Sunday, August 26, 2007

Highly Subjective: Dead of Night

Dead of Night

So here goes nothing. Dead of Night is a nifty enough looking game, a small - but thick book - with a pack of slavering werewolves on the cover. Cool.

Going in: I picked up this game at a convention, so I had a chance to examine the book before I made the buy. It’s small and sturdy, and looks pretty good both on the inside and the outside. I had read Ron Edwards’ actual play posts about a game he ran. His discussion of the mechanics intrigued me, and that’s what brought the game (of which I had not heard previously) into my crosshairs.

Overview: Authors Merwin Shanmugasundaram and Andrew Kenrick made a point of keeping their game portable. The back cover copy focuses on this aspect of the game’s design, and it seems a success. The book fits easily into most pockets, an alternative to dice is provided in the rules, and a micro-sized character sheet is available on the website. Having not yet played the game, I obviously can’t claim this design goal as an unqualified success, but some excellent steps were taken to allow gaming on the move or in atypical locations.

Dead of Night is a classic monster movie style horror game. Vampires, mummies, gremlins, and other familiar creatures are coming for you, and all you have to do is survive. Reading it made me want to run some friends through “The Blob” or possibly a “Friday the 13th” knockoff. The mood is reinforced by an ongoing story/example of play entitled “Wolf Moon”.

Mechanics: Characters in this game are really simple. Four sets of opposed attribute pairs (Identify/Obscure, Persuade/Dissuade, Pursue/Escape and Assault/Protect), optional specializations (applied to one of those attributes, ex. “Run and Hide”) and a pool of Survival Points (which are half hit points and half hero points) make up the entirety of a character. Furthermore, those same items are all that the GM has to define the monsters, albeit with more emphasis on the specializations.

When you run out of Survival Points, you’re dead, insane, or otherwise out of the game. The basic mechanics give a number of conditions for the gaining, losing and spending of Survival Points which strongly reinforce the game’s horror movie style (play to a genre cliché, get a cookie!).

Here’s a neat little thing: Remember how those attributes are set up? Each pair has an offensive and a defensive attribute, which this means you’re always rolling one against the other. Question: So who gets to roll in any given action, the acting player, or the reacting player? Answer: Whoever didn’t roll last time. Nobody ever rolls twice in a row, and whenever possible, the more important character gets precedence (Creature>PC>NPC). Yeah, that’s right, the creature is more important than the PCs. You have seen some horror movies, right?

The Advanced Play chapter gives some potentially optional variations on standard play. Guidelines are given for GM-less play, PC monsters hunting GM played victims and secretly planting a monster within the PC group. Also, some advice is given about setting the right tone and managing the level of tension in the game. Some of this advice seems awkward, (why are comedy and nihilism set forth as elements of horror?) but much appears fun and useful as well. And then there's Tension.

The Tension rules are very cool, but their presentation in the text is clumsy. The door to confusion is opened in the first paragraph, when the rules describe “a single GM-managed variable – Tension” when there are, in fact, two variables, Tension points, and the Tension rating. The two are used interchangeably at first, and it actually took me a couple readings of the rules to get a solid grasp on what exactly they both do.

Tension points are used to alter die rolls, both up and down. The guidelines given for the expenditure of Tension points are excellent, breaking the use of Tension points down into mood (how the awarding of Survival Points will impact Tension), circumstance (under what specific conditions the GM is permitted to spend Tension points) and intensity (how many Tension points the GM is permitted to spend at once). Tension points are gained whenever a character or creature loses a Survival Point.

The Tension rating, on the other hand, is intended to control how scary the tone of the game is at any given point. Solid guidelines for this are never really given, however, and it mostly boils down to the higher the rating, the scarier things should be. The Tension rating is equal to the number of Tension points + the number of Survival Points possessed by any creatures present in the scene.

To my eye, the interrelation of the two Tension mechanics appears problematic, although I suspect some experience with the game in play may clear this up. The GM presumably wants the Tension rating to ramp up as the game goes along, hopefully spiking at the climax. However, spending any Tension points causes the rating to drop, thus the GM is limited in his expenditures until he has excess Tension points to throw around. I'm very interested in how these rules work out at the table.

Editing and Presentation: Some fun horror fonts were used in the book, although the authors never identify them. The main blood dripping title font (which actually is just a touch overused, serving as headings for chapters, sections and the Wolf Moon pieces, as well as the title of the game at the top of each page) is, I believe, Creeper. The layout of the book is generally quite good and very clear and easy to read. There are a few typos here and there, but they're relatively innocuous.

