A little over a week ago I was lucky enough to attend Metatopia, a tabletop game developer’s convention held annually in Morristown, Nj. There, not only was I able to get feedback from other developers on two of the role playing games I am developing (more on those later), but I also got to check out some games being developed by other designers and - along with other playtesters - got to offer feedback. They are still in production, and likely to change, even drastically, before final publication, but I thought it would be neat to talk about them and what I thought about them.
I tried to link the names of the creators to their social media accounts in case you want to know more.
CHARACTER CLASS POLITICS
One of the first developers I got to meet was Michael Meinburg, who developed a live action role playing game (where players live out the scenario of the game, not just simulate it on the tabletop) called The Autocrats’ Gala. The game was set in a dystopia where players took on the role of Autocrats who control the government, Luminaries who represent the media, and the Cogs, who represent the common man. Incorporating worker-placement mechanics borrowed from European board games, players attempt to fulfill the agenda of their role, which can come at the detriment of others. There’s a major element of subterfuge involved as no one is fully aware of anyone else’s motivation.
The session was mostly to discuss the idea of the game and how the mechanics can work out to convey the mindset that Michael wanted the game to have. One of the things we discussed was how, at this stage in development, there wasn’t really an end-point for the play. Players can pursue their motivations for as long as they want, which is fine considering politics rarely have win-conditions and the point of a role playing game is the story that’s developed naturally by the players. But we believed that by giving players some sort of goal they must meet so they have some sense of accomplishment by the end of a session, they will feel more engaged with their characters and what other players were doing.
A major thought I had was that it would be interesting if there was a way to get players of different classes to work together, such as by creating crisis that require everyone to play a part in order for the nation they are all a part of to not be destroyed. This would force players to consider if their actions to harm another player could come back to haunt them, as they would need their aid in resolving an issue that impacts everyone. Do you destroy the iron baron’s mine to financially weaken them, but risk not having the nation protected by the weapons they produce when enemies are at the gate?
I definitely want to give it a try when it's more fleshed out to see where he takes it!
BREAKING THE PRIME DIRECTIVE WITH THE HELP OF BIG ‘OL ROBOTS
Interstellar interventions, developed by Wrecking Ball Game Labs and presented by Henry Ulrich, is a game set in a far future where humanity is spread across the galaxy in a confederate association of planets that largely are unaware of one another’s existence.
A controlling group of sometimes-rival governments, religions, corporations and other such ominous groups control just about everything that goes on at the galactic scale, but are invested in every planet’s politics because they all contribute in some way to the larger universe. When one of these planets falls out of line, which in our playtest involved a local warlord taking over a mine that contributed to the galactic economy, different factions will send agents to step in and resolve the issue.
Playtesters all took a role of agents sent by one of the different galactic factions that wanted to resolve the warlord problem. Our characters were pretty rules-lite, with each of us having the same kind of skills, which gave us a bonus value to dice rolls we performed to complete goals. We determined what gear we came in with, and how it could be used to help us in the game. This was in addition to unique bonuses we received as a result of the faction that was backing us. I thought the faction bonus was a nice touch, as it created both a narrative and mechanical effect in the game; what we could do was influenced by our relationship to a governing body.
The big thing about Interstellar Interventions is that players are able to take control of giant robots in order to help them to complete objectives. Every playtester started the game with their own personal mech that they could enter at any point in order to use its suite of weapons like missile pods, rail guns and giant swords. Using a mech is more involved, providing you with options to jam enemy weaponry, quickly move across the battlefield and target specific pieces of the enemy’s body. It played like a nice streamlined version of Battletech.
It makes sense that more attention goes into the mech gameplay as opposed to the humans, as that is the gameplay hook. This did contribute to my one issue with the game though: it was all about the robots. I played the majority of the time as my human character infiltrating an enemy-held mine, making few rolls to provide context for how I was infiltrating. I did pretty well, getting in unseen and outrunning pursuers as I escaped, but I was the only one who entered. The rest of the party stayed back at mission control, echoing their player’s concern: When do we get to our robots?
And when they did get in their robots to destroy my pursuers, they had a blast. I felt pretty envious of them, as I didn’t get till my own giant robot till most of the combat was just about over.
The concept of the game, both mechanically and thematically, is sound, and could possibly be great, but there is a dichotomy between the two styles of play that makes the game unengaging unless you’re playing it a certain way. I think this could be alleviated by carrying over some of the giant robot mechanics over to the human side and vice versa: as is, my equipment on my human is mostly there for thematic purposes, explaining if I pull a hidden pistol from the small of my back or concern myself with how conspicuous I am having a rifle slung over my shoulder. Both have the same effect, just in a different way.
It would be cool if the same equipment that made it difficult for enemies to target us, observe from a distance, or send drone to scout ahead, could be used by our humans, giving us a larger set of verbs to use to accomplish our goals. This includes the target-based combat; It’s more interesting to know that my shot at the enemy soldier glanced them rather than hit the center of mass.
TEMPTING FATE FOR FUN AND PROFIT
A doodle of Death that I did.
Rest in Pieces is developed by Pete Petrusha of Imagining Games, who also created the game Dreamchaser. He described Rest as being about “Death and all his friends.” It’s still in early development, as this was another instance of a roundtable discussion as opposed to an actual play session. That goes for the mechanics, too.
