Thursday, January 28, 2010

Mass Effect 2

My god, it's full of stars.

I haven't anticipated a game so hotly since... er, maybe ever.  Perhaps some of the Final Fantasy games inspired me this much.  I seem to remember being awed by the sheer beauty of Final Fantasy III/VI, but I don't think I was really looking forward to it as much as I have Mass Effect 2.  I suppose I understand true fanboyishness now, though to be fair, I've fanboyed pretty hard over RPGs too.

It was worth the wait.  At least, so far.  Look, just the first 5 minutes of gameplay exceed any sci-fi movie I've ever seen.  Try it, and you'll instantly see what I mean.  The graphics are beautiful, the soundtrack is spectacular, and... Bioware has a true sense of the cinematic, of the epic.  What a way to start a game.

I will say this, though: "Solid Snake, is that you?"  Sounds like alot of the Metal Gear voice actors found a new place in the Mass Effect universe.  Crazy.

Changing Gears: Weapons of the Gods

So after a couple of months of obsessing on Vampire, and with Mass Effect 2 right around the corner (I should have it in my hot little hands today or tomorrow), I've decided to run... Weapons of the Gods.  Yeah, that was clever. :(

My Eindhoven crowd has long heard tales of how awesome the game is, and they were really some of the first to help me understand the game (Jimmy and Menno in particular, and Rene more recently), so I've wanted to run this for them for a long time.  Bee also hasn't really enjoyed a table top game since Exalted, and I hope/think that WotG will scratch that itch for her.  I can already see her tentatively expressing interest in this element or that.

I'm glad this game appeals to me so much.  Without even meaning to, I find myself falling into the WotG mode, imagining awesome fights, over-the-top characters and melodramatic intrigue.  Thankfully, Weapons of the Gods is very much a game that helps you come up with stories, so after the players made their characters, I'm already buzzing with ideas.  I've drawn inspiration from some of the most unexpected sources: once again, Tengou Tenghe, despite being a sub-par anime/manga, really fires me up.  Wuxia movies I had dismissed (the Banquet in particular) keep coming up in my head, offering more and more ideas.

After the enormous success and pleasure of Slaughter City, I want to write Romancing Tigers the same way, but I'm unsure if it's a good idea.  Heaven's Hand, my Newton game, sort of wrote itself over time.  I had an overall arc in mind, and then I simply filled out the details as we moved from session to session, allowing the players' actions and interests to inform my choices.  Furthermore, Slaughter City is about vampires in a static location.  I need only design the people of a city, and prior relationships with the characters don't exist, as vampires "in the world, but not of it."  Weapons of the Gods generally favors more of a "quest" style gameplay, where characters run around, meet new people, and fight them.  Kung fu warriors are fundamentally tied to their setting, part of secret societies, clans, families and kingdoms.

On the other hand, Weapons of the Gods demands detail.  You really can't fake a character's martial or secret arts.  They need to be detailed.  Moreover, Weapons of the Gods encourages you to use "relationship charts" to track how NPCs feel about one another.  These two things combined encouraged me to stat all my NPCs in Heaven's Hand, which in turn inspired the statting craze of Slaughter City.  So we'll see.

Slaughter City: Spilled Blood, Chapter 1

I should note that I tried to record the session, but ended up catching less than half of it, so alas, I cannot podcast this like I might have liked. Instead, I'll do my best to simply describe it. Also please forgive me for not listing the full descriptions I gave for each scene. I can't imagine anyone wants to read 6 hours of description

While I've advertised this game as a "Sandbox" game, you'll note this game is fairly straightforward.  I'm trying to give the players "something to do," introducing them to the setting and characters.  Hopefully, the next session will involve less listening and more playing.


I've followed Sir Lin for quite some time now. He's probably the best game-design theorist I've ever read, and if you care anything about game design, I think you owe it to yourself to check him out.

One of the coolest things he's discussed has been "Yomi," which means "reading your opponent's mind." Any skilled gamer knows that understanding your opponent's thought process is a sure way to victory, and the struggle to understand him is one of the great pleasures that makes gaming fun. Is your chess opponent bloodthirsty or defensive? Is the guy across the table from you at the poker game bluffing or not? Coming out of the blocks, will your DoA opponent go straight for an attack, will he block, or will he grapple?

