The Alexandrian

Archive for the ‘Reviews’ category

Tagline: Power Kill questions some of the unspoken assumptions behind our entertainment in a pithy, biting, and utterly provocactive way.

Power Kill - John Tynes - Hogshead PublishingHogshead Publishing has, in my mind at least, successfully exploded without ever letting us hear the bang. As of this writing they are producing Warhammer Fantasy Roleplaying, SLA Industries, and the developing New Style line of RPGs (including Baron Munchausen, Puppetland, and Violence). If you haven’t heard of these, it is quite possible that you’ve been dead for the last two years.

(FYI: It’s March of 2000. Check with friends and families if you’re missing time. Besides temporary death, you may have also been abducted by aliens or the Illuminati or both. If this is the case, you’ve never heard of me, and I’ve never heard of you.)

But I digress.

POWER KILL

Unspoken assumptions. Unquestioned premises. Unexamined beliefs.

There are things we hold to be such basic truths that we never stop to ask ourselves why we believe them – or to entertain the conjecture that it might be possible to believe in a contrary point of view. Often this poses no problem, but every so often you’ll find yourself in a heated argument with someone and neither one of you will quite be able to figure out why the other one isn’t “seeing commonsense”. Nine times out of ten it’s because you and your opponent are working from different premises – premises so intrinsic to the way you think about life that you don’t even hesitate to consider them.

A common example: Almost everyone believes that “murder” is an immoral activity – and they do so at such a basic level that they never really stop to ask themselves why murder is immoral, or even what murder is. Often this doesn’t pose any problems (no one really wonders whether or not Charles Manson was a murderer), but at the points where common belief frays (for example, do soldiers commit murder in war?) conflicts can arise without either party ever realizing where the true dissent lies.

This concept of unexamined premises can crop up pretty much anywhere – not just in debates about moral absolutes. Which, for those of you who are thinking I’ve gone completely off my rocker, brings us around to John Tynes’ Power Kill.

Power Kill is a “roleplaying metagame”, designed as an extra “layer of ‘game’ that you add to whatever Normal Roleplaying Game (NRG) you are currently playing”. In three short, hard-hitting pages it is a pithy assessment and satire of some of the unexamined beliefs which go into your common roleplaying session.

Basically it works like this: Everyone creates a “Power Kill Character” (PKC). There are no rules associated with this – just pick a name, gender, “race”, and background for the PKC (the setting is modern day Earth). You then “play” Power Kill in brief sessions before and after your normal roleplaying session.

In the session before play the GM (known in Power Kill as the “Counselor”) asks a few probing questions of the character played in the “NRG”. For example, “How many times a month do you find yourself in genuinely life-threatening situations?” These are filed in the PKC’s patient record, and play begins.

In the closing session the player assumes the role of the PKC. The Counselor spends a few brief moments describing the events of the roleplaying session in it’s real world context. For example, if the game session consisted of going into a dungeon and killing all of the monsters, then the Counselor explains that PKCs entered a low-rent tenement building inhabited primarily by ethnic minorities. “Moving methodically from room to room, the PKCs murdered the residents and took readily portable valuables such as cash, illegal drugs, and jewelry.” Once this summary is completed, the Counselor will again ask the PKC the standard set of Power Kill questions.

The Counselor should then analyze the two sets of questionnaires – comparing the assumptions of the PKC with the assumptions of the NRG character. Evidence that the answers of the NRG are closer to the PKC than to the delusional NRG personality are a good sign – it indicates that the schizophrenic PKC is beginning to associate more closely with reality.

“If the PKC refuses to refute the character in the NRG, continued therapy is required. If the PKC refutes the NRG character, but the player does not refute the PKC, continued therapy is recommended but not required.”

WHAT SHOULD YOU THINK OF ALL THIS?

There are two common refrains to the reviews and discussions concerning Power Kill that I’ve seen:

1. That Tynes is “biting the hand that feeds him” by criticizing the roleplaying industry as it exists. Worse yet, that Tynes is a woeful hypocrite. After all, just look at Delta Green — isn’t that exactly the type of game he’s criticizing in Power Kill?

2. That Tynes’ analysis of the roleplaying industry is “right on” – that any conscionable member of the hobby should reform their game-playing style in accordance with Power Kill’s criticisms.

Both of these suffer, I think, from a basic misconception of what Tynes is attempting to accomplish with Power Kill. The work, in my opinion, functions at two distinct levels – one simple, one complex:

At its more basic level, Power Kill is a rather humorous satire of some of the more recent trends in the roleplaying industry. A mock serious tone, bizarre and unusual acronyms and titles for the common roles of GM and player – the whole nine yards.

At its more complex level, however, Power Kill is an elegant (and, to a certain extent, eloquent) attempt to rip away the unquestioned exterior of the premises we bring to the table with us every time we sit down to a session of roleplaying. Why do our forms of entertainment basically consist of various forms of “crime fantasies”? “What is the source of our FAE [Fun And Excitement] anyway?” Why do we do these things with our spare time?

As he says in the summary at the end of the game: “Power Kill is meant to suggest a few answers. Or at least, to ask a few questions.”

