Monthly Archives: April 2012

Evidently, Epi…

Evidently, Epistolary has made it to the finals of this year’s Game Chef. Which is nuts. 

The awesome kind of nuts, to be sure. We’d have more to say about it, but we’d need to pick our jaws off the floor to do so.

Review: Spirit Quest

Spirit Quest by David Miessler-Kubanek
A RGP of adversity and enlightenment among spirits over the fate of your tribe.

By chance, I’m reviewing another game by the same author as Coyote Pass, using the same ingredients. It’s an exercise in seeing one group of ideas spread in completely different directions (of course, that makes it a microcosm of Game Chef on the whole, I suppose).

“You may spend as many Courage tokens on dice or to make rerolls as you wish.” That’s the line that sold me on the mechanics, and as far as I’m concerned, that’s the most important sentence in the entire document. It encompasses the simplicity of the rules, the efficiency of the narrative system, the power of the Totem and the risk which they have to undergo in order to wield that power, the threat of the Coyote, and the very, very frightening tightness of the economy, for which success now can so easily translate into the death of the tribe down the road. It’s a good line. It’s a game in and of itself.

Okay, I’ll complain a little… calling the tokens “Courage” feels like an arbitrary way to make them fit the ingredients. Though Totems are, by nature, being courageous by making this journey, I don’t feel it defines them the way it does, say, the coyotes of Coyote Pass. Something like Faith or Followers might make more sense here… but such is the nature of writing to fulfill ingredient lists.

I like being a spirit representing an entire tribe, but I’m uncertain the world these totems exist in. Are we entirely spiritual entities, existing in a metaphysical world, or are we, in some way, bound to the real land… which is to say, could we follow the totem’s progress on a map? I like to think of it as being a bit American Gods, in that the Totems are as much people as they are spirit animals, walking both worlds at once… and I suppose I’m free to think of it that way, but I’m curious how you intended it.

Beyond that I don’t have much to say… it seems like this could be an extremely entertaining narrative experience, and of the games I’ve read, it feels the most complete. Oh, some polishing, some examples of play, and a fair amount of testing could all be used I’m sure, but the crux is very strong and, at the end of the day, that’s what makes a game shine.

Review: Coyote Pass

Coyote Pass by David Miessler-Kubanek
A RPG about smugglers searching for identity and life beyond the Edge.

Interesting. Veeeery interesting.

I’m digging a lot about the setting here; offhand, it’s reminding me of Dogs in the Vinyard; the story of folks on their own in a harsh environment, where the mundane and the mystical are somehow merging together. I like it. Indeed, I really think, if you’re going to be pursuing this idea at length, that that’s where you should head first… into the setting, making in shine. I say this because it took me several readings to really understand what’s going on… there are so many mythological elements at play here; even if we’re going with the mundane setting, the natures of the Coyotes, their Debts and their Innocents are heavily mythologized and heavily stylized. I think that’s great, but it’s also something I really, really need to see in action in order to get at the sort of gut level which would make this game shine.

I’m down with the traits and debts and duties, but I’d also like to see how they operate in game. The impression I get is that, by and large, what is or is not possible for a character is determined as narratively as possible, with consideration given to the coyote’s duties and debts (and traits as well? I’m not sure whether those are meant to apply or if they are mechanically decorative). It’s vaguer than I like… here’s another place where showing me some examples could clarify what you mean. Are traits like FATE’s aspects, able to be tagged at will? Are they gussied-up hit points?

And unfortunately, when we get into the mechanics of conflict resolution, I only grow more confused. I’m going to put this plainly: I do not understand, after reading several times, how conflict resolution works. Rolling 2d6 doesn’t seem to relate to the chart, presented, and deciding success v. failure as evens v. odds is undermined by the ability to spend courage to increase or decrease a die roll by one, and there doesn’t seem to be any obvious way to account for varied skills, aiding one another, having the higher ground morally or physically, etc. If success really is meant to be truly random, that’s fine (though a choice I disagree with), but regardless it’s unclear.

