Wednesday, December 7, 2016

The Year in Horror RPGs 2015 (Part Two: Outbreak: Undead to Witch: Fated Souls)

If I’m feeling especially brave I try to do an assessment of genre trends with these lists. But 2015 proves strikingly resistant to that. Sure we had several zombie games, but it didn’t feel like a shovelware flood. We had some strong small press or indie titles (Ten Candles, Urban Shadows, Witch). But we also had some veterans return (Chill, Apocalypse Prevention, Inc). We even had FFG dip its toes into the horror rpg waters (The End of the World series). There’s a ton of good stuff, but nothing that I can point to and go “That was the year of X.”

But even when I go to my default horror barometer, horror films, I don’t see a trend. We had big studio horror (Crimson Peaks, Poltergist, The Visit); comedy horror (Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse, Final Girls), found-footage (Vatican Tapes, Paranormal Activity: Ghost Dimension), sequels (Sinister 2, Insidious: Chapter 3), anthologies (Christmas Horror Story, Tales of Halloween). But a stand-out film? I’m not sure. Perhaps The Witch, and even that seemed to split reviewers as to how strong it was. Even television seems to have managed to cater to a variety of horror tastes (Scream Queens, The Strain, American Horror Story, Penny Dreadful).

Your sense of 2015 in horror? Good? Bad? Indifferent?

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For this list I’ve focused on major releases, arbitrarily determined. I’ve usually added it if it has a hard-copy version. I’ve judged pdfs on size and utility. For the list items I include core rules, significant sourcebooks, and large campaigns. I’ve split this list into two parts, at the end of the second part you’ll find grouped entries for some other sourcebooks and modules. You’ll also notice an absence of Cthulhu horror on this list- those will get their own post. If you see something major from 2015 I’ve missed in this half of the alphabet, give me a heads up. 

Outbreak: Undead moves back to classic zombies from the company's foray into generic sci-fi horror (Outbreak: Space). If you’ve read the first half of the list, you’ll note this is the third game using cards. These aren't integral to play and come in three flavors: encounters, character trait, and injury reference cards. The encounter cards also include survivors so you can pick one of those and play right away. Optionally you can take an online quiz, the “SPEW AI,” and generate a version of yourself It focuses on the survivor and survival side of things. You need to track your resources and handle encumbrance. In this regard it leans more to the Walking Dead side: life in the aftermath. OB:UD doesn't focus on backstory, instead it assumes you have that in mind. ("Zombies are here. What's next?"). It uses abilities and skills to form dice pools. While Outbreak: Undead looks simple, there's an array graphic icons and color coding in the rules, as well as the use of d5's.

I didn't like the messy, collage-filled graphic approach of OB:UD first edition, but this new version cleans that up. The 2e pocket edition is much easier to read. While you can't turn off the layers in the pdf, the page backgrounds aren't too intrusive. Overall it feels like a much stronger game with significant changes to the mechanics.

An Italian horror rpg which translates as "Toyland." It's written by the designers of Sine Requie: Anno XIII, a weird World War II zombie horror game. In fact this seems to be a weird creepy doll side setting within that world. Here's the loosely translated blurb: "On June 6, 1944, the world sank into the darkest of hells. On Judgment Day the Dead began hunting mankind ... but in another place, where imagination reigns, those who are puppets in the world dominated by Dead, live their lives and their adventures. Here you will find heroic knights, bears with funny hats on his head, powerful witches and graceful ladies with their parasols of lace."

RPGGeek lists it as zombie horror. But it looks more like a kids' perspective horror game- like Grimm or Monsters & Other Childish Things.

GURPS may have ruined us for generic system names. P.E.R.K. (written with all those periods throughout) stands for "Pretty Easy Roleplaying Kit." It's a universal corebook released with their urban horror setting as the default. P.E.R.K.’s a dice pool game with options for tactical tracking. So far they've only released these two books plus a microsetting: Hollywood Ninja. Oddly you can't buy the UH book separately right now on DriveThru, you can only get it in a bundle with the core book.

PERK Urban Horror follows the Monster PC path ala World of Darkness. It has a mature content warning on the back, a blurb, and some goth poetry. There's about eight pages of setting material, with the rest being mechanical material (perks, skills, gear, abilities), GM advice (six pages), and antagonists (16 pages). While it wears a sense of WoD on its sleeve, it doesn't reference those in its inspirations section.

So apparently there's a long-running comic called Phineus: Magician for Hire. Currently it's a webcomic, though the header says the company's been providing "Pittsburgh's Best Paranormal Comics" for 25 years. This game's written by the creator. Originally titled Backwaters of Mysticism (2010), this new edition increases the size fourfold. There's a nice quote from the author on his website, "Ironically John and my own RPG doesn’t have a world. We created it so that it would fit into any world you wanted it to...Many of my Phineus stories came from those games. Rugnar and Maynard are both characters I played in Backwaters. The Kali Saga was based on a campaign run by John, in which I played Brother Maynard. And yes, he did get squished in that one, too."

The game itself is OGL based (or as the book says "Requires the use of a Roleplaying Game Core Book published by Wizards of the Coast, Inc.") Oddly DriveThru lists it as using BRP from Chaosium. The rules themselves feel very rough, like a home campaign resource document assembled for players. There’s no table of contents, it jumps in without ref to the source rules, and has no page numbers. Phineus assumes a good deal of gaming knowledge. The layout's pretty basic a bar boxing in the single-column text and a greyscale background.

