Saturday, February 18, 2017

Review of Mage the Ascension: Refuge

White Wolf has partnered with Asmodee Digital to create two new mobile games, one based on Vampire: The Masquerade  the other on Mage: The Ascension. In a previous post, I reviewed the Vampire game, We Eat Blood. I've finally had a chance to check out the Mage one, Refuge. In short, while it falters as a game, it's a gripping and enjoyable short story, and it feels like at lease some of your decisions actually matter.

It's difficult for me to review Refuge without subconsciously comparing it to We Eat Blood. But, each deserves to stand, or fall, on their own merits. As such, this review will be divided into two parts. Part one will look at Refuge on its own terms. Part two will be a comparison of the two, for those who are interested but undecided on which, if any, to check out. 

The writing The writing in Refuge  is fantastic, and easily the strongest element of the game. I've never had a chance to read any of Karin Tidbeck's writing before, but after this, I'm eager to seek out more of her work. The world she paints initially is lived in and believable, which allows the more fantastic and bizarre elements to stand out all the more strongly. All the characters seem to be real with their own lives and goals; even the most minor of walk on characters. I felt like I knew these characters, that they were part of my life, and I cared about what happened to them, and how my increasingly bizarre. world might affect them.

The characters You play as a specific, defined character. You don't get to pick your name, age, background, or anything else. You're Julie, a bookstore clerk by day, volunteer by night.  While some may balk at such specificity, it really is HER story, and by making her world feel real and alive, the game takes on a more universal appeal. The other characters are very well drawn, even those with only a short appearance. You know them, they know you, and that's sometimes all you need to care about what happens.

The art It's a pretty straightforward interactive narrative. The only creative bit when it comes to art is when your character experiences magic, or magick. Then, the screen blurs and fades and static takes over, and it really feels like the world is out of control and unpredictable. It's a neat effect that makes what is essentially text on screen feel more dynamic that it has any business being.

The choices It's interactive fiction, so the draw is the story, not the "game." And while some choices seem meaningless, and the narrative is going to move forward regardless, others seem to have more weight. Some I felt like I was choosing at random, particularly the more mystical and bizarre choices left me stabbing at the screen just because. I didn't really understand the symbolism of what I was seeing, and I could only guess with the author was thinking. Eventually, I stopped worrying about it and just made "gut" choices. I don't know the difference symbolically between an airship and the underground, but, dammit, I've always dreamed of being on an airship, so we're going that way! 

But, at the end it DOES seemed to have mattered. You're choices decide not only the end of the game, and who you stand with, but the fate of the world around you. You're not just concerned with yourself, but with everything. The world is no longer on the precipice, but has begun the slide towards its destruction. Do you look to the past and it's golden ages for wisdom and guidance, embrace the future and hope that the only way out is through, or give into nihilism and the blind faith that after this world ends, whatever comes next can't be any worse?

I highly recommend picking this up. Yes, it's interactive fiction, which if you hate won't work for you. But, if you're willing to go on such a ride, this is one to check out. 

Comparing We Eat Blood and Refuge

It's almost unfair to compare these two. They're telling different stories with different themes and needs. Personally, I prefer Refuge. The characters feel more real, the choices seem to really matter, I felt far more connected to the main character, and was far more engaged the whole way through. Also, the plight of desperate refugees on the edge of the world seemed more pertinent and engaging than strung out hipsters in L.A.

Also, while Blood often has a specific path through the story, and failure results in death, Refuge follows your choices however you go.  As such, Refuge felt far more like a real "prelude" in the White Wolf RPG sense. 

The both have their positive and negative qualities, of course, and both are worth checking out. If you have to pick just one, go Refuge, but pick up We Eat Blood when it goes on sale. They're both a journey worth taking. 

It's also made me incredibly excited to see what the do with Mage going forward!

Mage the Ascension: Refuge and Vampire the Masquerade: We Eat Blood are available for Android, IOS, and PC

Friday, February 17, 2017

Review of Vampire: We Eat Blood

White Wolf has partnered with Asmodee Digital to create two new mobile games, one based on Vampire: The Masquerade  the other on Mage: The Ascension. I have a chance to play through the Vampire one, "We Eat Blood," twice now. All in all, I'm unimpressed.

I was extremely eager to check out this game when it was released. A new Vamp video game, and in the form of a "choose your own adventure"? Cool. I mean, not Bloodlines II cool, but still. Sounds like fun! Well, it was less fun than I had hoped.

The writing This is a hit or miss thing. The actual story and emotions worked decently, if awkwardly. The characters were bit overly verbose given the situations they find themselves in. But, I'm willing to forgive this. The game unfolds through a series of text messages, and you need to let the characters ramble on a bit to help the player understand what the characters are going through. So, the actual writing varies from amazingly evocative to just trite and trying too hard to sound hip and cool. It's all a bit pretentious, honestly, but Vampire has always had "unearned pretension" baked into its DNA. It's part of the enjoyment of the game.

The characters The only characters we get to know, really, are Case (the character you play) and his best friend and fellow suddenly-turned-vampire Izzy. Case is kind of a self-centered jerk. At first,  I was all right with this, he's a flawed protagonist after all. But playing it more, I don't think he's supposed to be a "jerk"--I think he's supposed to a lovable rogue. I really didn't like the character I was forced to play, and generally found myself uninterested in what he was up to, or how he felt about all this. And, yes, you have one character you have to play--you get no choice on name, gender, orientation, background, or anything. Some have an issue with this, but I accept it as necessary for the game they were making.

Izzy is a bit more of a cipher. There's more going on with her than you know (at least until the end), and you never get a chance to actually be her friend and ask more about her and what she's dealing with. She's sweet enough, but a bit of a blank.  Most of the other characters don't get enough time to really come through as more than two-dimensional, but it is a short game and told solidly through the point of view of the self-involved Case.

