tone, but because it felt so in tune with the Marvel comics of that era.

I don't know if it was the best, but it was probably the first time I noticed that you could tailor your writing both to engage your audience and to use the style of your rules presentation to elicit the feel of the setting you were emulating.


Friday, August 18, 2017

RPG A Day 2017--Day Eighteen

It's Friday. It's time to get ready for the weekend. And what better way to get ready for the weekend than to talk about RPGs?

Today's question:

Which RPG Have You Played The Most In Your Life?




I am so boring and obvious.

Even if you broke this down by editions, I'm pretty sure D&D would win. Even if I didn't count my high school era gaming, I'm pretty sure this would win. The only really challenging thing would be if I tried to break down what edition I  played the most.



That would probably depend on if you lump Pathfinder into 3rd edition D&D, and if you count 3rd edition as one edition, or separate out 3.5.

If Pathfinder doesn't count, 2nd edition would probably win.



In my high school years, Marvel Super Heroes was a close second, even though reading through it recently made me realize that I just mentally shoved a few fairly important rules off to the side for years.

And to think, I was so sure I was done with D&D. Ah well. At least I have some variety in my gaming diet beyond only playing D&D.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

RPG A Day 2017--Day Seventeen

It's Thursday, and what's more natural than the number 17 on a Thursday? I have no idea what that means either, but here's our next question.

What RPG Have You Owned the Longest and Not Played?




Ars Magica. As we speak, I've got two editions on my hard drive, and I haven't made it through either of them, let alone played them.

I heard about it a lot in the past. I was really curious about it. The setting and the campaign structure sounds fascinating. Every time I have sat down to read the book (any edition), I haven't been able to get into it.



I don't know why. It's not even the "this is like reading a math textbook" lack of ambition that struck me with Hero System. I just couldn't concentrate well enough to absorb what was in the book. At some point, I really need to make time and give it another  go.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

RPG A Day 2017--Day Sixteen

Day sixteen of RPG A Day looms on the horizon, and the question it presents is--

Which RPG Do You Enjoy Using As Is?




I'm going to be a pain again, and say, "most of them."

That's not to say I don't like optional rules. I love the little rules widgets in the DMG, and the some of the optional rules that come up in the career books in Fantasy Flight's Star Wars games. The larger and more complex the rules set, the more likely I am to look at optional rules. But most of the time, I do want to get an impression of how the rules are suppose to work before I start tweaking.

This wasn't always the case. There are times I want to go back in time and slap myself silly over the way I ran 3.5. I had all kinds of houserules to try to evoke 2nd edition quirks here or there. I will say, compared to another GM that we had for our group, I have long had a deep and abiding love of campaign standards, so I wasn't making changes on the fly, only at the beginning of a campaign, or when we had a natural break where I could poll my players and ask "hey, how does this sound when we start back up?"

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

RPG A Day 2017--Day Fifteen

Almost at the halfway point for RPG A Day. Today's question is:

Which RPG Do You Enjoy Adapting the Most?




Time to engage the wet blanket mode!

I don't. I mean, I've posted a lot of things on this blog adding in house rules or tweaking things, but if the question means something like "I like using 5th edition D&D to run a Japanese tea ceremony based diplomatic game" or something of that nature, I don't really want to do that. I like playing too many different games to do that.

More robust rules systems usually have room to tinker. I've definitely worked with ways to make movement more about narrative position than tactical, for example. But that's still trying to use similar technology while staying as true to the original concept of the rules as I can.

I'll be honest--I'm more likely to use things like the Fate Toolkit to modify an existing setting than I am to try and come up with a setting from scratch, even collaboratively. I just like having a strong concept in place before I start to tinker with it.

So I don't really enjoy adapting RPGs. Sorry about that.

Monday, August 14, 2017

RPG a Day 2017--Day Fourteen

Up to day fourteen of RPG a Day, and here is today's question:

Which RPG Do You Prefer For Open-Ended Campaign Play?




Well, this is awkward.

I don't prefer open-ended campaign play very much these days. Because I like campaigns to have satisfactory endings, and I like to play a wide variety of games, I tend to run games in "seasons" these days.



Part of why I prefer this style now is that in the past, I had so many games that just drifted off, and it felt like I let down the people playing. Being able to run a 9 to 12 session "season" of a campaign, knowing that we completed a large story arc and may come back to these characters, feels a lot more satisfactory.



Now, if we twist this question, just a bit, and turn it into "what RPG do you prefer for open-ended play," meaning, "I don't prep anything and let the game develop when I start running each session," then I'm going to go with World Wide Wrestling. While I might play on feuds that started in other sessions, or reference events that happened in other games, I never start booking matches until we sit down at the table, and I often have the players do some "outside the episode" scenes from The Road supplement to help shape what's going to happen for the night.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

RPGaDay 2017--Day Thirteen

Time for lucky number 13--the day thirteen question for RPG A Day this year. That question happens to be:

Describe a game experience that changed how you play.




Totally not a question, but we've gone down this route before . . . 😉

Now, to get a bit more serious about the question. I think the first experience that fits the description that springs to mind is when I first started running Marvel Heroic Roleplaying.

I think it is safe to say that most of the games I had played up to that time were designed to emulate living in a given genre, rather than the genre itself. The rules were used to model the world, and you were encouraged to think and make decisions based on how you would if you were a person living in that world

Marvel Heroic Roleplaying encouraged thinking about the narrative of comics. Not acting the way you would if you had Peter Parker's powers, but thinking of how Spider-Man would react in a given scene to make that scene feel the way it did in the comics in which the character has been featured.

You were still playing a role, and making decisions for the character, but you were doing so in a manner that was much more conscious of the genre and its tropes, and the game rewarded you for playing to the tropes.

Not only did I really enjoy running Marvel Heroic, but it was the first time that I ran a game online for people I had not met. Running Marvel Heroic for the first time got me back into running games at conventions, because I had a rekindled urge to play with new people that I had never met, and it helped me to better understand more narrative games, like Fate and Powered by the Apocalypse games.

And it all goes back to that first session of Breakout that I ran all those years ago.


Sailing the 7th Sea--My 7th Sea One Shot (8-12-2017)

I took to heart the advice I got about running a 7th Sea game to see how it worked at the table. I got in contact with a few of my friends from games that I have run in the past, most recently my Monster of the Week campaign (and also D&D Adventurers League). Upon contacting my friends to see if they would be up for a one shot of the game, my friend actually found a coworker that had playtested the game when it was Kickstarting, and she wanted to know if she could play as well. That brought me up to five players.

The new FLGS is located in a mall, and they have permission to run events in the hallway outside of the store. Since there was a Warhammer 40K tournament today, we got to play out in the hall. It was actually kind of fun. We had two tables next to the food court, and it was actually more comfortable than trying to squeeze into the store.



Our Characters

I wanted to make sure that the players had a chance to make up characters, so we started earlier than I normally would. I printed out character sheets and a cheat sheet for each of the players. The team we ended up with consisted of the following heroes:

Ashleigh Winters, Avalon Duelist/Knight Errant

William of Lochlarn, Highlander Bard/Seanchaidh

Felix, Montaigne Criminal/Orphan

Ivan Markevich, Ussura Cossack/Farm Kid

Karen Wolfke,  Eisen Mercenary/Monster Hunter

One one hand, people picked a wide range of national origins, which could have made getting them together tough. No one really wanted to go with the "shared secret society" angle, either. Thankfully, the stories of multiple characters allowed for some interaction and some guidance on how to get the team together. I decided to run an opening scene with each character to get them to Avalon, where Ashleigh was already waiting for them. William had met Ashleigh before, and because of some imagined slight, he wishes to duel Ashleigh, but Ashleigh won't agree to it. Because of that, William is following Ashleigh around until he convince him to duel.

