More on Deliria

Posted on : 05-28-2007 | By : Brian | In : Reviews

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A little while ago, I posted about Deliria, while I was still reading it. Well, I just finished last night, and I wanted to follow up with a few things.

First, I still feel fundamentally the same about the game. I like the setting, and I like the rules; I’d probably jump at the chance to play a game of Deliria, though I don’t think I know anybody who’d actually be interested in playing with me. As I mentioned in my previous post, though, I just can’t shake the feeling that Brucato thinks he knows the right way to game. While he’s describing the mechanics, he frequently makes derisive references to mechanics like hit points and “push-button spellcasting”, references which are clearly aimed at popular RPGs like D&D and even White Wolf’s games. He doesn’t describe his mechanics and play style as being different, as they are; he describes them as being better, on a higher level than those lesser mechanics. He doesn’t use those words, but the implication is clear, at least in my mind. Now, I’ll be the first one to say that mechanics like hit points (or reasonable facsimiles thereof), or D&D’s Vancian spell system (or White Wolf’s system of Disciplines/Gifts/Whatevers) are far from perfect. They have their problems, and they’re not right for everyone. I happen to think they work well for the games that they’re a part of, but I also recognize that that is my opinion, and I recognize that “push-button spellcasting” wouldn’t jive with a setting like Deliria, where magic is supposed to be fundamentally mysterious and unpredictable. Not only that but, to his credit, Brucato has created a very cool system of largely story-driven magic, with few mechanical aspects, that (if handled correctly by the GM and the players) would probably succeed in preserving the mystery of magic within the game.

However, I find the frequent jabs at other systems to be in extremely poor form. An RPG should be a game first and foremost, and should never be a forum for airing the author’s personal agenda (that’s what blogs are for, right?). If he doesn’t like D&D, that’s fine; more power to him. His need to be different from D&D probably made Deliria a better game in the long run. But let’s try to keep the name calling to a minimum, shall we?

Now, I said that the mechanics of the game were cool, and they are. They seem to be easy to learn and they seem to lend themselves to fast play, and they certainly support the setting. The only real problem I have is with the Vitality trait. On the surface, Vitality looks like hit points (though Brucato repeatedly tells us that they’re more than mere hit points) in that they are points that measure how close you are to dying. What’s kind of wonky, to me, is how you lose and regain Vitality. When you’re injured enough to lose Vitality, you don’t lose a number of Vitality points, you lose a fraction of your overall Vitality score. So, the higher your Vitality, the more Vitality points you lose when you’re injured. Further, you recover Vitality over time based on your Spirit score at a fixed rate, so the more Vitality you have, the longer it takes to recover. Does anyone else see the problem here? Brucato says that a person with a higher Vitality is more alive than one with a low Vitality, but let’s look at an example:

Bob has Body 5, Mind 5, Spirit 5, for Vitality 15. Joe has Body 2, Mind 2, Spirit 5 for Vitality 9. They both take the exact same injury, one that reduces their Vitality scores by 1/2. Bob now has 7 Vitality left, while Joe has 4. Now, each day Bob and Joe each recover Vitality equal to their Spirit score; this means that it will take Joe one day to recover his Vitality, while it will take two days for Bob. So, their injuries affect them in the exact same way, but the character with the lower Vitality recovers quicker. Does anyone else think that it seems like a disadvantage to have a high Vitality? This is compounded by the fact that there doesn’t really seem to be any other advantage to having a high Vitality. You can share and steal Vitality, and I can get behind doing so from a story standpoint, but from a mechanics standpoint I’m not sure there’s much incentive to do so. You can also spend all but one of your Vitality to automatically succeed on an action but again, the guy with the higher score gets hosed by that one.

