Adding Difficulties to Powered by the Apocalypse

I’m introducing a group to Ars Magica—they’d all heard of the game but not played it. Two out of three of this group are generally more comfortable with storygames, and one of them was primarily interested in Ars Magica because of the shared/rotating GM structure. After our first session, they asked if it would be possible to have a flexible free-form magic system like Ars Magica in a Powered by the Apocalypse game.

I of course immediately said ‘no’, because PbtA doesn’t have difficulty levels, and doesn’t even really have rated skills in most iterations. Generally, either you can do a thing or you can’t, and if you can do it you do it just as well as someone else does.

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#RPGaDay2015: 27 – Ars Fantasia

I love mashing games together, and do it all the time. Sometimes it’s to fix a game that isn’t working for us. When we played Full Light, Full Steam, the “scripts” just weren’t working. I think in this case, it was because we were doing skype play without a shared virtual tabletop, so it was just too hard to pass pieces of paper around, or even to see them so we knew who to pass to. So we replaced them with some bits lifted from Primetime Adventures, and the game ran much more smoothly for us.

When Amaranthine wasn’t working for us, we rebuilt it using big chunks of Shadow of Yesterday.

And I often start out by creating a mashed-up game. Currently, we’re playing “Smallville“, set in a modern-fantasy alternative world, so the characters are wizards (and possibly fae or the like), rather than supers. I’m a tinkerer, and I’ve played a lot of games, and read even more. So pretty much whenever I sit down with a new game I have to force myself to play it as written, because I almost always see something that I would’ve done differently, or that I’ve seen done better somewhere else, or just a bit of the system that I think my group would enjoy having more or less complexity. (Nowadays, I usually try the game as written before changing anything, because I want to try new playstyles. But if it’s a game I’ve played before, all bets are off.)

But probably the most extensive example of this is my Ars Fantasia rules. I wanted the feel of Dungeons & Dragons and the rules of Ars Magica. So back in the mid-’90s, I sat down to make it a reality. A few years later, I updated it for use with D&D3E, and we actually played a long-running campaign using the rules. Two, in some sense—first someone else switched our existing D&D3E game over to those rules, then a few months later, when he was tired of GMing, I took over, and all the same players and many of the characters transitioned to a Spelljammer campaign.

I can’t share these rules, because they’re full of copyrighted content, plus they’re horribly incomplete: you need to have a copy of Ars Magica and a D&D Players’ Handbook in order to make a complete game. What i wrote ended up being around 80 pages of content. Some of those rules are just reproducing content from elsewhere, in order to cut down the book-flipping a bit, but a lot of it is new stuff, translating D&D content into Ars Magica terms. On the upside, 3rd, 4th, or 5th edition Ars Magica and AD&D2 or D&D3E will work equally well. In both cases, the differences between the editions are mostly in parts that get excised in the process of mashing them together, and those parts that actually vary (such as the spell details in D&D) work equally well—you just end up with a different feel, depending on which edition you use as your basis.

#RPGaDay2015: 21 – I Love to Explore New Worlds

Picking a favorite RPG setting is pretty much impossible for me—I buy RPGs for their settings all the time, and any new setting that is also detailed is likely to make me fall in love with it. So this is pretty much going to be a list of RPG settings that I think pass the bar—specifically, that they are worth playing in even if you don’t like the mechanics associated with them, or you have to make the effort to rework new mechanics to go with them.

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#RPGaDay2015: 17 – Ars Magica

Like many gamers, I started with D&D. But I was always curious about other games, and the first section of Dragon Magazine that I always read (OK, OK—2nd section, after Wormy) was the reviews. But for the most part, the games I read about and the games I played were all pretty much just variations on a theme—sure, the stats had different names, and you rolled different dice, but structurally, most RPGs in the early ‘80s were pretty much the same.

Then I read a review of Ars Magica. As soon as I had the money, I went down to my FLGS and ordered not only the core book, but 3 of the supplements. This was the first time I’d ever ordered an RPG without having seen or played it first, and the first time I’d ever bought supplements for a game before I had a chance to read the core book. 

