Good GMing & Finding Fate

Happy December. I hope your holidays were great! It has been a crazy couple of weeks for me, between work projects and grad school. But, this week promises to be the last busy one for a while! Which is great, as I have new reviews to write, podcasts to record, and game design to do! Ok, maybe not less crazy, but definitely more fun!

I have been digging into a lot of great books on GMing over the last couple of weeks. I have reread Play Dirty and Robin’s Laws of Good Gamemastering. I tore through Never Unprepared, and Unframed by Engine Publishing (reviews forth coming), and have Kobold’s Guide to Combat sitting on my desk next to me. It has been enlightening to review and absorb other people’s view on gamemastering and the hobby. I firmly believe that GMing is a skill. Like any skill, practice and study are key to improvement. I plan to be sharing what I am taking away from these books, as well as reviewing them, in the coming months.

Another set of books that are on my radar to read and review are a number of Fate products. For a variety of reasons, I have started looking into Fate Core and Fate Accelerated. I picked up Mindjammer, Atomic Robo, Jadepunk, and the Fate Core books. I have played Fate before, in its Dresden and Spirit of the Century incarnations. I am looking forward to digging into the nuts and bolts of this game, and seeing how I can apply it to Ta’nar.

Come back Thursday, when I will be looking at Jadepunk, a game powered by Fate.

The Translation Codex

Disclaimer: This pdf was graciously given to me for the purposes of review by Ryan Chaddock Games. All opinions within the review are my own.

I was about to crash for the evening last night, when I received an email telling me that I had a review copy of a book called the Translation Codex waiting for me.  I figured I would download it, flip through it and then head to bed.  Three hours later, I finally made it.

Translation Codex – Review

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One of my issues with The Strange, it is a small issue but from what I have seen a pervasive one, is that the core rule book spreads the setting a little thin.  Earth, Ardyen, Ruk, and The Strange itself are major settings, and the book contains a number of other smaller recursions. They manage to cram a lot of information into the setting sections, but unlike Numenera whose setting enflamed my imagination, it was not until the adventures started coming out for it that I felt like I connected with The Strange.  Another major part of this feeling of thinness is the foci. While there are 25 foci, this is 5 less than the Numenera core rule book, and they are not universally applicable.

Why am I bringing this up? It is a problem that Monte Cook Games already has a book in the works to resolve.  It was an understandable issue due the nature of the setting and it doesn’t make The Strange unplayable.  All of this is true, but it still makes The Strange somewhat constrained for now.  However, Ryan Chaddock Games’ newest PDF is designed to address this problem.

The Translation Codex is a 142 page PDF, available for $5.00 from Drivethrurpg.com.  This PDF contains 100 foci and 18 new recursion write ups.  100!  The book separates the foci between 5 broad genres and 5 more niche ones.  You can drop these foci into the current settings of The Strange, use them with the books provided settings, or mix and match them to create your own recursions.

The broad genres covered are: Low Fantasy, High Fantasy, Mad Science, Earth, and Psionics.  The narrow ones are: Lovecraftian Horror, Mythic (Greco-Roman), Space, Strange, and Wild West.  These are not just foci that expand upon the current core settings of The Strange.  Low Fantasy covers your Song of Ice and Fire, low magic worlds.  Mad Science and Psionics allow you to build an effective Super Hero recursion.

Each of the broad genres have fifteen foci, and the narrow ones possess five. As I read through them, I found ones that were spot on for their genres, as well as some creative surprises. For example, the High Fantasy section covers the standard Dungeons and Dragons tropes of: Cleric, Bard, Invoker, and Druid.  It also has the Carries the Weight of Destiny foci, which allows your players to play a character on Campbell’s Hero’s Journey.

The Mad Science genre has a great side-kick foci Assists a Mad Genius as well as Plays with Portals, which I really want to play. Within the Earth genre, you find everything from action movie tropes, to professional athletes.  The Space genre contains only 5 foci, but they are ripped from Star Trek, so this is a huge win.  There is even a Red Shirt foci.

Conclusion

Excluding the obvious cross-use for a Numenera game, or the fact that you could use it to play in your own setting before the Cypher System Rulebook comes out, The Translation Codex provides a lot of meat for your Strange game.  The foci are as useable with the recursions in the main book as they are useful in creating your own.  It stands alone, and provides a much needed expansion for The Strange line.  At .05 cents a foci, The Translation Codex is an amazing deal.

