Category Archives: games

Kyawaii RPG #7: Manly Men!

It’s been forever since I last posted up a Kyawaii RPG, but got something like half a dozen I started and never finished. I ended up tossing together the rest of this one this morning. It’s kind of a self-parody in that I seem to come up with a lot of RPGs where the characters are all girls, so I decided to make one where they’re all ridiculously masculine guys. At first I wasn’t sure how to go about making this game, but it basically turned out to be “Chuck Norris Facts: The Role-Playing Game.”

Click here to download.

GET PARSELY: Adventures With Text and Maybe Pictures

Thanks to Parsely I’ve been really interested in text adventure games/interactive fiction of late. I’m currently playing the original Zork and generally trying to digest what implications IF might have for tabletop RPGs.[1] RPGs can use some visual elements during play, but as with text adventures, we often only convey images during play through descriptive words. On the other hand when you look at the packaging of any given Infocom game, it’s full of visual stuff to excite the player, to a degree that contemporary video games very rarely bother with. They even went so far as to include “feelies,” weird little props to enhance the experience. (Leather Goddesses of Phobos even had a scratch and sniff card with different scents that came up during the game.)

As video games started to become able to have some semblance of visuals, there was still a certain imaginative leap asked of the players. Game publishers usually had a professional illustrator do a painting that conveyed the general feel of the game, and even when, say, Nintendo, used pixel art on game covers, they still had more detailed art in the game manuals. There’s definitely a parallel to RPGs, which can have all kinds of illustrations to put you into the right mood, but ultimately consist of setting info, game rules, etc. and aren’t a visual medium per se. There might be some times when you can point to the professionally-done fantasy art in a D&D book and relate it to something in your campaign, but chances are the price tag for artwork of that caliber for your own characters will be out of your reach.

From the NES Metroid manual

Pixel Art
What’s rather interesting is how the role of pixel art has changed. The so-called “AAA” video game titles use 3D graphics and aspire to something like photorealism, and genres that were traditionally all sprite-based (shmups, fighting games, platformers, etc.) have come to use 3D polygons too. These days pixel art pretty much only comes up as an artistic choice, which in turn means that it’s more likely to be used in a stylish indie computer game (or by the likes of Paul Robertson), than to suffer the mediocrity of the kinds of games that keep the Angry Video Game Nerd raging away.

In an important sense we’ve more recently reached a point where pixel art is normally the proper visuals ans seldom winds up a rough representation of what the designer wants to communicate. Some of it is no doubt nostalgia, but I would like to see pixel art make its way into tabletop games more. As far as I know Jonathan Walton is the only one who’s really been experimenting with this kind of thing (check out the cover of Super Suit). Not unlike with Blowback‘s brilliantly effective use of photography (a mixture of stock and original), pixel art won’t work for every game of course, but as I’ve started looking into commissioning pixel art I’ve found that the artists on DeviantArt who do it don’t charge very much, plus there are quite a few free pixel fonts out there. I’m definitely going to be experimenting with this kind of thing whenever I finally put together a Parsely game of my own[2] (and I may even mess around with ASCII art a bit too).

A Side of Parsely
Parsely[3] is much more interesting than it might appear on the surface. It might be a bit of a stretch to call it an RPG, but it’s definitely an analogue RPG-ish thing played by people. While the layout of rooms and how things work within a given Parsely game is tightly restricted (almost comically so; there’s exactly one way to get past the orge), reading any given Parsely game you’ll find there are places where the Parser/GM must, at a minimum, think up how to explain what happens on the fly, and while you could give obtuse computer-like responses to things not already covered by the game (“That sentence isn’t one I recognize.”), players will inevitably come up with commands that are eminently plausible even in the absurd, constrained world of a text adventure (“Kiss the princess.”)

