Review: The Witch is Dead

The Witch is Dead is a one page RPG by \u\gshowitt on reddit about murder- the witch has been killed and her entourage of woodland creatures must kill the witch hunter and take his eyes in order to revive her.  My group had a lot of players out this week so I ran it as a quick old-school revival style bloodfest for the two people who had made it and everyone had a blast.

Taylor the witch was killed by a wild and headstrong witch-hunter from the nearby oppressively perfect village of white supremacists at war with the local forest tribes. The mortality rate for the night was 150%-Hadvar the hare bolted across an open field and managed to convince an orphan boy that he was his father using magic before he was carried off by a falcon.  His player rerolled and returned as Gonzalez the rat in about 30 seconds.  The predator guarding the village now busy eating, the rest of the party entered through a creek but Tony the NPC toad was almost devoured by koi until Roger the rat beat them back with his unseen hand.  After a shouting match with a cat, they managed to infiltrate a rally led by the witch hunter.  Gonzalez dropped a bag of sand on him back stage, badly injuring him, and Roger the rat managed to steal a war horn originally taken from the forest tribes and get Tony to blow it as a distraction, at the cost of Tony’s life.

Seeking to finish off the witch hunter at the doctor’s office, the party mistakenly entered an exterminator’s office.  Roger attempted to kill said exterminator with his unseen hand spell and the knife he had used to avenge Tony, but was instead killed by a flying mousetrap.  His player rerolled as Mosey the cat,  and successfully lead the forest entourage and Gonzalez in mobbing the exterminator’s ankles until he fell into his own poison stash and died.

Armed with the information that the sign with dead and hurt animals on it was not the hospital, they soon located the witch hunter.  A pitched battle ensued in the doctor’s office, and Mosey was mortally stabbed by the doctor’s pet dove Archimedes before he swallowed it whole.  His player took over the NPC Errol the arsonist owl who set fire to the building and with Gonzalez’s help removed the witch hunter’s eyes and flew off.  Regrettably, Errol could only carry Gonzalez and the rest of the forest creatures burned to death.

With the high probability of failure and death I think you can’t run it as anything but a funnel world style game, with disposable characters and a deep pool of backups.  Using this set up the game flowed well and the quick rerolling and simple rules encouraged the players to take risks- combined with the random generation the group ended up in a lot of interesting situations; it didn’t feel like there was any dead time with this game.

What I would say the downside is like Dungeon World your (meaning the dungeon master’s) ability to improvise is very important.  In particular the concept of failing forward is very applicable.  Working a vague degrees of success system into this helped- if you stop dead on a bad roll The Witch is Dead is not going to work.  The random tables help things get moving quickly but you have to make a lot of snap decisions about how difficult things should be and how to lay out a world created with dice rolls.  If you can do that, the system is very good for one shots- I ran mine in about 2 hours with no prep and I think it was one of the best sessions I have ever run.  The rules provide a good deal of structure for the players while leaving room to maneuver- a good system for old and new players.

TL,DR; A quick and fun one page RPG in the OSR style- if you are good at improv and don’t take it too seriously you will have a good time.  Give it a try.

 

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The Sprawl: A Cyberpunk Gametale

I’ve been working on a review for the Powered by the Apocalypse game The Sprawl, and while that is in the works I thought I would post a recording of one of my sessions.  It’s one of the best ways to understand how a system works.

In a nutshell, The Sprawl handles spontaneous, episodic sessions very well- it’s ideal if not everyone can make it to every session or you need to get rolling without a lot of prep.  It runs cyberpunk tabletop gaming well in a system that is a lot easier to pick up that Shadowrun.  Sadly I haven’t found or had a chance to try anything as elegant for space opera.  This is one of my favorite if not my favorite system – if you are interested, I suggest you give it a listen or take a look at one of Eric Vulgaris’ let’s plays.

