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Author Topic: Last Year's Indie Games  (Read 1706 times)
Eero Tuovinen
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« on: February 22, 2008, 04:08:27 PM »

It took a while for the latest batch of indie games I ordered from the US to reach our distant shores, but now they're finally here, and just in time for Tracon, a game convention we had at Tampere on last Saturday. I've spent the last week and a half reading and reading through the games in an effort to familiarize myself with them for marketing purposes, and to write truthful reviews of them for our little web store. Of course I also want to play many of these little gems at some point, but meanwhile, I have all kinds of little reactions based on reading and (hopefully) understanding the games. Instead of writing each designer separately with my congratulations and little comments I'm going to put them up here in a centralized location. Perhaps they'll amuse others who know these games!

The following is not in any order, I'm just shuffling through the pile of games on my table.

Grey Ranks
I like! The topic seems depressive in a manner that leaches any immediate motivation to play, but when I figured out that we're speaking of boy scouts fighting a brutal enemy and falling in love meanwhile it certainly clicked for me. Going to play this one when I get together with some adults (don't think that the teenagers around here would be interested). I hated how the book nowhere told me where to find the oft-mentioned grid, which I then found at the end of the book after having partially reconstructed it from the lists and examples of the book. Not sure how the super-heavy topic meshes with making a story that doesn't devolve into formulaic melodrama, but it'll be interesting to try.

Primitive
Lots of brilliance in this one, I've already played two sessions. It's probably the toolbox approach that isn't working for me, though; I'm constantly annoyed by little things which I perceive as flaws, when it's actually just a matter of GNS incoherence in the game text. Easy enough to fix in actual play with a coherent group, I could imagine playing a game inspired by this material in a couple of different ways at least.

Agon
Inspiring; I've worked with similar stuff myself, although of course not in an equally formulaic manner. The cover is beautiful, but the text itself would benefit from an equally solid layout. Works as a reference work for sure, but would probably find greater favor with the target audience with more flashy production values.

Hero's Banner
A well-executed narrativistic-formalistic game somewhat akin to Dust Devils in scope and execution. Nothing revolutionary and perhaps doesn't have anything specific to make me want to play it; regardless, I already did three sessions simply because the game's quick to start and easy to learn, so it's by no means on the bottom of my play list.

Dirty Secrets
I'm very excited by this one, somewhat like Grey Ranks, above. The formal mechanics will probably require care when learning the game, but play itself should be relatively straightforward. I'll give it a go when a suitable group happens together. The layout annoyed me for the technical deficiencies, while the design and choice of illustration was quite amiable; going through the book with an eye on typesetting and such would definitely improve the product.

Legends of Alyria
I've known this game for a long while, but getting it in book form is nice, especially as I could sell it at Tracon. Alyria is one of those games where I sell it simply by asking a prospective client to read a page or two of setting stuff from anywhere in the book. That pretty much weeds the audience. I'll be happy to substitute Dust Devils with Alyria at some point when I need a situation-based drama game, now that I have it in book form.

Spirit of the Century
A very exciting beginning to the book (I imagine everybody loves the Aspect rules), but I can't say that I'm personally too happy with the long lists of skills and stunts - it's literally hundreds of pages long with excruciatingly detailed rules for every separate skill; this is absolutely fundamental for anybody who needs the guidance, but while the authors had obviously done their best to make the material pertinent and exciting, I wasn't that impressed for the most part. The purposes for those stunts and skills are probably quite different than the equivalent crunch in the Shadow of Yesterday, but I still vastly prefer the latter for the thematically resonant capabilities that characters can gain; a lot of the crunch here seemed just petty to me, relatively speaking. Lacking a campaign arc system is also a bit of a deal-breaker for me, although I appreciate the idea behind pick-up gaming.

Dread (the Jenga one)
Such a surprise! For those who don't know, I'm rather fervent in my preference for distributed social responsibility in gaming; that's a fancy way of saying that I don't stand auteuristic gaming where the gamemaster is stood on a pedestal wherefrom he then performs for the benefit of the mewling masses. Despite my personal preference Dread, an absolutely coherent auteuristic game, impressed me with the clarity of its vision, purposefulness of the writing and analytical take the rules and advice have for the attested purpose of creating dreadful, immersionistic horror stories. This is probably the first game in ten years or so that makes me consider running an auteuristic storytelling session.

It Was a Mutual Decision
A very touching game I'm keen to try with a suitable group; I'd read the game a while back so it wasn't much of a surprise for me at this point, but it still entices me with the serious topic. Unlike Dirty Secrets and Grey Ranks above, which I'm a bit hesitant to try with a random crew, I could well imagine playing this with almost any mixed crew around here; the topic of the game is universal enough to hold meaning for almost anybody.

