Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Five or So Questions with Phil Lewis on Wrath of the Autarch!

Today I'm interviewing Phil Lewis about Wrath of the Autarch, now on Kickstarter! This boardgame-inspired RPG sounds super fun, so check out the interview below!

Tell me about Wrath of the Autarch. What excites you about it?
Kingdom building games have always been in my blood. The idea of collaboratively telling the story of a society through the lens of the important leaders is really exciting! I also like exploring this space between boardgames and role-playing games. Wrath of the Autarch takes elements of boardgame design and uses them to create challenge in a more traditional role-playing game space. I really like that!

What are the key elements of boardgaming you wanted to highlight, and how did you bring them in?
The primary one is an action economy. There is only so much time to do what you need to do! I wanted the players to feel a time pressure that builds over the course of the campaign. The Empire is growing in strength and the Autarch is coming!

That action economy works at many time scales. The Stronghold players must finish a certain number of challenge scenes each season of time, or the Autarch player gains more benefits. Each season of time, the Stronghold players only accomplish one large goal, so they have to choose what they think is the most important.

I also used an abstract dice mechanic to handle resources. It was inspired by boardgames such as Kingsburg. The Stronghold players use six sided dice at the beginning of each season to build developments for their society. Multiple colors of dice are used, each mapping to a type of resource (like food or ore). Based on results of rolls, there are tough choices - do you build the development you really want, even if it might not be the best use of your resources that season? Or do you get as much as you possibly can, optimizing all of your rolls and trades, even if those developments may not have an immediate benefit.

What was the hardest part of integrating the two modes - boardgame and TTRPG?
Tabletop role-playing games have many unspoken procedures. There's this shared history that is frequently leveraged to make tabletop role-playing games work. Boardgames don't really have that. So there's some extra work in trying to make some of those procedures explicit.

There's also a challenge in harnessing the creativity that comes out of role-playing games and placing it into an action economy like Wrath of the Autarch has.

Threats sound interesting! Tell me a little about them.
Threats are the way that drama emerges in the game! At the end of each session, there's a chance for badness. Regions that your society controls might have threats. Factions that you're friends with could have threats as well.

Threats generally have a type (like diplomacy, infiltration, skirmish, warfare) as well as a difficulty. They're a great chance for the Autarch player to reincorporate all of the drama from the Stronghold's past into the storyline! Did something happen between an emissary from the Stronghold and the leader of a faction a few seasons ago? Maybe that has snowballed into a bigger issue! Maybe they demand aid, or perhaps there are disagreements over customs or religions.

The Stronghold players can choose to ignore threats, but that usually has other consequences for the Stronghold. Regions might not be able to produce resources. Factions may start to dislike the Stronghold.

Finally, the Autarch player has schemes at their disposal. Schemes are like super threats! Each year, the Autarch player may choose a number of schemes to unleash. They grow in intensity over the campaign, finally culminating in all out attacks by the Autarch!

I'm going to give you a tough one: what is the ideal player for Wrath of the Autarch?

That's a really good question! I'll answer it this way: I designed this as a game I could play with my friends. Our usual game group is made up of older people with jobs and children. Almost invariably, a few people can't make it each week. Wrath of the Autarch is troupe based and episodic so that if a few people can't make it, it's not a problem. The story can continue!

More directly: The biggest fans are people who like kingdom building games, either video games (like Crusader Kings or even Civilization) or role-playing games (like Birthright or Ars Magica) or even boardgames. During playtests, players who aren't as into those games still have fun setting up scenes, playing characters, exploring relationships. But it's really going to hit all the right notes for someone who likes to think about the long term strategy of their kingdom.

Thanks, Phil, for the interview! You can find more about Wrath of the Autarch on Kickstarter!

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Five or So Questions with Becky Annison and Josh Fox on Lovecraftesque

I interviewed Becky Annison and Josh Fox about their new game, Lovecraftesque! It's currently on Kickstarter and looks awesome!

Tell me a little about Lovecraftesque. What excites you about it?

J: Lovecraftesque is a storygame of brooding, cosmic horror. It recreates the rhythm and style of Lovecraft's stories, and gives you the tools to collaboratively create monsters and other horrors that feel like they could have come from Lovecraft's notebook.

B: I really enjoy the typical model of a Lovecraft story - the single protagonist getting deeper and deeper into a terrible mystery only to find they are already doomed. But the majority of Lovecraft RPGs focus on a party of investigators instead of the lonely protagonist. What excites me is how Lovecraftesque takes the story back to that lone protagonist. I love the fact that the rotating roles in the game mean that everyone is trying to doom that character in their own way.

J: For me, this is the GMless mystery game I've always wanted to play in. I love the fact that I get to put my own stamp on the story, while getting the uncertainty and suspense of not knowing what's going to happen. And the game's rules mean you still get the coherence and direction you'd normally get from a GM, without the need to break the atmosphere to discuss what's really going on.