I don’t think Tynes is, necessarily, saying that what we do in a typical roleplaying session is wrong – I think he merely wants to make us aware of what we do in a typical roleplaying session. Is this really what we want to be doing? If so, why? If not, why not? And even if we like what we’re doing now, are there other options we haven’t tried?

Awhile back, on one of the many discussion lists I participate on, someone asked the group why we all loved the work of Tynes so much. What makes his stuff so special? There were many answers – “his talent”, “his evocative settings”, “immense creativity”, “he’s a genius”, etc. (all of which are true) – but after giving it some thought I responded with an answer something like this:

Tynes doesn’t just write roleplaying games, he understands them.

We had been recently discussing his unfinished Stargate RPG (the notes for which you can find on his website, Revland), and I blundered on to point out the way in which Tynes was instantly capable of spotting the gaming potential in the Stargate universe, to target that potential, and then begin to design a game around it which accented, highlighted, and improved upon that potential.

The original questioner then asked me how Tynes did this. At the time I thought about it, but I couldn’t come up with an answer. After re-reading Power Kill a few times, though, I think I’ve finally figured it out:

Tynes doesn’t have any unspoken assumptions when it comes to roleplaying games.

Ultimately, I believe, Tynes is very self-aware. He doesn’t just let himself assume something — he asks himself why he holds that assumption, whether it’s a good assumption, what strengths that assumption has, and what strengths other options have (and in what contexts those strengths would manifest themselves).

Let me give you an example: One of the quickest ways to start a fruitless flame war in a roleplaying discussion group is to say one of two things – “Diceless games aren’t really roleplaying!” or “Dice ruin storytelling!”

The reason this will lead to a fruitless flame war (even if the original statement is made in a non-provocative fashion, rather than the belligerent tones presented here) is that you will very quickly have the two sides of this argument (the pro-diceless and the pro-diced) square off against each other – neither one ever really asking themselves what the relative merits and weaknesses of the two mechanical options are.

The real truth – and the truth Tynes, I think, understands – is that neither side holds the ultimate truth. For some things, dice is the better option. For others, diceless. If you move beyond your simple belief that, for example, “diceless games aren’t really roleplaying” to the question of why you think dice are essential for roleplaying (usually dealing with making the experience a “game” or introducing the “random factor” into the equation) you’ve made a good deal of progress.

If you take the next step and ask yourself: What about games which don’t use dice – can’t we base a roleplaying game in those traditions, too? What about situations where randomness isn’t necessarily an important component (or even a situation where randomness would be a downright substandard choice)? Well, at that point you’re on the verge of making some important breakthroughs (Baron Munchausen, Puppetland, and Amber being some key examples of innovative designs which have come about by such questioning).

I’ve been discussing rule systems, but this applies equally to world building, plotting, adventure design, character design, and pretty much anything else. You just have to learn to ask the right questions.

And I think, at the end of the day, that’s what the message of Power Kill really is: Asking the right questions, and seeing where the answers take you.

Or, at least, that’s the conclusion it’s questions took me to. Your answers might lead you somewhere else entirely.

Which is the whole point.

Style: 4
Substance: 4

Author: John Tynes
Company/Publisher: Hogshead Publishing, Ltd.
Cost: $5.95
Page Count: n/a
ISBN: 1-899749-20-9

Originally Posted: 1999/10/23

[ Note: Power Kill is packaged back-to-back with Tynes’ Puppetland game. Rather than do both games the disservice of attempting to review them together, I am instead going to review them separately. The page count listed for Power Kill is for Power Kill alone; the price is the cost of both games together. The review of Puppetland can be found here. ]

It was really fascinating re-reading this review nearly 15 years after I wrote it. There’s that section in the middle of it where I’m struggling to express the insight I had about Tynes’ fan-brewed Stargate game: Add ten years to those thoughts and you get my (hopefully much clearer and more useful) series discussing Game Structures.

Upon further consideration, I’m forced to conclude that this is probably one of the five best reviews I ever wrote. (Although that feels like a bit of a cheat because so much of it was prompted by the superb quality of Tynes’ work.)

For an explanation of where these reviews came from and why you can no longer find them at RPGNet, click here.

 

Tagline: Best German Game of 1995. Best U.S. Board Game of 1996.

Settlers of Catan - Mayfair GamesGood board games are hard to find.

This is a truism which comes about because, the plain and simple truth is, board games are expensive to produce and hard to distribute. As a result, it is extremely difficult to introduce truly experiment in a meaningful way with board game mechanics (because it’s expensive to do so), and this inevitably leads to stagnation. (Cheapass Games, as I (and many others) have said before, has escaped these limitations by pioneering an entirely different marketing strategy. But Cheapass Games is special.)

To make matters worse, where a roleplaying game can be considered successful if you use it for one or two campaigns, for a board game to be successful (at least in my opinion) it needs to have lasting replay value. Or, to put it another way, even though Citizen Kane is a better movie than Die Hard, I don’t regret watching Die Hard. On the other hand, why would I play a substandard board game with my friends when I could be playing a better board game? To put it a third way: There’s a narrower potential for variety within any niche of the board game market than there is within the roleplaying markets or movies.

So, like I said, good board games are hard to find.

