Posts Tagged ‘tabletop’

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Gaming Thursday: Top Secret NWO Addendum

May 10, 2018

I forgot to mention one thing during my review that I really appreciated in the new TS:NWO, and that is the rules for interrogation.  A classic, standard, spycraftian story trope to be sure, but NWO puts little factual spin on it.

In NWO, there are two rolls made during interrogation:  One is to get the subject to talk.  The other is to get the subject to tell the truth. And here’s the thing:  if you use violence, while the first roll becomes easier, the second becomes harder.

It’s nice to see them break the trope that torture is efficient, quick, and produces immediate, proper, and actionable information.  Because it really doesn’t.  And in my book, the less we perpetuate that myth, the better.

So big kudos to the designers on TS:NWO for this one!

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Gaming Thursday: Top Secret NWO Review

April 19, 2018

Here we go!  Some 33 years after I bought my first RPG, Top Secret, the newly minted (and Kickstartered) Top Secret NWO arrived on my doorstep!  Written by the same author it promised a return to super sweet spycraftian action.  I ripped open the package to find a box sporting the deliciously familiar motif of gadgets and secret documents and money and IDs.

Ahh, wonderful nostalgia, both for the cover but also for a boxed RPG!

Inside awaited the rulebook, a set of bog standard dice, a pad of nicely done character sheets (albeit a bit odd in that they present a “folder” motif but since they’re one page it isn’t much of a folder…), a very nice looking and heavy duty screen, an introductory module (perfectly done up with prominent bands of yellow on the cover, again reminiscent of the module included in the original Top Secret box, good ol’ Sprechenhaltestelle), and a gaggle of play aids:  some die-cut counters (of artwork I am not that fond of), a series of vehicle cards, and a kind of secondary character sheet table card thing.

The intel is set.  The mission is clear.  Let’s dive into the debrief… Read the rest of this entry ?

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Gaming Thursday: Tasks, Difficulties, and Aspects

February 8, 2018

We’ve just started playing the new Star Trek Adventures (aka STA), and there’s a few mechanics in there that has spurred me to think about task difficulty levels, and even more specifically, about how to set those difficulty levels.  It isn’t necessarily anything groundbreaking, but it does have me looking at it in a new way that both seems to make it more intuitive to me as well as offering up something that could provide extra excitement and options in play.

It all has to do with leveraging the notion of an “aspect” or “trait”.  Both FATE* as well as STA use this concept.  Roughly speaking, an aspect/trait is a phrase or descriptor that denotes something specific and/or out of the ordinary about the thing it’s attached to.  So, for example, a scene could have an aspect of “Dark and Stormy” attached to it, a thing could have the aspect of “super hardened steel” attached to it, and a person can have aspects such as “Earnest Mecha Knight” or “Broken Arm” attached to them.

The key for my mini-epiphany here is that they are denoting things out of the ordinary.  Most game systems will have a table denoting difficulties and a target number or similar that the character must achieve using the combination of their attributes/skills/etc and the die roll.  Usually there’s a progression such as Easy, Medium, Hard, Very Hard, or more poetic such as Routine, Skilled, Challenging, Difficult, Insane.  The question, as a GM, is in coming up with what level a task should fall in… we can get good at it over time, intuitively grasping both the world we’re supposed to be simulating as well as the meta-analysis of a character’s ability and the player’s frustration tolerance.   But as we developing that sensitivity is pretty nebulous, and can lead to some whipsawing of difficulty levels all over the place.  And even with experience, sometimes it can still feel all a little to arbitrary, and there are still times when the answer might stymie us.

After all that setup, here’s the grand idea/procedure:  Pick a base difficulty level, whatever’s appropriate for the game system.**  For example, let’s pick 1.  Then, adjust from there by adding/introducing aspects.  Hindrances add to the difficulty, niceties subtract.

Where I think this really can help is in using a trio of “generic adjective” aspects :  Extra, Extremely, Insanely***.  For example, a lock could be Extra Complex, a door could be Extremely Sturdy, a navigation plot could be Insanely Complex, a puzzle could be Extremely Tricky.  (Of course, the puzzle could also just be bog standard Tricky – which wouldn’t warrant an aspect).  These adjectives respectively add +1/+2/+3 to the difficulty.