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#RPGaDay2015: 10 – Let Me Draw You a Map

Picking a favorite RPG publisher is at once very easy and very hard for me. The hard part is there are a lot of games I absolutely love, and they come from a lot of different publishers. And there are lots of publishers that deserve the accolades for various reasons. And writing something like this, I don’t want to leave any of my favorites out.

On the other hand, looking back at my favorite games, and then looking at their whole catalogs, it’s really not a contest. Very few publishers have produced more than 1 or 2 games that have blown me away. Most of my favorite games are long out of print and their publishers no longer exist. Even those companies that published some of my favorite games and which still exist have, in several cases, not produced anything to my taste for years (or decades) now. And I decided not to count any publisher that has only produced 1 or 2 games in total, since if I love those it’s hard to say that really is a reflection on the publisher.

No, considering all of this, Atlas Games stands head and shoulders above the rest for me. Back when they were Lion Rampant games, they published what might be my very favorite RPG of all time, Ars Magica, and then half a decade later re-acquired it and revitalized it, and now publish a steady stream of amazing books for it. Over the Edge is another of my very favorite games, and it and Ars Magica are the games that opened my eyes to the possibility of new playstyles. Before those two games, everything I had every played was basically the same game, just with different numbers and setting details (Top Secret, AD&D, Gamma World, and a whole bunch of other late-’70s/early-’80s games). Who knows? If not for those two games, (and their reviews in Dragon Magazine that alerted me to their existence), I might never have discovered that there was a whole world of RPGs more to my taste. And then there’s the steady stream of hits they’ve had over the years—Feng Shui, Nyambe, Unknown Armies—every one of which has been perfectly to my taste. In fact, other than their D20 System books, they haven’t published an RPG I don’t enjoy, and in most cases love. And even there, they have published a significant percentage of the few D&D-ish D20 System books I own.

On top of that, they’ve published two card games that I love—and since the total number of non-RPGs that I count as favorite games could be counted on one hand, that’s saying something. But Gloom and Once Upon a Time, by focusing on storytelling more than strategy, have sucked me in, even though they’re not RPGs. Along with Dixit, they’re just about the only non-RPGs I would ever choose in preference to an RPG for an evening of gaming. [Most of the time when I play non-RPGs, it’s because the other involved people don’t want to play an RPG.]

On top of all that, Atlas is in my neck of the woods, so I see them all the time at local conventions, so I think that makes Atlas Games’ staff the only publishers (other than 1-person indie shops) that I’ve actually gamed with. Though that’s just icing on the cake, not a deciding factor.

There is an honorable mentions, however. Fifteen years ago, Hogshead probably would have been the focus of this essay. Other than Warhammer Fantasy, which I’ve never been particularly into, I think i bought everything that they ever published: the “New Style” line was filled with wonderful experimental games (several of which are still cutting-edge in some ways), and Interactive Fantasy is one of my most treasured RPG works (and still has not been completely eclipsed by subsequent design theory). And then there’s Nobilis.

#RPGaDAY 20: Ars Magica, Fudge, & Primetime Adventures

I’m a bit of a neophile when it comes to RPGs, and there are only so many hours in a week, so no promises that I’ll be playing any particular game in another 20 years. I think the best I can do is look back at the games that I was playing 20 (or so) years ago and either still play or would still play if I could. 

I first played Ars Magica 23 years ago, have returned to it repeatedly since, and still buy almost all the books. I still count it among my favorite games and I’d play it at the drop of a hat with the right group, so I don’t have any reason to believe I’ll be any less interested in another 20 years. 

Fudge used to be my go-to system when I wanted more than DIY and less than a fully-formed system, and I still like it. It’s extremely versatile—just compare Fate Accelerated, Diaspora, Fate Core, and Another Fine Mess. Fudge is 22 years old, and I believe I’ve known about it for at least 21 years, and based on its history so far, I expect there may even be fresh takes on it still emerging in another 20 years. But even if there aren’t I think it’s pretty safe to guess that I’ll still be using it in one form or another. 

Finally, one much younger game that I suspect I’ll still be playing: Primetime Adventures. It’s just barely a decade old, but it has yet to be outdone at what it does, and I like what it does. I can’t say for certain that my tastes won’t change, but I suspect they’ll always include the sort of story- and character-focused game that Primetime Adventures produces. And unlike many other story games, Primetime Adventures can handle a very wide range of story structures, just like TV can, so it is unlikely to grow repetitive or stale for me. 

