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Fate Fading Suns - CancelledKeywords: Role-Playing Games; Fate Fading Suns.
It has happened. Fate Fading Suns has been cancelled at eight sessions. This isn’t a negative post as I rage against the fall out, albeit when it happened earlier in the week it was a shock, but probably shouldn’t have been. It’s actually a positive. It’s only a game at the end of the day. It’s an immense positive because the campaign has not been cancelled for anything to do with any sort of internal issues I had. On that front it would have continued and concluded!
That is awesome. Epic win.
I do find the conversations and reasons for the cancellation interesting though. They’re also quite pertinent to decisions about whether to run again, what types of game would work and what shape they should take, etc. I’m not even going to get into differences in styles of play, measures of success, etc. The thing that has become clearer is the categories the gaming group’s campaigns fall into.
We seem to have four categories:-
The long games. It would seem the gaming group is quite traditional. It came up in a recent discussion that any game that has been recorded as one of the ‘the long games’ or ‘successful campaign’ has had a very traditional system? Okay, the phrase ‘successful campaign’ is a risky one because other campaigns have been successful, but while that description can be changed I suspect the category and its occupants are still recognisable as distinct. The campaigns that have ran for some time (8+ sessions), possibly survived multiple seasons or other forms of transition and reached a conclusion utilised the following systems: Dungeons and Dragons (3E), Cinematic Unisystem, Pendragon and Dungeons and Dragons (4E). These are all very traditional sets of rules, often quite structured, or both, they have a simple dice mechanic, simple skill mechanics, characters improve through experience, and something as traditional as ‘hero points’ is about as ‘new and hippy’ as they get.
Get out while the going is ‘good’. Then we have the campaigns that concluded, but were not as long, and probably had things about them that people enjoyed, but also had things that ‘broke’ them to some degree or another. The campaigns in this category I’m aware of involved the Fate (one of the many variants) and Cortex+ systems. It would seem these games that mix ‘traditional’ and ‘indie’ games together have always proved to have a natural session attrition in the group. In both these cases, the game was closed down due to a general vibe of un-satisfaction. The writing was on the wall so they were concluded correctly and in a positive manner while the going was still good or good enough! Like a TV show that’s knows it’s not getting renewed. The Cortex+ experience is a perfect example, a campaign I enjoyed immensely (I would love a sequel somehow under another system but it would never happen), but if it had not concluded when it did then it would have gone into the cancelled category. In short, these might be great, mediocre or terrible experiences depending on the individual, but by and large they remain positive for those who liked them because they concluded early enough!
From a certain point of view it could be argued these experiences are short experiments that pushed to the edge of the session envelope or a certain type of cancelled game that, as the name suggests, just got out while the going was good due to good communication.
The short experiments. I’ve not been involved in many of the games in this category, but they occur. The only possible example being a single session of Duty & Honour. They are games that are meant to run for only a single session or three. They are very much run like convention experiments but are slightly longer. It is also where the non-traditional systems are more successful whether it be Mouse Guard, Cold City or a number of Fate variants, etc. Historically anyway.
The cancelled games. Then we have the fourth category of game, which are splattered about through our gaming history. These are games that got cut off. Cancelled. Consigned to the gaming bin. They enter this state for numerous reasons. GM time. GM dissatisfaction. GM Issues. My three main reasons, historically. The conflict of ideas proves unmanageable. The group just suddenly looking at each other and conclude it’s not going to work (now known as the Werewolf Epiphany). It may even involve a dungeon of candy. The commonality being they are cancelled early, just stop or hit a problem that isn’t recoverable. These things happen.
Where does Fate Fading Suns sit in this illustrious history? Well, certainly in the cancelled category. That is pretty clear. As stated, the reason for games falling into this category vary wildly. In the case of Fate Fading Suns, looking back now, it had the hallmarks of a perfect ‘get out while the going is good’ game that failed, well, to get out while the going was good. The indications this was on the cards were not adequately communicated (thought it may still not have been able to close down satisfactorily). In fact, in the glorious clarity that is hindsight, I probably should have seen it as inevitable and realise I only had a certain horizon for success. I certainly should not have gunned for something more like a 'long game' when in truth I had a 'get out while the going is good' game.
I suspect the outcome may have been ordained, to one degree or another, as soon as it hit the table. I also suspect the GM of two of the more obvious games in the I got out while the going was good category probably tried to warn me ahead of time as well. After all, he jumped to the left and went more traditional after those experiences no doubt for a healing experience!
The important question is: what does this mean for the future? Well, I think I can take a number of things away from it but I’ll leave that for another day! At this point all I say is don’t try and buck the above, it probably won’t work.
|Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 18/05/2013|
The Werewolf MythologisationKeywords: Role-Playing Games.
We set out to do something this Bank Holiday weekend rather than just let it drift by us. After a very brief browse around the web we chose to go to Kielder Water & Forest Park. The reasoning was quite simple. We like the idea of going to The Lakes, but we hate the lack of clarity over what to actually do and where to do it in that massive land area with little directed potential. While we don't expect a theme park experience we like a bit more direction. Kielder offered something different in that it's a smaller area, is more directed in what you should and can do and looked like it offered a similar, nature-based experience.
We couldn't have got it more right. The place is awesome and we're certainly going to go back and cover more of the 27-mile walk around the biggest man make lake in Northern Europe. As well as all the usual great stuff like the lovely weather, the awe inspiring views, etc, it also got me thinking about gaming.
It had the same effect as the BBC documentary on Yellowstone National Park. It made me think of Werewolf: The Apocalypse.
I was probably the only person wondering around the park thinking of mythological werewolf stories and mythologising the place up a bit. I don't mean actually using Yellowstone or Kielder, just taking places like it and translating them into a world in which everything is heightened and, to some extent, at the extremes. It's a mythic version of our modern world.
The Apocalypse is upon us. The triat, the three spiritual forces, creation (The Wyld), order (The Weaver) and destruction (The Wyrm) are out of balance. The Wyrm seeks to destroy all things in an orgy of corruption, entropy and decay killing the Celestine, Gaia, the spiritual representation of the Earth in the process. Only the few remaining werewolf tribes stand in its way and its legion of 'Dark Gods Man Was Not Mean to Know', global corporations, human cults and their own kind corrupted. A few places remain across the world were Gaia remains strong, protected from the vast city-scapes due to their remoteness or the few political and institutional powers that still protect them. The werewolves fight their dying battle across the dark corners of the world, in the glass and stone edifices of the cities and the far recesses of the spirit world from these places.
They key to such a location is fantasizing somewhere like Kielder.
The various cairns about the place aren't just piles of rock but spiritual anchors invested with spiritual stuff that anchors the spirit realm to the location ensuring The Gauntlet remains weak and the physical world and the immediate Penumbra of the Spirit World are almost the same.
You can then add locations that have great spiritual resonance. The road bridge can be a dangerous entity guarded by vehicular spirits on one side and nature spirits on the other creating a neutral zone. The ancient stone bridge across a tributary of the lake can be 'The Bridge that Spans Worlds' as it is the point The Gauntlet is almost non-existent. The lake, of course, has an island on it that only exists in the spirit world, except when mists cover the lake when normal folk sometimes find their way there. The island is ruled by a powerful Nereid, a water spirit, who is the spiritual representation of the lake. You also have the great cliff overlooking the lake, which from certain angles looks like bear, in the spirit world this cliff has a cave network in which resides 'The Great Bear Spirit' representing the final echoes of the great bears that once roamed the countryside.
It becomes grand, rich, fixed location to focus the drama around. Yes, the protagonists stride across the physical and spiritual worlds in their final, titanic struggle against the all consuming darkness, but they always return here.
All great but the Werewolf: The Apocalypse system wasn't that great. The new interpretation has been tried and it failed miserably turning the Werewolves from epic warriors against the final darkness to the mall cops of the spirit world. The simple answer would be take the Fate Fading Suns approach and not look to convert anything, just rely on Fate and Aspects. In this case, based on the fact we've got shape changing going on, all sorts of weird creatures and 'monsters' and we'd probably only be looking at a mini-series anyway, I'd just go with Fate Accelerated to construct a grand, mythical tale. I don't even have to worry about skills then, just go with approaches which works across forms!
So...you never know, sometime down the line Werewolf: The Apocalypse mini-series may be in the offing. Especially if the nature-based inspiration keeps on flowing.
|Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 05/05/2013|
Iron Man 3. The Trailers Are Great?Keywords: Film; Film Review.