Felix is a thief that travels from place to place looking for a score, ostensibly to steal from the rich and give to the poor, but often becoming too tempted with wealth to do the last part of his initial plan. Ivan accidentally defected from the Ussuran military by boarding the wrong ship. I honestly loved his story, which he named "Accidental Deserter," which requires him to make it home to Ussura to explain how he got on the wrong ship.



Opening Scenes

William started out running from members of another Highland clan, who were convinced he had stolen their horse. This impression was bolstered by the fact that the horse's livery had the other clan's symbols all over it. William spun his horse around, drove hard between them, then jumped across a ravine to escape them, driving hard for Carleon.

Felix got a tip on how to break into a Montaigne expatriate's house in Carleon, and in the course of breaking in, Felix found some strange papers along with the jewelry he had hoped to score. Upon seeing watchmen on the street below, Felix knocked out the captain with his sack of treasure, then took out the rest, and lifted a pass that the watch captain had, allowing him access to restricted parts of the city.

Ivan was on a ship sailing out of Vesten, hoping to convince his hosts to drop him off somewhere that would allow him to make his way home. When a storm blew up, Ivan's ship seemed to be hundreds of miles off course, with a broken mainmast, about to slam into a cliffside. Through a major feat of strength, Ivan held up the broken mast long enough for the crew to steer away from the cliffs, and the ship sailed into the nearest port, which was, impossibly, Carleon.

Karen was travelling with a Vaticine priest that was helping her hunt monsters, and when he died, he asked for her to return his body to Carleon, where most of his family lived. Because of the curse laid on the priest, he may rise as an unquiet spirit if the wake isn't performed properly, so she had to find an officiant, the proper venue, and invite his family. She managed to find the venue and officiant, but failed to invite his family members. The priest's spirit was laid to rest, but a minor curse of bad luck fell upon his family, which she now feels compelled to lift. She began to research where all of his family members were located to help them.

Ashleigh was being questioned about indiscretions related to Lady Ashmore while Ashleigh was on his last mission. He managed to talk his way out of trouble, and was given the mission to board the Silver Starlight, a merchant vessel plying the Montaigne straights, to investigate why ships had been disappearing in the straights, leaving no signs of being wrecked or scuttled.

Out On The Streets

Ashleigh walked out of his hearing, near the docks, at which point William found him and challenged him to a duel. Ashleigh told William that he had important business, but they could conclude things later. William threw a fit, and attracted attention of from Ivan, Felix, and Karen.

Hearing about the disappearing ships, Karen wanted to investigate possible ghost ships. William, who was extremely skeptical of the supernatural, laughed off the notion. Felix decided to join the investigation because the papers he stole from the Montaigne expatriate mentioned payments that indicated that the disappearance of the ships were related to some kind of payment to the expatriate. Ivan just wanted to talk to someone in authority to ask for a ride home.

Ashleigh told Captain Chelin of the Silver Starlight that the rest of the heroes were his cohort for the investigation, but since William had bargained his own way onto the ship, he allowed William to be put to work as a hand on the ship.

Dinner Time

The party was invited to dine with Captain Chelin, except for William, who was sent to serve the party in the captains quarters. After introductions, the first mate brought word that a strange ship was seen on a parallel course to the Silver Starlight. Karen and Ivan raced each other up to the crow's nest, Felix stole a spyglass, and Ashleigh politely thanked the captain for dinner before stealing Felix's spyglass back from the thief.

The ship in the distance was the Vile Lass, an lost Montaigne pirate ship. On the deck was a pale man in out of fashion captain's gear, with glowing red eyes. The group also spotted a strange, small island that doesn't appear on any charts.

The team headed to the mysterious small island to investigate, while staying away from the circling Vile Lass. On the island, the group found that the ground was oddly spongy, and beneath what appeared to be rocks and soil was grey sludge of some kind. At this point, another much more fashionable dressed Montaigne ripped a hole in reality with Porte magic, and expressed surprise at the people on "his" island.

After getting bashed in the head with a barrel and stabbed by Ashleigh, the Porte sorcerer opened more screaming wounds in reality, dumping masses of tentacles and eyes onto the island. Karen and Felix both fell through the crust into the island, into the grey sludge. The Porte using Montaigne left before anyone could assault him further, leaving the heroes to deal with his tentacled masses.

Ivan turned into a bear using his native sorcery and saved Felix from the tentacled horror, after Karen "saved" him by throwing him clear of the sludge. Eventually the creatures were dispatched, but William decided the small island, devoid of caves, must have had a bear living on it, and wondered where Ivan went.

Ship to Ship

The Vile Lass closed on the Silver Starlight, and after a quick conference and work from the ship's surgeon, the heroes attempted to board the Vile Lass before she began to open fire on the Silver Starlight.

Ivan swung across into the gun wells of the Vile Lass, while Karen and Ashleigh swung across to the deck, and Felix waited until the ships got close enough for him to jump across without a rope. Karen and Ashleigh barreled into a deck full of skeletons forming into crew.

Under the decks, ghostly crew members loaded cannons to fire at the Silver Starlight. Ivan moved one of the cannons so that it fired across to take out the other cannons. He then waited for the ghosts to light the cannon again, and aimed it at the deck of the ship.

Ashleigh and Karen finished off the skeletal crew, and as William charged across the deck, he wondered how the captain animated the skeletons to scare off his victims--probably wires of some sort. William then charged the captain, while Felix crept up behind him. Ashleigh and Karen engaged the spectral captain from the front.

Surrounded, the captain lashed out, primarily at Karen and her special sword, glowing in the presence of the supernatural. The captains sword was covered in frost as he attempted to freeze the monster hunter, but the heroes managed to hold him off long enough for Karen to put her pistol under his chin, pull the trigger, and when his head started to reform, she ran her monster slaying blade through his body, causing him to fall into a pile of clothing, devoid of captain.

Felix stole a strange compass from the captain's body, which looked much like the compass held by the Porte mage on the strange island. Ivan's work below decks caused the ship to sink, and the heroes crossed back over to the Silver Starlight, watching the ship dissolve into mist as it broke apart. William decided that the supernatural is extremely unlikely, but perhaps a few people still make unholy bargains with Legion that pay off.



Meta-Knowledge

This session went really well. I didn't prepare anything, other than to have cheat sheets ready to remind me of rules without looking them up, and to give me some hints at scene structure. Once the characters had stories in place, I put together the outline of a plot for the session.

I allowed Karen a Dracheneisen sword as a special item, even though it was a bit much for a Signature Item, but this was potentially a one shot, and she agreed that if we ever moved to a long term campaign with the same character, she would rework this part of the character.

The story that William's player wrote was to gain Comaraderie once he realizes he doesn't want to kill Ashleigh. I love that story. I also love that Ivan is attempting to get the title of "Trustworthy" by returning home to explain his accidental desertion. Felix is going to accidentally get a reputation for stealing from the rich and giving to the poor, despite not actually following through on the second part. He's going to accidentally help out repeatedly. I loved that I could dive straight in to Karen's past with her priest friend in the intro. The stories gave me a lot to work with.

I was surprised that, as soon as I explained the "I Fail" mechanic, I had multiple players volunteering to fail to see how the mechanic looked. It was a great show of trust and enthusiasm for seeing what I would do with the mechanic.

I had a lot of fun coming up with Opportunities, although I started one scene without establishing consequences or coming up with Opportunities, but it happened less often than I thought it would. A few times I let people do a little too much with their raises at one time, but after allowing it, I mentioned that I should have split the different actions into different parts of the round, and everyone understood. It didn't happen too often, but at least twice.

