Reading Into the Odd – Survival horror roleplaying game by Chris McDowall

I asked for some new games to review over on G+, and Chris sent me a playtest version of Into the Odd. Let’s take a look!

The book
Into the Odd into_the_oddcomes as a 25 page A4 PDF. The text is laid out in a two column format and is very readable. The game reads in less than an hour. There are numerous black and white illustrations, presumably harvested out of the Public Domain.

The setting
The introduction describes the setting as follows:

The world is too large for anyone to fully map and too old for academics to accurately record. Explorers return from every direction with tales of bizarre places, wondrous and horrific.

You are an Explorer, braving the unknown in search of riches, fame, knowledge or power.

Behind that we find the outlines of a 19th century setting merged with the weird. Aliens, monsters and items that spontaneously develop magical properties can all be found here, and treasure. Lots of treasure, reasons for going into dark holes and braving the dangers beneath.

It feels very much like the old computer game Arcanum, but sans the magicians, elves and dwarves.

The rules
The rules are simple, characters consist of three stats (Dexterity, Strength and Will) that are rolled by 2d6+3. Then 10 is subtracted from each to get the bonus that is applied to all rolls for actions in that area that the characters engage in. Combat does away with any to hit roll, and attacks are simply resolved rolling damage straight away.

For the game’s size a surprising amount of the text is dedicated to the company mechanics, which allow the PCs to found actual companies, but also businesses, cults, political parties. There’s also a mass combat system which will come in handy the day the company comes into conflict with another company.

The form
The form is traditional. A game master (called referee) pits a group of player characters against traps, monsters and other hardships. Characters that manage to survive gain experience and improve.

Conclusion
The setting is weak. There’s not very much information about the setting in the game. But that should not be a problem for an experienced group willing to fill in the blanks themselves. There are enough monsters and magical items presented in the game to last for a while though.
The rules are good. The game sets out to be a simple and quick dungeon bash/adventure game, and the rules definitely support that kind of play.
The form is very good. There’s an extended example of play showing how the game should be played, and a full adventure is included showing what kind of play the game was written for.

Will I play it?
I’m leaning towards a no. Not my kind of game, really. But on the other hand, for the very rules light Old School group I run games for occasionally, this looks like a better choice than the Swords & Wizardry White Box rules we’re currently using. The lack of depth in the ItO rules will not be a concern for those players, and the simpler mechanics might even suit them better.

soogagames.blogspot.com – Official site for Sooga Games, where the game can be downloaded.

Playing with (adult) beginners

Every year I find myself introducing a couple of new people into the hobby. They are friends or friends of friends who want to try role playing games. There’s much talk about introducing young people into the hobby, ‘They are our future!’ and all that, but realistically; I’m a 30-something dude – chances are the players I can actually connect and play interesting games with are also adults. And I don’t see much discussion about how to introduce adults into gaming, so I thought I’d share my thoughts on the matter.

My motivations are selfish of course. I’m into a niche segment of a niche hobby, and my experience shows that introducing new people to gaming is likely to be more successful than trying to convert existing role players into the style of games I like.

Enthusiasm is contagious, if I like the game we’re playing it will show, and the beginners are more likely to enjoy the game and come back.

Games I play with beginners
Of course, I would not play every game I enjoy on the first session with a beginner at the table. Some are ruled out due to complicated mechanics, others due to factors in the form or setting. I want games that are rules light, and can be grasped immediately. And I want games with familiar settings, the beginners should be able to visualize the setting immediately, in order to be able to judge themselves what sort of things could happen there and which could not.

  • Zombie Cinema – Like a broken record I repeat the name of that game in every situation. But for introducing beginners it is really an excellent choice. The rules are very simple, and uses a board and common dice, familiar to almost everyone. The game has a clear goal of moving your pawn along the track, and getting into arguments or disagreements with the other characters is not a problem at all. The theme of zombie invasion can easily be switched to any sort of untenable situation or disaster for those who don’t like zombies or have little grounding in that culture.
  • The Daughters of Verona – A storygame of Shakespearean comedy, everyone likes to laugh and have fun, and most people have a passing familiarity with the source material or the romantic comedy genre in general. The rules are very simple and the cards present possible events for play, reducing the risk of analysis paralysis.
  • Witch Quest – The game
    Witch Quest players

    Witch Quest players with props

    about teenage witches and their cats is not for everyone, granted, but for the right audience it has it’s place. The cat/witch pair play get’s someone on ‘your side’ right off the bat, and heartwarming stories can appeal even to very cautious beginners. The rules are not quite as simple as in the previous games, but quite manageable especially if you stay away from the optional section on combat.
  • Swords & Wizardry White Box – Basically any old school style D&D game from before AD&D is fine, provided the beginner actually wants a traditional game and combat focus. It allows the use of strange dice, gives a historical background to the hobby, and introduces concepts valid for many other games.

