RPGaDay 2021: 7th August

It’s time, once again for RPGaDay and as always I’ll be releasing a short post each day inspired by the prompt from the table below. For the most part these are going to be off the top of my head, zero edit posts so I have no idea how much sense they’ll make or where each prompt will take me.

7th August: Small

While I’ve been able to build a little momentum over the past year I am still operating on the small scale compared to a lot of people and other than the slow grind of releasing material I’m not sure what to do. Running my first ZineQuest kickstarter resulted in a significant boost to my sales but I need to translate that to a continued interest in my games, which so far has been difficult. I think the biggest part of the problem is me, I struggle to connect with people and put myself out there in the sort of way that is necessary to really make it. I don’t do hot takes, make giant sweeping statements or call out other games (ok, occasionally I call out 5E). It’s not uncommon for me to just avoid social media altogether for a few days which isn’t the way to draw attention to myself or my games. Of course adding the ongoing pandemic on top of all that hasn’t helped and I’ve struggled with engaging with online events for a host of reasons I won’t go into.

It’s also frustrating to not be getting eyes on my work when I see some people getting engagement from constant hot takes or just throwing half baked ideas out into the void but never actually finishing anything. If this sounds like I’m venting a little then it’s because I am. Maybe I need to do that a little more and just throw things up on the blog as they come to me. I don’t know. Don’t get me wrong, I’m under no illusion about the fact that the market is flooded with creators right now and that you need the right combination of luck, connections and just being out there to really make it. It’s just frustrating to release stuff into the wild that I think is good and see little to no response. I think it’s also annoying that I’ve let me put myself into the position of being bothered by it all. While I’m treating designing and publishing games as a micro-business it is, ultimately, a hobby and I’m in the privileged position of not being reliant on earnings from this stuff.

Anyway rant over. It’s Saturday so rather than dwell on this I’m going to go and check out the #selfpromosaturday tag over on twitter and see what others have been up to this week.

RPGaDay 2021: 6th August

It’s time, once again for RPGaDay and as always I’ll be releasing a short post each day inspired by the prompt from the table below. For the most part these are going to be off the top of my head, zero edit posts so I have no idea how much sense they’ll make or where each prompt will take me.

6th August: Chase

I’m not sure I’ve ever encountered a chase mechanic that really feels like it works in play and I think part of the problem is the way that mechanics typically take an overly literal approach of how far away from the target are you. Tracking how close you are is, on one hand, a fairly reasonable assumption. If you are chasing a person you either need to catch them or fall behind so much that they get away but in reality it never feels interesting during play as you end up rolling the same thing over and over. It’s also all too possible to get into an endless loop where you never catch up to them but they never get away, something that doesn’t make for much fun at the table.

Because it’s boring.

The games that do it best tend to be the ones that use a challenge based approach, so you need to overcome 3 out of 5 challenges to catch them. Why do I think that works best? Simple, it’s more cinematic. Think about how chases are presented on screen – it’s rarely about the actual distances involved but overcoming challenges such as dodging other traffic, finding shortcuts or knocking things into the path of the chasers. Ultimately though it all comes down to the final total where the chaser either catches up or loses their prey but only after all the hijinks involved in chasing them. A good GM using that sort of approach will think about 3-5 thematically interesting challenges that might get in your way and allow for a wider range of approaches than repeatedly rolling whatever skill you use for running.

RPGaDay 2021: 4th August

It’s time, once again for RPGaDay and as always I’ll be releasing a short post each day inspired by the prompt from the table below. For the most part these are going to be off the top of my head, zero edit posts so I have no idea how much sense they’ll make or where each prompt will take me.

4th August: Weapon

When I first got into RPGs one of the things I enjoyed was poring over Weapon books, such as the Kanawa Personal Weapons and Heavy Weapons books for Torg. The odd thing though is that I wasn’t doing it to mechanically optimise my character but to narratively inspire myself. In a combat orientated game weapon descriptions can tell you a lot about the wider world and how the authors are pitching the tone of the game. Is it full of pistols, each hand built by genius crafters and firing ammo with unique effects? Or are there a half dozen corporations specialising in a particular type of weaponry?

The pinnacle of these for me was probably Corporation, a game that is all about the gadgets and weapons that cybernetically enhanced agents are equipped with. As a GM I used to spend hours digging through the books looking for inspiration that was thematically appropriate to the NPC the players were about to encounter. Sniper and spotter? What would they need to infiltrate the city, set up in an abandoned tower block and ensure their target was positioned just right? Even if I did regularly find myself creating over the top experts it was rarely about the stats, my focus was always the concept.

