Saturday, 10 October 2015

Which #threeforged finalist will be the winner?

The public voted and the top five threeforged games have been decided. The judges will be assessing them and deciding on a winner by the end of this weekend. So this is the last chance really to discuss them before anonymity is lifted.

The selection is interesting and a little surprising, which is to be expected from the voting method. I’m not sure how many other people read all 102 games before voting but I think I’m probably in the minority. There were some games that I totally expected to see represented that haven’t made it (Conspiracy and Cowards comes to mind) and the final selection is not what I would have banked on. Nevertheless, all five finalists are good products and worth assessing on their own merits.

But of the five, which should win?

Or more importantly, which ones won’t?

Anthill – The Outsider

Of the five finalists, Anthill is the one I’m most surprised to see reach this far. I think I can see why it did, though. Post-apocalyptic settings are very popular at the moment and focusing on a mutating ant colony is a refreshing perspective on a genre that could quickly play itself out. The focus on protecting the Hill (and the colony) provides fertile ground for good stories and the method for location construction looks like fun.

The PC statistics are ant-appropriate and the character sheet layout is elegant. The list of mutations is comprehensive and the game is largely ready to play. Maybe a sample adventure or a list of threats (ant-agonists?) could have been included, but these are minor oversights.

So it’s clean, elegant, simple and interesting. Great.

But it won’t win, and the major reason is the system. Anthill uses a task-based percentile system that feels archaic and uninspired when compared to modern gaming design, and particularly when compared against the other four finalists. Furthermore, there’s no real reason to have a percentile system here. Increments occur in 5% steps, meaning a d20 roll could do the same job and probably do it better. Anthill feels like it’s stuck in the ‘80s.

Anthill also suffers from an escalation problem. Simply rolling a skill (successful or not) puts you one quarter of the way to improving it, which feels like short-sightedness on the designers’ part. But I doubt it would be a huge problem as I don’t think many games of Anthill would last further than the three-session mark at most.

It isn’t that it’s a bad system. For what it is it’s balanced and clear. You always know what you should be rolling and you won’t get lost. It’s functional and polished. It isn’t broken in any way, and that’s possibly a saving grace. The other games in the top five don’t have as clear a system and it could gain traction on that.

But it’s boring. It doesn’t challenge you or add anything new and interesting. Anthill might have a great idea but it misses out on making it about the best parts of setting. Pheromone communication and the caste system are briefly mentioned and I’d love it if it was a game that took Automaton’s approach, encouraging you to act in certain ways because of the hive-mind or marking areas to affect the behavior of NPC ants. That would have been awesome.

But Anthill missed that opportunity. And it’ll miss out on first place, mainly because it needs a more interesting narrative core mechanic to elevate it above its competitors.

Last Year’s Magic – The Party Game

There were a lot of wizardly “Potter” games. There were a few party games. There were a decent amount of performance-based games. Last Year’s Magic trumped in each category.

It’s such a fun pitch! You play grumpy old wizards sitting in a pub arguing about magic; what spell to cast and which ingredient would be best in Grumblybum’s Elixir and whether eye of newt is really necessary if you’re adding that much wing of bat. It’s silly clean fun and so very accessible. It begs for props such as pipes and tankards and fake beards. If you’ve got a fireplace and candles you’d be remiss not to light them up.

Characterisation is key to Last Year’s Magic and as you read it you can’t help but giggle and think how cool it would be to be in full swing playing this. You can imagine your mates jumping into character and firing off witty banter all with a couple of mulled wines and hearty ales to get the creative juices flowing.

There’s even a great little character creation mechanic to warm you up where you interpret a playing card to decide on what kind of wizard you are, which is awesome because it also introduces you to the idea of the cards and suits and their connection to fields of magic. It’s leading you in to the system to come. And it feels fun and vibrant and it’s helping you roleplay and not getting in the way.

But then it does get in the way. And all the cool imagery about the witty banter and funny characters gets a bit lost as you try to maneuver around it.

Last Year’s Magic falls for the same problem as many of the other performance and party games in the competition did (I’m looking at Ad Libitum Absurdity, It Is Forbidden, Mixtapes and Mistakes, Psychic Detective Agency, and State Cinema among others). And that problem is that at the most critical, interesting and exciting moment of the roleplaying the system stops you to check something. It’s like someone’s grandmother popping in to check if everyone’s okay and then it’s hard to get back in the groove because you’re afraid that you made too much noise last time and you’ve got to tone down because you might interrupt her knitting.

