ZineQuest II

Just when you thought it was safe to go back into Kickstarter

One spot safe from grue attack

It is pitch dark, you are likely to be eaten by a grue…

… but what is a grue? And what sort of environment does it live in? And why does it eat adventurers?

These and other questions (not) answered in Shards Volume 2. 

But Shards Volume 2 is coming soon. In fact Kickstarter are running Zinequest II during February, so we’ll launch then and most likely deliver the first issue in March. Last year we launched Shards during the first Zinequest to great acclaim (well, reasonable success at least), and we delivered all six issues over six months. This time we’re taking a slightly more spread out approach, aiming for every other month to allow us to do other things as well. But the content will be of the same high quality as the first volume and we will produce another six issues. 

Over the next few weeks I imagine there will be a few more updates about what you can expect and what the exact dates will be, along with other updates about Tinfoil Hat, which is still on the cards, just pushed back to April (probably)

Please, send us more questions for Letter Lich! More themes for Captain Magpie to explore! More exclamations!

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Tinfoil Tuesday: The War on Christmas

The War On Christmas: it’s a potent part of the US conspiracy tableau – and one supported by the largest of its mainstream media outlets, Fox News – that anti-christian bigots are secretly preventing people from saying “Merry Christmas”.

Of course this year there seems to be a new twist: Donald Trump has successfully allowed people to say “Merry Christmas” again. Not that he does himself, his businesses all celebrate “the holiday season” and say “happy holidays” – the anti-Christmas conspiracy is clearly too powerful for even the POTUS to fight it.

But did you know that there was a War on Christmas way back in the 16th and 17th centuries? And that it was perpetrated by loyal ChristiansIn 1644 the puritan movement banned all Christmas celebrations in Britain and Ireland, even purely religious traditions such as the Christmas Sermons, although their primary target was the non-Christian aspects: Mince Pies, Christmas Trees, the giving of presents, the eating of a feast, and just generally the concept of being Jolly.

The battle against Christian fundamentalism in order to restore Christmas to its roots as a joyful celebration of midwinter was a harsh one, but ultimately the outcome was inevitable, the need to celebrate in the depths of winter has created festivals throughout the world – from Saturnalia to Koliada, from Yule to Soyal – and so when priests and politicians started telling people they couldn’t celebrate the birth of Christ they were met with rioting.

Perhaps that’s why the modern War on Christmas is so subtle and invisible? Those Puritans have learnt their lesson, and this time they’re going to destroy Christmas without a fight! Only once people have separated the birth of Christ and the Winter Solstice will they be able to choose another date of birth for Christ, one that won’t be celebrated in such a commercial and sinful manner – maybe one in late summer or early autumn, more fitting with the evidence found in the Bible.

Or perhaps most people just want everyone to enjoy the holidays, and in a multicultural society like the United States of America the majority of folks are kind and decent enough to respect their neighbours religions.

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Tinfoil Tuesday: From Politics to Phlogiston

It’s not even a week out from the election and already the pundits are clamoring! 

“it’s all Corbyn’s fault”

“Boris will deliver”

“Now what?”

We are, to be frank, more than a little fed up with Real World politics. So, we thought this an excellent time to tell you about our newest game, Tinfoil Hat.

We tried to capture the zeitgeist and, to abuse the metaphor, have tied him up until he squealed. The theme of this game is Conspiracy Theories. Did the moon landings really take place? Who was the man behind the grassy knoll? Do vaccines cause autism or just profits?

Players construct a Rant about how ” the CIA are causing all of us to ignore the Alien Invasion by means of Hello Kitty normalising Animal Human Hybrids, and how Fake News outlets are hushing up how Henry 8th started it all with his pal the immortal Keanu Reeves, when they……  “

I would like to make crystal clear that all the references in this game are intended to be taken tongue-in-cheek. All four of us have degrees that include science, and one of the things that teaches you is to look for the evidence – to ask how did those people reach those conclusions. Part of science is a willingness to change your mind in the face of new evidence.


One of the best stories of science development is Phlogiston. The Ancient Greeks knew that only some things burned, because they had fire in them. When you burned wood, you could see the fire coming off it!

During the Renaissance, scientists posited that things which burned contained phlogiston, and that burning things lost phlogiston. One could restore it by reacting the dephlogisticated material in a phlogiston rich environment – for example, soot.

Breathing was the expelling of excess phlogiston into the air, but air could only hold so much phlogiston. Meanwhile plants absorbed that excess phlogiston from the air in order to grow, explaining why they burnt so well once dried.