Review: Monster of the Week

Monster of the Week is a Powered by the Apocalypse (or PbtA) tabletop gaming system by Michael Sands in which players tell a collaborative story about monster hunters, a la Supernatural or the Dresden Files.  This is the same engine used in Dungeon World , so the basic mechanics are similar, though Monster of the Week rejects the classes and combat of Dungeons and Dragons while Dungeon World borrows heavily from it. For example damage rolls, full attribute scores and inventories are not present, favoring the simplicity of most PbtA games.  Everything you need is included in the single book for the system, and character sheets with included instructions for making a character are both in the book and easily available online.

All rolls are decided using 2d6, with 10+ being a pure success, 7-9 being a success with a complication or cost, and 6- being a failure where the Game Master – or Keeper as they are called in the book – makes a move.  Fighting is treated as another skill check with the Kick Some Ass move, which sacrifices some combat detail for streamlining and making playbooks – classes in PbtA – that aren’t combat focused viable.  Investigation and protecting bystanders are both important enough to have one of the 8 basic moves devoted to them, with a bevy of playbook moves also focused on protecting, investigation, and finding or bypassing the monster’s weakness.  The monster mystery genre is baked into this system.   Adapting this system to other genres is unlikely to work unless there is a reason for mysteries, monsters, and some analogue to a magic system- the game rules assume the presence of all three and are built around it.

Combat is portrayed as fast and lethal- but in practice the hunters are fairly beefy; the only deaths in the campaign I ran were when the characters turned on each other.  Players always take damage when fighting and die when they run out of hit points, no save, though they have a limited number of “get out of jail free cards” in luck points.  However this danger may be eliminated by some game breaking move combinations, especially from the Monstrous playbook- it does not fit the overall tone or power level of the game very well, and I had a very hard time balancing encounters involving it.  I would recommend banning the Monstrous playbook if you are running the game.

In contrast to Dungeons & Dragons and Dungeon World, Monster of the Week offers detailed instructions on setting up individual sessions, a notable improvement that should make this game runnable even by someone who has never played it before.  The Sprawl’s planing system is even easier to use but MoTW’s suggested planning gives a more complete map of what could happen in the session.

However, it is necessary since the mystery format of MoTW involves a great deal more preparation than Dungeon World or other games, where the dungeon structure can simplify preparation greatly.  The mystery structure forces a certain amount of rail roading- the players only have agency within the confines of solving the mystery, or the system breaks down; if your players do not like structure this may be a problem.  Additionally the “Use Magic” move is the most open ended move in any of the PbtA systems- it needs some attention from the GM both to keep things balanced and to prevent players from getting lost in the endless possibilities.

If you do the prep, 30 minutes on average for me, or use a premade mystery from the book or online, the mystery flows well.  There’s time for investigation, social scenes and several fights in a 3 hour session.  A 2 hour session is possible but will require the Keeper to manage time carefully and keep things moving.  I liked running the system a great deal and it reproduced the balance of investigation and fighting while trying to keep the public from catching on you would expect from a monster TV show or an urban fantasy novel in an exciting fashion, feeling true to the genre without being bogged down into mechanics.

Where I ran into trouble was a clash of expectations.  Monster of the Week needs more player buy in into the genre than a swords and sorcery game or something else less plot focused.  My group essentially had two factions, the people trying to solve the mystery and a team of black ops murder hobos.  Since some playbooks trade combat effectiveness for investigation the clash was more serious than in Dungeon World or Dungeons and Dragons where all classes are built and have tools for traditional dungeon delving and adventuring.  When violence became the default solution to problems the investigation team felt left out, and the murder hobos felt bored during the investigations.

This management of expectations is always important but is much more so in Monster of the Week where investigation is the meat of the genre.  I should have been more aggressive in getting the group on the same page; the book recommends banning certain classes to give a campaign a certain feel.  Coming from a Dungeons and Dragons background this felt strange and I didn’t do it, which was a mistake.  I’m not saying some playbooks can’t coexist, but the players have cooperate to make it happen – tell this to your group and if you think it isn’t likely, restrict the playbooks to keep everyone on the same page.  Obviously the Keeper can create different challenges for different players but if the Monstrous shape shifts during an attempted social encounter or a hunter assaults a journalist trying to interview them its hard to stop things from devolving into combat without breaking immersion.

