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Story games Tabletop RPGs

My “go folder” of zero-prep, zero-notice RPGs

Attending Go Play NW prompted me to rebuild my “go folder” — the games I can run on zero notice, either by grabbing the book (and having everything else in the folder) or because the whole game is in the folder.

All of them are self-contained, require no prep from anyone, can be played in a session or two, and come packaged with a premise/hook to get us rolling.

The games

My go folder contains the stuff I need for these seven games, each in its own pocket (plus characters, blank paper, and stuff for my group’s ongoing games in the other pockets):

  1. Lady Blackbird (whole game), a steampunk game with a pregenerated cast that nonetheless plays out entirely differently every time, and which somehow managed to fit the core rules onto every character sheet without impeding usability. So, so good.
  2. GHOST/ECHO (whole game), a two-page RPG that kicks off with a bang: “WHILE HUNTING FOR LOOT IN THE GHOST WORLD, YOUR CREW WAS SOLD OUT. YOU’VE WALKED RIGHT INTO AN AMBUSH, WITH HUNGRY WRAITHS ON YOUR HEELS.” I haven’t played this one yet.
  3. Jedi Blackbird (whole game), a Star Wars (Old Republic era) hack of Lady Blackbird. I haven’t run this one either, but I posted about it on Yore.
  4. Ghost Lines (whole game), another John Harper game (because John is amazing at designing this style of game), this one about hunting spirits in a setting where they’re “free to roam the world since the gates of death were broken in the cataclysm.” The game assumes you’re familiar with Apocalypse World; I haven’t gotten to run it yet.
  5. DCC RPG (whole game), condensed down into a convention funnel edition, including The Portal Under the Stars and a stack of pregenerated peasants. Funnels are a hoot, and this short one is excellent; for a longer option, I could grab Sailors on the Starless Sea.
  6. Psi-Run, one of the only RPGs I rate a 10/10, because it’s perfect. The PCs are pyschic escapees from some sort of sinister program, being pursued by relentless Chasers, and if they get caught, they lose. Starts with the tension already ratcheted up to about an 8, and goes from there.
  7. Love in the Time of Seið, which is based on Archipelago, a Norse-themed Shakespearean tragedy that spirals into blood and death. I played this at GPNW, and it was amazing. All of the characters start off beautifully dovetailed with one another, and there’s almost never any downtime.

I would literally be happy to run any of these games right this hot minute.

The folder

I use an Esselte Oxford poly 8-pocket folder (paid link) as opposed to a multi-pocket folio, because in my experience those tend to smush pages unless I’m extremely careful with them (which I’m not).

This one lays flat (coil binding!), holds a ton of stuff, and has bounced around in my gaming bag for the past year with no signs of wear. It’s now tucked away in my new gaming bag — poised, catlike, ready to pounce on gaming opportunities with no notice whatsoever.

Categories
Story games Tabletop RPGs

Action Movie World delivers

I’ve had the pleasure of playing two sessions of Ian WilliamsAction Movie World, and this game fucking delivers on every front.

It’s designed to play like a cheesy action movie made from the mid-1970s through the mid-1990s, and it does exactly what it says on the tin. The two movies we’ve played were “Major Heat,” a low-budget cop movie starring Maj. Heat, and “Danger Force 2: More Dangerous,” an even lower-budget Predator-esque “Delta Force vs. aliens who look like Krang” flick. Both were a hoot.

Get to the chopper

AMW is a self-contained Powered by the Apocalypse game — all you need is this one book. At 120 pages, it’s a quick, fun read, but it’s not fluff: This is a solid, thorough, focused, and exceedingly good game.

What drew me to it was this excerpt from the foreword, which someone (I’ve forgotten who, sorry!) posted on G+. It’s one of the best summaries of a game I’ve ever read, and it’s an excellent litmus test. Does this sound fun?

This is a stupid roleplaying game. That’s not to say that there is not an examination of action movies going on within this book. It is to say that this examination probably shouldn’t be foremost in your mind as you settle down for a game. Just be dumb when you’re playing this. Dumb and loud and happy.

If so, and especially if you like movies like Commando, Total Recall, Bloodsport, Universal Soldier, or others in that vein, AMW will likely be right up your apple cart.

See you at the party, Richter

AMW plays out in about two hours, and — no surprise — works great as a one-shot. You play an actor playing a character[1], and choosing your actor is a lot of fun. When the movie title, and the niche within the broader genre into which it fits, start to come together at the table — collaboratively, of course — it all clicks into place, and you’re off and running.

But there’s an ongoing campaign option, too, and it sounds intriguing. You earn XP, but remember: You’re playing an actor. It’s the actor who earns it, not the characters she plays.

