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.]

Second, the PbtA family has created a slate of very innovative, hyper-focused RPGs that I don't think would have come about otherwise.  For example, at Gencon I played a short session of a PbtA game called Night Witches, in which you play members of the all-female Soviet 588th Night Bomber Regiment in World War II.  That's it--as written, you can't play members of the companion Soviet all female fighter regiment, or any other air squadron, or anything else.  Moreover, the structure of the game presumes that you will follow the Night Witches through various events that the squadron participated in during World War II.  I am sure you can take pieces of Night Witches and repurpose them for other scenarios, but as presented the game tells one story in one location at one period of time.  Likewise, there is a game called Sagas of the Icelanders, which I haven't played or read, in which you are a towns-person in 9th Century Iceland.  Not fantasy Iceland, but real Iceland--the whole game, as best as I can tell, is about having interactions with other villagers and playing out your social roles in 10th Century Icelandic society.

On the surface, this hyper-focused quality seems to be at odds with Apocalypse World and Dungeon World, both of which are extremely open-ended in terms of setting.  But the commonality between the PbtA games is the experience of play, even if the nature of the setting and how it is constructed are different.  In other words, while the setting of the some of the games is very focused and some of them are very open-ended (and, in any event, very different from game to game) the kinds of stories that end up getting told through those games and the tone of those stories is very consistent.  Also, I am not aware of any other game system that tells the kinds of stories that PbtA games do.  If you tried to run something like Night Witches in another system, it would end up being far more combat-oriented and cinematic, which would cause you to bump up against the constraints of the setting much faster (how many times can you tell the story of near-suicidal bombing runs before it gets boring?).  By digging deep into the character-driven elements, it allows these focused settings to be playable and interesting, where for other games the premise would be too tight to make a workable game.  As a result, PbtA has opened up new conceptual spaces for tabletop RPGs, which is always a cool thing.

But the final part is the part that can best be ported over to other tabletop RPGs, and that is the approach to GMing that it has.  Probably the number one barrier to entry for people getting into RPGs is finding someone to GM, and figuring out how to GM is probably the most intimidating part of getting to the RPGs.  This is compounded by the fact that most tabletop RPG books have the paradoxical quality of being useful primarily to people who already know how to play.  For example, take the GMing section in the Numenera corebook, which is generally seen as being quite good (and I agree).  It has pages and pages of information on how to GM Numenera well--how to emphasize the discovery component of Numenera, how to keep the themes of Numenera at the front of the game, etc.  But it doesn't really tell you how to GM from a blocking-and-tackling perspective, besides some pro-forma description of "what is a roleplaying game."  It just sort of assumes that you understand what the GM is actually supposed to do to make a tabletop RPG work, and goes from there.  If you were totally new to RPGs, watching ten minutes of Matthew Mercer GM on Critical Role is probably more useful in figuring out what to do on a basic level than reading most RPG books.

PbtA games avoid this problem by actually telling you how to GM by giving the GM specific rules to follow that lay out what you are supposed to do while you are sitting at the table.  For example, the GM is told in Dungeon World to "address the characters, not the players"--in principle, if you don't do this, you are GMing Dungeon World wrong.  This is helpful to brand-new GMs because it is a concrete task that communicates exactly what the GM is supposed to do when you are actually running the game on a minute by minute basis.

There is a segment of folks, especially old-hands with RPGs, that are rubbed the wrong way by being told how to GM in such explicit terms.  Moreover, the PbtA games are very opinionated about the right way to GM, and the point-of-view espoused is not one that is universally shared among fans of RPGs.  In particular, Dungeon World goes out of its way to say that prepared adventure plots, in which the GM sketches out ahead of time what will happen to the players, is Doing It Wrong.  That's a controversial idea, as a big portion of tabletop RPG product consists of prepared adventure plots.  But, I think if you think of the advice as "this is how you should play this game" as opposed to "this is how you should play every game," I think you can accept the approach they are offering without internalizing it as an attack on every previous RPG experience you have had.  Moreover, I appreciate that they are trying to provide some concrete guidelines on how to GM, and taking a stand on how to GM is a necessary part of providing that concrete advice.

[Speaking of GM advice, one more plug.  Adam Koebel, one of the authors of Dungeon World, has a great GM advice show on his Youtube channel.  Also very much worth checking out].

Plus, you owe it to yourself to give their approach a shot.  PbtA games provide a robust set of tools to help you set up a structure inside of which you can have a free-form game that dynamically reacts to player actions.  In particular, Dungeon World and Apocalypse World introduces the concept of "fronts," where the GM prepares antagonistic factions that have their own internal goals and methods that advance through the campaign.  So, the GM might set up four fronts early in the campaign.  If the players focus their attention on one of the fronts, they might be able to shut that front down completely, while the other three fronts are advancing their agenda off-screen and getting closer to their nefarious objectives.

The concept of fronts really changed the way I think about running campaigns from the GM perspective.  Rather than try to funnel the players to a pre-set plot, you throw a set of options in front of them and let them pursue their own objectives.  It makes the players feel like they are dynamically engaging with the world and are the masters of their own destiny.  It also makes the world feel more alive--the decision to focus on the evil wizard had the consequence that the swamp cult grew in power and influence.  Plus, because the fronts system is entirely fiction-grounded and not dependent on the PbtA mechanics, the concept of fronts is entirely portable and can be used in most other RPG systems.

Even if you never play Apocalypse World or Dungeon World, even if story games are not your cup of tea, I think the PbtA games are worth taking a look at, especially if you are a GM.  I think the ideas in PbtA games will help anyone approach GMing in a different and better way, even if you never play them.  The PbtA show the scope and creativity of tabletop RPGs, and that makes them great.