#RPGaDAY 18: Over the Edge

I’m an RPG hacker, tinkerer, and designer. Most RPG systems have at least some appeal to me, and tons of systems have bits of them that are my favorite implementation of that bit. On top of that, even clearly flawed systems are often my right-now favorite while I’m playing them. So picking a favorite RPG system is quite possibly even harder than picking a favorite RPG. I’ll exclude anything I’ve designed, just on principle, and try to narrow it down at least.

A couple of my favorite games are such in part due to their systems. I’ve used the core of Ars Magica to build a general fantasy game, but I think most of what makes it appealing to me is specific to the setting—once you strip all that away, it’s a pretty simple system, which is mostly good, but also doesn’t make it very distinctive. Underground is a more novel core system—a human-scaled version of the system from the old DC Heroes game. It breaks DC Heroes’ lovely 3×3 stat symmetry (three each of mental, physical, and social/spiritual, each split into power, finesse, and resistance), but is otherwise an excellent refinement and expansion, turning it into a very elegant gamist/simulationist system that handles a wide range of numbers and facilitates easy conversion between units (i.e., from speed to distance or strength to mass, and the like).

Aria is another old system, quite crunchy and detailed, that I continue to love for the clevernesses in how it all comes together. A lot of people found the book “pretentious” due to its insistence on eschewing the traditional RPG jargon in favor of using standard dictionary words in accordance with their conventional definitions, but once you get past that to the underlying system, it is one of the better systems I’ve ever encountered. And it’s magic-building rules are probably the only thing to out-do both The Primal Order and Ars Magica.

Though these days, if I wanted a crunchy system, it would probably be Burning Wheel. It’s probably the only crunchy system I’ve actually enjoyed running. While it has a lot of detail, it all falls together very elegantly, all makes sense, and the numbers work out mathematically, do what they claim to do, and both make sense and are fun in play for the most part. No boring can’t-lose fights; no whiff-filled endless challenges. If I ever run it again, I’d like to try some sort of abstracted system for wises, like the Circles system, instead of tracking them individually, but that’s my only complaint. And the way all the bits interact just perfectly is amazing, and makes running and playing it fun. It’s probably the only game I’ve found that could handle a Cyrano-style simultaneous duel of wits and rapiers, and make both halves equally interesting and equally fraught with peril.

Generally, however, I go in for less-detailed systems. For a long time, Story Engine (originally used in Maelstrom Storytelling) was my favorite system. It uses an interesting structure, focused on scenes and narrative control rather than either simulation or difficulty, and pioneered a lot of the play style that was reinvented by the rise of Narrativist indie RPGs nearly a decade later. It’s also unusual in being structured such that cooperative rolls are the norm—typical difficulties are out of reach of a typical character acting by themselves.

Story Engine RPG (courtesy of RPGNow)

Story Engine RPG (courtesy of RPGNow)

In that vein, Primetime Adventures and The Shadow of Yesterday (TSoY) might be the best examples yet of two different developments of that Narrativist structure. I prefer Primetime Adventures, which is about as far as a system can go in focusing on authorial control while still having any character-differentiating mechanics at all. It’s the game system I choose when I have an interesting setting in mind and don’t want to create my own rules—it has replaced CORPS, Fudge, and Savage Worlds for me as my default generic system.

But I have to admire the amazing balancing act TSoY pulls off, sneaking authorial directives into its Keys under the guise of character motivations, and basing rolls on character capabilities but using the results of those rolls to determine narrative control rather than success. It’s the game system we just chose when we were playing something else and loved the game but the rules were not gelling for us, and it has been used as the basis for more than a few other games, most notably Lady Blackbird.

I also need to mention two systems that are amazing, but a bit tied to their settings. Zero has a very clever system that inherently trades off specialization and breadth: by using a fixed skill list of just the right length, the d6 x d6 roll perfectly scales such that the more skills you have the less good you are at each of them, without needing to fiddle with skill points or any other bookkeeping. While other parts are specific to its setting, that core is something I’ve reused elsewhere, because there’s really nothing else that does that so smoothly.

