Wednesday, April 23, 2014

[AFHOTWTTGS] Playtest Review: Iron Kingdoms Role Playing Game

Playtest Review: Iron Kingdoms Role Playing Game

In theory, I should hate the IKRPG.

No, really. It's a three-hundred-page rulebook with great slabs of abilities, skills, spells and complicated item construction systems; it starts with a Fantasy Humanities Textbook and doesn't hit the gameables until a third of the way in; and, while it insists that it can be played without miniatures, it reads like such a straight upgrade of Warmachine/Hordes into a single-figure action-RPG that you'd probably be a bit mad to try it.

Then again, in theory, I should love the IKRPG.

I play Warmachine and Hordes - have done for eight years - and can generally be counted on to give Privateer Press the benefit of the doubt (not always: see also character upgrade kits, Colossals, and the increasingly transparent attempts to make No Quarter a must-buy). I owned (though never quite found time to play) the D&D 3.0 sourcebooks for the Iron Kingdoms and generally liked them (although I've never forgiven them for The Longest Night, 'that adventure where you follow a DM PC around for a three-day murder-tour of Corvis).

Since I enjoyed it from the player side of the screen (an unusual seat for myself) and since I know the rules and setting fairly well and it's been suggested that my ongoing attempts to teach new players might be enabled by working with something that's known rather than something I'm making up as I go along, on balance, I thought it might be worth a pop with my usual Dark Ages Vampire / Star Wars d20 rabble.

To start with, I decided to pre-build a batch of characters. Character generation is fairly fluid once you've gotten into it, but could really benefit from a Call of Cthulhu style walk-round-the-character-sheet summary/quick version. There's some information - the formulae for determining derived stats like Defence, Initiative and Willpower - that's only available on the character sheet, and some - the exact means by which the life spirals that chart one's damage taken are populated - that I managed to miss the first time round, although that one's more on me because I didn't think to look for something important in a sidebar.

A certain amount of flip-flopping's also involved, with every playable species and a couple of dozen careers receiving a full-page spread each (archetypes don't get a full-page spread, oddly), while gear and abilities and spells are all tucked away in their own section. It makes for a more fluid reference during play but, again, a double-page spread walking you through and showing page references for each section of the sheet wouldn't have gone amiss. That said, I had two starting non-spellcaster Heroes ready to go within forty-five minutes, and subsequent efforts have taken about fifteen minutes a shot.

Our first playtest involved a combat encounter, with Squirrel (Trollkin Mighty Duellist/Investigator) and Hark (Human Skilled Aristocrat/Pistoleer) as P.I. and client, looking for the Aristocrat's kidnapped sister in the back streets of Clocker's Cove, and encountering a Cephalyx and its handful of Drudges.

In their first fight with five Drudges and their totally-not-a-steampunk-Mind-Flayer Cephalyx master, the players gave a credible account of themselves, but were ultimately bogged down and overcome as they ran out of what we've variously been calling 'fate points', 'feat points', 'hero points' or 'magic beans'. My fault, as it happens; I'd built the Drudges like little PCs, with crap offensive stats but with full quota of wounds and decent ARM, as tough as a player. Turns out you're meant to give little baddies a 'vitality' track - the conventional five to eight boxes recognisable to Warmachine players - and save the spirals for important people.

We opted to play on; our heroes awoke strapped to crude operating tables in a burned-out building, with one box in each spiral and one magic bean left. This time, with only two Drudges (one badly wounded) and the Cephalyx to worry about, and some quick thinking by the players (environment play from Squirrel and the deployment of Social skills by Hark) the fight went much more in their favour. With its dying hiss, the Cephalyx informed its interrogators that it feared its allies more than death... and that its allies were death itself.