These days I’ve drifted away from that sort of gaming, preferring to focus on the actual narrative rather than small details that the players rarely pick up on but every so often I do find myself tempted to sit down and just dig through a weapon book and think about the fine details.

RPGaDay 2021: 3rd August

It’s time, once again for RPGaDay and as always I’ll be releasing a short post each day inspired by the prompt from the table below. For the most part these are going to be off the top of my head, zero edit posts so I have no idea how much sense they’ll make or where each prompt will take me.

3rd August: Support

For today’s prompt I want to give my support to all of the amazing contributors to the ZineQuest Jam – As part of running my first Kickstarter this year I wanted to try and give something back to the community by organising the jam and using it as a place to bring together as many of the projects as possible once they’d been released to the wider public. We’re about halfway through the jam and already have loads of entries that you should check out. Right now the list (including links to each game) looks like this:

  1. The Sun’s Ransom
  2. Thursday
  3. In the Shadow of Tower Silveraxe
  4. Aether Operations
  5. Microvania
  6. Project Cassandra
  7. A Complicated Profession
  8. Reliquary
  9. An Altogether Different River
  10. A Small Collection of Flowers & Entanglements
  11. Paranormal Inc.
  12. Weirdwood
  13. The Lord of Wolves – A Trophy Gold Incursion
  14. Two Summers
  15. Subtle Fluid – The blooder
  16. Cryptid (Mis)Communication
  17. Patchwork World 6E
  18. Trash Planet Epsilon 5
  19. The Collector
  20. Menagerie of the Void
  21. Hope Is Not a Plan
  22. Habits of the Common House Ghost
  23. Hinterlands: Peoples and Perils
  24. Gratitude: A horror game
  25. Two Summers: first holiday memories
  26. Network 23
  27. Rascals
  28. Vis-a-visage
  29. Peculiar Children
  30. Major Arcana
  31. Descending the stairs
  32. Lethal Fauna Bric-a-brac
  33. Most Wanted
  34. Contorta
  35. Coiled.Spaece
  36. This Night on the Rooftops
  37. Mage to Order
  38. GrimBlade
  39. Superstition
  40. Edinburgh Indie Gamers Zine
  41. Glitchspiel
  42. Infinite March
  43. Tomb of Immolation
  44. MechTek
  45. Grasping Nettles
  46. Monolith: Path of Transcendence
  47. The Soul Sword Forge

RPGaDay 2021: 2nd August

It’s time, once again for RPGaDay and as always I’ll be releasing a short post each day inspired by the prompt from the table below. For the most part these are going to be off the top of my head, zero edit posts so I have no idea how much sense they’ll make or where each prompt will take me.

2nd August: Map

I virtually never use combat maps during play. My preferred approach to GMing is to improvise each session on the fly, which makes producing anything more than a quick sketch fairly difficult. As a player I also prefer to avoid them as it drags me away from the RP and into a more wargaming focus. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, I enjoy wargames, I just prefer not to mix them with my RPGs. Whenever I see a fancy combat map and minis in use I do feel a little jealous, they look awesome but outside of a streamed game I do wonder how many people can really justify set pieces like that. It would be awesome to find a gaming space that allowed you to rent stuff like that and had a big enough stock that you could mix things up, even if only to use it as a centrepiece for the table.

All that said I do have a soft spot for hand drawn maps. I really like the styling that tends to be used for both world and dungeon maps. I’ve tried my hand at them a few times but never really gotten into the habit when it comes to just drawing them for the sake of it. Art isn’t my strong point so I tend to get frustrated when I can’t get things the way I want, even with relatively simple concepts. I really should try and get back to trying, it would be a nice way to take my eyes away from the computer and just focus on creating something.

RPGaDay 2021: 1st August

It’s time, once again for RPGaDay and as always I’ll be releasing a short post each day inspired by the prompt from the table below. For the most part these are going to be off the top of my head, zero edit posts so I have no idea how much sense they’ll make or where each prompt will take me. With that said lets get going.

1st August: Scenario

When it comes to writing scenarios I like to focus on what I call a ‘starter’ approach. This sets up the major locations, antagonists and goings on but isn’t constructed as a narrative adventure. I’ve run so many sessions where the players threw curveballs and did something unexpected that I’ve learned to instead think about goals and motivations than an a->b->c approach. The other thing that I focus on is the opening hook – why are the PCs involved and what’s their motivation to go along with the plot. Why should they care that somebody is Godzilla is robbing banks (you are the sole team of superheroes in the city) or that the local crime boss has a suspiciously generous job on offer (you’re broke and if you can’t pay your debts you’ll lose you ship). All of this is especially important when it comes to convention play – if you can’t get the players invested in the plot in the first scene then the next 3-4 hours are going to be a drag.

