Game reviews


The age of degenesis has begun ...

The age of degenesis has begun …

My group’s regular member Grim D returned from his annual Christmas holiday in Germany bearing a sleek black rule book for a German RPG called Degenesis, revised and newly translated into English. We were astounded by this book, both for the beauty of its contents and the scale of the project it represents, and as soon as we opened it we became obssessed. We played the first session of a short campaign last weekend, and this is my review of the good and points of this incredible game.

Overview

Degenesis is described by the developers as “Primal Punk” role-playing, set in a post-apocalyptic future 500 years after Eschaton, a meteor fall that laid waste to the earth, unleashed radical climatic changes, and released strange spores that mutate human and non-human life. In this far future humanity has regained some form of functioning society but struggles in a world ravaged by both the aftermath of disaster and the emergence of new, dangerous forms of genetic mutation called “homo degenesis”. Europe suffered the worst of the meteoric damage, and in the aftermath of the disaster Africa became ascendant – but Africa too suffers from the strange ecological changes that fell from the sky. Africans raid Europe to take slaves back to their rich lands, and the people of Europe pick over the bones of their past trying to recover even the smallest semblance of their past glory.

The rules are divided into two books: Primal Punk, which describes the world, and Katharsys, which describes the rules. In Primal Punk you learn in great detail about the history of the apocalypse and the strange things that happened afterwards, as well as the main cultures – Balkhan, Borcan, Neolibyan, etc. – that dominate the post-apocalyptic landscape and the cults from which character classes are drawn. By the time you’ve read 300 pages of history and cultural background, you are ready to begin creating a character you hope might survive this brutal ecological hellzone.

Fascist in a wetsuit

Fascist in a wetsuit

Raw passion and beauty perfectly combined

The first thing to say about this game is that it is a creation of unrivaled beauty. I haven’t seen anything as well designed and perfectly conceived since Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay back in the 1980s. The mere books themselves are a robust and imposing presence, two solid black (or white) minimalist tomes packed in an apocalypse-proof cardboard sleeve. They are constructed of high quality glossy materials, easy to read and handle, and liberally strewn with art of eye-catching beauty. The pages carry subtle prints that change according to the section, giving an atmosphere to the book without overwhelming the reader, and there are a series of symbols and iconography that are carried throughout the text. Chapters and sections of chapters start with quotes from a small cast of famous writers, ensuring that a coherent feeling of post-apocalyptic foreboding envelops the reader. Everything has a punk/skinhead/goth artistic style, as if the whole project were banged out in a squat in East Berlin to the sound of dark sub-cultural music – for example, the symbol for the Clanners cult looks a lot like something from an Einsturzende Neubauten album, and a lot of the iconography and imagery is drawn straight from pagan-core or deep ecologist/punk imagery. There’s also a healthy strain of fascist imagery and iconography throughout the text, most especially in the ever-present influence of the Spitalians, flamethrower-wielding medical extremists who will happily burn a village to save it.

Furthermore, there are movies: two trailers have been produced for the game which really beautifully capture the loneliness and desolation of the post-apocalyptic world, as well as the culture of the Spitalians who play a central role in the iconography and history of the game.  This is one of those projects were nothing was left to chance, no image or artwork allowed to jar with the theme of the books or their aesthetic, and every available medium has been used to ensure that the world completely engages its players. But what of the game itself?

Throwback in Borca ...

Throwback in Borca …

Culture, cult and concept: a simple and flexible character creation system

Characters are created by combining a culture, a concept and a cult. Cultures are the broad national groups of the post-apocalyptic world. The world has been torn asunder and smashed together, so that for example Britain, Ireland and France are merged into one culture. Choice of culture affects the upper limit that can be attained for some skills and attributes, and also the choice of cults available to the character. The player can then choose one of 20 or so concepts such as The Adventurer or The Chosen which further affect upper limits on skills and attributes. Finally a player chooses a cult, which determines yet more upper limits. Cults are broadly speaking the same as character classes, but most cults have a couple of different paths one can take. For example, I’m playing an Apocalyptic who specializes in deception and stealth (called a Cuckoo) but there are others devoted to battle or assassination; the Spitalians may be medics or they may be fighters, or a little of both.

Once these are chosen the player assigns points to skills and attributes, to take them up to their limit. The player must also choose whether their character will be primal or focussed; this choice rules out one skill and rules in another, and determines how a character will interact with the world. You can test all of this yourself with an online character generator, or see the stats for my character here. After this one also chooses backgrounds, such as resources, renown or authority, that affect your PC’s relationship to the cult of which he or she is a member.

Finally, cults have ranks, with names, and rank attainment depends on skills and backgrounds. These ranks come with benefits and responsibilities, and sometimes choice of one rank rules out development trees in others. This whole system in combination is very flexible and detailed and really makes a big break from the standard race/character class approach to character development. It also loads your PC up with a whole bunch of background narrative that extends far beyond the limited background one normally finds in fantasy systems. You haven’t even started playing and already your character is a rich and deep person…

Time ... to sacrifice everything

Time … to sacrifice everything

The system: Elegant dice pools and sudden violence

The system uses a d6 dice pool mechanism with the pool constructed from the sum of attribute and skill with modifiers, including penalty dice. Successes occur on a 4-6, and any 6 is an extreme success called a “Trigger” that enhances the outcome (e.g. every trigger is +1 damage in combat). More 1s than successes indicates a botch, and the target number of successes is set by the difficulty of the action or by an opposed skill roll by the target. For example, my character Sylvan has a 6d6 dice pool with his blade bracelet, and against an active target this will usually need to hit a target of 2. Every trigger adds one to damage, and the base damage for his blade bracelet is 3, so there’s a good chance he will hit someone who is not actively dodging and do 4-5 points of damage. He has a special talent (called a “potential”) that enables him to subtract 1d6 from the opponents active defense dice pool for every trigger he rolls, and if he rolls 2 triggers he gets a second attack. So if for example he rolls a 1,3,3,4,6,6 on his dice roll then he has three successes and two triggers. If his opponent is defending actively the opponent reduces his defense pool by two dice (for the two triggers). If his opponent fails to roll at least three successes then Sylvan will do 3+2 damage (for the two triggers) and then get a second attack (because of the two triggers). It’s a simple dice pool system that enables a rich range of outcomes without having to delve into multiple types of dice or special rules on criticals, etc. There are also systems of extended actions which enable triggers from the first part of the action (e.g. riding a horse) to carry over to the second action (e.g. attacking).

