Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Bulldogs! Review Pt 1 - Species Creation

That cover alone tells you just about all you need to know.

Soon I'll be running a brand new game for my players, using Galileo Games' FATE hack Bulldogs! This will be a different review from the norm, as will jump around and look at different sections of the book.

I plan to take a very player-centric path for this system, and the vast majority of the elements that will make up the game will be done at the very first session, and primarily by the players. Going in there will be only a handful of elements predefined:
  1. The players are blue-collar stiffs making a poor wage under dangerous conditions. They move cargo around the galaxy, they have a boss that, at a minimum, is a pain in the ass, and are aboard a freighter.
  2. They are under contract to an organization (FedEx in spaaaaace).
  3. There's at least one zone of systems that has a frontier wild-west feel.
  4. There are all sorts of aliens.

Beyond these precepts, I'm going to leave all of the remaining details up for grabs, and have the players flesh the setting out, similarly to how Diaspora does cluster creation. I'll probably do a review after the game starts, but for now, I want to focus a bit on element 4: There are all sorts of aliens.

The book lays out ten core species, but we'll toss all of them out save for the Ursemenites, a despicable race of murderous teddy bears you can read about here
Snuggle THIS.

Besides these buggers, I'll have my players create the races they want in the game, save for one of my own, so lets look at the rules Bulldogs! has for species creation.

Bulldogs! Species Creation
The book breaks the process into several steps:

  • Phase 1: Physiology 
  • Phase 2: History
  • Phase 3: Psychology
  • Phase 4: Creating Abilities

Before creating a sample race, let's talk a bit about Phase 4: Creating abilities. Unlike most FATE games, Bulldogs! takes an approach that is half-FATE, half traditional RPG when it comes to how they differ from the baseline human*. Each species is built using a baseline refresh based on the power level you choose for the game. Fresh Meat (6 refresh), Trouble (7 refresh), Hard Boiled (8 refresh) or Serious Badass (10 refresh). From here, the player then selects a species, each of which has an number of aspects and abilities (which function like stunts) associated with them. The game recommends the player choose two of those aspects. The player then pays for all of the abilities from their starting pool of refresh. For example, the Urseminites have these listed to choose from:

Aspects: Cute as a Button, Short and Round, "Never met a vice I didn't try,” Vicious Little Bastard, “Empathy is for suckers”
AbilitiesThick Fur and Fat [–1], Hard to Kill [–2], No Natural Weapons [+1], Universally Despised [+1]

A Urseminite player in a game where the power level is Trouble would start with 7 refresh, then would purchase all of the species abilities, which total +1, thereby giving that player 8 total refresh to spend on standard FATE stunts..

Reviews and message boards tend to state that Bulldogs! is a great system for introducing players to FATE, and the species rules really do that well, as the purchasing of abilities mimics the mechanical balances of species in systems like D&D and Pathfinder well, while still retaining the abstract FATE method of defining a species.

Now that we've looked at the creation system, lets put it into practice.

Searching the internet a bit for good images to base a species off of, I came across this gem, created by Palladium on the forums:

Note the awesome shark-tooth boots
Phase 1: Physiology 
Based on the image, the sharkmen still breathe with gills. Since their heads are contained within a helmet of water, how do they communicate? Telepathy! The sharkmen excel as hunters and have powerful athletic abilities, including strong swimming skills. Their evolution as a deep-water predator makes them quite adept and withstanding pressure differentials and navigating in weightlessness. Being such an ancient species, the sharkmen have evolved into a species of various sizes, with a wide range of fin shapes, colors, and patterns.

Aspects: Aquatic TelepathAt Home In Adverse Environments

Phase 2: History
Lets name the species Charchodons. No one knows where the Charchodon originally come from, as they are ubiquitous in the galaxy. They tend to excel in professions that place an emphasis on hunting and physical ability, serving as mercenary soldiers, detectives, laborers and explorers. They evolved to be apex predators long ago, and are often found as the head of large organizations. They never appear to age at all, and some Charchodon administrators and rulers have been in power since before the invention of hyperdrive technology.

AspectsCredits Speak LoudestSurvival Of The Fittest

Phase 3: Psychology
Spacers are often overheard using the phrase "like bribing a shark" to refer to buying money one's way out of a jam, as its often easier to pay them off rather than fight them. As a result, they have a well-earned reputation for being venal and materialistic. They tend to ooze confidence, whether warranted or not. A Charchodon's enthusiastic nature, willingness to take on any task, and powerful presence make them a welcome ally throughout the galaxy.

