Tag: tabletop (page 2 of 12)

Tweaking the Masquerade

Courtesy Highmoon

I’ve had vampires on my mind lately. Between writing the draft of Cold Streets, seeing the season finale of True Blood (that’s another post entirely…) and chatting via Twitter with Justin Achilli, I’ve been wondering how Vampire: the Masquerade might be improved. I don’t see Vampire: the Requiem as an improvement, merely a sequel or perhaps another permutation of the game. It’s not strictly better, in my opinion, nor is it discernibly ‘worse’, it’s just different. Masquerade has been my jam for many a year, and I still remember games played within that world fondly. I do think some things could be done to make the setting more interesting, however, and allow for more character exploration and nuance without sacrificing atmosphere.

Get Rid of the Sabbat

As much as I appreciate a good villain, the Sabbat really aren’t good villains. Whenever the idea of blatant rule of humans by vampires comes up, it’s always a bad one. In a game where the notion is to explore mature subject matter such as temptation, the degradation of humanity in the face of power, and what it means to be a monster wearing human skin, an establishment of monolithic evil undercuts the purpose. You can still have dramatic tension and meaningful moments of powerful self-discovery, along with power-mongering, scheming, seduction, and betrayal, without needing to conjure a boogeyman that likes skinning babies for fun. The Sabbat are completely unnecessary, superfluous to the crux of the gameplay, and actually kind of silly when you think about it.

That said, while the antitribu can easily bite the dust I still appreciate the two major clans involved with the Sabbat. So what becomes of them?

Refine the Tzimisce

The fact that the vampires of the Tzimisce bloodline exhibit a mentality and behavioral code far different from any other creature is a lot more interesting to me than their role in the aforementioned Sabbat. When I think Tzimisce, I think classic figures such as Dracula or Elizabeth Bathory. They’re the kind of creature to hide in plain sight, to prey upon those who least suspect them, and cloak their predatory nature with designer clothing or Stepford smiles.

In short, I think the Tzimisce should live in the suburbs.

Think about it. In classic tales the vampire always has a secluded, sprawling manor house. You really don’t know there’s something weird going on until you step inside. A cunning Tzimisce, in my mind, would wear a human skin the way you or I wear slacks to a day job – as soon as you get home, you change into something more comfortable. Sure, it’s fun to dress in fetish clothing and march around to Rammstein, but it’s not very subtle or nuanced. And since subtle and nuanced is what I prefer to go for, that old viewpoint of the Tzimisce needs to go the way of the Sabbat. Instead of shaking a mailed fist at the Camarilla for foiling their plans once again, I much prefer the image of a Tzimisce living a quiet, genteel life of grabbing meals and experimentation subjects out of golf clubhouses, high-end cocktail parties, and corporate gatherings, available to impart some ancient secrets on the curious and the daring… for a price. Some may still maintain chambers of horrors under their gated communities, and others may simply prefer to read a good book by the fire after an evening meal. Don’t limit the clan to a single stereotype; establish some parameters and let the player fill in the blanks as they see fit.

They would tend to stay out of the cities because of the Tremere, which I’ll get to in a moment.

Isolate the Lasombra

Without the Sabbat, what becomes of the Lasombra? One of my absolute favorite clans, their powers over shadows and penchant for manipulation behind the scenes makes them excellent schemers and hidden threats. As much as a member of the Lasombra might crave power, it often takes the form of having influence over the supposedly powerful, rather than being in charge themselves. An ideal Lasombra, in my mind, is not the kind to bark orders at neonates like a drill sergeant. They’re more (you guessed it) subtle than that.

