Wednesday, 23 September 2015

#Threeforged countdown 20 to 1

Well, the Threeforged RPG contest is accepting votes up until midnight on Sunday. I've shortlisted my top 20, but now it's time to put them in order and work out the five I'm voting for.

I've got to confess it's a hard decision. There's been so many excellent submissions and picking favourites means looking for niggly faults in otherwise great games.

I've had to decide that the games I'll vote for are based on personal preference. In other words, they'll be MY top games. I'll try to justify my decisions in the write-ups.

I'll be voting for the top 5 in the order presented below.

(One note: For a long time I was conflicted over whether I could allow myself to review the games that I worked on. Eventually, I decided that I could at the very least review the work of the other designers who contributed to them. I feel a lot happier doing that. Nevertheless, it's only fair to say that one of the games I worked on hit my top 20. As anonymity goes, I won't reveal it, but I also feel obliged to inform the reader that it is not in my top 5, and thus I won't be voting for it.)

20: Transmission
This game has a brilliant setup where the group creates the transmissions from a lost colony. Sadly, investigating the site is not as interesting mainly due to the fact that the framework becomes virtually non-existent. I would have liked more tools to handle this, and the optional conlict rules at the end were an excellent first start. It should also be noted that Transmission is a very simple text document, proving that a good game doesn't have to look flashy.

19: Tales on the Weird Seas
Of all the games in the competition, this is the only one to feel like the designers have opted for a classic Old School approach. Character classes, monster statistics, levelling up, it's all there. The anthropomorphic boat concept is adorable and the theme permeates the document. Sadly, you would discard the system and replace it with something else. 4000 words is a challenge for OSR.

18: The Red Token
There have been a few games that have tackled difficult territory and The Red Token does it best (it doesn't fall for the setting traps that Platonic Mastery did). It explores the nature of redemption and rehabilitation and confronts the player with having to sympathise with a dislikeable protagonist. I applaud the designers for their courage and maturity, even though there is indeed the possibility to run a darkly comedic version of this game. Though the central card mechanic is uninspiring, The "token" mechanic is much better.

17: It Is Forbidden
There are a good number of party games in the competition and many fall for the same problem; their system tends to interrupt the most exciting moments of play. To that end, the reader can't help but note that if they played it they would adapt or replace the existing system. It Is Forbidden falls for this trap, but also could benefit from a lighter approach. I think it would be a much better game if it were comedic. Regardless, It Is Forbidden is a great game and has received many positive reviews.

16: Last Year's Magic
This is my favourite game of the "Potter games", even though it isn't particularly Potter as such. I've found that the better games tend to focus on one small environment/situation/scene and do it well, and Last Year's Magic invests itself in its premise. However, I don't think the rules as written are best for this game and a lighter system would improve it. Still, a Potterish game had to make the list and this is my choice.

15: VHS Fury 
I really wanted to represent the more performance-based games high on this list, such as Ad Libitum Absurdity, State Cinema, or Psychic Detective Agency. However I had to go with VHS Fury, even though it doesn't have the performance aspect. I dislike the central card mechanic, but have to confess that the symbolism of suits here is the best in the competition. The different roles encourage and reinforce conflict between players, which I adore. This game just nudged out Children's Radio Hour for representation here, and I think it comes down to the humour.

14: Timelines
There was a lot of Microscope influence in the competition, but my personal favourite is Timelines. Part of the reason is that it has a much tighter, personal focus than many of the more epic settings. The rippling effect of Paradox is nice, but it could do with a little tweaking (an online suggestion was to stop rolling once a timeline stabilised seems like it would do the trick). It would be easy to draw comparisons with If At First You Don't Succeed, which is also great, but Timelines is tighter.

13: Pony Express
Probably one of the games I've raved about most with my friends, Pony Express is full of charm. I've never been a play-by-mail player but I really enjoyed the handful of games that opted for it as a framework. The Fallen Sky used letters well, but Pony Express embraces the idea utterly. I'm a little concerned that it has just filed the numbers off My Little Pony and I'm not sold on the period setting. Nevertheless, Pony Express is a delight.

12: Automaton
The big selling point for Automaton is the Function Flowchart, which restricts your PC in options available to you due to your programming. That alone sold the game for me. Another great mechanic in Automaton is the challenge of beating a rival NPC party to complete your mission, which adds tension and teamwork to the game. However, the system is a little too simple at heart and I particularly dislike the arbitrary nature of difficulty ratings as presented.

11: Field Work
Ah, Field Work! How I enjoy reading you. You've got a hilarious premise, gorgeous fiction pieces, a solid framework for episodic story structure, lovely character generation questionnaires, and a decent escalation mechanic. But the system is discardable, so it just misses out on Top 10 status. All that being said, I love this game.