Want to play again? Spend that XP, pick a new genre, and play the same actor playing a new character in a new movie. (My group has also talked about doing this without retaining playbooks, so I might play Arnie in two movies, but as the Musclehead once and the Smartass another time, which also sounds fun.)

Don’t disturb my friend, he’s dead tired

The rules suggest actors who are a good match for each playbook, and the book is full of clever touches like this.

In every session, you choose a lead; the lead can’t die, and is the only one who can kill the movie’s Big Bad. Everyone else is expendable.

The Director (MC) gets movie-specific moves, as do the PCs. And every move I’ve seen, from the basic ones to the scripts we’ve used to the playbooks I’ve played, has been spot-on. This game knows exactly what it wants, and bends every word of its rules towards that end.

I could go on — and on — because there’s not a single sour note here, just well-executed cleverness that makes being loud and dumb and happy extremely easy at the table.

Action Movie World fucking rocks on toast.

[1] I assume you can also play an actor playing a dude disguised as another dude.[2]

[2] [Inception horn]

Categories
PbtA Story games Tabletop RPGs

tremulus after two campaigns

I wrapped up a second campaign of tremulus, a Powered by the Apocalypse RPG of Lovecraftian horror by Sean Preston, this past Tuesday night. I’ve been meaning to write about tremulus for some time, because it’s a great game, it’s underrated, and I initially underrated it myself.

It’s basically “Call of Cthulhu by way of Apocalypse World,” which sounded like chocolate meets peanut butter to me when it popped up on Kickstarter back in 2012. After 19 sessions across two campaigns (one playing, one GMing), I’m ready to talk about it here on Yore.

First impression

My initial impression wasn’t favorable.

One of the things I love about being an avid RPGGeek[1] user is that when I want to know what I thought about a game four years ago, it’s easy to find out. Here’s what I said about it after one session:

I’ve played one session of tremulus, character creation plus an hour or so of play that was purely introductory. I can’t shake the sense that this isn’t a great implementation of Apocalypse World, but I’ll give it a more thorough shakedown as the campaign progresses.

Not exactly a ringing endorsement! My initial rating was a 7 out of 10, which was giving it the benefit of the doubt.

(Quoting myself seems insufferably pretentious, but I want to show how my thinking on tremulus changed over time, and it’s the easiest and most direct way to do that.)

Second impression

I stuck to my guns and gave it more thought as that campaign progressed, and things changed:

Several sessions in, I’m enjoying the game largely despite the system. It’s just not a particularly deft or interesting AW hack. There are some good bits, to be sure, but not as many as I’d like. The playbooks are mostly pretty boring and same-y, and I’d likely be having just as much fun with the same good group and a different system.

I enjoy PbtA games enough to like the core of what I’m getting here despite the fact that it’s surrounded with a fair amount of blah. The non-blah, for me, remains the Ebon Eaves playset aspect — that’s quite cool.

When I wrote that, I revised my rating downwards from a 7 to a 6.

It kept gnawing at me

But I couldn’t get that campaign out of my head, and it started to become clear to me that there was more there than I’d thought.

Months later, looking back on one of my favorite campaigns, I see that I’m conflicted about this game. Humdrum rules, but it’s fun to play. Do I wish the rules were more interesting? Yep. But Call of Cthulhu by way of Apocalypse World is pretty awesome.

New rating: 8.

Running tremulus

My online group enjoyed our first campaign, and I was itching to run an extended PbtA game, so we circled back to it with me in the GM’s chair. This showed me a whole different side of the game.

Yeah, there’s more in here that I love — the framework/thread/hazard tech is EXCELLENT. Doesn’t take long to pull together, dovetails beautifully with the playsets, and balances inspiration with prescriptive elements beautifully.

There are a lot more playbooks now, too, including many more with interesting features/rules — which were lacking in the core rules. The “tremulus ecosystem” has expanded into something very cool.

I love the “structured takeoff” provided by a playset + framework + playbooks. Lots of guidance, but no railroading or plotting things out. I see how the rules connect with that now, too, and overall I like the game a lot.

New rating: 9 out of 10. I’ve played 104 different RPGs as of this writing, and I rate 19 of them a 9 (and zero of them a 10).[2]

For me, this is a good example of how hard it is to assess an RPG without playing it. Which, you know, duh — but short of buying every book you ever see, you have to assess games you haven’t played.

My initial assessment of tremulus might have kept me from playing it, and I’d have missed out on a great game.

What I love about tremulus

The main thing I love is how it plays. I don’t do session prep, and when I GM I love sitting down at every session just like I was a player: not knowing what’s going to happen, and not having done any work between sessions. tremulus is fantastic for that.