Combat is also very violent. Characters have a small pool of flesh wounds and an even smaller pool of trauma wounds, and they die when the latter hit 0. Armour takes off damage, but every trauma wound applies a -1D penalty to all actions. For example, my character Sylvan has a leather coat (2 points of soak), about 10 flesh wounds and 5 trauma wounds. A single crossbow bolt does 10 points of damage, so he will survive one if it doesn’t have too many triggers but will definitely go down to a second. The edginess of combat is further enhanced by the use of Ego in initiative. Characters have a small pool of Ego points (about 8 in Sylvan’s case) that they can use to boost initiative rolls and to add dice to the first action of the round. Initiative is rolled every round, and ego points are spent secretly. So if you spend 3 points in round 1 you get an extra 3D on your initiative and your first action, raising the possibility of killing your target instantly.

However, once your Ego reaches 0 you are unable to fight – and some characters attack Ego, which is recovered only slowly. Combat in this system is more vicious than anything I have seen in other games, and definitely best avoided. Especially since the best healers are eugenicist maniacs who will burn you as soon as treat you …

This extreme violence leads to one of the first problems I see with this game.

The flaws of an ultra-violent system

The adversary we killed in the first adventure, the Blacksmith, was a legendary figure in Scrapper history, but we wasted him in a round. This happened because the extremely violent system means that big bosses are vulnerable to large groups of low-level people. Even though he acted first, the Blacksmith could only harm one of us, and we were then all able to deliver 5-10 points of damage to him each in that first round. Tesla, in fact, delivered 22. Wounds and armour don’t scale with levels, so a Scrapper Cave Bear won’t have five times as many wounds as a beginning Scrapper. This means that if a GM doesn’t deploy a big boss with minions to screen him or her, the boss will go down in seconds. It also means that in order to have a boss tough enough to put up a fight, it’s likely the party will have to lose members quickly. This is fine if you’re into campaigns where people die quickly and get replaced, but many players aren’t and it creates strange narrative twists to have new characters popping up in the post-apocalyptic wilderness. I suspect it will also mean that players soon learn to start characters with specific weapons to ensure that they get the first death in combat. This isn’t a flaw per se, but I think it means the system will encourage a certain style of play and GMing that won’t be to everyone’s taste (fortunately, this style is very much to my taste!)

The problem of loaded histories

Another, potentially bigger problem this game faces may arise as a consequence of its own richness. Moreso than any game I have played except perhaps World of Darkness, this game has a deep and complex history and cultural milieu that is deeply interwoven with every aspect of character development and play. This makes it a great game to read and an awesome product just to have in your RPG library, but also means that the typical avenues of creativity and expression open to players and GMs may be shut down. For players there is always the option to build your own clan, giving some flexibility to character creation, but I think this richness and density of background material may be felt as constricting by some GMs. If you’re the kind of GM who likes to have a set of tools to build your own worlds with, then this game won’t work for you – once you’ve read the background material – and especially if your players are really into the background material – you’ll find it very hard to insert your own creative impulses into the game. I’m not GMing this system so I don’t know, but from the outside it looks to me like a game where the GM has to deploy their creativity very much within the confines of the given history and background, rather than against it. I think for some GMs this will make the game superficially appealing (all that rich material is ready to use!) but ultimately frustrating, because every action available to them is restricted by the canon.

Go get 'em!

Go get ’em!

Conclusion: Degenesis is a really great game

But oh what a splendid canon it is! And what a luscious, awe-inspiring introduction to that canon. Degenesis redefines standards in modern gaming, not only in terms of the sheer physical commitment to the production of the game but also the intellectual and artistic energy devoted to the content. This is no shabby low-grade kickstarter delivered late on poor-quality paper, but a real tour de force of creative energy by a small team who really have pushed the boundaries of what modern game designers are capable of. It’s fun to play, in a coherent and well-imagined world brought to vivid, stunning life by a high quality and beautiful physical product. Even if you never play it, this game is a worthwhile addition to your gaming library, but if you get it then I recommend you do try and play it because it is a simple, elegant and enjoyable system in a rich gaming world that has been brought to life for you with such loving attention to detail that you cannot help but want to wade into that spore-infested, violent future.

Enjoy it, but remember: There will come a time when you have to sacrifice everything!

Art note: the pictures are all from Marko Dudjevic, the artist for the game, whose work can be found on DeviantArt.

Review note: I am going to write a post in future specifically about the twisted politics of the game, including some of the controversy about the fascist imagery. I don’t think it detracts from the game, but more on that later.

Let's be good to each other this year, too!

Let’s be good to each other this year, too!

Another year has come to a close, and as I relax on the laziest day of the Japanese year, I naturally think about all the great gaming I have done over the past year, and my plans for next year. Although I only have one gaming group, which we loosely refer to as Team WTF, and this year our gaming group’s cohesion has been compromised by life commitments, it’s been a pretty great year. Here’s a brief review of our main campaigns and the one-offs I have enjoyed in this year of gaming.

