Monday, August 28, 2023

RPG Review: Legend of the 5 Rings: 5th Edition - Edge Studios


I am a relative newcomer to Legend of the 5 Rings.  I have been familiar with it as an Intellectual Property for a long, long time but never really spent much time with it.  However, I listened to an actual play of one edition or another on the Happy Jacks Podcast, and was intrigue by what I had heard.  I listened to a few more podcasts and was even more interested.  Then, one day I was at the Half-Price Bookstore and saw a copy of the Third Edition rulebook.  I bought it.  

Since then, I have managed to design a short campaign called "One Year in Rokugan" that was edition and stat block agnostic but based on my 3rd Edition knowledge.  After all, there are 5 editions of the game!  If you are part of my Patreon, you can find this campaign available there for free as a PDF.  I have managed to play through the campaign using 3rd edition rules, and we all had a lot of fun.  It was  a huge difference from our normal D&D 5E games, and I enjoyed introducing the world of Rokugan to my players.  

After that enjoyable campaign, there was an interest in updating from 3rd edition to 5th edition.  I myself was curious about the differences, but had put off buying it.  I all ready had 3rd edition, and figured there was no great need to update to the "newest".  However, as I learned more about the new edition the core mechanics seemed markedly different than the AEG versions of the game I owned.  

Therefore, with some hesitation; I acquired a copy for myself.  Keep in mind Legend of the 5 Rings: 5th edition is NOT the same as Adventures in Rokugan; also by Edge Studios.  Adventures is a skin for using Rokugan in D&D 5E.  Legend of the 5 Rings: 5th Edition using its own system based on the Fantast Flight Games Genesys system.   Genesys is used with games like Edge of Empire.  It will be interesting to see where this game maintains and differs from the L5R I am familiar with.    

So, let us don our Daisho and prepare to serve our Daimyo.....

The core of L5R..... the dinner party! 

Things I Liked

Rokugan is a very cool place, and it offers RPG opportunities that other games do not emphasize in the same way.  I find it very hard to imagine having a "Murder Hobo" campaign in Rokugan.  Can it be done?  Probably someone has, but it seems very rooted in a fantastical feudal Japanese/Asian culture infused world with a strict culture of law, order, and society; that doing "Murder-Hobo" seems challenging and completely missing the point of it all.  There is so much possibility for story-telling and interacting in the world outside of what one normally sees in a D&D 5e game. 

The game does a good job trying to introduce the player to this world.  The background and the mechanics do a better job creating this in game than the 3rd Edition rules.  They also explain the "structure" of society, Bushido, and the Major/Minor clans very quickly and easily in the opening of the book.  It is a good primer for players new to the setting and ideas of Legend of the 5 Rings.  A point of order is that in these rules the Mantis Clan is still a minor clan.  In addition, the Yazuki family is not split between the Crane and Crab clans. 

The Strife System that can then force a player to react emotionally to remove Strife is an innovation that fits nicely into the world of Legend of the 5 Rings.  Various families, clans, and roles can than unmask, gain, or utilize strife in different ways.  This added mechanical factors that before were more "role-playing" elements of previous editions.  This edition really helps create mechanics for Honor, Glory, and emotion versus duty that previous editions had; but struggled to mimic mechanically.  

The game has dispensed with the ability scores that make up a ring.  Instead, the ring and skill score is what matters.  The player gets to choose which Ring they wish to approach any skill check with, and each skill has a potentially different result/advantages/disadvantages when using that ring.  Therefore, the character has to decide which approach they are using Narratively before determining the results of checks.  This is a cool approach that leads to a lot of narrative nuance, but the downside is that there are a lot of interactions the GM may have to keep in mind. There is a helpful table breaking down skill groups and potential approaches on page 144.      

All the Katas, Monk abilities, and magic is grouped together into a single category called techniques.  Certain schools only have access to certain techniques.  However, mechanically almost all techniques work the same.  This is a wise way to streamline a lot of the nuances from the previous editions.  

The "fail state" in the game is not always death.  There are a number of conditions that can be inflicted, including social/psychological ones.    

In the GM section, there is a nice break down of potential obstacles based on whether they are martial, intrigue, investigative, explorative, etc.  This gives GMs solid guide lines for creating obstacles within each pillar.  There is also a good discussion about raising the stakes, duty, and conflict with Bushido for the players to have to navigate.  These are very helpful in helping a GM create the right "feel" for the game.  

Things I Did Not Like

The FFG Genesys system uses proprietary dice, and these dice are not easy to source at the FLGS.  That is a major downside to this game.  There are online dice rollers that you can use instead.... for now.  I really do not like when a game uses proprietary dice for this exact reason, as it is an additional barrier to entry, makes the system seem "hard to learn", and can limit the life expectancy of the product's shelf life.  The game can only be played when you have the right dice, and there will be a time when you can not get them.  Plus, it just smacks of Game as Product design and marketing, which I am adverse to.  All that said, there is a chart that allows you to convert standard d6 and d12 into use..... which makes me question the reason for custom dice even further!     

