Monthly Archives: February 2011

Battlestar Exodus: Burning Empires After Action Report

I ran this last night at Chicago games day. Play notes coming soon!

We had six players: Tim and Shari, two of my players, playing Balthazar and Farbuck respectively, and four strangers, playing Lee Adamant, William Adamant, Lora Roswell, and Sal Thai.

No one, except myself and Tim had ever played Burning Empires before, and I was rusty, so I determined to stick with the basics. First I explained the dice mechanics, with Forks and Help, the scene structure, and suggested we’d get into the crunchier bits later.

I saw some strange lights going on in player heads when I explained the scene structure, that they are equal partners in framing scenes. I’ll get back to this in a minute.

My situation prep? Ask each player for a crisis that is facing the fleet, and that deals with their character specifically:
*The Vaylen are catching up (Farbuck)
*Combat fatigue amongst the pilots (Lee)
*Vaylen are infiltrating the fleet (Balthazar)
*Tom Aleph is preparing for a coup attempt (Roswell)
*We’re running out of supplies (Adamant)- especially booze! (Thai)

I was afraid that I was not pushing hard enough with my NPC scenes- a color scene of Tom Aleph making grandeoise speeches over the fleet’s wireless, and another one (leading up to a building scene) of Farbuck rounding an asteroid belt and coming face to face with Scar. But the players more than enough made up for it: they played their characters and beliefs with gusto, with the common starting point of the show serving as a strong foundation for everyone to get into character. I have dismissed the popularity of licensed properties before; I now completely understand the appeal, especially in a con-game, and will probably use this technique again.

Our interstitial scenes quickly segued into Duels of Wits: an interstitial with most of the characters on the bridge of the Galactic discussing the supply problem, and whether it should be a military or civilian scouting mission becomes a heated exchange between Thai and Roswell, with Thai only winning due to a well-played Incite maneuver, repeated dice from William, but we see Lee standing up and throwing dice in Roswell’s direction.

Soon after, Lee borders on insubordination when talking to his father, who angrily calls him into his office, and we have a duel of wits with great stakes: Bill wants Lee to show due deference as a junior officer, and Lee wants Bill to acknowledge his grief over the hulled Zack Adamant. The compromise result is Bill getting his nominal victory in the policy conflict being argued about (he does not issue a diplomatic transmission to the vaylen), but he later goes into his private chambers and grieves and smashes his model ships while sad bagpipe music plays.

Next we upgraded to the firefight mechanics- Lee and Farbuck in their Ember fighters with a flight against Scar and other Vaylen starfighters. (Lee showed up just in time- after all, he had not one, but two relevant instincts). The firefight goals were get away safely/capture Farbuck. I had a 6 to 2 disposition advantage, but they scripted well, blocked my initial Observe and thereby Direct Fire, and got in an Observe of their own, and managed to Flank and Direct Fire down my disposition. Well played by the colonials! Something odd that was noticed: neither of the pilots had Observation, Signals, Sensors, or Hunting. Lord Pilot Hammer, which I was using for the fighter jocks, doesn’t get any of those skills. (Anvil Pilots do, but of course, normally Hammer battles involve big ships, not fighters.) My solution was to let William Adamant use his Hammer Lord trait to bring in a spotter pilot with Sensors 4 as Farbuck’s wingman.

At one point, Roswell’s player mentioned he felt his character wasn’t effective enough; I boggled a bit at this, seeing as how Roswell is probably the most powerful social-fu character I stated (and the only one with a real 2iC), he had some bad luck in his Duel of Wits, but still got a decent compromise out of it, and was strongly setting the agenda for much of the adventure. He said he didn’t feel he was getting to do enough.

So I used one of my remaining interstitial scenes to set up a conversation between him and Helen Thai (one of my Vaylen figures of note), starting with vague pleasantries, followed by Helen increasingly talking about the joys of the way things were- how much would you give to go back to such and such resort, to see your lost family members. The player grins, seeing where this is going, and I activate my building scene- a circles roll to get some hulled marines, a close combat roll to get Roswell bodily held, and then a Surgery roll to hull the character. (The player manages to sneak in a subtle last minute recording of the procedure due to a rather generous interpretation of an instinct, since, hey, I’m hulling his character.) I don’t think I’d ever do this in an actual long-term game- far too abusive to take out a character with 3 rolls- that’s more like a Phase Intention- but it was an unexpected maneuver in the session that nailed how serious the Vaylen are, and how they are much, much more fearsome than Cylons.