And that’s not what Last Year’s Magic is about. It’s about guffaws of laughter and witty asides and in-jokes and sheer uproarious nonsense. For that you need a system that inspires and assists that and then lets you loose to play. And it should be something simple likes props and pipes and tavern stuff. Maybe magical ingredients or spell tomes or even the way you drink your beer or whatever. You could have magic backfire forcing you to drink from the other side of the cup or dance a jig whenever somebody says “cummerbund” or something.

And that’s why Last Year’s Magic won’t win; because it has so much charm and possibility and then drops the ball. The base mechanic is simple enough and has a nice idea, but when you read it you can’t help but say, “I’d change that.”

Which is fine! That’s totally in the spirit of Threeforge. You could even call this game the spiritual winner of the contest in that regard because it gives you something not quite ready that you know you can turn into a brilliant night of entertainment in about 1000 words and a bit of tweaking.

But the judges will be looking for a finished game with a system that supports the gameplay. And Last Year’s Magic gets outclassed by its competition. Where Anthill’s system is boring, Last Year’s Magic’s system is just plain distracting.

Children's Radio Hour - The Gauntlet

It’s no surprise to see Children’s Radio Hour among the finalists. It’s a great game and the concept of a radio show suits the style of tabletop roleplaying so well (I wish I’d considered the connection long ago). It has a one-hour format and encourages- nay, enforces roleplaying in its structure.

And it looks so damn professional, too. It’s like a boardgame where you print out booklets and give them to the players and each of these booklets contains all the rules you need. It has checkboxes for you to track your goals and bold letters to define game terms. Whenever you need to know what to do when, say, you draw a Thing card, you just look on your sheet and it’s right there with clear instructions as to what to do.

Everyone has different agendas and can reward other people for roleplaying in a fun way, but the pressure is on to perform because if you break character or fail to keep things interested you can get Dead Air tokens which can screw your show. You can even get cancelled, which is a great idea, forcing you to work together to make a story no matter how much you fail at your personal goals.

It’s a great, great game with clean, crisp design and it’s ready to play.

But are you up for it? Are you even up TO it?

You have to seriously ask it because Children’s Radio Hour is incredibly intimidating. It runs over an hour with set periods two to three minutes in length where you have to roleplay entirely in character. Which doesn’t sound so bad; it sounds challenging but fun. But once you’ve agreed to that all of these other factors come into play, like writing on cards and introducing elements for kids you know in the audience and did that guy just mention a unicorn because I want that in the story so I need to pass him a chip but let me just check because it might have been a different kid and OH SHIT IT’S MY LINE but I missed the question and I’m stammering like a bloody idiot and I’M GOING TO BREAK THE GAME!

Children’s Radio Hour is like some kind of dare for people to prove their roleplaying cred. You sit down, start the clock and see how far you can get before someone screws it all up. Or a dodgy TV show where you all get thrown into a shark pool and your job is to desperately tread water and hope that someone gets chomped before you do. It raises an eyebrow and asks if your group is really good enough to play it and then says, “I didn’t think so,” when you fuck it up.

There’ll be so many times where you screw up and you just hate yourself for it because you’re letting everyone down, and other people will flounder and you’ll wince and watch them die in front of you in ego-crushing gamer shame. It builds disappointment in yourself and resentment for your friends.

That’s not what you want out of a roleplaying session. You want to build something together with friends, not afraid of being involved because you might become the guy everyone remembers as the one who couldn’t think up a rhyme for “hopscotch”. VHS Fury and State Cinema both dealt with similar concepts to CRH and they never fostered such a critical experience.

And though Children’s Radio Hour won’t win, it won’t care. It’ll take another puff on its elegant cigarette stem, toss its beret haughtily and mutter that genius is never truly appreciated. If a group ever manages to play a full hour it’ll probably break down and cry.

The Rending of the Veil - The Shiny One

So Anthill won’t win. Last Year’s Magic won’t win either and nor will Children’s Radio Hour. So which one CAN win it?

Well, The Rending of the Veil can. It’s got a good shot.

The first thing you notice about this game is the stunning photography on the front page, but the rest of the game is equally well-designed. The first couple of pages explore the setting and the writing is great. It draws you into this science-fantasy blend and lets you know the high stakes involved in the story you’ll be playing in. And then it hits you with the whammy; your characters will be uber-powerful entities trying to save it.

This game basically lets you play Gandalf or Merlin, a being of incredible power trying to goad humanity into defending itself from a terrible evil. Your abilities are so powerful that you’ll try to find the subtlest ways to use them. And then at certain moments you’ll toss aside your cloak and reveal your true majesty, performing legendary deeds hardly understandable to mortal men.

