Monday, September 30, 2013

[RP Review] Our Last Best Hope - The Expansion Book

Following on from my review of Mark Diaz Truman's Our Last Best Hope last week, here's a review of the Expansion Book for that same game. The expansion book offers some additional setting playsets for groups to use in Our Last Best Hope, some of which are billed as 'advanced playsets', featuring additional roles, alternative rules and tables for consequences for player groups who've gotten used to the rules and are ready to change things up a bit. Then it has some ideas on how to hack Our Last Best Hope for different kinds of scenario from what the game is normally geared towards. I'll go through each section of the book and give a first glance evaluation of the individual playsets/hacks.
[Note: This is a review of the paperback edition.]

The Basic Missions
The first new playset included in the expansion is The Core - which was hinted at in the corebook's blurb, but not included in that book - is themed around missions into inner space, rather than outer space; which is to say, journeying to the centre of the Earth. I have to admit, my experience with 'Hollow Earth' fiction is pretty limited. I remember watching Journey To The Centre of the Earth on TV back when I was a wean, and I've seen the episodes of Doctor Who where they encounter the Silurians hibernating in their subterranean outposts and cities. I haven't, however, seen the movie from which the playset takes its name, or any of the others in the suggested viewing list. Nonetheless, the setting is in itself awesome, and is definitely one I'll be looking to try out.

The second playset is simply titled Giant Monsters, and that really tells you all you need to know about the kind of disaster movie it's aiming to evoke. Godzilla, King Kong, Cloverfield, Jurassic Park, and Tremors are some of the inspirations cited for this playset. Heck, I could even see groups getting away with running sessions based off of Attack on Titan or Pacific Rim with it, maybe adding assets like 'Giant Motherfrakking Robots' or 'Vertical Manevering Equipment'. Giant monsters are usually more of a city-level threat than world-wide, but they can easily get to the point where they pose a greater threat to humanity in general.

Third is one of my absolute favorite playsets in any GMless RPG ever; it's Technopocalypse! Mankind has come to depend on technology to the point where it's an inescapable part of modern-day living. But what happens when the technology we have become so dependent upon turns against us? We've seen the story before in films like the Terminator series, the Matrix trilogy, I Robot, and now this playset invites you to act out your worst technophobic nightmare scenarios at the gaming table. I really want to give this a shot, specifically with a couple of friends online who I know would love to play in this kind of setting with me.

The last of the basic playsets is, well, it's a bit of an odd duck. It's called Apocalypse Prevention Inc. The idea behind this playset is that your group works for a shadowy corporation called Apocalypse Prevention Inc, who protect the Earth from all sorts of supernatural badness. It takes its inspiration from stuff like Buffy, Hellboy and Men In Black. Of the four basic playsets, I have to say this is the only one that I'm all that excited about trying out. At the end of the day, the theme is too generic, and it's something I've played in plenty other roleplaying systems before. It might be interesting to try once, but I'm not sure it's got a lot of replay value for me.

Advanced Missions
The Advanced Missions are playsets which present some slightly more unusual settings for Our Last Best Hope, presenting slight rules modifications to help you adapt the game to those settings.

The first one is the Fantasy Adventure, which is geared towards classic heroic quest-style stories in the vein of Lord of the Rings or The Neverending Story, where a party of adventurers go on a journey to defeat the Dark Lord or slay the dragon or whatever. Again, as with Apocalypse Prevention Inc, I'm not really jazzed about this playset, personally. That's more because I don't have as much of a fantasy RP background as other gamers, but also because there are other systems I would probably turn to if I felt an urge to play some epic fantasy. The alternate/additional roles included to fit the genre, and the lists of crises/limits/complications/etc do provide enough material to be getting on with if you want to give it a whirl, and I would try it at least once but it doesn't grab me as much as other playsets offered here.

Second is the Thule playset, which pits the player characters against Nazi Germany's ill-advised attempts at harnessing supernatural forces to aid in their conquest of the world. Beyond the usual playset ingredients, Thule also includes suggestions on handling MIMIC in settings where a sentient computer doesn't make much sense, as well as a new character role called the Occultist. The Occultist's role power seems rather powerful at first glance, essentially allowing her to be a second 'free' helper in rolls, but it does also mean she can't use her own role ability when taking a threat. I'm rather fond of this playset, as it reminds me of a BESM game I tried to run a while back, featuring a supernaturally gifted Dirty Dozen-style group on a mission to thwart strange experiments in a Wolfenstein-esque castle. Definitely one I'd like to try out sometime.