You know, I think the comparison to DitV is apt enough that, if I wanted to run this tomorrow, I would do so as a hack of that game. Traits would work normally, but for their being written on index cards and traded around… debts would operate like relationships, stats would be ignored or, perhaps, one’s duty would operate in place of stats. I think that the ideologies of the games are close enough that it could create an interesting situation, and it’s worth perusing for some inspiration. Because while I love the setting you’re throwing us in to, something must be done to make it playable. And indeed, I hope something is, because I could see myself having a fantastic time battling through Coyote Pass.

Game Chef Review: Snowy Mountain Syndrome

Snowy Mountain Syndrome by Jason A. Petrasko
Trapped in a storm, facing death, in the old west: Who will survive? and more importantly, can you stop the Coyote from doing so?

By a large margin, not only the prettiest game that I’m reviewing, but the prettiest that I’ve seen browsing the other entries as well. I know, I know, graphic design isn’t meant to be a factor in the judging, but still… snowscapes, yeah. And the design is indicative of the work that went into the game as well; the first thing I noticed is that, to misquote Gertrude Stein, there’s a heck of a lot of there there. I mean, it’s brimming with character pages and scene lists and all kinds of goodies. From the character list alone, it’s obvious that a lot of love has been thrown into the game, and I’m especially delighted by the character sheets… quotes and assets and breakdowns and questions, all atmospheric and compelling, more than worth the price of admission.

Oh, and while we’re talking about atmospheric, I might as well mention that the incorporation of the theme and ingredients is absolutely spot-on. Thumbs up.

That said, I’m finding some aspects of the rules themselves terribly unclear, which I imagine has much to do with the tight word limit and, perhaps, my own unfamiliarity with this sort of highly-narrative genre. I’d like terms to be defined a bit more clearly… it took me several reads of the rules to realize that things don’t necessarily Go Horribly Wrong every time someone rolls above a four (although even with the fallout role, it still seems like thing will Go Horribly Wrong very often, though I suppose that is rather the point). I’m also not confident about provisos… I must follow their directives or I may suffer harm to wits, but I’m not sure what you mean by “may” here. Is it as simple as losing a point if I break a proviso, or do I get to roll to avoid the harm? You suggest I can roll to avoid being harmed in any way, but is that only physical harm in-game, or any loss of vitality, or does spirit loss count too, and if so can I roll to not take the spirit loss from a crisis, and if so can I roll to not take the gain in illumination which would cause me to have a crisis in the first place?

So, I’m left with a lot of questions, to the point where, as much as I enjoy the setting and the characters you’ve thrown into it, I wouldn’t feel comfortable trying to play. I don’t intend this as an insult, I simply mean that this is a big project you’ve created, but the richness of the details are outshining the fundamentals of play.

Related to clarity, I should mention that there are some issues of flow and grammar in the text itself; nothing egregious, but enough small errors that it gives me as a reader pause. For instance, the first word of the game proper, “its” should have an apostrophe, and later in that same paragraph, that phrase “in a vain and futile way” is redundant and could be trimmed down to just “futilely” or “in vain.” There’s enough of this that it became distracting to me as I read, so I’d recommend a hefty round of copy-editing.

Oh, but that makes me sound petty, which I don’t want to do! As I said, there’s a lot of love here, and a lot of good ideas, probably too much to be crammed into one Game-Chef-sized document. With some clearing up (perhaps with examples) and sprucing up, you’ve got yourself a very impressive game indeed.


Game Chef Review: Our Last, Best Hope

Our Last Best Hope (+ death cards) by Mark Truman / Magpie Games

You, and your team, are Humanity’s last best hope for survival in the face of an apocalyptic Crisis.

