That was a proper game of 40K, but many of the games Evan and I have played have been with model counts far closer to skirmish games. I was excited when Games Workshop first announced Kill Team, official skirmish rules for 40K. The game sounded like exactly the sort of thing I was looking for: a bigger focus on narrative gaming with rules that are straightforward and modern.
I picked up the Kill Team boxed set a few days after it launched. My original plan was to get the rule book, but I am a sucker for these boxed sets. The game comes with a lot of terrain and sprues for two kitbash friendly units I have been interested in: Genestealer Cult Neophyte Hybrids and Skitarii Rangers/Vanguard. I have wanted that cultist box for a while. It seems like the base for a lot of interesting modelling projects.
We played one game of Kill Team to test out the rules, playing a simple mission that continued on from the 40K mission mentioned earlier. I made a small Space Marine list from the miniatures I had on hand for our first game and made up a mission that picked up where our last 40K game left off. The mission tweaked the ambush mission from the core Kill Team rule book.
After that game there was a big gap in our gaming. I started building a new Kill Team mixing the sprue that came in the boxed set together, dubbing the models the Skitarii Dravidian. (The Skitarii Rangers in the squad are all named after Tamil numerals.) Evan started work building new Imperial Guardsmen out of some sprues our friend Gus sent him some time ago. These two forces served as the inspiration for a narrative campaign we are trying to get going: The War of the Intolerable Question
Like a glittering toxic icicle, Shentech’s manufactorum needle hangs above the infamous hive world of Necromunda, just outside the jurisdiction of Lord Helmawr. No one goes there, and no one leaves–but the manufactorum isn’t idle.
Once a year, a single, battered, yellow canister grav-chutes to a disused landing pad in the spires of Hive Primus. Marked with the Shentech seal, the canister is claimed as salvage, assayed by Helmawr’s inspectors as pharmaceutical compounds, then sold to the waiting Shen agent for a tidy profit. What happens then, precisely how this compound is employed, is a secret of the Navigator House. Or it was until recently, when a report from an Astartes Kill Team on Salmagundi showed the same Shentech canisters present on the planet of the Blbliarchs. The compound was being used somehow in their hypno-savant training.
It was yet another link between Salmagundi and their recidivist employers, the Navigators of House Shen. For the Custodes, the revelation of the compound offered a tantalizing opportunity to smash one of House Shen’s few verifiable assets–and destroy or damage the capacities of their legal team in the process.
The Custodes mobilized one of their many assets on Necromunda: a zealous and crudely innovative local church of the God-Machine. Well-equipped and motivated to learn the secrets of the Needle and stamp out any techno-heresy they might find there, the ops team was shuttled to orbit for the assault.
Debris and dust filling the landing bays showed the station had been inviolate for centuries. Beyond the airlock were dignitaries of the Needle’s degenerate laborii tribes, long-limbed and twisted parodies of their dutiful, hive-dwelling counterparts, planetside. The language was barely comprehensible but the invaders knew instantly that their smash-and-grab mission was going to be more challenging than they’d thought: the laborii were many; and might cling impudently to life. What was worse–the station possessed its own dedicated security detail–somewhere deep in the needle, a force of vat-spawned guardians were rising from their dormant state. The worshippers of the machine god made camp as the sour notes of an ancient klaxon wailed.
There are two forces in play to start, Evan’s vat grown soldiers tasked with defending the manufactorum and my rag-tag Skitarii elimination clade who have invaded. Perhaps in later games we will introduce other units or factions—if we build anything interesting or someone else ends up joining our games. We know there is one weird faction on the station itself to start, the Labourii. Evan came up with 6 regions in the station, and I helped expand them all so they each had 2 areas you can interact with if you win the mission. These provide some additional hooks for the game. We also press-ganged our online friends into helping us come up with a d66 table of events to have happen after each mission.
We have played 2 missions so far, a little bit hodgepodge as we settle into the game and try and figure out how to best run a campaign. It’s been fun to build and paint something with a concrete goal and purpose in mind. I’m thinking about other models that would fit in with the theme of this campaign to build as well.
Kill Team is a fun system. It’s quite simple: if you are familiar with 8th Edition Warhammer 40K you’ll understand most of what’s going on. The turn structure mirrors 40K, but besides the movement phase, all other actions are done in an “I go, you go” fashion. List building is much simpler, as the set of models available for you to use is so small. The game seems like a good introduction to Warhammer 40K, which I assume is quite purposeful on Games Workshop’s part.
I have been digging into Necromunda to get ideas for our campaign. Necromunda offers up a slightly more complex skirmish ruleset, but one that I think suffers from its mix of old and new style rules. With Kill Team there is no arguing about whether a unit is hit by an explosion’s template or not, for example. Necromunda’s advantage is a much richer campaign system, more interesting lists of weapons for your units, more complex rules for injuries and experience, etc.