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.

One of the biggest challenges I have found for new players in making characters (in any system) is option paralysis--the moment they are confronted by a laundry list of different choices presented in "game speak" that they can't really evaluate, the process seems overwhelming.  New players feel like they have to master all of this obscure technical vocabulary before they can make intelligent choices about their character.  Cypher System cuts through that problem by pitching two of the three elements (the "adjective" or descriptor and the "verb" or focus) of the descriptive sentence in natural language terms.  A new player can easily decide whether they want their character to be a "clever" versus "tough" versus "stealthy" without having to engage with the mechanical elements of that choice at all.   Even the game-speak part of the sentence (the "noun" or type) can be explained in simple, easily digested terms (in The Strange, your three options are physically-oriented, socially-oriented, and mental/weirdness-oriented).  Rather than having to come up with a fully-formed concept and translate that into game terms, or wade through a sea of options, new players can build a character in stages in an informed way without having to dive deeply into the rules elements right up front. 

The other thing that the Cypher System rules do that is great is that they reduce the task load on the GM while allowing the GM to remain the primary story-teller.  In a standard tabletop RPG, the GM wears at least three hats--he or she is the preparing and presenting the interactive story, he or she is running the opposition for the players, and he or she is adjudicating the rules and the overall game experience.  Taking on those three tasks and switching between them on the fly is a big ask, and is often a real barrier to entry for new or aspiring GMs.

One of the solutions out there to this problem, coming from many "indie" or indie-influenced games, is to off-load some of the job of controlling the narrative by giving partial narrative control over to the players.  To take a small example, in a game like 13th Age, the icon relationships and One Unique Things allow the player to create setting details, which means the GM doesn't have to do that ahead of time.  That can work very well (I love 13th Age, as seen by my list above).  But, for many GMs the narrative part is the part of GMing that they like the best, so reducing the narrative part is like taking away desert and leaving behind all of the vegetables.

Cypher System goes in the opposite direction, and tries to reduce the other two tasks  The only rules-based task the GM has to do is to set difficulty levels for player tasks (which most systems require the GM to do).  Once the difficulty is set, all the rest of the rules engagement is in the hands of the players--they roll all of the dice, and they are able to interpret their own results.  The job of "running the bad guys" is reduced to basically nothing, particularly because monster stats can be as minimal as a single level which reflects the difficult number for accomplishing any task related to the monster.  You can create a more "complicated" monster by separating out different levels for different tasks (so, a bad guy can be a level 5 when it shoots its eye lasers, but level 4 for everything else), but even with that Cypher System enemies are orders of magnitude less mechanically complex than other RPG systems.  Because the game rules-load on the GM is so minimal, Cypher System is the easiest system I have found to improvise and GM on the fly.  You can create fully functional combat encounters just by picking a difficulty number for the bad guys, and you are off and running.

So, that's why the Cypher System rules are great.  Here's why The Strange is a very cool setting.  The basic premise is we have recently discovered a "dark energy" network called the Strange, which connects the Earth to a series of "recursions," which are self-contained alternate realities.  Certain folks (i.e. the player characters and key bad guys) can travel from recursion to recursion, and when you move to a new recursion you are (usually) transformed to match that reality.  So, if you move from Earth to Ardeyn (a fantasy-esque recursion), you might grow angel wings or get a gigantic sword to match the new world you are now inhabiting.  Game mechanically, the players can swap out their focus (the "verb" in the sentence) as they switch recursions.  So, someone on Earth who is a "Clever Vector who is Licensed to Carry" might become a "Clever Vector who Speaks with the Dead" when he or she moves to Ardeyn.

The other angle with these recursions is that they can be created by the fiction of a prime world like Earth.  As a result, in theory every fictional world should exist as a recursion that can be incorporated into the game, and the GM material openly encourages groups to steal (or, perhaps, "borrow") other properties.  One of the recursions in the expansion book is transparently Star Wars with the serial numbers filed off; another one is Sherlock Holmes without any serial-number filing (since that IP is no longer copyrighted).

Genre mash-up is nothing new for RPGs, as we will see from my up coming hosanna to Torg (which was published in 1990).  But The Strange does the mash-up in a particularly elegant manner.  What I particularly like is the way it allows the GM and players to control the amount and nature of the recursions that are present in the game.  You could run a very Earth-focused, X Files flavored game that was all about keeping the weird stuff away from Earth; you could also have a full-on gonzo game who you hop from genre to genre four times per game session.  If you like the idea of taking a side trip to Endor, then you can do that, but if you think that sounds kind of lame, then your lack of Star Wars content doesn't mess up the rest of the setting.  I also like the balance between the unique purpose-built recursions and the "taken from other IPs" recursions.  There are enough tools in the basic game to work with and give people a starting point, without burying them in complex lore or setting details.

Likewise, the default organization for the players to belong to, "the Estate," has just the right amount of development to be useful without being confining.  It's a pretty standard investigative/quasi-government secret conspiracy organization, which can be drifted in any number of directions.  One of the clever dimensions to the Estate is that in the fiction it is a new organization, so it is both pretty plastic and avoids the "infallible secret organization" problem that many similar entities run into ("if these guys know everything about the Big Bad, why do they need to send schlubs like us to investigate stuff?")  And if you don't like the Estate, you are also provided with a half dozen alternatives, from straight-up government agencies to research bodies to alien factions.

Cypher System and The Strange are not revolutionary, and they do not bring anything that you absolutely can't get somewhere else.  But they are each in their own way extremely well crafted implementations of the basic idea.  They are accessible places for people to get into tabletop RPGs and genre-spanning settings, and they bring enough interesting angles to get and keep experienced players engaged.  They are both pretty great.

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.