Dungeon World’s quick leveling is present here as well – experience gain is slower but requirements do not increase as the players level, so campaigns must be planned to be short to keep challenges from being trivialized; that or forced retirement of characters.  I ran a 10 session campaign and all the characters were into their advanced moves despite lots of absences.

While Monster of the Week is quick and flexible compared to Dungeons & Dragons and other crunchier systems, it feels very slow compared to other PbtA games.  I have played and prefer Dungeon World and The Sprawl to Monster of the Week, though it may simply be that the genre wasn’t what my group and I were looking for.  It is a good system so if monster hunting seems like something you would like, give it a try.

TL,DR; A fast, streamlined, and easy system- pick it up if you like the monster mystery/hunting genre.

Purchase page and image source are linked at the start of the article.

Review: Under the Dog

Under the Dog is a science fiction anime OVA about government conspiracies and experimentation gone wrong.  It channels a mixture of Evangelion and Ghost in the Shell, both in the art design and the world, including a shady pseudo-governmental organization that uses teenagers as its operatives for reasons that remain unclear.  Episode 0 was just released following a 2 year production period after the Kickstarter, with no future episodes planned.

The production values were good but not gorgeous like the first few episodes of Evangelion, or what you would expect from a movie.  Avoiding spoilers, the episode’s plot surprised me.  Under the Dog plays with the “chosen hero” and “government conspiracy” tropes in a way that feels fresh.  The ending leaves an opening for a series but stands well enough on its own, feeling a great deal like a classic science fiction short story- briefly exploring the consequences of a theoretical technology on people’s lives and society as a whole, with disturbing implications.

The acting had its moments, though the subtitles in some scenes give the usual feeling that there is a subtext that has been lost in translation.  Some character speak only in English, with the quality of acting varying wildly.  The fight choreography is good, better than what you would expect from a series, though not as good as Darker than Black or the trailer for Under the Dog.

Character development and world building are both excellent, showing rather than telling what is happening, and paint a rich yet fleeting picture of the world without an exposition dump. Under the Dog Episode 0 is well constructed with good animation and a fresh plot and if there were later episodes I would watch them based on the strength of the first.

Yet as a Kickstarter backer, it feels like a raw deal.  The single episode produced is good,  but for $25 and a two year wait I was hoping for more than 28 minutes.  This is probably a failure to manage expectations on my part, but to people uninvolved with the Kickstarter I would not recommend paying $25; wait for it to hit a streaming service or go to retail.  My disappointment is with the Kickstarter process, which was expensive, long, and created inflated expectations, rather than Under the Dog itself.

Under the Dog stands well on its own, telling a satisfying story in a skillful way that could be continued but doesn’t feel like it has to be either. The main complaint being there isn’t enough of it speaks well about the quality.  It works as a unit and I want to see more of it not because it ended on a cliffhanger, but because it is well done and interesting.

TL,DR; Under the Dog is good and worth keeping an eye on in the future if the series is picked up, especially if you like classic dark science fiction.  Don’t back Kickstarter projects.

Review- Dune: House Atreides

Dune: House Atreides is the first of the Prelude to Dune Series, a trilogy of prequel novels set in the Dune Universe about the origins of the characters from House Atreides, Harkonnen and Corrino in the original novels, by co-written Frank Herbert’s son Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson.  The sequels will be discussed briefly as well, while avoiding spoilers.

It is a challenge to write prequels and make them fit, and House Atreides and the rest of its trilogy do not meet it.  The characters I knew from Dune seem like strangers, the entire tone of the trilogy is heavy handed and feels off from the subtleties and moral complexities of the original book, and it is implausible that the events of the trilogy would not be referenced in the later books.  I understand the difficulty in weaving the vague hints given in Dune about the past into an entertaining prequel, and none of these things would be a deal breaker if House Atreides were not in the Dune series, inviting unfavorable comparisons with the original novel.

While we are given more time with some interesting characters that we saw too little of in Dune, the characterization feels off, contributing to a sense that the tone of House Atreides and its sequels doesn’t fit with the rest of the series.  In some cases this is understandable- Duncan Idaho and Leto Atreides are children and have not yet become who they are in Dune.  Yet the Old Duke, who is described as a hard and stern man in Dune, is instead a genial man of the people.  The Harkonnens and Emperor Shaddam  are reduced to caricatures, committing atrocities for their own sake or out of sheer stupidity. Even where the differences in how the characters act are plausible, it robs House Atreides of the interesting character interactions that were so important to Dune.