Once atomic weight was discovered, they decided phlogiston had an atomic weight of -16. Does 16 sound familiar? It’s the atomic weight of oxygen. Phlogiston theory was very close to correct – in that it was precisely the opposite of reality.

Now we understand that burning things aren’t losing negatively weighted phlogiston, but gaining positive oxygen. Sometimes the end product is heavier ( e.g. tin or lead oxide), often some of the fuel’s weight has been lost in smoke and carbon dioxide. We can even work out what should happen if we oxidize something. But we still don’t perfectly understand how fire works – as evidenced at any barbecue.

As gamers, we talk about magic. According to Clarke, magic is just science we don’t understand yet. So, until we can read minds, we’re going to have to keep talking. And Ranting. And blogging about game development.

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Vampire: The Masquerade/FATE crossover

So I’ve played a lot of World of Darkness over the years; and I love the setting. That’s oWoD for the afficionadoes, but for most of that time it was just WoD. The system, however, leaves a lot to be desired. I had a decent idea for a campaign. So I bodged together a version of FATE, for which I do like the system. I’ve been running weekly since October, and have obtained my players permission to use their characters to explain how I went about such a mashup.

What does the old system have that I don’t like?.

WOD relies on buckets of dice and a long skill list. But it can be problematic to model advancement – learn a new skill and suddenly you’re actually worse than not bothering. Plus there’s the whole ‘more dice = more chances to botch’

Combat is basically down to number of moves – if you don’t have Rage or Celerity, and your opponent does, you almost always lose. Oh and death spiral is a thing some people like and I don’t. Hollywood heros fight on with feet full of glass and a bullet in the shoulder – why shouldn’t mine!

What does the new system have that I like?

Aspects. I love the descriptive part “Son of a Gun” “I Got A Plan for That” or even “Too Good at Being Bad”. High Concept and Trouble stay as usual (See FATE Core), and two personal aspects customise; but a second trouble adds the Clan Flaw in a new way.

In this game I have three Brujah. VTM gives the all Bru a +2 to frenzy difficulty. For my game we got three different takes on the clan of rebels and revolutionaries – the Punk, the Pirate, and the Paladin.

Doc is a Rebel With A Clue by Four. He likes to fight, particularly against oppressive authority figures (one of his personal aspects is Bash the Fash) His Clan Flaw is expressed as Sees the Oppression – he can’t help himself, siding with the underdog.

Carabo is a Somali Pirate. She used to captain her own ship – until she was turned. But even in death she hasn’t quite managed to shed the stigma of being both black and female (and also Illiterate) she’s Frustrated by Inequality

Robert is an Ex Military Policeman. Taken by the Brujah for standing up to one of them, he’s not so much a footsoldier in the Jyhad as a reluctant officer. His Clan Flaw is Shield of the Vulnerable – taking the police motto ‘Serve and Protect’ to another level.

I decided on six aspects over the usual five, because I wanted to include something I learned from a one off – the Hook. So at the end of chr gen you ask – how do characters know each other? So you get family (Eve is Lucian’s ward; Assistant Lasombra) affiliates (Rob is Doc’s clanmate; Brother in the Cause) and even rivalry (William doesn’t like Carabo; Keep your Friends Close)

What does the origInal do that I want to keep / need to remodel?

The Humanity / Beast / Path & Virtues system. Being wicked should have a cost – the whole “Beast I am lest Beast I become” thing.

It comes down to ‘how much in control am I’ and so I chose to model it like damage. Hungry or angry – the Beast gaining control is modelled by the Beast Track. Our Ventrue couldn’t find her favored food, and was subsisting on the bread-and-water diet of blood bags. She could still animate herself, but she suffered the Consequence of “Perpetual Hunger” until she finally managed to find a blood source she could utilize for her Disciplines. Turned out another party member suited; she had the angst of ‘drink now and retain some control, or keep looking and risk draining him dry’.

Disciplines and Backgrounds through Stunts

Why are some people chosen for the Embrace and some passed by? Mortal Stunts. Lucien is a CEO and is Wealthy; +2 to any skill check where he can directly bring wealth to bear (remember Wheaton’s Law here) On the other hand, Doc is expert at making do, and can Jerry Rig; for a Fate point, use Crafts without proper tool or parts

The vampires Cool Magic Powers – turning into bats, mesmerising prey and hiding in plain sight – become more interesting when modelled through Stunts. I decide that there is no real reason why one needs to preserve the hierarchy of powers presented in VTM and instead went with basic, intermediate and advanced. Party members could only have basic level at start. But the Lasombra and the Ventrue took a Dominate power – but flavored differently

Eve is a Victorian young lady. Her power is an immediate response, for a Fate Point “Stop. Lie down. Freeze” described as Though She Be But Little, She Is Fierce

Lucian’s use is more subtle – “wouldn’t now be a good time for a teabreak?” Mind over Matter still costs a Fate point  (we rejected These Aren’t the Droids). He’s since picked up Master of the Manor which duplicates Eve’s power

Robert and William’s powers diverge from classical Celerity. Robert has Take a Bullet – interpose himself to take an attack for someone else. William, as a Toreador thief, has Hand is Quicker than the Eye, allowing him to use his supernatural speed to avoid notice.