I often say I like the Iron Man films, but this isn't strictly true. It's not that I dislike them, it's more that I only really like the original Iron Man and the Tony Stark / Iron Man stuff in Avengers Assemble, which is inspired and brilliantly written. I can watch both these films repeatedly with little reduction in enjoyment and in some ways I still find new elements to them. I can't say this about Iron Man 2 which is painful.
The most I can say about Iron Man 3 is I didn't not enjoy it, but it was a pretty 'ho hum', forgettable experience. It had no impact, no spectacle or excitement. It just happened. It was also a bit of a weak sauce, incoherent mash up of previous films I really did like.
I read no spoilers for Iron Man 3 other than what was pitched in the trailers and I think this was a big part of the problem. I wanted the film in the trailers, not that the rather banal one that I actually got in the cinema. A series of clever edits and re-positioning of voice overs amounted to a massive and, no doubt purposeful, communication of context that wasn’t remotely true. Hell, the great Mandarin voice overs in the trailer weren’t even directed at Tony Stark as the trailer implied! The trailer communicated an epic, personal struggle of egos and philosophies between the latest uber-terrorist trying to bring down capitalism and democracy and attacking its most visible proponent in the form of the world’s brashest, ego-centric capitalist thus forcing Tony Stark to protect and question everything he holds dear during a time when Tony Stark is suffering from nearly dying in Avengers Assemble. Throw in the fact Tony Stark could have given The Mandarin his most dangerous weapon due to his past actions and you have the awesome.
The film we actually got tried to tell a similar tale but bait and switched the enemy and mixed the ingredients in a different way resulting in a substantially less appetizing meal.
The technology in the film didn’t work for me as it transitioned from cool to having a negative effect on the film. The new way of ‘suiting up’ was fine, if only it had been kept to a new way of ‘suiting up’, similar to the ‘suit ups’ and ‘suit downs’ in Avengers Assemble, rather than a way to keep Tony Stark out of the Iron man suit. The remote controlling of suits might have been an attempt to make the film more personal, avoiding the ‘man in a mask’ issue much maligned of superhero films, but they’d already got around this with the ‘HUD cam’ and what it really resulted in is making some of the action scenes as personal as a pilot controlling an attack drone. They even knew this as they had to hide the fact Tony wasn’t in the suit for one of the best scenes of the film. This then results in the CGI-fest finale of multiple suits flying around and multiple glowing mooks all of which just creates something full of things you don’t care about. Switch off. It magnified the supposed Iron Man problem. It didn’t help the location felt like it had been taken from Lethal Weapon 2 with a mix of The A Team film.
The interaction between Stark and Pepper, a key element of the film franchise for me, didn’t seem to have the verve it had in the original film. The fact they are now in a relationship rather than edging around one doesn’t have to result in everything being flat, as exhibited by the great scenes between them in Avengers Assemble. The five to ten minutes they interact in that film being substantially better, funnier and full of romantic or sexual tension than anything Iron Man 3 conjures up. The scenes lacked something in this film and seemed to get replaced by ‘cool factor’ money shots of Pepper in the Iron Man suit, Pepper kicking ass with super powers, which was is also the source of the lamest ‘is she dead’ moment in film.
Never like it when a film seems to go for the let’s ‘geek out’ the fanboy factor.
What can I say about The Mandarin debacle? I am aware of The Mandarin’s position in the Marvel Universe as a major villain that’s sort of a combination of Fu Manchu with ten magic or alien rings that have different elemental-like powers. I’m pretty sure I remember him being a significant enemy, if not THE enemy, of Iron Man way back when I was young. The thing is I don’t care about all that. I didn’t expect that portrayal. I did like the approach they seemed to be setting up of The Mandarin being an extreme, Iron Man world version of Osama Bin Laden. Is that too insensitive? Is that too racist? Possibly, but I don’t worry about those things as the quintessentially British villain is a feature of films and we don’t cry about it? They’d also established a terrorist factor in the original film anyway (and a Ten Rings terrorist organisation, though linking to that I didn’t care about either).
It was The Mandarin as pitched in the trailers, etc, and his apparent personal conflict with Stark that had me sold on the movie. The fact that you don’t see a twist coming doesn’t make it a good twist. I can’t even begin to describe the madness behind this bait and switch, especially when the switch had no weight behind it. It took something out of a film for comedy (which reminded me of the Leo Getz humour in..wait for it…Lethal Weapon 2) in a movie that was already lacking in major, worthwhile conflict.
Ultimately, it just felt fragmented, like it was trying to deliver a certain type of story but never actually got there. All the elements, such as the anxiety attacks (a week sauce version of, you guessed it, Lethal Weapon, which the director handled better in that film), Stark’s obsession with the suits, one of the greatest portrayals of a ‘villain that never was’ in the form of The Mandarin and Aldrich ‘Incrediboy’ Killian doing a much worse job, as corporate industrialist enemy number 3 (are we tired of them already?), than his Syndrome equivalent meant that all the voice overs (a bit like the director’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang), the harks back to the past and the supposed pay off just didn’t have any impact.
Does Tony Stark’s ‘issue’ ever really get resolved? They strands didn’t come together to create something bigger than their parts. They just existed. Action happened. I don’t like incoherence. You kept waiting for the dramatic, intense, character defining pay off but it was a bit of a damp squib.
The Batman’s conflict with The Joker in The Dark Knight this isn’t, in which Tony Stark’s ideals, philosophies, the relationships with his super powered self and all that he loves are all threatened. The trailer went a long way to suggesting that character defining story, as did the posters, etc. You could say the film sort to answer the Captain American question: “Big man in a suit of armour. Take that away -- what are you?" I could have got behind that, the trouble is Stark’s single sentence response in Avengers Assemble, and his actions as Stark in the film, answer that question better than the two hours or so of this film.
Pity. I think the best way to experience Iron Man 3 remains the trailers with a nod to the destruction of the Malibu pad (a stilt house destruction which was also in, you guessed it, Lethal Weapon 2) and the rescue of the crew of Air Force One.
You could also just watch Lethal Weapon and Lethal Weapon 2 and be substantially better off for the time investment.
|Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 03/05/2013|
My First XCOM Campaign Is..OverKeywords: Video Games; XCOM.
In terms of playing the game I am no further forward from my first attempt as I've either had no time to play it (last weekend) or haven’t been bothered (this weekend). I have put a bit of thought into how the game is structured and the interplay of resources and what this means for success.
On this basis I've decided to not dedicate any more time to my first campaign as I suspect it has a high chance of failure and it's just a matter of time. Apparently making decisions rather randomly will do that.
The principles I am taking into my second attempt are as follows.
On advice from a friend, in response to my first post on the game, it would seem satellites are important as they are the primary source of income and are the method by which you detect UFO activity. They also keep the panic level down. The best way to get maximum coverage would seem to be four satellite uplinks in a square followed by updating a few to the more advanced versions. Easier said than done, but making that more of a priority is apparently key. This is going to be combined with taking a more considered approach to my base space, as I was making too many random decisions rather than focusing on concentration bonuses and understanding the nature of steam vents, etc.
Engineers seem to be more important than Scientists. I've noticed that not having enough Engineers removes options from the table. You just cannot build certain things without having got past the requisite number of engineers. A key example being the need for 10 before you can build an uplink in your base. While scientists allow you to research things faster they never remove an option completely. This would seem to suggest prioritising Engineers over Scientists for a while.
On the second attempt I’m probably going to change the continent my base is in. I went for Europe on my first attempt, it being the closest to home and all that. This probably wasn’t a good idea. I notice Africa gives a monetary bonus, which is probably something that is simple to understand and perpetually useful. It may not be empirically the best, but it’s probably a very good shot for a second attempt.
The goal is to see what I can achieve in the first month or two in terms of satellite coverage to get me off to a good financial start. I suspect I may feel like I’m taking a hit on research as I seemed to be doing quite well on that in my first play through.
Round two begins this afternoon.
|Permalink | Comments(3) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 28/04/2013|
Breaking out of PAYEKeywords: Life.
Like a lot of people in the UK, I suspect, I’ve been a PAYE employee for the majority of my working life. In fact, technically, until very recently, all of my working life. This tends to result in two truths: your tax is taken at source and you receive the NET amount in your pay and I’ve never filled in a tax return. With respect to the tax return I’ve always worked on the principle and advice that if you’re not sent one, then don’t fill one in? To be fair, my tax affairs have been covered by PAYE so I was right never to push for one.
