Conpulsion 2006

A brief overview of the excellent Conpulsion convention in Edinburgh.

I visited Edinburgh’s Conpulsion in March, it’s a great Con, full of fun games and fun people. It really helped me with my game in progress, Covenant. It helped me so much I had to plow lots of time into that game, rather than this report. Hopefully that’s now remedied.

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Review : And Their Tummies Growled

A cookbook for gamers?

By Lisa Hartjes, Hart Felt Productions, $5

The Internet is a wonderful thing. Full of ideas that are made viable by the shear number of folks out there. And their tummies growled is an RPG cookbook. Not the kind containing techniques and scenarios, but one containing recipes for hungry gamers. Now, I’m a sucker for cooking and novelty RPG products, so this kind of sideways idea amuses me. It’s the extension of a set of reasoning that goes: if gaming takes place after work, then waiting for folks to eat can shorten available time, so why not combine the two? This book aims to be your guide to combining gaming and dinner…

It’s available as a 50 page minimally, some might say basically, formatted PDF from RPGNOW. The advantage of a PDF cookbook is you can print out the individual recipes as and when you need them, so it’s quite usable in that way. There’s a cover, but no other art, and I was a little disappointed that there weren’t photos of some of the dishes. Whenever I follow a recipe I hope to have a clue of what it should end up looking like, especially if it’s not something I’m familiar with.

The book is broken down into themed sections: baked goods, salads, pasta meals, soups, meat dishes, other mains and side dishes. There are PDF bookmarks, hyper-linked table of contents and index to jump between them. There’s also a recipes by type index (quick, pre-prepared and so on). There’s lots of flexibility in terms of moving around the PDF.

The recipes, of which there are 35, are on the whole easy and substantial, which seems to be exactly what the author is going for. Most have a solid American home-cooking feel to them, and ideal for hungry gamer filling. A few of the ingredients are fairly obviously standard US brands that I didn’t know of and that slightly confused me; Chex is obviously a breakfast cereal, but is it like cornflakes or something else? Similarly, ingredients like condensed lemonade left me scratching my head as to where to find them.

In general the recipes are more likely to use chilli powder, or spice mix than a particular selection of spices, which disappointed me slightly, but does aid in making them easy to put together if you’re not somebody who cooks a lot. Similarly some dishes don’t contain ingredients I’d expect them to, for example the Beef Stroganoff contained no mustard. This isn’t a problem, given the target audience, but might disappoint an avid foodie.

Most of the recipes are nice though, there’s a great one for German Warm Potato Salad and an intriguing mixed-bean chilli that has a hint of chocolate in it. The type of thing that’s just different enough from your own recipe to intrigue. The beer and cheese soup should be an excellent winter warmer. Some of these can be found in the demo version of the PDF and this gives you a fairly accurate feel for the production values and nature of the recipes.

Overall: If you’re looking for a few quick-n-filling recipes to share with friends before gaming, then this is as good a bet as picking up a random cookbook, and has the added advantage of being designed with speed and ease in mind. Aside from timing issue though, actual links to gaming are slightly tenuous.

Review : The Mountain Witch

Ronin Samurai assualt the lair of a sorcerer in a story of trust and betrayal.

By Timothy Kleinert, Timfire Publishing, $35 Print / $18 PDF

A group of Ronin Samurai are hired to kill O-Yanma, the Mountain Witch of mount Fuji. Each of them brings his own dark secrets and cannot fully trust the others. Will the tensions in the group destroy them, or will they unite to achieve their aim?

The Mountain Witch is a 140 page digest-sized book of mythic Japan goodness. Where most RPGs proclaim their ability to allow you to “do anything!!!”, The Mountain Witch makes a feature from its very tight focus. It’s a game designed to tell tales of trust and betrayal in a specific scenario, and this is does amazingly well. To work best it needs at least four players and a GM, to my mind, I played with three and though excellent, it felt lacking a certain group dynamic.

Visually the book really sets the tone wonderfully, clean modern type and layout make for an easy read. Evocative colour art is spread throughout, setting the spooky atmosphere of the eponymous witch’s lair and showing characterful samurai in a variety of situations. For a small-press work, the quality of art and design puts more “professional” company’s work to shame. My only slight issue with the layout are the sidebars, which seen to intrude slightly on the main text. Not currently having a downloadable character sheet also mean’t I had to build my own, though that wasn’t a huge deal.

Each player creates a Ronin, and during this process is randomly dealt a Dark Fate. A secret he hides from the company, that puts the mission at risk, an inevitable betrayal waiting to happen. Maybe his character really wants to kill a companion for a past slight, maybe he has a secret deal with the Witch himself? Players get free reign to add any details related to their character’s fate to a scene, thus allowing them to slowly reveal their fate through game play and work the narrative to it’s natural climax. The game is split into four acts (nominally introduction, build tensions, reveal fates and denouement), so players have plenty of time to do this.

