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Way, Way Down: Vertical Drop Heroes HD

Sometimes the quality of a game is wholly dependent on its distribution method. Strategy games tend to be better on the PC because they require the quick precision of a mouse-click. Casual experiences are best in rapid-fire bursts on mobile devices. Platformers often require the reaction time of a controller because of their long history on consoles. When a game is released on the wrong platform, the result can be disastrous. Ultimately, Vertical Drop Heroes suffers from this very problem. It’s a remake of a browser-based Flash game that doesn’t entirely earn its port onto Steam.

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Vertical Drop Heroes takes its inspiration from an amalgam of sources, but can be placed firmly in the roguelike genre. Players traverse a series of randomized stages, quite literally dropping to the bottom until they defeat the boss and take a portal to the next level. Along the way, they clash with goblins, mummies and other fantasy fare in order to collect keys that allow them to free hostages and earn loot. If the player is met with an untimely death, his wealth and inventory are transferred to one of three new characters that will attempt to make their own descent. In theory, there should be a visible progression as heroes go from powerless to powerful and for this reason; the game has frequently been compared to Rogue Legacy and Spelunky.

But it barely deserves to be categorized alongside these classic titles. Vertical Drop Heroes is awash in poor controls and failed ambitions. It wants desperately to be more than it actually is. Platforming is floaty and imprecise. Upgrading is unclear and not immediately noticeable in gameplay. Combat is frantically confusing because melee weapons are so short that you’re never quite sure if you’re hitting the enemy or the enemy is hitting you. Ranged attacks, spells and an explosive double jump add a bit of gameplay value to Vertical Drop Heroes, but the basics are so bogged down in issues that fun is pretty hard to find.

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The art design is similarly problematic. Character sprites and monsters are cute and distinctive, but they’re enmeshed in a lackluster environment that – while randomized – rarely feels like cohesive level design. Stages are made up of individual blocks that aren’t always detailed enough to convey purpose. Some blocks erode under you feet. Some represent water. Others act as teleportation devices. The dilemma is that it’s not always easy to decipher which block is which; and truthfully, the vagueness is as displeasing visually as it is mechanically. At times, Vertical Drop Heroes looks more like a geometric puzzle game than an action RPG. I actually found myself preferring the Flash animation of the original Kongregate version, because it delights in its cartoonish quality. Something was lost in translation.

However, the game’s biggest aesthetic misstep is the enormous stat menu that takes up nearly a third of the screen. Health and experience points are usually indicated in an understated fashion that doesn’t distract from the in-game action, but Vertical Drop Heroes places it like a monument on the right-hand-side of the screen. Players don’t need to see a portrait of the character they’re already playing. They don’t need to be reminded of statuses and controls. The menu is extraneous and takes up a lot of real estate that might have been used to make the game more artistically interesting. Instead, it’s a prominent distraction.

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Under different circumstances, Vertical Drop Heroes could be an enchanting procedurally-generated romp. The sudden explosions of magic that tear apart block and boundaries are actually quite enjoyable. The shifting sources of power add a degree of strategy. But unfortunately, apart from its browser-based origins, the PC doesn’t feel like the optimum platform for this experience. Compared to similar titles, it’s slight and unremarkable. Vertical Drop Heroes could, however, fit perfectly in the tablet market. Simplifying gameplay for a touchscreen interface could actually bring out a lot of the game’s strengths and eliminating extraneous RPG elements could liven up its energy. This is probably the direction that the developers should’ve tried to take the game, but unfortunately, we can’t review “What If” scenarios.

Vertical Drop Heroes doesn’t try very hard to stand on its own. It gets easily lost in the crowd. A smattering of interesting mechanics is not enough to keep the game afloat and so it sinks like its heroes do.

Score: 4/10

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Early Impressions: Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition

Disclaimer: We have yet to play a session of the new version of Dungeons & Dragons. The following editorial is based solely on the content within the Basic Rules and the Starter Set.