A new edition of Rippers, revised for Savage Worlds: Reloaded. The highly successful Kickstarter allowed them several additional releases. I've reviewed the original Rippers and summed that up this way: "A solid and unique take on Victoriana horror, Rippers manages to smartly combine the Gothic horror tradition with the trappings and worries of steampunk. Here science offers new ways to combat the darkness facing the world, but at a horrible cost to mind and body. Biotech and implants of a cyberpunk style game become limbs and organs harvested from monsters and implanted into hunters. The whole thing is well developed and presented. It has some material on the Victorian world, but mostly sets up the campaign ideas and concepts."

The new edition keeps that up, but with a new look, new art, and a more graphically intense page design (I hope you can turn off layers...). It looks very cool. It makes me both regret not backing the KS and not digging Savage Worlds more. The main material's broken into a Player's Guide and Game Master's Handbook. They've released several supplements: Frightful Expeditions (more on the setting), Lord of the Underworld (module), and various pdf incidental pieces. You can also buy a bundle of original Rippers for a quite nice price.

A sci-fi horror rpg, Shadows Over Sol embraces both the old and the new in theming and design. On the one hand we have issues of transhumanism, networking, and constructed cultures on the table. On the other we have a dense thirteen pages of setting history as a roadblock for new players. Shadows Over Sol threw me off right away. The introduction seems to set up a very specific and concrete backdrop for the game. A colony ship travelling from Mars to Ceres has problems. The crew’s divided politically and fighting breaks out. That failed mutiny damages the ship, but it limps to its destination. But it finds only dead comms at the landing site. The survivors stagger out into an empty station, perhaps to discover alien horrors lurking there.

OK, cool. I like the tight framing. We’re going to be crewmembers trying to survive and figure out what happened.

But that’s not what we get. Instead the game’s much broader. We switch gears to grand scale themes of space-faring, discussions of the solar system history, and a presentation of all the conflicting cultures. It’s a weird shift. Shadows Over Sol resembles Eclispe Phase, a broad sci-fi game which can be used to tell horror stories. SoS puts horror on the cover, but it doesn’t feel like that needs to be the case. It’s a general sci-fi setting and system. Despite citing notable sci-fi horror sources (The Thing, Europa Report, The Void) , the book only provides a handful of pages actually addressing how to use the game for those kinds of stories.

Also, it’s the fourth game on these lists to use cards.

Shane Hensley, creator of Deadlands, returns to Wild West horror with his rpg adaptation of the Oni Press comic, The Sixth Gun. Built for Savage Worlds, the Kickstarter pitch stressed the compatibility of this material with Deadlands.

I’d never heard of The Sixth Gun series. If you haven’t either, here’s the wikipedia synopsis, “The Sixth Gun takes place in the old west, shortly after the end of the Civil War. The story centers around a set of six pistols, each imbued with dark powers. The wielder of each pistol gains an ability unique to that weapon, and is tied to the pistol until his or her death.” The comic itself ran fifty issues, supplemented by a bunch of spin-off mini-series. Clocking in at about a hundred pages, The Sixth Gun rpg offers new edges, hindrances, artifacts, and optional rules. We’ve seen some licensed rpgs lean into the mechanics and others acting more as sourcebooks. The Sixth Gun falls somewhere in the middle.

Originally I'd placed this on my forthcoming "Year in Cthulhu" list. But when I referenced it in an online conversation, someone corrected me. They said Silent Legions wasn't a Cthulhu game, but instead literally Lovecraft-esque. A quick read-though of the preview got me to order a hard copy. As with the other Kevin Crawford rpg I hit this year, Godbound, Silent Legions hit a sweet spot for me: a toolkit for generating sweeping rpg adventures, backed up by interesting detail and a fully-fleshed system.

Silent Legions has several distinct but interlocking parts. It begins with an OSR-style ruleset for horror investigations. It's clean and simple, offering four classes (Investigator, Scholar, Socialite, Tough). These rules take up the first couple dozen pages. That even includes tight equipment lists, encumbrance, and madness systems. Crawford's distilled down what you need to play at this level of detail. As a plus, the OSR's tissue-paper characters fit here, overmatched by the horrors they face.

After the basic rules, we get a classic PC-destructive magic and psychics system. Here Silent Legions unveils its big trick: plentiful resources to help GMs tune those elements. The "Creating Dark Sorcery" section has random tables to create mind-blasting arcana. It's useful for any modern supernatural investigation game.

The same holds true for the tools on offer in the rest of the book. In the chapter on Creating Your Mythos, you build your cosmic horror-- from elder gods to alien races to cults. You can generate something echoing Lovecraft but unfamiliar to the player and characters. The tables hold together. I've seen table books that lack coherency. Crawford connects the material and offers rich examples for each section. You see the same skill in the Building Your World, Cults, and Bestiary sections.

The book's capped with a GM grab-bag optional rules and re-frames. That includes my favorite: “Luchadores Against Cthulhu.” It also has notes on Freemasonry, a tables for secret adepts, school settings, and more. It discusses how to use Silent Legions with other games. If you like OSR then this game will work for you. But even if you don't it's worth picking up. Anyone running Call of Cthulhu, Fear Itself, Hunter, Monster of the Week, or similar games will find useful resources here. Highly recommended.

The world's ending. You're survivors trying to eke out a last few minutes, hours, days. You're going to fail. Your candle will be snuffed out. That’s the game.

Yikes may be the understatement of the blog.

What kinds of horror can you evoke at the table? Dread, as in the eponymous Dread with its terrible anticipation at the table? Cosmic horror, perhaps? A nihilistic reaction to things more massive and uncaring? Shock horror done with blood and gut?. Its sibling body horror or revulsion ? Jump Scares? Perhaps even the subtle horror of the uncanny as seen in some fantastic stories?

And then there's Ten Candles’ existential horror. You're not monsters dealing with your inhumanity. You're people. I don't know if I could handle this game. I don't know what kind of bleed I'd have, especially given the current climate.

