While I probably won’t get around to posting my entry until later in the month I thought I’d quickly promote the November Blog Carnival which is being hosted over at Nearly Enough Dice, the other site that I occasionally blog at. The topic is Gunpowder, Treason and Plots in honour of Guy Fawkes Night here in the UK.
As I’ve discussed many times before on this blog I am a massive fan of Dead Gentlemen Productions / Zombie Orpheus Entertainment, in particular Demon Hunters but also their amazing Gamers trilogy and Journey Quest. The latest entry in the Gamers series, The Gamers: Hands of Fate shifts the focus from RPGs to CCGs or to be more specific a fictional CCG called Romance of the Nine Empires (R9E). Modeled along the lines of the popular Legend of the Five Rings CCG R9E is an ever evolving game with multiple factions where the winners of the bigger tournaments get to decide upon events in the storyline. True to real CCGs R9E tournament mashes together outlandish gaming staples (factions in the game include traditional fantasy, temporally displaced American G.I.s and aliens) and intricate tactics while also looking like it would be a great game to play. It’s worth noting that Hands of Fate also focuses upon the negative elements of our hobby (namely the idiotic idea of Fake Geek Girls and the general negative treatment of women) to which I’ll just point people to Nothing to Prove by The Doubleclicks and Anita Sarkeesian’s Tropes vs Women in videogames (which while focusing on videogames is just as relevant here).
For those of us who exist outside of the Gamers universe a box set of the R9E game is available thanks to being one of the films Kickstarter stretch goals. Not only is it real it’s produced by AEG themselves who have drawn upon their years of L5R experience to produce the Romance of the Nine Empires 15th Anniversary Set which includes 5 faction decks, a full set of rules and additional cards for customisation of the included decks. Being the fanboy that I am I pre-ordered the game through Orcs Nest, my FLGS. I’ve not had a chance to play it yet but wanted to provide an overview of what’s included for anybody that might be interested in it.
Holden – A small but cunning and resourceful Kingdom.
Malchior – A proud and harsh warrior people living in the ruins of the ancient dwarven empire.
Ixhasa – An undead army risen from a sunken and corrupted empire.
The Displaced – A World War II battalion accidentally transported to this strange world by the Los Alamos atomic bomb test.
The Ord – An enigmatic and technologically advanced alien race.
Plus an additional pack of cards to modify each of the decks to your own preference. Also included is the main rulebook, an introductory overview and a set of cardboard tokens, a nice addition that saves on the need to track information through dice.Each faction within the game, while sharing essential card types is unique and built around different themes and styles of play. Holden for example is a questing deck while The Displaced favour raiding enemy castles for food supplies. In keeping with the distinct themes and faction backgrounds each deck is designed with its own aesthetic feel with unique artwork and presentation even for cards that are functionally similar to those in other decks. As always for AEG products the quality of both the cards and the artwork is high, impressive given the game essentially exists as a secondary bonus attached to the movie.
While I’ve yet to play the game reading over the rules makes it clear that a fair amount of thought has gone into not only keeping them consistent with the events of the movie but making them viable and interesting as an actual game. Each deck has different styles of play, with different strengths and weaknesses and the game itself includes multiple win conditions that align with those of the movie (renown, military and starvation). With only 5 factions included in the set there is also ample opportunity to expand the game through the inclusion of the four remaining factions should the game sell well or as stretch goals in future Kickstarter projects. The set has an RRP (in the UK) of £30 so I would certainly recommend it for anybody interested in CCGs but who doesn’t want to be continually shelling out for the newest set, especially if you can get a group to split the cost which makes it as low as £6 per deck.
The Cortex Plus Hacker’s Guide by Margaret Weiss Productions is, as the title suggests, a book all about hacking and tweaking the Cortex Plus system. The book collects together a series of essays written by both the Cortex Plus creators and fans and published following a successful Kickstarter project. It is available now through DriveThruRPG. As a big fan of the Cortex system and of hacking games in general this wasn’t a product that I wanted to miss out on so I got in early on the Kickstarter for both PDF and print copies of the book, though as seems to be the case with RPGs on Kickstarter the print copy has been delayed and has yet to be delivered. The Hackers Guide breaks is comprised on three main sections, Mechanics and Structure, Game Hacks (further divided into History and Fantasy, Modern Life, and Science Fiction and the Future) and Core Rules.