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When Wizards of the Coast set out to reinvigorate the Dungeons & Dragons franchise just a few years ago, they made the bold choice of releasing their playtest to the public. It was an unprecedented tactic by a company that had lost a lot of ground in the roleplaying industry; but ultimately succeeded in delivering a heap of goodwill to the fan base. This experiment went beyond the bounds of a PR stunt and allowed for players to shape the destiny of the new edition; giving them an unheard of sense of agency over the product. Blog posts from the time demonstrate just how much effort lead designer Mike Mearls and his team put into refining the intangible qualities that make D&D so special.

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Perhaps that’s why 5th Edition feels like such a glorious mixture of the familiar and the innovative. In fact, if you’ve played any iteration of Dungeons & Dragons,you should have no problem picking up on the revised rules. But strictly based on mechanics, this game evokes the same intuitive intricacy as 2nd Edition; arguably the most popular D&D rules set. Complex number crunching takes a notable sidestep to storytelling and character development; a welcomed change from the combat heavy 4e.

These alterations are first evident during character creation. Players still roll for traditional ability scores like Strength, Charisma and Wisdom, but there is a concentrated effort to bring out the narrative elements of the process. Backgrounds were introduced as optional tools towards the end of 4th Edition’s product line, but here they are much more pronounced. They act as a means to define what the character did before the adventure, bestowing skills and resources that wouldn’t necessarily come directly from class. A criminal is trained in stealth and deception and has a contact within the underworld. A sage is proficient in arcana and history and has an intimate knowledge of where to find information; whether that be a library, a university, or another academic. Backgrounds add flavor to the jumbled set of numbers and statistics that normally make up a D&D character; infusing them with randomized personality traits, ideals, bonds, and flaws.

This is particularly useful to new roleplayers who may not yet have the confidence to design their own character biography, but even experienced gamers will find potent inspiration within the tables and text blocks. As far as I’m concerned, it’s a huge step forward for an entire chapter to be dedicated to character personality. Fundamentally, Dungeons & Dragons should be more concerned with story and plot than ability scores and modifiers. Backgrounds perfectly emphasize this point.

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But even character creation staples like race and class have been updated to encourage distinctiveness. 5th Edition reintroduces the concept of sub-races to help further classify where the players come from and what distinguishes them from the other sentient species of the world. All dwarves are known for their hardiness in battle and thus receive a bonus to Constitution, but there are big differences between hill tribes and mountain tribes. A Hill Dwarf is known for his keen senses and intuition, reflected by a higher Wisdom score. A Mountain Dwarf is used to the rugged life and is known for his proficiency in Strength. These minor variants can help a player to delve into the finer details of their character, while also providing significant in-game benefits.

Classes are similarly broken down into archetypes, traditions, and domains; concepts that will be greatly expanded upon in the upcoming Player’s Handbook. If a class can be thought of as a career path, than an archetype is a specific job or focus along that path. A rogue could be a thief or an assassin. A fighter could be a soldier or a champion. A cleric could worship the god of life or the god of war. The purpose of these choices is still relatively obscure, as the Basic Rules only provide one archetype for each class, but the idea itself is a sound one. Dungeons & Dragons is truly narrowing the lens through which each character is seen.

My only worry is that all of these new options for character creation will bog down the process. Players have to choose a race and sub-race, a class and archetype, a background and personality traits. However, considering the dozens of powers a beginning player was forced to choose from in 4e, this will likely be a minor issue.

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Dungeons & Dragon’s gameplay is – as always – too complex to be addressed in totality. But ultimately, two mechanics drive 5th Edition’s fresh, streamlined direction: taking actions by rolling ability modifiers and advantage/disadvantage.

