Monday, February 29, 2016

Lover of Jet and Gold hides some real story potential

As pretty obvious by now, I am someone who enjoys looking into quirky little role playing games. Unlike my interest in boardgames, I'm not looking for games that I'm planning on playing. Instead, I am interested in the ideas that people come up with and the ways that people tell stories. 

Lover of Jet and Gold is a tiny little RPG that is beautifully written and a little vague about what you're supposed to do. Seriously, not counting the cover and a list of names, the thing is six pages long and I had to read it three times to get a sense of how it was played.

Vaguely set in an Arabian Nights world (although, I can see how you would easily be able to use these ideas in just about any setting), the players are mortals who have an understanding of the power and influence of names. Over the course of the game, they will struggle to survive and to not  be forgotten.

As mortals, the players are doomed to die and to be forgotten. They deal with the names of force is more powerful than them, in order to gain favor and to deal with their enemies. While they will inevitably pass into the sands of time, the players can hope to have a lasting impact on their descendants.

The actual mechanics of the game consist of generating dice pools for your times of trial. Everyone gets to jet (or black) dice that serve as their mortality. You need to deal with powers and their names to get gold dice in order to bulk up your dice pool.

Of course, dealing with a power that has its own desires and interests and agenda is something that could come back and really bite you. If the dice rolls go bad, they may harm you or make new demands of you. Of course, at the same time, if you don't deal with the powers you're only rolling two dice at best and are probably going to fail horribly.

At the same time, along with the jet dice that represent your mortality and your hit points and the gold dice that represent favors from names, you're also trying to accumulate destiny dice. While that you can spend those dice to reroll jet dice, the cool part of destiny dice is that you get to roll them after your inevitable death see what lasting impact you had on the world.

Basically, as the game goes on, you're getting yourself deeper and deeper into the debt of powers that can easily destroy you. However, that's really the only way that you're going to succeed in your trials and the only way that you are going to build up any destiny dice to be remembered. Live a boring life and be immediately forgotten or take terrible risks in order to become a legend.

Lover of Jet and Gold reminds me of two games that I really like. The trial mechanic reminds me of the moves from Apocalypse World, where successes will let you pick from a selection of benefits. The destiny dice reminded of Fiasco, where the dice pool that you're building up for the end of the game will determine what kind of ending you have.

I can easily imagine using this exact same system without any problems with the theme of doom-laden Vikings or stone-age cavemen struggling to understand the world around them or even computer-age hackers. Like so many story telling games, Lover of Jet and Gold really is what you put into it.

The first time I struggled to understand Lover of Jet and Gold, I  thought the language was beautiful but I didn't have a good idea how the game was played. But it was really short so I read a few more times and got a sense of how the game worked.

And now I actually DO want to try this game!

I am worried that a game could get derailed if one player loses all their jet dice and dies long before anyone else dies. I have a feeling that would require some extreme swings of luck but that can happen. Still, there is some potential for good stories in Lover of Jet and Gold.

Cities the board game is a relaxing little vacation

As I have grown older, I have come to put a higher and higher value on quick, relaxing games. Actually, it doesn't have anything to do with growing older per se. It has a lot more to do with with being the dad if a two-year-old. :P

Honestly, it's not that hard to find games like that. I already had plenty in my collection so I haven't had to go looking very hard for too many more.

After reading about Limes, which reimplements Cities, I realized that Cities is a perfect example of the kind of game I'm talking about. It takes about ten, fifteen minutes to play. Not only does it not have any direct conflict, it doesn't have any interaction at all. It's a puzzle that everyone to solve and you just see who solves it better.

Cities belongs to what I call the Take It Easy school. That's when everyone has identical pieces and one player calls out what piece to use, just like bingo. The difference is that bingo offers no choices but Take It Easy and it's kin are all about your choices.

In Cities, everyone is trying create the ideal city for tourists. Everyone has twenty-four identical tiles but they'll only be using sixteen of them, which means you can't count on a given tile being in a game. 

Over the course of the game, you will lay out a four by four grid of tiles that will show a city made up of yellow attractions and green parks and blue lakes and burnt orange pavilions. 

And here's where Cities really breaks out into its own compared to Take It Easy. You have a set of meeples to act as tourists to populate your cities. After you place a tile, you can put a meeple of one the four sections in it. You can also jump a previously placed meeple onto a just placed tile or have a meeple walk from tile to tile.