In addition, this game seems to streamline the Family --> School approach.  It looks like each family also has their own school to go with them.  I like that there are more, varied schools BUT I do not like that they seem so closely aligned with the Family.  There is nothing stopping you from changing up Family and separating it from School but it does not seem like there is much incentive to do so.  That makes me feel like this is a Class/Level system stripped down and hidden in a different wrapping.  I am not a fan of that.  

There is a lot of "If This, Then That" approaches to the game.  In fact, it is one of the central decisions a player needs to make about their character.  How do they approach problems and what Rings do they emphasize in order to handle them.  This is great for Players, but there is a heavy burden on the GM to know what the various approaches lead to, and when to use different skills for different scene types.  The game has a simple Roll and Keep unifying mechanic but the potential outcomes look cumbersome.  I imagine this game would require a very skilled and knowledgeable GM, making decisions on the fly, or lots of consulting the rulebook to know what to use when. 

A petty concern, but in the equipment section there are a lot of unfamiliar weapons to the average reader.  Therefore, pictures of all of them would have been really helpful.  I don't really know the difference between a Dao and a Gao.  

Meh and Other Uncertainties

The game has taken a much more Narrative bend than previous editions.  The focus is on creating and telling the stories of the character's and imitating samurai dramas.  The rules are pretty open that Narrative comes first, and the game has been structured to lean in that direction.  This is a change from previous editions, where the narrative was important but was more "mechanically" driven.  This edition leans the other way and is a change for those coming from previous versions of the game. 

The game has a well-developed section abut Scenes.  Here it lays out the differences between narrative, downtime, and conflict scenes.  It further goes into detail about how to handle Conflict scenes such as combat, intrigues, Duels, and Mass Battle.  This is basically a "How to play the game" section and is the heart of the rules.  It is nice that the intrigue rules cover Social interactions, which is often missing in other games.  The Scene approach gives a lot of structure of "what can be done when" for the game and helps players and GMs focus on what is appropriate and when it is useful. 

The rules cover a wide variety of situations that an RPG group can utilize.  However, the game does not have a strong exploration element built into the rules in the traditional sense.  One could argue that the exploration is more social in this game than in the geographic realm.  The exploration is learning how the society works and how to operate effectively in it.

In addition, the key ideas about how to play the game are not introduced until Chapter 6.  Therefore, it can be challenging to get a good feel for how all the Character Creation stuff goes together to actually play the game.     

The game still uses the 20 Questions model for building a character.  This is a tried and true model, and this book goes into even more detail than the 3rd Edition one does.  However, keep in mind this is still mostly background and gives structure to your character.  It touches somewhat on mechanics, but is mostly for role-playing support.  It helps you know how to role-play your character.  Therefore, it is more art than science.    

Final Thoughts

This is a well-fleshed out world and society to game in, and that in itself can bring its own challenges and a very different experience.  You are not some quasi-legal adventurer out on the fringe of civilization, you are a member of the hierarchy, a noble, and bound by a strict code of conduct to yourself, your clan, and your family.  This game is not about freedom of action, it is about constriction and playing and working within those confines.  That alone makes it a novel RPG experience and one that is not for everyone.

In addition, this is a dense set of rules.  I recommend playing this game with experienced role-players.  This is not a beginner RPG by any stretch.  It is challenging and nuanced, with a relatively high degree of mastery needed to play to its full advantage.  That said, I look forward to giving it a shot with my group at some point in the future.  


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Monday, August 21, 2023

Castles in the Sky: Indo-China Campaign VII - French vs British


Welcome back to the Castles in the Sky Indo-China campaign between the British and the French.  When we last left off, the campaign was tied 5 to 5.  The campaign ends when one player gets to 7, and is ahead by at least 2.  That triggers a "final battle" scenario.  This could be the decisive battle to get to 7, but it would require a decisive victory.  Last time, the two forces met in a Patrol mission with the French Fabian strategy getting the best of the aggressive British commander.  However, no lasting damage was done and both fleets are coming into this battle at full strength! With that in mind, British Commodore Duckworth of the Royal Navy of Siam is taking an Offensive strategy, while Commodore Aubre is staying on the Defensive.  

Commodore Duckworth wanted those French ships removed from the vicinity of Siam.  They had all ready caused issues as the French backed rebels had briefly taken over the Kra Isthmus.  Thankfully, aggressive action of his own had allowed the rightful government to regain control.  However, if the French were a force  in being, they would continue to hamper his efforts to bring Siam under permanent British rule.  

Therefore, he sent out a strong force of picket ships to locate the enemy.  He was keeping the rest of his forces in reserve.  Once the French were sighted, he would bring in the rest of his fleet.  However, to avoid suspicion, he scattered them on routine patrol, waiting for the signal once the enemy force had been fixed.  They would then all converge on and overwhelm the opponent.  

Despite Commodore Duckworth's attempts at subterfuge, the French officer Commodore Aubre was wise to the British plan.  He was under increasing pressure from Paris to neutralize the threat of the British fleet in the region.  They endangered the French supply routes through the South China Sea, and access to the critical rubber plantations in Indo-china.  They were pressing him for a decisive engagement and to go on the attack.  As a result, Aubre sent out his own picket ships as the rest of his force took off from their bases around Indo-china.