I'm definitely looking into finding a way to fit a regular 7th Sea game into my schedule after this session.



Saturday, August 12, 2017

RPG A Day 2017--Day Twelve

I'm running behind, so it's time to play catch-up. We are up to day twelve of the RPG A Day questions, and today's question is as follows:

Which RPG Has the Most Inspiring Interior Art?



Tough question. Most RPGs from at least a moderate sized company have very talented art directors, with a crew of talented artists to draw from. I think that, first off, I'm going to exclude anyone that uses existing artwork from other sources. That means things like DC Adventures is out the running, because while the art is inspiring, it's also directly from the source material. It still takes a good eye to format the art, and a strong sense of what is needed to choose the right existing art, but it feels like a different "category" than we are discussing here.



I'm not going to say that this is the "most" of anything, because there are too many games out there. I will say that Headspace was very striking to me. Brian Patterson's artwork does an amazing job of portraying nuance within a comic strip style of art. The characters in the book are in a terrible cyberpunk world that has suffered criminal abuse from corporations, but the operators still have a certain determination that conveys the feel of fighting a difficult uphill battle to make the world better, but believing that battle can be won.



The contrast between the setting, and the goals of the operators, and the combination as expressed in the illustrations, make this a product I wanted to call out.

Friday, August 11, 2017

RPG A Day 2017--Day Eleven

One and one makes eleven. Well, I mean, it can. Not when you add them. That would be two. But you knew that. Regardless, it's day eleven of the RPG a Day challenge, and our question today is:

Which "Dead Game" Would You Like to See Reborn?



We live in an era where dead games don't stay dead for very long, and where, if you can't find the game in print, you might be able to find a retro-clone that is fairly close to that game.

For the purpose of this question, I'm going to assume that the "reborn" game is official, meaning that not only is there a game similar to the original game available, but any IP associated with that game is brought back to life as well.



If I add all of that together, I think I'm going to lean heavily towards Star Frontiers. In my early gaming career, Star Frontiers came in third place, behind D&D and Marvel Super Heroes. But it was a really close third.

Additionally, Star Frontiers is one of the few games I managed to run for my older sister (she from whom I stole my D&D Basic set back in the day).



I liked a lot of the setting elements and new equipment that showed up in the Zebulon's Guide to Frontier Space, but the new resolution system introduced seemed to kill interest in the game with my limited group of gamers in my youth.

I know there is a new retro-clone on the way for a Star Frontier's experience, but I'd love to have an official way to run a group of Pan Gal troubleshooters on a mission to undermine the Sathar.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

What Do I Know About WHY I Review?

Today’s RPG A Day question, which asked where you go for your RPG reviews, sparked a lot of discussion that I wasn’t expecting. Primarily, it pointed out to me that some people that I respect a great deal either don’t think the RPG industry is large enough to support traditional critical reviews, or that reviews that do not include play experience with the game are of great value.

I’m not taking to the internet to tell anyone that they are wrong, or to defend why I do what I do. In fact, the existence of my blog or my reviews is ancillary to my personal beliefs on this topic. My only point is to explain why I do think there is value to reviews, even reviews that are written before the play experience can be factored into that review.

Let me summarize some of the (entirely valid) points that I have seen made across the internet today:

  •            People would not review movies or video games based only on scripts or instructions
  •       The play experience that you might envision from reading the rules may not match the play experience of running the game
  •       The RPG industry is too small to be served by more academic reviews, and is better served by discussions about games

The first thing I would like to do is to say that I agree with all those statements, if they were amended to say that all those things are important, but not to the exclusion of thoughtful reviews.

Comparing a review of an RPG rulebook to a script or set of instructions misses some of the nuance of what the game book actually does, and what players of an RPG are expected to do. The rules in the book are the code that the players use to run the game. They aren’t exterior instructions, but the actual language that should be understood and engaged to make the game work. It is not the whole experience, but it is a greater part of the experience than the elemental components of other styles of entertainment.

I used this analogy in a recent review, but if you saw an impressive Lego set, and you wanted to build the model shown on the front of the box, you would likely be disappointed if the instructions were deficient in telling you how to do this. You have all the components. The Legos are no less awesome, and the final product will still be impressive, but it is important to explain to a prospective buyer that they are going to invest a significant amount of time in just analyzing the components and using their own knowledge to fill in the gaps in the instructions.

The play experience will almost certain not match exactly what you envision in your mind when you read through a book. When you engaged the rules as you read, you were facing the rules one on one, directly. At the table, you will have multiple people thinking of interactions that did not occur to you when you were reading, just by diversity of thought. But while I will certainly agree that the play experience will be different than you envision, I also think that it is possible to find where you, personally, will have problems engaging with the rules before it comes to the table.

The RPG industry is relatively small compared to other entertainment industries. I think it is very important that there be open and communicative places for gamers to go to ask questions and posit new ideas. It is also true that some people are new to an RPG community at any given time, and may not be comfortable engaging in conversation about an RPG. Some people, even when they have been part of a community for a long time, remain more comfortable as spectators and consumers than active participants in conversations. In fact, it is a trap that various RPG communities fall into, when they assume that only the people that are actively communicating are receiving any benefit from the existence of the community.

Because there are people that are not active conversationalists, I think it is even more imperative that reviews exist that might spell out, clearly, what the reviewer expects from a product, what the product delivers, and where the product may not be as it seems. To those people that either do not wish to engage, or just don’t wish to engage consistently, I think there is a definite value to presenting a thorough, well-reasoned review.

  •          Actual play experience is always going to be a valuable piece in evaluating a game
  •          Dynamic conversation is always going to create a more textured understanding of a topic than the static opinions of one reviewer


Neither of these facts invalidates the usefulness of reviews, and specifically, reviews that are based only on the product, and not the full play experience.

Why I Love Reviews

When I was a younger, I loved watching Siskel and Ebert. My mother hated the show. Her opinion was that these were two people that sat in judgement of things other people might like, and told them what they should think. For some reason, despite being in my formative years, I never adopted her opinion. I would go out of my way to watch the show, especially if something I wanted to see was featured.

Yes, there were times I would get angry when something I was sure was the greatest movie ever made got panned. But I kept watching. I even watched those “boring” reviews of things like dramas and romances that I knew I was never going to like. Why couldn’t they just keep talking about action movies and sci-fi and horror? But things started to seep into my brain. They weren’t just watching these movies deciding what they liked and what they didn’t without any guidance. They compared them to other movies that had attempted the same techniques. They pointed out where some aspects of the movie were good, even when the movie, as a whole, didn’t work.

Eventually, I realized that what I liked was the analysis, not the final opinions.

By the time I started to realize how much I liked the analysis of pop culture, I started reading RPG reviews in Dragon Magazine. I started reading reviews before I ever played anything other than Dungeons and Dragons. I read reviews from people like Jim Bambra, Rick Swan, and Allen Varney, and I started to see that not all RPGs had similar rules to D&D, and that the way an RPG held together internally was more important than if it seemed like a cool way to use laser guns in a d20 level based system.

To this day, I haven’t played half the games I read reviews for, and yet, the analysis of presentation and rules in those articles helped create in me an appreciation for multiple rules that can be used to accomplish similar things in different context.

But It’s Not That Simple, Right?

For a review to have value, I think there are some important elements that must properly align. While I don’t think a reviewer needs to have played the game in question to write a valid review, I do think that a reviewer needs to have played a wide range of RPGs to give the best review.