I’m hopeful Evan and I can get something interesting going with this Kill Team game. Let’s see.
I picked up Kill Team Commanders over the weekend, despite my better judgement. It’s a small boxed set (a rule books, some cards, and some tokens) that add rules for fielding stronger “commander” units in your games of Kill Team. If you’re on the fence about this expansion, here are my quick thoughts:
It’s 100% not worth whatever they are charging for it where you live. It’s probably a smarter move to pay the extra $50 and get the Rogue Trader boxed set that comes with all those crazy minis—but doesn’t have all these new rules.
No matter, because there are hardly any new rules of note: the rule book is basically a codex of commander units for all the original Kill Team factions. You can probably imagine what rules for fielding a command might look like, and they’d be close to what Games Workshop has published in this expansion.
So, if you are bored of regular Kill Team and want some new units to muck around with, there are a bunch of them fleshed out for you.
There is a lot of recycled artwork. Perhaps all of it?
Commanders can pick up new specialisms unique to them, which are flavourful. If you give no fucks about balance you can use them in your narrative campaign with your random fancy kit bashed miniatures.
There are 12 new missions, which I am always a fan of. (Though, they are mostly commander friendly variants of the missions in the original book.)
It comes in a surprisingly nice box. I assume this is what you are paying for. The box fits the new rule book along with the original one.
If you’re wondering why I reviewed this expansion before reviewing Kill Team proper, i’m wondering the same thing. I love Kill Team and have too much to say about it, I suppose. Now that’s a boxed set worth buying.
This title sounds extra nerdy because it is extra nerdy, but this is a nerdy hobby and being extra nerdy can sometimes be good. Assuming you aren’t already using a feed reader of some sort, here are some things you should do now.
A feed reader will check for updates from your blogs, grab them all, and display them as one long stream of posts. It’s very convenient.
I’ll update the file daily or something, as people add more blogs to that Google Doc. If you are already using Feedly or some other feed reader they are normally smart enough that you can import an OPML file and it’ll figure out what’s a duplicate. I’ve re-imported this file a few times to test and it seems to work out fine. If you want your blog or another blog to be part of this giant OPML file, simply add it to the original Google Doc: my scripts will eventually find the change and update the OPML file.
I have a few miniatures from Kingdom Death that might work in this sort of setting. I could likely make a neat Dark Souls inspired knightly retinue. The game has a really lovely implied setting—which I will now ignore for the rest of this post. I have a ton of Warhammer 40,000 miniatures, and I’d really like to use them with these rules.
Emmy provides a ton of advice in her game about how to make your characters. For each stat she outlines what reasonable numbers should be. She provides various examples for different types of characters so you can get a sense of what a scholar knight or a monk or an acrobat might be. Using a model’s stats from 40K as a guide it shouldn’t be too difficult to use the rules of The Dolorous Stroke to play games set in the Grim Darkness of the Far Future.
In 40K we have the following stats for a character: Movement, Weapon Skill, Ballistics Skill, Strength, Toughness, Attacks, Wounds, Saves, Leadership. We can use these as a guide to creating characters for The Dolorous Stroke, whose attributes are: Speed, Accuracy, Prowess, Strength, Toughness, Wits, and Education.
Movement maps to Speed and we can more or less use the value as written. 6” movement in 40K is quite common, but in Emmy’s game it seems like 5” is closer to the norm. You should probably subtract 1” from most 40K characters Movement attribute to get your new Speed score. (Note that this may make some characters—like Plague Marines—particularly slow.)
Ballistics Skill maps to Accuracy and Weapons Skill to Prowess. In Warhammer you roll over your skills on a d6. A Ballistics Skill of 3+ (like that of a Space Marine) would be equivalent, more or less, to an Accuracy of 6. Here we use Emmy’s advice that you are usually trying to roll low on a d8. The way you roll with your Prowess stat in combat differs from how your Weapons Skill is used in 40K, but I think it’s reasonable to map scores the same way.
Strength and Toughness serve the same purpose in both 40K and The Dolorous Stroke, though the way the numbers are used differ. Emmy suggests you use the value of 4 or 5 for a typical human. In 40K most human characters have a Strength and Toughness of 3. Space Marines have a toughness of 4. Plague Marines a toughness of 5. Numbers of 6 or higher are usually reserved for giant robots, tanks, dreadnoughts, etc. I think I would map things as follows:
Characters that have multiple attacks in 40k (an Attacks score greater than 1) should be given combat abilities in The Dolorous Stroke that highlight the fact they are proficient fighters. Characters with high Leadership scores may also deserve some skills to highlight that—like the aptly named Leadership skill for example.
