Posts Tagged ‘Spirit of the Century’

Seven Campaigns I would love to play

In the Danish roleplaying blogosphere, there’s a challenge that’s been going around: which seven roleplaying campaigns would you love to play? It all started with Johs’ post, later followed up by Peter and Oliver. I figured I’d like to give this a shot as well – and so, here are seven campaigns I would love to take part in.

One caveat before we start. I find that I often enjoy the types of roleplaying games – and particularly campaigns – that grow organically out of what happens at the table. That seems to be one of the strengths of systems like Apocalypse World and Spirit of the Century: that the world is very vague until such point that the players start making their characters. This means that there is not one person in charge of creating the world, which in turn can make a much richer world than what the GM can make on his own. Nevertheless, having a strong concept before starting out can help focus the game – so I guess that is what I’ll be setting out here: strong concepts. Some would have to be developed by the GM before the game, others by players and GM in cooperation.

Also, many of these are bound up on particular worlds, taken from comics, computer games, books or similar. Of course, that would merely serve as the starting point for a further development that would likely see the game turn into something quite different.

The Heroes of English Magic

We are currently watching the brilliant BBC series based on Susanna Clarke’s novel, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norell. I never finished the book – it is rather long – but I am really impressed by the series. It is gripping, funny, beautiful, dramatic, and set in a completely wonderful world, soaked through with a particular idea of magic. I’d love to try to do a game set in that sort of fantasy world.

The game would most likely take place in Britain, because the United Kingdom seems to have the folklore and the culture for that sort of a game. I like that Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norell is set in Napoleonic England – it confers some wonderful dichotomies between the posh society and the crude masses – not to mention between the rigid, cerebral world of academia and the visceral, chaotic world of superstition, fairies and power. Of course, another version might be to set it in Denmark, and replace the fairies of Clarke’s vision with Giants and Vølver from Danish mythology.

There are two obvious systems to use for such a game. Mage: the Ascension is a system that I have always wanted to do more with. I’m not sure this game would fit that system, though. I might prefer to go with Ars Magica – part of the essence of Strange & Norell is that the magicians spend a lot of time studying and reading, and that seems to be better captured by Ars. I would probably include some form of power gained from experience, as that seems to be part of the difference between the titular characters of Clarke’s story: That Norell has lots of knowledge from books, while Strange learns a lot from his experience in the field.

Alternatively, the game might use some entirely different system. Nine World might be adapted to fit, as might Sorcerer, though I’m not sure Sorcerer supports the kind of game I would want it to be.

Bookhounds of London

I have yet to try Trail of Cthulhu or any of the other GUMSHOE games. Now, the Bookhounds of London setting seems perfect to me. It gives players a great entryway into the occult world of Lovecraftian horror, more than many other Cthulhu games. It also opens for a lot of mundane interaction, and some very human antagonists, trying to prevent the PC’s from getting the books they want. In that sense, there is a lot of good story before you even start getting into the weird stuff.

I think that if I did it, I would want an overarching plot that is light on horrible monsters, and heavy on terrifying mysteries and madness. A plot that slowly graduates from being merely about humans looking for human things, to slowly encompassing more and more otherworldly stuff. There would probably be some weird creatures here and there, but the main stuff would be at the very least something that could be explained away as something mundane.

Magic and Madness

In the world of fantasy literature, Grimdark Fantasy seems to have a high star, with Joe Abercrombie as Exhibit A. Some of this has seeped over into gaming – not least in the form of the game, Darkest Dungeon.

Darkest Dungeon is what Diablo might have been if it was a 2D, party based game where the foes are Cthulhoid instead of demonic, and the heroes aren’t really heroes at all, but a misfit band of expendables. You return to your ancestral mansion to find that it has been taken over by strange and threatening forces. You must gather a party and venture into the darkness in order to gain intelligence and strength, until you are ready to face whatever awaits in the eponymous Darkest Dungeon underneath the mansion.

