Tuesday, August 5, 2014

[RPG Review] Viewscream by Rafael Chandler

Over the past year or so I've been playing more and more games over Google+ Hangouts or Skype, but I hadn't heard of an RPG specifically designed to be played over video chat until Mike from Nearly Enough Dice mentioned Viewscream to me.

Referring to itself as a VARP (Video Augmented Role Play) game, Viewscream puts four players in the role of crewmembers aboard a damaged spaceship, all struggling to find a way safely off the ship. All are trapped in seperate parts of the ship, unable to reach each other, but able to communicate and provide aid remotely to the others. The question is, will they be able to pull together and help each other survive, or will they succumb to in-fighting, madness or paranoia?

Game Mechanics
One of the most important rules of Viewscream is that players must *never* break character. The game has no GM; instead, responsibility for framing, momentum, narrative structure, and pacing are delegated among the four available player roles. This way, each of the players fulfils a different GM-like role.

Beyond this, and each role's character sheet having different 'special features', such as dark secrets or mid-game personality shifts which vary depending on the adventure being played, there's not a lot to the game in terms of mechanics.

The game system revolves around a limited problems/solutions economy: each character has three problems (one for each other player), each of which only be solved by one of the other characters, and they also have a list of four possible solutions to offer the others. The catch is that before the game begins, based on the directions given in their character sheet, they will have marked certain of these solutions as successes and the rest as failures. The rest is pure improv, with guidance given for players unaccustomed to improv play in the form of 'Commandments' to stick to. Players narrate their problems into the fiction and try to convince their fellow survivors to give them solutions which might (or might not) fix things. Characters who still have problems at the game's conclusion will die, while those whose problems are all resolved will find their way to the escape pods and survive.

This minimalist game system does work pretty well, but it requires all players to know the core rules and be completely familiar with their role, as well as any narrative cues (noted on their character sheet) they are to deliver or respond to. In the one game of this I have played so far, one of the players had been unable to properly read his character sheet prior to the game, and the ending dragged out a bit since the climactic revelation which would have triggered the final scene never really came. Also, the game is so neatly tailored to four players that it can't be played with more or fewer players as written. While the text does mention the possibility of three player games, it's only as a brief piece of advice for designing your own adventure or modifying existing ones for three players. Beyond this, the text offers no support for play with different sizes of group. That being said, three to four participants does tend to be the optimal number for video chat, so that is somewhat understandable.

The default setting for the game is a crippled spaceship out in deep space. Beyond that, things vary depending on which scenario the group is playing. There are three basic scenarios: 'Black Widow, Brown Recluse', 'The Call of Kullat Nanu' and 'The Culler Out of Space'. I'm not going to go into too much detail about these because a) I haven't read all of them to avoid spoiling the surprises for myself in future games and b) I don't want to spoil things for *you*, dear reader, should you eventually play them yourself. However, each scenario contains the same basic elements:
- An overview of the starting situation in the form of a distress call followed by brief summaries of each character's personality, role and relationship to the other three characters.
- Character sheets for each role (Bridge, Engineering, Medical and Weapons), giving expanded descriptions of their player role, character relationships, details on a secret or narrative twist to play out in-character, as well as a list of the character's problems, available solutions (with success/fail ratio) for other characters' problems, and locations that only that character can access.

Three scenarios isn't much, although the 'Adventures' chapter of the book does provide advice and ideas for writing up your own scenarios, not that it seems like it would be all that difficult to do. The only problem with coming up with your own scenarios is you'll know roughly what to expect when you play. The improv nature of gameplay does mean that the other players can still surprise you, as long as you leave them some narrative wiggle room to work with. Still, the game would benefit greatly from ongoing support in the form of new scenarios being made available online for download. As it stands, I'm not sure there's much replay value here for players who aren't willing to put in the work themselves to create new content.

The game is as minimalist in terms of design as it is in terms of game mechanics. Artwork is limited to a handful of illustrations of starships, which don't really reflect the game's tone of 'doomed crew aboard a crippled starship'. The rest of the book is plain text - which is direct, occasionally explicit, and to the point - with the font size clearly chosen with e-readers in mind. Some parts of the writing feel like they should be given in a different order in the book - or at least reiterated in more detail elsewhere - but for the most part the book is clearly laid out, if a little bland.

Additional Materials
Viewscream includes a 'Replay' chapter, an annotated and cut-down transcript of an actual game session. A few other games (such as Fiasco) have used this concept, and it's a great way of demonstrating how gameplay is supposed to work which is both informative and more entertaining to read than just a brief example here and there.

There are also a few extra gameplay tips, such as how to use special effects to add to the game's atmosphere, how to handle (inevitable) connection issues without interrupting play, and the author makes some interesting speculation on the future use of mobile devices to add an extra dimension to gameplay.

Finally, although there are only three scenarios for the game's default setting, there are six additional scenarios allowing you to play in alternate settings: a council of wizards communicating via crystal balls to help save the kingdom, four officials coordinating remotely to thwart a zombie outbreak, a cadre of supervillains bent on world domination, political campaign staffers working to get their presidential candidate ahead in the polls, four people involved in the book launch of a best-selling author's latest horror novel, and four missile silo technicians trying to save the US from nuclear armageddon. I haven't read each in detail for the same reasons I haven't read the other two default scenarios yet, but they all seem like they'd be fun to try out, and some have their own special tweaks to the default game mechanics to fit their particular setting.

Overall, this is a great idea and it's a lot of fun to play. However, it has problems. The mechanics, while simple enough in theory, require full commitment and understanding on the part of all players to work as intended. The brevity of the rules section and the low number of scenarios provided for the book's primary setting also mean the book feels a bit anaemic, and it's lacking in online support which the game sorely needs. As it is, the book lacks the substance and external support to fully justify the price tag ($6.66 US/£3.96 UK). I'm not saying it's not worth getting, just that you'll probably find you're not getting as much for your money as you might expect.

Undecim Rating: +1 (I would recommend, but many people still may not like it.)


  1. Thanks for the review! I'm working on ViewScream 2.0, and feedback like this is very helpful. Appreciated!

  2. Glad to be of help, looking forward to seeing 2.0 when it's done. :D