Monday, 30 May 2016

Pay No Attention to that Man Rolling Dice Behind the Curtain

Slowly getting to grips with my new found obsession with mastering games (that obsession helped greatly by it being a whole lot easier on the wallet) has given me a much more meaningful insight on how much time and effort goes into role-playing games and their gods controlling them. Home brewing my current AMP game that's soon coming to a close has been an amazing contrast of laugh-out-loud highlights and "the f*** you doing Joden?". 

My first session, in my head, was the tutorial which is a horrible horrible way to start any campaign, short or ongoing. I love Get Backers and so based the story of my two players as:
You're both in heavy debt with the owner of this cafe and to pay him back, you do mercenary work that involves returning stolen goods to their rightful owners.

Their first task in "Player timeline" was securing a briefcase from a building that didn't have security! And they were even told to wear the Harry Potter invisibility cape in the form of the MIGHTY HI-VIS(tm)! 

Blazing into a cafe where helpful Tommy Chong was there to point them in the right direction to then have them casually walk into the basement level of the CCTV-less government building had the hint of a good idea behind it but lacked any real substance.

You see, as my first ever GM'd session, I was so utterly terrified that my players would be unable to unearth the secrets of what my story was telling. So afraid I was, I made two characters that by primary, secondary and tertiary roles (& beyond) was there purely to say:

"Oh yeah THAT building. The briefcase you're looking for is going to be in the basement. It just so turns out that I know exactly what they do there, where they would place stolen cases, when the building was erected and how good the security is there DESPITE not knowing dick about it until just the second you asked me about it...."

As I said, brown-pants-ingly timorous (Timorous Joden? Was 'afraid' too arduous to write?).

Learning my lesson pretty darn quick, I rested on my laurels and decided to let an adventure book do the meat and potatoes of the writing allowing myself more freedom with fleshing out NPCs and giving them noticeable traits, body language and outrageous accents!
Adding pinches of my own world I had originally intended to connect the basically random plots of "Find the Zero Patient Tumor epicenter" & "Escort Fireboy in an RV" worked in my favor and really built the existing characters up from the shells they were in the first session.

Having a bit more of an idea of what to do I then once again faced the bright burning light of running a session without leaning on pre-written material. It went better this time although instead of telling my players exactly what they should be doing, I instead went with sticking them onto some rails and gave them no options whatsoever instead...

Ahh, the Bliss of Hindsight. At the time I thought I as being right clever with interesting encounters and events, unknowingly tying them together with precisely one way to proceed. I'm still learning, give me a break...

How to improve myself as a GM? Well for starters I need to smash the training wheels. Assumptions that my utter brilliance will prevent players from ever leaving the room they currently occupy must be quashed if I ever want to have meaningful sessions that aren't predicated on "Stuff happens, stuff happens SUPER INTERESTING BOSS BATTLE, then stuff happens". Letting my players loose and making their own choices in how to alter the world they stand in is better than my current flaw of answering the question "How do I get the players to go where I want them to?" with a character who's only characteristic is that he's got a bad Jamaican accent and freezes time whilst BAMF'ing the players with no save or reaction to the next story location.

The other flaw I have right now as a GM is being a little TOO loose with the rules. AMP's two-skill combo system is fantastic as a narrative tool but when it comes to fair and challenging combat, my players have learnt that having nothing in a stat isn't a detriment since making another stat make sense is as easy as slightly changing what they want to do. My Gf for example has absolutely no Fighting skill but still rolls huge numbers because being an amateur surgeon who primarily uses needles in combat, she uses Medicine checks mixed with Marksmanship to make attacks. My friend uses Intimidate instead of the normal Speed+Intuition as his Initiative roll in combat which results in him getting hit first but only after he makes the first attack being that his intimidation stat is through the roof. I let it happen because the game outright tells you to (as in if it makes sense, use it). It does smell slightly of BS when instead of using one's actual fighting prowess in a brawl, a player instead remembers their days at medical college and how good they are at origami and be just as good, if not better at killing a man as the guy who been street fighting their whole lives. It's still fun and my players are awesome enough to only slightly abuse it but it's still a little funky in my own view. 