A person that has only played level based d20 games may give a decent accounting of a supplement for a game with that same base assumption, but when faced with a more narrative game, they aren’t going to be able to provide as many useful insights. I can attest to this myself. When I first read Dungeon World, I didn’t get it, and while I stated that fact on the blog, I didn’t frame it as a review. I needed to play a wider range of more open ended, narrative games before I really understood it.
It’s also very important for a reviewer to state their biases, and what they find important. No one is without bias, and knowing that a reviewer has a weakness for a certain style of adventure or genre is going to provide context for the reader. Evaluating how much the reviewer’s tendencies match the reader’s is going to be extremely valuable.

The reviewer should also call out enough important details that they provide an accurate picture of the product. No review is going to be able to explain exactly what is on every page of a book, but understanding the structure and level of detail that the product utilizes is going to help the reader weigh what level of effort has gone into different aspects of the production.

Knowing is Half the Battle

The worst mistake anyone, reviewer or consumer of reviews, can make, is to assume that the purpose of a review is to find a source to tell them if they should or shouldn’t buy a product. This may sound counter-intuitive, but this is an important bit of nuance. The purpose of a review should be to help the reader determine if the product is for them, but that determination does not need to match the reviewer’s conclusion for the review to be successful. The review should provide enough texture that the consumer can form their opinions based on facts that they have gathered, not based on the specific conclusion of the reviewer.

Why would a reviewer even come to a conclusion then, if they believe this to be the case? I can’t speak for everyone, but I know that if I don’t hold myself to some kind of metric, my reviews meander. Without that metric, it is hard for me to see if my positives have more weight than my negatives. It is a way for me to clarify my own thoughts.

Ideally, a consumer can find more than one reviewer that they find entertaining and informative, and they can contrast where one reviewer’s biases may have led them to omit details important to the consumer of the review. Even without that, the consumer can’t be passive in reading a review if they hope to gather the best results. I can’t speak for other reviewers, but my actual score is a tool to bring out the points I want to make in the review, rather than the actual point of process.


And on that note, I’m going to wrap this up before I go on a rant about how Rotten Tomatoes is killing useful movie reviews. 

RPG a Day 2017--Day Ten

We've hit double digits in the RPG a Day set of questions, so let's look at day ten's question:



Where Do You Go For RPG Reviews?

I've mentioned before on this blog that my thought process on reviews is that it's more important to see a reviewer's reasoning than it is to see their ratings or recommendations. You can find out some fascinating things by crawling into another person's head. You find out where you agree, where you disagree, and what is ultimately important to you--if you pay attention.

When I poke around the interest to read up on opinion, there are a number of places that I go. Often times it's not one site or outlet so much as it is a handful of people that I know, whose opinions I value on a given topic.

There are a lot of people on the internet that fit this description for me, but today I think I'll highlight just a couple.

When it comes to D&D opinion, I really enjoy reading Brandes Stoddard's articles on Tribality. I can count on his articles to be entertaining and filled with reasons for his opinions, backed up by some convincing arguments.

I also really enjoy watching the Dungeon Musings channel that my gaming buddy Kevin Madison has, particularly videos discussing games that he has recently run. While I would love to get every single game that I review to the table, that's isn't always a realistic goal. That makes hearing his opinions on games that he has actually run all the more interesting to me.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

RPG a Day 2017--Day Nine

Here we are at day nine of the RPG a Day series of questions for 2017. Today's question is as follows:

What is a Good RPG to Play For About 10 Sessions?



Oh, this is an easy one for me to answer--I would definitely answer Shadow of the Demon Lord. I've done it!



The game is actually designed to be played for 11 adventures, with characters advancing in level after each adventure. While some adventures might take more than one session, you can definitely run an entire campaign in 11 sessions.

While I haven't done it myself, I'll also give an honorable mention to 13th Age, as the game master's session has advice on running a 10 session campaign, with characters advancing after each session of play.



In general, I have been playing other games in a "season" based format, where I try to wrap up a major storyline and find a good stopping point after 12 sessions. I've done this with Edge of the Empire and Force and Destiny, for example. But when a level based game has guidelines for how to make it to 10th level, one session at a time, there is a nice affirmation that you've reached the end of not only the campaign, but the game advancement rules for the character.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Thoughts on Down with D&D Episode 111

The most recent Down with D&D Episode, Episode #111, discussed monsters as player characters. Chris and Shawn do their usual good job of addressing the topic, but its pretty huge, and I think they may have even identified a sub-topic within the main topic of their discussion.



 What's The Point?

Part of the discussion revolved around why you would play a monstrous race as a PC. They, rightly in my opinion, conclude that you need to strike a balance between that non-standard choice having meaning, and making the character unplayable.


I have definitely seen both sides in various campaigns, including organized play. In organized play, some GMs resent having new rules open to the game that they cannot change, so they tend to just ignore what they wish they didn't have to deal with. I saw this in Pathfinder Society, and maybe just a little in Adventurers League.




In this case, you end up with a lizard folk or a bugbear standing in a city, looking for work, and being treated exactly like a halfling, human, or dwarf would be. To the GM that doesn't want to deal with them, they are a "generic PC that has a specific set of stats." It doesn't impact the game, and nobody gets much out of the experience.

On the other hand, I've also seen GMs that preemptively threaten players that they will kill off any "unnatural" species that show up at their tables. I've not seen this in 5th edition AL, but I've heard about it in previous editions, especially when radical new options were allowed (for example, when 4th edition organized play allowed drow as a PC option in standard campaigns).

I completely understand tailoring an experience, collaboratively, for a home game. When you are in an organize play situation, you know the rule as well as the players. If you can't GM for a table with goblins or drow, if those are legal options, you need to realize that they aren't the problem at that table, you are.

Chris and Shawn made an excellent point about inspiration during this discussion. If you don't want to make the game unplayable, but you want to make sure that you are making a player's choice noteworthy, there is already built in roleplaying mechanisms that allows you to do things like saying "the townsfolk clearly don't trust you--make the persuasion check with disadvantage, and after the check, I'll give you inspiration." Don't radically alter the scenario, use the tools built into the system.



Monstrous Drift



I think  they also wandered a bit into another sub-topic, as playing an orc, a goblin, or a kobold has roleplaying ramifications, but those species don't introduce radically different rules into the game.

Playing creatures that can fly, or shapeshift, or that are definitely not humanoid, seem to be worth a whole other discussion. That said, there is a lot less mechanical support for those creatures in the current rules.

I think you can argue that in a setting that has orcs, eventually an orc may end up working with an adventuring party, and the rules should be able to accommodate that. I'm not sure that the game, as structured, should be pushed in the direction of allowing for dragon or elemental PCs. Those seem to be wholly alien experiences to the average person in the setting, and probably better modeled with RPGs that don't have the same base assumptions as D&D.

Back in My Day


Also, I'm putting on my old man hat. Shawn mentioned previous editions and when playing monsters came into the game. Reverse Dungeon was a big deal, of course, but there were a few steps along the way--Orcs of Thar for BECMI had rules for playing various humanoids in that edition of D&D, and Dragon Magazine had a few articles detailing things like the Lizardman Erudite, which was essentially a lizardfolk druid. The Complete Book of Humanoids in 2nd Edition also had a lot of "monstrous" races as well.



Settings a Monster Can Call Home







As far as settings that assume some monster races are prevalent--a few older Forgotten Realms resources mentioned that seeing orcs or goblins in places like Waterdeep working as mercenaries wasn't that uncommon, and that people didn't get too nervous about them unless they came to the city as a large group. Ironically, given the lore in 5th edition, gnolls were more civilized in Thay and worked as police in the cities there. Zhentil Keep also had a fairly large force of orc mercenaries, and the Zhents also were specifically oppressing a group of good aligned orcs known as the Odonti. There was even a plot hook for Waterdeep that involved a hill giant prince on a diplomatic mission to the city.

