Our Last Best Hope – Use Those Story Hooks When You Can

In late October, when I was just getting my ad hoc gaming group started, I ran Our Last Best Hope, a hybrid board game/roleplaying game from Magpie Games. I can say without qualification that fun was had by all.

The conceit of Our Last Best Hope is that the world is facing an apocalyptic threat (“space,” “snow,” and “zombies” are included in the main book), and the players are the one desperate shot at saving humanity. Players can be soldiers, doctors, scientists, or engineers, each with special abilities to deal with threats.

Our Last Best Hope is a “storytelling game” without a gamemaster; each turn a particular player has a roleplaying experience during which he or she tries to accumulate “story points” so that, at the end of the roleplaying phase, the story points can be used for extra dice to deal with a threat.

I decided unilaterally that the apocalypse would be space-based, because nothing says apocalypse like rehashing the plot of Armageddon. We decided we’d be trying to disarm a rogue Soviet Mars probe that was going to detonate its Cold War nuclear payload, shunting the Red Planet on a collision course with Earth. We had two engineers, two scientists, a doctor, and a soldier.

Everyone died. We may have fudged the rules at the end, so maybe we saved the Earth, but everyone died. What we didn’t realize was that, if you don’t roleplay to get your story points early on, a sequence of bad rolls can enmesh the players in a cascade of increasing threats, so that after one round, everyone’s somewhat injured and already down on “touchstones” (free single-use story items, such as the saxophone we ended up jamming into a breached airlock) and drawing down the common story point pool we were hoping to use against the cataclysm at the end.

Because of that, midway through, when there’s a roll to determine if you made the right choices so far, we failed catastrophically. I think it wiped out all of our special gear and killed half of the table right then. After that, we were just too low on story points and health to go much further, although our deaths did contribute extra dice to the end.

That said, we had amazing fun. We were screaming at the players who “made us crazy,” chatting with the players who “made us sane,” and revealing horrible secrets like how both engineers had fudged their qualifications. We laughed a lot, and would totally do it again.

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Clockwork & Chivalry – First Attempt

So, the last weekend in November, my group generated characters and ran the initial adventure in the back of Clockwork & Chivalry, the “clockpunk” RPG of the English civil war.

Overview

Clockwork & Chivalry is set in the midst of the English Civil War; the adventure we played was at the end of the year 1645. Making the game more interesting than a bunch of people roleplaying a mostly no-winners religious and political war, Clockwork & Chivalry adds the twist that the Royalists have alchemist wizards on their side, and Cromwell and the Parliamentarians have machinists who build clockwork tanks, motorcycles, and other war machines.

Character Creation

The character generation system starts with a similar style of stats system to D&D – roll 3D6 for some stats, 2D6+6 for others. Then you pick a social class, a profession, and a faction. As character creation goes, it’s faster than many, but not particularly speedy.

Both the joy and the difficulty in Clockwork & Chivalry comes from the faction system. It’s great fun that you can pick one of many truly rabid economic, religious, or political groups from seventeenth-century England, from the nudist Adamites to actual Satanists, with (among others) Anabaptists, Laudians, Puritans, and Scottish clans in between, but the game mechanics for keeping a party of differing interests together is weak at best. You get a skill bonus for being “connected” to another player character, but just because you shared some adversity ten years ago doesn’t mean you’re going to go traipsing all around England at war with someone who’d like a side adverse to yours to win that war.

Another side issue, which can be a lot more interesting if you really love to roleplay, is that certain professions in Clockwork & Chivalry can only be held by a character presenting as male. You don’t actually have to be a man to be one of these professions, but you must have (at least in the past) acted as if you were a man. This raised fascinating possibilities for people who love deep roleplaying (so not us) when one of the players decided to be a woman who was also a Devil’s Horseman, a member of a group of Scottish men who swear their souls to Satan for power over horses, but also believe that only men should have that power.

Gameplay

So, our characters were in Oxford for a Christmas spectacular that would go spectacularly wrong.

THE GOOD:

  • Skill use and combat run really fast. Roll under your percentile (plus modifiers), and you do it or you don’t.
  • The system for arguing with people of different factions, destroying their faith in their position bit by bit, is easy and a lot of fun.

THE BAD

  • Percentile skill systems generally make you less good at what you do than other systems. Most “good” starting skills in Clockwork & Chivalry are at 60-some percent, which means that an unlucky third of the time you’re just going to fail. And that happens way too often.
  • Don’t like the static initiative system for combat where it just runs off the dexterity stat.

OTHER

  • Remind your gamemaster that you have Hero Points that allow you to reroll critical failures, such as when you roll a failure that causes nearly all players holding a magical object to have the object explode in their hands.
  • If you only have one pistol, it’s often a waste of time to keep reloading it, because loading a black powder weapon takes forever.
  • Combat can be super-fatal as people don’t get a lot of hit points.

Overall Thoughts

Fair. Would run it again; the book has lots of stats for random baddies and the rules aren’t too horrendously complicated.

Beat to Quarters – Freeform

So, this first weekend in December, we played another round of Beat to Quarters, the roleplaying game where you live out all your Horatio Hornblower fantasies (yes, including those fantasies – there’s a seduction skill).