I used to run my consultancy work through an Umbrella Company, which effectively makes you a PAYE employee, but now I’m running my own limited company. I feel this is commensurate with the less stable and less benefit-focused model of my project-based, defined ending services my company is delivering, and it also means I no longer appear like a PAYE employee and have to become half an accountant.
This means I’ve broken out of PAYE completely (well, not completely, but almost as complete as it gets).
So, basically I’ve got myself an accountant (Stuart Hall at www.stuarthall.net, who is worth checking out, great guy and very cost effective) and I’ve invested in FreeAgent (www.freeagent.com, also worth checking out but get my referral code) a SaaS accountancy solution perfectly suited for small businesses, consultants and contractors.
I could have mangled something together with Excel but I have a strategy with FreeAgent. In the first instance it makes things easy to keep track of (balances, expenses, project profit, outstanding invoices, pay, dividends, tax and when they're due, etc) and it combines this with an educational element as it instils good practice on how to manage things. This educational element is a big thing for me. It's slight overkill for what I'm doing currently but I'm happy with it.
At the moment, I'm getting an odd pleasure from tracking expenses quickly and easily and, more importantly, raising invoices which is only matched by seeing the money hit the bank account. It just feels better working things through a company account. I'm sure this will get boring at some point but it has a certain thrill over a traditional pay check at the moment.
As is usual with this blog it tends to focus on what I’m finding interesting and thinking about, so I apologise to anyone who finds this common knowledge, but the transition for me has been interesting and informative. What follows is some observations around the differences incurred when you break out of PAYE.
Observation one: You pay less tax. This mounts up significantly. You pay 20% tax on your company profit and as long as you don't take your money out too fast that is all you pay. 20% Period. PAYE gives you very little options other than to suck up ever increasing taxes at ever lower brackets. Obviously, this does mean your income for the year has to be less than the 40% PAYE tax bracket otherwise you are hit for tax on your dividends. The hit is not so much in tax but the speed at which you can pay yourself over time, but that brings me to my next point.
Observation two: The Director’s Loan. You accrue retained earnings in your business as your pay outgoings are less than your invoiced incomings. It's the company's money until you pay it out to yourself in some way (PAYE or dividend or a combination of both, the latter being the best method, at which point personal tax kicks in). So, what's the point of having all that money owned by the company that you can't spend? In truth, it’s still hard to personally spend it without taking it out of the company in a way that incurs personal tax, but what if you have a purpose for the money that (a) does not involve spending it and (b) does not involve earning interest on it? Well, there is the novel concept of the Director's Loan. You can take that retained earnings out, put it somewhere useful, as long as you put it back within the tax year, or if you don’t mind declaring it within the tax year plus nine months. As long as you do that there is no tax on the money. This means, as long as what you want to do doesn't involve spending vast amounts of the money, it's not necessarily off limits to you until you pay high levels of personal tax on it.
Observation three: You have untaxed income to work with. You have to pay corporation tax on profits but that doesn't have to be declared until the end of the financial year and then not paid until circa 9 months after that period. So you have the money for your tax bill in your account in your control for a whole 9 months before it's paid (or more as it’s been accruing all year). Look back at the Director's Loan and put it somewhere else that's useful - again as long as you're not seeking to spend it. Depending on what financial set-ups you have on your personal finances this opens up 100% of your earnings for an extensive period to work for you in some way before the tax man grabs his chunk.
Observation four: VAT gives you money. Amazingly, you make a profit on VAT as long as you’re not spending a lot of money on items with large amounts VAT (and even then you can claim that back if they are large rather than the death of a thousand not large enough cuts). This is due to the fixed rate VAT scheme. You charge VAT on you invoices at 20% and pay it out to the government at a lower rate. In short, you make a profit on VAT. That can amount to an extra £300 a month and the money you do owe doesn’t have to be paid immediately.
Basically, without doing anything illegal or even stretching any of the rules in any shape or form, or moving into an area that could be considered tax avoidance, options become available to use your financial assets more effectively. You have options. While under the PAYE regime you have no options other than to pay your tax out immediately as it's taken away at source. You never have it in your hands to do anything. PAYE is supposed to be convenient, but it hasn’t even been that recently as my tax code has bounded around ridiculously despite being the most basic of PAYE employees.
What would the country be like if everyone had all their earnings, could see it in their bank for a period of time, only to have to pay it to the tax man sometime later? Very different I suspect, as not ever seeing it and just working out your take home pay is a quite different prospect to having money, however fleetingly, and having to work out how much you have to hand over.
The one problem all this does create is there is some advantages in having a permanent position. You're not having to hustle for the next client manage to deliver your company's services to or manage gaps in your earnings, though that can be by choice (like the two months I spent at the end of 2012), etc. In truth, permanent roles aren't as permanent as they used to be so unless your sitting in the same company for 5+ years it's about the benefits (pension, sick pay, holidays, etc).
It makes you very selective about the permanent jobs you'll consider. This is good for yourself and also makes you a good candidate. It puts limits on you though as you carefully consider the nature of the job and whether it is something you really want to do compared to the freedom you currently have (balanced against the risks). The financial angle is always difficult as your take home pay is high, even at modest consultancy rates (and ignoring all the flexibilities outlined which add up), resulting in jobs that pay even remotely equivalent being in very short supply in the North East.
|Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 21/04/2013|
The Enemy And The Game UnknownKeywords: Video Games; XCOM.
I've traded in my copy of Tomb Raider. It hadn't held its value much due to the fact stores have recently had the game on sale, a further sign that stock isn't shifting as well as the developers, publishers and retail outlets would like. This is a sad indictment of the modern game market as Tomb Raider was a very accomplished game, of distinct quality but despite selling 3.6 million copies it is viewed as a disappointment.
It's these economics that consigns us to a future of big, budget FPS games and then every thing else trying to pick up the 'scraps'. Still, it has allowed me to experience X-Com: Enemy Unknown for £5.
X-Com is an interesting game. While I realise the franchise has a long history I've not played any of the previous games. What X-Com reminds me off is a computer game version of a board game, well, two board games merged together. The game is split into a turn-based tactical skirmish game, similar something like Space Hulk, and a global game of resources, research and building similar to Civilization et al.
X-Com has a unique structure. You are running an organisation fighting the alien threat. This organisation, a bit like SHIELD, has a shadowy council that you report to. You know they're shadowy because they seem to have a problem with their video conferencing technology and you never see their faces. Every month they give you a report on how you're doing and how much faith your stakeholders have in you (these are countries). You see, you can't be everywhere at once so you can't please all stakeholders at once. You often find yourself helping countries purely out of who is going to provide the resources you need at that particular time.
Within this monthly structure time passes. During this time you research stuff. You build stuff. You extend your underground base deeper below the ground. There is a lot going on in this part of the game and the presentation belies a lot of depth, economics and interacting variables that you have to factor in. You need enough energy, scientists and engineers to support your base. You need enough money. You have a monthly income based on how well you're working with your stakeholder countries. Your base costs more the deeper you dig and you only have so much space. That's it off the top of my head. You accelerate time by scanning for UFO activity, but you scan using satellites which also have to be built and deployed and the number of satellites dictate which parts of the world you're 'covering'.
As I say...involved. I fully suspect it will be this part of the game that will be my undoing and will be why I'll lose on my first attempt. At the moment, I'm developing technology base not entirely randomly but neither is it part of some grand design.
As the time unfolds events occur, either because of the aforementioned scanning, or just because big events happen. The story unfolds. It's then the turn-based, tactical game springs into action as you send your team of troops in to kick alien ass. This part of the game is very slick, managing to make a turn-based, tactical exercise into a very cinematic and absorbing experience. Tense and exciting. Like the rest of the game it spins an essentially simplicity into a game of tactical depth. This depth as you develop more technology and the skill of your troops grows. Your troops are persistent.
The last part is important. They develop skills which increases the richness and depth of the tactics that can be deployed. If they die all this is lost. They're also like a team, in that they get injured and, as a result, are out of action for days. This alone forces an element of team rotation. You're also researching as part of the global stakeholders and base building game which gives your troops better equipment to use in the field.
