Con of the North, part 1: Among Stars and Would-be Gods

Friday, I got to the Con late as usual. I was hoping to get there in mid-afternoon, but several minor crises meant the first game I could actually play started at 6pm. Even more unfortunate, John had had to cancel his attendance at the con entirely for Friday, so my first choice of game (John’s Feng Shui 2 game) had been canceled, too. I wasn’t sure what to play, but Jay of Saturday Night Space Opera invited me to Jennifer Doll’s “Among Stars and Would-be Gods”. I’m glad he did.

The game had a full slate of players, and at first, I was a little leery — Jennifer and I were the only women. Also, I was a little leery of playing a system I hadn’t tried before, and creating a character in it. But Jennifer included a bunch of nicely-designed packages she had created, so creating a PC was largely a matter of putting together a few pieces. She gave us a nice introduction to the system. Cypher seems needlessly complicated to me (seems like the difficulty targets or resource pools or something could be adjusted to avoid all the multiplication that’s required), but Jennifer’s game turned out to be great.

We were all psychic adepts, trained from birth as assassins, enforcers or spies. One player created a tech/leader type who believed he was the leader of the group, but who actually wasn’t; another created a surfer dude-type who was actually an intrusion expert; another created a big bruiser/enforcer type; and there were a couple others. The players did very nice jobs of roleplaying, adding a lot to the immersion and enjoyment. And it was a group who understands that no one person should dominate the spotlight, which is very nice.

The table as we played Among Stars and Would-Be Gods

Our PCs were all living in a small compound that we had never been outside of. Shades of La Femme Nikita, or Paranoia, or maybe Logan’s Run. We knew there had to be a world outside, but we’d never been there. When our handlers disappeared, leaving only the minder robots and our other psychic adept comrades, we were moved to action.

As we eventually discovered, perhaps a stronger parallel was with Akira: a group of psychically gifted people trying to deal with someone even more gifted — dangerously so. Pretty soon after we left the compound, I figured out the general course of where things were going, so I had my character start wishing kind thoughts towards Omega, the dangerously gifted one.

Although the scenario clearly could’ve ended with a violent confrontation between us and Omega, we managed to find a non-violent way to resolve it. There was nicely rising tension throughout, so it didn’t feel like a letdown. The bruiser/enforcer PC never got to shoot anything, though, I think.

Like I said, I wasn’t a huge fan of the system — Cypher includes too much multiplication and division on the fly for my tastes. And it seems like the designers could’ve just tweaked some of the difficulty ratings or resource pools to eliminate the need for arithmetic. But the resource management aspect (using pools of points for each of the three characteristics) was kind of neat.

Overall, though, Jennifer ran a great scenario, one with a lot of nice, subtle hints and important opportunities for player agency. The other players at the table also made it a lot of fun. I’m glad Jay invited me, and glad Jennifer ran it.

Con of the North 2016: Almost entirely great

A compass roseCon of the North 2016 is now over. I’m recovering from a little bit of con crud. I usually don’t suffer from that kind of thing, but other commitments necessitated getting to the con on Saturday with far too little sleep. It made me appreciate even more that they put water dispensers in various strategic locations; a very good feature, one that more cons should probably do. (Good way to make sure your members’ immune systems are working well!)

There were a few small bad experiences with this year’s con, but the vast majority was great. Lots of fun systems, some great player interactions, some real inventiveness — most of the games I was in were really just superb. Hopefully I’ll get around to writing up each game here later.

For now, continued recovery.

Lots to do before Con of the North

A compass roseCon of the North 2016 starts tomorrow, and I still have a lot to do:

  • Paint some markers for my Blade & Crown game
  • Transfer a bunch of prep to my netbook
  • Create one or two more PCs
  • Print all the PCs
  • Whip up a couple sheets of disposable NPCs
  • Print a few more player handouts
  • Give the mass combat rules a thorough review (I wrote them, but that doesn’t mean I memorized ’em!)
  • Put translations for the 美麗島風雲 Wonderful Island action cards their sleeves

In addition to the regular necessities of life! But all the prep is fun, and I’m sure I’ll be done in time. I’ve already created most of the B&C PCs, created a nifty mass combat tracking board, printed off some maps and — critically — written up most of the scenario. Both the games I’m running should be quite good.

Hopefully see you at the Con!