Dragonlance introduced Minotaurs as one of the "standard" races in the setting all the way back in 1st edition, and in 2nd edition, when the Taladas campaign expansion came out, it introduced goblins, ogres, and lizardfolk as PC races. It's almost a cheat to mention Dark Sun, because it intentionally subverts so many D&D tropes, but there were definitely some more "monstrous" PC races in that setting, from the dray to the thri-kreen.

Despite my assertion that D&D might not be the best venue for exploring more exotic monstrous species, 2nd edition also saw the Council of Wyrms setting, which involved letting the PCs play as dragons.




Eberron is the flag bearer for a setting in 3rd edition that was less likely to assume that "monsters" were monstrous, but the one and done Ghostwalk supplement introduced characters playing as the spirits of their own dead PCs.

Back to the Cast

I enjoyed Chris and Shawn's discussion, but I'd be really interested to see them follow up with some thoughts on the truly monstrous monster races, and how they differ from creatures like orcs, goblins, or even lizard folk.

Additionally, they touched on the new XP system that was released as an optional playtest set of rules by Wizards of the Coast in their Unearthed Arcana column this month, and I'm really looking forward to some more in-depth discussion on that topic.

If you enjoy D&D, and you listen to podcasts, this continues to be a show that should be on your podcatcher list.

RPG a Day 2017--Day Eight

Moving into week two of the RPG A Day questions, our first question is the following:

What Is A Good RPG to Play for Sessions of Two Hours or Less?



This one takes a little bit of thought. I have several games that I have played in recent year where I could run a satisfying session in only two hours. In fact, I'm a little shocked that I have run several 2 hour long D&D sessions in the last year, and it actually felt like we accomplished something significant.

But I'm not sure I would recommend D&D over anything else for a two hour session.

Lots of Powered by the Apocalypse games can come in at two hours time, but depending on the game, you may want to go longer than that. For example, trying to feel like we completed a full "episode" of Monster of the Week or a fully movie in Action Movie World, my group definitely felt like it could  use at least three hours or so of time to resolve everything going on.

But, if I was going to recommend a Powered by the Apocalypse game that could be pared down to two hours and have a solid resolution, I think I'd have to go with World Wide Wrestling RPG.



Yes, you can play three to four hour sessions and simulate a full, multi-hour wrestling program on television or a pay per view. But you can also have a very satisfying session with two players and their wrestlers cutting promos, playing to the crowd, and resolving their match.


Monday, August 7, 2017

RPG A Day 2017--Day Seven

Up to day seven--that means this RPG A Day thing has been going on for week now! So our next question is (insert drum roll here):



What Was Your Most Impactful RPG Session?

I have had many, many good RPG sessions over the years. It has always been because the players were invested in that game and really giving some solid material to the group.

There is one session that jumps to mind when I think about player investment, and that's session's effect on me, as a GM.

I had run campaigns in Dragonlance before, but this time, I really wanted to make sure I was leaning heavily on the tropes of the setting. What I mean by this is--I didn't just want the villains to be clerics of the Dark Queen, or for dragonlances to show up for the players to use against dragons. I wanted the politics and the factions to feel the way they did in the source material.

Because of this, I made sure to introduce an NPC Knight of the Crown to the party. He was a great guy. He stood up for them, helped get them support when they needed it, managed contacts and introductions for them. He was as much of the positive aspects of a knight as I could manage, without introducing much of the negative traits that he might have had.

Then, after several sessions of the PCs getting used to this NPC having their back and being generally helpful, he was put on trial by a political rival, a Knight of the Rose. There was going to be a trial, and the PCs would be allowed to speak at the trial on the NPC's behalf.

The players wanted to speak on his behalf. He had always had the group's back, so they wanted to return the favor.

And then I had the Knight of the Rose, very smugly, prove his case. The Knight of the Crown was a good guy, but he had been cutting corners when he was helping them. He was doing the expedient thing, not the proper thing. One of the players was enraged. The player, not the character.

He literally lunged across the table, grabbed my shirt, and tore it, before he apologized for getting too into character in his response.

I can't say that I have always, or even often, been able to hit all the right notes in a campaign or read someone's reactions well enough to pull of this kind of emotional response. But the fact that I have managed to do it in the past gives me something to aim for in the future.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

RPG A Day 2017--Day Six

Time to check in with the RPG A Day question of the day. We're up to number six, and today's question is:



You Can Game Every Day For A Week. Describe What You Would Do!

First off, I'd be remiss in pointing out that isn't actually a question. That's an imperative statement. Thankfully, it is imperative that I keep gaming.

This is such a wide open theoretical construct. Is this "I can game every day for a week, with people that I choose," or is it "I can game every day for a week, but random, cruel chance will deliver you players from the void at random intervals?" In the interest of me not being a pain or belaboring a point, I'm just going to assume generic people that will be available for the game systems I want to play.

Personally, when given time to plan, I love to have an organized theme. So I'd probably have a D&D Day, a Powered by the Apocalypse Day, A Games I've Never Gotten to the Table Day, A Star Wars RPG Day, A Marvel RPG Day, A DC RPG Day, and a Fate day. Probably.

I would narrow most of these days down to three segments of 4 hour games each or so, with smaller breaks between them. If I do a different game that fits the same theme, I'd probably change it up with the middle game as a palette cleanser.



  • So, for D&D Day, I might play 5th edition morning and evening, and play DCC (I know, it deserves its own day) for the middle session.
  • It would be tricky to come up with the three games for PbtA day, but they only gave me a week!
  • Games I've Never Gotten to the Table Day I wouldn't want to pin down now, because the "top three" are always shifting around in my head, and I might sneak a one shot in here or there
  • Star Wars Day would probably shift from Edge of the Empire, to Age of Rebellion, to Force and Destiny
  • Marvel RPG Day would probably be Marvel Heroic in the morning and evening, with a throwback session of Marvel Super Heroes in the middle
  • DC RPG Day is tricky, because I didn't play Mayfair's DC game nearly as much as I did Marvel Super Heroes, so I don't have the same nostalgic impetus to go back to it--I may just stick with DC Adventures all day, and if we need a palette cleanser in the middle, we might take a break to watch an animated block.
  • Fate Day would definitely include Dresden Accelerated and the Secret of Cats--I may need to work some kind of sci-fi property in the middle just to balance things out 
So you, the hypothetical blog reader, having lived in my head and come to love me dearly, may already know of my obsessive desire for symmetry. Knowing this love of symmetry, you may ask how I didn't include Star Trek along with Star Wars.

Even though I played in one playtest session, that still feels like a Game I've Never Gotten to the Table at this point. So for now, it doesn't get a seat at the table. Or a table with seats. However that analogy works for this scenario.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

RPG A Day 2017--Day Five

Time for day five of RPG a Day 2017, and today's question, which is:



What RPG Cover Best Captures the Spirit of the Game?

This is totally a cheat, but I would have to answer Dungeon Crawl Classics. If you aren't familiar with the game, you may be wondering how this is a cheat. Well--in the few short years the game has been out, there have already been multiple covers released for the game.



Each cover has certain elements in common. They portray elements of weird fantasy, and they hearken back to an art style that is reminiscent of 1970s era artwork.



If you never saw a lot of 70s era fantasy art, you may have no idea what this game is about, but as soon as you start reading the book, the covers just feel right for the game.



So while DCC might "cheat" a bit by having a ton of covers for a game that has only been out since 2012, the fact that each cover conveys the tone of the game is undeniable.


Friday, August 4, 2017

RPG A Day 2017--Day Four

Day four of RPGaDay is upon us, and today's question is--

What RPG Have You Played the Most Since August 2016?