This seems a lot like the typical ladder of difficulties (Easy, Medium, Hard, etc…), but this combo aspect of adjectives feels more graspable than the abstract nature of Easy/Medium/Hard as it focuses the attention to the actual thing at hand in relation only to itself, rather than that more abstract sense.  Plus, it then combines nicely with other aspects that can be placed on the scene, which themselves could receive the trio of adjectives to further specify how affecting they are.

So, to use a Star Trek example, Bones and Kirk beam over to Chancellor Gorkon’s ship.  The Chancellor has been shot.  “Jim, I don’t even know his anatomy…” says Bones as he tries to save the Chancellor.  Task time!  The base difficulty is 1.  The Chancellor took some hits and is hurt pretty bad… he’s extremely wounded.  Our difficulty is now 3.  Their standing in the lounge of the ship… not exactly a hospital environment, and Bones only has his little medical bag with him.  The aspect “Rudimentary Supplies” adds an additional 1, for 4.  Plus, Gorkon is a, and has the aspect of, Klingon.  That counts poorly here given Bones’ lack of their anatomy.  So we’re at a difficulty of 5.  And, worst of all, this is a major diplomatic incident.  The aspect of “Tense Situation” accounts for the factor that everyone is seriously on edge.  Boom, difficulty of 6.

Fortunately, Bones has an aspect of Xenobiology (could also be something fanciful like “Doctor to the Stars”) to represent he’s seen and studied a lot of  different alien species over the years.  He may not know Klingons specifically, but it helps him make good guesses.  So that brings the difficulty back down to 5.  Unfortunately, that is all he has to bring to the situation;  he’s got good skill and could potentially roll well, but it’s still difficult.  Doubly unfortunately, he rolls poorly, and he and Kirk are arrested.

To use another example, a party is trying to close a magical portal while under attack from beasts that are emerging from the portal.  The portal is a pretty simple one, and has no descriptor on it.  But, the “Howling Windstorm” that accompanies it, along with “Frenzied Combat”  make things much more difficult, as does the fact the group’s magic expert is nursing a “Ringing Headache” from being hit in the head by a tire iron earlier (long story).  Still everyone came prepared… the “Norstrormorororos Texts” they brought along gives them access to a lot of knowledge and tricks, and they are “Covered in Thyme”, a known beastie deterrent.  With their magic expert noted as someone who “I eat rituals for breakfast” the difficulty returns to 1, and the roll is easily made, and the portal closes.

Again, this could all be done with a simple accounting by the GM, but I think there’s something more satisfying and fun in calcing it all out like this.  For one, it lets the players know exactly where this is coming from, and also highlights how their preparation or the special aspects of their characters are helping in the situation (making them feel more epic).  Even better I think is that in listing all the aspects, they’re left out in the open and can lead to players coming up with more interesting and varied solutions by using them in clever ways, and perhaps even turning the tables into something wildly memorable. Even if not, many aspects will both aid and hinder – the Extra Windy condition may hamper communication and lock picking, but also gives the characters protection against ranged attacks, narrowing the attack options of their opponents.

Overall I think this could be really cool.  I’m going to try it out when next I run a game (squeezing it in even if the game system doesn’t intrinsically use something like aspects).  And this gives me something more to add to my stack of ideas for that RPG system totally honestly no really I am still (slowly) building

 

*  FATE uses the idea of aspects very broadly, where an aspect on a person (which itself can represent special training, or a characteristic, or a philosophy, or…) is similar to an aspect on a scene, is similar to an aspect on an object.  STA, on the other hand, has Traits for scenes and objects, but on a person, usually only their species is a trait, whereas there’s a different mechanic (Values) for philosophies and mental states, and a third mechanic (Focus) for specialized training…

** My own favoured spot to start from would be to pick the level that requires a competently skilled character to succeed at the majority of the time.