10: The Dream Palace
This is one of the more experimental and controversial games in the competition. Some would argue against its inclusion for you don't roleplay at all. It's more of a narrative-building exercise where you collaborate with others to establish connections between random experiences you've had during your day. But what I love about The Dream Palace is how it has the potential to change your life. You might never look at your world in the same way by playing this game. Nevertheless, it could have established more tools for us to work with, and an example of play would have been of great assistance.

9: Spiral Star
There were a few larp formats presented in the competition but none are as ready-to-play as Spiral Star. A one-shot freeform, it could be played in the home or at a convention. Handouts are all supplied for printing and it also contains an introductory speech. The game itself is appropriately simplistic, but I'm unsure how the revolving emotion cards will work in practice. Regardless, Spiral Star is a good larp structure and would play well.

8: Among Humans
My favourite of the play-by-mail games because of the sneaky ability to trap people into becoming GMs to your game. In fact, the whole border between player and GM is blurred here, which screws with the way we look at roleplaying. Other reviews have pointed out the Doomed Pilgrim nature of it, and having now read up on it I have to agree, but it does twist it very well. The presentation is flawed, but has its charm. I'm divided between putting it lower or putting it higher, but I'll compromise for somewhere in the middle.

7: At Any Cost
I quickly got sick of "standard deck of cards"-based systems while reading the games. I had a bit more time for games that used custom cards, but looked poorly on those that didn't give me printable sheets. At Any Cost has wonderful cards and also supplies backs for them. It's like 2-player Once Upon A Time, but adds a competitive edge. Not only  is it attractive, but it looks like a load of fun. I'd like to see a professionally packaged version. Some games have been criticised for being closer to board or card games than roleplays, but I welcome them as long as they're good games; At Any Cost is a good game.

6: The Hot Seat
The Hot Seat is a great counterpoint to Field Work and they're easy to compare. The sheer variety in The Hot Seat wins it for me, as does the voting mechanic (which was explored in Bag-Pulling Game, but finds a niche here). The descriptions of the various departments is hilarious and gets the creative juices flowing. I imagine that this game isn't going to get a lot of attention, which is a shame because it has so much going for it. I wonder if you could combine it with Field Work to somehow make one killer game...

5: The Rending of the Veil
Some concerns have been made about the use of images in this submission, but I figure it isn't my place to be discussing the legalities surrounding such things and to merely review the games themselves. And The Rending of the Veil is a very good game. The science-fantasy background is handled well and gives a neat twist on the powerful archmage/demigod concept. The map central to the game is wonderful and its use of a "die drop" mechanic to determine Winter's influence is superb. Forgeborn was another game using a die drop and introduced the whole idea to me, but I think that Rending is a better overall game.

4: Conspiracy and Cowards
As you read through the 103 games in the contest, every now and then you'll read one that really stands out. Conspiracy and Cowards seems to rocket to the top of everyone's list as soon as they read it. C&C set my benchmark for professionalism in the contest and it was rarely matched on that front. I'm a little awkward about the haikus because they don't seem to match the base setting, but it's a nice touch and I like it. Reviews have been very positive and I think it has a good chance of winning the contest.

3: The Policy of Truth
Another game with a tricky premise, The Policy of Truth is a heavy, heavy game. For all that, it's a simple system; it's just that the setting is so dense. But fear not! The designers have supplied maps, timelines, information briefings and lists of names to help you. Even so, you'll find simple tools to help you design missions on the fly. Stylishly, character sheets are designed so you "redact" irrelevant information, adding a touch of the setting to the basic mechanics. The layout and presentation is astounding and the game itself is perfectly structured. Well done.

2: To Return a Wallet
I quickly grew bored with card games whilst reading the games, and dice games were generally simplistic. I was always happy to find an alternative resolution method and I also loved the games that used physical items as important story elements. So I was overjoyed to read To Return A Wallet where random pocket-stuffings became the central focus of the system. Added to that, the philanthropic nature of the quest is a welcome change to the larcenous nature of many roleplaying games. Simple at heart and immensely satisfying.

1: The World As Such
I get the feeling that I might be the only person who will put The World As Such as their number 1 pick.Critics might state that it isn't a game at all and the harshest might even be a little justified in suggesting that the designers were actively trying to troll the contest. But I disagree entirely. The World As Such is a work that smashes down the fence between roleplaying and art and then gleefully tosses you through the gap. It's a riddle wrapped in familiar gaming terms and designs but refuses to help us decipher it. To read it is to play it, and your approach determines your role. Do you read it as a GM, or a player? Designer or reviewer? Like the contest itself, it says, "Here's what we've built. Now what are YOU going to do with it?" But it isn't just random nonsense or laziness. There's a great deal of intelligence and talent that has gone into creating The World As Such and it's a treasure to read. You might hate it. I love it.

You can download the games or find out more here

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