RPGaDay 2017 August 10th

10th) Where do you go for RPG reviews?

Mostly I’ll search for them rather than have a single site that I go to. For the majority of games my interested tends have been stoked through twitter, podcasts or a forum and I’ll then go in search of actual reviews of it. The rise of kickstarter has made this harder though as a lot of the games I’ve bought recently weren’t out and therefore didn’t have reviews. In those cases I have to rely on the pitch for the game and what the company has released before. That in itself is a difficult combo and I’m actually finding myself shifting away from backing games at that stage; it doesn’t help that I have so many kickstarter games that I’ve read but never played.

Review: Don’t Starve Giants Edition (PS Vita)

This was originally written for the Nearly Enough Dice podcast blog.dontstarveAs Liz mentioned towards the end of Episode 147 of the podcast I’ve been playing a lot of Don’t Starve lately, mostly on my way to and from work. When I say playing what I actually mean is running around in a panic trying to survive another night (my first game I made it to all of the 3rd night before dying) or running away from whatever monster I’ve managed to provoke this time.

But wait, playing it on my commute? Yes, for Don’t Starve is now out for the Playstation Vita!

The Game

For those who may not be familiar with Don’t Starve it is a survival adventure game by Klei Entertainment where your character is thrown into an unforgiving landscape and must work their way up from building simple objects like a flaming torch or an axe to managing a complex set of resources that allow you to survive the harshness of winter and the various giant monsters that inhabit the world. The game is notoriously difficult, with little in game guidance of how to progress, made all the more difficult by the permadeath that figures heavily in the early stages of game play. Liz’s actual plays (Episode 1, Episode 2 & Episode 3) provide a good example of the early stages of the game.

Survival through exploration is the key to the game and thanks to the large maps, randomly generated for each playthrough, no two games are ever the same. The world can be customised to suit your preferences by reducing or increasing the frequency of particular features such as monsters or resources while the multiple different characters each bring a unique ability to the game, such as Wilson’s ability to grow an amazing beard (which is more useful than it sounds).

Beyond the default Survival mode there exists a secondary Adventure mode, accessed by finding a special location in the survival mode map. Adventure mode ramps up the difficulty by challenging you to escape your imprisonment by travelling to other locations which are even less hospitable. My one and only attempt at this mode dropped me straight into a harsh frozen wasteland with sparse resources and an extremely long night period. I lasted a day before being thrown back into the Survival mode world though to be fair I’ve also yet to make it past day 22 in Survival mode (winter is harsh).

Panic!
Run away!

The PS Vita Port

While the game was originally designed for the PC the PS Vita is, in my opinion, extremely well done. The world looks amazing on the OLED screen of my 1st generation PS Vita and the controls have been smoothly adapted to the dual analogue sticks of the handheld. For me the smaller screen size of the PS Vita also helps to build the tension somewhat in the game, just because there is less on the screen at any one time and I just don’t know what I’m about to encounter next. Included in the port is the Reign of Giants DLC, which introduces additional complexity to the game such as full seasons, more environments, two new characters and of course giants. Best of all the game is covered by cross-buy, which means that if you purchase it on the PS Vita you also get the PS4 edition for free (or vice versa), making the £11.49 cost of the game even better value, though unfortunately the save games are not cross compatible.

Being on a portable console does, however, come with a couple of downsides, notably with regards performance. The majority of the time you will encounter this is in the longer loading times, especially during world generation. Not in itself a big issue though I have experienced a couple of times when the game hung on loading screen, typically this is when moving between worlds and the game is trying to both save an existing map and generate a new one. The second performance issue I’ve experienced is one of frame rate slowdowns when there is too much happening at once. I’ve personally only run into this a few times, such as when my forest base got struck by lightning and everything caught on fire but I’ve heard of people also encountering after creating large bases later in the game. If you’re aware of the issue it should be possible to work around it by spreading your base out more but it’s still not an ideal solution.

Roundup

All in all Don’t Starve is a game that I would highly recommend if you’re looking for a challenging survival game and the PS Vita port is a great way to experience it as the game works well played in short bursts. Just remember, you’ve not truly played the game until you’ve run around in a panic screaming “it’s trying to eat me!”, which if you’re anything like me will happen pretty quickly.

Review: Steelheart

steelheart1One of the things that I ensured I did during my recent holiday (in November, posts since then were absent due to a crazy few weeks at work) was to read fiction, something I don’t get to do as much as I’d like these days (the real world, work etc being what it is). One of the numerous books I got through was Steelheart, the most recent novel by Brandon Sanderson who is perhaps best known for his Mistborn series and for finishing the Wheel of Time series.

Some minor spoilers below, you have been warned.

Continue reading “Review: Steelheart”

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.

firefly_class_ship

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

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.

WP_000136

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: 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

Review: Technoir

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This review was originally published at http://nearlyenoughdice.com/review-technoir on the 24th of November.

Mix one part cyberpunk with equal measures of hard boiled investigation and film noir before pouring into a glass made from a lightweight rule system. Serve in a smoke filled bar, under the shadow of a looming Corporate skyscraper and you’ve got yourself Technoir, an original RPG by Jeremy Keller and published by Cellar Games. It is available from www.technoirrpg.com and on RPG Now.

