Review: Firefly RPG GenCon Exclusive

FIREFLYRPGThe 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.

System

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).

Character creation

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.

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The Adventures

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.

Wrap-up

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.

Score: 5/5

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Quick Review: The Gamers: Hands of Fate

handsoffateAs my many Demon Hunter themed posts might have hinted at I am a massive fan of Dead Gentlemen Productions who are responsible for not only Demon Hunters but also The Game: Hands of Fate. As I contributed to the Kickstarter I got to see the movie slightly early but I’m happy to say that for everybody else it’s free to watch until the end of August and can be found here on vimeo (or click the image at the top).

So why are you still here? Go and watch it then come back for my quick review.

Watched it? Good. As for my thoughts I have to admit that I am extremely conflicted. Not because the movie isn’t any good, it’s great and probably the best thing that Dead Gentlemen have put out to date. The writing is tight, it’s well shot, has the best acting yet and the story arc is well thought out. My issues lie instead with my expectations of the movie, based upon the previous two and Hands of Fate deviates significantly from those. Primarily because it’s not about a group of gamers, this movie is all about Cass. Sure Gary gets a secondary plot arc but Leo is reduced to the role of Cass’ mentor while Lodge and Joanna are basically named extras (though apparently the expanded non-theatrical edition will include a lot more of them). The reduced screen time for the group has an obvious knock-on, that the Player Characters introduced in Dorkness Rising are also virtually absent from the movie, a shame given the extent to which they had been previously developed.

So my final impression: Go watch it because it is yet another awesome production from Dead Gentlemen. Just don’t expect it to follow all the conventions set up by the first two movies.

Oh and Romance of the Nine Empires looks sweet, I am so picking up the Anniversary Box Set when AEG put it out.

 

Review: Masks by Engine Publishing

This post was originally published over at Nearly Enough Dice.

Masks is the second GM aid book by Engine Publishing, the writers behind the ever popular Gnome Stew blog and presents a library of 1000 memorable NPCs, spread over the Fantasy, Modern and Sci-Fi genres. Masks won the 2012 Gold ENnie Award for Best Aid/Accessory, was nominated for Product of the Year and is available through DriveThruRPG, the Engine Publishing store and in paperback at many FLGS.

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The concept behind masks is simple, provide a ready made resource of NPCs that can be grabbed by any GM and dropped into their game with minimal effort. The 1000 (yes there are 1000 distinct and well defined NPCs) are separated first by genre (Fantasy, Modern, Sci-Fi) then once again by their likely relationship to the PCs (Villain, Neutral, Ally). The entry for each NPC then covers just about everything you could need, baring attributes as the book is completely system neutral. Briefly these are:

  • Character name
  • A one line description
  • A quote from the character
  • Physical appearance
  • Suggestions for how to roleplay the character
  • Personality, motivations and background
  • A selection of one word traits

Considering the book manages to collect four characters per page without cramping them together this is a lot of information to draw inspiration from.

WP_000141The genius of Masks isn’t, however, the characters as written; it’s the inspiration that they provide. While I utilise the book on a regular basis I have yet to use a single one of the NPCs within it, finding instead that their presentation makes it easy to mix and match the various aspects presented in the book. If I need a bartender for example I’ll flip through looking for somebody that isn’t presented as a bartender but could be working in a tavern. So my bartender is now a self indulgent intellectual but the motivation and background that provided that one line description doesn’t explain why they’d now be serving ale. I flip a bit more, until I find a background that fits, such as an exiled noble, struggling to find enough work but unable to let go of their privileged upbringing. Now I’ve not just got a bartender but an actual character, somebody the PCs could take an interest in and find something interesting to investigate.

If you’re a GM then Masks is a book that I cannot recommend highly enough, especially if you regularly run sandbox style campaigns where you need a regular supply of interesting NPCs to populate the world.

Rating: 5/5

Review: Remember Me

This review was originally published over at Nearly Enough Dice

Remember Me is the first release from French studio DONTNOD and is available now for PS3, Xbox 360 and PC.

rememberme1aSetting

The game focuses on Nilin, a memory hunter fighting against Memorize, a corporation whose digital memory implants have transformed the lives of everybody in Neo-Paris. As you might expect from such a setup the game exists within a cyberpunk (technically neo-cyberpunk given the wireless nature of the technology employed) setting and opens with Nilin having her memory forcibly extracted. From there you take on the role of Nilin as she struggles against Memorize to recover her identity and understand why she was fighting them to begin with.