Both the British and the French are mobilizing their full fleets today for an outright battle. 

L'Aire National

Camot- Commodore Aubre- Command 4
Charles Martel Class Heavy Cruiser (Battleship)   

Cuchinchina - Captain Gourdon- Command 2
Gloire Armored Cruiser

Tourane- Captain de Genouilily- Command 2
Descartes Class Cruiser

Tonkin- Captain de Vence- Command 2
D'Iberville Class Cruiser

Hue- Captain Senez- Command 2
D'Iberville Class Cruiser

Fantassin- Captain Valjean  - Command 4
Chasseur Class Destroyer- Torpedo  

Tromblom- Commander Morice- Command 2 
Chasseur Class Destroyer - Sky Mines     

Their picket force will be the Fantassin, Tonkin, and Hue led by Captain de Vence of the Tonkin

The Royal Navy (of Siam) 

HMS Malaya- Commodore Duckworth- Command 2
Queen Elizabeth Class Battleship

HMS Archeron- Captain Manby- Command 3
Duke of Edinburgh Class Cruiser

HMS Achilles- Captain Durham- Command 4
Warrior Class Cruiser

HMS Arrogant- Captain Knowles- Command 2
Arethusa Class Light Cruiser

HMS Medusa- Captain Butler- Command 2
Active Class Light Cruiser

HMS Corsair- Commander Montgomery- Command 4
Bull Finch Class Destroyer- Torpedo

HMS Hasty- Commander Rawley- Command 2
Bull Finch Class Destroyer- Sky Mines 

The British picket force will be the HMS Corsair, HMS Arrogant, and the HMS Hasty led by Captain Knowles of the Arrogant. 

Today is an Escalation battle with the French as the attackers!  Each force has a small 15 Operational Value picket force that will start on the table up to 12 MU in.  Follow-on forces will need to make a command roll after turn 2 on a ship by ship basis to enter the table.

In addition, cloud cover is impacting the board at altitude 4.  

This is a full fledged battle, so it will take place  on a 72MU by 48MU board.   The British are coming on above the cloud cover, and spaced out to try and track down and engage the French fleet.  

HMS Hasty at top, Arrogant center, and Corsair at bottom

The French are coming in on the corner, and clumped together in the cloud bank, but at high speed.  

The Fantassin, Hue, and Tonkin steam through the clouds

For this battle, we are using a standing white board to track the key details of the battle like ship speed, altitude, Command, damage, and special effects.  

In addition, I am not going to be detailing every move and shot like previous game reports. Instead, I am going to give some high level details.  The battle will be broken down by stage.  These will be the Maneuver Phase, Battle Phase, and the End Phase.   

Maneuver Phase

The British picket ships are spread across the board just above the cloud banks.  They start to move towards the opposite board corner, where they suspect the French are located.  The French stay in the cloud bank and vector in on the lead British ship.  The British HMS Corsair seems to be going out wide.  

The rest of the French fleet receives the wireless communication from their pickets and converge on the scene.  The Camot arrives supported by the Tromblom, while the Tourane follows the vanguard.  The French stay in the clouds.  

For their part, the British pickets move in with the HMS Hasty taking the lead, perhaps to unload their mines in the path of the enemy ships?  The Corsair goes out wider, trying to turn back in for a torpedo attack run later in the battle.  

The Archeron and the Achilles enter the battle and are on course to cross the path of the French fleet and catch them between the passing Pickets and the oncoming cruisers. Notably, the British flagship is not on the table. 

The Fantassin manages to cause some Friction on the HMS Hasty with a torp, her plan to disrupt the oncoming French with Sky Mines is thwarted.        

Battle Phase

The battle begins in earnest as Commodore Duckworth arrives with the HMS Malayan.  The Hue and Tonkin pepper the approaching British cruisers and the flanking HMS Hasty with Air Torpedoes.  The Cruisers shrug it off and return fire gamely.  The Hue getting pounded but avoiding damage.  However, the HMS Hasty takes two torpedoes and takes significant damage to the Rudder. The Fantassin manages to pop a Torp into the HMS Arrogant as well, causing damage.  The opening salvo goes to the French! 

Finally, the Gloire arrives at the scene of the battle. The British Cruisers move in as the French Torpedo Cruisers try to break away.  The French ships blow smoke to cover their movement and try to protect themselves from the British Salvoes.  

The British lights take a beating from the French fleet.  The HMS Corsair flew into a deftly launched swarm of mines and took a hit and a lot of friction. The HMS Arrogant got caught in the open in front of the French flagship, got rocked and started on fire!  The HMS Hasty deployed her mines, but the Tourane was there and deft gunnery blasted the British ship into bits and cripples her, forcing it to strike her colors.  The Smoke on the D'Ibervilles paid off as the British cruisers pounded on them, but they escaped with only one hit on the Hue.  