While Action Castle is a sort of medieval mini-Zork, Jared gets into trying an assortment of different things in the successive Parsely games. In some (Spooky Manor and Pumpkin Town) characters can turn into different forms with different abilities, for example, and Space Station makes use of a stopwatch. There’s also the concept of “Microgreens,” super-short Parsely games of 1-3 rooms, of which Flaming Goat is the only specimen so far. (Update: Scratch that; Jared posted up a second one, Blackboard Jungle.) Just as people have done all kinds of strange things with the medium of text adventures–from Infocom’s more experimental titles to the avant-garde efforts of the IF hobby scene–there is tremendous room for trying out different kinds of things.

The Parsely game I’ve started working on is called Miyuki Kobayakawa’s Doki-Doki Adventure, and aside from using pixel art and having the conceit of a setting inspired a bit by Paul Robertson and Takashi Murakami, it’s going to have an event that changes the nature of the locations in the game. I’m also contemplating a game based off of the webcomic I write for, where you switch between different cast members to resolve all of their various little quandaries.

[1]Also, I’ve been reading Twisty Little Passages, which is highly informative but also in an extremely academic style.
[2]I’m also contemplating trying out Inform 7 to make an electronic version once it’s done.
[3]Which BTW is now available in PDF; 99 cents per game.

A Strategy Guide For D&D

I recently picked up a copy of the D&D Player’s Strategy Guide from a local used bookstore. I wouldn’t have bought it normally, but it was relatively cheap and I had some leftover store credit that I’d been hanging on to for the better part of a year.

Unsurprisingly, some people have balked at the very idea of a “strategy guide” for an RPG. I had figured I wouldn’t need it much myself because I have so much experience with the game already. I was right–two years of playing a game will do that–but there’s an awful lot of stuff in the book I wish someone had spelled out for me from the get-go. 4E is a sufficiently complex system that it has a distinct learning curve, and this is a book that can help smooth that out for new players by explaining all kinds of stuff that the rulebooks either leave out (and that most RPG rulebooks would leave out) or only mention in passing. It’s common sense to focus fire and eliminate individual enemies as quickly as possible[1], but the Strategy Guide goes to the trouble of illustrating how big of a difference it can make with diagrams and everything.

The book covers a whole range of topics, including character building, party composition, tactics, role-playing, and some of the social stuff (including a section titled simply “Don’t Be A Jerk”). It’s all grounded in a very solid understanding of how the game works and what it can do, so that players can skip over some of the trial and error (emphasis on the “error” part) that we went through in the first year or so of playing 4E. If we’d had a better idea how to play defenders, or just how much it would cost us not to have a leader in the party, we might’ve done things very differently, and altogether better.

The thing about D&D in particular is that while it draws on various kinds of fantasy literature, it was always its own thing. In some ways this was a limitation of the designers’ understanding of this new “role-playing game” insanity they’d devised, and in other ways it was likely deliberate. Certainly when fans asked questions about why the game wouldn’t allow for a given element from Lord of the Rings or some other beloved fantasy title[2], Gygax’s usual answer was that it was a game first and foremost. While D&D started off culling ideas from fiction, it gradually became more and more about itself, I think in part because that’s all that its rules could really effectively provide.

I think that explains why works of fiction based off of D&D are at their best when they reflect what goes on at a typical gaming table. Typical D&D novels come off as stilted, and struggle to find the happy medium between slavish adherence to what the rules can do and getting into stuff the game inherently can’t do justice. That’s where the new D&D comics from IDW and even stuff like The Gamers really shine. The fun of D&D is less in Aragorn reclaiming the throne of Gondor, and more in the silly bickering and strange accidents that happen along the way (which makes movie Gimli the most D&D-like character in the whole of Middle Earth).

What I like most about the Player’s Strategy Guide is that it’s unabashedly situated in the same realm as D&D actual play rather than wishful thinking about such. It has lots of pragmatic advice about how to get what you really want out of the game, both from a social perspective and in terms of working the rules and building characters, and it’s written in a friendly tone, with cute little cartoons that lighten the mood and call to mind the ones in the AD&D1e Dungeon Master’s Guide.

[1]That’s a tactical thing so basic you can pick it up from the original 8-bit Final Fantasy.

