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Most Recent RPG Played — #RPGaDay2015, Day 6

Sadly, this particular day is the easiest entry in the whole schema thus far.  Most of this has to do with the fact that I’ve been languishing in something of a limbo since I moved, stranded without any semblance of a solid gaming group as I settle into the new house.  Granted, the old group that I had held together for several years finally started drifting apart, so I was going to be faced with this dilemma anyway.  This sort of thing seems to happen on a periodic basis, just because people tend to shift in and out based on work and school, but it doesn’t make regular groups any easier to keep solid.

As such, instead of the two to four groups I used to run with in a given week, I’m down to one.  Occasionally, we’ll get a second session in, for a different game, but it’s not terribly consistent.

Most Recent RPG Played

Oddly, this happens to be for a game that I hadn’t been terribly interested in, initially.  One of our crew picked up the latest iteration of Outbreak: Undead last year at Gen Con, the stand-alone book for Outbreak Deep Space.  He tends to be a fan of zombie games in general, with a prodigious All Flesh Must Be Eaten collection (one of the few systems that most people own more of than I do) and a scattering of others.

I should note that the new Outbreak edition is coming out shortly, with Pandemic Organized Play system.  It’s a bit like the old Infiniverse newsletters that WEG used to do for Torg, with some interesting tweaks.  The new edition looks amazing, with a lot of solid refinements that will move the game forward nicely.

Anyway, Outbreak Deep Space is a fascinating system, being as I was largely unfamiliar with anything of the original system in the first place.  It uses a percentile system, which is nothing unusual in its own right, but it really starts to get innovative with the Descriptor system.  Descriptors run along the same lines as Tags in Fate, where certain qualities of a person’s equipment or background can come into play in different ways.

Consider a character that has spent time in the military.  Along their career progression, they’ve picked up some bits of knowledge about firearms, the ability to weather harsh conditions, and a certain amount of tactical knowledge.  In play, the character can draw on certain Descriptors to help them in other tasks.  The firearms knowledge, for example, can be used as a static value that can add to their actual shooting skill, as well as rolls to recognize certain models of pistol or rolls to effect repairs to their weaponry.  The Descriptors aren’t tied to a specific roll, instead being able to be used in relevant situations.

Being a zombie game, at its heart, there is a lot of focus on certain tactical decisions within the game, such as how well the characters equip themselves and what sort of strongholds they employ to gain some measure of safety against the undead hordes.  In space, this comes in the form of the starships that come into play, which can serve as more broadly universal facilities than buildings might in a normal, contemporary Outbreak game.

There are some rough edges to this edition, to be sure, but there seems to be some movement toward a revision and update of this edition, moving toward more setting specific game lines.  (These are the things you learn when you can actually track down and bend the ear of the designer themselves.)

The other games that I’ve been involved with lately (though not as recently as the Outbreak game) are Star Wars by Fantasy Flight and Pathfinder.  We’ve sort of rolled a lot of the different aspects of the FFG line of games into one central whole, with my character, a Falleen Jedi, alongside an Ewok marauder and a murderbot.  There’s a lot of Edge of the Empire and Age of Rebellion aspects being bandied about, making the game a proper gestalt.  Eventually, I would love to see a comprehensive edition of this game that incorporates all three game lines into a single line, but I can understand why they split it into separate books.  If nothing else, the Jedi rules needed more time to distill and tweak.  They’re easily the largest headache for any designer.

Somewhere, it has been said that the ultimate purpose of all role-playing games and systems is to be able to create Jedi within the rules.  I can’t argue this.  As such, when it’s part of the oblique purpose, you have to be able to do it correctly in the end result.

I’ve also had occasion to play Pathfinder, but that’s less of a revelation and more of an admission that I still game with normal gamers here and there.  I’m hoping there will be opportunity for a larger, more dedicated game to be run (one put together and run by someone else for a change, I would hope), but that’s hinging on greater logistics than I can wield at the moment.  Too many balls in the air and all that implies.