However, that hit proved true as Hue exploded!  The cargo of Air Torpedoes goes up in a spectacular blast that catches the Tonkin and the HMS Achilles in the blast.  The Tonkin manages to ride it out, while the Achilles loses more armor, and the Port Light Battery.     

The French regain intiative, and use the Camot's escort to fake the British into thinking the French Battleship is going one way, but then it veers the other to engage the British Cruiser line.  The HMS Archeron tries to make a Fire for Effect order on the Camot, but fails.  A shot from the rear of the HMS Achilles on the Tonkin adds Friction and keeps its Torpedoes in their tubes. However, the HMS Corsair is not so lucky as the Fantassin manages to get a bead and pepper the Destroyer with Torpedoes.  The HMS Corsair strikes her colors thanks to a damaged rudder. 

The HMS Medusa finally joins the battle!  The Tromblom failed to re-load her mines.  The HMS Corsair leaves the board.  The French Fleet managed to isolate the HMS Achilles and pound it with close range firepower, reducing her to 1 armor left.  However, the Tromblom was caught out as well, and pummeled by the British in return, for three hits.  The Tonkin and the HMS Arrogant traded shots, causing another hit on the damaged Arrogant. 

The Tromblom blows up, a heavy shell finding her mine bay.  However, the explosion is not enough to catch the trailing HMS Archeron.  The HMS Arrogant is also crippled from the last shot from the Tonkin and the British ship strikes her colors. The HMS Achilles keeps fighting even at 1 armor left. 

End Phase
The French maintain the Initiative and that allows them to keep the HMS Achilles in danger, while avoiding the British guns while in the clouds.  The Cuchinchina can barely make out the damaged British cruiser, and the Captain orders the gunners to fire for effect.  The barrage is devastating and the British cruiser explodes from the Overkill. The explosion causes 1 friction on the HMS Malayan, and hits the HMS Archeron for 3 friction and 2 hits.  

The Malayan can barely see the Cuchinchina when she opens up, and Commodore Duckworth has his gunners fire for effect in return. The French cruiser takes three hits in return.  The HMS Archeron also explodes from the damage caused by the HMS Achilles explosion!  This causes friction on the HMS Malayan.  

The two fleets begin to part ways as dusk settles in.  Parting shots from the Cuchinchina and the HMS Malayan amount to nothing thanks to a Brace! save by the Cuchinchina.  

It feels like a French victory with 2 British ships striking their colors, 1 crippled, and two exploding.  However, the French also lost two ships to explosions.  Going to the big board we have:

French lost  17 Armor points
British lost 26 Armor points

That puts the French at 7 to 5 in the Campaign and triggers the Final Battle.  As they got their first, they can choose the scenario for the fight. 

The French strategy in this battle, and the campaign; has been to duck and weave!  The cloud cover at altitude 4 across the board helped me a great deal keep the British guns at a distance.  They had to get close, and I just needed to keep them isolated at 8+ MU away minimize their shooting.  I managed to do that in this battle.  Once again my significantly weaker battleship survived unscathed against the very impressive British battleship.  When that thing fired it always caused havoc!  

Campaign Stuff
The key point now is repairs to the damaged ships.  The HMS Corsair managed to repair her 3 damage, the Arrogant failed to fix any, and the Hasty fixed 1.  The British use their Strategic assets to repair the Corsairs rudder.  The Hasty and the Arrogant are put in dry dock for repairs, essentially removing them from the Final battle roster.  That leaves them without their cruisers, a light cruiser, and a Destroyer.  Yikes! 

The French also make repairs.  The Fantassin is returned to full health by the crew.  The French Strategic assets are used to fully repair the Cuchinchina.  The French will be down a Destroyer and a Torpedo Cruiser.  

Since we are going into the Final Battle, we decided to skip ship Experience.  We keep forgetting to use the bonuses anyway! 

Admiral Aubre was satisfied that the Navy of Siam was on the ropes.  The French diplomatic efforts were beginning to bear fruit in Siam, supported by their successes in the air.  Thanks to this progress, the British Foreign Office decide to replace the ambassador for Siam with a fresh hand.  Commodore Duckworth was to meet the incoming ambassador and escort him safely to port.  However, the French government had other plans.  Commodore Aubre was to intercept the ambassador and make sure he never arrived on station in Siam.       

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Monday, August 14, 2023

Wargame Design: Thinking about Naval and Space


As many of you know, I actually "cut-my-teeth" in game design on Naval wargames.  My first big project was a wet-Navy game set in the Warhammer 40K universe.  Or course, this also evolved into other Naval-esque games like Castles in the Sky.  Therefore, I am always interested in the topic of Naval and by extension Space wargaming.  

Naval Military History has been a low-level interest of mine since college.  There I took some Naval ROTC courses on the topic, even though I was not in the ROTC.  It was strange being a civilian in that class and getting a snapshot into that world.  Talk about a fish-out-of-water!  I took these classes due to my focus on pre-WWI Diplomatic History where the Naval Arms race between the Great Powers, specifically Germany and Britain; was a key part.  Therefore I needed to understand that aspect better. 

