Thursday, January 17, 2019

The Slow and Subtle Cypher System Take Over


Last night we revamped (yet again) the Wednesday night game to introduce a Cypher System SF setting I had worked on.* The new setting's opening session was a bait-and-switch; I told everyone to build hard SF characters for an elaborate post-dystopian, post-cyberpunk future Los Angeles in 2231, an era when the world has recovered from World War III and a lengthy period of social and political decay to suddenly emerge as a more united, focused front for the future. The plot revolved around the player characters being participants in a well funded institute/think-tank on the cusp of developing the first superluminal warp drive system. The risk seems to manifest with possible espionage from competition interested in stealing the technology, or possibly terrorists destroying it.

Except....that wasn't it at all. Some of the PCs had disturbing dreams, or throughout the day of the momentous reveal see strange, ghostly images. Something odd is going on....but what?

The reveal came that night because despite sinking a lot of time into the verisimilitude of this 2231 Los Angeles setting the real setting is a transhuman distant future blend of space opera and Hard SF....the big reveal was that the PCs were all part of a strange simulation using nanotechnology and temporal "readings" that allowed a species of synthetic artificial beings to study the ancient history of the dead world of Earth which they had come to research. But it turns out humans do exist in this future, too.....but they had risen to a great interstellar power, and then collapsed for unknown reasons back to the stone age. The conflict between the humans of the Orion Alliance and the synthetics and their strange interests in the past is one facet of the game going forward, but by session's end all the players were left with lots of mysteries and direction (as well as freedom) to explore a completely enigmatic universe.

This kind of setting is hard to do with certain other generic games. The mechanical simplicity and elegance of Cypher System allowed me to focus on the plot, story, encounters and other details without stopping to spend hours meticulously statting out NPCs. Need a stat for the security guard? Level 3 dude with a  gun. This is hard to do in games like GURPS or Hero. BRP is a bit easier, and Savage Worlds the easiest, but ultimately they still require a bit of time to either find a pregenerated stat block or work out some mechanical details. Some GMs could argue that this can be done on the fly, and that even if you're winging it that's not an issue so long as it's not visible to the players....but if that's the case, then why not look to a system which actively provides you, the GM, with a core conceit in the mechanics designed to let you provide an actual on-the-fly stat assignment? That's what Cypher System does.

Moreover, Cypher System's toolbox approach to multigenre gaming, combined with its total cross-compatibility with the other games in the genre (Numenera, The Strange, Vurt, Predation, Gods of the Fall, etc.) means you can borrow and lift pieces from other Cypher settings to suit to taste. You can do this with other systems, sure....but the very design of each setting for Cypher allows for cross-pollination of content and ideas. Only Savage Worlds, in my experience, handles this approach with equal efficiency.

The need for players to have more mechanical interest and depth is also satisfied by Cypher System without causing any issues for the GM; it's like two different game systems that provide input back and forth through a little black box; the GM experience is decidedly different from the player experience, and somehow it all works beautifully. Players who want mechanical depth can find enough in Cypher System. If you're the kind who wants lots of choices, Cypher has it. If you want to experiment with your own thing, there are plenty of rules for going your own path. The core variation in character options is sufficiently exotic that you can choose from a wide array of unique concepts that are defined through the focus/type/descriptor options. For what I (and my players) need, this game is quiet genius.

This is a long, roundabout way of saying that the biggest problem I face today is playing another game (like Fantasy AGE) and realizing that Cypher could do what I want, better....or even D&D for that matter (I have come to the conclusion that Fantasy AGE is a lot like playing a very badly balanced, underwhelming D&D variant). Sometimes I want a game to let me explore what it has to offer, sure....but rare is the game that simultaneously lets me explore what it has to offer while robustly supporting my own vision of weirdness with a complete toolset. Cypher is all about that, and frankly just what I need in 2019.

