We started a new Tuesday night gaming group, made up out of people from several other gaming groups that I’ve been in. We have a really good chemistry in the group and I think similar interests in what kind of games we want to play.

I’ve never had a regular week night game before, and to my surprise it works really well! No more wrangling back and forth over who can and can’t make it on which days in the weekends. No planning, just show up and play. And weekends left open for other things. Our sessions are pretty short compared to what I’m used to, 2.5-3 hours, but we manage to squeeze a lot of focused action into these slots. I think this goes along with my preference lately for rules light games. There is no way we would do hour-long fights with intricate mechanics in these slots, for example.

Our first game in this group has been Spirit of the Century. I got to not-GM for a while, which was nice, and in the end, we had three different GMs for the game. What a great gaming group where everyone wants to GM! I have not been spoiled with this in the past.

We decided to play the game by the book. I like trying games as written before I try to tweak them with house rules or variant settings, and I think we were all pretty excited by the Pulp thing. For me it was a completely new setting. One player had GM’d SoTC before, but with a custom setting.

We have played about 10 sessions now, and we’re moving on to a different game (more on that later), so I thought I’d summarize my thoughts on the game. I’m not going to describe the rules in detail here. There are plenty of reviews around for that.

Overall, the game really delivers on its promise of fast-paced Pulp action. Our adventures involved dinosaurs, weird egg-creatures with mind control, airships, robots, giant gorillas, and so forth. Towards the end, we tried to get a little more social situations and conflict in, with a cult trying to summon a Cthulhu-esque giant clam from the sea, on a boat during a high society birthday party. (Yeah that probably didn’t make any sense; you had to have been there).

Character generation is fun. We did it twice in fact, running about 8 sessions with the first set of characters and 2 sessions with the second group. We followed the method in the book where everyone has their own main background story, and guest star in each others’ stories. This got a little complicated because one player was not present when the rest of us did character generation (both times), but it worked out ok. At first I thought it would be difficult to come up with 10 interesting Aspects, but it’s not that hard given this story-based character generation method. We did spend considerable time creating characters however, slightly more than one session both times.

The most fun part about character generation in my opinion was to pick Stunts. Some of the stunts are very colorful and fun. At the same time, overall, I feel like there are too many stunts, and many of them have very little effect on the game. For example, a +1 bonus to a skill in a limited circumstance for some stunts. The really character-defining and cool stunts come “deeper” in the stunt hierarchy, requiring several other stunts as prerequisites. I found that this generally meant that the system encourages very specialized characters with all or most stunts in the same area. I did my first character this way, with Guns as my top skill and lots of Guns stunts. He was way more effective in combat than I even realized when I created him. For my second character, I diversified more, which made the character much less defined and much less effective.

The conflict system worked quite well for us once we got the hang of it. Maneuvers produce great narrative flair to conflicts, which in many games turn into hit-parry, hit-parry sequences until either side loses. I don’t think we used environmental aspects enough, and we probably should have used more tagging of aspects and trying to find out about NPCs aspects.

I did find that the resolution mechanic makes it really hard for the PCs to fail. They have some extremely good skills to begin with, and any failure can usually be taken care of by spending a Fate point and invoking an aspect. I felt that the Fate point economy was way off. No-one ever ran out of Fate points. Sometimes we accepted compels from the GM “just for fun”, but we never really needed to. For our last couple of sessions, we ran with 5 Fate points instead of 10, which I thought was about right. Most of us still didn’t run out, but we had a bit more incentive to accept compels. On the bright side, invoking aspects is another part of the game that helps to produce color and narrative. In hindsight, I think we should have motivated our invokes a little bit more, explaining why an aspect is relevant to a given situation. Generally though, it helped the other players get a sense of who your character was.

The organization of the rule book is not great at all. I found it very difficult to use it as a reference during play. I also think it’s way too thick for a game that is supposed to be a “pick-up” game. The somewhat lengthy character generation also makes it less appropriate for this role. In fact, we played it in “campaign mode” for the first 8 sessions. However, the game has essentially no character development, which I think is a big detriment to campaign play. We got a bit bored of our characters after a while since they did not improve, and also did not need to improve.

Next, we are going to play Swashbucklers of the 7 Skies! I am really excited about this. The setting is really different and fun, and the rules are exactly my cup of tea. Simple and quick, with some mechanical character elements for motivations, “flaws” etc. Like SoTC, I think it will suit our group very well.