Those meeples are what score you the points at the end of the game. There are three levels of scoring, with the simplest just scoring the areas of yellow attractions and green parks that meeples are in. The higher levels take surrounding features into account. My favorite being how meeples in pavilions score points for their view of parks and water.

What I particularly like about the scoring, and I have never played with anything but the level three scoring, is that as abstract as it is, it all makes perfect sense. Yes, the parks with plenty of lakes or the pavilions with great views or the attractions with plenty of places to get snacks are going to more popular with tourists.

When I first discovered Cities, I thought of it as the gamer's Take It Easy. After all, it has meeples and intricate scoring. However, I'm not sure if that's really what it has shaken out to be.

Take It Easy is a very pure and simple game, that is very easy to understand. However, it is also a very unforgiving game where one tile can completely break someone's game. Cities, on the other hand, between a more forgiving scoring system and your ability to move meeples about after you place them, is actually a lot more relaxing.

Cities makes me think of what Chicago would be like if it only consisted of Lakeshore Drive and the Miracle Mile. It is an idea of the city where tourists can cheerfully mosey around with nothing but beautiful things to see. Cities is a tiny little vacation for your mind.

Cities is not the brilliant masterpiece of tension and simplicity that Take It Easy is. It is not a puzzle that will keep you on the edge of kyour seat. However, it is a quiet little game that is very relaxing to unwind with. It is like a cup of hot cocoa at the end of the day.

Thanks for all the laughs, Frank Kelly

Frank Kelly, the Irish actor, died yesterday. I can't be alone in really only knowing him as the neigh indestructible and completely irredeemable Father Jack. 

Father Jack was the most memorable character on Father Ted, which   Is pretty damn impressive when you consider Father Dougal, who was such a space cadet that he qualified as a sociopath. (Such a nice young man, Dougal, until you realize that he doesn't get that that other people have feelings... or lives.)

Part of what made Father Ted work was that it took ideas to extremes that most TV shows wouldn't dream of and Father Jack was nothing less than pure id wrapped up in a foul mouthed, perpetually drunk, womanizing Irish Catholic priest who is more violent than Deadpool. He was so disgusting looking that allegedly the rest of the cast wouldn't eat with Kelly if he had the makeup on.

Father Ted is a show that never fails to make me laugh and one of my secret weapons against blue, dreary days. Frank Kelly was one of the funniest parts of it. Thank you, Mister Kelly.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Kids shows sure seem to have come a long way

Since becoming a parent, I have watched a lot of children's television. Some of it because our son watches it and some of it in order to figure out what we will feel okay letting him watch.

Boy, has the world changed since I was a kid. But I don't mean that in a bad way. Children's shows seem to be a lot more effectively educational and also a lot more socially aware.

My big TV remembrance of being a toddler featured Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers and the Electric Company. After that, we're talking about Saturday morning cartoons that were designed to sell toys and keep us out of our parents' hair for a few hours.

For both my wife and I, one of the defining moments of how children's television has changed was when we were vetting the show called Blaze and the Monster Machines. It's a Nick Junior show about a boy and his sentient truck in a world of other talking trucks, teaching kids about physics and technology.

Neither one of us was particularly impressed with the show as we watched Blaze and his human try to save a friend who was stuck with bouncy tires. And then they talked about how they were going to have to use the power of adhesion to save him and then proceeded to define and discuss adhesion.

Wait a second? Is a cartoon for toddlers talking about adhesion? Seriously? 

Actually, that paled in comparison to a Brazilian cartoon called Earth to Luna that did things like accurately depicting a banana rhizome and the Mars Rover Curiosity. Admittedly, Earth to Luna (a five-year-old scientist who uses the entire world as her laboratory) is a PBS-style educational show but we were still impressed by it. 

I've basically skipped about three decades worth of development in children's entertainment. The whole concept of edutainment, shows that are supposed to be fun and teach stuff, seems to come a long way. Frankly, on both levels.

Maybe, and this is something for an education expert or a child psychiatrist to actually determine, being able to integrate the entertainment aspect of the show in the educational level of the show allows you teach things better.

Between what our two-year-old will actually pay attention to and what we want to show him, there's a whole mess of shows that don't end up on our television set. But still, it really feels like we still have a wide selection of quality shows that actually teach him something.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Some initial thoughts on the very strange medium of game poems

Off and on, over the last few months, I have been looking at game poems. It started out with the book 24 game poems by is. I also have a feeling that some of the games in the in the mix tapes would be considered game poems as well.

