Wednesday, November 29, 2023

The Magus is a crunchy journaling game

Last year, I learned seven different journaling RPGs to observe NaNoWriMo. This year, I learned two and one of them was really research for the other one. Part of that was because work was insane but also part of this change was I played The Magus by momatoes.

The Magus is a long form soliatire journaling  RPG where you discover and describe the rise and fall of a powerful wizard.  It has more crunch than any other journaling game I’ve played. And the emotional content is heavy. Words like Byronesque and Gothic come to mind in a non-ironic way.

And, when I say that Magus is crunchy, I mean in comparison to other journaling games. It’s a rule light system by RPG standards. You stat out your wizard but they are very narrative driven stats. 

The Magus is played out as a series of scenes which comes in two and a half flavors. The primary types of scenes are Bonds and Spells with Reflections working as pauses for you to assess where the story is at.

The balance of the game is between your relationships with other people and your quest for power. Around half of the game is spent developing bonds with other people and sometimes you need to burn those bonds in an ugly way to gain power.

Like other journaling games I’ve played, the Magus is driven by prompts. And you can write as much as you want with any given prompt. With that being said, I felt that each scene in the Magus was started off big and was easily able to be its own session. 

And having a crunchier, more mechanical structure meant that the consequences felt more reinforced and stronger. Failure, and the game is weighted towards failure, resonates for the rest of the game.

The game hits some heavy notes. Solitude. Betrayal. Sacrifice. Loss. And magic in the game reflects that. While you will define exactly how magic works, it isn’t magic missiles or rabbits out of hats. Spells are big, disturbing phenomena and can cause game-ending global catastrophes if you fail badly enough.

The game ends when you have completed seven scenes, decided that the cost is too great and retire or destroy the world.

For my play through, which ended up spanning most of November, I stuck to the procedural tables. The rules allow you to come up with your own ideas but I wanted to try the basic settings.

I decided to retire after four scenes and one reflection. I ended up focusing on the bonds and it became clear that preserving those was a bigger priority for my wizard than gaining more power. When I play it again, I will probably chase Byronic tragedy more. 

The Magus is a very solid work. It gives you a very strong theme ans structure while also giving you a lot of room for your own creativity. I was worried the crunchier mechanics would be restrictive. Instead, they increased the stakes without getting in the way.

I  impressed and happy with what the Magus does. It pushes beyond the idea of ‘just write something’ while preserving the writing.

Monday, November 27, 2023

Making dirigibles out of dice rolls

 It’s been over a year since I last looked at the Legends of Dsyx series. Which actually surprises me a bit, since I think it’s an interesting exploration of both Print and Play and Roll and Write. 

The Legends of Dsyx is a series of twelve games that are simultaneously one page, rules and all, while really pushing the envelope about what you can do with Roll and Write. Seriously, I get the sense that Robin Jarvis was trying to create ‘big’ games in a very small design space. 

And when I first ran across them, I was fascinated. It was relatively early in my exploration of Roll and Writes and the Legends of Dsyx were part of my realization that Roll and Writes could go well beyond just writing down numbers. 

Those ideas now seem old hat but they were pretty wild to me at the time.

All that said, the Legends of Dsyx are a mixed bag. Some are very solid. Hall of the Dwarven King is a hidden gem of a game. But some of them feel half-finished. I think some of them genuinely suffer from the one-page format.

So, I tried out Derelict Dirigible. How did it measure up?

Dsyx is a kitchen-sink fantasy universe that is a bit tongue-in-cheek. Derelict Dirigible is about gnomes building airships out of salvaged junk. Clearly, Dragonlance casts a long shadow.

Derelict Dirigible last fifteen turns and each turn has three parts. Salvage, where you roll dice to get materials. Building, wheee you spend materials to add parts to your airship. You actually draw the part on a blueprint grid, creating an increasingly complex dirigible as the game goes on. Adventure. There’s a list of adventures with lift and speed requirements. Meet the requirements and you check it off for points and improvements to your scavenging.