I've ordered more cards from Monte Cook Games (I like the cards the game offers), specifically the Ruin Deck which uses content from the Jade Colossus book, one of my favorite "dungeon design" books for weird fantasy-SF mashups now (and who knows, maybe I'll actually use it for Numenera this year, too). With three active Cypher Games going now (superhero, far future SF/interstellar collapse and fantasy/SF hybrid settings) I think the only other games I really feel the need to spend time with right now are Call of Cthulhu and eventually D&D after I am satisfied with my break from the old grand daddy of gaming.



*Wednesdays have been in flux due to work, and as a result I've thrown out attempts to do Starfinder, D&D 5E, Swords & Wizardry, and probably others I can't remember, but none of them have grabbed my interest like I wanted, chiefly because all three are firmly rooted in well-trod territory that I am frankly burned out on. And Starfinder is cool, but trapped in Pathfinder rules, even if they are streamlined a bit....playing Starfinder just makes me think of ways to use the setting with Cypher System, a game that could actually let that universe open up to its possibilities, rather than the procedurally dull Pathfinder rules.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

On The Masks of Nyarlathotep and other Gigantic Campaigns


I am just now diving in to this, having picked it up --like-- an hour ago, but just wanted to comment that this is a monster of a tome. Like...huge. Two massive volumes of campaign plus a folio of what looks like more than a hundred glossy, full color hand outs and a custom Keeper's Screen.

I dream of running this campaign, but I also dream of having lots of free time, a prerequisite for the former, so who knows if I'll ever get to do more than read through it. Still, this is a really impressive looking tome, and some serious effort went in to making this the definitive edition of Masks of Nyarlathotep.

This seems to be a book that is part of a trend, though....is it just me, or is this an increasingly common thing? By thing, I mean the periodic and distinct manifestation of gigantic, immense, almost overwhelimgly large scenario books, featuring campaigns that test the memory of the GM, the attention span of the players, and the will of humanity to survive an experience longer than a Steven Erikson or Robert Jordan epic novel series.

Examples I have on my shelf include:

D&D's Waterdeep (Dragon Heist and Dungeon of the Mad Mage)

13th Age's Eyes of the Stone Thief

Traveller's Pirates of Drinax and The Great Rift

And now Call of Cthulhu's Masks of Nyarlathotep

I have others, but these all stand out by volume, weight, and sheer audacity.

So one thought I have is that some of this is a throwback to the old days of boxed campaign sets, but with the modern disposition toward excessive word count and minutiae in design. Where once a boxed set might have some handouts, maps, and three books usually of 32, 64 and maybe 96 or so pages, now we have multiple hard cover tomes and accessories, often totalling hundreds of dollars in cost. See Invisible Sun for a fine example.

Maybe some of this is spinning off from the dominion of board games? Board games often command significantly more money for a boxed set, then yet more for supplements....or maybe it's the manifestation of the Kickstarter, which often heaps a metric ton of additional goodies into the mix, leading to an escalation of content. Never mind that the books I list above were not purchased from Kickstarters, and I'm not even sure if they were Kickstarted....but it certainly could make sense.

In the end, I'm not really bitching (um, much), there remain plenty of shorter campaigns and modules for all such games. But....it's interesting seeing this trend toward expansive, elaborate and lengthy campaign scenario books, designed to take a great deal of time. I could argue that I wish I had the time to read and run these, but then I am reminded of an important fact: I have never really had this time to run such a monster of a module. Indeed, the last time I attempted (and even succeeded in doing so) was the much smaller and more focused (relatively speaking) Return to the Tomb of Horrors for AD&D 2nd edition, many many years ago.

The irony of this rant sounding like an old gamer complaining about new trends is not lost on me...ah well, plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

Sunday, January 6, 2019

Observations about Fantasy AGE in Actual Play


We've played a couple sessions of Fantasy AGE now, and as you know there's nothing like actual play to spot some rules oddities!

