Wednesday, June 24, 2015

A Short Q&A Discussing THE SIXTH GUN for Savage Worlds

Yesterday, I wrote a brief review/overview of the upcoming The Sixth Gun campaign setting for the Savage Worlds role playing game.

To make a long story short, you need to back this project or buy it as soon as it comes out. It's a great mashup of Westerns, Fantasy, and Horror that provides a wonderful sandbox for creative play.

In addition to getting an advanced look at the rules and initial adventure campaign, both of which are up to Pinnacle's high production standards, I had the opportunity to engage in a brief Q&A with the creators. 

I'd like to share my chat with Shane, Jodi, and Scott.
Shane Lacy Hensley, owner of Pinnacle Entertainment Group and creator of the award-winning Savage Worlds and Deadlands roleplaying games.

Jodi Black, COO and Managing Editor for Pinnacle Entertainment Group, and Game Club volunteer for her kids' Middle School for the past 3 years

Scott A. Woodard, author of The Sixth Gun RPG


 1) What prompted PEG to seek a license for The Sixth Gun? Are you worried about brand dilution or cannibalization from your Deadlands line?
Shane: Oni approached us, and at first I was reluctant, of course. But as I said elsewhere, I DEVOURED the graphic novels, fell in love with them, and said "Who else SHOULD do this game besides us?" No one, of course. And the fact that they'd be 100% compatible with Deadlands (and vice-versa) is a huge advantage from my point of view.


 2) The Sixth Gun looks like it might be more "kid friendly" than a straight Deadlands game, but given that there is a Gallows Tree and a horror tone what age group do you think will be most appropriate?

Jodi: I think teens and preteens will love the dark elements of The Sixth Gun--but, with a little GM editing, Deadlands fits that niche too. One age group The Sixth Gun can adapt better to is the 6-10 age range, depending of course on the child's tolerance for dark. My youngest daughter would have gleefully embraced talking to hanged men at age 6, while my oldest daughter would have needed to be 8 or so. Now that they're 13 and 15, of course, they're at the perfect age for exploring the Weird West!


3) Could you tell me a little bit about the factions (Sword of Abraham and Knights of Solomon) in the game?

Scott: Both organizations are integral to the central plot of The Sixth Gun comic series. Because of that, they simply had to be present in the game. For those unfamiliar with the series, the Knights of Solomon are an order that seeks to acquire ancient artifacts and relics in order to exploit their power for personal gain, while the Sword of Abraham stands opposed to their efforts in order to prevent Armageddon! In the roleplaying game, we present details about both factions, information on their lairs, archetypal NPC stat blocks for both, and the option to actually play representatives from either group. In the comic, Drake Sinclair was once in the employ of the Knights of Solomon, but over time, their paths diverged. Perhaps your PC shares a similar backstory...

 4) The majority of Savage Worlds settings seem to be "high concept" combinations of multiple genres, what is it about the Savage Worlds system that encourages that?
Shane: I'm not sure it's Savage Worlds so much as my personal preference for not just doing another Tolkien knockoff. From the very beginning we've only wanted to do games with a twist. Deadlands and Sixth Gun are Western horror--which didn't exist in the RPG space at the time. Lankhmar is thieves' guild fantasy. 50 Fathoms is fantasy pirates. Sometimes that keeps us from taking on a genre until we have that twist. We'd like to do a classic pulp setting, for example, but haven't found anything with a good twist yet. There are plenty of early Nazi / zeppelin / Indiana Jones style pulp games out there already. What could we do that's different and unique? We haven't figured that out yet.

5) If I wanted to run a Savage Worlds game for 7 to 10 year olds, what is one rule change you would recommend to speed up the learning curve?
Jodi: Rules for magic, regardless of system or setting, tend to be the hardest to grasp so that's always the easiest change to make: Either no magic for their characters, or help them make an easy magic-using character to run (choosing entangle instead of bolt, for example). For The Sixth Gun, I'd probably not use the Critical Failures Setting Rule either, as not all kids do well with complete failure as a plot device. I also suggest taking Hindrances they can relate to, like Impulsive and Short Temper...or maybe that's just MY experience with kids. :)

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Savage Worlds, The Sixth Gun, and Infinite Possibilities

"It was human suffering that called The Six into existence. And The Six gave the humans the power to recreate the world."


