Sunday, 6 January 2019

Scoring books

I’ve been keeping track of the books I’ve read since 2010, and I score each one. I don’t use Goodreads or any other app, I just make a note in a Googledoc that I have set up just for that use.

I score each book as follows:
  1. I disliked this so much that I didn’t finish it.
  2. A real chore to read. Possibly I struggled with the style, and I may have skimmed sections just to get through it.
  3. An okay book. Nothing special, but I was happy to read it. Most books end up scoring 3.
  4. A good book. I enjoyed it, and would read others by the same author. But just lacked that something special to elevate it to a 5.
  5. I really enjoyed this book and didn’t want it to end.
So in 2019 I read 70 books, which is an average year for me. This includes quite a few audiobooks (I have an Audible account) which boosts the number by a dozen or so. (That number excludes all the books I score 1 - I didn’t finish those, so don’t count them.)

Better than out of 10

Of those 70 books, I scored 13 (18%) of them a 5. That’s a satisfyingly high number - life’s too short to read crappy books.

I prefer to score out of 5 than out of 10 as, if I was scoring out of 10, I suspect I wouldn’t only rarely score a book 10. (Mrs H is in a book club, and they score books out of 10 and almost nobody gives a book maximum marks.) So if I’m asked to rate a book/movie/game/whatever out of 10, I use my 1-5 scale and then just double it.

Tuesday, 1 January 2019

2018 in games

So how was 2018 in games for me? Pretty good, I think. Here’s what I played, wrote and ran.

Freeform Games

Freeform Games had a great 2018, with sales up on 2017. This year I finally finished The Reality is Murder, a game I’ve been editing for longer than I care to admit. We put it through playtesting over the summer and in October it finally went on sale.

Freeforms

Getting theatrical
in Shogun
The weekend freeform this year was Shogun, and I surprised myself by getting involved in a theatrical troupe. I really don’t normally do that, but it was the highlight of the game for me. At Peaky I co-wrote Love Letters: The Crusade and I played in The U-Geneva Convention and The Borden Legacy.

I did a bit of development work on Second Watch, getting it ready for a third run at Consequences (and also into a publishable state). I also started work on volumes 2 and 3 of The Peaky Files (collections of Peaky freeforms).

Daniel Taylor introduced me to Little Leeds Larps (a Facebook group), but our first attempt to run a freeform for them (The Highgate Club) didn’t get enough attendees and we are trying again in January. Still, it was a good excuse to do a bit of development work on The Highgate Club (it’s a game I’ve always wanted to return to).

Tabletop roleplaying

2018 was a great year for me - I ran more tabletop rpgs than I have in a years:

  • The Fallen (Fate Accelerated). An Other London investigation that I ran with my online group. I had originally conceived this as something that could be played in an hour - but I failed badly! 
  • The Crasta Demon (Fate Accelerated) at Airecon, GoPlayLeeds and with my family. Although I like running the same game over and over again, I am tempted to tweak it every single time. The GPL session was interesting - I had three players, all female. I wondered if they would play female characters (the characters are all set up as gender-neutral), but only one of them did.
  • The Bone Swallower (Fate Accelerated) at Furnace (more Other London(.
  • The Seeds of Doom (Monster of the Week) at GoPlayLeeds. My first PbtA game, and I wrote about it here.

My character for Megan's game

Also, Megan ran a totally improvised tabletop rpg for me and two of her cousins, which was awesome. She had a whale of a time, which was great to see. It looks like she may prefer running games to playing them.

RPGs played: Starfinder, The Cthulhu Hack, Fate, Blades in the Dark, The Sword, the Crown and The Unspeakable Power and maybe a couple of others that I don’t remember. (All of them apart from The Cthulhu Hack and Fate were new to me.)

Tales of Terror

I published 37 Tales of Terror on the new website in 2018. That’s a little down on 2017, but I have been publishing a lot from the 1996 Tales of Terror collection (ToT#2, as I think of it) and none of these have been published online before.