Which is why it’s always a joy to find a game like The Settlers of Catan. Sure, the cynic can claim that we’ve seen everything here before (hex-based maps from every wargame you’ve ever seen; combinations of resource cards are basically a mechanic from Risk; maintaining diplomatic relations from Diplomacy; variable board set-up from Chess variants; and trading resources from many variants of Monopoly), but the true aficionado will recognize a whole which is greater than the parts.

LEARNING THE GAME

The first thing to like about this game – and something so cool it deserves its own little section in this review (although largely because I’ve been a proponent of this type of lay-out for roleplaying games for a long time now) – are the dual manuals which come with it.

The first manual, Game Rules, is used – in combination with a large, full-color Game Overview sheet – to learn the games. It reads like a fairly standard game manual – taking you step-by-step through the game, with examples of play, repetition of concepts, etc.

But the game you learn is only a beginner’s version of the rules – most noticeably, the variable board rules (see below) are excluded in favor of a “standard board”. After playing your first game, you can proceed to the Settler’s Almanac to spice things up.

What makes this so cool, though, is that the Almanac is a reference for all the rules in the game. In the Almanac, however the rules are grouped by topicality, and are presented in a very technical format.

What does this mean in practical terms? Well, I’ve always disliked the fact that – with most games – you have to go wading through a manual designed to teach you the rules in order to reference the rules. The rules themselves are often spread out and buried behind the explanatory text. No such problem here. Because the Almanac is nothing except rules, reference is easy. And because the system starts simple and then lets you add in the more complex elements, its very easy to learn. The Game Overview sheet also contains a handy turn sequence reference, and every player gets a Building Costs card which summarizes the resource cost of building (see below).

Make no mistake about it, The Settlers of Catan is a moderately complex game (some would argue that it is a very complex game, but then some have never played Advanced Squad Leader). But the system they’ve implemented for new players to learn makes it seem as simple as Monopoly.

THE RULES

So what is this game all about?

The game is played by three or four players. Each player represents a group of colonists who have come to the largish island of Catan. By building settlements and roads you control various resources on the map, and by possessing resources you can build settlements, cities, roads, or development cards (see below).

GOAL: The goal of the game is to collect 10 victory points – which you do by building settlements (each worth one point) and upgrading those settlements to cities (making them worth two points). You can also achieve victory points through certain combinations of development cards, or by achieving certain meta-goals (such as the “Longest Road”, which gives you two victory points).

BOARD SET-UP: This is probably the most commented upon feature of the game: The board for The Settlers of Catan is variable, meaning you set it up differently each time you play. (Imagine, if you will, that Park Place and Boardwalk were in different places every time you played Monopoly.)

Basically the board comes in the form of seven types of hexagons: Mountains, Hills, Forests, Pastures, Fields, Harbors, Ocean, and Desert. Using a specific set of guidelines you randomly place these hexagons out onto the table, ending up with the island (composed of the five types of land the single desert card) in the middle, encircled by the ocean and harbor hexes. In addition, there are chits which bear little numbers on them – following a specific pattern these are placed one to each land hex (except the desert).

Finally, each player places two cities and two roads onto the board (there is a specific mechanism to figure out who gets to place their cities first and so forth). Cities are placed on the intersections between hexes (and thus always border three hexes) and must be at least two intersections away from any other city. Roads run along the edges of the hexes, and must be connected to one of the player’s cities. (Each road piece is one hex is long.)

GAME PLAY: Play proceeds in turns. First, you roll two six-sided dice. Compare the number you roll to the numbered chits on each hex – any hex which contains a chit which matches the number you rolled produces resources on that turn, based on the type of hex it is. (Mountains produce Ore, Hills produce Brick, Pastures produce Wool, Fields produce Grain, and Forests produce Wood.) Any settlement (yours or other players) which borders one of these hexes collects a resource card.

TRADE AND NEGOTIATION: There are two types of trade in the game: You can trade with other players (only the player whose turn it is can engage in trading); or you can trade overseas. Trade with other players is based entirely on negotiation and is, in my mind, the core of the game’s effectiveness and replay value – because it adds the complexity of human interaction into the outcome.

Trade overseas is mechanical. Anyone can trade four resources cards of one type for a resource card of any other type. However, if you control a harbor (by having a settlement on the intersection with a harbor hex) you will get better trade ratios – sometimes on all resources, sometimes on only one type of resource. (It depends on the harbor.)

BUILDING: Finally, resource cards are spent in specific combinations to build new settlements and roads, updating settlements to cities, or purchasing development cards. Development cards can do a variety of things (from giving you additional victory points to garnering you resource cards).

THE ROBBER: Finally, there is the “Robber” – who wanders around the board stealing resources from one player and giving them to another. There’s a specific set of mechanics governing the use of the Robber, but I won’t go into them here.

SOME NOTES ON EDITIONS, AWARDS, AND EXPANSIONS

The Settlers of Catan was originally released in Germany in 1995, where it promptly won the Spiel des Jahres. When it was released by Mayfair in the United States in 1996 it followed up its performance by winning the Origins Award for Board Game of the Year. With the third edition (the one you’ll buy if you buy Mayfair’s version), the rules were internationally standardized (they had not been before).

