Wednesday, September 28, 2011

HeroScape, bitches. Simple fun for jaded dice monkeys.

C'mon, you're intrigued!
Hi, I'm not Cliff.

I don't write simple, yet, inclusive out-of-the-box rules systems. I don't really run games. I don't strike stoic poses. I do, however, inspire insipid bullshit (A River Runs Through Hell!, Fly Fishing in a Post-Apocalyptic Nightmare) that gets run through the author of this blog to turn out far more palpable things like Another Day...although I assure you, I will author a splat book detailing proper fly usage after nuclear armageddon).

I also play his games, and I fuck them up. I take pride in fucking his shit up. The most amazing thing is he keeps asking me back. I don't know why. I also don't know why he asked me to do this, although I suspect it was because he usurped my GammaWorld 3E game so we could get back to his shit. This is the price I pay for loving the man.

No homo.

So, what this nonsense all about? I'm here to treat you to an overlooked nugget of Hasbro fun,  HeroScape. What's HeroScape, I hear you gnarled indie gamers ask... Its stupid fun, and as per most things touched by the hand of WoTC, its been cancelled. Well, ish. Cancelled-ish. But, we'll come back to that. First, let's make with the magic...

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Game Findings: Extreme Vengeance

Anyone who plays my games for any length of time comes to know that I'm a fan of pathos in my fiction. I love to heap pain on my characters and force them into agonizing situations with an eye toward seeing how they grow to overcome their adversity.

The answer, by the way, is to become cold and murderous. No, I'm only kidding. Well, I'm painting with an overly broad brush anyway. I mean, there were only a few executions and torture sessions and...


Fully realizing that I was doing the same thing over and over and might not only be stuck in a dramatic rut, but also frustrating the hell out of my players in doing so, I decided to try something wholly different in not only mechanics, but tone too. So I got my mits on a game I'd only heard about in passing: Extreme Vengeace, a game of action movie mayhem.

This is the game to play if you're looking to reproduce the stories and style of anything you've seen on the big screen starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stalone, Jean Cleade van Damme, Dolf Lundgren, etc. Light on the story, lighter still on the logic, and big on the explosions and ass kicking. It's a game where you take it easy on the players and let them badass their way around the set for a while before pulling out the stops with the final heavy, who everyone knows is going to get his ass beat something fierce. It's the exact opposite of how my games typically go, so I figured it would be a good stretch for me and a fun change of pace for them.

Now, while you play a character in the world of an action movie, like Jack Slater in Last Action Hero, I decided to change it up just a little bit and put the focus on the cinematics of the game. So instead, I had the players play actors who were playing parts in an action movie. This way, when they invoked their powers, I had an easier time asking them to narrate flashback sequences and camera angles.

How'd it play?

Conceptually, the game is great. And while it wasn't intentional, the way character creation is done makes the transition from character to actor a snap. See, characters consist of two aspects: your description and your type. Descriptions are things like athletic (Jackie Chan) or pumped up (Schwarzenegger), while types are things like soldier, fighter, and agent. In a standard game, you pick one of each, add together the stats and powers, and BAM! Your character is done.

All I did was make the description into something called typecast and applied it to the actor. That was the base character. Thus, every role that actor Glitterpony Sweetcream (yes, an actual character from my game) ever played would be played smooth. Smooth was his typecast, but his role might change from film to film. One film he might be playing a smooth cop (though knowing Glitterpony, he'd refuse that role), in another he'd be playing a smooth soldier (though again, not really his thing). If he plays a hitman, he'd be a smooth killer. Same with a ganger. I've belabored this example enough.

Mechanics were pretty simple: you've got two stats. When you want to take an action, you say what you want to do and allocate dice to it. Roll those dice and look to beat a target number or the opposed roll. One neat thing about this is that your description can modify your pool.

Oh yeah. This was my favorite part of the game. See, the GM plays the audience watching the film, and audience reaction to what's going on affects the die pool. "I shoot the helicopter," gets snores from the audience and thus takes a penalty. "I race my motorcycle up the stairwell, blow open the door to the roof and jump the bike off the edge, crashing it into the cockpit while emptying my gun into the gastank so it explodes while I fall into the harbor," on the other hand would get a rousing round of whoops and hollars, maybe even get people doing the wave (anyone remember that? Anyone?). Of course, it also comes with a hefty die bonus.

