City at the Top of the World – Preview

Aeryn’s stomach turned and knotted as her room shook.  Nearly a week had passed since she had been taken by those strange pale men and placed upon the sky sail, but she still found herself unadjusted to the traumatic and unnatural sensations of flight.  No one who was taken by the slavers of the north was ever seen again…

 

Anita Sarkeesian is the Dan Brown of Video Games Criticism

Anita Sarkeesian is to cultural criticism what Dan Brown was to historical fiction; for better or for worse, entire cottage industries have sprung up around illustrating what they’re wrong about and why they’re wrong. While the reaction to the DaVinci Code gave us lots of cool stuff from historians and archaeologists on DaVinci and Grail history, the reaction to Sarkeesian has given us a lot of nuanced content exploring gender roles in video game media. Sure, there’s lots of “Fuck Sarkeesian/Brown, s/he is an idiot who has no idea what the fuck s/he’s talking about and is wrong about everything”, but there’s also been a lot of really good and thought provoking stuff to come out of it, too.

That might not quite be what Liana K is getting at in this article, but this article (along with several others by the likes of Jenn of Hardwire & Liz F) is definitely part of that “good” to come out of it.

Bar-Lev: the Yom Kippur War

My dad and I started playing Bar-Lev last night.  I say ‘started playing’ loosely, because after sorting the pieces and getting everything setup, it had gotten pretty late and I needed to get home.

While I haven’t played it, my dad has and it’s one of his favorites.  Ironically, when he suggested it he did so because (he claimed) it was a fairly simple and quick game*.  Though it’s a pretty small scope, it actually reminds me more of Fortress Europa in terms of complexity than some of the simpler SPI wargames we’ve played in the past.  As my dad read the various rules for ranged fire phase, ground movement & combat, zone of control, supply line, air superiority (the air combat and support rules are complex enough that the system treats using air power as a whole new game with its own manual), and morale rules, I’m thinking to myself “oh, god, I’m still trying to setup my pieces!  I’m never going to remember this.  What if I set my pieces up wrong?!”  Fortunately, BGG has a pdf of the both the ground and air rules, at least, so I’ll have time to go over them before we actually play.

The game itself looks fascinating, and I’m excited to get underway.  It has two separate maps, one for the Egyptian Front and another for the Syrian Front, each using a different scale, movement and stacking rules (the Syrian Front tactical map is smaller scale, so movement rates & firing ranges increase while stacking decreases), with various reserve boxes representing the Israeli interior through which the Israeli player can move troops between fronts.  On separate sheets, the various (and rather useless) Arab allies reinforcements are kept in reserve (Lebanon is on a tiny corner of the Syrian front map, so they’re deployed, but I can’t imagine them ever coming into play; all of the other Arabs are off-map until they intervene).

The Egyptians have to fight their way across the Suez Canal against the Israeli forces on the border; I’ve got my heavy tanks stacked up in places where they can hopefully punch through with enough oomph to overcome the tactical disadvantages of attacking from the middle of the freaking Suez Canal.  The Syrians look like they’re going to have a lot tougher time, because they have to move down into a valley and attack up slopes and with much worse equipment than the Egyptians.  From what I remember from my dad’s reading of the rules, Air Power is pretty much going to make or break things for either side: you get air superiority?  you get to strafe, do bombing runs, move paratroopers, and mow down infantry with assault helicopters.  You fail to get air superiority, all of that stuff gets done to you.  And all while factoring in stationary and mobile SAM platforms and shrike radar jamming and god knows what other rules I may have missed because I was trying to figure out where to put my Syrian light tanks.

There are a LOT of options for endgame conditions, so many that I can’t remember them all.  All I do remember is that either the players can agree to a cease-fire or slug it out until the Americans & Soviets bring the hammer down and tell everyone to cut it out.

Interestingly, Bar Lev could be played as a 3 player game**: the Syrians with the Arab Allies are set up to where they could be treated as wholly separate faction from the Egyptians.  There you’d get interesting scenarios where one side could establish a separate peace while the other kept on fighting because they still had a chance.  But man, where would you find a third player for a game like this these days?  In my gaming group, stuff that takes more than an hour and a half are considered “forever-long games” (partly due the restricted time-frames we tend to have in some of our meetup locations), so I can’t imagine what they’d think of a game that takes that long just to set up.

Maybe being a hex & chit wargamer is a kind of masochism?  You’ve got to truly love both the game and the player to have to patience for this sort of thing, but usually it’s pretty rewarding.  Which is why it’s a shame that opponents are so hard to find.  Anyway, I’ll have more to say about it once we’ve actually started playing.

