Saturday, January 31, 2015

Miniatures

When I was very young, I watched a movie called E.T. I'm sure you've heard of it. I remember a brief scene in that film that involved some people sitting around a table with 3D models of tunnel walls, talking about arrows in the chest and undead creatures casting spells. For a long time, I thought that that was what Dungeons and Dragons was: an elaborate board game with a lot of parts.

When I grew older and finally learned about what D&D really was and how it worked, I realised that all of that stuff on the table wasn't necessary (for that matter, in my experience, most players don't mess with that level of paraphernalia; they just place figurines on 2D maps). Some players prefer that level of detail, but others are content with mere verbal descriptions.

As a Storyteller/Method Actor, I didn't feel a great need for miniatures. On occasion, when we got involved in an intense combat, it would be necessary to give players a somewhat more exacting description of where the characters were located in relation to each other, and to the items in the scenery (trees, buildings, cars, etc). Normally, I would just mark the places on a piece of paper. If it was available, I would be fancy by making use of a dry-erase board.

One of the problems I had with miniatures is that, especially in highly diverse and customisable settings such as Changeling, it can be hard to find a miniature that resembles your character. Another problem was the expense; metal figurines are pricey, and plastic ones aren't that much better (especially if you're playing a game which has pre-painted miniatures available).

I don't know who first came up with the idea of Cardboard Heroes, but it was a genius idea. Rather than having fully 3D figures, you simply print (or draw) two images on a narrow strip of paper: one front view and one rear view. The strip is folded into a small tent shape with the front view on one side and the rear view on the other. This alternative was cheaper and, in many ways, easier than full-blown models. Sometimes, it can be argued, they may even look better!

Steve Jackson Games really made the biggest impact with this idea, publishing several volumes for many different genres. Other companies came out with their own versions. But again, it can sometimes be hard to find images that are sufficiently similar to the appearance you may want for your character. Although it's easy to make do (I'm using a picture of a brunette male with a red coat, even though my character is blonde and wears a blue coat), it's nice to actually match the image on your mini with the desired description of your actual character.

I had an idea several years ago; I prepared a number of blank cardboard miniatures and gave them to my players. I asked them to draw their characters on the cards. This gave them ultimate flexibility in making sure that their figures looked exactly the way they wanted them to. The downside was that many of them did not have a great deal of artistic ability, and felt that they couldn't do a very good job with their minis.

Enter The Order of the Stick. When Rich Burlew ran the wildly successful Kickstarter campaign a few years ago, one of the rewards that were given out was a series of pdf cardboard heroes sets. This gave me the idea to make the figurines in the OotS style, which would counteract my lack of artistic ability as well as that of my players. Sure, the minis aren't realistic at all, but they're still pretty (for those who like the OotS artwork, as I and many of my players do). Plus, I have enough skill with GIMP (GNU Image Manipulation Program) to take the descriptions given me by my players and make decent representations of their characters.

Here's a picture to show you what I mean. These are the miniatures I created the first time I used this idea:

Doing it in this manner really adds something to the game, in my opinion. The players are delighted with the personalised minis, the whimsical nature of the illustrations adds to the ambiance of the games I like to run, and when we use these in a casual way to help visualise the combat, it makes the game easier and more fun.

Just an interesting idea. Do with it as you see fit. And until next time,

Game on!

Sunday, January 25, 2015

In the Spirit of Fun

I used to play Vampire: The Masquerade. I was drawn to the rich setting with great potential for character development. Once, I was playing a Salubri character. Salubri have access to a defensive power called Obeah. One of the abilities of this power is to erect a force field around the character, so that anyone not already within 25 feet cannot approach any closer than that distance.

At one point, my character finds herself in a small cavern with at least one hostile NPC. I state that I am looking all around me to ensure that there's no one within 25 feet. To emphasise the point, I turn my head to the left and the right.

I considered, at this point, stating outright that my character was looking in a full 360° arc, just to be sure the GM understood what I meant. But then I thought to myself, 'No, that won't be necessary. The GM is understanding enough to know what I mean. I'm not going to insult her intelligence, nor her ability to be a good GM, by stating the obvious.'

What a fool I was.