In the game, you have two kinds of “health”: physical health and mental shock or sanity. Running out of one will kill a character in the short run, but gaining too much of the other will make your character erratic and dangerous to his comrades in the long run. This seems an interesting mechanic, though one that it would require some thought as to how you might capture that in play.

The feel of the game actually reminds me a fair bit of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay (WFRPG). It has the same non-heroic character types, with Grave Robbers, Bounty Hunters and Plague Doctors instead of Paladins, Clerics and Mages. It has the same deadliness and insanity, and like Darkest Dungeon, Warhammer centres around the threat from insidious, inhuman, corrupting, maddening Ruinous Powers.

That is of course a prelude to saying that a roleplaying game based on that kind of (grim)dark fantasy could easily be done in WFRPG. I would prefer 2nd edition, but I did like several aspects of 3rd edition – among others, the “party sheet,” welding the characters into something more than just a bunch of random people. Other options would be using a game that’s Powered by the Apocalypse – like Dungeon World (though I’m not that keen on that game) or maybe something like Vincent Baker’s ideas for Apocalypse World Dark Age.

For a setting, I see in front of my mind’s eye a small village, set out in a vast, dark wood. The next nearest city is miles and miles away, and the forests are not safe for lone travellers. Wolves, witches and worse are lurking among the trees, while anyone inside the village might be corrupted by the eldritch forces at work. Players have to alternate between paranoid investigations, village politics and frantic hunts throughout the woods (without any mention of who is hunter and who is hunted).

World of Stars

I have fallen in love with the mechanics of Vincent Baker’s Apocalypse World, and the host of other games it has spawned. At the same time I’ve been watching a lot of science fiction series of a particular ilk: Star Trek: Deep Space 9, Babylon 5, Battlestar Galactica (and Firefly, though it isn’t a completely neat fit). It struck me that the two might make a great match. And thus, the idea of World of Stars (or Star Worlds, or some other name) was born. I have vivid images of a campaign set in some corner of the stars, in which Sisko and Apollo clash over the running of the effort to protect some planet while Ambassador G’kar is hiring Mal and his crew to conduct some clandestine operation. It makes perfect sense for me to write the different character archetypes up as playbooks, and turn the Cylons, the Bajorans, the Alliance, the Reavers, the scheming politicians on earth and the wide assortment of other threats into, well, Threats and Fronts.

This is actually a bit more than an idea for a campaign. To me, one of the brilliant things about all the games that are Powered by the Apocalypse is that “system” and “setting” are so tightly intertwined. These games don’t interchange chapters (or paragraphs) on game mechanics with chapters (or paragraphs) on fictional natural laws, culture or history, such as World of Darkness usually does. Nor is it pure mechanics, like games like GURPS. Instead the two are so tightly linked as to be inseparable.

This is part of what makes the games great, but it is also a challenge: you cannot simply change out the setting and keep the system – if you want to adapt one, you must adapt both. In other words, making the game I’m envisioning means writing my own hack of Apocalypse World. This is by no means beyond me – but it is a bit of a challenging idea. Of course, one of the good things about AW is it’s modular design – it’s fairly easy to swap out parts of the game that I want to change, and see what works.

Night Witches

I’ll be honest, I don’t know that much about Jason Morningstar’s Night Witches, beyond the fact that it is Powered by the Apocalypse, and that it features a band of female, Russian pilots during WWII. It sounds like it could be an intense, action packed and emotional experience, though, and I’d love to try it out. It seems like it would be perfect for a short and intense little campaign of no more than five to ten sessions.

Movers and Shakers

A lot of campaigns are actually very narrowly focused on the player characters themselves. I wouldn’t mind playing something more political, though. I’m thinking of the players as movers and shakers in a society, having access to big resources and to big decisions about the direction of their society. I think I might like to make it something slightly sci-fi, but fantasy could work as well. I think part of my interest in this kind of game started with Birthright. I played a computer game in the setting, and I was quite fascinated with it.

I have a long-time love of Alpha Centauri, the Civ-game about going off to a different world and creating a colony there. I got a GURPS book based on that setting, but I don’t have a lot of love for GURPS, so I would probably do it in some other system. Maybe Fate would do the trick?