A characters Saves attribute in 40K is usually an indication of how good their armour is, or some hint at their natural resilience. Space Marines generally have a score of 3+, with Terminator Armoured characters or heroes being given 2+ saves. The lighter armour of a Guardsmen is usually a 5+ save. These numbers can be used as a guide when deciding the bonuses of the armour in The Dolorous Stroke. I would treat a Guardsmen as having +1 armour (Light Armour) while a Space Marine would be +3 (Heavy Armour and a Helment).
The last two attributes in The Dolorous Stroke, Wit and Education, don’t map to anything in 40K. You should likely use your judgement here, based on how you imagine your particular character.
All characters in The Dolorous Stroke can take at most 7 hits before they die (as you lose 2 Blood cards per hit). You will likely die sooner because of injuries or other circumstances. To represent characters who have more wounds in 40K, you may want to give them skills that limit the ways they lose blood or take injuries.
I would treat Psyker’s in 40K as Magic-Users in The Dolorous Stroke. You can re-skin existing spells or make up new ones as required. In 40K a Psyker risks danger when they manifest powers from the Warp. I would tweak spell casting in Dolorous Strike so that drawing an Ace or a King results in possible peril from the warp. The most straight forward thing to do is have the Psyker lose some number of Blood cards. If the Psyker dies you should have the units around them affected by the turmoil of the Warp. Maybe they explode. Maybe a demon erupts from their body.
I would simply re-skin existing weapons in The Dolorous Stroke for your 40K characters, using their existing Weapon Profiles from 40K as a guide. You can represent weapons that do more damage in 40K by having them result in the loss of more Blood cards. The Dolorous Stroke is straightforward enough that coming up with bespoke weapons should be easy enough.
I haven’t actually tried using any of these suggestions in a game. I haven’t even played The Dolorous Stroke yet! At first glance it looks to be a very cool game, and I suspect a lot of people will be talking about it sooner rather than later. I’ll report back if these ideas work out or not. (Or, maybe you can tell me if they worked for you.)
Are the Ennies good now? I certainly recognize more of the books and people that get nominated. I’m not sure that’s a sign they are good, or just a sign that the scene I love is getting the broader recognition it deserves. With that recognition comes a shit show of grief as the older darlings of these awards lament being cast aside for new D&D stupidness.1 I suppose that’s the problem with being the Teen Choice Awards of RPGs: teenagers are fickle creatures.
The Ramanan Sivaranjan Awards for Excellence in Gaming are my answer to the Ennies. They are a reflection of my singular tastes. Are my tastes good? Yes. Yes they are, obviously. (Why else are you reading this dumb blog post?) These are all books I love for inscrutable reasons that are mine alone. Maybe you will like them too.
To be considered for an award a book must have been purchased by me in the previous calendar year. The books mentioned are all from 2017. Maybe you’ve blocked that year out. It was a pretty shitty one. Anyway, that’s basically the only rule here. Most everything else is made up as I go.
Best Game: Daniel Sell and Jeremy Duncan for Troika
There is something captivating about Troika. Daniel has managed to capture the weirdness of 80s UK fantasy in this love letter to Advanced Fighting Fantasy. Troika is a simple game with delightful art by Jeremy Duncan. Much of the book is filled with backgrounds for characters, and this is where the weird British fantasy is at its strongest. If you just want to play D&D, you can steal these backgrounds along with Troika’s superlative initiative rules and take your game to the next level.
Best Setting Book: Patrick Stuart & Scrap Princess for Veins of the Earth (with layout by Jez Gordon)
The most expensive book I own, perhaps. One of the most beautiful. It’s comically thick. Scrap Princess’s art falls on almost every page, which has been typeset with care by Jez Gordon. Patrick’s writing is excellent, as usual. This is best book Patrick and Scrap have done. It’s such an imaginative retelling of one of the most common parts of D&D: the mythic underworld. Everything in this book feels new and fresh. Patrick’s Olm and Knotsmen should become as iconic as the Drow and Ithilids of D&D. This book includes some of Scrap’s best artwork. She manages to hint at the horror that exists in the darkness of Patrick’s underworld. There is so much going on in this book it can be overwhelming. It’s a delight to read and re-read. Patrick is such a fountain of creativity I look forward to what he will produce next.