There are also a number of expansions for Catan – notably an expansion allowing play for five or six players (instead of three or four). The most major supplement to be released in the States to date is Seafarers of Catan, which develops the overseas elements of the game to a larger extent (there is also a 5/6-player expansion for Seafarers). For some reason the 5/6-player expansions are not compatible with the German edition (and the German expansions are not compatible with the United States edition). I don’t know why (although, obviously the artwork on the cards wouldn’t match).

Later this year we’ll also be seeing Settlers of Catan: Cities and Knights which will expand the city rules and add warfare to the game.

In addition to all this there is a Settlers of Catan card game (non-collectible), which can be played by two players. Personally, I am very excited by the forthcoming United States release of Spacefarers of Catan, which is a stand-alone game involving colonizing space in a variable universe.

CONCLUSION

This is an elegantly designed game, and deserves every bit of praise it has earned over the past few years. The Diplomacy-like elements of the trade and negotiation which are at the heart of the game make the game a joy to play with friends and strangers alike. But Klaus Teuber has not failed to back this up with some strong strategic and tactical considerations. For example, the resources you need at various stages in the game shift gradually over time – thus you need to carefully plan how you’re going to get the resources you need to expand now, but also what resources you’re going to need to finish the game. (On more than one occasion a rising juggernaut which seemed incapable of being defeated ground to a halt because the player failed to get the proper access to the right resources to finish the game.)

Basically I’ve got only two, small complaints to level against Settlers of Catan: First, the price is a little steep. It’s well worth it, but it made the game a tough buy to get into. The prices on the expansion packs, though, really leave me wondering in some cases. (Particularly the $35 sticker on Seafarers of Catan, when the blurb says that “certain scenarios” will require the purchase of two of them!)

Second, and perhaps more importantly, there have been a significant fraction of sessions with this game where the random factor played – in my opinion – too large a roll (no pun intended). Although dice rolling is built into the system, it seems to me that the emphasis of the game is on strategy, tactics, and negotiation. But a handful of lucky rolls can really alter the whole course of the game. This was not a major problem, but it was a troubling one.

Style: 5
Substance: 4

Author: Klaus Teuber
Company/Publisher: Mayfair Games
Cost: $35.00
Page Count: n/a
ISBN: 1-56905-091-0

Originally Posted: 2000/04/06

This is a fascinating review to read in hindsight. First, because it’s kind of weird looking back at a time when Settlers of Catan was not completely secure in its position as a juggernaut of the board game industry.

Second, because my opinion of Settlers of Catan has soured considerably. (And it soured fairly quickly after this review was written. I don’t think I’ve played the game in at least a decade.) My primary problem with the game is that it masquerades as an extremely strategic game, but the outcome of any given game is heavily dependent on luck while featuring a very limited palette of experiences. It tends to attract the worst kind of casual player: The ones who think they’re Grandmasters of Chess because they have a basic grasp of probability.

One point I now firmly disagree with my former self about: Games featuring a division of their rulebooks into a beginner’s tutorial and an alphabetized rules reference generally suck. The entire methodology appears to be designed to achieve no other end than to guarantee that you’ll end up playing the game incorrectly while burying rules under arbitrarily arranged titles.

(This complaint does not necessarily apply to all games featuring introductory rulebooks. For example, Space Alert features an incredibly clever tutorial system that iteratively introduces new players to the complexities of the game. The key difference, however, is that Space Alert also features a complete rulebook which is organized procedurally for easy and intuitive reference.)

For an explanation of where these reviews came from and why you can no longer find them at RPGNet, click here.

Tagline: Unique. Exciting. Different. Enthralling.

Puppetland - John Tynes - Hogshead PublishingThe skies are dim always since the Maker died.

The lights of Puppettown are the brightest beacon in all of Puppetland, and they shine all the time. Once the sun and the moon moved their normal courses through the heavens, but no more. The rise of Punch the Maker-Killer has brought all of nature to a stop, leaving it perpetually winter, perpetually night. Puppets all across Puppetland mourn the loss of the Maker, and curse the name of Punch – but not too loudly, lest the nutcrackers hear and come to call with a sharp rap-rap-rapping at the door.

There is no easy way to summarize Puppetland. It is a tour de force in twenty pages by one of the most talented creative forces the roleplaying industry has ever seen. It’s a masterpiece. Unique. Exciting. Different. Enthralling.

Merely reading the book is a powerful experience in its own right – one which is quickly matched only by the act of stepping into Puppetland on your own terms, using the evocatively original mechanics of this revolutionary game.

SETTING

Many years ago, there was a war in the real world. Many people were hurt and terrible things happened. The Maker saw all that was happening, and was sorrowful. His creations were the gentlest of creatures, and they were terribly hurt by these tragedies. The Maker made puppets, and in the face of chaos and violence he made a great creation: Maker’s Land, a place where all his puppets could go and be safe until the war was over.

Maker’s Land was a place of peace and prosperity – where all of the Maker’s puppets could be happy and content. But such perfection could not last. Deep within one of the puppets, Punch, a twisted darkness lived and thrived. One night Punch stole into the Maker’s home, and slew him.

With the Maker’s death, no humans lived in Maker’s Land. But the flesh lived, for Punch took the Maker’s face and made a cruel new face for himself. That wasn’t all he made, either: by morning, he had not just a new face, but six loyal puppet-servants sewn of the Maker’s flesh. These six, whom Punch called his boys, stood beside Punch as he announced to all the land that he was now the king. He was Punch the Maker-Killer, and his word was law.

