Pangone: The setting for our Apocalypse World Campaign

Warning: This text contains some profanity since it’s supposed to capture the flavor of both the setting of our game and the tone of Apocalypse World itself. If you’re sensitive about profanity, stop reading here.

This is the “intro” text to our new Apocalypse World campaign, which sums up what we came up during Session #1’s setting creation process. Session reports will follow but it’s helpful to understand what we decided about the basis for our apocalypse, which revolves around an environmental one. The “cell phone pulse” stuff is something I added later (unabashedly borrowed from Stephen King’s story “Cell”) to make more sense out of the decision that people avoid the cities. I also wanted some sort of hostile threat out there aside from other survivors in order to add a bit more of a horror element to the game at times.

My granddad says it all started with that damn experiment at CERN – somethin’ to do with new tree nose travelin’ faster than light or some shit like that. I can’t say how long ago it was seein’ as clocks don’t work like they used to. My granddad once told me it was 50 years ago, but like I said, that don’t mean much now, plus he’s not always right in the head.

Where was I? Oh yeah, CERN. Fuckin’ CERN. I guess they never figured that messin’ with nature like that was goin’ to lead to the end or they wouldn’t have done it I suppose. Anyway, whatever they were doin’, somethin’ went wrong that ended in a big flash but that wasn’t the real problem. The real problem was those damn newtreenos did somethin’ to the Earth, slowed its spinnin’ down, like a brake on a wheel, all of a sudden. The days got longer, temperatures got hotter pretty fast, and the oceans started sloshin’ around, drainin’ back to the poles. Who would have thought that was possible? The Dutch went first. Sparks said he read that nearly the entire population of Holland drown in the first hour. Ten or twenty million maybe. Shit. The rest of the Europeans didn’t fare much better. Supposedly it’s all under water now. Russia too. Siberia was nothin’ but lowland, you know. And Canada. There ain’t no more point singin’ “Oh Canada” ‘cuz it’s all under water. Michigan is now prime beach front real estate. I shit you not. So is Idaho. All gone. Tori says she came from the east coast and New York City ain’t nothin’ but the tops of skyscrapers.

Course there’s more land in places. In fact we got one big land goin’ all the way around. People call it Pangone. I think that’s supposed to be ironic or somethin’.

The landscape now is different: Most of the vegetation is gone. I saw my last tree when I was 10 – we chopped that fucker down and used it to help keep us warm. I wish I could find another. Same goes for the plants. There ain’t a lot out there – some scrub grass, some lichen, a few cactii. Sometimes you see flowers when it rains. ‘course it doesn’t rain but maybe once every couple months. At least not here. I’ve heard there are places where it rains all day, every day. But not here. We mainly get by eatin’ lizards, scavenged food (canned foods are worth more than gold nowadays), and whatever animals we can hunt. Which ain’t a lot. Oh and potatoes. They seem to grow good. Sometimes. 

Course, those that died were maybe the lucky ones. See that CERN thin’ sent out some wacky pulse that fried the brains of other people. Anybody on a cell phone supposedly got fried. Left him hollowed out, but mean. Real mean. They got the basic instincts: eat, shit, fuck, but not much else other than attack anythin’ they can get their hands on. For some reason they leave each other alone though, unless they’re hungry. Hungry ones are just plain scary. Most of the folks that got fried were in the cities so nowadays you stay way from those places. Unless you’re desperate. Like most of us. 

Given all that you’d think mankind would get their shit together and help each other out. You’d think that but you’d be wrong. Instead it’s pretty much every man for himself. Sure some of us band together, that’s natural and smart. There’s a lot of petty warlords out there, and cannibals, and raiders, and religious freaks. They’re all predators, or prey, dependin’ on how desperate you are. Don’t let anyone kid you, we’re all desperate.

Life is hard.

Our game is set in Michigan, north of Detroit, not far from what is now the northern sea’s coast. The landscape is largely desert thanks to the lack of rain and the ~24 hours of daily (days are 36+ hours long now) sunlight the area gets.


Trying out Dungeon World with the students

This afternoon I ran a session of Dungeon World for the after-school club kids and it went over really well – so well, that I have at least nine students eager to play next week which means I will need to see if I can get one of the 12th graders to GM a second group.