What really confuses me is that Brucato already has a very cool, elegant system of narrative injury in the game, whereby injuries are largely story elements with very few hard-coded mechanical effects. The danger of this is that it means that you die when the GM says that it’s narratively appropriate for you to do so, but this can be mitigated by playing with a good GM. To me, this system makes Vitality a bit superfluous. Also, the concept of sharing Vitality or stealing Vitality could easily be handled entirely by story elements (as injuries are), or by the temporary reduction or exchange of Body, Mind, or Spirit points. Personally, I have suspicions that Vitality is only in the game because Brucato needed a third Heart Grace (already having Deliria and Fortune), and couldn’t think of everything else. This wouldn’t be a bad thing if he hadn’t made the trait so utterly useless by trying to make it different from hit points.

Now, I really, really don’t want you to get the impression that I didn’t like the book. I did. Overall, it was very, very good. However, these are the two major things that really bugged me while I was reading it, and I just needed to air my criticisms. I hope that they’re taken in the spirit that they’re intended: as me wanting a really good book to be even better.

Pan’s Labyrinth

Posted on : 05-27-2007 | By : Brian | In : Reviews

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I just got done watching Pan’s Labyrinth. Very, very good. Those who are unacquainted with the movie should go in knowing two things. First, though it is a fairy tale, this movie is most assuredly not for kids. There’s some profanity, and there’s more than a little bit of fairly graphic violence. This is a fairy tale for grown-ups. Second, don’t watch it if you don’t like subtitles. The movie is in Spanish, and is subtitled; I could be wrong, but I don’t think there’s an English language track on the DVD.

For those who can get past those two things, you’re in for a real treat. Pan’s Labyrinth is visually arresting, emotionally evocative, and expertly weaves two narratives together into a single, cohesive story. Half the story takes place in a grim, cruel real world, while the other half takes place in a much more vibrant, but no less cruel, fairy tale. The movie is full of striking visual elements and interesting characters, and is bittersweet right up to its conclusion. Highly, highly recommended.

Mini-Review: Munchkin Cthulhu

Posted on : 05-20-2007 | By : Brian | In : Reviews

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Got Fhtaghn? Those who have been reading this blog for a while may remember that I’m a fan of both Munchkin and Arkham Horror. It should come as no surprise, then, that a game that combines aspects of both games would interest me. I bought Munchkin Cthulhu last night and got to play a game of it today, and I was not disappointed. The game is, as you’d expect, an irreverent and pun-filled send-up of Lovecraft’s mythos, obviously created by people who both know and love all things having to do with Cthulhism or Yog-Sothothery. The game includes some really funny cards, some of my favorites bing “The Cruller out of Space” and “Tht Whch Hs N Vwls”.

Aside from the comic element, Munchkin Cthulhu does introduce a few new elements to the Munchkin formula. One of the classes, the Cultist, works differently from the others in that you can’t get rid of that class of your own volition once you’ve taken it on, and certain cards can force you to become one. Further, if everyone but one player has become a Cultist, that last player immediately gains a level (a level which can win the game), and when everyone’s a Cultist, the game immediately ends. Another new rule involves “goth” monsters; that is, monsters that end in the suffix “-goth”. So, when cards like “Shoggoth”, “Froggoth”, “Buggoth”, or “Fun Guy from Yuggoth” are played, they have the ability to summon another “goth” monster to the fight. It’s sort of like having a bunch of extra “Wandering Monster” cards in the game.

The mechanics seem to have the same attention to balance as in previous iterations (which is to say, very little). But really, that’s what Munchkin is all about, right?

What I Liked: It’s funny, it’s fun and easy to play, and it takes Munchkin to a level of geekiness well beyond previous versions of the game.

What I Didn’t Like: It suffers from the same pitfalls as previous versions. Namely, there’s a lot of luck involved, and if you get screwed early on it can last for the entire game.

The Bottom Line: If you like Munchkin and H.P. Lovecraft, this game will tickle you in indescribable ways with its squamous pseudopods. If you’re not a fan of Munchkin, don’t bother; it doesn’t change the game significantly enough to convert anyone. Also, like other versions of the game, it can be combined with all of the previous versions of the game, giving some extra impetus to buy it if you already own one or more other Munchkin games.

