After three years, we have learned a lot about RPG.LAB and the folks that enjoy it. So, as with many actual RPGs, we are offering a “new edition” of the program.
RPG.LAB will continue to serve its purpose as an experience where GMs and experienced players can not only play the game, but ask questions about and discuss the actual rules of the game so that new, excellent games that otherwise lack supported organized play can get their day in the sun so as to potentially become new favorites for home or in-store playgroups.
Although RPG.LAB has been great in the past, after review, we’ve given the program a bit more structure with standardized session use and more scenario preparation. In addition, players will also be able to ask rules and story questions of the GM via email throughout the month. This will help maximize playtime so that we all get as much as possible out of the experience.
We will also be introducing a new registration fee of $20 (covers the cost of all four sessions for the month). This fee is to reinforce the importance of full participation throughout the month in hopes of reducing cancellations and disruptive absences. That being said, you get a bunch of stuff.
Here’s what you get:
-Four sessions. The first session will cover rules basics as well as character and party design. The three sessions after that will contain a full mini-arc campaign often written from scratch by the event’s organizer.
-Character sheets, cheat sheets, and player handouts.
-A quiet, private play area.
So please keep an eye out for our new flyers and announcements. This year’s RPG.LAB offerings are not to be missed.
UPCOMING RPG.LABS in 2017:
JANUARY – MUTANT: GENLAB ALPHA
FEBRUARY – FEAR ITSELF
MARCH – MUTANT: YEAR ZERO
APRIL – PUPPETLAND
RPG.LAB REPORT: URBAN SHADOWS
It goes without saying that previous iterations of the Powered by the Apocalypse system is a favorite among RPG.LAB participants. Between Dungeon World and Monster of the Week, we’ve had a lot of fun. This time around we snatched up a copy of URBAN SHADOWS from Magpie Games and, as one would expect, we had a blast.
Although the book doesn’t come right out and say it, it implies an urban fantasy world that is ‘very similar to our own – only darker’, and by that I mean it is a paired down version of something that VERY closely resembles the territory covered in early World of Darkness material. Some of the art is even reminiscent of that old 90s period piece that made White Wolf an RPG juggernaut of that decade. That being said, it is not at all like the World of Darkness in a very important way – it is a single, two-hundred and ninety seven page book that gets to the point and focuses in on why we like playing monsters and why we like entangling these creatures of the night in all variety of intrigue and catastrophe.
Like the vast majority of Apocalypse Engine games, character generation is simplified by the selection of the playbook (called an archetype in Urban Shadows). In this case, the books are separated into four factions (I will talk more about this in the setting and mechanics subsections) and each has two or three types to choose from. The factions and playbooks are:
MORTALITY speaks for three archetypes – the Aware, the Hunter and the Veteran. This faction speaks for human affairs and interests and the three playbooks are for players for whom the supernatural is still something external.
NIGHT is the faction of those things that primarily go bump in the night. The Spectre, the Vamp, and the Wolf are the stock character types for most dark urban fantasy. These are monsters to be sure (If you want a more sympathetic treatment of these types of characters try the Apocalypse game Monsterhearts) and when playing them you will deal with their weaknesses and politics.
POWER is the faction of those mortals who dare to seize supernatural power and insight for themselves. The two archetypes are the Wizard and the Oracle.
WILD is the faction of the truly weird shit with experiences and desires far from mortal. The two archetypes are the Tainted (which is a human possessed by a demon or other sketchy supernatural being) or the Fae which might as well be space aliens insofar as their ability to seamlessly integrate into mortal culture and society.
Like all playbooks, these are checklists that make character generation extremely quick and easy to deal with lending to the one-shot or short notice readiness of Urban Shadows.
“Character generation was great. Fast. Easy. By the time we linked all the characters together we had a likeable cast of weirdoes.”
“Like other Apocalypse Engine games, the character creation is nice and easy. The character description options are flavorful, the architypes are cool.”
“I don’t think I did a good job in playing the character I initially created (she was not very serene!) Having said that, I like the simplicity that created unique characters with reasons to interact.”
In true Powered by the Apocalypse fashion, the setting for our game was cooperatively conceived. We decided on a fictional city situated in the real world. As the Master of Ceremonies, I decided I wanted to tell a moody story that didn’t necessarily put trenchcoat/katana at the fore. The characters (a degenerate Vamp, a disinherited Wolf, an ancient Tainted, and a very patient Aware) seemed pretty real and flawed and we wanted a world where their stories could be reasonably explored.
So Kingshore, Massachusetts came to be. Kingshore is a coastal resort city like Atlantic City, and like Atlantic City, it is in a state of terrible decline. It also enjoys the disdain of New England in general as it is considered a monstrous, neon horror that blights the provincial and idyllic route to Cape Cod and Nantucket. Off season, it is a gray and empty place where mobsters and monsters have made their moves since the late 19th century.
