Independent role-playing games—what does this mean in a market that is dominated by publishers with very few full time employees? To me, independent role-playing games are simply the games that are left when you discount the big ones:
No D&D, no Pathfinder, no Shadowrun, no Warhammer, no Old School Renaissance, no Das Schwarze Auge.
An der letzten OerliCon habe ich In A Wicked Age geleitet. Irgendwie war mir die Würfelmechanik aber nicht mehr ganz präsent, und so habe ich etwas improvisiert, und jetzt, ein paar Tage später, habe ich nochmal nachgelesen, wie das alles funktioniert. Ich finde In A Wicked Age sehr schön geschrieben, kurze, prägnante, fast poetische Sätze. Und die Beispiele sind wunderbar ausführlich, bedenken alle Eventualitäten, bringen dir bei, wie man das Spiel spielt – und wie man Rollenspiele generell spielt.
Leider taugt es nicht als Nachschlagewerk. In der Eile etwas gesucht? Oje! Deswegen für mich selber hier die Zusammenfassung. Ideal für eine Convention. Deutsche Charakterbögen und Orakel gibt es bei 3w20.
Konflikt: Wenn ein Spieler zur Tat schreitet und jemand dagegen halten kann und will, dann kommt es zum Konflikt.
Formen: Alle Beteiligten Spieler wählen zwei Formen für ihren Charakter (Gewaltsam, Liebevoll, Direkt, Verdeckt, Für mich, Für andere) und nehmen die entsprechenden zwei Würfel (W4 bis W12) zur Hand.
Besondere Vorteile: Wer einen besonderen Vorteil einbringen kann, nimmt den entsprechenden Würfel dazu (meistens ein W8, selten ein W10, sehr selten ein W12).
Die Liste: Wer auf der Liste steht, kann sich streichen lassen, und sich dafür jederzeit einen Vorteil kaufen und diesen bis zum Ende des Konflikts behalten. Spielercharaktere kommen auf die Liste, wenn sie mit kleineren Würfeln die erste Runde überstehen.
Vorteil: Wer den Vorteil hat, darf einen W6 zum eigenen Resultat hinzu zählen. Einen Vorteil kann man im Konflikt erringen oder durch die Streichung von der Liste kaufen. Beides bringt je einen W6. Mehrfache Vorteil erringen oder kaufen bringt nichts. Es ist egal, gegen wen ein Vorteil errungen wurde. Ein Vorteil ist ein Vorteil.
Initiative: Alle Beteiligten würfeln ihre Würfel. Gibt es mehr als zwei Beteiligte, so wird in der Reihenfolge der Initiative angegriffen. Das höchste Ergebnis steht. Alle Anderen werden ihre Würfel neu würfeln müssen…
Angreifen: Man erzählt, was man vor hat. Gibt es mehr als zwei Beteiligte, so benennt man diejenigen, die sich verteidigen sollen. Das müssen nicht alle sein! Wer nicht angegriffen wurde, darf später noch angreifen, seinen Angriff neu würfeln und die Beteiligten benennen, die sich verteidigen sollen.
Verteidigen: Man würfelt seine Würfel neu und versucht, das Ergebnis des Angreifers zu schlagen. Wer sich verteidigen muss, kann diese Runde nicht mehr angreifen. Es kann sein, dass man sich mehrmals verteidigen muss: Wenn man gegen mehr als einen Gegner antritt und die Initiative verliert.
Resultat: Der Verteidiger vergleicht sein Resultat mit dem Resultat des Angreifers und erzählt etwas passendes:
Kurzum: Man versucht den Gegner um das Doppelte zu schlagen oder wenigstens den Vorteil zu erringen. Wer nach drei Runden den Vorteil hat, gewinnt.
Erzählen: Man beachte, dass der Verteidiger erzählt, was passiert ist!