Blossoms Are Falling
The best Burning Wheel book so far. I'm still reluctant to actually play the game, so I'm far from anybody who can speak to it authoritatively, but the setting here is rather fresh and intriguing compared to the more typical shogunate-era Japanese game setting one comes to expect. The systemic bits are very penetrating in the BW fashion, painting an acute picture of the setting.

Jihad
A solid Burning Wheel book for all I can see. A bit of a lesser cousin for Burning Empires, but surpasses it for a campaign specifically focused on Dune color and/or the jihad motif. I also see little reason to not use the book with Burning Empires planet burning system and campaign arc rules if the group so wishes.

Don't Rest Your Head
The game lacks Situation of any kind as far as I can see, so I'm a bit at loss for how to implement it. It could go with a closed drama system like a relationship map, but one could also run with an adventure game model. The fact that the GM has to gauge opposition strength in a pretty arbitrary manner suggests that the purpose of the GM is to just pile on adversity to make the players feel like they're not getting anything for free. Apart from these issues the game has nice reward systems for characters in adversity and a pretty evocative setting, so I have no complaints. Will play at an opportune moment.

I'm rather happy with this latest batch of games - everything I ordered is of easily sufficient quality for retailing (if the reader doesn't know, I sell these games here in Finland), and most of the stuff also has an unique niche. Some of these, like the Spirit of the Century and the BW stuff, already found its audience at Tracon - I'll probably have to order more of them soon enough. Others, like It Was a Mutual Decision will probably be somewhat slower to filter into the collective consciousness around here, but we have time. The important thing is that all the games have some reason for existence and some context in which they are valid purchases for an audience of roleplayers.

Our selection of games is still lacking various titles like, say, Dictionary of Mu, so I'm hoping to arrange for a new shipment of games at some point during the spring. Have to get refills of all the Lumpley games as well. The American post office is presenting a bit of a problem in this regard with their decision to stop doing land mail delivery to Europe, but perhaps I'll figure out some cheap alternative method for moving the games.
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iago
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« Reply #1 on: February 22, 2008, 04:34:05 PM »

Spirit of the Century
A very exciting beginning to the book (I imagine everybody loves the Aspect rules), but I can't say that I'm personally too happy with the long lists of skills and stunts - it's literally hundreds of pages long with excruciatingly detailed rules for every separate skill; this is absolutely fundamental for anybody who needs the guidance, but while the authors had obviously done their best to make the material pertinent and exciting, I wasn't that impressed for the most part. The purposes for those stunts and skills are probably quite different than the equivalent crunch in the Shadow of Yesterday, but I still vastly prefer the latter for the thematically resonant capabilities that characters can gain; a lot of the crunch here seemed just petty to me, relatively speaking. Lacking a campaign arc system is also a bit of a deal-breaker for me, although I appreciate the idea behind pick-up gaming.

I see where you're coming from on a lot of this (honestly, the skills and stunts, we tend to view as very long example lists, and fairly skippable in many places for folks who already know where they're going).  But there's an omission that I'm pretty curious about: what did you think about the Tips and Tricks chapter, specifically?  We tend to regard that as the real heart of the book.

Quote
Don't Rest Your Head
The game lacks Situation of any kind as far as I can see, so I'm a bit at loss for how to implement it. It could go with a closed drama system like a relationship map, but one could also run with an adventure game model. The fact that the GM has to gauge opposition strength in a pretty arbitrary manner suggests that the purpose of the GM is to just pile on adversity to make the players feel like they're not getting anything for free. Apart from these issues the game has nice reward systems for characters in adversity and a pretty evocative setting, so I have no complaints. Will play at an opportune moment.

I'm not big into theory, to be frank, so I may be misunderstanding the capital-s "situation" meaning here, but for me, DRYH's situation is its characters, particularly in the form of the answers to the questionnaire.  That's why so much of the rules text talks about the use of the PCs' questionnaires.

The interesting truth about the Pain totals is that it's almost impossible to make a mistake with what you set them at.  Set them low, and the players' pools have plenty of opportunity to dominate -- which can result in a "they screw themselves" setup.  Set pain high, and you've got a very likely chance of pain dominating, thus feeding Despair into the Despair & Hope economy.  So in the end, yeah, the GM's role in determining Pain settings is pretty arbitrary. What's more important is that he keep those Despair coins he generates in circulation, turning into hope, and presses hard on the characters to do what they do best -- be their own worst enemy.