Shortly after I activated the power, my character was attacked from behind. I pointed out the force field ability. The GM responded, 'Yes, but when you looked around you, you only turned your head 90° in either direction. So you didn't see the man standing behind you.'

I considered arguing, but I realised there'd be no point. So I just continued playing the game as if I'd never cast the spell in the first place.

This sort of attitude from GMs really irritates me. It sets up a sort of antagonism between the GM and the players. The game becomes a zero-sum game, where the enjoyment of one has to come at the expense of the other. As I've discussed previously, the point of gaming is supposed to be to have fun. We all have fun gaming in different ways, but there's no real reason we can't find a way to balance the various types of fun. When someone in the group is not having fun, then something needs to change.

But that's just the point, isn't it? In the example outlined above, the GM was not working in the spirit of fun. Maybe she thought it was fun for herself to taunt the PCs in this way, but in my case at least, I think that a player shouldn't have to be so exactingly specific about his actions in order to communicate his desires.

I'm trying to arrange a GURPS Firefly game. I'm having trouble getting a group together, because I want people on whom I can rely. The last time I tried to GM a long term game, players just stopped showing up. Additionally, I want players who will fit the theme. The game will be a creative exercise, so those who just want to kill monsters likely won't enjoy themselves.

It's turning out to be harder than I expected. But, in the spirit of fun, I won't lower my standards. I want everyone to have a good time.

Anyway, that's what I've been thinking about lately. Until next week,

Game on!

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Board Game Review: Avalon

This week, I'm going to look at a game called The Resistance: Avalon. It shares some similarities with the popular party game Mafia (which I learned as Witch Hunt) that has been adapted to the game Werewolves of Miller's Hollow. It is, in essence, a variation of the game The Resistance, reworked to have a medieval theme.

We're going to take a look at this game, and as always, I provide ratings based on my system:

Strategy: 3
Randomness: 2
Complexity: 2
Humour: None.
Attractiveness: Pretty
Expected Length of Game Play: 15 to 45 minutes

King Arthur's kingdom is in peril! To save the kingdom and protect the citizens of the noble realm, Arthur's loyal servants must go on a series of quests. Successful completion of these quests will ensure peace and prosperity for all. However, not all is well in the high court; evil lurks within the hearts of some of the courtiers... unknown to any save themselves, a small number of the people in Arthur's court are minions of Mordred, the malevolent offspring of Arthur and his sister Morgause! These servants of evil are working behind the scenes to prevent the successful completion of the quests and usher in an era of evil for Britain.

Gameplay begins with each player secretly receiving a role. The card they are dealt, which they must keep secret, describes the team to which they belong, as well as their role on that team. Teams win or lose as a unit; there is no single winner in this game. Teams consist of:

  • Loyal Servants of Arthur: Most players will be a generic knight. However, one player on this team receives the role of Merlin. Merlin is able to use his powers of magic to see into the future and detect the evil that lurks within the hearts of man; he thus knows who the Minions of Mordred are. But he must be careful with this knowledge, for if his identity should become known, then all is lost...
  • Minions of Mordred: A handful of the players will be on Team Evil. One of the players on this team is the Assassin, and the others are generic knights. The Assassin has the ability to prevent victory for the Loyal Servants of Arthur by discovering and assassinating Merlin.
Once all players know their role, they go through a quick setup phase so that the Minions of Mordred will know each other, and that Merlin can learn who the Minions of Mordred are. Everyone closes their eyes and places their hand in a fist in front of them. Guided by a leader who talks them through the process, the Minions of Mordred open their eyes and look around to see who their allies are. Then they close their eyes and raise their thumbs so that Merlin can open his eyes, and see who the Minions of Mordred are. 

Now that everyone has the information that they require, play begins. Each round consists of two phases: selecting questors, and the quest itself. In the first phase, one player is the leader, and nominates players to be the questors. The number of players going on each quest varies; there are small mats that indicate how many players go on each quest. This is what they look like:


There is a larger and higher-resolution version of this image over at Board Game Geek, so you can head over there to see more detail if you want.

There is a mat for each of the possible number of players, from 5 to 10. The mat describes how many Minions of Mordred to include, as well as how many players go on each of the five quests. There are markers to remind you which quest you are attempting, and whether that quest ended in success or failure.

