Warehouse 23 basement

Don’t look now*, but SJG’s Warehouse 23 basement is back. All sorts of weird objects, many hilarious, many slightly creepy, many just kind of head-scratchingly incomprehensible. My favorite continues to be the 1:1 scale map of North America. Potentially good inspiration if you need something weird and mostly useless for PCs to discover.

* although maybe now would be okay

B&C via net

Since my move to Taiwan, my monthly Blade & Crown group has continued pretty much unabated. Our group is now pretty widely scattered. Most of the players are in the Twin Cities, but one is in the Pacific Northwest, and I’m of course on the other side of the Pacific.

  • The quality of microphones and speakers, unfortunately, matters. We’ve had some sound issues for one player, and it seems largely to do with the sound equipment involved, on both ends. Moving to computer-moderated play can mean you have to sink a little money into a high-quality headset or speakerphone. It’s also Really Nice to have a nice, wide monitor, so I can see everyone clearly in one window while I keep the campaign wiki open in another window.
  • So, unfortunately, does bandwidth. Some of the players in our game have taken to joining up together at one player’s house, even though it means a lengthy commute, because the one player has a much more reliable, high-bandwidth internet connection.
  • However, some simple little tricks can also help. When we had some trouble getting everyone at a (pretty large) table heard through a speakerphone, messing with the technical settings didn’t help. But putting the speakerphone on top of a can, so that the device was elevated above most of the various objects on the table (bowls, dicebags, computers, etc.), worked brilliantly.
  • Scheduling can be tricky! I’m almost exactly on the other side of the planet from the other players, and most of us work 9-5, Monday-Friday-style jobs, so that means we can pretty much only play on weekends.
  • However, as the person who has historically been late most often to the game, having the game session happen right from my living room is very nice. No need for me to commute means it’s just a matter of plopping down and starting, so I’ve been much more on time recently.
  • Sharing visual information — maps, mostly — works quite well. Screensharing makes this possible. However, I’m always a little leery of letting Google or whoever else get their digital claws on my graphics.

Shiny Trait tokens: A pile of glass beads.Computer-moderated play has also gotten me thinking about the tangible aspects of gaming. The stuff you can touch. We all have our own dice, so that continues to work fine. But in B&C, another major tangible component is Trait tokens. Having shiny little baubles to trade back and forth has always been a part of the enjoyment. And having tokens makes it immediately apparent to all concerned how much Trait usage is still possible. How to handle that when trading each token back and forth would cost a hundred dollars and take three weeks?

So far, the only solution I’ve found is for me to keep a text file to track tokens. It works, but it utterly lacks the tangible benefits of physical tokens. Not only does it lack the tactile enjoyment and shininess of tokens, it also makes it difficult for anyone but me to know how many tokens someone currently has left. I haven’t found a better solution yet. Do you know any free online sites that allow tracking of this kind of thing? I can already envision a site like Doodle where you input characters’ names and then select how many tokens you have for each, and then the GM can activate or deactivate those tokens. Perhaps with a choice of different icons for each: little stars that either flash or glow dully as embers; storm clouds that quietly rumble or flash lightning; little characters who bounce with activity or slump; etc. Is there such a thing out there?

In my monthly group, we haven’t needed to do any minis combat yet. I’m wondering how that will work when or if we do. I actually have pretty much my full minis collection here with me, but the camera setup will certainly be a challenge. I’ve seen lots of mentions of mounting cameras on the ceiling or whatever, but that isn’t an option for me, for any variety of reasons.

In any case, as I said before, it’s very nice to live in the future.

Real-life adventures

Convergence finally asks me to be an Invited Participant, and what happens? I’m not even in the country for it.

It’s been a major break between posts here, and for good reason. At the beginning of May, I started a new job here in Taiwan. Yes, Taiwan. I visited again last summer and, as has now happened multiple (well, two) times with me, a short taste of Taiwan led to coming back for longer the next time. Since my last post, I’ve been incredibly busy moving and then establishing myself back here.

Clouds over the hills south of Taibei

I’ve managed to have a few real-life adventures. Going to a different country is a sure-fire recipe for that. Looking at graves on distant hilltops; getting chased by barking dogs, and succeeding pretty well on my Intimidate roll with their irresponsible owner; going to see the sun set over the ocean and the mountains; lots of little side-adventures to explore this alley or that temple. And of course all the usual hardships of trying to establish oneself in a new country. Not a lot of time for blogging.

Gaming has been sparse so far, but I’ve now had a very successful session of my monthly Blade & Crown group via video chat. It is very nice, but very busy, to live in the future.

Hopefully, as I get more settled, time will allow for more adventures and more blogging. Hopefully we can all keep having adventures — the good kind — in the meantime.

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.