Saturday, February 13, 2016

Taking a break...

Hey folks, just a quick post to say that I'm going to be taking a break from the blog for a while. I don't feel like I've had enough to post about, besides actual play reports, geeky week posts and the occasional review. Not that those aren't good things to post about, but they don't feel like enough content for a blog.

That aside, I want to devote more of my time to my fiction writing projects,  and to seeking more stable employment than I currently have at the moment, so something had to be dropped to make more time for those. I usually set aside an hour or two every day for blogging which ends up going to waste because I spend much of it struggling for ideas for posts, so that was the most logical time slot to free up for other things.

I'll return to the blog if and when I feel like I have more blogworthy things to post. In the meantime, I'll see you around on other parts of the internet. :)

Sunday, February 7, 2016

[My Geeky Week] Mysterium, Honor, and other stuff...

The Kickstarter for Vincent Baker's Apocalypse World 2nd Edition went live on Monday, and I promptly backed it at the level that'll get me the physical book. Unsurprisingly, it's already funded, but if you want to secure yourself an early access copy via the Kickstarter campaign, follow this link.

I also spent some phone top-up credit on the Continuum Season 2 & 3 Soundtrack via Google Play, so I've been listening to that on and off this week.

Beyond that, my pre-ordered set of Welcome to Night Vale tarot cards arrived this Tuesday, together with my Kickstarter hardcover edition of Uncharted Worlds. The tarot cards came in a lovely drawstring bag bearing the Night Vale eye logo, haven't tried them out yet, but they look great (although, I'm not sure some of the images really suit the card they're on). The Uncharted Worlds hardcover is pretty neat too, and it's got me thinking about running the game sometime in the near future (maybe after a Microscope session to build up a setting for it).

On Friday (or rather, late Thursday night) I bought a couple more games off of DriveThruRPG. The first was UED: You Are The Resistance, which was originally a Brazilian RPG release which has recently been translated to English by Tom McGrenery, who's one of the other players in the Maulpocalypse PbP Apocalypse World game I'm currently in (which is how I found out about it, incidentally). I'm just about halfway through the section on character creation and it looks pretty neat so far. Once I'm done reading it, I might actually consider running it either for the Gauntlet Hangouts community or for the Arx Jericho gang sometime in the near future.

The second game was Kuro Tensei, which is really more of an expansion of the Kuro core rules, and completes the Kuro RPG trilogy. I'll probably buy the hardcover once it's out, but I just wanted to nab this now and see what it adds to the core game.

I also reordered my 'That's Not How The Force Works' t-shirt from Shirt.woot, since the original order was refunded due to being damaged in transit.

Achievements Unlocked
On Tuesday, I showed up early to GUGS to play Mysterium with Daniel, Peter, and Ruaridh. I played the ghost, and the other three players played the psychics. I explained the rules as well as I could before we started (since the ghost isn't supposed to talk during play. It was just as well we were playing it on Easy, since I had to use my discard token for every round. Even then, I really struggled to find good vision cards to give the psychic players. Peter was able to guess his character, location and object in pretty short order, but it took Ruaridh three rounds to guess his character (the Doctor) correctly.

Eventually, everyone got to the second phase with a round to spare, but we still lost the game in the end. I once again had to discard cards to try and get some better visions, but it did no good. I thought for sure that they'd get it just from the prominent house (to represent the cabin as the location), but the card I gave them for the object (the rope) misled them, because it also had axe blades in the background and one of the other objects in front of them was the straight razor. So, not only did they guess incorrectly, but they all voted for different solutions. Game over, my ghost has to spend another year in torment, and Ruaridh's character (Mr MacDowell) has to live with him haunting his manor meantime.