Skills really take a backseat in 5e and are only significant if your character has training. Instead, almost every roll is based on the core ability modifier. Breaking through an iron gate? Roll for Strength. Keeping watch for marauding goblins? Roll for Wisdom. In theory, it’s easy for the Dungeon Master to quickly assess the situation and declare the appropriate check. Of course, if a player has a skill that can enhance the roll, they can easily apply their additional modifier. This steers the game away from the Skill Challenges of 4th Edition, which were often a series of predetermined checks strung into an action sequence by the Dungeon Master. Here, skills are mostly the responsibility of the player and are only essential under opportune circumstances.

Honestly, I’m unsure as to whether or not this will achieve its intended effect. Wizards is clearly hoping to minimize the amount of clutter a player will have to keep track of, but I’ve never found skills to be all that cumbersome in the first place. In fact, I’m worried that the ability modifiers will be too abstract and actually increase the amount of interpretation I’ll have to do as Dungeon Master. It’s an issue that I’ll only be able to address at the table after playing through a few sessions. But given the rigorous playtesting this rendition of Dungeons & Dragons has been through, I’m willing to give Wizards of the Coast the benefit of the doubt.

The game’s most innovative mechanic, however, is amongst the simplest of its new ideas. Advantage and Disadvantage replace many of D&D’s crunchier elements: environmental effects, conditions, attack range, and spell results. They are pervasive throughout the system and vital to the experience. Simply put: If your character is in an advantageous situation, such as shooting a bow and arrow from high ground, than you roll two dice and take the better of the two values. If your character is disadvantaged, such as having sand tossed in his eyes, you roll two dice and take the worse of the two values. Advantage eliminates a lot of the extraneous math from Dungeons & Dragons, especially outside of the character sheet. When a monster is blinded, the DM doesn’t have to remember a modifier from the rule book and instead treats the beast as Disadvantaged. When a player character has charmed the local innkeeper; he rolls Advantage when trying to persuade him to let the party stay the night free-of-charge.

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It’s an effortless way to manipulate ability checks in favor of or against the group. I suspect it will be the favorite bit of gameplay that emerges from this new edition. There’s nothing quite as satisfying as two d20s clacking against the table at the same time. Players will feel powerful while rolling Advantage and desperately tense while rolling Disadvantage. This mechanic is the perfect emotional button for a DM to press and will likely lead to many memorable moments.

But the rules for Dungeons & Dragons are only a framework for collaborative storytelling. They exist to facilitate fun between friends. 5th Edition reads like it’s going to inject a lot of imagination back into the beloved franchise. It respects the history of the game and relishes in the desires of its players; but most of all, 5e inspires the kinds of interactive stories that make roleplaying games so extraordinary. Wizards has not ignored the cries of fans. The fingerprints of playtesters are all over these rules and though it’s hard to say if WOTC has achieved its stated goal of building the ultimate edition of D&D; they certainly have come close.

I am beyond excited to get my hands on the Player’s Handbook next month. Hopefully, the complete rules will illuminate some of mysteries that have gone unaddressed in the initial document. Regardless, there’s a new energy to Dungeons & Dragons that modernizes the system enough to compete with games like Pathfinder, Numenera, 13th Age, and Dungeon World. That is strangely comforting. It can be tiresome defending the mistakes that Wizards has made over the years and it’s wonderful to see the ship turning around. Dungeons & Dragons is back and poised to claw its way back to the top of the roleplaying world. I, for one, am keeping my fingers crossed that it does.

You can find the free basic rules for D&D here.

Play Through History: The Arcade of the 1970′s

Welcome to our first episode of “Play Through History”, where we explore the history of video games through the eyes of a casual gamer! 

In this installment, we take a look at the genesis period of the industry, where arcades – and the Atari 2600 – dominated. We’re playing Space Invaders, Asteroids, Adventure, Battlezone, and Pac-Man!

Disclaimer: We could not afford to purchase the actual arcade cabinets for these games, but we did strive to find accurate ports. As we continue, we hope to portray all games as they would have originally been played. 