Here's what we've noticed so far:

No Unarmed or Martial Arts Rules

Yes, it turns out Basic and Companion rules don't really provide a set of rules for unarmed combat, grappling, or anything else. You can houserule (as I did) but apparently this is not something that went unrecognized as an issue, since I see martial artists are a thing in Modern AGE.

The good news is, you can probably port the Modern Age martial arts rules over to Fantasy AGE easily.

(EDIT: there is an unarmed skill that plays off Accuracy, and a damage value for fists....so it's not bereft entirely, but that's it. So when in game session one player wanted to throw down and disarm a foe it was entirely improv at that point.)

Health Point Inflation is Still A Thing (but...the Companion)

Okay, the problem here is dependent on subjective notions of what sort of damage you are dealing against a target, and what that target can soak. It also depends on what the GM's expectation is on how to build an encounter. Fantasy AGE provides loose rules on this, but after yet another game where I threw a batch of average difficulty monsters against the players I (yet again) felt that weird sensation that combat was going on too long.

Admittedly, we had 8 players against 18 orcs, so you might say, "what did you expect!?!?" but hear me out. I'd expect a combat like this to take a long time (and prove lethal) in Mythras. It would reasonably take an hour or so for D&D 5E, and I am sure it would take a similar amount of time in Cypher System. But Fantasy AGE's session ran about 3.5 hours for one combat, and that's not even with much downtime from people refreshing or learning the rules. Most of it was with the fact that the system, as currently designed, defaults to health points which are definitely inflated beyond "normal" limits. By this I mean: there's an expectation that if a sword strikes you for a lot of damge, you should have a reasonable chance of being killed in one hit. Mythras does this as the core conceit. D&D does this as levels 1-3 for most battles, and then escalates damage (and hit points) as you advance. Fantasy AGE? It seems impossible even with a 6 on the stunt die to do enough damage to take out a foe in one hit at starter levels and health without the GM deliberately reducing health. You either use a minions rule to cut health in half, or use the Companions book to modify how health and/or damage works.

For this test campaign I wanted to run the system straight up, first, to see how it felt in default mode. The experience has been that the only way to assume orcs and other 30+ health point monsters function is that they are really, really tough.

Whether this is a problem or not depends on what you expect a game to run like when a fight like this pops up. For some, this is fine. For others....it's a tedious length of time for what is supposed to be a shorter fight. I guess that's why the Companion offers up a bevy of alternative rules to make health or combat shorter and deadlier.

Given the Health Totals Magic Seems Really Weak

This impression may change with time, but right now, given most arcana don't have more than four spells in Basic (and maybe a few more in the Companion), the spell progression feels like a system built around the equivalent of 1st to 2nd level magic in D&D. There are insanely few examples of what I would call "role play" or non combat spells, but very few spells that are frankly all that impressive. Except penetration spells. Those are badass, even if they do minimal damage, because armor points are a bitch in this game!

Try buying an animal or a horse

Just try! You can do it in Dragon Age RPG, but somehow despite having a very comprehensive equipment list, and even having mounted and flying combat rules, Fantasy AGE is still missing purchasing costs for mounts and animals. Given that the equipment section in the book is clearly derived from the one in Dragon Age, it feels like more of a glitch and omission in error and less choice or oversight.

....Okay, my observations for now. I plan to run this at least 1-3 more sessions but I am debating pausing the game and just accepting Cypher System as my God of Games forevermore. ALso, maybe, tempted to talk everyone into trying Symbaroum next....!

Thursday, January 3, 2019

Deathbat's Computer Gaming Predictions for 2019


This list falls in to two categories: the first is "industry changes" I want to predict (for fun). The second is "my own habits" I want to predict (also for fun). Here goes!

