Metatopia 2014 Report – Part 2

This is a continuation of my convention report for Metatopia 2014.  (See Part 1 for more general thoughts about the con.)  While Part 1 covered the people and games that I had particularly set out to see, Parts 2 and 3 will cover the designers I met for the first time and the games I hadn't known about prior to the convention.

Disclaimer (again): It bears repeating that the games mentioned here are currently in development, and so everything I describe about them is subject to change.  It also means that as of this writing, none of them are yet on the market.  If anything here interests you, I highly recommend that you keep an eye on the designers' media outlets to keep up-to-date with the latest news.

Medias Res
Vivian Abraham
This is a card-based storytelling game, something in the vein of Once Upon a Time.  As the name implies, it's not so much about building a story, as the game is meant to play out a fight scene, presumably in the middle of some other (irrelevant) tale.  Each player is a combatant in some massive brawl, and that's about all you know going into the game.  Before the main action starts, players contribute cards toward the setting and circumstances of the fight, and they even play cards that outline the victory conditions for that session.  Once all that is set up, it's game on.  It's definitely wired for fast play; you pretty much just get one action, and that's it.  You can attack, or you can set up a defense for later use.  (There's no reactive defense component, either, so each turn is really fast.)  Both attacks and defenses have "types" that play off each other, and there are some other mechanics that might come up to modify the strength of your attack.  The strength of your attack dictates the size of your dice pool, and a "count the successes" mechanic tallies up some scale of effect.  Rather than reducing a health counter, attacks result in various "effects" (like "stunned" or "entangled") which have mechanical impact on your future actions.  Actions, like attacks and defenses, come out of each player's hand.  Damage effects come out of a common pool shared by all players.  You keep going around until the game is over, and as I mentioned, the conditions that end the game are also cards that were played, so they can be different each time.

This game was pre-alpha, so I imagine what it ends up being will be very different from what I saw.  It so far seems like a tough game to balance from a design standpoint, not because of card power, which is actually elegantly symmetrical, but because turn order seems like such a significant deciding factor.  In particular, the lack of reactive defense means that first turn order is a really big deal.  The game plays a bit short for my personal taste, but I can see it being a delightful fight mechanic in a larger game, or even an add-on to an existing system -- something that let's you quickly narrate fights scenes that aren't of real consequence to an RPG scenario.  Take the classic old-school tavern brawl, a mainstay of so many beginning adventurers' careers.  You want to play out the fight, but you don't want a wayward barstool to take out your 1st-level wizard, right?  I could see something like this game fueling a fun and fast way to go through those fight scenes where you know that, win or lose, the people involved will just end up with bumps and bruises, but you don't just want to handwave the whole thing, either.  But as a standalone game, I don't know if I could really sell it.

One side note just for my personal joy is that in this playtest I sat next to Fred Hicks of Evil Hat fame!  He had zero qualms zombie-hunting me into oblivion.

Terra Incognita
Vivian Abraham
Yes, that is the same designer from Medias Res, above.  Two things were significant about these two playtests I had with the same designer.  One, I had these two slots back-to-back.  Two, I didn't realize when I was registering that they were run by the same person.  So, though it was a happy coincidence that I got to check both these games out, I'd like to state for the record that it was not actually some weird stalkery thing that had me following the designer around that whole morning.

Terra Incognita is an RPG with a system based heavily on the D&D and Pathfinder models.  The setting is likewise based in familiar fantasy ground, but with some key differences between it and the standard Tolkienesque mold.  Firstly, there are no non-human fantasy races.  Certainly not PC-playable, anyway (I realize now that I don't know the status of sentient humanoid enemies).  Secondly, where the classic fantasy setting is fueled largely by European mythologies, Terra Incognita draws more from North, Central, and South American native mythologies as well as cultural impact from European colonialism.  I very much liked the concept of it, but I realized afterward that it put me in a strange place trying to put the setting on a timeline.