New Horizon Campaign

Our regular, ongoing campaign has been our Cyberpunk campaign, set in the fantastic multi-tiered city of New Horizon and GM’d by the Fantastic Mr. E (not me). This campaign started in 2014, and we’re up to the 16th or 17th session, all of which I have recorded here. Most of my campaign reports are written in the voice of my character, Dedicated Retribution Unit 471 (Involuntarily Demobilized), aka The Druid or Drew. Drew is a 19 year old girl with pscyhopathic tendencies who is good at only one thing: shooting people. She is also very poorly educated and not so bright, and playing her is really fun – she’s been one of the most entertaining characters I ever played, and an excellent evolution from a similar girl I played in a Feng Shui campaign some years ago.

This cyberpunk campaign has been a GMing revelation. Our GM has put so much effort into the world and the plot, and produced such a convincing world and adventure, that even though we all agree the system sucks (seriously, Cyberpunk 2020 is bad news), we have been completely immersed in our world and really enjoying every aspect of what has been a very tough campaign so far. This campaign will probably end sometime around March, which means it will be up around 20-22 sessions and have lasted 18 months, a pretty sterling effort for a group of working adults. It will be, I think, one of the most memorable campaigns I have ever played in.

After the Flood mini-campaign

I managed to GM a short campaign called After the Flood, set in a post-apocalyptic ocean world based on the books by Stephen Baxter. This world has been flooded by some geological catastrophe (not global warming) and all the land but for a small patch of the Himalayas has been drowned. Set about 70 years after the catastrophe, the campaign followed the adventures of a small group of operatives for an ocean community called the Gyre, as they first tried to recover some vital information on lost resources, and then explored a possible lost community in the Arctic. This campaign was run using the Cyberpunk rules as well, because they seemed suited to the low-tech and basic nature of the world, and although it was only six or seven sessions long it was a really enjoyable world to game in. The game reports are on this blog, along with a bunch of background material, but I wrote the whole thing into a book that you can download in pdf form.

GMing this campaign was a lot of fun, even though it had no magic and was very rules-lite. I intend to revisit this again sometime in the next year, but to run it using a Fate-type system that is a bit more freeform and a little less punishingly stupid than the Cyberpunk system.

Spiral Confederacy Campaign

I also started GMing a Traveler campaign in a post-scarcity space opera setting called the Spiral Confederacy. We’ve only played four sessions so far with a reduced crew, on off-sessions, but it has run well and I’m enjoying it, though rumours have reached my ears that some of my players find the system itself boring. The settings so far have been great – an exploding space station over a blockaded desert world, an encounter with a huge and super-powerful space ship, and an ice planet with strange spiders and behemoths – and the PCs seem to have been caught up in some kind of human trafficking mystery by their own stupidity.

I’m really excited by the possibility of a big campaign arc for this setting, with a lot of mystery and conflict along the way, and hoping that in 2016 this can become our main campaign commitment once Cyberpunk finishes. It’ll be my first Traveler campaign in 20 years and hopefully will involve wide exploration of a galaxy that is part Culture, part Firefly and part Star Wars. I’m hoping we can achieve big things in the gulf between the stars this year!

One-off adventures

In 2015 I also joined a couple of one-offs, though my work schedule prevented me from enjoying all the games our group played. I GMd two sessions of Warhammer 3, running an old Warhammer 2 adventure, Slaves of Destiny, for two stupendously strong Dwarf PCs, which the players say they want to continue with more players in 2016. At the beginning of the year I joined an entertaining Dark Heresy adventure set in the Hive Desoleum, playing a fanatical voidborn seeker called Suleiman the Lost. Playing Dark Heresy is fun because it is so comically grim, and you can really let out all your inner demons in a world where no one is innocent and no measures too extreme. The adventure I joined was finished in a subsequent session, with a lot of heretic-burning and sacrifice before the chaos was hunted out and destroyed, but I wasn’t there for that, unfortunately. I don’t really like the Dark Heresy system, which is a shame because the universe is a lot of fun. One of our members, Tall B, objects to Dark Heresy as a campaign setting on the grounds that it is too grim, so I don’t think we’ll be seeing a lot more of this.

We also played a session of Seventh Sea, which I never got a chance to write up, in which I played a hilarious little arsehole called Tom Fumb, a tiny thief who “goes where ‘e’s gotta go, to do wot’s gotta get dun.” The Seventh Sea system is entertaining and it held a lot of promise but the session got drawn out and exhausting in a duel that no one could win (broken combat rules, I think). One of Team WTF’s members, Grim D, wants to run more of this, so I think we’ll be revisiting it sometime this year. More Tom Fumb will be awesome.

Finally I got to sample a brief End of the World adventure just before Christmas, my first ever attempt at playing in a zombie setting, and it was fun but not as satisfying as I expected. I missed out on Dragon Age, which the group ran as a 2-3 session mini-campaign, so I think in total this year I missed one Dark Heresy, a couple of Dragon Age and one Cyberpunk session.

Experimental writing

I also tried my hand at writing a few short stories for this blog in 2015, something I might try and do a little bit more of in 2016. I wrote a brief cyberpunk story, Naming Rites, about the past of one of the campaign characters, that got linked to on Reddit and attracted a tiny bit of attention. Along the same theme I wrote a bit of background for my cyberpunk character, Drew, called Russian Ghosts, and she also tried her hand at travel writing in A Siberian Druid in Venice, in which she takes a brief trip to Venice after killing the Pope. I wrote that while I was in Venice, as my attempt at offering a critique of some of the museum-like aspects of that strange town. I tried out a few other voices too, for example Gael the Plague Doctor in the Loser’s Vignette, my report of a Darkest Dungeon (computer) gaming session that didn’t work out. A lot of my writing is based on game reports, for example the attempt at fragmentary stories for Cyberpunk session 16 (Chaos Vignettes), but this year I aim to try my hand at a little more writing from outside of the games. I have also written a few personal posts this year, about growing up in the UK and Australia, and dealing with family, and I might put a little more of that on the blog too this year – I have things I want to say about growing up poor, and maybe some more historical gaming experiences to talk about. If I can find the time …

Gaming plans for 2016

In total this year I think I played or GM’d on average every fortnight, and our group met slightly more frequently than that, though we weren’t all present at every session. That’s a really excellent level of gaming for a group of adults in their 20s to 40s, with all the life commitments that adults have. I’m hoping that in 2016 we can maintain the pace. We lost one member, Killkat, to a different country, so we need to recruit new members. For 2016 I aim to explore other groups a bit, to see what else other people are doing and look for new members, but my main gaming goal for 2016 is to run a full-blown Spiral Confederacy campaign with Team WTF, and to see what fantastic adventures they can take me to in that universe. Let’s enjoy gaming together in 2016!