Derelict Dirigible feels like it is 75% there. The designing and building of your airship, which is where most of the actual gameplay is, is good. It requires some real planning and decision making. Every part has trade offs. Boilers, for instance, are necessary for powering props but weigh your airship down and require coal.

Adventures, on the other hand, feel like a missed opportunity. Adventures are just a checklist. You build an airship and then you just see if it’s up to spec. And this is where the one page restriction really shows. Having additional pages devoted to adventures, giving them narrative weight and gameplay would add a lot and make sense with the idea of the game.

Honestly, I enjoyed Derelict Dirigible on the strength of the airship building alone. I do want to return to it and work on making better dirigibles. But I also think it could have been a lot more.

Saturday, November 25, 2023

Digging up beetles for fun and points

Beetle Get! is a Flip-and-Write solitaire by Alexander Shen, a hidden gem of a PnP designer. You try and score points with a shifting tableau of beetle cards.

Shen describes Beetle Get! as a Flip-and-Score game, as opposed to a Flip-and-Write game. Which isn’t an unfair description but no one calls Yahtzee or Qwixx as Roll-and-Score games so I’m still holding to Flip-and-Write.

BG (because typing an exclamation mark every time annoys me) consists of a tiny deck of beetle cards, a tiny deck of shovel cards and a player sheet. 

Here’s the basic idea. You deal out the beetle cards face down in a three-by-three grid and then flip over any four of them. The shovel deck consists of card patterns (horizontal, diagonal and vertical lines) Each turn, you draw two. Pick one to score and put the other one on the bottom of the deck. The beetle cards are numbered one to five and you score the sum of the line you chose.

And here’s where the clever bit comes in. You flip over all the cards in the shape you scored. You then pick a column or row and shift in over one space. The card that gets pushed out of the grid goes back on the other side. If you’ve ever played Labyrinth, you get the idea.

Time for another round.

A couple of other tidbits. You also check off sets of beetle cards for bonus points and there’s a beetle juice card in the shovel deck that let you flip over a card.

When you’re through the shovel deck, that’s game and you count up your points.

One touch I want to note is that there’s only one five card. Finding it and scoring it is essential to a higher score. Not only does it add five points to a line, you need to check it off to complete sets for bonus points.

I haven’t played a lot of Flip-and-Writes. I think the idea ia brilliant and has a lot of potential but it’s also a lot easier and less time consuming to make Roll-and-Writes from a PnP standpoint. That said, playing with a sliding puzzle of cards does feel unusual. (Shifting Stones from Gamewright does have a similar idea)

On the downside, BG has a fairly obvious core strategy. Find the five card and maximize it as much as possible.

On the upside, BG offers a lot of control and decisions, with room for planning ahead. Which might lead to games being too easy but that isn’t the worst flaw in a game that takes five or so minutes.

Alexander Shen has a knack for really nailing coffee break games and Beetle Get! is one of the better ones.

Wednesday, November 22, 2023

Beyond Bloom explores the low fantasy space

During one of my innumerable trips down rabbit holes on TV Tropes, I found out about a web comic called Beyond Bloom, a low fantasy about two flowers who have become people.

Beyond Bloom seems to be an obscure webcomic so I figured I’d do my small part to spread the word.

Beyond Bloom begins when a nice young man named Yokiro encounters Tatsuma and Sikue, two magical girls who are actually evolved flowers with magical powers. Tatsumi is poisonous and Sikue is the antidote. He decides to wander around the wilderness with them.

If there is one thing I would say that about Beyond Bloom is how cozy and small it feels, at least in the six chapters that we have so far. Our protagonists aren’t in any crazy epic quest. Magic and other supernatural stuff is rare to the point of almost not existing. All the supernatural stuff seems to have been created by the same person.

