Metatopia 2014 Report – Part 3

This is a continuation of my convention report for Metatopia 2014 (Part 1; Part 2).  Disclaimer (again): 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.

Starjump Chronicles
Dev Purkayastha

I admit that I signed up for this game initially because its setting description bore similarities to a friend's Storium game that was launching at the time, so I wanted to see what this was about.  The general outline is that the group plays the crew of a spaceship that is making its way from planet to planet and taking on various missions.  In the metaplot, the planets are known worlds that seem to be part of a pretty well-established trade route, but the in-game experience is about discovering what those places are like.  This one is a GM-less story game, and truth be told, I can't remember the resolution mechanic.  Regardless, it was certainly geared much less toward task resolution than narrative direction, as is the way of this genre of game.  This is also another one that seems more geared toward single-session play, or perhaps short campaigns.  Most of the meat of it, at least most of what came across in playtest, was in the setup.  I'm really becoming a fan of collaborative worldbuilding mechanics, and this one definitely had some cool aspects.

The setup phase basically nails down the specifics of the setting for that particular session or campaign -- that version of the universe, if you will.  I found the system most reminiscent of Durance, but only for superficial similarities.  Specifically, in both games, the group is presented with a set menu of choices and make decisions which dictate traits of the setting.  Whereas in Durance, though, collaboration is done basically by the players taking turns, in Starjump Chronicles, the decisions are reached more through group consensus.  The decisions first outline the general level of technology and society in the universe in which you'll be travelling.  Then, things more specific to the group are decided, like the various roles in the crew and the characteristics, provenance, and even layout of the ship.  Building the individual characters is more done by each player on their own, and the character sheet is really more like the character's history -- the backstories that brought them to the ship.  There was also a very cool system for establishing character relationships, which I well get back to, because it deserves special mention.

Once the setting, ship, and crew are worked out in the setup portion, then the actual game begins.  The overall story is basically made up of a collection of scenes, alternating between scenes that take place on a planet and scenes that take place during travel.  When encountering planets for the first time (in the story), only then are the nature and features of the planet entered into the story, in much the same way that earlier things were decided by choosing from a menu.  (I believe during the playtest we randomly generated these features to save time, but I don't think that part was hardwired into the rules.)  While on a planet, the group undertakes some mission, the nature of which is again part of a menu system.  While travelling between planets, the trip is determined to take a certain number of what I believe were abstract hops, but it may actually have been some number of days.  Either way, each such segment of a trip involved one or more scenes where the characters interacted with each other instead of with external forces, which were the domain of the on-planet missions.

The character relationship mechanic I mentioned before really blew me away.  The long and short of it is that it was based on songs.  Like...actual songs, snippets of which were played right there at the game.  This was really innovative, and really effective at forming an instant emotional response which basically drove characters' attitudes toward each other before the game even started.  To me, this was an elegant solution to a perennial problem: how to simulate or inform the relationships between characters who have some kind of shared history before the game even starts.  In most cases where this issue arises, it's generally just talked out, and basically framed in the context of backstory.  "Okay, so you were the rival student that I was always jealous of, and you were my old fishing buddy."  The song method basically allowed for setting the emotional tenor between characters but in a way totally separate from any kind of narrative requirement.  You could start the game knowing how your character felt about other characters, but it didn't have to be decided why.  This, to me, was a very strong way to set up an improv-reliant narrative game with PC interaction being such a prominent facet of play.

The group consensus aspect is always a potentially troublesome aspect of any system, but the designer pointed out that at any time, the consensus requirement, and even individual player decisions, could be replaced by die rolls (most options came in groups of six).  Consensus wasn't really an issue in the playtest group, though we did fall back on randomizing quite a lot, especially for individual decisions.  (It's fun to let the dice decide things about your character, which you then have to work with.)  I could see the heavily prescriptive structure of the scene setup perhaps making things repetitive after a time, which is the primary reason I think this is a game geared for single sessions.  But certainly the collaborative nature of the setup was a lot of fun, and I'd certainly look forward to playing this game in the future.  I think the game's strength may lie in being something you play a lot with new and different groups; I don't necessarily see a lot of replay in the same group, but it may also be just that we didn't punch the post-setup aspect that much in the playtest.  Overall, though, a pretty cool find, and for sure a fun game.