In many ways, these two are the perfect playtesters for a new system; they both have issues with crunch and sums, and they both have a distinct preference in terms of play (Squirrel likes violence and challenging-but-fair encounters, Hark likes silly voices and using everything on the character sheet). Here's what Hark had to say about the IKRPG:
I quite liked it. I think the fact that it was one character, that you're controlling one thing rather than half a dozen things, and that it's a bit more directed (because you're roleplaying, you have your GM refereeing and saying "well THIS happens"), made it better for me than Warmachine. It does have all those cool monsters, too, thanks to being a wargame as well... 
It's quite simple - just a handful of d6s. I like the boxes system of taking damage - it's quite a fun little mechanic, rolling to see where the damage goes and what it does to you when you get rid of all your Intellect or Physique or whatever. 
As one of those RPGs where you wander around looking for a fight it was definitely good - you could have an abstract wander mechanic and then focus in on the fighting. I'm not sure what it would be like if you were doing a more... Vampire-esque game. I'd quite like to try it with that, because there's some really cool stuff in the Iron Kingdoms and it'd be interesting to see and play through stuff like the religions and species, being slightly more developed than is usual in that sort of fantasy world. 
I'm not sure I could rank it compared to other systems - I haven't played with too many other GMs, and there definitely tends to be a 'Von game'. The short fight that we did... it was what it was. You gave your Cephalyx a funny voice, which was appreciated, but I wonder how much more depth you could give it. You could play in a bad one of those but you'd have to really try to mess up a one-shot fight... and I'm not sure how you'd differentiate a good one from an excellent one. I think the Iron Kingdoms has that Pratchettian flavour that you put into Vampire, so I suspect it'd fit very well with your style of GMing.
Thus emboldened, I decided to go for something a little more grandiose in our next session. Putting two and two together, our heroes twigged that the missing aristo-sprog had probably been swapped with Cryx, and that it was high time they set sail for Blackwater Port. Our second session would be a bit more of a challenge. I'd have a variable number of players - between three and six depending on who turned up - and, obviously, a larger group, requiring both more stuff to interact with and more dynamic environments so that the game didn't just become one smackfest after another.

I spent a couple of early mornings hunched over the core book, this time actually bothering to look up things like my Encounter Points budget. I quite like this mechanic: the GM can cross-reference the number of players with the amount of XP in the group and find the appropriate number of Encounter Points for a challenging punch-up; then, over the page, find the costs for Battle, Single-Career or Comprehensive NPCs with varying levels of experience under their belts.

There are also, as I discovered later, stats for many of the core models in the Privateer Press range, if not in the book then available for free download, with allotted EP costs for quick and easy setup. As a benchmark it's pretty neat, and the sliding scale means that a chap in my position can design tiers to an encounter by adding extra NPCs or minions who'll get involved if there are X number of players.

In our case, the Big Fight was with a Cryx warcaster (the signature spellcaster class of the Iron Kingdoms) - a top-end-of-Hero-level Comprehensive NPC with some military kit and a warjack (steam robot) of his own. He'd be sitting at 18 Encounter Points - challenging for a group of two, about right for three, relatively easy for four and a pushover for five or six.

I also statted up the Deathripper itself - if I had a six-player group to deal with the warjack would enter the fray alongside its owner - and the captive sister, who may or may not have gone willingly and may or may not step in on one side or the other, depending on how the final encounter went down. In the end, I made up a little spot system for tracking how she was likely to behave (blatantly stolen from the Fighting Fantasy book Night Dragon) and had that ticking over while the group - Ben's Dwarf Intellectual Explorer/Rifleman, Simon's Human Gifted Priest/Man-At-Arms and Squirrel piloting the Trollkin from before - explored Blackwater.

