All posts by Aaron Marks

Gaming for 15 years and writing about it for nearly ten, I've always had a strong desire to find different and interesting things in the hobby. You can follow me on Twitter at @LevelOneWonk, and read my more personal ramblings at 563rdattempt.wordpress.com.

Good Strong Hands Review

I have to admit, fantasy games come to the plate with two strikes for me. The ubiquity of Dungeons and Dragons, coupled with the large number of single-game players, means that fantasy games generally need to work twice as hard to do something interesting within the existing constraints of the genre. When I first read Good Strong Hands, I saw a game that leaned hard into a very broad, often repeated conceit: A great evil is corrupting the land and you, the heroes, must stop it. Couple this with light, fairly basic mechanics, and I didn’t really know if I was going to find anything interesting in this game.

Luckily, I was wrong. While Good Strong Hands is a rules-light game, and while it absolutely leans on a simplified view of good and evil, it takes this basic struggle and makes it the centerpiece of the game. The mechanics of the Void, Shadow and Corruption, force players to make tough decisions and place the voice of evil with the GM to play with as they wish. The game does want to see its players triumph, but the risk of falling to the Void is very real and a party will likely see at least one character lost to evil in a campaign.

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The Trouble With Drama Mechanics

Role-playing games are all about characters, otherwise they wouldn’t be role-playing games. And what really gets someone invested in a fictional character, whether they’re playing the character or watching or reading the character, is the character’s personal journey. We love to see it in books and movies and we love to see it in RPGs, but in RPGs we typically aren’t given additional rules to support these sorts of stories. This is in part because these stories haven’t been the focus of most RPGs, well, ever, but it’s also in part due to the belief of designers that characters’ inner lives should be governed by the people who play them, not by rules.

The issue with this is that mechanics are what provide richness for games. We want PbtA games to have a palette of different moves, and we want each playbook to feel different. We want a military simulation to differentiate between all its guns and vehicles. So why would we not want rules that help us look at and play out character drama? When I looked at Hillfolk a few weeks back, one thing I thought it did very well was stake out three necessary drivers of dramatic conflict: character desire, character internal conflict (the ‘dramatic poles’), and character external conflict (‘fraught relationships’). What was missing was the next step, which was to provide structure and guidance to build and play with those drivers.

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Crowdfunding Carnival: May, 2022

Welcome back to the Carnival! Here at the beginning of May it’s a momentous time to be looking at crowdfunding. Well, that’s partially true. If you’re interested in the high profile campaigns earning hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars, it’s a momentous time to be looking at crowdfunding. If you’re another indie fellow trying to get by, it’s another month. If you’re looking for those indies who have broken into the big leagues, though, there’s a great example of that going on right now. We’ve got co-marketing, we’ve got little old ladies solving murders, we’ve got Tarot cards, and, of course, we’ve got Free League. Let’s take a look.

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Hillfolk Review

The early 2010s produced the indie darlings of today. While game design moves fast, systems like Fate and Powered by the Apocalypse still form the bedrock of what most gamers consider ‘indie’, even though they are relatively conservative extensions of traditional games like Dungeons and Dragons. There were other games that pushed further, though. In 2012, Robin D. Laws and Pelgrane Press campaigned a game called Hillfolk on Kickstarter. The Hillfolk campaign emphasized its Iron Age setting, even including a neat bit of interactivity in the campaign where backers could choose to back either the ‘Lion Clan’ or the ‘Wolf Clan’. The mechanics, though, were significantly more important and more interesting than the setting, as well as the most divisive feature of the game.

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Adventure Log: Cyberpunk Red: CabbageCorp Part 10

An apocalyptic threat to Kansas? I’m sure someone in the local office can check it out. It’s affecting our share prices? That’s different, the CEO wants to meet with you! After delivering a cryptic speech at the Future of the Midwest conference, Dr. William Squires has disappeared. His former head of security, Simon France, thinks he’s going to destroy the world, but only the CabbageCorp team is really listening to him. However, when it’s clear Squires’ behavior is spooking investors and threatening Biotechnica’s bottom line, suddenly the company cares a lot. Mason’s still on thin ice with his boss after the whole ‘insider trading’ thing, but when he points out that his team also has inside information about Squires, suddenly the whole team is being flown first class to Spokane, Washington.