Boardgames

I have been recording my boardgames on boardgamegeek.com for a few years now. I don’t record games where I’m playing an app, unless I’m also playing another player. (So if I play Ticket to Ride on my own, I don’t record it. If I’m playing it against Megan or Emma, then I do.)

So this year I played 221 boardgames in total, of 48 different games. The games I played most of were the ones I can play solo - so the games I played most were Tiny Epic Galaxies, D-Day Dice and Star Realms: Frontiers.

New games to the Hatherley games library were:

  • Set: A very simple pattern-matching game that Megan usually thrashes me at. 
  • Impulse: By Carl Chudyk. I really like his Glory to Rome and Red 7, but this hasn’t worked for me and I won’t be keeping it.
  • Tiny Epic Galaxies: I really like this, a push-your-luck dice game with spaceships. It has solo rules, which means that I have played this more than any other game this year. (That also means that my family won’t play this with me because I’m too good at it.)
  • Rhino Hero Super Battle: An awesome balancing game - very family friendly.
  • Star Realms Frontiers: I Kickstarted this and it arrived in September. I really like Star Realms, but it’s always much easier just to play it on the app rather than get the cards out. This is probably my favourite set of cards though.
  • London (second edition): Much prettier than the first edition, I’ve not played it enough to work out how much I like it.
  • Pandemic Legacy Season 2: Christmas present and I expect to play through that in 2019. More on Pandemic below.
  • Crypt: I Kickstarted Crypt and it turned up just before Christmas. I gave it to Megan to give to me. We’ve played a few games so far - it’s taken me a few games to get the hang of it..


Our last game of Pandemic Legacy
I finally played through season 1 of Pandemic: Legacy. I started playing it with Megan, but she got fed up with it by about August. I enjoyed the story aspect of Pandemic: Legacy, but July-August-September was a bit of a grind. The game did then pick up in October and November, with the changes taking place then having a really big impact on the game, which I really liked. (There was a point in my first November game where I considered deliberately throwing the game because of how it would affect later games. Which I guess is a sign of a good legacy game.) Megan then joined me for the finale in December: we lost the first game (on outbreaks), but got ourselves in a good place to win our last game. We ended on 799 points (“Disaster Averted”). Had St Petersburg not had an outbreak in our last game then we would have been at 802 “Legendary”.

Videogames

Videogames were dominated by World of Tanks Blitz (again - and despite trying to give it up a year ago), with Star Realms (the app) a close runner up.

2019 in games

Next year will be more of the same. In no particular order I’m looking forward to Peaky, The Torch of Freedom (2019’s weekend freeform), running The Highgate Club, Furnace, Airecon and there will be more Kickstarters arriving.

Plus Mrs H gave me the best Christmas ever: a promise to play more games!
Best present ever! Tickets to play more games!


Saturday, 15 December 2018

Monster of the Week

I've previously struggled with Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA) games. In playing them I've often felt like something is missing, and I haven’t felt confident enough to run them.

Part of that is the terminology. For an old-timer like me, PbtA games are full of weird jargon: moves, holds, agendas, countdowns and so on. Although the books aren't long, they feel intimidating to me because it feels as if there is so much to learn. (And, as I mentioned before, I'm not a great one for reading roleplaying games.)

(As an old school GM, I found this summary on the Trilemma.com site useful.)

But there's lot to love. The rules are very simple when you get down to it, and character generation includes ties and bonds between the PCs.

One of the things that has prevented me from running PbtA games (and I now have a few) is how to prepare for them. Most of my roleplaying is through one-shots at conventions. With only a three or four hour slot, and five or six eager players to entertain, I've tended to fall back into my comfort zone (ie a scenario) that I am comfortable running.

(And yes, I realise that the pressure to put on a good show is entirely self-inflicted. Rightly or wrongly, I see my job is to give the players a good time, and I don't want the players to walk away wishing they hadn't sat down at the table with me. So that tends to inhibit me from experimenting too much.)

And when I've played PbtA games at cons, they tend to be the same - a scenario to be followed, but using the PbtA rules. Which is fine, but I sense isn't getting the best from the system, which is for play to emerge from what the characters want. Unfortunately that requires a whole level of flying-by-the-seat-of-my-pants that I haven’t done since I had a weekly group in the 90s.