I've been a fan of role playing games produced by Pinnacle Entertainment Group since the first time I saw a copy of the Deadlands role playing game sitting on the shelf of a friendly local game store. My fandom only increased when they released the Savage Worlds role playing game in the early 2000s. The system, based on a very simplified version of the Deadlands rules, lives up to its tagline and is Fast, Furious, and Fun! It is one of the easiest role playing games to teach people how to play, and it runs combats swifter than any other system I've played. The mechanics are also incredibly flexible and can be used to simulate everything from Sword & Sorcery to Superheroes without missing a beat.

Over the years, Pinnacle has produced a number of settings for the Savage Worlds system, often featuring high concept mash-ups of other genre. Some of my favorites are the Cyberpunk meets Gothic horror Rippers and the Independence Day/V meets The Avengers setting Necessary Evil. Prior to this past month, they have only published one Western inspired setting in their Deadlands Reloaded adaptation of the original role playing game.

Pinnacle is currently finishing up a Kickstarter campaign for a new Western themed Savage Setting called The Sixth Gun based on the Oni Press comic book series of the same name. I've had the benefit of giving the rules a look over, and I can say that this may quickly become my favorite Savage Setting.

While The Sixth Gun is at its base a Western tale, it is far more than that. The quote at the beginning of this post is from the story and it is literally true. Those who control The Six have the power to recreate the world in their own image. In a way, The Sixth Gun is a Feng Shui meets Deadlands mashup and that is a beautiful thing.



While The Six are "guns" in the current setting, they have been clubs and swords in the past. Who's to say they couldn't be "Rings of Power" in another? Not me. I'm already prepping a Savage Supers Setting based on "The Sixth Ring." It's a Savage high concept mashup of Green Lantern, Deadlands, Feng Shui, and The Sixth Gun.

As is typical of Savage Settings, The Sixth Gun is rules are well written and written using active voice. This makes for quick reading. There are a number of small differences in the mechanics from the core rules. It is often said that Savage Worlds is not a "universal" rules set, rather a rules set that can be adapted to any setting. In The Sixth Gun, the standard Arcane Backgrounds are not allowed. Instead, there are specific Backgrounds that are better suited to the core The Sixth Gun setting. This allows the game to have magic "feel" different for the setting than it would using the rules from the core rule book. The setting also uses a couple of key rules like "Born a Hero" and "Critical Failures" to give the setting the appropriate grimly heroic tone.

As a father who is teaching his seven year-old daughters to play role playing games, this setting is slightly more cartoony than the Deadlands setting and allows me to role play "action ghost stories" with the twins instead of the more serious grimdark horror of Deadlands. I'm still waiting for a Savage Worlds "Moldvay/Cook Basic" equivalent to be published, but I've been working on an equivalent for my home game.



In addition to The Winding Way, an adventure campaign for The Sixth Gun game, Pinnacle have two free adventures available on RPGNow entitled Circle the Wagons and The One-Hand Gang. The Winding Way is a great introduction to The Sixth Gun setting and highlights the transformative nature of The Six. I cannot wait for these books to be published, and you have a couple more days to back the project yourself.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Titansgrave: Ashes of Valkana | Episode 1 Review



I was pretty skeptical when I first heard the news that Geek & Sundry would be running a Tabletop Roleplaying Game Let's Play with Wil Wheaton as the Game Master. I wasn't skeptical that Geek & Sundry would actually produce the show, rather I was skeptical that it would work as a piece of entertainment.