Going forward, the games I would love to be able to play occupy a much more fanciful niche.  I’d like to see a longer, more involved game with the Unisystem rules, like Conspiracy X or possibly All Flesh Must Be Eaten perhaps.  The few times I’ve sat down to play Unisystem, I’ve enjoyed it, but they’ve been few and far between.  There’s also the Cipher System, which includes Numenera and The Strange, neither of which I’ve been able to find in any of my gaming groups.

And finally, I’ve been looking to some future point where I might be able to either run or play something using one of Green Ronin’s non-D20 systems, either AGE System or Chronicle System, which run Dragon Age and Song of Ice and Fire, respectively.  I’ve run a couple of sessions with ASoIaF, here and there, and I’ve liked everything about it, but all of the sessions have been distressingly short-lived.  The backstory and world-building that the game implies have been spectacularly solid in the sessions I’ve run, but nothing ever lasts beyond a couple of sessions, for one reason or another.

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Using the wrong game for the right story

I had intended this as an aside in my previous post about Green Ronin’s A Song of Ice and Fire RPG, but it occurred to me that I might as well spend a little more time on the idea and give it a little space to breathe, in case someone wanted to emulate my ideas overall.

As noted, there’s already a game system in place for running games set in George R. R. Martin’s world, replete with fantastic rules for intrigues, all manner of setting details and plot hooks, and a solid system to work everything with.  But since this is a relatively recent thing, I’d already given time and motion to a back-up system.  Go figure.  I started reading the books back in 2003, and about halfway through the first one, I was already trying to figure out what sort of personal touches I would give a game, were I to run the saga in some way.

At its heart, Game of Thrones is a war story, one that comes in the aftermath of two previous wars, the aftereffects of which have scarred the main characters heavily.  Robert sits upon the Iron Throne only because he was forced by the events of the previous war to take control.  Ned serves Robert because his loyalties to his family and his fostered brother demand that he must.  He is forced out of retirement, into a viper’s nest of courtly intrigues and vicious plots, because he knows that it’s the only way to keep the peace.  He’s one of the greatest swordsmen Westeros has ever seen, but he’s stuck in the midst of a number of entangling conspiracies without a way to cut himself free.  And he sticks with it, not because he’s got any skill at dealing with this situation but because the alternatives are too awful to consider.  And we discover that, no matter one’s noble intentions, even heroes can get in over their heads.

We all know what happens then.  The great houses of Westeros rise in war, the tangled histories and alliances moving across the board to settle old scores and reinforce current loyalties.  Human pettiness drives many of the characters towards their own personal ruin, even as a supernatural threat in the north threatens the entirety of the continent.  And save for a few people, there’s very little concern about these legends.

Everything in Westeros is defined by which house a character owes their loyalty to, either by blood or by oath.  While there is an element of magic and the supernatural, most of the game works in a low fantasy milieu.  There are themes of honor and duty interwoven throughout the story, as motivations for several of the characters.

Naturally, the best game at the time to play this was the Legend of the Five Rings RPG.

At first blush, it’s a weird direction to take things, but it does make sense.  By moving the War of the Roses into a broad samurai epic, you end up with a very workable set-up.  The same themes of personal honor and one’s duty to one’s house remain intact, and the clans work as a solid interpretation of the houses of Westeros.  There’s plenty of system available in L5R to manage both the personal combat and the massive battles, and a war for the throne is one that’s played out multiple times in the established game fiction.  The only real difference, to be honest, is determining how much magic the GM wants to allow into the campaign.

What’s even more fun is that the clans allow for a solid one-to-one conversion in a lot of cases, with only minor bits of adjustment required to build things up correctly.  The Crab stand in for the Night’s Watch, guarding the land from a terrible threat that only they seem to take seriously.  The Lion are something of a gimme to stand in for the Lions of Casterly Rock, the Lannisters.  During their time of exile, the Unicorn stand as the rough, horse adapted barbarians – a clear analogue for the Dothraki.  With a little bit of adaptation, the Scorpion can work as the Dornishmen, and the Mantis could become the Ironborn.  And the Cranes allow for an expanded role for characters like Littlefinger and the Arryns.  Honestly, the only gaps in this conversion are what to do with the Dragon and Phoenix, and where to slot in Houses Stark and Baratheon.  Thematically, it would make sense to drop the Targaryens into Dragon, but that’s a whole lot more work to pull off, given the whole ‘house in exile’ motif that Daenerys has going for her.