The Dark of Hot Springs Island is exactly the sort of book I love: it’s well written, well laid out, the art is great, and the book itself is pretty fucking fancy. The Dark of Hot Springs Island is a refreshing take on how you write and publish a hex crawl, and perhaps adventures in general. Many recent hex crawls look to take a lot of inspiration from Carcosa (itself taking inspiration from old Judges Guild modules). They are terse and compact. You are expected to divine a lot about the world by reading the descriptions and making connections between them.2 In contrast to something like Carcosa, Hurst presents his world with far more clarity and verbosity. Jacob has thought hard about what work a DM would need to do to run his adventure, and figured out how to make that task easier. There are tables and useful locations and advice throughout the book. It’s very clear how to use the book to run the setting presented, something many books don’t do well. This is what I found most compelling about the book, and why I ended up picking it over Veins of the Earth.3 This book is engineered to encourage the sort of emergent story telling people enjoy about OSR games.4
All my love to Adam Poots for making Kingdom Death Monster, Fever Swamp by Luke Gearing, Maze Rats by Ben Milton, Fleshscape by Emanuele Galletto, Bluebeards Bride by Whitney Beltrán, Marissa Kelly, and Sarah Richardson, and the Chromatic Soup zines by Evlyn Moreau. Fever Swamp in particular was on the cusp of taking one of the top spots. It’s a lovely dense little adventure that looks like a weird children’s book. But, like the Highlander, there can be only three.
I also have to give an extra special shout out to Games Workshop for their Dark Imperium boxed set. Warhammer 40K has me enraptured. I was tempted to pivot these awards so they were just selections of the best miniatures of 2017. RPG nerds of 2018: you are in competition with Necromunda and Kill Team. Don’t fuck it up.
Just so we’re all on the same page: I love these sorts of books. ↩
The drafts of this post has had the two books trade spots several times as I got closer to my deadline to publish. They are very different books I love in very different ways. Veins of the earth is unbelievably creative. It’s so good I want to eat it. But, at the end of the day, the idiot part of me will always love a book that holds my hand when playing D&D. Also, how many times does Patrick need to win the top spot? The man needs to share the love. ↩
The companion players guide is also fantastic and deserves a shout out for being one of the few times I’ve read enjoyable game fiction. ↩
I bought the new edition of Necromunda, Game Workshops miniatures skirmish game about gangs in the 41st millennium. How did I even get here?
I don’t imagine anyone else I know buying any of this stuffs, so I might just treat this starter set like a (god damn expensive) board game and leave it at that. I think there are enough people in Toronto I can scam into playing with me. (Evan being the most obvious.) When I asked my wife if she’d play Warhammer 40K if I bought the boxed set she said “no”, but the way she said it was, “no—you fucking idiot of course I won’t play it.” My cousin lives down the road and is a gamer nerd. Will report back on just how dumb a purchase this was in a few months.
These were my thoughts after opening the box to Warhammer 40,000: Dark Imperium, the new boxed set for the Warhammer 40K game. This was a year ago, give or take. It was a gift to myself for having to deal with a crazy client upgrade at work. I don’t really remember why I was so fixated on this particular boxed set. I had seen it the week before, and in a moment of stress went off to buy my own copy.
I don’t imagine anyone else I know buying any of this stuffs …
I was wrong. Warhammer is like smoking. You never really quit.
Evan helped me get started with painting, and then quickly fell back into the game. He still had a Tau army, which we played our first game of this new edition with. He then sold it off for store credit at the shop so he could start a new Adeptus Mechanicus & Imperial Guard army. (His units are all kit bashed and crazy—really quite amazing.) We would meet to play games of 40K every few months, depending on our schedules.
What’s funny is that people who don’t live near me also got sucked back into Warhammer, likely due to my incessant posting in my secret Warhammer 40K G+ thread. I chat with Patrick (from False Machine) often about Warhammer 40K, and in the time we started talking he went from sitting on the side lines to buying and painting up a cool Rainbow Warriors Space Marine army. I’m not sure if I should feel good or bad about that. A few other G+ gamers will chime in to talk about Warhammer. 8th Edition looks to have helped get a lot of people back into the game.
… I might just treat this starter set like an (god damn expensive) board game and leave it at that …
I was wrong. Warhammer is a giant money hole.
Between Dark Imperium and Necromunda there has been a lot of minis. I ended up enjoying the building and painting part of the hobby much more than I thought I would. So, I quickly started spending money so I would have more things to paint. (And eventually started spending money when I had things half painted. Like some sort of idiot.)
… Will report back on just how dumb a purchase this was in a few months.
I mean, Warhammer is expensive, so in that regards it was stupid to decide to get into the hobby. On the other hand, I do build and paint and play with the miniatures. Warhammer more or less supplanted much of the gaming I did in 2017 and thus far in 2018. It has become my nerdy hobby of note. I have come to love Warhammer a lot. So, a year later I’m going to say this wasn’t a dumb purchase.
I’ve written up several play reports now of the games Evan and I have played at the Sword and Board, from our modest skirmish sized battles to a big 3-person game with my wife’s friend Devlin. 8th Edition is an excellent version of the game. It’s quite straight forward compared to what I remember playing when I was a kid—though I might just not remember Warhammer Fantasy very well. I have heard complaints the game is too random and not strategic enough, which is likely fair, but I wouldn’t say that’s had much impact on how much fun i’ve had playing. There have been so many fun and funny moments in the games I’ve played so far.