My description doesn’t do it justice. If you want to read an excellent explanation and review, check out this post at Bluestocking's Organic Gaming.

A horror/slasher film-esque rpg; it’s generic but with a particular gory tone. Trick or Treat has a basic layout and look, complete with blood splatter page elements (at the top and bottom, not under the text...mostly). It opens with game fiction you have to wade through. The system’s percentile-based using skill and point buy. The blurb touts quick character generation as a feature. Sometimes I let a game’s ad copy do the tlaking, "While watching a horror movie it occurs to some that they could do better. Trick or treat is the game that puts you in that seat and gives you the chance to live up to those words. Can you really make better decisions or is it all talk? Can you play the ROLE and still trick the classic monsters or will you become their treat?" Publisher Trooper X has released a couple of other rpgs: Space Cadet Alpha, Ancient Steel, and Ancient Steel Horror. If you know one of those, you may have better insight into this game.

While we had a horde of zombies on the first half of this list, only this one shambles into view here. TROPES is intended to be a new basic system, and it launches with this Z-themed product. It's a light, d6-driven game. Characters have three stats (muscle, agility, wits), a background/ profession, and a descriptive sentence. A character's background gives a die bonus for related tasks. Those mechanics only take up the first 16 pages. It's pretty conventional, though I like the concept of exceptional rolls giving you the equivalent of fate points. TROPES: ZE does have good simple toolkit for building an outbreak. That's a decent resource and I'd like to see more of that. That's followed by NPCs, some zombie listings, and inspirational sources. TROPES: Zombies offers a quick, simple zombie game. If you like Z-horror and want something you can get to the table quickly, it fits. If you're curious about it, there's an artless PWYW version available. Small Niche Games has also released a companion and a scenario.

27. Tupilak
Sometimes I include things because I have no idea what they are. This is a Finnish rpg. RPGGeek has this translation for the back cover:

"Tupilak - The game of arctic death
Place: Greenland island in the North some hundreds of years ago
Players: Inuit shamans with strong sorcerous knowledge
Goal: Eliminate others as conveniently and surely as possible
Difficulty: Long distance, difficulty to move out of sight, everyone knows everyone.
Solution: Tupilak

Create Tupilak. Summon a spirit into it. Strengthen it with spells. Say the name of the target. Send it on it's way...

Tupilak is extremely easy, quick and exciting "party game", in which you only need this rule book, couple of regular dice, pen and paper."

The cover is properly weird.

My work's vanilla, so I rarely get angry commentators. One of the few objected to my inclusion of Mage: the Ascension on my Horror rpg lists. They had a point- while Mage existed in the World of Darkness, it didn't necessarily live in that darkness. My Mage did, but YWODMV. It's one of the problems I hit with horror in particular. At what point does a "supernatural" game become horror? If you're of a certain age you've probably seen someone's Vampires as superbeings campaign. Let's say monsters don't mean horror, then what are they?

Which brings me to Urban Shadows: Political Urban Fantasy. Is it horror? Well, YUSMV. I first heard it pitched as “World of Darkness done with PbtA.” And they're right, but a very particular kind of WoD. There beings of multiple fantastic origins struggle for control, authority, or survival in a dark city. Urban Shadows does that campaign well. Everything supports that. Debts and relationships create network between players. The urban backdrop emerges through play. A vast and spidery web of NPCs expands session after session. It clicks. Even in the one shot I played it worked and felt compelling.

Each player chooses a playbook belonging to one of the four factions (Mortality, Night, Power, and Wild). You have several choices within each one (Hunter, Wolf, Oracle, Fae). Character creation involves defining a circle and develop an agenda. While the players connect, they're not on the same side. Call in debt from a fellow PC and they might use that to shiv you. The PvP's strong here, something many PbtA games steer away from. But you don't necessarily want to destroy your fellow PCs. You only advance by interacting with each of the factions, and they’re often your access to those worlds.

Urban Shadows has some horror trappings: the monstrous nature of the players, the kinds of threats facing the city, and most importantly the slow spiral into corruption. It shares WoD’s focus on personal horror. It comes from overstepping the bounds you've set for yourself. Urban Shadows delivers those opportunities to fall. It's a good game and worth picking up for anyone who digs urban fantasy or horror. Even if PbtA isn't your bag, you may find interesting tools for politics within other games.

I've seen lots of love-letters to World of Darkness on these lists. It's always a pleasure when those demonstrate an appreciation for the source, but then create striking elements & head in new directions. Witch is one of those good rpgs. It stands solidly on its own, but echoes older games. It’s not imitative, but works in the same play-space to create a new experience.

In Witch you play a user of magic. Like Mage: The Awakening or Ars Magica it focuses on the trials, tribulations, and development of your character's interaction with the mystic. But here you gain power by making a deal with a demon. These demons come in many forms, drawn to different kinds of recipients. The powers they grant vary- giving us archetypes, called "Fates": Heks, Druid, Djinn, Yokai, Sosye, Lich, and Seer. Each has access to unique spells and (in a nice touch) have variations on the basic talents. Characters can develop more powerful spells and rituals. But of course all of this has a cost. Using and pushing your magic can eventually drive you over the edge. Such failures give rise to horrible results in the real world, terrors reaching well beyond the witch.

I dig Witch. It has a clean design and I love the Fate illustrations. It offers solid world and support material for GMs (interesting artifacts, cool adversaries, additional options). I also like that it works with a simple 2d10+Stat+Skill vs. target, rather than a dice pool. That makes it easier to deal with the complexities of the magic system. Witch is worth picking up if you like modern fantasy/horror. Designer Elizabeth Chiapraditkul has also released a companion Devil's Deck, a lovely tarot-like card collection. These can be used with the rpg, but they're cool on their own. Chiapraditkul is listed as designer, developer, and layout person. It’s an amazing product, more so for having been done by one person.