So although I've read Dungeon World and Urban Shadows and Monsterhearts, I've not felt confident enough to run them as one-shots yet. Not when I know I can run a good game using another system.

But now I have successfully run a PbtA one-shot at a convention, and that was Monster of the Week.

Monster of the Week

I do like my urban fantasy (hence being drawn to Monsterhearts and Urban Shadows) and MotW brings PbtA to the Buffy/BPRD/Ultraviolet/X-Files/Supernatural monster hunters genre.

So here's the elevator pitch for MotW: You're a team of monster hunters.

Several people have told me that MotW is one of the easier PbtA games to run, and certainly one of the things that I liked about is the familiarity of the preparation: a monster with a plan, some NPCs, some locations. Almost a scenario, in fact.

Certainly I felt that MotW was easier to run than other PbtA games I have read. (Although whether that's because MotW is closer to traditional RPGs than other PbtA games, or whether it's because I’m now more familiar with PbtA games as it's the fourth one I've read, I can’t tell.)

Play to find out what happens

In preparing my "scenario" (situation would be a better name) I finally learned what "play to find out what happens" means.

Previously my scenarios have been carefully written out and plotted so that I know how the characters go from A to B to C. (In play there's always lots of improvisation, but I've got a basic structure to fall back on.)

In MotW I decided to let go, and just create a situation with a monster, some bystanders (what MotW calls its NPCs) and places, and a countdown clock for if the players didn't do anything. I didn't try to second guess their actions, I didn't create a cluetrail. I would just see what would happen at the table.

Motivations for everything

One of the things that made it really easy to create a situation for MotW is that monsters, minions, bystanders and locations all have their own motivations. But by motivations, I don’t mean a character’s internal motivation, but their role in the scenario.

Some examples:

  • Gossip - to pass on rumours (for bystanders)
  • Guardian - to bar a way or protect something (for a minion)
  • Breeder - to give birth to, bring forth, or create evil (for a monster)
  • Crossroads - to bring people, and things, together (for a location)

I found this very helpful when writing up the situation - it clarified the role that each character/location/minion/monster played. It found it so helpful I’m probably going to use it for other games.

Actual Play

So I brought MotW to GoPlayLeeds in December, and I had four players. One was a PbtA veteran, the others were all new to PbtA.

You can download my scenario, The Seeds of Doom, here.

So how did it go?

I started by letting the players choose what sort of team they wanted to be - they chose a secret society, and one of the players chose The Initiate. The other players chose The Crooked, The Wronged, and The Expert. We worked our way through character generation, all of which went fine.

The game itself was easy to run. The players seemed to enjoy themselves investigating the mystery, and I found the NPC motivations and countdown clock very intuitive to use. (I did sometimes change NPC motivations to suit, but that was fine.)

The only difficulty I had at one point was wanting to roll for the monster to attack - it took me a moment to work out what I needed to say was “the monster lunges towards you - what do you do?” It’s just a different approach.

I gave everyone 3 luck and had them mark 2 experience. That meant some of them levelled up during the game (which was good), but it also gave them too much luck. There didn’t seem to be much downside to spending luck - being “doomed” seemed a bit too abstract for a one-shot. (I had completely forgotten about using luck to bring in someone from their past, but I’m not sure how that would have worked in a one-shot anyway.)

The hunters’ histories didn’t have much impact on play, which was a shame. I was hoping they would feature more as I feel that this part of character generation (like bonds in Dungeon World) is one of PbtA’s strength. But I may be expecting a bit much from a one-shot, as given the time constraints the plot inevitably wins out. Maybe I can make the histories more suited to one-shot play, by perhaps linking them to the scenario (although maybe not this particular scenario).

What would I do differently?

Rather than let the players decide the shape of their team (they picked a secret society), I will suggest that they are members of some sort of official agency. The exact form of that agency I would leave up to them, but having some sort of official authority would have made a few things simpler.

