Monday, February 01, 2010

Games: January

Battlestar Galactica: The Boardgame. It's a good game that nicely captures the 'struggle for survival' dynamic of the earlier seasons, and has the 'all the players co-operate against a common pressure but one of them might be a traitor' structure that I love. However, I'm not convinced I ever need to play it again.

My third one-shot of D&D 4th Edition was an almost-dungeon-crawl undertaken by a group of all 'arcane' (magic-using) characters. Most important thing I took from this game: Skill challenges can be great. I really enjoyed how they give scenes importance and weight. Skill challenges take encounters that previous editions of D&D would have solved via conversation, GM fiat or a single dice roll ... but under the skill challenge system, role-playing conversations and investigations is encouraged and then converted into successful and unsuccessful tests. If you accumulate a pre-defined number of successes or failures and the plot advances. Luke (as DM) was great at making them 'follow the fiction' rather than just be dry dice rolls.

Biggest problem? I found that combat was an excuse to unplug from being involved with the character for LONG periods of time. Combats are fine and will go faster when you know the system, and running encounters using video game logic and level design would be great.

I also think you have to aggressively work to contribute to the game's fiction when you're in combat. For instance, me narrating tentacles coming up around a platform to drag an enemy to his death works far better than simply activating a power. But that's something I have to push for and remember, rather than something that's encouraged or mandated by D&D's rules (for a completely different experience, try playing Dogs in the Vineyard sometime).

I spend a couple of weeks in January taking a deliberately low-key approach to gaming. I reduced or postponed game pre-Kapcon, to avoid burnout.

In that time, I played VVVVVV, a brilliant platformer that's challenging, but not too challenging. Click on that link to play the first two levels for free.

I also checked out the Doom Roguelike, an overhead ASCII version of Doom I. This was my first experience with Rogue-like games. I liked it, and decided to uninstall it before I got too deep in, as I could feel the addictive properties starting to well up inside my brain. Basically, I asked myself, "Is it 'worth' spending the time learning the interface and mastering?" In this case the answer was, no. But I recommend it, anyway.

Canabalt is a nice simple adrenaline boost of a Flash game. Got about 5 minutes amusement out of it.

One of the reviewers on Play this Thing described Avalanche as the best Flash game ever. I found it completely frustrating.

Despite my commitment to not continuing to play Poker on my cellphone, I cracked another level on this game. I continue to be impressed by the economics of this game - and by the way each level forces you to develop a feel for different aspects of poker.


Kapcon 19 is a two-day games convention held in Wellington, NZ, in late January. This was the third year where I was helping run Games on Demand, where we pick the games to run based on player enthusiasm.

In the first session, Jenni insisted I run Bad Family. Excellent peer pressure from her. Mike summarises the session nicely here. This was my first test-run of the revised rules, and I thought for the most part they worked splendidly. I'm particularly happy with a section in the set-up of the game where everyone asks one question of everyone else's characters - it generated a lot of good material to use in the game. Probably one more revision from here, which will focus on creating an Apples to Apples style simplicity, and fleshing out a few bits of the text to make them more readable.

Poison'd, Vincent Baker's game about nasty pirates was very satisfying. My first time running it: we captured a ship, took down two of His Majesty's vessels, killed a plantation owner after setting his mansion on fire, betrayed the captain twice (once, successfully), and made deals with both God and the Devil. Playing this helped me see how you can adjust the dial from extremely brutal to fun romp, and that you really need to, depending on the players you have.

Two-thirds through the game, I was a little worried that after a couple of ship-to-ship combats and some time on shore that things would get a little repetitive. Fortunately, the design of the game and some excellent characterisations from my players shifted the story into a revenge/atonement finale that proved extremely satisfying.

Bliss Stage was a highlight of the con - a powerhouse of gamers I respect sitting down at the table to create a gritty, incredibly tough story about the cost of war on a group of teenage soldiers. Apparently just as good, if not better the second time it was run.

ACTION CASTLE! is a work of genius. It's the game of 1980s text adventures. One person plays the computer telling you what you see, and every other player gets to take a turn giving the computer one single command. ('Go north'. 'Examine tree'.). Remember to save!

A World of Possibilities was an excellent scenario created by Mash. In discussing it, I need to give away a little bit: this is one of the games of TORG (*) I've always wanted to play, and I got a lot of satisfaction out of fighting in a war for reality. My only advice to Mash might be to emphasise the cost of our decisions a little more - spend a little more time milking the denoument for pathos. On the other hand, it featured a brilliant Mash-created cosm that was plausible, freaky, and stunningly clever in its Twilight Zoneness.

(*) Don't worry if this means nothing to you. It's totally a 90s RPGeekery thing.