Play Dirty – A Full Review

After my post on Monday, I had a number of people ask for a full review of Play Dirty. Being the magnanimous blogger that I am, and with the Kickstarter for Play Dirty 2 going on, here it is.

Play Dirty is 118 page PDF available through Drivethrurpg.com for $5.00.  You can get the hard copy (or the PDF) at John Wick’s website here. Play Dirty contains 11 articles that Mr. Wick wrote 15 or so years ago.  Be warned, Play Dirty is rough.  John Wick admits with his introduction to the book.  He chose not to edit the book when assembling it, for reasons that I will let him explain.  But they are reasons I can empathize with.  The articles within have been called controversial, divisive, and, more than a little antagonistic.  It is hard to tell if this tone comes across because it is the true nature of the author, or just the voice he chose to write in to convey his points. But the heart of Play Dirty, in my mind, is to provoke you to think about ways to push your game to be better.  John Wick is sharing his stories and experiences as a GM, to make you question how you run games.  A lot of them are shared out of context which can hurt the narrative.  But, as in my case some 8 years ago, his goal help you raise the quality of your game.

One note. Writing a review of a product is usually easy for me, but I have struggled with this one.  As Play Dirty is a book of GMing advice, reviewing a lot of the content defeats the purpose of buying the book.  And, as it was so seminal for my GMing style back in the day, I struggled with objectivity.  I will try to highlight the chapters that I feel either, exemplify the tone of the book, or the type of advice that it contains.

Episode 0 – Hit ‘em Where It Hurts & Episode 2 – The Return of Jefferson Carter

Episode 0, the article that lead to the column Play Dirty, talks a lot about character death.  And a lot about how to dick with characters in your games. Reading through it you may begin to wonder, why the hell am I taking advice from this killer GM? And that is fair, John walks you through a number of ways to use character’s advantages and disadvantages to abuse them.  This is a perfect example about the adversarial tone and the controversial advice I was speaking about above.  But, look for the lie this chapter contains.  As Mr. Wick admonishes, he says one thing but shows another. The second Episode provides more context to this episode, and it helps pull this opening article into perspective.

While these chapters portray an adversarial GM cackling maniacally as player after player quits his game, there is something else there going on.  There is a GM who is delving into themes and stories at time where Narrative gaming was in its infancy.  It is a bloody, messy affair that gave birth to what sounds like an amazing conclusion.  These chapters remind me that the characterization and struggles I love in literature are not exclusive from the stories we bring to the table.

Episode 3 – Living City

The Living City chapter is indicative of John Wick’s unorthodox GMing techniques found in Play Dirty.  Other examples of these can also be seen on his Play Dirty You Tube channel. (Check out the Dirty Dungeon Technique for another great example of this type of technique.  Seriously, that technique is gold and my players have loved every Dirty Dungeon we have created.) The basis of the Living City technique is to get your players to do the heavy lifting of city design and management.  Have them design, and even play if you are brave enough, the NPCs of the city.  Have them establish scene and location specifics as they come up.  Basically, push some of the narrative control of your story back at the players.  This not only lifts a huge burden off your shoulders, but ties the players to the story and the events of the city.  It raises their investment in the world and the story, which is always a good thing.  And, perhaps, is the defining goal of John Wick’s play style and this book.

Episodes – The Rest of the Book

There is a chapter on dealing with problem players that makes me cringe (and always has).  They are horrifying and brutal.  I can only imagine they would solve the issue of a problem player, by driving them from the table.  But, he does tell you real way to deal with problem players, which is not any of those techniques.  Talking with your players is the way to deal with issues.  It is this dichotomy that makes me believe that some of the antagonism is intention, to showcase the true advice.  He also tries to impart the idea which seems like it should be intrinsic to the hobby, but I deal with on a regular basis in store games.  RPGs are social, group events. Having fun in spite of everyone else is a surefire way to ruin that fun.

The rest of the book, in my opinion, is all about challenging player and GM perceptions.  Perceptions about mechanics, the nature of the game, the stories you can tell, even the nature of the player characters. There is a lot of great, easy to digest material in the remaining eight episodes.  These episodes are the less…. provocative, but no less informative.