First of all, any game which purports to let me re-enact Sunshine is going to make my teeth smile right off the bat. I love that movie. Luckily, OLBH has more going for it than just a friendly reminder of dudes dying horribly in space. It kicks off with an explanation that the Earth is in crisis, and we are to solve it, as the finest Doctors, Scientists, Soldiers, and Engineers around. Great!

There’s a pleasing clarity and vibrancy to the story system, which is designed to handle any sort of global crisis, from the sun burning out to an old-fashioned zombie apocalypse. Usually I’m leery of generic settings, but this isn’t generic at all, but very specific to one sort of story, that of smart people racing against time and dealing with overwhelming odds, for which the specific crisis is so much window-dressing, and in this instance it works. The broadly-defined Assets and Threats, and the Choice and Consequences in the act structure, feel like they elegantly enforce this particular almost-mythic narrative.

That said, there are areas where the mechanics aren’t so elegant. Some of this is a matter of polish and increasing the word count; the act-structure rules are very brief, for instance, compared to the first half of the document, which is brimming with examples. There are some unclear rules as well… for one thing, relationship dice would give me a positive and negative tie to both of my neighbors, which makes me wonder why these relationships need to be specific, and we can’t just say that all the players have good and bad experiences with one another. Tied to that, though there are rules for dealing with conflict and disagreement within the group, I’m not sure why we might want to do that… I wonder if it might be possible to use these relationships to mechanically enforce some disagreement. Additionally, while I really enjoy the notion of using Myers-Briggs to design a character, I’m not clear on how many dice one’s MBA is worth. Can I get up to four, or is it only worth a die if I hit one of the binaries? Either way, the MBA, too, could use some elaboration… the axes are fairly vague, and if I only need to act in accordance to one of them, I could get it pretty much every time I rolled.

This brings me to my big and most subjective concern, and this might be unfair, but while I like the contrasting dice and growing pools and think it creates a pleasing visual element to this battle of big heroes and unrelenting destruction, it sure leads to a lot of math. Adding four or five dice (or more!), then another set of as many, then subtracting one from the other, then dividing by five… it’s going to get tiring sooner rather than later. Something a bit more user-friendly would help, be it a flat success pool, or a comparison of runs of numbers (whomever has more sixes, if equal then fives, if equal then fours etc.) or a Dogs in the Vineyard-style “match or beat each number, die by die”… something to make the task a little less daunting.

But as I said, that’s a subjective concern, and I like the notion behind it… these growing piles of dice that spell hope or doom. It’s vibrant, which is the word of the day for this game. The driving idea is very strong, and of course thematically spot-on, from the noble sacrifices to the potentially apocalyptic finale.


Hey cats. We’ve been hard at work, Game Cheffing, and of course living the lives of rock stars or whatever it is we do when we’re not making RPGs. Stuff that cuts into our time making RPGs.

And man, we could have used a little more of that, and maybe we wouldn’t have come up with a 3,000-word game which runs a bit closer to 6,000. TO BE FAIR, that’s including some introductions, optional fluff passages, a GM advice-page, and four pages of business card template which technically count as a character sheet… the Rules, such that they are, hit 3,067 words, and we’re not going to count ourselves out just yet (though if we are informed that we are disqualified due to an excess of extraneous material, we will bow deferentially and understand.

So hey… Epistolary!

Epistolary Player’s Guide

Epistolary GM’s Guide


The Chef is ON

The standard ingredients: Doctor, Mimic, Lantern, Coyote.’