*** I would also include some adjectives to denote easier tasks, such as:  Elementary, Trivial

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Gaming Thursday: The Mouseguard Wrap-Up

January 4, 2018

And so it is that winter has embraced the mouse colonies, the white blanket bringing with it times of tranquility and reflection, both for the members of the Mouseguard and for the players of our gaming group.  Mouseguard was quite the different game and experience for us, and very much not what I expected when I suggested we give it a try (likewise equally suggesting it as the first foray into GMing for one of our group members).  As I noted earlier, Mouseguard is a rather different animal (pun semi-intended) than most other RPGs, which is what surprised us.  It turned out to be a good surprise.

I would describe Mouseguard as the most narrative of the narrative-RPGs I’ve played, and I call it as such because (answering my question in that previous post) it lends itself very well towards more past-tense and third-person style storytelling than the first-person-immediate and extemporaneous play of “traditional” RPGs.  It also focuses on wider world building and longer-term storytelling, with links and interlinks that weave themselves together over time.  This includes factors outside of the characters as well as following through their failures and successes.  It asks you to think not only of the present moment but also how could this write something that, were it a novel, the reader could see the various lines all coming together.

Which proved to be very cool.  There was a lot of pleasure in riffing back and forth across the table, crafting how the scene was narrating itself out and about how we (as the characters and party) arrived at the end state dictated by the test roll at the beginning of the scene.  Much satisfaction was had when it all came together into a nifty story.  And while it might appear less personal than typical in-character RPing, it still left us feeling in control of and, more importantly, feeling connected to our characters.

This also spread beyond our characters and led to a lot of collaborative worldbuilding, writing further bits that wove themselves into our stories.  As an example, en route to the seaside town of Darkwater, we were ambushed by, and defeated, a set of ruffians.  We chose to take them to the town for justice.  What transpired next was an amazing exercise of extrapolation (from the little information provided by the rulebook) and invention.  Turns out, these ruffians were the children of the Primarch, where the Primarch is the head of one of the two councils that rule Darkwater:  the Sea Council and the Land Council (who’s leader is called the Primus).  Each of these leaders are chosen based on which mouse on the council made the greatest profit last season, and together they are supposed to make decisions about the town, unless they deadlock, like they frequently do… and then enter our group into this situation, and a large (in-game) debate ensues between us and Sea Council and the townsfolk about leadership and justice and independence and eventually leading to intervention by the Land Council…

That was the short of it and it’s even more involved and nifty than that.  Inventing the way the town worked was fun in of its own right; getting to blend it with our story and all the complexity that came with it (and the potential for future hooks and repercussions) was incredibly exciting and satisfying.

I also very much enjoyed the way the game’s “Player Turn”* worked to further encourage the well-roundedness of your character and their story.  Whether we used it to tie up loose ends from the GM turn or used it for entirely personal reasons, it always brought something new about the character, and/or the world, to the fore.  And sometimes, when we messed up here, complications could arise in a later GM turn were all the more fun because of that long narrative tie.

Good stuff.  While we labored a bit at first to wrap ourselves around Mouseguard’s structure (in retrospect, that the GM was completely new to GMing was a boon for us here, for they came unhindered with any “traditional RPG” baggage) we all came away enjoying our time with it.  For myself, I can say without hesitation I am quite smitten with it.  I still do very much like the method-acting/extemporaneous style of RP, and so games using a Mouseguard-like system won’t become my primary gaming outlet anytime soon, but I am most certainly keen on adding it to our campaign rotation and looking forward to when we play it next.

 

* It’s a bit long to explain, but the basic gist is that the game is structurally split into two turns: a turn (which usually encompasses one segment of a mission, involving one to four challenges) where the narrative is led by the GM and turn where the narrative is led by the players (which usually encompasses a night or a few days, and at the end of a mission, a few weeks).  It took me a read or three to begin to grok it, and it took us a few sessions to get comfortable with what to do and how to fully use our player’s turns.

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RPG System 12: Permissivity

July 27, 2017

Um… ok.  It’s been nearly 18 months since I last posted anything about my RPG system.  Yikes.