*: From a Board Game Geek review: “Each turn consists of twenty(!)steps involving both players. This may seem daunting, but once you get the hang of the system, it is really no big deal.”

**: Board Game Geek actually lists it 2-5 players.  I have NO idea who players 4 & 5 could be, unless you wanted to stick someone with the Jordanian reinforcements and the other with the maybe dozen & a half various (and nearly worthless) Arab Allies units.  There is seriously nothing worse and more awkward than trying to run a game where one player is controlling mid-game variant forces; I ran SPI’s Gondor once with splitting the city guards and the relief forces as separate factions (they DID at least have separate morale tracks) and it went rather poorly.

Spells: Why Sometimes Less Is Better

“Another reason why B/X is right about everything: the only spells that a new group would have had to learn was Sleep or whatever spell the magic user actually chose during character generation. Most other iterations of the game require people understand the implication of dozens of spells right out of the gate.” – Jeffro Johnson

Every new mechanical ability you give a player makes it that much more difficult for a player to grasp his character’s abilities and figure out a rational way to play the game. I say mechanical abilities, because in an RPG players can and should be able to attempt anything at all; how it plays out is determined by a combination of the roleplayer’s abilities, the system’s mechanics and the adjudication of the GM. The problem with mechanical abilities is that each one entails a rule one must learn and remember to apply in the relevant circumstance.

It can be a lot of fun to play magic characters, and new players are often intrigued by the potential of wizards and mystic types. The difficulty with any class that uses magic (or systems that use myriad skills, non-weapon proficiencies, daily abilities, etc.) is that every spell or ability is a new rule that must be learned and remembered and applied on top of whatever other mechanics may be in play. So not only does one need to remember how to move, how to attack, how to figure out what one’s armor is, or whatever other various tasks fall into the purview of tables and dice rolling as opposed to simply saying “I do/say/look at this”, one has to remember those additional rules pertaining to one’s class; and with any class that’s going to have a lot of spells, that could potentially be a lot of rules. This is one reason why I really like B/X for people new to roleplaying and why I really like low-level play.

I’ve talked about the game I was in where we were all level 12 gestalt characters in 3e; some players were new to the system and everyone but me had ridiculously complex builds* with lots of spells or psionic. What ended up happening was the players had a ton of abilities which they had no idea what they were, how or when to use them, and ultimately didn’t get to use many if any of them. While it’s not as extreme at lower levels in 3e or other systems, there are still going to be a lot spells and abilities and mechanics which new or inexperienced players just aren’t going to be able have enough of a grasp on to play effectively.

My opinions on cantrips and 0 level spells have changed considerably over the last few years. One of my problems with D&D mages was how unmagical they felt and how impractical they were as adventurers, but the weaksauce 1st level one-spell mage really does work both in a lot of settings (especially if you make extensive use of scrolls and adopt some of the implications of the ‘dungeon book’ from Holmes) and in teaching new players the game. That new player who wanted to be a mage? ‘Well, you’re special, so you get one extra rule (your spell) that you need to remember; think you can remember it? Good. If you need to double check, it’s written down.’ But imagine if that player had all of those cantrips (most of which are useless and you’ll find out don’t apply to the situation you want to use them in once you’ve double-checked the actual wording**) and several other spells to start with. ‘Here are all of your spells/abilities. They can be found here, here, and here. Here, they’re alphabetized. Here, they’re arranged by cost. And these over here are sorted by level and alphabetized by level’. You’d better believe that things are going to grind to a screeching halt when that player tries to do something and has to look it up, and he or she will be just as frustrated for the causing the holdup as the other folks will be by the holdup itself.

Having only a few things that one absolutely needs to remember and understand the workings of right out of the gate helps new folks learn the system bit by bit. Learning and acquiring new spells becomes something exciting to look forward to. Players will be excited to have mastered the rule because they’ll know exactly when to apply it, with an ‘aha!’ moment, and will be eager to move into new territory. That’s the difference between magic in a game being fun vs. being burdensome.

 

*:I actually had to fight to be allowed to play the simple Fighter-Rogue mix; I was strongly encouraged to pick dozens of skills from various splatbooks and use prestige classes and what-not to maximize my character; as it turned out, I was the only player who did not have to go searching through assorted books and pdfs when my initiative came up.

**We can use UA in the AD&D game I’m in, but almost never do. Remembering the mechanical implications of nearly a dozen worthless level 0 spells is more trouble that it’s worth. Phantasmal Force is better than anything else in there anyway, especially since it plays heavily to the aforementioned “players can and should be able to attempt anything at all”.