[2]Dragon Magazine once published stats for Conan. Very few of his ability scores were below 20. You know that guy in the books you love so much that inspired you to play this game? Your guy will never, ever be as bad-ass as him.

Gamma World Game Day

Having just come back from the official Gamma World Game Day event at the FLGS (Game Kastle in Santa Clara), I decided to blog a bit about it, since the game is pretty intriguing to me.

The new Gamma World uses a simplified and far more random version of the D&D4e rules, and it definitely lived up to GW’s reputation for zaniness. You could tell the designers made a conscious decision to update it, so for a new edition of a game first published in 1978 it feels pretty timely, to the point where it’ll probably look dated ten years from now. (And someone at WotC is definitely a Valve fan.) The box frankly looks a good deal bigger than it needed to be, since the rulebook is a mere 160 pages in a half-size format (just like Essentials). It only goes up to level 10 though, and it drops a lot of the fiddly rules and details (so for example the skills section is something like 3 pages).

Character creation is quick and random. You get two character types by rolling a d20 twice on a chart–I got Giant and Plant–which give you an encounter power each and certain other bonuses (and in the case of Plant, vulnerable 5 fire). Although it’s based on 4e, it drops the use of roles, and characters don’t have all many powers to juggle. You designate one type as primary and the other secondary, and when the time comes to determine attributes you get 18 in the one tied to the primary, 16 in the one tied to the secondary, and 3d6 in the rest (20 if they overlap). The dice were rather unforgiving to my character, so I wound up with 8s and 9s in everything but STR and CON. For all intents and purposes there’s only one “class,” which in D&D terms is average in everything (HP is CON+12, +5/level), and you add your level to things instead of half-level. Also, the character sheet is nicely designed and guides the player through the character creation process pretty well. There’s also a fan-made web-based character generator for it.

One thing I do like about Gamma World is how readily the game lets you reskin pretty much everything into whatever you want. With a Giant Plant I decided my character was Rob the Angry Flower (apologies to Stephen Notley), a giant mutant daisy that ran around smashing things with an old refrigerator (which in game terms was simply a Large Two-Handed Melee Weapon). It wasn’t quite on the level of Mike Mearls having a Seismic Giant be a 12-foot-tall baby, but Rob was fun to play all the same.

As much stupid nerdrage as the optional booster packs have caused, the Alpha Mutation and Omega Tech decks are one of the most fun parts of the game. Both essentially give you new encounter powers, and you get a different mutation for every encounter (and any time you roll a 1 on a d20), and if today’s adventure was any indication the game is pretty generous about letting you uncover new Omega Tech items. In the case of mutations you can also attempt to “overcharge” them. This makes them more powerful on a roll of 10+, but messes you up in some way on a roll of 9 or less. My favorite is the one that boosts your intelligence, but on a low roll you’re Stunned by the stupidity of those around you, though you can also sprout tentacles that might strangle you on a bad roll. While I don’t think the booster packs deserve a tenth of the vitriol they’ve evoked online, I can say with confidence that they’re every bit as optional as I thought, and the game should hum along nicely without them.

It’s hard to say how much was the game itself and how much was the way the module was designed, but it was pretty brutal, and 4 out of 6 PCs died by the end. A big part of this was the relative scarcity of healing compared to D&D proper though. There might be some character types that have healing as a matter of course, but in the party we rolled up healing was pretty much only available when a mutation or tech card happened to provide it, meaning it was woefully lacking at times even with the game’s beefed up version of Second Wind (which restores half your HP with a Minor Action). I am reminded a lot of my gaming group’s first foray into D&D4e, where the lack of a proper leader character was hurting us in a big way at every turn. With the one session Gamma World I probably made more death saves than in the entirety of two years or so of playing D&D.

The game uses cardstock tokens to represent PCs and monsters alike, and given that I’ve very seldom played with miniatures that exactly represent what’s going in the game, I didn’t miss a beat in that respect. The fold-out maps that came with the Game Day module were very much on-par with the stuff that WotC has done elsewhere, though it’s neat to see that stuff applied to relatively contemporary locations, even as we were fighting mutant pigs and cockroaches in them.

