When is a table not a table?

Where I game has a huge impact on how I game.

For example, I have a group of players that I have gamed with since the late 1970s/1980s. We have got together a few times a year every since we left school. Now we have wives, partners, children, grand children, pets and horses and all those other things that get in the way of spending time gaming. Despite all of that we still get together to game. We normally rent a house somewhere, meet up on the Friday and game for 3 days solidly. When we game like this we tend to be sat around on sofas and in arm chairs as we have an entire house to make ourselves at home in. The games have a tendency to veer towards hack and slash. The reason being that if the game only happens twice a year or so we simply cannot keep subtle clues in the forefront of our memories, we cannot make the connections between what one person said compared to another. Investigative or political campaigns simply do not work without continuity.

I also game online using a play by post site. Now here I love really getting into the character. As everything is written there in black and white the character has perfect recall. The way we play you do not get to know who is a PC and who is an NPC so you end up treating everyone with equal respect. I can happily go weeks and months simply role playing and combat is so low on my list of priorities that I don’t miss it at all. I like to play different characters and professions as soon as the pressure of having to be good in a fight is taken away.

So what has this to do with anything?

So now my impression of the 2d20 mechanics in Conan was very negative. One of the reasons was that I perceived that the combat rules looked incredibly slow and as Michael said “A friend of mine has played in a Conan campaign with some of the Modiphius people and he confirmed me that the 2d20 in Conan works great as well – although combat tends to be a bit slower than he’d liked.” I think that is probably about right. Combat tends to be the slowest and most laborious part of RPGs and if you are playing with the people who write the game and combat is ‘slower than he liked‘ then a newbie like me is not going to make it zing along. If you only get to play twice a year in a game with a lot of combat then slow combat is not fun and it could turn even the superficial stories of our weekends into a dice rolling grind. Without a table even the symbolic big momentum dice would not work for us if you had to keep getting up out of your armchair to walk across the room to turn it over.

So what brought these ideas to my mind was reading Mutant: Year Zero and it certainly seems to read like a really social game with cards playing a part and the players collaborating over the map. M:YZ seems to scream out to be played around a table. I think it would lose something if it was played PBP or even in our, for want of a better description, open plan gaming weekends with us spread out around a larger room. This is no reflection on the game. My own Devil’s Staircase game system is intended to be played around a table like a game of poker, the GM being dealer. We have degenerated from Knights of the Dinner Table to the knaves in the feasting hall.

I still have not had a chance to play M:YZ yet and I not think it is really fair to review a game you have not played. I wouldn’t review a book I hadn’t read or a CD I hadn’t listened to and games exist to be played, not just collected. Despite every GM I know having shelves full of unplayed RPGs!

And finally….

To finish the title of this post, When is a table not a table? When there is no table. Now that sounds more like something from the Matrix “There is no spoon.” than Mutant: Year Zero.

Mobs and Brutes

Two games I have looked at recently have had a very similar concept. 7th Sea uses Brutes as the low level treat. Up to six brutes can be treated as a single entity as regards attacks and if you hit a gang of brutes then the damage spills over to the next. In effect you could kill or incapacitate many brutes with a single attack.

Conan uses a similar mechanic for Mobs. Minor foes can be bound together into a mob and when you attack the mob damage also cascades from one member to another enabling you to take out many mob members in a single attack.

Both of these games are very much in the pulp literature or cinematic genre. Imagine the hero dropping into a guard room. She flicks a switch, killing the lights. What follows is a few muffled thumps, grunts and groans. The lights come back on and the guards are sprawled across the floor. Our hero glances at herself in the mirror, dabs at a point of her makeup and strides off further into the villain’s lair.

In Conan these low level, no real threat, encounters are used “to build Momentum for use later in the adventure.” to quote Pit of Kutallu.

On the other hand, if these encounters are no real threat then why bother running them? If the adventure requires a typical 5 or six points of momentum for survive the big fight over the monster’s pit then why not just give the party the 5 or 6 points of momentum? If the encounter is no threat then is this not dice rolling for the sake of dice rolling? The one sided inconsequential combat is something that is taking place instead of role playing or the excitement of the adventure?