Industry Predictions for 2019:

1. Epic Games will get some legs

Steam has been dominating the PC marketplace online for a decade and a half. It has in the last five or six years become well known for being an immense pit of despair when it comes to shopping for games, thanks to a series of increasingly poor policies on what games they would allow on their platform; short version is; too much garbage, and too hard to sort through to find the gems. They have in recent months gone to great lengths to try and refine their store....but I suspect for many it is too little, too late.

So with that in mind, Epic Games now has its own game store, and while it a bit anemic it does have some gems. More importantly, it has Fortnite for PC, and is therefore essentially already installed on millions of PCs. I've already grabbed the free copy of Subnautica and will likely look to future purchases depending on how things develop. Epic is poised to conveniently be a major contender to Steam right out the gate, all thanks to Fortnite. Remember when Steam ended up on all PCs thanks to Half Life 2? Yep.

2. The Next Call of Duty will have a Campaign 

The rationale is that Activision wouldn't have more than one of its three studios developing CoD games try a Battle Royale mode, and that they also would be suspicious that this isn't just a fad right now, or possibly that they are too late to market. Therefore, based on their traditional design schedule, I predict that the next Call of Duty from Infinity Ward will probably be a conventional offering with a campaign, and also I bet it's either a sequel to Modern Warfare or Ghosts (shudder). Probably the former.

3. Bioware will announce a new Mass Effect or Dragon Age game this year.

This doesn't seem far-fetched, but I bet when they announce it the reveal will include a lot of apologetic marketing to appease the disenfranchised fans and also that the actual release date will coincide with the next generation release of game consoles.

4. Fortnite will be replaced by some new hotness......in 2020

We'll see the manifestations of this sometime in 2019, and Fortnite will continue to do fine, having captured it's market share, but I have a seven year old in the house and I can see how this sort of thing works; the millions of kids playing Fortnite will eventually get tired of it and force their parents to find some other video game to babysit them. You'll know Fortnite has descended to the realm of "popular has-been" when the twitch streamers start playing As Yet Unreleased Hotness X.

(Yeah this might contradict prediction #1 above but I say no! The new hotness could after all manifest on Epic's own platform).

5. There will be a new Alien Game announcement (and possible release) this year

The official channels are hinting at it, but unlikely we will see a movie release until Disney finishes carving up Fox's corpse, so I bet the hints are about new tie-in material, including a game. A game has been mentioned in 2018 titled Alien Blackout, but I bet thanks to CoDBlops4's mode they will have a different title when it is properly announced.

6. Ubisoft may actually give Assassin's Creed a break this year

This actually seems unlikely to me, but if Odyssey didn't sell well then I get they give a two year hiatus to the franchise again to let it rejuvinate a bit....and with any luck they fill that gap with a new Watch Dogs game (but I predict that won't happen....maybe by March 2020?)

7. Another obscure corner of gaming from around 1998-2005 will come back in style

Here's the rationale: as computer and video gamers move into their early thirties they tend to start pining nostalgically for the games they loved in their formative years. This is a similar phenomenon to what happens in tabletop, but I don't think tabletop gamers start doing this until their forties or fifties (when the kids are off to college, usually)....but video games ellicit a different response, especially for thirty-somethings who suddenly find that their dexterity, time, and ability to dedicate dozens of hours a week to gaming are all on the wane. Usually, a baby is in the mix and the desperation is for a game, some game --any game-- to play between diaper changes. The Switch understands this!

But the current crop of thirty-somethings in 2019 were around age 10-15 during their formative period, which was dominated by PS1, Dreamcast, early Xbox and Nintendo64. At least part of the current trend is to pop out retro consoles, usually in miniature (easy to hide/store in apartment) filled with memory-laden titles. Sony recently released and semi-botched their own effort, but not really; this is the generation that started with polygon-based gaming that looked amazing for its time, but has aged incredibly poorly (and quickly). As a result, they want to play games like they remember......but they will also want it to look better.