They’ve always been good rivals for the more traditional political leaders of the Camarilla, the Ventrue and the Toreador. My inclination is to underscore that by, in essence, putting a single Lasombra at the opposite end of a chessboard from a given city’s Prince. The Lasombra test those in power, evaluating their worthiness through challenges, manipulations and even threats. Not direct ones, of course, but threats manufactured to see what the Prince and their city are made of. If the Prince proves themselves worthy, reward them by manipulating others in the city to their benefit (and the Lasombra’s); if they don’t, engineer their replacement. This change could make the Lasombra out to be some kind of dastardly arch-villain, and some of them may lean that way, but again, the notion is to establish unique parameters and let people fill in the blanks themselves. Sure, some may go for the Moriarty or Hannibal Lecter angle, playing up the superficially antagonistic role, but others may approach the city as an experiment, a giant living Petri dish in which the behaviors, reactions, and merits of those in control are to be tested. Still others may see themselves as performing a vital service for the Prince, ensuring they remain in power. Hell, why not conspire with the Prince directly if the Lasombra in the city considers them worthy? There are possibilities here, more than might be afforded by the Sabbat.

Galvanize the Tremere

Justin posed this question: why aren’t the Tremere the good guys? If order is good for society and vampires, and chaos is bad, why is an ordered clan like the Tremere seen as a bad thing? “When you hear about the Tremere ‘searching for an artifact,’ you immediately conclude, ‘someone has to stop them!'” The Tremere are usually seen as gaming for political positioning, trying to get one up on the Ventrue or the Prince or somebody else who’s in power, and while this is traditionally vampiric behavior, with its structure and clear hierarchy, I think the Tremere are more suited for another role entirely.

Basically, I’ve always though the Tremere would make great cops.

There’s a lot of ways this could go. The Tremere in one city could operate like detectives from L.A. Confidential or Law & Order, while in another they are essentially the Gestapo. But the overarching mentality of the clan would be to protect the Kindred of the city, safeguard the innocent, and enforce the Traditions. They have powerful tools to investigate crime, pursue offenders, and bring them to justice. Instead of using these powers to get an edge on other Kindred, they could be used for a greater good, which in and of itself becomes an edge. And the dynamic within the city remains fluid. Some may respect the Tremere and what they do, while others harbor a deep hatred for authority figures and especially cops. And there are a slew of stories in which cops go bad; a corrupt Tremere would be an anomaly, but would also be a dangerous quantity. If a Lasombra gets some dirty on a Tremere, or the Giovanni name the right price, how will the Tremere’s clan mates find out and deal with them? And what about a member of the Tremere going undercover to investigate whispers of conspiracy among the other clans?

Some things to think about when it comes to vampire storytelling.

Chuckin’ Dice

Dice

There’s something soothing about the rattle of polyhedrals. As immersive and rewarding as an experience can be when the game in question involves role-playing and character sheers, the tactile feeling of dice rolling around in my hand is just as good in other games. Playing things not based on the computer is a relatively uncommon experience these days, but with so many good memories and a few choice games eagerly awaiting to be played in my closet, I do want to increase the frequency at which I chuck dice.

Old-School Games

My dad introduced me to grand strategy on the tabletop at a young age. We played a lot of old Avalon Hill games together, ranging from historical engagements to one based on Starship Troopers. The scale of our games varied, from the great naval battle of Jutland played out on the living room floor while things got rather personal during Advanced Squad Leader. We’ve tried several variations on Risk, finding the Lord of the Rings version to be, perhaps, the most appealing. We’ve also had long campaigns of War of the Ring, Fortress America, Shogun, and Axis and Allies. We’ve even found ways to play these game via email, and while it’s fun, it just doesn’t quite capture the feeling of dice in your hand.

Miniatures

I’ve dabbled in the world of tabletop miniatures gaming in the past. I still have all of my books for Warhammer 40,000 and WarMachine. Plastic and pewter soldiers do have more presence than cardboard ones, adding dimension to the action taking place. The downside is that even a small, basic force can be massively expensive, and assembly and painting eats up a lot of time. Part of the reason I enjoy the Dawn of War video games is the ability to field massive forces of my favorite grimdark armies without having to shell out for, glue together, and paint up an embarrassing amount of miniatures. While it’s something I could get back into, between my Magic habit, a slew of video games to play, and other tabletop games, I know better than to really delve back into that world.