Aspects:Cult Of Personality, Fired Up!

Phase 4: Creating Abilities
The core book provides many examples of these abilities and has a few guidelines and notes that no character can start the game with a refresh less than one. We'll go with these, for a total of -1 refresh.

Immortal [0]
Some species are extremely long-lived, perhaps to the point that they are effectively immortal. Members of
these species aren't affected by the ravages of age during play, and it’s possible they've been around hundreds or even thousands of years.

Environmental Immunity [-1]
Some species aren't affected by certain types of harsh environment, such as freezing temperatures, extreme heat, or vacuum itself. When taking this ability, choose one or more of these types of environment. A member of the species is immune to damage, consequences, or environmental aspects related to the chosen environment. To be immune to more than one or all of these environments, the ability costs –1. In this case we'll choose three environments: vacuum, high pressure, and aquatic.

Fast Healing [–2]
Species with this ability heal far more quickly than the norm. This healing ability does not apply to extreme consequences, but all lesser damage heals at a faster rate. Out of combat, members of this species recover physical consequences as if they were one level lower (a moderate recovers as if it were mild, etc.). Additionally, in combat once per scene a member of this species may clear away a mild physical consequence with a supplemental action.

Specialized Respiration [+1]
Some species must breathe a particular combination of gases that differs from the normal oxygen/nitrogen mix found on most inhabited planets and aboard space stations and star ships. Such species must carry their particular breathable atmosphere with them in some way or they will begin to suffocate. Water serves as the required breathable atmosphere here.

Telepathic Communication [-0]
You can communicate with others mentally, enabling you to broadcast your thoughts. You can use this for group communication when you are within visual distances, but those who receive such messages are unable to reply mentally.

Telepathic Link [-1]
You can establish a strong mental connection with someone, enabling you to send and receive mental
images. This allows for instantaneous communication over long distances. You can’t communicate words, but you can show what you see or send mental images of situations or objects to the other person. This is two way, and the other person can do the same even if he doesn't have this stunt or even if he has no psychic powers of his own. The link works over thousands of miles. If the two people are on the same planet, or even in orbit around a planet, it works fine. This link isn't powerful enough for interplanetary communication within a system, much less across space between two star systems.

Here's the species after creation:


Typical Charcodon aspectsAquatic TelepathAt Home In Adverse Environments, Credits Speak LoudestSurvival Of The Fittest, Cult Of Personality, Fired Up!

Charcodon abilities [-3 refresh]: Environmental Immunity [-1], Fast Healing [–2], Immortal [0], Specialized Respiration [+1], Telepathic Communication [-0], Telepathic Link [-1]

Art by Corrik, which you can see here.

All in all, the species creation system looks fun and varied, with a lot of flexibility. As per FATE, the system starts top-down, making story and flavor the key elements. I can't wait to see what weirdness my players come up with!

* There are no humans listed as default in the book, which is interesting, but rather several human-like species, fulfilling the standard sci-fi trope Human Aliens.

Bulldogs! Review Pt 1a - Species Creation

Friday, February 7, 2014

MTG: Born Of The Gods Prerelease Tournament

Many of us here at Station53 love to play some casual Magic The Gathering, typically in multiplayer games that go far too late into the night. I've been chomping at the bit to give some organized tournament play a try of late, so I signed up for the Saturday midnight sealed prerelease tournament at my local game store. I figured it would be fun, I'd get some cool new cards, and get my spell-slinging derriere handed to me all night. What's not to love?

To begin with, I did a bit of online research about how to approach a sealed tournament. Deckbuilding might be my favorite part of MtG, but building a 40 card deck is a different animal altogether. This is where baked goods come in.

The BREAD method is a shorthand way to prepare for a draft tournament, but seems useful for sealed as well, since both tournament styles are for 40 card decks. Its a handy way to sort through the 75 cards you'll have in front of you to determine which colors and cards you should play. Based on the acronym, you prioritize your cards as follows:

B - Bombs
These are the the cards that you build a deck around. Ideally, when they come into play, your opponent rage-quits, flips the table over, and passes out on the floor after inarticulately cursing you and spasming like a 3 year old who consumed too much candy.