Most subgenres and types of gaming from 20 years ago are still around....so what game type is due for a revival? My suggestion: Myst and Riven style games! We've had a lull in pixel bitchers for a while, and the current trend is for very user friendly titles ala the late Telltale Games' titles. I bet we start to see a new crop of "Souls Like" Myst-inspired titles soon.

(Out there, but if there's one trend you can always predict in gaming it's that diehard subculture that needs games to punish them or they can't tell if they are having fun!)

Consider that last one my "really weird prediction."

Now for Deathbat's Personal Predictions:

1. I will finally catch up on Assassin's Creed games. I will complete Syndicate, Odyssey and Origins in some order at last. Unity's sour taste is at last out of my mouth.

2. I will enjoy The Divison 2 for a bit but will find it less endearing than the first if Ubisoft doesn't up the ante on the story component (which I bet it instead focuses on multiplayer).

3. I will buy the next Call of Duty because it adds the campaign back in, but then fails to innovate (so far only Infinite Warfare made any headway in innovation) and I will again feel had.

4. I'll be sick to death of Fortnite by March but will still play it with my son out of paternal duty.

5. I will finish The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, sometime this year. Possibly in the last week of December 2019....knowing how I roll....!

Maybe some movie predictions next!


Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Deathbat's New Years Gaming Resolutions for 2019


Here's my list!

1. Focus on putting a more serious tone in my games. And game maybe a bit less often, but aim for higher quality.

By this, I mean that I have finally determined that the reason I have enjoyed gaming less than I could in the last year or two is that I have less time to prep for it, and also my burn out manifested in the form of what I might call "too many tropes, and too much meta." If I am seeing too many tropes, and feeling the meta within my games, it means I am not finding the time to make them more interesting, and less "trope-y" or less meta.

You might ask what I mean by that, and I could devote a whole post to such, but in the short version:
Too Many Tropes - I find myself leaning on the same cliched and tired content to fill in gaps when I have not had enough time to prep for the week. Another wandering monster encounter with "insert here" or yet another classic dungeon delve designed to soak up the evening without enough care and consideration into the plot = tired, old tropes being used in place of good content.
Too Meta - this is harder to work on, but in theory if I am working on better story content with fewer tropes then meta elements become less prevalent, too. Meta means I am GMing from the context of the game as an experience in itself, and less from the story or "character" arc of the tale; this could be to being too familiar with the content, or finding the rules to be too "in the way" of the experience. This is when I get that sense of ironic familiarity with a situation and can't resist reflecting on it, leading to a less serious effort at game tale telling. By focusing on a more serious, interesting tale I may be able to overcome this. I want games that feel like they used to: actual adventures, and less like they have: people killing time at the table with well worn and familiar cliches. To do this, I must focus on the narrative seriously, avoid the tropes, and commit to quality over quantity. Also, game systems which encourage new and interesting content are helpful, too.

2. Focus on games with I have found to be reliable time and again. For me this list is pretty simple:
BRP and Call of Cthulhu
Dungeons & Dragons (despite it being a hotbed of potential tropes and metagaming)
Traveller
Cypher System

Likewise, newer games on the rise may well contribute to this process. I expect to get a lot out of Over the Edge 3rd edition and Kult this year, for example. Fantasy AGE and Modern AGE continue to strike me as the kind of systems that move in the direction I want.

3. Focus less on games that do not prove so reliable, or which feed in to the tropes and metagaming.
Games such as Starfinder are awesome, but I concede that I never get far with it because it is the very definition of a setting and system that calls attention to itself and its own absurdity/mechanical contrivance. And I LIKE it! But fails for me anyway, because I can't quite reconcile what it offers with what I really want deep down inside, which is something more akin to Traveller or the Elite Dangerous RPG. Real SF, in other words. With limited time, I need to choose carefully, and not go for the tasty eye candy.

4. More family gaming.
This one is a no brainer! Gaming with my son and wife is proving more fun than ever.

....Okay, those are my gaming resolutions for 2019. We'll see if I stick to them!