For today’s session, which was run simply as a demo for the group to watch, I had a human fighter, human paladin, elf wizard, and halfling thief. I ran a section of the Blood Stone Idol adventure that’s included in the Basic set PDF, starting the group at the entrance of the dungeon and letting them explore the first few areas. I was surprised at how quickly the students picked up the rules and how well they engaged with the narrative elements of the game. What was most interesting to me was how much they enjoyed exploring the typical D&D tropes and story elements in an entirely new way. The session ended with the paladin being smashed flat by a marauding ogre, followed by the halfling thief running up the ogre’s leg, burying his dagger in to its throat, and then riding the dagger down the length of its neck like a pirate sliding down a sail. The group broke in to a cheer and we wrapped up the demo.

I also found the game a lot of fun to run. My favorite part was the list of GM moves which essentially dictate how I could react to failures. I loved the fact that the story’s twists and developments grew organically out of the characters’ “failures” rather than my rolls and how my main job was simply to react and spring board based on the players’ decisions.

All in all it was a great session and the result is we’ll be playing a lot more Dungeon World over the next few months.

Review – Trail of Cthulhu

Lately I’ve been reading and reviewing a number of supplements and adventures for the Trail of Cthulhu RPG, and it finally dawned on me that I have never gotten around to writing a review of the actual game. So rather than continuing to put the metaphorical cart before the horse, I’ve sat down and written a full review of Trail of Cthulhu (ToC).

Trail of Cthulhu is a game written by Kenneth Hite, and published by Pelgrane Press. It uses Robin D. Laws’ GUMSHOE system for its underlying engine (i.e., the mechanics the game is built upon), which had previously been used in Pelgrane Press’s Fear Itself and The Esoterrorists RPGs. The GUMSHOE system is specifically designed to create stories focusing on investigative mysteries and thus is perfectly suited for exploring the setting based upon the writings of H.P. Lovecraft (HPL) and his emulators. ToC retails for $39.95 for the hard cover version and $19.95 for the PDF version. I am reviewing the hard cover book.

Just in case you’re not familiar with the Cthulhu Mythos…

The Cthulhu Mythos milieu focuses on mankind’s interactions – whether they be ordinary citizens, dark sorcerers, or insane cultists – with primordial alien races, dark gods, and other ancient beings that we were not meant to know. As such it’s generally a very dark and grim setting, where insanity, death, or worse await those who delve too far into the details of the Mythos. The basic idea both in HPL’s writings and in the game itself is ignorance is bliss and knowing too much can shatter a person’s mind. As such, the setting is one where PCs’ lives can be very short indeed, especially if one sticks to the tone established in the majority of Lovecraft’s stories (Robert Howard’s stories tend to have more of a pulp-tone, in which investigators fight the horrors using weapons).

A bit of nomenclature: Keeping true to its Call of Cthulhu roots, player characters (PCs) are known as Investigators in the game and the Gamemaster (GM) is known as “The Keeper.” I’ll be using these terms extensively in the review below.

Like most of my reviews, I will start with how the publisher describes the product:

Trail of Cthulhu is an award-winning standalone GUMSHOE system game under license to Chaosium, set in the 1930s, now in its third print run, and produced in five languages. It supports both Pulp (for Indiana Jones, Robert E. Howard, thrilling locations sorts of games) and Purist styles of play (for intellectual horror and cosmic dread). HP Lovecraft’s work combined both, sometimes in the same story.

It includes a new take on the creatures, cults and gods of the Lovecraft’s literature, and addresses their use in gaming. It adds new player backgrounds, and bulk out the GUMSHOE system to give intensive support for sanity, incorporating into the rule set the PCs desire to explore at the risk of going mad.

Trail of Cthulhu won two Ennie awards for Best Rules and Best Writing, as well as receiving an honourable mention for Product of the Year.

The Physical Product

This book is beautiful looking, with a tight binding and an attractive, very evocative, color cover. Its 248 pages are printed on high quality paper with a gray-scale interior, although page headers, dividers, frames, and markers are done is a brassy-brown tone which adds a nice antique effect that fits the material well.

The book’s layout is done in a narrow, three-column form which looks attractive but tends to make the pages feel really dense. It also creates some rather cramped lines at times, something that’s exacerbated by a few editing/layout gaffs that lead to spots where words have no real space between them (this is particularly problematic with the italics) or where bullet points aren’t indented causing them to blend into the text above and below the list. This is evident particularly in the tables and sidebars. Similarly, while the book’s editing is good, it could have used another couple passes of a careful proofreader since there are missing words and other typos still evident. All of these criticisms are minor points though since they are hardly common nor problematic, and taken as a whole, the book is very well edited and laid out.