On published adventures

Posted on : 05-20-2007 | By : Brian | In : News

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Treasure Tables just posted on the role of published adventures now that Dungeon has gone toes-up, and it got me thinking. Was there much demand for published adventures at my table? Not really, no. That isn’t to say I don’t own any; I own an Eberron adventure, and I got five or six $2 adventures for a birthday or Christmas or something a few years back, but the vast majority of published adventures that I own were torn from the pages of the aforementioned late, great magazine. And really, I don’t use them that much.

But does that mean that they have no place at my table? Hardly. It’s true that I don’t often use published adventures in their entirety, but I frequently use them as springboards for my imagination, allowing me to riff off of them and create my own, somewhat similar but subtly unique, adventures. As I see it, there are basically three types of published adventures that I will buy in the future.

1. A collection of adventures, a la Dungeon. I like the short adventures, not the mega-adventure paths; I like to craft my own adventure paths, and I prefer to use my old Dungeon adventures to mine for material: NPCs, monsters, items, and situations. It seems to me that Dungeon was the perfect format for this kind of adventure; hopefully the online version will offer something similar, though it’s doubtful that I’d actually spend money to subscribe to such a thing.

2. Pack-ins. I love it when games or campaign settings come with introductory adventures, and I do make it a point to use them, at least in part. My first experience DMing Eberron was using The Forgotten Forge, the introductory adventure for that setting, which I then used as a way to get into a modified version of Shadows of the Last War, a published adventure.

3. Mega-Adventures. It’s true that I don’t often use these, and I wouldn’t subscribe to a publication that provided these exclusively, largely because there’s no guarantee that I’d get something I wanted to use. What if I want to run a demon-stomping campaign, and the published path’s focus is on fighting yuan-ti? I’m out of luck. That said, I’ve had my eye on some of the hardcover adventures that WotC has been putting out, in particular Expedition to Castle Ravenloft.

When I want adventures that someone else created, those are the formats that I want them in.

Things that have been on my mind lately

Posted on : 05-19-2007 | By : Brian | In : News

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In no particular order:

1. The Elder Scrolls 4: The Shivering Isles is really, really cool. It’s so vastly different from the main game that it reintroduces the sense of wonder you got from the original. The characters are really interesting (you know, cause they’re all crazy), the dungeon design seems pretty good, and you get some very cool quests and magic items. My favorite magic item so far is Ruin’s Edge, a magic bow that hits my target with a random spell effect every time I shoot someone. I recently used it to great effect: there was someone I was trying to kill, guarded by two daedra. I shot one of the daedra, which had the effect of berserking it, causing it to attack (and kill) my target, thus completing my quest for me. Good stuff.

2. Peggle is addictive as hell. It’s like pachinko with magic powers, and I can’t stop playing it. Go download the demo, and see for yourself.

3. Having a cold sucks. Conversely, Theraflu works like magic. It only lasts for four or five hours, but the relief is worth the short duration.

Spidey 3

Posted on : 05-13-2007 | By : Brian | In : Reviews

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I just got back from seeing Spider-Man 3 (some spoilers ahead; be warned). It’s interesting; had I gone in not having heard anything about it, I probably would have been disappointed. As it is, though, I wasn’t, since I had heard a lot of people say that it wasn’t as good as the previous movies. I went in expecting a movie on par with X-Men 3, and I was pleasantly surprised. This movie is better than The Last Stand was, but not as good as previous entries in the franchise. The annoying thing is, I think it could have been just as good, had they pared it back a little bit.