Mechanising all that took a while, so I ended up raiding the list of provided monsters for Thrall and Thrall Warrior stats, and bodging together a few Blighted Trollkin from their Warmachine profiles, plus a single-career Fell Caller NPC to lead them. What we'd be testing here was the system's ability to track and manage increasingly complex fights with a large group of players, without leaving anyone behind in a long, tedious turn sequence. Ben thought:
The system's simple. Once I understood what it could do, the interaction between DEF and ARM and how they differ, everything came down to one or two rolls. I like that everything uses a 2d6 roll - it makes for a very simple system where you're not going to need massive amounts of dice. The system doesn't hold things back, and it's generally very fluid, very streamlined. I can't really anticipate it grinding down into something like the AD&D "have you got the right feats, have you got this, have you got that, do we need the grapple rules, where are all the miscellaneous dice we need..." situations. 
Another thing I like: banter earns beans. Magic beans make the combat system tick, and as I belatedly realised shortly before Conry's death, a canny player spends them rapidly. Giving multiple ways to earn them back is a good idea and encourages their use - players don't get frugal or scared to spend them - but of the ways to earn them back I particularly like the 'make the GM laugh' option. It encourages people to have a fun time. 
As for the setting... when I start thinking of it as cartoony, things start fitting together a lot better. After long exposure to 40K, you show me any fantasy setting that isn't Tolkien and I reflexively go GRIMDARK - but that's just me as a player, not a criticism of the IKRPG. If I try to take Cryx seriously they're silly - they're trying too hard to be evil - but if you consider them as Saturday morning cartoon villains, they're still evil, they still have horrible plots and do nightmarish things, but the appearance of them doesn't make me shake my head sadly. 
I suspect that the final boss fight you gave us was possibly tougher than you anticipated - once Angus was down and I was badly injured, I was expecting a TPK any second. I also think the game's quite vulnerable to style clash - Simon and I are 'avoid combat' players, and Squirrel shuts down between his opportunities to hit something. That said, if I were about to restart my Star Wars game, I might look at the IKRPG and see if I can cannibalise bits of it for that - the warcaster rules would transfer quite nicely to Jedi, for instance, and it's really fluid. The mechanics of the game don't get in the way of the game, and I like that.
This session took a lot longer to get going, mostly because I insisted on roleplaying out the exploration of Blackwater, setting up possible fights that didn't turn into actual fights, and causing a few false starts. Once the violence actually got into the swing... well, we had fun, but it became clear that if I'm going to run the IKRPG I'm going to need some tighter encounter design than usual, and a very clear awareness of what rules are in play on both sides.

We ended up forgetting that Squirrel's character had Riposte, thus skipping a couple of crucial attacks on a bonejack that was able to zap Ben when it shouldn't have, and having to pull a couple of fiats (a very small cheat in my favour and a rather more significant OH LOOK A MIRACULOUS RESURRECTION in Simon's, which I felt much less bad about when I realised we'd also forgotten there was an incapacitation table) in order to see the fight through. I should also have designed the environments much more carefully, establishing how big they were and exactly where folks would be starting; I might even go so far as to flout the game's principles and use grid paper (yeah, so everyone gets to pre-measure, but life's more interesting when you don't have to guess).

Another major difference, in the cold light of dawn, was the approach I took to running the games. First time out, it was a railroad - "go here, fight this, wake up there, get out of this one somehow" - second time, I let the players investigate and poke their noses in and it all felt a little bit... directionless. The approach I might take to avoid this is something akin to Final Fantasy, or Diablo - something derived from computer gaming in much the same way as I've sometimes felt the parent wargame to be.

The Final Fantasies I've seen played have had that zoomed-out, slightly-abstract navigate-through-the-world interface for travel/exploration/lorehunting/social RP and then a zoom in and shift to much closer, arena-style turn-based combat, zooming out again when the fight is done. The Diablo I'm envisioning is III - continuous combat in a dynamic environment, with the occasional pause when a social NPC or a lore artifact is found, and the occasional longer break for plot and things.

Maybe the game needs a sandbox that's developed in advance, with the usual plot hooks and so on, or some sort of framework where people can be sent on missions and have information provided to them, or some very definite cause to operate under. I've been scoping out the rules for adventuring companies, and they definitely seem to have some promise in terms of getting the party together and on task. I'll test those out next time.

Bottom line: the IKRPG is what it is, and what it is is a combat engine which needs you to give it some purpose, and is probably more interesting for people who are already into the Kingdoms as a setting. It is, however, a damn good combat engine for a group that ain't too hot on maths and likes their fantasy to run on steam. I'll be running it again at some point.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Monday Gunday: My very own "Condition Derp" moment

Having made it through the TSA checkpoint without being molested (or detained...) I have an hour or so to kill before my flight leaves. This should give me just enough time to write up a quick post on what happened to me this morning.

In continuing my practice of "I admit it when I screw up so that I can be a useful example to others of what not to do," I have to confess that I derped so hard this morning that if someone had wanted to hurt me, there would have been little to nothing I could have done to stop him.

To begin with, I am not a morning person. I am so, so not a morning person that, as far as I'm concerned, life doesn't begin until at least 10 am, and truly civilized people wait until noon to conduct their affairs.

However, I have a 3:15 flight this afternoon, and the combination of 1)  driving to Orlando from Daytona, B) flying with a checked firearm in my luggage, and III ) getting through the TSA checkpoint  led me to believe that I needed to leave the house as soon as I was functional. So I left at approximately 9:30 am, just after walking the dogs, and at around 10 am I was gassing up my car.