Of course, Naval Military History goes back a long ways, all the way back to some of the first recorded battles between the Egyptians and the Sea Peoples.  Like all warfare, it has gone through a number of evolutions and the strategies, tactics, and key elements over the centuries.  It is closely tied to its own hostile environment.  Changes in technology often drive these changes in Naval Military Strategy.  In addition, "Modern" Naval Military History also takes action in the air, below the surface, and even in space!  Therefore, it is even more complex the closer you get to modern times.   

Aquanautica Imperialis

The Challenge of Naval Games
Naval wargames (and their close cousin Space wargaming) have a unique place amongst wargames.  Unlike Land-based games, Naval wargames operate in a relatively "static" landscape and one that is naturally hostile to human life.  In addition, they are heavily dominated by the technology humans need to survive in these environments.  If this technology is lost, the humans involved in the activity are lost.  I.e. if your ship is lost.... you likely die! 

Where Are All the Battles At? 
One of the major challenges in this genre is that there is a lot less action in this space!  There are literally hundreds and thousands of land-based battles.  Many of them are rather well-documented.  However, the same can not be said of Naval games.  There is a much smaller number of Naval engagements we can look to for guidance.  

The main driver of this "lack of action" is simple.  Ships cost a lot and are not easy to build.  Therefore, the loss of these resources is a big challenge to replace.  The easier it is to replace them, the more likely to have conflicts between them.  As and example, in the Greek period the Trireme was difficult to build but we read about huge fleets being built within 6 months to a year.  In this period there are also frequent battles at sea.  On the other side, WWI Dreadnoughts were a huge challenge to build and there was only really one major engagement between Dreadnoughts in WWI.    

Therefore, as a Naval Wargame Designer you have to work much more with "Theory" and less with actual historical examples.  If we look to Space combat, this problem is exponentially harder!  Designers are forced to think about how things are supposed to work, or might work, or theoretically work instead of seeing how they actually worked in combat.  

Trireme vs Trireme Ancient Naval

Re-fighting World War Two
The challenge of Naval Wargaming outlined above is why we keep re-fighting World War II especially the Pacific.  To put it simply, that is where the action is!  The Battle of Tsushima Straits 1905 through to Battle of Cape Engano in 1944 is where we see well-documented battles, and even here the number of engagements is rather limited.  However, it is the most encounters we have details about.  Therefore, it makes sense that this is the dominant space for Naval wargaming.  

In addition, these WWII re-fights have led to how we think about "Space" combat as well.  Space combat frequently has all the hallmarks of WWII combat such as the same ship classes, similar tactics, and fleet organization.  Much of our space combat games are just re-fighting WWII Naval except using different minis.  

Few Naval Powers 
Historically speaking, there were not a lot of nations that have the resources to build Naval vessels and therefore that limits the pool of adversaries you can pull from.  You rarely get a situation where an alliance of different nations using a variety of ship assets engage an opposed alliance.  Perhaps during the Age of Sail or the Ancient Greeks is the closest thing we see anything like that.  Typically, it is one dominant power versus a much weaker power, and that makes for uninteresting and not engaging games.

Let's think about trying to build a Modern Naval game for a moment.  You have a handful of nations with active and meaningful Naval warfare capabilities; the United States, Japan, the UK, France, and China.  There are others with varying degrees of Naval power but those are the "biggest" players.  4 out of 5 of those are in an alliance and very unlikely to "engage" with each other.  Our most recent Naval engagements are Asymmetrical in nature and Asymetrical games are even harder to pull-off than even engagements.

A similar state of affairs applies as you look back into history as well.  I am sure there are great games that can be played regarding a British ship or two bombarding and silencing some forts along the North African coast.  I am not sure that game needs to be a miniature based wargame.  

The Problem of Scale      
Finally, when dealing with Naval (and even more so Space) there is a problem of scale.  A ships guns in the "modern" period since 1905 can reach across the table.  A ship's speed is much slower.  Therefore, Maneuver is limited at the scales available on a tabletop.  If you closely follow the details, ships might move 2 spaces, while their guns can cross the table!  Therefore, there is no maneuver, just rolling shooting and checking for damage.  To me that is a very boring game with no tactics, and I know that is not the case for actual Naval theory and strategy.  The scale of the games, the size of the minis, and the relationship to the area of the battle is challenging for tabletop gaming. 

Sci-fi Submarines in Battle for the Depths

Fix These Issues!
You can see that creating a tabletop miniature wargame in the Naval realm is a pretty big challenge.  There are a lot of reasons why this is a tough niche to fill.  Therefore, it requires a game designer to think about how they want to approach the Naval (and Space) wargaming space. As we look ahead, let's take a look at how others have resolved these issues and how I have been thinking about it as well. 

Historical Battles and the Designer's Triangle
You may recall the concept of the Designer's Triangle.  Basically, the triangle has three sides, with Narrative, Simulationist, and Gamist on each corner.  The closer you get to one corner, the further away you move from the other two.  