I will remove some of the playbooks. For example, we had The Wronged in play, but the nature of the situation I’d crafted meant that their Prey wasn’t going to feature. Similarly, I failed to weave into the game the various characters created in The Crooked’s background.

I will read each playbook more carefully, and cross out anything that doesn’t suit the scenario. For example, I may delete some of the improvements that are better suited to campaign play (such as picking moves from other playbooks).

I would give each player only two luck, and consider how “doomed” could be made more meaningful in a one-shot.

But that’s about it.

Overall?

Overall, I enjoyed running Monster of the Week. I don’t think it will replace Fate Accelerated as my go-to game tabletop RPG, but it’s easy to run and I’ll run it again.

Wednesday, 7 November 2018

On dice


My favourite dice are 2d6, with pips not numbers. They are the dice of my childhood. The dice of Monopoly and Escape from Colditz. I love the rattle they make and I've used them so often that I instinctively understand the probability curve.

For me, six sided dice are "proper" dice.

"Proper" dice
Two dice v 2d6

Until I started playing Call of Cthulhu, dice always had six sides. So there was never any confusion when I asked someone to "roll the dice". Call of Cthulhu was the first game I owned that needed polyhedral dice, and with that came the need to define the number of sides. So "two dice" slowly became "2d6".

And Call of Cthulhu wasn't my first RPG - that was Traveller. Traveller only used six siders, and just referred to them as 2D. (I didn't play D&D until much later.)

Pips v numbers

On six sided dice, I find pips much faster to read than numbers. (And when I say "much faster", we're talking fractions of a second.) That's because I pattern match, rather than count the pips.
Five pips and two pips = seven. Simples.

If the dice have numbers, I have to mentally add the numbers together. If the dice has pips, I just recognise the pattern.

This works for 2d6 - I don't think it works for larger numbers of dice (I didn't enjoy GURPS enough to embed 3d6 in my brain).

Of course, this only works for six sided dice. Pips on a d12 would be just daft.

Readability

As I get older, dice readability becomes more important to me. So I like dice with good contrast between the numbers or pips and the background.

I find dice with weird fonts and additional decoration hard to read, so I try not to use them.

Special dice
Special Fate dice.
I hates 'em I tell you, I hates 'em.

Special dice unique to that game can actually put me off a roleplaying game (Star Wars I'm looking at you). If I were to rank RPGs purely according to the dice they use, it would look like this:

  • 2d6 (Traveller, Dungeon World)
  • Other multiples of d6 (Risus, GURPS, Cthulhu Dark)
  • Polyhedral dice (F20 games, Call of Cthulhu)
  • Special dice (Fate, Star Wars)

I suspect that one of the reasons I like PbtA games is that they're powered by 2d6. (Dungeon World spoils that by needing a bunch of polyhedrals as well.)

If a game uses special dice it has to be pretty special for me to want to play it. So Fate is special enough, but Star Wars isn't.

My dice collection

My dice collection looks like this.

(My dice collection: I may be over invested in d6s.)
The only dice that I can remember buying specifically are:

  • Percentile dice because I needed to run Call of Cthulhu at Continuum in 2016.
  • The green d6s for Cthulhu Dark (as yet unplayed). I bought the purple d6s at the same time because I liked the colour.

Note I do not own any d4s, d8s or d12s. The only d12s I own are in boardgames (Ankh Morpork and Tiny Epic Kingdoms).

A Level Mathematics

I earned a grade A at A-level Mathematics. A third of the questions were statistics questions, and our statistics started by using 2d6 to calculate probability. And I was good at that because of all the games I played.

Being good at 2d6 probability opened the door into statistics, and ended up really enjoying it.

So I like to think that games (and specifically dice) directly led to my A grade in A-level Maths.

So that's it: me and dice.

Wednesday, 10 October 2018

Furnace 2018

Last weekend I attended Furnace, one of several roleplaying conventions held at the Garrison Hotel in Sheffield. I last wrote about this two years ago (last year I could only attend one day and didn’t get around to writing up my thoughts).

