A monster on the verge of eating an adventurer.

The Ramanan Sivaranjan Awards for Excellence in Gaming 2017

by Ramanan Sivaranjan on July 27, 2017

Tagged: osr dnd awards

The competition for my time and attention (and money) grows fierce as indie publishers and amateur authors continue to push out better books than the big names in RPGs. We are in the middle of an RPG golden age. I found it particularly challenging this year to narrow down the list of books I wanted to call out, and harder still to pick the three for that most special of distinctions.

This award exists in contrast to the Ennies, the RPG scene’s Teen Choice Awards. The Ennies are lovely, i’m sure, but they are very much a product of letting a bunch of randoms vote on what’s good. Sometimes they pick what you like and you think, “man, these awards are great.” Sometimes they pick something you’ve never heard of and you think, “what is even the point of this thing?”1

To be considered for an award a book must have been purchased by me in the previous calendar year. So the books below are all from 2016. (Remember 2016? All the famous people died and Americans elected Trump for their president.) That’s basically the only rule.

Best Art: Jeremy Duncan for Towers Two

Towers Two

Jeremy Duncan was tasked with finishing up the art for a book originally done by Gwar’s David Brokie. That’s no easy feat. Brokie’s cover is amazing, but Duncan’s interior art ratchets everything Brokie was doing up to 11. I had previously described the art as “bright, colourful, messy, detailed, crude, psychedelic, cartoonish, gory and intense,” and reviewing the book today I feel the same way. It’s so vibrant and unique. I just picked a random image from the book for this blog post. I could have grabbed any. They are all so totally nuts.

Best Setting Book: Rafael Chandler for World of the Lost

World Of The Lost

This felt like a quiet release for Lamentations of the Flame Princess. It was stretch goal for another adventure James Raggi published, No Salvation for Witches. While I liked NSWF just fine, I loved World of the Lost more in every way. It seems a shame it hasn’t garnered more attention and praise. World of the Lost is such a well engineered hex crawl. The book is so well organized. The layout is fantastic. Everything about the book is in service of a really interesting and evocative setting. It’s full of useful random tables and generators. Running an adventure from this book is easy. This is such a solid release it’s a shame its print run was so small.

The Ramanan Sivaranjan Excellence in Gaming Best God Damn Book of 2016: Patrick Stuart & Zak Smith for Maze of the Blue Medusa

Maze Of The Blue Medusa

I thought picking Maze of the Blue Medusa for this award would be easier than it turned out to be. There were so many great books in 2016. World of the Lost and Towers Two were both out before Maze of the Blue Medusa and both captivating in their own way. By the end of the year there were several more books that stood out, most notably Broodmother Sky Fortress. But the heart wants what the heart wants.

I love Maze of the Blue Medusa. The writing from Patrick is excellent. Like his other works it feels like a mix of game text and post-modern fiction. You can read it and enjoy it for what it is, or use the book to run a crazy adventure. The layout of Maze of the Blue Medusa is stellar.2 Everything about how the book has been put together is designed to help orient the dungeon master in the dungeon. Zak’s map that brought the project to fruition is beautiful, and the art of the map is scattered throughout the book. Finally, the book itself feeds into my love of a well made book. Satyr Press made the nicest book I bought in 2016. Easily. Maze of the Blue Medusa is everything I love about RPGs in one place.

Honourable Mentions

Apocalypse World 2e, The Black Hack, Blood in the Chocolate, Broodmother Sky Fortress, The Cursed Chateau, and Do not let us Die in this Cold Winter are all excellent books well worth checking out. Lamentations of the Flame Princess deserves a special mention for managing to publish so many great books in a single year. Finally I want to give a special shout out to Cecil Howe’s HexKit, which I fucking love.

Till next year. Booyaka! Booyaka!

  1. Wait—what’s the point of this thing? Patrick’s won something 3 years in a row now. (I actually made an off hand remark about this very situation occurring last year.) We’re half way though 2017 and Veins of the Earth has come and gone which also made picking awards tougher. (I can see into this awards future: I can’t imagine not Vein’s not making my short list next year, so that impacts what I decide to give awards to this year.) There is likely something structurally problematic in how I construct my long list. I’m always going to buy Patrick’s new book: I love what he does. So, he’s always guaranteed a spot in my long list. Well, until he starts writing dreck. I pick up all of LotFP’s adventures for the same reason, so they are overrepresented in my long list and have a better chance of making it to my short list. Should I penalize people for making good books, though? As I said last year, every scene needs their Daniel Day Lewis. In 2016 I picked up a lot of games from people i’ve never heard of, for systems I would have never played, so it’s not like i’m knee deep in the same people’s work, but this is still something to keep in mind.

  2. I still think the rooms are a bit too wordy, but you can’t praise someone for their prose and then complain there is too much of it.

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Paint for the Paint God

by Ramanan Sivaranjan on July 24, 2017

Tagged: warhammer 40k minis

Previously I had made a half hearted attempt at painting my Reaper Bones miniatures. I found Reaper’s meagre advice on the subject and my attempts at painting lacking. I painted a handful of minis before putting this new hobby aside. (We call that half-assing it in Canada.) A couple years later and I find myself with with 53 new miniatures to paint. That’s a lot of plastic. I don’t know why I thought things would be different this time.