THIS! IS! SPARTA!

THIS! IS! YOKOSUKA!

For our final session of 2015 my group and I tried a short run through the Fantasy Flight Games zombie apocalypse role-playing game The End of the World, a rules-lite system intended to simulate zombie survival in a collapsing world. I’m going to give a very brief summary of the game we played, and then a short review of some aspects of this game, which had some good ideas but I felt fell a bit flat at the end.

The session

Our group were a university academic, game designer and computer programmer, based roughly on our own careers (see below). The adventure started with us playing an RPG in our friend’s apartment in downtown Tokyo, only to be interrupted by his housemate showing us a news report of a disaster at a nearby infectious disease research institute. A huge fire had broken out, and in running away from the fire a scientist tripped and spilled some kind of virus over himself. He promptly exploded in a shower of bloody vomit, and very quickly the area around the research institute was shutdown, with everyone warned to stay inside. That included us, gaming inside the zone where everyone was required to stay inside.

After an uncomfortable night in the tiny apartment we gave up on staying inside and went to the convenience store for supplies, only to find it full of scary sick people. We returned home, and decided to get out. Our friend Jimmy and his flatmate’s girlfriend Saito san came with us, in a car we borrowed from the landlord (this is Japan, this kind of thing happens). Our plan was to head to the US base at Yokosuka, because our game designer was a base boy originally and had American citizenship, and we had heard that America was evacuating, and we hoped to scam a lift with them. By now things were getting scary – the news was on a loop, the convenience stores deserted, and normally mild-mannered citizens turning murderous, and we had seen more than one person dying in an orgy of bloody vomit.

By the time we got on the roads chaos was starting to break out, with people in cars being attacked by other people who wanted to get out, and dead people visible in many places. But there were no zombies, it just seemed like some kind of outbreak and every scared of getting caught up in it. Escaping from one such group of no-good people we damaged the car, and pulled over at an overpass to steal two empty cars (a Prius and a Mustang!) sitting near the shadows of the overpass. As we approached the cars we heard sounds of growling and hissing from the shadows of the overpass, and suddenly a bicycle came flying out of the shadows and hit our car with such force that it shattered the window. Jimmy panicked and ran away down a side street, where something came out of the shadows at lightning speed, hit him and carried him away. We didn’t need any more encouraging – we jumped into the cars and hightailed it out of there, though nothing followed us out of that overpass. We crossed the Tama river and drove on, through streets that were alternately deserted or combat zones.

At the Yokosuka army base we were separated. They allowed the designer, Ishiba san, in, but we two and Saito san had to stay outside. As we sat there in our car wondering what to do the sun started to sink, and suddenly from all across Tokyo rose a howl of primal rage, as if monsters in the shadows were preparing to come out. We’d seen a few of these things slinking around in the shadows, and we decided it was best to hole up somewhere fast. Fortunately the programmer’s house was nearby so we drove to that in about 20 minutes, and got inside just as the sun fell below the horizon.

After that the trouble really started. Two beasts tried to get into our apartment but we prepared and ambushed them separately. Our programmer was training in sword fighting so between us we had a real steel sword, a wooden sword, and Saito san with a frying pan – she was a member of her university tennis club, and a dab hand with a heavy iron skillet. We took out two, but the second one broke my shoulder[1]. Meanwhile Ishiba san found the base attacked from within, and had to flee in a humvee, driving over a couple of the zombie creatures as he went. These zombies were not shambling weaklings, but some kind of undead werewolf-like creature, that shucked off human flesh after its transformation and turned into a howling beast of rage and hunger.

The game finished with us waiting out the night and then driving away to the edge of Tokyo. I suggested heading off to the radiation-affected area to hide, and another player suggested we should hide at the outskirts of Tokyo, going in during the day to steal supplies. That is where the adventure ended.

The game

The game was fun, but in some ways it didn’t work. I think part of the reason it didn’t work was simply narrative – we all knew it was going to be a zombie story and so there was no surprise or tension when they finally came out to play. There are three books in the series and a fourth planned, I think, so it might be better to run the session without any idea of how the apocalypse is going to happen, or even if it will, and then build a campaign that floats around that idea. In fact I have long thought of running such a campaign, starting in the 1950s or 1960s and being uncertain from the outset whether it will be a horror, alien invasion, nuclear apocalypse or something else. This system seems like it would be ideal for that, though our GM told us the online community has been saying it won’t work for campaigns.

The system also suggests that you play yourself, i.e. make a character that is based on your own traits. The system is really simple – three traits divided into offense/defense and one good and one bad point for each trait – so it would be easy to do this, but who wants to play yourself? I role-play to not be a loser, not to watch myself get eaten by zombies. So I vetoed that flat-out, and as a compromise between my preference (play people who can do stuff) and the book, we agreed to make characters similar in career and situation to ours. So I played a deeply arrogant medical doctor who was under investigation for unethical research practices, and secretly welcomed the apocalypse because it was going to derail the investigation.

That was more fun.