Overview
One of the early RPG successes from Kickstarter Technoir is a cyberpunk styled game heavily flavoured by hard boiled detective fiction and film noir. The game is presented in a compact and beautifully laid out form, small enough that its easy to just slip the book into a bag just in case you get a chance to play it. If you’re looking for long sessions of planning, stealthy infiltration and stats for an endless list of cybernetics then I suggest sticking to Shadowrun. Technoir is about bold and reckless action, its about causing trouble because you can and flinging accusations just to see what sticks.

Rules
Technoir uses a lightweight rules system built around the use of Adjectives, which describe the result of actions, properties of objects and relationships between characters and their connections. Want to shoot somebody? Then you might apply the adjectives of Suppressed, Bleeding or even Scared; it all depends on how you want to affect the target and how long you want the Adjective to last. In a similar fashion Adjectives may be applied to represent emotional or situational (Distracted, bored, lustful etc) effects, describe the properties of items (Sharp, Rapid-fire, Expensive etc), and define the relationships between characters and their connections (Respectful, Loyal, Indebted etc).

Actions are attempted by generating a pool of d6′s, formed from characters attributes (Action dice), positive adjectives they can draw on (Push dice) and negative adjectives affecting the character (Harm dice, of which a character has a limited number). These are rolled together, with Harm dice cancelling out any positive dice of equal value, and the highest remaining die then compared to the target number. If successful the adjective is applied as desired.
It is here however that the Push dice really come into play as by default Adjectives applied through a successful action don’t last for long. If you wish to extend the duration of the effect, for example upgrade a ‘Suppressed’ to ‘Bleeding’, it requires that a Push die be spent, transferring it from the Player to the GM. In this way the game brings in an ebb and flow of power that fits well with the noir genre implied by the games title. At the start of each adventure Push dice reside with the PCs, allowing them to quickly investigate and get the information required to work out what is going on. As the dice flow to the GM the balance shifts and the PCs start to run up against larger challenges, difficult to overcome without the boost provided by Push dice. Here the GM can then start to really hurt the PCs, applying longer lasting adjectives (which confer Harm dice) but in order to do so must once again spend the Push dice, returning them to the control of the players. Finally the PCs, bruised and beaten but in possession of the Push dice, are in a position to uncover the truth and take out the bad guy at the centre of their troubles.

All in all the system works well and finds a good balance by bringing together traditional mechanics (rolling dice), player narrative (adding adjectives) and genre (the Push dice economy) into a single cohesive system. My experience with the system so far is that it works best when an adventure is spread over 2 or 3 sessions, one shots limit the impact of longer lasting adjectives on NPCs as they don’t appear in enough scenes. Longer adventures however and the PCs build up too many negative adjectives, severely limiting their effectiveness. The only real issue I’ve had with the system is getting to grips with the focus on character versus character conflicts, as the GM is advised to avoid rolls that don’t involve manipulating / affecting another character in some way. This makes sense from both a genre and system perspective, as applying adjectives to say, pick a lock, doesn’t make a big impact if that lock is never encountered again. I suspect part of my issue with this is that my NPCs are probably the weakest aspect of my GMing so only time will tell as to whether I can get a handle on this aspect of the game.

Transmissions
Transmissions, which make up a substantial portion of the book, are a system for the generation of on the fly adventures which are generated as information is uncovered by the characters. Each Transmission forms a small setting, something which is mostly absent from the main game, however even these settings leave much up to the imagination of the GM. There are 3 Transmissions included in the book itself and each contains within it a series of contacts (NPCs who can provide favours to the PCs), locations, events, factions, threats and objects. At the start of the adventure the GM takes 3 of these elements and uses them to form a story seed, as the PCs explore and investigate they draw in further elements which the GM connects to that initial seed. For example if a PC goes to a contact to borrow some money that NPC is added to the plot map and suddenly they may be connected to a spate of kidnappings the PCs are investigating, maybe she’s involved in laundering the money of the gang involved or her son is one of the individuals who has been taken. The plot map, generated from each of these elements merely provides the links between points in the adventure, its up to the GM to decide what those connections are.

The Transmission system works extremely well, allowing a GM to generate a plot as it unfolds and as the PCs are drawn into the adventure. Of course this requires the GM be comfortable with working out details on the fly but even if you’re not comfortable with this the framework provides an easy to use, pre-generated set of points which can be used ahead of time to plan an adventure. There are a number of Transmissions which are already available and with their simplicity its easy to write more focused around your city or setting of choice.

Customisation
While the game is written from a cyberpunk perspective the relatively limited nature of the setting material makes the system extremely easy to adapt to other settings. As part of the Kickstarter project the author has already released MechNoir, which shifts the focus to Mars and adds in rules for the use of Mecha and is planning to release HexNoir, a magic / fantasy based adaptation for the game. From a personal angle I’ve been working on an adaptation for running games within the Dresden Files universe (which can be found here on this blog). This coupled to the compact size of the book and ease of writing new transmissions means the game is on my list of systems I’m happy to pack in my bag while travelling just in case I can slot a session of it in.

Wrap Up
Technoir is a game that I would definitely recommend to those who are fans of the cyberpunk genre, especially if they’d rather focus on the motivations and conflicts of characters as opposed to the stats of a particular piece of cyberware. The system underlying the game is distinct, easy to learn and encourages the styles of play expected of by the genre, with the added bonus of being easily hacked to fit other noir influenced settings. All in all definitely a game that I am glad to have taken that Kickstarter gamble on.