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RPG in Focus: Traveller

Not every gaming group wants to hack their way through dungeons and slash their way through dragons. Too often, the entirety of the tabletop roleplaying hobby gets co-opted by its most famous and successful franchise. But fantasy is only one of the genres explored by gamers. RPGs allow players to expand the bounds of their imagination, telling stories of every style and type. This is “RPG in Focus”.

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Star Wars. Star Trek. Mass Effect. Some of the most potent genre storytelling of the last fifty years has fallen into the category of the space opera; an offshoot of science fiction that eschews realism for grand adventures and wide-open world building. These massive universes are feasts for the imagination, where starships can shoot through the heavens at light speed, aliens and humans can congregate together in strange civilizations, and unlikely heroes can triumph over powerful evil.

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Traveller did for science-fiction what Dungeons & Dragons did for fantasy. It’s a game that gives players access to a setting that is generic enough to allow them to customize their experience; providing tools for world-building, as well as a detailed default environment (akin to Greyhawk in D&D). Regardless of which route the players choose to take, the universe of Traveller follows a unique set of self-contained rules:

  1. Humans lead the central society in known-space. Essentially, the game takes our current science and culture to a futuristic extreme; postulating about an enormous Human-centric empire of the stars. Aliens exist and are important to intergalactic politics, but many of them hale from beyond explored territory.
  2. Despite the dozens of human colonies that expand outward through the galaxy, communication remains relatively primitive. There is no way to transmit a message or information faster than the speed of light. As such, individual planets are often isolated from their brethren and have thus fallen back into a system of feudal nobility. There is no powerful central authority.
  3. Travel does exist at faster-than-light speeds. Using “jump drives”, players can build their own swift starships that can dart along a few light-years at a time. Still, this process can take a few weeks, so travel is time consuming.

These concepts can be easily adapted for the needs of your campaign, but they do give the game a specific sensibility that makes it different from more advanced civilizations like the Republic from Star Wars or the Federation from Star Trek. Human foibles are still devastatingly clear in a universe driven by capitalism, greed, power, and violence.

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Character creation in Traveller is particularly intriguing because it introduced the system of the “life-path”. Instead of the clinical mechanics of dropping modifiers into stat bars on an empty character sheet, a mini-game is used to develop the avatar’s background, profession and skills. Players can take on the role of a human, a robot, a genetically modified creature, or an alien – of which there are many to choose from (especially when using supplement material). By weaving this short story, six characteristics are defined for the character: Strength, Dexterity, Intelligence, Endurance, Education and Social Standing. Optional values included Psionic’s for psychic campaigns and Sanity for horror campaigns.

This emphasis on extreme customization treads into many other aspects of the game. Traveller is especially well-known for its complex method of starship modification, an element especially adored by fans of experimental tech. But it’s also possible to build planets, cultures, and entire segments of the galaxy with rules that encourage creativity. Few things are as fun as taking your ship to a planet of your design.

With many versions of the game to choose from, there is also a wide variety of gameplay styles. The classic system implemented a traditional D6 mechanic, in which players would roll two six-sided die against a predetermined difficulty to achieve success or failure in an action. Traveller version 4 and 5 use a different number of dice depending on the complexity of the action: the harder it is; the more dice you throw. Traveller20 requires a more modern d20 approach to roleplaying. All of these editions have their strengths and weaknesses, but being as there is no one method of playing the game, it can be complicated to address the mechanics generally.

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Regardless, Traveller was in the right place at the right time when it was released to the world in 1977. This was the very beginning of pop culture’s obsession with the space opera and it perfectly capitalized on the success of Star Wars before that property was able to create its own successful RPG. However, the game is more heavily inspired by harder science-fiction fare, especially Isaac Asimov’s Foundation and E.C. Tubb’s Dumarest Saga. As such, Traveller is relatively timeless and has remained one of the prominent roleplaying games to celebrate the genre for the last forty years.

When looking for a sci-fi setting that is lightly defined and open to interpretation, Traveller is the perfect system.

Hit the Table: Wizard Dodgeball Review

In this episode, we take a look at Wizard Dodgeball: a crazy hybrid game that combines tactics, sports and a casual sensibility. It’s a game that’s interesting in concept, but imperfect in its execution. Find out why in our review!

Wizard Dodgeball is currently on Kickstarter:
https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/peternewland/wizard-dodgeball

Find the Print & Play Version Here:
http://mindthegapstudios.com/games/wizarddodgeball/

Tabletop Deathmatch Episode Featuring Wizard Dodgeball:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hqwAOYQXzGM

Would you kindly give us a “Like”, a “Subscribe” and a Share?

