Stars Without Number: Swan Song

I’ve always liked tabletop roleplaying, but also always ran into the geographical problem. There’s simply not enough people I can find in physical proximity to get a game going, especially living somewhere in  freakin’ Asia, a continent or two away from where more people have heard of the concept.

Now there’s digital tabletop roleplaying – assuming you have a webcam, a microphone and a tabletop roleplaying program – but eh, I already find trying to keep to regular MMO raid times a headache, to say nothing of trying to schedule the SAME 4-5 busy working adults across weeks and months for long enough to have a decent story going.

Then there’s the effort of GMing – isn’t it always funny how the one with the most interest ends up taking on most of the work – and I end up concluding that trying to run a game in reality fits under the ‘very low priority desire’ category.

Instead, just like one realizes that one doesn’t have the time to play all the MOBAs in the world and just idly watches professional streams now and then, I’ve taken to watching someone else roleplay for me.

Or a whole bunch of someone elses.

JP McDaniel aka “itmeJP” on Youtube, runs a roleplaying games channel where his friends and him play through a broad range of game systems. He’s also had some very special guest stars joining in – Totalbiscuit on Dark Heresy, Jesse Cox on Numenera, and so on.

One of the more recent and fascinating game series that I would recommend is their current play through with the “Stars Without Number” RPG system (a free edition available through DriveThruRPG here.)

If you like science fiction, and/or are a fan of Firefly, where a gang of ruffians and ne’er-do-wells fly around on a spaceship visiting different planets and getting into interesting scrapes, you might like Swan Song.

This is Part 2 of the first episode, which gets right into the introduction of the characters, then the story portion.

(Part 1 is the character creation and involves lots of dice rolling and numbers and system talk, which may only interest a smaller subset of you.)

One notable player to look out for is Steven Lumpkin, who also happens to be the lead level designer for the Warhammer 40k: Eternal Crusade MMO. He’s more often in the GM role, but as it turns out, he’s also a very entertaining and artfully imaginative player.

The entire playlist is here.

As these “Rollplay” episodes are almost essentially audio plays, unless you really want to track every last nuance of their faces and dice rolls, I’ve found that they make good watching alongside a relaxing farming session in an MMO, where one can indulge in repetitive meditative motions while keeping the rest of the brain occupied elsewhere.

Now level 63 in Path of Exile, thanks to lots of Fellshrine Ruins farming and Swan Song!

(The item drops on Merciless do seem to be a lot more attractive, I’m accruing currency and skill gems at a decent enough rate.)

Tabletop Fiasco @ Geek and Sundry

I may be the last person in the world to find out about this. If so, my only excuse is a quote from a Tripod song:

If there’s four levels of cool
Then I’m at Level 3.
It goes freakishly cool people first
Cool people next, then there’s me….
And then my mum.

I Always Get Into Stuff, Tripod

But anyway, Wil Wheaton apparently does a webshow on Tabletop games over at Geek & Sundry, and besides a rollicking round of Munchkin with Felicia Day, Sandeep Parikh and Steve Jackson (which was pretty fun to watch too,) there is a truly spectacular example of the Fiasco RPG, which is a must-see.

Fiasco is basically a tabletop roleplaying game that is centered around generating a good narrative/story based on well-laid plans going horribly awry for a number of characters. It’s recreating the plot of any Coen Brothers movie or heist film in a very entertaining, consensus storytelling fashion. (They do a better overview and explanation of the game than I can in the video, so feel free to just skip this and watch.)

 

I’ve owned the Fiasco pdf for a good number of years now, mostly because I developed a habit of collecting RPG systems in my youth and it got cheaper and easier on the storage space to hoard them digitally instead. It’s a thick 135 page tome that I’ve never managed to read from cover to cover, but was impressed by how its design and mechanics help to build up and prompt ideas for the players.

Characters must end up linked to each other via Relationships of some kind, there are a number of Needs involved (the prime rule of storytelling, what a character wants and what he is willing to do to get it) and some Locations and Objects to create a setting and have some key Macguffins to focus on.

Sadly, I lack friends with the patience to sit at a table for two to three hours and tell a collaborative story, and try as I might, haven’t gotten around to figuring out how a game of solo Fiasco or writing with Fiasco might work. I keep stalling at the setup as my brain fries trying to develop three or four interrelated characters at once.

Still, the show’s pretty good inspiration for yet another attempt at it some time.

And even if you have no interest in tabletop roleplaying games (or ad lib acting or writing stories) whatsoever, you should just watch the Fiasco videos above because it’s one of the best movies that was never made.

Where I Attain the Opportunity to Demonstrate Immoderate Verbosity (Bookworm Adventures Deluxe)

This was the game that sat on my shoulder like a devilish imp, prompting me to finally pick up the entire Popcap bundle during a seasonal sale, despite already having played Plants Vs Zombies, the main popular anchor of a pack stuffed with a lot of other cheaper, cheesier, mainstream-y casual games.

After playing the demo, I just couldn’t get over how goddamn FUN it was.

And how much I wanted to keep playing until I completed the game.