Evan and I managed to get together again after quite some time to continue playing some Warhammer. In a change of pace, he designed the narrative mission we would play ahead of time. In the past, I’ve tried to inject a narrative on top of the Open War missions we would randomly generate and play. What he came up with was a lot of fun, and also a lot more narratively interesting.
He tweaked the rules for the Ambush mission described in the core rulebook, adding a lot of narrative flare. Briefly, the Scribeguard (Imperial Guard) had spoke a great heresy against the Emperor of Mankind, and would now have to face the agents of his wrath. The Anti-Heretic Shield Company His Light From Holy Terra (Adeptus Custodes) and the newly awoken Primaris Space Marine Chapter the Blood Marmots were sent to ambush these blasphemers and make sure none would live to speak again. Evan would win outright if he could get half his infantry off the board, and it would be a draw if even one of these blasphemous units managed to escape. The Custodes would win if they could kill all the Scribeguard infantry outright.
My cousin was in charge of playing the Space Marines, so Evan added a twist to the whole battle. Every time the Space Marines fought the infantry of the Scribeguard, they ran the risk of being turned to their side. As Evan descirbed it, “Every time any Blood Marmot unit participates in a fight phase with a Scribeguard unit, roll a dice for each Blood Marmot unit at the end of the phase to test the the Marines’ loyalty. On 5+ their Blood Marmots hear all the proof they need that the Emperor is perhaps actually maybe dead and they turn against the Custodes.”
Evan’s Army had grown since we last played. He now had two tanks and a whack of newly painted and kitbashed models. My army was as follows:
4-Man Custodian Guard Squad
Captain in Gravis Armour
5-Man Intercessor Squad
5-Man Hellblaster Squad
Captain Styx of the Blood Marmots gave the order that began the attack. Missiles pummelled the ground from an orbital strike. The sounds of bolter fire filled the air. The Hellblaster squad to his right let loose arcs of molten plasma from their weapons. The tank they hit answered back, obliterating the unit.
After the first round Jana and I were worried this game was going to be a cake walk for Evan. His tanks made quick work of what we had hoped would be our tank-killing unit, the Hellblasters. Evan’s infantry were quick footed and began their sprint towards the end of the board. We were lucky that the orbital strike Jana called in hit both of Evan’s commanders (though no one else!) which meant he couldn’t give any orders to his units that first turn. My Custodian Guards were a bit out of the way initially, as I wanted them out of the view of the tank. I probably could have been more aggressive with their placement.
The Custodian Guard surged forward, tearing through some helpless Scribeguard infantry on their way to the tank that had moments earlier killed their comrades. Their power weapons quickly turned the weapon to scraps. Their rage would not be satiated till all these traitorous heretics lay dead.
Then it felt like things were flipping. My custodian guard charged forward and managed to kill the infantry Evan had sent forward to block their path. They consolidated towards the tank, and were able to kill it the following round. This continued from round to round. They removed a lot of models from the board. The Captain in Gravis armour also made his way towards the infantry and started cutting them up with his power sword. Evan’s army was crumbling, but he still managed to get a couple models past us: a single infantry, and a commander.
Evan also had one more tank, which managed to kill off two of my Custodian Guard. His Augmented Ogryn Bodyguard killed the last one. And just like that things and turned once more. Jana and I really needed that unit alive to shoot the two models that were fleeing. At the back of the board we still had a lot of heavy hitters: Jana’s Captain in Gravis Armour, my Shield Captain, and my Vesilus Praetor. (These 3 units were a little over half the points of Evan’s entire army!) Unfortunately, those units were all either out of range or didn’t have line of sight to the models fleeing.
The last round was full of funny dice rolls. Jana need a 3 to make a charge and failed by rolling snake eyes. Evan’s sole model in one of his units killed himself while shooting overwatch as part of that very charge. Evan almost lost his unit closest to the board because he rolled a 6 when making a morale check. (He used a command point to re-roll, his last one) This same unit then failed to flee because Evan only rolled a 1 when rolling to advance. He ended up getting a draw by having his commander command himself to “move! move! move!”—this let him take two move actions, and allowed him to clear the board.
This was a really fun game of Warhammer. Perhaps the most fun I’ve had since we’ve started playing.
For these walking demigods failure was an impossibility. Shield Captain Casius reflected on this briefly as he watched a commander of the Scribeguard scurry away. If failure was impossible than this must be the will of their long silent master: he wanted them to burn this heretical house to the ground.