Music by TEKNOAxe

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SPOILING: The Walking Dead Season Two (Ep. 4 – “Amid the Ruins”)

***ATTENTION: As the title of this article implies, we will be delving into SPOILER territory with “In Harm’s Way”: the new episode of Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead. We urge you to play the game before you read this article. We promise it’s good and if you need proof you can check out our spoiler-free review of Episode One, “All That Remains”. You have been warned.***

With the imminent finale of The Walking Dead: Season Two arriving in the next few days, it feels like the perfect time to reflect on the happenings of the penultimate chapter: “Amid the Ruins”. This season has been pitch perfect so far, but with the death of uber-villain Bill Carver and the utter chaos of an invading zombie horde; the conclusion of the previous installment left me feeling as if I was on uneven footing. The game had lost its direction, because the supposed central antagonist had already been offed in a rather dramatic fashion. Luckily, Episode Four maintains the taunt pacing the series is known for, while continuing to explore Clem’s newfound – and unexpected – leadership.

The beginning of “Amid the Ruins” will vary greatly depending on the final decision you made in “In Harm’s Way”. Stuck escaping through a massive crowd of Walkers, Clementine witnesses Sarita being bitten by a particularly vicious assailant. The player can then choose whether or not to kill the zombie or chop off Sarita’s hand; a spur of the moment decision that must be made quickly. My Clementine took out the Walker in hopes of preventing further attacks, but when Kenny arrived to sweep away his injured girlfriend, Clem was left alone.

Stumbling cautiously between dozens of undead thralls, she is eventually grabbed by Rebecca; who has also managed to be cut off from the rest of the group. The pregnant woman had been abrasive early on, but her desperation after Alvin’s death has largely transformed her into a sympathetic figure. She’s lost and afraid, almost to the point of giving up; an excellent parallel to Christa’s position all the way back in Episode One.

But with Rebecca, there’s hope. She could still have the baby. Any new life in this world of death is a small push against the growing darkness.

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Finally, the duo comes across another survivor – Jane – whose harsh and stand-offish demeanor makes her seem more prepared than anyone else for these kinds of conditions. At first, she is hesitant to clump together; for fear that the smell of three humans will overwhelm the odor of entrails covering their bodies. But in the “Bad Ass Moment of the Week”, Jane tears off the jaw of one of the Walkers and proceeds to use it as a barrier against the rest of the horde. This is the perfect escape mechanism and soon Clementine, Jane, and Rebecca are safely strolling in the woods to their next destination.

Jane is compelling because she almost feels like a flash-forward. In ten years, Clementine could easily become a woman as cold, distant, and hardy as her new companion. In fact, this whole season has become less about basic survival instincts and more about the battle for Clem’s soul. She could stew in her anger like Kenny and become a powder keg of emotion. She could reject this world entirely and become as naïve as Sarah. She could use her natural leadership skills to prey on the weak like Carver. Or she could continue relying on the practical wisdom of Lee; trying to be the best possible person in the worst of situations. It’s easy to admire Jane’s tenacious capabilities, but what will Clementine have to sacrifice to become her equivalent?

When they arrive at Parker’s Run, an old civil war battlefield, they are welcomed by Mike and Bonnie. Bonnie is still difficult to trust after her heinous betrayal in “A House Divided”, but given how dire the current circumstance is, Clem is forced to make peace with her. They explain that Luke, Nick, and Sarah disappeared after the escape run and Jane is quick to doubt that they survived. Perhaps more importantly, Kenny and Sarita made it out safely. Unfortunately, Sarita is also rapidly deteriorating from her infected bite. Kenny is not taking it well and the group asks if Clementine could speak to her old friend in hopes of mending fences and continuing on the road.

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It’s clear that Kenny is not ready to lose another loved-one. Duck and Katja are gone. Lee is gone. Ben is gone. Few characters have seen as much on-screen loss as Kenny. Sitting with Sarita dying on his lap, he is obviously ready to snap; but we’ve never him so angry at Clementine before. This is the first time she’s truly had to answer for her actions. I was a bit taken aback by the scolding and even began to wonder whether or not I’d be able to win Kenny back as a friend. It was a tough, memorable interaction that while small, seemed to have endless implications.

Rather than remain at camp, Jane and Clementine choose to go searching for Luke, Nick, and Sarah. On the way, Jane gives Clem some important advice. She can see that the group is cracking. She knows that sooner or later Clementine will be on her own. This could actually be advantageous. In her experience, every group falls apart and the more attached you get to anyone in this new world, the more likely you are to perish at the fault of your own emotions. Jane explains that it might be easier to live a solitary life; but after all that other people have done to help Clementine along the way, I found it hard to accept her argument.

Eventually, they come across a trailer park and the familiar screams of Sarah echo through the air. Clementine and Jane find a hole in the barbed-wire fence surrounding the park, where a zombified Nick has been impaled on a post. Nick has never been a favorite of mine. In fact, he was the defacto Ben of this season, essentially an inept character that serves the purpose of turning the plot on a dime because of their weighty mistakes. Still, it’s never easy to watch Clem take a life (or an unlife, in this case) and Jane insists that she do it this time to prepare for the harshness of life in the wilderness.