I've been a fan of playing RPGs since I was ten years old, but I've learned one thing from standing around watching RPGA sessions at various conventions. With the exception of the fictional world of the Gold web series, where roleplaying games are a spectator sport, it isn't often fun to watch other people play them. There are so many ways that the spectator experience can be fouled. The Game Master might not be willing to engage in theatrics. The Game Master may be bad at theatrics...although that can have its own short term entertainment value. The medium isn't very visual on its own and requires participants to fill in the "spectacle" of the tale. The players may not be evocative in their explanations of what their characters are doing. The game play might get caught up in the spiral of discussing things that aren't at all game related, and thus turn the experience into merely watching a conversation about which version of Highlander 2 is worth watching.

The answer is neither.

It's one thing for a roleplaying game session to be fun for the participants, which it can be with all the above failures, it's quite another for it to be fun to watch.

David Nett and his friends did a great job of creating an entertaining to watch roleplaying game experience with their second season of Gold entitled Night of the Zombie King, but they did so in an entirely scripted format where the roleplaying game session was merely the setting for a host of dramatic tensions. Being scripted, the session is also heavily edited and time compressed. The question is whether the entertainment value of a well-written and well acted "scripted simulation" of a roleplaying session can be recreated in a real gaming session where things are much looser.

If the first episode of TitansGrave: Ashes of Valkana is any indication, the answer is yes. I won't say that it is a "resounding yes," for reasons I'll articulate as the review goes along, but I will say that Geek & Sundry did manage to create an entertaining viewing experience.

WHAT'S GOOD ABOUT TITANSGRAVE

Before I comment on what I believe the show has done wrong, let me begin by praising what it got correct. A lot of work went into producing this web series, and it shows. Wil Wheaton has recruited a number of actors, of the tradition and voice varieties, to play the game with him. Before you assume that the "recruiting of actors" means the "recruiting of non-gamers/non-geeks," let me cue you in on a little secret. D&D is the secret language of Hollywood. There is an entire community of rpg geeks in tinseltown, and while not everyone games a lot do.

The show has also selected a game system, the AGE system from Green Ronin, that has a lot of improvisational narrative potential. All roleplaying games have at their root the potential for improvisational narrative, it is after all what really defines a roleplaying game, but given the tactical wargame roots of the hobby the game can sometimes descend into a series of "I roll a 13, I do 5 damage, You roll a 15, I take 3 damage" comments that are mindnumbing to watch. Roleplaying is best watched when "roles" are being "played" and that means that actions are being described rather than mere die rolls. AGE's "stunt point" system aids in making combat sequences more narrative, rather than quantitative, by mechanically encouraging players to create descriptions of their actions in return for benefits. Players respond to incentives, and if you incentivize narrative descriptions you tend to get more of them.

The show hired adventure writers from the game industry who worked with Wil Wheaton to bring about his world. It's one thing to hire talented writers, but it is another thing to hire people who can take a story and translate it into a game experience. Experienced adventure writers have a knack for it. It takes more than breaking a story down beat by beat and then creating stats to gamify a story. It takes an intuition regarding how players will respond to circumstances. You also need to be able to create a small enough segment of a story that it can be played (after being edited) in less than an hour and still have narrative movement. This includes taking into account the delay that mechanics will cause as actions are resolved. What separates roleplaying games from mere improvisational theater is the fact that actions are arbitrated by mechanics. This is something that not only is at the core of what makes roleplaying games "games," but is a key to ensuring that all players get an equal chance to participate/succeed.

Hiring Wes Otis for the sound effects and musical loops was wise. Otis has done good work as a sound professional, but he has also made some great effects for home play.

The show is well edited, which cuts down on the digressions that players are prone to making, and has incorporated sound effects and some minor animations to increase the visual appeal. The editing is key for this show, and they seem to know it. They have edited out the distracting digressions, while leaving some of the more entertaining ones in, which gives the session a nice play flow.

The cast does a good job of staying interesting without trying too hard. One of my person peeves when watching some episodes of Tabletop is that the players often seem to be trying too hard to entertain. They seem to have the sense that watching a board game isn't exciting in and of itself, and thus feel the need to spice it up. Wil Wheaton, Hank Green, Laura Bailey, Yuri Lowenthal, and Alison Haislip may be doing that a little in TitansGrave, but it is indistinguishable from the normal one-upsmanship I've witnessed in my playing experience.

