Friday, September 2, 2016

Why This Game Is Great--Powered by the Apocalypse

This decade has been a pretty innovative decade in terms of tabletop RPGs.  The highly successful and critically well-received 5th Edition of Dungeons & Dragons came out and revitalized the flagship tabletop RPG.  As I mentioned in the last post, the Cypher System and MCG came onto the scene.  The next post in this series is going to discuss 13th Age, which is probably my #1 RPG right now and came out in 2013.  And there are a number of games that I have not had a chance to look at in depth that other people rave about--the Fantasy Flight Games Star Wars line, Torchbearer by Burning Wheel HQ (bough the book at Gencon, haven't read it yet), Dungeon Crawl Classics by Goodman Games (which I played at Gencon for the first time), as three examples.  It's a good time for new stuff in the hobby.

But it seems to me that the most influential game of the recent period is D. Vincent Baker's Apocalypse World, which first came out in 2010 and is in the process of getting a 2nd edition (as an aside, Baker's first "big hit" was a game called Dogs In the Vineyard, which I have been trying to get my hands on for a while without success).  Putting aside the merits of Apocalypse World as a game itself (which we will get to in a bit), it has spawned a universe of games running on the same basic game engine, referred to as "Powered by the Apocalypse" games ("PbtA", in the lingo).  Probably the most prominent of these is Dungeon World by Adam Koebel and Sage LaTorra, which basically attempts to recreate the feel (or, perhaps, a feel) of classic editions of D&D.  I actually came to the Powered by Apocalypse games via Dungeon World, and I am much more familiar with Dungeon World than Apocalypse World, to the point where I have only read, but not played, Apocalypse World.  So, I am going to talk about the PbtA games as a whole here, not just Apocalypse World.

But, not all trends are good trends--are these PbtA games cool?  Yep, definitely, in at least three different ways.  First, the PbtA games really provide a very character-driven, somewhat gritty, narrative play experience.  The rules mechanisms are both relatively simple and constructed around discrete, somewhat self-contained "blocks" called Moves.  These blocks are easy to pick up, but they also do a good job of fading into the background during most of play, which allows the story to take center stage.  This strikes me as exactly what you want for a narrative game--the rules come into play in at a meta-game level, and in specific circumstances where you need some mechanic to resolve conflicts, but otherwise the story created by the players and the GM is not going to be bogged down by lots of rules intrusion.

Now, narratively-focused games are not everyone's cup of tea.  For people formed by games in the style of Dungeons & Dragons, they require you to shift gears a bit (especially, I find, for the GM).  But if you are going to go down the narrative road, I think the way that the PbtA games approach narrative play is the way to go.  They still feel like tabletop RPGs in a way that some of the more experimental narrative games do not--you still have character stats, you are still rolling dice to determine actions, etc.  On the flip side, some of the other narrative-focused systems I have read have relatively complicated rules sets that I had a bit of a difficult time wrapping my head around.  On a certain level, that seems to defeat the purpose of having a narrative game in the first place--if you are still tripping over the rules in your "narrative" game, you are taking away one of the biggest advantages in playing a narrative game.  I have found very little of that in the PbtA games, and it allows them to showcase the advantages of this style of play.  

[Side bar.  If you are looking to get a feel for how the PbtA games work in play, or you just want to hear a fantastic tabletop RPG actual play, you absolutely should check out the Friends at the Table podcast.  Their first season utilized Dungeon World, the second season utilized a couple of different systems including The Sprawl which is a PbtA game, and the third season is going back to Dungeon World.  Friends at the Table is awesome, and you absolutely should check it out.]

Monday, August 22, 2016

Why This Game Is Great--Cypher System and The Strange

There is lots of negativity on the Internet.  Everywhere you go, you will find people who love to tell you how much things suck.  Well, I don't want to do that here.  I want to stay positive and highlight the positive elements of things, especially games.  There are lots of games out there, and I like some of them more than others, but it seems kind of silly to focus attention on the bad stuff.  Especially where the "bad stuff" is very subjective anyway.