In Session 5, I decided that I was feeling exactly in the mood to run some Primetime Adventures. I got together a large group filled with some welcome familiar faces and some people I'd been curious to meet for a while. The brainstorming session to decide on a show, I decided to run it in an extremely relaxed, no-pressure style. I wanted us to take our time, build some trust and share some ideas about the types of TV we find excited. We actually found a show idea that 'clicked' pretty early - after talking about the "Anything's possible" vibe of New Dr Who, and getting a hit from the whole group when Sapphire and Steel was mentioned, we started creating a show about an organisation that fixes problems with reality. We spent a bit of time mining the show for ideas and structuring the series, and ended up with the group playing members of two rival teams - one that solves problems through creativity and compassion, the other using guns and murder.

We decided to play an episode where the two teams collide on a mission, and an excellent conflict-filled series of scenes and time-loops followed. Props to Eric in his second Kapcon experience for playing a real bastard of a military leader, to Andy for playing his minor role with comedic aplomb, and to Rohan for a great characterisation of an intellectual who really didn't look like he was capable of saving the day.

I finished Kapcon by running my craziest game of Inspectres ever (and that includes the game set in the town of Footloose). I've been feeling a little burned out on InSpectres, and was tired and headachey, so I warned everyone I'd be running it mean, activating the death and dismemberment clause, and pushing hard. By the end of the game, we had recruited an entirely new second (and rival) franchise of InSpectres who were sitting at the other end of the table, solving a parallel mission - team one consisted of three beta-male losers struggling to make their business work, and team two consisted of their extremely aggravating ex-wives. Featured: a ghost with Alzheimers, the transformation of Brian Tamaki into an immortal, an ex-husband and wife meeting-cute over an alien abduction, and regular spots in the confessional chair to call out to our sponsor: Hell Pizza.

Great stuff.


Luke said...

"I also think you have to aggressively work to contribute to the game's fiction when you're in combat."

I agree. Fraser was much more aggressive at this than anyone else and I think it really showed. His PC was a lot more vivid than the rest in combat as a result.

I am in two minds about this though. I think a certain type of "fiction" is added in 4e combat merely through its teamwork and high tension. I agree its not really the type of fiction you are referring to.

Luke said...

A related question: do you think your disconnect from story in combat had anything to do with the PC you played? For example, you seemed more "in the fiction" when playing the Dwarven Fighter.

I have a vague notion about how matching a PC's role with a player's OOC play style may create an added level of connection.

Steve Hickey said...

Hmm. I'm thinking about your 'disconnect' point ...

I was getting used to playing a controller (illusionist), and so I was having to figure out what sort of actions to take and how to describe stuff. For me, that all came together in the second combat (with the floating platforms, archers and drakes) and things went pretty smoothly when it was my turn.

Playing the dwarven fighter was certainly a bit more primal, which was cool ... so there might be something to your player preference --> character type theory.

I think, though, my unsolicited advice would be to keep making sure that there is the space and opportunity for players to narrate how they're doing what they're doing (if they want to). I reckon that should be pretty easy in a campaign - there's less pressure to move things along than in our one-shots, and I imagine that as the game goes on, the group will get more in to working as a team and narrating stuff based on their characterisations and in-game history.

(Also, the teamwork and high tension components of 4E combat *are* excellent.)

Good luck with your Eberron game!

eric said...

Thanks Steve - PTA was a great time. I was especially impressed at how quickly you lead us to a theme we could all engage in.

Steve Hickey said...

Thanks, Eric. The game itself gives good advice on how to run pitch sessions. I've also found that taking the time to really establish what shows and things the players enjoy really pays off.

It's a matter of paying attention for those moments where you get a group nod of approval or recognition. In our case, "A world where anything's possible", and Sapphire and Steel.

Then I figured why not start brainstorming OUTWARDS from there.

The thing I love about the pitch session in a convention / one-off setting, as well, is that it gets a group of people who maybe don't know each other all that well really working smoothly together - which I think translates into smooth playing of the actual game.

And, again, I thought you were great. It's always impressive to have players bring the antagonism between each others' characters, and both you and Rohan had no fear about doing it. Excellent stuff.

Luke said...

Cheers. I agree with what you say. The disjointedness between encounters and narrative is one of the biggest hurdles in 4e. I think I have all but managed to deal with it for Skill Challenges, but combat is another question altogether.

I plan to slow things right down in Eberron and let the game breathe. I am interested to see the result. I also think that campaign play will help as players will become familair with their PCs and build relationships with the other PCs.

In fact, due to the teamwork aspect of 4e, I have been subtly focussing on making the party dynamic a large part of the game out of combat. Hopefully, the players will find combat a way of exploring that relationship dynamic in a mechanical way.

Mashugenah said...

I think part of the problem with the finish was that I didn't adequately hook you guys into your ordinary lives. The group before had reflexively drawn in their families and friends - so the shocking "everyone who's converted dies" worked an awful lot better.

I plan to fix up the cracks in the scenario that are now apparent before putting it online, and the resolution and aftermath are the big areas that need some additional work.

Andy said...

Thanks for running a great game of Prime Time Adventures Steve. I really had a great time and I loved the way how everbody clicked and came together.