Categories
Miniature painting Miniatures Warhammer 40k WIP it good

WIP it good: Narses almost done, Ultio underway, and it’s Rhino time

Two of the three blue paint pots I need to finish Narses came in the mail yesterday, so I tackled 99% of his highlights last night. He’s so close to completion at this point — but “so close” also equals 18 colors of highlights.

Almost the final session on Narses

Two hours of layers and highlights later, and he’s nearly good to go!

Narses, nearly complete

Up close like this the final orange highlights on his armor (Fire Dragon Bright) read as Way Too Much, but at tabletop distance it looks more natural.

Rear view

My Cog Mechanicum turned out okay, too!

Meanwhile, I’ve got Squad Ultio on the painting handles, fully based and ready to rock — and as part of the RPGGeek April 2020 Painting Challenge I’m trying to get the whole squad (and Narses) finished in April. That challenge was a tremendous motivator in March, and it’s been a great motivator in April, too. A miniature every two days (on average) would get me to a parade-ready 2,000-point Blood Angels army by mid-July, allowing a bit of slush time for the larger vehicles.

Chipping away

And I built my first Rhino, the designated transport for Squad Karios, so that I can paint it in May.

Sides and treads

I made so many mistakes while building this kit: forgot to add the ramp before gluing the sides, glued the top doors on upside down, and glued one hatch to the wrong mount. All fixed before they became permanent, but it was a bit of a comedy of errors.

I’d planned to paint the interior, and assumed that leaving the top off would give me enough room to work. But that’s not the case: There’s no way I can credibly paint, say, the Bolter under the console given how little room there is inside this puppy. Plus my ramp wouldn’t stay fully closed, and I couldn’t figure out why; combine those factors and I decided to just glue this one up and plan ahead for painting the interior of a future Rhino or Razorback. (Which I’d do by priming and fully painting every interior piece before gluing them together.)

Lots of room for customization inside

All told, this is a really neat kit. I got a good deal on an older Rhino box which, despite including instructions for a Razorback, lacked the sprue with the Razorback turret weapons — and the cool little cargo and tow ropes and stuff. I think it was from back when GW was producing them as separate kits, whereas now a Razorback kit will include everything you need to go either route.

And here she is: Relentless, ready to crush heresy in the Emperor’s name. Or more accurately, ready to transport Squad Karios for said heresy-crushing — while providing a little dakka along the way,

The Rhino Relentless, designated transport of Squad Karios, 2nd Company, 1st Squad

I went with the gunner because 1) he’s awesome and 2) who knows if my next Rhino will take the Storm Bolter option (although for 2 points, it seems likely). This should be a fun one to paint — especially now that I have some larger brushes to speed up the bigger panels.

I think I’m going to have to actually write “Relentless” on the name scroll, too, rather than just scribbling on it like I do with most scrolls. I wonder if Gundam panel-lining markers will work?

Categories
Story games Tabletop RPGs

What’s one unit of play for an RPG?

With RPGs, what counts as one unit of play? Or, basically, what is a single session of a roleplaying game?

Lately I’ve been playing The Beast, a single-player epistolary RPG that takes place over the course of sessions, each lasting 5-15 minutes, and it’s gotten me thinking more closely about units of play and the nature of RPGs in general.

On a concrete level, I log all my plays on RPGGeek, so I have to think frequently about whether some gaming thing I did counts for those purposes. But it’s also fun to think about in the abstract — and my thinking has changed over the years.

Contents: one play

To count as a session of play, my current thinking is that it must:

  1. Be discrete
  2. Not be crazy-short
  3. Involve roleplaying

So if I play a session of Savage Worlds that lasts four hours, and then play again a day later, but only for two hours, that’s two sessions. Even though the first session was twice as long as the second, the unit is the discrete time spent playing, regardless of length — provided it’s not crazy-short (which these sessions are not). And obviously Savage Worlds is a roleplaying game, so there we go.

Wibbly wobbly

Where things get interesting is on the fringes and in the liminal spaces. #1 isn’t too fuzzy, and really has no fringe: When the session ends, so does the unit of play.

Number two is a bit fuzzier, since “crazy-short” is obviously a subjective measure. Number three is fuzzier still, since any given roomful of gamers is reasonably unlikely to agree on a single definition of “roleplaying.” So let’s poke those two a bit.

Number two

Most of my gaming over the past few years has fallen into six broad time slots, session-wise:

  • 9 hours[1], when the weekly game ran really long
  • 6 hours, which was about normal back in Utah
  • 4 hours, like most Gen Con slots
  • 3 hours, my new normal in Seattle
  • 90 minutes, how long my online group plays
  • 5-15 minutes, for short-form games

I’d probably describe anything under 3 hours as a short session in conversation, and anything over 4 hours as a long session, but they’re all fundamentally sessions.