Once inside, Jane teaches her eager student a new method to eliminate Walkers. By sweeping them at the knee and stabbing them in the back of the head, there is no danger of being bitten. With every trick-of-the-trade she espouses, Jane becomes easier to respect. She is perhaps the most adaptable person Clementine has met since Molly back in Savannah.

Sarah’s cries are coming from a mobile home that is surrounded by the undead, but Clementine manages to distract them by dropping a body onto a car horn. The sound draws the horde, allowing Jane and Clem to sneak into the trailer. This kind of innovative thinking is becoming typical for our heroine and demonstrates how wits and intelligence can sometimes be more important than strength and size. Unfortunately, Sarah is catatonic and unable to move or even respond. Her father’s death was her breaking point and Luke has been unable to rouse her attention. Clementine speaks briefly with Sarah, trying to console her and make her feel safe; but the Walkers start to breach the front door and the only way out is to climb through the sky light.

As the zombies burst in, it’s up to Clementine to decide whether or not Sarah deserves to live. Perhaps she is just not meant for this kind of world. But I couldn’t leave a little girl behind. Clementine slaps Sarah, which earns her attention long enough to climb up the bookcase and up onto the roof. Luke hauls the girls out and they make a mad dash back into the woods. Sarah is still quiet on the way back and Luke is reeling from the loss of Nick, but the dangerous journey feels like a momentary success.

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Unfortunately, matters at the camp have gotten worse. Rebecca’s water has broken and the baby is coming sooner than anyone had thought. No one is prepared to help Rebecca through the complexities of the labor process, but Clem knows that Kenny had a family and at least has some experience with birth. Alas, he is still locked up inside his tent, tending to Sarita.

Clementine cautiously approaches the structure and makes her way inside. The anger is gone from Kenny’s eyes. The sadness has taken over. He’s still resentful of all that has taken place, but he understands that he’s the only one who can help. If nothing else, Kenny is good at feigning calmness while a fury rages inside of him. I was truly concerned that he’d completely lose his mind after this last terrible loss, so it was good to see him collect himself for long enough to bring a baby into the world. The group scatters to find a clean, safe place for Rebecca; somewhere that the Walkers won’t hear the cries of a newborn.

Jane and Clem discover an old observation deck that’s high off the ground and relatively isolated. A padlock keeps much of the structure inaccessible, but it is only a small obstacle to the ever-thrifty Jane. While she works on the lock, Clementine spots a mysterious figure approaching the deck. They hide as a young man with a terrible limp attempts to deposit a bag into a nearby trash can. Clem attempts to make contact, but the boy – Arvo – spins around and points a gun directly at her. She tries to calm him down, assuring him that she means no harm; but Jane takes the initiative, sneaking from behind to steal the weapon and his bag of goodies.

Inside is a load of valuable medication that could be used to help with Rebecca’s painful birthing process. But Arvo cries that the pills are for his ailing sister and that she needs them to survive. Jane is reasonably skeptical, but Clementine can practically hear Lee’s ethical voice in her head. The last time she stole from someone, she ended up in the custody of a madman. Clementine allows Arvo to take the medicine back to his camp, but Jane threatens him and tells him never to return to this place. It’s an aggressive move that Clem doesn’t entirely agree with. She was trying to make peace and Jane may have brought war.

Clementine proceeds to search for Mike and Bonnie, who went exploring an old civil museum for supplies. She finds an old Confederate uniform that can be used as a suitable blanket and spots a few canisters of water in an office that is protected by a gate. Bonnie and Mike are quick to ask if Clem thinks she can fit underneath the metal door; and for the first time, Clementine can reject the adult’s request. She’s always the one who has to sneak into small spaces and take initiative, so it’s easy to reason that she might be tired of being taken advantage of. But in my case, it made the most sense. Climbing through the tight opening, Clem is met by a nasty Walker, whom Mike is quick to dispatch.

The scare is enough to send them running back to camp with the water in tow, but as they’re about to leave, Bonnie spots a raccoon. The idea of a fresh-cooked rodent seems terribly appealing to the hungry survivors and they attempt to catch the animal. But when it’s revealed that the raccoon is the mother of two, their appetites are diminished. The rest of the animal kingdom seems to be doing just fine in the face of this virus. Only humans are truly infected. Man has been knocked down a few pegs on the food chain and this is a painful reminder. A Walker would not hesitate to devour a living soul.

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Rebecca’s labor has been growing in intensity and her screams of pain begin to attract nearby Walkers. With all of the necessary equipment prepared, the entire group dashes to the observation deck. There, they find Jane and Luke in their skivvies, having just had a fling with the erotic. Kenny explodes, blaming Luke’s lack of attention for the incoming hordes, but the infighting only serves as a distraction. The tension between Luke and Kenny is starting fray what little of a relationship they had to begin with. Clementine will probably be forced to choose between these two men at some point in the near future; a decision that will be nearly impossible to make.