Conclusion

As I said Monday, you will either love or hate this book, but you won’t look at your game the same way.  I stand by that.  I think that in the chaos of the original Play Dirty, John Wick shines the light on a lot of great GMing techniques.  At the time, it was one of the few sources of Narrative GMing advice that now pervades the hobby.  The Dresden Files RPG has more than a few of elements of the Living City.  The World of Darkness embraces the kind of story-based tomfoolery of the original article. While controversial, I believe that Play Dirty was on the leading edge of an industry wide shift in perspective.

Play Dirty is entertaining, and serves as a reminder (and for me, the source) of many of the techniques I love to use at the table. I have never found these techniques or stories as controversial as many on the internet did.  But, I have also had knockdown, drag out fights over how I run my games.  For $5 is it worth the read.  And for $10, you can get both Play Dirty, and Play Dirty 2 over at the Kickstarter.

Rub Some Dirt on It

If you are not familiar with that idiom, it means get over it and get on with it. I, for a while, have felt off my game. My GM game. I had a couple of really promising campaigns fizzle, a string of rough sessions, and over all, felt out of sync with my normal rhythm of gaming.

It has been a slow going process trying to figure out what has been going on, and that is really a story for another time. But, the long and the short of it is, I love to run great games. Not good games, but great games.  Games that still get talked about years later.  Games players love to hate, with twists and consequences. Games players become emotionally invested in, that they burn secret notes in, that they cry, and rage, and love in. So you can imagine, with that as my end goal, how frustrating must be to feel like you are falling short.

But all that changed this weekend. And I owe it to the man who turned me from a good GM into a great GM. John Wick.

The Legend of the Five Rings, 7th Sea, Houses of the Blooded guy, not the new Keanu Reeves’ movie character. (But weird, right?)

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This book right here. Everything I learned about running great games, I learned from Play Dirty, by John Wick. Consequences, dirty tactics, messing with perceptions, character death, all from this small little book. Most of the basis of the articles for this blog find their roots here.

This is not a review. I could not do that to my editor. This is a rough whisper from the dark alley behind your FLGS. ‘Hey kid, want to run a better game?’

If you are a GM, you need to read this book. It changed my game for the better years ago. And, last night, it whispered to me from the shelf. It promised to show me the way again. It was smooth, seductive, and it delivered.

The Planescape game is about to get the Short End of the Wick Stick.

You can get Play Dirty on drivethrurpg.com. You may love it, you may hate it. But, your game won’t be the same after reading it. Go rub some dirt on your game!

UPDATE!!!!!!!: HOLY CRAP…sorry.  Holy CRAP!  I just posted this blog post, maybe 30 minutes ago, and what do I see when I go to post this on G+?  Play Dirty 2 went live on Kickstarter 3 days ago. Mind blow.  Money Spent.

Wits Alone Review

Disclaimer: This pdf was graciously given to me for the purposes of review by Ryan Chaddock Games. All opinions within the review are my own.

It is no secret if you read this blog that Ryan Chaddock Games (RCG) has produced some of my favorite Numenera supplements to date. That includes the Glimmers that Monte Cook Games itself has produced. RCG’s supplements expand on a lot of aspects of Numenera that fascinate me. They recently released Wits Alone, a supplement centering on crime and law in the Ninth World

Wits Alone Review
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Wits Alone is a 94-page pdf that you can snag at Drivethrurpg.com. This is their sixth release for the Cypher system, and they are still going strong. The book is broken up into four chapters. Deep Shadows which focuses on crime in the Ninth World, Watch Keepers looks at the Law, Black Goods presents dastardly new cyphers, and finally Uxphon briefly ties a number of the elements from the rest of the book into one of the cities mentioned in the Numenera corebook.

Wits Alone provides 15 foci, 7 descriptors, 4 artifacts, and 36 new cyphers. If you have not read my other reviews, RCG’s foci are always incredibly well done and coupled with the cyphers they create, make the PDF well worth the cost of admission.

Like Whisper Campaigns, Wits Alone gives a GM a lot to work with. It looks at the archetypes of the law and crime, and gives you plenty of plots and options to combine to add to your story. RCG created a half-dozen syndicates and three law-aligned organizations to be dropped into your campaign. They are tied together to make a great tapestry of interwoven groups for games on either side of the law.
Finally, in Chapter 4, Wits Alone takes what it has built in the previous chapters, and dumps them into the city of Uxphon in the Steadfast. There is a ton of information, plot, and adventure ideas packed into this chapter.