Edit: John and Jens in our group also blogged about this.


How do you end a campaign?

Just a pointer to a thread I started on this topic on story-games.

I am in the process of moving to a new place. Hopefully gaming will commence shortly, bringing new fodder for this blog 🙂

Just read through this book. It’s a great little game of the historical middle-age (12th century Europe). It has only a few pages of setting information, but those pages are pretty inspiring, and there are pointers to good reads for learning more for those who care about historical accuracy. On that note, one promising resource to use with the game is Columbia Games’ Lionheart. Lionheart is a rules-free RPG supplement that describes England in 1190AD.

My copy is on the way, but I believe it is done in the same style as their HarnWorld supplement, which is one of my favorite RPG products of all time, so that is very promising. It comes with a beautiful map that shows all the keeps and castles of the British isles. Also, the Chronica rules would be a great fit for a Harn game, for those who want some fantasy bits to spice things up! Tacking on a magic system and doing some monster stats is easy.

The game rules are very light. Characters have skills, of which there are only 24. A character’s rank in a skill is measured on a die scale: d4 being the lowest, d12 being the pinnacle of human achievement, and d20 being beyond human (e.g. the Dash skill of a horse). There are also tools and aspects, both also rated on the die scale. To succeed at something, you roll your skill die, plus possibly a tool die and an aspect die. You try to get over a target number with one of the dice. Sometimes multiple successes count.

Character generation is done by selecting three mentors. There are 17 mentor types, like Knight, Minstrel, and Monk, and you learn skills depending on the type of mentor. This is like a simplified lifepath system, such as Burning Wheel has.

The rules openly confess to combining ideas from Dogs in the Vineyard (the die scale, and dice for tools) and Spirit of the Century (aspects). In fact, aspects are by far the most important piece of the game. The interesting thing about Chronica is that it tries to do so much with this one mechanism. Aspects are used to represent all of the following:

  • Goals
  • Beliefs
  • Instincts
  • Skills (other than the 24 standard ones)
  • Traits
  • Physical injuries
  • Mental injuries
  • Temporary conditions (like “bound and gagged” or “confused”)
  • Out-of-character player narration potential

There is no pre-defined list of aspects. Well, there is a list of examples (with no descriptions), but really you’re supposed to come up with your own, and make them colorful and inspiring. Because of the small number of skills and the lack of any other character elements that would differentiate characters, your aspects are the only thing that make your character unique.

Oh, and the environment can also have aspects, like Dark, Raining, On Fire, etc.

Mechanically, aspects are used to get bonus dice or penalty dice to rolls. A currency called Ardor points is spent to use an aspect in your favor, and awarded when an aspect works against you. This is just like Fate points in Spirit of the Century. A large part of conflict is to inflict new temporary aspects (conditions or injuries) on your opponent or on the environment, and using those to your advantage.

One interesting thing about this system is that injuries are aspects, and therefore, when an injury works against you, you earn an Ardor point. You can use this point to invoke aspects against the very NPC that inflicted the injury. So in some ways it’s good to be injured.

It seems like ardor points will be flying back and forth across the table during conflict (the book recommends using some sort of tokens for them). This is probably a good thing. The aspect system is intended to make conflict more descriptive. You narrate how an aspect would help or hinder a character.

Another interesting thing about the rules is that it describes four standard types of conflict: Combat, Parley, Chase, and Subterfuge. In fact, the skills are also grouped under these headings, with 6 skills under each. All conflict uses the same set of rules, which is neat.

One thing that I have some reservations against is how you basically get two chances to defend yourself against any kind of attack. You get a reaction, for example blocking with a sword, and then you get a “passive defense” roll, e.g. a Fitness roll against being hurt. It seems to me that this might prolong conflicts more than necessary. It is even more odd when you do non-combat conflicts. For example, in a Subterfuge situation, first the thieves  “attack” with Sneak, the guards react with Reflex, and if that fails the guards get a passive defense using Sense. Then it’s the guards’ turn. They attack with Hunt, the thieves react with Reflex, and if that fails the thieves get passive defense using Hide. Maybe it’s just me, but this seems a bit fiddly to me.