The basic rules chapter includes a set of boxes with important concepts and explanations, shaded to set them off from the rest of the text. These Quickboxes, as they’re called, make an excellent introduction to the rules, and also serve as rules reference during play. Only one box is placed awkwardly, such that it interrupts the main text (P. 43).

This technique is abandoned in the Advanced Play chapter. Whether this is due to the apparently optional nature of those rules, or because the rules contained therein defy summary, is immaterial. The exception being the Tension rules, which beg for summary, and, indeed, require it. Furthering the confusion is the fact that a Quickbox is present in that section which does not serve the same function as the other boxes. Instead, where the reader expects a rules summary, he gets an example of description which is intended to clarify the muddy Tension rating mechanic.

Aside from these two issues, the Quickboxes are very well executed and very helpful. Additionally, the contents of the Quickboxes are gathered at the end of the book for a comprehensive (again, excluding Tension) rules summary. Easily referenced cheat sheets like this should be included in more RPGs, especially complicated or intricate ones.

A running short story/example of play, entitled “Wolf Moon” keeps pace with the rules explanations. A brief piece of micro-fiction is followed by an explanation of how the action in the scene would be handled by the rules of the game. It’s a clever little device and helps bind together the mechanical descriptions in the text. Unfortunately, it also helps muddy the waters regarding Tension, which is the only idea in the Advanced Play chapter that receives the “Wolf Moon” treatment.

The Advanced Play chapter is less integral to the game than the Creature descriptions contained in Chapter 3. As it is, the cart is somewhat before the horse. It would serve the reader better to get those creatures first so, that the play variants like Wolf-in-Sheep’s-Clothing and Target Countdown come off as the neat ideas they are rather than confusing changes to a structure just learned and not fully implemented. Optional rules like this belong in an appendix after all the important material in the basic game.

The creature descriptions are fun, reading them made me want to set loose an Unstoppable Killer. One thing, though, the Creature specializations are named in context with their specific monster, no note is made as to how that specialization appears in the list of descriptions. Most of the time this isn't a major problem, but it does increase handling time. In some cases, it's downright confusing. For instance, does “Steady Pace” (P. 141) appear on the main list? If it does, I can’t tell which power it is. What game effect does it have, if any?

The art by Eric Lofgren and Michael Cunliff is quite enjoyable, and generally is well placed in the book to reinforce the text’s current topic. Their differing styles give a nice balance to the book. Cunliff’s darker work is somewhat more prevalent inside, swinging the book’s tone towards the grimmer side of “campfire horror”.

None of the example scenarios really grabbed me, but they do help put some of the rules into context. The Lover's Peak scenario is probably the most interesting of them, as haunted houses are a favorite trope of mine. Some of the information presented in the scenarios is redundant, but it doesn't interfere with their function.

Notes to designer:

Clean up the Tension rules, they're in need of a full rewrite.

The specializations should be notated better in the Creature writeups.

A complete list of the clichés in the book, all on one page, is a must. Having their page numbers indexed is nice, but not good enough as a play aid.

Question for players:

What do the Tension rules look like in play? I'd love to see the complete history of a Tension rating tracked through play and the circumstances that governed point expenditures.

How I would tweak it:

I'd like to see the Tension rating renamed and divorced from Tension points. That way, the GM is free to spend Tension points as he sees fit without worrying about killing the mood. Scenario design would be based on the interactions between the PCs and the Creatures at a given Tension level and what in-game events cause that level to rise. A "Halloween" type scenario might look something like this:

The Rating rises by one point whenever the PCs discover a body, the PCs find an avenue of escape blocked to them, or a PC catches a glimpse of the killer. The Rating rises by two points whenever a PC finds themselves alone and afraid, or a PC witnesses the killer claiming a victim. The Rating rises by three points whenever a PC dies.

At Rating 0-4 the killer keeps to the shadows and only attacks NPCs. He will not attack a PC, and if they try to find him he will seem to disappear. At Rating 5-8, the killer will begin chasing the PCs, but will break off the attack after causing the loss of one Survival Point. At Rating 9+ all bets are off. He's coming for you, and there's no way out.

Altogether: I’m pretty happy with my purchase of Dead of Night. The book looks good, and more importantly, I think it will play well. It’s going on my “to play” pile. In fact, it’ll be on top of that pile, since having it lower in the stack would destabilize the whole thing - yet another way the size will work in its favor. Plus, I love horror games, and this has a pretty fun take on the genre.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Highly Subjective: Introduction

I've decided to call my collection of reviews for the Owlbear “Highly Subjective” for a reason. I am an aspiring game designer. I am in my late 20s. I have certain preferences in the way game rules work and about genre and complexity. All of these things are going to influence my opinions on these games. This is something that I feel is a feature, not a bug, of this column. It puts my thoughts and opinions into a more useful context for you, the reader.