The art a lot has been said about the art of the game. You and Izzy are artists, so you constantly are sending each other sketches and paintings Some people love them, but it didn't work for me. They seemed too similar--a carefully painted picture from a vivid dream is done in the same style as a quick "I'm trapped in this room" sketch. Also, the artwork is all kind of contemporary "modern bizarre" style. Just not my thing. When I think "art of Vampire" my thought goes to Bradstreet--clean, elegant, yet emotional and vivid. Images that draw me into the world of darkness, and its lush world. These seemed like "yup, that's a bizarre image of a bus!" but did nothing to move me or enhance the game.

The choices this is where the game falters. It's an "interactive narrative," so obviously there's a strong story, and you have limited say in how it progresses. What surprised me was how LITTLE that say actually was. You have a handful of choices that actually change the narrative, and these seem mainly limited to the opening part of the game. Other than that, choices are just, well, false. Either nothing really changes, and so your choice is meaningless, or there's one "correct" path out of an encounter, and anything else results in game over.

This might be a limitation of the genre, but honestly I was hoping for a bit more "branching" in the story, as choices made earlier on directly impact later parts of the game, and so MY game would be inherently different from yours. Worse, some times the game "forgot" what choices I had made. For example, I had a choice at one point between two victims. I chose, for roleplaying reasons, option A. The game later made a comment about how I had victim B's blood running through my veins, even though I had let that one go.

So, the first play through was...ok. The story (baring death and try again, and this time do it RIGHT), was very interesting. The new world of Masquerade, while only seen in glimpses, was appropriately horrifying and exotic. The language was pretentious, but still drew me in enough. I rated it as "decent, though probably could have been done better."  The second play through really soured me to it, though. I saw how many of the choices were false, and how often I died, and how those deaths were just a tool to keep me on the path. For example, I was in an apartment, and had a choice to leave or investigate. Afraid of what had happened there and worried for my safety, I decided to rabbit. As soon as I did--boom, game over. There was someone right outside waiting to kill me. But, I could stay there the rest of the night, poke around to my hearts content, and no one ever threatened me.

Um, I thought someone was outside coming to kill me? But no, the death is just a tool to make sure you get the item you need for the plot to move forward.

As a final aside, there's some controversy surrounding the author, Zak Sabbath (nee Smith). He apparently has a rep for some unsavory online comments and activities. I don't know how much, if any, of these are true, and to a certain extent, I don't care. He may be great, or a dick, or (more likely) somewhere in between, but it's not the job of an artist to be a "good person" but to create "good art." As a person, I cannot speak of him. But as an artist, I have to say that his work was disappointing.

If you're a fan of Sabbath's other work, are desperate for new Masquerade material, or love interactive fiction, pick it up. But only play through it once, and make that YOUR story. Otherwise, I'd hold off and see if they put it on sale in a few months and give it a look see then.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Shared Sci-Fi Hiatus

I've been pretty quiet on my postings for the Shared Sci-Fi game that I spoke about a while ago. Which is a shame, as I was really excited about this concept, and a number of folks have done some really cool things with it. For me, though, it wasn't working. I think, for a couple of reasons.

The first was the narrative approach I was taking. While certainly fun, and a break from how I normally do a Solo game, it was causing difficulties. It's hard to both WRITE well and GAME well, at the exact same time. As a result, I think it failed as both a story and a game.

Secondly, the system. I was using the old Cyberpunk 2020 system, which I'm not terribly familiar with, so I had to teach myself what I was doing while playing, and it honestly isn't a game that works for me, as a Solo experience. Now, learning a game is one of the great reasons for doing a Solo game, but honestly I don't have a driving interest in learning CP--it's a cool game, and I'd love to play it for real some day, but I don't have enough people around me interested in it to make a real go of it.

So, the game kind of came apart even while I was doing it. I was tossing around various other systems that might work better--Palladium, Shadowrun: Anarchy, GURPS, D6, etc. None really worked for me. And then, it happened.

I got an email from Pinnacle, that the Savage Rifts books that I backed almost a year ago were finally shipping! I was incredibly excited for this Kickstarter when it first came out, but I've allowed my enthusiasm to damper over the months. I think that Savage Worlds is a great fit for Rifts, and I of course had the PDF's, but PDF's aren't really my "thing." They're wonderful for system prep, and even for quick look up while running, but I really can't use them to learn or dig into a system. I'm still something on an analog guy--I like have the books, and being able to flip back and forth with actual paper. So, I was waiting.

Now that they're on their way, I decided to wait until I have them, and do the Shared Sci-Fi thing with a game I actually WANT to learn and play with. I'll probably keep some of the elements of Krakatoa--I might just declare that this isn't happening on Rifts Earth, but instead on Rifts Phase World (their Space Opera setting), but other than that it will be a fresh start. I'm also going to do the game first, and then worry about writing it up all nice later on. Well, that's the plan of course.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Lucky to be Alive: Part One