Since I have previously blogged about reward systems, I should mention that players always start a session with 3 points of Ardor. So these are short-term boosts, use them or lose them. The other reward mechanism is a fairly traditional skill improvement system, which of course is of a more permanent nature.

As for who sets the goals of the game (another issue that I have discussed previously), the game pretty much leaves it up to players to figure that out. The aspects do give players an individual plot-setting device, but there is no collective goal mechanic.

One more thing I love is the latin quotes spread around the book. For example, after mentioning that the stakes of conflicts must be followed once the conflict has been resolved: Pacta sunt servanda (agreeements must be kept; these are not translated in the book, but easy enough to find online for those of us who lack such classical training).

This became more of a general overview of the game than I had intended. From an RPG theory point of view, the really interesting thing is the “one mechanism to rule them all” aspect of aspects (as in the bulleted list above). Can this really work? Does it give enough “stuff” to make great adventures out of? Does it demand too much creativity of players, and would more hand-holding be better? Is is better to have several different sub-systems, one for goals, one for traits, one for injuries, and so forth?

I hope to play this game at some point and get back to you with my experiences of it.

Traditional RPGs typically have a pre-defined common goal, set by the GM, that the players are working towards. This could be very concrete: “You are all going to root out the evil in the Keep on the Shadowfell. Go!”, or more vague “Several people have been found dead with strange chest wounds near Arkham university. What are you going to do about it?”. The goal can come in the form of a published scenario. So why are the characters doing this? Often some character motivations are retrofitted once you know what the scenario is (e.g., using the “character hooks” in D&D adventure books).

Another type of RPG gaming starts with the characters and their individual motivations and goals, and the “adventure” builds from there. In the extreme, you would have parallel stories, one for each player, which do not coincide at all. (I don’t know if this extreme exists. Let me know in the Comments if you have experienced this kind of play).

So we have two extremes: GM-set collective goals, and player-set individual goals. Most games try to mix both, because neither extreme is very satisfying. One game that is very explicit about this mix is Mouse Guard. There is a GM’s turn which is about the GM-set, collective goals, and a Players’ turn, which is about individual player-set goals.

Another way of mixing the two is to encourage players to have individual goals which drive towards the same collective “thing”. For example, in Burning Wheel, each character has three Beliefs. Advice on the Burning Wheel forums is that all characters have one belief about a common “thing”. The other two beliefs are individual. The “common belief” still does not have to be the same for each character. In our current Burning Wheel game, the common thing was a Prophet who has appeared as a possible source of salvation or damnation, depending on your point of view. Each character has a belief about the Prophet, but they are widely different. The nun-turned-prostitute wants to kill him because he raped her in the past. The priest wants to bring him in for questioning concerning possible heresy. The insurrectionists want to recruit him to their cause of bringing down the ruling noble class.

The “common thing” is still often introduced by the GM. It is the concept behind the game. The GM says, “anybody want to play a game about a group of Ilviran priests trying to start a new temple in Tashal?” (this was the idea behind Jim Chokey’s Red Domes campaign that I played in), and the players take it from there.

This brings me to the question: If there are GM-set collective goals, and player-set individual goals, could there also be other combinations? In other words, player-set collective goals, or GM-set individual goals? I don’t know about the latter, but player-set collective goals is an interesting possibility. It is interesting to me because often players are not as involved in a story that someone else (the GM) created as they are in their own story. There are a couple of caveats. One is that this assumes that the players can all get excited about the same thing. However, this also applies to GM-set goals. Another is that the GM may feel left out! The GM is a player too, after all, and should have some control of the story, just like the other players. Personally I’m not too worried about this. The GM will always have plenty to do in terms of bringing in interesting opposition against the players.

Assuming that player-set, collective goals are a good idea, it would perhaps be nice to have some rules that support this and gives some structure to it. This is what brings me to the Reign RPG.

I’m not going to review Reign as a whole here. As usual, see rpg.net for that. I also want to point out that I haven’t played the game; my thoughts here are just based on reading the rule book.

Anyway, the part I am interested in here is the Company mechanics in Reign. A company is any kind of organization that has a goal. It could be a country, a thieves’ guild, an insurrection, a merchant company, or what have you. PCs are assumed to all be members of the same company. They could be the leaders of the company, or lowly pawns trying to work their way up. The company goal serves the function of collective goal, and the company is created by the players together during character creation! The company even has its own “character sheet” with a number of stats (Might, Treasure, Influence, Sovereignty, and Territory). The PCs perform actions which can give substantial (but usually temporary) bonuses to the company’s stats. Then the company as a whole can do things, like attack other territories with its military might, conduct espionage, etc. The players can even use their own experience points (XPs) to increase the company’s stats!