A game poem is a role-playing experience that is designed to last between 15 minutes and an hour and to evoke a specific emotion or experience as opposed to telling a story.

Somehow, I am not surprised that game poems apparently came out of the Norwegian school of gaming. I have never actually played a game from the Norwegian School but they have always struck me as being the complete opposite of escapism. They always seem to be trying to evoke the strongest emotional response possible.

Honestly, I don't know what to think about game poems. Frankly, if I only have 15 minutes to spend with my friends, I would rather pull out a boardgame like Love Letter or Cinq-0 or Pico 2. I do like short form role-playing games like Barron Munchaussen and I really want to try Murderous Ghosts.

However, game poems shave away so many of the things that actually interest me in role-playing games. In particular, the collective storytelling aspect. Part of me even wonders if I can even consider them to be role-playing games. However, they do ask you to take on a specific character and walk at least a few steps in their shoes.

Allegedly, the very first game poem was Stoke - Birmingham 0-0, which  was first published in a collection of 17 Norwegian school role-playing games appropriately called Norwegian Style.

In it, you spend 15 minutes playing the role of Stroke supporters who are going over to England to see an incredibly boring tied soccer match. You are encouraged to have a pint of beer while you do this and required to not say anything interesting. No confessions of infidelity or true love or being a vampire. Just sit there and dwell on a really meh soccer game.

I've pretty much made it a hobby to find quirky little role-playing games that offer something different. There's no denying that this qualifies. There's also no denying that I can't see myself ever playing it.

But having said that, I am glad that I took the time to look it up and read the one page that it consists of. I like the fact that we live in a world where this can even exist. I would even go so far as to say there is a crazy form of brilliance in making a game like this.

This isn't an example of true art is incomprehensible. Stokes - Birmingham 0-0 is incredibly comprehendible. It takes an experience that anyone can relate to, even if they're not going to soccer or sports, and asks you to experience it as a snapshot of life. The utter banality of it is why it is so universal.

Ever since I first discovered the idea of indie RPG's, which actually took place years after I actually played some indie RPG's, I have enjoyed exploring just what you can do with the medium of role-playing games. The whole Norwegian School and game poems in particular explore ground that I never knew existed.

Stoke et al isn't a game I can see myself ever playing. Game poems will probably never be my thing. But I can't look away.

Take It Easy, a game that seems to have inspired a quiet little genre

For such a simple and inoffensive little game, Take It Easy has had quite an impact on my gaming life. For that matter, it seems that it has had a lasting influence on the hobby as well.

In case you haven't played it, Take It Easy is what I describe as bingo with choices or strategy. Like bingo, everyone has their own board. Everyone has a hexagram shaped board with nineteen empty spaces, along with an identical set of twenty seven tiles. One poor bastard gets to be the caller, drawing one random tile at a time, with everyone then placing that tile on their board. You're trying to form colored lines across the board but if the colors get broken up, those lines are worthless.

I'd read about Take If Easy for years before I got a hold of a copy and I've been playing it on a regular basis for years after that. It's been a hit with serious, lifestyle gamers and with folks who don't know Catan from Warhammer. If that's all there was, it'd be a good game that had proven that it has serious legs. (Which, to be fair, is still quite something)

Take It Easy came out in 1983 and, as near as I can tell, has been in print ever since then. And for the first twenty or so years of its life, it was fairly unique (Again, as far as I can tell. If someone can tell me different, go for it) However, in the last ten years, it seems like new games that use that bingo with choices mechanic have started coming out in a regular basis.

Some of them, Take It To The Limit and Take It Higher, are direct sequels to Take It Easy. And since Reiner Knizia designed Take It Higher, it's pretty easy to assume that Take It Easy was an influence on FITS and BITS. Other games, like Cities or Wurfel Bingo, I have a hard time believing that they weren't strongly influenced by Take It Easy.

Seriously, it has gotten to the point in which I can't even keep track of games where everyone has their own board and is doing their own thing. It isn't like an explosive genre like work replacement or deck building or maybe even card drafting (I swear I can't look at Kickstarter at any given moment without seeing a couple new cars drafters) but it does seem like a genre that keeps on going and going.

Literally two days ago, I came across both Limes and Karuba, which I had never heard of but both clearly use the Take It Easy mechanic. And at some point, I'd love to give either of those two games ago to see what they've done with the genre.