Experimentation showed that it’s massively easier to make all the Discipline Stunts work off Fate points, freeing you from the need to track blood exactly.

Neither does this system thing great, so which is easier to integrate?

Skills stayed pretty unchanged from Fate Core, except for splitting Knowledge into mundane Knowledge and Arcane (all kinds of supernatural). Oh and we renamed Larceny to Nefarius; and it now covers all kinds of crime; from theft to jumping trams without a ticket to credit card fraud. Will becomes much more key as it not only is it the key roll to power and resist Dominate, but is need to resit Beast Damage.

Combat is a weak point for Fate, but it is mitigated by the ability to create Advantages, meaning it is actually worth it to set ambushes, taunt opponents or discover weaknesses.

So there you have it. It might sound pretty clunky, but it works. And my players nearly all came back for Season 2, and Season 3, and were bugging me for a Season 4.

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A Letter Lich response

Our resident agony aunt has been busily answering questions – but because our third issue of Shards: Worldbuilding Zine has only 44 pages, one of them’s had to be dropped.

So instead of completely removing it, I’ve decided to post it here for all to enjoy:

Dear Letter Lich,

I’m compelled by my god to kill a demon, but he’s in my friend’s body – HELP!

— Liam W.

You should arrange for your friend to become undead. Once they’re dead the demon will likely be forced out (most demons can only possess either the living or the dead, not both) and you can safely slay it, while you await your friend’s resurrection.

If you have the skills, lichdom is an excellent choice, but the varieties are endless. Vampires are said to retain their minds, but I find they tend to be impulsive; then again, so are mortals much of the time.

——–

The death and resurrection approach is actually viable even if you’re not willing to bring your friend into undeath – you are doing your god’s work, asking them to safeguard your friends soul and return it when the demon is slain is a plausible option.

More likely you’ll want to seek out a rite of exorcism, or similar – something that can drive the demon from the body. If that is impossible, or unavailable, the backup plan is generally torture – capture the demon, and inflict agonies upon it (and unfortunately your friend) until it voluntarily leaves their body to face you. -Ed

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Play-test report: Tinfoil Hat

I’m pretty sure this isn’t the first time we’ve mentioned this project, but in case you haven’t come across it before, Tinfoil Hat is a game of conspiracy rants.

The game consists of a deck of cards containing elements for conspiracy theories – ranging from “Lizard Folk” through “The Moon Landing” all the way to “King Henry VIII”.

In the game one player is The Ranter, who must build a conspiracy theory out of the elements they’ve been given, while another was the Judge, who determines whether or not they’d been inconsistent, or missed one of the pieces.

That role has now been dropped – thanks to playtesting last Wednesday we have seen that it’s unnecessary.

The playtest was overall a great success – we expect that tinfoil hat will be ready by the time we’re ready for our next project launch, likely in Autumn this year.

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Play Report: The Reckoners

So this is something I’ve been considering doing for a while now – reviews of my experience playing board games.

Note: This is not a review of the board game’s overall quality, simply of my own experience thereof. Take from it what you will, but above all remember that what I enjoy and what you will enjoy are unlikely to be identical.

So, The Reckoners – as it’s based on a Brandon Sanderson novel series that I really enjoyed, I’ll start by talking about the theme: It works.

The theme is not amazingly strong, but it is definitely pervasive; every element of the game feels like it fits, nothing feels like it’s being papered over. Steelheart is ruling a city, and he has lieutenants who empower him to act more directly; while they are in turn empowered by the unpowered enforcement teams. The Reckoners need money to buy tech, and to afford their movement from one hidden base to another whenever one of the Epics tracks them down. They also need to do research to find out the hidden weakness, the Achilles’ Heel, of each Epic; weakening them and making them easier – or in some cases simply possible to kill.

The Epics felt a little overly abstracted at first, with them all having two simple stats “research” – required to weaken them – and health – which you burn through to kill them; but as the gameplay went on and you see how the variation in their activation effects each round changes the game they start to show more personality. At least, until you kill them.