The New Stuff

Settlers of Catan is a game I was introduced to some time ago, and it remains fascinating to me, bloody struggles for land replaced by trading wood for sheep with my neighbor. Resource management and diplomacy may not sound like very interesting stuff, but games that focus on interpersonal dynamics and frame competition in ways other than direct violence do tickle the intellect in interesting ways. Co-operative games, as well, break away from the usual slugfests. Arkham Horror is a particular favorite, and I have picked up Pandemic to see if the experience is similar. I mean, sure, sometimes you just want to blast your buddy, a niche that Frag and Munchkin fill nicely. But I also seek new takes on old favorites, like introducing my family to Ticket to Ride as a much faster and more friendly type of Rail Baron game. As much as I don’t get to play these games terribly often, there’s still good times to be had chucking dice around, if just for that tactile feeling and spending time with people away from glowing screens and klacking keys.

The Concert: An Amaranthine Short

Courtesy Machine Age Productions

No ICFN this week, I simply ran out of time doing other projects. It shall return next week!

In the meantime, here’s a piece I wrote years ago to compliment the game which was, at that time, under development by Machine Age Productions. It’s a story of the Amaranthine, and it may whet your whistle for even better stories on their way to you in the Amaranthology.


The band had some kitschy, trendy name that they thought set them apart from the pack. It simply made them sound like another pop-emo-rock fusion outfit trying to be someone more successful. Trevor wasn’t certain why he’d come down here to see them live. He didn’t even like this sort of music. But he’d caught a glimpse of one of their tacky posters, and suddenly he HAD to be here, in this crowd.

He hadn’t paid, of course. If you knew the city the way he did, you could find ways into anyplace that weren’t watched, alarmed or locked. He slipped through the bodies of the crowd, some of the contact welcome, others jarring. The first opening act was leaving the stage as the second was coming on, the one he’d come to see. The girl behind the drums was tightening the bass kit, the guy with the emo fringe setting up his keyboard. Neither of them were familiar. Just two more in the sea of faces that was the indy music scene.

Then the other two members came on stage. Trevor recognized them both. He’d been born and raised in this town, and while he didn’t know where he’d seen them before, the sight of them was like an icepick in his mind – cold, clear and sharp. The girl tuning her bass, to him, seemed out of place up there, in skull motif bikini top, short jean skirt and high-heeled boots ending just below her knees. The last time he’d seen her face it had been shining at him from within the confines of a habit.

A nun? Where did he know a nun from? All of the nuns he’d known in school were wrinkly old gargoyles, not the rock nymph casually ignoring all of the whistles and cat-calls. And the guy next to her… He wore a similar fringe to the keyboardist, skinny jeans, a shirt with wide horizontal stripes, combat boots without laces. The Fender in his hands was beaten and stained, decorated with skater stickers. But the face behind that pomade-slicked hair… Trevor knew that face.

The kid stepped up to the microphone. The lights came down, spots on the band. Trevor’s hand trembled.

“Bless me Father for I have sinned!”

The band came slamming down on their first chord, and it was like Trevor had been kicked in the gut. He heard the words again, this time a whisper, and in Italian.

“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It has been two months since my last confession.”

The figure in the other side of the booth kept to the shadows. The monsignor did not mind. Let the good people of Florence have their privacy, he thought, as long as they give their burdens to God and their florins to my church.

“You are safe in the house of God, my son. I will hear your confession.”

“I have killed seven people.”

The monsignor paused. “Are you a soldier, my son? A soldier is expected to kill in dark times, and we live in dark times indeed.”

“No, Father, I am no soldier. Not in the sense of marching in rank and taking orders. I am a soldier in a different sense.”

“How do you mean?”

“You have served the Medicis for quite some time, Father. I’m sure you’re aware of their coming exile.”

“Yes. Their loss will surely diminish Firenze.”