The lack of Historical Battles in naval wargames is really only a problem if your game leans into the Simulationist side of the triangle.  In such a situation, you are focusing more on (re)creating reality and leaning into what actually happened in past battles is helpful.  However, there are two other sides of the triangle you could lean into as well where the lack of Historical battles is not a problem at all.  

A great example of this is Castles in the Sky.  There are many parts that are trying to lean into naval warfare from 1905 to 1918.  However, you may have noticed that the game is actually about flying battleships in WWI, not actual naval combat.  Therefore, the game made some deliberate choices to lean into the Gamist or Narrativist side of the triangle instead of leaning so far to the Simulationist side. 

To build a game of Naval combat, you do not need to lean into "real world" examples or even real-world Naval theory.  Your game can create its own universe and reality to play in.  

Re-Fighting WWII but with Focus! 
The first way we can avoid the traditional habit of just "re-fighting WWII" is to do it with Focus!  Instead of the traditional focus on the "big battles" you could look at a different aspect of the war.  Some classic examples are submarine warfare, convoy escorts, PT boats, mine sweeping, commerce raiding, etc.  

Here the classis example is Cruel Seas by Warlord Games.  Yes, it is set in the familiar WWII setting.  However, the focus is not in the traditional Naval sphere, but a more focused look at smaller-scale PT boats in action.  This changes the dynamics of the game a lot from the "traditional" Naval wargame.  Speed and Maneuver plays a greater role in the game.

This same concept could also apply to space.  Evil Monkeigh on the Delta Vector blog does this frequently.  What if we applied this same Focus to Space games as well?  Instead of fighter combat or the battlewagons, what if we looked at gunships in an asteroid belt?  Instead of thinking of spaceships as battleships, what if we though of them as submarines?  What if submarines acted like fighter planes?  You can still look to historical examples, but with a different focus than what one expects.  This is a great way to create a unique Hook to a game, while avoiding the trap of Innovation being Over-rated.     

Re-fighting World War II?  How about Trireme's Instead! 
Of course, instead of re-fighting WWII, you can also go out and decide to do something really different.  For example, after the Battle of Lissa in 1886, there was a debate in Naval circles about what was the most effective tactics for the near-term?  Gunnery or Ramming?  At the time, the Naval world was going through a transition between wooden ships, iron coated hulls, sails to steam engines, and other innovations.  Armor was out-pacing the ability of gunnery and it was a time of transition.  What would have happened if gunnery continued to lag?  How would the Naval world have changed?  

There are a lot of "niche" periods of Naval warfare in history you could follow or form the basis of your world.  There are also a lot of "themes" you could apply to your Naval combat, in space too.  Think of Dropfleet Commander.  This is a space game but it focuses specifically on landing troops on objectives.  Everything else is secondary.  Historically, this has been a scenario in Space Naval games but this game takes that one step closer and makes it the Hook.  

Another great example of avoiding World War II as the baseline is A Billion Suns.  Here the victory conditions of the game are completely changed so the focus is on completing contracts as a space consultant.  This is nothing like WWII!  

Black Seas from Warlord Games

A Few Good Naval Powers
As mentioned in the Historical Battles section, this only matters if you are leaning into Simulationist on the Designer's Triangle.  However, if you are leaning into Gamist or Narrativist, this doesn't matter.  You can use the tried and true method of Imagi-nations to create the factions you need for your game.  

A great example of this is Dystopian Wars.  The fleets are based on real-world alt history, but has aligned them and then expanded on them.  Add in some magi-tech with Sturginium and you have yourself a unique and interesting world for the game.  They are not constrained by the real-world history that they started with.      
Scale is What You Make It
Thankfully, scale is a tool that wargamers can play with as needed.  There are a few ways to deal with this, and all of them require you to shift the point of the Designer's Triangle you want to focus on.  

1. True Scale - This is the hardest, unless you "zoom" your game out to a higher level.  In such a situation, the tactical space might encompass the entire South China Sea, or Black Sea region.  In this situation, the ship miniatures are very small or represent a task force.  Ranges are long, and movement is limited.  Detection and targeting would be emphasized and saturation of the target.  Time could also be a key element.    

Example: Harpoon

2. Narrative Scale- This assumes the positions are "abstracted" to a large degree.  The key focus is not the actual distance between the targets, but the "relative" distances.  Range bands are critical and the miniatures themselves represent the approximate location of any given vessel.  This could allow tactical combat and Maneuver.       

Example: Dystopian Wars

3. Relative Scale- The vessels and the battlespace do not matter that much to the game play.  Bigger minis mean bigger ships, longer distance represent longer distances.  However, the actual measurements or space being covered is not relevant.  The emphasis is where the ships are in relation to each other.    

Example: Battlefleet Gothic  

4. Strategic Scale- Vessels are not concerned with relative position at all.  Instead, they are either in combat or out of combat.  Ranges do not matter.  The ships are either in engagement range or not.  Combat is highly abstracted and not tactical.    

Example: Twilight Imperium

5. Emphasis Scale- In this version, the scale also does not matter.  Instead, the distances represented are abstracted so that the designer can choose where the emphasis of the rules needs to be.  If the designer wants maneuver, than ship movement and firepower distances are set in order to allow the designer to emphasize maneuver.  If they want to focus on command and control, the the ranges and distances are focused on what the Designer wants the players to experience and the game details are tailored around those needs.  