From there, it just becomes a matter of filling in the history and building motivations for the individual characters in the game.  Fifteen years earlier, the elders of the clans rose up and overthrew the Hantei dynasty over a slight to the honor of one of the houses.  The few remaining scions of the dynasty fled to the Burning Sands, while a new Emperor was installed to rule over the Empire.  Some time later, a Mantis clan rebellion caused another minor war, and the clans rose again to bring them in line.  Since then, peace has held, more or less.

In the mean time, the last heir to the Hantei dynasty, convinced that the people of Rokugan eagerly await the return of their exiled ruler, has made alliances with the Unicorn clan, in exile as well, and prepare to march on the Empire.  And the Crane clan, sensing weakness in the distracted Emperor, has started a number of conspiracies to bend the Empire to their ends.  Meanwhile, the Crab clan has noted an army of the undead massing to overwhelm the wall, and they’ve dispatched a number of emissaries to the capital for assistance.  So far, they have been ignored, as the clans start to move towards war amongst themselves as old wrongs are starting to be settled.

Cue dramatic music, and toss the characters into the mix.  Each clan has its own agenda in the upcoming war, whether it happens to be an unavenged assassination during the previous war or a thwarted marriage recently.  Personally, I would start things off slowly, hinting at the simmering tensions and allowing the player characters to try their hands at unraveling the alliances and rivalries that are to form the basis of the war itself.

While they could all be members of a single clan that’s trying to pull apart the tangle of interwoven plots, it might not be a bad model to let the traditional L5R game model – characters of a scattering of clans – work in as well.  This would allow the players to be drawn into the larger plots under the directives of their clan elders, often putting them at odds with their own allies as they navigate the larger conflict.

This is one of those game ideas that I really, really like and doubt that I will ever get around to actually running.  I’ve got a substantial collection of Legend of the Five Rings RPG books, but it’s one of those game that I never really get around to running for myself.

Four thousand pages of source material

Game of Thrones started up on Sunday, bringing back the most pirated show on television.  I’ve been looking forward to this season, if only because it has the Red Viper, the medieval fantasy version of Boba Fett.  He’s awesome, flashy, and dies just about as soon as the audience gets enthused about him.  And more than likely, there’s a substantial amount of fan fiction about him somewhere.  I’ve specifically avoided looking.

I’m an old fan of the novels, having read all of them multiple times and encouraged all of my friends (and my mother) to read them, if only so we could talk about them.  I’d debated picking up the Guardians of Order tome back in the day, only to hold off because I didn’t figure that a D20 rules set would do it any justice.  At this point, the only reason I could see owning that edition would be for the sake of its collectibility.

In 2009, Green Ronin put out their version of the game, A Song of Ice and Fire RPG, with Robert Baratheon and Rhaegar Targaryen at the Ruby Ford on the cover.  It wasn’t the same image that I was using as computer wallpaper at the time, but it was close enough.  I perused the rules when I first had the chance, and it was a pretty easy sell.  I picked the game up when I found it at the right price.

On the surface, the game system isn’t radically different than early D6, with elements of Roll and Keep.  The attributes range from one to six (actually up to eight, but that’s the unlikely end of things), which give a dice pool for actions, and any skills underneath these attributes end up working like bonus dice.  Everything is based on d6 rolls, with negative dice for the various penalties.  Unlike many systems, these negative dice merely bump the number of kept dice down, rather than reducing the number of rolled dice.