Plus, it is important to keep in mind that all of these games are made by incredibly small groups of people who are deeply personally invested in what they are doing.  If you read some of the stuff on the internet, you will get the sense that these game companies are faceless gigantic bureaucracies, like Apple or Google or something,  But that's just not true.  As a small example, probably the biggest pure tabletop RPG company around is Paizo, the makers of Pathfinder.  I wandered into their booth during Gencon, and I ran into a guy who went out of his way to help me out by going into the back to look for a product that was not out on display.  The guy who was helping me was James Sutter, who is the co-creator of Pathfinder (thank you, James, by the way).  Even "big" game companies are tiny operations where the people do what they do because they love it.  I suppose that there is an argument to be made that this shouldn't matter, but it matters to me, and I think all of these folks deserve being crapped less on as a general principle.  

So, the rule for this blog will be to talk about why games are great.  I may go so far as "hey, this part is a little tricky, so make sure you do X," but that is as negative as I want to go.  The rest will be exactly what it says on the tin--the things about a game that makes it awesome.

So, here is my list of games I want to cover in this series, and I will probably think of others:

1.  Cypher System/The Strange by Monte Cook Games
4.  The "Powered by Apocalypse" games, stemming from Apocalypse World by D. Vincent Baker
3.  13th Age by Fire Opal Media, published by Pelgrane Press
4.  Torg, formerly by West End Games, soon to be republished by Ulisses Spiele
5.  Dungeons & Dragons, 5th Edition by Wizards of the Coast
6.  Pathfinder by Paizo
7.  Call of Cthulhu by Chaosium; Trail of Cthulhu by Pelgrane Press
8.  Shadowrun by Catalyst Game Labs

In particular, I want to start off this series with the Cypher System, and my favorite Cypher System game The Strange, because I feel a little bad about the last post.  I stand by everything I said from a content perspective, but the overall tone feels like I am taking a dump on them, and that was not my intent.  Also, all of my interactions with the MCG people have been incredibly positive, and, again, that matters to me.  So, in the interests of karmic balance, I figured I would start with them.

First, the rules.  Cypher System does a couple of things better than any tabletop RPG I have ever encountered.  To start with, I have found it to be the easiest system to teach to new players, especially if those people have no previous RPG experience.  The core mechanic is incredibly simple and elegant--tasks are given a difficulty from 1 to 10, players can employ various means to reduce the difficulty in whole number increments, and then the final difficulty is multiplied by three to produce a target number to roll at or above on a 20 sided die.  Because the difficulty level moves up and down in whole number increments, the mathematical calculation involved in figuring out whether you succeed or fail is incredibly simple and intuitive, even for brand new players.  You get bonus results for a very high roll and problems from a roll of a "1," but that's essentially the totality of the system from a mechanical perspective.  The suite of situational modifiers that often bog down other RPGs are basically absent--they are either incorporated into the base difficulty number, or handled by simple up or down bumps in the target number.

Likewise, the basic Cypher System scheme of expressing a character in terms of a sentence, i.e. "I am a [adjective] [noun] who [verb or verb phrase]," is a perfect on-ramp for brand new players.

Monday, August 15, 2016

So, um, Never Mind

Well, the Invisible Sun Kickstarter just went live.  I believe I said in the previous post that I was "all but sure" to back it, and now I am glad I threw in that qualifier, because it turns out I'm not going to be supporting it.   A small part of that is that nothing in the additional information we have been given assuages my concerns about the setting (and, to some degree, reinforces them).  But the core reason that I am out on Invisible Sun is that the price point is simply too rich for my blood.

 The top-line, sticker-shock inducing number is $197 for the base game, with no digital-only option.  That's a big number, and I think for many people that number is probably disqualifying on its face.  But I can quasi-justify that price.  You can explain away the lack of a digital product offerings by saying that you need the physical components in order to get the play experience they are trying to go for.  I'm a bit skeptical of this, since they explicitly state they are making an app to handle the card-play necessary for the game.  And, I mean, it is 2016 and we are now fully in the digital future, so how much sense does it make to make a game that can't incorporate a purely digital format?  But, hey, it's their game, and if the designers say you need the physical components, it is kind of silly to argue with them.

People also point out that the retail cost of the three core books for 5th Edition D&D is $50, or $150 total, so $197 for a full game is not orders of magnitude higher than that.  FWIW, you can now get the three core 5th Edition books for $90 combined on Amazon, but I grant the basic point.  Cook also makes a good, if self-serving under the circumstances, point that the cost of games should be shared by the group instead of only falling on the GM.  Lots of folks don't have that luxury, but in an ideal world the cost would and could be divided among multiple folks.  So, it's a lot of money, but I think you can make the case for it.