Music by TEKNOAxe

Jetpack Joust Plays: Kentucky Route Zero

We’ve been slowly making our way through the phenomenal experimental adventure game Kentucky Route Zero; releasing videos almost at the same pace as Cardboard Computer releases new installments to the story. But we are so enraptured by the strange trans-dimensional bypass that we can’t help but push on. This is a collection of our longest running “Let’s Play” – that will be updated over time – allowing you to relive this ethereal experience.

Kentucky Route Zero is the tale of Conway, an aging truck driver attempting to deliver some goods to an antique shop in central Kentucky. Unfortunately, the road he must go down is one of bizarre characters and even more bizarre locales. This will be a night that the old man never forgets.

You can find Kentucky Route Zero here.

Episode One: Equus Oils

Episode Two: Meeting Marques

Episode Three: The Coal Mine

Episode Four: The Bureau of Reclaimed Spaces

Episode Five: Is it an Office or a Cathedral?

Episode Six: The Museum of Dwellings

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The Rise and Fall and Rise of the Platformer

For gamers of my generation, the foundation stone of our experience is Super Mario Bros. It represented the literal rebirth of the video game industry and charmed its way into our hearts with its addictive gameplay, infectious music, and charismatic lead character. With the stellar success of the Italian plumber, Nintendo continued to pump out games with similar mechanics: Kid Icarus, Metroid, Kirby’s Adventures, The Legend of Zelda II. Soon, this increasingly populated genre became known as the platformer; representative of its characteristic run-and-jump mechanics. While the platformer had technically existed for nearly a decade beforehand – with chief examples including Donkey Kong, Load Runner, and Pitfall – Nintendo chose to focus on side-scrolling adventures as one of their core formats on the NES.

An entire age group was raised on this broad, inventive style of gameplay. Nintendo’s success quickly spread to other companies. The Sega Genesis brought us Sonic the Hedgehog and Kid Chameleon. Rayman and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night came to Sony’s Playstation. Then, platforming took a leap into the third-dimension with Super Mario 64 and Banjo Kazooie. Apart from the scrolling camera, item collection, and run-and-jump reaction time; these games were known for their diversity of content. Duck Tales was a relatively peaceful cartoon journey. Metroid was an elaborately constructed space opera with multi-tiered level design. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was an action-packed beat-‘em-up with a difficulty that would make anyone tear their hair out in frustration. This variety brought on what many would consider the golden age of gaming; a burst of creativity and innovation that has rarely been matched.

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But the third-dimension was ultimately the downfall of the classic platformer. With first-person shooters and gorgeously rendered roleplaying games allowing for ever-deeper immersion, the clarion call from consumers was for realism. The market drifted away from the beloved genre and by the year 2000 platformers represented only two-percent of industry output. Developers and publishers saw that the sidescroller could no longer sell the kind of units necessary to compel the bulging budgets of modern Triple-A experiences and as such they mostly disappeared.

Rare attempts to reinvigorate the genre were often hailed by critics, but rejected by the audience. For a time, the only company capable of producing financially successful platformers was Nintendo; whose continued investment in Mario helped to keep them from fading away entirely.

Still, there was a hardcore group of fans that stoked the fires for the return of the genre and this momentum was ultimately timed perfectly with the rise of the indie game. The technological limitations of working with a small team of designers leant itself to simpler styles of gameplay. Indies could work within the boundaries of a classic platformer relatively easily, while bringing a unique and modern sensibility to the design. Simultaneously, services like Steam and Xbox Live Arcade began to see the potential in smaller, cheaper games that could be distributed via their digital platforms. Pac-Man Championship Edition and Geometry Wars had been massive hits and the industry began looking for new sources of games of this size.

