Being in the Main the Mouth of Olde House Rules

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

OneDice Supers (a Review)...

With all the awesome superhero movies we've been treated to this past summer (and Doctor Strange in November), my thoughts inevitably turn to gaming, and I feel an overpowering urge to role-play in a world where radioactive spiders bite awkward teenagers and mutants organize to save the world!  But I want to create MY OWN heroes with the unique powers I imagine for them (sorry, Marvel Superheroes), and I don't want endless rules to get there...    

If this is your cup of tea, you might consider a recent discovery; OneDice Supers, a game that delivers all this and more! 

In the interest of full disclosure, I got this in trade from the designer (+Talon Waite).  We both share a passion for simplicity in gaming and have been having a good time trying each other's stuff out (because we WILL be giving it a whirl).

Back in the day (meaning the 80s), I played Champions (by Hero Games), and while the system had some exciting ideas, like a point buy system for powers and advantage/disadvantage rules meant to tailor abilities and costs, it had certain, uh, bugaboos, probably player error, that affected my gameplay experience... 

For one thing, the game was heavy on accounting, and we were certainly up to the challenge!  We'd spend a WHOLE WEEK hashing out the perfect character; I mean the optimal build, only to feel the inevitable anti-climax at the table.  And our creations were so powerful and meticulously crafted that no one could actually defeat anyone else, and everything fell into a tedious combat scenario culminating in a standoff.  We went back to D&D.

It didn't help that our GM was emotionally invested in his own villains; lovingly crafting each one and jumping into combat eager to show off his superior accounting!  

This was more than a little frustrating, because the game had so much going for it, including a then-revolutionary provision of players buying EFFECTS and justifying them (SPECIAL effects) however they wished.  But somehow, our group overthought things...

Now, many people ADORE Champions, and who am I to argue with anyone's personal preferences?  But OneDice Supers inevitably draws comparisons to that most venerable game because, for me, anyway, it incorporates its finest intuitions and expresses them in a smart and decidedly simple (and player-focused) rulebook.      

So without further delay, here's my take on OneDice Supers by Talon Waite and the awesome folks at Cakebread & Walton Games:

This is a game about superheroes.  Specifically, a game where players can custom-design their own heroes, complete with their own super powers, abilities, and back-story.  This is an intriguing prospect even if you don't otherwise enjoy comic books, and OneDice Supers DELIVERS here by trimming out the fat.

Character creation is easy.  You get 8 ability points to divide between four abilities; Strong, Clever, Quick, and Power.  Each of these relates to specific actions undertaken (i.e., climbing or firing a gun) within the course of a game.  Players can choose to be normal (vs. super-powered), however, with minor adjustments and stipulations, meaning this simple, tight little system can actually be used to make awesome pulp-styled heroes as well!  

These abilities can be used to calculate a character's Health, Defense, and Movement quickly and easily.  For instance, a Super's Health is Strength x 3.  Ditto for Defense and Movement, which effectively consolidates several additional calculations into a few simple steps easily completed within minutes.

Players also get 5 points to buy powers (Gifts), drawing from a streamlined, but comprehensive, list.  Supers can blast, ensnare, or even steal another's powers, and these can be justified within the narrative (referred to as their Tag), extending the options well beyond the 36 items offered.  Some of these, like superior strength, enhance abilities, while others, including blast, deliver heroic powers comparable to our favorite heroes from the comics!

Players can put one or more points (up to 3) into a Gift, each impacting its power and/or effectiveness.  Some are passive enhancements, while others require activation rolls per the power's written description, all of which are easy to use.

The possibilities are literally
endless, and the emphasis is on role-playing
as much as heroic superhero combat... 

Next, players choose one Embellishment, like being filthy rich or having a Batman-esque butler, and a single Flaw, such as being magically cursed or missing a body part, etc.  Finally, they get 6 Skill Points to purchase Skills, which is otherwise similar to Gifts and add greatly to the Super's background and persona.  There are likewise provisions for establishing the character's secret identity or Cover, and even rules for disposable income and equipment.  

Task resolution is similarly easy.  You roll one die, add the governing ability/power/skill score and compare the result against a Target Number established by the Game Keeper.  There's more, of course, but it largely all comes down to this simple core mechanic, which leaves more time (and energy) for the narrative!      

This is a compact ruleset that achieves great things.  Gifts are carefully selected to provide ENDLESS possibilities, being universal across the genre and GREATLY expanded by the Tags used to justify them within the narrative.  And the absence of complicated mechanics and tedious point accounting eliminates most abuse and results in characters who can actually LOSE instead of the just running on the treadmill of stalemates in an endless looping combat scenario. 

Ultimately, this is accomplished by keeping the numbers low, consolidating several function into one, and relying on the player's ability to justify the MANIFESTATION of the powers so central to superheroes in general.  At no time does your character feel buried under the weight of an overly busy character sheet! 