One nice effect of this that is pointed out in the rules is that PC death is not that bad — the company lives on! Just roll up a new company member. But more importantly, it gives the game a really nice, player-created common goal.


Rewards in RPGs

I strongly believe that the reward system of a role-playing game is one of its most important components. It gives players incentives to act in a certain way, and thus heavily influences what kind of play happens.

A related point is to what extent one could do the opposite, i.e. punish non-favored player behavior. Personally I think the carrot works much better than the stick in the context of RPGs. Probably for this reason, very few RPGs have “punishment” mechanisms, although some have vague GM advice to this effect. I won’t discuss this further in this post.

When analyzing RPG reward systems, there are two aspects to consider: What kinds of behavior are players rewarded for, and what can the rewards be used for. There is also a third “meta”-aspect of reward systems: I said that players are rewarded, but this is perhaps controversial. Some would say that it is the characters who are rewarded. Of course, rewarding a character does indirectly reward that character’s player. But on the other hand, some games have rewards for players that are not directly tied to their characters. However, let’s put aside this distinction for the time being and get back to the main story.

There is one category of “reward” systems that I will not include in the discussion, because they are not rewards so much as they are a “story progression” mechanism. I am thinking of things like the love attribute in My Life With Master, or the zeal and weariness attributes in Polaris. These games are designed for short-term play (a few sessions), and the mechanisms I mentioned are mainly used to drive the story towards its inevitable conclusion, not to “reward” players.

I am going to make some generalizations in the following. My point is not to criticize individual games, so please don’t take offense if I am missing some subtle point of your favorite game.

Reward Situations. What kind of actions are rewards given out for? I can think of five types of situations that produce rewards in RPGs.

  1. Playing character motivations. For example, playing your beliefs in Burning Wheel, your passions in Mortal Coil, or your keys in The Shadow of Yesterday.
  2. Playing character weaknesses. For example, getting into trouble because of an instinct in Burning Wheel, using a trait against yourself in Mouse Guard, or using an aspect against yourself in Spirit of the Century.
  3. Succeeding at the GM’s plot. For example “quest XP” in D&D, or deeds point awards in Burning Wheel.
  4. Conflicts/skill rolls. Many games have a reward for attempting to use skills or abilities, often regardless of whether the attempt succeeds or not.
  5. Killing monsters. For example D&D, Rolemaster. I am not sure that this should be a category of its own. It does have some aspects of the other categories above (except #2). Note that it is quite different from #4, because only certain kinds of conflicts (fights) and skills (fighting skills) are awarded, and only on a certain outcome (the monster dies).

Reward Use. What are rewards used for? This is probably not as important as reward situation. The important thing here is that the rewards are sufficiently useful to players, so that they feel that it is worthwhile to engage in the reward-producing behavior.

  1. Getting better at killing monsters. For example, D&D. While there are also skills that can be improved in this game, the main thrust is to get better at fighting.
  2. Improving a skill or ability. This is very common in RPGs. Typically this is awarded for the same skill that was used to get the reward, i.e. you use a skill and get a “check” or something that denotes a chance of improvement to that same skill (e.g., Harnmaster, Burning Wheel, Mouse Guard, Call of Cthulhu). Some games have rewards that allow you to improve any skill(s) you like, for example The Shadow of Yesterday and level-based systems like D&D and Rolemaster.
  3. One-time boost for die rolls. For example, artha points in Burning Wheel and Mouse Guard, power tokens in Mortal Coil, fate points in Spirit of the Century. These can be saved to be used later, for rolls that have nothing to do with the situation that produced the reward.
  4. Out-of-character narration rights. This is a very interesting category, common to “narrative” style RPGs. This type of reward allows players to add facts to the game world without the use of their character. For example, fate points in Spirit of the Century, power tokens in Mortal Coil, and (maybe) trait checks in Mouse Guard.