So for a licensed game it’s well themed; it doesn’t try and do everything perfectly, and therefore it doesn’t overstuff the game with edge cases designed to mimic some minor story aspect.

The Setup was a little fiddly the first time, but only for about 5-10 minutes, and when replaying the game that time will be cut down to about 2 minutes. For an hour-ish game that’s a pretty good rate.

The Quality: We were playing the kickstarter version – metal pieces, sleeves for all the cards, it was great quality and all well put together.

The Gameplay was great fun – the core mechanic is dice rolling+rerolling, akin to Yahtzee, or King of Tokyo, but with none of the requirement for point-scoring combos – instead every result has a different, generally useful, effect, with the option to use any result to move to a new location (so that you can have your other effects there). It felt like we were constantly trying to optimise our limited resources, and acting simultaneously added to the co-operative feel (although it would open the game up even more to the “Alpha Gamer” problem where one player plays for everyone)

The Missing Piece: In this case it’s literal. There was a model missing from the game box when we opened it, one of the 6 player character models. Given as only 3 of us were playing it wasn’t an immediate problem, but with the overall production quality it felt out-of-place.

Conclusions

Would we play it again? Hell yes, it’s great fun

Would we buy it? It costs about £80. If we had £1000 to spend on games, we’d definitely get it. At £500, maybe, at £100 (our current level) definitely not – there are too many other games competing for that cash, and we could likely buy 3 other games instead of just this one.

Would we sell it at cons? (Assuming it was small print enough and we had the opportunity to get it at wholesale) – No. It’s too much of a big-ticket item, and the one experience we had had a piece missing – we’d be hard pressed to recommend it over the other games we stock to anyone who wasn’t clearly flush with cash. It’s definitely fun enough for us to be willing to recommend it, but the price point is just too high for our stand.

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Convention Report: Student Nationals 2019

April 12-15 this year we were in Glasgow for the Student Nationals or NSGRC1)National Student Gaming and Roleplaying Championships 2019 where we had a great time despite some unfortunate setbacks.

Student Nationals always has problems – it’s a convention that moves every year and is always organised by students who’ve never organised a convention before. If it went perfectly I’d get a little bit scared.

So the problems we saw at this particular nationals:

  • The roads around the buildings being used were under massive amounts of roadworks. This wasn’t the organiser’s fault – they had no forewarning of the works – but it did cause some transport issues.
  • The board-game groups didn’t have the staff, or indeed the games, that were expected. The organisers had given the wrong date to the Board-game Cafe that had agreed to help, and the Cafe had ended up double booked.
  • The tea-selling stall wasn’t allowed to sell hot water, despite having been told in advance that they would be; which caused them quite some consternation.
  • There was a significant shortage of dice available, as all the traders had expected there to be a specialist in dice present, and there wasn’t. In future this could be avoided by contacting the local store-based traders and informing them that such stock will be in demand – if no specialist is interested.

 

And what they did particularly well:

  • The traders closed at an appropriate time – if we’re next to the bar, we can close late, but we weren’t so a closing time of 6:30 was just about perfect.
  • The trade hall was in an active building with multiple things going on – including the closing ceremony at the end of the event.
  • The lunch breaks of the games were allowed to be whenever appropriate, rather than enforcing a specific time, meaning that people trickled to the trade hall over the course of several hours, rather than it being jam-packed for half an hour and dead for the rest of the day.
  • The Artist’s Alley had a good set of artists who could do character portraits for players; providing an extra draw to the trade hall, and an extra service for the gamers.
  • The shortage of dice sellers likely made our time a bit more profitable, by freeing up the con-goers funds.
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References   [ + ]

1. National Student Gaming and Roleplaying Championships 2019

Play-test Report: Rise of Legions

Due to a rather annoying illness I was unable to make it to my regular board-game playtesting this month, but I have been doing some playtesting – admittedly, of a rather different sort.

The Free-to-Play game Rise of Legions is currently in “Early Access” – or, in other words, open playtest.

It’s a member of a category of games that I personally enjoy, but have very rarely seen – pretty much only in old UMS (Use Map Settings) maps for Starcraft, SC2 and Warcraft 3 – the tug-of-war battle game.

A close relative of the MOBA (or DotA-like) genre of games – which perhaps unsurprisingly began in the same UMS environment of Starcraft – a tug-of-war battle game is akin to a real time strategy game in which you build factories to produce units, but can’t actually control those units.

That might sound limited, but the strategy in terms of which units to build when and where can prove surprisingly deep (with factors such as unit synergies and counters resulting in interesting interplay, and strategic decisions on whether or not you want to give ground in order to allow faster responses from your newly built units) especially when a little extra spice is layered on top. Rise of Legions definitely manages to spice it up a little, incorporating three additional game layers.