In Bookworm Adventures Deluxe, you guide the main protagonist Lex the Bookworm on his epic quest to save the day and rescue the girl.

If you can get over the cartoony graphics and initial cheesiness, you’ll find that they hide a pretty exciting hybrid between an RPG and Boggle.

Yes, all game mechanics become more fun when we put an RPG wrapper around it. (We can talk about Puzzle Quest (bejeweled+RPG) and Defenders Quest (tower defence+RPG) another time, cos I have those games too.)

It’s crazy, but it works. You make words out of the letters on the grid given to you, and the longer your word, the more damage your excessive grandiloquence does to your opponent.

Given how fond I am of playing with vocabulary, this is a match made in heaven.

And the game is anything but easy.

It starts off simple, and you can get away with making three or four letter words to swiftly beat up the initial opponents, who clock in at about 3-4 hearts. In the earlier chapters, your amusement may derive more from seeing what non-kid-like words the game’s dictionary will let you get away with.

No, the F word doesn’t work. Oh well. Sex does!

Or how long a word you can spell.

Or how ironically appropriate the word is.

Then the complexity ramps up. You win treasures that act as weapons and armor, each with their own altering mechanic. The Bow of Zyx above gives bonus damage to words using the letters X, Y and Z. A Hammer of Hephaestus obtained in a much later chapter ramps up your damage, especially if you spell metal-related words, such as iron, bronze, melt, etc.

Some equipment offers you partial or full protection from special attacks that the more advanced monsters do, such as stunning you for a turn or three while they get free attacks on you, or adding poison or debuffing your strength and so on.

(Really, we’re spelling words here, what is this talk about debuffs and status effects! That’s the RPG component at work…)

You’re limited to bringing only three treasures with you, so choose wisely for what you’ll face. Helpfully, the game will tell you beforehand what special attacks the next chapter’s enemies are fond of using, so it does involve strategy, rather than boiling down to a trial-and-error guessing game.

And yes, there are Boss Battles at the end of every chapter.

Before long, the amount of hearts the enemies have is… staggering, to say the least.

Though it doesn’t stop me from… see above.

Some monsters have the ability to destroy tiles for several turns, making them useless in terms of contributing damage. You can choose to use them up quickly and cycle in new tiles, or just leave them be and work around them. Later, enemies may even Infect certain tiles, and those can spread to adjacent tiles, encouraging the strategy of using them up as quickly as possible.

And then you get the Gem Tiles. By spelling longer words of five letters or more, you get bonus gemmed letter tiles that, when used, give -your- attacks special status effects, such as freezing the enemy for a turn, or adding poison, or debuffing the amount of damage the enemy does (very important!), in addition to buffing your total damage.

Adding to the increased sophistication is the special three-letter word immunity certain bosses sport. Yep, those simple words don’t work no more. No more “Yes” “Sit” Bat” and so on. Four or more letters to do damage, and frankly, if you stick to four letters, you’ll probably get very beat up and use lots of healing potions in the process.

Death is not excessively punishing. You lose all your accumulated potions. If you want more, then you play a few minigames that may win you some bonus potions. And you continue from where you left off.

The setting for the first book was well-chosen, the trials of Ancient Greece, so you face fairly recognizable enemies and tropes (like venturing to the Underworld, a seven-headed hydra, etc.) Being a wordy sort of game, you may also stumbled across sly puns and a easter egg or two.

*cough* *cough* If you can’t recognize the reference, we must really talk about Interactive Fiction in subsequent posts in the future. (Prolixity on purpose.)

The final boss at the end of chapter 10 is no pushover. She was the cause of my first death, and the amount of hearts she has… well, it SCROLLS down as you go through the rows and rows.

I wanted to ask if she was “jilted” but I lacked an E. Close enough. She didn’t take kindly to the inquiry.

All the previously mentioned mechanics are in full play here. You can see the status effects on both of us. The first green tile is a gem that heals me for two hearts when used. The second is an infected tile I was getting rid of as soon as possible. Using the letter Y boosts my damage, thanks to the bow I’m carrying. Look at the amount of specials she has, sheesh.

Challenge level: Not exactly a kid’s game. A smart, brainy one, maybe.

Lemme tell you, any kid who plays this game, I will have tremendous respect for. It is fiendish in how hard it pushes your vocabulary to the limit.

The ten chapters took me a Herculean three hours of rewardingly fun mental effort in a marathon sitting, and I was all ready to claim the girl as my prize after whomping Medusa.

… And then they tell me, you’re only -just- done with Book 1.

There is a Book 2. (No, no, not the sequel Bookworm Adventures Deluxe 2, though there is one. But as in, in this singular game, Bookworm Adventures Deluxe, there is not just ten chapters of Book 1, there is also a Book 2, and presumably ten more chapters?!)

And I checked the main title screen and sure enough, some other feature only unlocks after you’ve completed Book 3.

TWO MORE BOOKS in this one game? Are you telling me it gets EVEN harder from here on up? And that I have another SIX hours to go?

I decidedly to mercifully end the marathon before my back killed me, but wow, I was impressed. It’s going to last me some time yet.

Book 2: Arabian Nights, here we come.