Punch subjected Maker’s Land to a regime of terror and cruelty which was utterly alien to the innocent and naïve puppets. But where there is life, there is hope.

Across the great lake of milk and cookies lies the small village of Respite. The village is run by Judy, who once loved Punch but does so no more. She knows better than anyone the cruelties he is capable of. She knows the evil that lies in his twisted heart. When Punch killed the Maker, Judy was there and she caught the Maker’s last tear in a thimble of purest silver. With this tear the Maker can be brought back to life, Judy says. This is her fondest dream, and the Maker’s Tear her most cherished possession.

The world of Puppetland is the nightmare of a child, rendered through the lives of puppets who are more than puppets. It is a startlingly powerful vision, rendered in an intense barrage of prose, which instantly captures your heart’s imagination. It is a surgical blade slicing through the detritus of maturity and laying open the veins of your inner child.

SYSTEM

Puppetland is very specifically a game, and should be thought of as such. The object of the game is to defeat Punch the Maker-Killer and save Maker’s Land.

The game of Puppetland functions by way of three basic rules:

The First Rule: An hour is golden, but it is not an hour. Like an actual puppet show, a single session of Puppetland lasts exactly one hour – at the end of which the show comes to an end. When the next show begins, the puppets find themselves back home in bed (or wherever they happen to be staying at the moment). Note that this is very deliberately a measurement of time in the real world. In that hour of real world time, the Puppets may expend days of time within Maker’s Land. (For example, a puppet can say: “I sleep for a week!” and a week has gone by.)

The Second Rule: What you say is what you say. Every word an actor says during a session of Puppetland comes out of his puppet’s mouth (you can avoid this by standing up before speaking, but this should be avoided for if it is overused it will spoil the atmosphere of the game). This rule also reinforces a puppet show style of gameplay: You wouldn’t say, for example, “My puppet moves across the room and opens the door.” Instead, you would say, “I shall cross the room and answer the door!”

The Third Rule: The tale grows in the telling, and is being told to someone not present. This is a reminder of the play-style on which Puppetland subsists. The actors and the Puppetmaster should think of themselves as collaborators in the presentation of a puppet show to an audience which is not present.

CHARACTER CREATION

Character creation begins with the selection between one of the four types of puppets: Finger Puppets, Hand Puppets, Shadow Puppets, and Marionette Puppets. (Additional puppets can, of course, be added at your discretion.) Each puppet type is defined by three characteristics: What they are; what they can; and what they can not. For example:

Finger Puppets are: short and small, light, quick, and weak.
Finger Puppets can: move quickly, dodge things thrown at them even if they only see them coming at the last moment, and move very quietly
Finger Puppets cannot: kick things, throw things, or grab things because they have no legs or arms.

Next you name them. This is done by describing one specific characteristic of the puppet (for example, a puppet with red buttons might be called “Red Buttons”), and then adding to it a common name (for example, Sally Red Buttons or Nadja Purple Hat).

Finally you modify this puppet’s specific characteristics by adding three items to each list.

It should be fairly clear now that actions are adjudicated based on the very simple interaction between the various capabilities and limitations of various puppets: For example, a Finger Puppet can out run a Marionette Puppet (which “move slowly”) every time. That is, after all, the nature of puppets.

One important aspect of character creation which I have glanced over is the drawing of a character portrait. This is done right on the puppet page (character sheet), in the provided picture box which is divided by jigsaw puzzle lines. This picture is actual size — in other words, a player’s puppet can be no larger than the picture box, and you should be able to hold the portraits of two puppets up next to each other and instantly know which is larger than the other.

COMBAT

There is no specific combat system in Puppetland, per se, but there is a specific method of keeping track of “damage” done to a puppet. Basically you do so by filling in the jigsaw puzzle pieces in your puppet’s picture box (this has no relation to the portrait itself – you will use all of the puzzle pieces regardless of whether or not your puppet occupies all of the pieces in the box). You fill in a puzzle piece whenever:

1. The puppet does something it shouldn’t be able to do.

2. Something especially bad happens to the puppet (for example, Punch’s nutcrackers crunch off one of the puppet’s arms).

At the beginning of each new story puppets awake in their bed wholly healed from whatever their prior experiences – but puzzle pieces are never erased. Slowly, over time, the filled-in pieces will accumulate until finally all of the pieces are filled-in. Then the puppet dies (although they do get to live until the end of the current tale, they know their fate).

And that is the full extent of the rules for Puppetland – although some more general guidelines for the Puppetmaster are provided.

CONCLUSION

Bringing this review to a cogent conclusion is no easy task. The game of Puppetland exists on so many levels, with so much power, that I find it difficult to put my thoughts into an order by which they may be expressed.

First and foremost, if there is any doubt left in your mind, let me make it clear that I am all but shoving you out the door and down to your local gaming shop. You simply must buy this game.

In terms of judging Puppetland I can offer nothing except for adulation and congratulations. As I wrote above, the mere reading of the book is an experience well worth the cost of admission all by itself. The combination of poetic prose, rich world design, and potent imagery blows me away every time I come back to it (and I’ve come back to it several times).