Writer's Block
Aaron Trammell

This card game was my only non-RPG playtest at the con.  The setting/concept is that the players are all hack sci-fi writers in something like 50s Hollywood, each one racing to put together a badly-needed script so that the movie can start shooting on time.  The game is broken up into four rounds (four "weeks" of writing), and each round has a card draft, a card-playing phase, and a scoring phase.  At the end of round four, the writer with the least amount of "writer's block" wins.  That in itself was an interesting aspect of the game; each player starts with a pile of counters that earning points during the game gets rid of, so you can gauge your distance to victory by how small your pile has become.  There are also two separate currencies in the game which aren't particularly interchangeable except through certain card actions.  One currency allows you to play cards from your hand, and the other allows you to buy cards from a common pool (which then also enter into the next round's draft phase).  There is also a common collection of cards on which you place tokens, and during the scoring phase, points are scored based which player has the most tokens on each community card.  (If you've played Smash Up or something similar, then that will make more sense.)  The cards that you play, besides allowing you take whatever mechanical actions, also all represent some element of a 50s sci-fi movie script.  The card flavor doesn't have any particular game impact, except at the end, you put together the elements that you have played that round and describe your script, which was a super-fun way to end the game.

This game was one of those ones that is hard to describe and teach, and it sounds more complicated in its description than it is during play.  It really takes a round or two before things click and you really understand how things are supposed to play.  This isn't, in and of itself, a weakness in the game, but it does make it challenging when the first thing you have to do is draft cards.  Other than that (which isn't even that big a deal), I didn't have any complaints.  The game was fun, and it seemed really solidly designed and well-balanced.  I think this will definitely be one to look for in the future.

Novapunk (NOVA6 System)
Shane Harsch
Last but not least, my final slot was for Novapunk, a sci-fantasy RPG featuring a cyberpunk/magic fusion a la Shadowrun.  (I will admit that I didn't even know where to link that; the last time I played Shadowrun, it was still under FASA.)  Shadowrun was (in)famous for the amount of crunch involved in its system.  Novapunk was an attempt to emulate the setting and mechanical flavor of Shadowrun but introduce some system streamlining as well as more modern narrativist mechanics into the game.  There were elements of this system (dubbed "NOVA6") familiar to me from many other systems (not a bad thing), and I think there were a lot of overall wins in that direction.  An important design goal, I believe, was that the feel of mechanical grit not get lost (Shane explicitly referenced his desire to keep in the "gear porn"), but just that more story-based system elements be introduced.  (As an aside, I contrast this to the upcoming release The Sprawl, which intends to drag cyberpunk kicking and screaming into this new modern world of "powered by the Apocalypse," which abstracts pretty much everything into a narrative system.)

Before I get to the system, let me say that a lot of thought has gone into the setting for this game, which is personally always something I like to see.  (It's also no surprise, as I believe the setting was developed significantly before the system was.  For ease of discussion, however, for purposes of this recap, I'm going to consider Novapunk and NOVA6 as a single entity.)  The setting is basically near-future cyberpunk with magic brought about as a result of a recent global event.  I believe this is also another one without non-human PC races.  One thing I liked right away is that magic, aside from describing special powers and so forth, is also basically a substance, a material -- a resource.  (Orichalcum, specifically, which always makes me think of the Nephilim RPG, and I don't tend to think of it much.)  Also, the setting is designed to support multiple environments for adventures, from hardcore metropolis to post-apocalyptic wasteland.  Again, it may just be that this never came up in the playtest, but I also believe there's no VR computer world in this setting.  Aside from that, the world pretty much what you'd expect from cyberpunk: hypercaptialism, corporate oligarchy, revolution of the underclass, and like that.  Oh, and also preserved from the Shadowrun-influenced roots is the tension of efficacy between cybernetics and magic use.