Another option would be to set it in Sigil, as part of D&D’s Planescape setting. That would offer loads of opportunities for political intrigue, weird stuff going on and mercenaries from all over creation. Players might be factols (the leaders of the political parties in the setting) or they might be representatives of some company, place or world.

No matter the setting, it would probably be more of an ensemble piece, in which there would be more characters than players, with each player changing between different characters depending on the circumstances. If someone orders a raid on some facility, the whole troupe of players take on the roles of the soldiers running the raid. Someone trying to assassinate another player takes on the role of the assassin, while the victim plays himself. And so on and so forth.

On the Verge

When I was younger, I had a great fascination with TSR’s Alternity system and the settings it spawned. In particular the very elaborate Star*Drive setting, outlining a very complex and interesting space opera setting. I would love to do a campaign in that setting, having the players travel around the Verge (the main area of space for Star*Drive) in some old spaceship, doing odd jobs, trading, and of course uncovering some major plot or happening. I’ve considered having them be part of some military force, but that seems too restricted. I would prefer to have a band of free operatives who can stake out their own claim in the Verge, and make a name for themselves by solving problems for the different governments in the area. There are a couple of variations – the Lighthouse, the big space station slash carrier ship that sails from area to area would be a perfect base of operations for such a game.

Spirit of the Century

I have a great love for Spirit of the Century. I like the feel of it, the ease of creating a story and the way the aspects underline the feel of the game. If I were to do a game of it, though, I would probably work with the players to create some point of departure – a mission, perhaps, or more likely a common resting place where the players can all hang out between adventures.

One of the good things about SotC is the flexibility of it. When I ran a campaign of the game, I would design it based on who was there on any given day. The game has a lot of tools to use in quickly designing a scenario, so that you don’t need a lot of planning. I usually prepared a scenario in about 30 minutes. That also makes it a great kind of campaign for busy people with erratic schedules, because if someone is missing on a given day, you just design a game that doesn’t include them. That probably makes it the most likely game for me to run any time soon.

So, there you have it: seven campaigns I would like to play. There are others, obviously. I would definitely be interesting in playing Apocalypse World, Monsterhearts, Primetime Adventures, Orpheus, Shadow of Yesterday or a number of other campaigns. The above are seven specific cases I would love to delve into that go beyond playing a plain vanilla version of some system or other.

What would you love to play? Let me know in the comments below

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Iteration and progression in games: Iterative Games

Lately, I have been playing a number of little games on my computer: Reus, FTL and Now Boarding, among a few others. In all three, you play a series of relatively short games. But each game will impact the next game in some way. That made me think of how important iteration is in many games. Thus, I’ll be doing a small series on iteration, progression and entropy in games, both computer games, board games and roleplaying games.

Iteration means repetition. From Wikipedia:

Iteration is the act of repeating a process with the aim of approaching a desired goal, target or result. Each repetition of the process is also called an “iteration”, and the results of one iteration are used as the starting point for the next iteration.

Many, many games use iteration – the basic turn-taking that is present in a vast majority of board games, and in the combat system of many, many roleplaying games, is one example of this. Take a game like Race for the Galaxy: You choose a role, reveal all roles, then go through the phases selected from lowest to highest. Rinse, repeat.

Today, though, I want to look at what I would call “iterative games” – games where a central part of the game is playing it several times, often in a row. Usually there’s a mechanical effect of one game on the next, but sometimes the effect is very subtle. The spill-over might just be each player’s feeling for the social dynamics of the group – like which player is more likely to bluff, or to fall for a bluff. I’d like to give a few examples below.

Poker

One of the best examples I can think of is poker. The game as written is roughly this: the players are dealt some cards, they bet, then change or add some cards, then bet some more. Players may fold if they don’t want to follow the betting. If there’s more than one player left at the end of the round, the players compare their cards and see who has the best hand. That’s it – the winner takes the pot.

But you can’t really play just one game of poker. The real game of poker is what emerges after you’ve played a few hands: chips are redistributed and players start getting a feeling for each other. The real game ends when only one player remains at the table.