With Walkers surrounding the platform and beginning to climb the walls, hope grows dim. Clementine attempts to seal the breaking gate by pushing an old cannon towards it. Unfortunately, the weight of the weapon is too much for the rotted wood of the observation deck to handle and the whole thing collapses, tossing Jane and Sarah overboard. Luke grabs a hold of Jane, but Clementine insists that she save Carlos’ little girl.

Jane pulls on the rubble that has pinned Sarah to the ground, but a plank from the deck falls and knocks her briefly unconscious. Without enough time to do anything else, Sarah is quickly devoured by the Walkers. As unstable as she was, it’s a terrifying sight. Clementine started her journey in a similar place. They were both naïve young girls growing up in a rapidly more sadistic world. But Carlos had chosen to cover Sarah’s eyes from the horrors and so she was not prepared to deal with life without him. In many ways, Sarah’s death is a release from the hell she was born into. It’s sad, but she will no longer have to suffer the pain of being innocent.

Jane leaps back into Luke’s arms and is pulled up just before the rest of the deck caves in. With no available stairway, the group is finally safe from the undead threat. Rebecca, after hours of labor, gives birth to her child.

The Walking Dead has destroyed so many lives in the last few episodes: Omid, Pete, Walter, Alvin, Reggie, Carlos, Nick, and Sarah. But the somber overtone that the game is known for is quickly rejected when the baby wakes up and smiles at his new mother. There’s something beautiful about this group of flawed individuals coming together to bring new life into the world. All of the past tragedies seem to fade into the distance, if only briefly. This is one of the series’ most powerful moments. Despite all of the things that could’ve wrong along the way, the baby is alive.

However, the tranquility can never last long. Jane makes a quick exit. She’s already too attached to the group and knows that sooner or later, this momentary joy will end. It’s a true shame that Jane had to be so haunted by her past. Clementine could’ve been a great ally to her. But being that she’s still alive, there’s always the chance we’ll see her again in the future. Clem has taken all of the appropriate lessons from her short-term mentor and discarded most of those that did not suit her personality.

After his rendezvous with Jane, Luke is particularly distraught over her leaving and his vocal dissatisfaction rouses Kenny’s ire. The two are at each other’s throats again before sunrise. What little peace there was, is gone for now.

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Finally, the group begins their trek northward into beating cold and thick snow. Rebecca is noticeably weakened, her features dull and her face pale. The pace is simply too much for the new mother and she collapses to the ground. As Kenny and Luke sit her down to rest, a crowd of Russians surround them, guns drawn. Arvo is with them and he insists that they turn Jane over to their custody. When Clementine reveals that Jane had left the night before, Arvo reconsiders his tactics. The barrels of the weapons drop. However, Clementine hears a startling sound coming from Rebecca’s direction. In an instant, she had died and transformed into a zombie; with her baby still in her arms.

Clem makes a horrifying call and shoots Rebecca in her forehead. Soon, a volley of gunshots goes off and we are left wondering who is among the dead.

It’s a fitting, if confusing, ending to this terrific episode. Enough moments of levity kept “Amid the Ruins” from wallowing in its otherwise tragic and disturbing story arc; with developments that will doubtlessly have a far reaching impact. We don’t know why there is a band of Russian militants tracking through the snow-covered South. We don’t know if Rebecca really was a Walker. We don’t know how many of our compatriots are filled with bullet holes. All of this is left to be revealed and if last season is any indication, we are in for one hell of a ride in the finale.

But what we do know is that Clementine’s innate intelligence, charm, and persistence have seen her grow from an innocent little girl to a determined young woman. It can be scary to see how easily she has taken to killing Walkers, how coldly she responds to the death of those around her. Still, she has done her best to make the right decisions. Lee would be proud.

Ultimately, we will be responsible for her fate. Will she become Jane? Or Kenny? Or Carver? Or will she continue to be just our beloved Clementine?

Time will tell for all of us.

Score: 9/10

 

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All Talk: Gods Will Be Watching

Twitter is a realm of abject permanence, a time capsule of all our poorly worded reactions. It catalogs our random thoughts and sour attempts at humor, all while turning us into rampant marketing machines. As such, it’s not always the best place for first impressions. Opinions shift over time, they are incredibly malleable. When I first played Gods Will Be Watching, I blasted off a hasty tweet claiming that it was “a fucking masterpiece.”

I was still wearing rose colored glasses at the time. The game was something new, something exciting, and I had not yet sat through the excruciating “torture” segment. Gods Will Be Watching is a good game, but it’s a far cry from a masterwork. As with many of the titles published by Devolver Digital (Always Sometimes Monsters and Luftrausers especially), it wears its flaws on its sleeve while relishing in the cool charm of experimentation and originality. I never truly fell in love with the experience of Gods Will Be Watching, but I was compelled by its unique take on minimalist storytelling and point-and-click gameplay.