“That is one opinion. Another is that a French toad in control of Firenze is something the people do not want. Many of the Medici’s loyal supporters will assist them in remaining here longer than is healthy for the people.”

“I am afraid I do not understand, my son.”

“You are their confessor. I cannot have them falling under my blade having confessed their many sins.”

The blade came through the wicker screen without warning, cold steel lancing across the Mon Sengior’s throat. Blood flowed freely down the front of his robes, staining the black of his oath and the violet of his station with crimson. He grasped the wound and collapsed, gasping but clinging to the last bit of life left in him.

“Your soul will go to God, Father. You will not see these parishioners again. Perhaps in time, you will consider this a favor. Good night, sweet prince.”

A power chord on the bass shocked Trevor back into the here and now. He glanced around the crowd. Had anybody else seen that, felt that? What had just happened to him? He turned back to the stage.

The lead singer was staring right at him.

He was singing his over-emotional lyrics, barely audible over his too-technical guitar playing, and he was staring directly at Trevor. Trevor blinked. No… the eye-line was off slightly. He turned to look behind him.

Fiona. The boss’s daughter.

The connection clicked into place. He’d seen the poster in Fiona’s room. That’s why he’d come here. Fiona was a fan. Fiona, who had been trying so hard to please her father. Fiona, who had long been promised to the son of the boss’ rivals in Chinatown to a bright young man who, despite being half-chink, had impressed Trevor with his politeness and poise.

Fiona, who was getting moist at this punk’s attention.

Trevor faded through the crowd. He waited until the songs were over. Then he moved through the darkness towards the backstage area. The band was tossing back water from bottles. The singer turned to Trevor as he approached.

“Sorry, man, gotta wait for us to come to you at the merch table.”

“I’m not here for your merch.”

The singer blinked, trying to clear them of the haze caused by some illegal substance. The other band members looked on, the drummer and keyboardist wide-eyed and frozen with uncertainty. The bassist, however, merely backed up a pace, taking a long sip from her water bottle. Her eyes never left Trevor’s face.

“What, are you an agent or something?” The singer hooked his thumbs in his skinny jeans. “You wanna sign us?”

“No.”

Trevor had gotten good at never telegraphing his punches. It was something the boss loved. Once he’d knocked out a 300-pound Sicilian with a single punch. The fat bastard had screamed at the boss to let him have another crack at Trevor, to have a fair fight. The boss had laughed in his face and demanded his money. 90 days overdue was 89 too long by the boss’ count.

So when he hit the singer with a right cross to the face, nobody saw it coming. The drummer & keyboardist were on their feet, gasping in shock. Not the bassist, though. She was smiling. Somehow, Trevor didn’t need to see it. He could feel her smile.

“You were eyeing up the pretty blond behind me, weren’t you, boy?”

Trevor hauled the punk up by his trendy shirt. He punched him again, with the left, breaking his nose. The blood flowed freely, almost eagerly, just as it had down Trevor’s robes. Trevor saw red. He punched the singer again and again. Every time, he heard another voice, saw another face, always the same face but different times, different places.

“Requiescat in pace.” Punch. “Does Columbus even know where he’s going?” Punch. “The British are coming!” Punch. “Fuck you and your Arch-duke.” Punch. “I don’t think Hitler has what it takes to lead.” Punch. “How dare they destroy the Buddhas! They’re sacred relics!” Punch.

By the time Trevor came back to his senses, the singer’s face was a mess, bruised, bloody and swollen. He let the unconscious punk slip to the floor. There was commotion towards the front of the venue, bouncers fighting through the surging crowd to get to him. The bassist placed her empty water bottle by the stage, fingers sliding over a splotch of red on her skin.

“You got blood on me.”

Trevor caught his breath. “Sorry. I don’t know what…”

“No. But I do.” She took his hand. “Let’s get out of here.”

Trevor was pulled towards the backstage door. “Wait. Who are you? How do I know you?”

She smiled over her shoulder at him. “I’ve been waiting five lifetimes to hear you ask me something like that. It’s about time you woke up to what you really are.”