Lucky to be Alive
The Shocking True Story of a Galactic Gangster
Part One

Mankind had no business being on Krakatoa. It was mean, nasty, god awful hell-hole of a planet, full of lava and volcanos and damn near constant earthquakes. The only scrap of the place that you could reliably set foot on was one giant island in the south. Even there you weren't sparred the noxious air and ruined sky.
The only reason anyone was even there was because know else wanted the damn place. Way back in old days, when we were first starting to colonize space, people found this goddamn place, and everyone with half a brain steered clear of it. But there was this group, called themselves The Way or something, real religious nut jobs. No one wanted them around, and they wanted a place where they could oppress each other in peace, so they got Krakatoa. They got to live out their lives in misery, and no one else had to hear from them. It's what they call a win/win situation.
Well, about two hundred years back they found that it actually had a point. See, there's this thing called agrathicite. It's something you mix in with clear aluminum they use for ships and stations and the like, makes the sunlight better or something, easier to grow crops or work on your tan or whatever. They can make it a factory, but apparently Krakatoa was just full of this crap. So, the Crops came knocking, and pretty soon the guys in charge started thinking that maybe ascetic misery wasn't all it was knocked up to be. So, anyway, now it's a rich planet. I mean, they don't do anything with the agrathicite, they’re too lazy or stupid to make stuff there. They just dig it up and ship it off and pocket the money. 
Still, there's a lot of money there, and a big old port for the ships, and a lot of rich bastards with expensive tastes, and a group of religions police who hate the idea of anyone enjoying their lives. Also, a bunch of monks barely able to survive didn't know a damn think about the 'verse, so they had to open their borders, let in people who knew what they're were doing. They call them Lao's. So, that was how I got there. 
 See, I grew up on a green planet. Blue water, open air, real dirt, and rivers that didn't want to kill you. I hated Krakatoa--living underground, the fake air, the hydroponic gardens. Everything about the place is fake, but I was stuck there, and it was "home." My Aunt and Uncle went through the process of becoming citizens of the place, took them years, but when the paperwork finally came through, we were one of the lucky ones. Full rights, medical benefits, everything. I mean, we were still outsiders, but we were bona fide.
 I think that's why Dehaan liked me. I was a citizen, so I could get anywhere, so the cops wouldn't harass me. But I also wasn't a Follower, so the religious cops didn't have anything on me either. Dehaan was the boss--anything the government or the church or the corps didn't like you doing, he helped you out. Most of it was legal, to one extent or another, just not, you know, 100% legal. Rest of it, well, that's where the real money was. For a price, Dehaan and his Organization could get you just about anything you wanted.
 I was a fixer, someone who  righted things when they went sideways, someone who kept the kiddies in line. Sometimes all it took was a sympathetic ear, others a slap on the wrist. Others, well, I did whatever needed to happen to keep things running smoothly. Anyway, everything really didn't start getting odd until about a year after the Galban War. You ever heard of it? Nah, of course not. Almost a hundred thousand men dead or disfigured, and no one wants to talk about.  Drop in the bucket. Just one of those things. Anyways, I had gotten out the hospital and was ready to get back to my old life. There had been a "restructuring" while I was gone, and now Dehaan was in charge, and I was his guy. He had a lot of guys now, though, and I wasn't entirely sure where I stood with him. So, when my phone rang one day, I was ready for anything.
(The game begins. Initial inspiration is “The main character must [Fight] [Technician], at [Entertainment District], but have to contend with [Trap] while being confronted by [Corporation]. My initial scene is "Move Toward A Thread, Betray/Dispute.")
It was Trong, one of Dehaan's messengers. Nothing was ever really spoken over the cells, unless we could arrange it with scrablers and point to point lasers. There's too many people who like to listen in. He invited me to a noodle shop for luch, and I think it was around lunch time. Anyway, I knew it wasn't an invitation, and we weren't going to meet at some noodle place. I headed over to the tube--the tube was the only way to really get around Krakatoa. I mean, I had my own car, everyone who was anyone had a car, but it took you three times as long to get anywhere trying to get through all those damn tunnels. The tube was faster, and a lot more subtle.
I sat on the right train for about half an hour. Most people on the tube shut everything out with their SmartGoggles or implanted music players or something, but I hate the distraction and the noise. So, I sat there, and waited. I wasn't impatient, this run around and wait thing was just part of the job. If you have a problem with it, go do something else. Anyway, eventually Trong sat down next to me and told me what was going on.
There was a problem down at the docks. One of our techs down there was screwing things up. See, getting stuff on and off a planet is tricky--everyone is looking at everything and every damn kilo matters, so no matter what you're bringing in you gotta make it look legit. And that means a whole mess of people--people who can ship it with the right documents, people who can scan it and verify, pack it, ship it, scan it on board, scan it when it lands, scas it when it leaves the port--all this so that the Soma we actually are shipping looks like dog food to anyone who isn't supposed to know. That's a lot of steps, and a lot of people who need to work together and not know any more than they need to. And all it takes is one of them screwing up to bring the whole damn train to a crash.
So, this tech of ours, Gerritt Thein, had been "misplacing" shipments. Hey, you lose one or two, no big deal. No point risking your neck for the law, and our margins are good enough that we don't need every shipment to come in. But you keep misplacing them, and we start getting worried. Are you stealing to line your own pockets? Selling us out to a rival concern? Or are you just a damn idiot? None of these are questions you want me asking about you. I told Trong I'd take care of it, got off at the next station and grabbed a different Tube to get me to the docks.
(First scene is Lucky getting is quest. Chaos Factor is 5, and I get an Altered Scene "Waste/Status Quo")
There were over a dozen different ways to get into the docks, and I knew all of them. But today I was just there for a chat, so I went through the main entrance like a good citizen. I knew a bunch of guys there. Some from when I actually worked there, back when I was still trying to be straight. Others I met later. They knew me, so it didn't take me long to find out where Thein was. Or, at least, where he was supposed to have been.
The area he worked should have been a quiet sector, where non-critical and non-perishable items were stored while they were inspected. But as I walked down there, there was noise, and lots of it. And lights. Lights are never a good thing in my line of work, especially the red and blue flashing variety. I kept going forward, just a nice ordinary citizen being naturally nosey. For some reason people never seem to believe there's "nothing to see here." At least, not when its spoken by five or six guys in armor and assault weapons with sirens and lights, and I certainly wasn't the only one trying to see what was going on.
The cops who weren't looking at the crowd were busy tearing through boxes, and smashing every piece of contraband they could get their hands on. And it wasn't just the normal cops, the religious ones were there too, giving the whole scene their "blessing." This was bad--we can afford to lose a shipment or two but not this. This was going to be expensive, and you can probably guess what Dehaan thought about things that were expensive.
I took my gaze from the breaking bottles and burning piles of 'lace, and saw the man I had come here to have a chat with--Thein was sitting in the back of the cops armored vehicle. At first I thought they had nabbed him--stupid idiot had tripped up somehow. But no, he was just sitting there, uncuffed, talking to one of the religious cops. If the raid was bad, this was worse. I don't know how much this Thein knew about the entire operation, but if he gave them this, there's no telling where else he could point them.
I hung to the back of the crowd, waiting to see how everything turned out. These guys weren't just going through the motions, they were serious about their work. Eventually most of the rest of the crowd either got bored of the scene, or started taking the armored boys more seriously, or their lunch break was over. Now, I was a citizen, but the cops knew I wasn't exactly what you'd call an upstanding one, so when the crowd began to fade, I faded too. I had seen enough.
I got out without attracting any attention, but I knew I couldn't just leave. Dehaan was going to be pissed, and want answers. Answers I didn't have. Yet. I asked around down at the docks, talking to the folks I knew. Apparently, there had been some kind of fight or something between Thien and someone else, his supervisor or something. Things got out of hand, security got called in, and everything went from bad to worse. Something about this didn't seem right, but I wasn't going to accomplish much more nosing around with all the cops around, so I headed over to one of our friends to make a call. Like I said, communicating anything important on Krakatoa was a pain, and in the docks more so than anywhere else. But, we had friends, and certain ways to communicate that we knew the cops couldn't over hear in case of an emergency. This was definitely one of those.
(CF 6. Chaos roll: 3 ALTERED SCENE Move toward a thread -- Abuse/Realities)