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The game itself is difficult to categorize, though it is clearly inspired by classic adventure games and the ethical tests of RPGs like Baldur’s Gate or Mass Effect. It consists of a series of non-linear, interlocking scenarios with an overarching science fiction narrative that’s driven by espionage, intrigue, and betrayal.

The player takes on the roll of Sgt. Burden, a special-forces commando embedded within a terrorist organization that is dedicated to freeing all alien life in the galaxy. Burden is tasked with gaining the trust of Liam, the charismatic revolutionary that leads the group, and retrieving intelligence that will help the Holistic Empire bring him down. But the longer he spends with Liam, the more sympathetic he becomes to the terrorist’s cause; even as a genocidal plot begins to unfold behind the scenes. When Burden is forced out of his assignment and his true identity is revealed, it is the ultimate betrayal. Soon, Burden and Liam are drawn into one final confrontation with fatal consequences for millions of galactic citizens.

Plot-wise, Gods Will Be Watching isn’t doing anything particularly innovative. This is a futuristic setting that has a lot in common with other science fiction properties. However, the structure of the story is incredibly distinctive and functions as a puzzle unto itself. Each scene renders a different life-or-death situation: a hostage crisis, brutal torture, survival on an alien-world, or a ticking clock in which to create the cure of for a deadly virus. With the sequences told out of order, revelations come at a staggered pace and the player must piece together bits of information in order to discover the whole picture.

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This approach transforms a lackluster narrative into a tense and riveting tale. There are very few lulls in the action, reinforcing the dire urgency of each scenario; but occasionally pounding the player over the head with anxiety and despair. You’re signing up for a bleak experiment in Gods Will Be Watching, but experiences like The Walking Dead and The Last of Us have proven that there’s a huge market for games of this, well, depressive ilk.

Much of this tension is delivered through the overwhelming amount of factors that could effect the outcome of any given scenario. For example, while attempting to survive the prolonged night on an alien planet where the sun only rises for five hours, Burden must: gather wood, keep the fire going, hunt for game, cook healthy meals, build weaponry, fix the broken radio signal, protect his crew from dangerous wild animals, and keep everyone from going insane. These tasks would already be physically and emotionally taxing; but with only five possible actions in any given round, every decision becomes essential.

Each sequence has its own independent variables that spice-up the proceedings with exciting variety and hair-wrenching difficulty. At times, this palpable stress walks the fine line between engrossing entertainment and game-breaking frustration. Once achievable goals begin to feel impossible and the restart button becomes harder to push. Some games are able to overcome their painful difficulty with charming design or fine-tuned gameplay, but Gods Will Be Watching never jumps that hurdle.

The problem is that it’s too god-damned hard; and not in a Dark Souls “punish you until your satisfied” kind-of-way. This game is blatantly unfair, unbalanced and sadistic. It wants you to fail. It begs for you to give up. But in the end, the hours of replaying impossible scenarios become tedious and boring. Even when you finally accomplish your goal, the wave of satisfaction never comes and you are left with the feeling that you discovered some kind of lifeless pattern within the game. Gods Will Be Watching promises that “each decision is crucial”, but truthfully the only choices that matter are the ones the developer wants you to take.

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This is an all-too-common criticism of the game. Even fans of the title are aware that its difficulty limits its appeal. There are too many randomized elements that have the potential to completely erase any progress. Any control of the situation you feel you have is illusory at best, ultimately falling into relatively strict set of guidelines that have to be met before you can succeed. During the aforementioned “torture” segment, Burden is only allowed to reveal a certain amount of information until his captors decide he is no longer of use and kill him. One of their methods is Russian Roulette; for every answer they don’t receive, they pull the trigger. It is entirely possible that the first chamber contains the bullet and thus, a brain full of lead for the Sergeant. As such, the player is left with a monotonous challenge: test the revolver’s resolve or give away too much intelligence and perish anyway.

I played through “20 Days of Torture” dozens of times and almost every conclusion was met with this stalemate. Suddenly, the charming minimalism of Gods Will Be Watching became literally torturous: repetitive, boring, and tedious. Perhaps that’s the point Deconstructeam is trying to make; but that doesn’t assist in making the game any more fun. Instead, the whole thing begins to break down under scrutiny. The longer I played Gods Will Be Watching, the less I liked it.

As a response to the nearly universal condemnation of the game’s unfair difficulty, Deconstructeam released a patch a few weeks after release, deemed “The Mercy Patch”. It added several new tiers of play, essentially allowing the player to customize their experience. Randomized elements could be entirely removed; to the point that the game could become truly narratively driven. However, this new means of play feels empty in some strange way. The Mercy Patch addresses many of the game’s core issues, but removes many of the life-or-death consequences that make Gods Will Be Watching so compelling. It seems strange to complain about such a timely response, but there’s a balance that has not yet been met.