Verlieren: Der Sieger wählt zwischen Erschöpfung (für Spielercharaktere: der Würfel für Gewaltsam und Direkt wird um einen Schritt zurück gestuft) und Verletzung (für Spielercharaktere: der Würfel für Verdeckt und Für andere wird um einen Schritt zurück gestuft), oder die beiden Spieler einigen sich auf ein anderes Ergebnis.
Nächste Runde: Nachdem alle gehandelt haben (Angreifen oder Verteidigen), beginnt die nächste Runde wieder mit der Initiative.
Drei Runden: Ein Konflikt dauert maximal drei Runden. In der dritten Runde gewinnt das höhere Ergebnis, Punkt. Wenn sich die Spieler auf ein Ergebnis einigen, kann jeder Konflikt vorher abgebrochen werden.
In A Wicked Age. Das PDF kostet $5 und lohnt sich allemal!
At the local con, I ran four games. The game for Saturday morning was Darkening Skies by Chris Sakkas, an unofficial chapter two for Lady Blackbird by John Harper. The players at the con were the very same ones I had a year ago, plus one. Seven players!
Last year, we played Lady Blackbird, this year we played Darkening Skies. And I think they want to play another session next year. I had to make two new characters. They love it, they love my running the game, and I love them.
The game mechanics are great. Simple enough for everybody to understand. Using a trait and various appropriate tags replaces a multitude of related skills, and it informs the narrative. The results, on the other hand, cannot be talked away using bennies. You must invest your pool dice before you roll. Oh, the groaning at the table when a sure roll fails anyway! “One’s for free, one for being a veteran, one for being fast, and … uh … help, guys??”
The refresh mechanics are also extremely simple. Players need to replenish their pool. If there’s a lull in the action, two players can get together, have a flashback or some intimate conversation that lets us, everybody at the table, know something about them, how they got to know each other, how they felt about each other, how they feel about each other right now. When I run the game, I tell the players that we all want to be entertained. Tell us! And slowly, players start to appreciate that the game is also about the personal drama. He loves here but she’s looking for somebody else. This somebody else is an imperial captain out to get the pirates. One of the players is the pirate captain come to rescue them. One is the imperial spy come to rescue the imperials. One is the sheriff come to see justice done. One is the priest come to find forgiveness. This initial setup, and the mechanics slowly pushing the players to reveal more and more about their characters. At the end we have a sister betraying her brother, a gentleman shooting the true love of his beloved, an aristocrat rebuffed by a pirate, all of these things come together, and ships are exploding, and escape pods are raining down from the sky, and everybody is shouting and shaking their heads and whispering under their breath, “That was cruel, man. Cruel.”
I love it.
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Comparing it with my previous experience of running Darkening Skies, I’d say what worked much better was Jezebel’s love interest going on a mission to capture the pirates, so it wasn’t easy for her to leave. Other than that, we had the same effect as last time: the party split up into three groups or more, but this time, with so many players at the table, and many of them so much into it, this was not a problem. They simply moved aside and talked about things, in character. Twice, I had to tell such groups to please not keep their secrets to themselves. We all wanted to know what was going down. So many things were going on, all at the same time. It was confusing and wonderful.
Extra German characters:
Support John Harper on Patreon, if you are so inclined.
