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Archive for the ‘Game Review’ Category

2014 is turning out to be a really, really good year for new games.  Not only is Vincent Baker actively and publicly developing the next Apocalypse World game, and so far it looks brilliant; but Ron Edwards (of Sorcerer fame) is developing and publishing a new RPG!  The latter, called Circle of Hands, Kickstartered in March and is due to be published by the end of the year.  From now until the end of the summer, Ron is running an open playtest of the working draft.  What a great opportunity, not just to get a sneak preview of a favourite designer’s latest game, but also to participate in game development with him!  I grabbed the playtest document and assembled a few friends to play it with me.

Circle of Hands is a gritty story-now RPG set in a fictional iron-age land that culturally and technologically resembles Northen Europe around 1000CE.  Not castles but walled towns.  Not kings but chieftains.  Not swords but spears.  There are no non-human races, but there are some fantastic monsters.  The combat mechanics aim to be fast, simple and brutal while bringing a measure of realism never before seen in a fantasy RPG.  And there is magic, oh is there magic.  Gone is the false choice of muscles or brains; if you want to wield magic, you’d better be strong enough.  There are no skinny bookish spellcasters in this harsh land.  Wizards mutter spells through gritted teeth, between spear thrust and shield bash.

Mitch, Peter and Christian stepped up to try out the game with me (David also volunteered, but due to interference by Real Life never actually made it to a session).  They really threw themselves into the true spirit of playtesting.  Although I offered to teach them the rules at the table, they all read the playtest doc ahead of the first session.  They gamely tried the different character options, and worked to test all the mechanics in play.  And best of all, they gave good post-game discussion and feedback.  All of our comments were enthusiastically received by Ron on the Adept Press forum, and lead to some very interesting conversations.  Our names will be in the published game.  We played three sessions in total, and it was a great experience.

What’s the game like?  As promised, fast and brutal.  A scenario is meant to be started and finished in one night, which we usually achieved without having to rush.  The game has an interesting scenario-generation mechanic for the GM, which doesn’t take long at all and results in some very charged situations.  It’s a story-now game, so the GM isn’t meant to plan out what happens.  He creates the initial conditions (location, problem, some NPCs), and then plays to find out what happens.  Game play includes a mandatory social roll for every PC/major-NPC interaction, which strongly influences how things proceed.  This is great, because it makes it impossible for the GM to plan what will happen in a scenario, and leads to some very interesting unexpected situations.

Besides the above, the game stands out for two reasons: the combat mechanics and the magic rules.

Combat mechanics

Whenever you attack OR are attacked, you enter a “clash” with your opponent.  You each roll attack and defense at once, and either one of you can injure the other.  You also get to decide how far you bias your action towards attack or defense.  And then there’s the Advantage die; one and only one character in each clash gets an extra die based on the immediate tactical situation.  There are no rounds, and what we would traditionally call the initiative order is very dynamic.  Whenever you attack or fight back, you go to the end of the initiative order.  If you get attacked a lot, you might never get to initiate any actions, but you could still be doing a lot of damage.  Any time, you can spend a point of Brawn to skip to the front of the line.  But don’t be a spendthrift: Brawn is also your damage modifier, your hit points AND your spell points!  In practice, all this meant for some very exciting combat scenes full of rapid reversals of fortune.  The mechanics are just complex enough to demand quick and strategic thinking.

Magic rules

All PCs use magic.  Wizard PCs have access to all of the spells; yes, all of them, right from the start.  Non-wizards select just a few spells for their repertoires.  There are two types of magic: White and Black.  As you might expect, White is all about healing and purity, and Black is demons and necromancy.  But don’t make the mistake of calling them Good and Evil; they’re both terrible.  White magic run amok will purify your village right out of existence, erasing it as surely as a horde of undead will.  All NPC wizards are devoted to one source of magic or the other, and the war between White and Black magic is the scourge of the setting world.  The PCs are unique in that they alone have sworn to use both kinds of magic in balance.  Spellcasting expends your Brawn attribute (as mentioned above), and using too much magic of one colour has permanent consequences.

Circle of Hands has a few other unique spins on the way we role-play.  I won’t try to get into them all now.  Overall, we really enjoyed the game, and as GM I was forced to practice some new techniques.  We and other playtesters did manage to find a couple of leaks in the rules.  Ron is currently re-writing and reformulating several parts of the game.  I look forward to playing it again soon; and to eventually receiving the finished product.

-J

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Speaking of Indiana Jones…

I had just said that I’m always on the look-out for games and techniques that can re-create the fast-paced action and wonder of the old adventure serials, as exemplified (and resurrected) by the Indiana Jones movies.  Well, I found a game that sets out to do just that.  And if the term “award-winning” has any merit, then this game does it very well.

Spirit Of The Century RPG, by Evil Hat Productions.  Yes, one of the very Fate-powered games that sired the Fate Core System book which I’m currently reading and assessing for its Indiana-Jones-ness.  How ironic.

I would love to play this game.  But then, I say that about every game I read.  I put down SotC momentarily to read an article it references, “THE PULP AVENGERS: Game Mastering Pulp Adventures in the 1930s and 1940s,” by Brian Misiaszek, 1994.  The article characterizes pulp adventures this way: “Some features of the pulp genre include its simple morality of good versus evil, masked and cloaked heroes and heroines, devious villains and their schemes, gun-wielding desperados, cliffhanger endings, weird science, and a world still lush with unexplored places and lost races.”