28. Miscellaneous: Modules
I’m not going to detail every horror module released. Instead I’ve cherry-picked a few longer and more significant releases.
  • Chaos Earth Resurrection: An adventure collection and setting supplement detailing shattered Wisconsin in Rifts Chaos Earth. Lots of zombies.
  • Kuro Tensei: The final volume in the Kuro rpg saga. Moves the meta-plot forward, adds new locales, expands PC powers, and wraps things up. Features neo-Japanese occult scenarios to play all that out.
  • No Soul Left Behind: A massive campaign for the Better Angels demonic superbeings rpg. It follows the goings on in a parahuman academy. NSLB is deeply embedded in the setting, making hard to adapt for other games. A fun read.
  • Penny Dreadful: In Defense of Innocence: Four adventures for Through the Breach linked by the backdrop town of Innocence.
  • Portsmouth 1745: A full campaign for Colonial Gothic set in Portsmouth. Has new rules and connected adventures for PCs of all levels.
  • Savage Tales of Horror: The year saw three volumes of these scenario collections for Savage Worlds. Some adventures focus on particular SW flavors like Solomon Kane, Deadlands Noir, or The Last Parsec.
  • Stone and a Hard Place: Both a sourcebook and a plot point campaign for Deadlands. Details new foes, critters, and locales of the Southwest. Includes new character options.

29. Miscellaneous: Sourcebooks
As with modules, I’m not hitting everything. But the supplements here expand rules, settings, or challenges. Some include adventures and could fit on the entry above.
  • Dark Osprey series: Osprey’s specialized guidebook line series details different horror settings. While they include no rules, you get a ton of background materials and ideas. The 2015 releases are: Werewolves: A Hunter’s Guide; The Wars of Atlantis; The Headless Horseman of Sleepy Hollow; Bug Hunts: Surviving and Combating the Alien Menace; and War of the Worlds: The Anglo-Martian War of 1895.
  • Dystopia Rising LARP Survivors Guide 2.0: Not the standalone system for this LARP, but a massive resource book for players and organizers.
  • Grand Tome of Adversaries (Second Edition): A big, big bestiary for Witch Hunter: The invisible World.
  • Into the Steam: A player and location sourcebook for Through the Breach. Explores the lands of the Arcanists and adds many character options.
  • Judgment Day: A fantasy horror setting for the Entropic Gaming System. Covers three eras: Crusades, Victorian, and Modern. Also in Savage Worlds flavor. 
  • Lords of the Night: Vampires for Pathfinder.
  • Monsters Macabre: Enemy guide for Cryptworld. Includes monster design rules and PC-Monster options.
  • Nemezis: Galaxy: Expanded setting details for the Horizion system in this Savage Worlds sci-fi horror setting.
  • Occultism: A Shadows of Esteren sourcebook on magic. Looks at occultists’ powers and organizations. Finishes with an adventure to showcase these ideas.
  • The Paranet Papers: Expanded setting material for The Dresden Files RPG. Brings the Dresdenverse up to date with the novels. Adds new locations, spirit realm mechanics, magical options, supernatural creatures, and more.
  • Post-Apocalyptic Vampire Wars: Starbright Illustrations never met an open-license rpg they didn’t like. A vampiric post-collapse setting using the WaRP rules from Atlas Games. Caveat Emptor.
  • Rise of the Ilu: Rules for gods and playing gods. “…includes everything you need to take your Contagion Second Edition campaign to a celestial level!”
  • Slip: A Fate World of Adventure. Strange dimensional invaders have begun to infiltrate and attack our world. Only PCs equipped with bizarre powers can face them.
  • The Thin Blue Line: A Detroit Police Story: A new modern horror setting for Savage Worlds. Details a Detroit police precinct and the supernatural horrors facing its officers.

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Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Xenoblade Chronicles X: Where's My Mech?

November’s been weird, huh?

So let me talk about a video game, Xenoblade Chronicles X.

Sherri and I bought a Wii U in mid-September. We picked it up primarily for two games: the aforementioned Xenoblade and Tokyo Mirage Sessions. That’s not something we do for a console. We usually wait for a critical mass of games we want to play. But the Wii U catalog isn’t getting any stronger. I can only think of 4-5 other games on the system I’d even want to pick up. As well Nintendo just announced the end of Wii U production and the development of the “Switch.”
But we’ve already gotten our money’s worth out of the Wii U.

As of today I’ve played 269 hours of Xenoblade. Sherri’s played 378.

It hits our sweet spot and I’m not entirely sure why. We like JRPGs, though we prefer turn based combat. Still we dug FF XII & XIII, Star Ocean, and Dragon Quest Heroes, all twitchy games. But many others we’ve hated (Resonance of Fate, Rogue Galaxy). Today I’m going to boil down ten things I like about Xenoblade Chronicles X.

But first some backstory.

The original Xenoblade Chronicles came out for the Wii late in its life cycle. A fan campaign barely managed to get a US release. Sherri and I played a ton of Xenoblade Chronicles (I’ll call it XB1 from this point on). It had a decent active-time combat engine and (for the most part) interesting characters. But XB1’s set up and presentation sold it. It had massive zones, giving a better sense of space and scale than any other rpg I’ve played. It has to because your characters lived on the surface of a colossal warrior statue- one of a pair. These titans had frozen, locked in battle. To cross from one to the other you journeyed across their clashing swords. XB1 remains a dynamite game and probably the second best rpg on the Wii (after Rune Factory Frontier). Later Nintendo would do a version for the “advanced” 3DS, but I haven’t tried that.