If you had told me 15 years ago that I would be a huge fan of what could be described as bingo variations or multi player solitaire, I would've thought that you were crazy. But these are games that I honestly just keep on playing.

They aren't heavy or life-changing or burn out my brain. However, as a parent of a hyper toddler, these are games that are relaxing and easy to pull out good and good for winding down at the end of the day.

I have a feeling that I'm going to be playing Take It Easy 20 years from now. There's hundreds of games that I played that I can't say that about.

Monday, February 22, 2016

An interesting little Kickstarter about madness and divinity

The Name of God is the Kickstarter project that brings together two things that interest me. Indie style role-playing games and micro games. At its heart, it consists of eight cards that are all you need in order to play the role playing game 

Now, before I say anything else, I want to note that I have never played this game and I actually don't have the strongest idea how to play from the Kickstarter. After all if it is that small, if they actually gave way how to play the game, that would take away some of the incentive for people to actually back Kickstarter.

What I do know is that the Name of God is designed to be played with no GM and minimal setup time. Essentially, pull out the cards and go. Pretty cool if it can pull that off.

The American Gods and Anansi Boys are cited as inspirational works for the names of God. Which is really cool, I like both of those books. Apparently, the players are the homeless and the insane... and they just very might be gods. The idea of starting off as the wretched of the earth, people who are on the very fringe of society and transcending that to become something very special, that could make some great story telling.

Particularly because no one promised a happy ending.

The mechanical side of the game comes from the fetish cards. In this case, we mean fetish like a similar ceremonial objects as opposed to a kinky behavior. These fetish cards grant characters moves like in Apocalypse World. (And its no secret I'm a big fan of Apocalypse World) I don't know if folks hold onto one entire game or if they are interchangeable and get mixed up as players need them.

Now, the cool part is that the stretch goals are more fetish cards. But not by the designer of the game. Instead, each one will be designed by an established indie  game designers. Honestly, if the game is any good, that'll just make it better.

At the very least, The Name of God is a very interesting experiment. And, who knows, it might be fun.

Two of the odder bits of Baum's Oz

Queer Visitors from the Marvelous Land of Oz and the Woggle-Bug book were two of the strangest things that I discovered when I started exploring the fantastic literature of L. Frank Baum.

Queer Visitors started out as a newspaper comic strip to promote the novel the Land of Oz. I read a novelized version of about half of them. The Woggle-Bug Book is an adaptation of the Woggle Bug's subplot in the play of the same name, which was an adaptation of the Land of Oz.

Look, before I go into any more detail, let me state at the outset that this was easily the worst stuff I read by Baum. While it was almost the shortest thing I read, it took me the longest because it was such a slog.  

In between the publication of the Wizard of Oz and the Land of Oz, there was a very successful stageplay. It is widely accepted that that influenced the Land of Oz, with some critics stating that elements of the book were clearly written with stage work in mind. Personally, I didn't notice that when I was first exposed to the book but that was my mom reading it to me when I was five. Rereading it as an adult, yeah, I can see that.

But the play was aimed at an older audience with more vaudeville influence. By the time it was done getting adapted, it wasn't nearly as much at children. It had topical humor and Vaudeville routines and chorus lines. That is reflected in both Queer Visitors and the Woggle-Bug Book.

Queer Visitors is a series of vignettes about how the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodman, Jack Pumpkinhead, the Woggle-Bug and the Sawhorse fly to the US on the Gump and have wacky adventures as tourists. For some reason, many of them have a punch line of the Woggle-Bug successfully naming places in the US. That was actually part of a contest running in the newspapers but it makes for really bad reading.

Listen, no one will ever accuse Baum of having a great grasp on continuity. Is Ozma the daughter of the last king of Oz or an immortal fairy empowered by the queen of the fairies to rule over Oz long ago? Depends on which book you read. But Queer Visitors breaks way too many of the rules, has the characters act in ways they never have and never again will and is rubbish besides.

But it is better than the Woggle-Bug book. 

That describes more of the Woggle-Bug's adventures in the US. In it, he falls in love with a dress, chasing after everyone who owns it. And the owners are a veritable showcase of racial and ethnic stereotypes. After a brief visit to a land of taking animals, the Woggle-Bug ends up getting a tie made out of the dress and happy.

It's crude and racists but, above all else, it doesn't resemble anything that makes you think Oz.