The system is interesting and brutal. You assemble a dice pool of positive dice based on your attribute, and negative dice based on the challenge of the task; all dice are d6s. Positive and negative dice cancel if they get the same numbers, and any positive dice left over that rolled below your attribute are successes; any negative dice left over are stresses. For example if you have an attribute of 4 and a difficulty of 1 you roll 4 positive and 1 negative die; one positive die may cancel the negative die if they roll the same; any remaining positive dice that roll under 4 are successes, and if the negative die doesn’t cancel you also suffer 1 stress. Stress accrues on the same stress track as damage, and there is a separate track for physical, mental and social damage. This is why my character died; he could have survived a single blow from the zombie (just) but he had previously accrued stress from skill checks. We realized very quickly that stress was going to be serious, and avoided skill checks after that, but even a couple are a problem. Combat was also brutal – you don’t get any defense skill, so if your enemy is some kind of insane rage zombie it rolls 5 dice to hit you with no negatives to cancel them. That’s a serious amount of damage, so anything with any ferocity or skill is a death trap.

I think the game is intended to be played this way – survival is unlikely and you need to be ready to roll up new characters regularly. But the system is so rough and fast that I suspect it might chew up interest along with characters. It does somehow manage to give a feeling of ordinary people in an ordinary world gone crazy though, so it seems like it is well suited to a zombie survival epic. The book is also very nicely laid out and stylish, so it’s worth getting if you’re interested in such an epic. I think, though, that you shouldn’t start playing yourself, and you might find yourself rapidly house-ruling it to make it bearable.

I’m not sure if zombie survival role-playing is possible now that the genre has been so completely and thoroughly dealt with by popular culture, but if you are interested in trying a gritty, dangerous role-playing game with lots of resources for different types and styles of zombie apocalypse, that is quick to pick up and easy to run, I recommend it. But be prepared to make a lot of rapid changes to the rules as they’re laid out if you want to enjoy it – and start by playing someone a little more interesting than yourself!

fn1: in the mechanic of the game, it killed me, but I made a check to survive but come back severely mauled.

Awww, look at Snoopy trying to solve a commutativity problem!

Awww, look at Snoopy trying to solve a commutativity problem!

I have been playing Snoopy Drops (スヌーピー・ドロップス), which is a cute variant of Candy Crush Saga with a deep story (Snoopy is seeking Bell). It has all the same essential properties, and a fiendishly addictive bent to it, along with a pay-for-boostups routine that must surely make it a huge money-spinner. I guess Candy Crush Saga is the same …

As I was playing it I started wondering about the patterns and structures within the game, and started thinking – is this game actually a problem in group theory? If you think of each colour of object as a group, it is largely a closed Abelian group with various operations acting within the group. Essentially, aligning the objects is like addition, but they take on special properties after some operations (yet remain within the group). Some functions apply across groups (the line-breaker objects, portrayed by the white-and-yellow-striped Woodstock in the above picture, for example, eliminate objects from as many groups as there are in the line), and the group is not convex – there are objects from other groups in between the objects of any one group. I guess this means that there is some kind of concept of a finite geometry within which the group structure operates. Hmmm … I did a brief google search on this and couldn’t find anything, but I was originally inspired to think of this by the group theoretic solution of the Rubik’s cube, which seems somehow similar (though perhaps less complex?) I found a paper, described in outline in the Daily Mail, which showed that the game might be NP-Hard, but nothing about possible group theory aspects of the game.

I wonder if the game really is NP-Hard, or if it doesn’t permit such a simplistic description, because of its stochastic properties. The classic NP-hard problem is the Travelling Salesperson Problem, but this problem has a big difference with Snoopy Drops: although the landscape of the problem may be determined randomly (e.g. by random selection of the number of cities the salesperson has to visit), it doesn’t change once the game starts. The linked paper seems to have solved the Snoopy Drops problem by drawing circuits and gates within the board, but these change with every round – I’m not sure how the mathematicians handle this. This is also true of the Rubik’s cube, which can be handed to an enterprising mathematician with its faces randomly jumbled up, but doesn’t randomly rejumble them every time you line up three squares. Also Snoopy Drops comes with multiple conditions (in the picture above there are three: the number of moves required to complete the puzzle, the number of jellies to destroy, and a minimum score to complete the level). For the Travelling Salesperson Problem there is only one condition (time required). So I suppose Snoopy Drops is actually a multiply-constrained problem in stochastic group theory (does such a field exist?).

I think we can agree that even someone as cool as Snoopy can’t fathom the maths of that! But I wonder if this group-theoretic aspect of the game is part of the reason for its addictive properties – when we solve it we are essentially attempting to intuitively solve enormously complex mathematical problems through cute visuals, and to the extent that our brains are keyed in to the way the world around us works, I think they must get some basic biological pleasure from revealing the fundamental building blocks of that world.

I also wonder, if Snoopy Drops is an NP-Hard problem, and if some very smart mathematician could find an expression for its parameters, could the distributed nature of the game mean that other complex NP-Hard problems could be solved by re-expressing them as Snoopy Drops problems, then shipping them out to thousands of players as free levels? Given the number of people playing Candy Crush Saga at any time, if someone could do that they could probably solve all the world’s existing NP-Hard problems in a weekend …

Our World of Darkness campaign, that we began by accidentally exterminating a native American tribe from history, ended today when we accidentally reset history to a parallel world ruled by a Thousand Year Reich built on justice and honour.

In the process we went from a group of ordinary mortals struggling to understand why we were trapped in a pocket universe with a genocidal spirit, to generals of a supernatural host, leading armies of magical beasts in a war against heaven. My character, John Micksen, went from a washed-up, ageing hippy sitting alone in a bar, to Winter Knight wielding a sword out of legend (Excalibur!) and leading an army of the four courts of faerie.