Moving beyond the simple act of experiencing the book, I think what most impressed me – after I had given some thought to the matter — is the way in which Tynes effortlessly blends storytelling with gaming. Often when you hear the phrase “storytelling game” what it really means is that the game has been reduced to a set of muddy mechanics that serve “storytelling” by being easily fudged out of existence.

Not so with Puppetland. Here the game creates the story; and the story creates the game. In other words, the mechanics of gameplay are instrumental in the creation of a Puppetland story (note how the three basic rules encourage a very specific type of storytelling experience). On the flip side of the coin, the nature of a Puppetland story (heavily influenced, naturally, by the storytelling mechanics of puppet shows) are the foundation of the game’s mechanics. The symmetry reinforces itself. Brilliant.

Words fail me. Go look for yourself.

SOME MISCELLANEOUS NOTES

The review is done, but I find myself with some housekeeping left undone:

1. There are undoubtedly some of you who don’t understand what you just read. “What the hell is he talking about?” you’re saying. “There are no dice. There aren’t even any numbers! Obviously there are no mechanics!” As I wrote in my review of Baron Munchausen, you folks Just Don’t Get It(TM). Not all games require dice, and the fact that Puppetland succeeds at being a type of game we’ve never seen before does not make it any less a game. But I digress.

2. With Puppetland following on the figurative heels of Baron Munchausen I feel that Hogshead has successfully captured lightning in a bottle twice over – and proven that their New Style line of games is ripe with a potential which most publishers can only dream of. With the forthcoming conceptual sequels to these two games (Whodunnit for Baron Munchausen and Pantheon, a set of five(!) games designed by Robin D. Laws in a single package, for Puppetland), the future looks bright.

3. Puppetland is packaged back-to-back with Tynes’ Power Kill game. Rather than do both games the disservice of attempting to review them together, I am instead going to review them separately. The page count listed for Puppetland is for Puppetland alone; the price is cost of both games together.

4. Puppetland and Power Kill are both available for free from John Tynes’ website, Revland. That being said, I heartily recommend purchasing the book from Hogshead. The artwork of Raven Mimura which accompanies the text is incredibly powerful – and adds much to the experience.

Style: 5
Substance: 5

Author: John Tynes
Company/Publisher: Hogshead Publishing, Ltd.
Cost: $5.95
Page Count: 20
ISBN: 1-57530-601-8

Originally Posted: 1-899749-20-9

I miss John Tynes.

Roleplaying games suffered a great loss when he made the transition to video games over a decade ago.

Puppetland received an incredibly successfuly Kickstarter campaign just a few months ago, however. I’m incredibly excited to see this beautiful game returned to print.

For an explanation of where these reviews came from and why you can no longer find them at RPGNet, click here.

Ex-RPGNet Review – Mao

March 7th, 2015

Tagline: “The only rule we’re allowed to tell you is this one.” Great fun for the clever, the intrigued, and the sadistic.

MaoImagine: You sit down at a table with your gaming buddies, and they’ve all got a funny grin on their face. “What is it?” you ask, oblivious to your inevitable fate this evening will bring to you. “We’ve got a new game,” they say. “Oh?” you say. “Sounds cool. What’s it called?” “Mao.”

Maniacal laughter echoes through the room.

You’re confused. “Meow? Like the sound a cat makes?” “No, no,” they say. “Mao as in Mao Tse-tung. But that’s unimportant.”

Brave soul that you are, you say, “Well, what are the rules?”

More maniacal laughter.

“The only rule we’re allowed to tell you is this one.”

“Which one?”

“The only rule we’re allowed to tell you is this one.”

“You mean you can’t tell me any of the rules, except the rule which stops you from telling me the rules?”

“The only rule we’re allowed to tell you is this one.”

“Uhh… okay. Let’s go.”

WHAT IS MAO?

Mao, as you may have already surmised, is a card game where the first and foremost rule is that you cannot state the rules. You must learn while playing, all the while being penalized for breaking rules which you don’t even know exist. (Obviously you learn what you should be doing based on what you shouldn’t be doing and are getting penalized for, as well as the example of correct play from the other players.)

The other trick up Mao’s sleeve is that at the end of every round of play, the winner of that round gets to add a new rule to the game – a rule which he doesn’t tell to anyone else. The rule can take any form (including the overriding of the core rules) and remains in effect for the rest of the evening. Thus, even once you learn the game, you still haven’t learned the game.

The only other thing I can specifically tell you about this game is that it is played with two normal decks of 52 playing cards.

THEN HOW DO I LEARN?

There is, of course, at this point an obvious dilemma: How do you learn the game if I (and no one else) can tell you the rules and no one local to you knows how to play?

By reading an example of play.

With such an example no one is telling you the rules (and thus breaking the rules), but they do allow you to conclude what the rules are through inference.

The best resources I have found thus far are the pages of Ka Wai Tam. His examples of play are the best and most concise I have found, and he links to several other Mao resource pages.

 MAO VARIATIONS

Things aren’t quite as easy as I’ve lead you to believe.