Dune was a novel about showing rather than telling- the world is introduced in fleeting references and the actions of the characters, slowly and tantalizingly painting a picture of the world in which the novel is set.  Herbert and Anderson instead far too often choose to tell us about the world in House Atreides instead of letting it speak for itself- too much information from the narrator and not enough from character dialogue and actions.

The dialogue is much less tight- Dune features tense conversations where life hangs on the possible interpretation of every word, such as the hunt for the traitor in the Atreides compound and the internal intrigues on Geidi prime.  House Atreides never reaches the same level of attention, and some of the early conversations are especially bad, with characters vomiting exposition at each other instead of having a conversation.  In particular the scene between the Emperor and Pardot Kynes in one of the first chapters   made me cringe and I almost stopped reading the book.  The structure of the dialogue is butchered to introduce the world and Pardot Kynes’ mission to the reader; Kynes’ lines are obviously a pretext to get exposition on the page and Emperor Eldrood harps on how he hates the falseness of the court, a sentiment that is never mentioned or shown again.  The rest of the opening scenes are not much better.

Contributing to the off characterization is this is a novel in the Dune series without much Dune.  Frank Herbert embedded reasons in the setting for technology to be unusable with purpose- it puts the focus on the human elements of the story and gives an interesting contrast to the setting, with spaceships and battles with bladed weapons plausibly coexisting.  Moving away from the planet Dune undermines these strengths, and the machine planet of Ix in particular does not seem like something that should exist in the Dune Universe, where religion is based on a crusade against machines.

Things improve marginally in House Harkonnen and the trilogy finally finds it feet at the end of House Corrino, but it’s too late at that point.  The ending of the trilogy was good but if I had known what it would take to get there I would not have purchased House Atreides or its sequels.  It is not clear for whom this book is written- the Dune chapters have little interaction with the rest of the story and thus will not be meaningful for first time readers, but House Atreides and it sequels clash with both the tone and continuity of the previous books.  We discover that characters from Dune had children, long lost friends, and familial ties with each other that are never mentioned in Dune- it stretches plausibility and ultimately many of the gaps filled in by the prequels were more interesting as mysteries.  The original Dune portrayed a harsh world that raised uncomfortable questions- would you break down your dead for their water?  Are you willing to change yourself into something worse to win?  The prequel trilogy attempts to outdo Dune with planetary genocide, and torture; it feels like its trying too hard and doesn’t have the same impact.

If Dune had never been written House Atreides would have been the first entry in a decent pulp science fiction trilogy.  Indeed, this book is more enjoyable if you have never read Dune- the exposition dump won’t be as glaring since its new information, and the continuity errors will be invisible.  Everything taken together- the differences in tone, the small continuity errors, a pulpy writing style- create a book that is not bad but feels out of step with the original novel; I wasn’t able to enjoy it.  Maybe I’m being too hard on House Atreides, maybe it wasn’t meant to channel the same feelings as original, and I’m picking too hard at the continuity, but Dune is the dominant word on the cover, larger than the title, and House Atreides does not deliver on the promise implicit in that word.

TL,DR:  A passable pulp science fiction novel that doesn’t really fit with the series it is set in.  Your time is probably better spent on other books, unless you are a fan of Brian Herbert or Kevin Anderson’s works.

Review: Lord of the Isles Series, by David Drake

Rather than reviewing the nine books piecemeal I decided to do a spoiler-free overview of the whole.  This is a series started in the 90s and finished in 2008 that seems to have flown under the radar, but its a good read especially if you are a fan of Greek myths or military fantasy, both of which Drake is well versed in.

David Drake’s Lord of the Isles series is a low magic heroic fantasy saga set in a Greek-influenced archipelago.  The central tension is the rise of the setting’s inherently chaotic magic and the four protagonists, Garric, Sharina, Cashel, and Ilna must rebuild the Kingdom of the Isles to prevent the collapse of all civilization due to rampant magic.