Example: Warships: Paper Ships, Steel Resolve

Castles in the Sky

Final Thoughts
When you sit down and really think about it, there is still a lot of scope for new Naval and Space wargames on the market.  This is before you even get into becoming creative with actual mechanics to emphasize the parts of the game you want the players to focus on.  To me Naval/Space wargames are a super exciting genre that is deserving of new and continued efforts.  Therefore, I spend too much time thinking about how to approach them.  

Bonus Content
I really did not want to create a whole post for this, but I have been part of a few other games recently that I wanted to share.  

I went to a Demo at the FLGS and played Warlord Games Black Seas.  I don't think I have a good enough feel of it to give a full review.  However, I controlled a single 5th rate Frigate with one allied Frigate, and against two British Frigates.  Seemed like it covered all the bases pretty well, even if I had some abysmal rolling, leaving me entangled with my foe and getting the worst of it through most of the game. 

 The host had an impressive set of French and British ships at 1/700 scale.  They were all based, painted, and rigged.  They looked great.  However, I looked at the effort and figured it was not something I would want to do!  

I did not get a strong enough feel to know what made this different from other Age of Sail games, but it felt relatively easy to learn and fast-play.  Apart from getting entangled, there felt like maneuver was a key part of the game.  The game used d10s IIRC, and had several templates for distances and the like.  I do not recall custom dice or tools that could not be replicated simply.  The basic mechanics were easy and included critical hits and the like.  You did not mark off boxes on a sheet, but you did slide a damage marker down the side of a card.  Our little Frigates took a beating and kept going, can't imagine what the big boys could take.  I felt like you could play a 1v1 ship fight or a small fleet engagement pretty easily with no change to the rules, which is a good thing.   

 You can see my French ship entangled with a British one towards the top of the battle.  Sadly, we ran out of time and could not play through to the end conditions.  However, I was heading to my break point fast! 

Overall, I would play again.  However, I would not buy in and build ships for it.  I would gladly play if my opponent brought and provided the fleets though.  I have no interest in trying to rig up this ships, even though the end result looked stunning on the table. The mechanics seemed simple enough and maneuver seemed to play a vital role without too much bean counting.    

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Monday, August 7, 2023

RPG Review: G.I. Joe: Role-Playing Game - Renegade Studios


<Famous musical chords from the 80's cartoon>

He fights for freedom where ever there's trouble, G.I. Joe is there!  He never gives up, he stays 'til the fights won, G.I. Joe will dare!  

<More dramatic chords>

As a child of the 80's, this was my jam!  I loved G.I. Joe from the cartoon, to the toy line, to the merch, and beyond.  When a special gift giving day came, you could count on me getting G.I. Joe!  I honestly wish I still had it all, as I had so, so much.  I would stage weeks long campaigns between the Joes and Cobra; an evil terrorist organization determined to rule the world!  

Therefore, when I saw this was coming out I knew I wanted it.  I saw it in my LGS but held off.  I did some research on the game, watched some actual plays, and looked through the book.  However, I waited about a year before I finally let my mag-pie nature get the best of me. I caved in and bought a copy.  My inner-child said, "This I command!"  

To get started, the books seems to focus around the "hey-day" of the G.I. Joes from the 80's with a cast of familiar faces.  However, they seem to focus on the period of the TV show, but before the G.I. Joe Movie and Cobra-la.  There is no mention of G.I. Joe: Extreme, Sigma 6, or Renegades.... which is just fine by me.  The game leaves it open on whether you want to play the more light hearted 80's style cartoon for kids, a more gritty/realistic campaign ala the comic books, or something else.  Therefore, you have Duke, Scarlet, Snake Eyes, but the scope seems to go all the way up to Slaughter's Marauders but not into the Iron Grenadiers or Serpentor.  Those "in the know" will understand what all that gibberish means, and knowing is half the battle. 

So, let's get into this...... YOOOOOOO, JOOOOOOE! 

Things I Liked
Character creation is robust and gives you some elements to build a "character beyond the numbers" but also gives your character a good group niche.  You define things that influenced your character, which can lead to some role-play hang-ups, and bonds.  Your Origin is also fairly well fleshed out as part of creation and that feeds into "Roll-play" as well as the "Role-play".   

The Essence system is pretty easy at its core.  You roll a d20 and a d? based on your skill level and add them together.  You are trying to beat a Target Number with your roll.  The multiple dice allows you to remove some of the randomness of a straight d20 roll, and also eliminate some of the ridiculous "gimme" rolls of straight bounded accuracy. Core attributes give you essence points for skills.  If you do not have a skill dice, you roll 2d20 and pick the lowest; basically a disadvantaged roll.  Specialization allows you to roll a lot more dice when it applies.  Modifiers tend to take the form of skill dice shifts up and down. Most TNs are between 10 and 25. 