The classic "Yomi" game is probably Rocks-Scissors-Paper, but while many game designers grasp this intuitively, they fail to understand deeper meanings behind this idea. Rocks-Scissors-Paper is essentially random, since it doesn't really matter what you choose. There's no "strategy" behind the choice, and the choice isn't "interesting." You could achieve equally good results simply rolling off against one another. But, as Sir Lin points out, if you make a certain move more valuable than another, you suddenly create an interesting game.

Try it: Play Rock-Scissors-Paper to 8 points. "Rock" is worth 2 points, the other moves are worth 1 point. Suddenly, Rock has a "center of gravity" that draws players to it. If you can use Rock, you should. However, given that Rock is the most useful move in the game, Paper becomes an obvious choice, because your opponent is so likely to choose Rock. However, if Paper becomes an obvious choice (due to the fact that everyone is trying to beat the guy who simple-mindedly picks Rock), then scissors becomes the killer app. Of course, if you use Scissors, you leave yourself vulnerable to an opponent choosing Rock.

What kind of person is your opponent? Is he straight-forward and prone to brute-force solutions and thus likely to choose Rock? Is he thoughtful and aware of the game enough to realize that Paper is likely the better choice? Or is he a gambler and likes to "run with scissors?" You need to understand your opponent, and suddenly a simple, random game becomes a complex game of psychology with just a single rules change.

Sir Lin has turned his love of Street Fighter and this idea of "reading your opponent's mind" into a card game called Yomi. Check it out! You can play it on Lackey using the guide here (Hey, who knew that a system designed for illegally playing Magic online would have such a fun, legitimate use). Roomie and I have been playing (He likes Satsuki, and I'm partial to Geiger currently). Give it a shot, let me know what you think.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Vampire: Frenzy

When you pick up a new game, you spend alot of time learning to master its intricacies, a dance I'm long familiar with due to my love of systems and my "Gamer ADD." You try new things, make mistakes, re-read the book, and see things in a completely new light. And then you tell your players, they nod and agree, and life moves on.

World of Darkness is a very flexible, very "narrative" system. The rules function primarily to facilitate your telling of a story. They resolve disputes, tell you what happens next and, most importantly, help create "interesting choices," the very core of "gameplay."

Vampire's frenzy rules work exactly so. They grant me a chance to step into the heads of my players' characters and show them how alien a vampiric state really is. I can reveal how profound a vampire's hunger or rage really is with the roll of a die. However, if I use too heavy a hand, I violate another rule that I must confess I often violate: do not tell the players what they are feeling. There's two good reasons for this. First, it's just bad form. A player is in control of his character (except when he's not, the whole point of frenzy), and knows how that character feels better than I possibly can. Second, more importantly, it's a crutch. If I say "You meet a scary guy. He's scary. You're scared," most players generally dismiss the character. If I show you that he's scary, with words like "looming" and "sinister" and "flashing eyes," then most player characters will understand that fear and react accordingly. (There's a third reason in a vampire game: Vampires often mess with your mind and emotions. "The vampire uses nightmare, therefore, you're scared" creates different results, a different feel, than describing a scary character and letting the player react accordingly).

I think I over-used frenzy in the last game, though much of it was Predator's Taint, something that always occurs. Perhaps my players wouldn't agree: Many of Roomie's frenzies came understandably from his hunger, while other characters (like Byler) hardly needed to roll for frenzy at all, as they were in a well-controlled environment and well-fed. According to the book, it's "up to me" when characters should roll for frenzy, but it shouldn't happen all the time.