Talking about fear, I'm also super afraid to get my players killed. My Gf's character rolled low to defend vs a high roll against a truck full of machine gun nutcases (I prefer to let the dice fall as they may and then do what the character would do in the given scenario) and she took double her hit points in damage which by AMP's game rules means that character is DEAD but since it was only halfway through my intended campaign arch; instead of being SUPER DEAD, she instead lay on the floor and the NPC teacher of science performed kitchen drawer surgery enough to get my Gf's character conscience and heal up unaided.

Luckily, the players I game with aren't using this to munchkin through the campaign knowing they're immortal and are instead doing the honorable thing of doing what they feel their player characters would do which is a huge boon as a GM in my mind, but still a pretty big failing on my part if they were that type of player.

With the next session looming, I hope to hell I learn from these experiences. Negatives aside though, it is so very rewarding being a game master and creating worlds and characters. Being able to have a laugh with friends and creating "Remember that time when" moments is pure and simple joy and I'm so glad I took the leap to do it.

Make those characters in your head come to life and have fun out there.

Monday, 23 May 2016

The Cards Against Humanity Effect

I once went to a gaming cafe for an MMO meet-up and after the thrill of getting 40-odd strangers together with nothing more than a guild in common with each other we all sort of settled down into our cliques and waited the day out. One group called out that familiar "Who wants to play Cards Against Humanity!?" to which quarter of the room joined in with what was a fuster-cluck of a game where half of the 10 players couldn't hear what was going on and completely dis-regarded the end game in favor of getting those shining moments.

You know the moments right? The moments that you will share later on in geeky discussions as part of a round table of funny memories. The moments you share out whenever you talk about your favorite games with like-minded people. Cards Against Humanity is built around this factor, its the whole game. A certain black card comes down and suddenly you're back to the day you first slapped down the greatest white card ever and the whole table gasped in "I shouldn't laugh but I am" horror and for those glorious 15 seconds, you were the worst human being in the room.

Now, I hate Cards Against Humanity but I can respect it's effect. I hate it because it is a game without end and it's very much a game that's waiting for the card combos that get highlighted whenever other groups play it. "Winning the game" doesn't matter as much as "What's the most horrible &/or funniest random white card I have". I've played MTG multiplayer games that went on for 6 hours where no one was winning or progressing to end-game, I've played Apocalypse 40K games that lasted FOREVER and quite frankly, I've done my time. Playing a game that doesn't end simply stops being fun for me and it dilutes the simple joy of tabletop gaming.

What I can respect though is the Cards Against Humanity effect, where a game becomes more than just a decent way to spend time. RPGs are ruthless in this regard, as are most tabletop games where special moments are collected in one's mind and are brought forward by geeky discussions and continue to multiply with each proceeding game.
A Munchkin game where my friend ended up with 3 arms that were holding a total of three one-handed weapons and another 2 handed weapon (Due to the "Cheating" card) and absolutely wreaking everything in his path with no way to screw him over.
Take Malifaux, where the Red Joker absolutely saved or ruined a game, those times where a Black joker has occurred only to turn into the Red Joker because the attack still got through or how a certain upgrade made one model an absolute beast against a certain opposing model. 
My recent games of AMP where my friend's character "Dr Chaos" in a chase scene I lovingly crafted as a finale to a session was ended by him dumping all resources into an attack then crit'ed that MOFO rendering the THREE trucks Two-Dimensional by sheer power of Force Blast. A fine way to end a day of critical fails and subsequent dice shaming.
My Gf's character "Dr Hu" (Yes, jokes were made) in the session before that rained down hot death in a basement brawl. She managed to roll really high steamrolling my difficulty modifiers thus enabling her to stab a needle directly into a clones brain via eardrum. Next turn managing to tear said needle from this guys ear, ripping through another clone's jugular and ending the needle stabbed into a third clone's face.

(Pro-tip, if my Gf ever has free reign to do anything without consequence, don't piss her off.)

It's these stories that stay in our mind and proliferate in our discussions of gaming memories with friends and strangers alike. These creations of nothing more than our own imaginations getting a jump-start from rule sets and game designers; something you don't get in such magnitude from video games or movies. It's a great thing that stimulates the mind when you get together again with friends old and new. This is what, in my mind, makes C.A.H such a resounding force of getting complete strangers to get together, that simple joy of sitting down and creating "happy" memories.