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Still, there’s definitely an audience for this product; a masochistic one, but an audience nonetheless. Gods Will Be Watching isn’t for the faint of heart (or for those prone to throwing things in the general direction of their monitor), but it does have its redeeming qualities. Most of the scenarios are exquisitely suspenseful and the story is fun to piece together, even if the game never comes together as a cohesive whole.

Devolver Digital loves to publish these kinds of cutting edge, risky experiences and they’ve certainly carved out their niche; but you can almost be certain that they will challenge your sensibilities as a gamer. This review is probably filled with contradictions, but that’s mostly because Gods Will Be Watching warrants a complex reaction. There’s nothing else out there quite like it. And I’m not sure there should be. If nothing else, Deconstructeam has proven its ability to dismantle a genre and put it back together in unexpected ways. I can’t wait to see what they do next.

For now, I’m just happy the torture is over. Time to delete that Tweet.

Score: 6/10

Jetpack Joust Video Review: Hypership Out of Control PC

Hypership: Out of Control is one of our favorite games on XBLIG, so we were pumped when we found out it was finally coming to PC! Does it hold up to the transition? We certainly think so!

You can find “Hypership: Out of Control” here (for just 2 bucks!):
http://www.desura.com/games/hypership-out-of-control

Roleplaying’s Big Night: The ENnie Awards

GenCon is the world’s largest tabletop gaming convention; a haven for those who toss dice, play cards, paint miniatures and create characters. But its founder Gary Gygax started the event in 1968 to celebrate the growing hobby of wargaming – and eventually his own invention: the roleplaying game. As such, RPGs have always had a special place at the conference. While Spiel and Origin focus heavily on self-contained experiences like board and card games, GenCon is the site of roleplaying’s most prestigious ceremony.

The ENnies is an award’s show that commemorates the year in gaming and looks forward to the bright future of the industry. Trends are set, smaller products are brought into the light, and fun is had all around. Most importantly, however, the ENnies are voted on by the community and are thus reflective of the majority of the gaming public. 2014 was a phenomenal year for RPGs and this year’s winners are proof that the hobby is just as healthy and innovative as it always has been.

The following products received Golden ENnies:

Best Adventure: Trail of Cthulu: Eternal Lies (Pelgrane Press)

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A critically acclaimed adventure by the award winning Pelgrane Press, Eternal Lies is a wonderful journey into the horrifying Lovecraftian universe of Trail of Cthulu. Long enough for a sustained campaign, this text is great for any fan of horror.

Best Aid/Accessory: Numenera Creature Deck (Monte Cook Games, LLC)

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One hundred cards that allow Game Master’s to randomize their encounters in Numenera; the Creature Deck takes some of the best monstrosities from the Corebook and the Bestiary.

Best Art, Interior: Pathfinder Campaing Setting: Inner Sea Gods (Paizo Publishing)

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Perfect for Pathfinder players who are looking to go celestial, Inner Sea Gods delves into the most powerful beings in the universe and includes details on over 300 deities. The book also includes brand new prestige classes, feats, magic weapons, spells and weapons.

Best Art, Cover: Pathfinder Roleplaying Game: Mythic Adventures (Paizo Publishing)

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Mythic Adventures allows players to become legendary figures, who set out on trials that will open up pathways to some of the game’s most impressive powers. These are brand new rules that function on top of the previously established class system.

Best Blog: Gnome Stew

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Gnome Stew is one of the most viewed Game Mastering blogs on the internet; and for good reason! Filled with inspiration and fuel for your campaign, it is required reading for anyone with a serious passion for roleplaying.

Best Cartography: Pathfinder Campaign Setting: Wrath of the Righteous Post Map Folio (Paizo Publishing)

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When a horde of demons begin to surge from beneath a sabotaged wardstone; it is up to the players to save the world from being swallowed by an ancient threat. This map folio contains everything you need to perfectly visualize Paizo’s amazing adventure path.

Best Electronic Book: Player’s Guide to Emerald City (Green Ronin Publishing)

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Emerald City is a bustling new metropolis for players of Mutants & Masterminds to explore with their super-powered heroes.

Best Family Game: Fate Accelerated Edition (Evil Hat Productions)

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Simplified and streamlined, Fate Accelerated is perfect for first time roleplayers or for a group that prefers a light rules set. Fate’s brilliance is in its flexibility: any world can be rendered whole by creative gamers; Accelerated merely speeds up the process.

Best Free Product: Pathfinder Module: We Be Goblins Too (Paizo Publishing)

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For those with slighter ambition and a penchant for chaotic antics, We Be Goblins Too brings the action to a group of goblin players. This adventure is short, entertaining, and has a potent sense of humor.

