Thursday, January 10, 2013

Initiative! Play-Test the First!

We ran the first-ever Initiative! playtest last night -- a game of giant robots fighting monsters in our hometown of Toronto. Learned a lot, laughed a lot, ready to do it again!

The goal in this first playtest was just to see if this wacky engine would actually work at all -- would the concept of gaining and losing the initiative bring a fresh sense to the table?

The answer is definitely a YES.

People cottoned on to the concept immediately. If you don't have the initiative, you can only react via Cool or Aware, and if you have the initiative you can try to win via Deadly and Compelling. It took a while, though for people to internalize the idea and start working WITH it in order to achieve their goals.

One player whose character was heavily invested in being Deadly lost the initiative in the first round, and never tried to get it back (didn't know that she could, to be fair), and got beaten right out of the fight in a couple of rounds.

So on the one hand, good that things can swing that wildly -- but it wasn't a great time for the player!

As they started to figure it out, however, you could see people trying to set themselves up. Players would deliberately give up the initiative so they could use a Trait that had a higher chance of success. It seemed like the decision-making at each moment offered lots of options, with pretty clear risk levels. So people could think, "Well, if I try to use Deadly here and I fail, I could be in a lot of trouble. But my Reactive Traits aren't very good, and if fail, I'm really going to get pounded. What to do?"

So I'm encouraged that way. It feels like this core mechanic is going to work. But of course there's some real issues to be resolved. The game as it stands is basically unplayable.

Real Issues

Nowhere is Safe

For example, there's no way to "lay low" -- people would try to use their Reactive Traits in order to step back and get a sense of the battle, like someone might play a rogue or a wizard trying for a vantage point, but in the current system, being Reactive is much riskier than being Active, since a failure in Reactive turns straight into damage. So there's no way to model that sort of "pulling back" from the fray to recollect oneself.

Which is kind of part of the design -- in Initiative!, if you're not pressing forward, then you're giving ground to your opponent. But at the least a lot of people are going to come in with an assumption that this system will have to fight against. And perhaps that assumption -- that there's safety in holding back -- is a reasonable one that I have to consider.

What Are We Doing?

Another problem is even more fundamental -- it was really hard in our "social" scene to establish what damage really meant. In my head, dealing damage is associated with advancing towards your objective, but when the "field of battle" is a social situation with a number of characters each of whom may have their own objectives, trying to understand what dealing damage to an NPC actually MEANS is complex.

There may need to be some structure around establishing goals for each scene, or maybe players will choose which NPCs in particular they wish to engage with. Not sure, and more testing is required, but I'm pretty sure something will have to be created around handling objectives.

One thing I really liked about Apocalypse World was the way in which characters could establish true things about the situation through strictly-constrained lists of questions. So you could use whatever the ability was called to learn something, but you had to choose your question from a predefined list. It's possible something of that nature might work here.

Next Steps

I'm not going to make too many changes right away. There were a few outright holes in the rules I have to sort out, but I want to try and run this again just as it is before I start making a lot of changes. There were a few quirks about the way I ran last night's session that definitely threw the results, so mixing things up and seeing how that influences play will be very important.

Not much reference to the rules was required, which was great. And it was definitely a free-wheeling sort of game, which is exactly what I'm hoping for. Onwards!

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Best Comics of 2012 -- UPDATED

Update: I forgot CURSED PIRATE GIRL!

I read some tremendous comics last year. I wanted to take a few moments and call out some of the best, comics that really stuck with me.

Delilah Dirk: The Seeds of Good Fortune

One of the best webcomics going, Tony Cliff's "Delilah Dirk" is beautiful, with a rich and engaging historical world. The title character is a swashbuckling lady who's not QUITE as smart as she thinks she is, but is lucky enough that she gets away with it.

Cliff's art is simple yet gorgeous, and he fills in beautiful details on every page.

One of the real delights of this little side story is a two-page spread in which Delilah runs away from a passel of bad guys -- Cliff does this out as a single image with a dotted line showing Delilah's path through a tangle of alleys and rooftops. It's like one of those Family Circus panels where the little kid goes wandering around and by following the path you get the story of what happens. It's very cleverly done and perfectly fits the light-hearted feel of the story.

The story itself finds a little more depth than you might expect, for what is basically just an extended chase sequence. It's got a tight structure to it and some good character moments. I'm really looking forward to a print version of the main story before too long.

Lola

J. Torres and Elbert Or teamed up for this spooky-sweet story about a young lad uncomfortable with his heritage and what it means for his day-to-day life. Set at a Philipino family gathering, this book is a perfect balance of art and words; Torres' tight, understated script is brought to perfect life by Or's clean lines and striking compositions.