The Random Ingredients:

  • This thread, which asks for a combat-intensive system for a hobby project. Not… not super helpful, although “combat-intensive” is vague enough to be applicable in pinch.
  • This thread, called “[Madness Descends] Investigation and Insanity Rules.” This, friends, is a compelling option… particularly the appealing synergy between investigation and mimicry and insanity and doctors.
  • This thread, about a superhero game in an animated style. Potentially interesting, but the quote we’re culling right now is this: “Growth of the character is based on being true to the backstory,” and the following paragraph which details potential for flashbacks as character growth. Excellent synergy with mimicry as well. 
  • This last thread seems, at first, amusingly useless; a fellow beginning and then, four hours later, resigning from a 24-hour RPG. And yet, it’s our favorite of the bunch… perhaps because being so short makes it easier to break down into bits. It’s got time limits (goes well with the Main Theme, as well as, potentially, lanterns as means of measuring time), and giving up (again, strong tie to the main theme), and the phrase “Sexually Frustrated Teenage Slashers,” which goes well with everything.

Lots to go on, too early to want to settle on one idea (though that should happen sooner rather than later). Thought of the moment… something about a group of people trapped in the dark, one of whom is not  human, trying to suss out who is who before the air runs out. Mimic and Lantern from the first set, Insanity and 24-hours from the second, and the main theme reflected both in its one-shot nature and some surprise rules that shouldn’t be revealed until play starts. It’s kind of an RPG equivalent of John Carpenter’s The Thing, and hell, it might well be Just That. Time shall tell.


Let’s Chance the Last Chance

So, Game Chef 2012 is on, with the theme of “Last Chance — Design your game as if it might only be played once.”


We plan on taking part this year, or at least nobly trying, and though the ingredients aren’t yet announced, this theme is giving us something to wrap our brains around. What does it mean? Only played once?

On the one hand, this is an invitation for stand-alones and one-shots, which we are totally keen on. A game that need not be played twice, because in one session it creates a sufficient narrative end. We can do that, and heck, we have a few examples of our own that would fit the aesthetic, so it’s something we don’t doubt we could create as need be… but is that sufficient?  After all, incorporating the theme DEEPLY is a part of success in the game chef, and what better an opportunity than this to pontificate on, really, what it means to play a game again?

Is there such a thing as a game that cannot be played twice? A game for which the first shot is the only shot? That’s what we’re focusing on at the moment… we’re celebrating the beauty of ephemera by creating an experience which cannot be replicated. 

(Ignoring for a moment the fact that no game can TRULY be replicated, of course, because even different playthroughs have different effects and contexts, but you know… whatever.)

What are the conditions under which a game cannot be played a second time?

  • The rules say that it cannot. A bit arbitrary, easy to ignore. 
  • The game is changed by being played. See RISK: Legacy… the game cannot be played a second time, because the second playthrough is of a markedly different game.
  • The game is procedurally-generated to a massive extent. As above, no two playthroughs are alike.

All potentially useful, but not as conceptually interesting, for us at least, as the following:

  • The game relies on the ignorance of the players.Rather like the card game Mao, which relies on at least one player not knowing the rules in order to be fun (given that the central rule is that you cannot explain the rules to other players). A useful way to spring a setting-based surprise on a player.
  • The game destroys itself as you play. Again, shades of Legacy, but rather than ending with a new game you end with no game, or at least, not enough to play again. Tied in close to the ephemeral, and could have some tricky emotional business tied to it as well.

Brains churning. Super excited to see the ingredients tonight. Prediction of the moment: of the two sets of potential ingredients, one will center around fire, the other around ice. From what I’ve tasted of design, I think that fire will be fine. But if we choose to enter twice, ice is nice, and could suffice.

Ein Klein Nachdesign

Sometimes we get half an idea and feel like hashing it out on paper. Eh… digital pixel-paper. Whatever. Sometimes we get half an idea and want to hash it out, and perhaps the public deserves to be privy.

One of the funky things about the early editions ofthe World of Darkness was botching, the process by which a roll would fail Dramatically and make Everything Worse Forever. Holding off for a moment on the issue of whether critical fails are a good thing*, the particular mechanics led to a situation where, at high difficulties, the more dice a player rolled, paradoxically, the greater the chance they would critically fail. Of course, more dice also mean greater odds of rolling successes but… you know… at the expense of a greater chance to screw up royally. If you were up against a difficulty-10 task, you were better off, on the whole, using skills you didn’t have dots in, and the Storyteller throwing you some bonus dice was absolutely not in your best interests.