There are scenes in this movie that seem superfluous. There’s 100% more singing and dancing in the third installment than there were in 1 and 2, and I don’t think any of it needed to be there. The Sandman, while a tragic and somewhat sympathetic villain, is largely not that necessary to the story, and features only in maybe fifteen minutes of screen time, total. Venom, who has long been one of my favorite Spider-Villains, was sort of a mixed bag in this movie. He looked cool at times, and somewhat goofy at others. His hatred of Spider-Man/Peter Parker was well-portrayed and well established in the movie, but there were discrepancies in his behavior. For one thing, Venom’s always been a fairly un-subtle, straightforward kind of problem solver, and his manipulation of Sandman in the movie seems at odds with that established personality. For another (and this, for some reason, really bugs me), the movie Venom didn’t share the comic book Venom’s composite personality. Eddie Brock was clearly affected by the Venom suit in the movie, but in the comic book he goes so far as to call himself “we”, and he holds conversations with his symbiont side frequently. He doesn’t do that at all in the movie. And again, he only gets a few minutes of screen time. The Green Goblin–Harry Osborn–is probably the best-realized and most interesting of the nemeses in the movie, and he really serves to illustrate just how complicated a relationship he and Peter Parker have. Once again, though, not much screen time.

Perhaps my biggest pet peeve regarding this movie is how Parker was portrayed while under the influence of the black suit. I expected him to be violent, erratic, and morose, but instead he’s a swing-dancing tool. Some of the most bizarre scenes in the movie are those that focus on Parker falling victim to the suit’s power, and while early on it’s very well done (such as when he dons the black Spider-Suit and hunts down Sandman), later (the scene in the Jazz Club) it’s almost comically ridiculous. It could have been done much, much better.

Is the movie all bad? No. Far from it. There are more than a few scenes where it approaches the quality of its predecessors, and it really shines when Peter and Harry are pitted against one another. But it suffers from some bloat (Three villains? Was that necessary?), and some questionable writing and directorial choices. I’m not sorry that I saw it, and my sense of completism will probably drive me to buy it on DVD, so that I have the whole series. But I do wish it had been better. And shorter.

Impressions of Deliria

Posted on : 05-12-2007 | By : Brian | In : Reviews

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I’m currently making my way through Phil Brucato’s Deliria, and I have mixed feelings. I should mention, at this point, that I’m not finished with the book, though I am in chapter 6 of 7. The first three chapters are all setting and atmosphere, and they’re completely awesome. Brocato uses a lyrical style throughout that’s almost conversational, almost poetical, and very, very appealing. The ideas presented are really cool; the whole thing is basically a presentation of faerie tales in modern times, talking about how traditional archetypes have updated themselves (in some cases), and how the faerie realm fits into our modern world of magnets and miracles. Those first three chapters are just cool, in a way that few other products are.

Once he got into the mechanics of the game, my interest started to wan a little bit, though. It’s not that the mechanics are bad; quite the contrary. They seem easy to learn, simple and fast to use, and they make use of a really cool card-driven core mechanic that I find very appealing. They’re described well, even if the descriptions are a bit stream-of-consciousness and out of order. The problem is in the tone. During those first three chapters, I felt like I was being confided in, like I was being inducted into a secret society privy to esoterica that mere mortals don’t have access to. Now, in the “mechanics chapters”, I feel like I’m being talked down to. There’s a clear sense that the author thinks he knows the right way to game, and that those other role-playing games are clearly not doing things right. While I don’t fault the guy for preferring story-based games over crunchy, combat-heavy games, I can’t say I’m all that keen on the condescending tone used to present the material. I’m going to keep reading, because the content is very good and because I love the setting, but I can’t help but feel that Brucato is alienating a lot of people who might otherwise be interested in this game, if unintentionally.

Fudging the Dice

Posted on : 05-11-2007 | By : Brian | In : News

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Treasure Tables posted an article, complete with lengthy commentary, on fudging die rolls. As has been mentioned in that article, the topic of fudging is something of a hot-button in the RPG world. For the life of me, I can’t figure out why. Why is it so important that other people game the same way you do? There is no “right” way to game, and ultimately any group is going to game in whatever way works for them, regardless of what forum-goers think. I think a lot of the argument comes from (on one hand) the misconception that GMs are always fudging die rolls against the players, and (on the other hand) that GMs are simply allowing players to die willy-nilly because it’s what the dice told them to do.