As in his Republic of Cinnabar Navy Series the plots of each novel are self-contained and Drake catches up first time readers in a timely fashion, so readers can begin anywhere without confusion, though I would encourage you to start at the beginning.  Cover blurbs refer to Lord of the Isles as an epic fantasy, but their isn’t much of an overarching plot in the first six books, just a series of adventures featuring the same characters- books 1 and 2, The Lord of the Isles and The Queen of Demons are the only two to share an antagonist or problem beyond the rise of magic, and they are stronger for it.  It is more a series of heroic fantasy stories with the same cast than the unified plot one expects with epic fantasy.

The Greek influences, taken from both daily life and myths, are an interesting change from standard fantasy, as is the reliance on naval travel.  Drake’s use of islands and magical pocket worlds makes the structure quite similar to his Hammer’s Slammers and RCN works with a variety of distinct and clearly defined set pieces, taking the place of planets in his science fiction works.  The frequent use of time travel, other worlds, and references  gives the series a distinctly sci-fi flavor, something that continues throughout the series.

Drake’s focus on gritty military life in other works appears here as well, with an emphasis on the day to day life of a soldier.  The attention to detail in the gear and tactics of the soldiers’ of all factions helps breath life into the world.  Despite the grit the series still feels hopeful in contrast to A Song of Ice and Fire or The Malazan Book of the Fallen.

Magic is present but presented as inherently dangerous and unpredictable, more likely to cause problems than solve them.  Drake’s writing makes magic an important aspect of the story without being a Deus Ex Machina.

Character development is excellent when it happens- which is mostly the first two books.  Past this point the starting quad of Garric, Sharina, Ilna and Cashel are mostly set in stone, with supporting characters providing variety when they are introduced.  Make no mistake, the characters are showcased in every book but the price of being able to start anywhere is it becomes repetitive after several books.  I repeat my complaint from RCN here- the characters are fun and interesting when something new happens- but the heroes have largely assumed their mantles by the end of book 2, The Queen of Demons.  This is a refreshing change at first from exceedingly long heroes’ journey plots, such as in The Wheel of Time, but Drake rarely provides opportunities for growth past this- he seems unwilling to introduce complexity that requires reading the previous books or just unwilling to disturb a winning formula.

Supporting characters can carry the weight of character development; for example Chalcus and Carus are the high points of books three, Servant of the Dragon, and four, Mistress of the Catacombs, respectively, when they get the spotlight, but they soon fade into the background again, and no one steps forth to replace them.

The lack of development changes abruptly in the 7th book, and the relationships between the heroes are called into question- it’s interesting and breathes new life into the series and I wish Drake shook things up more often; in my opinion the conflict ends too soon, though the ending trilogy is strong and enjoyable despite this.  Honestly I might recommend skipping some books between two and seven unless you love heroic fantasy- the books are all good but read one after another the repetitiveness is obvious.  The plots are different but we don’t see the characters grow in response to them.

However, the ending is fantastic and in hindsight Drake sets up for it from the beginning. Its part of what makes the ending trilogy feel like epic fantasy, because it is so satisfying and clearly fits with everything that came before it, but I would have liked to have had more hints on where things were going.  In my opinion, Drake has tried too hard to make the Lord of the Isles accessible- nothing feels like it matters since consequences rarely carry over between books beyond the first two and last three- he even shys away from connection within books; the adventures of the four heroes often seem like separate novellas in the middle books.  His permanent characters are interesting but as in RCN, Drake seems too scared of changing things to let them act on each other or let the world act on them in a meaningful way, despite the fact that the series is at its absolute best when he does.  Plenty of new characters and antagonists appear in each book, but they are usually expended or window dressing- all of this is fine in the Hammer’s Slammers or Drake’s standalone novels where we are introduced to new protagonists with each story but in the Lord of the Isles it feels like reading the same book over and over again from book 3 until things shift fast enough to give you whiplash at the end of book seven.

Ultimately, there is a lot that’s good in the Lord of the Isles, but it’s spread thinner than I would like- it holds up well as a series of heroic fantasy novels but only the 1st two and last three books feel like a cohesive series.