All these games are games that can be enjoyed by veteran players as well. Remember the bit about enthusiasm being contagious.

The first session
Don’t bring the beginners as guests into a standing game. They will lack the background to visualize events in the game, and therefore be hindered from taking part to their full potential. Pause the regular game and play a one-shot where they can see all the stages of prep and setup, to let them play on equal terms with the existing players.

Before starting the game, do some sort of creative warm up exercise. There are many available out there on the web, the last time I asked everyone to tell a lie, and then to tell a lie about themselves. An easy task to loosen up and break the ice at the table.

I make an effort to keep the first session short, 2-3 hours is good shorter is better. If the game ended too soon you can always play one more time, or have a rewarding discussion about gaming, investigating what could be a good game to play next time.

Don’t kill just the beginners’ PCs. If the game actually is about character death in the way Zombie Cinema and some old school games are by all means kill the PCs. But a beginner leaving the table with the sense that he/she failed or lost the game by having the PC die is less likely to return for your next game.

www.arkenstonepublishing.net/zombiecinema – Official Zombie Cinema page.

wilhelmsgames.wordpress.com/the-daughters-of-verona – Official The Daughters of Verona page.

yarukizero.wordpress.com/2010/02/11/witch-quest-book-ii-release – English translation of Witch Quest.

www.swordsandwizardry.com/whitebox.htm – Offical Swords & Wizardry White box page.

Reading Svavelvinter by Tomas Härenstam and Thomas Johansson

Back in the 80ies, when Drakar & Demoner ruled the Swedish gaming scene, the Svavelvinter adventure took the scene by storm. Swedish gamers held it in very high regard, in a sort of a The Enemy Within kind of way. Years became decades, new but backwards incompatible versions of Drakar & Demoner were released, but Svavelvinter was still regarded as the high point in Swedish RPG history and commanded very high prices among collectors.

Recently the original author, Erik Granström, started releasing novels set in the Trakorien setting from his old adventure. And a few months ago I got the new Svavelvinter RPG in the mail. Let’s take a closer look.

The book
Svavelvinter (Eng. Sulphur Winter) is a 352 page hardcover tome in an unusual landscape format, about 22×27 cm. It is heavy, and the full colour pages fan considerably if the book is held vertically. The text is laid out in a two column format, with a very wide outside margin where sometimes an extra column of text is squeezed in. A whole group of artists have been enrolled to make the numerous illustrations throughout the book, but they have managed to keep a consistent style and feel.

The game is not a quick read, expect to spend many hours at even getting an overview. I wouldn’t be surprised if it would take days to read and learn ‘all of it’ before running a game.

The setting
Svavelvinter dedicates about 100 pages to describing the Trakorien archipelago and nearby lands in quite some detail, including several maps. It is a setting with a renaissance Italy feel, mixed with various bits and pieces taken from other historical periods and places, and Erik’s quirky imagination.

The rules and form
While I usually divide rules and form into separate sections I could not find a reasonable way to do so for Svavelvinter. They are intimately bound together, reinforcing each other.

Play happens at two levels, character level and shadow level. The character level play is what we usually associate with the story gaming style these days, separate but intertwining storylines about the main characters rather than a party of murder hobos travelling the land for loot and wenches. The shadow level is a boardgame played by the players, in which the powers that rule the setting compete for dominance in various areas.

Character generation is mechanically mostly limited to dividing points over the four stats; Fire, Wind, Water and Stone, and then selecting a few special abilities and the character’s goal, curse, destiny and relations. The character also has three experiences from the past, detailed with one sentence each.

Task resolution comes down to rolling pools of d6s based on the stat and a bunch of modifiers and counting 4+ results as successes, the more the better. If the roll is successful the player gains narration privileges to describe the outcome.

A single basic conflict resolution mechanism is used for everything from persuasion and pursuit to combat, albeit with a whole bunch of modifiers and special rules for every situation.

Character advancement is important. Every time one of the character’s past experiences is tagged in play to give a re-roll it is marked. When all experiences have been marked (and the character has completed an order from the shadow level of the game) the character gains a level. Levelling gives more abilities, but once the character reaches level 10 it must face it’s destiny and leave play.