Anyone who is a card game aficionado (I occasionally like to think of myself as such) knows that the rules of games tend to fluctuate wildly over time. Although certain centralized resources such as Hoyle’s compendium have a tendency to lock certain games into specific patterns (Parker Brothers’ version of Monopoly, for example, has successfully wiped out the vibrant sub-culture of variant Monopolies which preceded it), the tendency is still there. Anyone with a roleplaying background shouldn’t find this all that surprising – the dawn of the industry were basically hacks of D&D which differed from it to various degrees, and today the web serves as a central clearinghouse of home rules, variants, and expansions for many popular systems.

A moment’s reflection should lead you to the quick realization that the basic nature of Mao would quickly lead itself to healthy perversions, growth, and variation. After all, the core spirit of the rules discourages setting anything down in stone – and someone who plays a brief session may never pick up on some of the subtle nuances (and thus would carry a distorted version of the game with them to be taught to someone else). Plus, the fact that you are supposed to add a new rule to Mao after every round of the game lends itself to the development of favorite home rules which may lead to their incorporation into the core rules.

The exact origins of Mao are unknown. There is a strong probability that it derived from a German card game called Mau-mau (note the similarity in name). Another path traces it to Bartog, a similar card game. All of these may ultimately be bizarre perversions of Nomic.

The earliest reference to Mao is to Mark Alexander’s group at Ithaca College in New York. Where it went from there is unclear, but apparently students carried it from one East Coast college to another. By the mid-‘80s there were hotbeds of Mao variant activity in Brooklyn, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee. Today there are at least three major “families” of Mao variants, and probably far more hanging around out there that we don’t know about.

(Check out Jason Holtzapple’s Unofficial Mao Card Game Site. He has a Mao Family Tree, documenting variants which are known to him. If anyone has knowledge of other variants, I’d loved to hear about them – and I’m sure Holtzapple would, too.)

Ka Wai Tam’s version of Mao is known as “Waterloo Mao” – it’s a fairly simple and straight-forward version, and is greatly helped by the fact that his examples of play are comprehensive to a degree which many other examples fail to achieve. (The only problem I had was figuring out some specific rules relating to spades. After some brief correspondence with him I believe I’ve got that sorted out, though – and will gladly help guide anyone to the proper conclusions. Then again, maybe I’ve intuited it all wrong and have introduced a whole new variant to Mao. Such is Mao.)

CONCLUSION

If you aren’t intrigued by Mao at this point, definitely skip it. It’s obviously not your type of thing. Personally, I stumbled across references to the game while doing some web research on Nomic (which I may eventually get around to reviewing as well) and was instantly ensnared by the concept. The game is both clever and complex, successfully existing at multiple levels of play, comprehension, and strategy. I heartily recommend it to card game fanatics everywhere.

Style: 5
Substance: 5

Author: Anonymous
Company/Publisher: None
Cost: Free!
Page Count: n/a
ISBN: n/a

Originally Posted: 2000/03/21

I remember this review creating a fascinating schism of reaction: A lot of people criticized me for posting a review of a free and public domain game. This seemed to be driven by a couple of factors: First, there were people who felt the primary purpose of a review was to tell them whether or not they should spend money on a game (and therefore a review of something free, which they could check out without paying anything, was pointless). Second, there were people convinced that Mao (or one of its variants) was so common that it was impossible that people hadn’t heard of it.

XKCD didn’t exist yet, so I wasn’t able to reference the lucky 10,000. But I felt personally vindicated in the review by those who replied to say that they hadn’t heard of the game but were intrigued by what I had to say.

For me, personally, Mao was both a revelation and a 60 day fad: I enjoyed it a lot. One of these days I should really teach it to myself again.

For an explanation of where these reviews came from and why you can no longer find them at RPGNet, click here.

Tagline: A great bargain for a wealth of material, and a wonderful little taste of history.

Dragon Magazine ArchiveAllow me to salivate.

The Dragon Magazine Archive collects, on five CD-ROMs, the first two hundred and fifty issues of Dragon Magazine, as well as all seven issues of The Strategic Review (the house organ which Tactical Studies Rules published prior to Dragon). It thus collects more than twenty years worth of material – thousands and thousands of pages of the finest roleplaying material ever set to paper.

For forty bucks. (Some places are selling it for as much as $70 – don’t let ‘em fool you. Amazon.com is selling it, here, for $28.)

So, like I said: Allow to salivate.

Elsewhere on RPGNet I have written a lengthy “100 Issue Retrospective” which covered the magazine from Issue #162 (the first issue of Dragon I ever owned) through to #262 (the most recent at the time I wrote the retrospective). In it I discussed at quite some length the merits and history of The Dragon, and I heartily encourage you to take a look at that for more background information concerning the magazine.

To summarize my feelings, I consider Dragon Magazine to be one of the most significant icons in the roleplaying industry – and certainly one of the most enduring. I remember well removing the subscription card from my red-boxed Basic Set of D&D (hands up everyone who was introduced to roleplaying through that nostalgia-ridden product), mailed it in, and waited with eager anticipation for my first issue to arrive in the mail. When it did, I felt instantly connected to a larger world of roleplayers.

Because so many roleplayers are introduced into the industry through some form of Dungeons & Dragons, and because it is a natural progression to purchase a subscription to Dragon (particularly in the years when TSR was advertising the magazine in the introductory sets of their games), I imagine this is feeling which I share with many others. To a very real extent, Dragon (like D&D itself) serves as a major portal into the hobby of gaming.