After our maneuver was said and done, I talked about the third tier of meta conflicts- the Infection. We didn’t script a maneuver objective for either side- I felt it would be a little difficult to get into right off the bat, and handed out artha awards, including the rewards Roswell would have gotten. Lee got MVP, for featuring in each of the three conflict scenes, and Roswell got Workhorse for being the plot instigator.

I was concerned that the scene limits would chafe the players and they would be concerned about limitations on how often they got to roll dice, but it was quite the opposite; I had to push the players “okay, it’s time to roll dice now and do something.” Also, it was interesting to me that my regular players, Tim and Shari, mostly took a support role in the scenes, but both reported highly enjoying playing their characters and watching the rest of the game at work.

All in all, a successful session. A PDF of my collected notes will be coming soon!

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Wrath of Ashardalon Review

Just got Wrath of Ashardalon Sunday night, and had a chance today to sort out all the components and play a solo game.

The experience is essentially the same as Castle Ravenloft, with new monsters, heroes, traps, tricks, and treasures. The rules add some new wrinkles in: different conditions (Daze and Poison, the latter of which has a saving throw type mechanic) doors that can be opened and might be trapped, and my favorite, the Dire Chamber. When you reach the Dire Chamber entrance, you draw a whole bunch more Dire Chamber tiles to make a great big chamber- and this is usually where you’ll fight the end boss. This fixes the problem that the end boss tile often is clumped with many, many, monsters (which means attacks that target everyone on the tile can be ridiculous at the end of the game), and also introduces a nice generic adventure, where you play until you reach the Dire Chamber, then draw a card to see what’s in it and what you need to do (usually kill a bunch of monsters). My biggest complaint of the scenario design was that there were too many gimmicks- there didn’t really feel like there was a ‘standard’ scenario. The basic Dire Chamber scenario though looks to be a go-to for Wrath of Ashardalon play.

(Also, I feel a strong urge to write some Dire Chamber cards for Castle Ravenloft now.)

The new heroes include a Fighter, Cleric, Rogue, and Wizard, and a Paladin for the fifth. However, they are all fairly different than the Castle Ravenloft versions- different power cards, and different class powers. For example, the new cleric heals himself and another character for 2 each (instead of the healing surge value to one person), and ends conditions when he heals you (instead of getting a free heal for not attacking).

The game is certainly compatible with Castle Ravenloft, though some funny things might happen if one mixes the sets- for example, mixing monster decks would make the game easier due to a lower occurence of duplicate monsters. Also, the new treasure deck is just treasure cards- no boons- and I’m not sure if this is good or bad yet.

When Castle Ravenloft first came out, I heard multiple people complain Wizards was ‘dumbing down’ D&D, however, playing these games, it is clear this is not the case: they are broadening the brand, and making strong introductory games that are also fun in their own right. I’ve said it before: a one-hour dungeon boardgame is the holy grail of dungeon boardgames, and Wizards have made it. Wrath of Ashardalon builds on the structure of Castle Ravenloft, putting in a few more complications and broadens the experience.

Things I Like In Games

I walked out of a game yesterday night. I spent this as cause to think about some things I like, and don’t like, when I’m playing games. (As opposed to GMing them, or indiegames with their own special frameworks; this is for games with a strong GM/player dichotomy.)