I’ve already made my opinions clear as far as fudging goes, but I’m going to expand on that a little bit now. My previous post aside, saying that I’m “pro fudging” or “pro cheating” is a gross oversimplification. Ninety-five percent of the time I roll the dice, and I go with the result. Sometimes, though, the result of the dice would either bog down the game and ruin it for everyone, or kill the players and bring the game to a halt. Is this the result of poor planning on my part? Maybe. I’m not perfect, and I don’t profess to be. Regardless, my players shouldn’t suffer for my poor planning if there’s something I can do about it in the moment.

There’s also the fact that (I suspect) many people who would balk at fudging die rolls wouldn’t have a problem with making an NPC attack a different PC when the one they’ve been pounding on is almost dead. Is this different? I don’t think so. Ultimately, when I’m running a game, I’m always thinking about what I believe will be most fun for everyone. If the result of the dice is going to cause one of the players to not have a good time, then I consider that a failure on the part of the dice, and I’ll correct it. If the result of the dice would serve to heighten dramatic tension in the game, then I’ll let it stand; this is what happens most of the time, as I’ve already mentioned.

I guess the bottom line, as far as my way of thinking goes, is that I’m not infallible as a GM, so I use dice to resolve most disputes (since they’re impartial). However, dice aren’t infallible either (since they have no capacity to perceive how much fun the players are having), so sometimes I bend the results a little. I should note that it’s very, very rare for me to ignore the dice completely. If a monster scores a critical hit that would kill a PC outright, I won’t turn that into a miss. Instead, I’d probably cause that hit to significantly cripple the PC for the rest of the fight, but at least the PC would get the opportunity to live to fight another day.

One final thought: it’s a common argument that, while GMs think it’s OK for them to cheat, they don’t allow their players to cheat. My counter-argument is that a good GM (particularly one who’s open to fudging) should either be cheating on behalf of the players at least as much as on behalf of the NPCs, or should allow the PCs a mechanic that allows them to “cheat within the rules”. This is exactly why I use mechanics like story tokens, even when such mechanics aren’t in the core rules of the game. If I give the players a means by which they can pull their own bacon out of the fire, then I don’t have to do it for them when they make a silly mistake or bite off a little more than they can chew.

At any rate, that’s how I GM. And if it’s wrong, then I don’t wanna be right.

Saga on Lulu

Posted on : 05-07-2007 | By : Brian | In : Downloads, Saga

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I’ve just finished posting Saga as a free PDF on Lulu.com. It’s the same file you can get on this site, except that it’s got a cover.

Shopping for Publishers

Posted on : 05-05-2007 | By : Brian | In : Uncategorized

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On the off-chance that there are publishers looking for a new card game reading this blog, I just thought I’d mention that I’m now shopping around for a publisher for Skullduggery. For those who don’t know, here’s the skinny on the game, straight from my proposal:

Skullduggery is a card game in which the players assume the roles of thieves in a medieval city. Their job is to collect the tools that they need in order to perform heists of varying difficulty, while simultaneously making life more difficult for their rivals. The goal of the game is to become the most infamous thief in the city by performing the most heists (or the most daring heists) and fencing the most (or best) loot by the time the game ends.

In short, it’s a heist-based card game, it’s got a total of 204 cards divided amongst four decks, and it takes about an hour to play with three or four players (or about 15-30 minutes with only two). I have a prototype, and I’ve been playtesting and tinkering with it intermittently for the last eight months or so. If you’re a publisher, and you’re interested, feel free to respond to this shameless self-promotion for further information. My email is on the sidebar to the right.

Addendum: I just got done with a back-and-forth email conversation with Steve Jackson of Steve Jackson Games. He liked my proposal, but is unfortunately booked for the foreseeable future. He encouraged me to keep trying, and to check back with him in a year or two if I hadn’t already found another publisher. He also gave a lot of really good advice, and was generally just an awesome, really nice guy. If their games weren’t enough reason for me to like the company already, Mr. Jackson certainly just gave me several.

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