That and generally allowing everyone to be an awful person without consequence or blame. "What would Grandma find disturbing, yet oddly charming?"  "Big Black Dick" What? It's Cards against Humanity!

Don't let the demons get out and have fun out there.

Monday, 16 May 2016

Where I explain why I'm such a Hipster

A friend asked me a question the other day: 
"Why are you so against playing Pathfinder?" 
He asked assuming that I'm a hipster who avoids popular media (Kind of true). My answer was thus:

"I'm not against Pathfinder (or D&D etc etc) if there's a game running and I can make it I'm in. The thing is, is that I Know that Pathfinder is good. I want to experience other systems and find out if they are as good, or if I'm being hopeful, better."

This is true for most of the media preferences I consume (As in RPGs, Anime, Fantasy novels and some games, depending on price naturally), I will find myself walking into a shop and literally judging a book by it's cover. 

...and by that I mean reading over the synopsis.

As shallow as it is (and it is) if you want to get me to buy your product you need to hit 3 criteria:
1./ A reasonable price
2./ Some well-done artwork
3./ An excellently worded synopsis without going all 'buy this buzz-words'

Some of my favorite books and anime I've found by this process, where they hit those 3 points and I've picked them up. If I had looked up reviews of "Speed Grapher" or Scott Lynch's "The Lies of Locke Lamora" beforehand, I might have not gave them a second glance. This is because I enjoy the risk of trying something out without the hands of preview chapters, PDFs or Netflix tainting my view of it. If I've put down £20-£30 on something, I'm at the very least going to complete the experience rather than the Netflix problem of having no reason to continue if the first 10 minutes didn't capture me. 

For example: Paranoia Agent, an anime I had no knowledge of before buying has THE SLOWEST START to an anime I've ever witnessed, the opening is weird and if not for putting down £30-ish quid I would have left it early on.  I continued to watch though, through the box set and suddenly the anime opened up and the preceding story made a lot more sense and foreshadowed following events and I was struck with the euphoric moment of "I'm so glad I kept watching!". 
Had I stuck to watching the well-known and popular titles, I would watch them saying that yeah, they're okay; I wouldn't have that fist bump moment because the hype surrounding it has peaked to the point of hating it or loving it because of it's over-exposure before even viewing it.

Undertale I've never played nor wish to at this point. I KNOW it's an amazing game and the internet has done a fine job of making sure everybody knows about the last boss or the opening scene or the scenes in-between ("Don't you dare kill Goat Mum"). With so much attention, it's now impossible to go into Undertale blind unless you simply do not have internet access.

This of course extends to tabletop miniatures as well, with the caveat that people in my area need to be playing the game for me to invest a lot of time into into it. With 40k I could have gone Space Marines and won more games but again, I knew they were good, I wanted to see if the other factions were any good as well. Try being a modern 40k player without consulting MEQ stats (Marine equivalent) for every single model choice you make and understand that I didn't foresee it being fun to play the faction that everyone assumes the opposing player is playing. In my whole time playing 40k I only faced Eldar and Orcs once, every other time it was Marines, it's boring. 

With Malifaux it's less apparent now because unless one is strictly keeping to one faction, players are likely to gather any crew they enjoy the mechanics of so a power fence isn't brought up to face that one faction that everybody plays. Luckily Malifaux doesn't have 'The one Awesome faction'; one could argue Guild, but then someone will pipe up and say Neverborn then behind that person, another player will say Outcast, then in the back an old veteran tells everyone in the room the tales of that time he faced Gremlins etc etc
But I still went in relatively blind and chose the Ice Mage because I have a fondness for Ice Magics.

D&D, Pathfinder and the RPGs everybody "knows" is at a point where anybody interested in playing a tabletop RPG knows it's good and likely wants to play it first because "I don't want to waste my time on something bad" but here's the thing: With the right GM who

knows the rules and manages them seamlessly into a story, it doesn't matter if you're throwing D6s, D20s, D100s or playing Jenga. What it well and truly boils down to with many RPGs is what you character creation options are and the mood of game you're playing. For me, I'm looking for a good time, not to narrow my options down to the global opinion that X, Y & Z RPGs are the only ones worth playing.