After that, we had still a bit of time until roleplaying campaigns started up, so we had a game of Sheriff of Nottingham. As before, Peter hammed it up with accents as both the sheriff and merchant, and I did my own share of roleplaying during play too. I was a little bit mean as the sheriff with Ruaridh when I called his bluff on some goods he was trying to get past me. Since he'd already refused to offer a bribe, I told him it was too late when he saw I was about to inspect the bag and folded. It turned out every single object was contraband, and the resulting fines cost him his chance at victory. Sorry Ruaridh! For what it's worth, I didn't win either. The victor was actually Daniel, who had never played the game before. Nicely done!

Since my regular Tuesday game was cancelled due to GM illness, I sat in on the Dungeons & Dragons: Princes of the Apocalypse campaign that Peter and Ruaridh are in, along with our old L5R comrade, Doc. I was mostly just rolling dice for an absent player's character while the group made decisions for him in combat, so I wasn't terribly focused on what was going on. I did gather that Ruaridh nearly got Peter's character killed by slaying a monster near him which promptly exploded in his face. Then, he nearly caused a TPK by doing similar later on. For the most part, when I wasn't needed for dice rolling, I checked my phone while half-paying attention to the game, and spent the latter half of the session hard shuffling my new Welcome to Night Vale tarot deck. I was sitting off to one side of the main group, so I wasn't distracting anyone with it too much.

As you may already know, I ran a session of Lasers & Feelings on Wednesday night, which was a lot of fun. Here's a link to the actual play report I already posted if you missed it. I'll definitely try it again sometime, and I still have the Tactical Waifu reskin of it to try out as well.

My regular weekend audiobook this time round was The Honor of the Queen by David Weber, the second book in the Honor Harrington series of novels. I picked up the first book, On Basilisk Station, about a year or so ago after finding it for free on Kindle and revisited it as an audiobook late last year. Having just got my hardcover of Uncharted Worlds and run Lasers & Feelings this week, I guess I was feeling in a bit of a science fiction-y mood.

I can't give a true capsule review of the book yet, since I'm only halfway through as of the writing of this post), but I will give my impressions based on the first half. As can often be the case with military sci-fi, the Honorverse books (at least, the two I've read so far) can be a bit dense with tactical and techno jargon, and it's hard to take all of that in when your focus is divided between listening to the book and entering data. All the same, one of the things I enjoyed about the first book was the thought that  went into the space technology to make it both authentic-sounding and give it an 'age of sail' feel. This book has more of that same feel, and builds upon it with some new technologies later on.

I felt like Honor came to life a bit more as character in this book, and I was glad to see that, but I wish this increased depth of character was reflected more across the board. Aside from two characters who take centre stage in a portion of the book from which Honor is absent (and that's a part of the novel which bothered me somewhat, for other reasons), a lot of the characters aren't given as much attention as she is. That's probably an unavoidable consequence of military dramas like this, with a wide supporting cast, but it does make the book feel a bit dry at times.

I think The Honor of the Queen deserves a full review, so I'll put it on my list of books to do that for, right after UED and Corporia.

Works In Progress
I'd hoped to get some work done on both my prep for Urban Shadows and plotting for my novel, but that time got swallowed up by writing blog posts and putting in overtime at work to make up for a recent string of shift cancellations. So, other than the actual play posts and a somewhat rushed review of Urban Shadows, I didn't get much done this week. I always have a bit of extra time in the cafeteria at work on Sundays (since I show up earlier than I strictly need to), so I think I'll use that to try and get some Threats and maybe a Storm or two for Urban Shadows: London done before my shift starts.

I had also planned to post a review of Corporia on Friday once I'd finished reading through it, but I've not had time to do that between one thing and another this week. I'll try and get that done for this Friday instead, although it's looking like I'll actually have finished reading UED much sooner than Corporia, so I might review that instead, and bump Corporia to next in line for a review.

That's about all for now, see you later.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

[Actual Play] Lasers & Feelings: Ringside Encounter

GM: Robert Ruthven

The PCs

  • Tor Droplets as Dr DOC 4, the Android Doctor.   
  • Goal: Show everyone how awesome my team is.
  • David Miessler-Kubanek as Dr Karl Frenzy, the Dangerous Scientist.
  • Goal: Create awesome Weapons of Mass Pacification.
  • YG Mitchell as Foley, the Savvy Engineer.
  • Goal: Survive, with or without my crew-mates.