I wasn’t at all expecting Gamma World to be a game for long-term play or anything, and my first impression is that it is decidedly in the realm of beer and pretzels gaming. It’s not something you’d want to run a long campaign of (Penny Arcade’s opinion on the matter notwithstanding), but it’s pretty much the perfect game to pull out when your D&D4e group can’t do the regular campaign for whatever reason.

New TRPG Stuff

So, the other day Jono stopped by to give me the TRPG books he was kind enough to pick up for me in Japan. So now I have FIVE new RPGs to read through (the others being Apocalypse World and FreeMarket).

貧乏姉妹の挑戦 (Poor Sisters’ Challenge)
This is an Arianrhod replay that I got basically because I want to read a full-length replay of a game I’m reasonably familiar with. The book starts off with an introduction to TRPGs and Arianrhod, and then goes through the process of the group creating and introducing their characters before starting on the actual gameplay. The most interesting thing so far is that it shows how the GM uses “handouts,” which are a regular part of playing Arianrhod. There are as many handouts as there are players, and each one gives a player character a place in the world and a connection to the rest of the party. For example, in this replay PC #1 is the child of a wealthy merchant who suddenly found himself deep in debt, and who is going into gladiatorial fights to pay that debt. PC #2 is someone very close to PC #1 (which ended up being her twin sister), PC #3 is a close associate of the father’s with an obligation to take care of the kids, and PC #4 is a trainer who wants to develop PC #1’s potential.

This isn’t something you’d do with every game of course, but in my D&D group, although we’ve largely mastered the actual rules, figuring out a solid reason for why exactly the PCs are adventuring together and will stick together seems to have become harder and harder. Of course, when viewed as part of a coherent world the “adventuring party” model is a bit implausible.

りゅうたま (Ryuutama, or “Dragon Egg”)
I now officially wish I’d gotten this game sooner. Ryuutama takes place in a world born from dragons. In the game the players take the role of ordinary people who are on the greatest journey of their lives (the closest thing to a combat class is the Hunter, and others include Farmer, Healer, Minstrel, Merchant, Healer, etc.), while the GM plays a dragon that watches over them. The GM’s dragon records their story and then feeds it to one of the seasonal dragons so that the seasons can be more abundant. There are four kinds of dragons, and as the GM you pick one of the types according to what kind of story you want the game to aim for, and you get some special abilities to help make it happen.

迷宮デイズ (Meikyuu Days)
This is a sort of modern-day version of Meikyuu Kingdom that I’ve been curious about for a while now. The book has minimal illustrations (which is weird compared to other MK books and Satasupe, though less so when looking at Shinobigami I suppose) and very dense text. The essence of the setting is that it’s the present day, and the Dungeon Hazard (that totally consumed the world of Meikyuu Kingdom) is eating up parts of the world, turning normal buildings into mazes filled with terrible monsters. In this changed world, only a select few have the skill, courage, and resources to become Dungeoneers, people capable of venturing into the dungeons and facing the monsters to protect the ordinary people caught up in them. Dungeoneers face great danger, but also can reap great rewards.

Meikyuu Days winds up being a somewhat simplified version of Meikyuu Kingdom, which is to be expected when its single book has the same page count but a smaller format than the two MK books. It leaves out the entire kingdom-building aspect (and thus the rules for managing citizens, building facilities, etc.), it pares things down to five classes (Hero, Mercenary, Majin, Mage, and Civilian) and drops the Jobs system from MK (which gave each character a “secondary class” with one Job Skill and access to one or more categories of general skills). (So with the exception of Civilians, Meikyuu Days classes have about twice as many skills as MK ones). It’s interesting in that it does get into letting characters use firearms (that’s the Mercenary class’ main focus) as well as magic (Mage characters are from hidden magic traditions that went public to help the people face the Dungeon Hazard). It also has guidelines for converting stuff from Meikyuu Kingdom, and in fact includes the stats for the common skills and all the monsters in a super-compact format.