So, this is a first cut at a categorization of reward mechanisms. I am sure it can be improved greatly. But anyway, with this or something like it in place, we can discuss each of the categories above and ask questions like “is it good/bad?”, “what kind of play does it encourage?”, “does it usually work smoothly in practice?”, and so on. I do not know the answers to these questions at this point, but I will certainly discuss this more in the future.

Another question is which things go well together, i.e. which reward situation should give which kind of reward use. Sometimes the two are surprisingly loosely connected. For example, in Mouse Guard, you get rewards for hurting yourself with traits, and you can use those rewards for some player spotlight time (I have categorized this above as a type of out-of-character narration rights, but I’m not sure this is entirely correct). Other games have a very “tight” reward-situation-use connection; in D&D you are rewarded for killing monsters, and you use the rewards to get better at killing monsters.

What is your experience of reward systems? How important is it, and how did reward systems of different games affect how you played? Let me know in your comments.

I now have plenty of experience with this game. I played in Jim Chokey’s Red Domes campaign, which was over 25 sessions long, and I am now GMing a game which has gone for 6 sessions. I am ready to reflect on what I like and dislike about this game. I will not describe the game’s mechanics in detail here. For that, see some of the reviews on rpg.net.

First, I want to say why I love this game. It really opened my eyes to new perspectives on role-playing.

Conflict resolution. When you have any kind of conflict or obstacle in the game, you start by setting the stakes: What will happen on a successful roll, and what will happen on a failed roll. This seems really simple, but it is really quite revolutionary. Ok, I know other “forge-inspired indie games” games do this too, but BW was the first one for me. This principle has several good consequences. One is that players won’t be screwed by the GM, because they know exactly what they will get on a success. Another is that player’s can’t whine when they fail, because they know what’s going to happen if they fail before they roll the dice. A third point is that the stakes-setting before rolling the dice can be used to create interesting effects of both success and failure. Interesting failure is very important. Failures are used to drive the story forward by creating new twists that the players have to handle, not to stop the story dead in its tracks, as often happens in traditional RPGs.

One subtle point is that in order to make failure interesting, one often has to make it more severe than a normal vanilla failure would be in a traditional RPG. There is a tendency (or maybe it’s just me) to make failures into more or less “critical failures”. This in turn implies that you have to make successes into “critical successes” to make it worthwhile to roll the dice. The end result is that a lot is at stake when you roll the dice, which is great for moving the story forward and for creating suspense at the table!

Traditional gamers may not like this dramatic all-or-nothing aspect because it is “unrealistic”, but I love it; more than anything, what I want out of role-playing is good story. You never see protagonists in movies or books get a bland vanilla failure. If they fail, it has serious consequences.

Related to these conflict resolution principles is the “Let It Ride” rule which states that you can’t just re-roll until you succeed. If you could, it would detract from the “each roll really counts” principle. This is also a rule against the GM screwing you over by making you roll 4 Stealth rolls to get into the castle (one to get to the gate, one to get over the wall unseen, one to cross the courtyard, etc) instead of just one.

Also nice are the rules for characters helping each other, and for combining several skills (using “linked tests” and “forks”). In practice, because each roll matters and due to the stakes-setting process, there tends to be a fair amount of negotiation before the dice hit the table. I personally like this negotiation part of the game. Again, however, it is a kind of “meta-game” which traditional gamers will shun.

Rewards for role-playing. The second area where Burning Wheel was somewhat revolutionary to me was in how it rewards role-playing through rather detailed game mechanics. While other games may have a generic “give extra points to players who role-play well” advice, BW takes this much further. Each character has beliefs, instincts, and traits, and playing according to these gives specific rewards. Furthermore, this is the main way to get these rewards — not through killing monsters etc. Players simply have to play their characters as written on their character sheets, or lose out in a big way. The rewards are used to make future die rolls more successful. In the case of instincts, the rewards are for playing them in a way that hurts your character. The game really encourages players to go for interesting story consequences rather than “winning the GMs adventure”. There are even traits like “blindness” which you have to pay points for during character generation (I have yet to see a player pick that one though)!

Here again, traditional players might frown on the role-playing mechanisms as being overly restricted and perhaps in the way of a more nuanced picture that a player might have of how his character should act. I really like this kind of system, however. In practice, subtleties of player characters tend not to be noticed during play. You may understand how your character feels and thinks in a particular moment, but the rest of us at the table probably won’t notice, and role-playing is a form of collaborative story-telling. Burning Wheel encourages uncompromising and somewhat extreme beliefs in order to create interesting conflict.