The game system itself is elegantly simple. All conflict results are determined by the roll of a single six-sided dice by each side, that can be rolled over if you get a 6. Before rolling you predefine the broad stakes of what you’ll get if you win. The resulting difference in dice rolls is your degree of success, which determines how much you can narrate as successful or how much damage you can do. Damage reduces your normal dice roll by -1, for a length of time dependent on how successful the hit was. You can die, but it’s unlikely, and even if you do you can still spend Trust…

The core of the system is the Trust mechanic. At start of play your character’s trust ratings to other characters are defined by your character’s chosen zodiac animal, with some trusting others more or less. At the end of each chapter (each act may have more than one), you can choose to raise your trust of another character by one, drop it by any amount or keep it the same. How much other trust you gives you trust points that you can spend to modify rolls: If Zuri trusts Keho by 2 points, Keho can spend one of the two points to aid Zuri in a conflict, and thus add his dice to Zuri’s, dramatically increasing chance of success. Keho can also spend those points to betray Zuri and modify a conflict roll down by that many points at the worst possible moment. Alternatively he can spend a point to steal Zuris narration and  although he can’t alter the success of the conflict he can twist it to his own agenda…

The Trust system creates a great dynamic. The characters have more chance of success in their mission if they have lots of trust to others. However when betrayal comes, and it will fates assure that, their trust will be their undoing. The system wonderfully highlights the themes of the story. All the GM has to do is push situations that put that trust into doubt, or antagonists that soak up the co-operation.

The book contains a summary of typical creatures from Japanese folklore to add to your tale, as well as an introduction to Japanese castles and a set of possible character names. So you have a really solid grounding in the feel of the setting, though it’s by no means a huge bloated setting; You’re expected to build the setting from the characters out, and every game will be different based on the character’s back-story as built in play. Should you need more info on Japanese history and myth, there are suggested websites for more information.

The GM advice section is a mixed bag. Although it covers many of your likely questions for running this kind of game, I felt that it could have done with more solid, worked examples, particularly of the types of critical moments that say something about the characters that you should be throwing at the players. It does however make up for this with one of the most useful pieces of advice for this kind of game, if in doubt ask the players: “You see a series of heads on pikes at the witches gate, who are they?” Thus really hammering home the “build from the inside out” method of story creation the game is for.

Overall: The Mountain Witch is a great game, all my players enjoyed it and want to play again now that they’re more familiar with how it works. It plays particularly well if you’ve got a group who are up-to-speed with Samurai drama and really take ownership of their dark fates at an early stage. Its single scenario shouldn’t put you off, while it is just one basic situation, there’s no reason its wonderfully theme-enhancing mechanics couldn’t be used for any similar “dirty dozen” style game in any period in history (Western and WWII seeming obvious candidates).

Review : Conspiracy of Shadows Revised

A revised edition of the game of medieval conspiracy in the fantasy land of Polian.

By Keith Senkowski, Bob Goat Press, $12 PDF / $20 Softback / $32 Hardcover

How far are you willing to go to learn the truth? That’s the question Conspiracy of Shadows asks of its characters. How does it help your players do this, and how does it guide your play towards this goal? Read on.

In the interests of full disclosure: I really liked the first edition of the game (review here), so much so that I got to know Keith. I helped with some editing on the Conspiracy of Shadows Companion. I like the game a lot, so if I come across as a fan, that’s because I am.

I’ve always been somebody who likes the more, grimy, pseudo-medieval settings. Places where the kings are corrupt and the populace are fearful. It’s part of what appeals about Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, and it’s also part of what appeals in Conspiracy of Shadows too. The player characters are people with a drive to help their society, but that drive may end up with their own corruption, death or loss of their position within society. Revised Conspiracy of Shadows retains this feel, and adds a few more tweaks to help you achieve a story of this kind in play.

From a visual point of view, Conspiracy of Shadows Revised is a bit tighter. The smaller size pages makes for an easier read. After use, the thing I think what mildly flawed the first editions layout was the long line lengths. The new smaller package makes it a much more a “easy to dip in” layout. The PDFcomes with lots of nice bookmarks too. The illustrations give the book a particular feel of brooding menace, and the cover now feels more individual and is less reminiscent of a White Wolf book. The game is available in PDF, hardback or paperback, whichever is your preference. This review is based on the PDF.

How does the new edition stand up rules wise? Sleeker and more satisfy is the general feel. I liked the old version of the rules, but they were fairly generic story facilitating rules. The new revision adds more spice to the solid base ingredients. The rules for tasks and combat have been clarified to be conflicts and extended conflicts, much like The Shadow of Yesterday. The step by step “how you resolve stuff” is feels clearer this time round, with intent being used to decide whether you use a simple 2D6 plus Attribute and Skill roll or a series of rolls with initiative and momentum (you get 4 actions in a row as long as you keep succeeding). There are still more old-school elements like maneuvers, but added to the weapons as situational modifiers are things like “church authority” and “reputation”. It’s the same system, but the focus is shifted. I like the shift, others with a more traditional play-style might not.