Painting your miniatures seems to be an important part of the Warhammer scene. Tournaments often require your miniatures are painted to a particular standard. People don’t want to play someone whose minis are all grey plastic. (I suppose painting helps identify what’s what on the table.) My Warhammer minis looked amazing and cost me enough money I didn’t want to fuck them up. This was a real quandary. Conveniently, my friend Evan is an amazing painter and spent his youth as a Warhammer nerd. He offered to come over and help me get started.1

Evan came over one Sunday with a bag full of spray paint and we got to work priming. Games Workshop has a house style that is very structured in how you go about painting minis: prime, shade, layer, layer, layer, highlight, highlight, highlight, etc. Their magazines are full of minis that are so vivid and detailed, they often look like cartoons. Evan suggested a different approach: paint as much as you can with spray paint because ain’t nobody got time to paint that 4th layer of anything.

We started with the Space Marines. They were primed with black spray paint. Once dried, we did a light coat of grey sprayed from above, and then followed that with red painted in much the same way. This left the minis looking like they were being lit by moonlight, or emerging from the shadows.2 They were interesting without anyone having to take out a brush. The Death Guard followed. With the base coating done, I was left to figure out what to do with all the details.

Lord of Contagion

At first, I just painted everything that was supposed to be black, black. This turned out to be easier than I thought. Emboldened I started painting parts of their armour metallic. And so on and so forth. I’d pop into The Sword and Board to pick up paints I was lacking and work on some new detail. I realize now that paint is to Warhammer what booster packs are to Magic: The Gathering—a cheap way to throw money down a hole.3

Painting a miniature is quiet and relaxing work.4 You need to be patient to produce a mini that looks good. Over the last couple weeks, I’ve managed to make my way through most of my Space Marine army. Some units are “done”. Others are quite close. I don’t think I’ll win any contests, but they are painted to a standard I didn’t think I’d be able to accomplish. I didn’t think I would enjoy painting, but here we are.

Captain And Ancient Painted

  1. And so Evan was pulled back into Warhammer himself.

  2. I later learned people refer to this as pre-shading.

  3. Quite literally in the case of my bottle of Agrax Earthshade: I have spilt it three times since buying it last week.

  4. While painting I find it hard to do anything besides focus on the task at hand: keeping my hands steady. I’ve found painting a good way to clear my mind.

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In the Grim Darkness of the Far Future There is Only War

by Ramanan Sivaranjan on July 06, 2017

Tagged: warhammer 40k minis

space marines

I hadn’t given Warhammer much thought since junior high. Back then my friend had bought a starter set and some minis for an orc and goblin army. We played elves and humans versus orcs and goblins for several weeks, but ultimately that all petered out—no one else had the money for miniatures at the time. By the end of junior high we all got into magic and that became our (somewhat cheaper) money hole of choice. All throughout high school I would joke about wanting a Blood Thirster for my single unit Chaos army, but that was the extent of my interest in Warhammer.

Last week I walked into The Sword and Board and bought the new Warhammer 40,000 starter set, Dark Inperium.1 This is their first product that introduces the new 8th edition of the game. I saw the set the week prior and it had been on my mind since. I’m not sure why. It’s a very cool looking box, I suppose. To quote Patrick Stuart, “The thirst is real.”

blightbringer

Dark Imperium was expensive ($190 CAD!), but in the grand scheme of Games Workshop a good deal. The set comes with 53 miniatures that make up two armies, a Space Marine Imperium army and a Death Guard Chaos army. It also comes with everything else you need to play: the new hardcover rule book for 40K, two mini “codex” books that describe the armies that come in the set, a smaller card stock printing of the core rules, some dice and a range ruler. Everything about the set is nice and fancy.

As a beginner boxed set goes this one is crazy. You open up the box and are presented with another box. It features a cool picture of a space marine on its cover: amazing. But wait, that box is full of sprues! Like, a terrifying amount. What the shit? The rule book opens with a very short introduction to the Warhammer hobby and then it’s like 150 pages of lore: “in the grim darkness of the far future there is only war,” and all that nonsense. The rules for actual Warhammer 40K are buried 2/3rds into the book. (They are a modest 12 or so pages out of this almost 300 page book.) There are instructions for how to make the models in a separate booklet, though nothing about the finer points of modelling. There isn’t any advice on painting. There isn’t any sort of quick start guide to get you going with the game. Perhaps that makes sense: there isn’t anything quick about this hobby. Probably best not to give anyone any false impressions.

first space marine i built

I made the first model sitting on my deck, a space marine. That model, along with the other space marines, were fairly straight forward to assemble. All the models seem well thought out in how they are sculpted and disassembled for manufacture. There are little nubs all over to make fitting everything easy. The models are generally designed so that they hide seams and joints when put together. I’m curious how much the aesthetics of Warhammer are shaped by the nature of these little gaming pieces.2

It took me a week of modelling here and there to get all the minis built.3 They are sitting on a bookshelf now waiting to be painted. I’ll report back when they are painted or I’ve played a game. Hopefully that’s soon—so this purchase wasn’t entirely foolish.

war hammer minis on bookshelf

  1. An impulsive purchase. (Of course.) I had to wake up at 8:00 AM that day to help one of our clients upgrade their install of the software I work on, and it was this really complicated sort of gong show that lasted 5-6 hours. So, it was a bit after lunch time when it was all done, and I just felt like buying something to calm myself down and feel good. It was a real “treat yourself” moment. I probably should have just had a beer. It’d have been much cheaper.