OneDice Super's 129 pages are cleanly laid out and very nicely illustrated in a way that utterly nails the spirit of the genre and recalls that excited feeling I got when I stumbled upon Champions back in 1983.  You see this in the sample characters, each of which is pure and undiluted CONCEPT that shines through its wonderfully uncluttered statistical expression.  Heroes at their finest!

There's more, of course, including rules for advancement and a specialized campaign setting, etc.  Everything the ambitious player needs to become a hero and fight the forces of evil, and all the creative Game Keeper needs to build an exciting setting. 

OneDice Supers is available from One Book Shelf in digital, soft, and hardcover formats.  Well worth getting if you love superheroes!

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Can We Have Too Much Death?

Consider the many books and movies (or books BASED on movies or whatever) we draw our inspiration from.  Aside from Game of Thrones, the main characters aren't dropping like flies because that would limit the story somewhat (trademark understatement, folks), but also because it limits the IMPACT of death itself...

You really need an ongoing story, and it's hard to have one with turnover rivaling that of your local Taco Bell.  And the characters can't develop enough for anyone to CARE if they end up dead!

No, the media we enjoy depicts our heroes (and heroines) hacking through hordes of the things through many adventures, facing myriad challenges and overcoming them all with aplomb...

Chapter after chapter until...BANG!, a cherished character dies unexpectedly.  Maybe its a deadly arrow from some hidden archer or that lethal blow from someone's axe at the height of victory.  

Now THIS has an emotional IMPACT.  The late character is both established and well-developed and will have doubtless contributed to the story in many ways (and through many thrilling chapters), bonding with their companions, but also the READER. 

In role-playing games, player characters are literally the MAIN CHARACTERS IN THE STORY, and in a story-driven campaign, there needs to be some potential for long-term growth.  But these aren't just fictional characters witnessed in third-person from a distance, they're OUR characters, and they bond with US and with our friends within the context of a weekly fantasy get together... 

This is what happens when you have REAL people behind the mask!

Character death should happen
and should have an IMPACT when it does...

In other words, there needs to be the potential for long-term participation coupled with the possibility of death, and making this work can be challenging.  Mostly, it comes down to tailoring the encounters to the party and being familiar with whatever system is being used.  Luckily, this gets easier with practice!

We designed Pits & Perils specifically for this style of play, because there's a lot to be said for exploration and role-playing in an ongoing campaign.  It's exactly what WE wanted when we put the game together for our own enjoyment.  But death still waits... 

Characters enjoy solid hits against the average damage from most attackers (1-2).  If you're looking to die from the first successful hit from the first successful attack against you, this isn't the game for you unless you enjoy house ruling!

So the hit points tick off incrementally over time and can be treated as a resource to be managed.  But after several skirmishes with orcs and their pet wolf, even the fighter will have taken a beating, only to round the corner and meet the magic-wielding orcish shaman and her bodyguards loyal to the bitter end... 

Or they get shot with a poisonous (2d6) arrow...

Or fall into a 3d6 pit trap filled with deadly spikes...

But characters should have a chance to
survive stuff like THIS, at least for awhile...

Long-term survival is built into the game, but death CAN occur, especially when players are careless.  The key here is that they'll typically survive long enough to experience at least some of the campaign and become an important fixture in it. 

In practice, this has created cautious players who don't take anything for granted, because even those common orcs could have a deadly ringer hiding in their midst!    

And when the character you've (very lovingly) developed through multiple sessions and seven levels dies at the hand of an assassin dressed in red (perhaps as a warning) and their poisonous dagger when victory seemed certain, it has a powerful IMPACT...

I've been told it hits harder than losing the character you just made twenty minutes ago.  Because, I mean, they haven't even begun yet, although time would have made them CHERISHED.

As D&D began to go mainstream, there was some effort to make characters more survivable, including suggestions to re-roll hits when 1 or 2 was rolled, suggesting its creators understood that campaigns were increasingly narrative-driven, and that this requires adventurers who survive long enough for us to CARE about them and reach higher levels, where the coolest possibilities await!

All of this is just a fancy way of saying that while the threat of death is necessary to a challenging game, constant and egregious fatalities can actually DIMINISH its impact.  This is something we tried to address in our own game(s), although we know that you, dear reader, have done the same, and we'd love to hear how you do it... 

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

The Bone Children...

The Maze of Memory hints that the dungeons were populated by abducted life from others worlds, including various periods in human history.  Indeed, the player characters (called prisoners) were snatched from their lives and stripped of memory, recovering them only through great effort.  The necessary mystery is best served by leaving these details to the game master (or jailer)...  