Xenoblade Chronicles X (yes, they could have made a better title split) doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the original. That’s as far as I can see many, many hours in. Instead we’re clearly in our universe. Warring alien races destroy the Earth at the start, though why remains uncertain. Several colony ships escape just before the end. Aliens attack our ship, The White Whale, another solar system, shattering the vessel. The pieces crash across a world called Mira. Gameplay begins with our rescue from a stasis pod. We’re brought back to the single human settlement, New LA, developed in the months we’ve been on ice. From there we explore the world, fight monsters, do missions, develop new equipment, and uncover the secrets of this world and the original conflict which destroyed Earth.
It plays a little like an MMO. There’s a continuous landscape of several enormous zones. Xenoblade Chronicles X only loads when you fast travel across the map. In combat you have a default auto-attack and cycle through various arts to activate special attacks. It’s fast and chaotic, but gets manageable quickly. The AI controls your team of three additional characters, but you can tune their loadout and special actions. There’s a ton to do, but the emphasis is on exploration.

The Bad and the Good
(I’m limiting myself to eleven each)
BAD This space colony project clearly had terrible vetting. Many of your fellow human survivors (a limited pool) turn out to be assholes. They’re venal, greedy, and xenophobic in the face of humanity’s extinction. And they’re really dumb at times. The game needs to have human adversaries, I get that. But the side missions fall back on this trope way too much.

GOOD I love exploring environments. That’s my favorite part of every MMO (Final Fantasy XI, Everquest, Secret World). In particular I loved just flying around City of Heroes to see what the designers had created. This is even better. Each of the major zones has a distinct feeling: different colors, textures, weather, monsters, verticality, pathing. And there’s always more to find. This morning, 269 hours in, I dropped down into a place I’d never seen before and nearly got my ass handed to me.

BAD You can dress your characters. But there are many super cheesecake-y female outfits/armor. They have male flesh-baring clothing, but they’re not nearly equivalent (especially in the pants department). It can get annoying. In a similar vein a couple of the alien races fall into lazy design tropes (bulky, brute, armored males vs. svelte sexy, scantily-clad females).

GOOD But you have a ton of armor and costume choices throughout the game. And I mean a ton. Some are color swaps, but even they have minor differences to distinguish them. More importantly you can set your “Fashion Gear,” meaning your pick of visible armor. That lets you play paperdoll to your heart’s content. I love switching around outfits for my team from time to time, especially after I uncover a new unique suit.

BAD There’s no sort function for any of the inventory lists (collected items, weapons, armor). In some cases you can filter. But that only helps a little. You’ll spend time finding things within sub-menus. This is probably a translation artifact. As with other JRPGs items appear on the list as they did in the original language.

GOOD Xenoblade Chronicles X fixes several of the problems of the first Xenoblade. You have more control in combat. You can train in different weapons sets, switching them between fights if you want. The creation system makes sense here as opposed to earlier random alchemy. The environments feel more full and diverse. The annoying Nopon race from the first game reappears here, but they’re more interesting and palatable.

BAD Though it didn’t bother me, some critics didn’t like how long it takes to get a battle-mech of your own (called Skells here). You’ll be well past the halfway mark before you do. Even then you have to wait another chapter or two before they develop flight technology.

GOOD When you finally get your Skell, it’s awesome. It controls very differently and takes some getting used to. By that time you’ve gotten down all the base character systems. Piloting a Skell introduces a host of new mechanics: new weapons, add-ons, fighting combos, tactics. It feels awesome when you can go out in your mech and beat up the monsters that crushed you in the past. There’s a parallel feeling of hubris when you discover Skells can’t solve every problem. More than anything since you’ve explored on foot for so long, being able to jump higher and eventually fly recharges the landscape. You get to explore again and uncover new secrets.

BAD Boy this game is white. You can change your own character’s skin tone and set up whatever ethnic identity you like. But most of your seventeen possible party members are white. Two are definitely Asian, one might be, and only one has darker skin. The same holds true in the human population within the New LA Colony: you see few definite persons of color.

GOOD I love the monster designs in this game. Of course you get the palette swaps with some species but more often than not, you’ll spot new details across beasts in different regions. I love watching Sherri play because I can actually see these foes. Yesterday I noticed that one species of Lictor, a big insect creature, had unique armor plating. I could see rune-like engravings on its plates. This game has many moments like that. I haven’t even touched on how well animated the monsters are. All have striking, animal-like movements.

BAD There’s a limited ‘palett’e to the characters you can add to your party. Let me rephrase that. Of the seventeen characters you can add, six feel interchangeable (either milquetoast or slightly douche-y males). The female characters fare better. Despite that you still have many great characters with interesting stories to choose from. But it’s disappointing that they don’t feel unique or possesses more than a basic characterization (know-it-all, drinker, airhead).

GOOD That being said I dig some of the richer characters and their stories. I want to know more about Alexa, Murderess, Elma, Nagi, and L when I play them. Murderess, in particular, is a terrible human being who stands in stark contrast to the others. It’s great to hear her interact with the more ethical party members.

BAD There’s little in the way of DLC. I would drop money for new things: armor, areas, missions, characters, monsters.

GOOD You have seventeen recruitable characters. They have different conversations among themselves depending on your team composition. We’ve seen that in other games, but I don’t recall there being this many. Some of the interactions are awesome and revealing.

BAD If you’re a playing a woman, some weird after-combat dialogue that pops up from time to time. In particular talking about problems with your hair. Some the female characters talk about shopping. If you’re doing a lot of battle grinding, you’ll notice it. It’s so weird and discordant with other stuff that I wonder if it’s an artifact of the original or something that popped up with the localization.