One thing that falls outside the usual discussions of gaming style is the amount of distance any given group or player has towards the game in question—which I think is a shame because I think a giant part of the fun is the distance and, one way or another, I feel like the design of, say, Vampire, D&D-as-marketed-to-adults, D&D-as-marketed-to-kids, Rifts, and Dogs In the Vineyard all imply different levels of distance. Or, perhaps more accurately, the way they’re talked about implies different levels of distance.
I suspect that when a lot of people say they don’t purposefully want to inject heavy “relevant” themes into their games it’s not necessarily because they play to escape reality, but because—like me—when they play they never escape reality, and so any “theme” always remains at a distance. Injecting a theme which one was genuinely conflicted about into this style of play would be, in some way—for this kind of player—trivializing it. — Zak Smith—from a 7 year old blog post
As I mentioned in my post about Cartel, “These Apocalypse World games are at their best when they help the players navigate what might be unfamiliar territory for them.” These games also seem at their most challenging when they push into areas you don’t expect games to go. To my surprise, I found Night Witches—a game about sexism, death, hopelessness and sometimes hope during WWII—really compelling. It’s not the sort of game I normally play. More so, when I first picked it up it struck me as an odd subject to turn into a game. Acting out the lives of women in this hopeless situation seemed like it could be disrespectful.
Playing Night Witches made me rethink some of my thoughts around these “serious” games. Night Witches seems engineered to push the stories it tells in a particular direction.1 This can help keep serious matters serious. As I mentioned in my review, it’s quite likely your campaign of Night Witches will feel unrelenting and nihilistic, punctuated by brief moments of joy when you shoot down some Nazis. The gears of the game turn a certain way. The game feels respectful of the story it is helping you tell.
Velvet Glove is an Apocalypse World hack where you and your friends play a group of racialized teenage girls living in 1970s segregated small-city America—phew. (I picked it up because it sounded interesting and had a cool cover. I have fast become a fan of these overly specific Apocalypse World hacks.2) I’d say it has some thematic overlap with Night Witches. When I first saw Velvet Glove I had the same sort of knee-jerk reaction I did to Night Witches: should I be playing this game? I’ve played plenty of women in my D&D games3, but in the sorts of games I end up playing in the fact you are a playing man or a women is often immaterial. Or, at the very least, I usually play the same sort of genderless adventure person. Not that i’m adverse to playing a game where I’m asked to take on the role of a racialized women, but can I do that experience justice.
Night Witches feels like the safer game to play because we are so far removed from the experiences of a WWII Russian fighter pilot. You can invest a lot into the people you play in that game and feel safe knowing you probably won’t be called out for “doing it wrong”. There is a distance between you and the women you’re playing. Velvet Glove hits a lot closer to home. The racism and sexism it’s talking about are very much alive today. It’s likely you know people who deal with the problems Velvet Glove touches upon. As such, playing the characters in Velvet Glove feels like it could be more fraught or difficult. The challenge for game designers making these sorts of games is trying to introduce enough structure to the game that you gently nudge the emergent story in a particular direction. (It’s one way to try and understand and criticize these games.)
Velvet Glove and Cartel feel like they come from a similar headspace. They both seem to be a way to talk about how people make hard choices when put in positions where they have limited options. (And perhaps more obviously they both feature protagonists that aren’t White.) Of course, the games diverge in some obvious ways as well. The crimes and delinquency of your teenage girl gang will pale in comparison to the crimes of the cartels. It’s a totally different world. It’s easier to sympathize and empathize with the characters in Velvet Glove. Mark Diaz Truman likely wants us to feel the same way about the characters of Cartel, but for most people that will be a much bigger leap. Mark could have chosen many different topics to tell his story about Mexicans, but he settled on the drug war. (It’s interesting, complex, and exciting, after all.) He outlines both the struggle and ambition of the game he wants to make in an interview he did recently with Brie Sheldon:
Cartel issues a fundamental challenge to the gaming industry through its mere existence: it forces a mostly white audience to consider what it means to be Mexican, without the distance of metaphor or time. In many ways, my game design has been an effort to live up to that challenge, to take seriously the idea that white folks who might not have close relationships with Mexican people might sit down and play through a few days in their lives, not as a joke or a farce… but as a compelling drama.
When I saw this interview with Mark this passage caught my eye. (It’s what prompted this post.) Games can lean on the distance of time or the distance of metaphor to help make players feel comfortable playing roles that they might otherwise be uncomfortable playing. (For example, Night Witches uses time, and Monster Hearts uses metaphor.) It feels like Mark is touching on something similar to Zak’s comment above. Half the D&D games I play are filled with amoral murder machines straight out of a Jack Vance novel. These games don’t often feel edgy or complicated because you are so far removed from the characters you are playing.
