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So one of my local groups has been playing a Burning Wheel campaign since last November. We only meet every other week, but it is still the longest I’ve played a game since I caught the indie game bug. As a result, it’s given me a bit to ponder about my play preferences and the special appeal of long-term campaigns.

First off, I usually think of myself as a firmly “Story Now” player – get me to the awesome from the start and keep it coming until the big finish (usually 1-4 sessions away). Here, though, the main thrust of the campaign has been a slow burn, with some of the initial plot lines still awaiting resolution. Yet I have not been frustrated by this.

Instead, I’ve used my character’s beliefs as a checklist to drive my actions each session and updated my beliefs frequently. The end result is that I’ve gotten satisfying “Story Now” payoffs from seeing my character accomplish important things, even if the larger campaign goals remain out of reach.

Second, I’ve found myself really enjoying BW advancement. This is totally contrary to my impressions when I read the BW books; I found the advancement rules incredibly complex and wrote them off as unfun bookkeeping. But there’s something about looking for an opportunity to test Persuasion or a wise to pop it up a level that has pushed my buttons the right way.

The result is that I have thoroughly enjoyed it as my character has developed in directions I would not have anticipated (or seen in a shorter game). Another key to my enjoyment is likely that all the characters started out as seasoned in several areas, so there wasn’t the frustration of feeling like the real excitement of play would have to wait until you advanced.

Third, we’ve really had time to develop our setting, from the town where the game is based to the larger religious and political landscape of the world. This development has had its share of surprises we likely would not have had in a shorter game – like the eventual revelation that the “good” god actually is in full support of the radical martyrdom of some adherents to strike blows, however ineffectual, against the evil overlords. We’ve also had some abiding NPCs that have deepened in their characterization and progressed beyond their initial roles to almost PC-like status. Without the time investment we’ve made, I don’t think we would have seen these things happen to this degree.

So clearly long-term gaming can offer special things. That said, I think it’s Luke Crane and BW’s sharp chops that have been key to keep my attention span this long. I would have thought that I’d be tired of playing the same game by now, and I likely would have been long ago if this was D&D. But the mechanics and the great play of my group has kept things fresh and entertaining. I suspect we’re getting close to the end of the game since that big campaign goal is moving closer (and the GM is expecting his first child in a few months), but it has been great to see that I can still find real value in a long-term game, though of a completely different sort than I did back in my younger days. I hadn’t realized I missed long-term play, but I guess a part of me did.

So when’s the last time you played a long-term game?

The Walking Dead

Yes, I’m still alive, despite my absence from this blog lending evidence to the contrary. Rather than dwell on that, though, let’s pick up as though there wasn’t a huge gap between my posts : )

So with two children under five, almost all of my media consumption is well after initial release. I haven’t been in a movie theater in four years, for example. I also can’t manage to watch any TV shows as they are aired, and haven’t shelled out for a DVR (I realize this makes me a bit eccentric). So I do my best to catch up via Netflix, especially for cable TV shows.

I’ve been watching “The Walking Dead” recently and enjoyed it. It’s suitably grim with a dash of hope and uses classic zombie tropes. A couple things bothered me, though.

First, they don’t give us much of a timeline to establish how we got to full-out zombie apocalypse. Our protagonist wakes up to a wholly changed world. His wife initially seems to have moved on from his death, etc. There are dramatic reasons for all this, but my internal organizer wants to know the steps the world took to get there.

The show also sometimes seems like it takes place in an alternate reality where no one has a seen a zombie movie. I know Atlanta is hot, but wearing next to nothing when zombie bites are a death sentence is foolish at best. Break out the riot gear or motorcycle suits a la “28 Days Later.” Also, the scenes where blood spatter (and the risk of infection) seems nonexistent are amusing.

But overall I’m glad AMC took the chance and made this. Zombie TV is a fun change of pace after making my way through “The Sopranos.”

Anyone else watched this?

Monkey and Card Mechanics

I’ve recently read Monkey: The Storytelling Game of the Journey to the West by Newt Newport and d101 Games. It’s a game emulating the Chinese story of exiled immortals seeking to redeem themselves among mortals and re-enter Heaven. It seeks to capture the humor and emotion of its source material by using a unified rules set focused on story and the accumulation of virtue.

My friend Peter recommended and lended it to me because it uses playing cards in its resolution. I have tied myself in knots with different playing card mechanics for House of Cards before finally shifting over to my current blackjack dice mechanic. Something about cards still appeals to me, so I always appreciate the opportunity to see how a game handles them.

Monkey does an admirable job of embracing both the random and strategic possibilities of using cards. On the one hand, when resolving a conflict a player draws a number of cards from the top of their deck and must choose to total the values of either their red or black cards, discarding the other. However, each player also has the option to save a limited number of cards in a separate Fortune Hand to use in later conflicts. This element of planning and resource management nicely enhances players’ odds – reflecting the power of their characters.

That said, there are some editing troubles that leave portions of the system less than clear. For example, different places in the book discuss simply adding a card from your Fortune Hand to your result or swapping a card from your result and Fortune Hand. One passage discusses immediately drawing a card into your Fortune Hand at the beginning of the game, while another states your Fortune Hand starts out empty.

Another concern is over the use and accumulation of Fortune, which is used to reward good acts in the fiction, but characters also can lose Fortune for performing bad acts  (these lost Fortune then become GM currency to use against you later).