R - Removal
Since so much emphasis in this format is on creatures, we want something that can deal with those creatures. Creature destruction, bounce spells, discard and sacrifice effects all take priority here.

E - Evasion
We want creatures that can get damage through our opponents defenses, so the emphasis is on flying, deathtouch (so they won't want to block them), effects that make them unblockable, and trample. Research informed me that lying and cheating falls into this category as well, but I'm no good at that, and my mom would ground me if I tried. Mom qualifies as a bomb in MtG terms, even 38 years later.

A - Aggro
These are creatures that hit fast and hard, swarming our opponent. They are quick to cast and like songs with double-bass drum at 180 BPM.

D - Dregs/Duds
These poor cards are the ones that round out the remainder of your deck. They tend to fill the holes in your mana curve, and hopefully my opponents mistakenly think them to be bombs.

The interwebs advised me* to make sure I have 17-19 lands, try to stick to two colors, pick my cards such that the majority of them have a 2, 3 or 4 casting cost, and to make sure I know the rules for the various effects present in the set. Having read up on tribute and inspiration, I loaded my backpack with cards to trade, electrolyte water and power bars, then made my way over to Card Kingdom in the Seattle neighborhood of Ballard, ready to fail and fail often!

This place rocks. They have an attached bar/restaurant too.
11:23 PM 
I arrived early to survey the battleground. I told myself I'd have a chance to observe the competition and find some strategic insight, but in reality I wanted to make sure I knew where to go, get signed in, etc. Also, I have an anxiety issue around being late. Upon arrival, I spoke with an employee, who verified I was registerd and handed me a DCI card to fill out. According to WOTC, I exist now! The conversation then took an odd turn:

Employee A: "Now that you've signed in, choose your primary color to draft in. You'll get a..." He was interrupted by Employee B.
Employee B: "Hey, smell this pen!" He thrusts a ball-point under Employee A's nose.
Employee A: He instinctively recoils from the aroma of the pen in his face. "Get that away from me - it smells like sex!"

As Employee B scampered off into the store laughing maniacally, I considered my options. I'd be given a box with three 15 card booster packs from the Theros set, two from Born of the Gods, and one prerelease pack that had one unique rare card and mostly cards of the corresponding color. I chose Blue, as its probably my favorite color in MtG, due to its capacity for trolling.

Would I be destined to outwit my opponents or myself?
11:45 PM
With a bit of time on my hands, I pursued some of the amazing selection of board games, miniatures games, card games and RPGs they have (seriously, its an impressive assortment). I plan to start a Bulldogs! game soon, so I leafed through the hardback copy on hand. I love the design of the book - quality pages, great artwork, and was impressed by the map they included to help new players figure out how zones work. I'm looking forward to this one!

I walked over and spoke with Kris, our head judge for the event. He was here the evening prior for the Friday night prerelease tournament and officiated that one as well. He'd come in early this morning for the 11:00 AM tournament, and hadn't left since. He told me he'd been up for the last 14 hours, and walked me through how the evening (soon to be morning) would unfold. I discovered there would be four rounds with a different opponent for each. We'd play until one of us won 2-3 games, and at the end of the thing, BotG booster packs would be awarded to those who defeated at least two opponents. He also stated that I could bow out and go home whenever I wanted. What he didn't know was that I took a nap earlier! I silently cackled like a villain, knowing I had one leg up on my unwitting competition.

Destined to Outwit indeed!

12:13 AM
As the remaining players filter in, many look weary. Two guys are asleep with thier heads down on the table. A quick count shows 3 female players, and only one guy wearing a Seahawks jersey (#37, Shaun Alexander). I guess MtG and the NFL don't mix all that often. Several casual 1-on-1 games pop up, and I spot a guy in peacock-colored pants, matching women's flats and three-colored socks. We've just been informed that at some point, pizza will be served.

12:32 AM
Time to start! A large flat-screen TV starts counting down, as we have 45 minutes to build a deck. We all furiously crack into our packs, and its impossible to hear Judge Kris going through the rules. I try to listen, but there's so much conversation about who got what that I cannot focus. The guy across from me sports a 6 inch red beard, and I imagine him to be some lost viking, since we are in Ballard, after all. I open my box to find my packs, a blue 20-sided die to use as a life counter, and a 'hero's journey' card. This thing is a bit confusing; when one of two listed events occurs, I am to have my opponent sign their name witnessing the event, and I turn it in - for what?