Thus the Dragon Magazine Archive, in addition to providing you with an amazing wealth of material, lets you take a peek into what was passing through this gateway in years past. For years when you were in the hobby (particularly the early years), it’s a nostalgia trip of immense proportions. For the years when you weren’t, it’s a glimpse into an “arcane past” which is fascinating and invigorating.

But, lest we forget and assume there is nothing here but nostalgia, let us remember that within this archive you will find thousands of articles and reviews and columns. You simply cannot find a better bargain, in terms of a dollar-to-content ratio, then you will find in this package.

FAVORITE BITS

Despite owning the Archive since my birthday (about four months now), I’ve been able to do little more than skim through the thinnest layer of material – most of it concentrated in the earliest years of the magazine. As a small sampling, let me point out some of my favorite bits:

Strategic Review #1: After a lengthy discussion of spears in man-to-man combat, Gary Gygax writes: “Coming Next Issue . . . POLE ARMS, and Their Relationship to CHAINMAIL.”

Maybe I’m just warped, but I found this intrinsically amusing. (If you have no idea why it would be, you’re just too young.)

Other notable “before they were famous” moments including one of the earliest discussions of the dual-axis alignment system (complete with the diagrams that would later crop up in first edition). My favorite, though, is the article of random dungeon design (for solo play) which would later serve as the basis for one of the most famous sections of the 1st edition DMG.

One of the first things most people will take a look at when they get their hands on the Archive is the very issue of Dragon – and with good cause. It is a major milestone, and I have met old hands who divide the entire history of roleplaying (at least during the first couple of decades) into “before Dragon” and “after Dragon”.

The very first words of the editorial content of The Dragon are: “This issue marks a major step for TSR Hobbies, Inc. With it, we have bid farewell to the safe, secure world of the house organ, and have entered the arena of competitive magazine publishing.”

I don’t think I’ve ever read anything so unintentionally hilarious in my life.

Perhaps the most valuable resource I found in the Archive were the early Tékumel articles – articles which are otherwise very difficult to obtain. While they wouldn’t fully justify the cost of the Archive, except for the true Tékumel fanatic, they come awfully close. Easily worth $10-15 to anyone with the slightest interest in Tékumel, which doesn’t leave a lot of the purchase price left to make up with everything else. (I have posted a review of Tékumel elsewhere on RPGNet.)

Any summary of the Archive would not be complete without perhaps the most noteworthy inclusion:

Wormy!

SnarfQuest and Yamara, the other two comics of serious note in Dragon’s history, in my opinion, have been published in collections, but Wormy never has (because it’s creator simply disappeared). (I believe the Yamara collection is still in print from Steve Jackson Games; while a new (and more complete) SnarfQuest collection is on its way from Dynasty Publishing – which will also be publishing new(!) SnarfQuest strips in their Games Unplugged magazines. But I digress.)

Wormy is one of the most memorable icons of the gaming industry, and has long been unavailable in any form. Now, at last, it is possible to read the strip in its entirety at an affordable price. If the Tékumel articles almost make the Archive worth the price all by themselves, then Wormy definitely has the cover charge under control.

PROBLEM PARTS

Every single problem with the Archive can be summed up in one word: Interface.

The interface, quite frankly, sucks. It’s not just bad, it’s atrocious. The pages take too long to turn, the general controls are unintuitive to the point of stupidity and are sluggish to respond. The provided Table of Contents for several issues is screwed up (although you can always just look at the magazine’s contents page and work from there).

For a product like this, printing is of the utmost importance – but here the problems seem to multiply. I routinely had the printer simply print blank pages. And, unless you set the printing to grayscale, the program will print the black ink by using your color cartridge to print all the colors in the spectrum (a massive waste of expensive ink). Plus, they don’t have the page numbers of the digital document match up with the page numbers of the actual magazine (because they don’t take the simple step of not counting the cover and inside cover as pages).

Worse yet, though, this monstrous program takes up 40MB of RAM! It slows any attempt to multitask down to a crawl.

Bah.

Fortunately, all of the magazines are presented in Adobe Acrobat format and thus, with their free viewer, you can access them directly and without any problems – bypassing the clunky interface entirely. (Although you may still occasionally use the program for the search engine it employs – which quickly and efficiently searches through the entire collection.) There’s still no way to bypass the faulty page numbering (because that’s embedded in the document format), but at least in the Acrobat Reader the digital page numbers are displayed right on the screen – so that you won’t be reduced to guessing how large the off-set is for this particular issue.

CONCLUSION

The Dragon Magazine Archive is a fantastic bargain. Don’t pass it up.

Style: 3
Substance: 5

Author: Various
Company/Publisher: Wizards of the Coast / TSR, Inc.
Cost: $40.00
Page Count: Unfathomable
ISBN: 0-7869-1448-3

Originally Posted: 2000/03/21

“Worse yet, though, this monstrous program takes up 40MB of RAM!” … speaking of things rendered hilarious through the benefit of hindsight.

The Dragon Magazine Archive remains one of the best bargains in the history of gaming. And that remains true even though it’s currently priced at $155 on Amazon.

For an explanation of where these reviews came from and why you can no longer find them at RPGNet, click here.

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