I can think of two people who would have a problem with the “simple morality of good vs evil” part.  One of them is me.  I prefer games (and stories) that explore the meanings of “good” and “evil,” not treat them as absolutes.  We live in a reality in which the the greatest villains seize power, amass fortunes and subjugate millions without ever breaking a law; and meanwhile, common people have to fight the police just to protect their homes and defend their rights.  Fiction with clear-cut good-guys and bad-guys is too much of an escape for my tastes.  I like some meat with my potatoes.

But nothing says that complex moral questions are incompatible with fearless protagonists, zeppelin chases, crazy gadgets, exotic locations and cliffhanger scene cuts.  I think we could take what we want from the pulp-era adventures, and play our kind of game.

– – –

P.S.: If I do get to play  Spirit of the Century, we will probably use the mechanics from the later-published Fate Core System.  Although they’re both Fate games, the latter benefits from years of playing the former, and includes some system improvements.  For example, SotC instructs players to come up with ten Aspects for their characters.  In Fate Core, the author recommends five, explaining that ten proved too onerous and unnecessarily complicating.

Caveat: at this writing, I’m only halfway through reading Fate Core, and about 10% into Spirit of the Century.

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I’m in the middle of reading Fate Core System, the game system (stripped of setting) that was behind Dresden Files and other of Evil Hat Productions’ role-playing games.

Aspects Are Not Bonuses — Okay, Now I Get It

When we played Dresden Files last year, I didn’t like the Aspects part of the system.  I felt that we were all interpreting our Aspects too loosely, re-shaping their meanings to give us bonuses in every situation.

But now I realize that the Aspect is not the bonus: the Fate Point is the bonus.  Fate Points are the hard currency of bonuses and penalties.  To get a bonus, you have to spend a Fate Point; and to earn more Fate Points, you have to take penalties.  The Aspects are the narrative keys that bring these Fate-Point transactions into the fiction.  For example, you might spend a Fate Point to get a +2 bonus in combat; but what does that bonus represent?  Military training, huge muscles, a two-by-four?  It is your Aspect “Karate Blackbelt” that tells us exactly how you kick ass in this fight.  Therefore, loosely interpreting your Aspects doesn’t unbalance the game.  Whether or not it serves the fiction is another issue, but one more easily controlled I think, at least with my group it is.  We all want to tell a good story, foremost.

I Tackle Him. No Wait, I Missed. Except, I Didn’t Miss

I don’t like the order of operations that Fate proposes for resolving actions, which is as follows:

  1. Declare the action
  2. Roll the dice, determine success or failure
  3. If failure is indicated, invoke an aspect and apply bonus
  4. Success.

So in the fiction, an attack would sound like this:

  1. I tackle The Mandarin to the ground!
  2. (Rolls dice) Oh, but I rolled badly; I guess I missed him.
  3. Except, I am a Disciple Of The Ivory Shroud (invokes Aspect, spends Fate Point), so…
  4. I do the Dance Of The Crane to sweep his legs out from under him, and then I tackle him!

This kind of instant ret-conning (creating narrative continuity retroactively) interrupts the cinematic action that we’re all seeing in our minds’ eyes.  And you’d be doing it on every other action in a scene.  I don’t like it.  But, changing the order of operations would change the game’s economics: i.e., having to decide whether to spend a Fate Point before you roll is more risky than being able to spend to modify a roll after the fact.  It would be far better to either declare all the actions irrevocably, apply all the mechanics, and then describe the outcome; or, to apply all the mechanics up front, and then proceed with narration, knowing who has the upper hand.

Maybe one could bend the Fate mechanics to avoid the instant ret-con, maybe not.  The Fate Core System book recommends declaring actions with an ellipsis.  For example:

  1. I try to tackle The Mandarin to the ground…
  2. (Rolls dice) …but he dodges at the last second…
  3. (spends a Fate Point) …but through my learnings as a Disciple Of The Ivory Shroud, I anticipate his clumsy evasion…
  4. …and sweep his legs out from under him using my Dance Of The Crane move, and then tackle him!

This order of operations satisfies the Narrativist in me: there’s no ret-conning.  But there are other problems with it.  Every action has to be explicitly declared as an attempt, and the dice determine whether the desired action happens or not; instead of the more preferable declaring of an action, and the dice determine the consequences.  And it just sounds clumsy, with a lot of pauses and “buts.”

Free Invocations: More Stuff To Track

Normally, you pay a Fate Point when you invoke an Aspect for a bonus.  But, certain game outcomes (such as “creating an advantage” or giving an opponent a “consequence”) will give you a “free invocation” or two, meaning that you can invoke a certain Aspect later (once or twice) for free.  So now we have to track these free invocations that are like invisible Fate Points, but that are tied to specific Aspects and usually a specific situation, and can be used later by a one or some of the characters in the scene.  Unlike normal Fate Points, which are tracked using beads or poker chips or whatever, there is no suggested means of tracking free invocations.  I can see myself (as a player or GM) either having to quickly scribble down all the details of new free invocations, or just forgetting that they’re “out there.”

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