You can’t mention Cartel without someone else jumping in to tell you glamourizing the Mexican cartels is despicable.4 This looks to be the most common complaint about the game. The archetypes the playbooks of the game represent aren’t distant or fantastic: they are grounded in reality.5 Mark could tell his story about the Mexican drug trade using allegory (the cartel are the dark elves or some such nonsense), or he could push his story backwards or forwards in time (Cartel: 2120). As players you might be able to avoid dwelling too much on the reality of what you’re playing. But this seems contrary to everything Mark wants to do with his game. His goal—as he notes often—is to push people to play roles that might be uncomfortable for them. He wants people playing Mexicans.
When talking about his game Mark often talks about the Wire. One of my favourite characters on that show is Bodie, a real fan favourite. The thing is, that dude shot Wallace in the first season! It’s one of the most heart breaking scenes in the show. The Wire isn’t glamourizing anything about the drug trade. I’m not sure Mark can produce the Wire of Powered by the Apocalypse World hacks—that’s a high bar to reach!—but it’s not inconceivable that you can produce something very good about violence and drugs and all that bad stuff. There is value in understanding the systems that produce the situation in Mexico today. To pretend it’s all bad people being bad is stupid and simple. There are all sorts of ways to tell that story. Mark chose to make a game.
“You play members of the cartel” may actually be sufficient to make some folks sick to their stomach, no matter what Mark has done to make it clear these characters aren’t good guys. That’s a legit critique.
So … I don’t think that’s a legit critique.
The fact anyone is making a game about the cartels is going to offend some people on principle. If you don’t want to play that game that seems like a totally reasonable response. I can imagine a lot of games I wouldn’t want to play. You probably can too. While I am sure Mark can convince people their understanding of his game is incorrect, no one obligated to engage with Mark to understand where he’s coming from. It’s perfectly fine to think a game is gross and leave it at that. Games aren’t for everyone and this game is likely no exception. But your distaste for a game isn’t a critique: that’s just a personal preference.
All of the games I’ve mentioned in this post could be offensive to people. Sometimes you might agree with what the person finds offensive. Other times not so much. (Some people are moaning about sex fluid elves right now when talking about 5e, after all.)
An argument can be made that no game can do this particular subject justice. And an argument can be made that this particular game isn’t doing its subject justice. But someone needs to make those arguments. My random thoughts above are one way to talk about games like these. There are probably other, better ways, as well. (I mean, what do I know? I play D&D!)
All of these games exist because people didn’t pick up and go home for fear of offending someone. This is likely true of most compelling art.
I do think as players we are ultimately responsible for whether we are trivializing someones experience or not when playing a game. Jason Morningstar isn’t there to tell us off. He can only do so much. ↩
The scene around Apocalypse World is interesting in that it seems to produce these games that can only be described as “very specific.” Not to take away from Apocalypse World—which is god damn fun—but its premise is reasonably pedestrian: it’s the end of the world, we’re all fucked! (And fucking each other.) But from that game you end up with “it’s like D&D, but everyone is a Russian fighter pilot from the all women 588th Night Bomber Regiment” or “it’s like D&D, but everyone is a confused queer teenage monster” or “it’s like D&D, but everyone is a teenage girls battling white male hegemony”. That seems like such a leap! The brain trust on Google+ had a lot of good thoughts about why this might be the case.↩
My random character generator generates women 50% of the time. It also spits out disabled characters 25% of the time. Don’t say I’m not doing anything for representation in the OSR. ↩
Which is true: you shouldn’t glamourize gang violence. ↩
In a Reddit Ask Me Anything someone showed up to ask (with much sarcasm) whether the game would include moves for disposing of bodies in acid, something the cartels do. Mark replied the game already does. Ha! ↩
When I ran my Carcosa game it was centred around a few “safe” home bases. Players would adventure in the wilderness and return to a town at the end of each session. Initially there was only one such town, but as the game moved on they became friendly with other villages and fortifications. The players themselves were part of the “Rainbow Connection”, a travelling troupe of adventuring actors. This whole set up made it easy for players to drop in and out as needed. I wanted a similar set up for adventuring in the Veins of the Earth.
To start, Hans M. and Ian B. suggested a route I had considered myself: peppering the veins with the occasional friendly town equivalent—a gnomen village for example. This would let you run the game like you might any other overland wilderness adventure. My main issue with this approach is that it seems like I’d want people exploring the Underdark to venture further and further into the darkness. I struggled to get people to explore in my Carcosa game because much of the action was centred around their home town. Ian suggested having players being involved in setting up supply caches and building these safe places in the Underdark. That might work, though I think i’d prefer something weirder for my Veins of the Earth game.