Next is the Superhero playset. At first I was a bit dubious about this, what with the Death Card mechanic and the rarity of (permanent) character death in superhero fiction. But after reading the themes, it becomes clear that this is intended to be a 'Crisis' scenario for the heroes, where they're pitted against a greater threat than they've ever faced, one which requires them to team up, and even then they might not all survive the battle. The playset includes alternate superhero-themed roles, covering basic archetypes such as the champion (Captain America/Superman), the myth incarnate (Thor), genius billionaire (Batman/Iron Man) and the super spy (Black Widow/The Question), adjusts some of the names of playset elements to fit the theme, adds an extra spotlight scene for villainous exposition, and includes an alternate crisis table for Superhero missions. The crisis table here is titled as a consequences table though, so I wonder if that's intentional or a typo. Again, there are other games out there that are designed specifically for superheroic shenanigans, but this should be fun as a change from the usual Our Last Best Hope scenarios.

Last of the Advanced Playsets is the Danger Patrol mission, based on the Danger Patrol RPG by John Harper, which I've heard of but have yet to play. The only real tweak to normal play for this playset is the addition of 'styles' to go with roles, which describe what form your character's super-abilities take, like alien, mutant, robot, etc. Beyond that, it offers the usual selection of crises/limits/complications/etc, framed to fit the retro-science fiction setting of Rocket City. It's a nice little addition to the book, and I've been growing keen on retro-style sci-fi of late, so I'd be happy enough to try it for a change.

Hacks
So far we've had some interesting new playsets, with a few ideas for tweaking the system to fit different genres, but here's where the expansion book really plays around with what the system itself is capable of outside of its default 'disaster movie' mode. This section presents alternative rules and advice for using Our Last Best Hope in three very different ways, each including their own related playsets.

The first of these hacks twists the play structure to emulate the mystery and tension of space thrillers like Alien, Event Horizon and Prometheus. Here, rather than tackling a Threat, you're investigating an Agenda. Threats are now coupled with Mysteries; you are rolling to solve the mystery and the threat comes up while you're investigating, forcing you to confront both at once. The twist on the core mechanics given here is interesting, but I'm not sure how it'll work out in practice. I'd have to play using the rules hack to say for certain.

The second hack gives guidance on shifting the tone of Our Last Best Hope from drama to comedy: first, by giving advice on how to make the narrative shift from serious to humourous; second, by providing a list of alternative or additional roles for comedy games, or to add comical characters to an otherwise serious game. Finally, it includes another of my favourite playsets from this collection: the Local Heroes playset. Here, players take on the roles of average Janes and Joes who are way out their depth as they fight off alien invasions, cracks in local space-time, or some other Crisis. I'd love to try this playset out, maybe with each player playing as caricatures of themselves (there have been a few games like that at GUGS lately, and I hear the people playing in them have been having a blast).

Last but not least is the Dreamscape hack, which is basically a hack of Our Last Best Hope designed to let you play through an Inception-style dream heist. I've been looking for a decent ruleset to run an Inception-based game in for a while, and this hack is the closest I've seen to a workable approach to it. The hack includes new roles, a change to Touchstones, the addition of Tokens (basically representing the totems the characters in Inception use as a reality check), the use of Acts to reflect the different layers of the dreamscape, and other rules additions, including recommendations for more advanced play. As with the first hack, it all looks like a solid emulation of Inception-style gameplay on paper, but I'd need to put it into practice to really gauge how effectively it works. It may also prove quite complex, and it'd be easy to lose track of what's going on if you're not paying close attention. But then, that's always going to be the case in a game which is trying to replicate the feel of Inception, because the movie itself is a real head trip.

FAQs and the Expansion Book in general
At the very back of the book there's a couple of pages of FAQs, offering clarifications on rules questions which have no doubt been posed to the game designer since the corebook came out. These will come in handy as a reference if there's a rules question you're pondering and the corebook isn't providing answers for you. You will probably still have questions that aren't covered here either, but they're helpful to have all the same.