One Of Those ‘Casuals’

Dice

I’ve been called a lot of things in my time when it comes to gaming. “Blithering idiot.” “Total bastard.” “Keyboard-turning skill-clicker.” And perhaps the most caustic of all: “mouth-breathing casual.”

Most of these terms come from my wife. Ours is a happy marriage.

Anyway, the last one is sticking with me because to some gamers, ‘casual’ is an extremely dirty word. It’s why the role-playing servers in World of Warcraft are looked down upon (well, that and the atrocious characters running around… here, feast your eyes). Folks who play Magic: the Gathering professionally are more keenly following the buzz on the upcoming Innistrad expansion than the news of a new duel deck featuring Venser and Koth. Sticking with 4th edition D&D rather than using Pathfinder or the old AD&D ruleset probably also marks me as one of those ‘casuals’.

Thinking about it, I’m pretty okay with that.

Gaming is a close runner-up behind writing in terms of favorite ways to spend my time. While I don’t burn a lot of lean tissue in a round or two of Team Fortress 2, I do engage my brain when coming up with refinements to a Commander deck, developing plotlines for a tabletop campaign or working on my macro skills in StarCraft 2. I get a lot of enjoyment out of these things, and I don’t want to lose sight of that by taking the hobby too seriously. I’d like to think I can get good enough at StarCraft 2 or the upcoming Guild Wars 2 to break into the e-sports scene, but it’s going to take a lot of practice before I get myself beyond the level of ‘casual’.

The thing about moving beyond being a casual gamer is that gaming, for the most part, is a rather expensive pastime. Take Magic, for example. To become competitive you need playsets of the most powerful cards available, and that requires a rather large monetary investment. Oh, and the cards you just dropped hundreds of dollars on? They won’t be useful in the very near future. Either the expansions they’re from will pass out of Standard’s ruleset or the card itself may get banned or restricted. You can trade a bit, sure; in fact I’ve started to do some myself since I can’t afford to keep buying singles. But the fact of the matter is that the competitive Magic scene will always be dominated by people who have more disposable income than you. No, thank you.

StarCraft 2 is more accessible in that you don’t need to buy anything other than the box the game comes in, and maybe an authenticator. The hurdle here is dedication and brain power, not cash. You can build your muscle memory and multitasking ability through practice alone, making it more a time investment than anything else. The occasional break for StarJeweled or Aiur Chef with a friend is fine, though, and don’t let anybody tell you otherwise. You can’t take this stuff too seriously.

I think that’s why some people look down their noses at casuals like myself. I understand the mindset. Gaming is serious business. I used to look at it that way. I would get livid when wiping in a dungeon or getting the facial treatment from an Alliance rogue. It got to the point that my wife stopped playing with me. I was taking it too seriously. I started to fall into that trap again with StarCraft 2, so I took a break. Now that I’m back to it, I’m taking it more easily. I’m using multiplayer (2v2, 3v3) matches to practice and also replaying the single-player campaign on the highest difficulty, and while it gets me angry when things are difficult, I’m not destroying my keyboard or terrifying the cats. Because I know it’s just a game, I should be enjoying it instead of loathing it, and I don’t want to be the next Idra, doing things like ragequitting out of frustrating games I’m about to win.

I think, in the end, it’s more healthy for me to be a casual gamer making my way slowly towards pro-level skills than the kind of gamer who wishes so hard to be pro that they lose sight of all the fun they should be having. If that means I get made fun of on occasion because I like Commander so much or I don’t have the APM of a Korean demigod, so be it. My blood pressure will stay low, my wife will actually want to play with me and, most important of all, I’ll be enjoying the experience.

To me, casual seems like a pretty damn good thing to be.

Meet the Amaranthine

Courtesy Machine Age Productions

Are we more than what we seem? We all walk around in similar skins, physical forms that are at once miracles of evolution and unremarkable slabs of gradually decaying meat. For ages man has posited that their existences reach beyond the ticking clock under which we all live. Man has sought gods, crafted timeless works, birthed and fathered the sciences, all in the name of creating something that lasts. Every individual knows on a basic level that our time in the world is fleeting, and at one point or another we wonder if there’s more than what we have before us.