Lovecraft and associated mythos are, historically, kind of problematic. What have you done as creators in regards to problems like sexism, racism, and ableism?
B: Lovecraft is very problematic and we are approaching that openly. We have done a number of things to try and de-toxify Lovecraft. I think there are 3 main areas we have worked on this.

Firstly we wanted out art to be as diverse as possible and part of the reason we chose Robin Scott was for the amazingly inclusive art in her Urban Tarot series.

Secondly we've put a lot of thought and guidance into how to create a good safety culture at the table. We encourage players to agree up front their approaches to sexism, racism and abelism and ensure everyone's views are heard.

J: The setup phase of the game includes a step in which players can ban specific themes or elements, and we’ve included a prompt to consider banning in-character racism and racist themes.

B: Lastly we've written two guidance sections in the game text, one on mental health and one on racism. In those we explore the stereotypes in Lovecrafts' work and give practical guidance to ensure people don't unconsciously replicate them.

J: The mental health side is handled a bit differently. It’s fair to say we encourage people to omit racism entirely from the game, and we don’t think that will hurt the story in the slightest. By contrast the effect of the horror on the human mind is an important theme of Lovecraftian tales.

We’ve analysed the different ways that the horror can impact on someone’s mind or their behaviour, giving you a set of options for a respectful portrayal that steers well clear of the stereotype of the horror driving people “mad”. The key thing is to portray a character, not a collection of symptoms.

How do you envision a typical session of Lovecraftesque?

B: This is a story game in which the players rotate the role of a single protagonist and share out narration. Everyone creates clues and then secretly leaps to a conclusion about what those clues mean. A typical session should have people inventing clues, building on each other's details layer by layer and dripping atmosphere and tension into every scene.

But my favourite bit is when the players leap to conclusions secretly. Because at the end you not only have a finale which feels like it was planned all along, but you have a the fun of comparing theories at the end of the game.

J: As you near the end of the game, the protagonist begins what we call the Journey into Darkness, where they travel to an old, dark or sinister location where they’ll confront the horror. It’s one of my favourite bits of the game - you ramp up the tension and shift the game’s gears from “I’m sure all this can be explained rationally” to a scene of stark, alien horror.
The Final Horror is the apex of that journey, where all those theories you’ve been building are finally resolved. And there’s always a bleak epilogue where you see what happens after the story ends.

Which Lovecraftian works did you pull from the most for the themes in Lovecraftesque?

B: Our biggest influence was Graham Walmsley's Stealing Cthulhu which does an inspiring job of deconstructing Lovecraft's stories, breaking down their rhythm and structure. His work focuses on a smaller number of key stories which we have expanded on. But we've also looked at the following in more detail: The Dunwich Horror, The Shadow Over Innmouth, The Whisperer in Darkness, the Haunter of the Dark, At the Mountains of Madness, Cool Air and Pickmans' Model.

J: I’d add the Colour Out of Space and the Call of Cthulhu to that list.

B: I'd be hard pressed to pick a favourite but I do love The Whisperer in Darkness.

For me it’s the Colour Out of Space. It’s such a great example of Lovecraft’s weird blending of the themes of what we’d now call science fiction with a classic horror tale.

If you were to set up the ideal environment for a session of Lovecraftesque, what would you have there? (Props, music, location, etc.)
J: Atmosphere is key for Lovecraftesque, and a lot of the game’s mechanics are targeted on building tension. The gaming environment should support this. Low-key, instrumental music played at a low volume. Ideally play at night (we did one of our playtests on a dark and stormy evening and scared the bejeesus out of each other). You can even turn the lights down or use candles, since the game doesn’t require much in the way of rules look-up.
If I had absolute freedom to choose any venue, I’d choose an old house, old enough to creak and sigh a little. It would be in the countryside, far from any main road or settlement. It would have old paintings on the walls and a fire crackling in the corner.

B: My favourite place for playing Lovecraftesque is our own dining room. We are lucky enough to have a oak panelled dining room which is dark, intimate and atmospheric.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Five or So Questions with Jacob Wood on Psi-punk: Worlds Edge Arena!

Today I have an interview with Jacob Wood about his Kickstarter, Psi-punk: World's Edge Arena!

Tell me about Psi-punk: Worlds Edge Arena. What excites you about it?

World's Edge Arena is the second sourcebook for Psi-punk, a Fudge-compatible cyberpunk RPG. It introduces players to the city of punta Arenas, Chile, where characters compete in a televised bloodsport known as the World's Edge Arena.

Players form teams and face two qualifying rounds against psychicly-controlled, cybernetically-enhanced predators such as wolves, eagles, bears, and komodo dragons. If they survive the qualifiers, they enter a single elimination tournament against seven other teams and battle for fame and fortune. Also, just to keep things interesting, the layout and terrain of the Arena shifts and changes between matches so every fight is new and exciting.