Enter an idea, which (as far as some limited Internet research can glean) hasn’t been used before… why does a die pool need to track successes? Generally, a dice pool (or other randomizer) can be seen as assuming failure unless proven otherwise… you do not accomplish your goal UNLESS you can collect enough successes. There’s nothing wrong with this, of course, but can it be flipped on its head? You accomplish anything you set your mind to, UNLESS you accrue too many failures.

Specific example? Okay, let us suggest you have a pool of d6s… a good die type to have. In most cases you roll five of them, but when performing Feats of Strength, you roll 2. Now, whatever you’re rolling for is assumed to succeed, provided you don’t roll any ones. You roll a one, that’s a problem… something has gone wrong and, for the moment, we assume that you fail. A little math will suggest about a 40% chance of performing most tasks, and a 70% chance of performing a feat of strength. But, oh no! You have sweaty hands while you’re trying to lift this car, increasing the difficulty! You add another die to your pool! Now you’re rolling three, and the odds of success are about 58%… a non-trivial spike in difficulty!

Okay, ignore the numbers for now, they’re just placeholders, but the core is there: mo’ dice, mo’ problems. The question attached here is why… what makes this a useful method of randomization?

Well. There are a couple of ideas which are tickling us at the moment.

  1. Assumed success. Nothing new here, really… the principal of “you succeed at anything you try unless the GM/ a player raises an objection” is ancient, and even “Anything you attempt, you will succeed at, because you are heroic like that, so you’re rolling for problems that might occur” has been done before, but it’s a keen idea, and I’m sort of digging the mechanical application of it.
  2. Potential for a fine gradient of failure. A roll which fails will, ultimately, come up with a specific number of Points of Failure… you roll two ones, then your action fails in two ways. No critical failures, but the potential for a difficult plan to go awry in a number of ways. More to the point, if we’re working on an ‘assumed success’ rubric, these points of failure could be interpreted as interferences that complicate, rather than prevent an action, each one being a separate problem. In narrative terms, you succeed at whatever you attempt, but if you are trying something dangerous or foolhardy, you create problems for yourself by making the attempt.
  3. Easy assignation of difficulty. You’re ready to roll, feeling good, and the GM hands you three dice… oh man, this is going to be harder than you thought. You get hit by a curse or put off balance… you’re given a die and told to roll it with your next action. Et cetera. Tying difficulty and misfortune to a very specific action… there’s a bit of ritual to it, potential for well-played emotional beats attached to it. The moving of dice back and forth has a pleasant physicality to it.
  4. Lots of potential for additional wiggles. Color-coding of dice, for instance… a failure on a “body” die and a failure on a “mind” die and a failure on a “difficulty” die might be mechanically equivalent but narratively distinct. Or the complications for each color of failure might vary somewhat, with “body” failures costing a measure of HP on “difficulty” failures actually meaning the attempt fails or something along those lines. This too isn’t anything spectacularly new; Don’t Rest Your Head does something similar, but is a worthy note to keep in mind.
…interesting stuff. A notion we’re pleased to have kicking around in our brainpans. Of course, if we were to play around with this idea… and we might… the next question we’re asking ourself is one of setting**. An ‘assumed success’ rubric speaks to a pulpy, high-adventure setting, maybe one of your finer [thing]-punk universes? Alternately, the nature of problems spontaniously arising as one attempts to fix other, different problems might be selling a Space Opera, with a technobabble focus. Hmm…
Clearly, we’re still cogitating, but we feel good having taken some time to hash this all out.

*Not generally, would be our off the cuff opinion.

** We’re not huge fans of generic rulesets without a world attached to them. They CAN be done well, but… eh. More interesting, and more helpful for us as writers, is a setting and mechanics which play off one another.