Two posts in three days? Outrageous.
Part two of my year-end wrap-up is focused on goings-on at my own table, as opposed to general stuff in the industry worthy of my .02 cents. And I have to say, this was a year that was crammed with gaming, much of it good, some of it GREAT. It's a happy thing to have been in the gaming hobby for thirty-odd years and be able to say that I'm consistently playing the best games of my life right now.
Game I’m Most Sad to See Go – SUNSET EMPIRE
Last summer, I closed the curtains for the final time on my four-year alt-Victoriana vampire slaying epic, SUNSET EMPIRE. The jams were thoroughly kicked out, the bad guys were thoroughly whupped, the price was occasionally gut-wrenching, and the world was left utterly changed.
I loved this setting, loved the characters, loved the way my players really tore it up and made big, ambitious moves, loved the ability to go for broke and really smash up all my toys good. Bringing an epic story like this to an ending is tricky business, and I think I may have stuck the landing and brought the crowd to its feet. I feel pretty proud of this one.
Outstanding Achievement in Gaming Ambition – TIANXIA: THE BOOK OF CHANGES
Although it was a much shorter affair, and occasionally wracked by external problems, our playtest game of TIANXIA was a different kind of delight. We had a small, high-functioning group that were really in the driver's seat, staging bold, dramatic scenes and dovetailing them through three time periods in a way I've never seen before at the roleplaying table.
We learned a lot playing this game, and now the question is -- what's next?
Game That Was Totally Not For Us (But You Should Buy It Anyway) – TIANXIA: BLOOD, SILK AND JADE by Jack Norris
A wise person once said, "A man's got to know his limitations." For myself, I know that mastering the various moving parts of a crunchy system is not a strength I possess. Keeping track of a large number of elements in a rule-intensive situation during combat is an overwhelming, sometimes baffling, sometimes frustrating experience for me. So the extra layer of complexity that TIANXIA brought to FATE CORE (which was still quite new to us when we played this game) was a little more than I could comfortably handle. It may be that a longer-arc play experience would have meant more familiarity and more ease of play, but that is no longer the way we play games at my table (notwithstanding stuff like SUNSET EMPIRE).
However, this book is still one of the best I've seen this year, and I am proud to have been a participant in a playtest for it. Jack Norris has produced what seems to me the perfect expression of what a core book should be -- it sketches out a setting in broad strokes, with lots of ideas, tools, and toys for the GM to play with, but doesn't bury you in unnecessary detail. The martial arts system is clear and evocative. The artwork is stunning. And the layout is gorgeous, clear, and readable. If you aren't already one of the people who bought into the Kickstarter for TIANXIA, you owe it to yourself to pick up a copy when it is released. It's the bee's knees.
Game That Didn’t Happen (But Totally Needs To) – WILD TALENTS: TRUE BELIEVERS
I was literally ready to print out pages and make up characters for this game, which uses my beloved (yet dusty and unused) WILD TALENTS system to tell a story of "real-life superheroes", when we got the offer to participate in the TIANXIA playtest. It was a bittersweet decision to set TRUE BELIEVERS aside, but likely the correct one based on the amount we learned playing TIANXIA.
One day, one day.
Gaming Takeaway of the Year – The Three-Round (Or Less!) Fight
Even in FATE, fights can really drag on sometimes. Part way through TIANXIA, I came up with the idea of abbreviating fights in much the same way that FATE runs Contests -- instead of letting two characters square off until one drops, essentially let things play out for three rounds and the person who has gained the upper hand (the best of three falls, essentially) "wins". This gave us the opportunity to get back to the drama quicker, and I think it's a handy trick for those of us who aren't really interested in the particulars of long fights.
This doesn't work quite as well in a large-scale fight, but I think the principle is sound.
As an honourable mention in this category, I think using the Bronze Rule to model larger-scale fights by statting them up as a single antagonist is a much easier, more streamlined way to manage a big donnybrook. I did that for the finale of TIANXIA, and it went much better.
