A Real Cool Time: Indie Round-Up

OUT OF THE BOX
2007-03-13

Well, I spent longer in Oakland than I’d thought, and then they went and started Daylight Savings Time early just to mess with my Seasonal Affective Disorder, and also I had to make gumbo. But it’s long and too long since we last locked eyes across a crowded monitor, so I’m uncorking the much-anticipated, much-delayed, Indie Round-Up 2006! Ish. Just in time for March! Ish. Of 2007. And thus, shaking the wreckage of another best-laid plan from off my back, I continue to delay the Indie Round-Up with a Con Report.

Rocket to San Ramon: DunDraCon Report 2007

So I spent Presidents’ Day Weekend, as I so often do these days, in sunny San Ramon, California attending DunDraCon, which is the oldest continuing roleplaying game convention in the West, and still hosts 1500 or so gamers who fill the San Ramon Marriott to bursting each time. Many of the gamers themselves are fairly old and continuing, but enough of that. There’s plenty of the New Hotness to be found there, too, as you can tell if you listen to my guest appearance on the popular “2d6 Feet In A Random Direction” podcast. We discuss not only my own projects and whatnot, but the con, specifically podcast host Brian Isikoff’s slammin’ 28-person Legend of the Five Rings session. Pretty cool, if I do say so myself. And I do say so myself, in podcast form.

I did my traditional panels, and a few more besides — appearing with Ken “Tunnels & Trolls” St. Andre on a game design panel and with Greg Stafford and Bruce Harlick on a panel on social contract in gaming took me way up into the stratosphere, concept-wise. At the show, I saw a few interesting new products — DunDraCon perennials Goodman Games, Chaosium, Flying Buffalo, and Hero Games were joined by Big Finger Games, who set me up with a copy of their sweet Mutants & Masterminds villain sourcebook Adepts of the Arcane, featuring (among a dozen other magical villains) a suspiciously squidlike Prime-Mortal whose secret identity begins with “Nyarl-” and ends in “-thotep.” So you can tell that we got along famously. Speaking of things squamous and eldritch, Chaosium had the English version of the Outie-Award-winning Pegasus Spiele German sourcebook Malleus Monstrorum, complete with wonderful German art. And on a Dunsanian note, Hero debuted Steve Long’s Tuala Morn, a shiny Celtic Rokugan for Fantasy Hero. And despite all that, I still found time to sneak off to EndGame, an amazing game store in Old Oakland Town. I’m here to tell you, if all game stores were as good, as well-lit, as interestingly stocked, and as professional (but I repeat myself) as EndGame, we’d be in a far better place come the next State of the Industry column.

Zockaway Beach

Seeing as it won the Coveted Outie for Best New RPG of 2006, we should probably have gotten around to a review of Chad Underkoffler’s Zorcerer of Zo (196-page digest-sized black & white softcover, $30) by now. I blame the flying monkeys for the delay. ZoZ is the latest iteration of Chad’s FUDGE-like PDQ System, this time out stripped to the “Good Parts Version” for a game of modern fairy tale adventure. This decision, and this genre, play strongly to PDQ’s strengths — speed, elegance, and flexibility both in character generation and on the GM-ing fly. The “modern fairy tale” genre — essentially everything from the Brothers Grimm to The Princess Bride — also plays well with a system as granular and flat (there are only five Quality ranks, from Poor to Master) as PDQ, since the characters, though easily differentiated, narratively all have a shot at affecting things. Zo, the world of ZoZ, is essentially a Narnia-Oz mashup, with look-ins from Peter Pan and a few other key texts. If you want to add or delete something, the setting provides just about enough information to feel secure in changing things, which is no easy line to walk.