Character creation is based generally on the age of the character.  Younger characters have less in the way of initial starting experience, but they’re given more Destiny Points to work with.  Where experience is used to buy up skills and attributes, Destiny is used for special abilities and boosting rolls.  It’s assumed that a party of characters in the setting will include a wide variety of characters, so the age factor is considered fairly crucial.  The archetypes for the pre-generated characters includes an array of young and old, from the Young Adult Heir and Noble builds to the Middle Aged Scout and Hedge Knight ones.

It’s an interesting nuance that is brought forth in the context of the game.  Games like Dungeons & Dragons and the like make an assumption that starting characters are relatively young, given that they haven’t advanced very far in their careers.  Since starting experience is tied to age, this game allows you to build an aged maester that can work alongside the fifteen year old noble.  It doesn’t really address how these characters are supposed to adventure together, necessarily, but it’s a start towards building some diversity in the group.

One of the elements that really sets the game apart from others of its type is the section on creating your own noble house for the campaign.  Handled through a series of d6 rolls, the rules allow your group to work through the long history of their house’s founding and setbacks through the many ages.  Each region (the North, the Reach, Dorne, etc.) offers different bonuses and penalties, and with a long enough history, the houses can rise and fall through the ages.  It gives the game a fantastic flavor, overall, and it’s pretty fun to work through the fortunes of a couple of houses (a powerful enough house needs to have banner houses rolled up as well) to get a feel for it.  Depending on the rolls, this system can determine how much influence one’s house has, how great the castle is, and the type of armies it can raise as needed.

This section is ridiculously in-depth, as far as the details for customizing your characters’ house go.  It even contains a proper Heraldry section, so the most minute details of the coat of arms can be designed.  This actually turns into a very strange downside, however, and one that I cannot, in good conscience, blame Green Ronin for.  With all of the work they put into heraldic design for the game, there’s no very good way for this to be utilized without having an artist in your gaming group.  When I got all fired up about the coat of arms for the different houses in my games, I went online to mock up a few of them.  And apparently, there aren’t any DIY heraldry designers that are nearly as well done as the system in the book.  At least none that carry the same level of detail.  So while I may have wanted to make up pictorial representations of the different allied and rival houses for my game, there wasn’t much I could do.

The next section after the House Creation rules is the Intrigue section, which outlines what amounts to being the Social Combat system for the game.  This sets a lot of tone, right out of the gate for this game.  Proceeding from the Introduction and Primer on Westeros towards the back of the book, we’ve dealt with basic game rules, a couple of sections on character creation, house creation, and now social combat.  Actual combat isn’t covered until the next chapter, and it’s immediately followed with the section on full-scale warfare.  It’s a lot more important for the scope of the game to be able to deal with the plots and intrigues that surround the character than it is to deal with actual physical combat.  And given the source material, this is how it should be.

It’s also telling that, even though I’ve run a number of sessions, I don’t honestly recall the intricacies of social combat from a quick skim.  Given a closer read of things, I’d be back on top of it, but Green Ronin made sure to keep the rules complex enough to offer a wide variety of options for the players.  (I’ve never seen rules complexity as being a downfall of a game, per se, but it is a bad thing when the GM can’t make sense of things.)  It also has one of the best defenses for a character losing in Social Combat – if all else fails, you can avoid being influenced simply by stabbing your opponent.  The game does note that you’ll suffer all manner of negative consequences, but it’s still an option.

The GM section finishes out the book, noting that while the default assumption for the game is that it’s going to be run around the same time as the books or TV series, there are a number of interesting alternatives for the ambitious GM.  My favorites are the ‘Game of Thrones’ and the ‘Historical’ variants.  In the first, the players make their own houses for the game, and set into motion the requisite plots and intrigues, likely during the timeframe of the novels.  Each player is responsible for a multitude of different characters, based on the influence of the House itself, most of which are important people within the house.  The second one, the ‘Historical’ variant, places the game somewhere in the history of Westeros, so that they’re not stepping on the plots of the novels.  Both of these styles of play allow the players to make characters whose destinies will have the same sort of weight as the characters in the books, which is something that I would personally want in any game I played.