Conclusion
To date, my favorite of the RCG products is still Angels & Ashes, followed closely by Whisper Campaigns. Moving firmly into third place is Wits Alone. For $5.00, it is chock full of great mechanics, advice, and campaign fodder. Also, if Uxphon sounds familiar, it is the city that the Devil’s Spine starts off in. Which just adds to the utility of this book. The information in it enables you to flesh out the story before and after the official campaign, and perhaps send it spinning off in strange new directions. Check it out!

Merlin’s Beard!

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Just a heads up for all you lovers of all things RQ6 or King Arthur, Mythic Britain has released!  I have been looking forward to this book since The Design Mechanism mentioned it, and I was able to get an in-depth look at the book at GenCon.  The writers behind the book have put together a great supplement for a Dark Ages Arthurian game.  I am hoping to use this to lure more of my players to the RQ6 side of gaming!

The Design Mechanism has a pre-order deal on their website for the PDF and the Print copy.  The PDF is also able here at DriveThruRPG.com.

I plan on doing a full review of this product later this month.  But first Ryan Chaddock Games have some new products. On Thursday look for my review of their new product for Numenera, Wits Alone!

The Sun Below: City on the Edge – Review

Disclaimer: This PDF was graciously given to me by John Marvin for review. All opinions within the review are my own.

Thanks to the Monte Cook Games’ limited license, Cypher fans have been treated to a variety of third-party supplements.  It is no surprise to anyone following this blog that I am a fan of Ryan Chaddock Games’ products, as well as Numenera in general.  Metal Weave Games’ books (Ninth World Assassins & Naval Encounters) have been fantastic as well, setting the bar very high in my opinion for new Cypher supplements.  So when the call went out for reviewers for a new Numenera adventure, I jumped at the chance.
The Sun Below: City on the Edge – Review

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The Sun Below is a 66-page supplement by Dread Unicorn Games, available for purchase at DrivethruRPG.com.  The first thing that stands out about this product is the formatting.  The thing looks like a Numenera book.  The call-outs, the boxes, and the layout all harkens back to the core book.  Crammed into this book is a 41-page adventure, a 16-page bestiary, 2 cyphers, and 8 artifacts.  And it contains rules for a new classification of creatures, Mooks.  This simple addition of a way to turn any creature into cannon-fodder adds a lot of flexibility to Numenera’s already fluid combat system.

The Adventure

The Sun Below is a very, VERY weird adventure; in the science-fantasy landscape of Numenera, this is good thing.  The introduction gives the GM a brief overview of the story as well as a number of character hooks to tie the group into the narrative right away.  The adventure takes characters beneath the surface of the Ninth World to the realm of the Sun Below.  There they encounter the decaying remnants of a dying empire.  Various factions vie to influence the characters, seeing them as a wild card that could tip the balance of a stagnant ecosystem.  Navigating the strange subterranean world and returning to their home is the focus of the adventure.

I have not seen an adventure this flexible in a while. First of all, it is scaled for all six character tiers.  So no matter when you get The Sun Below, you can use it right away in your home game. Secondly, the structure of the scenario has more of a web structure than anything resembling a straight line. While the format takes a bit to absorb, each scene has a number of scenes that feed into it, as well as a number of scenes that it flows into.

The result is a published adventure which feels very much like how I plan my own games.  Characters will have to take some initiative, but a savvy GM can seed the options for subsequent scenes, as well as have a pretty firm handle on where the players could go next.

Bestiary

The bestiary contains 16 new monsters.  Most of them are given three sets of stats, allowing you to adjust for your characters’ tier.  While the monsters are tied into the narrative of the Sun Below, they are all fantastic additions to any game.  There are everything from floating heads sarcophagi, to ooze creatures, to automatons, and floating gas bags.

Conclusion

The Sun Below: City on the Edge is $7.99 at the time of this review and well worth the price.  The flexibility you get from this supplement is staggering.  The setting is weird and interesting, the adventure is flexible, and the creatures are inventive.  There is enough material here to continue to bring your characters to the world below even after the main adventure has been completed.  It is a worthy addition into the ranks of other stellar third party materials.

Next week I will post my review of Wits Alone, another third-party Numenera product.  So stay tuned.