Since this is the first mention (although not new to us), I’ll give the overview of Beat to Quarters: you’re in the English Navy between 1776 and 1820. All the players take a role on the ship, and abstractly, the ship lives through the players; unless needed to keep the ship from sinking, you use player stats for all sailing, gunnery, etc. tests. Tests are achieved by drawing from a deck of cards to determine success; it’s “diceless,” but not free of chance.

For the past several sessions, players have been sailors (mostly officers, really) on the HMS Tartar, a real ship which actually had some interesting adventures (although it missed Trafalgar, which I’m sure most Beat to Quarters players want to do). We started in mid-1803, and this adventure probably finished off the year with a diplomatic mission to newly-independent Haiti.

We’re old hands at Beat to Quarters now, so I thought I’d try a slightly sandbox-y adventure instead of having a more formulaic series of missions as the game asks for (read: did not prepare for adventure this week). This didn’t turn out as well as planned, as without the mission dividers, there’s no way for characters to advance unless they design their own mini-missions, which my players are always loath to do. So it was a lot of wandering around and drawing cards, but no real payoff at the end (other than that maybe one of the midshipmen players will try to advance to lieutenant next adventure).

Still, fun was had by all, despite numerous failures at various skills. Also, unlike our previous adventures, the sailors were not spending a large portion of the time trying to seduce people. Not to say they didn’t think about it. I blame the rum.

Eclipse Phase – Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald

In the middle of November, I ran another one-shot adventure for Eclipse Phase using the game’s pre-generated characters, which – word to the wise – do not print out on your home printer, because they will use all of your color ink.

Eclipse Phase bills itself as a “roleplaying game of post-apocalyptic transhuman conspiracy and horror,” which I would describe as follows:

  1. Your mind, for all important purposes, is backed up on a hard drive at the bottom of your head, and probably elsewhere. So, generally, death is more inconvenient than permanent.
  2. Earth was destroyed in a cataclysm involving rogue military artificial intelligences and their many war machines, from destructive nanobots to giant war robots. We live on or around all the other solar system’s bodies now. Some of those weapons still remain to ruin your day.
  3. Every major organization not run by libertarians is deeply corrupt and/or incompetent. Corrupt but competent organizations are also actively malevolent. If you work for Heritage Action or Organizing for America you will find this game’s politics implausibly Randian.
  4. The supplement Sunward has rules for you to play a cyborg space whale powered by swimming in the electromagnetic field around the sun. My entire gaming group will mock you forever if you do this.

This session’s adventure (linked if you want to try it yourself) was based on three things which I love:

  1. Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar, the radio show of insurance investigation on WAMU’s “The Big Broadcast,”
  2. The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” by Gordon Lightfoot, and
  3. The Cremation of Sam McGee” by Robert Service.

So, I had the players be “backup insurance” investigators – they were going to investigate whether the insurance company storing copies of some folks’ minds would have to pay to upload them into new bodies due to a covered incident. In this case, the seeming death of all crew members on the bulk freighter Edmund Fitzgerald. Investigating this would reveal something truly horrible in the engine room.

Using the pregenerated characters was okay, although I should have emphasized the need for people to have the “Free Fall” skill for microgravity movement more; there was a lot of wasted time with characters slowly crawling along the outside of a spaceship because they couldn’t make efficient rolls.

This is one of the issues with Eclipse Phase‘s percentile roll skill system; if you are not good or only kind of good at something, you roll poorly quite often. The poor rolling problem was also true with spacecraft maneuvering rolls, which made it tough to be a gamemaster. There’s always a risk of true, dangerous failure, but if the situation just requires a little bit of skill, it’s just not dramatically appropriate to screw the player over for repeated bad rolls. So there were a lot of rolls just to determine how much time was being wasted not succeeding.

Another issue I discovered with the Eclipse Phase system on this go-round was that a large number of knowledge skills (the skill category for areas of study or trivia) are remarkably needed for things the books encourage you to take not very many and have in super-niche areas such as “Profession: Art Restorer” and “Interest: Octopus Pornography.” If you don’t have any spaceship knowledge skills, despite your Pilot: Spacecraft, a fair reading of the rules says that you don’t know anything that isn’t directly related to flying a spacecraft; example – reading a transponder code to know that the ship designated on the code is way too large to be the ship indicated on the radar. And then, you’ll need a cluster of other knowledge skills – most of which you probably never even considered taking – to figure out who the ship belongs to. A lot of the session was folks asking each other if they had appropriate knowledge skills. Sometimes no one did.

One of the players was playing an artificial intelligence uploaded into the ship’s computer; because the setting allowed for constant networked communication between all players through cybernetic implants, not having a body wasn’t much of a hindrance except when physical force needed to be applied (e.g., opening an airlock), and even then, there were robot drones for that. This was especially helpful when the cybernetic octopus who was the pilot confronted the nameless horror (okay, it was named “Tabitha”) in the engine room and ended up fried; the AI could both know what happened and still more or less fly the ship home.

Despite the wonky skill system, Eclipse Phase remains fun; would run again, although next time on Mars or in the clouds of Venus.