  • The USS Raptor, Leonidas Class by EllPro.
    Image used without permission.
    The Consortium Starship Raptor
    Strengths: Nimble, Superior Sensors.
    Problem: Grim Reputation.

    Mission Log
    The crew of the Raptor are left leaderless after their captain is overcome by a strange psychic entity. By outfitting a space lab rat with a cybernetic interface they are able to relay telepathic signals from the entity, which seem to be a set of stellar co-ordinates. As his crew-mates are unwilling to act without orders, DOC 4 attempts to extract and contain the entity with a psychic vacuum, constructed by Foley. The operation is successful, however the captain is too disoriented and drained from the experience to be of much use. All he is able to do is utter a few words before passing out: 'The coordinates...artifact...danger to...galaxy...'

    After briefly discussing their next move, the crew reluctantly decide not to attempt to flee the galaxy and instead fly the ship within sensor range of the mysterious co-ordinates, located in an uncharted sector of space. Scanning the region, they are able to detect a giant ring-shaped ancient structure floating in space. They also detect a ship orbiting it, which they identify as belonging to the Ascended Combine, a race of cybernetically enhanced humanoids they recently encountered, who seek to 'ascend' all organic life in the galaxy through cybernetics. They appear to be attempting to find a way inside the ring structure and the crew determines that, whatever it is, it probably shouldn't be allowed to fall into their hands.

    Foley is able to construct a device to emit a pulse that will temporarily deactivate the Combine ship's systems (and the Combine themselves), but they'll have to get it right into the ship's core and detonate it from the inside to have the desired effect. He's able to rig one of the ship's torpedos with the device, but they still have to get within range to fire it...which means getting within firing range of the Combine's own weapons.

    After ordering the ship's pilot, Ensign Jenkins, to fly them into range, the crew are getting ready to launch their weapon when they are hailed by the Combine. The voice contacting them - and demanding they surrender to be upgraded - is that of their own former second-in-command, Lieutenant Lisa Ferrari, who was abducted by the Combine during the Raptor crew's most recent encounter with them.

    While DOC 4 attempts to stall the Combine on comms, the Raptor continues her approach towards the vessel. The Combine are not easy to distract, however, and they order the Raptor crew to cease their approach or they will be fired upon. Realising they won't have enough time to get into range before the Combine's superior weapons systems can launch an attack against them, the crew are forced to perform a risky manoeuvre. Doctor Frenzy and Foley work together to prepare a warp jump that will bring them right up close to the enemy ship; too close for the Combine's fire arcs to reach them, but close enough to fire their torpedo right into its hull.

    The manoeuvre works a little too well. They find themselves close to the enemy ship's hull and moving too fast to avoid ramming into it. The Raptor crashes through the Combine ship's hull, and its own engines are damaged in the collision. The Raptor lets loose with its customised torpedo and fires it right into the heart of the Combine ship. As the energy wave rips through it, the Combine ship starts to slowly disintegrate from the inside out.

    Doctor Frenzy releases the psychic entity to do whatever it wants regarding the ring structure, in the hopes that this will create a problem for the Combine once their ship recovers, distracting them long enough for Foley to repair the Raptor so it can escape. They try to get a reluctant Ensign Jenkins to lead an away mission aboard the Combine ship to rescue Lieutenant Ferrari from the Combine before they leave. He points out that he doesn't have seniority to do so, so they 'promote' him to acting Captain for an hour, but this backfires when he orders one of them to go instead, since regulations clearly state that the commanding officer should not recklessly endanger themselves by participating in away missions.