We did great things while we wound our ugly and complex path to this brutal ending. In the last session alone we caused an angel to fall from heaven, destroyed an army, killed a god, had lucifer sacrifice himself to open a gate into the primal stuff of the universe, and reset the world so that an evil god never existed. As we wound our way across continents seeking the keys to the destruction of the God Machine we did great things, and saw great evil. From the first moment we opened a door in the basement of a psychiatric hospital, to find an infinite space filled with chains and cogs, we knew we were up against something relentless and evil, and our actions had to be bold, powerful and often cruel.

We started small, rescuing children from paedophiles who were smuggling them to an evil corporation; we burned the paedophiles alive and fought a fatal battle with the petty angel they served. We crossed into the land of the dead from an abandoned concentration camp to save the children’s’ souls from undead scientists who were performing hideous experiments, and while we were there we liberated lucifer himself from a thousand years of captivity. We fled destroyer angels who laid waste to whole city blocks trying to find us, hid in anarchist squats in East Berlin and vegan fascist terrorist lairs in Chicago. We dealt in pride and babies with the courts of faerie, so that we could betray a demon to a vampire, in service to a cause we didn’t yet understand. We did a deal with an ancient dragon and crept into hades to kidnap its ruler in trade for a faerie queen; that same god of death we later saved from a hideous experiment that used his essence to resurrect Jesus – and that same queen rode back into the faerie land of winter on the back of a Russian T34 tank, that our demon violinist drove. We carved a kingdom out of faerie, and bought a mansion in Ireland to connect to it using gold stolen from hell. For a while Cerberus itself (an intellectual and arrogant beast if ever there were one!) was our mansion’s guard dog, but of course we had to flee when angels came to destroy our mansion – a destruction John Micksen watched while speaking of lost love with an angel more terrible and beautiful than the sun. “The Winter Knight,” he said, after fleeing from her wrath, “Tires of this shit.”

We tired of many things, because we were constantly fleeing from great powers. We destroyed corporations digging around for the answers we sought – literally, leveled their offices and killed their officers. Anyone who helped us or even met us died – bodyguards, wives, children, allies, friends, political fellow-travelers, anyone who sheltered us, anyone who did business with us, and almost everyone who crossed us. They died in fire, the rubble of apartment blocks razed by enraged angels who sought after us, in the pits of hell or in the snowy wastes of faerie, they died chained to a steering wheel in a flaming gasoline stand or savaged by berserk werewolves on vast fields of battle. Some of them were pounded into red mist by the Winter Knight, some left to experience an eternity of frozen pain in the deepest darks of the wastes of faerie winter. Some were tortured by our enemies, or just disappeared into nowhere by ancient powers we had angered. For every one of our allies or friends who suffered, our anger grew and our list of retributions extended. We were not patient, or careful, but we did all we could to destroy those who crossed us.

We were no match for our foes. An implacable god without emotion, possessed of infinite patience, sought to change the world to suit its cold mechanical whims, and the angels that served it felt no mercy, fear or compassion. They slowly reworked the political landscape of the world to suit the mysterious machine passions of their master, turning America  into a fascist dystopian nightmare, laying waste to whole nations with plague and war, exterminating races and cultures with machine precision that no human could ever master. They sought to tip the balance in every dimension. For a short time the courts of faerie waged war against each other and a strange machine god, and all the seasons were thrown into chaos – until we intervened to restore peace and kidnap a mad faerie queen wed to a despicable machine. But for every victory our terrible foes became more ruthless and more wrathful, so that we were forced to flee, and flee again, always running and hiding.

Some of us died three times. Some of us were infected by the God Machine’s sinister viruses, rebooted, cleansed and returned to us unrecognizable. Some of us were cast down from our powers and left to rot and die, before we rose up again to take on new and greater roles. Some of us tried to strike out for freedom and failed. Some of us had to dig deep and fight hard to uncover the secrets of our past, and strike a path into the future. Some of us lost everything, rebuilt, and lost it all again. We reached our wits’ end, burned our patience, rampaged through our enemies’ lairs in rage and anger destroying everything in sight. We stole a sacred stone from Mecca, and books of gibberish from under the noses of angels that could destroy whole armies. We were epic, and constantly terrified.

All of this came down to a final battle on a dusty plane in the American mid-west, to find a gate that would change the past and the future. Our Demon Violinist opened the gate, while armies fought to end the world, and we reset everything so that all our enemies were extinguished. We triumphed! And the world was restored to an order of peace and justice that could never exist in any boring, cold reality.

Truly, this was a glorious campaign of great deeds, terrifying struggle, mysteries unraveled and paedophiles flame-grilled. It was exhilarating, terrifying, deeply absorbing, sometimes incredibly frustrating, confusing and exhausting. I don’t think it had anything in common with a normal World of Darkness campaign, and the Demon book on which it was all based only arrived for the last session. But it was amazing in its scope, its power and its content. And it ended in glory. It was role-playing at its finest!

In my recent post on principles for RPG systems I put dice pools near the top of the list, because I think they’re fun. Unfortunately, however, I think it’s hard to make a simple dice pool that doesn’t break several of the other principles in the list, and it’s difficult to make a dice pool mechanism that is satisfying. This is because of the way in which dice pools are related to skills and attributes.

Most dice pool systems are basically constructing a binomial probability distribution, with the probability of a single success determined by the success number on the dice in the pool, and the number of trials being the size of the pool. That is, in classic binomial distribution notation, if Y is the number of successes, n is the size of the dice pool and p is the probability of a success on one die (e.g. 5 or 6 on a d6=1/3 probability of success on one die), then

Y~Binomial(n,p)

The resulting number of successes is compared to some target number, that is either set by the GM or determined by the opponent’s attributes and skills. The problem here is that for every point of target number, you need more than one die to have a good chance of getting a success. For example in Shadowrun if the target number is 1 (the easiest non-trivial task) you have a 1/3 chance of hitting it with one die, just under 50% with two dice, and so on. Also you cannot get more successes than your pool, so if the target number is equal to n you can’t succeed.