Well, Dehaan wasn't happy when I told what was going on. He made it very, very clear that I wasn't too leave the docks until the damn mess had been cleaned up. I had no idea what he thought I could do--this was a job for the lawyers and accountants. I handle employees going behind our back, not half the Inspector Squad combing through out prized possessions. He didn't care, he wanted it done. And what Dehaan wants done, gets done.      

Friday, December 9, 2016

Shared Solo Experiment -- Background and Character Information

I've been talking a bit with some of my fellow members of the Lone Wolf RPG group, and we're going to try something a tad different for Solo Gaming--we're going to try doing something shared. We each start off in the same genre and with the same prompt, and then let our games spiral from there. They might cross over, they might not, but we'll all have a shared point of origin. I'm just in it to see how others handle their games.

If anyone's interested in following along or joining in, the core thread is located HERE.

As for me, the first thing I want to do is come up with a character. All I know at this point is that it is a Science Fiction game, set in a nebulously defined universe, so people can go where they will. Also, I have the initial prompt: "The main character must [Fight] [Technician], at [Entertainment District], but have to contend with [Trap] while being confronted by [Corporation].” And that's that!

I don't know what the details of my universe are. I don't know know what rules system I want to use. Heck, I don't even know who my character is! So, I want to start with that first. Figure out who my character is, how he approaches things, and what his place in the world is. I don't want to go too far into the Science Fiction milieu for my character, I want him to be somewhat grounded. Not a psychic space night, or a genetically enhanced super-soldier, or a trans-human. These very well might exist in this world, but the main character should be someone more grounded. Ideally he'll be something of a "professional adventurer"--someone who is a mercenary, or an investigator, or something.

Since I'm looking for ideas, I decide to turn for one of my old classics--Central Casting. I'll be using the "Heroes for Tomorrow" book to help me come up with the character. It's a series of random tables that flesh out a character, so I will have to apply a good bit of interpretation and editing to work things out.

First off, I need to determine what "genre" of Tomorrow I'm in--Central Casting has four options-Tarnished Tomorrow, Final Frontier, Imperial Space, and Post Apocalypse. I like cyber-punk, and I'm probably leaning that way for most of my stories, but the setting we decided on is a bit more than that. Final Frontier is too optimistic, so I'm going to go with Imperial Space. Mankind has been in space for a while, and the future isn't what we were promised.

Next, race. I know I want to be a Human, so I just pick that and move on. Then, I need to determine my "technoculture"--a lot of time has past since man took to the stars, and different planets stand at different levels. I'm at the "Third Interstellar Age"--pretty common for Imperial. Energy Weapons, FTL, communication is faster than ships. After that, I look up the actual Culture my character is from, and I get "Decadent," described thus: "Decay, particularly moral decay, has begun to set in at all levels of society and the people have become pleasure-seeking and jaded." Yeah, that's the cyberpunk vibe I was hoping for.

Rolling a bit more, I discover the following. My character is an only child, and was raised by his Aunt & Uncle, and is middle class. He was born on a Core World, which is known for its volcanic nature. He nearly died while being born--perhaps mom didn't make it? His Aunt & Uncle have an unusual career--they have a "hobby" for a job. I rolled "partying." If they were higher class, I'd say they waste their days partying, but since their social status doesn't really allow for that, right now I'm thinking they're "party planners"--the kind of ridiculous career available in a decadent society. Things might change later, perhaps instead they've wasted his once vast inheritance for their own pleasure. We'll see.

Now, let's see what events shaped him as a child:

At age 6 -- Rivals force family to move to another world.
At age 11 -- Fateful event occurs: Something Wonderful--disease almost kills character, but miraculously he is immune to all disease.
At age 13 -- Learns head of household occupation (great, I'm a trained party planner...)
At age 17 -- Learned unusual skill -- Professional Gambling
At age 18 -- Fateful event occurs: Tragedy --Imprisoned for a Crime He Did Not Commit. None of the results appeals to me, so I decide it was Manslaughter--a teenage prank went wrong, and it was an accident, but he served time regardless. He was kept in a Medium Security Workcamp, and while there three events happened: 1) Disease ravages prison, but character becomes a hero by tending to the sick (ok, that makes sense). 2) Character learns thieving skills. 3) A general amnesty is declared. Character is freed after serving 40% of his sentence. I assume his sentence was for 10 years, so we pick up with the character age 22.

Education. I originally rolled really well for this, but decided it didn't fit his ex-con past, even with amnesty. I rolled again and got average with "office worker" as his career. He has a degree from a minor university in Business Administration or the like. Enough to get him a boring job pushing papers somewhere.

Events of adulthood. I don't want my character to be a kid, but not too old either. I'm thinking late 20's to early 30's. Old enough to be taken seriously, young enough to still be "starting out." I get 3 events for the events of his adulthood.