GOOD I love the way Xenoblade Chronicles X handles online stuff. And I hate console online gaming. You can go light with it, just getting some new tasks and bonuses or heavy and actually go on missions with other players. I haven’t done the latter, but it doesn’t feel like I’m missing out on something vital.

BAD “Here’s your weapons. There you go.” This game throws you in. There’s no real tutorial. Systems aren’t explained, you just have to figure them out. When they do finally mention something (“Hey, there’s a Collectopedia!”) that’s 20+ hours after you’ve discovered it for yourself. Arts & Skills, key combat elements, Overdrive, that there’s no falling damage, etc. aren’t explained. You have to dig down to figure out that out. Potential’s a listed stat…what does that mean?

GOOD At the same time I kind of love that. I dig figuring out things here- and that’s not normally my bag. I love having to go to the manual. I even love hunting around on forums to get insight. There’s a real pleasure when you get something to work. Like that moment when you spot signs about of a monster’s susceptibility to a particular damage type-- important because the game has six of them (Physical, Thermal, Ether, Gravity, Electric, Beam…with no explanation). The system’s opaque, but that doesn’t hurt it.

BAD Xenoblade Chronicles X has hundreds of side missions: from basic gathering, to bounty hunts, to city-changing assignments. You meet many, many quest givers. But one is presented as stereotypically gay: mincing, making suggestive comments, wearing make-up. It’s clearly presented to make the NPC seem odd and weird. That’s an off note and something we don’t see anywhere else in the game.

GOOD Combat remains challenging for a long time. Eventually you’ll be over-leveled, but that’s a ways in. You might smash through some monsters if you’ve tuned your weapons and armor right. But then you hit another creature that doesn’t work with and have to start again. If you’re like me, eventually you’ll get complacent. You’ll see a group of bug and jump in, only to have them agro a horde of other insects. Then Phogg dies, then Hope dies, and suddenly you’re away running as fast as you can …

BAD The Earth has been destroyed and New LA is the last holdout of humanity. We have a population, I’m guessing, of a few thousand. They live in a hostile environment, beset by alien foes, with a pseudo-military leadership. Yet Capitalism remains the driving force. Humanity immediately builds a “commercial district” with shops, colonists worry about their finances, and you see class distinctions. As well, all the friendly alien races are capitalists. It’s odd and actually becomes laughable in a couple of spots. Again, a minor note but a strange backdrop.

GOOD Xenoblade Chronicles X is an open-world game. Within zones animals of vastly different levels wander next to one-another. There’s no “this is the newbie area.” You’re forced to plan and move carefully. If you’re smart you can get by truly dangerous creatures. That allows you to unlock riches or die quickly. This open-world approach means that the story’s loose. You have distinct chapter missions you pick to move the story forward. That’s complemented by several dozen normal and affinity missions deepening the world and adding new elements. But the through-line of the story can be hard to follow and you may find yourself just wandering. That’s the risk of a sprawling game like this. Despite that, Xenoblade Chronicles X has gotten me a couple of times. It’s had some twists I didn’t see coming and at least one revelation that completely changed earlier events for me. 

In short: a great game that makes the Wii U worth it. 
Other experiences with it? 

Friday, November 25, 2016

Games I'm Thankful For: A Companion List

Last week I posted about things I liked/wanted in games. Though it’s late in the day, late in the Thanksgiving week, I wanted to offer a list of games I’m thankful for. I’ve hunted down games which do those things. They aren’t the only ones, but they’re good examples. I’m listing these in parallel order to the original list.

Giving a Clear Statement of Purpose
Paul Beakly has already pointed this out, but Coriolis has a strong, clear statement of what we’re doing: theme and kinds of play. It works. It does that in under a page and it's one of the first things we read. 

Setting Things Up
Cryptomancer does a great job of this. It sets things up on the first page: explaining that we’re going to be doing info-sec intrigue mixed with standard fantasy. It acknowledges the expected elements and points us to what we need to know.

Saying How You’re Different
A couple of superhero rpgs tell you right away how they stand out in this crowded genre. Less skillful rpgs only refer to a “new comic universe” or “my new approach to powers.” The best quickly make clear what we’re dealing with. Base Raiders and Rotted Capes show you their take on the genre straightaway. “Superpowered Dungeon Crawling” was enough to get me to check out the BR book. And RC gives you it in the title.

Writing Clear Blurbs
Pelgrane consistently delivers clear ad copy. For example, the Night’s Black Agents page on DriveThru has a grabbing narrative. It then breaks that up from the more mechanical description with an image. It's an awesome overall hook.

Non-Boobalicious Cover
Since I don’t want to be negative, let me point out a recent cover I dig: the new 7th Sea. It’s a fairly trad image in many ways with heroes battling against a massed foe. But in the center we have a female and male figure, relatively equally weighted. They’re both strong and command the scene. It doesn’t need any additional boob armor or bare midriff to sell itself.

What Dice Do We Roll?
I’d say more games do this than not, making it especially irritating when I do have to hunt down what dice we need. ICONS Assembled has a quick list of materials you need- making it clear that everyone will need a pair of dice, and that’s all you’ll need.

How You’re Adapting an Existing System:
The Sprawl builds on PbtA, but unlike some PBtA games. In the introduction, it points readers to key elements they may want to check out. It doesn’t go into detail about the changes, but instead points players to what they need to know. I like the tone here “when I’m checking out new PbtA games, here’s what I look for.”

Don’t Box in Text:
A few games use bounding lines in a way that works for me. Tianxia: Blood, Silk, and Jades one of the best. It uses a set of simple, geometric lines: similar to some Chinese architectural details. It reflects the setting and matches the colors. Those lines frame the chapter title at the top and the page number at the bottom. But they also stay out of the way. The page design feels open without seeming like there’s less text on the page. It illustrates Daniel Solis and Ruben Byrd’s chops.