It also delivers on what it promises: Lovecraftian horror with the trappings you expect from Call of Cthulhu, but all of the player agency, surprises, and not-plotting-things-out-in-advance you expect from a PbtA game.

tremulus also makes the clever choice to leave the amount of Lovecraft in your game up to you. By default, it assumes your group will be creating its own entities, cults, mysteries, and other setting elements in a Lovecraftian vein, rather than using deep ones, Yog-Sothoth, and all the rest. But if you’d prefer to play “straight CoC,” it supports that option as well.

The fourth biggie is the tremulus ecosystem. If you got into the game now, you’d have access to a wealth of playbooks, playsets, and other content that didn’t exist back when I first picked up the core book. The supplemental playbooks in particular are more interesting than the initial ones.

My group has played two playsets: Ebon Eaves, the peculiar town featured in the core book, and Frozen Wasteland, which is in the vein of At the Mountains of Madness (paid link). Both are excellent, and playsets are a huge part of what I love about tremulus.

Before you start in-character play, the players choose three options from the “What you think to be real” list and three from the “What weirdness you’ve heard” list about Ebon Eaves (or about whatever playset you’re using). Here’s the second list:

Those six choices (three from each list) produce two letter codes, like “ACG” or “BDE,” and those codes all have brief write-ups in the book. Every combination is unique, and quite different — two groups playing a tremulus game set in Ebon Eaves won’t play the same game unless they choose the exact same codes.

As a player, this approach produced the seeds of a town with several mysteries that were all spooky and creepy and interesting to poke at. As a GM, it gave me more than enough to chew on when setting up the game — which ties into another thing I love about tremulus.

To create the default setup (e.g., Ebon Eaves, an antarctic expedition), you prep only the questions that pop out at you — the starting point for the mysteries and weirdness, but no further. For example, in our Frozen Wastes game, one question was “Why is Professor Crawford so desperate to rediscover Hyperborea?” I didn’t know the answer until, through actual play, my players’ choices combined with my improvisation produced one.

All of that combines to facilitate Lovecraftian horror so well that as much as I love Call of Cthulhu, I’m pretty sure I’d reach for tremulus first.

Ia! Ia! tremulus fhtagn!

tremulus is a superb game.

It’s underrated, and it doesn’t get the attention I think it deserves. If “Call of Cthulhu + Apocalypse World” sounds appealing, I suspect you’ll like it.

[1] AKA the most useful RPG tool you’re not using.

[2] It’s also one of an even smaller number of games of which I own multiple copies. It’s got enough moving parts that I found it helpful to have two books on hand when running it.

Categories
PbtA Story games Tabletop RPGs

The Star Wars World RPG rocks

My group played our second session of Star Wars World this past weekend, and this unofficial Apocalypse World hack by Andrew Medeiros is now my favorite Star Wars RPG.[1]

One of the things I look for in a PbtA game is interesting playbooks, and SWW has those in spades. When I was choosing one, I “narrowed down” the field to a half-dozen, all of which were equally appealing. Every single one feels like Star Wars, and you’ll immediately know which iconic characters they reference.

That feel carries through to the reskinned moves, the Force mechanics, and then straight on into actual play. With no prep needed (or desired), a Star Wars story unfolds during play, full of pulpy action, careening from frying pan to fire to frying pan again.

My two benchmarks for licensed property RPGs are:

  1. Does it feel like [Star Wars]?
  2. Is it also the kind of game I enjoy?

I’ve played plenty of licensed property games that hit #1 but miss #2, and I don’t play them anymore. Star Wars World hits both targets.[2]

To play, you’ll need a copy of Apocalypse World — SWW consists only of the basic moves, playbooks, XP triggers, and a countdown clock sheet. It assumes you already know how to play AW, and have a good understanding of how PbtA games generally run. It borrows from Dungeon World (paid link) as well, and passing familiarity with DW might be helpful.

I’d love to see Andrew strip out the Star Wars IP and artwork, apply a light gloss (“When you call on the Energy . . .”), fold in the full rules, add MC advice and examples of play and all that good stuff, and publish SWW as a complete game.

There’s a Google+ Community for the game if you have questions about it. For the moment, at least, the game itself lives on Google Drive.

Star Wars World is a slick, competent hack that works beautifully in play. I highly recommend it.

[1] I’ve played lots of WEG Star Wars and Fantasy Flight Star Wars, and tried out Saga Star Wars. I’ve never played d20 System Star Wars (Saga is pretty close, though) or Star Worlds (which is another unofficial AW hack).

[2] Stay on target!