I go through with the BREAD method and sort my cards by color, identifying first the bombs and removal, and then filling out the rest. Most of my quality cards were in blue, and black offered some decent removal. I had a lot of auras and bestow creatures to pair with heroic creatures, so I took that route. Also, I landed this guy:

Bronze, buff, and bitchin'.

I'l splash red! Since he counts on red devotion to become a creature, I decided to add a few red permanents to trigger it, plus, I did nab a few solid red removal spells. I ended up with a three-color deck, rolling with blue black and red. My viking friend, who decided on white and black (how very coal-chewer of him!) agreed with my strategy - the volcano god is just too strong not to include. Still, I was nervous - three colors will be hard to pull of. With 4 minutes left until we begin, I had no time to second-guess myself anyways, and I shuffled the hot mess together.

1:33 AM
My first opponent was Daniel. He's played every prerelease since Return to Ravnica, had had a board laid out very precisely, with a huge blue d20 for his life total. He was here last night and did well. 

Game 1 
I had to mulligan, as I didn't have enough land. I kept the next hand, with two lands and we were off! He ran a green/blue deck, and we traded blows, but I stalled out with only two lands on the board and a hand full of high casting cost cards. Eventually I got a few solid cards on the board, but then he dropped a bomb of his own: Kiora, the Crashing Wave. I had Purphoros in hand, and hoped to get a solid amount of red cards on the board so I could drop him in as a creature, but I should have put him out early, as at this point my only hope of beating him was to trigger Purphoros' enchantment ability and do direct damage by playing creatures. I got him down to 5, but it wasn't enough, and down I went.
Daniel: 1, Me: 0

Game 2
Once again, I had mana trouble. No problem with black and red, but I had a hand full of blue cards and no islands until turn 9.  I only hit him once, but he kept coming, and refilled his hand with Hunter's Prowess. This triggered his Hero's Path card, and I dutifully signed my name as witness before getting stomped down the next turn. I wished him luck in the next round, and decided to rebuild this thing.
Daniel 2, Me: 0

Destiny Progress: Outwitted

2:15 AM
Realizing my Magic Christmas Land dream of Purphoros leading the multicultural heroes wasn't going to happen, I took out all of the red cards save for the mighty god, and reinforced the deck with more black. No pizza yet, and more and more heads were dozing on tables as we awaited round 2. With only a few minutes left on the clock, I made a last minute decision to see what green had to offer. At a second glance, green looked sweet! I purged the black from the deck, banished Purphy back to his sulfurous mountain, and loaded up on centaurs and a fluffy little guy with a big heart. I cobbled my cards together and raced to the table to outwit my next opponent!

I settled on this deck:

                Badger Party
Creatures Spells
1x Charging Badger 1x Warriors' Lesson
1x Sedge Scorpion 1x Stratus Walk
1x Leafcrown Dryad 1x Karametra's Favor
1x Mindreaver 1x Crypsis
1x Triton Fortune Hunter 1x Divination
1x Wavecrash Triton 1x Artisan's Sorrow
2x Nyxborn Triton 1x Raised by Wolves
1x Nyxborn Wolf
2x Chorus of the Tides Lands
1x Staunch-Hearted Warrior 9x Island
1x Pheres-Band Tromper 8x Forest
1x Arbiter of the Ideal
1x Pheres-Band Raiders
1x Tromokratis

2:28 AM
I raced back to the table to meet me next opponent, Clinton. Last night's tournament was his first experience playing MtG in person. His girlfriend plays MtG all the time online, and he'd fallen in love with the game watching her play. After shuffling my deck, he asked me to do it again, this time making sure all of my cards faced the same direction. Apparently, this is a technique some players use to mark their cards. Gotta give it to cheaters, they are clever!