I am really enjoying it. I may have to break my rule of never replaying a game as, by its very nature, it would be surprising if you beat it on your first attempt. In this way it continues with its board game vibe, as this is what you'd expect to happen with a board game. You never beat them first time and you play them multiple times mastering its mechanics and the interaction of resources with each attempt.
It's very early days, but it all seems to work very well on an easy to play hard to master sort of dynamic.
|Permalink | Comments(3) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 07/04/2013|
A Survivor Is BornKeywords: Video Games.
Regrettably, due to some very dubious ways of measuring progress in the game I've finished Tomb Raider. The short answer is it's a great game. Buy it. Play it. If you like Uncharted you should certainly play it. In my view it's equal to the juggernaut that is Uncharted 2 in its own, unique ways.
The game was a joy to play with minimal frustrations. The only annoyances being the odd combat sequence that just pushed things too much. It happened twice. The two scenes being similar. Lots of enemies. Confined, but open, spaces. Too intense. Uncharted does these scenes occasionally and they're just as annoying but they seem even less appropriate for Tomb Raider. I like the combat in Tomb Raider, but I think the more extremes examples of it should be toned down and replaced with exploration, wonder and the odd puzzle. When they happen it always seems like the easy option rather than having to think up something more subtle.
Drop the sandbox approach to the series. Why do all games have to be a sandbox these days? Everyone else seems to look forward to sandboxes like they're some sort of gaming nirvana while I see it as a blight on gaming. The Arkham Batman games had the same problem: Arkham Asylum a great story, excellent set-pieces and a very focused, gorgeous setting, then we get Arkham City with a diluted experience full of distractions, lots of travel and the inane minutia of pointless exploration and collecting.
The sandbox is the source of 'finishing' the game at 62%. The core narrative is finished, the remaining 38% consists of finding the widgets that are left around the island, possibly the odd mini-tomb (not that exciting) I missed and caches of equipment. The only reasons to get to that hundred percent being an obsessive compulsion to reach 100% and to give Lara more skills she has no reason any longer to possess. I can't help but think this: if all those sandbox elements, largely collectable elements, weren't present could the narrative have had an extra layer or sequence added to it. Creating those elements of the game has an opportunity cost.
You could also say that about the multi-player, but then I am one of those people who laments the slow erosion of the exquisitely delivered single-player, non-sandbox experience with each passing year.
In truth, the island location worked for this game, delivering a brilliant mix of Lost and Rambo: First Blood which worked for the type of story they were telling. The journey of Lara Croft into a leader, survivor and adventurer extraordinaire. Like a lot of sandbox games these days though what actually happens is a conflict between a focused narrative and the sandbox. Do one or do the other, stop trying to do both. A Tomb Raider game should be a narrative driven game of high adventure, fantastical locations, diabolic enemies and globe-trotting. The next game should not be a sandbox. Ironically, the Uncharted games aren't sandboxes and they are fantastic for it. I want that with the much more interesting Lara Croft character.
The Lara Croft character is brilliant. This seemed to be the case before but in truth this was largely because of what the player brought to the completed product, not so much what was actually in the game. The potential for the character to evolve into a great Nolan-ised, action hero along the lines of the new Bond is very interesting. This is especially true if they keep the games rating an 18. Lara comes across as substantially more real, in an action hero sense, and it works really well.
How they handle the character moving forward is going to be something to watch as the series progresses. The game has grit, how will this play out with a character in her twenties rather than teens? What will happen when she can have relationships and how deep will these be? While I realise they're not going to drift back to the ludicrous shorts and boots to what degree are they going to play up the bond angle of sequences taking place in exotic gowns, wetsuits and the various other 'uniforms' of the globe-trotting adventurer? Also, to what degree, once off the island, will they pull us into her exotic life-style? I hope they address these areas and don't isolate us away from them like they did (quite rightly for this one) in this game.
The game is full of cool moments, but three moments stand out: the climb up the radio tower, when Lara persuades the survivors to go up river rather than try and leave and the signature moment in the final conflict. The climbing of the tower is brilliantly filmed with great music and represents a point when Lara achieves something significant and believes she's about to get rescued. It's a great moment that gets an emotional reaction. When she persuades the remaining survivors to go up river it's the point she matures, as she becomes the expert and the leader. You feel she has grown. The cool bit at the end: she pulls the pistol from the holster of her enemy and, for one brief scene, you get to two-gun blaze the guy to death. An echo of the potential Lara to be. It just felt right.
It's a pity they can't make these games faster. It's also quite possible the next game might be on the next generation of consoles.
|Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 23/03/2013|
Fading Suns 2.2: Qan'Vesh Luk'Ret Von'DaKeywords: Role-Playing Games; Fate Fading Suns.
It's a bit late and one of the players has started to hound me for the GM side experience of the last Fate Fading Suns session. So I've hit the keyboard to get my thoughts down. Besides having a very weird name that makes little sense the session was quite different to the previous ones. The different feel to each session is just the new normal it would seem.
The session was different for a number of reasons. The last session felt more like the conclusion to Act One than the beginning of Act Two. A good thing, not a problem. It didn't significantly contribute to the transition to Act Two. It was meant to, but it happened very fast and took a very different shape. This speed meant I lost a session or two to ponder and contemplate the high level beats of Act Two, which I believe is going to be the hardest.
As a result, session 2.2 was either a cheat to delay events or a great opportunity to slow things down and focus on some pace problems. In truth, it was a bit of both.
The focus of the session is based around the title, a completely made up sequence of letters that is meant to represent a phrase of The Vau (an alien species) which, translated, means: What do you want? That was the intended focus of the episode to use various non-player characters to question the player characters on their intentions and events while those non-player characters wrestle with their own issues. This was supposed to be pulled together along with a big revelation as well as bringing things back to the Vau. The questions worked, a big revelation was made but it probably didn't tie up as well as it could and it didn't come back to the Vau.
This is probably more an 'artistic' niggle than a problem, I suspect.
In terms of pace and direction the sessions was positively pedestrian and lacked any impending, immediate situation at all. On paper it seems like a very bad idea! Yet I didn't have the momentum of Act Two clear in my head so I went with what I had as an experiment in pace. It felt wrong while it was playing out. It felt like a success at the individual scene level but a not so right in terms of overall delivery. I think disjointed is the word I'm looking for. In a way, more than in any other session, I'd be more interested in how it felt for the rest of the table. I think there is stuff to take away from it but I'm not sure I'd want the majority of sessions to be exactly like it.
It probably did work as a stop and contemplate session immediately after big events.
There was some really good scenes that dealt with some incisive, intimate and big questions about the what and the why. I really liked them. Some of them, I think, were very, very good. Then there was some scenes that moved things along and addressed areas that had been left a bit fallow. Some did both. A few moved in directions I didn't expect which also solved some revelation problems which is always a good thing! In terms of scenes...I think they represent the sort of scene the table needs to work towards sprinkling through all the sessions not just ones were the pace slows down (which I think does happen, but some comments suggest not enough or not in exactly the way needed).
In terms of events in the session things did go differently then expected. The scenes involving intentions about the future were only supposed to be half of the session. The second half was more action orientated based around obtaining the last message from a the universe's previous cycle. It wasn't meticulously planned, but it was hoped to be quite big scale. The scenes in the first 'half' took longer so the message ended up being delivered rather than fought for.
Some things didn't go as well.
Due to their being no shared situation or immediate threat the distribution of spotlight time each player got was highly dependent on scenes happening. I tried to distribute them evenly but I probably failed on that account. Two players probably got less scenes, though one of those was subject to moving things mechanically on a bit leaving one player at the bottom. It was a risk going in that someone would lose out a bit and it played out. Still, some of the scenes that didn't make it in for the player (various reasons) are stored away to be re-purposed in future sessions.
Less a problem as I liked the scenes, more an observation. None of the scenes were based on compels, though they were designed to address Aspects. This is a problem that is also constant. I use Aspects to understand the character so scenes can be created understanding that picture, but rarely compel. It's a difficult one. I can create a scene about two characters talking about fate, destiny and choice and whether they have hero complexes (directly related to Aspects) but can't figure out how that is a compel. Address Aspects yes, base scenes on compels? Still a bit confusing.
I am thinking of going with a cheat sheet in the future to try and resolve this problem.
After improving things on the rules front last session there was a bit of rules collapse this session. I just went blank on a number of things which slowed things down a bit and we did a few things wrong (such as what happens on a tie in a conflict). It's a continual issue, which is odd as I seemed to remember the rules better when playing Thrilling Tales than I do now, which is a bit odd. It's the usual problem of that side of things just getting push out as the session unfolds and I think about other things. Ideally the various elements would be more integrated and one and the same.