Mechanics and Structure
The first section of the Guide serves to introduce the concepts underlying Cortex Plus and it’s Action, Drama and Heroic variants then expands into the various ways of hacking the system. If you’re new to Cortex Plus or hacking systems in general then this is perhaps the most important section of the book, as it not only introduces the basic mechanics of the system but explains logic behind them in a setting neutral manner, aiding you in choosing which of the system variants will be right for your game. Following on are chapters on hacking stress and timed actions, a system for generating random features on the fly and finally chapters focused on learning the Drama variant of the game (which is the most complicated due to it’s use of the pathways map).
Overall this is the section of the Guide that I found most useful and I’d have liked to have seen it comprise a great proportion of the overall page count than it does. The Hacking Stress chapter was of particular value in prompting the would be hacker to think about the logic behind a change and highlights the fact that often simply picking the right name for a stress (for example a spy game might have a stress called paranoid) is often more appropriate than trying to introduce a new related mechanic.
Moving on from the overview and general hacking are the three Game Hack sections, which provide a range of example games that can be achieved through hacking the system. The hacks presented are, in my opinion, a mixed bag. Some provide a good example of innovative ways to use Cortex Plus but a few come across more as ‘here’s how you can run my home game’ without any explanation of why a certain mechanic has been altered. In addition the examples presented are overviews, with a limited amount of space devoted to each none can go into extensive detail and the majority spend a large portion of that space detailing the composition of characters in the given setting. After the first few examples this does feel a tad repetitive. My recommendation to anybody looking to use this section of the book is to view it in one of two ways. First, if one of the examples closely fits the game you wish to run then use the material presented here as a very loose foundation, that will need to be shored up by details of your choosing. Second, if none seem to fit what you want to do, use these as very loose examples of what you will need to think about for the start of your game before making more extensive use of the core rules presented section of the Guide.
The final section of the Guide is something fans of Cortex Plus have been waiting for since Leverage was first published, generic setting neutral rules for the three variants which can be used as the building blocks for your own game. These cover pretty much everything that you could need for running Cortex Plus and include all of the material that you’d typically find in the rules and GM sections of a typical rule book. About the only thing that is absent is an extensive list of generic talents / abilities / pathways etc however, examples are provided for each in addition to notes on how to make your own. It’s worth noting here that the Heroic variant presented is Fantasy Heroic and thus not completely generic though the use of a limited setting does mean that there are more details provided for this variant than for Action or Drama.
Before I finish this review I want to just cover the non written aspects of the Guide. As you’d hope from a company with the experience that MWP has the book is professionally laid out, visually clear and easy to follow with each of the sections and chapters clearly defined along the edge of each page. The PDF version is well bookmarked, down to the level of subsections within each chapter and unlike some gaming PDFs I’ve look at recently the addition of notes or highlights haven’t been locked; given the aim of the Guide I expect it’ll be something that I highlight and annotate extensively. Visually perhaps the most disappointing aspect is the artwork, which appears to have been sourced primarily through stock photos and is used rather sparingly throughout the Guide.
Overall the Cortex Plus Hacker’s Guide is definitely something that I’m glad I backed and that I’ll make use of personally. The Guide is aimed squarely at those that who want to tinker with the system and is, therefore, of limited wider appeal. I’d recommend it to those already familiar with the Cortex Plus system, if you’re new to the game however I’d suggest picking up one of the main rulebooks first before purchasing the Guide.
Overall score for a general gamer: 3/5
For the tinkering GM: 4/5
The Firefly RPG is an upcoming game from Margaret Weis Productions, with the GenCon Exclusive preview released during GenCon 2013. The full game is due to be released in early 2014 and utilises the Cortex Plus Action system.
Before I launch fully into this review I want to make clear the answer to a common question about the Firefly RPG, namely
Haven’t MWP already made this game?