To go back to my friend's original question, I don't shy away from the cool kid's games and media because I hate them or have a disliking towards them necessarily. I have a un-healthy amount of love for Bleach, Fight Club is my most favorite and most watched film of all time and I really enjoy the current Marvel Cinematic universe. My point was to my friend was that I don't want to simply find the mass majority thing that the world has agreed on is the best ever awesomesauce and add to the pile, I want to find the stuff that people haven't necessarily found or maybe have skimmed over due to the other brands hype. Hell, I'm not even doing that really, what I like doing is taking a risk on the unknown and finding out for myself if it's worth my time and something I enjoy. Again, some of my favorite books and anime were found by me skimming a synopsis and dropping some pocket money on them, I wouldn't be playing AMP right now if not for randomly picking it up next to Feng Shui 2. It's the simple joy of Discovery.

Make sure life is exciting and have fun out there.

Monday, 9 May 2016

AMP: Year One - First Impressions

Despite what the past *counts* 32, blimey 32? My oh My....
Despite what the past 32 posts concerning Malifaux may lead you to believe (and rightfully so) I did originally mean this blog to encompass all my tabletop gaming; due to absolutely foreseen circumstances however, I found Malifaux a lot more fun to talk about than my latest Magic the Gathering modern deck (3-colour Clues), what new card rotations have happened in my Commander Blink deck (Less tax, more actual Blink) or games of Cards Against Humanity ("Bees?..." being the most useful white card in the whole box).

I've been interested in running or playing tabletop RPGs for the last couple of years but finding a group was always the problem in actually playing a darn game.
I'd pick up a system that seemed interesting, read the book cover-to-cover learning the mechanics, create a character or two, write a campaign and think to myself "Yeah, it looks like I got the start of a good game here".I would then run into the once, future and assumed-always brick wall and continue the thought with "Shame I 'aint got anyone who wants to play it".

 is a thing, D&D is what everybody on and off planet earth thinks about when a lone soul utters the phrase "Wanna play an RPG?" Newborn babies have an instinctual 'I know that name' when it comes to D&D. Aliens planning on visiting earth know about Dungeons & Dragons, it's a force to be reckoned with. I myself have played one intro game and a one-shot encounter where I had a bunch of fun playing Might Guy from Naruto disguised as a 1st level Monk and I enjoyed it.

Trouble is, I'm one of those hipsters who wants to play just about anything else.

Trouble Trouble is, to strangers or friends-of-friends-of-mates who want to play an RPG, what they really mean is: They want to play D&D 3.5/Pathfinder; so when I roll up with "Anima: Beyond Fantasy", "OVA: The Anime Roleplaying Game" or "Legend of the Wulin" to try out, I get the stink eye and then told elaborate stories of their previous combos or misadventures in Path-D&D-Finder 3.5.
Shadowrun also gets love at my local but that's beside the point...

Not learning my lesson obviously, I still pick up RPG systems based purely on art and how good the synopsis is at one of my kinda-local gaming retailers. The latest RPG that I assumed would get the backhand because it's not Dee-undee was AMP: Year One, a supers RPG with a fancy "duel-skill combo" D20 system and a greater emphasis on the human side of supers rather than being the Hero/super Villian. What makes AMP different from my other books is that I've found players who have a lot of fun playing it. Playing a system rather than talking about it in theory sounds better for me for a First Impression. 

My love of X-men back in my youth never really went away, my loathing of graphic novel prices was just stronger. AMP re-lit that love being that it's setting is very much about normal people gaining powers and how they and the world around them react to it.
The book goes into great detail about the hows and whys of these newly discovered powers that random people are getting and for the first time, I got really involved in the story and setting AMP was putting forward. Too often with other RPGs, I really enjoy the mechanics of the game but rarely the setting or story told alongside it; With Year One (and my love of Marvel's Merry Mutants) however, it's story gripped me and really got the creative juices going in how I could run a RPG in this world. Very impressed.