The book also repeatedly states that vampires cling to their humanity to stave off the beast (ie frenzy), yet provides no mechanics for this. Thus, I propose a personal guideline: the higher your humanity, the less often I require you to roll for frenzy. Another book (I forget which) offered the idea of rolling a single die and comparing the results to your Humanity. A roll equal to or lower than your Humanity resulted in "virtuous" action, while higher than your Humanity resulted in "sinful" action. The book suggested this as a roleplaying tip, but I think it might serve well as a guide for frenzy: If I am in doubt as to whether or not you should frenzy, I will roll a die and note the above. Thus, Dave is far more likely to frenzy for "little things" than Roomie, thanks to his mounting madness after diablerizing that vampire last session.


Monday, January 18, 2010

Slaughter City: Post-script

So, I ran my first Vampire game, and it exceeded all expectations. When I asked if they thought my notes made a difference, they unanimously agreed that it did (which surprised me, as I didn't feel I could tell a difference). Roomie declared that "It felt like you've been running this game for a year, and we're only just now getting to play it." Since I generally take "a year" to get that much detail on my NPCs, I can see where he's coming from on it. Both Roomie and Byler have asked when the next game will be, and very much want to see what happens next. The fact that everything has so much context likely contributes to this: Roomie's character nibbled on someone he probably shouldn't have. In a normal "first session" vampire game, you wouldn't expect anything from this, as the character was probably someone tossed together last minute by the GM. In this game, you know I've already tied her into the setting, so he's tugging on strings and he isn't sure where they lead.

So, this technique is a resounding success. I can already tell that if someone asked me to run a game tomorrow, with like 30 minutes prep time, I could give them a session just as good. Now that they've been introduced to the setting, I have more than enough hooks and interesting story elements to keep them going for quite awhile. I should use this technique in my other campaigns as well, I think.

I have rarely seen the group so wildly excited after session 1 of any game.

Vampire itself turned out to be alot more interesting than I expected. I mean, alot more interesting. It's fun when a system pleasantly surprises you, when it rewards you for choosing it. First, the Beast offered me an amazing amount of control. Just ask people to roll for frenzy and whisper in their heads whenever I want to emphasize something vampiric, or show them some of their vampire nature. I also like how keenly aware my players were of their blood pool, their hunger. Furthermore, their powers were awesome. Byler thoroughly enjoyed being the seductive Daeva loaded with Majesty and getting a small crowd to adore him and spill their guts about what they knew, or Cass pinning some dogs with her Animalism and turning them to her side, and so on. I can see where Vampire games quickly turn into "Dark Superheroes." People complain that nVamp isn't "epic enough." I think my players would disagree after the last session.

Dramatic Combat is really such a wonderful hack. I expected that even with the hack, the combat would be boring, but nothing could be further from the truth. Both battles were fast, brutal, and awesome. I think the players were excited, scared occasionally frustrated, which is exactly what you want in a fight. Because the fights weren't a stand-up, "Kill him before he kills you" affair, but a wild, shifting battle with highly mobile characters and lots of goals. Roomie pointed out that the fact the vampires tried to kidnap mortals helped, because we had multiple objectives going on.

Dave dropped two humanity in one session. He's actually a little scared now. That's awesome.

With so much detail, though, I forgot and flubbed some elements. I never described the streets of Nation Street despite Roomie visiting twice (It's where the police station is located). Emma went a little mad after Vampires attacked her, and I gave her a phobia. I think I'll change it to Narcissism to reflect her independent and fierce spirit (hopefully the players won't mind). And I left Roomie out of the fights when I really should have found a way to include him, but he says he had fun anyway.

So, all in all, a big success. We're all looking forward to the next session

Friday, January 15, 2010

Slaughter City: Preamble

Another long absence, huh? I've just been really busy writing up NPCs and setting material, and studying, and thus there really isn't anything to say except "Wooh! 5 more NPCs!" and "Hey, I finally understand that bit about how computer memory management works." And who wants to read that?

(Though, in retrospect, I think posting about my studies might be fun. I'll be studying all next week, so maybe I'll discuss exactly what it is and why it's giving me problems.)

But, at long last, it's time to run my game, so I have to put down my brush, step back, and let the audience get a glimpse of my work. And lemme tell you, that scares the crap out of me.