If the brutes and mobs are being used for flavour and cinematic effect then do they even need stats? Rather than creating a gang of brutes just to have them knocked down why not either have them as a ‘power’ of the actual villain, almost like a D&D monster may have a Bite, claw, claw attack pattern so the villain comes with these semi-autonomous appendages that can rush at the PCs and cause a distraction or whatever. If the fight needs to happen for narrative reasons, such as to raise an alarm or to cross a Rubicon; do the players fight or flee? Do they kill or not? Then at that point it makes sense to have the fight. If the fight is purely to use up bullets or arrows or build up momentum then why slow the game down to combat time just to do some resource management?

I am not criticising the concept. I am genuinely interested. I love the idea of 7th Sea and would play it at the drop of a hat if I had a GM or would run it if I had the players. I even suggested to my Rolemaster players the idea of two tier critical tables. I would strip out the instant death criticals and replace them with knockouts or other incapacitating injuries that the minor monsters do to them. An incapacitated PC left behind adds to the story and necessitates a rescue. A dead PC holds everything up while we go through character creation and then finding a coherent way of getting the new character into the party. That is all hassle. The players would still know that the main bosses were still firing on all cylinders and just as dangerous as they were. My players bulked at the idea. It felt like cheating. I suggested the same thing to the wider Rolemaster community and they thought that without the threat of death then the combat would have no meaning.

You can see that I am somewhere in the middle ground on this. I know many GMs would rather fix a dice roll to keep players alive or games that have the concept of Fate points that allow the character to get out of jail free or dodge the bullet. Is it better to kind of know that the GM isn’t going to kill you as long as no one says it out loud? It is OK to know you would have died but you had to use your Fate point to save yourself? But it is not OK to know the game is fixed in your favour? That you are supposed to win? Surely that is the whole point of being the hero? Is it that playing with a stacked deck is not heroic?

Maybe the point of the brutes and mobs is that the players do not know when they rush the guards if they are facing a gang of brutes or a genuine lieutenant or a named villain, not until the first blow is struck?

Interim Report Mutant: Year Zero

I don’t like long periods of radio silence and I know that a few of you are following my explorations. Not only am I a slow reader but I am also on holiday in Switzerland for 10 days so there is absolutely no chance I will get to play any games during that time.

Having said that there is one thing that struck me that I liked and it is not about game mechanics or settings at all.

Back in May 2017 I wrote, on my own blog, about gender representation in the new version of Rolemaster, currently under the acronym RMU. The post is here http://www.rolemasterblog.com/gender-in-rmu/. I know that it is perfectly normal to just pick one gender, normally ‘he’, for the rules but I expected a greater mix in the examples. I posted my thoughts on the beta forums  but I doubt if you can see that unless you are signed up to the beta test. Anyway, I was very surprised at the push back from some of the forum members who seemed resistant to the ideas.

On the other hand the M:YZ is using ‘he’ for generic player references and ‘she’ for GM references. There is a healthy mix of male and female examples throughout everything I have read so far.

I am a middle aged, British, white male and I do not think I am exceptional in any way and if I feel that the gender bias I a noticed was sufficient that I did notice then it is a problem. Like a sore thumb, once you are aware of it you cannot avoid hitting it on anything and everything. Now I have noticed this gender bias, I cannot read a rulebook without being aware of how women are treated or ignored.

I also liked the vignette that introduced the starter book. You can see it here, but the text reads “She had wandered too far into the Zone. Tula had walked through the dark forest, followed the old rail tracks between crumbling ruins and rusting train wrecks, towards the glimmering silver disks by the horizon. She wanted to reach them so bad.  Become a hero of the Ark. A famous stalker. Now, she would be a dead stalker. If the thirst didn’t kill her, zone ghouls or the rot would. That’s when she saw them. Scattered across the ground like metallic rag dolls. Machine beings. Dead for decades.Tula had heard stories of them. What had happened here? Suddenly she heard a noise. Growls. Voices. Tula drew her scrap pistol and got ready to fight for her life.”

So that is my ‘thought of the day’. Doesn’t really tell you anything about M:YZ apart from GMs being referred to as She.

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