The playtest I was in focused largely on challenge resolution, but pointedly not combat resolution, which is fine by me.  If there's anything that D&D and Pathfinder systems (and their ilk -- what Ken and Robin have referred to as "F20" for "fantasy D20") already pay attention to, it's combat resolution.  We were presented with two major scenes to resolve.  One was an immediate crisis, certainly something that needed attention and action, but didn't require the fine-grained action economy native to D20-style combat time.  The second was more of a slow burn; things needed doing, but it was somewhat open-ended exactly how we went about it, and time wasn't nearly the factor that it was in the crisis scene or that it would have been in a combat scene.  The crisis scene plays a lot like combat: initiative order, actions per turn, and like that.  I think the real difference was just the scale of game time per turn.  It was an undefined amount, if I recall correctly, but it was decidedly longer than a combat turn.  The latter challenge had a very interesting mechanic.  For overcoming an extended challenge of some kind, rather than repeated skill rolls and accumulating successes, group members instead would take turns pooling skill points against a challenge.  For example, our group was trying to find water, so I contributed one point of "Survival," another character contributed another point of "Survival," I eventually threw one in for "Geography," and like that.  Points could be applied with the narration of the contribution, and as the turn would go around, we would get updates from the GM on how we were progressing.  I enjoyed the skill point pool mechanic for the non-combat challenges.  (Vivian called the non-combat challenges "downtime," but the name met with a little resistance, so we'll see.)  I'm largely in favor of mechanics that, while still taking the "skill level" of characters into account, nonetheless remove the randomness factor when there's no immediate danger or drama.

Special character powers and maneuvers and such had a strong D&D4/13th Age kind of feel, with a collection of abilities that you could access as an action on your turn.  If I recall, I believe pretty much everything in that vein was at-will?  I might be wrong about that, though.  There was also another category, though (feats, possibly? -- my memory is failing me) which granted characters some constant bonus or benefit, but which could be "activated" (I think these were once per scene, but again, not positive) for a one-time bigger buff.  Similar to the latter were also add-ons to your ability stats.  These could be positive or negative, and would either give some constant bonus or penalty to your character.  They could both, though, also be "activated," and both positive and negative characteristics would still give you some kind of bonus, which I thought was an excellent design point.  (For example, the character I played had the negative aspect "Illiterate," and so as a constant penalty, couldn't read.  If I "activated" that aspect, however, I could perfectly memorize something I was perceiving.  Neat!)

Which actually brings me to the big takeaway I had from this system, which unfortunately I didn't get to witness firsthand, but of course was affected by: character creation!  There was a very slick, very cool mechanic for allocation of stat points and stat add-ons during character creation.  Basically, the number of positive and negative aspects you can have on a stat isn't necessarily tied to how high or low that ability is.  For example, I could have a perfectly average dexterity rating, but I might have the aspect "Sprinter" or "Perfect Balance" or "Light-Fingered."  That is, it is still possible for a character have pretty individualized strengths and weaknesses without affecting (or being affected by, really) their overall ability ratings.  I found this to be a very exciting aspect (heh) of the system.  If for no other reason than that, I'm eager to keep an eye on the progress this game's development.

A note on design themes that excite me
I wanted to pause the recap for a moment and talk about the interesting experience of testing two different games from the same designer.  These games were very different from each other in broad category, setting, mechanics, you name it.  Medias Res was a quick-play, card-based story game, and Terra Incognita was, though enhanced, at its heart an F20-style RPG.  What the two games had in common, though (besides being named for common phrases in Latin) was that they were both an attempt to marry the old-school tactical gamer with the new jack narrative gamer.  Although it is seldom a marriage made anywhere close to Heaven, it is still a cause near and dear to my own heart, and I appreciate the effort.  (As an aside, my personal feeling is that the greatest triumph in this area to date is the astoundingly cool 13th Age, but that is a whole other blog post.)

It was very interesting (and cool!) to me to see two very different approaches to this situation taken by the same designer.  I believe (though I admit that this is pure speculation) that the intent is not so much to make a game that would appeal to those different kinds of gamers, but to make a game that would bring those gamers together.  As a GM, one of the more tiring challenges is to keep different kinds of players happy in the same game.  This generally means a kind of round-robin style of appeasement, but I'm of the opinion that more, consistent fun in a group is a whole greater than the sum of its parts.  Which is to say, I believe that games are more fun when everybody is having a good time at once.  (Is that super-obvious?  Sometimes I can't tell when I'm being smart or just figuring out something that everybody already knows.)  For that reason, I'm very interested in games and systems that can keep a mixed group of narrative-heavy players and tactical-heavy players interested for long periods of time, and I feel like Terra Incognita has a lot of potential in that area.  And for that reason, I'm excited about and very interested in the future of this game.  I hope to learn more about it soon!

To be continued...
These always seem to end up being longer than I plan on.  We should be nearing the end, though, with the upcoming Part 3!

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