Since the session I've not thought about the game much so I need to get back to it. The challenge of the next session(s) is having the characters split into two groups both of them doing quite big things. It's a good idea, but it's going to be an interesting one in terms of pace, spotlight time and the distribution of that spotlight time.
And finally, for those tracking these things: was this episode influenced by Mr Morden on Babylon 5? A bit. It's totally different in terms of the intent of the questions and the questions don't all come from one character, but the idea of it being a question-focused session was influenced by it. I am coming to terms with the influence, now I'm more comfortable it isn't necessarily trampling all over the Fading Suns elements. Despite this, once you get beyond Fading Suns, the biggest theft of ideas remains computer games.
|Permalink | Comments(2) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 23/03/2013|
Pace..How Much Is Too Much?Keywords: Role-Playing Games; RPG Theory; Fate Fading Suns.
Note: This was written not long after the Gods of War (2.1) session of Fate Fading Suns, but took a while to get posted.
I've been thinking about pace in role-playing campaigns a bit lately, for a number of reasons.
First, it's something we wrestled with in the Smallville campaign so it's not new. Second, at least one player of Fate Fading Suns has raised a concern about pace. Third, while I've been happy with the pace so far, as we often take 2-3 sessions to get through any scenario, the session The Gods of War (2.1) had an horrendous burn rate.
It also occurs to me when the 'too much pace' issue comes up, it's often not exactly the same issue by each person who raises it.
Having thought about it a bit, and experienced it from both sides of the table, I think I have a better handle on the issue. I think it comes down to three factors:
Obviously, these three issues often combine. This list gives a good base to try and address some of the issues around 'pace' in the game moving forward.
The Wheels Come Off
You can have so much pace the game starts to fly apart. Decisions get made people regret. Elements get added to the milieu which are less than optimal. It's all too easy. Do it for too long you look back and wonder how you get to where you are.
Basically, it all gets carried away with itself and this can result in feeling like you're rolling down a hill with no way to stop it and anything that doesn't immediately add to the momentum gets left behind! This feeling can certainly be a reason why the opportunity to add scenes that do focus on certain areas don't get created as they get lost in the momentum. It can also be a game of escalation into the absurd or the ill-considered.
This is certainly something to watch out for and avoid. I don't think this has been a significant problem, but I'd certainly not want to run faster than session 2.1 or run as fast as 2.1 all the time as it certainly bordered on the ill-considered due to pace.
The Balance of Pace and Focus
As far as I'm concerned, at the macro level, the pace is fine. It's been big scale, but not too quickly done. The majority of scenarios have taken 2-3 sessions to resolve and while the fact they deal with big things may make them feel faster it's not really the case that enough time isn't dedicated to the ideas.
I don't think anyway.
Despite this, the overall pace can be right but that does not mean some things don’t get the correct level of focus. I think this is less about pace but more about scene quality: them happening, being framed correctly and actually addressing issues players may want to focus on that possibly aren't directly about the big events.
The key is to run the game at the required pace and scale but occasionally time needs to dilate like bullet time to address a specific area. Films and TV shows do this all the time, no matter what is at stake or the pace of the story overall, the opportunity will be taken to allow certain scenes to occur and be given the focus they need. The pause before the battle. The silence before the next wave. The rest while you consider your next options. The heartfelt declaration as the ship crashes through the atmosphere. It can even occur, if framed right, slam in the middle of a high paced event (always a good option).
I think this is an area of risk as I can see it potentially happening around character relationships: do relationships between the protagonists and NPCs have time to develop? Are they finding that time?
Looking at it through the lens of Smallville, in that game they got addressed but never stayed stable to be experienced for any length of time. The issue in Fate Fading Suns, I suspect, is the time is not being found, no 'relationship bullet time' happens. Sweeping events move on. This means relationships could get 'left behind'.
I don't think the answer is to slow the whole game down but to increase scene quality: insert them, frame them and deal with them. That way you get the benefit of both without having to deal with small events or large events stretching out into a campaign of massive length.
Epic Can Be Intimate
This brings me to scale. It is all too easy for intimidate and subtle to be equated with smaller scale and slower. I don't think this has to be the case. What can happen when you're more towards the big scale and epic end is you constantly feel like you're making decisions about grand events, rather than being involved in a network of relationships which have a level of intimacy in them.
I suspect this is more the issue: scenes are being 'scaled out' so to speak. When this happens I don't advocate scaling down.
I think you have to keep the language and the backdrop all 'wide screen', but the intimacy and subtlety has to occur within that. You want the characters to be having there relationships and moments in the context of the grand events they are embroiled in. After all, this is what their life constitutes. Anything else and you're effectively playing a different game that possibly loses its identity.
In a way, this comes down to creating and framing scenes...again.
I think the issue of 'too much pace' is a niggling issue. I think it's something that has to be addressed in the right way and for the approach and the implications of it to explicit across the table.
I can't help but feel there are two choices.
First, you run the game at a slower, laconic pace and accept the less intense, and I suspect smaller scale, that comes with that. If I was to do this I think I'd have a radically different game. I quite like the idea that the game runs a bit like Babylon 5, Deep Space Nine or Battlestar Galactica but with more of the big episodes strung together and less of the filler episodes. I don't want to throttle the pace back much from the way the game flowed in sessions 1.1 to 1.5.
In terms of the above I'd be for experimenting with the odd slower episode occassionally.
The other option is to try, and this is the difficult bit, to step back and look for the opportunities. I only say this because it involves pausing and thinking not just rushing headlong away with the excitement, which is very easy to do for all concerned. I know I get carried away with it rather than using my implied GM throttle to step back for a moment.
Stop. Think. Can I insert a scene here and what should it be about? What is the agenda in terms of relationships or Aspects I'm trying to push? It's a bit Primetime Adventures in thinking. I do think that is a good proportion of the GM's role, and I miss opportunities, for sure, but like most things, I think bringing the focus to the scale and pace might just take everyone. Especially since some of this stuff, like the nature of NPC relationships, often needs a PC steer. I think it has worked already, it just needs to be more consistent and more of the fabric of the game.
I think that has to be the approach, I'm just aware it's obviously easier said then done!
|Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 22/03/2013|
Lara Croft And The Realistic VeneerKeywords: Video Games.
To say the re-booted Tomb Raider game has been a long time coming is an understatement. It's been so long coming that Lara Craft, the poster girl for a certain type of 3D, pulp-ish adventure hasn't really put in a decent turn since the first PlayStation. She waited so long to hit the PlayStation 3 her crown was taken by a certain roguish, male relic hunter known as Nathan Drake in the Uncharted series.
Uncharted became everything the Tomb Raider series should have been in the current console generation but wasn't. As a result, it's inevitable that the new Tomb Raider is essentially Tomb Raider does Uncharted...with a twist. This isn't a bad thing and just an inevitable consequence of the franchise creatively dropping the ball.
I've got 53% of the way through the game last weekend and this post is based on my experiences at this point.
The story is very different to other Tomb Raider games, it's a mixture of Lost and Rambo: First Blood. Oddly, this works. Lara gets shipwrecked on a strange island which seems to do a good job of attracting people to it and not letting them leave. A strange cult lives on the island. The survivors of the shipwreck must survive. This sets the tone of the piece as it's not a grand, pulp, globe-trotting adventure featuring a mix of contemporary Indiana Jones and James Bond. Lara has been given the de-rigour veneer of realism and intensity that all franchises seem to get these days. Tomb Raider has been 'Nolan-ised'. It works. I am very interested in how they take this approach moving forward once Lara becomes the eminent adventurer and her exploits scale up. It could mean, as Lara becomes more adult, the stories do also?
The story is delivered well. The cut scenes merge very well with the game play. They also deliver the right amount of emotion involving desperation, camaraderie, sadness and triumph without milking it too much. I think they are 'filmed' well and look amazing. There is also just the right amount of them. The various characters that get shipwrecked with Lara aren't Mass Effect 2 quality but they get the job done. It is an area they could improve on in later games once Lara gets a handful of years on her. Reduce the number of characters involved and increase the intensity of the relationship with each. I am more involved in the narrative than I am with Uncharted. It is some elusive quality in how it is done, compared with a central protagonist you do want to see grow and succeed, while Nathan Drake is a bit too much the 'general, laconic and wise-cracking hero' and as such comes across as a bit of a cipher (women issues aside).