This TIE Fighter Short Film is Badass

So, a guy spent 4 years making a ridiculously high-quality TIE Fighter anime short in the crazy high-octane 80s sci-fi style of stuff like Macross or Gundam: Stardust Memory.  It’s a reminder of just how badass the old TIE Fighter PC game was and just how badass Star Wars can be when it’s not being terrible (which is pretty often!).

Frankly, I’d be more excited if someone told me that this guy had been handed millions of dollars to make a full length animated feature film than I could ever be about the new JJ Abrams movie.  Sorry, JJ, you’ve done some alright stuff, but this 7 minutes is more awesome than any of it.

tie_fighter_poster_by_mightyotaking-d8mwlrt

The characters all have pretty extensive backstories which can be found here.

The worst Star Wars fan on the Internet, on the other hand, can be found here.

Review: PROJECT

(Full Disclosure: I was provided a free pdf copy for review by PROJECT publisher Postmortem Studios.  I have also donated in the past to a scholarship fund run by James Desborough completely unrelated to this or any other Postmortem Studios game or product.)

Last week, I was given a review copy of PROJECT, a new Open D6 sci-fi/magitek Role Playing Game from Postmortem Studios, to check out, and I’ve got to say that it’s made me want to give the old D6 system another go.

project_front-cover

Intro

In the world of PROJECT, players assume the roles of cybernetically enhanced humans who are part of a crack team of mercenaries whose job is keeping the world safe from the encroachment of fey-like entities whose very existence causes psychic disturbances in the fabric of reality.  On the surface, PROJECT looks something like a supers game, but what you get is more sort of a Ghost in the Shell meets Call of Cthulhu.  There are a lot of places where one could take this, ranging from down the dark gritty cybercthulhu rabbit-hole to all-out wacky gonzo hijinks.

The book opens with a lengthy PROJECT “Employee Manual” which serves as an immersive in-universe guide to what PROJECT is, who the PCs are as members of PROJECT, and a little bit about the world and corporate culture that pervades PROJECT.  I’ve gotten so used to DM-directed content that reading a book that starts out with a player intro to the game and its setting was strangely refreshing.  That said, the player-aimed intro is probably going to be most helpful to a GM who is trying to get a feel for the setting and whatever aesthetic and aspect of the PROJECT world they might want to run with, including setting up a “home base” and a framework of the kinds of missions the group will undertake.

One thing I find particularly interesting is that it includes in-universe “don’t be stupid/don’t be a jackass guidelines”.  While games shouldn’t need them in theory, it’s nice to have a place to point to and be able to address players in character in such a way as to say “quit being a dick”; “Your behavior is in violation of PROJECT ethical and behavioral regulations; as such, continued behavior may result in penalties, docked pay or termination” gives you a nice way to say “seriously, you need to quit being an asshole or I’m going to kill your character”.

The equal opportunities nods might seem a bit silly, but because the setting details on dress codes, gender identities and whatnot are written as an in-universe HR document, it works pretty well.  The implications along with the cyber-tech setting really invites a lot of play into transhumanist themes (cuz seriously, what’s the point of cyborg sci-fi if you’re not going to delve into transhumanism and existentialist themes?)

Setting

A lot of the book is devoted to setting.  Strangely, though, I didn’t really pick up on as much of the setting as I think I should’ve from the “Employee Manual” entry section.  The further along one gets in the materials, the more the sci-fi façade slips and the magicality of the setting starts to emerge.  What seems like a not-long-after-the-end setting turns out to be a so-long-after-the-end-it’s-a-new-beginning setting.  A few hundred years after the end of the world, those who were able to still use the old technology managed to reconsolidate power, and PROJECT is the Knights Templar of this new order.

The specifics of the setting make for interesting reading, and could maybe be used as a plot hook or two, but for the most part, I think a lot can safely be tossed out in favor of “post-post-apocalyptic bad stuff with local flavor be here”.  Fortunately, the game and most of its concepts aren’t inextricable from the specifics of the setting.  As long as you kept the basics intact, you can probably give whatever history you want or need for your game of PROJECT.

The one major gripe I have with the setting details is that for all of the time spent on world-building, PROJECT itself is left fairly vague.  I think a more concise explanation of how PROJECT came to be and how it managed to be the One True Global Power would’ve been nice.  On the other hand, it does give GMs a bit of leeway to come up with their own explanations.

Characters

PROJECT has some pretty sweet classes; there’s really no vanilla or mundane class that would leave someone like they felt stuck playing something that wasn’t fun or interesting.  As much as I love D&D, I’ve seen how being the fighter or the dwarf can be seen as a chore: you have to be the guy who doesn’t have as much cool stuff going on but you’re needed to balance out the party.  That’s definitely not the case for PROJECT.