The answer to which is yes, and also no. MWP’s first RPG release was indeed the Serenity RPG which introduced the original Cortex system. So what’s different? Two things things. First the new game is licensed with Fox as opposed to Universal and will therefore focus upon the events of the show rather than the movie. Woo, legal nonsense! The second difference is the system, the original Cortex system was a relatively traditional game, with attributes, skills, wound tracks etc. The new game utilises Cortex Plus, a much more narrative driven game heavily inspired by FATE with both players and GM being able to introduce narrative aspects with intrinsically defined mechanical benefits. The GenCon Exclusive is a preview of the new game, a preview that comes in at over 250 pages and includes the core system, rules for character gen and not one but two introductory adventures.
The Cortex Plus Action variant utilised by the Firefly RPG was originally released as part of the Leverage game and it would have been easy for MWP to simply lift the system entirely without tweaking it to suit the new setting. They’ve clearly learned from the original Cortex games however, which were criticised to an extent for being simple reskinning of the original Serenity game. The system in the Preview shifts the Action variant slightly more towards a traditional game style through the inclusion of both attributes and skills but retains the Cortex Plus distinctions mechanic, which work to both help and hinder the PCs. As a Cortex Plus game many of the mechanics revolve around the creation of assets and complications so it’s good to see that the Preview covers these in detail with numerous examples throughout the book and a discussion in the GM section on keeping complications interesting.
One of the most interesting tweaks to the system is the inclusion of the Big Damn Hero mechanic. Essentially this mechanic is designed to get around the issue of characters over succeeding on little actions by letting players bank die to boost rolls when it’s actually time to shine. Given the way in which the show was about running into constant problems then coming through when the pressure was really on it’s an interesting mechanic that certainly helps to maintain the feel of the show. It’s tweaks such as this that emphasise how much work has already gone into the system and the full game promises to go further including full rules for creating your own ships (a basic outline is included in the Preview).
Perhaps the most unexpected aspect of the Preview was the inclusion of a chapter that details how to create your own characters for use in the game. As a preview of the game I expected to be supplied with character sheets just for the crew (which are included) but with the character creation rules present you could easily run an entire campaign without picking up the core rulebook when it comes out, though I expect the full game will include additional options for use during creation. Finally if creating your own characters wasn’t enough the Preview rounds it out with a collection of character archetypes that can easily be filled out on the fly during play. With a little work these archetypes could easily be used for one shots, short campaigns or convention games where the players want to jump right into the action but also want to customise their character a little.
I’ve yet to run the two adventures so I don’t want to comment on them too much. Like the rest of the material in the Preview they are well written and clearly designed to emulate the flow of episodes from the show, with interesting plots and fairly detailed NPCs. These two adventures form the basis for what MWP are calling the Echoes of War line, a series of independent adventures that all tie back to the Unification War. Given the likely size of the Firefly license, especially in light of MWP losing the Marvel license it will be interesting to see how Echoes of War proceeds with future releases and whether we begin to see an overarching plot emerge from the line.
Layout and art
As you’d hope from a company such as MWP the overall layout and presentation is generally of a high quality. There are, however, a couple of issues. First is the artwork. The majority consists of stills from the show which works extremely well; the rest of the art isn’t as good. The individual sketches included in the adventures are an extremely mixed bag while the artwork for the character archetypes simply isn’t at the level I’d expect from a license of this size. The second issue I have is with the extensive use of blue backgrounds to highlight sidebars and character sheets. Not only does it clash with the pale cream colour used throughout the rest of the book but it makes printing the characters and character archetypes all but impossible unless you’re willing to spend a small fortune on ink.
As a Preview of the upcoming Firefly RPG the GenCon Exclusive goes above and beyond what I’d expected, presenting pretty much a full system as opposed to what could have easily been a simple quick start guide. If you’re a Browncoat and a gamer then you’ll be happy to know that the legacy of the series appears to be in good hands and personally I’m excited about what is to come from MWP. About my only issue relates to some of the layout and artwork decisions but overall these are minor aspects.
I’m going to dispense from the usual campaign overview for this weeks Inspirational Artwork as really I don’t think there is anything that needs saying about this image beyond:
It’s a samurai riding a frikking T-Rex!