Heute war der erste Tag des Zürcher Rollenspieltreffens, der OerliCon (in Dietikon). Ich habe viele Leute wieder getroffen, welche ich von früher kenne, alte Mitspieler aus alten Runden und von früheren Jahren, ein paar Bekannte aus der [Pen & Paper Schweiz] Facebook Gruppe, … viel zu kurz, um mit allen zu schwatzen. Ich habe In A Wicked Age geleitet und es hat super funktioniert. Gerne wieder mal!✎
Am Samstag Nachmittag habe ich dann Isotope geleitet. Auch dies hat grossen Spass gemacht. Diesmal ging es mehr um die Komik der Postapokalypse und der Mutationen als um die Beziehungen unter den Charakteren.✎
Am Samstag Abend habe ich noch eine kleine Mission Mouse Guard geleitet, was leider nicht sehr gut ankam. Da ich selber auch immer noch kein Freund von Mouse Guard bin, sollte ich das Spiel vielleicht aus der Liste streichen. Es ist halt ein guter Kontrast zu den anderen Spielen. Mechanisch intensiv, wie alle Burning Wheel HQ Spiele.✎
The other day we played Darkening Skies, an unofficial Lady Blackbird sequel. It went very well. My prep was minimal (a few minutes at most), the rules were easy to understand, the setting quick to get into. Rules, plot and setting borrow so heavily from current sensibilities, it’s incredibly easy to digest. Everybody at the table sees within the material the things they like: Firefly, Star Wars, The City of Lost Children, Solar System, Apocalypse World, Fate, Mouse Guard, it can all be there if you start looking for it.
One thing to look out for is the additional freedoms built into the setup. Lady Blackbird had characters with diverging goals, but they were all going to a particular destination on a ship. So even if the stories diverged on the way, characters always returned to the ship an proceeded on to the next chapter. In Darkening Skies, the characters all have a reason to come to the ship, but they have different reasons for leaving the ship.
As soon as Jezebel had found her target, for example, she was ready to leave the ship. After contacting all the factions on board, the remaining party soon decided that they needed to split up. Half of them were going to blow up the bridge while the other half was going to find a lander. The bridge fight was going very, very badly. The two characters ended up “presumed dead”.
Should I run it again, I’ll have to push harder in order for the party to feel the need to stick together. Perhaps I was to lax in the beginning and when players realized how deep the shit was they were getting themselves into, it was too late. No more refreshment scenes, no more helping dice, no more group efforts. I think players where surprised to see this happy Hackbird go into survival horror mode.
I loved it, 4/5 stars.
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Isotope is a 4-page post-apocalyptic RPG. When I read it, it looked like a simpler Apocalypse World to me. Easier to create characters, none of the playbooks, moves, and all that extra. I was reminded of Vincent Baker’s 2011 blog post Concentric Game Design. There, Vincent says that Apocalypse World has 4 layers of rules. The first layer has a few stats and uses 2d6: “On a 10+, the best happens. On a 7-9, it’s good but complicated. On a miss, it’s never nothing, it’s always something worse.” That’s basically what Isotope does.
There are four classes, human, mutant, wolfling and troll. Assign -1, 0, 1 and 2 to the four classes, get some perks, mutations and some equipment, go. It has an optional list of character names. We played for about 2½h. After the game, players said that they really enjoyed character creation. It was short and the two pages of classes, names, mutations and equipment provided all the setting information they needed and just enough complexity to have them pondering their choices without getting bogged down.
The rules being so short we ran into two issues. One player really wondered about gaining levels and hit-points. You basically have between seven and twelve hit-points. Roll a d6 for every level you have and pick the highest result, add six. You optionally reroll whenever you get to eat, drink and sleep and you reroll when you gain a level. I think I get it but something about how this was worded confused one of us, as I said.
The thing that confused me was how combat works if a creature has multiple attacks. The way I see it, combat means rolling 2d6 and adding appropriate numbers. On a 10+, you deal damage as per weapon. On a 7-9, you deal damage and you take damage, I guess? Not sure about this one. On a miss, you take damage. But then the rules say that monsters should have one to three attacks. How does that work? Just triple damage? Wow! Perhaps I should check Apocalypse World or Dungeon World.
The sample adventure provided was interesting but light on stats. As I said in another blog post, I like to believe in the independent existence of my game world. This means that I don’t like improvising monsters, traps and rewards on the spot. If I do, I feel like it’s me against the players instead of me acting as the impartial referee between the game world and the players. Improvising in this context often means adjusting the difficulty, being tempted by an imaginary arc of excitement, reducing player agency.