I'll admit though, my joy in playing the audience didn't come from encouraging more narrative input from the players. It should have been that, and it has been something I wanted more of in the past, but this time it was something far simpler.

I got to heckle the actors, and it was part of the game, so it was 100% okay.

Oh, the joy. Maybe some of that player character sadism has worn off on me, but I did so very much love dropping my head on the table and snoring, or outright booing when someone wanted to search bodies for spare cash. And yes, I even got to yell "you suck!" at Glitterpony once when he played it like a girly man. It was far more fun than it was supposed to be, I'm sure.

As for observations that might be useful to you, faithful reader, well, here's what I observed:
  • Simple, but out of the box: The combat system is pretty cool. As I said above, you want to do something, you give the action dice. Combat in Extreme Vengeance is loosely organized chaos. There's no codified initiative. Instead, everyone shouts out what they want to do when they want to do it, and whoever puts more dice into the action gets to go first. If you want to go before someone else, up your bid. He can up his as well until someone comes out on top. There aren't any rounds either. You stay in the current exchange until everyone's out of dice. Then all pools refresh and you go at it again. Thus you can be truly awesome at one action, or try to split your pool among multiple actions. Remember though, narration can increase your die pools, so even though driving and shooting might require you to allocate dice to two actions, while keeping some in reserve for defence, saying you're yanking your hot rod underneath the trailer of an 18 wheeler to come up on the passenger side and emptying your uzi at the gunman hanging out the window as you sideswipe another car is probably going to get you plenty of bonus dice. The game encourages you to think big.

    This is all handled with die pools, which are a tried and true method of game mechanic design. This chaotic element, while something I found cool though, was something that some of my players found frustrating. There was a lot of confusion in the beginning. One player wanted to shoot three guys. He thought he was putting three dice into the effort, but in order to shoot three people, he was really putting one die into three different shots, which meant he was routinely interrupted (he was shooting extras though, so one die was all he needed).

    I like out of the box thinking in RPG design. I've already got many many many shelves filled with similar, now stock, mechanics. So this sort of thing was refreshing for me. It might push some out of their comfort zone though, and not everyone likes that.
  • Action movie effects: While you only have 2 stats, your character gets loaded up with a series of powers call his repitior. This is a series of camera tricks, special props, and special acting abilities that allow him to manipulate the movie. Examples include catchprases, soundtracks, zooming camera, and the famous single hit shown in quick cut multi-angle replay. They're awesome, and upon reading any of them you immediately know what they look like and how they can be used. I loved them.

    So did my players. Too much. This game laid bare a simple truth: give a player something to play with on his character sheet and he's going to use it. All of it. All of the time.

    Characters start with too many repitiors in this game. The session we played consisted of a single scene: the characters converge at a run down project building where a gang has taken over and the leader, whom the characters all have a grudge against, is issuing demands. After a quick fight with some extras, the group blasted onto the roof.

    At this point we're about15 minutes into the movie. It's an in media res sort of beginning, with minimal character development so far, and we're about to kick off the first big fight that spells the end of the beginning action sequence. After this, we'll probably throttle it back, show the characters relaxing a little bit, establish them more as people, and then ramp things up again. You've all seen films like this. But remember, right now the credits are in recent memory and we've just begun the movie.

    So the characters bust down the door to the roof and converge on the gang leader.

    Suddenly one of the players invokes a flashback to show the gang leader killed his brother and then flashes back to the present all angry and crying tears of vengeance with screams of "Luigi!" (he was playing Mario, a plumber).

    As Mario throws a wrench at the ganger, Glitterpony draws his piece and fires, the camera riding the bullet to impact.

    Now we cut to one of the other characters and the film speeds up as he fires off a burst with incredible speed.

    The ganger manages to get his hands on one of the characters and proceeds to grab his throat and punch him in the face over and over, pausing after each one in true JCVD fashion.

    Glitterpony doesn't like that, and as the camera turns back to him, his soundtrack begins to play, and he cuts to a flashback of the ganger grabbing his friend by the throat and punching him in the face (I outlawed that use).