Good capsule reviews though, man.  I appreciated reading them.
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Eero Tuovinen
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« Reply #2 on: February 22, 2008, 05:41:24 PM »

Ah, you have a good point about the tips and tricks, actually: something I meant to write about was what happens when you read and read a bunch of roleplaying books quickly before a convention in an effort to figure out their purpose and such. Books blur together and start all resembling one another before long, and while a practiced mind can learn the rules, procedures and purpose of each game, it's far from given that critical impressions are all in order at the end. I really should have written notes from when I read this pile of books to capture what I was thinking about them when reading... now I only have the bits and pieces that got stuck in my memory from the process.

Anyway, Spirit of the Century GMing section, which I'd promptly forgotten existed before you mentioned it just now: I found it to be quality work in the same way I found the skill description sections and the elaborate rules for all the possible situations one might encounter when running a pulp game. Specifically, I might not have emphasized it enough above that I really do think that this material is excellent and even most exciting for a person who is in need of such; I might personally be jaded or simply too experienced (depends on the viewpoint, I guess) as an audience to care much about all that material; it's written in a tool-box paradigm wherein the book offers multiple sets of models for running the game, which basicly means that it's either a set of useful options or a carte blanche to do whatever you want without much supportive structure, depending on how adept the GM is with following his own train of thought. The section also has the structure of a big pile of good advice, and while there's certainly a lot of good ideas crammed in there, it's also completely dependant on the GM as an auteur - a person who by sheer brilliance and quick wit can actually apply the 101 different tips and tricks to practice with nothing but his own GMing authority to support him, and nothing by his GMing experience to help him avoid making the wrong decisions. It's good for what it is, but I tend to steer clear of that kind of gaming nowadays.

Spirit of the Century is a fine example of a game that I can easily recommend for a certain kind of group even while I myself would have certain suspicions about playing it; the crunch is for the most part thematically dull (like, characters are encouraged to have three different versions of "I'm fast" as part of their stunt repertoire, which would never happen in The Shadow of Yesterday, which SotC resembles in many ways) and the lack of a progressing campaign structure means that the game is competing mechanically with single-adventure games like The Mountain Witch; while the Fate point system and Aspects fare pretty well in that kind of competition, the sheer amount of textual material makes me hesitant of trying to play the game in just one or two sessions. That's probably more about me than the game, of course.

(Also, if we're going to keep me accountable for what I say about individual games here, we should remember my tendency towards preferring rules over advice; SotC is full of fine advice for honing your skills as a pick-up GM, which makes impressing me rather difficult for it, especially as the rules also have lots of concern for things I have little interest for nowadays, such as initiative in combat as a separate mechanical layer with large fictional impact. The advice is well written and clear, but as it is also repeating things I've learned from other sources, it's not personally that amazing.)

As for DRYH: what I mean by the perceived lack of Situation ("Situation" being the concrete touch-point between Setting and Character, where parts of both are sampled to create a basic subject for scenes) is that the game has this intricate Setting in the Mad City and lots of emphasis on the player characters as outsiders who come there from our world, but there's not much clarity about the whys of it: why would a character's personal story cross into the Mad City? I guess it's pretty simple to just mandate as a GM that whatever the character is about, that thing is involved with the Mad City in some manner.

What you say about Pain makes perfect sense, by the way. I'd have probably grogged that much better if the game didn't have those recommended Pain values for different opponents; the setting description starts to look like a bestiary with them, and it implies that the GM should be using some kind of emulational logic in assigning the values, which is pretty difficult when the setting consists of pinheaded bureaucrats, candle-eyed knights and other weirdness.

Overall I'm much more personally positive about DRYH than I am about SotC; I can work with the urban fantasy setting and it seems like the game will work just fine with a normal relationship mapped drama structure. The rules, reward mechanics and all seem like fun and well-crafted. DRYH is certainly on my play list at some point when nothing more immediate pops up... again, pretty much the same niche that Dust Devils resides in, and while I haven't had much call for that kind of game lately, that's sure to change during the summer when gaming groups get all vague and moving about.

Anyway, my main idea in this thread was to look into the above games shortly from the immediate viewpoint of having spent several nights reading through them. This is hardly anything close to well-considered critique; I was kinda hoping that some common strand would emerge from the games I read, but looking at my impressions now, I can only see that there are several games that I'm for some reason reluctant to play with teenagers. Perhaps several designers have been doing solidly adult work lately. No idea if it's a trend of any kind, though. If any other authors want to engage in any dialogue about individual games, I'm happy to discuss them some more, too - I hardly mentioned everything significant about the games I went through here, those points were just the most striking ones from my study.
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Eero Tuovinen
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« Reply #3 on: February 23, 2008, 07:13:05 AM »

Ah, also: I wrote a bit about our Primitive play last week. We also played three sessions of Hero's Banner, which I might write about as well if mood strikes me.
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