When Beyond Bloom says it is low fantasy, it commits to it.  There’s clearly a lot more going on (a dragon shows up at one pout!) but it is taking its time to get there. It’s like the first part of the Fellowship of the Ring where it’s just the hobbits leaving the shire.

And the characters are genuinely sweet. Yokiro and Sikue are both adorable. Tatsuma has a temper and can be a jerk but does care deep down. I have a feeling that if Beyond Bloom gets mainstream, she’ll be the most popular character.

I’ve discovered a lot of media via TV Tropes and Beyond Bloom is a fun addition to that list. Reading it has been a pleasant journey with characters who I want to follow.

Monday, November 20, 2023

Tiny Stories Play Through

 Tiny Stories v1

11/5/23 play through

Bernard is a hard boiled detective who also happens to be a six-foot tall bipedal mouse. He always dresses like Sherlock Holmes. He is quite partial to Angel food cake.

More than anything else, he wants to have a classic parlor scene. You know, where you gather all the suspects in one place and explain who done it. Unfortunately, his city  of New Durham has been invaded by giant, three-headed lizards. The desperate struggle for survival takes precedent over cozy mysteries.

The lizards have recently developed or revealed their ability to breathe fire. The entire neighborhood where Bernard’s office is is in fire. The people he knows and deals with on a day to day basis are in danger. If Bernard doesn’t do something, people are going to die.

Bernard was going over his latest case files in his office with a mug of hot chocolate when he noticed the room was on fire. Mrs. Kadence and her daughters were screaming in terror on the floor below.

Well, we can’t have that.

Noting that the hallway was nothing but a wall of flames, Bernard knew he had to stomp on that loose floorboard to break a hole in the floor to reach Mrs Kadence and her family and then use his trusy crowbar to break open the window the landlord had painted shut and go down the fire escape.

Roll - a completely unexpected result happens!

Smashing the loose board broke a sygil that a Wizard had carved on the other side back in the early 1950s. That released a giant, dimorphous dragon. The dragon used its vast, circular wings to carry everyone in the burning building to the lake countries three counties over. 

Well, this wasn’t what Bernard saw coming.
He was annoyed while everyone else milled around, confused.

And judging by the newspaper articles he had read, Bernard knew they were safe from the giant three-headed lizards, they now had to worry about the cyborg land octopuses that had taken over the lake country.

While Bernard and his neighbors no longer had to worry about being in a burning building, they did have a legion of cyborg land octopuses coming for them on their electro hovercrafts.

But, if Bernard threw the cricket ball he had in his pocket at just the right place, he could create an avalanche that would distract the cyborg land octopuses long enough for him to lead the group into the caverns below the lake country, to the land of the naked mole rat people where they would be safe.

Roll - The action fails but opens a new opportunity 

While Bernard completely failed to cause an avalanche, his action revealed that the cyborg land octopuses were abject cricket lovers. They immediately set up wickets and the refugees from New Durham played against the cyborg land octopuses.

Two weeks later, they finished the game. By then, everyone was fast friends and the naked mole rat men had shown up to cater the event. The cyborg land octopuses were now eager to help defeat the three-headed giant lizards who could breathe fire so a proper cricket league could be formed.

All in all, Bernard was happy with this outcome. Still, he longed for a simple murder to solve.

The End

Friday, November 17, 2023

Thoughts on a tiny story game

 While I looked at some non-solitaire games by momentoes, I also wanted to try one their shorter form games as a solitaire. Tiny Stories, which is a journaling game for one or more people, for that bill. Plus, November is my journaling game month.

There are actually three distinct versions of Tiny Stories, version 1 multiplayer, version 1 solo and version 2. They all provide prompts to let you create a story. Probably a tiny one. But there are some definite differences between them. Enough to make them distinct from each other.

Version 1, in either form, front loads the experience with a bunch of prompts to define the  protagonist and their situation. A lot of the overall structure is going be defined before you actually start to play. In multiplayer, players are randomly determined to narrate elements. In solo, you randomly roll to determine outcomes.