    In short, the party tried to blow through every last use of repitior they had in that first fight. Only one of them thought to try a stunt action without resorting to a repitior (and it was prety cool, running at the ganger, dropping to his knees and sliding through the guy's legs while driving the butt of his guns into the ganger's knees; I gave him big cheers, and big bonus dice for that). Repitior are cool, but they're too available in the beginning. I think the game should start you off with less and ease you up as you progress. This forces you to come up with more stunts of your own and get more comfortable milking the crowd for cheers, which is where the real meat of the game is, I think.
In the end, I think Extreme Vengeance has a number of really interesting ideas, but it's a bit rough, and perhap a little overenthusiastic in the beginning. It gives players what they want, but provides too much of a good thing. Because the die system is a little unusual, I think forcing new players to rely on it more in the beginning to get them comfortable with it would be a superior way to ease into the game as it wants to be played. Still, it reeks of fun potential, and I hope to give it another try. When I make my own action game (yes Raj, I'm still going to complete "BAM! the RPG" just for you), I intend to use this for plenty of inspiration.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Game Findings: 7th Sea

This post might seem a little unusual. After all, 7th Sea is hardly some small indie game that no one's heard of, and it's been around long enough to generate tons of reviews. I'm willing to bet that any gamer who is both old and ecclectic enough has at least given this a short go.

So why the hell am I talking about it here? Because in the course of finishing up my campaign I encountered a few things that I'd not read about, nor ever experienced in all the 7th Sea games we'd played previously, and those things caught all of us by surprise. That sounded worth talking about here.

In a nutshell, high-level 7th Sea is a very different game from low-level 7th Sea (if you'll forgive the rough nomenclature). Now sure, there's an excellent argument to be made that if the game doesn't change at all as your chracter advances, then there's no point in advancing at all. If you're prepared to say that, I'm prepared to agree with you. Statistical analysis of the 4th edition of Dungeons & Dragons showed that the average hit percentage stayed the same and even dipped a little bit as you progessed from level 1 to level 30. You opposition ramped up in pace with you, meaning that while you were doing math with larger numbers, your actual performance wasn't changing much at all. What's the point then?

Well, in D&D, you get access to more and better powers. These things open up avenues of action that you didn't have previously, making you a little broader in addition to numerically taller. But we're not talking about D&D, we're talking about 7th Sea. The thing is, 7th Sea does that exact thing as well, assuming you're either a swordsman or a sorcerer. In all the time I've played and run this game, eery character has always been one or the other (usually a swordsman), so that shouldn't be much of an issue. But you can in fact make a character who is neither, which happened this last campaign.

I'm rambling, so let's break this down a bit, and start with the basics. The roll and keep system is a good one. No, it's a great one. It's simple, it's flexible, and raising is still the single most awesome game mechanic that I've encountered in a decade. 7th Sea takes roll and keep and makes heavy use of it to great effect. However, at the end of a long campaign where most people are rolling pools approaching 10k5 or more, things begin to slow down. With rasing and well placed bonuses, those pools can shoot close to the 10k10 range, especially when dealing damage. Add in exploding dice, and suddenly you're dealing with a whole lot more math than you were at the beginning of the campaign where people were tossing 6k3. Actions began to slow down, and while the size of the pools finally convinced most people to throw everything away once they reached their target number, anytime we had opposed rolls there was no choice but to add everything up. This would have been muchworse had we done raising by the book, which drove target numbers ever higher instead of reducing the pool size. We could still move the game along, but there was a noticeable lag. In short, the roll and keep system didn't scale well to the high end of the game. It worked, but it didn't work as well as it once did.

High scores impacted combat in another way: panache. For those few out there unfamiliar with the system, combat has 10 phases, and you get one action per point in your panache score. Roll those dice, and each one tells you which phase you get an action on. If you've got a panache of 3, you're going to have 3 actions, the phase of each determined by the results of the dice. It's a cool system and one I found got things moving quickly and cleanly. There's an easy sub-system for dealing with ties, and certain options to let you act out of phase. It's good, and well designed.