Tangentially, I also got the まよコマ/Mayo Koma set, which is basically a collection of over 400 cardstock tokens/pawns. I’ve talked a lot about MK’s Battlefield Map and how I used something very, very similar for Slime Story, and these are a well-made visual tool for showing your monsters and PCs on the map (including the basic stats for the monsters depicted on them as such). Unless Slime Story becomes incredibly big I’m going to have to settle for making PDFs (or maybe a paper miniatures font like S. John Ross’ Sparks line), but this is one of those things where WotC totally missed out on making an intensely useful tool for playing D&D, and is finally kinda sorta catching on with the stuff in the Essentials boxes.

Double Cross 3rd Edition
Double Cross is a game that Andy’s been really enthusiastic about. I haven’t had time to do more than skim it, but it’s about teenagers with special powers in a hostile (contemporary) world. It’s in bunko format, so there’s not a whole lot of art, but what art there is is excellent.

Kyawaii RPG #6: Four Fairies

“Four Fairies” is a very simple and heartwarming role-playing thing (a little more involved than a role-playing poem, but not quite what I would call an RPG per se) about four fairies. They want to become human, but to do so they must first learn about the human world. With this game you can tell stories about how they learn. It is very directly inspired by a wonderful little anime series called Bottle Fairy.

Click here to download.

Fiasco: The Big Anime Con

Last week I picked up Fiasco, Jason Morningstar’s latest game, at the local game store. The other day I got to play it for the first time, and it was awesome. Our game involved vehicular manslaughter, a Klingon sword, a poodle being duct-taped, and more. I’ve put together a playset of my own, called “The Big Anime Con,” which is about typical Fiasco insanity taking place at a large anime convention in California. (Because if there was ever a group of people with “powerful ambition & poor impulse control” it’s anime fans.) It’s currently an untested draft, but I’m pretty happy with how it turned out.

The Big Anime Con for Fiasco (PDF)

Kyawaii RPG #5: Monday Afternoon Blues

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I got the Norwegian Style book in the mail the other day, so naturally I got inspired to make a role-playing poem, which is to say a mostly freeform role-playing thing meant to be played in 15 minutes. Monday Afternoon Blues is a bit derivative of Stoke-Birmingham 0-0, only it’s about the aftermath of a big anime convention.

Click here to download.

Update: I also made an audio version of this game.

Slime Story: Conflicts Redux

A combination of reading Agon, re-reading Meikyuu Kingdom, and thinking about some of the little tricks we’ve come up with in my group’s D&D4e campaign have inspired me to get back to work on Slime Story at long last. The major stumbling block was getting the conflict rules to work how I wanted them to, and I think I’ve got that about figured out.

Slime Story: Kelly

Before I had a “footing” system, where each character in a conflict is in Forward, Middle, or Rear footing (or in some special circumstances Off-Balance or Ambush footing), which was basically a trade-off of offense for defense or vice-versa. The thing is, once you’ve set your footing, there’s not much motivation to change it, which kind of defeats the purpose of having a map and character tokens and such. Meikyuu Kingdom and Agon both use abstract range maps. MK calls it the “battlefield,” while Agon has a “range strip“. (And apparently Traveller had something similar too, so it’s a much older idea than I’d originally believed.) This lets me do some neat stuff with range, movement, and positioning, and in particular, outnumbering the enemy within a given position on the map gives characters an advantage. I think this will help provide about the right level of tactical elements, enough to make encounters interesting in their own right, but not so much that they eat up too much time.

And, straight from Agon, the social conflict rules are basically the combat rules but with the map/positioning elements taken out completely. Much simpler and IMO altogether better, since having positioning in a social conflict is getting a little too abstract for my tastes.