I figure college took 4 years, and assign the first even to that--I get, Ah, Love! My character is pulled into a romantic triangle, the romance ends, but we remain good friends.

2 years after college -- becomes Involved in Illegal Activities. Why? Needs money to pay off debts (run of bad luck at Gambling, maybe?). Type? Organized Crime. He commits murder, burglary, smuggling, whatever the boss needs. Events: Becomes a Leader, Jailed for a Few Days, Joins a Gang.

Final Event: Joined Military. Drafted. Branch: Army. Recon. Rank: Private. Events: Disease ravages the army. (Heh, lucky me). Conflict: Carnage is awesome. 70% of his unit is killed. Character survives, despite grievous wounds.

All these events have given him the following traits: Drunkard, Cruel, Impatient, Amoral, Liberal, Honest, Rude, and Sober.

Given all that, here's my character. He was born on a distant planet, and his parents died when he was young. Due to the vagaries of politics, they emigrated to the volcanic world he calls home (Krakatoa I decided). His Aunt and Uncle worked hard as caterers. They weren't quite servants of the wealthy, but close enough. At least they were able to provide for him. Through them, he associated a bit with the children of the wealthy, and supplemented his meager allowance by conning them through games of "chance." He was an all right student, but he stole a car as part of a stupid prank, and ended up killing a pedestrian. He was sent to prison, one ravaged by disease. He was unaffected, and took care of the sick. This earned him some respect among the more hardened members who took him under their wing. The conditions were so bad that eventually a public outcry forced some changes, and everyone with "good behavior" was released early.

He went to college, and did well enough to get a job at the local space port, pushing papers. He was bored by the tedium of his life, and turned to gambling and drink to fill the void. One drunken game wiped him out, but he was approached by some old friends from prison who said they could help each other. He used his position at the port to facilitate their smuggling, but was eventually caught up by the police as part of some investigation that didn't originally, involve him or his friends. They couldn't convict him of anything, but his job was over.

With nowhere else to turn, he threw himself wholeheartedly into the mob. His intelligence and fearlessness made him a favorite of the boss (I decide he's not in charge, but a top lieutenant), and was willing to do whatever needed to be done. When Krakatoa went to war over some petty nonsense with a neighbor, many "undesirables" were "enlisted" to fight. Bad leadership at home made the army weak from disease due to lack of food, medicine, and basic supplies. Bad leadership in the field left the army victorious, but practically wiped out. They won because the other side was as poorly led, and the Krakatoans were the ones left standing a few days after the battle. The war was ended through negations, and despite all the fighting and death, everything went back to normal. At least Krakatoa's "pride" was still in tact.

The story begins a few months after he is marshaled out, with new skills and fresh cynicism.

Personality wise, he's a cruel, violent man with no thought about "right" and "wrong," only what is "necessary." He doesn't like killing, not out of moral squeamishness, but because it's messy and mucks things up.  He like to drink and gamble, but only when he's "off the clock"--he never drinks while working, afraid of how it affects him. He doesn't care about what personal choices people make (liberal), only in that they don't rock the boat for the Organization; though he does get annoyed and impatient with how often people insist on "explaining" themselves and their actions to him. For his boss, he's honest, sober, and dependable. For everyone else, he's the last person they want to see.

I like him--a good, cynical, hard-boiled criminal who gets the job done. For his name, I decide on Alan Dogan, going with an English/Turkish combo to represent the future mingling of culture. But everyone knows him as "Lucky."

Friday, July 15, 2016

Creating NPC's

So, I'm still working on the setting for my new Chronicle, and I wanted to do a quick digression on how I create NPCs, particularly for Vampire. The published sources tend to go into great detail with their tragic and horrible mortal lives, and what has made them the monsters they are today. Well, that's all well and good, but doesn't terribly help me with them in the game. So, when I create my own, I tend to focus on the now of the character, what are they up to tonight, and how are they hoping to accomplish it. Then, I work out anything else I need from there, with particular attention to their feeding habits.

Yeah, I've been accused of making my vamps be "blood addicts." Maybe, but I've also assumed that hunting and feeding are what vampires enjoy; it's not a burden for them. Anyway, I've ranted about this before, so I won't go into it again.

For my current setting, things are a bit different from how I normally setup my NPCs. There's no such thing as a "Personal Masquerade," for one. We are still in the Long Night, and while there is a Tradition for "Silence of the Blood," it is far different from what the Masquerade will be. Secondly, pretty much everyone in this setting is Nosferatu, which means they can both vanish and appear as a dozen different people as needed.

So, the Masquerade isn't a factor. But something else dominates the world--Arawn. He is a religious fanatic with a very warped view of Christianity, and a vampires role in the world. He believes their job is to tempt, harry, and punish mortals in a bid to save their souls. Those that fail are slain, often in a horrific manner, with the justification that their painful deaths might purge their souls of sin.

There are two results to this. First, only Arawn can authorize the death of a mortal. More importantly, only Arawn can allow a Kindred to feed on a mortal--otherwise, they are forced to rely on animals. This is fine for a young vampire like Gauvain; unsatisfying, perhaps, but possible. This is untenable, however, for an elder vampire, such as Mabon. As one ages, animal blood becomes less and less satisfying, and so they scheme and manipulate ever more, hoping to convince their Elder to allow them to drink the vitae they so crave.

Tied to that, is status. This isn't the modern nights, with multiple Primogen and Sects and Coteries feuding over territory and Elysium's and all that. This is the Long Night, and that means the Eldest, Arawn, is the center of the entire social world. If one wants status, or approval, or to shut down a rival, only Arawns approval can grant you such gifts. And so not only is the Beasts desire to feed driven to a warped interaction with mortals, but so is the Mans desire for belonging. Which means, each NPC has some warped and messed up desire to "corrupt" or "harry" man, no matter what cost this inflicts on their souls.

Anyway, here's an example of a sheet I worked up for each major NPC.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Island of the Dead -- New Character

I've worked out the basic setting and ideas for my new Solo Vampire Chronicle. I talked more about it here, but in short it's going to be a geographically isolated locale, ruled by a manipulative and controlling religious fanatic. Now, I need to come up with who my main character is going to be for this world.