Doom is a big change to the game, and one that I thoroughly approve of. You get to define your character’s eventual destiny, a dark fate towards which they are being drawn. Take a point of doom to win a conflict you absolutely must not fail. But that win brings you closer to your eventual doom, spend that last point and your doom is at hand. See what that does? The mechanic throws that “How far are you willing to go to learn the truth?” question out to the players right away. Does your character care about doing this enough to have it bring you closer to a nasty fate?

Trust is also a new addition. A pool of points that can be drawn on to help in important conflicts. But it goes up and down based on based on how much trust and dedication the player characters show to each other. In this way it acts much like a pressure counter. You know the group’s is in trouble when the trust pool gets thin and the need for trust increases as trouble escalates.

Advice on creating the game is expanded from the previous edition, and takes you step-by-step through the process of building a conspiracy and then planning how to use it in game. The metaphor of thinking about the game like a TV series is used to good effect here, and helps you get a much more solid idea of what the game is intended to be. There are a couple of sections that seem to go against the group-participation angle of the rules, notably the episode construction section which talks about linear plots.

The land of Polian hasn’t changed much since first edition, as far as I can tell. It’s still a rich setting, conveyed in a remarkably small amount of space. The organisation of the book seems to have relegated setting almost to an appendix, but to my mind this is a good thing, as it puts the process of creating a great set of characters and a great conspiracy ahead of it in the game’s priorities. It sends a direct message of “your guys are what matters here, not the background fiction.”

Overall: Conspiracy of Shadows Revised builds on an already good system to create a much more focused game. If you own first edition, you might be OK just checking out the system tweaks over at the Bob Goat website. However, the overall presentation and emphasis of the game are much clearer in this edition, so personally even though I got the PDF for free, I’ll be buying the nice new hard cover, which will stand up to a bit more at-table use.

Review : Cold Space

Cold war space adventure based on the Starcluster system.

By Clash Bowley et al, Flying Mice LLC, $10 PDF

Cold Space is a PDF download from Flying Mice / Better Mousetrap Games, and uses the Starcluster system (as used in Starcluster and Bloodgames). Essentially the setting posits a universe where, shortly after the 2nd world war, a method of advanced space-flight was created. Thus we get the cold war in space. Simple concept, how does it pan out?

The setting is given as a rough time-line of events that mirrors those in actual history, but with space battles and planetary proxy wars replacing the historic equivalents. This gives it the advantage of an easier hook than a lot of the space-opera games out there. No need to explain who the Soviets or Nato equivalents are to anybody who grew up with the cold war. As such it’s probably an easier sell than Starcluster.

The setting is split across four broad eras, initial (1954), early (1955-64), Middle (1965-74) and Late (1975-89). Each with a slightly different focus and politics, and for each of the eras recommended campaign settings are provided for different styles of character. It’s a slim package and weighs in at about 14 pages of basic setting material in all. It gives a feel for what’s going on in the various eras. My main criticism is that it’s light on the human angles, I’d like a better idea of how the average US or USSR citizen felt about the space-based cold war. What radical diversions from historic attitudes were there? The sporadic addition of fiction and setting-style songs does help to get a better feel, but doesn’t do quite enough more my tastes.

Towards the end of the book there are breakdowns of the various planets and their raw data like plant life and population and habitability. Again though, although we get maps, images, a brief gazetteer and stats, I’d have preferred a bit more information that was of use in-game. Who’re the major political players on the planets, what kind of attitudes do they have and who are they in conflict with. How can players be drawn into those? Hooks for the PCs is what’s needed, it would seem to fit the kind of game Coldspace is.

Art-wise Flying Mice have a particular brand of slightly abstract work, that gives the PDF a certain feel. It doesn’t have the hard-edge, clinical feel that a lot of sci-fi arts goes for. Layout is generally good, though two-column is harder to read on-screen and the lack of PDF bookmarks (and the PDF pages not matching the page numbers) doesn’t make navigation easy. It should be OK when printed though, since there’s an index and table of contents. The PDF does come with a star map prepared in AstroSynthesis, which might make a cool play aid if you’ve got a laptop that you use in play and like fiddling with starcharts.

The majority of the PDF is the rules and character creation. Much here is the same as you’d find in Starcluster 2.0, in fact there doesn’t feel much difference on a mechanical level between Coldspace and Starcluster. It’s a solid enough old-school game of the traveller ilk: careers-based generation, tactical-focused combat-oriented system, lots of rules for weapon effects, spaceships, travel times and so on. The careers system isn’t quite flavourful enough for my tastes. I’ve been spoiled by the Burning Wheel’s careers system, where my lifepath choices mould the characters personality as well as skills.

The large amount of space spent on system has another drawback, if you’ve already got one of the Flying Mice games, then you may feel that you’re paying for something you’ve already got. I wonder if for those people it might not be better as a setting add-on book.

Overall: If you like old-school traveller-style games of spaceships and missions, the Coldspace setting will give you an accessible place to run games in a no-weird-aliens environment. However setting material is pretty sparse, so if you’re a fan of deep backgrounds it’s not for you.