That said, some things are fact, plain and simple. Hopefully, the distinction will be clear when it comes up. Opinion, backed by observation, is what this endeavor is all about.

The independent roleplaying scene is small, and many of the participants get to know each other fairly well. Game authors are frequently willing to discuss their games online, and hopefully some of them will come and discuss their games with us in the comments of the review.

Another facet of the size of this community is that word of mouth is a major component in nearly every aspect of a game's life. Occasionally, I'll give you some links to follow if you're interested, usually to a game's (or the designer's) website or forum, maybe to some Actual Play threads. Scuttlebutt about a game, its reputation, and any previous exposure I may have to the game through reading about it online, are all things to be discussed, because they will impact the way I think about a game when I read it. For instance, I may be disappointed if a game doesn't live up to it's rep, or I may be excited because a game seems much more interesting than its lack of buzz would suggest.

I'll be paying special attention to a couple things as I read these games. One is mechanics. I dig mechanics; the way they work, the way they fit together, and the way they provide the focus for roleplaying in a way that simple text and advice can't. With any luck, I'll be able to ferret out some insight into the games by looking at their mechanics. Maybe I can get a line on some emergent properties and discuss things I'd expect to see come up in play based on the interplay of those mechanics.

Another thing is the physical presentation of the book. This goes beyond size measurements and whether the cover is glossy or matte. I'll be looking at some of the more subtle things, like the use of art, layout, and the book's organization. Heck, maybe even a comment on what fonts are used. If I think the book is particularly evocative of the game's genre or theme, you can bet I'll let you know. It's important to note, however, that these comments are coming from a consumer's standpoint. I'm not an artist, graphic designer, or professional editor, and I'll be talking about these books as someone who has purchased them and cares about how they look.

I'll be providing directed comments to the designers, and asking questions of them. Additionally, I’ll have questions aimed at anyone in the audience who may have played the game. And, since I love playing with mechanics so much, I'll probably talk about the ideas that come into my own head as I'm learning the game, what I would do if I were working on the game myself.

Finally, this is just the starting point. I'd like to discuss the games more with anybody who reads this. Post a comment if you've got something to say, if you've played the game, or if you've found this helpful (or annoying). I'd love to see some discussion about any of the games I write about here.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Welcome to the Owlbear

This is an exciting time for role-playing games as a medium. It's become possible for individuals to invent a game, write its text, design its book, have it printed and distribute it to the eager masses. As a result we've seen amazing invention and creativity that might well never have been ventured by a traditional publishing house with a (comparatively) tiny market. The barrier that upper management and traditional distribution channels placed in front of the new and the different, and hence risky and frightening, has been lifted.

With that barrier has gone the caution that balks at the publication of lower quality games. Game buyers have to rely on the individual designers to discard shaky ideas, continue work on unfinished games, or to issue revised editions. On the other hand, designers have no one but themselves to turn to for editorial or critical input.

It's long been our belief that a solution to some of these problems is a solid, respectable source of criticism. There already is a raft of user reviews, actual play reports, forum endorsements and condemnations, podcasts, developers blogs...there's no doubt that there's a lot of internet presence for role-playing games, but that the glut of dubious opinion can be confusing.

Compounding this fact is that the extreme biases of the correspondents involved have complex causes. Those who are best informed on the state of the art are least willing to speak frankly about games they think are flawed. Some fear taking a dollar out of some one else's pocket, others offending their peers. The result is that flawed, weak games make it onto the shelves of stores and onto the tables of gamers, who conclude, understandably, that the role playing industry is doomed. We believe that this well-intentioned self-censorship is doing no one any good.

This is where The Owlbear comes in. We intend to step into the gap, and provide reasoned criticism of role-playing games. We hope that we can improve the quality of the games that are released, by pointing out the brilliance and shortcomings of independently published games to their designers and their prospective audiences alike.

In the coming weeks and months, we will be presenting reviews of diverse games, from popular standbys to up-and-comers. Our staff of volunteers all have a solid background in role-playing games. Most of us are designers ourselves.

We're not here to produce play reports of games, although we'll play the games we review, or make it clear that we're only reviewing the game's text.

We're not here to philosophize about games, or construct elaborate theories about how they work, but our reviews are founded in theory, and if you're paying attention you might catch a whiff of a concept or two. For the allergic, be assured that we'll minimize our use of specific jargon to the purely functional.