2020 in review: Gaming

2020. To say it’s not been a great year overall would be one hell of an understatement. Gaming wise it has been what I can only describe as a slow year for me, primarily as I have failed to make the switch to online gaming necessitated by the Covid crisis. It’s not that I don’t enjoy online gaming, I’ve just found the process of finding and joining a regular group rather… disheartening.

In an ideal world I’d have gone into the crisis with a regular group and an involved game to stay focused on, as it was the group I had been playing with was already in the early stages of fragmenting. Not an ideal situation, especially given we’d only just started a mini campaign of The Cthulhu Hack, a game I’d been itching to bring to the table for quite some time.

That’s not to say that I haven’t gamed this year, just that it wasn’t nearly as often as I’d have liked. I finally managed to play in, rather than run, a couple of sessions of Demon Hunters: A Comedy of Terrors, including a session at ZOEcon run by Silent Jim himself (aka Don Early). I’ve also had the opportunity to play one shots of Tales from the Loop, Lancer and Paris Gondo. All fun games, though I feel that Lancer isn’t suited to one shots with new players as the system is far too crunchy for the restricted time frame.

On the GMing front I’ve run a few things, with the majority being lighter, one offs. Again fun but not really scratching that itch and more often than not reminding me how much I miss a steady group.

So where do I go for 2021? Well really the only way is up. Publishing aside (which I’ll cover in an upcoming post) I want to join or run a more involved campaign. Something that I can sink my teeth into. That’ll probably require finding an online group with a space as unfortunately I don’t see in person gaming returning until the second half of the year (at the very earliest). I also want to see about arranging some more one offs / mini-campaigns to try and work through the various games I have sitting around unplayed. Alien is top of that list as I’ve been itching to bring it to the table since picking it up at Dragonmeet 2019 while Star Trek is one that I want to save for a rotating in person group. As far as conventions go I want to say I’ll be back to them but right now I just don’t know. The UK Games Expo are aiming for an early June event but with the current state of things that seems too early for it to actually occur. Dragonmeet in December is more plausible and I believe there are plans for a post summer BurritoCon which I’d probably attend as it’s both local and small scale. So who knows really but fingers crossed, it can’t really be much worse than 2020.

First Thoughts: Alien RPG

This is not a review, merely my thoughts based on two thorough readthroughs of the Alien RPG. Before I put out an actual review I want to have run at least one session of the game in its cinematic mode to get a proper feel for the mechanics.

I picked up the Alien RPG at Dragonmeet 2019 after originally avoiding the wildly successful pre-order earlier that year. I hadn’t ordered the game at that point for a simple reason – I’ve never watched Alien. Or any of the movies in the franchise. It’s impossible not to know the overall plot and tone of the movies though so when the first reviews of the game came in it piqued my interest. Everything seemed to suggest that Free League had succeeded in releasing a system that helped to build tension and explosive terror. That was enough to make me check the book out at Dragonmeet, where I was pulled in by the extensive, evocative art and sales pitch of the Effekt crew who were running the stall.

Dragonmeet was the end of November and unfortunately I’ve yet to get around to playing the game. What I have done is a couple of thorough read throughs and I’ve got to admit that I’ve come away feeling conflicted about the product and wanted to see if I could pull those thoughts together into a cohesive whole.

Remember: This isn’t a review, it will focus primarily on the issues I have rather than considering the game as a whole.

So what’s my issue? The big one is that I don’t understand the focus of the game. It feels off balance. The buzz I’ve seen surrounding Alien has been centred on the cinematic style of play – one off, high attrition scenarios designed to mimic the tone and pacing of the movies. Reading the book though they feel more like an afterthought. The GM chapter has a mere 2 pages dedicated to this style of play (though 2/3 of one page is taken up by artwork) in addition to the cinematic scenario Hope’s Last Day. Well, I say scenario but its not even the full thing, as it states in the text that it is only the third and final act of a larger adventure. This 18 page (that count includes the characters and maps) teaser isn’t even meant to occupy a typical session as, according to the text, it can be played in under 2 hours. A full cinematic scenario, Chariot of the Gods, is available as a separate purchase but I don’t understand why you wouldn’t want to showcase this mode of gameplay in the core book, especially when the recommendation is that you should start with a cinematic game before considering a campaign.