For me, only the last entry — the shortest — pushes up against the boundary of what I’d consider a play. My sessions of The Beast are short, but not the shortest I’ve played: My free RPG The Thief can be played to its conclusion in under 5 minutes. And at some point in my gaming career I’m going to play a game that takes 30 seconds, and I suspect I’d still consider that to be one play.

At any point on the time spectrum, the key is that meaningful gaming happens during the session. If I sat at my desk and made a character, that’s not a session. If we sat down to play D&D and, 10 minutes in, had to call it a night, that’s not a session.

The Beast and The Thief both define the unit of play in the rules — and that’s important, too: If the game designer says “This is a session,” I give them the benefit of the doubt.[2]

Number three

My initial list of criteria for what counts as a play is missing a few things — intentionally so:

  • A game master
  • More than one player
  • Any reference to the format of the game

Despite GM-less solitaire RPGs going back as far as the second-ever fantasy RPG, 1975’s Tunnels & Trolls, I’d be willing to bet there are gamers out there who don’t consider GM-less games, let alone solitaire games, “real” RPGs.

Throw in format, and the waters get even murkier. Is an epistolary game like The Beast an RPG? I think so, absolutely. How about a map game like The Quiet Year, where no one does any in-character roleplaying, or the fractal history RPG Microscope, where in-character play is optional and no one owns any elements of the game (in the sense of owning a PC, for example)? Ditto and ditto — but I’ve seen folks contend that those aren’t RPGs at all.

Like units of play, I place a lot of weight on what the game’s designer says about it. If she calls it an RPG, it’s an RPG.

But it doesn’t rhyme

Back in high school, one of my English teachers wrote this on the board:

Stay off the grass

He then asked us if that was a poem.

Duh, right? Of course not! It’s a lawn sign.

But what if a poet writes it and calls it a poem? Then yeah, it’s a poem. That was the closest we got to a definition of “poem” that the whole class could agree on.

Everything is personal

Alongside the designer’s intent, though, is the personal component: Do I think it’s an RPG? Because at the end of the day, I’m the one playing it and I get to decide what it is — for me. So do you, for you — so does everyone. (I’m not sure one trumps the other, intent or experience; RPGs are weird.)

That’s why, for example, I count collaborative setting creation as play: When we sit down to create a Dresden Files city, we’re making roleplaying choices and collaborating in ways that feel like play to me. There the collaborative element matters — whereas The Beast, defined as a solo RPG, necessarily doesn’t take that into account.

I have zero stake in what anyone else considers a play (or thinks about what I count as play), save as a philosophical question — it’s just an interesting question to think about. But it’s also a question that’s broadened my gaming horizons — and that I do care about.

[1] Somewhere in the past 30 years of gaming, I may have played a session that ran longer than 9 hours. Let’s just take “9 hours” to mean “a really long time.”

[2] Especially when it’s me.

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
Free RPGs Story games Tabletop RPGs

Eaten Away, a 24-hour RPG

I created my first complete RPG, Eaten Away, for the 2012 RPG Geek 24-Hour RPG Contest. It’s a pickup game of zombie horror, no prep required.

I designed Eaten Away on October 15, 2012. After waking up at 4:00 a.m. with a splitting headache, I got the idea for what became the Attrition System at 7:00 a.m. while I was drinking my morning coffee. My first thought was, “Hey, this is pretty neat.” My second thought was, “Shit, my 24 hours just started . . .”

I fleshed it out, decided it was perfect for a zombie horror game — which would also save me some time by sidestepping the need for setting material — and did most of the conceptualization in the car that morning. From idea to playable game, Eaten Away took me about 13 hours to create.

Its inspirations include the countdown clock in John Wick’s Shotgun Diaries, the core mechanic in James V. West’s free RPG The Pool, the toolkit approach to setting creation in Eden Studios’ All Flesh Must Be Eaten, and the construction of free-form dice pools in Margaret Weis Productions’ Marvel Heroic Roleplaying, as well as the safe house concept and narrative arc in the video game Left 4 Dead. The setting and theme were inspired by a range of zombie movies and fiction, but especially by The Walking Dead — both the comic and the TV show, in slightly different ways.

If that sounds appealing, you can download it as a free PDF.

Categories
Books Reading Appendix N

Eric Dodd’s excellent essays on Appendix N authors and works

I posted a thread over on RPGGeek about this project, and Steven Robert shared a link with me: Appendix N: Inspirational and Educational Reading: Jack Vance.

This is the latest in a series of thoughtful and informative essays about Appendix N authors and works by Eric Dodd, and it includes links to previous entries in this ongoing series. If I can be even a fraction as engaging as Eric in my posts on individual Appendix N titles, I’ll be a happy camper. You should definitely check these out.