Behind the scenes, I gave interests and holdings to each of the four factions (making sure that PCs had a strong interest in these limited resources and opportunities) so that moving around the city would disturb these plans and create story and conflict. So once these drama traps were properly installed in four corners of the setting map, we were off to the races.
“The setting just sort of grew out of the cracks between the characters.”
“The setting really fit the feel of the game. An East Coast/New England, drizzly version of Sunnydale. I still have images from the game in my head.”
In quick summary, games that are Powered by the Apocalypse use a very easy 2d6 task resolution mechanic. You roll the 2d6 and add the relevant attribute bonus (generally between a -3 and a +3). Results of 6 or lower result in failure and the granting of an experience point or other benefit. Results of a 7-9 are successful but with a cost, consequences or plain old urgency. A score of 10 is usually a total success whereby the PC is given the opportunity to narrate his or her awesomeness as seen fit.
Beyond the basics, Urban Shadows also adds a political element that is invoked at the beginning of each game. Each PC has a relationship with each of the four factions represented by a simple modifier. That modifier can be tested or otherwise strained to determine further engagement with that faction.
Did you succeed fantastically when checking the Night faction? Then you enjoy the envied seat right next to the Vampire Prince at the very important council meeting later that evening. Did you fail horribly when consulting a roll with the Power faction? Then the sociopathic necromancer that once devoured the souls of your ancestors has discovered you at last.
“Very easy to grasp. Having played other versions of the Powered by the Apocalypse engine I had very few questions and play was easy.”
“Again, the simplicity allows for an easy back and forth where everyone can focus on their parts without being confused by mechanics.”
Although we probably could have leaned on some of the game specific systems a bit more than we did, we had a blast. The story got fairly complex and nuanced rather quickly. To be honest, I thought this was going to feel like really hand-waved and hollow experience of dated tropes and brooding clichés. It was anything but! In fact, I would say that the experience of this particular RPG lab was largely unsatisfying because, after three short sessions, we had to abandon the Kingshore despite there being so much more story to tell.
“George runs a great game. His take on horror helps a lot with this one.”
“I quite enjoyed Urban Shadows – perhaps the most of all the PotA games I’ve played so far. I think I’ll be running some US sessions after the current game I’m playing in concludes.”
George is the full-time assistant manager here at Games & Stuff. He is an obsessive collector of RPGs both common and obscure. It is likely that this habit will become the subject of a horror game sometime in the imminent future.
RPG.LAB REPORT: DUNGEON CRAWL CLASSICS
Yeah. I’m actually doing this. An Old School Renaissance (OSR) fantasy RPG is the subject of this lab report. That being said, there’s a lot of talk about which D&D is real D&D these days and, frankly, it’s whichever version have REAL fun with. Period. The entire idea of authenticity in this department is largely the domain of grognards who just want to sit on their gaming laurels rather than embracing both the old and the new and perhaps having a great and unexpected way to play.
I have to say, there is no game I’ve played recently that does a better job at this than Dungeon Crawl Classics. It’s one of the game’s many slogans – “Adventure as 1974 intended you to, with modern rules grounded in the origins of sword & sorcery.”
And here we go…
Where is the setting book? Isn’t there a book that’s just all the setting info? In short, no. The setting for DCC is largely represented by the flavor of its gods and other powerful beings. Clerics deal with gods (everything from Persian dragon gods to Cthulhu), Wizards and Elves deal with magical patrons (like the King of Elfland and the insane magus Sezrekhan). Beyond that, the game’s setting is largely represented by the stories and settings of its slim but awesome adventure modules.
The modules are loaded with hand-drawn art (no computer art here, folks) and even include the visuals of such early fantasy RPG masters as Erol Otus himself!
All in all, the setting occurs in the playing, revealed by the modules you use and the concealed in the ones yet to be run.
“I enjoyed (the setting) immensely. Can’t think of anything I would change. Bought the book after finishing this RPGLab, so that’s about the highest praise I can give this.”
“I’m a huge fan of pulp fantasy, and I think it captures that vibe pretty well. The dangers are all pretty unique. I like that there is little opportunity to game the system (“This is a beholder, it should have X hitpoints and hit us with eye lasers”) because everything is wondrous and strange.”
Balance. It’s the bugaboo of all RPGs these days. The implementation of point buy character generation, carefully figured methods of equalizing every power against every other has created a sort of weird entitlement to being on equal ground with everyone else.
DCC balances play with the same method that real life is balanced – absolute chaos and chance. The extreme to which DCC takes this idea is really lies at the center of its unmitigated glory. DCC begins with a type of adventure called a “funnel”. Every player randomly generates a set of three to four utterly worthless peons that begin at zero level. You are a classless upstart with dreams of vorpal weapons and nothing more than a prayer and a dream to get you there. Starting professions include such glorious beginnings as pig farmer, halfling chicken butcher, and elven glassblower. You have three crappy pieces of equipment, and with that, it’s off to the funnel dungeon – where you die in droves until only the strong remain. Once you have your last peon standing, you will be rewarded with a class and proper gear opportunities and it is at that legendary moment that the world becomes your bloody, instant death laden oyster.