HTHD Takeaway of the Year – Dovetailing Scenes
I've written on this earlier this fall, and I think it proved to be the most important storytelling tool we learned in TIANXIA. In playing out our story that involved elaborate flashbacks to different time periods in the lives of our three heroes, we developed the technique of riffing off things that other players had set up in their own scenes. When Quiescent Mountain was forced to care for a baby, another player set up a scene where the younger Mountain has just spoken to his lover expressing his desire to have a family.
This technique really gets the whole table calling for scenes with a GM-like eye toward the overall story and creating an amazing storytelling harmony.
Game That I Totally Bungled - SHERWOOD
There's no getting around it. Although I still like the idea, my heart was just not in my tale of Rocket Robin Hood Redux. By the time the game swung into action, I was already dreaming of the third season of SUNSET EMPIRE, and that was pretty much that.
Creepiest Line of the Year - “Hello there, Sugarplum.”
I think I managed to push the pedal marked CREEPY all the way to the floorboards in our holiday finale episode of SOUTHERN ROCK OPERA. My character, Cole -- who is the lead singer in a Lynyrd Skynyrd-esque southern rock band -- surprised everyone by eliminating the creepy groupie California who had been messing with his sister and his best friend's heads. It was a scene that started out sexual, and ended with cold-blooded murder. I wasn't sure I had gone the right way with it, but the rest of the cast seems to agree I've pushed the stakes way, way up and that's okay with me.
Meanest Line of the Year – “I hoped you were."
Speaking of cold-blooded, Megan's character Death Onyx was undoubtedly the paragon of cruel and callous violence at our table this year. The last few sessions of TIANXIA were absolutely filled with scenes where Death Onyx said unbelievably hurtful things to her old friends, in a bid to get them to abandon her or kill her. In this case, her old lover Mountain had just said "I thought you were dead." Then, the stone-cold response. DAMN.
Darkest Character of the Year - Death Onyx
It's really saying something when the DEADLANDS campaign filled with characters with mass murder in their past (and in my case, my present) were just grey clouds compared with the pitch black killer called Death Onyx. What do you say about a character who murders her employers -- including children -- and then kills an entirely unrelated, innocent person to make sure there are enough bodies (because the Governor's teenage daughter was not in the mansion at the time, and Onyx won't let her be hunted down too)? There's dark, and then there's Death Onyx dark.
Largest Player Character Body Count – Yuri Brekhov
I'm not sure my character Yuri ever used a gun in our COLD CITY game, but he was an absolute terror with a big skinning knife. Yuri went through rooms full of KGB agents and East German soldiers like a buzzsaw, and even smacked down vampires. Hardcore.
Squickiest Fate of a Player Character – Yuri Brekhov
...but then again Yuri ended up warming Baba Yaga's bed for all eternity as a riff on Koschei the Deathless. So yeah, not all wine and roses for the immortal Ghost of Stalingrad.
“Some Days You Just Can’t Get Rid of a Baby” Award – Quiescent Mountain
One more TIANXIA moment that deserves mention is Quiescent Mountain's long ordeal as the custodian of a baby, an element that entered the story at random (as the result of a bad roll by Colin) but had huge ramifications for the way the game ended. Mountain only had one functional arm, you see, so the fact that he had to carry a baby around with him meant that he was constantly at a disadvantage. He tried to pass the baby off on his mother (she refused), place "Little Monk" out of the line of fire during the big battle in the streets of Bao Jing (inadvertently placing him in the path of a poison dart), and ultimately played "keep away" with a room full of shadow vampires wanting to feed on the child. But keeping the baby safe meant saving his old lover, Death Onyx, from herself. This was an instance of serendipity completely changing the outcome of a game. And it was delightful.
So many other moments, so many great games. But I could go on for a long, long time about these things. And I think I'll save some of them up to tell you about in the new year. So until 2014, happy gaming.