When most the combattants have 3+ actions though, the nature of combat changes. Obviously, there's going to be more ties that need to be resolved, but more than that there are a lot of abilities in the game that build up over rounds or require rounds to recharge. Swordsman schools are big on this, and they're what I was getting at when drawing a comparison to D&D, but I'll deal with them more specifically in a moment. For now, suffice to say that when you've got an ability that takes a few rounds of combat to really develop power, there's a big diference in its effectiveness if your opponent is going twice this round or if he's going five times. And Theus help you if you're ganged up on by two panache 5 opponents. You've got no chance.

Therein lays the big scaling problem with this game. The way your character grows mechanically in ways more intesting than larger numbers is his accrual of special abilities, granted by either his school or sorcerous heritage. However, when you factor in the average die pool size getting chucked around by the time you can lay hands on many of these abilities, they lose a lot of luster. The best example of this is an ability one of my players wanted from the very first session of play. It was the ability to begin administering last rights to your opponent in the middle of a fight, and the process was so unnerving that it gave you a mounting fear factor in the combat. In terms of imagery, it's phenominal, and I wanted to see it in play as badly as he wanted to use it.

As the game grew to a close, he amassed enough experience to earn that power. Each round he was in a fight, his fear rating would increase by 1. Unfortunately, by the time he got it, each round was so chocked full of actions that the fights would be over in a single pass, or two in extreme cases. Everyone was doing so much that the party could lay waste to the opposition, who also had a ton of actions, before his fear factorcould grow to anything meaningful. He hung his head after several fights like this and proclaimed he'd dedicated his character to gaining a useess ability.

Normally I don't pan things so quickly, but he really did seem to be right in this case. His ability still looked phenominal on paper, but because to much action could be packed into each round now, it was useless, especially since fear is a resisted thing in thi game, and high level opponents had appropriately high scores, which meant you'd need a high fear rating to shake them. This proved true of many swordsman abilities (though certainly not all of them). The bredth promised in that style of advancement wasn't keeping pace with the power level of the game, which drove several people to begin concentrating strictly on numbers, and within that stats. The power of stats over skills is a widely known quirk of the system, but that stats outshine everything else, including schools and sorcery, was something none of us were ready for.

In short, 7th Sea remains a fantastic game with a rich world anda great system filled with simple innovative rules, but the game tops out long before anyone maxes out their scores. Just because the character sheet goes to 11 (or, really, 5) doesn't mean you can play that same game all the way through.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Another Day: Gear

Finally, we come to gear. All gear, no matter what it is, adds dice to your roll if you can explain how it's helpful. Weapons add dice to combat encounter, obviously, but you could add their dice to hunting rolls for a lot of them too. Armor also adds dice to your combat encounters. A fishing rod would add to hunting rolls if you're near fishable waters. Geiger counters add to circumventing radiation hazards. And so on.

Here's the gist of gear: you can make it as specific or as general as you like. If you want a hundred thousand different kinds of firearms, you can have them. Assign them different die ratings as you feel is appropriate. If you want to abstract it to pistol, rifle, shotgun, that works too. Since the mechanics are stripped down to a single stat due to the way encounters are handled, adjudicating gear on the fly should be a snap.

There are two important things to know about gear.

First, gear use is always optional. This includes passive stuff like armor. You don't want to use it in this encounter, then it didn't absorb any punishment. Basically this makes armor piecemeal, but you decide whether the blow lands on the armor. If you want the added protection it affords, add its dice to your pool, and you're more likely to knock out an encounter faster, and thus take less damage. Likewise, you can go fishing and choose not to use the fishing rod, but this means you're wading and trying to barehand the fish instead.

Second, every time you use gear, it degrades. Every single piece of gear you have has its own health meter, and it's damaged with every use. Not a lot necessarily, but it happens. Use gear over and over and it'll become less effective, offering less dice, until it becomes useless. So the decision to use what gear when is an important one.

Finally, a word about ammo. Tracking ammo is important for a game about resource management. But since encounters aren't resolved in a blow by blow fashion, tracking each individual shot isn't important. Instead, ammo counts represent how many encounters worth of ammo you have. Each time you use a gun, deduct one ammo from its score. This is the same for a revolver as it is a fully automatic weapon. And again, just like creating the guns themselves, you can be as specific or general as you like when it comes to ammunition. You want all pistol ammo to fit all pistols? Do it. If you're a gun nut who wants hyper-precision in the game, these mechanics allow for that just as easily.