Wednesday, 13 May 2015

Gaming: Five Games I Love

I've ended up writing a lot of fairly critical stuff about gaming and very little that celebrates the hobby. I thought I'd talk about five games I really like and what makes me like them so much.

Vampire: the Masquerade: This isn't the first game I played but it is the game that made me interested in
gaming. The fact that it was set in our world, or a close facsimile rather than some sort of never-never land meant it felt like the kind of thing that could happen outside my window, that it mattered (there’s a reason my first adventure – it was too short to be a Chronicle – was set in Coventry and featured Setites trying to get revenge for the way the Iraq super gun affair had gone down; the idea that the World of Darkness could be fuelled by what you read in the news was cool). The political nature of Kindred society and the ever shifting sands they build their society on was something that, as someone who'd studied politics at A Level and was undertaking it at degree level, I found intensely interesting. The struggle not to become a monster, which the game sort of supports through its mechanics, adds an interesting dimension if only because characters are bumped into a world beyond money - cash is a useful tool, but for the Kindred it isn't the be all and end all. You can do perfectly well as a vampire without an AmEx gold card (even if Clan Ventrue will tell you different). A thread I saw recently suggested that vampires could just buy blood, which is interesting but how do you earn the money to pay for it? A nocturnal existence means you're shut out of a lot of the human world, even if that's not as iron clad a rule as it might have been in the Dark Ages setting. Add an aesthetic and soundtrack that I liked and I was more or less sold on the whole package. It remains the game I've played most over the years, almost to the point where I lost interest in it in the past, but it always draws me back.

The setting is rich and even though some of the clans and bloodlines are a bit silly, I mean the Daughters of Cacophony seem positively ridiculous don't they? The setup of the war between the Camarilla and the Sabbat, rooted in a conflict that in any other situation would seem ridiculous, feels so wonderfully gothic.  The game doesn't flinch from the rigors of age and the wearing down of sanity as vampires become elders. There are no shining examples here, only lesser many shades of grey and perversity stalks the best vampire: the Beast twists everything and makes it a weapon in its desire to be free. That's interesting to me, where another level of power and a shinier magic sword fail to fascinate.

As time's gone on, I find myself looking the books Onyx Path are publishing for the 20th anniversary edition and I feel the old itch returning, but I want to push into new territory. I want to actually play with the idea of Jyhad and how it's conducted, the low level warfare and two faced espionage that the Sabbat and Camarilla engage in. I find myself interested too, in the ongoing mythology of Caine and the Cainite Heresy, the Book of Nod and the religious fervour that stalks the setting. The clash between deniers and believers is rich with possibilities for plot and story.

Favourite Clans: Nosferatu, Brujah, Ventrue and Toreador (yes I’m conflicted, why do you ask?)

Mage: the Ascension:
 Another World of Darkness game, one which my liking of the Invisibles comics spurred me
onto love, even if the magic system sometimes made me wonder what the hell the writers were smoking when they wrote it. It became one of my guilty pleasures as it never seemed to go exactly right and it was hard to persuade people to play, but the ideas that writers like Phil Brucato embedded in the game crackled and shone, spurring me onto keep loving it no matter how many times games crashed and burned. It was the mixture of these things, coupled with the question, 'are the the things we're told are beneficial, actually good for us?' This philosophical element really clicks for me, confirming that Mage is a game for people who think, something that I guess the magic system really drove at too.

Another thing I liked about the game was the 'backstage pass' they offered, playing a Mage meant you could get into the Umbra, the Dark Umbra, the High Umbra and play on Earth. I imagine you could even trot off to Arcadia too if you wanted.  It felt very open and easy, perhaps too much so given that Revised edition made it much harder to get into the Umbra with the Avatar Storm. But the fact that you could fight the Wyrm or deal with vampires or wraiths felt like you could genuinely meddle in anything and exploit the other game lines in a way that often didn't feel feasible with the other World of Darkness games.

The game also has a pleasing mutability, you can take bits of it and emphasise them, then turn around for another Chronicle and focus on something else entirely. In one game the Traditions could be in the right and the Technocrats fascist controllers who do nothing but oppress the masses; in another the Technocracy are the only things preventing the world falling to superstition and rampaging demons. Both are valid viewpoints, something I really like.

I find myself impatiently waiting for the 20th anniversary edition, just to read it and see what changes have been made, because if Mage stands for anything, it’s change.

Favourite Traditions/Conventions: Hollow Ones, Cult of Ecstasy (I still want to play a Cult of Ecstasy tattooist and body modification enthusiast), New World Order.

SLA Industries: A game that in some ways I'm surprised I like now, given the relentless mission based nature of
the game's default set up (the BPN, or Blue Print News, is central to the way the game runs and it is hard to envisage it without them). It’s also a solid ‘gear fetish’ game with bigger, better armour, guns and weapons dangled like carrots in front of the players, inciting them to play the game that SLA Industries wants them to (this is the first time I’ve seen it as a game within a game… but I think the analogy holds up).