I’ve heard that page count was a constraint and I’ll admit that the book is a fair size but that’s also deceiving. There is a significant amount of artwork, more so than most books and I’d estimate you could cut the page count by a quarter (or more) and still have a beautiful book if there was less art and a more condensed layout.

The artwork is atmospheric and extensive, almost to the point of outshining the actual game

Which brings me to my second issue – campaigns. Despite having an entire chapter dedicated to them it feels lacklustre and incomplete. There are quick summaries of the three campaign types (space trucker, colonial marine and frontier colonist) and a series of tables to aid in the random generation of jobs/missions, star systems and complications but it just feels like it lacks any depth. Personally I’d have preferred a sandbox of a small region with some colonised planets and a border between two major powers to help get a campaign started.

One of the aspects that particularly stood out was money. The book makes it clear that the setting is one of hyper-capitalism, where you should expect to be living job to job, paying off debts and just struggling to stay afloat. The problem though is that it then fails to follow through in any real sense. Each framework lists a typical weekly salary, anywhere from $400-$960 while the minimum reward listed in the jobs table is $21,000.

So what can you spend all that wealth on?

Well there’s living costs, which is given a single tiny table that takes up less than a quarter of a page otherwise dedicated to yet more art. Or you could splash out on food and drink, including individual cups of coffee (Free – $1.50 per cup) which are given a page and a half of space. Yes, the book dedicates space to describing coffee.

Really though you’re going to be after gear and upgrades. Most of the personal equipment has costs in the hundreds to low thousands but ships and their upgrades may range into the millions. Oh, and you’ll also need a supply of spare parts for repairs. They cost $100,000 or more unless you can salvage them and will be consumed by even minor repairs. Which you could be doing regularly if you fail the weekly maintenance rolls.

Living expenses. Yup, that’s the extent of the mechanic.

All in all it just doesn’t add up into a coherent system. Somebody has clearly gone to the trouble of thinking about the fact the setting is one where ships should be breaking down regularly and needing expensive repairs. There’s a list of modules a ship might have but do I then need to list all the handheld equipment on the ship? If we start with a ship do we have to also purchase space suits, tools, food etc as well or does it come with a reasonable amount of equipment? Who knows, the rulebook certainly doesn’t say.

Now you may think I’m being unfairly critical here, or putting too much of an emphasis on it but I do so for a few reasons. The first reason I’m doing so is because of how many pages are taken up by gear and equipment, all of which are dotted with prices. Earning enough to get by on is clearly meant to play a significant role in campaigns but I honestly don’t think there’s a coherent and complete system here. Incidentally this isn’t a problem unique to Alien but is shared with many other systems.

The second reason I’m bringing it up is because I’ve recently read Scum & Villainy. While the tone of that is very different the gameplay also includes the completion of missions and constant need to earn credits. The difference there is that it’s baked squarely into the system. Every mission includes a structured way of having to deal with maintenance, upgrades and personal spending in a way that enhances the game and reinforces the need to do the next job. It transforms it from dull bookkeeping to an integral, and enjoyable, part of the game. I just wish Free League had managed the same here.

So with all these apparent issues you may be wondering what I’d have done differently. Primarily I’d streamline the book by removing campaign play elements entirely and focus it on cinematic play. So out with most of the gear and equipment, in with a complete three act scenario and proper guidelines on creating/running cinematic scenarios. It may be that this is the approach Free League have taken with their upcoming starter set but honestly I just don’t understand why they didn’t go in that direction from the outset.

I’m just going to close with a repeat that this isn’t a review, just things that got under my skin while reading the book. I think the core system is good, like the look of the stress mechanic and am looking forward to running a game, hopefully sooner rather than later. At that point I’ll revisit it and do a proper review but honestly, I suspect it’ll just reinforce my desire to focus on cinematic gameplay.

If my ramblings haven’t put you off the game then it is available for purchase on drivethruRPG (includes affiliate link).

Rambling: Shifting expectations – From one-shots to campaigns

Until we started our current D&D game my recent gaming had been orientated towards one-shots or, at most, mini-campaigns. It was only following our most recent session, that it struck me how the switch to a campaign hadn’t resulted in a proper reorientation of my mindset.