  2. Thankfully Patrick Stuart has already written about miniatures so you don’t need to read my hot take on the subject.

  3. I was “blogging” about my week with Warhammer secretly on Google+. My thoughts about building the models and reading the book are buried in the comments of a post about the DCC RPG Free RPG Day adventure. I felt a bit embarrassed about my super bourgeois purchase.

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Shopkins Party

by Ramanan Sivaranjan on April 13, 2017

Tagged: diy homebrew kids shopkins contest 200wordrpg

Here is an entry for the 200 Word RPG Challenge. It’s a game to play with my daughter, a serious scaredy cat. Whenever we play D&D she just wants to stay in the town and hang out with her mom or go to birthday parties. I’ve tried to turn that into a story telling game. All you need are a bunch of Shopkins to play. If you don’t know what Shopkins are, lucky you. (All you need to know this: The core mechanic of Shopkins is not knowing which one you’ll get.)

Shopkins Party

Grab four Shopkins for each player in the game and put them in a bag.

The youngest players draws a Shopkin from the bag. Everyone should say, “Happy Birthday!” Today is this Shopkin’s birthday party! On a sheet of paper write down her name. Place the Shopkin on the table: she’s waiting for her friends to arrive.

The player to the right draws another Shopkin from the bag. The first guest has arrived! Write her name down and flip a coin: on heads the guest is one of the birthday girl’s best friends forever; on tails she is a mean bully. Note this down. The players now act out a scene involving the party goers. If the birthday girl stands up to a bully during a scene the bully is now one of her best friends forever.

Continue to draw guests till you have drawn half your Shopkins. The next Shopkin drawn is the birthday girl’s mom. She’s got the cake. Everyone sing Happy Birthday!

Each Shopkin drawn after this point is someone’s mom. They are here to pick up their kid. Make sure they leave with a loot bag!

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World of Carcosa

by Ramanan Sivaranjan on March 25, 2017

Tagged: pbta thewarren carcosa homebrew diy

Players, don’t get too attached to your characters, because the game isn’t about them—the game is about the warren. Individual rabbits are cheap and the continuity of the warren is everything. Death is explicitly on the table and will occur as the fiction demands, so breed early and often. Your kits are your legacy (and the pool from which you will probably draw your next character).

Think of the game as a generational saga rather than an heroic narrative. Although your characters may well be leaders, poets, and scofflaws, they are still at the bottom of the food chain in a world determined to kill them. Perhaps their children can finish what you so bravely started. Generational play is great fun, and having a strong connection to the warren as a living community pays great dividends over time. You’ll start to care about its health and goals, and build a mythology around the exploits of previous generations. And, despite all these lofty assurances, in the end making up a new rabbit takes only minutes. - Marshall Miller, The Warren.

The Warren is a Powered by the Apocalypse game about rabbits—picture Watership Down.1 I’ve tried to play it a few times with my daughter, though without much success. My daughter is a scaredy cat. She doesn’t like games with conflict or danger.2 Most RPGs aren’t particularly interesting without either.

The Warren is full of writing I could imagine being pulled right out of an old-school D&D book. Stories about rabbits are often stories about survival and horror. Watership Down is very much in this vein. Your rabbits struggle against the world, and many will die so others may live. One can picture running some real meat grinder games playing a by the book game of The Warren.

I’ve wanted to run a session of this game with people closer to my age for a while now. Bully Pulpit Games has published several “playsets” (basically very terse setting documents) to help kickstart games of The Warren. They’re all quite good, but sometimes it’s fun to make your own.

Of course anyone can do anything he likes with Carcosa. There is no One True Wayism about Carcosa, nor is there an “Official” Carcosa. My attitude towards my creations is that of Gary towards D&D in 1974, not Gary towards AD&D in 1982. — Geoffrey McKinney on Dragonsfoot

World of Carcosa is a playset for The Warren that is set in the doomed world of Carcosa. If you have been reading this blog you know it’s one of my favourite settings for D&D. I’m not sure what the Venn diagram is for people interested in Carcosa and people interested in a game about rabbits. Perhaps it’s very small. This is for my people!

I haven’t had a chance to run this playset yet. Buyer beware!

Download World of Carcosa.

  1. You are no doubt already familiar with The Warren as it was awarded an Hounorable Mention in the Ramanan Sivaranjan Awards for Excellence in Gaming, 2016.