The character creation is just the right balance for point buy games for me, not so simple as to throw a handful of numbers on the page and add dice to them, not so crunchy as to require a member of MENSA in mathematics in order to make a character a well-rounded one.
The super powers are vast but not an all-you-can-imagine range. Super-Sense, Speed, Strength are the typical ones and there are also Teleportation (Either willed or via Portals) and even a degree of Time control powers (You can stop it but can't travel through time for instance). You have control animal powers, absorption abilities, bolts of energy and enhancing powers alongside some nice non-combat ones such as memory manipulation, dream walking, future sight etc etc. It's vast enough that with the ability to choose up to 3 to combo off of each other it always makes for a fun, well-rounded character but not always the character you want or envisioned. This isn't necessarily a bad thing when lined up with the setting in my mind.
Odds are, if the everyday Joe were to gain random powers one day, they wouldn't become Dr. Strange, odds are they'll have the ability to talk to plants (Also a power in AMP). Remember, it's not a super hero game in the strictest sense, it's about what would happen if a normal person were able to use portals or read minds, what they would do with such power and how regular non-powered people would react to them. So a campaign featuring a nutcase who asks plants for details of a crime scene can exist and not feel out of place when they are standing next to the 8ft tall Speedster Hulk and the
other nutcase who talks to bees and who can fly...

 The day-to-day skills are generalized without being rather ridiculous, It's what you would expect with some common sense vague-ness but this is where the duel-skill combo check comes into play. For example: "Crafts" is a skill that allows one to build/take apart objects, something mundane on it's on but when paired with "Stealth" one can create hidden traps, with "Performance" one can build theatrical props, with "Beast Handling" one can design a muzzle or a cage fit for the chosen animal.
hen a character is jumping between rooftops during a chase scene, it's not a simple Athletics check, it's an Athletics + Speed check simulating maintaining a fast pace and using that momentum to jump.
Want to intimidate someone? How are you intimidating them? With your strength? Intimidate + Might for example.
With your knowledge of Cheese? Intimidate + Knowledge (Specialty: Dairy Products).
In a world full of RPGs trying to reinvent the wheel when it comes to adding dice to a number, it's a system that allows greater ease when describing an event to a GM and so long as that same GM puts a rein on it, some interesting ways of dealing with situations occurs. One of my players has a doctor who uses acupuncture needles, she has no fighting stat because, well she's a doctor so when forced into combat she asked if instead of using a fighting skill combo, she would be allowed to use "Marksmanship" + "Medicine" combo instead to simulate accurately hitting pressure points to take down her opponent. It made sense in my mind so I allowed it. 

It does have it's flaws mind you, a player and myself discussed that if allowed, Knowledge + Speed can check for everything in the game, for instance:

"Mad Mike takes aim and fires his rifle at you"
"I'll use my Knowledge + Speed to calculate the trajectory of the bullets path, rush him and with Knowledge + Speed again, attack using pressure point systems to stop his heart"
"Right *
sigh* With Mad Mike taken care of, you can now attempt to calm down the hostage"
"Using my know-how of human psychology and wanting to calm them down quickly I use Knowle..."
"Big rocks fall..."

As far as game breaking goes, it falls on the GM's shoulders as it does in many games. "Time Freeze", a power that allows a character to stop time for 10 in-game seconds can become ridiculous with other power combos (Such as "Teleporting" to, without a defense reaction allow a character to insta-gib a single opponent).
This is balanced somewhat by the Juice system, the chemical balance of adrenaline in one's own bodies that in essence 'pays' for the use of powers, stopping players from doing bonkers maneuvers more than once in most instances, although with powers that can lead to gaining Juice from energy absorption, two players can without much effort work as a team to shut down every threat you put against them outside of 
"Big rocks fall".

Give players a supers system though and they will break that system over their knee if they desire, players gonna play, so don't take this and the above check as a game breaker, just something to nip in the bud
very early. The two-skill check is great for flavoring what your checks are actually doing but sometimes, no two skills makes sense or you can't think of a combo right away, you can substitute the two-check for "Skillx1.5" which is a good fix for times it comes up.

AMP also has the standard advantages/drawbacks alongside bonus points to further customize your character, nothing out of the ordinary but I do enjoy how some combined can make for interesting archetypes. One player has a drawback that everyone recognizes him for being in jail, but with the advantage that he has a large amount of respect among the criminal underworld. So whilst he might be screwed trying to get past a security guard, he can always call in help in other ways to hack into a system or drive him somewhere.

All-in-all the power system and the way the skills are created make for fun games and something I'm really enjoying running, even if it is showing me the darker sides of my player's personality. How does one make the power "Accelerate Sickness" out to be anything else but absolutely evil, especially when the same character has been a chain smoker for all their life and have a power which can transfer disease from themselves to others?...