No, what actually causes me to be out on the project is that you have to go up to the 2nd individual backer level, at $539, to get access to the stretch goal products.  In the past with the MCG Kickstarters, the real value proposition has come from those stretch goals.  For example, I backed the "Into the Ninth World" Kickstarter for Numerena.  It was not cheap--$175--but for that I ended up getting (or will be getting) five Numerena supplements (in both hard copy and PDF format), two novels, and bunch of other game aids and other odds and ends.  Now, technically only the three core books were guaranteed, and $175 for three books and PDFs is pretty steep.  But as it worked out, that cost was in a sense spread out among a broader base of products via the stretch goals.  And, given the MCG track-record with Kickstarters, it was almost a foregone conclusion that they were going to hit a bunch of the stretch goals, so the risk of just getting the three books was very low.

If the sell was $197 for the base game and whatever stretch goals they came up with, I might bite the bullet (especially since, about an hour into the 32 day Kickstarter, they are already 1/3rd of the way to their target number, so stretch goals are exceedingly likely to be hit).  But you either have to just take the $197 flat price for just the base game, or make a quantum jump in price-point to get the bonus goodies to distribute the cost.  Either way, much of the value in the value proposition that is usually present in MCG Kickstarters is gone.

To be clear, I'm not offended or put out by these prices.  MCG can set the price for their products wherever they want.  No one owes me the opportunity to buy this game.  Nor does any of this make them bad people or anything silly like that.  If I totally bought into this concept, I might be willing to go in at $197.  But, as is, it is a bridge too far.  I hope the game is great and it does well, and I will still buy and play other MCG stuff in the future.  Just not this one.  

Friday, August 12, 2016

Some Thoughts on Invisible Sun

On Monday (August 15, 2016, for those reading this later), Monte Cook Games will launch a Kickstarter in support of a new tabletop RPG called Invisible Sun.  The game was revealed at Gencon last Saturday, and that reveal has been followed by some viral marketing efforts that have been kind of fun (you can see some of it here).  It was probably the biggest tabletop RPG announcement to come out of Gencon, and I am all but certain to back it beginning on Monday.

You can't really talk about Invisible Sun in isolation from Monte Cook and MCG, so here is a quick primer.  In the relatively small world of tabletop RPGs, Monte Cook is at the top of the heap in terms of visibility and lineage.  Back in the 1990s, he was a writer and designer on Dungeons & Dragons for TSR, probably best known for coming up with the Planescape setting, which in turn lead to the cult classic and critical darling video game Planescape:Torment.  When D&D was bought by Wizards of the Coast, he was a lead designer on the 3rd Edition of the game (2000).  He then went out on his own and developed a series of well-regarded products under his own the Malhavoc Press label (this is the period of time when I was not involved with tabletop RPGs, so I'm familiar with this stuff only by reputation).

After a brief period where he was associated with what became 2013's 5th Edition of D&D, Cook launched a Kickstarter for a new game called Numenera in 2012.  This Kickstarter raised over a half-million dollars, and spun out into a full-fledged game company, a line of Numenera products, three other games using the same game engine (2014's The Strange, 2015's generic version of the "Cypher System" rules called, well, The Cypher System, and a version designed for younger kids called No Thank You, Evil!), and five more wildly successful ($200k+) Kickstarters to support those products.

I was late to the MCG train--I missed the initial Kickstarters for Numenera and The Strange, but I have backed three of their follow-on Kickstarters.  My experience is that MCG and their Kickstarters produce well-written, visually stunning, high-quality products.  From a game point of view, I think the Cypher System rules are a breeze to run and to teach (probably the easiest rules set I have found), with only a few problems that have cropped up in play.  On the setting side, I really, really like The Strange (think about shows like X-Files and Fringe and even a bit of Doctor Who to get a flavor), but I am more ambivalent about Numenera, whose far future lost world setting hasn't really "clicked" for me (more on that later).  In this analysis, I appear to be in the minority of the Wisdom of the Internet, which tends to love the settings and not love the rules as much.  Be that as it may, MCG has become one of my two "go to" game design companies (along with British game company Pelgrane Press, about whom I will surely be writing in the future), and I would recommend their stuff to anyone looking to get into the hobby or to find new games to check out.

In any event, all of that is prelude to talking about Invisible Sun.