  2. A brief recap of one of our games: “I thought my daughter might like a game about rabbits. She was sent out for carrots and narrowly avoided an owl! That was too scary, though, so she decided she’d just play the predators and the rabbit she made is now a turncoat working with the humans after eating a soup that made her evil.” A few weeks later I tried playing with her again: “In this session she is searching for cutie rabbits to also convert to evil. She also travels in an invisible bag carried by her human friend so foxes and owls can’t get her.”

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Review: The Cursed Chateau

by Ramanan Sivaranjan on March 20, 2017

Tagged: osr lotfp jamesmaliszewski

Spread from the Cursed Chateau

The Cursed Chateau is a fancy book. Released by Lamentations of the Flame Princess early last year, I finally picked it up at the tail end of 2016 as part of a huge LotFP order. Written by James Maliszewski—of Grognardia fame—this version of the adventure is a new deluxe printing with layout and art by Jez Gordon.

The central conceit of the adventure is that players are magically trapped in a large haunted chateau by its former master Lord Joudain, a perpetually bored and tormented spirit. Joudain’s soul is trapped within the chateau, so he in turn traps passer bys to torment them for his entertainment. If the characters manage to be entertaining enough his otherworldly boredom will pass and he’ll be freed from his self-inflicted curse, freeing the characters as well.

This is a reasonably large adventure. The adventure site is quite big: there is a hedge maze that leads to the chateau, the grounds, and the chateau itself. There is a cast of NPCs, the former staff of the chateau, who now all haunt the place. Each is described with their backstory, a small stat block, and an illustration. (I should note here that my wife and I ended up being transformed into evil spirits by Jez: I’m the photo reference for Hervisse, my wife for Mondette.) There is a d100 random events table that helps drive the action during the adventure. As you enter rooms you’ll roll to see what weird thing is happening within, if one of the NPCs happens to be doing something within, etc.

The book opens with a discussion by James on funhouse dungeons, which one could imagine being posted on Grognardia in days gone by.

In a fun house, there’s often no way to determine what lurks behind the next door or down a nearby corridor and that fact irritates some players who value naturalism and rationality even in their fantasy. Without it, they argue, it’s difficult, if not impossible, to plan ahead or think strategically and thereby minimize the likelihood of their characters suffering some terrible fate. I’m sympathetic to this perspective and, in general, my adventure locales are fairly reasonable, even orderly places that “make sense”—which is precisely why a place like the chateau makes for a good change of pace!

I think how you feel about this adventure is going to depend on how you feel about funhouse dungeons. This adventure offers some clues about the nature of why the characters are trapped in the mansion, but it’s not particularly obvious. The means of escape isn’t really fleshed out to the characters either. I suspect most players will stumble about till they accidentally rack up enough misfortune to appease Joudain. Now, the adventure site isn’t completely arbitrary. The NPCs all have pretty clear motivations, and characters will likely learn of their various allegiances and squabbles with the other NPCs. The house is still a house, and laid out like one would expect a manor to be. Still, it’s a haunted: expect things to be creepy and confusing at times.

The interior art and layout is by Jez Gordon. I know I gush about Jez’s graphic design chops, but this book is another example of just how next-level the work he puts out is. The front end-papers feature all the maps in the module. The back of the book lists all the rooms with creatures within and reprints a few useful tables. This is a fairly text heavy adventure and it’s been laid out expertly by Jez. Everything is presented with an eye to what the two page spread will look like. Long room descriptions never spill over to the other side of a page. Some room descriptions in this module are very long, several paragraphs at times, so this is really a very impressive feat. This might be one of the best layouts i’ve seen of a D&D module, considering just how dense the text is. (Maze of the Blue Medusa, which I haven’t written about yet, is another good example of strong design and layout.) Jez’s work gets better with each adventure he puts out.

The book has a new cover by Yannick Bouchard, who has been doing a lot of work for LotFP recently. A fellow1 sits on a sofa, clearly bored, his arm draped around a skeletal ghost. A blood stained sword leans against a blood stained wall. It’s a great cover, very evocative.

I know most everyone involved in this books creation so calling this a review seems like false advertising. I generally only write about books I like, and I like this book. It’s one of the most beautiful RPG books I own. It’s been printed with gold as an accent colour: the pages shimmer! LotFP continues to put out solid books: they have one of the most interesting and diverse catalogs of modules of any OSR publisher.

  1. The character on the cover reminds me of Kyle MacLachlan (of Twin Peaks), though maybe that’s just me.

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Breakout 2017

by Ramanan Sivaranjan on March 17, 2017

Tagged: convention breakoutcon breakoutcon2017

Breakout 2017 was a lot of fun. I’m glad I grabbed tickets a million years ago. (I wish I could remember how I heard about it now.) It’d been over a year since I last attended a big gaming event. The weekend was exhausting, but I got to try a bunch of games I’d likely have never played if left to my own devices. I also got to see a bunch of gamers I only know from the internet, and a few friends I don’t see nearly enough.