First, your current Fortune level determines the maximum size of your Fortune Hand – the key to your strategic use of cards. Second, Fortune can be spent for dramatic editing to the fiction. Finally, Fortune is spent to advance your character. All told, Fortune seems like it is being given too many functions, several of which can lead to contradictory incentives for players.

I’m happy to have read Monkey, and I may find aspects of its mechanics inspiring my further tinkering with cards in my own designs. I’m also interested in seeing how the game works in actual play, but with so many games on my shelf competing for my attention, I’m not sure whether this will actually happen.

GM Rust

I’ve got a 3 1/2-year-old daughter and a 2-year-old son here at home, and my free time has been sharply curtailed since they came into my life. Gaming-wise, this means that I have seldom GM’d games, instead mostly sitting back and being a player. This has given me some great gaming experiences, but it’s left my GM’ing skills very rusty and impaired my confidence that I know what I’m doing on that side of the gaming table. That’s despite the fact that I’ve often been a primary GM in many of my previous groups over the years. I guess it’s a “use it or lose it” kind of thing.

Since House of Cards, the cinematic heist game I’m currently designing, has a GM, this is a less than ideal state to be in. So I’ve recently made it a priority to get back on that horse and GM (or at least strongly facilitate) some games. I’ve recently begun gaming on Mondays at a local comic and games store, and this new group has given me the chance to polish up my GM’ing.

Right now I’m running a multi-session 3:16 campaign. I chose to offer a 3:16 game since it’s accessible, low prep,  and mechanically uncomplicated. Playing multiple sessions has given me the chance to develop the setting, establish some NPCs, tie the planets together with shipboard scenes, push and pull on the relationships between the characters, etc. In other words, do the things a GM is supposed to do.

Doing prep and then springing things on the players has been great fun. Flexing my story muscles in a different way has left me feeling more confident and rediscovering old things I used to do in running games. It’s got me itching to run more games on my shelf and do more playtesting with House of Cards to better develop best practices for the GM role in the game.

I didn’t tell the guys that this was my first stab at GM’ing in a long while (I didn’t want to jinx it), but it seems like the game is fun and hopefully serving as a means to bind this new group together. So that’s what I’ve been up to – getting back to using my GM skills and hopefully making them a central part of my gaming toolbox again.

Zen Manga

One thing many might not know about me is that I have both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in religious studies. My focus in graduate school was on Islam–particularly modern Islamic political movements and fundamentalism–but I also was immensely interested in Eastern religions. So I still find myself picking up religion books here and there.

I just finished reading “Wisdom of the Zen Masters,” an enjoyable mash-up of classical Chinese Zen Buddhism text and manga art. Apparently the artist, Tsai Chih Chung, has a whole series of manga of various Taoist and Buddhist works (Sun Tzu too). While the format might sound incongruous, it actually makes for an entertaining experience. Zen in many ways cultivates a frame of mind that doesn’t take itself too seriously. And reading the text in a manga format also enhanced my feeling of being present in the moment as I read (sometimes with a standard book I find my mind wandering and I skip ahead and then have to backtrack and make sure I didn’t miss anything – that didn’t happen here).

So thumbs up to Zen manga. I wouldn’t have believed it before I saw and read it myself.

My local group has finished playing several sessions of S7S, and we enjoyed it a lot. Our prior game of Diaspora had fallen kind of flat, so it has been nice to simply embrace a genre and run with its tropes. No unique snowflakes or weird character types, just your typical roguish privateers from various nations who keep their word to paying passengers despite the obstacles along the way.

Mechanically, the game worked for me pretty well, though there are some things I’d do differently in character creation next time around. Peter, our GM for the game, started a thread at Story Games about our game, so I’ll simply point there rather than repeat our observations.

The Committee for the Exploration of Mysteries, my storytelling game of Victorian and pulp adventure, returns in an updated and revised Jubilee Edition.  Thoroughly rewritten to improve clarity, streamline the mechanics, and provide additional play advice, the game is better than ever!

The pitch:

This Meeting of the Committee is Called to Order…

You braved crocodiles, Nazis, necromancy, and devolved ape men to find the mythical city and the secrets it holds. You tested your skills and resolve to their limits, driven by a secret desire that motivates you to greater deeds just as it blinds you to possible pitfalls.

Now you have returned from your expedition and must report to your peers on your daring exploits, proving to the hardened adventurers, geniuses, and polymaths gathered before you that you are worthy of their respect in your every endeavor. You’ve gone into danger and survived driven by your desire—now is the time to bring it to fruition.

The Committee for the Exploration of Mysteries is a storytelling game of exploration and adventure inspired by the pulps. Playable in a single evening or over multiple sessions, it allows you and your friends to tell tales of harrowing danger, daring deeds, and furious action with freeform narration and pulse-pounding timed conflict resolution. No pre-game preparation is required, so grab your hat, your whip, and your .45 and get going!

______________________________________________________________________________

The Jubilee Edition is now available on Lulu and will soon be back at IPR (it’s being printed even as we speak). For a limited time, the Jubilee Edition will be on sale for 15% off on Lulu when you use the coupon code “BEACHREAD305.”

If you already own the previous edition of the game, please drop me a line at ericjboyddesigns at gmail dot com with your name and where you bought the game and I’ll hook you up with the new PDF.

Any questions? Fire away.

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