I don't have a lot of ideas for the character yet. I know I want to play a Nosferatu. I know I want him to be a male, and of European/Christian descent. I also know I want him to "special" in some way, either a great warrior, or thief, or scholar or...something. He's cut from a different cloth, which is why he, unlike others of his generation, is given all the crappy assignments that make role playing such fun.

I actually rather enjoy not knowing what I'm going to get, and a solid "random character generator" can be a delight, particularly when you don't have a really solid concept in mind. So, given that, I grab my copy of the Masquerade Players Kit. I've used this before, and was pretty happy with the results. Of course, this generator is designed for "modern" characters, and so I'll need to be a little creative with the results to fit the Dark Ages setting for this game. Anyway, let's see what we get!

Now, obviously, not all of this fits my medieval world, but it does give me an idea for a character. First off, I need a name. I'm already shamelessly ripping off Celtic legends and lore, so let's keep going with that theme. The character's name will be Gauvain, a variation on my favorite of Arthur's knights.

Ok, so, Gauvain's father, Cilydd, was a well regarded craftsmen. However, when his wife passed away and let him to care for his three sons, he began to slowly deteriorate, losing himself in drink and eventually being reduced to a nothing more than a hired field hand. Now, given the amount of alcohol medieval folks routinely imbibed...well, that's saying something.

Gauvain has a complicated relationship with his brothers. The eldest, Cai, took on the role of caretaker, and basically raised the other boys and worked whatever odd jobs he could to keep food on the table. His other brothers, Bedwyr and Gahreth, were more competitors to Gauvain than companions.

Still, he was a bright and diligent boy, and Cai was able to arrange for him to be taken in by nearby monks and receive an education. He thrived in the cloistered environment, but he fell in love with the beautiful Anna and left the monastery, eventually finding a certain contentment as a clerk for Lord Peter. Or, most likely, Lord Peter's father.

Not sure about his Supernatural Ally.  It could be his sire, but I want something odder. A Fae could work, and fit the naming conventions. A Ghost is always fun too. I'm putting that aside for now--I need a bit more time to think on this part.

Finally, as an old man, he is embraced. So, who is his sire? I have absolutely no idea. I was rather hoping the tables would inspire me, but I have nothing. Well, time for MORE random rolls! Let's bust out my copy of the Universal NPC Emulator!

This is an awesome book,
and it's free. Get it.
First thing I do is roll percentile to determine gender--my sire is male. Next, I need to know their basic personality, and the UNE gives me a result of:

Confident Beggar

Well, that fits a Nosferatu, but a tad odd. Ah well, let's see what else we get before throwing any result away. The next step is to roll for three sets of "goals" or things the NPC cares about. Here's what I get:

Pursue Patience
Embrace Success
Comprehend Intelligence

Hmm, things area becoming a bit clearer now. He's not a "Confident Beggar." He's a con artist. And he's patient, very patient, and a schemer. He's cunning and manipulative, but he's not smart or educated. He sees the growing influence a man like Gauvain has, and doesn't understand it, but wants to. He embraced not only for Gauvain's already existing mortal ties and knowledge, but also as a teacher. He wants to know for himself this knowledge that Gauvain possess, as well as a liason to the changes that are occuring in mortal society. I decide to call the sire Mabon, after an evil wizard in Arthurian lore, and decide he has some big plans, plans that Gauvain doesn't even begin to suspect, let alone comprehend.

Now, in my first post, I made a point about how Arawn only allows "redeemable sinners" to be embraced, so I need to know what sin Gauvain committed.  I have no idea, so I roll a d7 and get "Greed." Gauvain loved his wife and the family they created, and used his position at court to manipulate things to secure his children's positions. In fact, I'll say he had 3 children, Florence, Lovell, and Gingalain.  Florence was married to a prosperous merchant in exchange for certain legal decisions going the merchants way, Lovell gained a significant position in the Church, despite being a sinner and ignorant of the Bible, and Gingalain...well, Gingalain kind of ended up the best. He and his father we the most similar, and therefore got along the least. Gauvain managed to attach him as a squire to a Knight.  No one thought he would rise any higher, for he had no noble blood or training. But like his father, Gingalain rose above his station through hard work and passion, and was eventually knighted on the battle field. He has no land, and still seeks his fortune through war, pillage, and mercenary work.

I think that's enough of an update for now. I'm going to work on Gauvain and some other NPC's for the setting, then I should be ready to actually play!

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Island of the Dead -- new Solo Vampire Chronicle

I haven't had a lot of time for Solo gaming lately. Given that what little free time I've had has been taken up with some standard gaming, this is a bit of a humble brag, but I still miss Solo gaming. Given that, and my current thoughts for how I'd like to run a Dark Ages Chronicle, I've decided to go ahead and generate a setting and get a game going.

I've talked a bit before about how I generally like to get a Vampire Chronicle going, and I'm going to follow that outline in a general sense. I have a few vague ideas for a game. Part of the Long Night idea I had is to play up the isolation and ignorance of the world, and so I want the physical setting to be somewhere equally isolated. Really, any town could work for this, as I see medieval travel as being so dangerous for vampires as to be almost unheard of. But, I think I'll go with an actual island, just to emphasize this element. Secondly, I know I want to play a Nosferatu. Partly to play the "monster" and isolated part, but mainly because I really dig Nosferatu and have never really had a chance to play one before. Here's what I have so far:

General Overview
Theme Isolation and Control. The game takes place in a socially and physically isolated area, and in proper "Long Night" fashion, our character can only know what knowledge his "betters" deign to share.  As a result, his mind is as thoroughly controlled and limited as his body.

Concept Character is the new “low man” on the totem pole, trying to find his way in a claustrophobic world.
The game takes place on the fictional island of Annwyn, a small island in the English Channel. It is fairly well populated for its size, and contains one decently large town, Gwydion, and a handful of villages.