Borg – At first, you look at the Borg class and think fighter/tank, because these guys have been fully cyberized.  While powerful and capable fighters, what you are really getting here is the stealth advantages of being completely dehumanized to the point where your identities are as interchangeable as your parts.  Of course it’s kind of creepy only being able to express oneself using masks…

Empath – The Empath is your planner, coordinator, defensive/offensive psychic, your Jean Grey.  While not quite the pyrotechnician as the Psyker or the Witch, you’ll have plenty of power to mind-fry baddies and make them dance like puppets.

Golem – Golems have been engineered into hulking giants with the strength to tear apart just about anything.  When the psychics and empaths can’t use magic to solve a problem, the Golem is there to punch through.  Part of the safeguards used by PROJECT on Golems is that they’ve been made ‘simple’.

Grunt – At first glance, the Grunt seems like he might be kind of boring compared to the other classes with their wild and over-the-top modifications, but with a plug-n-play interface for a wide range of psy-weapons, the Grunt is probably the most versatile of all the augments.  Plus, being still mostly human, they don’t have quite the range of mental issues that the other augments do.

Medusa – The Medusa are the next step beyond the Borg; rather than having their humanity almost entirely stripped away, the Medusa were never human to begin with.  The disadvantage is that this type is much more likely to become unhinged (“go ‘Frankenstein’” is how the book puts it).  While being close to a straight-fighter type, there’s a lot of versatility in where you can run with the Medusa’s advantages and disadvantages.

Psyker – The Psyker is your Akira-style blow stuff up with your mind class.  Less subtle than the Empaths, Psykers are masters of offensive and defensive telekinesis.  These guys are the bread & butter of a psychic army.

Wytch – At the risk of sounding like Tim Brannan, I totally want to give this class a go.  The Wytches have developed an understanding of the nature of the catastrophe that destroyed earth and the entities that it unleashed to such a degree that their skill in using technology to manipulate and control them is akin to magic.  As a mage class, I’m somewhat reminded of (I think it was) Tales of Vesperia, where magic was actually accessing and rewriting the code of the supercomputer that controlled the world on the fly.  They’re more defense-oriented than the Psyker or Empath and have healing abilities, but they’re also able to summon and bind the various monstrous entities that threaten the world.

One of the running themes across all classes and throughout PROJECT in general is that the psy-tech enhancements are not without their risks and drawbacks, particularly the psychological drawbacks.  All of the classes have various issues with how their modifications affect their psyches, ranging from issues with depression to full blown violent psychosis as a side-effect from dehumanization.  Depending on where you want to go with this, your game can be anywhere from simple over-the-top action to some really introspective stuff looking into what is it to be human.

It’s only a minor complaint, but each “class” gets a description in three different places.  Part of this might just be from my unfamiliarity with the open d6 system and the content folks generally make for it, but think I would’ve preferred a one page matrix of each class’s starting stats in the character creation section to get a better at-a-glance comparative view of the classes.  Also, Kinetic Kineses (Kinetic Telekinesis, for example) seem a bit redundant, but, again, it’s a small complaint.

Art

There’s not a ton of art in the PROJECT book, but what is there is great.  It’s enough to give you a feel of setting and the tone without being a distraction or – worse – trying to distract from a mediocre product.   It’s all line-art, very clean, with limited shading to give it that digital comic feel.  There are only a handful of ‘characters’ featured in the book, and most of them only get a few illustrations each, but even just within those, they all have a lot of personality.

The Wytch looks awesome.

wytch

Conclusion

As I said before, I’m willing to give the D6 system another go to check this out.  It’s an easy to grasp setting and the book offers plenty of adventure hooks.  Someone already familiar with the D6 system could probably pick this up and run it right away.  Fortunately, D6 is simple enough anyone not particularly familiar with it could still probably pick it up and run it after double checking a few things now and again.  It’s a solid product with a lot going for it.  If your group is into weird science, Cthulhu-tech, cyberpunk or the such, there’s a lot to like.  It certainly has more crunch than a micro like Pockets, but if you wanted to play a game with a similar feel that has a bit more teeth to it, PROJECT’s got you covered.

If this had been put out by anyone besides Postmortem Studios, it would not even bear mentioning, but PROJECT is very much a “general audiences” title with nothing salacious about it whatsoever (punk-fairy giving the middle finger aside).  You’d be fine picking this up and running it for anybody.

Once the print edition becomes available, I’ll probably be putting it on my wishlist.  In the meantime, you can download a pdf copy from RPGNow.