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On Being an RPG Collector

Like many commentators in the tabletop RPG world, we at Cannibal Halfling Gaming focus on the act of playing games. Making characters, running games, campaigns, one-shots, trad games, indie games, solo games, you name it. To the degree that the TTRPG hobby has a body of critique, it’s one that focuses on how games are played and we’re happy to be part of that. Playing games isn’t the only thing that drives the hobby, though, and in certain segments of the hobby it doesn’t have the largest financial impact. When it comes to the consumption of gaming materials, there are players, there are readers, and there are collectors.

Playing, reading, and collecting games are different activities which demand different things out of the games which are consumed. These activities aren’t mutually exclusive; in fact, I’d say the vast majority of gamers participate in all three to some degree. That said, the one which defines how many gamers buy RPGs is collecting, and as a result collecting RPGs is an activity that has an enormous impact on how the hobby evolves, how games are sold, and what games end up looking like.

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Crowdfunding Carnival: April, 2022

Welcome to the Crowdfunding Carnival for April! Or, as the data puts it, ‘Kickstarter Wonk plus Possum Creek Games’. Because unless you’re backing Yazeba’s Bed and Breakfast, Kickstarter is the only game in town. Despite Possum Creek doing fairly well with their campaign, Kickstarter is still pulling 85% of all funding this month. And, given that YBB alone is literally all of the rest of it, we’re playing with outliers a bit here in the analysis.

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Root: The Roleplaying Game Review

Ten years ago, Dungeon World kicked Powered by the Apocalypse into the mainstream by tying the system back to Dungeons and Dragons, the hobby’s most popular game. Now, Powered by the Apocalypse (or PbtA) is the newest rules system entrant into the world of licensed RPGs, thanks to Magpie Games,. While Root: The Roleplaying Game might not be the very first licensed PbtA game it is certainly the biggest one to date, using the look, feel, and logo of Leder Games’ critically acclaimed board game to catapult it to a $600,000 Kickstarter success. It also quite likely opened the gate for Magpie’s upcoming Avatar game, which leapfrogged the Kickstarter success of Root more than tenfold.

So now that Root is available not only to backers but to the world at large, what does a game by the largest PbtA publisher look like these days? Magpie Games has built their business on PbtA, scoring hits with the innovative Urban Shadows, Masks, and Bluebeard’s Bride, among others. Given their long track record it’s no surprise that the company has sought out opportunities for licensing like they found with Root. From the outside, though, there are questions about Magpie’s product strategy. Root’s final PDF was delivered to backers over a year late, and Urban Shadows second edition, currently in process, will likely be almost as late as that (original ETA for delivery was September of 2021 for PDFs). While the pandemic and other exogenous factors are clearly part of this, having multiple high-profile Kickstarters in fulfillment at once (Urban Shadows, Root, and Avatar: The Last Airbender were all concurrent prior to Root’s fulfillment) seems to be stretching the team thin.

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Adventure Log: Cyberpunk Red Interlude: The CabbageCorp Warehouse

The CabbageCorp crew has gotten themselves into some trouble in 2045. But they’ve also gotten some nice payoffs. After William Squires made a troubling, cryptic speech at the Future of the Midwest conference in Hydropolis, the team knew they needed to get in gear and figure out what was going on. They also had some real estate transactions to resolve. So when Mason, Philly, Relay, Jacob, TK, Doctor Kong, and Bubbles had to renovate a warehouse, what were they going to do?

More importantly, what was I, their GM, going to do? While Cyberpunk Red has a few options for stationary equipment, the Night City lifestyle isn’t really about property ownership. Giving the party options for their newly acquired warehouse that they actually cared about would require a combination of creativity, player input, and yes, a bit of a System Hack.

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The Five Mechanic Game

There’s a wide world of games out there, but the ones that get played and talked about the most are more similar than you may think. In the realm of traditional games, most games have their rules structured the same way, at the same level of detail, to accomplish roughly the same goal. It means many of us that grew up among the bursting libraries of games in the 80s and 90s thought we were well-read, only to be waylaid by some markedly different ideas when the games of the Forge era like Burning Wheel and Apocalypse World started becoming popular.

Last week, I talked a bit about the idea of complexity, and grounded it to the idea of how many mechanics a game has interacting at once. This makes a game like Blades in the Dark, with many overlapping systems, more complex, while a game like Dread, where there is only one mechanic and it’s essentially ‘Jenga Or Die’, is less complex. What’s more interesting, though, is what it says about the middle. Basically every traditional game, from the real bloats like Exalted all the way down to little digest editions like Savage Worlds, have roughly the same type and number of mechanics. That number is five: character creation, task resolution, combat, game mastering, and at least one subsystem of note.

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