Overall, I'm happy with the content found in the Expansion. There's maybe a few playsets that didn't really grab me, but that's a matter of personal taste. For just the Core, Giant Monster, Technopocalypse, Local Heroes, and Dreamscape content, I'm satisfied with my purchase. I will say though, unless you're a completist like me who just likes having both the PDF and dead tree editions of your RP books you might prefer to just buy this in PDF format. If it were something more along the lines of the Fiasco Companion, with some expanded advice on play, guidance on hacking it yourself and so on, you could probably justify paying as much for this as for the core rulebook. But for what it is, a collection of additional playsets and alternate rules, it's probably better just to buy the PDF on its own and print off or refer to the relevant playsets/rules as needed.

Conclusion
A fun collection of new playsets and new ways to play Our Last Best Hope. Your mileage may vary as to which playsets you like and which you're less fussed about, but you're sure to find something in here that you like. Most players will be better off buying it in PDF format rather than getting the Print + PDF bundle, but if you play Our Last Best Hope and are looking for some more variety of playsets to choose from, then I recommend ordering a copy, whatever your preferred format.

Rating: +3

Sunday, September 29, 2013

[Announcement] The Official Blog Schedule

Not for the first time, someone has recently told me I should keep up with the blog/post more often. I've been meaning to get into a more regular blogging routine, but real life tends to intervene.

Still, I'm going to give it a bash, and as such I've worked out a schedule for what to post and when:

SUNDAYS: The Geekly Weekly Report - Needs a better name, but I'll basically be summarising what kind of geeky stuff I've been getting up to in the past week.
MONDAYS: RP Weekend Actual Play Report - I'll post synopses of whatever game I played over the weekend, assuming I get the opportunity.
TUESDAYS: General RP Posts - Where I'll post lists/news/reviews/thoughts/etc relating to RP.
WEDNESDAYS: Tuesday RP Actual Play/GM Report - I'll post a synopsis of whatever I play this Tuesday evening, and then in following weeks I'll give a look behind-the-screen at my Doctor Who RP which I'll be running over the coming semester.
THURSDAYS: General Posts - Lists/news/reviews/thoughts/etc on whatever grabs my interest on any given week. May or may not be related to RP or writing.
FRIDAYS: Writing Posts - I'll either post flash fiction if I write one that week, or post some thoughts on the writing craft. Over the month of November, I'll probably be blogging on my progress with my NaNoWriMo project on these days.
SATURDAYS: Nothing, or unscheduled randomness if the mood takes me.

And that's the plan for future blog activity; as always there's the chance of creative drought or real life (or NaNoWriMo) interrupting, but I'll make an effort to blog regularly from now on.

[Geekly Weekly Report] Return of the GUG(S), Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and other things...

Having been inspired by Siskoid's Blog of Geekery and the Nearly Enough Dice podcast, I thought I'd start doing a weekly report on what kind of geeky stuff I've been doing each week.

New Stuff
I bought myself a new book for my Kindle, Chuck Wendig's Blackbirds. The story is about a jaded young woman by the name of Miriam Black, who has the ability to foresee how people are going to die by touching them, and has given up trying to save people because it never works out. Instead, she drifts from place to place, robbing those whose deaths she has foreseen and generally not giving a damn about anything. Until the day she meets a truck driver called Louis, who she foresees will die within a month, while calling her name...
So far, I'm liking it. It's a dark, pulls-no-punches noir/urban fantasy story with a kickass anti-heroine who, as my friend Luke has stated, is pretty much a feminised version of Chuck Wendig, but awesome all the same. Not high literature by any means, but a good read if you like noir fiction and urban fantasy.

Acheivements Unlocked
I binged on both the Our Last Best Hope core rulebook and the expansion in preparation for facilitating a one-shot at Tuesday that, sadly, never happened. I posted an in-depth review of the core rules earlier this week and I'll get a review of the expansion book up on the blog sometime tomorrow. In short though, I think Our Last Best Hope is an awesome game, and it's likely to take Fiasco's place as my #1 choice in GMless gaming.

On Tuesday, GUGS returned for the new semester. Can't say I like the new look of the union all that much, and I'm saddened at the loss of my preferred pre-game food establishment, which has now been replaced by a fancy schmancy bistro with table service and prices which are a bit too expensive for my (let alone the average student's) personal budget. Sad face.

As for GUGS itself, as mentioned, I didn't get to play Our Last Best Hope, but I did manage to secure a spot in a World of Darkness one-shot run by my (now former) L5R GM, James. We played a group of high school kids who were taking a jaunt through the local spooky abandoned industrial area as a rite-of-passage type of thing. In doing so, we stumbled upon a strange elevator that appeared out of nowhere and led to a creepy underground facility where women in hazmat suits were growing embryos in a garden and apparently processing them through some apparatus to sustain their creepy hive queen.