Personally, as a DM, I LOVE the funnel experience. Slaughtering droves of characters and describing their ludicrous ends in splatterpunk comedic fashion is entirely rewarding. Players embrace the doom with great descriptions and, in the end, really treasure their remaining character.
“The standard 3d6 in order is quick and painless, and the random occupation is great too. The lucky roll, however, seems mostly useless; Most characters won’t be able to utilize luck due to having a mediocre score, and some of the lucky rolls are just junk.”
“Having never done a “funnel” type of creation before, I was very curious on how the process worked. I enjoyed it more than I thought I would. The pre-generated stats, careers, and basically life of the 0 level characters was actually fun, what with rolling for everything, and having to develop a character from whatever you end up rolling. The wanton destruction of said characters was also a plus in my eyes, as it was more of an act of just surviving rather than trying to advance as fast as possible, which was a refreshing change of pace. I ended up with just one character surviving (not the one I wanted to survive), but some other players had multiple survivors, which then led to the agonizing problem of who gets to move on and who doesn’t.
The only thing I would suggest is that it is definitely easier if somebody in the game is an experienced player, either playing or DMing. The sheer amount of characters (we had 20 total) running around at the zero level would seem to be a tough start for a new GM. Our gaming group had nothing but experienced players, so the game ran like clockwork, whereas I think it would be a little tougher (but doable) for a less experienced group.”
Fans of Dungeon & Dragons 3rd edition’s more elegant mechanics will find a lot to love in DCC’s system. It’s largely d20 driven and Armor Class and hit rolls do not resort to nostalgic crap (and I DO mean crap) like algorithmic AC and Thac0.
The weirdest element of the game (and perhaps its most baroque mechanic set) is it’s insanely detailed magic rules. Whether divine or arcane, the spells of DCC all require a check that is somewhat of a push your luck mechanic. If your effort is insufficient, the spell will fizzle and you will lose it for the day. If your effort is too mighty, you may get more than you bargained for in your result gone huge. If you really crap the bed, you will very likely end up with magic deformities or a disappointed deity.
“Works well. The whole system has been simplified from all the THACO, Armor Class, and the myriad of other stats that you need to keep track of for some other systems. The “vibe” of the system still feels like a true old school RPG, even though it is simplified. I think, with some slight modifications, this could work with just about any of the “sword & magic” style fluff used in other systems.”
“The system itself seems to lend more towards heroic fantasy than I imagined. Being able to use stat points as a currency in some situations, lots of crazy things happening with crits and fumbles… it feels very fun and cinematic, with a splash of extra gore that takes it to PG-13 or beyond. It’s still very much meat-and-potatoes Dungeons & Dragons. The system totally excels at crawling around in ruins, but will probably groan under the stress of gameplay not related to combat or exploration. Luckily, the setting is plenty focused on combat, weird monsters and ancient ruins.”
Now don’t get me wrong, If I’m going to sit down and play a serious narratively driven version of D&D with carefully plotted NPCs and enormous amounts of story prep, I would likely choose something like Pelgrane Press’s 13th Age.
If I want a raging nightmare of gods and crazy battles against things that have razored tentacles hanging out of both ends while a motley crew of badasses hack their way to treasure, traps and heaps of weird magic, it’s absolutely going to be Dungeon Crawl Classics.
This game is THE retro-OSR experience that many folks are talking about when they describe the D&D of their childhoods.
“Playing DCC in RPG lab was excellent. Better than other organized play experiences and most pick-up games.”
“RPG.LAB is a great notion that should be bigger. People are going to teach me how to play a game that I already have an interest in but maybe my fellow players are unwilling or not ready to step away from their comfort zone. . . . Seems sweet! There should be more publicity for this and people should flock to the opportunity.”
“Totally enjoyed both our host and the fellow players who survived this adventure. You guys (and Gals) really brought out the spirit of roleplaying during our sessions and made it great. Can’t wait until the next one I’m picked to be in. Thanks to the staff of G&S for continuing to run this event. I highly recommend both this game and (if you are into or curious to try roleplaying) to get into one of these sessions. You will not regret it!”
RPG LAB REPORT: THROUGH THE BREACH
I’ve been a big fan of the Malifaux setting since the earlier days of the miniature game. Malifaux somehow takes a number of the most over-used genres and tropes and, with Frankenstein ingenuity, stitches them into a fresh and vigorous monstrosity. Victorian-steampunk-pulp-cowboy-gothic-horror-with-zombies-and-katanas-for-days would normally not make it to my plate, but exploring the world of Malifaux through the lens of the interesting and original role-playing game that is Through the Breech is absolutely worth a dabble from any serious lover of RPGs.