And that aside, here we dive in again!  Tonight looking at an aspect of game design that includes, in some ways, the area of how broad or narrow skills are in the system.  Going beyond skills, however, it’s a more fundamental and philosophical question about game design:  how permissive is the system? Read the rest of this entry ?

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Gaming Thursday: The Mouse Guard Epiphany

July 20, 2017

With another chapter in our Dresden Files game come to a close, my group and I have plunged ourselves into Mouseguard.  Based on the grand graphic novels by David Peterson, it promises a heavily narrative-based game (it uses a version of the Burning Wheel system).  We’ve played a half-dozen or so sessions, and we’ve progressively been getting into the swing of things.  There are a quite number of intricacies to the system that took us a while to remember and get a handle on;  more than we were anticipating, but as we play more and more we can see how they interconnect and what they make available.  However, there was one aspect of the game that kept seeming to elude us, something that despite our growing familiarity of the system still seemed to be robbing our game of what we felt should be a certain flow and involvement.

Last weekend, though, in one of those hilarious moments of non-sequitur insights while randomly walking through my house, I got just what had been eluding us:  Compared to the resolution structure in most RPGs, Mouseguard’s is reversed.

In all the RPGs I’m familiar with (indeed, this has been the “normal” way of playing since I started playing 30 odd years ago), scenes* are played out in “real-time”, with players/characters acting and reacting to events as they unfold in the scene, and die rolls are made whenever the GM thinks one of these (re)actions has a chance of failure.  This continues with further (re)actions and further die rolls until the scene ends.  Many different skills or abilities may be tested during a scene, and the players are usually trying to angle themselves and their actions towards “victory.”

Here is where Mouseguard flips things on its (mouse) ear:  there is only one test, and it happens at the start of a scene.

Things begin with the GM describing the basics of the obstacle to be overcome in very broad, 1000 metre view, terms.  The scene is also set in those broad terms:  it could be the forest, an entire city, underground caverns, or the sea.  With the obstacle set, the GM can present what skill needs to be tested to bring the party to a desired outcome, and the players can also suggest more.  Then one character makes the test, with potential (and game-rules-directed) assistance from the other characters.  After a rather involved series of steps and ways to have the test be successful (and it makes much more sense why there are so many steps once we got how few influential the few test rolls are), the party either succeeds or fails.

And then you narrate the heck out of how the party gets to that conclusion.

That there is the biggest shift to make to get Mouseguard… Setting the scene also includes setting how the scene will end.  Everyone around the table knows this outcome.  Armed with that knowledge, you all work to tell the most interesting story you can come up with for how it all plays out.

Wow.

I think this is quite cool.  And I’d say definitively the most narrative angle of the narrative-RPGs I’ve played.  There’s a certain liberation in starting the scene knowing you will fail (or succeed, for that matter) – you can set up your failure much more intricately, much more delicately, and much more satisfyingly than wondering how you’ll do on that next skill test (and knowing there could be several more skill tests).  And since everyone knows, the whole group gets in on the act.  Maybe they all act in concert to foul things up, maybe one of them botches things, maybe they try valiantly but the environment gets them, maybe they lose big, maybe they just miss it by milimetres.  Interpersonal interactions can play a role, friends and enemies could be involved, it’s all open to play with.

Overall, I think this creates the potential for much richer stories.  Maybe it lends itself more towards mostly third-party narration versus acting things out, but I don’t know yet.  I’m excited to see how we play it out in our group.  Now that we’ve got the sequence down right, I’m sure we’ll begin to further grok the various intricacies between all the different inputs (persona points, fate points, beliefs, etc) and also use them in a much more rich manner.

For sure I’m still a big fan of the real-time and extemporaneous style of play, but this reverse-o way of playing has got me really eager to see what comes out of it.  I’ll let you all know how it turns out.

 

* While there’s usually no hard and game-rules enforced start to a scene, there is a certain point where the GM begins to describe things in more detail or with more urgency, often accompanied by the description of a new location.

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Gaming Thursday: Top Secret/SI (& NWO!)

July 6, 2017

I was all set to post about reading through Top Secret/SI tonight when I learned of some very exciting news:  TOP SECRET IS BACK!