In Version 2, the prompts are more focused on the narrative beats. The second version has more of a focus on the structure of story. It also has a mechanic that isn’t in version one, the luck coin. There’s a good luck and a bad luck side and you flip it over every time stakes escalate or are resolved.

I am of two minds about the Tiny Stories system overall.

On the one hand, it is completely themeless. I personally think that having a theme, particularly in a pick up and play journaling game, goes along way towards helping you focus the story you create. People haven’t created a whole bunch nif hacks for Alone Among the Stars just because they like the mechanics but because it’s easy to apply a variety of themes to it.

On the other hand, I think that Tiny Stories does a really good job, creating a framework for stories. It creates a structure that goes above and beyond telling you to just write something.

For the record, I think the first version is better for solitary play, but I think the second version will lead to better multiplayer play.

Tiny Stories isn’t firing Alone Among the Stars for me but I think it’s a decent option for a quick journaling game.

Tuesday, November 14, 2023

Reactions to a couple trailers

On the same day, I saw trailers for a sequel to Pixar’s Inside Out and a live-action remake of Avatar the Last Airbender. Which just reinforces that big money media creators don’t want to take risks on original ideas.

But those trailers struck me because they are both important intellectual properties for me.

I am prepared that Inside Out is the most meaningful movie Pixar has made. While it had a fantastic way of expressing the BET (Basic Emotions Theory) model, it doesn’t actually have any fantastic elements. The emotion characters and the mental landscape are just a narrative way to describe the protagonist’s emotional journey.

When we were getting ready to move across the country, I made sure our son watched Inside Out so it would be part of his mental reference pool. I didn’t tell him why because that would have made it ‘work’ to him. It still resonated with him.

And the trailer made it clear the sequel was adding more emotions, which messes with the BET model. (To be fair,  they didn’t use surprise. And to be even more fair, most of what I know about the BET model comes from a children’s science show I watched with my son) 

That said, Pixar proved me wrong when I thought a sequel to Toy Story couldn’t work so I have hope.

The Great Divide, the eleventh episode of Avatar the Last Airbender, is a train wreck. It has the characters acting out of character, involves a conflict which has nothing to to do with the overall series with dislikable characters and is anvilicious without being effective.

It is the only bad episode in the entire series.

While it’s not my favorite series, Avatar the Last Airbender was excellent in its animation, its voice acting and its writing. I love Doctor Who (THAT is my favorite series) but it has had plenty of stinkers. (I still argue Delta and the Bannerman has to be judged as a weird experiment and not by regular standards)

Actually, if it wasn’t for the amazing reinterpretation of One Piece, I’d have no hopes at all for the live action Avatar, just because One Piece proved it could be done.

But if both new works are trash, that doesn’t invalidate the original works.

Wednesday, November 8, 2023

Finding out how bizarre Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure is

 For years upon years, I have heard of Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure. It is an incredibly long running and ridiculously influential manga about the generations of the Jostar family and their relentless battles against evil.

Well, I’m finally reading some of it.

I’ve been reading the seventh arc, Steel Ball Run. I chose Steel Ball Run for three reasons. First, it was a continuity reset so a good jumping on point. Two, at least in the United States, it is regarded as one of the best arcs. And, three, it’s what the library had.

If Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure is known for one thing in particular, it’s for the concept of stands. Added in the third arc (so it took years to make it into the series), it’s basically the idea that you have an entity that you can manifest that has super powers. You can order it around but you’re still a squishy human being. So, it’s the basically Negative Man from the 60s Doom Patrol taken to nth level. 

And, at least by Steel Ball Run, stands were definitely getting bizarre. Have your fingernails spin and shoot off like bullets is a relatively mundane one. This isn’t Jojo’s Justice League. There’s a lot of both imagination and disturbed ideas in the stands.