Much of that comfort level comes not just from Chad’s usual excellence at picking up on and explaining genre conventions, but from his extraordinarily original and clever mode of presentation. The rules and world of ZoZ only take up half the book. The other half is a sample campaign, specifically Chad’s first playtest campaign. He fully builds it out, taking the reader through the process from the first sketchy campaign sheet all the way to the after-action report — how he thought his game worked, essentially. You might consider it a 100-page Example of Play, except that instead of explaining how the dirt-simple rules work, it’s explaining the far more complex (and important) rules of campaign care and feeding. As an extra added bonus, his two players chime in with “DVD Extra Commentary” boxes — what they liked, what they missed, what they wished had happened — giving this game an amazingly rich, “lived-in” quality very unusual in a new small-press effort. The whole thing resounds with the glee of his players at exploring a brand-new world, and with the exuberance of Chad in showing it to them — and to us. Chad is always at his best when he’s in love with his work, and when he wants it to make us happy. His love is justified, and his aim is true. Over and above the cunning setting, the fluid rules, and the insightful advice, this is a game about the joy of telling silly fairytales — which is to say, about the joy of gaming.

The Baba Yaga Took My Baby Away

And the amazing thing is that Patrick Sweeney takes a run at much the same topic (tales about fairies, not fairy tales as a whole — and traditional-Victorian, not industrial-Edwardian) from a whole different angle in Faery’s Tale (64-page digest-sized b&w paperback, $14.95) — and he makes it work, too. Not quite a whole different angle — the Faery’s Tale rules (Attribute-based dice pool against a Difficulty number) are almost as simple as PDQ, for the excellent reason that Patrick intends this game to be playable with kids. And for kids who haven’t quite got the whole “counting successes” thing down, he’s got even simpler rules in here, too. Throughout, there’s some pretty solid-sounding advice for playing the game at different ages and developmental levels. I have yet to read a negative playtest-with-kids report of this game, by the way — Patrick has knocked it out of the park, apparently. So as a kid-friendly (even kid-centric) RPG, it’s a game of being a faery, and going on little faery adventures and helping your faery friends and so on. You’re a good faery, with faery magic, and if you get too badly hurt (or you run out of faery Essence, which combines magic points and hero points), you just Fall Asleep. But even with those soft edges (and if you really, really have to play games of tainted darkness with everything, Patrick has some rules for you here, too), Faery’s Tale is remarkably sophisticated.

First, although there’s only four good faery races (Pixies, Brownies, Sprites, and Pookas), there’s a pretty robust set of Gifts to personalize them. (And a lot of statted-out things for them to meet and fight and befriend and run away from.) Second, and far more interesting and original, is the economy of Boons, the favors faeries owe each other. This becomes a reward for good behavior on adventure, a more conventional XP marker, a source of magical enchantment, and best of all, an in-game social currency (“I will grant you two Boons if you free me from this mousetrap, good Cat”). Thus, players are encouraged to interact with the setting, rather than just waltzing past on the way to the fight scene. This decision, for me, is the absolute kicker to Faery’s Tale, but the rest of it is extremely solid and well-crafted. This game goes on my shelf alongside Cat as a game both accessible to — and eminently suited for — gamers too young to understand that murdering strangers is the only kind of fun you can have. And, perhaps, for gamers getting a little too old to understand it, too.

Somebody Put Something In My Drink

Originally, John Wick only wanted to sell Wilderness of Mirrors (14-page digest-sized black & white staple-bound, no price listed) at conventions, although apparently if you email him (john@wicked-dead.com) he has a Super-Secret Way to get a copy. And you probably want a copy, if only to keep tabs on what John is up to. Wilderness of Mirrors is essentially a pamphlet holding three interlocked game mechanics suitable for playing espionage RPGs with. If I told you what they are, well, I’d be giving John’s game away. Literally. But let me just say that they cover Expertise (your spies are experts, with Mission: Impossible levels of competence at crucial moments), Trust (as with The Mountain Witch, betrayal is so very mechanically tempting), and Planning, which is the one I’m going to spill most of. Essentially, John has reverse-engineered the standard “planning session nightmare” so common in, say, Shadowrun games, into a brilliantly clever piece of gamer-psychological jiujitsu. In essence, the GM sets the conditions — “Your mission, Jim, is to convince the head of a Certain Terrorist Organization that his Syrian sponsors have betrayed him” — and then lets the characters tell him the obstacles. For every obstacle they add to their own op (“the Syrians have a psychic on base” “the terrorist is surrounded by robot guards who can’t be bluffed”), they get Mission Dice, which (like I need to tell you) interlock quite nicely with Trust and Expertise. After an hour — in real time — the planning session is over, and the op has to launch, ready or not. It’s not a full game: character generation is almost insultingly sketchy, and there’s little or no guidance for NPCs, obstacle valuation, or anything else you might want. But it’s three beautifully clever mechanics fully adaptable to any espionage game, or to any game where planning montage scenes and hyper-competence are key — and where you need to watch your back on the way out.