The problem here is that typically your dice pool is constructed in a similar way to your defense target number when it comes to challenged skill checks. For example, if I construct an agility+melee dice pool and try to shoot someone, it will target a difficulty set by their agility+melee dice pool (or something similar). But because each point of target number requires more than a single die to have a chance of success, your attacking pool is not going to be enough to hit, in general. The systems I have played have several ways around this problem, none of which are satisfactory in my opinion. These are listed below.

Shadowrun

Shadowrun gets around the problem of equal target numbers by having both attacker and target roll their dice pool. Because the target pool will generate less successes than a target number based on the attribute/skill combination, this will always produce a lower target number than the attribute/skill combination itself. The problem here is that you have two players constructing then rolling and calculating a dice pool, and comparing results. This has the advantage of giving the player the chance to roll to avoid an attack (which gives them agency) but makes for a lot of rolls, which with large dice pools is trouble. It also introduces a lot of variation, especially at lower levels . You could simplify this by having everyone roll their defense alongside initiative, and then requiring them to keep it, but this would be unsatisfactory to many players, I think.

World of Darkness

World of Darkness (WoD) creates a whole range of problems for itself and then somehow gets around them in a bad way. In WoD your melee attack pool will be an attribute + skill, but your defense pool is just the lowest of two attributes, so it is usually much lower than the attacking pool. This solves the problem of overly-boosted target numbers, but it is deeply unsatisfactory. John Micksen, for example (my WoD Mage) has a defense of 2 (what can I say, he’s clumsy) but he has 3 dots in weaponry, specializing in swords, and he is carrying Excalibur. Excalibur! But his defense is 2! Excalibur is a +5 Holy Sword of Legend, FFS, but he gets no benefit. This is ridiculous: when magically boosted, wielding that sword, Micksen gets 21 dice to attack! But the same Micksen gets a defense of 2, three if he boosts his dexterity above his wits.

However, all is not lost! In WoD, your armour counts on your dice pool. John Micksen’s friend gives him Forces armour 5, so he gets 7 defense. Whew. The WoD rules get around the problem of unfair target numbers by having you subtract your defense from your opponent’s attack pool, and the opponent rolls the result. This seriously reduces the variance of the roll, but it also means that the imbalance of target numbers and attack pools is removed. However, what happens if your defense is greater than your opponent’s attacking pool? In this case, they have no dice left to roll! However, WoD has a rule for this: they roll a single d10 and hit on a 10. That’s right, they have a 10% chance of hitting you with a dice pool of zero.

So let’s imagine this scenario. John Micksen has a ritual casting on himself that gives him +4 strength and dexterity; another that gives him 8s again on his attack rolls; and his friend Andrew has given him Forces 5 armour. John decides he is sick of the paper boy making a noise at the gate of his mansion, so early one sunday morning he staggers out of his faerie-wine induced reverie and, leaving his lithe elven lover entangled in the bedclothes of the master bedroom of their faerie demesne, he wanders up the stairs and into mundane Ireland, picking up Excalibur along the way. He creeps up to the door unheard – this is not difficult, his Dexterity is 6, higher than most mortals (truly Faerie has changed him!), so the stupid paper boy won’t hear him. He hauls open the door[1] and springs forward, yelling obscenities, and takes a swing at the paper boy. “I am the Winter Fucking Knight[2], I do not get woken by paper boys!” he yells, rolling his 18 dice pool (he doesn’t bother wasting a point of willpower on a mere paper boy). The paper boy, however, is a cunning little yobbo and sneaky to boot, so he has a defense of 3,+1 for his woolen jacket, 4 defense for a mere villein! Now John rolls 14 dice, which with 8s again means he should get about 5 or 6 successes. This leaves the paper boy on 1 wound (that is a well-made Irish woolen jacket, not some crappy London fashion accessory!) So, the paper boy grabs his anti-dog club, and jabs it in John Micksen’s face. John Micksen has defense 3 and armour 5, for a total of 8, and the paper boy has a dice pool of 4. Result! The kid has 0 dice! He can’t hit. There stands the Winter Knight, resplendently bare-chested, but shimmering with the power of his friend’s enchanted armour, the snow-flake tattoo that betokens his position as Faerie Champion glittering cold blue light from beneath the silken radiance of the magical armour, armour that has been crafted for him in an arcane ritual by a wizard renowned throughout several planes of existence as a master of the elemental energies that bind the world together.

Oh but wait a minute, the paper boy has rolled a 10 on his one die. His anti-dog club slides through that armour like a hot knife through butter, and jabs John in the ribs, leaving a nasty bruise. The kid pulls a stupid face, yells “‘Ave ‘at, you fuckin’ pervo!” and scarpers up the path and away [well, scarpers as best he can for a kid who has just been stabbed in the face with an Ancient Sword Out of Legend by the Winter Fucking Knight, boosted to superhuman strength and speed].

This ridiculous scenario occurs because the lowest success probability in WoD is 10%, for people with an attacking pool less than their defender’s; followed by 30% for people with at least one die left in their pool. This scenario would have been the same even if John benefited from the +5 of his Ancient Sword that Unites Kingdoms. I think that’s a pretty crap rule. But it’s an inevitable consequence of trying to find a way to give some chance to people with zero pool.