The world of Nythera (often called Malifaux after the setting’s primary city) is a truly evocative and complete experience. From the time the characters are warped through the Breach (the magical gate between worlds) into the iron gothic beast city of Malifaux to the inevitable showdown with a half-demon nightmare-made-flesh in some tumbleweed town, the setting drips theme and a passionately honed aesthetic.
To say the story of Through the Breech is rich is an understatement. Standing on the shoulders of Wyrd’s miniature games’ setting, we get to explore that same material in ultra-granular detail. We get to walk around the oppressive courtrooms and gallows that are the mark of the tyrannical Guild. Characters explore the gremlin-infested Bayou’s haunted by primordial Neverborn boogeymen. Rifling through the viscera of undead constructs we can take on the role of necromancer-scholars resident at the University of Transmortis.
The massive mishmash of genres is actually a strength of the setting. It gives the game an infusion of possibility that plays to the strengths of whichever Fatemaster (TtB’s word for the GM) it needs. My strength is horror and non-steampunk Victoriana so I tried to cleave to those components when preparing my short arc for RPG LAB.
“I thought the Malifaux setting was very well depicted in the game. I feel it added an extra layer of excitement and appreciation to an encounter, when through the Fatemaster’s descriptions, you recognize something within the game that you know and love. That’s not just a 9 ft tall bare-chested motionless man with grotesque mechanical enhancements, that’s a Guild Executioner! I felt that it rewarded those familiar with the Malifaux lore and miniatures game, which I thoroughly enjoyed. I’d be interested to know how the two players who weren’t as familiar with the setting felt when three miniatures game players started geeking out once it donned on us what we were up against.”
“I feel like the background presented in Through the Breach makes for an excellent history text for the world of Malifaux and a wonderful supplement to the stories and fluff presented in the Malifaux tabletop miniatures game books and the Wyrd Chronicles. If this was the only material I had ever read about Malifaux as a setting, I’m not sure how excited I would be by it. It reminds me a bit of The Sixth World Almanac for Shadowrun 4. Kinda clinical, dry, encyclopedic reading but full of neat information if you’re already invested or want to know exactly when Goblinization started (or the Powder Wars began) or what the state of the Italian Confederation is in 2073 (or which of the many slums contains Little Kingdom or Red Chapel).”
“The setting is certainly rich in detail. It is very dark and oppressive, though, which can be a turn-off for some folks. Your characters begin the game at a point lower than most starting characters in other games, with barely enough cash to get anything beyond what their pursuit gives them.”
Character creation is one of the two systems in Through the Breech that are of award-winning quality. The player characters of TtB are called Fated and are defined by a cryptic occult prophecy that is defined at character generation and revealed through each session of play. Character generation is inspired by a pack of playing cards (the task resolution device used in TtB instead of dice – identical to the deck used in the miniatures game) and plays out in the fashion of a Tarot-told story. Each step creates an aspect of the character including the eldritch lines of his Fate. This system is not overly static and allows narrative driven tweaks to escape the binding conventions of classes yet still provides enough customization that niche protection can be maintained.
The other use of the character’s fate poem/song/scripture is that it is the device around which the Fatemaster builds his campaign. Each session of play, one of each player’s five lines of prophecy is resolved through the story. This allows a strangely organic game skeleton which by its very nature is forced to reinforce core player character themes and story background.
“The way cards are used in a Tarot-like form for character generation makes it an interesting process. While it adds a random element, it still allows for enough customization that I didn’t t feel like I was playing a cookie-cutter character. The organization was a bit tricky, as I felt like I had to shift back and forth between the pages containing the steps and the section detailing each step’s options. Some things, like Magic, require you to read through the last chapter very closely to understand what each choice entails.”
“It’s very different from other RPG systems I have run/played in. I’m still unconvinced that the Destiny system built into it works all that well, at least as more than a kind of “milestone” system that could just as easily be arbitrary to the GM. The tarot layout, how it generated abilities/skills and the large table of stations (backgrounds) to give you a kind of “kickoff” to thinking about your character are all enjoyable and well done I think.
“I went into the process with the intention of allowing the character creation process to tell me what my character will be, as that seemed to be the intent. I was pleased that it didn’t actually limit my options terribly much. The end result wasn’t anything I’d have ever predicted, but was also a character I enjoyed playing immensely.
The only real gripe I have with it is some of the compatibility issues with the pursuits, which we experienced when the tinkerer needed to have a pneumatic limb that it was impossible to afford on starting currency alone. It’s something that’s easily solved by the GM, though I think this character generation system could drive rules lawyer types crazy (net positive maybe? 😉 I don’t really feel much needs changing in the process, and I would probably only do so if I wanted to alter the tone of the game from the start. Things that spring to mind are starting with Fated who are already a bit more established in Malifaux with additional funds or equipment access, possibly an additional general talent as I felt that was fairly limited (though partly due to time constraint), or making manifested powers and additional grimoires readily available to start of sprinting on something epic. That’s all normal RPG game running type stuff when you decide the kind of game you want to run though so hardly specific to this setting and ruleset.”