The first is the addition of direct summoning and casting – during the game, in addition to your spawners, you can directly summon units onto the field of battle, and support them with spells. This doesn’t overshadow the tug-of-war aspect as the units you can summon are for the most part identical to those you can spawn (with the exception of powerful heroes in the top tiers of the game), and the spells all require the involvement of your units to make a meaningful impact – the spells can never damage the end-game goal and thus can never be the final decider.

The second layer is tied to the first – while you may play any spawner you have from the very beginning of the game (or at least, as early as you can afford it) your summons and spells are gated behind time barriers. Some spells turn on after the first 4 minutes, while others become available after 8. Those end-game spells can alter the battlefield entirely, and enable huge pushes that ensure the game ends on time.

The final additional game layer is the “deck” building system – before you start playing Rise of Legions you need to pick which summons, spells and spawners you will have access to, with a total of 12 available to you. As each one has a cooldown, you may wish to have multiple identical spells or spawners, to ensure you can always use them. As is common in games without a resource system within the deck, you’re limited to two of the four available archetypes; darkness, light, nature and technology.

Rise is, to me at least, a very fun game even in its incomplete state. The devs have taken an interesting approach to the free-to-play monetization by twisting a very common – and very maligned – form of monetization and combining it with their matchmaking system.

Cards have different levels within the game; stone, copper, silver, gold and (for the computer opponents only) gem. To level the cards up takes either “grinding” – that is to say, playing the game a lot – or the expenditure of purchasable currency. Cards of higher levels can be used more often, and only a small proportion of the cards are even available at the stone or copper levels.

Normally this would be a deal-breaker for me on a free-to-play game – after all, I don’t find it fun to exist purely as the punching bag for wealthier players – but in Rise of Legions they’ve made it work because of a clever mixture of factors:

The most key factor is that you can only match with people playing decks of the same level – if you have a gold card in your deck, you will only match with other gold players, leaving the stone rank players alone.

But that alone would be a bandage, rather than something that made the game shine. The shiny aspect of it is the way that the two factors of leveling combine – at each level you have more options to put in your deck, and more ability to reuse the same option as the game goes on. Thus at higher levels the game is more complex, while at lower levels you’re still making meaningful choices when building your deck; at higher levels you are deciding which 12 abilities you’ll have, at lower levels you’re deciding which of the 7 abilities available to you you’ll have more than one of – or, if you go two-colour, which of the 14 you’ll have and whether you’ll go for one copy or two.

Overall I give rise of legions a massive recommendation if you’re looking for a free-to-play, lightweight strategy game that’s over in less than half an hour a go.

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Mother’s Day: Parents in Roleplaying

Today’s blog is inspired by the fact my mother’s been visiting me this weekend – which is also the reason why it’s late.

When roleplaying, and in genre fiction in general, there’s a strong tendency to ignore the question of character’s parentage – it’s something of a stereotype that every main character is an orphan, and not without cause; it provides an easy source of pathos and gives the character an easier time abandoning their mundane life.

But as seen in Superhero comics being an orphan doesn’t really preclude a character having parents – Spiderman has Uncle Ben and Aunt May, Superman has the Kents and Batman has Alfred.

The parental role is a lot more than just blood – I have one grandparent left among the living and she’s completely unrelated to me by blood, but she raised my mother and has always been there for me.

I made card in honour of my nanna, Jane Baker – I originally wanted to include references to both her maiden name (Smith) and her current surname (Broadbent) but unfortunately they didn’t fit in the format. Still, the card made her smile so I consider that a job well done!

Often people assume that parentage only matters if it’s innately significant to the plot – in my main weekly campaign we have one character with such a parentage, The Minotaur, child of The Elf Queen.

But while there’s no inherent plot significance to them two other player characters have had interactions with their parents – a noble high elf was encouraged to defend his parents estate on the back of a great beast (a Koru Behemoth for those familiar with 13th age – a walking mountain for those who aren’t) while our wood elf ranger often spends time with his parents between adventures, two high elves and two gnolls.

In prose fiction there’s a principle of conservation of detail – don’t mention anything unless it matters – but said principle is flexible in terms of what “matters” means, and parents have a large influence on a character’s motivations. In RPGs that principle shouldn’t be applied on such a large scope anyway – never assume that just because parent’s are mentioned they need to be directly threatened with disaster – that kind of “attack-the-backstory” attitude results in shallower characters with less connections outside the party.

What do your characters parent’s do? How did they influence your characters?

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