In other words, a play-session of poker consists of playing a string of games; with one game determine the starting layout for the next game. If one player has more money than the others, he can afford to be bolder, while someone who has lost most of their chips might be forced to take desperate measures, going all in on a mediocre hand to try to get back into the game. Which might of course lead to the next game having one less player.

Reus

In the computer game, Reus, you play a planet-deity, expressing your will through four elemental giants. Each game is called an “age”, and the idea is that you and your giants go through periods of activity interspersed by periods of sleep. While you sleep everything reverts to a flat and barren state.

Each age starts with an empty planet. The giants can add terrain and resources to the land, attracting people to settle and build on the planet. Each age lasts a set amount of time before the giants (and you) fall back asleep. At the end of each age, you earn achievements which unlock things for future ages: more advanced resources, more advanced projects that the humans can build, and longer ages, allowing you to achieve more in each age.

As such, each game starts with a blank slate. But you will be able to do more things than you could in previous games, and you will be faced with more difficult achievements to fulfil. Each iteration of the game is both a game in itself, but also a part of a larger arc of playing the game.

Spirit of the Century

Roleplaying games are not usually thought of as iterative in the sense that I just described – you play a campaign that keeps progressing, or you play a one-off thing. But there are actually a few of them out there. One example is Spirit of the Century. The game is designed to accommodate a string of linked but independent stories. At the beginning of a campaign, you get everybody together to make characters. Before each session the GM will find out who will be part of that session, and design a scenario to fit those heroes, taking cues from the aspects on their sheets.

At the end of each session, you don’t hand out experience points, but players may change their aspects to reflect things that happened during the game. There are some progression rules in the game, allowing players to add one more aspect every two games, and also a new stunt once in a while.

Spirit of the Century could be used to play the “big plotline” campaigns that traditional roleplaying games often excel in. But the strength of the game is in the episodic games, where you get a group together and play a game based on those characters. In TV-terms, this is more like the Simpsons or Star Trek than it’s like Lost or 24. It’s important to note, though, that that doesn’t mean it has a static starting point: each episode will change the backstory of the character, giving him new facets, reflected in new aspects.

Magic the Gathering (or Pokemon, or Netrunner, or…)

When Magic: the Gathering came out, it created a whole new genre of games unto itself: the Collectible Card Game, or CCG. What defines this genre is not something that is written in the actual rules of the game. That is because, just like in poker, the real game of a CCG is not what is written in the rules – it is what happens as you play the game over and over. Thus, CCG is a whole genre of iterative games. Lately the genre has evolved into the Living Card Game (LCG), and most of what I say about the CCG goes for the LCG as well.

In the basic game of Magic, two people sit down with each their deck of cards. They keep playing until someone loses all their life or runs out of cards.

The real game of Magic is on a larger scope, however. While you can get a readymade deck and just sit down to play, really playing Magic means collecting cards and assembling your own deck. You buy cards in random booster packs, and then select ones from your collection that complement each other to make a well-balanced deck. When you have a finished deck, you take it out to play with it, then take it home to tune it based on what worked and what didn’t.

This also means that success in Magic doesn’t necessarily mean winning more than you lose. The designers of magic have described three personas of magic players: Timmy, Spike and Johnny (read the very interesting article defining the personas here). Two out of the three care more about how they win than how often: Timmy wants to get out his huge cards and smash his opponent, while Johnny wants his carefully constructed engine of cards to kick in and do what they were designed to do. Only Spike wants to have a deck that can beat them every time.

Magic shares this meta-game with other CCG’s and LCG’s, like Pokemon, Yu-Gi-Oh and Android Netrunner. For the people who seriously play these games, sitting down to play is as much a way to test your deck as designing a deck is preparation for play. In this way, these games are iterative: you play, then reset, adjust, and play again.