Cue our characters going on the run as they found themselves being stalked by creepy angelic beings trying to cover up whatever the hell they were up to in the town. I played a hacker, who I initially envisioned as being like Mac from Veronica Mars, but she quickly became more of a wailing damsel-in-distress as I overzealously tagged my 'Bit of a Coward' flaw to regain Willpower. To be fair, there was some really f***ed up stuff afoot, so it was a perfectly understandable reaction on her part. Still, I like to think my female characters are usually better than being stereotypical 'scream queens'. So I'm a little disappointed in myself for that. Still, had fun playing.

Then, early on Saturday morning after a party at James', a bunch of us sat down to watch the pilot episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. I'll admit, it wasn't as awesome as I was hoping it would be after all the hype that's been built up around it over the past year. It was decent enough that I'll stick with it and see how it develops over the coming weeks, but it was nothing really groundbreaking as far as I'm concerned. There was some bad dialogue (particularly a line hinting at the mystery behind Coulson's resurrection which was a bit too on-the-nose), and it overdid it on the cheesiness in places. Slow motion triumphant smiling isn't cool, it's cringe-inducing. And there's a bit at the very end which just made me groan, even if it does make sense as far as the comic book canon goes. You'll probably know what I'm referring to when you see it. What's more, for the most part this pilot episode didn't feel very Whedonesque compared to other Joss Whedon projects, which makes me wonder just how hands-off Whedon's involvement with the show is going to be.

That's all for now, I'll be back tomorrow with a review of the Our Last Best Hope Expansion Book.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

[RP Review] Our Last Best Hope

I had hoped to have an actual play report for Our Last Best Hope to post on here today, but sadly nobody wanted to help me save the world at yesterday's opening night for Glasgow University Gaming Society. Hopefully I'll get more interest next week, but in the meantime I figured that since I went through the book from start to finish over the weekend in preparation for the game, I might as well do a review instead, so here it is.
[Note: this is a review of the paperback edition of the game.]

Overview
Our Last Best Hope is a GM-less game wherein players take on roles as part of a crew who have been sent on a mission to save Humanity from certain doom. DOOOOOOM! It takes inspiration from such disaster movies as Sunshine, Deep Impact, The Core, Armageddon, and so on and so forth. It's designed for between three to five players, and is supposed to be playable within about two to three hours. I wasn't timing our session the first (and so far, only) time I played it, but I reckon that's about right.

Setting
There is no specific setting for Our Last Best Hope, instead the game comes with three Mission playsets - similar to Jason Morningstar's Fiasco - which provide a list of story elements for players to use to build their own setting, which include Crises ranging from the traditional (a giant meteor is on a collision course with Earth!) to the bizarre (the moon is hatching! We actually used that one, it was AWESOME); Limits, which are reasons why your team are Our Last Best Hope; Complications, which will force the team to make an important choice early in the mission; and finally, a list of Threats they might encounter along the way and Assets they can use for mechanical advantage when confronting these Threats. Unlike Fiasco, though, you are not limited to using the options given in the playsets, these are provided more as suggestions to help springboard your own ideas, or to fall back on if you're feeling creatively blocked. The mission playsets available in the core rulebook include:

Space - this covers classic space disaster scenarios like Armageddon, Deep Impact and Sunshine.
Snow - wherein the Crisis is either plunging Earth into a new ice age, or the team have to brave Arctic or Antarctic conditions to reach the Crisis)
Zombie Apocalypse - the world pretty much already ended, but you're trying to stop a new Crisis from wiping out the remaining survivors.

Additional Mission playsets are available in an expansion book, which I'll review seperately later on. For now though, let's talk about how the game itself works.

Game Mechanics
As mentioned earlier the game has certain simlarities to Fiasco, such as the use of playsets to build a setting, as well as the splitting of the game into two Acts, and the use of white and black die which cancel each other out in rolls. Aside from these similarities though, Our Last Best Hope is very much its own thing.

For starters, setting design and character creation are handled seperately, with players selecting specific roles within the team which each have their own mechanical effects, and two Touchstones: something their character brought with them on the mission, and something they left behind. These can be used up during the game to assist in rolls, which brings us to the conflict resolution mechanics of the game.