Blade & Crown errata: SIZ for NPCs

Illustration of priestly personA sagacious reader noticed another actual error in Blade & Crown: the human encounters (starting c. page 122) have their SIZ calculated wrong. There was a stage in the development of the rules where SIZ was calculated as (STR × END) + 10, but what I ended up with in the final rules was (STR × END) + 8. I wrote those NPCs up during the +10 stage, and didn’t catch the error.

So, to clarify: SIZ for all humans should be (STR × END) + 8, and the NPC characteristics are in error.

And thank you, everyone who has bought B&C, for continuing to support B&C!

80 Days review: Good, but way too frustrating

Like a lot of people, I’ve played the Android game 80 Days a bit lately.

I like a lot of the writing, which is generally quite clever. Although based on Verne’s novel, it has a lot of additions, in the form of worldbuilding and additional storylines. The world of this game is very steampunk, with an Artificers’ Guild who build glittering automata, and glass crystals used as computer memory devices. There are, de rigueur, multiple kinds of airships. Yet the writers are clearly conscious of the problems with steampunk, including its very strong tendency to glorify imperialism and other harmful historical trends. So 80 Days has stout women engineers, various countries throwing off the yoke of European domination, and a (potentially) wide-eyed protagonist, eager to see both the technological and social marvels of this new era.

80 Days screenshot: Munich and ViennaAlso, the game is incredibly pretty. The graphics are very nicely stylized; the technology is represented in blocky black-and-white illustrations that suggest steampunk niftiness without explaining how anything works. The interface — a mix of branching paragraphs, common to this kind of interactive fiction app, and a quick-scrolling globe dotted with transportation options — is smooth and generally gorgeous.

However, I still have a lot of problems with the game. First, maybe most prominently, is the fact that there’s no choice regarding the protagonist’s gender. Regardless of all the other choices you can make, the game is always played as Passepartout, the male valet of Phileas Fogg. Of course, in the original story, Passepartout is a man. But the game diverges from the source text in many important ways, so why not make this critical thing open to variation as well? As we’ve seen before with a lot of other games, the argument “But allowing women PCs would cost too much development time!” doesn’t make sense here, as they clearly spent plenty of development time on other aspects of the game (little animations for travel, a smoothly-spinning globe as the overall interface, etc.). And the background includes plenty of other women characters, so why not make arguably the single most important choice — the player’s own character — have more than one gender option?

In general, for a game that is all about choice, there is sometimes surprisingly little choice in 80 Days. In one play-through, one of the characters told me that some commodity was valuable in Vienna, and my money was already running low, so I bought the commodity and then tried to get to Vienna to sell it. I was in Munich or Prague (I forget which now), only one stop away by pretty much any means of transport. But, as it turned out, there was simply no way to get there. After an in-game day or two of exploring, planning and interacting at night, no routes to Vienna appeared. As an experiment, I decided to see if the game would ever give me a way to travel to Vienna. I think I spent about an in-game week waiting for any train or wagon or whatever, but nothing ever appeared. There was also no way to discover new routes, or discover some furtive means of transport via nighttime exploration, or anything else. It was like to game’s creators had decided to play with me: trust anyone in this game, and you’ll get screwed over — not by the untrustworthy characters, but by the game itself! Very frustrating.

Other times, the sentence fragments from which you choose the next arc of the story seem deliberately misleading. A choice of “I decided to avoid them…” might quickly turn into “…but I could not help myself from being attracted to their wares” or somesuch. It feels at times like the game’s plot is predetermined, and the choices offered are only illusory.

In another play-through, while traveling through Hong Kong, the game abruptly informed me one day that my PC had become addicted to opium. I had no choice but to sit there, destitute, for about two in-game weeks. There was literally nothing I could do to change this; all other options that I would normally have were greyed out or unavailable. I could either quit the game or continue on the awful path the game had decided to set me on. (There’s only one saved game at a time, so it’s either continue on with whatever has occurred, or restart from scratch.)

Screenshot from 80 Days: I awoke this morning...In my most recent game, upon starting a new day in Istanbul, the game told me that I had awoken in the Topkapi palace “in the silks of an Ottoman harem girl”. Basically, the incredibly tired and terrible “forced crossdressing” trope: the game trying to appear edgy by including crossdressing, while giving cissexist people an easy out by claiming that it wasn’t by choice. There are a ton of things wrong with this trope that I won’t explain here. Simply put, I find this writing lazy, transphobic and — perhaps worst of all — very detrimental to the sense of player agency.