The always epic Daniel Dean offered up some straight up Veins of the Earth:
Tiny hands grip you and carry you in the night and leave something in your stead, sometimes another person they have taken sometimes a valuable or inscrutable token, like a trade rat. When and if you are returned it is in similar circumstances, you are here but something is gone, and you have no memory of the time between then and now.
Joshua B’s suggestion reminds me of the above, though its execution is different:
In the grim darkness of the Veins there is only survival. Sometimes people get separated, and wander the darkness, silent and cold, until finally regaining light and companionship.
In a similar vein Dan D. suggests the party travels with a “pack mule”:
Your pack mule is a giant spider that wraps people up in silk cocoons for transit and sometimes forgets to let them out.
This could be fun: you could make the giant spider part of the game proper or something more meta. Perhaps the party needs to protect the creature at all times, or it’s simply something that shows up at the end of each session to gobble the players up.
These ideas could be turned into something gamier, which Brendan suggests:
If regular settlement areas kills the bleak vibe too much, maybe figure out some sort of symbolic save point thing akin to Dark Souls bonfires with just enough fictional logic to not be distracting. Something like pure springs.
Patrick chimes in and expands on Brendan’s idea with a suggestion I like, and might be what I end up using in my game:
A particular kind of dark is ‘safe’ for the Party, maybe they have a contract or agreement with that particular quality of dark so people in it can find each other or rest safely, expeditions are between patches or volumes of that kind of dark. Other darks may be enemies and could be dark-elemental politics.
You could probably mix and match these suggestions nicely as well. Players would be venturing towards the next safe darkness. If they make, great. If they fail, they are gobbled up by a spider or snatched up by the tiny hands, and will need to deal with the complications that come from that.
There are more suggestions in the original thread, but these are my favourite. I think they highlight the general approaches one can take: from reproducing the overland in the underworld to something more “gamey”.
I’ve been slow to go through Frost Bitten & Mutilated because I want to read it in print, rather than PDF. The book follows a format that seems common to many LotFP books, front loading the bestiary as a way to explain the world and what its crazy deal is. (Something to write about another time.) There is a small (8x8) wilderness map in the middle of the book with short descriptions for each region a party can visit—a hex crawl minus the hexes.
Zak’s writing in all his books is what I would describe as evocative and terse. (Terse being the real key to his style, I think.) This wilderness crawl is a good example of his style. Zak is able to jam the descriptions of the wilderness on the map of the wilderness itself because he keeps things short. What you sacrifice in a dope looking map, you get back in one that is more functional while playing.1
References to other hexes make a hex map good. Do that when possible.
You don’t have to prove you’re Grant Morrison in every hex, just make a usable map. It can say “Small inn. Well is empty.”
These constraints force you to be creative with what you write. You end up distilling your ideas to their core components. You’re forced to drop anything tangential, pushed to hint at your ideas through a liberal use of adjectives and open ended descriptions. Linking hexes together to tell a story about what’s going on is another way to build up an evocative setting while still keeping your individual descriptions short.
From Frostbitten & Mutilated:
Five crates rest on a cliff edge high above the sled that pulled them. One contains salted cod, one contains 650sp worth of aquavit, one contains an occult text with the names of 4 drowning demons and a map to the entrance to the Dim Fortress, one contains a sleeping snow leopard, one contains beets and Ribboned Jenny the champion rat. Her swarm is nearby
There is so much going on in this brief paragraph. How did the sled topple of the cliff? Was it the swarm of rats trying to retrieve Ribboned Jenny? What’ll they do when the players enter the scene. As the DM you can decide if the party come upon this scene from above, next to the crates, or from below, next to the toppled sled. Knowing the names for Drowning Demons might save your ass later, and of importance to this module, the location of the Dim Fortress is hard to come by.
This rat, Ribboned Jenny, is mentioned in the first wilderness description:
Tumbledown inn overrun by wharf rats in search of Ribboned Jenny, a fancy-rat from Rottingkroner (see H5).
A simpler wilderness blurb, but there is enough here for adventure and excitement. Will the party help the rats, be harried by them, etc. Tumbledown Inn itself is notable for being the only inn mentioned when describing this winter wasteland.
Both descriptions can be read in a few seconds. When playing the game you don’t need to root around trying to understand what’s going on in the hex. There are trade offs with having descriptions that are this short, but I much prefer short descriptions to long ones when running a game.
Frost Bitten & Mutilated is a good example of a simple functional wilderness adventure. Zak has learned the good lessons from Carcosa—easy to grok evocative description—and skipped over the bad lessons—easy to grok super boring descriptions. LotFP has a big stable of solid wilderness adventures at this point: World of the Lost, Qelong, Carcosa, and now this one.
But, it is a pretty frumpy looking 2 page spread—sorry Luka/Zak, the heart wants what the heart wants. ↩