Nonetheless there's something about the dark streets of Mort City and its torrential rain that still appeals to me. I think in part it's that I like the fact that you're working for the Man, trying to make it through the corporate politics and the treachery that riddles the corporation. It had shades of cyberpunk games but I like the fact that you're working for the big company rather being some sort of rebel (whose rebellion seems to involve propping up the very system you oppose). The fact that the people you work for are, by and large, responsible for every screwed up thing on the planet sold it to me too. It added a certain drama, that of people who discover too much, but rather than going mad, discover that they’ve become part of the problem; they’re too committed to back out, too tainted to rebel without something nasty happening.

That’s a powerful narrative, one you don’t often see in gaming and SLA owned it, completely and utterly.

Favourite Race/Training Package: Wraith Raiders and Scouting (for some reason) or Ebons and Investigation and Interrogation.

Atomic Highway: I have a love for post apocalypse books and films, you’ve probably spotted that from the blog.
Atomic Highway is one of my favourite post apoc genres, and one of the few titles where I wish there were more books. One of the thing I like about it is that the world isn’t exactly laid out, instead you get a lot of building blocks that you can make your own, a world where the PCs are set at the great American dustbowl would work just as well as one where a community clings to a few oil rig platforms in an increasingly hostile sea.

Atomic Highway is one of the games I’ve only ever run, not played, and one where I found a smaller game more fulfilling than a large one. I found it worked really well regardless of numbers, but my preference is just for smaller groups. This is one of the few times you’ll hear me talk about system, because I really like the V6 system. It’s light without feeling ephemeral and has a pleasing heft to it that keeps it interesting. The idea that skill levels are used to ‘top up’ dice rolls is pretty sweet and it remains about the only game I’ve played where the Action Points were mostly used to fend off wounds rather than do anything else. Oddly I find that quite fun, it suggests a serious combat system rather than the usual ‘nibbling, war of attrition’ combat consists of. I also liked the fact that mutations weren’t just treated as extra powers and the more you had the less human you appeared –it chimed nicely with things like the Chrysalids by John Wyndham. It felt very real and supported the idea that mutations were a bad thing, and that few people would just wave a hand and accept someone who has a prehensile tongue. At the same time the lack of a super defined setting means that you’re free to set up a mutant church of ‘Jesus Christ, Apocalypse Survivor’ as much as you are something more puritan. The flexibility the game offers is great.

Also, stupidly, I can accept the various tropes and clich├ęs that stalk fantasy games far more easily in post apocalypse than I do in actual fantasy games. You want an ancient vault that’s populated by degenerate troglodytes who survive by abducting people and using them for slave labour? That’s no problem… but weirdly turn the bad guys into Orcs and I’m going to at least raise an eyebrow and feel uncomfortable.

Would Like to Play: A Remnant Scientist, Savage Road Warrior

Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay: I must admit that this was tied for fifth place with Victoriana and Call of Cthulhu, but WFRP edged into the lead because I have fond memories of playing in my friend Phil’s game for a number of
years. Warhammer’s fantasy setting feels real to me, in a way that Waterdeep et al never did, perhaps because it has a fairly strong historical background. The Empire is pretty much the Holy Roman Empire plus fantasy elements and the structures in it have that grounded feeling that a bit of research can provide. It also, somehow, manages to feel dynamic, as if the world is changing rather than being set in aspic and polished by the game writers, who are too frightened to alter anything. The presence of Tzeentch and Nurgle alone mean that change is a theme for the game, and the Renaissance style setting actually takes into account the growth of cities, which gives it another boost.

Beyond that it’s a very British game, one that feels like class and race are more than cosmetic options and like the Wild West doesn’t really get a look in. It also feels quite dirty, caked in mud and grime. I remember Phil worrying because we always defaulted to drinking booze, simply because there was no way we were drinking the water… it isn’t that kind of world. Beyond that it’s rowdy and fun, races are presented in a more rounded fashion than in D&D, Iron Kingdoms or the various Savage Worlds fantasy games I’ve looked at and a sort of good natured bickering felt like it was natural.

Whilst I don't think I'd go back to the game now, I definitely have good memories of the first two parts of the game (again, group size and commitment plays a part here and the first two arcs were marked by players' willingness to lean in and accept the world as it was written rather than being silly about it). 

Bubbling Under

These are the other three that I love, but which don't quite make the top of the list.
Call of Cthulhu: The granddaddy of horror games, this is too much of a classic not to attract my attention, but I haven't played enough of it to love it. There's a nice simplicity to the way it works in both setting and system, and enough flexibility to keep it fresh (even if that means you run the risk of 'monster of the week'.
Victoriana: A fusion of fantasy and steampunk, Victoriana wins a place in my heart because of its attitude, its one of the only steampunk games that actually takes class into account. It does read a little like a Shadowrun with a top hat and a crinoline on but that's just about permissable, somehow.
Werewolf: the Apocalypse: A grand guignol of a game, almost the text book on last stands and weird shamanism, this is another game I know more from reading than playing but there's something about the way it's set up that I love. Again, this is because of the politics inherent to it, not just the machinations of the tribe but the way it meshes with the real world, with environmentalism, abandoned industries and people.

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