This one is very easy to answer. I've run over 30 sessions of 2-3 hour long games of 5th edition D&D, and between those 30 sessions, I've popped in and played multiple 4 hour sessions of Adventurers League games at the FLGS.

D&D is the 800 lbs gorilla in the room when it comes to RPGs, so it's probably not an amazing revelation when someone says they have played it more than any other game in the last year. That said, a few things to keep in mind, at least from my perspective.

  • I once said I was totally uninterested in going back to D&D--on this blog in fact
  • I know there have been years in the recent past where DC Adventures, Star Wars Edge of the Empire, or Marvel Heroic Roleplaying would have easily won this for me
From my perspective, as someone that WOTC "lost" as a D&D consumer and regular player, the best thing they did in this release cycle for 5th edition was to publish the basic rules for free. Those free rules piqued my curiosity, and let me see a really wide section of how the game would look at the table. It got me to run a game for friends and see that I liked it, and that it reminded me of why I enjoyed the game in the past.



I enjoy a wide range of games, and I never want to fall back into the darkest days of my 3.5 gaming, where I only ever wanted to entertain d20 level based games. But it's hard not to fall back into a comfortable pattern with what feels like an old friend. 

Thursday, August 3, 2017

So, You Don't Want to Be A Villain? Corruption Alternatives in 7th Sea

I mentioned in the 7th Sea review that I'm not a fan of removing agency from the players when it comes to the corruption mechanics. Rolling the character's corruption or lower causes them to become a villain, which means with a really bad roll, the first time a character does something morally questionable, they can turn into an NPC.



I like having mechanics that reinforce the theme of a game. I'm all for tracking corruption. I just don't want to have an all or nothing rule that literally yanks a character away from the player.

What I'm thinking of would run parallel to the Death Spiral for a PC. It would still reinforce that you don't want to have corruption, and still encourage a redemption story. It would not, however, cause a player to lose their character right off the bat.

And yeah, I know--I haven't played with the rules as written yet. Generally I like to do that before I tinker with a game system. This is kind of a thought exercise about one of the things I'm not as excited about, regarding the system.

The Corruption Spiral

The assumption is that if a character has corruption, that it bothers them. They haven't given up on being a hero, they are just in a bad place. Corruption stacks the same way that it normally does in the game--first act, one corruption, second act, two plus the original corruption, etc.


But now we introduce the Corruption Spiral. Instead of rolling to see if you lose your character, for acts of corruption your character has performed, you progress on the Corruption Spiral. A character cannot spend hero points until the GM has spent points from the danger pool equal to their corruption.

Dramatic Corruption

Every fifth point of corruption the character gains adds a point of dramatic corruption. For each point of Dramatic Corruption the character has, the GM gains an extra point to their danger pool. Once a character has Dramatic Corruption, the GM can invoke their Hubris for free. The player can deny this invocation by paying a hero point instead. They can spend this hero point even if they are not yet allowed to spend hero points in the session.

This invocation and spending hero points represents a temptation to go down the dark road, and the character fighting hard against that temptation.


The Reckoning

Once a character has taken four points of Dramatic Corruption, that character leaves play. The player can decide if they want the character to die in disgrace, or if they want to redeem themselves in death. If they die, this happens off camera, between sessions (the character finishes playing the character for the rest of the session where they gain corruption, as normal).


If a character dies in this manner and redeems themselves, they can choose to perform an action that advances a story, either for the whole group or an individual character. This action cannot complete a story for anyone.

Statistically, because of how corruption escalates, this means that when a character gains their 6th point of corruption, they will take their 4th Dramatic Corruption at the same time.



Becoming a Villain

At any time while they have corruption, the player can decide to retire their character as a PC and declare them a villain. They may also chose this option when the Reckoning comes, instead of dying in disgrace or redeeming themselves in death.

Consequences of this Change

Essentially, a character doesn't need to worry too much about having one or three corruption under this system, but statistically, under the old system, the only penalty was really that 30% chance they would become an NPC.

Taking corruption doesn't just hurt the player, it hurts their friends. This represents that the character is conflicted. They are fighting against the corruption, so they can't fully focus on making the world a better place.



What Do I Know About Reviews? 7th Sea 2nd Edition

The Kickstarter surrounding this game reached legendary status last year. Back when it was going on, however, I was finishing up my return to school, which equals no Kickstarter for me. I was interested, because I had heard a lot of positive things about the original edition of the game from some of the local gamers that had played it.

After seeing lots of commentary on the game flying around the internet, I finally picked up the PDF. Like Blades in the Dark, this game has had some high-profile discussions floating around it, including more commentary from the always engaging Rob Donohue on his blog.

While I try to form my own opinions in as much of a vacuum as I can, the higher profile a product, the harder it is to avoid any commentary. There has certainly been some heated debate online over this particular game.

As always, I’m reviewing this game from the standpoint of recommendation, not “merit as art,” so bear that in mind.

With all of that in place, let’s set sail.


What’s the Cut of Her Jib?

I only have the PDF copy for review now, although the hard cover has been available for some time now. The PDF comes in at 307 pages, including an Index, a map, and a character sheet.

The artwork is top notch. The opening picture in the book is designed like a movie poster, complete with credits. Each chapter starts with a two-page spread. The maps included are impressive. The pages are a light parchment, with headers written in faux handwriting. The formatting is attractive and easy to read. In addition to the two-page chapter spreads, there are several half page pieces of art. It’s really a nice book to look at.

A Day’s Work

The book starts out with a six-page short story. That’s six large pages of dual column print. The story itself is well told and amusing, and is a story about swordplay, romance, and swashbuckling.

If you have read some of my past reviews, you know my preference on this matter. I don’t mind a page or two of fiction that directly ties into topics that are about to be introduced, and I really like “in universe” documents or essays used to convey information about the setting. Full blown short stories, however, aren’t one of my favorite additions to a game book.

It’s not that it’s not a good story. It’s not even that I’m not likely to pick up an anthology set in the world if such a thing were to come out. It’s just that my brain is here to learn a game, and reading a story that doesn’t directly illustrate something coming up in the text gets me out of the “learning a game” groove.

To reiterate, however, the story is amusing, and definitely in the spirit of the setting.

Chapter One:  Welcome to 7th Sea

This section is a general introduction to the style of game this will be. There is a quick explanation that the setting is not unlike a more progressive 17th century Europe, but in addition to more progressive attitudes, there is also magic as well. The game is about romance, intrigue, and swashbuckling in various flavors.

There is also a somewhat "old school feeling" admonition to stay away from the GM section if you are a player, which feels kind of dated to me. The reason given is that knowing GM facing information may “ruin the magic trick,” but I’m so acclimated to players knowing how every aspect of the game works, this just feels odd.



Chapter Two: Theah

This is a very lengthy chapter that goes into the setting of the game. It is written in third person “voice of God” style, discussing the setting as if it were a real place. There are no summaries about potential adventures in various countries, or digressions about what types of adventures are common in different regions. There is no reference to this being a setting for a game at all.

A lot of detail goes into what amounts to historical minutia gleaned from the cultures from which the analogies are drawn, such as what countries have what type of hat, buttons, or pockets. There is also a section at the end of each nation’s description that goes into common names from that country. To be honest, I almost wish a bit more shorthand was utilized.

In a few places, the broad descriptions of cultures and practices feel a bit too on the nose and stereotypical. The general description of the continent mentions that there is more diversity of appearance in Theah than in Europe, and that nationality is a stronger factor than appearance, and I’m glad that the book notes that. However, the descriptions of the various nations tend to describe the ethnic traits that you would expect for each region, and the artwork generally depicts the traits you might expect for the nation used as a basis.