There were a few other games that allowed nigh-boundless reality-shaping (most of them cyber in genre) and where they all failed was that they gave all this power and freedom and didn’t offer any constraints to give direction.

The Rending of the Veil succeeded by offering a world to play in, and what a great world it is. Not only is there the introductory history but there’s also a map (there were so few maps in the contest!) and it looks really awesome. But the map is not just a bit of flavor, it’s a storytelling tool. You drop dice on it and where they land tells you what plots are going on there or whether Winter has seized it. And you wander from town to city to ancient ruin trying to prevent Winter, rallying noble men and women to your cause.

It’s so much fun, and it doesn’t matter that it’s a little incomplete. It stands well enough that you can plug it onto another system if you need to. Or you can just spend a night treating it like a board game.

And if (just if) The Rending of the Veil doesn’t win it might be for that reason. Is it really a roleplaying game? There were a number of games in the contest that seemed closer to board games or card games or deck construction games than roleplays and some people might resent the “board-gaminess” of The Rending of the Veil. But I don’t care as long as it’s good, which this is.

Of the five finalists, this was the only one in my own top five (fifth, if you’re asking). So it would make sense for me to think it will be the winner. And it very well may be.

But I’m betting on…

Field Work - The Charmer

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that Field Work will be the winner of Threeforged (though aren’t we all really the winners of Threeforged, truly?)

It’s so damn funny! The format of a regular working day works well and then it gives it a supernatural twist. And that’s nothing new; there are so many games where you play investigators and troubleshooters in a supernatural setting. Where Field Work shines is that it takes all the tropes of those games and satirizes them.

You’re never in fear of your character’s life, and you don’t need to be. The humour of Field Work is that you might have completely screwed a mission, perilously rammed against a door trying to hold off an office full of brain-bug infected accountants, and you won’t be worried about your life; you’ll be worried about how the boss is really gonna rip you a new one for this and you should really speak with Steve about getting some anti-spellware in Lynux.

The revolving GM mechanic was overplayed in Threeforged but it works here, keeping every player invested and entertained. Everyone gets a spotlight and then you get to roleplay together in lunch and debrief scenes, which are absolutely hilarious.

That’s because the game mechanic is incredibly unbalanced. One player will turn up battered and covered in snailman vomit, complaining about how they literally when through hell this morning, but the next player will say they had it easy with an old lady who simply didn’t have the monitor plugged in and then it was an early lunch.

But that imbalance doesn’t matter! It’s crazy and ridiculous and dumb and that’s exactly what Field Work is; a crazy, ridiculous, dumb world where your character is playing it straight trying to earn a living. It’s sitcom material and it fits the tabletop roleplaying environment perfectly. (There’s another game in Threeforged I think can work beautifully next to Field Work and that’s The Hot Seat. Check it out.)

The flavor text makes you fall in love with this game even before you’re a third of the way through the document  and the character creation questionnaire is simply brilliant. There’s so much good work here. There’s even a list of alternative settings in case your group might not be so IT savvy, and they’re all good suggestions.

But the most telling reason why Field Work will likely win is because it has survived playtest reviews with flying colours. Since the games were released, Field Work seems to have been played more than any other game apart from In A Week of Sharks. But of the reviews I’ve seen, Field Work seems to be the one that plays best in actual play, and I’m not surprised. There’s so much to like about it.

There’s a perfect mix of spotlight mini-adventures and multi-PC freeform, mundane quibbles and completely bonkers disasters. It rewards you for playing a fatalistic old curmudgeon instead of a kick-ass super ninja. You might even have kick-ass super ninjas burst into the room right while you’re in the middle of an important download and you need to fend them off only with the knowledge that they’re violating six electrical safety standards. Who doesn’t want to play that?

It’s fun and exciting and dynamic and it makes you want to play it. And why wouldn’t you? It’s hilarious! It never takes itself seriously and it encourages you not to do so either. And for all of that it’s quite clever and professional. It’s neat, without going overboard on graphic design.

I didn’t actually rate Field Work highest of these games when I did my reviews. I rated it eleventh (you can read my reviews in earlier entries). But I have to look at all of them in a different light when you compare them only to each other.

And when you look at them together you end up asking a good question; which one of these games do I most want to play? To which Field Work stands up and says “Here I am!” (possibly pushing Last Year’s Magic back in its seat while doing so).

There’s no arguing with it; it’s just so delightfully charming. It has to win. 

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