This game is something completely different, completely new. Most of my changes in approach and improvements in GMing skill have been gradual, an addition of one concept or two. This feels like a revolution, if I'm correct, and I'm just waiting for it to all go wrong. How? Well, I could overwhelm the players with a hojillion NPCs right off the bat, or I'll "go McClellan" and refuse to let the players mess up my precious NPCs that took over a month to create!. Or, worst of all, the guys just go "meh" and the game ends before it begins.

I'm being irrational, of course, but stage-fright usually is, and I always get stage-fright right before a game. Never mind that every one of my players think of me as awesome. Never mind that I have to turn people away from my games. I still get butterflies in my stomach. Just how it goes, I suppose. It doesn't help that alot of people on the internet want to see this game, and this will be my first "podcast" RPG. It's one thing to impress a dozen players, it's another to impress the internet. You can't please everyone, of course, and so I have to remember that it's my players that matter, not my external audience.

Even with all these doubts, even before I've run my game, I'm ready to pronounce this a success. This exercise has been mind blowing. Once upon a time, I used to just sit down at a game with no real idea of what was going to happen, and sort of improvised it. Then I learned to detail the game, to make sure I knew what things looked like and how they looked, and my games improved vastly, mainly because improvisation became alot easier when you had more material to work with. This feels the same, except for an entire campaign. If you told me to stop planning right now and just run a game until I ran out of material, I could probably complete three full stories before I even came close to running out of material.

So, paradoxically, in addition to being terrified, I have never felt more confident about a game! I can see how everything fits together. I know the history of my city, the character of my city, the characters of my city, and I have so many layers of intrigue and mystery that I could spend an entire evening just handing the players fascinating clues and they'd still not know it all (Thus, there's no fear of someone being "too successful" on an investigation roll and forcing my hand too early).

I feel like a creative cannon, primed with more inspiration than I can handle. I'm filled to bursting with ideas, and finally, I get to show them to my players. It'll be magnificent. I think they sense it alreayd.

I'll keep you up to date on how it goes.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Slaughter City Update: Vampires

I finished the Slaughter City vampires. 25 in all! Woot! Wow, was that alot of work. I hope this is all worth it ^_^

Yeah, I haven't been posting much. All I've done for the past week has been homework and work on Slaughter City, though I do have a few things I can talk about. Still, thanks for your patience

Friday, January 1, 2010

Doctor Who: the End of Time

I'm sorry, I have to geek-out. I'm not generally a fan of Russel T. Davie's writing, but my god that was a good Episode. I can think of no better way to give David Tennant a proper send-off. This was truly a masterpiece, and you can see how Mr. Davies had this planned from the very beginning. I can really not say enough good about it.

Also: Matt Smith is already winning me over. It's going to be an awesome season this year.

Good times! And already the year is off to a spectacular start ^_^


Happy New Year!

Sorry it took me so long to wish you that. I had a rough night last night ^_^

As usual for this time of the year, I went to a friends house, enjoyed a good meal and good company, and watched Eindhoven light up. They shoot off fireworks here, and we had a chance to look over the town from a high rise. Colors burst over the whole city, and a surreal mist blurred the lines of all the streets. They had this particularly cool firework which fired off submunitions which fired off more submunitions until they all burst in this entire cloud of light. It was amazing.

I don't believe in resolutions, mainly because I'm always coming up with things I want to do all throughout the year, so there's no particular reason to make plans on this exact day. Still, it makes me think. I remember ten years ago, standing outside of Ron's house while friends played with fireworks, wondering where I would be ten years from there. Where am I? A published author returning to school with a wife and my own house in Europe, with a second language officially under my belt. I guess I have a reason to be proud.

But where will we be ten years from now? I fully expect we'll hit TL 9 by 2020. I kinda wonder what the big technological change will be. I already knew about the internet and the advance of computers in 2000, but I never expected the swift and amazing rise of mobile phones. What's the next big black swan? Aerospace? Biotech? Quantum computers? And I can only expect and hope that the economy will improve greatly by then (though we'll still be complaining about it by then). I want to have my degree by then, and I can only hope I'll be blessed with a child.

So, a great ten years to look forward to, I think
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