In general, the setting is more accepting of female adventurers and leaders, and the analogy of England has a strong female queen, as an example. However, the plight of women in Vodacce is a bit disturbing, even if it leaves room for a background and a cultural norm to strive against.

While you can certainly see places in Thea that will be good for swashbuckling adventures, there is also a lot of time spent on discussing haunted ruins, warfare, and trade. To be honest, without presenting the game rules and expected story beats before the setting information, the setting feels like it could just as easily be about more typical human-centric D&D dungeon delving or large scale mass battles. To a certain extent, the setting, as presented, reminds me of the setting information in the Iron Kingdoms RPG core rulebook.

Not that Thea is an over the top steampunk fantasy world, but that it has many distinctive nations, broad plots that could be applied to many different types of games, and more information than may be needed to convey the tone of this specific game. In other words, this feels like a world built for multiple game types, and this information isn’t completely tailored for just the RPG experience.

I don’t want my discussion of the setting chapter to come across as too broadly negative. The longer I read about the setting, the more interesting it is. It just doesn’t inform me about how the game plays or how campaigns should take shape. At one point while reading about the use of gilders versus other coinage, I was worried that the game was going to be keeping track of exact exchange rates, for example.

Not all the nations are as direct an analogy to real world cultures as others.The existence of magic changes the landscape, but so do recent changes in this game’s version of the church, fallout from the War of the Cross, and how various monsters and supernatural creature affect different nations and customs.

Overall, it’s a very compelling setting, but I was getting very impatient waiting to see what the mechanics of the game look like. For a chapter that spends most of the time explaining what the setting is like, as if it is a real place being explained, there is an oddly jarring analogy that references college football in one section.

Chapter Three:  Making a Hero

All the nations mentioned in the previous section get another summary in this chapter. This confirms to me that the setting information could have gone in the back, in the GM section, as these primers are more than enough to give the players an idea about the nations their characters will be from.

Starting in this chapter, the tone is much more conversational. It talks to people playing the game, and acknowledges that this is a game book. It references pop culture influences. It’s very entertaining in tone.

The characters are built by choosing their nationality and two backgrounds. Characters get a certain number of points in an attribute, and a certain number in skills. Nations and backgrounds can add to some of these. Quirks come from backgrounds, and if a character acts in accordance to a quirk, once per session they can pick up an extra hero point. They also pick a Hubris, which is a negative trait that they can invoke to do something against their better interests to gain a hero point. A GM can also invoke this, but if they do, the player can refuse the hero point offered to them by the GM.

While the set-up again is like Iron Kingdoms, if you are familiar with that system, this section does not have a useful feature from the Iron Kingdoms RPG. The Iron Kingdoms RPG has adventuring company templates that serve as an explanation of why the party is together and the types of adventures they will have. This chapter doesn’t offer that kind of guidance.

Characters can also pick up traits, which may be easier to pick up if they are from some cultures than others. These may grant extra dice on some roles, or give them narrative permission to do things when a hero point is spent, rather than rolling any kind of Risk to resolve the situation. These can also be used to gain access to sorcery--nationality is very important when it comes to sorcery, as sorcery is restricted to specific cultures, and no one outside of that culture is going to have access to that sorcery option (although there is a trait that allows for a character that was born in one culture and raised in another, granting options from both nations).

Players start a story for their character. They come up with what that story will be, what the first step is, what the end of the story is, and what the reward is. Rewards are the way characters can advance--a three step story can be used to buy a three-point trait, for example. Stories might include things like revenge against a guy with an unlikely number of fingers that killed one of your parents, and your first step may be learning that count’s name.

Chapter Four: Action and Drama

This chapter explains how to use the attributes and skills that you assigned in character creation. Whenever a character is attempting to do something that may be considered risky, it’s considered, well, a Risk.

When resolving a Risk, a character chooses an approach to the task, and the the GM will mention what attribute and skill would apply based on the approach the character describes. The character rolls their dice, and for each set of dice that totals 10, the character gets a Raise, which is a “point” that they can spend to do a thing in that scene.

Raises can be spent to cause damage, pick a pocket, jump across a chasm, or whatever makes sense in the scene. If they do something that is not in line with their initial approach (if they recklessly charge into battle, then get cautious before everything is resolved), that action costs an extra raise. If the action also involves a skill that the character doesn’t have, it costs an additional raise, so doing something that doesn’t match your approach and for which you aren’t trained could cost three raises.

If there are multiple characters in conflict, this becomes an Action scene, and everyone involved announces their general intentions and approach, rolls their dice, and the people with the highest number of raises gets to go first and spend however many raises they want, then the next highest goes, etc. Not all raises need to be spent at one time, but once a character spends their raises, if they are no longer the character with the highest number of raises, the next person down goes.

Once all raises are spent by everyone in the scene, if there is a need for more action, everyone rolls again and continues the sequence above. In addition, GMs introduce opportunities that the players can seize with a Raise to get something extra in a scene, and consequences, which are things that will happen if they don’t spend raises to mitigate the consequence. For example, if a room is on fire (they like that example a lot in this book), if you haven’t crossed the room or found some way to protect yourself from fire when the round is done, you will take a number of wounds based on the established consequence. It’s possible to partially mitigate a consequence, so if a fire is going to do 5 wounds at the end of the round, and a player only has three raises to wrap themselves in a blanket to protect their skin, they only suffer two wounds from the fire.

Characters have a wound track where they can take multiple wounds, and then take a dramatic wound, and the wounds are arranged on a spiral. If you get four dramatic wounds, you are incapacitated. If you take your first and third, you get bonus dice and your 10s explode, respectively, and when you take your second, villains get bonus dice on actions against you.

Characters can also spend a Raise to apply Pressure, meaning that the villain must spend extra raises to affect anyone else in a scene--but villains can do the same thing to heroes as well. Raises can be spent to fend off wounds, but if you get shot with a firearm, you always take a dramatic wound in addition to the regular wound, and you can’t ignore the dramatic wound from a gun with a raise (well, not without sorcery, but that’s later).

Dramatic scenes allow each player to pick an approach and roll dice, but they only do this once. If you attempt to get information and maybe some profit from sneaking into a mansion during a party, for example, once everyone has spent their raises, that scene is over, and no one gets anything else useful from it. Characters that run out of raises before the scene ends, however, can still spend hero points to do things that traits might allow them to accomplish automatically.

I’m very intrigued by this system. I have already heard the potential downfall of this system, in that players and the GM can get locked in a cycle of negating wounds until someone runs out of raises. There is a sidebar that says “don’t do that,” but sidebars saying “don’t do this thing that is clearly the best option under these rules” don’t seem to be the best way to address problems with the rules.

Game Master Rules

This section goes into rules that are GM facing. GMs can award a hero point to “buy” dice for their danger pool whenever players have dice left over that aren’t used to make raises. They can spend these dice in several ways, such as to just add dice to their rolls, to do something like getting the focus of all the heroes at once (forcing them to spend more raises to do anything but deal with the villain), or to increase the cost of raises to 15 for one round. They also need to spend a point from the danger pool to murder a hero.

Villains are assigned a certain number of points, which are then split between strength and influence, with strength being their pool in action based endeavors, and influence their pool for political and social maneuvering. Villains can also invest their influence to buy other villains to help them, or to sink into a project. If that project comes to fruition, the villain then increases their total influence from that point on. Some PC actions can undermine influence and lower that rank for a villain.

  • Honestly, as a stat to use for social and political Risks, I like Influence. As something to track as being invested in things, this reads as overly fiddly, especially in a game as narrative as this.
  • Yes, characters cannot die unless murdered by a villain, and a hero can spend a raise to negate a murder.