Steel Ball Run is about a horse race across the United States 1890. Except that the race, which involved hundreds of riders, is actually the cover for a search for the parts of a mummified body that is very strongly implied to be Jesus Christ.

I can’t believe I typed that sentence and it wasn’t about a Call of Cthulhu campaign.

The Jojo of this generation is Johnny Jostar, a paraplegic jockey. After he got a hint of the weird mystic stuff that was going on, he joined the race hoping to find a way to walk again. And he is very much an anti-hero. I don’t mean an anti-hero like Wolverine or the Punisher. I mean like Willy Loman from the Death of a Salesman. 

I’m only a third of the way through the Steel Ball Run but I can see the appeal of the series. A high concept plot, profoundly weird powers and deeply flawed and struggling characters.

I do t know if I will read any other arcs of Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure (because there’s so much) but I want to see the end of the Steel Ball Run.

Monday, November 6, 2023

Looking at a couple tiny RPGs

I have been looking at the Magus by momatoes as a journaling game for November and I decided to look at what else they had written. The first couple games I looked at were Mint & Minotaur and Rock Paper Scissors Duet.

Mint & Minotaur is a universal system. More than that, it’s really a FUDGE variant that uses a coin flip instead of dice. Which should mechanically work just fine but doesn’t inspire me. 

That’s the thing about universal systems. They tell you how to resolve a conflict but they don’t give you a world to play in, an inspiration to create a story with. No one fell in love with GIURPS because it was a universal system. They fall in love with it because of its vast library of setting books.

At the same time, Mint & Minotaur has some whimsical touches that make me go hmmmmm. One aspect of a character is their fondest memory. Too manu successs will have negative side effects. There’s a very narrative driven leveling system.

If you want an RPG you can fit in your pocket, I’m still going with the first edition of Name of God, which consists of four cards and no other components and is dropping with theme and narrative concept. But I can see Mint & Minotaur working as a dreamy, slice of life game.

Rock Paper Scissors Duet is a two-player game about a relationship. You define the relationship and then play Rock Paper Scissors until one person wins three times. Each round is a beat in the relationship with the winning symbol defining what the event is about.

I actually find this more interesting and, quite frankly, more brilliant than Mint & Minotaur. It’s simpler and also doesn’t have a setting  but it creates a very specific story structure and theme.

I can see Rick Paper Scissors Duet creating some interesting stories.

And, as I slowly play through a Magus Campaign, I can see how all three games were made by the same person.

Friday, November 3, 2023

My October Gaming

As has just become standard operating procedure, October was a crazy month and learning new games was not even remotely a priority. Still, I did learn a couple.

I learned:
Quests Over Coffee: Danger Room
Take What You Mine

Both are Alexander Shen designs. Shen’s designs tend to be good for giving me something I can handle when I’m dealing with a lot of other stuff while still being good.

I’ve already written about both games. Danger Room works mechanically but just isn’t interesting. (I suspect I’ll have the opposite opinion of Shen’s A Day On The Lake) Take What You Mine, on the other hand, did just enough with very little to make me add it into my regular game rotation. And served as my token Roll and Write game learned in October.

One again, Alexander Shen’s designs have worked for me when I needed them to.

I have a feeling I’ll be learning more of them in November. 

Wednesday, November 1, 2023

My October PnP

 October was a busy month, starting a new job and a lot of other life stuff. However, making print and play games is both a hobby and a form of craft therapy.

This October, I made:

A Simple Life (hand drawn art)
Take What You Mine
Day on the Lake
Beetle Get

Three out of the four designs are by Alexander Shen. As I have mentioned elsewhere, Shen is a master at creating coffee break games, decompressing games. And that is a gift that keeps on giving as far as I’m concerned.

My ‘big’ project for October was Beetle Get. I haven’t played it yet but I have high hopes that it will be fun.

November will be another busy, crazy month but I’ll still make something.