Best Game Fate Core System (Evil Hat Productions)

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We’ve already addressed Fate Core’s amazing flexibility, but the core game offers a bit more complexity and strategy with your storytelling. Fate’s popularity is growing and it seems like a new supplement pops up on Kickstarter every week. If only for its cultural relevance, this game deserves this prestigious award.

Best Miniatures Product: Pathfinder Battles: Wrath of the Righteous (WizKids)

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Apparently, Wrath of the Righteous is great at inciting secondary lines of products, as WizKids’ Pathfinder Battles takes directly from the adventure path for its best-selling miniatures. These models will add a gloriously demonic presence to your battle maps.

Best Monster/Adversary: Pathfinder Roleplaying Game: Bestiary 4 (Paizo Publishing)

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Everyone loves more vicious, creepy-crawly beasties to contribute to their campaigns and the Bestiary 4 contains more than 300 new monstrosities! The book’s focus on classic horror literature is particularly notable as massive Kaiju and Elder Things are statted out for use in your Pathfinder world.

Best Podcast: Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff

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A wide variety of topics are addressed on Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff – history, occultism, film, art, storytelling – but roleplaying and tabletop gaming is in the forefront. You can learn a lot from this team of killer game designers.

Best Production Values: Numenera Corebook (Monte Cook Games, LLC)

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Numenera is our personal favorite RPG system of the year. With narratively driven rules, an ambitious and imaginative setting, and the most unique collection of monsters in any game we’ve ever played, we can’t stop raving about this product. There’s a reason you’ll see it pop up quite a few more times on this list: Numenera is an essential part of any roleplaying collection.

Best RPG Related Product: Pathfinder Adventure Card Game: Rise of the Runelords Base Set (Paizo Publishing)

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The Pathfinder Adventure Card Game is Paizo’s attempt to conquer yet another segment of the tabletop industry. The game presents a bold new way to roleplay, using cards to cooperatively narrate the award-winning Rise of the Runelords adventure.

Best Rules: Fate Core Systems (Evil Hat Productions)

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Best Setting: Numenera Corebook (Monte Cook Game, LLC)

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The Ninth World is filled with intrigue, wonder and awe. Set one billion year into our own future, Earth is practically unrecognizable. It has been terraformed over-and-over and civilization thrives on powerful technology from previous ages. Rarely have I been so compelled by a system purely because of its setting. Numenera is a master class in world-building.

Best Supplement: Pathfinder Roleplaying Game: Ultimate Campaign (Paizo Publishing)

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Paizo continues to dominate the Fantasy RPG market with unprecedented success and popularity. Ultimate Campaign is the perfect supplement for Dungeon Masters who are looking to expand the scope of their narratives. With rules for downtime, character backstories, retraining, kingdom building and mass combat, this book fills in huge chunks of content that are not covered by the Core Rulebook. Even if you don’t play Pathfinder, there are ideas contained within that will enliven your own roleplaying sessions.

Best Software: Roll20 (The Orr Group)

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Thousands of gamers use Roll20 to play with groups from around the world. It’s an invaluable – if occasionally wonky – tool in our interconnected society. There’s no longer an excuse to not play a game: Roll20 makes it easy to find fellow roleplayers-in-arms.

Best Writing: Numenera Corebook (Monte Cook Games, LLC)

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Best Website: RPG Geek

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While we aren’t the biggest fan of the layout and user interface of RPG Geek and its Board Game Geek cousin, we do understand that it’s an invaluable tool for the community.

Product of the Year: Numenera Cookbook (Monte Cook Games, LLC)

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TABLETOP NEWS: Join the Fleet in Star Wars: Armada (Plus Other GenCon Announcements)

Fantasy Flight’s Star Wars license has been a boon for the already beloved company, introducing a brand new audience to tabletop gaming while garnering heaps of critical praise. Edge of the Empire has managed to re-envision the RPG, completely removing modifiers and number crunching in favor of narrative dice. Star Wars: The Card Game has opened up the LCG to lore that’s a bit more familiar that Android: Netrunner, becoming a much needed entry point for the genre.But X-Wing: The Miniatures Game is the true crown jewel of the franchise: a blazingly fun emulation of the frantic dogfights from the original trilogy. The exquisitely designed models are addictive to collect and the game is surprisingly nimble and easy to learn. It’s an eye-catcher that has seduced thousands of first-time wargamers and won over veterans with its customizability and complexity.

However, Star Wars fans are quick to note that the series is known for more than ship-to-ship combat. Just as memorable is the quick-strike attack on the first Death Star or the clash of massive fleets at the Battle of Endor; epic battles that are deeply engrained in the saga. The problem is that X-Wing’s attention to scale and detail makes it impossible to scratch that itch. The few large ships that have been released (the Rebel Transport and the Blockade Runner) are some of the smallest capital ships, but still take up an enormous amount of space on the table. To attempt a Star Destroyer or a Mon Calamari Cruiser would be wholly implausible.