Through the Breech is powered by a deck of cards. It uses an attribute + skill pairing that is modified by the drawing of a standard playing card. Suits have different effects for different characters and situations and jokers, depending on color, can cause both beneficial and detrimental mayhem. Special powers also have suit specific powers that can be triggered to spectacular effect.
In all cases, the task resolution deck (called a Fate Deck) is used by the players at the Fatemaster’s behest. When a card is needed, a player is directed to draw a card. The player has a hand of cards for any given session that they can use to cheat certain outcomes if needed. This hand refreshes at various points during play but is generally limited to a given session or short story arc.
As a game master, I have a preference for hidden information when it comes to the game’s probability. It allows me to fudge and ignore die outcomes when they’d make the story less interesting. That being said, Through the Breech’s method seemed a bit easier to steer than other games that use this transparency and level of player narrative control.
“I found the TtB system mechanics to be a straight derivative of the miniatures game. You get two Action Points (AP), you get a Free action (or 0 action), these are fundamentals of the miniatures game. The types of actions are also directly related to the miniatures game, use an AP to Focus your strike, get a positive twist to attack and damage. It would not feel unfamiliar to transition from one game to the other. “
“The mechanics are immediately familiar to anyone who has played the miniatures game. That’s both a positive and a negative though. On the one hand, the similarity is nice and an experienced Malifaux player will already know the value of AP, the general actions like focus and defensive and will have a good idea during character creation the kinds of things that will be important later on. On the other hand, it’s just different enough that an experienced Malifaux player may glance and skim past vital differences like how the communal fate deck works (the GM never flips, so opposed duels are actually fairly different in a way), how initiative works, the value in the additional actions presented by trick and impose or what skills will really be useful.
In general, I think that Through the Breach does an excellent job of capturing the Malifaux experience in an RPG format that is immediately recognizable to anyone with any tabletop RPG experience and Malifaux players in particular will already feel quite comfortable with the card mechanics involved. A comparison of the two wouldn’t be complete without mentioning just how different Malifaux the miniatures game and Through the Breach the RPG are. In Malifaux, your crew consists of *extremely* powerful and unique individuals and there is often quite a strong relationship between the gamer and a specific master (and often faction). Crazy abilities and varied personalities are the norm and there’s a definite sense of empowerment from executing the complex inner-workings of each crew successfully.
Through the Breach doesn’t have this, but also has more. The player can still generate a very strong relationship to their character, but with an RPG it becomes more about growth. I believe the system provides the tools, for a Fated to become *quite* powerful eventually but they also get to enjoy a more day-to-day existence Breachside… something that the miniatures game will never really do (and shouldn’t).”
At first, I found the rules of Through the Breech quite daunting. Luckily, the enthusiasm of RPG LAB participants and my love of the setting pushed me through the initial bumps and resulted in a great payoff. The game has an atmosphere like few others and core mechanics that only reinforce this.
I would recommend this game to anyone who likes any of the contributing genre elements as well as those folks who like truly stylish RPGs with astounding art direction.
GEORGE HOLLAND is the assistant manager here at Games & Stuff. He takes enormous pleasure in the grotesque and wondrous.
After a many years spent dreaming behind the light of dying stars, Games and Stuff is pleased to announce that the CTHULHUTECH Roleplaying Game is once again available for sale at the shop. Special thanks to Derek at Publisher Services for helping us to get this back on our shelves, something that we’ve spent many years trying to do. Without further ado, here’s George to talk about why the game ranks among his very favorite RPGs of all time.
So, I have collected a bit of Lovecraftiana in my day. I specialize in RPGs and occult material but have also collected my good share of board games and other stuff. That being said, I have pretty strong opinions about what is appropriate treatment of the shared world of the Mythos as well as what is a correct re-imagining of the genre’s soul. I would say that my tastes in Cthulhu stuff run toward the conservative insofar as tone and theme. So it is not hard to imagine what my initial reaction to CthulhuTech would resemble. I do not think that I can count the number of times I rolled my eyes and cursed all collective geekdom for what they had wrought with their juvenile penchant for mash-up and that wretched dog-urine stain called anime.
May my tongue be forever bound by the void-sigils of Azathoth’s idiocy for this transgression of sublime presupposition.
CthulhuTech now reigns supreme as my favorite Mythos universe game. It’s because beneath its Robotech-like metaplot is a rich loam of occult horror and paranoid knots of Cronenbergian body horror pinned to the floor of our ceremonial chamber by a level of immediate violence and catastrophe that insures that nothing boring can happen. It’s because behind all of that Japanimation-style art looms a blisteringly boundless game setting that has more gore-oozing entry points than the bloated mass of Shub-Niggurath herself. It’s that even though we have FTL and armories of gauss-canons braced to the arms of armies of sixty foot-tall warbots, if Ye Olde Ones actually do wake-up in the CthulhuTech setting, we are no better protected than we were in the good ole 1920s.