Despite being at a gas station in a place that I wasn't familiar with, I was completely oblivious due to being up too early. I was leaning against the car, my attention on the gas gauge as the numbers spun, and my mental acuity was somewhere between "beige" and that low electrical hum you hear from transformers. In other words, I was completely and utterly in Condition White:
White is the lowest level on the escalator. In Condition White one is unaware, not alert, oblivious. This state can be characterized as "daydreaming" or "preoccupied". People in White tend to walk around with their heads down, as if watching their own feet. They do not notice the impending danger until it literally has them by the throat
So there I was, mindlessly pumping gas, when the first thing I became aware of was that there was a voice -- a male voice -- behind me and to my left, and it was talking to me.  Unfortunately, I still can't recall WHAT that voice was saying -- all I know is that  my brain made that skipping sound associated with vinyl records as it went "WHO WHAT HOLY SHIT MAN BEHIND ME SNEAKED UP OH GOD ROBBERY MURDER ALERT ALERT."

Condition Derp.  Also, she's holding it wrong. 

I suppose it's a good thing that I'm naturally jumpy, as those reflexes served me in good stead today. The first thing I did -- the only sensible thing I did in this situation -- was to whirl around while jumping backwards, putting the fender of my car between me and him. My hand clawed uselessly at my hip for the gun that wasn't there, because I had packed it for travel.

I suppose that maybe I could have pulled the hose out if I had needed to, but I'm not convinced it would have had enough pressure to douse an assailant anyway.

Fortunately for me (and thank God for looking out for fools, small children, and Erin Palette), the person behind me wasn't some random assailant but actually someone who knew me, had recognized my car, and was saying something like "Hey, what are you doing here?". Mind you, I only found this out after he had finished slapping his knee and laughing at me for jumping out of my skin.

This could have gone so much worse than it did. If this had been an actual assailant, he could have easily mugged me, or stolen my car if I put it between me and him. This was a dramatic wake-up call for me (both figuratively and literally in my case) and I'm telling you this now to help reinforce in me that I need to be aware of my surroundings every time I leave my house.

A gun is a good tool for self-defense, but it is not THE tool. That honor belongs to your brain -- but only if you use it!

Friday, April 18, 2014

SHTFriday: Steel Choices for a Bug-Out Blade

The first in a series of guest posts as I prepare for a week's vacation  (and oh god, do I ever need a vacation from my family) that begins on Monday and culminates at the NRA Annual Meeting in Indianapolis.

I will try to write a post this weekend for Monday so that you, my dearest and faithful readers, will have three days of content until I get back.  However, I cannot make guarantees.

Until then, enjoy this fine hand-crafted post on "What steel should I choose if I can have only one knife in my doomsday kit?"

(PS: the answer is always "high-carbon steel kukri.")

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Dr Wholmes - The Final Chapter: The Exile.

     And now we come to the final installment of comparisons, where I take my premise and stretch it truly past the breaking point. The other three have been pretty clear parallels, but this one even I'll admit pushes it. If you're a Doctor Who fan but haven't seen the 50th anniversary special, you might tune out for fear of spoilers. Likewise if you're a House fan and haven't seen the finale.

     After spending who knows how long avoiding the Time War, the 8th Doctor was mortally wounded attempting to rescue a brave pilot from a crashing starship. That would have been the end of the Doctor due to the severity of his injuries, but he was recovered and aided by associates of the Time Lords. His regenerative cycle was kick-started and, for once, he was given a choice of what his next regeneration would bring.

     A warrior was then born, in fire and pain and conflict. When next we see this warrior, the War Doctor, he's been fighting so long that even his unnaturally long-lived body has worn old and worn down. He's gotten old all over again, bitter and irascible and with very little patience for anyone else, including himself. He'd reached the end of his rope, and was ready to blow it all away to destroy the world he knew in order to make a better world for everyone else. His only connection, his one longest companion, the TARDIS, the only thing to survive.