While the resurrection of the 2d side-scrolling platformer can probably be traced back all the way to Behemoth’s Alien Hominid in 2004; the real explosion of content started with Braid in the summer of 2008. Braid was an impeccably beautiful game with deeply emotional overtones, but its popularity was fanned by its intriguing approach to traditional mechanics. Each stage introduced a new way to easily manipulate time-and-space and the player could use these new-found powers to solve increasingly elaborate puzzles. Early on, players could simply reverse time to correct the mistakes they had made, but additional mechanics brought on new challenges and solutions; forcing the them to look at the world with a new perspective. Braid revolutionized the platformer, proving that slow, contemplative puzzling could dazzle the eyes and the intellect of players; while also turning a major profit. Many independent studios were influenced by the game’s cerebral approach.

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But one week later, Bionic Commando: ReArmed continued the trend. Originally designed as a companion piece to the three-dimensional reimagining of the NES classic Bionic Commando, ReArmed was essentially an enhanced release of the first game. No one expected that the sidescroller would garner intensely positive critical reviews and sell more than 100,000 copies in its first week. Bionic Commando: ReArmed stood in stark contrast to the artistic and pensive Braid; instead offering a balls-to-the-wall action platformer that perfected aging gameplay techniques. Published by Capcom, the game was a very persuasive argument for Triple-A developers to take a second glance at the genre. Soon, many classic franchises reappeared in downloadable formats: from Sonic the Hedgehog to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to Duck Tales.

However, despite the influx of major gaming powerhouses, the independents continued to dominate much of the steadily growing market for platformers. Larger studios were less apt to take the kinds of creative risks that indies thrived on. Super Meat Boy became infamous for its old school approach to difficulty, forcing players to truly learn the levels before they could conquer them. Limbo applied a sinister black-and-white art design that enhanced eerie and brutal puzzles. Fez built an elaborate world with nary an enemy in sight, instead focusing on the joy of exploration and discovery. By the 2010s, indie studios were creating countless compelling experiences. The revitalization was in full bloom.

At this point, the platformer is the opposite of a stale stylistic choice. It’s as relevant as it is ground-breaking and enthralling. In fact, entire subgenres have emerged to help categorize its exponential growth; such as the “Metroidvania” and the “Endless Runner”. Just in the last year, we’ve seen Shovel Knight, 1001 Spikes, Battleblock Theater, Mercenary Kings, Escape Goat 2, and dozens of other platformers find their way into the hands of gamers.

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It’s important to note that much of this success can be contributed to nostalgia. Gamers who have grown with the medium have very vivid memories of these kinds of experiences. Platformers bring us back to our childhood. But this isn’t nostalgia for nostalgia’s sake; it’s a reawakening of a specific sensibility. What is old is new again. Platformers have seen more innovation in the last five years than they did in the twenty years previous – barring perhaps the 3D revolution. It’s a rare case of nostalgia pushing a genre forward into a welcoming future.

Platformers also offer a distinctive lack of realism. The format is simply too abstract. Instead of constructing refined textures and powerful lighting tools, developers are able to delve into unique art design and inventive gameplay techniques; the core elements that have always made for great games. Thus, platformers aren’t forced into any particular box. They are the perfect format for intuitive experimentation. For example, Braid made tweaks to the genre by allowing for the manipulation of time-and-space, but embraced the tropes that anyone whose played Super Mario Bros can relate to. It was a clash of the new and the familiar that led to a grand reception by its audience.

But visual flavoring is equally possible and just as varied. Braid is like an expressionist painting come to life. Rogue Legacy is a powerful tribute to the 8-bit legacy of Nintendo. Cuphead could’ve played in a theater with Max Fleischer’s cartoons of the 1930’s. As the “Games as Art” argument has grown in voracity, platformers have become a key battleground. They are an empty canvas left to be filled with the imagination of their creators. As such, many of the most aesthetically beautifulgames are sidescrolling adventures. When combined with the aforementioned mechanics, this is a potently charismatic combination.  

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There was an unfortunate time when gamers had to search deeply for new platforming experiences. They just didn’t exist. But now, we get a new one almost every week. In fact, the market may be beginning to flood. This could potentially lead to another crash, but it’s just as likely that the platformer will continue to be the prime choice for indie developers. New memories are being made by a new generation and their nostalgia will be as great as ours.