In most cases, the players take on the roles of members of the New Earth Government – or play a member of one of the human-interested secret societies that lurk within it. They are either Human or members of a near-human race called the Nazzadi. If that’s not weird enough, discuss it with your group and consider a human-opposed game for which there are several options both classic and new. Careers for your characters can be anything from the archetypal squadron of Mecha pilots or a cell of the Eldritch Society (an arcane shadow agency that ritually creates Guyver-like super-soldiers by grafting soul-eating symbionts to only the most tested and worthy of candidates.)
All this being said, CthulhuTech is absolutely loaded with the disturbing things one would expect in virtually every variety of horror. With that in mind, it excels at both cosmic horror (the dread that is the perimeter of the known) and body horror (the dread that is the monstrous enemy and our physical form are inseperable). I would like to say that the game accomplishes its ends with graceful subtlety but that would be a grievous lie. Many games say they are for mature audiences, CthulhuTech demands it. If you are squeamish or otherwise prone to extreme anxiety when presented with really invasive and controversial ideas of horror, sex, or violence, CthulhuTech is not for you.
The number one reason I find CthulhuTech compelling? It’s something entirely new made from the familiar. The reveals are not predictable and the weird seductive quality of the setting lets us take the investigation a bit further. It takes the cosmic terror and body horror to a different place and makes the experience immediately accessible and therefore playable. I won’t go so far as to call it the very best Lovecraft-inspired game, but it is absolutely my favorite.
-George Holland is our Assistant Manager and spends a lot of time eyeing the world suspiciously over the covers of strange and dubious books. He also runs the RPG.LAB program on Tuesday nights at 6pm (limited spots – appointment necessary).
-Today’s Cool Thing is a series of short articles featuring whatever cool thing the Games and Stuff staff is currently buzzing about.
Rocket Age is a game I’ve been waiting a long time for. Although the RPG market is flooded with steampunk and retro-pulp RPGs, this one hits a subtle note in tone that is different from the others. It plays its setting straight without losing the crazy unbound-by-actual-science idea of science fiction without turning everything into a self-deprecating cartoon. There is certainly room for those tropes if you want to inject them but there’s nothing inherently stupid about the setting treatment or the character options. In fact, despite some of the strange PCs that rose up out of the character generation process, I feel like all of the characters had a sincerity, heart, and dignity that wasn’t undermined by juvenile anime shtick or buried under piles of dust and monocles excreted by attempts at historical consistency or slavish adherence to the classic literary types. Translation – it doesn’t get in the way of its own fun either by being too serious or too childish.
Perhaps one of the drawbacks to its sleek early 20th century visual design is that one might mistake Rocket Age for some generic pulp sci-fi game with rules for rocket ships and a glossed-over history of our 1930s Earth. It is not. It’s crazy and detailed and is filled with story options and the kind of stuff around which you can really build a long-running campaign with a lot of interlocking substance.
The game takes place in a universe where in 1931 Einstein, Tesla and Ray Armstrong (replacing Goddard who fell ill) flew the starship Eagle to Mars and discovered an ancient, extremely advanced civilization in on the precipice of decline. From the Martians, the three geniuses took technological and creative inspiration which inevitably precipitated into all variety of scientific wonders and the deep end of the rocket age gets into full swing. Although the game so far focuses a lot on Venus and Mars, I suspect Jupiter and Saturn-focused books won’t be long off.
“The setting is very detailed; honestly, in some case, it feels overly detailed. There are certainly a lot of story opportunities available, but the spread of them in terms of location and people uneven. Personally, I find the concept of the Venusians as a lost race more compelling than the complicated caste politics of the Martians. I hope to see more upcoming material dedicated to them.
There’s also an odd feeling looking through the background that the writers attempted to take the retro Sci Fi genre and interweave it with modern social/political story elements. The setting seems more aimed at having the heroes fight against social injustice than, say, battle evil masterminds or explore ancient civilizations.”
Creating a character is quick and point based. Perhaps the longest consideration was given to the selection of everyone’s character’s species. To say that Rocket Age has a lot of character options is a gross understatement. In the core book alone, there are three races from the moons of Jupiter, gorilla-like Venusians, numerous castes of Martians and good ole Earthlings. Equipment is plentiful, detailed and storied. For exceptional equipment, players have a pool of story points that they can use to purchase and power some of the more extreme, game-altering gear. That being said, leftover points can be used to directly cheat fate so saving a few for a rainy, laser-laden day might be a good idea.
The characters we came up with were:
- A human Rocket Ranger who embodied every square-jawed, charismatic moron you’ve ever loved.
- A practically minded human scientist that added a touch of sanity to the cadre when she wasn’t diving into toxic or dangerous alien specimens.
- An optimistic Venusian wayfarer who pursued matters with forthrightness, manners and a jewel-encrusted ceremonial axe that could deflect lasers.
- A gnarled survivor of the Iotian purges that bootstrapped himself out of the muck with the help of a can-do attitude and a European disintegrator rifle.