To the northwest lies the Benedictine monastery of St. Collen's.

The eastern half of the island is a pleasant and settled lands of villages and fields. The center gradually rises to rough hills and moors. The center and western half of Annwyn remains wild and untamed.

The Cainites of Annwyn tend to congregate just outside of town, in the limestone caves that dot the hillside.

Saint Johns is the major stone structure in town, and the center of mortal life and interaction.

The Mound Fortress just outside of Gwydion is the major fortified site, and the seat of Lord Peter's rule.

Old Man and the Scythe is the largest tavern on the island, near the port, and the most welcoming location at night.

To the north of Gwydion lies the remains of a once expansive Roman villa, now ruined and mostly buried by growth and age. It once had a small Christian shrine, which is used by the Cainites for their own services.

Prince Arawn is the Nosferatu lord of the land, and his rule dominates the Eastern half of the island. He is a follower of Christ, and teaches his children that they are God's chosen. He claims that each was a sinner as a mortal, and thus was doomed to Hell. Only his intervention granted them a reprieve in the form of undeath. Their duty is to test and harry the mortals, to improve them in the hope of saving their souls. Those that fail are often killed in a horrible fashion, in the hope that scouring the flesh will aid the spirit.

Arawn claims to have been saved by Joseph of Arimathea, and was turned into a vampire by the Cup of Christ. According to him, he and Hafgan were two ruthless slavers, pagans, and murderers that Joseph hoped to save. Hafgan, however, forsook Christ and threw his lot in with Satan, and now seeks to destroy all good Christian folks.

Others Hafgan resides mainly on the western side of the island, concealing his small brood from both mortals and the few Lupines who still swell on the land. He is a pagan, and follows the Old Ways, especially the Path of the Beast.  Arawn and his childers mastery of Obfuscate means that he is only vaguely aware that others exist on "his" island, but he is currently planning to move his brood to Gwydion for safety, and a conflict is sure to erupt.

Sir Peter is the current lord of the land, but unsatisfied with his paltry inheritance. He is often away seeking battle for battles sake, leaving the land in the hands of Brother Cafell, a diligent Benedictine.

Well, that's about all I have for now. Normally I'd start working on the first story based on the setting and theme, but since this is a Solo game, well, things are a bit different. The first story will emerge naturally out of the character I choose to play and the results of random rolls. So, my next step will be to create the character I'll be playing, and then creating some additional NPC's based on what I come up with. 

Friday, May 20, 2016

Crawling into the 21st Centurty

This blog leans pretty heavy on the nostalgia. I'd call it an "old school" blog, but it's been aggressively pointed out to me that none of the games I dig are "old school," most emphatically Vampire. In any case, it doesn't matter. Most of the games that I'm passionate about are the games from my youth--Vampire, yes, but also AD&D, West End Games version of Star Wars, Call of Cthulhu, etc. Maybe it's just a generic nostalgia for that time in my life, or maybe it's because these are the games that set my standards for what gaming SHOULD be.

In order to draw even more ire from the "storytelling games suck" crowd, in Forge terms, I'm a Simulationist. I like my rules and mechanics to do a decent job reflecting the reality of the genre they're trying to emulate (fantasy adventurer, horror, etc.), and they get the heck out of the way. The "story" for me is what happens when the troupe (players and GM) interact with each other, the setting, and the mechanics--not something imposed by the GM on the game. Most of the more contemporary games I've seen and played have leaned more towards the Narrativist spectrum, and I've never found that style of gaming to be particularly interesting or enjoyable. Really, no modern games have really inspired me.

Well, now two have. The first is Savage Rifts--the Kickstarter just ended, and I went in big. Rifts is one of my all time favorite games, but the system was making it increasingly difficult to get games going. When rumors first began floating around of Savage Worlds version of Rifts, I was intrigued--if only because it might spare me the need to do my own D6 or D100 version of the game. Now, I wasn't a huge fan of the Savage Worlds system, but that was based on what I little I had heard of it. I ended up picking up a copy of the base rules and, to my surprise, I kind of dig it. It has some quirks that I'm generally not a big fan of, but it seems cool enough that I want to give it a whirl. There are a few things that, having not played it, do bug me though.

  1. Playing cards for initiative. First off, and this is nothing specifically about Savage Worlds, but I generally hate complicated or quirky initiative rules. They just make combat more annoying and longer to resolve--but I'm also the freak who still uses group initiative when I run D&D, which, like even Grognards don't do. Anyway, the cards make sense for Dead Lands, but seem...odd for other genres. Ah well, it gives me an excuse to buy some cool, trippy decks of cards, so at least that will be fun.
  2. Wild Cards and Extras. I don't know why, but I really can't stand dividing the world between "PC's" and "Others." A lot of games have these rules these days--special mechanics for "minions" or "extras" or "whatever name for the meaningless canon fodder the PC's get to mow down to feel important." I don't like it. First, I don't understand how these people survived to be "thugs" or "soldiers of the Dark Lord" or whatever if the are taken out by any hit, no matter how slight. Secondly, I just don't like the math of the world to apply to different people. Now, in my beloved AD&D, the majority of the world is "0 level"--which seems like the same, but it's not. Because the math and physics of that world are based on that 0 level commoner--his 1d6 HP and AC of 10 is the baseline for the entire combat system. Extras are an add-on, that make little sense. 
  3. The name of the core book--Savage Worlds Deluxe Explorers Edition.  I've had friends praise Savage Worlds for a while, and I was curious enough to want to check it out, but I never knew WHICH book to buy. I only figured it out with the Kickstarter for Savage Rifts, and even then it took me working with the clerk at the store (yes, I still buy book in a gaming store--like I said, I'm  Old School. Er, Old School adjacent?) to figure out WHICH Savage World book was the "base" or "core." 
  4. Finally, "bennies." Bennies in Savage Worlds are points you can spend to influence the game--get a re-roll, heal, etc. A number of games have them, and I dislike the concept. I've seen them as "hero points" or "fate points," and they never seem terribly interesting or fun. Except, oddly, in Star Wars. They fit really well into that universe, because I can point to an exact moment in the first movie where a "PC" uses a "Force Point." (That would be the end of A New Hope when Luke uses the Force to target the torpedo.)  See, I like games that do a really solid job not of emulating a movie or a book, but those that emulate the world those stories take place in. So, Star Wars should have "Force Points," because that's a mechanical representation of a real, active element in that world. Indiana Jones, as cool of a hero as he is, shouldn't have "Hero Points"--but a good Indiana Jones RPG should emulate his work of rock 'em/sock 'em high adventure relic hunting/"archaeology."
I know all these are minor gripes, but they're things that have kept me away from Savage Worlds in the past. Having actually read the base book and the various supplements on their web page and the like, I am starting to get excited about it, and maybe I'll be able to overlook or even embrace some of the elements that irk me. The "Extras" thing though, I fear, will always bug me a little bit.