Continue reading

Review – On Mighty Thews

On Mighty Thews is an independently published RPG by Simon Carryer that is available as a PDF for the low, low price of $5 through the indie rpgs un-store.  As anyone who is familiar with Robert E. Howard’s writing, the title is a reference to Howard’s best known character: Conan. Aimed squarely at creating pulp swords & sorcery short stories in the style of Howard, Moorcock, and Leiber. It’s a story game that focuses on creating interesting, action filled stories without bogging down in five-foot shifts or counting experience points. It’s also designed to be virtually prep-free, making it an ideal game for a convention or a night when you find yourself short a player or two.

The Product

The PDF is a 51-page, black & white book with a color cover making it inexpensive to print-out. However, the book also sports a hyper-linked table of contents which is a really nice touch since it makes running the game straight from a reader or computer very easy and thus printing it isn’t really necessary.

The layout of the book is fairly straight-forward and utilitarian, which while not highly exciting to look at, does make the book easy on the eyes and easy to use. The book’s art, while fairly sparse, is good looking with a nice cover and some cool, genre appropriate art. It is also well edited and proof-read: I spotted no typos or weird layout issues, nor did I run into any sections I need to read three times to parse the language. Taken together, the book is well put together, with a fine attention to detail.

The Game Itself

Character creation is a very fast and simple affair: Each character is defined by three attributes which describe a broad skill set – Warrior, Sorcerer, & Explorer. Each of these is assigned a die type (d4, d8, & d12). The higher the die, the better the character is at that area.

Next each character is given two extra abilities which define what makes the character unique. You can think of these as skill specialties but chosen to be a bit broader rather than highly specific. These abilities are brought in when applicable. To each of these another die is assigned (d6 & d10). Again, the higher the die, the better.

Finally each character is given a d20 Trait. This is a single word that defines how the character acts the majority of the time. Think of it as defining your personality, beliefs, or motto. It’s called a d20 trait because you assign a d20 to it.

After character creation, the group deals with setting creation, working together by discussing their basic ideas for the world and looking at the characters’ abilities and traits. They then take a sheet of paper and draw out a map of the world, establishing poles on the map – each player marks a point on the map and writes the name of their character’s d20 trait next to it. From there, each person at the table draws a few things on to the map, using the labels on the poles to influence what surrounds it. For example, if one of the poles is “Blood-thirsty” then the area around that pole may contain cannibals, or could involve a demonic cult, or sport a landscape of sharp, black basalt that cuts those who try to cross it. They can add exciting places of danger or adventure too.

If this sounds like an odd way to run a game, it is, and that’s what makes it so cool in my opinion. What the group is doing is creating a setting which reflects the traits of the characters, mirroring back what makes them special and quickly providing a rich tapestry of ideas for the GM to use as he creates the story. In addition, the fact that everyone at the table is contributing to the “world” everyone has a stake in the setting and the GM’s job of finding what interests the players is virtually effortless. The map doesn’t have to represent an entire world by the way: It can be limited to a single country, a city, or even just a cave complex.

Once the map is completed (or more accurately just barely fleshed out), the group picks an area that excites them all and the adventure begins.

Actual play is broken in to scenes. The GM sets the scene, describing who’s there and what’s going on, and then play is handed over to the players. Details are filled in by the players asking questions and interacting with the world. In other words, play is pretty traditional, but because the whole setting and adventure is being improvised, the GM is relying more on the few details created by the group during the map-creation process as well as personal inspiration. In other words, you’re improvising the entire adventure (though obviously you can steal ideas from books, movies, etc) which to some GMs may be a rather terrifying prospect but it’s fairly easy since you’re feeding off what the players say and do, and the rules are simple enough to handle virtually any situation that might come up.

So far I’ve described the game as if it’s just a lot of talking and that’s a big part of it – roleplaying by describing what you do and say. However, in certain situations, the dice hit the table; specifically when a character attempts something dangerous, when two characters are competing, or when two or more characters are fighting. Again, this is very traditional RPG stuff with the exception of the first bit: You don’t roll dice for “skill checks” unless there is some obvious danger to the character – otherwise they automatically succeed. In other words, you don’t roll perception checks to find a secret door unless that door conceals a horde of orcs behind it.

There’s one exception to all this and that’s the lore roll – it represents what the character already knows about the world and as such when he or she succeeds, the character gets to define a fact about the world. Once again, for a prep-free, collaborative game, this is very appropriate since it both lightens the GM’s workload as well as provides inspiration.

Tests are simple to resolve. Simply put, the player states what want to achieve, the GM says what the price of failure will be, and some dice are rolled.