The organizers of Breakout are indie-gamers so that side of table top gaming was well represented. Lots of indie game designers and players are in attendance. If you want to play indie games this convention has you covered. There was also a really big contingent of people playing D&D 5e Adventurers League. My old DM from back when I was playing 4e public-play is a big part of that scene and was there as well so I got to catch up with him. If you were into boardgames there was an even bigger room full of people playing those. If you are the most hard core of old-school D&D nerds you might find the convention lacking: Kiel Chenier was the only person running anything old-school. Maybe that’ll change as the convention grows.

This was the biggest gaming convention I’ve been to. Of course, I basically go to none so maybe that’s not saying much. There were lots of people and lots of games, anyway. The old-school D&D conventions in Toronto (OSRCon and OSCon) are much more modest in their scope in comparison. This convention was big, but not overwhelming and annoying the way FanExpo has become.

I ended up playing 4 games while at the convention (2 games of Night Witches, a game of Apocalypse World, and a game of Swords Without Masters), and attended one panel. I spent the rest of my time hanging out and drinking beer. My advice to anyone attending a convention is to not go overboard with the gaming. I ended up with a few gaps in my schedule and it gave me time to relax and chat with the other people there. That’s often just as much fun as gaming.

The convention was well organized and well run. People were friendly. I had a nice time at all my games, and the people playing them were are all really welcoming. You can’t ask for much more than that.

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Review: Swords Without Masters

by Ramanan Sivaranjan on March 16, 2017

Tagged: breakoutcon breakoutcon2017 swordswithoutmasters worldswithoutmasters storygames

My character sheet for Swords without Masters

After my Apocalypse World game I went to a panel discussion about GMing advice with Robin Laws, Matt McFarland, Anna Kreider, and a dude who wasn’t Emily Care Boss (who was sick). I enjoyed the talk, it was well done. The moderator Donald Fraser did a good job making the audience questions sound like they were all carefully chosen by him. I like when people are forced to write down their questions, thereby avoiding the risk of a crazy person rambling on.) Robin Laws is funny: I should check out his podcast. I had an hour break after the panel in which to have a beer and chat with John Willson about RPGs. While we drank Corey Ried popped by to say, “hey.” He was running the next game I would play, Swords Without Masters.

Swords Without Masters was written by Epidiah Ravachol. The only thing I knew about the game was that it was published in his zine, Worlds Without Masters. I had assumed it would be some sort of indie variation on D&D—that it was most definitely not. The game is firmly in whatever genre you would place Fiasco within. (I want to say Story Games, but that name feels meaningless: this game was also nothing like Apocalypse World.) Swords Without Masters is a story telling game. There is a loose framework of rules that exists to help give your story some direction.

Our session began with us figuring out what image best represented each of our rogues: Swords Without Masters is a game about rogues in the vein of Conan the Barbarian. I picked a classic Earl Norem Masters of the Universe painting—of course. Your character is a name and handful of narrative hooks—terse when compared to traditional RPG characters. It didn’t take long to get the game started.

We began on a battlefield surrounded by our enemies. A game of Swords Without Masters is broken up into a series of phases: Perilous, Discovery, and Rogue. We began in the Perilous Phase. As the name implies, this is when the characters face danger. The DM, called the Overplayer in this game, starts by rolling a pair of dice. Each die represents a mood, jovial or glum, so you better be able to tell them apart. The higher die’s mood wins, and the Overplayer begins narrating the hardships faced by the players keeping the mood in mind.

Corey didn’t waste time trying to front load a lot of explanation on the rules for the game. He’d tell us what we needed to know to keep playing. The game is simple to teach. In our first phase he let us know we could take control of the narrative by picking up the dice. There is a back and forth: the Overplayer narrating an escalating level of danger and destruction until the players jump in and push back. When you don’t have the dice your character can do whatever they want, but they ultimately need to be failing. Once you decide you’ve had enough of losing you can pick up and roll the dice. Your higher die becomes your tone. You tell the story of what’s going on, narrating how your character overcomes their obstacles in the style of the current tone.

I found the game challenging to play because coming up with an interesting story on the spot is tricky! (I’m both boring and unimaginative.) All of the players were initially hesitant about picking up the dice. This meant the situation we were in just got more ridiculous. By the end of the session we were more comfortable interrupting the Overplayer to take control of the action.

When you roll doubles your rogue is stymied. This means that whatever you had planned to do while in control of the narrative must fail. During this initial phase one player’s character was trapped while the other characters escaped. That’s how we chose to end the phase.

Stories need not be told linearly. We played the Discovery Phase next, travelling back to a time before the fighting when we were all imprisoned together. In this phase the rogues pass the dice around, rolling immediately, and narrating some new piece of information about themselves or the world. Whenever they do so they ask the Overplayer a loaded question about this discovery. (e.g. “Why didn’t my talisman protect me from the Titans?”) The Overplayed answers, thereby revealing more about the world and the conflict at hand. The Overplayer decides when this phase ends. When we played we usually ended things after each player had a turn sharing a discovery.

Our third phase was the Rogue’s Phase you take turns passing the dice around asking the other player how their character will accomplish some particular goal. (“How did you scale the unscalable wall?”) This phase is about highlighting how awesome your character is in the tone the dice command. You can also make demands of the Overplayer to learn more about the world and its other inhabitants.