Slot #1: Blades in the Dark

Pete Atkinson ran The Gaddoc Rail Heist with four players, and it went really well. I played a grungy female sharpshooter (whose name completely escapes me). The heist worked, and the dice were really with us until I was savagely mauled by some kind of spectral beast. I survived, but it was fortunate that we were at the end of the session.

I didn’t know anything about Blades in the Dark before I started, other than it was the game where you do heists. I was surprised by the background (a sort of dieselpunk fantasy world very similar, I'm told, to a video game I’ve not played) - for some reason I was expecting something in the modern day and we’d be recreating The Italian Job or Ocean’s Eleven.

I think more games could make use of the flashback mechanic to avoid planning paralysis - which nobody has time for in a convention game. (The idea is that you just dive into the heist, and if you come up against a problem then there’s a flashback where you set things up to overcome the problem.)

It was a great convention game, but I’m not sure I’d want to play a campaign. I wonder if lots of heists becomes a bit repetitive. I gather that the downtime stuff becomes more important, but even so.

Slot #2: The End of Laughter and Soft Lies

Dom Mooney ran this using The Sword, the Crown and The Unspeakable Power, which is a PbtA game that I’d not heard of before. It felt very like Game of Thrones, and was very player-v-player, which was a pleasant change of pace from the other games I played.

Dom started with character generation followed by sorting out the setting. That worked well, with all of us having a good idea of the setting, despite never having played the game before. (That contrasted with Blades in the Dark, which had an established setting that meant Pete kept having to explain things.)

I played Pill, a bloodletter (physician) and the only problem I had with it was that I found myself slightly sidelined at the start, as I found my character wasn’t particularly tied into the power play that kicked off. I eventually found my feet and started reanimating some of the key NPCs...

Looking back, it must have been very easy to run. Apart from the Emperor’s younger brother asking one of us for a speech, and the (not very unexpected) announcement of the death of the Emperor towards the end, Dom pretty much left us to it and we played the game ourselves.

Afterwards I did wonder if more structured scenes would have worked - as with Hillfolk. In Hillfolk everyone gets to call a scene, and I might have been less passive at the start if I’d been forced to act instead of just watching everyone else.

Slot #3: An early night

As usual, I skipped Slot #3 and headed back home for an early night while the rest of Furnace carried on without me. One day perhaps I'll book a room and stay for Slot #3.

Slot #4: The Bone Swallower

I ran The Bone Swallower using Fate Accelerated. I’d already run it for my online group, and it was interesting seeing how new players took to it. The adventure ran pretty much on time, and the players seemed to enjoy themselves.

I had four players for The Bone Swallower, which felt about right. I had five characters prepared, and I’m sure it would have been fine with five, but I find that four players is more manageable and ensures that everyone gets a chance to shine.

Slot #5: A Cthulhu City Story: Weeping for the memory of lives gone by

Another game run by Dom, this one using The Cthulhu Hack (which isn’t really my cup of tea). Dom somehow managed to turn the epic sandbox campaign that is Cthulhu City and turn it into a one-shot. And it worked!

I played Professor Hermes Winchester, a mathematics professor at Miskatonic University, and had a great time trying to figure out what was going on and how to get back to our reality.

I don’t know if this is how The Cthulhu Hack normally works, but Dom used the Gumshoe principle of letting us find the clue no matter what we roll on the dice. (I took the same approach for The Bone Swallower as well - I can’t imagine running a mystery any other way now.)

Overall

Overall I had a great time at Furnace. I think I chose a good set of games this year (that doesn't always happen) and I hope my game didn't lower the standard.

Friday, 24 August 2018

Castle Acre

Ken Hite, on the Ken and Robin Talk about Stuff podcast, suggests that when looking to develop something for your game background, that you start with Earth. I agree - I’ve done this a few times by setting scenes in somewhere I know, and it makes the scene much easier to GM.

My advice, if you want to do this, is to try and visit the place you’re going to use. I don’t create many overall backgrounds, but I do use locations in my games, and it always helps to have a good picture in mind.