From the start it is clear that DONTNOD get cyberpunk and its aesthetics. Neo-Paris is a beautifully designed dystopian city of high tech, high living built upon a dirty, cobbled together underworld that still maintains a colourful (and often neon) way of life. Visually the world is not only stunning but thought out, stylistic choices are both consistent and logical, building together to make for an extremely believable city. Similarly Nilin is presented in a fairly realistic style, her main outfit isn’t some futuristic one piece, its jeans, a plain top and a jacket. Yeah they add some future tech such as her boots (which have some sort of exoskeleton extending from them) and Sensen memory tech (which visualise as holograms around one arm and on the back of her neck) but the core of her outfit is, like the rest of the world, built on a believable and, for want of a better description, normal look. It is this grounded yet developed sense of normality that makes the game world feel alive, something which is often overlooked in other similar settings.

rememberme2As the game progresses it explores, in true cyberpunk fashion, the relationship between the two co-dependent halves of Neo-Paris while also exploring a number of other themes central to the genre (though to avoid spoilers I’ll avoid even mentioning which themes). It does this extremely well and as with the visual identity the story is tight, well written and develops at a sensible pace. Before moving on to the gameplay I just want to quickly highlight one other aspect, the soundtrack. It is, quite simply, brilliant and adds that final piece of atmosphere to the game. In particular its implied use of digital artifacts, moments where the music jerks or stutters, are truly inspired and really help in projecting an immersive digital world.
Gameplay

Remember Me is a third person action game with a mixed focus of unarmed melee combat and traditional climbing adventuring. Unfortunately, and in contrast to the setting development, the gameplay fails to come together into a cohesive whole with, severely detracting from the final experience. The first issue is the linearity of the game. After designing such an amazing world DONTNOD fail to utilise it, instead choosing to constantly direct Nilin into corridors or high walled streets that only go in one direction. Adding in larger areas, with more opportunity to explore would have greatly improved the experience of playing. You could have still had linear goals (ie get from A to B) but with multiple routes available climbing could have become more freeform while also introducing Deus Ex like moments of ‘do I sneak past these guards or take them on and risk reinforcements arriving.’

The second, bigger issue, is the combat. On the outset the approach is reminiscent of the combat in the Batman Arkham games but with a bigger focus on combo’s, which are managed through the Presens system. The concept of the system is simple, given a set combo (ie Square-Triangle-Triangle) you can customise the effect of the combo at each stage by assigning certain presens to it. The presens themselves are assigned to 1 of 4 types: damage boost, health regen, cooldown boost and chain multiplier. So for example you could combine 3 damage boosts together to generate a hard hitting combo or combine health regeneration with cooldown (which increases the frequency with which your special moves can be employed).

On the surface this is a great idea but like other aspects of the gameplay fails to come together as effectively as it needs to. The biggest problem is that the combat just doesn’t flow as well as it should. This makes the bigger combos unnecessarily difficult to pull off when fighting larger groups of enemies, either due to being hit or because you’re constantly dodging attacks. In theory it’s possible to continue a combo after dodging but I found this to be particularly difficult to do and therefore avoided using the longer combos during most encounters. Again a comparison with the Batman games is apt, where larger groups of opponents make it all the easier to flow combos together and where it is possible to dodge and simply continue the combo against a different opponent. Without that flow the encounters of Remember Me often become frustratingly difficult, which severely detracts from the game as a whole.rememberme3

Perhaps the most unusual gameplay element is that of the memory remixes, where Nilin alters somebodies memories in order to change their personality or outlook on life. It would have been easy for DONTNOD to have merely employed a cutscene for these sections but instead provide a mechanism to alter the scene by identifying memory glitches, which when changed impact on how the scene develops. While these sections typically boil down to trial and error (change a glitch, see what happens, rewind and try again with a different combination of glitches) the remix scenes are used sparingly enough that they don’t become boring and each instance provides a rather unique insight into the motivations of both the character being remixed and Nilin herself.

Wrapup

All in all Remember Me is an extremely difficult game to review, which explains how polarizing other scores have been (I’ve seen as low as 1/5 and as high as 4/5). It is, in the truest sense, a diamond in the rough, a game that has everything it needs yet one that also fails to pull it together into a cohesive whole. For me the setting and world DONTNOD has developed is enough to counter the deficiencies in gameplay but I can also appreciate how that won’t be the case for many others.

Final score: 3/5

On Star Trek: Into Darkness

**** SPOILERS AHEAD! ****

I went to see Star Trek: Into Darkness this afternoon and to say I was disappointed is an understatment. Insulted would be more accurate or to quote what I posted on Facebook:

So Star Trek: Into Darkness. An idiotic over the top summer blockbuster which lacks any intelligent consistency as it rushes from one ludicrous action scene to the next. Not worthy of bearing the name Star Trek.

What follows below the cut is going to contain SPOILERS, so don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Continue reading “On Star Trek: Into Darkness”

For the love of caffeine

While I’m a big fan of gadgets, gizmos and things which make me go ‘ooh thats nifty’ I don’t buy them as often as I’d like to, partly because I have some self restraint (and more than when it comes to gaming stuff) but also because I have a use it till it dies approach to the ones I do buy. In the case of computers this will often be a literal case of until it dies, which is why I’m still using Vista on my main laptop (and why my netbook, which I still use, came with XP originally).

coffee1Outside of gaming and technology one of the things that often gets my interest are coffee related gizmos but until now I’ve managed to avoid purchasing many. For the most part the reason for this is simple, while I love freshly ground coffee I’m generally too disorganised and asleep in the morning to enjoy one before I head out to work. To get round this I tend to drink a mug of instant on my walk to my train, it gets me my caffeine fix but means I only get to enjoy cafetiere coffee at the weekend. Until now that is.