The shadow level of the game is quite different, it is a board game where the players play one round at the start of every session. The events in the board game influence the character level play, giving depth and background. Every player’s PC stands under the influence of another player’s shadow power, which will give the PC orders and tasks (which when resolved enables the character to level as described above).

The game is run by a GM, but all the PCs and shadow powers are controlled by the players. The GM acts as a facilitator and arbitrator, and introduces events to colour play. Also every campaign is guided by a prophecy (8 pages of rules and tables for creating prohpecies!), the campaign ends when the prophecy has been fulfilled, at which time the players sum up their points from the shadow level board game and add their characters’ levels to find their score. This is a competitive RPG.

Conclusion
The setting is very good, lots of information and details.
The rules are excellent, they cover what the game is intended to do very well, and provide a framework for telling a very specific style of stories.
The form is excellent, the game provides great detail on how to play and run it, including an intro adventure.

Will I play it?
Yes, it seems like I will. A new group has been formed and it appears that we will rally around Svavelvinter as a common interest.

However, had I not had a group that specifically planned to play this particular game I’m not so certain. In spite of the very high grades above there are things that speak against the game.

First, it’s 350 very dense pages, without a clear flow through the text and actually learning this game is quite an undertaking when compared to the usual ~50 page games that I’ve gotten used to.

Second, the Trakorien setting is fantasy, but a very detailed and peculiar brand of fantasy. It may easily cause the same problems of mismatched expectations that occur when a group gathers to play StarWars and some players saw the original trilogy 20 years ago, and some have embraced the expanded universe stuff.

In my discussion on Fantasy! a while back I expressed fears that the game had failed to attract a following, but it seems I was wrong on that account. The initial 1000 print run had sold out, and Fria Ligan apparently has ha lively forum for the game on their own website.

frialigan.se/svavelvinter – The official Svavelvinter page.

sv.wikipedia.org/wiki/Svavelvinter – The Svavelvinter page on Swedish Wikipedia.

erik-granstrom.blogspot.se/ – The author Erik Granström’s blog.

Reading Fantasy! – Old School Gaming by Tomas Arfert

A few months ago a Swedish game written in Swedish made a splash even in the international community, Svavelvinter, an indie game that looks like a trad game. Meanwhile on the Swedish scene, people mostly talk about Fantasy!, a trad game that looks like an indie game.

Confused yet?

Let’s take a closer look.

The book
Fantasy! is a 100 page 17x26cm book, print-on-demand via Vulkan. The text is laid out in two columns that are on the narrow side of comfortable in width. But it is still an easy read as long as you can read Swedish, in spite of it’s name the game is not written in English.

There are numerous illustrations by a whole group of artists, and they have worked in differing styles which gives a somewhat scattered impression.

The setting
Beyond the generic Sword & Sorcery land of generic fantasy gaming there is no setting as such in the game. An example city setting called Morcar is given 8 pages as an example of what the game could look like in play, but it’s just an example.

The rules
For char gen four stats; Constitution, Dexterity, Intelligence and Presence, are either rolled with 1d6 each, or bought point-buy style. In addition to that each character selects five special abilities that give small bonuses under specific circumstances. For those who would prefer to get started quickly there are templates with pre-selected abilities for the usual bunch of killer and thief PC professions. Not counting the traditional purchases of starting starting equipment char gen can be done in a matter of minutes.

Checks are done by rolling the value of the corresponding stat in d6’s and counting the dice showing 4+ as successes, the more the better. Simple rules for character advancement and a turn based system for physical combat (no grid or minis needed) make up the rest of the rules body.

The form
The form is traditional; a GM who interprets the rules (and invent new ones as necessary) and a group of players who play their own characters.

Conclusion
The setting is either OK or missing, depending on if you count the example or not. This shouldn’t be much of a problem though; the PCs are a group of murder hobos and there are monsters to kill and treasure to loot. Just like it always has been.
The rules are good, very focused on combat, but considering the scope of the game that is only proper.
The form is very good. The game sets out as a beginner’s game, and if you need an introduction in old school style of gaming (rather than specifically OD&D) it has everything you need; PC-generation, a bunch of monsters to kill, a setting example and even a dungeon bash intro adventure.