⚠ Spoilers! ⚠
This is where I made a misake. I started with a few notes:
As the game went on, I added more:
It was quick to do, no problem. It just felt a bit weird to write these things down on the fly.
Figuring out which rooms contained useful loot was a similar problem. Was the big loot in the flooded room at the bottom? If so, what did it contain? What would be the big reward for successfully launching the rocket? Should I run it again, I would have to better prepare a few end scenarios so that I can push players towards one of these endings with appropriate closure as time starts running out. As it stands, the end was a bit flat.
So, next time: More prep!
As far as plot goes: the party got split towards the end. One managed to have the shadow dragon open the sarcophagus and so the character went exploring and found some valuable power tools to sell. The other characters found the map room and managed to set the intercontinental missile targeting system on a few cities by accident, but I decided that more was required to actually launch the rocket. We didn’t have the time, however, so we broke off saying that the delvers camping around the titan sarcophagus had finally caught up to what was happening and would start exploring the structure soon enough. The power tools where the only loot recovered.
We spent half an hour after the game talking about it, comparing it to Apocalypse World (which was deemed longer and harder to get into for little benefit), Lady Blackbird (which was deemed to promise better character development via keys and locked tags) and Traveller (which was deemed to similar in that character development basically meant the accumulation of gear and allies instead of powers).
I said I’d run a Lady Blackbird hack in two weeks time. Perhaps The Bugs of Venus? Then again, I like the original Lady Blackbird characters, I like the romantic angle, and I don’t have much experience in the military fiction genre, didn’t like Starship Troopers too much, don’t know whether I can recreate the Alien feel… We’ll see!
Today we played two and a half hours of Torchbearer. We had three players and started out with me playing the warrior, Johannes playing the halfling and Harald playing the dwarf. Pascal was running the game for us. It involved a kid disappearing into a tomb. We crawled into the tomb, got up, advanced down the corridor and met four skeletons. We went for a kill conflict and started with a disposition of 10 vs. 5 but by the second volley we were down to four and we just barely managed to avoid a total party kill. My warrior escaped, badly wounded, got lost in a swamp, was led astray by green flames dancing in the distance and nearly drowned.
We wound two replacement characters (the cleric and the magic user) and then we went there again. We realized that going for a kill was dangerous and tried a trick conflict. Again, we started with a disposition of 9 vs. a lot less, and within a few volleys we had lost. We were driven off by the skeletons never to return…
And that was that. We liked some ideas in theory. We liked the grind. We liked the light rules. We liked how enumbrance worked. But as soon as the conflict started, we got disconnected from the fiction. Attack, Defend, Feint and Maneuver—it was dry, hard to picture, very abstract, and we lost. And then we started noticing that the other systems didn’t seem to make a difference or didn’t result in a play experience more entertaining compared to using classic D&D.
We’ll be playing something different next indie night.
A while ago Harald posted on Google+ and wasn’t too sure about the system. We had talked about the Solar System RPG before and so I asked him what had made him change his mind. After all, he had done the German translation of the system. Harald turned the question around and asked me instead: Looking back at the game I ran from character generation to transcendence, what had worked well and what had not?
I want to preserve what I said back then on my blog instead of loosing it in the depths of Google+:
Without thinking about it too long, it seems to me that the system is not quirky enough for me. If the rules are too simple, to unified, then results end up being predictable. With results I’m referring to the game experience at the table. With D&D and other traditional systems, it’s hard to figure out how your game play will change. There are weird spells, weird monsters, all of them with little extra rules that cover their specialty. In their totality, the systems are not rules-light, even if some of them such as the old school D&D variants have simple character generation.
I think this is also related to Changing Gameplay Over Time.
I don’t have much D&D 4E experience, but I’ve seen people complain online about the perfect progression of character’s abilities and monster’s abilities. Old versions had asymmetries over time such as attack bonuses growing faster than armor class, save or die effects eventually dominating hit points.
