A monster on the verge of eating an adventurer.


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.


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.


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.


Review: Night Witches

by Ramanan Sivaranjan on March 27, 2015

Tagged: storygames apocalypseworld nightwitches

Night Witches was released to the public a few days ago. The game was produced as the result of a successful Kickstarter—like most games nowadays—and has seemingly been in the works for years now. The game caught my eye because it features artwork by Rich Longmore, the illustrator of Carcosa. $12 for a PDF of new Rich Longmore art feels like a steal. The fact there was a whole game that came with it was a nice bonus. And so it came to pass I bought my first story game.

Night Witches is a game with a very specific focus. Everyone plays Russian fighter pilots from the all women 588th Night Bomber Regiment, who the Nazis referred to as the Night Witches. I play in several D&D campaigns right now and they are all over the map when it comes to setting and tone. House rules might differentiate the games slightly, but for the most part we are all playing D&D. People in the D&D scene will add or drop rules to shift the focus of D&D slightly. Someone into dungeon crawls will focus on light and encumbrance rules. Someone interested in horror might introduce sanity rules. These sorts of tweaks seem minor when you look at a game like Night Witches. The whole game exists to support this very niche experience.

The game play in Night Witches is fairly straight forward. Play is split into two phases: days and nights. During the day you role play the action that happens on the airbase. At night you fly bombing missions and try to kill nazis. Night Witches is based upon the rules for Apocalypse World. 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.)

Night Witches seems to be first and foremost about collaborative story telling. At least, this is what it seems like coming to the game from D&D. I’m curious if all the bonuses you collect and moves you have are in fact far “gamier” than they sound on paper. There is probably a tactical element to succeeding in your air missions that is more evident in play. (Not that i’m particularly interested in that sort of thing. I like playing OD&D because there are barely any rules.)

In Night Witches characters each have 4hp (marks), and when you use them all up you are dead. The way this works sounds similar to the Grind in a Torchbearer. You get progressively more stressed and injured, culminating in your passing. Character death looks to be the likely outcome for most characters in a long running campaign. My assumptions about story games were that this sort of thing was uncommon. (In contrast to the meat-grinder D&D games I have become used to.)

There’s a lot to like about the rule book. The book is well laid out, both in terms of how it looks and how it functions. It opens with advice on where you should start reading, based on your experience with table top games and Apocalypse World games. The start of the book has all the player facing rules. The middle of the book has the rules the GM would need to run a game. There is advice on running your first session, how to teach people the game, etc. Most of the rules for the game fit on the character sheet. (Again, something that was common in 4th Edition, and apparently how all the Apocalypse World inspired games work.) I suspect it’d be easy to use the book during play.

The new artwork by Rich Longmore is fantastic. I have no regrets about picking up this book. My only gripe is that there isn’t more Longmore art. The other artist featured in this book is Claudia Cangini, who did head shot style comic portraits of women from the 588th Night Bomber Regiment.

I still haven’t played Night Witches. I’m not sure when i’ll get the chance. Hopefully sooner rather than later: it seems neat and it’s certainly different.

Update 2017-03-13: I ended up playing Night Witches twice at BreakoutCon 2017. It was really great.