The mechanical hook that makes Rest in Pieces stand out is that players are deciding if their action succeeds by pulling blocks from a Jenga tower, which is similar to the mechanics of the horror-themed tabletop RPG Dread. What’s different here is that the tower is composed of different colored blocks (red, white, and black), which could each mean something different when they are pulled. We discussed how the blocks could each represent a different currency,; you need a certain number of different colors of to have Death do something, and could even trade with our peers in order to each use our relationship with Death to our advantage. What’s more, the color of the majority of the blocks in the tower when it falls could have its own impact on our character’s fates, like if the tower has a majority of red blocks in it when it falls, then the last character to touch the tower might lose everything..
One angle I proposed that I think could be interesting would be having players take the role of necromancers or some other magician that draws their powers from an unreliable source. We draw blocks from the tower to power our abilities, but risk it collapsing and causing us harm every time we pull.
CHOOSING YOUR VICTORIES WHEN THE UNIVERSE IS AT STAKE
Save the Universe by Don Bisdorf is about as streamlined a RPG as there could ever be. Before the game begins, the game master establishes what the scenario the players will be running through by first determining what they want the setting to be. Don established that the template for the game is a pulp sci-fi adventure, which is what we played.
Players define their character by selecting their aspects from a pre-determined list of things like “I was disgraced because ____,” or “I am known for my success at ______.” This goes for relationships between your character and other player’s characters as well. My character, the champion of a royal house, completed one of his relationships, “I want to prove myself to _____” by selecting another player’s robot character.
Players need to speak with one another in order to fill in these blanks, and by doing so establish a backstory that creates a baseline for how characters should act during the game. For example, my character’s need to prove myself to the robot stemmed from his own doubts in his abilities, as he thinks less of the artificial machine and needs to believe that he’s better than them in some way.
I personally loved this focus on relationships as a critical part of the character creation process, as it allows you to have a good deal of depth to your character starting off. Which is good, because this game is designed for quick play.
Sessions are largely one-and-done adventures where players first establish their characters and relationships through any number of encounters, but things will ultimately come to a head in the finale. In the spirit of all good space operas, the end of the story comes from the heroes coming up with a plan and carrying it out. This is done in the game by having the players describe the steps in the plan, and having them each take up a part of it. Not every step needs to be successful in order for the plan to work, just slightly over half of the steps (If I’m remembering correctly). This is to encourage players to come up with as many steps as possible so everyone has their own role to play. There is a limit, though, such as our session only had 5 steps.
As for successes - this is another unique aspect of the game I appreciated - you only roll 2 six-sided dice with the target numbers determined beforehand based on the character aspect or relationship that players are tapping into with the act. Players choose 2 of these, which both coincide with a different numbers on the dice. If a number comes up tied to one of the chosen aspects, then the roll is successful. If not, then it’s a failure.
This was neat because it allowed players to set their own goals. Regardless of what happens, you always have at least a 1/3 chance of success, so it's up to you which numbers, and corresponding aspects or relationships, you want to be the determinate for success.
CYBERPUNK DETECTIVE WORK
The Chromeshoe character sheet. One of my favorite things about character sheets is a place to draw your characters, which I took full advantage of.
Chromeshoe is from Nothing Ventured Games and presented by Paul Stefko. It’s a variation of the Gumshoe RPG system, where players use their character’s skills to solve mysteries. It’s been used as a template to make several other games like the time-traveling-themed Timewatch, the space-themed Ashen Stars. And the super-power-themed Mutant City Blues.
This game is set in a cyberpunk future along the likes of Blade Runner, A Scanner Darkly, or Minority Report. Players take on the role of reporters, detectives, conspiracy theorists or security experts to uncover a mystery.
The mechanics of the game aren’t far removed from regular Gumshoe (I was told this by other players, as I have never played Gumshoe before), with a major difference being an investigation clock.
The game had two clocks, one for the players and the one for the conspiracy. As the players filled up their clock by finding clues and solving the mystery, they came closer to uncovering their goal. At the same time, by failing to uncover the conspiracy, or by not being careful in their investigation, the conspiracy clock can advance, and once it has made a full loop, the conspirators will strike back at the investigators. It’s like in Blade Runner; as Deckard tracked down the missing replicants, the replicants realized that he was on to them and eventually struck back at him.
The conspiracy clock was a nice touch because it made it feel like the game’s unseen antagonists were ever-present, even when we were unaware of their identities. This element of risk made the whole experience very tense, and made it more engaging.
The one shortcoming we felt it had as players was that it felt like there wasn’t otherwise too much difference between this and the original Gumshoe, or from my perspective, nothing that made the game feel overly cyberpunk other than a few skill names that fit naturally into the original system.
Paul kept bringing up the existence of our wireless devices, our omni-purpose computers that kept us connected to the world at large and allowed for things like hacking and spying. While important thematically, I felt that they weren’t integrated enough into the mechanics of the game. I thought it would be interesting to have a stat block for just the wireless. Treat it like its own character that players can tap into to use to solve a problem. My character might not be skilled in hacking, but my wireless does have a suite of programs that could be used to find out the information we need.
hope you find these games as interesting as I did and will check out the creators if you want to know more about the projects!