 

The future is bright for all games, but especially for the platformer. It has seen its share of ebbs-and-flows, but the faithful will always return. And as long as there’s Nintendo, we’ll always have Mario, Kirby, Yoshi, Donkey Kong, and Metroid. We’ll always have the compelling simplicity of running and jumping.

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Player Advice: Getting into Character

There are two important social elements to every roleplaying game: the Gamemaster, whom frames the situations that allow for narrative, and the players, whom push the story along with their actions. The Gamemaster is the subject of an awful lot of advice columns; important tools for a job that requires constant inspiration and innovation. But players are often left out in the cold. They have to learn the art of roleplaying through trial and error. This isn’t entirely fair. After all, the players – in theory – are the true storytellers, the catalysts for conflict and progression.

However, despite stereotypes to the contrary, not everyone who plays in a tabletop RPG has a flair for the dramatic. Some are thrilled by the tactical combat. Others take a more passive route, preferring to observe the world of the story instead of directly engage with it. Not everyone is instantly capable of method acting their way through the first few sessions. Yet, one of the most frequently asked questions by new GMs is: “How do I get my players to roleplay?” Even if it’s not the primary draw for every player, roleplaying enhances the experience of everyone at the table. It’s a skill that can be learned.

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Gamemasters: The best way to get your players to roleplay is to provide an open and comfortable environment that will allow them to explore the ideas they have for their characters. A well-told and interactive story will work wonders as well. But this article isn’t about you.

Players: Roleplaying doesn’t come naturally to everyone. It can be strange to inhabit the mind of someone who is not yourself, especially if you don’t have any acting experience. Luckily, you don’t have to be Robert DeNiro to play Dungeons & Dragons. RPGs do require a significant degree of improvisation, but you don’t have to be intimidated by the openness of this style of gaming. In fact, it should be freeing, allowing you the powerful opportunity to flex the muscles of your imagination. Remember, you’re not in front of an audience of strangers, you’re with friends and together you can tell one hell of a tale.

Here are four techniques that you can implement to become a better roleplayer.

1. Motivation, Motivation, Motivation

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What does your character want? Why does he want it? These are the two most important questions you can ask, because they will propel every action you’ll make in your game. Motivation is the stepping stone to defining your character’s personality, but more importantly, it informs her decision-making. You can easily ask yourself: “Does this get me closer to or further away from my goal?” when making world-shaking choices. This is especially useful when your motivation directly conflicts with that of the party or another player, adding flavorful (if contentious) layers to the relationship between your characters.

It’s important that youcreate your own impetus, because it will personally involve you in the creation of the story. If your motivation is revenge, you can establish the NPC who will be the victim of your wrath, and the Gamemaster will have a new means to grab your attention. Every time a clue is revealed to lead you to the offender, you’ll instantly have an easier time roleplaying because it will be a seed that you planted. Motivation is an implement of immersion and the simplest way to start your journey into deeper roleplaying. It can also change over the course of the game as you react to new plot hooks and evolve your avatar.

Background is the cousin of motivation, as they often directly relate. If you ascertain that your character’s parents were killed by a violent gang lord, the next logical step is to build upon that idea by attempting to claim vengeance; as discussed above. Similarly, if you know that you want to be motivated by revenge, you’d have to contribute that feature to your background. The inspiration can work in both directions. While not every character requires a novella-length back-story, it will help if you have a solid idea of your history that you can recall throughout the game. This lends an element of surprise, as parts of your past could creep up to find you at any given moment.

If you start with motivation and background, I guarantee that you’ll see an immediate improvement in your roleplaying.

2. Think Like Your Character

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There are moments during any game session when things slow down for your character and others’ take the lead. Obviously, roleplaying is collaborative and your friends should be allowed their time to shine, but that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t attempt to remain in character. In the real world, your inner life is just as important as any actions you take. That should be reflected in the game.