Lara starts the game as a very earnest, eighteen year old posh girl on her first archaeological trip, pushing for her companions to visit a certain location which proves their undoing. Needless to say, she has to grow up fast once shipwrecked. At the 53% point I like how the character is growing. As the scenes with the various characters unfold it's obvious she is transitioning from the eighteen year old guest to someone who is standing up to be counted, growing into a leadership position and becoming the character with the necessary knowledge to get her friends off the island.
Her growth into an action hero is a bit more abrupt as it takes about two hours for Lara to kill her first human being. The first kill is well done but after this point the set-up of the game and the skill system turns Lara into a posh, teenage Rambo capable of head shots with her bow and pistol, caving in people's heads with a climbing axe and winning fights in which she is hopelessly outnumbered (just like in Uncharted). This has been a source of complaint, but I think it's a rather pointless one. She was not going to remain the timid girl all the way throughout the game. We are experiencing the origin story of an exceptional action hero, not a normal person. Her emergence as a teenage action hero shouldn't be that ridiculous in the context of the genre: we accept it in both The Walking Dead (with the head shot expert that is Karl) and The Hunger Games both of which are members (or part members) of the survivalist genre.
Oddly, the game is 18 rated. This is a brave decision considering the background to the character. It basically does for the franchise what Casino Royale did for Bond. I hope they stick with it as this can only provide more of a benefit as the character ages. One odd benefit of this is the characters swear. They’re not swearing every other word, it's relatively rare, but it is interesting how that adds to the realism of the overall tapestry. You don't miss it when it's not present but in a good script it works when it is. Weird.
In terms of game play I'm loving it, but then its learned from the best, it being a mixture of the Uncharted and the Arkham Batman games. In the main it's like Uncharted, with the added addition of a brilliant cover system which just seems to work with zero conscious effort. It's brilliantly done. The Batman influence comes in the form of the 'survival instinct' ability which is exactly like detective mode. Is this just a help system? Well, yes, to a degree, though I find I hardly use it, but it does get around the gaming issue of Lara being this preternatural adventurer while the player isn't so I am fine with it. The running and jumping issues are virtually non-existent. It's all very good.
The combat parts of the game can be a bit frustrating, especially when they put you in a relatively confined space and then insist on throwing a lot of dynamite. The combats are an Uncharted and Batman mix as well, with the different enemy types coming straight out of Batman. In future games, once they've get over the origin story and established Lara as a superlative adventurer with an archaeological bent they should tone these down a bit and ramp up the exotic tombs a bit more and have some grander puzzles.
I like the experience system, also very similar to the one in Batman, as you upgrade yourself with skills and also your gear. The upgrade of gear making your tools (bow, pistol, machine gun, climbing axe) easier to use, better and capable of new functions that open up new areas. Your personal skills aren't transformed in the sense you go from weak to God-like, but they do open up new combat options that show a level of progression that feels right under the desperate circumstances Lara is in. It's provides a sense if increased capability.
It's a very good game and it succeeds in making you care and being very attached to the Lara character, much more than the competition (in the form of Nathan Drake. I am hoping they can use this base and 'you were there at the beginning' feel to really deliver some great adventures as the character ages. I'm betting on the next one being on or around University graduation and it being Lara's first, big 'solo' expedition! We shall see.
|Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 22/03/2013|
Fading Suns 2.1: The Gods of WarKeywords: Role-Playing Games; Fate Fading Suns.
Session six and another interesting one. Not one of them has been the same so far? Is this how it normally works? I'm sure last time I was GM'ing things fell into a fairly typical experience while currently the dynamics have felt quite different each time. Anyway, this one was interesting for two reasons, one intended and one not intended.
The intended experiment was the shift to Fate Core. The reasons for doing this I've discussed before: to move the game to a common rule set (as much as is possible) and for that to reflect the latest, maturest thinking on the Fate system. I think this was a success. While things can always be a bit clearer, I felt it provided a much clearer path to walk down in the coming sessions. It feels like a much more stable base for me to practice using the system and gain a better level of mastery over it in actual play. I also felt the whole table was a bit more on the same page. This is a good thing. I like the clearer language about action types, the types of rolls and the outcomes. Works well.
It also became apparent this session, though it's probably been building as a fact since the beginning, we are not using the Starblazer sub-systems and instead just using what would be overcome rolls (basic skill rolls) and now challenges (the outcome in a series of skill rolls). A key example being starship combat at whatever level, none of which has ever involved stats for individual ships or fleets. This isn't an issue, it's a good thing, as it keeps the resolution mechanisms consistent and condenses sub-systems into just rolls, aspects and setting difficulties. It also saves me time as this is the last session I'm going to prepare anything in terms of starship stats as they never get used. I'm done with it. It's all going to have to be represented by difficulties, types of action and situation Aspects.
This does mean, in retrospect, if I'd known what I know now and Fate Core had been more available the use of Starblazer would have been entirely for the purpose of reference (such as the scale for big things) and we'd have just gone with core.
The second experiment wasn't intended at all, the session just flowed differently from the opening scene and the only real response was to sit back and go with the flow. The scenario (what I'm calling the artefact that sits above a session and usually consists of multiple sessions) basically had three situations each of which was designed to push buttons around the types of choices that have to be made in the context of the path the protagonists have set off on and their aspects. This roughly compared to three acts.
All that got torn up. This created the impromptu experiment of just going with the flow completely! It also meant what I expect to happen every session did happen this time and we burned through a lot of big stuff very quickly.
Some of the planned scenes could still have been addressed and could have found a slot, so to speak, as events unfolded, if not for the fact the characters split up and went from one end of the galaxy to another including completely new areas (so I kicked back to them to them keep me sane). This meant that invariable the wrong character was in the wrong place so even when some planned situations could have kicked off based on location (or a slightly altered location) it still didn't hit the target. You also get thrown a bit, as I changed an NPC on the basis they would get lead to the intended NPC but then due to the way a scene went this seemed superfluous so I should have just moved the intended NPC. What goes on behind the GM 'screen', it's like the smoke and mirrors of the shell game.
I did experiment with NPCs using the rules on the players, just a bit, and it worked well. Not hard conflicts, more the discovery of aspects and feelings. I particularly like the use of NPC skills to read characters so they can then move the scene forward based on the new knowledge. This was used to allow an NPC to sense a character was conflicted over a pivotal point and I thought the scene was much stronger and better for that having happened. It removes the 'does the NPC know he is conflicted' conundrum and brings it into play.
It all went quite well considering, the only problem I have with it is sometimes decisions made in the moment can always be regretted afterwards. This happens more when everyone is on virgin territory and making stuff up on the spot, it's sometimes genius, sometimes it's fine but a better option may have existed with some thought. If you're not very alert all the time things can also become fact that might have been best not being established, from a certain point of view. Reflection is a wonderful thing. There is nothing major, big or annoying in this but little things might have been better massaged.
I also have a slight concern with pace, but this isn't a binary thing of too fast or too slow, so I'm going to leave to another post in the near future.
I can take a number of things away from the session.
First, I'm on a better base for using the system to create a better game. It's going to take some practice but there is now a better understanding of the tools, a better understanding of the maths and now it just needs for some more aggressive application. I need to not hold off on setting higher difficulties (+1 to +3 higher than skills). Sometimes it just takes a +6 / +7 difficulty for everything to feel challenging no matter what my inner feeling of 'cheating'. Besides, all this means is they throw Aspects and invokes into the mix which allows the characters uniqueness to come into play.
I need to use artefacts in the system to bolster the scenes to make them challenging, such as Aspects with free tags to represent prepared positions or advantages the opposition has already. Possibly involving overcome rules to remove those factors? I am thinking of Aspects that represent pre-prepared overcome rolls - this is a bit like the way dice are attached to such things in Marvel Heroic Role-Playing. This can effectively make difficulty rolls harder while reflecting a situation that can change, which offers an alternative to a permanently high difficulty. Anyway, tools should exist in the box.