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The answer for this quandary is Star Wars: Armada, a brand new game that will attempt to simulate the grander scale of the Galactic Civil War. Rather than individual pilots, players will take on the role of a Fleet Admiral for the Rebel Alliance or the Empire, using deep strategy to destroy the enemy’s cruisers while squadrons of fighters buzz about the battlefield.

The planned core set is scheduled to include an Imperial Star Destroyer, a Rebel Blockade Runner, a Nebulon-B Frigate, five X-Wing squadrons, five TIE Fighter Squadrons, and a load of tokens, cards, dice and command dials. That’s a ton of content and will inevitable draw the eye of gamers and collectors alike. As with X-Wing, the miniatures in this game are like tiny pieces of art and could stand alone without even getting into the gameplay. Inevitably, however, we’ll see even more options, as Fantasy Flight drops their usual waves of clever expansions.

Armada has a few more moving parts than X-Wing because of the sheer force required to use these mammoth spacecraft in combat. Gunners target the enemy with a range of different weaponry, engineers work frantically to maintain shields, and pilots do their best to maneuver the sluggish ships.

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Movement is still kind of mysterious as the game uses an entirely new tool to measure velocity and inertia. The long, segmented stick has a notch for each move that can be shifted depending on the ship’s size and turn radius. For example, a Blockade Runner is capable of tighter turns and can accelerate faster than a bulky Star Destroyer that is known more for its overwhelming firepower. Even then, squadrons of fighters remain far more agile than the capital ships they launch from. Movement always takes place after an attack, so it’s important to think ahead about where you’d like your craft to be in the following turn to optimize your strategic choices.

In fact, forward thinking is a huge part of the Armada experience. The speed of X-Wing allows players to make quick decisions and to react to current circumstances, but that is more difficult when you have a crew of thousands operating your vessel. In Armada, players use a Command Stack that distributes a new instruction each round, which is then replaced by a secret new order at the bottom of the stack. The amount of commands contained in the stack at any given time is determined by a score on the ship’s card. For instance, a Nebulon-B Frigate can have two orders in waiting at any given time and once one has been removed, a new order can be queued for a future round. As such, the larger your command score, the longer your tactical foresight has to be. Once you’ve delivered your instructions, you can attack twice using weapons on two different hull sections; rolling dice that are similar to those included with X-Wing.

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Victory in Armada isn’t as cut and dry as its predecessor either. Each session uses a randomized objective card that includes specific goals that have to be completed before either side can claim the win. Each objective has a unique method of scoring, meaning that every game could potentially feel very different from last. Players could be forced to defend an outpost, target a specific ship, or attempt a rescue; contributing even more Star Wars flair into the mix.

However, there are still many unanswered questions regarding Armada and details will surely become more available as we get closer to its Q1 2015 release date. Star Wars has become a major element of Fantasy Flight’s platform and given their handling of previous products, we can’t wait to see what they’ll do with a larger scale wargame experience.

Additionally, news is starting to leak from GenCon of even further games to be launched in that famous galaxy far, far away.

Imperial Assault is a self-contained board game similar in tone to FFG’s Descent: a ground-based dungeon crawl pitting Rebel forces on Yavin IV against an invading brigade of stormtroopers and walkers. Taking place directly after the first Death Star Battle, the game links together a series of thirty missions to create a cooperative narrative for up to five players. A secondary skirmish mode is also available for those who would rather build up competing strike teams to duke it out against each other. Gorgeous miniatures, interlocking tiles and extreme customization make Imperial Assault look like a perfect addition to Fantasy Flight’s roster.

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On the X-Wing front, a new faction was announced that will be the first thirty-party to enter the fray: Scum & Villiany. Made up of bounty hunters, pirates and other brigands, this wave will add some much needed diversity to the line-up and finally allow players to escape the employ of the Rebels and the Empire. This announcement is still incredibly fresh and FFG hasn’t even officially put out a press release (as of the writing of this piece), but according to the conference the expansion will include: a Star Viper, a M3-A Interceptor, the IG-2000 and a kit that will convert the Slave I and the HWK to this new faction. It’s also likely that we’ll see a third “Aces” set that will include two Headhunters and a Y-Wing.

Finally, the beta text for Force & Destiny will make its way into the hands of those whom wish to playtest the third sourcebook for the Star Wars roleplaying system. After quite a long wait, players will be able to become an official Jedi. The text will include rules for the use of force powers as well as additional race, class, equipment, and vehicle options. It’s likely that the complete version will release some time next year, but the beta should serve as a suitable preview.

It’s a damn good time to be a Star Wars fan, especially one who happens to game on the side. Fantasy Flight has done a terrific job of embracing this license, providing high quality products that are gloriously fun and beautiful to look at. From board games and card games to roleplaying games and wargames, there is literally something for everyone.

I don’t have a bad feeling about this at all. With the Star Wars brand on its side and thrilling announcements like the X-Com board game last week, the Force is truly with Fantasy Flight.