Yup, I bought myself a new gizmo or more accurately a Planetary Design Doubleshot Coffee Mug. As you can probably tell from the photo it combines a standard travel mug with a cafetiere, thus allowing me to enjoy freshly ground coffee on the way into work but without the requirement that I be any more organised (or awake) than I am on a normal day. Things get better however, for the bottom half of the mug contains a sealed compartment into which extra spare grounds can be stashed for use later in the day.

While I’m still getting to grips with the doubleshot, by which I mean what is the optimal amount of grounds to use, I can already say that it’s been a worthwhile purchase. The mug is sturdy, well designed and the compartment for additional grounds is, well, genius. I bought mine from Ethical Addictions Coffee and apart from a few issues with the courier (who seemed intent on making it impossible to arrange a redelivery attempt) I’d definitely recommend them, just ship things through Royal Mail instead.

Review: Shadowrun 2050

shadowrun-2050s

This was originally published on the Nearly Enough Dice blog at http://nearlyenoughdice.com/review-shadowrun-2050

Shadowrun 2050 is tagged as an historical setting book for Shadowrun 4th edition, with the aim of allowing GM’s to run 4th edition games in the world originally presented by the 1st edition rules. The book is split into 8 main sections, the first 5 of which cover world background while the last three are more focused more upon the game system itself. As with most Shadowrun products there are also a number of short stories spread throughout the book. Before I continue I want to highlight the two primary aspects which heavily influenced my purchase of this book.

1. Shadowrun 4th edition is, in many ways, not cyberpunk; the setting has moved on to that of post-cyberpunk. It’s had to due to the continuous timeline, which has progressed progressed by over 20 years since first edition. In turn the technology of the game has also developed, most notably through the introduction of the wireless matrix and augmented reality. As a friend of mine would say, “it’s not cyberpunk if you don’t plug a keyboard into your head”. Shadowrun 2050, therefore, appealed to the purist in me, the one that wants to be able to play in a classic setting while using the latest ruleset. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy the post-cyberpunk setting as well, but it’s the classic 80s cyberpunk that inspired me to buy this book.

2. I am not a veteran of Shadowrun, I haven’t played previous editions and don’t have access to a library of old sourcebooks or adventures. I’d hoped that this book would make up for that, providing the details and flavour needed to run a classic game of Shadowrun.

World Background
The first five sections of the book concern world background information, aimed at providing the flavour needed to run a game in the 2050 setting and are presented in the form of matrix posts made by prominent Shadowrunners of the period. Briefly, these sections introduce some background on the major Corp’s and gangs, influential individuals, a breakdown of three major locations (Seattle, Chicago and Hong Kong), the types of jobs available and some sample characters before finishing up on a short ‘Life in 2050.’ While these sections (and accompanying fiction) take up around three quarters of the book they are annoyingly short on substance. Each of the topics are presented as the not much more than the briefest of introductions and with no comparison to how they differ from that of the 2070s, which is the default setting for the 4th edition rules. This is especially frustrating during the section on the types of jobs available, as by and large this hasn’t changed between editions. In contrast details on how these jobs differ between the periods, such as the types of security present or how to give NPCs a 2050’s flavour are absent.

Magic, hacking and gear
The final quarter of the book focuses more upon the system, introducing changes to magic and the matrix that fit better with the original 1st edition material. The magic chapter covers the three major traditions of the time, Shamanic, Hermetic and Buddhist, introducing tweaks to the spell categories available to each as well as reintroducing rules for grounding spells (affecting the physical world while in astral space) that were present in earlier editions of the game. Following this the matrix chapter returns hacking to its roots, detailing cyberdecks and the nodal structure of networks in the 2050’s. Common programs, IC and actions which can be taken in the matrix are also covered by this chapter with enough detail to be of actual use when playing the game. Bringing the book to a close is a fair sized gear chapter, listing the sort of equipment that would have been available to runners at the time, which includes bio- and cyberware (which, in my opinion, could have easily had a chapter to itself).

Summary
All in all this book was quite disappointing and appears to have been written to appeal to Shadowrun veterans who are nostalgic for the older editions. The background provided on the 2050s feels like somebody has merely summarised the setting and adventures from 1st edition without bothering to focus on any details of the period or how it differs from the default setting of 4th edition.If each section had included a ‘How this differs from the 2070s’ or ‘Using [faction X] in your game’ I’d be tempted to think more highly of the book, as it stands however the only sections I’m ever likely to refer to are those relating to the system changes, a mere quarter of the total page count.

Final rating: 2 out of 5