The original creator of Top Secret, Merle Rasmussen, has teamed up with a few others to create Top Secret: New World Order, and it’s LIVE on Kickstarter right now!

Colour me stupendously excited.  I’ve backed it and eagerly await its release.  Judging by the couple of images at the Kickstarter, it appears it will be a dice pool system using dice sizes for rankings, in basic stats (Nerve, Suave, Pulse, Intellect, Reflex), spycraft (sigint, humint, techint, combat), and something else… roll 13+ to succeed.  We’ll have to wait and see.

But for now, back to…

Top Secret/SI (for Special Intelligence) popped out in 87.  Still quite enamoured with Top Secret, I snatched it up as soon as I heard about it, and dove into it.  It was a pretty big rules re-design, introducing and updating it to many of the ideas that were becoming prevalent in the RPG world.  Gone were the individual resolution systems for infiltration, interactions, and combat, replaced instead with a universal percentile resolution system with a target number of your Stat + Skill Level x5 +/- Modifiers.  One unique thing was how your base stat was determined, via a d60 +10 roll, with this added bit of if all your stats totaled  less than 275, you could add enough points to make them total 275.  Looking back, a somewhat interesting way of generating a starting target number with a max of 70% chance of basic success, but one that you were equally likely to roll that 70 to rolling a 20… and having yourself a nigh-well impossible chance of doing much at all with that stat, maxing out to 45 even with max skill levels… and worse, sometimes you had to roll 1/2 or even 1/4 stat…. yeah.  Don’t even try to do anything in that area of expertise with that character.

The character sheets, though, were awesome.  They came as a full-blown dossier, and cemented my love for game-enhancing feelies:

I just love that so much.  With all the space for photo, nationality, history, and more, it really brought the more “fluff” parts of the character to bear, and reminded that hey!  You’re playing an espionage game here.

One thing you’ll see on that dossier is the agent diagram with the hit boxes.  Each location had boxes equal to 10% of your CON score, and each point of damage would cross off the box.  Cross off all boxes in head or body location, and you were dead.  Other areas, and the body part was destroyed.  Much less abstract than “Hit Points” and really quite deadly.  Though at the same time a bit odd that the hands were their own hit location with just as much damage soaking capacity…

Right from the get-go, the campaign style of Top Secret/SI was turned up several notches compared to Top Secret, a much more Bond-esque and superspy type world with a big bad organization like SMERSH or SPECTRE, called WEB, and an equally large organization opposing it, named ORION.  To give a sense of the tone in a number of the published modules, I ended up running them in a superhero Champions game, and they fit right in.

What was also nifty is that, over time, TS/SI became TSR’s base system for modern day and near-future action.  Supplements expanded the range of campaign styles, including Commando for more combat-oriented, Rambo-like stories, and even FREE-Lancers, a light cyberpunk-esque style campaign.  I never really got into FREE-Lancers (which is a bit unexpected, given I loved me my Cyberpunk and Cyberpunk 2020 games), but I ate Commando up like candy.  My games became much more closely linked in tone to Mack Bolan and Phoenix Force books than suave James Bond types… though we never abandoned all the fun gadgets.  Looking back, a rather amusing mix.

Overall, I do remember that at the time TS/SI came out I was… not altogether happy.   I had a lot of “Why did they change that??”, an early curmudgeon/grognard type reaction.  And so I went forward with this kitbashed version that combined aspects from the original game with the SI edition.  Likely it was this total hot mess, but it served us well for many years.  With some distance in time and mental space, on the whole I’d say TS/SI mostly gained compared to the original release.  Even if it lost some of the uniqueness and flavour baked into the subsystems, the unified resolution mechanism in TS/SI was a plus.  The game put even more emphasis on your character’s RP aspects, and the damage boxes for hit locations made combat tense and interesting, and the aftereffects lingering.  It definitively had an impact on my thoughts on what made a good RPG system for years to come.

And now, it looks like I’m getting my wish to play a Top Secret game once again.  Come November, no way in heck I won’t be playing, and reviewing, TS/NWO.

Just call me codename:  BAGMAN