    Frenzy then bravely agrees to lead the away team himself. With DOC 4 providing directions via sensor data back on the Raptor, Frenzy navigates the corridors of the slowly disintegrating ship towards the last known source of Ferrari’s transmission as the Combine's emissary. After briefly grappling with a barely-functioning Combine drone, he is able to find Ferrari and sedates her. However, the section of the ship he is in starts to disintegrate, and he and Ferrari are left adrift in open space. Luckily, both are wearing standard-issue uniforms with built-in vacc-suits which automatically seal to protect them from vacuum, and DOC 4 is able to pilot the Raptor through the cast-off debris of the disintegrating ship to pick them up. Frenzy sustains a fracture to his arm as robo-arms grab him to pull him and Ferrari back aboard the Raptor, but otherwise they get in safely.

    As the Raptor pulls away from the Combine ship, it starts to recover and slowly rebuild itself. At the same time, the psychic entity has vacated the Raptor and entered the ring structure, which has now become active. Foley works frantically to repair the engines so they can get away. He gets cross with Jenkins who - in his role as acting captain - calls for Foley to give him full power to the engines. Foley declares that he's getting above his station and promptly revokes his command privileges. Jenkins makes a pouty face at this, but doesn't argue.

    As Foley restores the Raptor's engines, the Combine ship is almost fully reassembled, and catches them in a tractor beam as they attempt to flee. At the same time, the giant ring structure is swiftly spinning around to 'center' itself on both ships.

    In medbay, DOC 4 helps Ferrari recover from her conversion into a Combine drone. With his help, Foley is able to use the cyber-enhanced space lab rat as a relay between Ferrari and the Combine ship, to send it a self-destruct command. The Combine ship disintegrates once again, and this time it keeps going until all that's left of it is a cloud of space dust.

    As the ring structure focuses its 'gaze' on the Raptor, Foley engages the engines and they beat a retreat from the sector at best possible speed. The ring enters warp behind them and gives chase, slowly gaining on them...


    Unfortunately, after this episode, BOX Television Network cancelled the show after a short run, due to poor ratings. Fans of the show spoke out against the show's cancellation and petitioned for its revival, but the network wasn't interested. Who knows though, maybe they'll be able to bring it back as a movie through another company?

    Lasers and Feelings was a lot of fun to run and, the players assure me, to play too. We did feel that the system could have done with just a little bit something more. Specifically, I wasn't sure how to handle 'harm', since there's no health tracking system and inflicting dice penalties per wound seemed a bit harsh, considering how few dice they get to roll normally. That said, I don't think the system really needs too much extra. It's supposed to provide a quick, fun space adventure game and that's exactly what we got. I'd definitely run it again, or even play it myself with someone else as the GM.

    Wednesday, February 3, 2016

    [RPG Review] Urban Shadows by Andrew Medeiros and Mark Diaz Truman

    Urban Shadows is a Powered by the Apocalypse roleplaying game based on urban fantasy fiction like Angel or The Dresden Files, in which players take on the roles of mortals and supernaturals struggling to get by in a dark political city. In order to hold their own, they'll need to interact and make deals with the various factions in the city, and they'll tap into their darker selves to gain the edge they need to fight the darkness. But will they fall to darkness in the process?

    The Basics
    For those of you not familiar with Powered by the Apocalypse games, here's a quick primer:

    All characters have access to a list of Basic Moves which are triggered when they attempt to do something in the fiction, as defined by those moves. Character design is 'class based', and players will have an extra set of moves specific to their character class (called Archetypes in this game).

    When they want to make a move, they'll roll two six-sided dice and add or subtract a modifier based on the stat associated with that roll. Any roll of 7 or more is considered a 'hit'. 7-9 is a soft hit, which means your character succeeds, but there's likely to be a cost or a complication. A 10+ is a strong hit, and usually gives your character a little something extra as a bonus. A roll of 6 or less is considered a miss, but that doesn't necessarily mean you fail; it just means the GM (called the Master of Ceremonies, or MC for short) gets to tell you what happens. And you probably won't like it.

    The MC never rolls dice. He instead has a list of moves he gets to make if you roll misses, if you give them a golden opportunity, or if the action flags and everyone's looking to them for what happens next. The MC doesn't have a scenario planned in advance either, because the guiding philosophy of all PbtA games is to play to find out what happens.