As a children's author, Baum had a gift. He wrote charming and whimsical stories that ranged from silly fun to the outright fantastic. Even his weakest children's book (which I'm going to argue was Dot and Tot of Merryland) has its fun bits.

Neither Queer Visitors nor The Woggle-Bug book were written for kids, not really. Every reason Baum is still remembered isn't there. It's like he wrote a farce of his own work and it's just bad stuff.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Mars Colony combines politics and Can't Stop to make a role playing game

Mars Colony is a two-player role playing game that explores politics, in particular the power and the price of deception. How much power should one person really be having and does the cult of personality equal good decision-making?

This is not the first two player game that I have come across. While it is a pretty unusual form for a role playing game, a number of them have been developed over the years. For someone who started out as an old-school, Dungeons & Dragons player, I still find it fascinating use of the medium.

Normally, I would say that using a fantastic or science-fiction setting to discuss real issues gives us a sense of distance from the issues, so it's safer and easier to talk about them. In the case of Mars Colony, though, I'd say that it gives you a chance to explore politics anyway you'd like.

At some point in the possibly near future, a multi-nation coalition created the Mars Colony. It's purpose was to create a utopia. Yeah, that dream crashed and burned. Civil unrest, ecological problems, a poorly designed infrastructure that's falling apart, whatever you want to be terribly wrong with the place, it's happening.

Earth is sending an expert by the gender-free name of Kelly Perkins to salvage and hopefully save the colony. This is the story of what Kelly Perkins does to save Mars. It's the story of how much they are willing to risk and how much they're willing to lie least appear to be saving Mars.

One player plays the part of Kelly Perkins, the savior of Mars. The other player is the Governor, a role that more closely resembles being the stage manager from Our Town as opposed to a conventional game master.

Mechanically, Mars Colony is definitely an indie game. The way the actual story develops is pure narrative, with nothing more than the guidelines that the players agreed to. However, the crunch of the mechanics, determining how well Kelly Perkins plans are going, is a push your luck game with a resource management element. Seriously, I'm pretty sure you could cut the mechanics of the game and turn them into a boardgame with just a retheming.

Honestly, it's one of the more unique systems I think I've ever seen. And if there are more games like this out there, I'd like to take a look at them.

There are four political parties that are vying for control on Mars. And what are those for political parties? They are what ever the players decide on. More than that, in a particularly brilliant and visceral suggestion, the rule suggest that you use real political parties from around the world.

The reason why I like that idea so much is that it really speeds up the set up time while adding depth at the same time. You're not creating something from cloth, you're using something that already exists. You're also using something that is probably emotionally loaded. After all, religion and politics are two of the best ways to get a fight going.

Another brilliant and disturbing part of the set up is that each player creates three fear cards, based on things that they actually fear about their own government. These cards will serve as inspiration throughout the game for conflicts and issues that will come up.

An important concept that I discovered when I started exploring in the games is bleed. Bleed is when the emotions created in the game to start actually affecting people. I've usually seen it when it comes to personal issues but Mars Colony is set up to really apply it to politics.

You also create other elements like three driving issues of the colony that Kelly Perkins has to focus on, as well as a person on Mars that will serve as a personal connection for Kelly Perkins who comes complete with some kind of significant problem.

OK, let's talk about the mechanical side of Mars Colony. Kelly Perkins has nine status tokens that can be assigned to one of three places. There's admiration, which represents how much Kelly Perkins is loved. At the start of the game, all the tokens are in admiration. There's contempt, which is a measure of how much the people of Mars hate and don't trust Kelly Perkins. If there are ever five or more tokens in contempt, that triggers end game with Kelly Perkins leaving Mars in disgrace. 

Oh, and then there is deception. That measures the lies that Kelly Perkins tells to make the people of Mars think that they are doing a good job.

Remember those three issues that you determined at the start of the game? Those are tracks that Kelly Perkins has to progress on in order to either solve the critical problems of Mars people that they're getting solved.

Kelly Perkins gets nine progress scenes to try to make things better during the course of the game. During a progress scene, the player playing Kelly Perkins grabs a couple of dice and starts rolling. Like so many push-your-luck games, you can keep on rolling as long as you want, adding up the dice as you go. If an issue reaches twenty, it's stabilized. If it reaches forty, it's solved and you add an new issue to the list to keep the pressure on.