Furthermore, these conflicts are what the game is about. It’s not about the GM’s cool plot. This is also enormously important and, for me, different. It is also very liberating from a GM point of view, because not very much preparation is needed. Just hit the PCs where it hurts, i.e. challenge their beliefs, and play will proceed from there. This is also so much more fun when you’re not the GM. In most games, you might create a really cool character, and your GM will encourage you to write a cool background and to have strong beliefs and all that. But when play starts, you’ll find that it doesn’t really matter. You’re playing the GM’s plot. This can be fun for the GM, but it’s a bit like puppet theater with the GM as the puppet master.

Player Narration. The third area where BW is really different from most games is that it allows players to narrate story elements that are not directly caused by their characters. This primarily happens through two rule mechanisms: Circles and Wises. Circles allows players to make up some new character that they would like to meet. If they succeed in a die roll, the character exists and they meet him. Wises are special skills that allow players to create game-world facts in some specialized domain. For example Weather-wise allows you to actually say what the weather is, if you make the roll.

Traditional GMs will hate to give players this kind of control. I love it. It gives players more buy-in into the game world, because they helped to create it.

Character generation. Lastly, I want to mention the lifepath character generation system, which creates colorful and often surprising characters.

So with all these beautiful features, what is there to hate about this game? Let me count the ways… In general, one could say that all the ideas of the design are good, but the execution sometimes does not quite succeed. Some details follow.

Conflict resolution, again. I stated the general principles for conflict resolution above, but the game also comes with “sub-systems” (or “mini-games”) that cover a number of different common kinds of conflict. In particular Fight! (the combat system) and Duel of Wits (social conflict). These subsystems are very detailed, slow, and full of modifiers that have to be looked up, added and subtracted. To make matters worse, they require players and GM to script three actions in advance in secret, which are then played out. The scripting phase adds to the resolution time, and often makes actions seem unnatural, especially in Duel of Wits, because the conflicting parties are not playing against each others’ arguments and points directly, they sort of plot an overall argument strategy in advance and play it out no matter what the opponent says (until 3 actions later, when you can script another 3 actions). In Fight, you roll for positioning, roll for attack, roll for parry, roll for armor (!), determine injury, subtract injury penalties from your abilities, and so on. While you can do interesting maneuvers like disarm and feint, these often fail because they have to be scripted in advance and when you get to that action your enemy may no longer be in a position where you can execute it against him.

All these die rolls made during the detailed conflict subsystems do not adhere to the “every roll counts” principle discussed above, which makes the game rather inconsistent. Instead, the outcome of one of these conflicts depends on the aggregate of many die rolls. This has the added effect of tilting the playing field towards whoever has the higher stats, since any random variations tend to be averaged out over many rolls.

More than anything, these systems are puzzling, because they seem so unnecessary. In my experience, they are not at all conducive to the overall goal of creating a good story. There is one more aspect that needs to be mentioned. The subsystems have a different range of possible outcomes than the general conflict mechanism: In Fight! and Duel of Wits you can get “compromise” or partial results. The general mechanism is binary: You succeed completely with your intent or you fail. In other words, Fight! and Duel of Wits are too detailed but the general mechanism doesn’t have enough detail. Instead of adding on rules-heavy sub-systems, a better solution would be to have a graded scale of success in the general resolution mechanism.

Rewards for role-playing, again. This is the heart of the game. In principle, players can just look at their character sheet, figure out interesting things to do, and get rewarded for it. However, the belief/instinct/trait system, and the closely associated reward system, are way too complicated and unclear. To start with, each player has 3 beliefs, 3 instincts, and any number of traits, which come in 3 different types. There are 3 different kinds of rewards (called artha points, of the fate, persona, and deeds varieties), given out for different kinds of “good behavior” by players. One quirk is that “goals” are really important in the reward system, but goals are not a high-level abstraction in the game. Instead, common practice reported on the BW forums is to write goals as part of your beliefs. What is really needed is a radical streamlining of these systems, and for these attributes to take up a more prominent space on the character sheet. In fact, the Mouse Guard RPG, which uses a streamlined version of the BW rules, more or less handles all my complaints in this matter.