    I think that covers the basics, now let's look at what's new and different (and great) about Urban Shadows.

    By default, the game is set in a modern-day city populated by both mortals and supernaturals. Beyond that, the actual city it takes place in and the political map of that city are built during character creation and the first session of play, and are constantly evolving during play.

    Before the first session, the players and the MC first agree on a city to set the game in, the MC does a bit of research about the city, and maybe the players do too. When they get together for the first session, the players make up their characters. While they're doing this, the MC asks leading questions about their characters, as well as who they know in the city, who the movers and shakers are.

    Once they're ready to play, there are start-of-session moves which get each player to declare conflicts or rumours they've heard about certain factions and which determine how involved their character is in the situation. Some Archetypes also have their own start-of-session moves that can shape the way things kick off as well.

    I'll be honest, I both love and hate these start-of-session moves (specifically the general one).

    On the one hand, it really helps set the stage at the start of play, generating conflicts and threats for the characters to interact with right off the bat and they can be used at the MC's discretion later on to set up new conflicts as the old ones die down. This really helps emulating a living, breathing city with events constantly being put into motion, whether your characters are aware of them or not.

    On the other hand, it is a lot of stuff to set up, especially for the first session after character creation (which takes a bit of time by itself). My first ever session of Urban Shadows was painfully short once we'd gotten through character creation and start-of-session moves. Admittedly, it didn't help that our online session was plagued with technical issues and we only had three hours because that was all some of the players could manage. But still, it feels like Urban Shadows might need character creation to be done as a separate session in order to leave room for the extra set-up time the first session requires.

    Game Mechanics
    A lot of the unique mechanics of Urban Shadows are designed to play to the genre that it's attempting to emulate, and they do it very well. In addition to the usual four stats, player characters also have Faction stats reflecting their relationship with the four Factions (Mortality, Night, Power and Wild) and each Archetype is affiliated with one of those factions. Players have a list of basic moves that they can trigger to get more information from contacts in a faction, find out what they know about specific members of a faction, or even figure out what a faction is up to by investigating their lair. The faction mechanic puts a focus on how characters interact with the different communities within the city; just as Harry Dresden must deal with the vampires of the White Court and the Queen of Winter, so must the player characters deal with the vamps and faeries and whatever else lurks in their city.

    But the key word there is 'deal'. Characters must also make deals, with each other and NPCs, to get the information, resources and support they need; they do this by trading Debts. Debts are a currency in the game, with a set of moves to enforce their use. Characters start out owing Debts to each other (or NPCs) which are determined during character creation, and can end up owing or being owed more in the course of play. Debts can be cashed in to influence both PCs and NPCs to do what you need.

    The mechanic is a neat way for players to influence each other (and for NPCs to influence player), while avoiding the 'mind controlled player' problem by allowing the PC to choose how they respond. They can refuse to honour a Debt, but in doing so they trigger a move which might result in consequences if they fail the roll and still decide to refuse.

    Not only that though, calling in favours and making deals which you might regret later on is another big theme that shows up in the urban fantasy genre. A young wizard might make deals with the Fae that comes to regret in later life, a vampire PI might exchange backup or information with a friend on the force for the same in return later on.

    Another big theme in urban fantasy is that of corruption. Protagonists might make deals and compromises, dirtying their hands to achieve their ends. They call upon dark powers or indulge their own darker impulses to get the job done. If they're not careful, they can find themselves turning into monsters themselves.

    Corruption is reflected in Urban Shadows by a seperate advancement track, which characters advance by either behaving in a manner that triggers a Corruption 'drama move' specific to their Archetype, or as a cost of a move they've made. Advancing their Corruption track unlocks special moves, granting them more power but many of those moves also require them to mark corruption to use them.

    The result is a slippery slope which eventually leaves them with only one Corruption move to unlock, and once they do so, they become an NPC. They've gone too far, and now they're a threat to their friends and allies.