May your adventures be full of ass-kicking and good times, have fun out there.

Monday, 2 May 2016

Ending the Tale Early

I had high hopes for the Shifting Loyalties campaign. Even with the bad fan-fiction, it was a joy to work out my writing muscles and I do love a Slow Grow.
Things don't always go how one plans however, adding more rules to an otherwise well thought out system, at the start, sounded good. It got the creative juices flowing in terms of narrative driven game play and the potential for plain ridiculous upgrades and extras all sounded like a party in Malifaux.

Its just that it stopped being fun.

Week 1 went off without a hitch, I got two games in for a win and a loss and both of us walked away with upgrades and currency in our pockets. Week 2 was a disaster and left my crew penniless and chock-a-block full of injuries. Week 3 I missed out on because work and that's fine, it happens but then the idea of going into Week 4 with a crew that I wasn't happy with and using my teeth to climb Mt Everest in working my way back up just didn't appeal to me. Even assuming no injuries, an all-comers minion list is gimicky at best and was a struggle to make work. Despite the synergy that was everywhere: Komainu getting suits from Toshiro who gave Fast to Shadow Effigy who gave Remember the Mission to Dawn Serpent who charged into Pathfinder's Clockwork Trap victims, lots going on on paper but never as effective as it should have been. This may be me trying to play Ten Thunders like Arcanists but I can't seem to make the Thunders "work" for me when I work plays to their strengths. Let me try and get to a point.

My Toshiro led list was consistently working with Max hand size 3 in all games I've played in and out of this campaign. I needed a 6 Tomes+ for Pathfinder to set his trap, an 8 (preferably of crows) for Toshiro's 'Beam of Fast' and a 10 card for Shadow Effigie's Mission Remembering. For me, that's a lot of effects to save cards for just to make my models do more than stand and score. Sure Mei Feng likes 7s for her Rail Walking, Kaeris likes her Tomes but that that's one card for one model, so it doesn't hit me as hard; with or without the Reservior option, My personal favorite Arc Henchmen: Snowstorm can push and maneuver 'Hearts without saving cards, Firestarter doesn't need to ditch cards to get an additional Ap and Joss doesn't need to spend cards to add to the scrap pile. This isn't to poo-poo on Thunders, there's obviously something I like about them if I'm so drawn to them but as a primarily Arcanist player, I'm in another world when it comes to saving cards and summoning.

As far as strictly the campaign, whilst I love a Slow Grow, the campaign is set up where your 26ss list (after henchman cost) is your primary core for the greater part of the beginning. Whilst I don't feel like I made a junk list with Toshiro, Dawn Serpent and friends, it was a list that the scheme and strategy could easily ruin. Some model choices only come up with certain S&S and some I would never take. Shadow Effigy is a model used for throwing up markers here there and everywhere, what does the Effigy do when it isn't a marker based scheme pool? He counts as a scoring model and that's about it. Pathfinder is great at disruption but sometimes I want to hire the traps rather than save cards to ensure summoning them, it's a big investment when the only Tome in hand is a 13 and I have to use it to summon ONE 2ss model that doesn't activate.
In a Slow Grow, the only restriction was the reduced soul stone cost, one might struggle to make a 26ss list for Reconnoiter but it's possible. One certainly wouldn't make the same 26ss list for Reckoning or when Make them Suffer is in the pool though. Limited options, yes but one could tailor them to the schemes and strategys. In the campaign setting, not so much until later on. If I'm waiting until later for the game to be fun, I might as well play a 50ss game of Malifaux rather than trudge through a grind to get there.

The first question I asked: would this be an altered yarn if I took Arcanists instead? Snowstorm leading Frozen Hearts, Joss leading Constructs, Firestarter leading a flock of Fire Garmin? All good options, all great on paper but it doesn't change the static list build of the early weeks. In a game where it's a necessity to play the scheme's strengths rather than individual models, having a set list with no way to swap in and out models leads to games of un-needed stress, doubly so with the injury system making bad tables worse. It isn't something I want to do just to see a Dawn Serpent with Flurry.

So ends Shiro's mission for freedom, a sad non-starter but still a hero in his own way. Have fun out there.