So the leader chooses players to be questors for the current quest (he can choose himself, but he doesn't have to), and then all players vote to approve or reject these questors. Table talk is encouraged, and the vote is public, so everyone knows how you voted, and you know how everyone else voted. This is where a lot of information is made available; by seeing how people voted on certain questors (as well as what they have to say about the vote), you can begin to start forming ideas of who is and isn't on the same side.

If the majority of players vote to reject these questors, or the vote is a tie, then that group of questors does not attempt this quest. The vote track increases by one, and the next player becomes the leader, and will select a new group of questors. The vote track is important; if five successive groups of questors are rejected, then it is decreed that there is too much division in Arthur's court, and the Minions of Mordred are declared the winning team.

If, however, the majority of players vote to approve the proposed questors, then those players are sent on the quest. Each questor is given a Success card and a Fail card. They choose these cards in secret, and pass the chosen card to the team leader, who shuffles those cards together. The cards are then revealed.

Loyal Servants of Arthur must select the Success card. Minions of Mordred may choose either one. If even a single Fail card is included in the chosen cards, the quest fails (the exception to this rule is that the 4th quest in games with 7 or more players requires two Fail cards to fail). In this way, in a group of five questors, if a single Fail card is revealed, you know only that at least one of those five players is a Minion of Mordred, but you don't know which player it is.

So, for example, imagine that Amanda, Brian, Chris, David, Erin, Fran, Gemma, and Heather are playing a game. Amanda is chosen to be the first leader. In an eight-player game, the first quest has three questors. Amanda chooses herself, Brian, and Chris for those three questors. All players now vote to approve or reject these questors. Amanda, Brian, Chris, and Gemma all vote to approve, but David says that he doesn't trust Brian, and votes to reject. Erin also votes to reject, saying that she doesn't ever approve the first team; she wants to have a little more table talk before approving a group. Fran and Heather both also vote to reject these questors, saying that they don't trust Chris. As the vote was a tie, the team is rejected. The vote track is moved to 2, and the leader token passes to Brian, who must choose a new group of questors.

Brian chooses himself, David and Erin, and voting continues. David votes to reject this team again, saying that he still doesn't trust Brian, but everyone else votes to approve. These three questors have been approved, so they are each given a Success card and a Fail card. The vote track is reset to 1. Brian, David and Erin pass their chosen cards to the leader (who is Brian), and he shuffles them together and reveals them one at a time. The first two are Success cards, but the third card is Fail. The quest has not been successful! A failure token is placed on the space for the first quest, and now everyone at the table knows that Brian, David, or Erin is a Minion of Mordred (or, possibly, that two of that group of three are Minions of Mordred, and one of them voted to have the quest end in Success to throw the other players off the trail).

The game ends when three quests have succeeded, or when three quests have failed. In the latter case, the Minions of Mordred have won. In the former case, however, the Minions of Mordred have one final chance to steal the victory away from the Loyal Servants of Arthur: The Minions reveal their cards, so that everyone knows who the evil bastards were, but the Loyal Servants of Arthur do not yet reveal their cards. This is because one of the Minions of Mordred is the Assassin. This player has one chance to kill Merlin. He names the player that he believes to be Merlin, and if he is correct, the Minions are declared victorious. It is for this reason that Merlin needs to be careful in revealing the information that he possesses. He doesn't want the other players to know who he is.

The game also includes a number of other role cards which can be included if the players so desire. One of the generic Loyal Servants of Arthur cards can be replaced with Percival, and/or one each of the generic Minions of Mordred can be replaced with one or more of the following: Mordred, Morgana, Oberon.