    As I mentioned, there are also moves called Drama Moves, and each Archetype has three of these. One is the the Corruption drama move I mentioned earlier. The others are Intimacy moves, and Ending moves.

    Intimacy moves are a lighter version of the sex moves from Apocalypse World; instead of being specifically triggered by sex, they're instead triggered when characters share moments of intimacy, physical or otherwise. This is a good idea in my opinion, it encourages players to explore their characters' relationships with one another in roleplay, but avoids putting off prospective  players who might feel less comfortable about dealing with sex in-game.

    There are also Ending moves, which are another idea I like. Too often in roleplaying games, the moment comes when your character's luck runs out and they die. And character deaths in RPGs can be a bit of an anticlimax, and feel a bit meaningless. The Ending move (which doesn't necessarily deal with character death, but often does) gives character death just that little bit of extra narrative oomph.

    Some examples include wizards firing off their death curse (a la Dresden), or the people you were trying to protect escaping to safety, despite the odds. Your character's death (or retirement) does something, which potentially makes it a little bit less of a disappointment.

    Beyond all of this, the system is just really well presented. It's the best presentation of Powered by the Apocalypse style play I've read so far. Not only are all of the basic moves explained in further detail to help players understand how they work, but the explanations are coupled with several examples of different ways of using them or of how not to use them, and the book is full of examples for other aspects of play that are just as useful.

    The artwork by Juan Ochoa in this book is brilliant, especially the portraits for each of the Archetypes. It's dark, moody and really captures the diverse urban environment that the game is set in.

    The layout of the book is also very well thought out. The bulk of the mechanics is explained in the first six chapters, which are the player-facing chapters of the book, so by the time you get to the MC section you should have a solid understanding of how the game works. That much seems like a no-brainer, but I've seen some books which cover running the game in earlier chapters, which feels kind of weird to me.

    More importantly, the player chapters cover each part of gameplay in more or less the right order. At least, the order each aspect is covered in doesn't feel jarring.

    Additional Materials (GM Section, Sample Adventures, etc)
    As mentioned before, this is a great presentation of the Powered by the Apocalypse play style, and the MC section is no exception. Just as with the basic moves for the players, the MC section digs into each of the Agendas, Principles, basic MC moves and Faction moves in depth, helping the MC understand clearly what all this stuff is for and how they can use it to run their game.

    It also looks at how to deal with PvP if it comes up, and how to manage NPCs. It gives a lot of useful advice on how to guide character creation and the first session, including how to ask probing questions of characters and also provides an extended example of play, showing how the first few scenes of a session are run.

    The material on prepping situations for later sessions in the form of 'Threats' and 'Storms' is probably fairly standard for PbtA at this point, but again, it's well detailed and exampled. The last chapter also includes the most useful advice on designing custom moves that I've read to date in a Powered by the Apocalypse game.

    Online Support
    There are several points in the book's text which point readers towards sheets for the MC (such as the Storm sheet), limited-edition Archetypes, or the Dark Streets supplement, but these are not completed as of the writing of this review. They'll be available eventually, but for now these are pretty much 'dead links' in the text.

    That aside, there is a very strong and supportive community for the game over on Google+ (at least, for however long that lasts), where you can ask for advice or find new fan-created Archetypes, custom moves and threats to look at.

    Urban Shadows is a really well-written game both as a Powered by the Apocalypse game, and in terms of how effectively its mechanics evoke the themes of the genre it is based upon.

    While it can involve a lot of work on the front-end to get it up and running, it's well worth it because the end result is a beautifully tangled web of NPCs and conflicts for your group to interact with and which will help make the city feel alive and constantly moving, just like a city should feel.

    If you're looking for a game to run something in the vein of Dresden Files or World of Darkness, but don't want to play the RPGs that are already out there for either, this is a pretty good alternative, and even if you do like those systems it's still well worth checking out.

    Undecim Rating: 5 (Highly recommend)