Perhaps 80 Days is supposed to be only partly-interactive fiction, where we sometimes have to surrender ourselves to the author’s vision. But it seems that that vision is sometimes downright cruel, or actively making fun of the player. To have the story abruptly inform me that I’m addicted to opium, or tauntingly prevent me from getting to a place that the game enticed me into visiting in the first place, disrupts any trust I have that the story is leading me to an interesting place.

Maybe the occasional “railroading” is a comment on the nature of imperialism? Or the nature of life itself? Perhaps 80 Days is fundamentally about how we are sometimes just tossed on the seas of destiny, and how we don’t really have agency in our own lives? Well, honestly, I get enough reminders about that from my actual life. I play games to explore interesting, meaningful choices. For now, in spite of all its interesting worldbuilding and beautiful graphic design, I’m done with 80 Days.

Ryuutama continues

The weekly group continues to play Ryuutama. We’re getting more familiar with the system, albeit not fully learning it. (There are enough technicalities and exceptions in the rules that we continue needing to check the book on a pretty frequent basis.) It continues to bring us some nice, sometimes cute, sometimes dangerous, often almost quaint, adventures.

The past couple sessions, we’ve used the settlement creation rules to great effect. I’ve GMed, but due to various busy-ness, I haven’t had much time at all to prepare. With a little inspiration from real life, and some vague ideas for conflict from me, the players came up with some great ideas for the settlements that meshed very neatly with what little I had planned. The result has been several tidy little adventures.
Sea turtle crawling on a beachLast week, the PCs found a seaside settlement of people who made their tenuous livings gleaning flotsam and jetsam that had washed up on the beach. They had enshrined a giant sea turtle in a stone-walled catchment pond, and none the adults of the community spoke, following the Sea Master who hadn’t used her voice in years. To make matters worse, the tide was steadily rising and becoming less predictable. The PCs figured out the link between the tide, the Sea Master and the turtle, resolving the problem with some nice tension but no violence.

Last Thursday’s session involved tracing a river up its course, then walking through a long cliff-side tunnel to a village located in a sinkhole. Again, the settlement creation rules were very helpful. We came up with a village that subsists on mushrooms, inconsistently lit by poorly-maintained phosphorescent fungi, threatened by haunting echoes and giant bats. They once had flourishing mines, but now the village has fallen on hard times and regards the obsidian artifacts of the past as cursed.

The session ended up with a confrontation with one of the giant bats. This mini-adventure isn’t finished yet, but we should be able to finish it next session. I have a pretty good idea what will resolve the threats to the village, and it has again meshed very nicely with the players’ contributions to the Town Creation procedure. I wouldn’t be surprised if the solution the players work out is precisely what I have in mind, without any push from me. That’s certainly what happened last week. Perhaps we’re just lucky to be operating on the same wavelength, or perhaps we’re tapping into irresistible deep archetypes. Whatever the case is, Ryuutama has continued inspiring us to create some very flavorful, nicely-shaped, collectively-crafted little stories.

Two important posts

Two very important articles on different blogs have been posted recently:

A rainbow, apparently moving between two cloudsTanya D has some very important things to say about getting paid as a marginalized person. And how a lot of our work around diversity ends up getting repaid with well-meaning requests to “educate me!”, or even just “exposure”.

And I would be lying if I said this post on Go Make Me a Sandwich didn’t, yet again, hit me in the gut. Anna is saying a lot of things on her blog that are both incredibly important and incredibly difficult to deal with. And incredibly personal for me in a way that I don’t feel comfortable talking about on a public blog.

Celestial Empire no longer published

'Celestial Empire' in Chinese charactersI missed this post from Gianni Vacca back in September: Due to all the changes going on with Chaosium and their Basic Roleplaying/D100-based systems, Alephtar Games has lost licensing rights for Chaosium games, so Celestial Empire is no longer going to be published.

As I said before, Celestial Empire is easily the best game I’ve seen based on Chinese history. Gianni really knows his stuff, and it comes through in the book. So if you see Celestial Empire in a shop, pick it up — it may be your last chance to.

Blade & Crown errata: damage factors for thrown spears

A spearhead -- actually a boar spear, but hey, it could be thrownAnother couple small errata for Blade & Crown: the damage factors for thrown spears and javelins are probably wrong. I think the actual pierce damage factor for a throwing spear should be around 6, instead of the 2 it is listed as having. Javelins should be about 1 less than that, so say Pierce 5. This makes their thrown effect more in line with their hand-held use. Adjust to taste, of course.