Brute Squads are NPCs that just deal damage at the end of the round if not dealt with. They have a strength equal to the number of people in the squad, and do damage equal to the number of people in the squad if neither the Brute Squad nor their damage is negated by the end of the round.

Monsters can be Brute Squads or Villains, and they get special monstrous traits, like dealing more damage at night, or gaining the ability to regenerate (by spending points from the danger pool and removing wounds).

Players that do unheroic things, like torturing prisoners or killing a helpless opponent, gain corruption. Corruption spirals upwards. The first villainous act nets a character 1 corruption. The second nets them two more. The third three more. So, someone that has done three villainous acts has 6 corruption. Each time a character gains a point of corruption, the GM rolls a 10-sided die, and if the roll is equal or lower than the corruption, they become an NPC villain. A character can start a redemption story to remove corruption, which needs to end with a heroic act.

I like the corruption track, and I love the redemption story remove corruption, but I’m not a fan of the random roll to take a character away from a player. The GM needs to warn the PC that their act is not heroic before assigning corruption, but I think I favor games that have corruption that has consequences, but doesn’t remove agency (such as Force and Destiny).

Chapter Five:  Sorcery

This chapter deals with the various flavors of sorcery in the setting, which ranges from making necromancy flavored alchemical balms and concoctions, to ripping holes in reality, to having a personal devilish thing that can be bargained with for favors and information, at the risk of setting it free.

All of them are very distinct from most magic found in other games. The effects tend to be split up into narrative permission to be somewhere the character shouldn’t be, to get narrative permission to have information the character shouldn’t have, or to gain some bonus in certain situations.

Depending on the form of sorcery, a character may be required to injure themselves as a sacrifice, uphold a specific code of honor or lose access to the magic, or even automatically take corruption whenever certain magic is used. The greater the stricture involved, the broader the effect tends to be. For example, asking your spirit to cause an avalanche will cost you corruption, and another level of corruption if innocents get hurt, but you have the ability to potentially wipe out a whole town by asking for one thing.


Chapter Six:  Dueling

This section deals with various dueling styles. If a character takes a trait that gives them access to one of these styles, they can do special things in action scenes if they meet the conditions of the style. For example, some styles require a weapon in each hand, while others require a free hand.

Characters can do things like doing extra damage on a hit for only one raise, negating extra damage with a parry maneuver, or cancelling out all the raises a character has when isolating them by locking them up with their weapon in a defensive stance.

The styles are presented with almost as much backstory as the sorcery above. It’s also harder to pick up a dueling style than to learn magic or join a secret society. Learning a dueling style is almost always the result of completing a story which is structured to find an instructor and impress them.

Some styles can only be taught if a specific teacher approves the student, and others are taught by wandering performers in a circus. The variety of styles, backstories of the school, and teachers makes dueling just about equal to sorcery in flavor.

Chapter Seven: Sailing

This section goes over the rules for sailing. Ships can have specific stories, which grant bonuses to some actions in certain circumstances. Ships also have a death spiral (damage track) much like characters, with critical hits replacing dramatic wounds. When a ship is incapacitated, it can be plundered, but crews can usually escape the ship unharmed.

If a significant part of the ship can be salvaged when a new ship is built, and that part is integrated into the new ship, the story still applies.

When specific things happen to a ship’s crew (such as being boarded by pirates or sailing to a faraway country for the first time), the crew gets the benefit of an “adventure,” which gives some other bonuses under specific circumstances.

NPC ship crews have a strength rating, and roll the strength in dice to make raises in scenes like PCs or villains, but they must spend all their raises in one action (so they all attack at once, or they all work on mitigating damage to the ship).

I like some of the nautical superstitions and practices thrown into this chapter, but like the setting information, it feels like it could have been summarized a bit more succinctly.  

Chapter Eight:  Secret Societies

Several secret societies are spelled out in this chapter, from underground secret reformers, wandering vigilantes, monster hunters, and anti-war activists. A character can choose to join a secret society, and there isn't a cost associated. They just decide they want to be a member. They can only be a member of one at any one time, however.

If a character does something for a society, they gain favor with them. Favor can be spent for things like secret knowledge, some extra muscle, or a specialist hero to aid them on a mission.

The final secret society is not available for PCs, but is a council of uber-villains that is the biggest, most secret bad guys in the setting, and make for nice “secret masters” when you want a conspiracy to go deep or bigger than you originally had planned.

This is one of my favorite chapters in the book, but I’m a sucker for organizations and secret societies in a setting.

Chapter Nine: Game Master

This section gives a lot of good, solid game master advice. However, the advice isn’t specific to this game, or to its mechanics. There is a section devoted to a few campaign styles, like privateers or monster hunters, but it doesn’t go into some of the specifics I had hoped for. As an example, nation is very important, and it seems rare that you would have an especially diverse group of adventurers. It seems as if you either pick one nation to focus on, and explain the one or two oddballs from other countries that ended up there, or you pick a secret society, and explain why everyone is part of the same one.

I really wish more about why different nationalities would work together would have been addressed, especially after the book addresses national character so much.

While this section gives some suggested adventure structure ideas, I would have rather seen more “drilled down” examples. The examples of play are good when they appear, but I would have liked to have seen something more akin to a “scene template,” describing common scenes that might happen, what the opportunities and consequences for them would be, and how to run them. For example, crossing a battlefield during a mass combat, or fighting a ship that outclasses your own.

Looking at the tools in the GM Rules section, I can see how to start putting together some ideas for this, using opportunities and consequences, but better actual advice using these rules would have been nice.

The advice in this section is much more “how to run good games, in general,” and much less “how to use the rules in this book to tell good swashbuckling stories.” I wish it had been more tailored to this book, and good but general advice in specific games is part of what makes me expect more from game advice books that aren’t tied to a game system. Solid, general advice is often ubiquitous, even if GMs don’t always take it to heart.


I Am Not Left Handed!

The setting is intriguing and has a lot of room for varied adventures. The resolution mechanics are simple and evocative. Sorcery and dueling schools are wonderful. Stories are a great alternative to other forms of character advancement. National backgrounds and secret societies provide a lot of narrative texture to work with.

The Shrieking Eels!

I can see some brilliant tools for storytelling in this game, but they are deceptively simple, and I feel as if this game would take more system mastery than it appears on its surface. It almost reminds me of my read through of Marvel Heroic, before I started realizing the little extras that could be done with the Doom Pool that were buried in the rules. The text spends too much time in places that don’t enhance this specific product. Not enough specific examples of how to do common scenes in the book. Not enough guidance on how to put together a theme for an adventuring party, or how to get different nationalities to work together.

To Blaive!

I really like the basics laid down in this book. The setting is great. The rules look interesting, and seem to provide some really varied and versatile tools. The problems is that it spends way too much time on the big picture things--deep setting details, general GMing advice, rules twists like investing Influence or even layering adventure mechanics on top of ship stories. More page space really should have been spent showing exactly how to use the tools provided to do specific things. Parts of the book feels like getting a cool Lego set, but only getting the picture on the front as a guide on how to build the neat thing they show on the box.

Because of that, I know this is going to be tricky for some gamers to warm up to. I can picture a split not unlike what I saw from more traditional supers gamers when Marvel Heroic came out. However, much like with Marvel Heroic, I can see a lot of potential with these rules. Unlike Marvel Heroic (for someone that really loves that game, I was hard on it when it first came out), I’m seeing that potential right out of the gate.

If you like pirates and swashbuckling, and you like more narrative mechanics, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed by the purchase, but realize this game is going to be a greater investment in system mastery than it appears due to the simple mechanics. I can’t tell you to pick the book up only for the setting, but the setting itself is very engaging, and may be a selling point for people that want a fantasy 17th century world that has a lot of details worked out for them already.

**** (out of five)