WEAKNESSES

This show is not made for a wide audience. It's hard to tell if the show is meant to only appeal to those who are already gaming, or whether it is also meant to bring more people in. I say that because the first episode already has a couple of inside jokes that might appeal to long time gamers, but which will be missed by new viewers.  Additionally, the first story is "age confined" in that they had to bleep out profanity and that it's about drinking. This isn't a bad thing per se, and I found it quite entertaining, but it does limit your viewing audience.

Lack of use of voice actor talent. C'mon people! Let's get crazy! We've got funny people here, but they seem to be holding back a little in combat. This could partially be because they are still learning the AGE system, and don't feel comfortable with it, but I want more verbal sound effects from the players. Laura Bailey and Yuri Lowenthal are trending in this direction, but I want more as a viewer. You really can't "commit" too much for me. Think about it like a comedic role. You have to be willing to fully commit to the joke/process. That doesn't mean go over the top, but it does mean you have to immerse yourself in the play and lose the wall of "I'm being judged."

The show hasn't quite captured a way to make the depiction of combat visually interesting. I both like and dislike the battle display they are doing. I like that they aren't showing miniatures on the table, which can be good are bad for spectators, allowing the actors to free form act rather than move game pieces. What isn't working for me is how static the display is. If you are going to present a graphic virtual tabletop, have the images move about on the hologrid you've presented. I also noticed that Wil Wheaton began to fall into the "I roll an x and do y damage" drone. It's hard not to, and Wheaton was great most of the time, but it's something he'll need to fight.

The show isn't perfect, but it did entertain me. We'll see how the season progresses. One thing is certain, I will keep watching. I will also be buying the tabletop campaign supplement as soon as Green Ronin releases it.



Friday, May 29, 2015

[100 New Ways to Play Classic Games] Alternative Candy Land Rules #1, #2, #3, #4 and #5


As a parent of younger children, my twin daughters History and Mystery are 7 years old, I get to play a lot of games that consistently receive low ratings at Board Game Geek. This is not due to a lack of board game diversity in the household, rather to the kinds of games that tend to be designed for younger players and the opinions that "sophisticated" hobby game experts tend to have regarding the kinds of games targeted at children. Briefly stated, there is a strong bias against "kids' games."



The bias doesn't stem from a lack of interest in the topics or settings used to inspire kids games, rather the bias seems to be a bias against "primitive" game play. Many children's games are simplified "track games" where the objective of play is to get from the start square to the finish square and in doing so win the game. A quick visit to the Candy Land webpage shows us that the average BGG rating for the game is 3.19 which equates with the game being "Bad." The highest rating, a 6.944 is held by the fantastic game Loopin' Louie, and a 7 on BGG is supposed to be a "Good" game. Good, not excellent.

Source -- Board Game Geek Candy Land Page

Game ratings are subjective though and BGG's guidelines don't provide different scales or criteria for children's games and hobby games. This is a defensible position, but is less helpful to consumers who might wonder whether a game would be fun to "play with kids" instead of wondering if the game would be "fun all the time and forever challenging." I think that Candy Land scores very high on the first criteria, but falls flat on the second.  

Candy Land is a great first game. It's an even better tool for learning about game design. I personally rate the game as an 8 on BGG and think that those who rate it lower are not rating it as what it is. I've defended the game in an earlier post, but I've been intending to write a series of posts on "100 New Ways to Play Classic Games" for quite some time. There was a time when I wanted to write them down and run a Kickstarter to fund a book that collected them. Now I just want to share them as they come.