The One-Shot

By their very nature, one-shot games are constrained by time. This is especially true for convention games which typically need to fit into a four-hour time slot. Typically that will include not only the actual game but picking characters, explaining the system and introducing the scenario. The format also requires the plot to take a specific shape. Scenes need to be concise and limited to only those that are directly relevant. Characters should be clearly defined, often to the point of exaggeration, to ensure that they are both easy to pick up and are able to shine during the adventure. Even if you are running a prep-lite game you need to be on the ball, responsive and focused. Anything else and you risk going over or having to trim down the game.

The Campaign

Campaigns are the polar opposite and I had thought that shifting to one would have led to a pretty instant shift in my preparations and expectations. On the surface it did. The adventures are now spread over multiple sessions, there is more time to socialise and go over rules and with a more relaxed approach to the plot, I’ve even found that sessions can comfortably run short. We typically end up with closer to three hours of gaming than four thanks to the knowledge that we’ll be picking things up again the next week.

Well of course there’s a difference…

Most people that have read the above are probably thinking that I’m pointing out the obvious and you’d be right, I am. In shifting my point of reference though I’ve been reminded how easy it is to overlook the obvious. The structure of a one-shot vs campaign starter vs mid-campaign session are all different. But with the transition from one format to another how often have I actively thought about those different structures?

How often have I paused and reminded myself of those constraints and what they force me to leave out?

The answer to that is not enough. It’s human nature to take shortcuts, which in the case of adventure prep means going with what you have become used to. When we started The Immortals I knew every session would have a followup and started thinking about multi-session arc and plots. Yet on a session to session basis, I maintained too many approaches that are better suited to a one-shot.

Most obvious – that our first few sessions all concluded with a mini-cliffhanger. On one hand that’s great, it can help maintain engagement but on the other hand, I was found myself leaning on the one-shot beat structure session after session. We’d start by resolving the cliffhanger, rest and recover, explore the new situation and then rapidly build to another point of drama. I was forcing the pace of each session to try and ensure it ended on a high because that was what I’d become used to. I did it without thinking, even though I knew I had time to spare. Even though I knew that we could end on a low or with the characters in the middle of something.

All because I had assumed I would automatically switch my habits back to approaches I’d learned when I was running regular campaigns.

Going forward its clear that I need to pause and reflect more often, not just on the big picture but on the fine details. I’m fairly confident that overall I run a good game but I don’t want to just run a good game, I want to run an amazing one. I’ve got a table full of new players and I want them to come out of the campaign wanting more. I want them to love this hobby as much as I do and that’s not going to happen if I just rely on past experience.

Note: Ok, so this post got away from me and just wouldn’t come together the way I wanted it to. Normally I’d work on it a bit more but the more I do the less I feel like it is going to go anywhere. So here it is, just some rambling thoughts that I hope make at least some sense.

Fall of the Immortals: Room for Improvement

We’re now four sessions into our D&D campaign Fall of the Immortals and it’s shaping up quite nicely. The PCs have reached level 2, the players are beginning to find their feet and we’re slowly establishing the details of the world in an approach that is somewhere between traditional D&D and the PBTA trappings of Dungeon World. I’m making an active attempt to ask the players to define details without overwhelming them.

There is, however, plenty of room for improvement on both sides of the screen and based on our most recent session one of mine is that I need to improvise less. This seems counter-intuitive in many ways as my progress as a GM over the last few years has been squarely towards improvisation. Going into our last session my concrete notes were little more than

PCs infiltrate noble party looking for the scroll. Upper echelons of gnome society; modron like mechanical creatures used as guards.

However, when it came to running the session I felt that while I was able to introduce scenes I felt like they lacked depth and that the connecting elements were paper thin. I had little sense of how the mansion was designed, of who the host was or of how the PCs might uncover the whereabouts of the scroll. When the PCs chanced upon an interesting location, such as the library where monodrones were loading and unloading books from cages that were slowly rumbling past, I then failed to provide proper context. The PCs decided to follow the cages of books, which led them to a room where dozens of shackled scribes were working away furiously on… something. My mind was blank, I just couldn’t think of a good explanation for them existing beyond trying to explain elements of the previous scene.

Fortunately, the PCs didn’t dig too deep and I wouldn’t be surprised if the players hadn’t picked up on my troubles but even so it is bothering me. The solution is likely that I need to prep more, taking those few sentences of notes and expanding them slightly. For example, going into the last session I knew the PCs were infiltrating the party so a few notes on the mansion would have helped. I knew they were after the scroll so I could have made notes on where it is and what might be protecting it. I’m never going to go the way of full on adventure paths, with every detail described in advance. I have neither the time or the inclination to put that much restricting prep in. But some more prep would have been invaluable without preventing the addition of elements on the fly.