The ship is basically a shared character. The core book gives good examples of ships and other modes of transportation. The one thing our group didn’t like was the lack of ships with a small, party-sized crew. Nonetheless, we decided to go with the spirit of this sci-fi before science and just customized our minimum crew count for our own narrative needs.
“I wish I had not gone into the game virtually blind. I don’t think I understood that you really should specialize in a handful of skills or how important attribute stats are. I was a bit of a generalist, and that did not do me any favors. The dice mechanic should have clued me in. There were times I definitely regretted my choices in character creation. Looking back, the career packages were a little unbalanced; take a look at the generic citizen package compared to the Rocket Ranger. While I suppose the cost does lead to more customization of citizen, looking at this adventure and other seeds, it seems to behoove you to pay for a high powered package in the beginning. The layout of the character creation section was far to much book flipping to be fun. The concept of character career packages is intriguing, though. I loved how they fleshed out the aliens – familiar, but unique.”
“I found the character generation pretty straightforward. It’s somewhat linear, in the sense that the selection of species and career has a fixed set of abilities, so there’s a bit of a cookie-cutter feel to how characters start, but there’s enough leeway for players to make some customizations and personalize them.”
The Rocket Age RPG uses the very smooth Vortex system that has also been seen in Cubicle 7’s Doctor Who and the Primeval RPG. It largely got out of our way when we needed it to. The system is basically:
2d6+ skill rating + attribute rating vs. difficulty rating
Damage on weapons is staged at three outcomes of mayhem with rules for automatic death effects (in case you want to use this game for grittier play – it could be incredibly lethal in cruel hands) based on a successful roll and the increments of success beyond the minimum needed.
Aside from looking up some specific equipment here and there, Rocket Age got out of our way and let us tell the story we wanted to tell.
“The Vortex system shows its roots from the Doctor Who RPG pretty clearly, especially in the way it handles combat. Task resolution is relatively easy, which helps. The rulebook needs to be better organized; we spent a lot of time having to look for certain rules that were not clearly spelled out or. in one case, not mentioned at all.”
Overall, I was happy with Rocket Age and I think the players were too. It did everything we wanted to and we weren’t buried under overly novel mechanics nor a freakishly cumbersome setting. The virtue of planets and isolated space bases makes the story as modular as you need it to be.
For our game we only used the core book. Nonetheless, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that the game is well supported with three supplements including a full campaign and a comprehensive Mars guidebook.
RPG.LAB REPORT: DUNGEON WORLD
I’m going to say it up front: Dungeon World was my favorite RPG LAB to date with no visible runner up. I had heard a lot about Vincent Baker’s Apocalypse World (the game from which Dungeon World takes its entire mechanical basis) over the last few years and had pretty much written it off as an overly rules-lite storytelling game with a lot of controversial art and themes. I figured it was a post-apocalyptic hype game that had been artificially elevated to hipster grandiosity on no real merit of its own.
I was entirely wrong. Dungeon World may very well have permanently changed my view of role-playing. As a consequence of this, this lab report is going to be a little bit unusual because we didn’t really have a setting for the game until we started playing.
Dungeon World is a low-prep fantasy RPG with all the tropes you know and love from bog-standard fantasy RPGs. The big difference is that the game is a quid pro quo interrogation that occurs between the GM and the players and the players with each other. There are no rounds, turns or scenes per se. The entire thing unfolds as a result of questions that beg for more detail and story.
So character generation in Dungeon World is great. I love it for several reasons.
First, character generation is incredibly fast. Character sheets are class specific and have all of the relevant information for that character for the entirety of their adventuring career. Your name, appearance, race, alignment, stats and special abilities are all the result of quick selection from your sheet. This does two things I like, it speeds up character generation and it prevents the “against type” and “unique snowflake” brand of player from wasting everyone’s time with the tiresome nuances of their personal adolescent power fantasy. That being said, in my new home game I’ve found that aesthetic restrictions are a VERY GOOD THING for Dungeon World. It points the characters at a specific tone for the game so that it doesn’t uncontrollably sprawl into D&D kitchen sink nonsense.
“I enjoyed [character generation], it was very simple, and it does something very unique (in my limited experience) in the RPG world. It allows you to create your character through gameplay, not through your character sheet. Many systems tout flexible character systems that allow you to ‘build the character you want to play’, through the use of skills, aspects, traits, etc. Since Dungeon World has such a simple action system (more on that later), you really just take your simple character and apply personality. So the coolest thing is, you are not limited at ALL by your character, which is extremely liberating. And extremely FUN.”
“I found the character creation to be very simple, but still interestingly complex when it comes to forming a character. I particularly liked the bonds between party members. It made the group feel more like a team and less like a group of random murder hobos. I found myself more interested in the other characters and what they were doing. How would they react to each other.”