     Gregory House's life was one much of travel and study, much a background in medicine, physics, archaeology, and assorted other skills. His own personal war started with his father, an abusive military man who House never believed to be his real father. That personal war culminated in an infarction in his leg that left him crippled and in pain. When we meet him, he's very much the same bitter and irascible man, completely incapable of regular social interaction without biting sarcasm and nearly blatant attacks on anyone who engages him.

     By the time his end comes, his war has spiraled so out of control that he's alienated nearly everyone in his life, ruined his professional career, and ended up in jail, rehab, and worse. House's way out of his war, his way to make the world better for those around him, was to destroy himself, or at least fake it. Again, leaving his only connection, his one longest companion, Wilson, the only thing to survive with him.

     Because of his actions to end the Time War, the War Doctor was an exile in his own mind. Because of his actions leading up to faking his death, House was an exile to anyone in his life beyond Wilson. House was Sherlock Holmes on the day it was impossible to be Sherlock Holmes, much as the War Doctor was The Doctor on the day it was impossible to do the right thing, and perhaps they were both wearing a bit thin.

Now, I'd better leave off before I dig up another Doctor that I can connect to Batman, since I seem to be out of recent Sherlock Holmeses.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

[AFTHOTWTTGS] Closure in Game Development

A couple of weeks ago, I was burbling on about an alternative socio-economic model for how roleplaying games are produced and sold. Now, to look at how we can move toward this alternative model by playing with the idea of ‘closure’...

The classic model of making and selling games for a living is one of open streams of income – a game is made, and as sales flag, a new product is released for it in order to make more sales and continue paying the wages, bills, rents and so on and so forth.  Now imagine a game which exists, from the developer’s point of view, as a closed stream of income; it is produced, it sells out, pays the bills for a month or two, and then it’s done.  The developer moves on to paying their bills with something else, whether it be making another game or another job entirely.  Infinite extension through deliberate misdesign is no longer necessary because the developer’s livelihood is being assured by other means.  The system, if reasonably solid, can be preserved as a ‘dead’ system, immune to being buggered about with in the cause of generating further products and further sales.

Alternatively, the game can be an intermittent stream of income, if a different kind of game design emerges.  Game development is usually seen as a closed system – authorship, playtesting, release, done.  One of my very favourite miniature games had a public field test of its second edition, based on the idea that a player base will a) play many, many more games than the design team ever could and b) having not written the rules, will not ‘know what they mean’. This rather neatly dodges the classic self-proofreader’s problem: you read what you think you wrote and not what’s actually there. A public test means that errors, typos, confusions and poor structure can be pinpointed by people who aren't as likely to skim over them because they know that bit already.  It works very nicely for the 'dead game' market too, provided some sort of centralising force emerges to direct the house-ruling and re-drafting process; exactly like what's happened with Games Workshop's defunct Specialist Games range, and exactly like what hasn't happened with the OSR - of which more later.

The basic process I'd like to see in games-making goes something like this.

  1. Alpha testing by a limited number of playtesters, including a control group run by the developers, but also other groups with different styles and priorities, perhaps each including a developer (at this stage, testing is about whether the core principles and mechanics are functional, rather than catching oversights and errors, so the developer’s foreknowledge of how it’s supposed to work is a benefit rather than an adversary in the making).  
  2. Beta testing by anyone and everyone, public and free, with feedback on rules language, clarity, evidence of publicly stated core principles in the system as it’s read and played out-of-house.  
  3. Eventually, the formation of a rulebook – downloadable and printable on demand. We don't build up a stock of the damn things that we have to shift; we sell the damn things when someone wants to buy them, and we accept that a given gaming group might well only buy the damn things once between the four of them.

Of course, it has to stay small.  The more time and money you spend on the product, the more people you involve, the more costs you have to pay, the more hours of labour for which you need to be adequately recompensed (because it is important that you keep paying the bills while you’re working on this stuff) – the more reasons there are to release a product because you need the money, rather than because the game needs the addition.

The goal is to balance your time so that game development is not the One Thing you do for a living, which – in theory – means that more of your decisions can be based on good design practice, and you’re less worried about supporting yourself with a viable game product, because such is not your only means of support.

Essentially, you’re looking at small groups producing games as one of multiple streams of income, rather than large ones producing them as the sole stream.  Sort of how Kickstarter and the OSR have shifted the RPG world away from the traditional publishing model... and we'll talk about a few effects that the emergence of fan development and crowdfunding have had in... the future.

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