He was also playing blue/green. I had to mulligan the first hand, as it appears a plains snuck its way into my deck and we were underway. We began to race each other until he landed a Horizon Chimera. Now he kept gaining life, and began to pull away from me. I forgot a heroic trigger, and his experience playing online paid off, as he made no mistakes.
Clinton: 1, Me: 0

For the second game, I side-boarded my plains for a forest like a pro! After those first two lands hit, I went cold, not drawing another until turn 10, and of course by then it was too late. We opened up our decks and compared them - with the exception of 4 cards, we had exactly the same deck. It was a fun match though, as we chatted about the game and his experience thus far. He was particularly happy that in yesterday's tournament, he placed better than his more experienced girlfriend, and pulled a Thoughtseize, which they would use to pay for their entry costs. With a 2-0 victory, I'd say day two was looking up as well!
Clinton: 2, Me: 0

Destiny Progress: Outwitted

3:11 AM
All in all, the green/blue deck was much better than my original configuration, and I felt confident I could win at least one hand. But for now, the pizza had arrived! Card Kingdom underestimated the amount of plates they needed, so being the resourceful gamers we are, we improvised.

3:32 AM
Judge Kris called us all back to the tables. There were noticeably less people than the 56 we began with, and the hour was taking its toll. On the other hand, the nervous drunken revelry of Seattlites drinking nearby had finally died down, as they headed home to sleep up before the Superbowl the next day.** I sat down to meet my next opponent, Aaron. Aaron was here with his dad, and he looked tapped out.

We both took a mulligan (this was becoming a pattern), and got underway. He was running a black/green deck, and he rarely spoke. When I saw those swamps hit the board, I was nervous - but he never played even one removal spell. The action was fast and furious, but I eventually nabbed my first victory on the back of a huge Staunch-Hearted Warrior with three bestow creatures on him.
Aaron: 0, Me: 1

During the next match, he opened up a bit and was more relaxed; perhaps that's because he landed a Scourge of Skola Vale. This match was far more grindy and strategic, but I broke things open when I was able to use some instants to tap and uptap my Arbiter of the Ideal, triggering my Hero Path card. Untapping him let me cheat in a number of creatures, including Tromokratis! He misplayed the sacrifice ability of his Scourge, and once I dropped Raised By Wolves on the mighty kraken, it was all over.
Aaron: 0, Me: 2

Destiny Progress: Outwitting

4:23 AM
The pizza and caffeine are gone, and players have little left in the tank. We get the call for our fourth and final round, and I meet my opponent. Livia is here with her boyfriend, and she looks exhausted! She's quite nice though, and we both haven't done very well this morning. We both shuffle up our decks and we're off!

I get out to a slow start, with no creatures before turn 4. Livia is running blue black, and she can't seem to draw enough swamps to cast her hand, so my slow start isn't so crucial. Her weariness is showing though, as she makes a number of bad plays. I'm nervous that she has black removal ready, so I keep targeting my Mindreaver to exile her cards and get any out of her deck. Eventually Tromokrasis hits, and I take her down having not taken one point of damage. Afterwards, I ask to look at the cards she was sitting on, and realized that when she saw a casing cost of, for example, 5 colorless and 1 black, she thought it meant she needed 6 black to cast that card! We talk through a few rules, and despite her tired eyes, she's eager for round two.
Livia: 0, Me: 1

This time, the game is tighter. We both have a decent board state, with no real openings to push through. I hit my curve just about perfectly this time, bestowing auras onto my badger and repeatedly hitting the heroic triggers on my Staunch-Hearted Warrior and Chorus of the Tides. She gets a Siren of the Silent Song and Phenax, God of Deception on the board, so I go aggressive to ensure she doesn't have enough creatures to tap and mill me out. She cannot keep up, and once again I whittle her down without taking damage.
Livia: 0, Me: 2

Destiny Progress: Outwitting

5:17 AM
We're done! I head over to see Judge Kris to report my record of 2-2, which surprisingly nets me another Born Of The Gods booster. I turn in my hero card, which got me a metal pin (incentive!), and we talk a bit about how the tournaments have been running thus far. Card Kingdom had 56 players Sunday morning, 127 on Friday night, and 72 Saturday morning - not a bad turnout. JudgeKris now logged 62 hours on this pay period, and he is looking forward to his overtime.

I had a great experience with my first organized event! I've heard many complaints about the hyper-competitiveness of players who attend these things, but I never encountered anyone who met that description. Card Kingdom did a great job running the event, and I think there's something to this format! 40 card decks are very interesting - its nice to get to play most of the cards you put in a deck, something that doesn't always happen with a 60 card deck. I might have to stop in on a Friday night and see how it goes.

Destiny Progress: Blessed Sleep

*Thanks +Limited Resources !
** As a Raiders fan, that was an absolute blast to watch.