Other iterative games

A few other iterative games, off my cuff here:

  • Las Vegas: In this game, you play three rounds. Each round is basically the same, and the winner is the one who earned the most money at the end. Only difference is the knowledge of how much money everybody else has.
  • Meyer and Cheat: small bluffing games with dice often played while drinking in Denmark.  It is customary to play more than one round of either
  • Rummy, Whist, Bridge, Hearts, Oh Hell!: In these games, you play a number of games, totalling the number of points you get in each round. The winner is the one who earns the most (or least, in the case of Hearts) points at the end, or the first to a certain number of points.
  • Classic D&D: In classic D&D (which I’ve never really played, so I have some reservations) you make a party, go down the dungeon, come up, divide loot and level up. Rinse, repeat. Plot-arcs optional.
  • Hinterlandet: Morten Greis’ remake of classic dungeoncrawl is even more so. You bring your character, then go out to a dungeon, hopefully returns to town with loot and experience, say bye bye, and take your character home. Next time, you may play with someone else, and your character is better for having been out before.
  • Kingdom of Loathing: In KoL (as it’s known among friends) you play through 13 levels of questing and levelling up. When you are done, you can “ascend”, which basically means starting over with a new character class at level 1. You get to keep your stuff (though you can’t access all of it), just as you can make skills carry over from ascension to ascension. Each time you ascend, you can modify your next run-through of the game, restricting what you can do or gaining special items to help you in this incarnation.

The march of progress!

That’s it for purely iterative games. Tomorrow, I’ll post something about games that do the opposite: progression and entropy in games. The third post in this series will deal with ways of mixing iteration and progression/entropy in games.

Seven role-playing games that changed my life pt.1

Recently, I saw that someone (Per Fischer, I think) had posted a list of the seven games he had played the most. I contemplated doing the same, but quickly gave it up. First of all, it would be very difficult to properly assess how much I played which games in my younger days. Secondly, it would not be a very interesting list, necessarily. I played a lot of certain games while I was relatively young, but they didn’t have that much of an impact on me. The list would probably include, in some order: Vampire: the Masquerade, Vampire: the Requiem, AD&D, D&D 3rd ed, Warhammer FRP 2nd ed, Call of Cthulhu, Shadowrun. But that would leave out some of the game that I haven’t played a lot, but which has meant a lot to my perception of what role-playing is, and even to the course of my life! And so, here is a list of seven role-playing games that changed my life, organized in (more or less) reverse chronology. I may well try the same with scenarios and/or board games. For some of them, I may mention some games that might almost have taken its place – but I wanted to only include seven, so I had to cut them out.

Spirit of the Century

In my world, Spirit of the Century is close to being the perfect golden mean between sleek, streamlined, mass produced, “traditional” big game company produced role-playing games and the auteurish, experimental, diamond-in-the-rough “indie” games inspired by the Forge. It is a blast to create a character in this game, and allows you to tailor the evening’s session to whoever is going to be present. It is the perfect tool to help you capture the feeling of a pulp hero story. It achieves this in three ways:

1) The book perfectly evokes the genre all the way through, so that by the time I’m through, I can’t wait to jump into adventures with two-fisted heroes like Jet Black and his friends, defeating nefarious foes like Gorilla Kahn and Doctor Methuselah.

2) The system gently, but surely, nudges me towards the kind of game it is designed for. Fate points reward players for enriching the story and providing interesting complications. Henchmen and npc rules make it easy to have the heroes fight off appropriate swarms of nefarious goons, and make the actual villain provide interesting obstacles to the heroes. The character creation rules mean that you could have Tarzan, Zorro, Allan Quartermain and Biggles in the same team – and it wouldn’t feel awkward! In fact, having one hero be a rich heir who’s a science prodigy, while another is a former war-pilot and the third is a big game hunter would make a lot of sense. Not least because…

3) The game master’s guide gives the would-be game master of a game of SotC some very simple tools to make a great game, based on the characters that are going to be in that particular session. It really has one of the best guides on how to be a GM that I have ever seen, and I would advice any new GM to read that guide, even if you have no interest in playing the actual game. It provides three very easy ways to design a story that is going to feel pulpy, based on the participating characters, and has a host of great advice. One great piece of advice that I took from the home-page, and which is good for almost any game is to make a spreadsheet showing which skills each character has, and at which level. If everybody has a skill, they want to test it. If someone has a high rank in a skill, they want to ace it. If only one person has a skill, even at a relatively low level, you can throw spotlight on them by challenging that skill. And if nobody took a skill – well, if your players aren’t interested in a particular kind of challenges, why punish them by testing it. That’s the kind of simple, useful, player-oriented advice this book is chock full off.