As I mentioned before, we did not have a setting before the game started. It sort of fell out of the story of the characters. As one of the PCs was a Druid that had selected “The Stinking Mire” as her home turf, we started the game there. It eventually became clear that the Stinking Mire was a frogman infested swamp with an ancient, effluvia-weeping toad demon at the center of it that spews corruption into the environment creating all sorts of horrible mutants and evil monsters to come into being. We also found out that there was a town at the edge of the mire called Braggart’s Folly which was run by a scumbag crime boss by the name of Otto Seven-Fingers. Although the town’s economy is visibly based on trade and peat-farming, ultimately it’s a hub for swamp cults and bayou thugs that create some cool problems for our heroes. Especially the peasant-manned poison cult built around the furious spirit of an undead hydra.
It’s very important to note that this setting unfolded from a single check mark on the Druid’s character sheet and dozens of questions asked by the GM and the players. Braggart’s Folly happened after the first session when I asked the PCs where they wanted to go. They said “The nearest town” to which I responded “what’s it called?”, “what’s it like?”, “how does it survive?”, “who’s in charge?”, etc.
“I feel that the setting is very open for all kinds of potential. You need to have the right kind of players because they are such an important part of building the setting. Players can create the town or city they come from during a session and have that mean something more than a line on the character sheet.”
“It’s a hard question to answer, since it’s basically open-ended versus a designed setting like Forgotten Realms, Eberron, or Golarion. With that said, I like the gaming principle of embracing the player’s design input – it changes the game flow more towards improv, which is a fun change.”
As I mentioned before, Dungeon World is “Powered by the Apocalypse” – the engine first implemented in D. Vincent Baker’s Apocalypse World. This is the same engine found in Dungeon World, World Wide Wrestling RPG, Jason Morningstar’s Night Witches, Evil Hat’s Monster of the Week, Sagas of the Icelanders, and MonsterHearts. Given this wild array of settings hinted at in this pile of games, it is safe to say that the Apocalypse engine is pretty freaking versatile.
The engine is based upon the idea of Moves. Moves swing back and forth between player and GM like a pendulum in an endless play of back and forth. Player’s control all the dice (even monster damage) and have an enormous amount of control over the way they engage with the game. Your turn happens when you have something cool you want to do. You then roll a die to determine the outcome – on a success you get your cake and eat it, on a partial success you get something of what you wanted, and on a failure the GM gets to get a little mean and creative and the character gets an experience point (because you only learn from your mistakes!). If you don’t want to do anything, you just sit there and wait until you are inspired or until the GM decides you need some poking to instigate involvement.
Beyond this basic mechanic, there are tons of simple systems for organizing and growing your campaign by way of heavily storied magic items, guidelines for locations and NPCs, and something called a front (like “All Quite on the Western Front”) which helps organize the inspired material you and your players have generated for meaningful future use.
“The Apocalypse World System is perfect for this type of Fantasy RPG. The rules are simple and straightforward. Everything is accomplished with moves that just move along the action you want to happen. It doesn’t get so bogged down in the minutiae of rules and how something can’t happen because of this penalty or needing that feat. I particularly liked earning advanced moves instead of having to go through a complicated leveling process. It leaves more time for the story.”
“As I outlined in my previous answers, Dungeon World affords players unprecedented options by removing some key game structures (especially from a GM’s perspective) and replacing them with an invitation to cooperatively create. From a player’s perspective, it’s interesting characters inhabiting an interesting world, doing interesting things. I think it’s phenomenal, and at the same time can be a very risky endeavor, if the players are not engaged or willing to experiment with the game’s fiction.”
I cannot say enough to praise this game. If you ever see me circling the racks and have questions about Dungeon World or the basics of any of the other games Powered by the Apocalypse, just hit me up and I’ll be happy to gab with you about it.
I had an absolute blast and I think the five players that joined me this month did as well. It is a rare occasion that when I am done running a game for RPG LAB that I am immediately inspired to start running a home game immediately. In fact, it’s unheard of. Except in the case of Dungeon World.
“I’ve never delved much into fantasy settings, but this one had me reconsidering the genre. It seemed to cover every aspect. The material on the website provided some useful expansions of what was in the book. The Apocalypse World System seems to suit fantasy well, but I can’t imagine it lending itself to extended campaigns. At least in the beginning, leveling up seem to happen pretty quick and the complication of the advanced moves to story seems like it would negatively impact a long story arc. As a player, I’d have liked to explore a greater variety of moves and how to apply them. The final session, to me, was incredibly useful. Joel and I often run each other in games, and hearing how to use this system from a GMing standpoint was awesome. Especially to hear it from so many different people.”
“I was very happy with RPG lab, George’s willingness to stop at key “Scenic Vista” points along the way and explain the mechanics was very effective at explaining what is a very new and unique (to me, at least) way of approaching gameplay. I felt that our post-mortem session examining the month’s game was very interesting, and gave us an opportunity to ask questions and deliver feedback about gameplay, as well as giving us an opportunity to ask YOU about any challenges and your experience RUNNING the game.”