The idea was inspired by The Boardgame Remix Kit by Kevan Davis, Alex Fleetood, Holly Gramazio, and James Wallis as well as the classic New Rules for Classic Games by R. Wayne Schmittberger. Where both of those products included a couple of variants for a variety of games, I wanted to write a much larger number of variants for the games that I love. This would start with the quintessential Game Designer's toolkit that is Candy Land and move on to other games. Each game will be provided with as close to 100 alternate rules as I can think of and the alternate rules will be spread over a long series of posts instead of smashed into one post. All of the posts will be categorized under the [100 New Ways to Play Classic Games] label. 

Today's post will include 5 Alternative Candy Land rules for your use. Two of them have been previously published, but three are new.


Alternative Candy Land Rules
1) Bag Draw
In this version of "Candy Land," all of the cards are placed into a bag, or hat, and the players draw a random card from the bag on their turn, plays the card, and then places it in the discard pile. This makes the game more purely random, and eliminates the pre-determination factor of the game.

2) Bag Draw Variant

As published, Candy Land features a "broken Markov Chain" because possible future actions, and not merely results, are affected by prior draws. The cards in the discard pile are removed as possible outcomes. This variant of the Bag Draw rule eliminates that feature by returning cards to the deck and resetting the probability that any given card will be drawn in the future. 

In this variant, cards are immediately put back into the bag after it has been used for movement determination and the next player has the possibility of drawing that card from the bag.
3) 1 through 4 and Left or Right
In this variant, players shuffle the cards as normal at the beginning of the game thus setting the order of cards for the remainder of the game.  The first player draws as normal and is considered Player 1 for the remainder of the game.  The other players in counter-clockwise rotation are players 2 through 4. 
 After the first player's draw, all future draws are decided through the roll of a six-sided die.  On a result of 1 to 4, the player of that number draws the next card.  On a result of 5, the player to the left of the current player draws a card.  On a result of 6, the player to the right of the current player draws a card. 


4) Predestiny with Agency


Long time players of Candy Land quickly come to discover that the actual outcome of the game is decided before the first card is flipped. The order of the cards dictates the outcome. The game is a case study of predestination. This rule shakes that up a bit by adding a limited amount of player agency into the picture.

Once the cards have been shuffled, and the first player determined, draw the first ten cards and lay them adjacent to the top of the Candy Land board in the order they are drawn. These are the first 10 actions that will occur in the game. Each player is given ONE (1) opportunity to SKIP per 10 card draw. Only one player may skip any given card. To illustrate:

1) The First Player, in a two player game, would normally be required to move, but sees that the current card is Purple and the second card is a special that would move her significantly up the map, the First Player skips her turn forcing the Second Player to use that card.
2) The Second Player has one SKIP available for this draw, but since a player has already skipped this card the Second Player must use the card, but will get an opportunity later to SKIP a different card.

Once all 10 cards have been played, a new set of 10 cards are revealed and each player can now SKIP one of these cards. SKIPs cannot be carried over from one deal to the next.

5) Revealed Destiny with Agency

This variant continues our exploration of predestination by adding a limited amount of player agency in a slightly different way than the last alternate rule.

Once the cards have been shuffled, and the first player determined, draw all of the cards and lay them adjacent to the Candy Land board in the order they are drawn. The players can now see the entire map of actions that will occur in the game, and the order in which they will happen. Each player is given FOUR (4) opportunities to SKIP an action, but can regain one by accepting a special card that sends them backward. Only one player may skip any given card. To illustrate:

1) The First Player, in a two player game, would normally be required to move, but sees that the current card is Purple and the second card is a special that would move her significantly up the map, the First Player skips her turn forcing the Second Player to use that card.
2) The Second Player has one SKIP available for this draw, but since a player has already skipped this card the Second Player must use the card, but will get an opportunity later to SKIP a different card.

Once all 64 cards have been played, a new set of 64 cards are revealed and each player can now SKIP one of these cards with a refreshed FOUR (4) opportunities. SKIPs cannot be carried over from one deal to the next.

PRIOR POSTS ON CANDY LAND:

  • You Can Read My Defense of Candy Land Here.
  • You Can Read My Post on Candy Land as RPG Here.