BUT, if you ever roll a one, you wipe out. You lose all the progress you made in that scene and you move a status token from admiration to contempt. (It is push-your-luck, after all)

BUT (yes, another one!), there's a way out of the despair and disgrace. You can resort to lies. By moving an admiration token over to deception, you can keep the progress you made up to that point. 

BUT (they keep coming!), when you are building your house of cards on lies, it can catch up to you. If you roll a one and the other die is less than or equal to the number of deception tokens, scandal hits and everything falls apart. You lose all the points you kept due to lying and all the deception tokens move to contempt. Heck, might end the game right then and there. 

Really, it's like someone took Can't Stop and used it for the engine to run a game. Not the weirdest mechanic I've ever seen. Heck, Dread's mechanics are built around Jenga and actually works pretty well. And it should go without saying that you don't just roll the dice. Narration continues and the dice just help direct it.

I find it downright fascinating that the game isn't about saving Mars but the public perception of Kelly Perkins. The crux of the game isn't about the Can't Stop style dice rolling. It's about the decisions that Kelly Perkins makes when the dice stop rolling.

And speaking as someone who has played Can't Stop a lot, I can tell you that just Kelly Perkins either has to be incredibly lucky or use deception to keep their head above the water. With just nine turns to roll the dice, the odds are against them solving stuff without resorting to deception.

Mars Colony is a really neat little game. It's designed to be played in one sitting and I really can't see how you could ever try and make a campaign out of it. There is a definite and point built into the system. It has quirky mechanics but they make sense. I could see how you might make a fluffy or silly game out of it if you really felt like it but I think it is really set up well for a solid discussion on politics.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

The Agency should have been groovy but it isn't

Recently, I picked up the Agency and gave it a read. The Agency is an indie style role-playing game about being groovy spies in the swinging 60s battling against supernatural threats to the civilized world.

The game has some decent points. It has a very streamlined and easy to use system and I like elements how adventures are designed and work. Unfortunately, it is also fairly bland which is kind of unforgivable if you were trying to capture the world of the 60s as it was only on TV.

Character creation and mechanics are very simple. Fundamentally, every time your character tries to do something, they roll three six-sided dice and get successes when you roll four, five or six. (Okay, so you get away with flipping coins) One skill will get an extra die and another will get two extra dice, so we know what you're really good at. Add in some bonuses and flaws and that's just about everything you need.

There is also an economy built around karma. Karma isn't about the dice rolls. You use bonuses to spend karma to get ahead in the plot and you use flaws make your life more difficult in order to earn karma.

The most interesting thing about characters as far as I'm concerned is their motif. That is a reoccurring theme about the character that the player can use to heal up a bit or help another player. And you have to invoke the motif in order to use it. So you know, it has some story value.

I found the actual running of the game more interesting then the player mechanics. Every session or adventure or episode, depending on how you want to find it, has a threat token pool. There's a cap to how many tokens you can use in each scene. The threat tokens let you control the tempo of the overall adventure, as well as each scene.

Another element that I really like are complications. Everyone writes a plot twist down on an index card with the GM writing down three. Folks can draw them to earn some karma and make the story more interesting.

The mechanics of the game are simple but they should handle just about any situation. As a game that's easy to teach or to pick up and play at the drop of a hat, the Agency seems to fit the bill.

However, like I said it's a start, I have some issues with the Agency. You are working for a super secret agency that is set in the colorful world of the television 60s and you are fighting against supernatural threats.

BUT, beyond the fact that the title agency exists and tends to hire folks who survived their first supernatural experience, there's really no information about it. In fact, other then the fact that it's set in the 60s and mentioning some of the different government organizations that handle supernatural threats, there is nothing about the theme or setting.

Don't get me wrong. I'm all for homebrew settings and for players and Game Masters to be able to develop their own worlds. However, the Agency is designed for some very specific play and you really don't get anything beyond a list of movies and TV shows to use for inspiration.

There are also some holes in the mechanics. There's no rules for advancing characters, although that doesn't bother me too much since I think the game is more suited for one shots than campaign.

What I consider a bigger issue is that supernatural threats are treated exactly like mundane threats. They just have the supernatural label. While that does keep things mechanically simple, I never had a sense of the fantastic or supernatural. When a major component of the theme seems to be missing, that's an issue.

In the first appendix, the author notes that 3:16 was a major influence on the Agency. When I read that, I not only realized what parts were from 3:16, I realized they were my favorite parts of the Agency.