Another one that I thought I'd hate that I'm getting into is Torchbearer. I have no idea why, but for the longest time I thought this was a joke game. Like, somewhere in my head, I assumed it was a "parody OSR game, where you play Nodwick and try to survive wacky high jinks."

I have NO idea why I thought that.

Torchbearer is nasty, and ugly, and brutal. And takes one of my favorite elements of old school gaming--inventory management--and makes it WORK. In theory, encumbrance and what you can carry and bring with you should be a key part of exploration and combat, but the way most games handled it made it just too math intensive to be fun or easy to use on the fly. So, most of us ended up ignoring it. Or, they hated shopping and buying gear, so the GM's just hand waved it, which took away a lot of the hard decisions. But Torchbearer makes those decisions the root of the game, and...ok, honestly, I haven't even finished reading the core book yet. I only have the PDF, and I read PDF's very slowly. My dead tree version is on its way (again, Old School, I like physical books as my base, with PDFs as an add-on), and I can't wait for it. 

I'm excited and hopeful about Savage Rifts. I think I'm in love with Torchbearer. 

Look at me, talking about games published this millennium. 

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Sins of the Metaplot

How I hope all my games end
If there's one thing I really can't stand, it's a damn metaplot. Now, in theory, these should be great. A good metaplot in an RPG can be a wonderful tool to help make the world feel alive and dynamic and chaotic in a way that only the best Game Masters can hope to emulate. Probably the best use of metaplot in service of a game is with Pendragon and its Great Pendragon Campaign, and the players follow the story of Arthurian Romance beat by beat, from the rise and fall of Uther through the Sword in the Stone and the conquests of Arthur to the Grail Quest until finally to the Battle of Camlann.

But, too often, they just get in the way of the game. For one thing, a lot of GM's feel compelled to stick to the published plot as much as possible. And I really doubt any of the designers of these games intend their plot to be YOUR plot. Looking at Pendragon again, there was a question on the forums a while back about Lancelot--a given PC really didn't like him, the big reveal was about to happen (spoiler: Lancelot was hooking up with Guinevere), and this very loyal Knight of Arthur was going to be there for the big fight and, well, the GM was worried that the player just might be able to best Lancelot. Many posters gave various ways to save Lancelot, from boosting his stats to mystical protection to a "Disney death" where his body couldn't be recovered or his death confirmed. Then Greg Stafford (the creator and author of Pendragon) chimed in with "let him kill Lancelot." It your game, it's the players saga, and the PC is more important than an NPC and the precious plot. If it makes sense, let it happen.

And not only are individual GM's hampered by the metaplot, but too often I see it used as a cudgel. Particularly online, though it's been happening this way among geekdom for, well, probably centuries. But I see it more often thanks to being part of various RPG groups. A new player or a returning one will post an idea of a concept that doesn't jive with some of the later books or sources. Instead of giving the new guy some advice, or helping them tweak the concept to fit the books, or, well, anything constructive, the poor poster is harassed for their ignorance. It even occasionally has happened to me, but at least I can roll my eyes and go "fuck off child, I've been playing this game since it was released, and nothing the new LARP rules say about something will ever impact what I do in my tabletop game." But, others, I know get scared away and stop posting. I hope they keep playing.

Lord knows the world needs more gamers and dreamers in it.

You'll always be MY Prince.
So, in general, I ignore metaplot. Even though two of my favorite games of all time are rather well known for their ongoing plots--Vampire and Rifts. I pick and choose what I want for my game, and if it contradicts some source book or other, well, then the source book is wrong. If someone comes up with an idea that involves replacing my beloved Lodin of Chicago with some crazy necromancer witch queen, well, cool--let's talk about making that an awesome game, not about how Lodin is the Prince prior to X and blah, blah, blah.

The more I think about it, the only other game that did metaplot well was Mechwarrior--the RPG component of Battletech. Like a lot of games in the 90's, Battletech spread out among numerous tie-ins--various modules (Battletech is mainly a miniatures game, so a lot of these weren't tied to the RPG at all), novels, video games, comic books...I think there was a TED talk at some point...anyway, there was a LOT to cover, and as a casual fan of a niche part of it, there was a lot going that I never knew about. But, they would come out with various books at various times like "20 Year Update" which would bring you up to speed with everything that had happened in the past, well, 20 years.

Metaplot done right
Now, 20 years is a good long time. You can run several campaigns and never leave that block of time. And a LOT can happen in that time. I mean, multiple wars can be fought in that time, nations can rise and fall, alliances form and shatter, the entire world can change in that time. So, as a GM, I can start the game in the default year, and knowing the great events of the next 20, I can use them effectively as backdrop and to make the world alive and changing, and can use foreshadowing and subtle ways to wrap the players into these greater tales, and allow them to change it.

Not only that, but in the Second Edition of the RPG, Mechwarrior had a really cool "random metaplot generator" which was just lovely. It allowed you to roll for future events and where the major powers swirling around the players were going, and made for a much more dynamic and interesting setting that worrying about what some novel trilogy said about some character.