World's Edge Arena is televised globally and has a huge fan base. Players can tap into their excitement and approval by means of a Fan favor mechanic which gives them an edge in combat.

The huge success of the Arena draws thousands of people to the formerly-small city. An influx of outside wealth and culture has created a rift between old traditions and new customs. The setting explores what it's like for people who live in the town and the conflicts that arise because of its sudden population explosion.

To me, the most exciting thing about the book is that it gives both plaayers and GMs a lot of hooks to really get invested in the setting. It would be simple to play an entire campaign set in and around the area--there's downtime between matches at the Arena, and there's plenty to do around town. For groups who are fond of combat, the Arena itself offers a lot of diversity. For those who like to mix in intrigue and traditional cyberpunk-style street running, it offers a lot of that too.

How does the Fan Favor mechanic work, and what do you think it puts into the game?

Fan Favor is pretty simple: do something awesome and you gain Favor, do something shameful and you lose it. The book has a chart with a few examples of ways to gain and lose Favor. For example:

Incapacitate or kill a wounded opponent: +1 Favor
Incapacitate or kill an uninjured opponent: +2
Victory against overwhelming odds: +2
Heal a creature during combat: -1
Execute an incapacitated opponent: -2

Fan Favor is accumulated on a team level, so everyone contributes to the team's pool. Anyone may spend some of their team's favor to do something cool, such as:

Add +1 to a roll: -1 Favor
Re-roll and take the better result: -2 Favor
Force an opponent to re-roll and take the worse result: -3 Favor

Favor rolls over between matches, and GMs are welcome to start opposing teams with some Favor of their own. From my experience running Psi-punk, re-rolling dice in Fudge has the potential to alter the course of a conflict and makes for some pretty exciting gameplay. The mechanic also gives a trackable meta-game element which players can use to get an idea of just how great they're doing--it's like unlocking achievements or levelling up, but without any pre-set goals.

Tell me about the creatures in your bestiary - which ones are the scariest?
The Arena has a sizable bestiary filled with augmented predators. During matches, these animals are controlled by humans with the mind control power, so they think and reason like expert strategists but have all of the natural (and cybernetically-enhanced) abilities of a normal creature. The beasts are clone, so there's a near-infinite supply of them, and they represent the largest and fiercest animals of their species.

A couple of my favorite examples are:

Coyotes augmented with sonarkinesis so they can unleash a howl that literally damages their opponents.
Black panthers with the ability to dim the lighting near them, which gives them an even greater stealth advantage.
Wolves with a frost breath attack capable of freezing multiple opponents.
Komodo dragons... because they're komodo dragons.

How do you emulate the changing layout and terrain?

One of the key aspects of the Psi-punk setting is technology built on emulating psionic powers. This tech is known as magic, and magic devices can perform a huge variety of tricks based on what they're programmed to do.

The World's Edge Arena is built with a device capable of using a power known as control animate to terraform the arena's terrain. As a televised broadcast, the Arena is set up like a season of a TV show. Each season has one terrain theme--jungle, desert, tundra, mountains, grasslands, etc.--and every episode (that is, every fight) takes place in that one terrain. It influences the types of beasts from the bestiary who will fight during that season and has a huge impact on how the human warriors interact with their environment.
To keep things from getting stale or from someone gaining the upper hand by studying the environment, the arena changes shape between episodes. During one match a player may have discovered a helpful cave to hide in or a particularly large tree to climb, but when they get to their next match they'll need to explore all over again.

The specifics about how things change are intentionally left vague so the GM and players can decide on that themselves. I'm a really big fan of players being able to ask questions like "Is there a tree I can climb to get a height advantage?" and the GM can make that call. it creates an environment where the players get to have a say in what's happening around them.

In creating the game and prepping it for backers, what is the coolest experience you've had?

While running the game at a local convention for a group of people new to Psi-punk, I got to see how different people and different personalities interact with the setting and the mechanics. In particular, there was one character who was a skilled hacker but was a total coward when it comes to physical combat. Instead of the player spending all of his time running and hiding and generally not feeling like he belonged in a combat arena, he tapped into his hacker skills to generate Fan Favor for his team.

Every Arena match is televised and even people in the live audience watch the matches on enormous view screens. This player hacked the camera feeds to close in on all of the cool things his teammates were doing to ensure the audience saw the best and most favorable footage. He also hacked the feeds to try to counteract the team's blunders.

The approach struck me as a really creative way to get a non-combat character involved with the fight in a way that could help his team, and I incorporated that tactic in the rules to make sure I called it out as a viable option.

Thanks Jacob! Make sure to check out the Kickstarter, running now!

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