These sort of things represent a bit of a shift in thinking. Rather than establishing the challenge in some sort of objective reality, such as how skilled would that NPC be, sometimes it should be subjective based on the drama. This can even, at times, be based on the rise and fall of the story. Sometimes something is difficult just because it's that time in the narrative! The pressure is on! The good thing about this is it doesn't mean protagonists fail, just things get more complicated with their success, which links well to difficulties rising at the key points in the story as this is exactly when a swell of complications should occur. In the past, strictly by the rules, utilising this approach could have resulted in horrible whiff due to Fate binary failure mechanism or having to fine tune it out with stakes. The new mechanism can 'late load' the part of the stake depending on if a 'failure, but' is needed.
Second, I may have finally broke the back of running the game with less and less prep. In truth, this isn't what happens, of course, as what's actually happened is you reach a point where there is enough stuff and common understanding that material for a session exists and what doesn't can be created by the table as a whole out of the existing fabric and understanding. Each game takes a different lengths of time to get to the that point but I think act one got us to that point. This doesn't mean I'll be turning up with nothing on a regular basis, as I have a strong belief a game is better with a GM pushing things into the game to provide some level of conflict and adversity, but it is an interesting situation to be in.
It is particularly important to me as I suspect there is a correlation between how much 'good resistance' the protagonists face and some quality time to think about the session.
And finally, I also took better notes!
|Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 08/03/2013|
The Non-Existent Crawford Crazy FolkKeywords: Video Games.
The fourth episode of The Walk Dead game was the weakest one so far. It was bound to happen eventually. There are numerous reasons for this. It fell back into the format of episode one so it didn't feel as new and as fresh as the different approaches in episode two and three. It seemed to have more adventure components, which coming after the strong emotional narrative of episode three felt a bit ponderous. In truth, the episode felt a lot longer than the previous three but this may not actually be true.
Warning: What follows contains major spoilers.
The group arrive in Savannah and get pulled into some standard zombie apocalypse affair. This involves being holed up in a house and discovering the situation in the town and trying to allow Kenny to succeed in his obsession to sail of into the sunset and into safety. The fact you'd be out at sea, starving on a small boat, seems to be something the narrative doesn't really want to directly address.
The mystery around the town is initially very interesting, with the 'walled' off Crawford area offering the possibility of meeting some Governer-style mad man. All this proves to be true, with the society behind the wall killing children and old people and surviving on the principle only the fit deserve to live. Alas, you never get to have dramatic scenes with these people over whether there choices are what it takes to survive because it turns out they've all been turned to zombies. This is a bit disappointing as it just creates more of the same urban survival. Episodes two and three had set my expectations at meeting the people in Crawford and having it out with them dramatically as well as the potential for Clementine's parents to be part of the society.
There is more adventure content in episode four, which even includes a section in the sewers on your own. You just seem to do the puzzle thing a bit more. The most surreal one, which is almost at the ridiculous level of the games of old, was an automatic locking pet door which can be opened by digging up the pet to get its collar. The rest are similar, involving releasing valves to distract zombies and watching old video tapes to unlock a medicine cabinet. It's not that these are hard, boring or infuriating, it's that they felt more pronounced than in previous episodes.
The biggest frustration? Despite the cliffhanger to episode three being that Clementine was actually speaking to someone on her walkie-talkie this isn't addressed in the episode at all. It just bookends it. This cements the feeling that the episode was a holding episode. Don't get me wrong, it does deal with some good narrative, such as Kenny dealing with the death of his family (sort off) and whether you give the college student a chance to step up and prove himself along with directly asking you whether you should give Clementine up? Despite this, it still felt a bit like a holding episode.
As usual, my choices seemed to follow the trend. The one that didn't, by a large margin, being the decision to hide the fact I'd been bitten. Only 19% of people chose to do that. This must mean I'm a lying, cheating scum bag? It was a choice I lingered over, as long as the game's timer allows anyway.
Ultimately, I decided that looking for Clementine was the most important thing to me and I didn't want the fact I was bitten to kick off an epic argument that would get in the way of that. Possibly that would not have happened. The issue was I didn't know. I also figured no one else in the group had been entirely selfless? I also wanted to be the one to tell her I'd been bitten, not one of the others with an agenda. So, in this instance, I wasn't going to think of them, but prioritise my goals and Clementine. All that went through my head as the clock ticked down on the decision. It's by far the most dishonest decision I've made in the game.
I really am surprised, considering what was at stake, that complete honesty had such a high hit rate? Especially since so many people took Clementine with them to Crawford, suggesting many had already decided they could not divorce themselves from responsibility for her.
Episode four was still a very good experience, it just drops a bit compared to the first three. It's quite possible that episode 4 is good, it's just two and three are fantastic. I'm hoping it's the troublesome middle, the episode that comes immediately after a very powerful one, and now we can run dramatically to the conclusion. In short, this may have been the relatively flat top of the curve and now we can come hurtling down it.
|Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 23/02/2013|
Fate Rules..Shaking It Up A BitKeywords: Role-Playing Games; Fate Fading Suns.
So, as I've discussed a few times, the application of the Fate rules sometimes gets lost in the rush during the Fate Fading Suns sessions. This has been a function of a few things. Some of it is brain space, which probably does mean I'm not allocating my time effectively. One of the players has also raised another issue, the feeling being we play a nebulous version of Fate, pulled from our subconscious from various trace memories of other iterations.
I'd even say we pull other games into the mix. If not the rules certainly the philosophies of other games.
This feeling probably isn't helped by the fact I designed the character generation to be a mixture of Starblazer and Dresden. It got the feeling of Franken-Fate off to a good start, I suspect. This has been compounded by the language around the game being one of taking the best from other games, but in the process not having one documented set of rules. In practice, we've done this, throwing tools in on the hoof.
In truth, Starblazer is just Spirit of the Century but trying to impose that earlier version as a more stable base seems both wrong and discounts gaining the benefit of more mature Fate games.
So, I decided to give Fate Core a read. It has the latest Fate thinking in it. We're also on the cusp of starting Act II, once we get over the scheduling hump, which affords the opportunity for a fresh start. I also tend to think doing things slightly differently is a better way to shift out of business as usual. So I've decided to mix it up a bit. A stop...think approach. After all, you can hardly change routines by keeping the routines largely the same?
Fate Core. It isn't complete. It's a relatively early revision that was put out for review and is due to be released complete this month along with art. So using that set of rules would seem to be a mad way to cure the Franken-Fate? To a degree, but Fate Core does two things: it changes the nature of the game quite a bit, certainly moving it from Fate 3.0 to Fate 4.0, and it codifies the language and structures of Fate into simpler a better form.
Let's address the codification first. There is a bit of a movement in gaming at the moment, codifying the nature of activity at the table so it is a structured experience. Fate had this before, but Fate Core does wonderful things through simplification, providing more structure and empowering it at the same time. Structure shapes thinking. It also shapes the language and activities at the table. I like what they've done. The codification of outcomes on rolls changes the game significantly as the binary outcomes are ditched. The four things skills can be put to radically simplifies the old Fate language which now seems verbose and complicated. It will make things simpler in the long run, especially when the final revision comes out with examples and designer notes, etc.
The surprising element of Fate Core is it does change the game...quite radically. The main difference is in how simple rolls work in overcome actions (the action type that involves overcoming challenges with a skill). Instead of binary success or failure, which is common in the Fate iterations I've read, a failure but and success and model has been officially adopted and embedded in the experience. This is not a small change as it does two things: embeds narrative outcomes in the simple roll and it seeds itself throughout the rest of the system. The simple roll becomes more powerful as a way to shoot the drama off in unintended directions. It can be particularly powerful in challenges, when multiple skill rolls are made by single or multiple participants to build a mosaic of success ands along with failure buts that weave into the narration.
I really like the new simple roll mechanic, as while I'm sometimes crap at coming up with the buts on them spot it is a better way to do it. It makes rolling clearer. At times we've rolled dice, sometime multiple dice in Fate Fading Suns, with no concept of the player failing! The journey was useful, but it's a bit odd. This new mechanic works with the competency focus of Fate by ensuring a player does not have to fail at his goal, but there will be consequences.
Since Fate Core isn't complete, though the core of it, so to speak, is present, I've decided to pull together my own Fate Fading Suns Toolbox. This is 90% sourced from Fate Core but pulls other thinking in from Dresden Files to round things out. The Dresden Files stuff tends to be 'designer notes' material that hasn't made it into Fate Core yet (but has on some forums and will in final versions). A good example is the setting of difficulties and how this relates to the meaning behind skill levels and the influence of the narrow dice outcomes within Fate (and Fate Points). This toolbox isn't so much the rulebook, but more my GM Cheat Sheet to keep my message on the straight and narrow.