Will I play it?
Maybe. We have an old school game going with the S&W White box rules already. I’m not in a rush to get rid of that set of rules now that the players have learnt them. But if I were to start anew, I might go with Fantasy!. It’s quick and easy, and adding a few house rules or abilities to the system to reflect a specific setting is easily done.

www.sagagames.com/fantasy – The official site for the game.

Another call for gamers

Back in March I posted a call for gamers from across the globe. Now, three months later, a few gamers have answered and I have recorded a few podcast interviews. The podcasts have been posted on the otherwise Swedish gaming blog Indierummet Nordnordost, but I have tagged the English stuff so you can short cut to it through this magic URL.

This far I have spoken with:

Now I’m looking for more gamers to speak with.

Do you live in a country that I haven’t covered yet? Would you like to be a guest on the podcast? Could we meet over Skype for an hour or two and talk about tabletop RPGs?

Reading The Trouble with Rose by Todd Zircher

As I’m working with the print release of The Daughters of Verona I keep hearing echoes of other games from last year’s GameChef. Forsooth! and The Play’s the Thing are already available in print, and Todd Zircher keeps updating and doing supplements for his game The Trouble with Rose. Let’s take a closer look.


The book
The Trouble with Rose is a 17 page PDF, layout in a two column landscape format. On some pages the layout makes the lines a bit on the long side, but since it is a very short game it’s not much of a problem. There are a few illustrations to lighten up the text a bit.

The setting
The game comes with thirteen one paragraph mini settings for the players to flesh out during play. They cover a wide range of styles, instead the elusive Rose character provides a red thread for the game No matter what the setting is, there is Rose, and Rose is in trouble. The stories of the player characters’ revolve around them helping or hindering the NPC Rose.

The rules
The game uses very simple character sheets with name, short description and six traits/attributes. By highlighting the attributes in play the players score points. There are no mechanisms for task or conflict resolution, the game relies entirely on free narration.

The form
The Trouble with Rose is a GM less game where the players take turns framing scenes for their own characters. Each player holds a hand of dominoes, and in their scenes they play one tile to indicate which of the six attributes they will try to highlight in the scene. The other players will play NPCs or their own characters in the scene, and then vote on how well the scene setting player acted the attributes. The player with the most points at the end is the winner.

Conclusion
The setting is poor, the players will have to make their own at the start of play. This should not be a problem to most groups, and for those who want more details Todd has posted several play sets with more detailed settings and pre gen characters.
The rules are OK, it’s a competitive game in the free narration style, and the rules won’t get in the way.
The form is very good, the text is clear on how the game should be played. There’s an example of play that illustrates how a scene is played and scored.

Will I play it?
Maybe, but probably not. Especially not with the competitive element, which I think might distract from the story telling. Still, it’s a quick and easy way of getting a game going, as long as you have your dominoes available.

www.tangent-zero.com/trouble.htm – The Trouble with Rose, where both the game and supplements can be downloaded.

Key code : 1034 – A Zombie Cinema hack

Over Easter I ran a game design challenge on the Swedish RPG forum rollspel.nu. There were unusually few participants, mostly due to most of the Swedish indie game design community having their yearly meetup at GothCon at the same time.

But a few participants submitted games, and I wrote a short game myself just to keep busy while I waited for the others’ games to be posted.

Actually, it wasn’t much of a game, but rather a little hack for one of my all time favourite RPGs – Zombie Cinema. But given the time invested the result was most satisfying. Relying on a pre existing game and just tweaking the small bits you want different saves huge amounts of time compared with writing a whole game from scratch. Even if it’s just a small indie game.

Key code : 1034


Come join us in the collective The Bumblebees for our New Year’s party. We’ll fix food and champagne, bring anything else that you want during the evening. The party starts at seven, but the sauna is open from five for those who are interested. As usual the key code is 1034.

The hack is just a new board for Zombie Cinema. Print and play!

Download the Key code : 1034 board.

To play this hack you’ll need a copy of Zombie Cinema.

Birthday house con and play testing

This year my birthday coincided with a four day weekend, which I took advantage of and arranged a house con for the sphere of gamers around Nordnordost. Over four days we did loads of gaming, had some very nice meals and even managed a small birthday party combined with a book swap.

The Academy
My game about students at a boarding school has gone through numerous iterations. And without me first realising it I got stuck in a vicious circle of slowly changing preferences and always being a little behind on the updating the game. Which lead to it being close, but never quite finished. The game has been five years in the making, and now it feels like its about to be ready. Nothing is holding it back, the interior artwork is done, the rules finally work and the cover art has been ordered.