The system explicitly leans on concepts from the Fate system, but in my opinion does a nice job of having the core mechanics keep that old-school feel.  The central task resolution mechanic, first of all, does away with dice pools and is a 3d6 roll, modified by skill, and looking for a target number.  Circumstance bonuses and penalties are a big deal, though, but rather than modifying the roll or the target number, they instead use advantage/disadvantage dice.  For example, one level of advantage means rolling 4d6 instead of 3d6, but you keep the best three dice.  Likewise, two levels of disadvantage have you rolling 5d6 but keeping the worst three dice.  In this way, the result is still bounded regardless of changes in circumstance; just the probabilities change of the outcomes within those bounds.  (The "roll extra dice but still keep the result bounded" mechanic reminds me of the way D&D5 handles advantage and disadvantage these days, but unlike that system, this one still has circumstantial advantages and disadvantages can both stack and cancel each other out, with the net result being relevant to the roll.  As in, two advantages and one disadvantage nets you one advantage die.  Contrast to D&D5, which is basically you either have advantage, disadvantage, or nothing.)  I will admit that I was highly suspicious of this mechanic at first, thinking that the statistical changes for these advantages and disadvantages would be too severe, but in practice, it worked out pretty well, proving once again that these game designers know what they're doing.  I haven't actually modeled the numbers yet, but I think I probably will when I have some time and I think about it.  Anyway, that core resolution mechanic aside, the rest is familiar territory for the Fate Core system: character aspects (including invokes and compels) and fate points as a narrative control currency.  The relative simplicity of the system might make you also think that the game would skirt a lot of the old-school crunch, but rest assured that spells and gear are both still plentiful, varied, and mechanically significant.  (Says the guy who had a character who, in combat, was able to bring a cybernetically implanted pheromone generator to bear.)  Finally, it also bears mentioning that in this game, the GM does make rolls; in that vein, things are handled similarly to, for example, Numenera, with players handling the rolls for both offense and defense resolution.

This was a fun game and a nice, solid system which I though neatly bridged old-school sensibilities with narrative mechanical elements.  One big issue we encountered during the playtest was Shane's desire to have "investigation" play out something like it would in GUMSHOE-driven games, which is assuredly a tough sell for people used to the task resolution-based model of information gathering, but I think I see where he was going with that, basically substituting fate points for the investigative skill point pool.  That specific aspect of the system may need additional tweaking or clarity, but otherwise I found it as easy to jump into as anything Fate-based, which is to say it was pretty easy, even for people new to Fate concepts.

On a personal level, I also wanted to note that I played a "grifter" archetype, which is fairly unusual for me.  I don't tend toward the "face"-type characters, especially at a con, as I feel extra-awkward trying to play a character that's supposed to be smooth.  But I'm finding more and more that games with more narrative mechanics make it easier for me to do that kind of thing.  This is purely a personal observation; it's not particular to any system.  It's more the olden days, you would effectively abstract character social interaction into a skill roll.  ("I want to con this guy."  "Roll Deception.")  With the rise of more heavily narrative systems, especially those that tend toward an improv mode, it's forced a more practiced approach to portraying character interactions without the kind of...pressure, I guess...that would ordinarily shut me down.  It's easier than pure improv, because both sides generally know where the scene is going, but it's just as fun, since you don't specifically know what's going to be said next.  And then, of course, practice breeds confidence, and confidence breeds ease.  This is all by way of saying that I had a good time at this game, despite having stepped into a character role that I don't normally gravitate toward, and I think it shows how well this system supports the kind of play that I find really fun.

That whole paragraph was really just an aside that should probably be a separate post, but as we all know, I'm crap at editing, so it stays.  In summary, though, I walked away pretty impressed with Novapunk (and NOVA6), and this is definitely another one I look forward to hearing more about in the future.  And also I think I should be pitching Fate games a lot more.

To be concluded...
This actually ends the collection of specific game write-ups, but there will be one more Metatopia post with a few other items from the con, and some general, closing thoughts.  Until then!

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