Even so, the rules provide multiple creatures (and races) of probably extraterrestrial origin, and there's more arriving every day, including the enigmatic BONE CHILDREN:   

#AK: 1/weaponry AR: 8+ (hide) DE: by weapon ME: armor worn SL: 1d8+2

The BONE CHILDREN are archaic humans, probably neanderthals, abducted individually or en masse, perhaps in some earlier episode per the jailer.  They have long-since adjusted to their unusual environment which in many ways was not that different, establishing tribal colonies in vast natural caverns.  They wear crude hides, fighting with primitive stone weapons and possessing great physical strength (assume 1-3 ranks of the strong memory).

Interestingly, and perhaps resulting from their more primitive brains, bone children are not subject to the mysterious translator, speaking a native tongue little changed over time.  Prisoners attempting to negotiate must resort to gestures and other creative strategies, noting that as a race they are shy, shunning the ghul and fearing the Ithlak and Ungliniak as terrifying spirits.

Once again, the desired level of mystery is best maintained by leaving these questions to the jailer, who is free to interpret the presence of ravenous phogs and deadly yorls however they see fit, because ultimately, in only matters that they're THERE, particularly in a one-off session.  But for ongoing campaigns, the individual jailer has a free hand to answer these and other pressing questions!

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Game Design Is Art (Sort Of)...

This comes up from time to time, flaring like a grease fire and fizzling out again.  But while it lasts, the topic generates discussion and, occasionally, heated debate.  So in this spirit, we jump on board and pick that old scab again to ask...

Is tabletop game design really a form of art?  

On the one hand, we have the naysayers.  They object largely on grounds that it's pretentious.  Kind of like slam poets who read off their grocery list in a fast and dramatic voice and call it art or whatever.  I'm not slamming this poetry (ha!), only pointing out the position of the skeptics.  To them, game design is a technical act more closely aligned to engineering and meant to be FUN.

And they have a point.  Most traditional tabletop games are technical at their very core, even in the sort of rules-light stuff we develop.  We're really just tearing down the QUALITATIVE and reassembling it in a QUANTITATIVE form.  For instance, the idea that dragons breathe fire is qualitative and potentially artistic in nature (at least depending on what you do with it).  

But deciding that dragon's breath deals 3d6 dice of damage is inherently quantitative and represents a technical and simulationist expression for sure.  However (and the other shoe drops), it gets re-converted BACK INTO A QUALITATIVE EXPRESSION in the minds of the participants when these things are described during play...

In other words, it comes full circle, although this assumes that the game is not complete until it's actually PLAYED!

Now suppose you come up with an idea for a monster; something decidedly Lovecraftian or whatever.  What do you DO with this idea, and do any of them constitute actual art?   

Well, you can draw a picture of it (art), or write a story (also solidly in the art camp).  But what if you stat the thing for use in your favorite (or suitably home-brewed) RPG system?  

Is THIS art?  Why?  Or why not?  I mean, game rules here are a medium for CREATIVE SELF EXPRESSION.  Paint is a valid medium, and so is the written word.  But what about those numbers?  Or words written skillfully to describe people, places, and things in a fully realized fantasy world setting?  Do THEY count as valid art?

Or perhaps it's JUST the picture, or JUST the writing, but not the statistical representations.  Who knows...   

Now here's one.  What if the author(s) is trying to recreate the look and feel of the earliest games because they believe the amateur design contributed materially to the experience?  Here production goes beyond just choosing a font.  Each page is an illustration unto itself and carefully (and deliberately) crafted to visually elicit specific feelings and responses in the mind of the reader.

Is THIS art?  Even a form of visual art?  The above is somewhat autobiographical, but we have to admit that we've already drawn our own conclusions here, and WE say that game design is:

(1) A medium of creative self-expression

(2) That combines creative and technical writing with pictures

(3) To equip the reader(s) to play out their own adventures in the milieu and/or implied setting of the rulebook

(4) Where the ultimate expression is the gameplay session and any human interactions that results from it.

And that's it!  Game design is art (sort of).  It's a creative expression on the part of the designer, who is really just making a tool for OTHERS to use in THEIR OWN self-expression!

This combination of artistic and technical elements certainly muddies the water.  But so does the inherently COLLABORATIVE nature of the game designing process.  Frequently, it's several writers working together, often commissioning artwork and/or maps from yet other (talented and appreciated) individuals...  

It's a lot like movies.  Oh, and if we're going to call acting authentic art, then role-playing your favorite character is in the very least a form of creative expression!

Now, there are some who object to this over-analyzing of game elements (you might know a few).  But nothing we've said here is factually incorrect, and the fact is, game design DOES include artistic and creative elements in equal measure.  And it's hard NOT to assign "art" to the stuff of imagination, although not in the purest sense of the term.  It's really its own thing...  

Gaming (and game design, of course) is its own form of creative self-expression.  However, it's also a form of human interaction and the social contract, which further muddies the water.  So perhaps game design is an APPLICATION of art.  One that guides the creative impulse towards something collaborative, interactive, and fun!