Image source and purchase link.

There are some good deals for this book on Amazon; I picked up my former library copy of book three for $4 for a hardback including shipping and handling.

TL,DR:  A fun series of pulpy heroic fantasy with heavy influence from Greek myths, science fiction, and military sci fi.  Pick it up if you like fantasy but aren’t a fan of the vast overarching plots of The Wheel of Time, A Song of Ice and Fire, and other epic fantasy novels or the grimmer stories in the genre.

Review: Dungeon World

Dungeon World, by Sage LaTorra and Adam Koebel, is a tabletop role-playing game that focuses on storytelling and ease of use.  One game master and 3-5 players collaborate to tell a low fantasy story.  Anyone who has played some flavor of Dungeons & Dragons (aka DnD), or really any RPG, will recognize most of the tropes but the system is highly streamlined.

Character sheets are simple, with 1 to 2 pages containing all information so the players don’t have to refer back to the book.  There is no skill list, all players instead sharing a list of common moves that use their attributes without training modifiers.  All outcomes are determined by rolling 2d6 as opposed to a d20, with an added wrinkle- only the players roll for actions.  Players failing a roll is the main opportunity for the opposition to make moves, and also the main generator of experience.  It creates an interesting and spontaneous game, where the players are the primary movers of events.  Failed rolls giving experience also acts as a good equalizer and takes some of the sting out of failure.  Dungeon World emphasizes failing forwards, so the story keeps evolving instead of coming to a grinding halt when a roll fails.

The downside is that the GM needs to be very comfortable adjusting scenes and encounters on the fly or simply making them up as they go along.  Collaborative world building is encouraged, but in my experience players react poorly to being put on the spot- if they offer something it can be integrated but the bulk still falls on the game master.  The game master’s section offers some excellent instructions on this and running a game in general but you still need to be comfortable improvising.

In the same vein, combat is much simpler than in most games- no battle mat required, which helps keep things fast.  Hit point pools are small so things don’t drag on.  This makes things more lethal for the players as well but the simplicity of the rules makes it simple to adjust encounters on the fly.  There is no recommended monster budget for encounters as in DnD, in part because not all the classes are balanced for combat- the game master will need to create situations where the more utility focused classes shine, assuming they are being played.

Conversely, if you are coming from another Powered by the Apocalypse Game, Dungeon World will have longer and less lethal combat than you are used to.

Something to be aware of with the system is how quick the leveling is; not a problem itself but players start to gain access to game-breaking abilities around level 7 or 8, which can quite easily be reached in 10 sessions.  At this point players will be able to one shot even the toughest monsters in the book, teleport unlimited distances, succeed on most roles involving their main attribute, and in general trivialize any challenge thrown their way.  You’ll need to plan campaigns to end at or shortly after 10 sessions to keep power creep from making things boring.  I just wrapped up a 13 session campaign and my players dealt with the worst the book had to offer without too much difficulty.

The games themselves are also shorter- I’ve always tried to keep my sessions to four hours, as have most of the people I’ve played with.  Pathfinder and DnD always strained against this, especially 4th edition DnD, where you can really only do one combat encounter in a session.  Dungeon World’s simpler rules let you run numerous combats in a session with plenty of time for exploring and character development as well, something I love about the system but people who enjoy tactical combat may not.  There is also no set initiative- I tried to give everyone turns and only making GM moves on failed rolls but ended up having to play a little loose and fast with the monster’s actions to keep things interesting

Price wise its no contest, $10 for a Dungeon World PDF, or twice that for the paperback, which includes all the playbooks and, gamemaster material, and bestiary, vs at least $30 for even a player’s handbook for more popular systems, and you need several hardback books to run 5th edition DnD.  Obviously if you pirate the books this isn’t an issue, which is a fairly common practice in the RPG community, but I like having books to hold and they aren’t much cheaper used.

TL,DR:  A light on rules & story focused system.  Ideal for newer players but the game master needs to be able to improvise.  The price is right so give it a try if it sounds interesting to you.

Picture source and paperback purchase, or you can purchase the PDF.