The game continued on like this. The Overplayer decides what phases are played and in what order. During the game the players will write down the motifs they find most interesting about the story being told. There are also rules for tracking mysteries and morals based on your dice rolls. These are all called threads in the game. When you hit 9 motifs it’s time to wrap up the story. The players can now choose to reincorporate a thread into the story they are telling. Once they have done so they are no longer allowed to pick up the dice and drive the narrative. After all the players have reincorporated a thread into the story the game ends. This end game mechanic is smart: your story ends up feeling coherent because the conclusion draws from various threads raised earlier in the game. (Our game ended with us destroying the Arch-witch, though it took the sacrifice of one of the players to accomplish the goal.)

I find these narrative games very demanding. With traditional RPGs the story you tell is generally grows organically from play. (Well, at least in good games!) The scope of Swords Without Masters is so grand in comparison: I often felt stuck trying to come up with something to say or do. We were all quite over the top in how we played, but in hindsight we should have mixed in more modest and quiet questions and answers. I suspect if I had played more of these story telling games I’d have done a better job at that sort of pacing.

Having to narrate your lows as well as your highs is fun. The flipping of the tone from jovial to glum also works well. Your character sheet has a good list of words associated with each tone to help you when narrating. The loose structure helps ground what would otherwise be a bunch of people talking about how awesome their characters are—though there is definitely a lot of that going on.

I grabbed the game itself while writing this review. The rules are well written and clear. For each of the phases and rules I’ve mentioned above there are lots of examples of game play. There are also “advanced” rules that extend the game if you want something slightly more complicated.

This was a fun game to play, something I likely wouldn’t have done outside of a convention setting. (I liked having a chance to play all these different games while at Breakout Con.) This game will likely feel unsatisfying if you are looking for more objective challenges in your games than “tell a compelling story”. But, if that’s what you’re looking for this game works really well. Swords Without Masters feels different and novel.

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Review: Apocalypse World

by Ramanan Sivaranjan on March 13, 2017

Tagged: vincentbaker megueybaker apocalypseworld pbta storygames breakoutcon breakoutcon2017

My character sheet for *Apocalypse World*

My second day of BreakoutCon began with a game of plain old Apocalypse World. There are many games built on top of the rules for this game I often forget that underneath them all there is a game about playing horny people in the post-apocalypse. Our game was based on a one shot adventure written by Baker to introduce people to the game—his Keep on the Borderlands, I guess.1 At the start of the game we were asked if we wanted a game that was gonzo or serious. I think we were all on the fence and so ended up with something in the middle.

I wasn’t fussy at all about what class I played, so I let everyone pick their playbooks first (classes in Apocalypse World) and I picked the last one, a Skinner. My character was a hot singer whose gender was ambiguous, dressed in some haute couture whose origin and continued upkeep was unclear. You get to pick two moves when you start. I picked one that pushed my Hot stat to +3 and another move that sort of charms people who see me perform my art (singing). And then we started asking each other questions.

Apocalypse World has rules for building relationships between the characters that are great and seem like the most interesting innovation in the game. Each class has a series of questions you ask. Other players chime up to answer, granting you a history bonus with that player’s character. By the time everyone has asked their questions you have a web of interconnection between everyone at the table. Too heavy for the sorts of of OD&D games I play where I make characters in a few seconds and refuse to name them till they survive the session, but on the whole this wasn’t an onerous process at all. For games like 5e where you are likely to create characters you hope to have stick around for a while these sorts of mechanics should be stollen whole hog. (I can imagine questions for each of the classes in D&D.) This is the mechanic to steal from this game, not that 2d6 business. That’s pedestrian in comparison. Before the game had started there was already a little heat.

The set up for this one-shot involved everyone getting a letter that told them a little bit of the action and asked them to roll and see what the current deal was, a custom Apocalypse World move to start their game. These letters introduced additional backstory and adventure hooks. The hard holder failed their “love letter” roll so our game began with us trapped in our hard hold, surrounded by an enemy gang, with things looking bad for us. Also, a rival faction inside our compound split off and holed themselves up. Also, there were a bunch of spies working a against us inside the compound. Also, the mud flaps, weird fish people we were trading with, were suffering the effects of a highly contagious disease. Also, the worlds psychic maelstrom was fucking with several of the NPCs (and myself). Also, a whole other bunch of stuff was happening. I appreciate that there was lots of things for our characters to latch onto and explore, but it meant that a lot of the interpersonal adventure hooks we figured out earlier never really came into play. It was comical how zany and hectic the opening situation was. (Also, the villains name was Ambergrease, which I love.)

Unlike D&D where you usually adventure as a group, in this game all the characters were usually off doing their own thing. Everyone was running around trying to figure out how to make sure things didn’t explode. This felt a bit awkward at times: there were often long gaps between a player being called on to narrate what their character was getting up to rolling to see what was going on. We’d all listen to what the Chopper was doing, or the Angel, or the Brainer, and then wait for things to circle back to us. I personally don’t mind this: I liked being able to relax and listen to what was going on around me. There was always something going on.