All in all, this game has consistently provided me with enjoyable gaming experiences. It doesn’t provide the gritty, visceral stories that might result from games like Apocalypse World, Dogs in the Vineyard or In a Wicked Age – all games that do some of what SotC also does – but the sheer ease and enjoyment of this game just puts it way ahead of them in my mind. Yes, indeed, this might actually be my favoritest role-playing game.

Mountain Witch

I still remember my first game of Mountain Witch (not that I have played it THAT much). It was at Fastaval, and I had joined an indie game introduction. I had never played an indie game before.

We were set upon by two tengu (raven spirits), when I used my “knowledge of the ancestors” (or something similar). I wanted to know how I might defeat the tengu. I looked expectantly up at the GM for an answer – and saw him looking back, equally expectant. That’s when it struck me: the answer was mine to give.

I didn’t give a very good answer. But the incident (which struck the GM – and I think it was Per Fischer, again – enough for him to recount it on The Forge) showed me the power of Story Now. I quickly acquired Mountain Witch, Dogs in the Vineyard and With Great Power…, three games I have read a lot, but unfortunately not played a lot. All three taught me a lot, though. With Great Power… was the one I most wanted to play, but unfortunately, its great ideas have not been honed enough to make a truly brilliant game. As such, I don’t think I’ve ever played a whole game of it. Dogs in the Vineyard packs a lot of punch for its short size, but the bidding mechanic of the game is difficult to do well, and can feel a little mechanic. Mountain Witch is difficult for me to properly prepare for, but is probably the best of the three.

But no matter its relative flaws and merits, Mountain Witch will forever stand as my first ever indie RPG. And those two hours alone earn it a place on this list.

Alternity

Alternity is a very peculiar game, and one that holds a special place in my heart. It was TSR’s attempt to make a game that might do for Space Opera what AD&D had done for Fantasy: provide one system that could work with a host of different worlds. While the game never gained much of a following, I think it succeeded in this mission far more than D&D ever did.

The game borrows a lot from its older brother: The d20, the six stats, the classes. But the whole feeling of the game is completely different. The game is skill based, and while levelling up makes you better at things, you don’t get that much better at resisting damage. This underlines that this is not a fighting game. But what is it?

Well, it can be many things. It is a universal science fiction game, and it is geared towards providing more or less realistic visions of a future among the stars. A number of settings came out for the game, including Star*Drive, the “main” setting of the game, and Dark Matter, an X-files inspired setting of paranormal investigation with extraterrestrials and extradimensionals and ghosts and what have we.

So why is this game on this list? Well, Alternity is a game that I never saw much outside of my own bookshelf, even though I thought it was so great. It is also one of a number of games which taught me something that I’m almost embarrassed to tell you that I needed to be taught: that it is interesting to play ordinary people, that it can be fun to be weak and vulnerable…. vincible? It also taught me that Science Fiction doesn’t have to be Star Trek, Star Wars, Terminator or Judge Dredd – it can also be Alien or Blade Runner, all about regular, vulnerable people in toned down surroundings.

A couple of games vied for this place: Warhammer FRP taught me the same thing about fantasy, and showed me why Dark Fantasy was great, and why it can be cool to play a rat catcher. And Call of Cthulhu taught me something similar about a more realistic setting – and it taught me that tragedy can be a blast. You can have your cake and be eaten too.

Till next time

And that’s it for now. I’ve been gushing far more than I thought I would. I’ll post the remaining four at a later time, and I’ll try to gush a bit less. Until then, please tell me what you think of these games – and do tell me which games changed your world.