In terms of dice mechanics, the game uses a fairly straight forward, roll to hit a set target number or roll against your adversary system. Dangerous situations (i.e., the “skill” check) roll against a target of 4. This means that a character with an attribute of a d4 will succeed 25% of the time, while a character with a d12 will succeed 75% of the time. The ability and d20 trait dice are brought in when they apply (e.g., if you have a d8 in “wrestling” you roll that die when you do something related to wrestling), with the higher result from the dice rolled being the one that is used to determine success or failure.

That’s all there is to the conflict mechanics, although there is quite a bit more detail provided to the mechanics in the actual game. This includes a system for degrees of success (i.e., for every 2 points by which you beat the target, you get one degree of success) which is used to gain bonuses on future actions or define a fact about a success, as well as rules which provide for a rich, cinematic, narrative combat sequence. However, I won’t go in to details about all of there. Suffice it to say that I found them well thought out and very story-rich: Injury doesn’t just kill you but instead is evocative of what happens in the literature from which the game takes inspiration: Characters persevere through their injuries, and may be hampered by them, but ultimately they overcome them.

The d20 trait also is brought in to play, granting either a re-roll token at the end of any scene in which the character acts in a way that fits the trait or if giving the player the actual d20 to roll if they are doing something that goes against their trait. While I think this rule is cool and fits the genre, I’m not sure there’s enough of a difference between a re-roll or rolling that d20 in many cases (figuring out which involves some math on the fly which ruins counter to the rest of the game’s design). However, I’d like to see how the rule worked in actual play before passing judgment on it.

That’s about it for the game. It does include some extra material at the end, including some tables and sample maps to help serve as inspiration. These are a thoughtful addition. In particular the maps were great for helping me fully understand how the map-making mechanics work.

The Verdict

I really like On Mighty Thews because it’s a game designed to tell Robert E. Howard short stories – not birth to death sagas, but rather episodic stories of heroics, adventure, and exploration. It’s also something that doesn’t require a great deal of prep, can be learned on the spot by players, and is just the kind of collaborative world-building and story-telling game that I like. Although I haven’t played it yet, I am planning on running it with my group in the near future and even am considering trying it out with the after-school club kids since I think it would be an incredibly easy game to teach.

While the game is clearly set-up to support one-shot play, the making of the map means that the group can return to their world as many times as they want to tell new and exciting stories. Much like Howard’s Conan, the game’s heroes are timeless and thus stories can jump forward or back in time, and there’s no need to worry about advancement, aging, or even continuity.

I also would be remiss in not pointing out that the way the system is designed it will work with nearly any sized group from one on one play to a table of 10, although my gut tells me 2-4 players plus a GM is the sweet spot for the game. This makes it ideal as a back-up game when you happen to be missing players or as an impromptu game at a convention. In any event, On Mighty Thews is definitely worth a look if you’re in to Conan, or Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, and aren’t afraid of a little improvisational story telling some evening. For $5, it’s a steal.

Full disclosure: I received a complementary review copy of the game from its author.

I have my advance PDF copy of the Fiasco Companion and it's awesome

I received my complementary advance PDF of the upcoming Fiasco Companion – I had the great honor of having an interview with me included in the book – and it’s awesome. The book looks great, is filled with tons of useful advice for both running the game and creating your own playsets, and includes four new playsets including the fantastic Fiasco High playset I wrote about earlier this year. Preorders for the book will be starting up soon, with the PDF becoming available around the same time. I am going to try to have a review up by the end of June but having had a quick skim of it, I can already say that if you like Fiasco, you will want to buy this book!

Review – Montsegur 1244

Montsegur 1244 is a story-telling roleplaying game inspired by the historical events that surrounded the siege of a castle located in southwestern France. In it, each player adopts the role of one of the castle’s inhabitants, with the group exploring the time period of the siege in a series of acts that span a single session of 3-6 hours. It is a GM-less game and prep-free as well.

Here’s how the author describes the game:

Do you renounce your heretic beliefs and do you wish to receive the forgiveness of the merciful Father?

In March 1244 this question was posed to several hundred Cathars. They had surrendered to the army that had besieged the castle of Montsegur for more than nine months. More than two hundred answered no, and thereby chose death by fire. Who were these people that chose to die for their belief?

In Montsegur 1244 the players collaborate to create a story about who these people were. Each player takes on the role of one of the besieged Cathars who will face the choice between life and faith.

Montsegur 1244 is a story game about burning for your belief for 3-6 players, duration 3-6 hours.