I'm going to try and link this with a bit more rigour on establishing scenes and what their purpose is as well being a bit more observant on invocations and compels. Throw in a new way of handling the Fate Point pool, on a per scene basis, and we'll see how things go. I know things feel simpler, more accessible and sorted in my head. It just has to feel the same at the table!
I'm going to give it a go. Strangely, it may also have influenced prep a bit, but I'll see how it plays out before talking about that.
|Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 17/02/2013|
A Sad, Intense Zombie Road TripKeywords: Video Games.
Last weekend I played through episode three of The Walking Dead game and there is not enough superlatives in the dictionary to describe the experience. It is brilliant, tense, intimate, traumatic and offers something different every episode. I've recently played episode three and it was a different experience again to episode one and two.
Spoiler Warning: What follows contains major spoilers.
Episode three will haunt me for a while. The group are forced to leave the motel and head out of town. They do this while a conflict exists within the group over stolen supplies. In the process, Carly dies in one of the most shocking, abrupt and callous deaths I've seen on any screen, never mind a computer game. An intense, escalating argument that just flows rapidly out of control and then, from nowhere, bang. You also find the group dealing with the slow, inevitable death of a child. During these dramas the group find a train and make their way to Savannah. It's a story about being able to cope with the horrors that the world presents. It's a slow character piece that works and was on the borderline of bringing a tear to my eye.
Is the experience diminished slightly once you realise all the characters that die in episode three will always die in episode three? It does ever so slightly, as you realise that it wasn't your choices that resulted in the deaths. At the same time, you realise the deaths are probably set as few games allow for branching plotting to the degree whole characters can be missing or not missing. Mass Effect does it to a degree, but all dead characters are replaced with an analogue that serves a similar, but slightly different role. It's like reading a book, which has no choices, of course, but you're more intimately pulled into the drama. It works differently to a film or book and delivers something...new.
The key to the game, as I've no doubt said before, is the strong narrative experience. This episode exemplifies that the most as you're not dealing with the immediate aftermath of the zombie outbreak, neither are you experiencing a horror story in an isolated location, it is a 100% pure character drama of conflict and harrowing loss. It works. There are few games like this on the market. Mass Effect comes close but it has much more game in the mix, The Walking Dead survives off much less game content and it's still completely absorbing.
Interestingly the key choices in the episode did not feel as big or as tense as in the last two. This doesn’t mean they weren’t, just that the overall approach to the episode was a constant, overriding feeling of stress and pressure and as a result the ‘big decision moments’ became a natural part of the flow. In the past the choices have been clearly skewed, this episode the stats clearly show a more even distribution between the binary choices with the exception of the shooting of Duck. Duck is a child. I think it says a lot about the strength of the narrative that by this point the overriding number of people have taken on a sense of responsibility and thus opt to be the one to pull the trigger.
I cannot recommend the experience enough. Everyone looking for a great story should play it. Anyone who is a fan of The Walking Dead should play it. You should just play it as it goes down as one of those singular experiences, at a point in time in gaming history, that will no doubt change things moving forward.
The new face of point-and-click adventures and episodic gaming. It's here now, get in on the act.
|Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 15/02/2013|
Approaching Act IIKeywords: Role-Playing Games; Fate Fading Suns.
Fading Suns is moving into Act II and has five sessions behind it, this provides an opportunity for the focus of the campaign to change and to review some of the approaches I'd hope to embed in the sessions themselves. To one degree or another these don't survive hitting the table, but I figure you're best having some goals.
The crucible has changed. It's going need to shift from a ship-based game of discovery to a station-based game of knowledge and action. The location based element of this isn't that binary, as elements of both did and will exist in both acts, but Tartarus Station certainly rises in prominence (with the characters not just being visitors). The main difference is shifting the characters out of discovery to being powerful actors.
Obviously, this isn't all present yet, but the mechanisms by which it can happen are present in the game, being spread across across one character being the heir apparent to a Dynastic House with a loyal following, another a living legend from the point everything went wrong, one is now a host to something that absorbed all intelligent life and fought the 'War in the Heavens' and then we have an eminent scientist, prominent (to be) member of a secret society and who has access to the Technical Apocrypha. There is no shortage of mechanisms to shift the model.
The remaining items are all related really, but I'll address them in turn.
I need to use the rules more. This has been an issue to differing degrees in each session. It's purely a function of me spending my time concentrating on other things and the pace of the game picking up a bit. I need to alter my approach to factor in Aspects directly, push the Fate Point economy in the game and, when needed, make sure conflicts happen.
The interesting thing about the conflicts is there has to be a real conflict, not just one manufactured so a conflict can occur - that's been one of the main problems. When one really exists it sings, but I tend to default to 'no conflict' if the NPC isn't that invested or the narrative direction isn't worth challenging. It's all too easy to get conflict fatigue, which I felt was the case in the Smallville system, with every scene becoming a conflict making interaction with important NPC's feel like a war of attrition. The conflicts can also result in weird situations were it's a sensible conflict dramatically, it's sensible for the NPC to be in conflict but no one at the table wants the player to lose.
It can get quite odd. I need to find balance and put a bit of effort into identifying sensible and meaningful conflicts.
Then we have the issue of using the rules right. Combat never feels right, but this isn't a function of the system as dramatic combats work well in Fate (issues of length aside they sang in Thrilling Tales) but the fact they come up so little they seem so inconsequential. It's a question of the effort being put in (ironic for me, and unexpected).
We've also been doing compels wrong as players have been compelling each other directly from their own Fate Point pool. A player initiated compel , whether against another or themselves, suggest a compel which the GM then runs with. This is a better model as the compel can then be negotiated and the Fate Point doesn't come from the refresh of the player who suggested it! It also reduces the PvP feel of the experience by smoothing out the edges.
I'd like to manage Fate Points in a different way. If you ignore unlimited GM Fate Points to compel character aspects, which sort themselves out in the economy, it still doesn't feel right each NPC having their own pool based on the full character design rules. The issues are a mixture of each NPC coming to a scene with a full refresh (and probably only having one conflict in the session) and needing to stat each NPC completely (which is rarely relevant). If GM Fate Point use becomes divorced from NPC refresh totals there needs to be some way to either (1) balance out unlimited GM Fate Point use or (2) a method to decide number of GM Fate Points per scene that factors in participants.
I had a dig through Fate Core and it runs with option (2) suggesting that a GM has one Fate Point per scene based on the number of PC participants. I like this sort of model as it keeps the GM scene pool 'flat' while allowing the PC's to burn their refresh over an extended period. I may need to tweak it slightly as I'm sure that one Fate Point per PC rule is based on the 3 refresh minus stunts set-up of Fate Core while Fate Fading Suns is running with eight minus stunts!
A bit more discipline over scenes. This was always the plan but it's easy to lose focus once events hit the table and the game gathers pace. Now I'm more comfortable in the GM position there may be opportunity to apply a bit more rigour in this area. The original intention was to have a looser, Primetime Adventures framework. I don't think this went too badly, but it could probably be looked at again. It just may need to be codified more to gain the advantage of things being structured and explicit.
A simple focus around any scene being described in terms of: purpose (which can be exploration or conflict), location, participants and potential scene aspects. The aim, as usual, is just to make intentions a bit more explicit rather than all participants trying to figure each others intentions out.
I also really need to start making notes. Some of this is I get distracted and put my thoughts elsewhere, but also slowing the scenes down a bit might also help. You never know, I suspect it will remain a continual issue. It needs to be folded into the scene structure with me just accepting the conclusion of a scene means noting it down!
I think Act II could be the most difficult. You're not running directly to an end goal at this point, which makes things a bit less focused. You're essentially on a journey to clarify what those end conditions are. As is typical in a campaign, you have the shape of those end conditions in your head but they may change and the exact way they manifest either isn't known or will be different by the end of the middle act anyway. It can also mean the middle section can be longer and at risk of dragging (while Act III could be shorter as you know the end conditions).
It also means you have to stop throwing things in and seeing where they go. This in itself is difficult as the abstract has to start become more concrete. It's the point in TV shows were people start to figure out not all things add up and the writers hope the audience don't mind elements just fading into the background. I've not reached that point yet, as there has been a weak glue at work and some work on linking things together has enhanced rather than degraded, but it could rapidly get to that point if Act II isn't managed well.
It'll be interesting to see how it plays out.
|Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 10/02/2013|