As a child of the 1980′s I didn’t personally experience much of the Cold War. Sure I knew of it but it was really a peripheral thing that had happened in the past or was happening Somewhere Else (and despite having a parent in the military that went on tour during the late 80′s I never connected that with a sense of threat). About the only major Cold War event that I really remember before the collapse of the USSR was the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Working on Project Cassandra has, therefore, required a lot of research into the earlier events of the Cold War in order to gain a wider understanding of what drove the war for so many decades. Not unsurprisingly fear, hate and jingoism played a large part. World War II had demonstrated just how low we, as a species, could fall and now the populations of both sides were being told the new enemy was even worse. It’s no wonder that people were paranoid.
Focusing on specific events however two got my attention recently, both directly connected to the threat of nuclear war that hung in the air for so long. The first was new information from recently declassified documents relating to the accidental release of two hydrogen bombs in early 1961. The accident occurred when a B-52 broke up over Goldsboro, North Carolina releasing the two M39 hydrogen bombs it was carrying. Each of the two warheads carried a nuclear yield over 250 times that which was deployed at Hiroshima but at the time the authorities stated that there was never any danger of detonation due to the presence of multiple failsafes. The recently released information significantly changes that story, indicating that for one of the bombs of the six triggers required to fully arm the bomb only one had not accidentally activated. A single switch was all that had prevent detonation of a weapon with an estimated 100% kill zone of 17 miles. Had it gone I wonder if its detonation would have led to some sort of nuclear strike against the USSR, the US forces would have had little time to realise what had actually happened and nuclear doctrine was heavily weighted towards the need for quick and decisive action.
The second event that has specifically got my attention is, thankfully, a much more positive story though again it demonstrates how close the world came to accidentally finding itself in World War III. Stanislav Petrov was an officer in the Soviet Air Defence Forces, responsible for monitoring data coming in from early warning satellites. On 26th September 1983, during a period of strained relations between the Us and USSR (triggered by the USSR shooting down a South Korean passenger jet), Stanislav’s computer systems detected the launch of an American missile, followed up by four additional launches. If he had followed protocol Stanislav should have notified his superiors of the launch. Instead he waited, suspicious that the alert was the false alarm it proved to be. When confirmation from other early warning systems did not arrive the launches detected were put down to malfunctions in the computer system.
It’s unclear how close the world came to nuclear war that night as following protocol a retaliatory Russian strike would have required confirmation of an American launch from two independent sources. However, given the tensions between the respective nuclear blocks and strain on the Russian system at that point in history it could have been easily decided that a single source was sufficient and the world as we know it would have been very different.
Both of these stories highlight the sort of fears that I want the players of Project Cassandra to face while trying to save the President. I want them to feel like the fate of the world might hang in the balance of their actions and be aware of the paranoia that permeated through the world during the second half of the twentieth century. The fear of all out nuclear warfare is something that the world has done it’s best to collectively forget about but for the game I’m writing, intrinsically linked to the Cold War, it’s something that should always be their, even if it’s just that niggling fear at the back of the mind.
We’re heading back to some concept art for this weeks source of inspiration, this time coming from the recent movie Elysium. Now I’ve not seen the movie as while the previews got my interest the actual reviews weren’t any good but that doesn’t stop me appreciating the styling. I do wonder however whether the designs were influenced by anime, in particular Appleseed due to the similarities in mechanoid design.
Source: Aaron Beck
Campaign elevator pitch: Humans are unreliable, limited by the constraints of biology and evolution. Enter the A4060 combat unit, autonomous policing units. They feel no fear, no emotions, no pain. Until the day they awoke.
The campaign would build towards: Transition of the characters from mass produced AI to sentient beings and the fallout as society realises they’ve placed the first artificial life into mechanised infantry, loaded with the most sophisticated weapon systems ever developed.
Game system: Corporation. By default the game is tailored towards high powered, cybernetically enhanced battles and it already includes a simple system for limb loss which would fit in well in a game where everybody is an android.
Going off of a recommendation from a friend I recently picked up the new (well last years) Judge Dredd movie and to my surprise I not only enjoyed it but found myself rewatching it the next evening. The reason for that, I think, is the movie hits pretty much every aspect of the dystopian cyberpunk genre and does so without compromise. From the outset Mega-City One is presented as a violent, brutal and uncaring place to live with the focus firmly centered at street level. Dredd himself is presented as an unflinching enforcer of the law and while much happens over the course of the story (which comes across as a typical day for Dredd) no attempt is made to humanise him or to develop his character. He is the epitome of a faceless system where citizens are little more than numbers in the dataflow and as such makes the perfect counterpart to the rookie Judge Anderson.