Castle Acre map taken from interpretation board


Castle Acre Castle

I’ve not used Castle Acre yet, but the next time I need a fortified village/local stronghold in a fantasy/medieval game, I will base it on Castle Acre in Norfolk.

The castle (more of a fortified manor, but still) was built by William de Warenne, who was granted lands following the Norman conquest in 1066. By 1200 he had constructed a grand castle with significant earthworks.



Castle Acre Priory

Once the castle was established, William sought security in the afterlife and founded a monastery alongside his castle. This became one of over 30 Cluniac priories in England, and was probably chosen thanks to his wife’s family connections.

The priory was home to 30 or so monks and continued until 1537 during Henry VIII’s Suppression of the Monasteries.



Fortified Village

Between the castle and the priory, the village itself was protected by walls and earthworks. (A magnificent bailey gate remains in the village that you can still drive through today.)

Links



Wednesday, 15 August 2018

Fate Accelerated with the family

Last week I ran The Crasta Demon, my Fate Accelerated fantasy scenario, with my daughter, brother, cousins and nephews. It was a real family affair, and they thoroughly enjoyed it. The last battle, against the demon itself was spectacular. The players set loads of traps and created numerous advantages that they stacked and ended up finishing off the demon in just two rounds.
Given that only one of my nephews has much rpg experience, they all took to Fate Accelerated really well. They didn't have a problem with the approaches, and I know that a couple of them (who have played D&D once or twice) appreciated its simplicity. So hurrah for Fate Accelerated!

While the game went well overall, there were a few things that I want to change.

The “easy” battle

The first encounter is supposed to be a simple battle against some goblins to show everyone how combat works. (That’s fairly traditional in a convention one-shot - you put in a simple battle at the start as a demonstration of how the game system works.) In this case, I had a mob of goblins that split into groups of three goblins each for each player.

The main problem is that I used the mob and teamwork rules from Fate Core, and while I gave normal goblins have +2 Fighting, as a mob the two extra goblins make that +4. I had a string of good rolls, which made the goblins much tougher than they should have been.

(When I first set this up, I didn’t roll for NPCs, but instead assumed that they rolled +0 each time. That sped up combat, not only because I wasn’t rolling dice, but also because the goblins never went above +4 and were fairly easy to beat.)

I also forgot to use the concede rules - it would have been shorter had the goblins run away when it’s clear that they’re losing.

Changes:

  • Remove the Mob/Teamwork rules, so Goblins will just attack on +2.
  • Try and remember to use the concede rules.
  • Change “Goblins” to “Razorlins” (as I’ve never been comfortable with goblins - it’s not a standard fantasy world).


Forceful in battle

The other thing I did that prolonged the fight is that I suggested that if the players weren’t using Forceful, then they inflicted one shift less in battle. So of course with most players using their “main” approach in battle (“I quickly/cleverly/flashily attack…”) that meant they were doing slightly less damage, so the goblins weren’t falling as quickly.

This wasn’t a problem in the final battle - by that point the players had got the hang of creating advantages, so they did that to give the Forceful character the best chance to attack and he was rolling at +13 or so.

I did wonder if characters should be allowed to inflict damage in a fight with any approach other than Forceful, but the view from the Google+ FAE community is not to go down this route. And thinking about Legolas and Gimli (in the Lord of the Rings movies at least), Legloas is Quick (and possibly flashy) while Gimli is Forceful - but they’re both equally lethal.

I think there’s still a risk of players trying to constantly use their best approach, but I must remember to ask “what are you doing” and then figure out which approach is right. The downside of that is that in a general melee, that can be draining on everyone as it means being constantly inventive rather than just rolling to hit.

The other advantage of using approaches other than Forceful is that it allows players to be awesome, and who doesn’t like that?

Cowardly is a terrible Trouble aspect

Finally, Megan chose “cowardly” for her trouble aspect (it was one of three that I had put on the pregenerated character). I gave her a Fate token for running away during the first fight, but she (rightly) pointed out that “cowardly” is boring. So we changed it for the second session, and I’m changing it on the character sheet.

The (updated) files for running The Crasta Demon are here.