The tone of the game was quite different than that of Night Witches. Failed rolls lead to more complications, but in Apocalypse World proper success would often be just that. My character began the game with a +3 Hot. This is pretty sweet, and made any actions I needed to take with my Hot stat an easy success. The starting stats in Apocalypse World (in contrast to Night Witches) produces fairly competent characters from the get go. My Skinner was amazing at being Hot. It was unlikely i’d fail if called on to roll against that stat. This encouraged me to deal with problems by using my ample hotness whenever possible. I don’t think this is that unusual: D&D and most games with stats will reinforce your character’s roles and personality by incentivizing moves that require a particular attribute. With this game those situations where we were pushed to leave our character’s comfort zone were usually more interesting, because these end up with the failures or partial successes that produce interesting plot twists. Night Witches scales everything down, and you can produce a lot of strife and conflict that’s also very quiet. With Apocalypse World to generate that same level of conflict felt like it required a whole lot of action to be going on. One thing we didn’t do in our one shot that I suspect would result in people choosing to use their less amazing stats is the rules for marking stats and advancement. The DM and the player you have the highest history with each mark one of your stats. When you roll a highlighted stat you mark experience. In this way the game can encourage you to not just use sex to get your way.

Apocalypse World looks to focused on producing narratively interesting situations. The problem solving in the game will usually require you to make one die roll, that leads to another, and another, and another. In the book they refer to this as moves snowballing. Trying to minimize how many rolls you need to make to accomplish your goals might be the approach to the game more tactically minded players take when playing. (How do I work the situation so my Skinner can seduce this person rather than threaten them with violence.) As far as I can tell you don’t give out bonuses for coming up with an amazing plan that ultimately requires you shoot someone, though perhaps the steps that lead up to you shooting someone might set things up so that you don’t need to roll to make that shot and execute them. There is a different sort of player skill at work. That said, my guess is people are playing Apocalypse World because they care more about interesting narrative than “winning”.

By the time our session was wrapping up we had maybe wrangled enough food to survive and held off the rival gang, but were likely in the midst of being overrun by infection disease and evil brain control. It was a fun game, and I’m glad I got a chance to finally play Apocalypse World.

I’ve had the book for several months now, having backed the Kickstarter. There is a lot to love about Apocalypse World even if you have zero interest in playing the game and think everything I’ve said thus far sounds dreadful. The book is worth owning for the DM advice. The book presents one of the best summations of how to run a sandbox game. (The Warren takes that advice even further) There are some OSR products I’ve seen recently that do a good job here, but I suspect many were inspired by how Apocalypse World presents its advice. The book is very practical in how it talks about running a game. The tone is conversational.2 The advice is direct. You do this and then you do this and then you do this. These are things I think other game publishers could learn from.

That said, I don’t think this is a good book to learn how Apocalypse World games work. Both Night Witches and The Warren do a better job of explaining the rules to their game (and games like them) than Apocalypse World does—in my opinion. Of course, Apocalypse World is a much heavier and more complicated game. Each playbook is quite different from the next. There are lots of moving parts in the game. (You can ignore what you find complex and the game will chug along just fine. We looked to have ignored a fair bit while playing our one shot.) The second edition book I own includes advice for hacking the game, which is likely also of interest to people who are game nerds.

The book is good, but could be great if someone helped with some of the information design and layout. (Why print the character sheets in the middle of the book: it’s 2017, no one is going to photocopy them.) There is lots of great writing scattered throughout the book, but it’s sometimes hard to find. I own the hardcover which is fancy: if you can find a copy you should grab one.

Even if you’re a big D&D-head I think there is something to be said for this game. (Whether you play it or just steal from it.) I liked it.

The most amazing thing about Apocalypse World is that it talks about special sex moves on its 11th page and somehow manages to recover just fine. — Me, August 20th 2016

  1. I looked this ‘adventure’ up while writing this review: it’s fantastic. It’s a very broad skeleton with a worksheet you work through to produce some basic notes for running an adventure.

  2. Sometimes the tone is too conversational. “You are hot and you do this fucking thing you hot person.” The way the book talks to you can be annoying. It flies too close to the sun. I both write, talk, and sound annoying: there isn’t anything wrong with that.

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Review: Night Witches Review Reprise

by Ramanan Sivaranjan on March 12, 2017

Tagged: storygames apocalypseworld nightwitches breakoutcon breakoutcon2017

Character portraits from Night Witches

My first game at BreakoutCon was a session of Night Witches. Night Witches is an RPG written by Jason Morningstar. For those not familiar: in Night Witches you play Soviet fighter pilots in an all women bomber unit. The game was totally different than anything I usually play, and my first time playing a Powered by the Apocalypse World game. That first game was so captivating I ended up playing again the next day (continuing the action where things left off). I was positive about the game after reading it a couple years ago. Reading a game is miles away from playing a game. I feel I have much more to say about this game now.