Things I like:

*Having my character be awesome. (I want the GM to be a fan of my PC.)
*Having my character regarded as awesome by NPCs. (I want NPCs to be a fan of my PC. Unless my PC’s an asshole, in which case I still want them to regard me with sufficient awe. It’s not about always getting what you want; it’s about respect.)
*Kicking ass.
*Coming up with crazy plans, implementing them, and dealing with unexpected consequences.
*Rolling giant handfuls of dice. It’s a tactile thing.
*Exploding dice. It’s extremely satisfying to pick up a die and roll it again, again, and again, and generate a huge number.
*Making tactical decisions during combat encounters. After having played games like Exalted and D&D, I tend to find that many games have too few meaningful options each turn, but generally there’s ways to give your character more solutions, or the combats are at least faster. (The tactical options in AW for example, are much less in D&D, but the combats are shorter, and really now, no one expects AW to be D&D.)
*Figuring out what’s going on ‘behind the screen,’ the ‘aha’ moment where you figure out the GM’s plan, who the killer is, how the sliding block puzzle works, or what’s at the center of the conspiracy onion when you peel all the layers away.
*Hamming it up and getting into character.
*In character hard choices.
*Earning xp, and spending it!
*First sessions that start with a bang.
*Starting in medias res, in general. It works.
*Finding awesome magic items. Especially swords.
*Flying.

Things I don’t like:

*Having the system or GM work to make my character be lame. I am of the opinion that the player characters should be the most awesome people in the game.
*NPCs that all act cocky, mysterious, and spout mysterious smug bullshit at the PCs, and all have the same wry knowing attitude. Especially so if its every NPC in the whole damn game.
*NPCs that don’t respect the PCs. Especially so if it’s every NPC in the whole damn game.
*Having my character’s abilities or skill rolls being mechanically irrelevant.
*Long, drawn out planning sessions. Your plan should not take more than an hour to come up with.
*Too many d4s. They’re hard to roll.
*Games with too many houserules, especially uncodified houserules. If you houserule (and there are good reasons to), keep track of them, write them down, and let your players know them. Solicit input from your players when making houserules.
*Arguing about rules, or spending too much time looking them up. I really like knowing the rules, and generally expect the GM to know the rules.
*Combat encounters with no real decisions, just dice rolling over and over until one side runs out of resources.
*The opposite of the ‘aha’ moment, the mystery that must be solved for play to move forward. Whether it be a whodunnit, a puzzletrap, or just the general social framework, this is frustrating to the players when they don’t know yet, are on a different wavelength than the GM, or whatever, and the game reaches a standstill. It’s worse if the GM accuses the players of being dumb; of course the GM knows the solution and thinks it’s simple- they know it, and in most cases, they designed the puzzle.
*A specific subset of the above, situations with “only one solution,” where any overture that the GM had not anticipated results in failure.
*Long sections of ‘railroad’ or ‘boxed-text’ play, where the GM tells the players what’s going on and they have no real input into play. Doubly egregious if this is the first session of your game, and you’re trying to establish a ‘feel’ for the world. The internet, not the first halfhour of screentime is the time for that. You only get one chance to start your game, use to it highlight exactly the most awesome parts of what your game is about.
*Encounters designed to ‘frustrate’ the players: level-draining undead, teleporting invisible gnomes that steal your magic items, etc.
*GM PCs. Oh god, GM PCs. No good can come from them- they exist only so the GM can show how awesome ‘their guy’ is, when they should be showering that awesome on the player characters. (GM henchmen, on the other hand can be good, especially if their purpose in life is to shower awesome on the player characters.)
*Not enough xp or loot.
*Too much joking around and tabletalk. A little can be fun, but too much detracts from play. We only have a limited amount of time here at the table, people.
*Too much scenery chewing. Let’s cut to the chase, already.

Dead Space 2 After Action Report

Beat Dead Space 2 this morning. Ending has a nice call-back to the original.

Generally speaking, the opening sequence was awesome, then it lags abit and you’re following the plot arrow around, then you meet some other survivors, and the game gets pretty good again, maintaining the ‘oh shit’ urgency of Dead Space 1. However, some of the last few chapters are frustrating because they turn the gameplay on its head: normally, you want to pass through an area slowly and cautiously, but this introduces areas with constantly spawning enemies you just have to get through as fast as possible.

The end boss was an annoying gimmick fight. Dead Space 1’s end boss felt like a real boss fight.

I missed the exclusion of minigames: Zero-G Basketball, the Shooting Range, and the Cannon sequences. I have no love for ZGB or the difficultly of the cannon sequences in general, but the notion was fun. The closest Dead Space 2 comes is the hacking sequence, which is too short and simple to truly be a minigame.

Worth buying, worth playing, will play again. Despite the flaws, definitely a fun and freaky game.