The other important thing I’ve come up with is the “action stack.” This is my attempt at doing something more interesting with initiative, an area that has seen surprisingly little innovation over the years. In order to simplify combat in my group’s D&D campaign, we’ve taken to having a combat card for each character and monster with the relevant stats on it. Once the initiative rolls are in, the DM just arranges the cards in order and cycles through the stack of cards as needed. This in turn lets me do interesting things with the stack of cards that would be awkward otherwise, including meta-effects that change a character’s spot in the initiative order. It’s also made it easier to keep track of “reactions,” a class of actions that interrupt regular actions; your card gets turned face-down in the stack, and when it comes up again it’s righted, but you don’t get to go until it comes around face-up again.

On the whole, I’m feeling a lot better about how all of this stuff is coming together, though of course it’s continuing the pattern of tearing out some bits of the system and keeping others. (But, the bits getting discarded are becoming smaller and smaller.) On paper, it looks like it’s achieving the right balance of tactically interesting and intuitive to play, even if it does involve a lot of fiddly bits. But, if I can get the encounter and conflict rules straightened out, I can finally write up the talents and get the game ready to properly playtest.

Maid RPG: One Year Later

Maid RPG (English Version) Front Cover
Maid RPG (English Version) Front Cover

Today marks the one-year anniversary of the release of Maid RPG in English. On August 14, 2008, Andy and I were at Gen Con Indy, standing in an oddly-placed booth shared with Khepera Publishing and Aetherial Forge, with copies of Maid RPG and a picture of Hard Gay. And that was after we slaved away for many, many months doing the translation (oh god, the translation), editing (which wasn’t as good as it should’ve been) and layout (which was excellent).

Maid RPG wound up being the first Japanese tabletop RPG ever released in English, which as Andy told people at the con is a source of both great pride and of great shame. (Tenra Bansho Zero was supposed to come out first, by a considerable margin, but it’s proven to be a monster of a project.) At Gen Con I got to know Andy better, shake hands with a dizzying array of people whose names I’d heard online, and see the book we’d all put our blood, sweat, and tears into sell out by Sunday afternoon.

Way of the Maid
It has most definitely been a long and strange journey. Some bizarre impulse made me think that doing a translation of Maid RPG was a good idea, and we ran with it. It’s created controversy, ranging from reasonable complaints to a bizarre conspiracy theory, but mostly it’s been a really damn fun game to play. The first RPG I ever owned was Steve Jackson Games’ Toon: The Cartoon Roleplaying Game, and Maid RPG has the same kind of zaniness, but with its own distinctive otaku culture edge. I’ve run it at four different conventions, played it many times with my local friends, once with Ben Lehman and his crew, and once with my sister’s friends in New Mexico, and it has never failed to be fun. On top of that, I keep spotting people starting up games on forums, and over on the Something Awful forums they went so far as to have an alcohol-fueled Skype game.

Since its debut we’ve done some considerable revisions to the text, and generally struggled to keep it in stock at IPR–as I write this they’re nearly out of copies. Again. (Plus it took the better part of the year to finally get those extra scenarios out as a PDF.) It definitely hasn’t made us rich, but as this small press RPG stuff goes it’s exceeded all expectations. Along with typical RPG sites, people were talking it up on 4chan and Gaia Online (and a friend of mine organized IRC demo games through 4chan!). There are literally over a thousand people who have Maid RPG in their hands in one form or another, so when all is said and done I’m extremely glad I had the crazy idea to do this thing back in 2007. It’s even showed up in some Japanese game shops now, so that the madness has gone full circle. I can only hope that our future endeavors enjoy some semblance of this kind of success.

Casting to the Pod
In the near future I’ll be roping Andy K. and Ben Lehman into doing a “Maid RPG Roundtable” podcast, where we’ll discuss the game itself, what went into publishing the English version, and more. Please feel free to comment if you have any questions you’d like us to address!

Thank You All. Seriously.
When all is said and done, I owe a lot of thanks to a lot of people for making this happen. Andy more than anyone, but also Ryo Kamiya of course, Ben Lehman, my gaming group, and all of the awesome fans around the world.