Anyone who's had to deal with uncomfortable family moments will identify with our young protagonist, who finds his memories of his grandmother and his deceased cousin are still shaping his life years later. Frightened by much of what he can remember, and dismissive of the traditional tales that his Philipino family tell and re-tell, Jesse (our hero) manages to gather his courage and ultimately decide on what his relationship with his own spooky background will be.

Until you get to the end, and the story sticks you with a nasty twist that left me both chuckling and aghast. It DOES say "A Ghost Story" on the front cover, and these gentlemen aren't kidding around about that.

A beautiful book, and a joy to read and re-read.

Bamboo Blade

I was not familiar with the work of Totsuka Masahiro before reading this, which was recommended to me by a friend who knows very well what I like. And teenage girls beating people with sticks is high on my list. I'm certainly looking for more work by this masterful writer.

If you don't think that's funny,
I don't know what you are.
Bamboo Blade is a 14-part manga about a high school girls' kendo team. If you're thinking, "manga about high school girls, uh-oh," rest easy -- this book has nothing in it of a salacious or titillating nature. No panty shots or ridonkulously enormous bosoms. Just charming young folks trying their hardest to do well.

What this book is is really really funny. I mean, hella hilarious. Every volume left me gasping in laughter at some point or other. Totsuka's sense of timing is impeccable, and his characters are so finely delineated, and yet so over-the-top and ridiculous, that hilarity erupts in every situation. And the artist, Aguri Igarashi, supplies those situations with tone and style changes that move so fast you're left scrambling to catch up. Even apparently dramatic moments (don't worry, nobody dies) like the one at left are given a buzz through the ridiculous filter -- the whole book is full of quick tone transitions like this. This stuff, where the style and tone change so dramatically so quickly, gives the book a spontaneous, "anything can happen" feel, and keeps the mood light and frothy throughout.

At the same time, the emotional beats are varied and often mature. The putative protagonist, the kendo club teacher, is a young man whose personal life is a disaster, and his selfish efforts to get out of trouble have a real impact on the students under his charge.

14 volumes is a pretty big investment, but Bamboo Blade is maybe my favourite book of all I read in 2012. The writing and the art are both top-notch, and it's just so damn funny.

Morning Glories

Nick Spencer and Joe Eisma are obviously having a lot of fun with this book, and it's infectious. If you don't know, Morning Glories is a crazy over-the-top "what's going on" story about a high school run by sinister, ruthless administrators who appear willing to murder innocent kids in order to accomplish whatever strange objective they're pursuing.

Weirdness, terror and of course good old-fashioned high school angst all feature prominently. The main characters are the latest group of six kids brought to the school -- they don't know each other, they largely don't like each other, and they soon discover there is no one else they can trust. Although trusting each other proves no less fraught with peril.

Now published in three trade paperbacks, with more story to come, it's easy to get started on this book, and so far it's been plenty of fun.

Ooku

Fumi Yoshinaga's Ooku, now into its seventh volume, is astonishing. An alt-history in which Tokugawa Japan is led by a series of female shoguns, Ooku dissects male-female relationships, assumptions and prejudices, while telling not only a mind-blowing story of an empire based on a massive shortage of males, but truly heart-breaking tales of people caught up in an impersonal system, and how tiny decisions balloon out into disastrous consequences.

The seventh volume came out in 2012, and at this point it appears the flash-back history that has explained how Japan ended up ruled by women and sealed off from the rest of the world has been wrapped up. The current shogun, Yoshimune, has gotten the full story at last. But now she faces a tremendous dilemma; does she perpetuate the system that has brought her to power, or can she find a way to reverse the mysterious ailment that has robbed her nation of most of its men?

Full of sex, torture and sweetly gentle romance, Ooku is a real gem amongst comics nowadays. Smarter than any other book I'm currently reading, and more consistently engrossing.

Easily winning The Most Insane Comic Book Of The Year award, Jeremy Bastian's Cursed Pirate Girl oozes madness from every page.

Lewis Carroll is the only possible comparison, but Bastian's wild baroque art exceeds Tenniel's classic illustrations of Wonderland in detail, bravura and sheer whack-a-doodle craziness. Sword-fighting fish, submersible parrots, giant octopuses, and more pirates than any book really needs fill (and frankly step out beyond) the pages to create a story and a world so overwhelming that the plot hardly matters at all.

Our heroine (she's a girl, cursed, pirate -- you get the picture) is searching for her father, who is (according to her) one of the legendary pirates of the Omertà Seas. With a few loyal companions she takes to the waves to find him, and in doing so runs afoul of monsters above and below the waves. 

There's a map. There's a poster. There's fan art. It's completely insane, and completely brilliant. Read it.