Our session opened with a somewhat involved character creation process: we described our characters and answered pointed questions about their history as the DM narrated our travels to the front. (An example question is, “Why does the NKVD already have a file on you, and how did you get around that black mark to join the regiment?”) This added a small bit of colour to each character and helped differentiate what would otherwise be 4 generic Russian air women. My character was “the Raven”, which seems like the jerk archetype in Night Witches. When I play D&D my characters are usually generic adventure person until they starting doing something interesting. (At which point i’ll fold that stuff into their character.) I began this game with a rough sense of what the character might be like, which was useful since Night Witches is a game primarily about social interaction. Beginning the game with a blank character would have made playing difficult. When presented with conflict each player had a different approach they would take, coloured by the basic personality they had fleshed out during this in-game prep. As with D&D my character’s personality evolved through play: by the end of the second session my Raven was a full on Mean Girl.

As mentioned above, Night Witches is a Powered by the Apocalypse game (an Apocalypse World hack). Briefly, this means that the core mechanic of the game is rolling a 2d6 to perform certain actions. On a roll of 10+ you succeed: fantastic. On a roll of 7-9 you succeed, but some number of things will go wrong. Anything else is a failure: it’ll be bad. Night Witches plays with this formula a little bit, to great effect.

Night Witches is split into two phases. During the day you wander around base and interact with your comrades. At night you fly bombing missions against the Nazis. At first glance it might seem like the night missions are the important phase, but the bulk of your play will take place during the day. The night missions are a fairly structured mini-game: you roll to see if you find your targets and roll to see if you hit them. Complications in the mission might change this general structure.

The attack run move is a good example of how Night Witches rarely lets you “win”. Here are the list of complications when you make that move:

On a 10+, normally a great success in Apocalypse World, you are required to choose 1 from that list. I can tell you from playing the game that all of those options suck. It’s easy to come back maimed or dead after a night mission.

The game does provide one way to help you succeed at night. During the day some of your moves will let you add points to the mission pool, which you can spend during the night to increase the results of your dice rolls. The consequences of failure during the night are so steep that trying to build up a mission pool is an important part of the game. This is what pushes you to act during the day. More so, getting these mission points is usually one option out of a few you pick on a successful roll. You will often sacrifice something to get them, which further drives conflict in the game.

A perfect example of how this works is the “Act Up” move. During the day you are going to be dealing with assholes: commanding officers, chauvinists, the secret police, etc. Your natural reaction as a player is likely to argue when someone starts an argument with you. In this game you are playing a women knee deep in a sexist society so it’s complicated. Whenever you act up you need to roll a 2d6 to see how things go:

On a 10+ you get to chose 2, on a 7-9 you get to choose 1. So, even rolling high you are faced with a tough choice: will you make a personal sacrifice to add to the mission pool? So much of the game is structured like this. As you play you end up picking up complications with each roll, success or failure. This is what ends up making the day phase interesting. You aren’t just loitering on a base with your buddies.

When I wrote about the game last one of my concerns was with how gamey it might feel.

Action is free-form until you do something that would require you making a Move. These are the pivot points in the game. Moves are specific: you eyeball someone or act out. There are a handful of moves each character can perform. The analog to characters classes in D&D are natures in Night Witches: someone has the temperament of a hawk, or an owl. Natures grant additional moves characters can learn as they level up. In this way the game feels similar to 4th Edition, with its discrete list of powers. I’m curious if this feels as stifling as I found it with 4th edition. Are players who are good at eyeballing going to constantly try and give everyone cut eye to get their way? (Maybe I just played 4e with goofy players.)

This didn’t feel like a real issue in our game. I thought the game played fairly naturally. We would all play to our characters strengths, for the most part. I was worried this would result in weird behaviour, but in play it generally meant the mechanics pushed our personalities in certain directions. The characters with high luck were brash and insubordinate, the characters with high guts were more likely to use their feminine wiles to get their way. I thought it worked well.

This game begs to played over several sessions. You develop all these relationships—friend and enemies—over the course of play. When that first game ended I really wanted to keep playing to see what would happen next. I think as a one shot the game might feel a bit unsatisfying.

As I have noted it’s a tough game. I can’t imagine how an air women from the first session would make it all the way to end of the war. Your characters have 4 harm—hit points—and when you use all 4 up you die. That’s not that hard to do. As you rest during the game you can reduce your harm. On the other hand your character also has 12 marks, which are permanent. Certain moves will ask you to mark one off. Another way to die is to pick the “Embrace Death and Face your Final Destiny” mark. After a few sessions that last mark is going to start getting harder to avoid. (My character ended the 2nd session with 4 marks.) I wonder if the game starts to feel unrelenting and nihilistic as your run a long campaign. (Perhaps that’s the point?)

Night Witches is an excellent game. It’s well thought out and put together. Of course, you have to be interested in playing a game about soviet air women or it’s likely going to disappoint no matter how well designed it is. I thought it was a neat game when I first read it, but playing it helped me appreciate that it is in fact a fun game and not just a cool art project or stunt. If you are going to play one game about Soviet women in an all women bomber unit during WWII make it this one.

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