Player Narration, again. The Circles system is really nice, but the obstacles to find anyone interesting are very high. Actually, I find this to be generally true about obstacles in the game; players tend to fail more often than not. They can help each other, but only if they have the same or similar skills, which is often not the case. Wises are nice but very limited in scope. One player might have a Weather-Wise skill, but no other one. It’s like the game only grudgingly gives players narrative powers. Compare this to games like Mortal Coil which gives the players tokens that they can spend to add any fact about the game world, or to frame a scene for themselves.

Character generation. While the lifepath system is interesting, it can also get in the way if you have a particular character concept in mind. In particular, the mandatory skills and traits are annoying. Too often the life paths create caricatures.

World burning. This refers to creating the setting and situation that forms the background for play and for generating player characters. The game does not come with a specific setting. Instead, the GM and players are (presumably) supposed to come up with one together. Unfortunately, there is no advice whatsoever on how to do so in the books, which makes it very difficult. Contrast this with (again) Mortal Coil, which lists very specific steps to go through in this pre-game phase.

So where does this leave us? For my part, it leaves me much wiser for the experience, and hungry to try out other games that seem to incorporate a lot of what’s good about Burning Wheel and avoid its pitfalls! But first we have to finish out current campaign. For the time being, I am just avoiding Fight! and Duel of Wits like the plague 🙂

Renee (wifey) gave me Arkham Horror (the Cthulhu board game) for Christmas. It is really fun! It’s a collaborative game (like the Lord of the Rings board game), where you run around in Arkham and try to close gates to the Other Worlds, kill monsters, and try to make the Ancient One not awaken. Last night we had a great session with a couple of friends. Some memorable moments:

  • Renee’s photographer character gets hit over the head at the train station, wakes up at the science building, finds a bunsen burner with a yummy smelling liquid heating over it, drinks some, and restores her stamina and sanity!
  • Chris’s hobo cleans up the east town streets with an enchanted Tommy gun, killing 3 monsters in one round!
  • At the end, a desperate and somewhat complicated plan to simultaneously close all the remaining gates. The plan only partially succeeds; Renee’s guy is Lost in Time and Space. After several more rounds and much nailbiting suspense, she finally gets out and closes the last portal, winning the game!

Memorable moments like these usually happen with good role-playing games. This leads me to the question: Could Arkham Horror be considered an RPG? If not, why not? Or, what would it take to make it one?

  • There is no GameMaster in Arkham Horror, but there are several GM-less RPGs too (e.g. Polaris), so this can’t be the reason it’s not an RPG.
  • The “world” of the game is very much contained, of course. You can only walk around between locations and streets in the city of Arkham, and travel to several pre-defined “other worlds”. Lines on the game board show you the only possible path between any two locations. But this closedness also cannot be why it’s not an RPG. Consider D&D. D&D games take place (most of the time) in dungeons, which impose the same kinds of constraints on your movement. There is even an adventure module for D&D 3 (I think the third one published for it in a series of adventures that take the players from 1st to 20th level) which takes place in a city. It has a map of possible city encounters and the paths between them which is even more constrained than the Arkham Horror map!

So it seems like AH is like a GM-less D&D game! I guess this is even more obvious for the Descent board game, which I haven’t played (that game even has a GM of sorts). I wonder to what extent this category of games has the potential to extract most of the fun bits of games like D&D while being much quicker to learn and pick up and play.

Let’s talk about what you lose compared to a traditional RPG like D&D. I can think of mainly two things (that are somewhat related): Replayability and long-term play. The AH map looks the same every time you play it, whereas you will get to a new dungeon every time you play D&D. This isn’t to say that every AH game happens the same way. The game plays quite differently from time to time, largely depending on which Ancient One you face, but also on which random encounters occur. There are also expansions to the game that even add extra maps, but it will never be as easily expandable as D&D. As for long-term play, an AH game is finished in 2-4 hours, whereas a D&D game can run for years if you like. It has this long-term appeal in part because of its expandability (as just mentioned), and in part because of character advancement. Now, AH in fact also has character advancement (skill cards that give bonuses to certain skills), but not to the extent that D&D has it, and there is not much need for it due to the lack of long-term play. Also, note that there are RPGs with no character advancement and that do not favor long-term play (e.g., Mountain Witch).

I really like this trend of “RPG-like” board games. Maybe it will even bring more people into the RPG hobby.