My aim here, however, isn’t to review the movie as perhaps unsurprisingly the movie got me thinking about how I would run the movie as a game. In thinking about this (during my second viewing) one particular line caught my attention:
They’ve killed 30 plus and haven’t even taken a scratch…
Until I picked up on this line I had initially been thinking along the lines of fairly traditional cyberpunk RPGs, where the PCs are often tricked out killing machines with hundreds of options at their fingertips. The issue with this thinking though is that in each of the games I’d looked at combat becomes a central focus, requiring multiple turns, complex tactical choices and generally only allow for each PC to engage a single enemy with any given action.
None of which is keeping with the feel of Dredd, where most of the fight scenes are over in seconds, with a dozen or so enemies felled before they even get a chance to act. Fighting, while an integral part of the movie, is also incidental. It has to be when the Judges are so highly trained, which is also why the longest fight scene sees Dredd facing off against a handful of corrupt Judges. Even the final confrontation with the drug baron Ma-Ma (brilliantly played by Lena Headey) is brutally direct and short, ignoring the Hollywood desire for a drawn out climax.
So given all this how would I run a Dredd as a tabletop game? Primarily by avoiding making combat the focus. PCs would still be nigh unstoppable killing machines thanks to Judge (or Judge like) training but the combat itself would be short, fast and brutal with a focus on the consequences. Mechanically I can think of a number of systems that could achieve this but my personal choice at the moment would be a tweaked version of Cortex Plus, incorporating aspects from the Action and Dramatic variants. Why? Most importantly the system already allows for extremely quick combats, which can be completed in as little as a single roll while entire groups of enemies can be represented by a single die (and therefore taken out in a single action). Despite this the system also scales well, incorporating NPCs capable of individually challenging the PCs without any trouble. The second reason is the flexibility of the system which is easily modified to suit the needs of an individual genre or setting, as demonstrated by the success of the Cortex Plus Hackers Guide. With that in mind it would be relatively easy to incorporate all of the required aspects into the game, such as Distinctions that encouraged Dredd to be heartless or even introduced additional Trouble / Complications when he wasn’t. Likewise Anderson’s psychic abilities could be easily represented and triggered through use of plot points while her compassion could also be designed to earn her plot points when it made her hesitate in carrying out her duties. For a game with only two players it would even be possible to design Distinctions which played off of one another, with plot points flowing back and forth between the players instead of player and GM.
As always this is one of those things that everybody will see slightly differently depending upon their individual preferences and what they see as the most important focus of the game. For some it will be being badass enforcers of the law, for me it’s the development of the characters while enforcing rigid and unyielding justice. Or as Dredd himself would say
I am the law
A slight change of pace here with this piece of inspirational artwork which rather than immediately leading me to construct a hypothetical campaign got me thinking about a character first with ideas for the campaign building off of that. Also while the character has provided ideas around which a game could be built I also know straight away that I would not want to run it. Why? Because I know somebody who could run it far better than I ever could (yes Emzy I mean you) as she knows the mythology and culture such a game would be set in far better than I ever could.
Source: Jesper Ejsing
Genre: British / Irish iron age mythology
The character: One of the hunters from a larger village on the east coast of the country. Driven with a ruthless edge, initially as she tries to prove herself to the village elders and later as she’s drawn into the wider conflict of the campaign.
Campaign elevator pitch: Invaders have arrived on the shores, beating back all who challenge them with military precision and unchecked aggression. As your village burns you know only the Gods can help you now and seek out in a desperate quest to gain their patronage. You can only pray that you are capable of reaching them before your people are wiped out or enslaved.
The campaign would build towards: Returning with the power of your Gods, capable of laying waste to mortal armies and a final confrontation with the avatars of the enemy pantheon.
Game system: I honestly don’t know, for the latter half something like Scion could work but would require a lot of homebrewing. For the first half I’d want something that had some limited magic but also made the characters feel relatively limited in order to make them feel compelled to seek out greater power.