Careful With Page Backgrounds
Several games offer both a printer friendly and a standard version. Moonicorn vs. SpaceWurm takes this approach, as does Godbound. That’s awesome. In Godbound’s case the page backgrounds in the full-color version don’t get in the way of reading. It looks decent on my tablet screen and it makes the printed version pop.

Break Up Text
World Wide Wrestling has a lot of information, but it doesn’t feel intimidating to me. It has good use of headers and callouts. The design’s consistent across both book.

Have an Index
13th Age has one of my favorite indexes. The index includes the glossary. Since I’m often searching for what a particular term means this helps immensely. And it doesn’t get in the way of the index itself. Several 13th Age products have multiple indexes (the treasure book, for example, has an index by item type and by associated Icon).

Game Summary for Players
Few games offer a player-facing quick-sheet you can distribute to give them the background. I like Glorantha’s “What My Father Told Me” for an quick & rich insight into a culture, but it still requires having a grip on the greater world. Legend of the Five Rings has solid archetype pages explaining particular clans, but not a summary sheet. I think perhaps the new playbook-centered approach comes closest to what I want. For example those from Urban Shadows give you a nice overview and a sense of the tone as a whole. You can give a quick spiel, read out a sentence or two for each playbook, and get building. Mutant Year Zero does this as well.

Pre-Gen Characters
I love that Feng Shui 2’s entirely built on pre-gens and tons of them. Each one seems more awesome than the last. It gives you all the info you need, some choices, some hooks, and boom you’re going.

Quickstart Adventure
Far and away, my favorite quick-start adventure is Auspicious Beginnings. That’s for Weapons of the Gods, a crazy wuxia rpg. I own it but can’t make heads or tails of it. WotG defies my understanding. It has some cool ideas, but overall I can tell I wouldn’t dig the crunchy play at the table. Despite that, I’ve run Auspicious Beginnings three times using different systems and reconfiguring the premise. It sets up a great situation, with several distinct choices for the players. These make a huge difference in what they actually see in play. They also slowly introduce mechanical concepts: basic resolution, complex tasks, combat. It’s amazing and I recommend checking it out. Everyone loves a contest-focused adventure.

Diverse Art
Legacy: Life Among the Ruins has some of the best and most varied art I’ve seen. It helps create a richer and more interesting world. When I look at the pictures I ask myself: what’s the story here? What’s going on? I love that. I don’t just gloss over the pictures with the usual ho-hum of macho action or tentacle whatever.

One-Page Character Sheets
Several people- smarter people than I- disagreed with this. I can see their point. They like two-page sheets. A second page allows you to record equipment, spells, and secrets. OK, I can see that and agree that has value. But please, no more than that. My favorite simple character sheet comes from Hollowpoint, the fan-created ones that look like toe-tags.

Avoid Repeating Starting Sounds
Even the classic D&D set has this problem (Con and Chr). It’s not a big thing, but can be important. I suspect Evil Hat pays attention to this. The approaches for Fate Accelerated each have a distinct initial sound. Fate Core has 18 default skills. That list keeps it to pairs of starting letters, no more than that. You can see that in other games they’ve published. 

Thursday, November 17, 2016

What I Like in Games: Saying Please

Several weeks ago Vincent Baker started a conversation on G+ about defining yourself as a game designer. He encouraged everyone to create and consider yourself a designer. In particular he pointed at people who say what you ought to be doing in games. “They're asking you for a favor and they aren't even gracious or self-aware enough to say please.” That phrase stuck with me. James Stuart followed that up by talking about the challenges of unpaid labor as it related to game creation (citing this article about github).

I want to say what I like in games and I want to say please. I smile when I see games hit my particular hang-ups. I also want to break those "likes" into two groups. In the first we have things which may be less labor, time, and effort intensive. They’re about style and information. The second group requires more time and effort. They’re things I dig, but I recognize not all games can do given commitments and energy.

If a game or supplement is of substantial size, I’m more likely to look at it through this lens. Smaller games, niche indie rpgs, truly revolutionary approaches have their own standards. Some of my desires apply to those, but more often not. I’m talking about books with dozens of pages, Kickstarter projects, and anything with a substantial price point (let’s say roughly $3+ maybe higher...I don't know).

Also designers can make deliberately, conscious aesthetic choices to do the opposite of what I say I like. I respect that. If you make an informed choice, having weighed the perils and pitfalls, then cool. Hopefully the reasons for your approach will be clear to your readers. None of this should be taken to say anything game should be condemned. Instead it’s about the guidelines I use to invest my money and time. The latter’s the more precious resource. We live in a golden age of gaming with almost too many excellent options.

Games I'm Thankful For: A Companion List

Tell Me What We’re Doing
Offer a clear statement of what we’re doing when we play. I like to see that early. It’s one of the first things I look for. Some books just give me a genre statement ("a game of fantasy adventure") or simply describe the setting. But I’d like to know what the play aims towards or supports. If that’s "anything possible" fantasy, then make that claim. Think of it this way, when I go to pitch this to my players, what am I telling them?

I’ve picked up a couple of complete rpgs on Drivethru lately which have super-detailed and rich settings. But I don’t know how we fit into it. I can't figure what kinds of stories we’ll be telling. Maybe they say that later on, but if I don't know in the first chapter or so, I’m less likely to press on or even remember the game later
Before You Get Going
Before you launch into a large chunk of game fiction, an overview of the setting’s history, or a complete gazetteer, do that telling I mentioned above. Even if it’s just a couple of paragraphs before we dive in. On the flip side, don’t jump to character creation on page one without giving me any idea of who these characters need to be. .