Xenophon Is A Punk Rocker

If I were as brazen as the helm of Achilles, I’d claim that I put off reviewing John Harper’s Agon (118-page landscape-format digest-sized black & white softcover, $20) until I could see The 300, but that would be a lie. The 300 is history dolled up like drama, but Agon is drama dolled up like myth. But not your wussy modern drama — this is the old school, Homeric stuff. You are engaged in a battle — an agon in Greek — against everything. Against the gods, against the monsters, against your destiny, against the GM — and even against your fellow players. Agon is the first fully successful intentionally competitive RPG since Robin Laws’ Rune, and Harper advances the field a significant notch. The Antagonist — the GM — has a budget of Strife to build contests and quests with. (This keeps the playing field level.) The players must cooperate to succeed at the quest — but they compete for the biggest share of Glory in the process, in order to die (or retire) with the best Legend. The tales are tales out of Greek myth, of wandering heroes who do the will of the gods by vanquishing monsters or cleansing islands of troublesome folk. The game engine is a stark, minimalist riff on Savage Worlds, in which Abilities are varying sizes of dice. (A d10 Music, Cunning, or Sword is way better than a d6 in those Abilities.) Simple Contests are simple rolls, with some clever methods of upshifting (at a price — everything has a price in Agon). Battles are complex, tactical contests complete with positioning, where enemies’ powers can get full reign. The game seems eminently suited to short, staccato mini-campaigns rather than long, intricate world-building — it’s lyric, not epic, in other words — but Harper has built a surprising amount of feel into what is, at base, a game as simple and deadly as a bronze sword in the guts.

Beat On The Brat

Two games about fairy tales, and now two games about fighting. J.J. Prince’s Contenders (44-page digest-sized black & white softcover, $15) also features player character competition (and intense combat scenes), but it’s primarily a narrative game about the rise and fall of, well, contenders. PCs are practitioners of the “sweet science,” fighters down on their luck and needing to score. Like Paul Czege’s My Life With Master, the titular contenders follow similar story arcs to their destiny — building their Rep, struggling for Cash, balancing Hope and Pain until the big fight at the end. The boxing rules seem almost a little too kabuki (and woe betide you if your stats match badly with the bruiser in the other corner) but that very starkness lends a nice mythic air to the grim proceedings. This mechanical contrast and balance echoes the contrast and balance of the game’s theme — boxers are weighed down by their Connections (who drain Cash) but only by caring about them (or by winning) can they build the Hope they need to get out alive. Players take turns setting and narrating scenes (including the mandatory training montage) in good indie fashion, with other players taking the roles of various NPCs — or of their own PCs, in many cases, especially when two PCs have to fight it out in the squared circle. As one of the more ritualized games out there (it’s not quite Polaris, but it’s not Ninja Hero, either), Contenders should grab the attention of players for whom the game is more about the tale than the telling of it, for whom the fight might be all about the girl at ringside instead of the +2 flanking bonus.

Here Today, Gone Tomorrow

We’re just about due for the State of the Gaming Industry, but I’m not sure how the Timing Gods will shake things down. If you’re worried you’ll just miss me too much in the meantime, you can check out my interview in Polymancer Magazine #12. Aside from that, I’ve got enough stuff lying around from DunDraCon and elsewhere in the Bigass Review Pile for at least one good review gallimaufry column before that, if we need a “before that.” We know I’ll be doing the Guest of Honor thing at ConQuest Sacramento the weekend of April 13-15, so we expect something good and double-paragraph-sized to come from that. We also know that the GAMA Trade Show is in April, so the GAMA Trade Show Con Report will be no later than, say, Memorial Day. What else is in our future? Fewer Ramones references, perhaps? Click back here in three minutes to find out. Okay, three weeks. Whatever.

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