There is a whole chapter dedicated to Exploration as a subject.  It includes rules and gives some good details for extreme conditions, eating, disease, etc.  This makes sense as there is also an entire chapter on locations to go along with the exploration.  

The rules specifically say that being "defeated" does not mean dead.  It means you or your foe are defeated.  That could be just having your spirit broken, your will to resist shattered, being unconscious, too injured to go on, or dead.  I like that the defeat consideration can be made to be narratively appropriate for the situation. 

I enjoyed the look of the book, the themed asides, the details about the Joes and Cobra, the "lore" and the artwork a lot in this book.  I also appreciated the built-in book mark and the hardcover.  This is a hefty tome, and one I could easily use to take-out a Cobra Trooper. I felt like I was getting a lot of content for my money.  Sure it didn't have every single Cobra operative, every vehicle, etc. that I wanted, but they need to have some sort of limit on things! They have the key ones for sure.    

Things I Did Not Like
This game uses the Renegade Studios Essence 20 system, which is essentially a D20 system.  This system is also used with Power Rangers, Transformers, and other Renegade Studio games and is there house system.  I have no qualms with the system itself.  However, the way it is implemented applies a Class and Level style system with characters gaining Feats as they go up in level (With re-skinned names).  I am not a fan of this approach for modern and Sci-fi games as it makes odd distortions that do not mesh well with "modern-aesthetics" and ubiquitous firearms IMHO.    

Character creation is a bit heavy on special or unique rules that can only be used situationally in-game, and I could see some short campaign where the situational rules never really come-up at all.   

The game allows players to decide how "grim and gritty" they want their game to be which is fine in theory.  However, in implication this game is surprisingly crunchy!  I know there is a loud and vocal subset of players who prefer that style, but this is way too crunchy for me to have a casual 80's nostalgia game.  Plus, entry level Joes are.... not that great at what they do sometimes.  You may want to start at a higher level, but that still leaves a lot of fiddliness that would be hard to teach someone "on the fly".

Reading the example of 3 Joes using an APC against some Trouble Bubbles was eye-wateringly complex.  So much, that I mentally decided that I would need to abstract using vehicles a lot in game.  Very fiddley, but it probably helps some people know "exactly" what they can and can not do and how to do it mechanically.  I am not that type of RPG player, and want a bit more narrative flow and a lot less specificity.   

Interestingly, there is a whole section on Combat, and a whole section on Exploration.  However, there is not a whole section on Social.  They primarily leave that covered by the general skill system.  There are some benefits and rules that apply to Social situations, but no dedicated section on how to use it in game.  It looks like they approach it as just another form of combat, only with words. 

Finally, I was not a huge fan of their GM section.  This is a fairly complex game, and the few pages they devote to how to run it properly are.... generic at best. There are plenty of adversaries, enemy vehicles, and the like provided.  However, not much on how to actually structure, run or balance the game.  

Meh and Other Uncertainties  
I was able to find some QRS and Character sheets for the game on the Renegade Studios website.  The character sheets are a good start, but you will want some extra paper to write down what some of the special rules actually do.  

There is a lot of kit, equipment, drones, animals, and vehicles that your characters can access in this book!  Again, a lot of special rules and fiddliness but also a lot of room for customization as well.  As your character goes up in level they can access more and more of this type of stuff.    

The game has a basic Meta-currency called Story Points.  Players start with 1 per character, and earn more as a team for certain situations.  GMs can use this to help NPCs last a bit longer by changing defense stats, re-rolling bad rolls, roll as if Specialized, etc.  These are intended to even out the chance of really poor rolling and keep the story flowing.  

It has a simple adventure for beginning Joes to get use to the game, and lets them explore G.I. Joes HQ.  It estimates using 3-5 characters over about 4 hours.  Pretty much has everything you need to play it in the book.   

Final Thoughts
This was an interesting read.  It definitely leans into the "crunchier" side of RPG design, and follows the well-worn D&D paths with a few diversions.  The Character Creation is deep enough for those "Min/Maxxers" out there, but also gives character focused designers a lot to hang their hat on.  I appreciated the options they offered and how they led to a personality and mechanical benefits.  It also fit the theme of each G.I. Joe being a specialist.    

Overall, the Crunchy route is not the path I would have taken for this property. Instead I would have gone much more rules-lite with an emphasis on conditions and allowing a broader skill use.  Action would have been much more narratively driven, as it is intending to create new stories based on the G.I. Joe Media.  However, I also understand that is not to everyone's preference, but I think would capture the "feel of the genre" of fantasy, military-lite action with specialists in TV/Comics.  This feels WAY to structured for that type of genre.  However, that could be MY game play/design preference showing. 

I can see why they went the route they did.  You might think in a Fantasy, Military style game that tactical combat would be pretty important.  Tactical elements like where you are compared to others, ranges, vehicle combat, etc.  However, at the end of the day you want to simulate kids' playing make-believe more than playing Stratego.  This game leans heavier into the the "tactical" side of RPGs than I would like, BUT such approach might make it more appealing to existing D&D players.  Time will tell.   
Now you know, and knowing is half the battle. 


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