The Physical Product

The game’s book is a 64-page, saddle-stitched, digest-sized book. It’s interior is in gray-scale printing (black text on a textured gray/white background) and is on good stock paper. The color cover features an attractive illustration that captures the feel and time period of the game extremely well.

The book is written in a very clear and easy follow manner that explains how to play the game, with several detailed examples. The book also serves as a “guide” for the session, with specific paragraphs that are read to set the scene for each act and to provide the background details necessary to give the scenes that follow a sense of time and place.

The book also includes all of the cards (character, story, and scene cards) needed for play, which can be cut out of the book, although the author also provides the necessary materials as a free PDF on his website so you’re not forced to ruin your book.

The Game

The rules of the game are very simple and don’t involve dice or any sort of conflict resolution. Instead, players take turn setting and playing out scenes, with whoever has narration rights for the scene ultimately deciding the outcome of the that particular scene.

Here’s how the game plays out in a nutshell:

At the beginning of the session, the sets of scene and story cards are shuffled and placed in separate piles on the table. 3 of the scene cards are placed face up for players to choose from at the start of each scene.

Players than choose a character from the set of 12 that are included with the game: Each player will in fact play 2-4 of the Cathars (depending on how many players there are at the table) and then from them choose one as their main character whose fate they will ultimately decide at the end of the story. The other characters are background characters whom the players use to fill in scenes, interact with main characters, and drive certain events forward.

Once all of this is taken care of, play begins, with the session being broken in to 6 sections: A prologue, followed by four acts, and then finally an epilogue. The prologue consists of a single scene which establishes what sets off the siege by playing out the events of the assassination in Avignonet; it also acts as a “teaching scene” so that players new to the game can learn the rules. After the prologue, play proceeds through the rest of the acts, with each player getting one scene for their character (thus each act will have 3-6 scenes total). Each player sets and directs their scene, selecting what other characters will be present and what the primary goals are for the scene – the other players are encouraged to suggest ideas, but the player with the narration rights gets the final word regarding the scene’s details and outcome.

Play proceeds through the acts, with the opening texts for each act providing guidance about the nature of the scenes based on the time period of the act. When the Epilogue is reached, each player in turn narrates a personal epilogue for their main character, revealing the fate of their character. Ultimately this comes down to one of three possibilities: To burn at the stake for their faith, to repent before the inquisition, or to escape in to the night. However, things aren’t quite that simple since this game and story is about tragedy and that’s accomplished through a very simple set of rules: At least one main character must burn at the stake, and at most one main character can escape. In other words, the majority of characters are either going to burn or recant their faith.

Reading through my brief summary, those used to traditional RPGs may be scratching their head regarding how all this translates in to real play? After all, there are no conflict resolution mechanics, or even dice. Similarly, what makes it a tragedy and what exactly do you do in play? Having played the game a few times, the game consistently delivers a powerful, tragic story with a great deal of internal consistency. How is a credit to the design: Each character has just enough ambiguous background information and a couple of guiding questions (which the player is encouraged to discover the answer to through play) that provide a ton of story potential – the small, insular community mixed with some really story-rich questions (e.g., “Who is in your mind when you lie with Arsende?” and “Whose child do you carry in your womb?”) virtually guarantee lots of drama. In addition, the story cards, which offer plot elements and twists that both serve as inspiration and lend a degree of unpredictability to the story.

The Verdict

I was skeptical about Montsegur 1244 before playing it for the first time – it simply did not sound like a game that I would enjoy. However, by a certain twist of fate I had the chance to play the game with the designer and was floored by how very cool and heartbreaking the story was – in my personal story, my main character, a 10-year-old boy named Amiel, sacrificed himself so that his sister could escape and ended up burning at the stake simply because the community’s religious leader told him that it was the right thing to do. In the end, a character I started off playing as a happy-go-lucky kid with aspirations of becoming a knight, turned in to a very confused, desperate boy who went hesitantly to his own death.

That doesn’t mean game play is nothing but self-flagellation and depressing outcomes. There are points of light and even humor in sessions (e.g., in the game mentioned above, another PC had a very funny scene in which he tried to get permission to marry the lord’s daughter and totally botched the whole thing). However, ultimately the game delivers on its promise of a tragedy, which makes those earlier scenes all the more bitter sweet and, at least for me, ultimately satisfying.

I can’t recommend Montsegur 1244 enough if your group likes drama and tragedy, isn’t scared by games without dice, and is willing to spend an evening playing a great game and then days afterwards talking about it.