Each character has a spotlight scene, during which they get to free roleplay, which are followed by Threat scenes. In Threat scenes, something intervenes to jeopardise the mission, and one of the characters must tackle it head on. Each threat has a difficulty level which determines a number of black dice the character must roll against, which increases between Acts I and II. They only get one white dice to roll, but they can use their role abilities, Assets and other players can join in to add more dice to the pool. But they have to spend story points to do so, and they earn those story points by playing Story Cards which represent their relationships with other crew members, secrets they'd rather the crew not know about, or fears that are likely to come up in the mission. To play these cards, they have to work these elements into the fiction somehow - either during the spotlight scenes, or the Threats themselves - and only then do they get the story points in exchange.

In confronting these Threats, they risk harm - which adds to the difficulty of future rolls - and even death. Death is not only a possibility, but a feature of the game, with each player being dealt a unique Death Card. At any time they can choose to play these cards, either assuring their death immediately or deferring it until later, and are rewarded for doing so by gaining extra dice for the crew in the final roll against the Crisis pool.

The Crisis has its own pool of black dice representing the difficulty of the final roll to stop it, and this pool can either be increased during threat rolls, or counter-balanced by purchasing white dice to oppose it. The pool is rolled twice during the game. Once at the end of the first Act, to determine how the Choice the crew must make at the beginning of Act I affects the mission, and again at the end of Act II to determine how well they succeed (or how spectacularly they fail) in stopping the Crisis.

The mechanics are really well thought out, evoking the themes of the disaster genre, those of heroic sacrifice, of gaining strength from friendships, of setting aside differences and confronting one's own personal demons for the greater good of Mankind. The mechanical rewards given for playing Death Cards and the jump in difficulty between Acts I and II make it very likely that some of your characters will HAVE to make that heroic sacrifice at some point in order for the mission as a whole to succeed.
The Story Cards ensure that your crew WILL find strength in each other or be at odds with one another, that you WILL have to face your personal demons in the form of your secrets and fears. Even the Touchstones, mentioned earlier, add thematically to the game, especially the things that were left behind as they can be used in flashbacks to remind your character just what it is they are fighting for.

Additional Resources
At the end of each section, the book offers suggestions on how to vary gameplay for advanced players, from adding new character roles, to varying the game difficulty or length, which may make future gameplay more interesting once you've got a bit of experience playing it already.

In addition to the book itself, there are a couple of useful resources that can be downloaded off of the website at http://www.magpiegames.com/our-last-best-hope/ in the form of printable Death Cards (assuming you can get your printer to print to card, mine refuses to do so) and character record sheets. The character record sheets are particularly helpful, as they not only give you something to write your names and Touchstones on, but also include a description of your role ability, and quick reference guides on threat resolution. The site also promises free PDF Mission playsets in early 2013, but we're in late 2013 now and there's no sign as yet. Such is the way of these things.

Design
The book itself has a rather minimalistic design style, with illustrations portraying different characters in sillouette form. The text is organised into sections reflecting each phase of gameplay: Mission Prep, Act I and Act II and there's a quick start guide for players to reference during play. I'll have to admit though, something about the order in which the game mechanics are laid out seems a bit off to me. Even the quick reference guide seems a little difficult to read at times, to the point that I actually typed up my own reference guide just to get things clearer in my mind. Page references were also misleading at times, like the page reference telling you to 'see Playing MIMIC on p59' which is actually on p59.
The inclusion of QR Codes and URLs linking readers to Youtube vids explaining the mechanics as you read through the book is an inspired touch, and definitely helped improve my understanding of the game system; it's just a shame not all of the videos loaded for me, though I'm going to assume that's an issue with my internet connection rather than the videos themselves, until I hear otherwise.

Conclusion
I loved our first session of Our Last Best Hope and really look forward to playing more of it in the future. The system is perfectly tailored to the disaster genre, and it's also refreshing to see an RPG that actively encourages collaborative play. As mentioned, it does appear to be difficult to navigate sometimes, so be prepared to flick back and forth through the text quite a bit, but it's well worth the effort. If your RP group is taking a week out, and you need a quick, fun, and emotionally-charged game to play as a one-off, Our Last Best Hope comes highly recommended. That said, GM-less games aren't everybody's cup of tea and neither are disaster movies, so it likely won't appeal to everyone, but you should give it a try at least once anyway.

Rating: +4