3:16 is even more mechanically simple than the Agency with very simple scenario structures. However, the theme is very tightly welded to the system. More than that, there is an unspoken underlining theme in 3:16 about politics and genocide that drives the game into being a campaign instead of just one shot. Comparing the Agency to 3:16 doesn't do the Agency any favors.

As I already said, what really are the Agency strong points are simplicity and ease of play. And don't get me wrong, I think those are really strong pluses. However, that's something that I look for in a game and I have other games just a simple that I think are thematically stronger.

Just as one example, last year I looked at a RPG called Mermaid Adventures that was aimed at younger players. Despite looking like Disney's Little Mermaid the RPG at first, I found that it actually had a sandbox environment with enough details for me to have a real grasp of what the game was trying to do. Oh, and it had really simple mechanics that anyone could pick up.

The Agency succeeds mechanically but it just doesn't have any sparkle.

Monday, February 15, 2016

The two voices of RPGs, confrontation and conversation

A lot of folks like to break down role playing games into two camps, traditional and indie. 

Traditional or trad refers to games that harken back to the original RPGs, like Dungeons and Dragons. They tend to be more mechanically-based and more complicated. Indie games, on the other hand, follow a more narrative tradition and major examples include Fiasco or Apocalypse World. They tend to be mechanically lighter and more driven by the tropes of storytelling.

Here's the thing. A lot of the ways that I have heard people break down the two categories tends to be more about the philosophy of the people playing them as opposed to the actual design itself. You can have a character driven, story based game using a traditional system. And you can have a conflict driven Game that's all about fighting with an indie system. Some of them, it won't work very well but you can still do it.

If you strip away the people playing the games and just look at how the systems work, here's what I think you will find the real difference between the two is. Traditional games are about creating a concrete world for you to interact with. Indie games are about creating a story for you to interact with.

Hopefully, you're going to get a story and a concrete world in either case but I think each philosophy has it's own priority.

Another way that I personally tend to think of them is that traditional games are about confrontation and indie games are about conversation. 

Traditional games come out of wargaming. As a general rule of thumb, if most of the rule book is about fighting, you're probably looking at a traditional game. In fact, Shannon Appoline wrote in his book Dungeons and Designers that in the earliest days of role-playing, the game master actually was trying to win against the players.

While traditional role playing games have developed a lot more depth compared to the days when it was just about beating each other up, it is still build around interacting with the environment. That environment can include obvious things like weather and rain or more esoteric things like monsters or politics. And there are mechanical ways of resolving all of your interactions with them. The rules have built a world for you to interact with and that is what drives the system.

On the other hand, indie games are driven by the story. The actual world itself takes a backseat to the needs of the story. The game is not about how you do something but how you tell the story.

For me, the game that really made me realize the differences between the two philosophies was Polaris. Polaris was not the first indie game that I ever paid but it was the first one that made me fundamentally realize what an indie game was trying to do.

You see, at its heart, the rules for Polaris resemble a great we simplified Roberts Rules of Order. They form the procedure for the players to debate with each other. I had never seen anything like it and I still think it is pretty amazing to this day.

Both philosophies are perfectly valid and both will give you an engaging experience when done well. Traditional games will give you a world to be drawn into and indie games will give you a story to be drawn into. 

At the moment, I am much more into indie games. Part of that is because they take less time. I don't have to worry about the mechanics I just need to worry about story and that something that I understand innately. But I also have a long history with traditional games. They are also the deep and enriching experience.

These are two different voices that are important to the hobby.

The Land of Oz, when we knew it was a series

The Marvelous Land of Oz is a watershed book in a lot of ways. To the best of my knowledge, Baum hadn't planned on making a series when he wrote the Wizard of Oz. With the Land of Oz, he was at least showing some interest in creating an ongoing series, although I personally don't think the idea is solidified until the third book. I'm sure there are scholars who will prove me wrong.

OK, I'm going to give an overview of the plot of the book. Which means, spoilers galore. The book is free and you can download it from Project Gutenberg so you can do that right now and read it if you want, before I go and spoil it all.

Now that I've dutifully warn you, let me talk about the plot.

The Land of Oz is the only book in the series that doesn't have any characters from the outside world in it. As a side note, that pretty much always means someone from the United States.

In the beginning, our hero, a boy named Tip, is pretty much the slave of the witch called Mombi. It's a pretty low level of slavery, more like an abusive or really strict foster parent. However, when Mombi brings a pumpkin headed manikin to life, she plans on turning Tip into a marble statue since she doesn't need him anymore.