Imagine, for a moment, that the answer is “yes”.

Amaranthine is an exploration of this answer.

The Game

Amaranthine is a tabletop role-playing game to be played with friends in a comfortable, conversational setting. It boasts no overt gimmickry, no miniatures or fancy dice. You just need a handful of six-siders. It’s the premise, mood and execution of Amaranthine that set it apart.

The premise is that the Amaranthine of the title are, in essence, immortal. Each is reincarnated over and over again throughout the ages, dying only to be born again with their knowledge intact, if tucked away in a mental steamer trunk for a few years. Contact with familiar places, lessons of the past and other Amaranthine draw out their true natures. By the time they reach young adulthood, an Amaranthine can already be operating with hundreds if not thousands of years of experience upon which to draw, yet they look no different from you or me.

Amaranthine’s mood is one of limitless potential, of destiny and the shadows. It’s an atmosphere any afficionado of the World of Darkness (old or new) will find quite familiar. Yet the Amaranthine are not monsters, and the point of the game is not to rail against one’s nature, but to embrace it. Being one of the Amaranthine means being excellent, living a life of epic proportions that mere mortals can only dream of.

The true crux of the game comes in its execution as a group-based experience. The lives of the Amaranthine, present and past, are mercurial and somewhat unpredictible. Those you consider friends now may have been rivals in a previous life, and those now your enemies may have been allies or even lovers in years gone by. These relationships and the decisions players make regarding them build a sense of scale into the game as well as helping it feel deeply personal.

The Book

A word on the quality of the printed version of Amaranthine before I get into the meat of the text. This book is, without question, gorgeous. It ranks with the best offerings of White Wolf or Wizards of the Coast. It boasts bold colors, fascinating choices in type and a comprehensive indexing system that makes information easy to find. But all that is sound and fury; the significance of the book is in what the text says, not how it looks.

The tales within the Amaranthine rulebook underscore the concepts and themes listed above. The early chapters draw players into this appealing world and give them the tools necessary to become a part of it. It concerns itself more with questions than with statistics, however: Who were you before? Who do you want to be now? Who mattered to you, and who still does? The stats systems, using the four humors as essential resources for the character, are at once familiar and unique.

Deeper in the book those brave enough to become Directors find the depiction of our world through the immortal eyes of the Amaranthine. From the ways they organize themselves to the threats they face, the book ensures a Director is well-equipped to tell a tale as sprawling or intimate as they wish. Threats to the Amarthine are describedin detail, and are not limited to creatures such as vampires, dragons and the fair folk. The Void is an ever-present aspect of the Amaranthine, to which they all must return and from which all draw strength… for a price.

The Company

I knew when I first heard David of Machine Age pitch Amaranthine that he was on to something. He and his wife Filamena have never been ones to sit idle working on gaming materials for others. They’re unafraid of the risks inherent in pursuing their own ideas and have the intestinal fortitude to see their dreams through in the face of adversity, mediocrity and doubt. They’re a couple of those troublemakers I go on about sometimes.

Their first game, Maschine Zeit, perfectly captured the dread and mystery of a quiet and horrible apocalypse of our own making. Guestbook makes playing a quick game with friends at a convention, train station or meeting so easy it seems almost shameful. Amaranthine encourages excellence, exalts in an epic scale and allows players to explore and answer questions about their own natures just as much as it pits them against creatures of the night and wonders from childhood myth.

Amaranthine is a high-quality, deep-concept gaming experience that I Would recommend to anybody even remotely interested in a modern setting for a tabletop role-playing group, and if it doesn’t put Machine Age firmly and permanently on the map of leading pen-and-paper game producers, it bloody well should.

Buy Amaranthine:

DriveThru RPG
Pre-Order the Book

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