I love superhero games, I love spy games, I love samurai games—all genres I dig. When I see new games for these I’m going to check them out. But I’m always stumped when all the game tells me is “I’m a steampunk game.” OK, what kind? What’s the difference between you and the dozens of other cog & brass games?

If your game jumps into a crowded genre, maybe tell us what’s new about it. Or say what’s done differently and better. Or even just talk about why you made the game. Even if it’s to only to say that you created something that fit your GMing style, worked with your group, or added a few bits you preferred.I like it best when that discussion’s concrete and specific.

You don't have to know every game in the genre. I’m not saying you have to name and take on the biggest competitors. But you have some reasons you like this game, right? Otherwise you wouldn’t have created and presumably played it. Tell us.

Check your blurbs. Like many people, I get my first impression from back covers or the electronic equivalent: Drivethrurpg product pages. That’s your pitch. That’s the thirty seconds you have to get someone’s attention. I’m less likely to check out games with ambiguous, vague, or generic language there. Maybe you want your game to be enigmatic, with the idea that the reader will be drawn in to figure out what’s going on. That works sometimes, but it has to be super well-written. Some of the best blurbs I’ve seen offer a little bit off mystery, but then have concrete info. They divide that with lines or font choices.

First Impressions
Related to that, really think about if you want boobalicious artwork on your cover. Maybe you’re doing that for a strong purpose; if so, that’s cool. But I’m less likely to buy or support a game that I’d be embarrassed to present to our mixed gender player group. A T&A cover says something to many female players.

What Am I Rolling?
Tell me early on what kind of dice I’ll need- or if I need none. I can’t say how many games I’ve gone through for my History lists that don’t do this. I need to get 100+ pages in to the resolution section to see what they mean by “roll X dice.”

If you’re building on an existing system (Savage Worlds, d20, PbtA, Fate), tell us what you’re changing or doing differently. Explain what you’re bringing to the table. If you’re just repurposing it without changes, tell us that too. If you’re changing up basic terms from the original system, please call that out. When I read the Fellowship rpg, it took me a long time to realize that when they were talking about “Overlord Cuts,” they meant “GM Moves.”

Don’t Box Me In
I like open pages. If you’re going to bound the text with lines or art, keep that simple and let the text breathe. It bugs me to read games with completely enclosed box frame pages. Or strong bounding lines on multiple sides of the page. I’m not sure what purpose that serves. Are they crowding the frame to make less text look like more? I recall student papers that did this to pad out page counts. I feel the same way about large, graphically intense, and obtrusive page edge borders.

What’s My Background?
Think about why you have repeating graphical element on your pages. If you want greyscale watermarks, background images, color pages, or some combination, have a reason why. What does it add to the text? Does it make it easier to read? Does it help the page hold together visually? Does it complement the overall aesthetic of your product? Then ask yourself, does it make this harder to read? Then ask a bunch of other people if they have a harder time reading. Remember it will appear darker on some readers’ displays or print outs. Does that balance out for you? It might- Space Wurm vs. Moonicorn’s a good example of a success with this.

BUT if you have any of that PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE learn how to use layers when you put your pdf together. Allow readers to turn off those backgrounds for viewing and printing. Some people have visual limitations, some are just old fucks like me. Alternately: offer a printer-friendly version. Seriously, this ought to be a common standard and you can find tutorials about it online.

Wall of Text
I appreciate it when designers break up text, carefully use headers, or offer vital synopses in callout boxes. I have a harder time getting through text which combines small fonts, single columns, and long paragraphs.

I can understand not having an index, but there are tools now to make one much more easily. It might not be a great, but it could help. It’s especially necessary if your game is fairly long. I’m more pleased when I see an index than disappointed when one’s missing. That being said, if you have more than a couple of sections give us a table of contents. And one with useful headings rather than fanciful ones. Please.

Pitch Meeting
Think about how a GM’s actually going to translate and convey your game/setting to players. This is vital, but how you handle this varies. Yes, you can have a rich history but perhaps offer a 1-2 page summary. Yes you can have many clans/groups/factions, but perhaps present a quick ref for those somewhere. Figure out what players need to know to play. You’ve probably had to synopsize when you’ve presented the game to others. What did you say? What questions came up in play? Ideally have something a GM can hand out.

If appropriate to the game, I love it when I see pre-gen characters. Especially when they’re presented as standard character sheets. If you have printer-friendly versions included or available as downloads somewhere, that’s awesome.

Getting Rolling
If appropriate to the game I love it when I see quickstart or sample adventures. They’re hard, they’re work, but they’re useful to demoing the game to a new group. They don’t fit for every game. But even if you have an rpg with a more flexible approach, perhaps point the GM to some good starting places or fronts. My favorite quick-starts introduce concepts and rules in stages, like a good video game tutorial.

Diverse Art
Not all games have art. And sometimes you have to rely on creative commons or stock art. That’s cool. That being said, when a game has art and I see an effort has been made to have diverse characters presented, I appreciate that. Different ethnicities and cultures, various body types, women in positions of strength, etc. I’ve seen many games where all the women have to be sexy-times and the men get to look interesting and distinct. I like it when a game changes that up.

One-Page Character Sheet
Completely a personal preference. And a higher-level design issue. But I’m much more sympathetic to games where characters fit on one side of a single page, without being in microscopic font. YRMV.

Initial starting sounds
This is a stupid one. But it’s something that bothers me. If you have a small pool of key terms (attributes, skills) consider varying the initial sounds of them. I’m always weirdly disconcerted when I hit a list of six characteristics and three of them start with “S” (Strength, Stamina, Social). They don’t all have to begin with different letters, but think about breaking that up, if only to make abbreviations easier. 

Thoughts? Other Likes I Missed?
Games I'm Thankful For: A Companion List