Meanwhile, Everway is simply in a world of its own. Every part of that system is awesome, from chargen based on inspirational images, through metaphorical primary traits, to the best way yet to quantify an infinite variety of special powers. [Is it frequently useful? versatile? powerful? Total the yeses up and you have your cost.] I’ve adapted it for space opera, and others have adapted it for supers, and I’m sure it could form the core of any number of other fantastical (as opposed to more realistic) settings, though with a little more work than for adapting a more traditional system.

Over the Edge 2nd edition

Over the Edge 2nd edition

But if I had to pick just one system to use from now on, I think it would be Over the Edge. For me, it’s the perfect balance of words (mostly) and numbers (just a few). It’s focused on character capability, but boils everything down to a small number of stats, with an easy default roll built in. The way that it uses dice is also genius, providing bonuses and penalties that don’t change the range of the roll and don’t require complex—or really any—math (beyond the basic addition you need for an unmodified roll). It’s much like TSoY in feel and goals, though without the excellent Keys mechanics, but simpler and more free-form, so easier to adapt.

#RPGaDAY 12: Four Colors al Fresco

Well, there’s “still play”, and then there’s “still play”. The oldest published RPG I have played recently is probably The Shadow of Yesterday (we’re playing it now). I also regularly return to Primetime Adventures, though it’s been a couple years since we last played it. And Primetime Adventures is pretty much my go-to game when I don’t have some other game specifically in mind, so I’m sure I’ll play it again some time soon. 

And then there are several older games that I would play at the drop of a hat, but it’s been many years since I last have: Ars Magica, Werewolf: the Apocalypse, Underground, The Babylon Project, Everway, Fading Suns, Deadlands (the original), or Over the Edge. I still buy all the Ars Magica supplements as they come out, and try to find time to read them. 

The oldest published game I actually have played semi-recently is Rolemaster: I played for a bit about 4 years ago with a group that is still playing the original edition, 30 years later. But I don’t really think it’s fair to say that I “still” play or read it—I haven’t touched it since then, didn’t read any of the books at the time, and before that group I had last looked at a Rolemaster book in about ’85. 

The only games older than The Shadow of Yesterday that I’ve both recently played and intend to play again in the future would be my own Four Colors al Fresco, created in 1999, released as a free beta PDF around 2004, but not yet properly published. It will be this fall/winter, if I can make the time between school and work. 

#RPGaDAY 6: Underground

Ars Magica 3rd edition cover

“Favorite RPG I never get to play” is a tricky question. Is that literal, or figurative? My reflex answer to this is Ars Magica or Over the Edge, but both of those I have played on multiple occasions. So while it feels like I “never” get to play them, I actually have—in the case of Ars Magica I’ve had 2 or 3 long-running, awesome games over the years (one using Redhurst as the setting). A few other games that I’ve “always wanted to play”, I’ve actually played, if only once: SkyRealms of Jorune, Time & Temp, Earthdawn, Iron Heroes, Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space, Cat, Everway, Aria: Canticle of the Monomyth. I’d love to play any of them again, with Iron Heroes and Everway tops on the list. But they can no longer go on the list of games I’ve never gotten to play.

If I take the question absolutely literally—only games that I have never played at all—there’s still quite a list. Deadlands and The Babylon Project are very high on that list, as are Don’t Rest Your Head, Castle Falkenstein, and Dead Inside. Particularly notable is Deadlands: we created characters when the game was new, and then the game fell through before the first session.

But of games that I’ve never gotten to play, I guess I’d have to say that Underground is the never-played game that I most want to play. It beats out the others by virtue of its genre and mechanics. The unique blend of dystopia, cyberpunk, and supers, used to foment social commentary, is something I’ve not found even half of in any other game. The mechanics are not as novel as some games, but still provide some nice touches. I’m particularly fond of the character creation, which puts the player in an impossible situation that mimics the impossible situation their characters are in, and the rules for how characters’ actions change society, always with unintended consequences—I believe Underground was the first commercial RPG to have formal mechanics for this.

 Underground RPG book cover