We played a three year session about a Martian military academy, hidden under the ice on Io – Sparta. A place where students prepared for the war against Earth, achieved the peak of physical perfection and mental resilience through a strict training regimen. A place where curling was the highest form of ritualized competition.

The rules fit the narrative and influenced the story in meaningful ways, the students developed in interesting ways and the evil plots and schemes of the liberal Earthlings finally drew the students into the war they had been preparing for.

Until Dawn
A few weeks ago I posted a hack for While the World Ends about estranged teenagers. It’s a fine hack, but the playtesters thought it should be a game of its own, rather than just a hack. One of them will have to change name, but right now there are two different versions of Until Dawn, one hack and one game. We managed to squeeze two separate playtests into the con, and I now have loads of notes and feedback to digest for the next version of the system.

Sex?
During the con fellow Nordnordoster Elin’s essay on introducing sex in games dropped on the Gaming as Women blog. It’s a good read and it lead to some interesting discussions during the con. I’d put it on my recommended reading list for anyone who wants to bring any difficult matter or adult subjects into their games, but don’t know how. The advice given is applicable to a much wider range of topics than just sex.

Witch from Pompey Crew Design
I would also like to make a shout out to Pompey Crew Design who were kind enough to send us a preview of Witch – The Road to Lindisfarne so we could try it at the con. It’s a hack of Montsegur 1244, just like my game The Daughters of Verona, but it takes the storytelling in a completely different direction.

A whole new world

I have this old laptop, Celeron CPU and Windows XP sticker, that I haven’t been able to make myself get rid of. It still works and has a pretty decent display, but it is too slow to be much fun with games and such. Yesterday morning I installed some soft synths on it, and after some tweaking it actually worked. It worked so well that I made a trip to town and bought a cheap MIDI-keyboard to go with it.

Lo and behold my minimal couch studio.

I haven’t used any soft synths before, and spent all morning installing free ones at random and just doodling. Two that I liked were Minimal and Meteorite from Psychic Modulation, and the doodles resulted in this little clip.

Except for Windows itself everything was done with free software. So if you’re curious it shouldn’t be very hard to set up your own stuff.

I used

  • VST Host – It doesn’t make any sounds by itself, but it provides an environment in which the soft synths can run. It also allows you to use the computer’s keyboard to play notes, if you don’t have a dedicated MIDI keyboard.
  • ASIO4all – At first I had a noticeable delay from pressing a key and hearing the sound. After installing the ASIO4all sound card driver that problem disappeared, just remember to enable the new driver in VST Host.
  • Psychic Modulation – The site where I got Minimal, the drum machine, and Meteorite, the synth sound.
  • Audacity – I had used this before on Linux, but I installed it on the laptop as well, so I could edit the recording a bit.
  • Miditech I2 Control-25 – The cheap MIDI keyboard, optional really. But I’ve been wanting something like it for a while, and this was a good an excuse to get one as any.

A call for gamers from across the globe

I’m a Swedish gamer, and I have insight in what happens on the Swedish RPG scene, such as it is.  Also, I learned some English in school, and thanks to that I can follow what’s going on in the US and UK. I can even play games from those areas.  A little remains of the German I took fifteen or twenty years ago in school, so with some effort I can follow discussions on German forums, and even read a game or two if I take my time.

Swedish is also similar enough to Danish and Norwegian that I can follow discussions on internet forums in those countries without too much problem.  But there it ends.

I know that RPGs are played in Poland, France, Italy, Japan, China, South America, French speaking parts of Canada and loads of other places, but I can’t really learn what’s going on there. And I want to know!

What games do they play? Have they taken up on the ‘indie wave’ of games like many gamers in my parts have done?  Are they still playing traditional games? Do they have their own form of freeform gaming, different from the kind I see people play here where I live?

Also, I’m doing a podcast. Most of the episodes are in Swedish, but a few are in English. And they offer gamers from around the world a glimpse of what RP looks like in these parts. A very focused glimpse of what’s going on in my own immediate circles, true, but it’s something.

I’ve been thinking about recording episodes where I discuss role playing games with people from around the world. Glimpses into gaming in far away places. The discussions or interviews could cover anything related to the hobby, whatever you think is interesting is what I want to hear about.

Are you a gamer living in another country?  Would you like to be a guest on my podcast? What would you like to talk about?

 
www.nordnordost.se/?tag=english-podcast-episode – Index of English language episodes of the Nordnordost podcast.
 

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