In the beginning, Tip and Jack Pumpkinhead, along with a Sawhorse that they bring to life who serves Jack's ride, are just trying to escape away from Mombi. However, they discover a Revolutionary Army led by General Jinjur who is planning on taking over the land of Oz.

Jinjur makes pretty good progress in conquering the country, particularly when you consider that her basic strategy is to have an army of women who the men won't fight back against. She also gets Mombi as an ally, agreeing to help get Tip. Mombi proves to have some pretty powerful magical chops.

Tip picks up some allies of his own, our old pals the Scarecrow and the Tin Woodman, along with the Woggle-Bug and the flying Gump. Tip isn't just trying to escape Mombi. He now needs to find the lost princess of Oz, Ozma, who is also the rightful ruler of Oz.

Ultimately, Tip is able to get the help of Glenda the Good, who is more powerful than Mombi and who has an army of girls of her own, only they actually are willing to fight. The balance of power shifts and our heroes win the civil war.

The final twist is that Mombi had hidden away Ozma by transforming her into a boy. Yes, Tip has been looking for himself the whole time. One transgender transformation later, Tip has become the fairy princess Ozma and peace at last reigns over the land of Oz.

Seriously, this is probably one of the most dynamic books in the entire series. Oz has a major civil war, the protagonist has a far more extreme revelation than there's no place like home, and the government is completely replaced.

That said, the summation makes the book seem a lot more dramatic than it really is. There's a lot of silly stuff and the entire civil war is tongue-in-cheek social commentary as opposed to a violent confrontation.

As I understand it, one of the driving forces behind Baum writing the book was a success of the stage play of the Wizard of Oz. Said play had a lot more slapstick vaudeville elements then the original book. The Land of Oz definitely has more slapstick bits then really any other book in the series.

As it turns out, since they couldn't get the actors who played the Scarecrow in the Tin Woodman in the play, since they were busy making money hand over fist with the original play, The eventual play got retooled to much more heavily feature the Woggle-Bug, who is possibly the most forgettable and disliked reoccurring character in the entire series. It was a crashing flop. Probably for the best, since the books after the Land of Oz were definitely written as books, as opposed to potential scripts.

As quirky as the Land of Oz is, it does introduce Ozma, who is the second most important character in the series after Dorothy. It also gives us Jack Pumpkinhead and the sawhorse, two more characters who are regular members of the Oz posse in the books to come.

After the Land of Oz, the books settle down to a more consistent tone. And Oz starts getting described as the happiest fairyland in all the world. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz got everything started. The Marvelous Land of Oz, though, so the book that you read to find out what else is out there.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

How much fun can I have with a Checkers set without laying Checkers?

One of the reasons I've been thinking about game systems is because I've been thinking about much you can do with a magnetic travel Checkers set.

See, while it isn't as amazing as a deck of cards, there are a shocking amount of games you can play with nothing more than to checkers set. Really, an eight-by-eight board with two different colored pieces is some of the most basic components you can get. Checkers is one of the ur-games of history.

A lot of these games aren't new. Some of them have been around for centuries as well, like Fox and Geese, which I understand is good for bar bets, as long as your opponent doesn't know it's been solved. And there are a lot of Checkers variations, some of them regional and some of them just people being wiseacres. (Diagonal checkers, where you turn the board 45 degrees?)

But I'll be honest. I'm not a big Checkers fan. Part of it comes from being taught it too young and not being taught a couple key rules (that you must make a capturing move if you can and that the game can also end if someone cannot make a move) 

When I was old enough to understand that there was some real depth to Checkers, I was already into games like Go or modern abstracts like Hive or ZERTZ, dynamic games that made Checkers seem slow and plodding.

Really, the game that really makes me seriously think about using a travel Checkers board is Lines of Action. It's a game about connecting all your pieces and you can only move the exact number of spaces as the number of pieces in that line.

Seriously, it's an excellent game that uses nothing but a Checkers board and feels nothing like Checkers. Truth to tell, if that's all I used a travel set for but I got to play Lines of Actions a lot, I'd be happy.

(Oh, Focus by Sid Sackson. That's another great game you can play with a Checkers set. Also doesn't feel like Checkers, by the way)

Of course, our son is two so I'm really going to end up playing Fox and Geese long before Lines of Action :D