Furthermore, non-quirkiness promotes abstraction. Abstract combat, abstract conflict resolution, and I’m wondering whether as a gamer, I might prefer more grounding. I’ve heard the same argument from other people, too. Sometimes it is also discussed under the label of Dissociated Mechanics. I end up not liking the abstraction of chess and prefer the speculations at the table that come with such questions as “what do you see when invisible people walk through water” or “can the fire reach me around the corner?” If you have quirky rules such as how fireballs work, then you can draw conclusions as to what happens if obstacles block the fireball’s path and use them in play. If the system is very abstract, then we roll first and interpret or explain the result afterwards.
The end result, therefore, is that the game felt a bit blander than before. The story felt like epic high level D&D without all the pain that high level D&D 3.5 would add, but the actual game experience felt blander than the simple Labyrinth Lord games I like to run.
A while ago I read a comment by Wilhelm on my blog. A bit later I saw a comment by Wilhelm on Google+. A few weeks ago I saw a call for gamers from across the globe on his blog. I left a comment and soon enough I made an appearance on one of his English podcast episodes.
“We discuss the Swiss gaming scene, old school gaming, indie games and building gaming communities.” – Avsnitt 14 / Episode 6 – Alex from Switzerland
Check it out if you want to hear my German accent.
Some links for stuff we mentioned:
Games mentioned: Labyrinth Lord, Swords & Wizardry, M20, Solar System RPG, Western City, FATE, Spirit of the Century, Der Geist Mesopotamiens, Mountain Witch, Kagematsu, Montsegur 1244, Poison’d, Fiasco, Burning Wheel, Zombie Cinema.
What I did not mention is the One Page Dungeon Contest. Gaah!
On December 25, 13:00 eight of us started playing Kagematsu. The samurai was played by my wife, Claudia – most people did not know what to expect and there was some gasping and yelping when the game rules and objective were revealed. Good fun was had by all, even when Kagematsu suffered a terrible defeat at the end, mostly because my character decided to flee, leaving six dies of Fear behind…
We hat some Döner, Pizza and whatever else could be had in the vicinity (since cookies, M&Ms, Stollen, chips don’t make a good dinner) and started playing the Mountain Witch. We used super-hero like ronins: One could turn into a dragon and breathe fire, one could fly and turn into stone, one could turn invisible, one had Amaterasu’s sun sword on him, etc. The beginning of the game was slow and boring, but apparently mostly because I was slow on the uptake. When I started pushing for dark fates, at least half the players claimed to clearly know what was going on. Ok, I soldiered on. As we reached the castle, a sudden flurry of violence errupted. There was fighting, there was backstabbing, the was a killing innocents, vengeful help from dead player characters and a final showdown of one player character and the witch king vs. the two remaining player characters (three other player characters having been killed before). The two remaining player characters won – he who was afraid of sleep and she who had entered a sinister allegiance…
By now it was near midnight and two players had to leave. The five of us decided to play one more thing and a few minutes after midnight we started two hour delve into The Spire of Iron and Crystal using Swords & Wizardry. It was good fun, they made it out alive of the first level, the dwarf had reached the second level via teleportation for a few moments, they had looted the gems of the crystal tree and collected the coins lying around in the slitherrats’ lair – total points awarded: 1300 for two hours of play.
There was some cleaning up to do and I think it I head the 4:00 bells before falling asleep at last.
Today we played our second session of Apocalypse World. I think I like it. There were many things about the game I suspected I would not like:
I liked the barter system and the way successes are described. Essentially you can have partial successes and full successes for every “move"—and many of the move descriptions also have a list of four or more items with a partial success meaning “pick one” and a full success meaning “pick three” from the list. That’s awesome.
I think our Indie game night will play Apocalypse World for another one or two sessions before switching to something new. I’m not sure I’d want to play it again, but I’m interested in playing Dungeon World, now.