Percival and Oberon make the Loyal Servants of Arthur more powerful:
  • Percival knows who Merlin is, and so is able to both gain more trustworthy information from the voting and hints of that character, as well as to try and work to protect Merlin to make it harder for the Assassin to kill Merlin and steal the victory away from the Loyals Servants of Arthur.
  • Oberon, despite being on the side of evil and winning with the other Minions of Mordred, does not open his eyes during the setup phase. This means that he does not know who the other Minions of Mordred are, nor do they know who he is.
Mordred and Morgana make the Minions of Mordred more powerful:
  • Mordred does not reveal himself to Merlin. Thus, there is one player on the Minions of Mordred team that is unknown even to the powerful wizard.
  • Morgan is really only useful if Percival is being used. She reveals herself to Percival in the same way that Merlin does during the setup phase, so that Percival cannot be sure which of the two players is Morgana and which is Merlin.
This game is, in my opinion, a lot of fun. It takes all the drama and intrigue of Witch Hunt (or Mafia or Werewolves of Millers Hollow) and sets it in an arrangement that counteracts all the negative aspects of those games (most importantly the fact that players are constantly being eliminated from the game and no longer get to participate; in Avalon, all players stay in the game until the very end).

If you have a fairly large group of players, this is a great game to play. There aren't many games that accommodate more than six players, but this is one that does so, and does it admirably. I highly recommend it.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Matching games to players

So you've got your group of friends together, and you're planning on spending a lovely evening playing one of your favourite games. You make sure everyone is ready, everyone understands the game, and you start in with the evening's session. But halfway through, you realise you're just not having that much fun. This game, which you normally so adore, just isn't fun for you tonight. What could be wrong?

Might it be that you've got the wrong mix of players?

Take my situation, for example. In looking over my games, I notice that I have a penchant for games that involve creativity in some way. I'm not overly fond of chess, but I adore chess variants (3 player chess, byzantine chess, infinity chess, spherical chess, etc). This is mostly because I love seeing what sort of different or unusual spin can be put on the main game. I also love games like Gloom, where half the fun of playing is in seeing what sort of outlandish stories can be told in the course of playing the cards. Fiasco is, of course, purely an exercise in creativity. I've always loved tabletop roleplaying games precisely because of the stories told through them; Changeling: the Dreaming is paramount amongst this category of game because it encourages and rewards creativity.

But over the years, I've noticed that there are some people who just don't fit with these sorts of games.

I have a couple of friends to whom I introduced the game of Fiasco some time ago. As the game wore on, one of these friends was finding it increasingly difficult to contribute to the story. This friend continually asked what to do, what would be the best course of action to take, what would the character do in this scenario, and so forth. The player is simply too tactically-minded to really function well in a story-telling setting.

The other friend was doing a better job, until the very end. The story was very clearly headed in a specific direction, and the most satisfying ending for the game would have been a case of cold-blooded jealous murder. Instead, the player retreated from that option, and became acquiescent to the character's fate.

There was another situation in which I was GMing a game of Changeling. I set up the objective, and let the players loose to find the solution to the problem. It had always been my intention, from the very beginning, to have the solution involve an antagonist and some assistant adversaries, who were constantly working to frustrate the PCs' plans. I had planned out the clues I would be dispensing to the characters on a harshly regimented schedule: they'd learn something, then have a pretty major scene (fight scene, chase scene, series of investigations into a mysterious warehouse, etc) before they were allowed to have any more information. My rationale was that, whilst solving the mystery and saving the day (so to speak) was a lot of the fun, the real enjoyment came from the encounters along the way.

It became obvious that one of the players didn't think that way. All of the interesting fight scenes and chases and explorations of interesting stockpiles of fantastical devices were, to this player, delays in the course of solving the main mystery.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with any of these styles of play. The tactical person in the first example would do very well in games such as D&D or Shadowrun, for example, where it tends to be more about vanquishing foes than about telling stories. The player from the second example does quite well in Changeling, where creativity in playing is an asset, but a game based on more conventional story structure (such as Fiasco) is not quite right for the player. And the third player may do well in short-form games, like Paranoia, but has trouble with delayed gratification.

This is why it's important to know what sort of games a player may be suited for. And conversely, it's also helpful to know what sort of players a game is suited for.

I've played Fiasco now so many times with so many players that I have a fairly good idea who amongst my friends will enjoy the game (and, just as importantly, who will enable the other players to have a good time as well). This is why the invitation list for my Fiasco sessions tends to be somewhat limited.

As I said, there's nothing wrong with any particular player's style of play. It's merely a matter of ensuring that people who do well in a particular milieu are matched with games that fit them, and vice versa.

Anyway, something to think about. Next week, I will return with more (hopefully) interesting stuff. Until then,

Game on!