Warhammer 3

Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 3 (WFRP3) gets around this problem by adapting the Shadowrun approach into a single roll, using a dice pool that is as complicated as possible. Basically, the target’s defense (which is calculated in an arcane and annoying way) is used to add challenge and misfortune dice to the attacker’s pool. These dice can roll failures, which are subtracted from the successes that are rolled by the good part of the pool. The challenge and misfortune dice have different probability distributions to the dice that the attacker puts in the pool (attribute and expertise dice). This system has the excellent property of giving the defender a highly variable target number, along with various side effects and it completely eliminates the problem of balancing defense target numbers against attack target numbers where both are derived from attributes and skills. It is also, as far as I know, the only RPG system I have played (except Rolemaster?) that actively incorporates training into defense (in a variety of overly complex ways, of course). It also only uses one roll. The downside is that constructing and evaluating the dice pool are both complex, requiring a lot of time and effort until you’re really familiar with the system.

Some possible simplifications

The Shadowrun system could be simplified to work in one roll by adding d6s of a different colour to the attacker’s dice roll, and having 5s and 6s on those rolls cancel the 5s or 6s on the attacker’s dice. This is basically the WFRP3 single roll, without the complex dice. Basically this is what WFRP3 needs: a simpler way of constructing and calculating dice pools. You could set up the game table with a large pool of white and red d6s in the middle of the table. The attacker grabs his or her number of whites; the defender grabs his or her number of reds and then passes them to the attacker; the dice pool is then rolled, and the result counted. Alternatively, dice pool construction in WFRP3 could be simplified by leaving the roll of challenge and misfortune dice for the GM; the player only sees the dice he or she rolled, and the GM then calculates the result.

Another possible simplification is to find a way to make attack rolls have more dice than defense targets. For example, if you could add your level to attack rolls, but not to defense target numbers; or if your defense target for any challenged skill check (including combat) was your attribute divided by 3 (round down) + skill, so that most attack pools are larger than target numbers; and also make sure there is a method for boosting attacks (e.g. Edge/Fate/Willpower) etc. Note that with larger dice pools these boosting methods tend to be a waste of time (see e.g. John Micksen), but if you are striving for more contained dice pools, then it probably would work. Of course, no one likes dividing numbers in play, but most character sheets have a place ot write defense; you could have a “defense” section after each attribute, which tells you the value it applies when being used for a defense target.

Another possible dice pool mechanism I thought of yesterday but haven’t done any calculations on, is one in which there is no target number, but the target’s skill+ attribute determine the minimum number required to hit. For example, if attributes start at 2 or 3 points, and skills at 1 or 2 points, then target numbers would range from 3-5. The attacker could then roll e.g. d10s, and get success on any die that rolls above this number. If the target were above 9, then success would only be possible on rolls of 10. So for example you have a dice pool of 5, and your opponent has a target of 5; you roll your five dice and need to get over 5, which basically means that your outcome will be Binomial(5,0.5), giving an “average” of 2.5 successes. Were your opponent’s difficulty 9, you would need to roll 10s, and the chance of getting 1 success would still be pretty good, but little chance of a big success.

I have also been thinking about a concept of what I call success pools, which incorporate post-attack damage values into a coherent framework for all skills and challenges, and could be used to fine tune some of these dice pool mechanisms. I will have more to say about that later.

I don’t think any of the systems I have described here, or their simplifications, are ideal, though the Shadowrun and WFRP3 mechanisms are pretty good (aside from their cumbersome aspects). Shadowrun is fine until you start calculating damage, I think; WFRP3 is fine if you make sure that the only complexity in it is the dice pool (i.e. you drop most of the rest of the game). But they show the difficulty of making a balanced dice pool mechanism, and how there always seems to be a compromise somewhere on the way when you try to introduce a decent random number generation system based on dice.

fn1: With his ritual on, John Micksen has strength 7, so he doesn’t so much haul the door open as launch it into orbit

fn2: John Micksen has some rage issues.

Fantasy Flight Games have announced the completion of the Warhamer Fantasy Role-playing Game 3rd Edition (WFRP 3) “line,” i.e. they’ve decided to stop producing any material for it and move on. I suspect this is at least partly because it was not very popular or successful – it’s a somewhat unusual form for a role-playing game, and also very expensive. I suspect a lot of people gave up trying to get the whole experience to work, and it didn’t sell as well as it needed to given its huge production requirements.

I played one and a half campaigns of WFRP 3, in English and Japanese, and from my experience I think that in many ways WFRP 3 was a revolutionary and exciting game. It imported a lot of ideas from board-gaming to provide improved ways to manage PC resources, skills and powers, and used a really interesting dice mechanic to generate rich and complex results for PC actions. Unfortunately, the mechanics are complex and fiddly in practice, requiring lots of space, huge amounts of tokens and a lot of fiddling. The dice mechanic is also just that little bit too complex for GMs to intuitively understand, making it hard for them to design and run adventures, and I don’t believe that Fantasy Flight Games ever came  up with a good way of handling monsters and providing GMs the proper resource- and system-management tools and tips they need to make the game work. I think this is likely a killer in a role-playing game – if you can’t make the complexity accessible and manageable to the GM, you alienate the central 20% of the gaming population that are essential to making the game sell (since players won’t bother buying books for games they can’t find GMs to play with!)

After WFRP 3 Fantasy Flight Games released the Star Wars system, which uses a stripped down and simplified version of both the action system and the dice system from WFRP 3. The Star Wars system seems to be much more accessible and easy to play, and has better introductory material, and may be more practical as a novel game system. I haven’t tried it yet but expect to soon. I have also simplified WFRP 3 and GMd a really cut-down system in a different world, and I found that once it is stripped down to just the dice and skill system it becomes a really neat little system. It is my hope that Fantasy Flight Games will use their experience of Star Wars to develop a simplified, stream-lined classic fantasy RPG based on the WFRP system without all the bells and whistles, using all their experience to date. If they do that, I think it could be a really good way to play fantasy.

In the meantime I hope to use the simplified version of WFRP 3 for more adventures in the Compromise and Conceit world, where I think it works as a system. I won’t be buying more WFRP 3 stuff, but I will be continuing to play around with what I think was a very promising and innovative way of gaming. Let’s hope for more reports in the future …

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