Let’s look at an example: As you are being lead down a long, dark central corridor of a dilapidated ruin, how are you feeling? Perhaps you are scared out-of-your-mind, but feigning strength to support the other party members. Perhaps you are reminded of the times you spent exploring the catacombs beneath your hometown as a child. This isn’t anything that any other player ever has to know about, but it’s a way to personalize the game for yourself. Even if the Gamemaster hasn’t specifically described a function of the setting, try to use all of your senses: the corridor smells like mold and stale air. You can feel the uneven stone beneath your feet. You can taste the moisture on your tongue. These small details will bring the whole ordeal to life and create a more vivid mental experience. When the time comes to take back the reigns, you’ll still be deeply involved in the story.

Another thing to keep in mind is that most human beings are judgmental creatures. We might not speak out with all of our opinions, but we certainly have them. As such, you should constantly be judging the decisions and behavior of the other characters in your party and the significant NPCs in your campaign. The results don’t have to be negative, but they should be honest. If you are disgusted by aberrant creatures, you would likely react as such when you meet an Illithid shopkeeper. If you are passionate about a good sponge-cake, you’ll likely fall in love with the barmaid who makes the best in town.

Inhabiting your character to the point of thinking like them can take some practice, but can truly add to your perception of the game.

3. Challenge Your Gamemaster

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Don’t be afraid to challenge the storytelling abilities of your Gamemaster. Don’t feel like you have to stick to the script. If it’s logical for your character to make a drastic plot-based U-turn, then do it. Good roleplaying should keep a GM on her toes. They’ll say it’s annoying. They’ll be frustrated by your boldness. They’ll be forced to stop railroading and follow the path of the players, which might mean some hasty improvisation. But ultimately, the Gamemaster is there to facilitate you and your entertainment. Don’t be a jerk, but do take the time to nudge the GM in your direction, because it’s within your rights as a player.

But how can you do this? The first step is to not be intimidated by the idea of fulfilling your characters full potential. Too many people don’t want to speak up about their character as an individual. They let them fall into a specific role in the group and work as an agent of the collective. However, you should remember that in your version of the story, you are the protagonist. It’s okay to make selfish choices occasionally, although they should be made sparingly as not to offend the friends you play with. The rule of thumb should always be: “Does this make sense in the context of my character’s personality, background, and motivation?”

If you don’t feel as though the game is engaging enough for you, it’s as much your duty as the Gamemaster’s to fix that problem. Introduce conflict. Follow a dangling plot hook that interests you. Cause some entertaining trouble. You’ll know if you’ve gone too far, because the group will let you know. They’ll shoot you some seriously evil looks. But if done in the spirit of fun, your Gamemaster will appreciate the challenge and it may take the story in exciting directions that it wouldn’t have gone in otherwise.

4. Leave the Tech at Home

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Lastly – and this should be a sensible piece of advice – don’t bring your cell phone or your laptop or your tablet to the table, unless you’re using them for gaming purposes. Don’t text. Don’t browse the web. Don’t play mobile games. These are distractions and could be key to why you feel uncomfortable roleplaying. After all, you don’t feel like you have to roleplay if you are busy checking your e-mail.

This can be a bit of a harsh rule for some groups. We’re so used to be connected that we hate to disconnect. But the real joy of roleplaying games is being present and social in the moment. The people at the table are far more important than ninety-five percent of what you’ll be doing on your device and if you’re feeling bored; you should really be honest with your Gamemaster. Let them know so they can do something about it.

The fact of the matter is: you can’t roleplay effectively if you’re not paying attention. You’ll lose pieces of the information that you need to participate in the storyline. Do yourself a courtesy and try to turn it off for the few hours you’ll be playing. I guarantee you’ll see an upswing in your roleplaying and the amount of enjoyment you get from playing the game.

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RPG in Focus (Preview): The Strange

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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Numenera has been a bountiful success for Monte Cook Games; a bold and innovative tabletop RPG that transformed a small crowd-funded company into one of the pre-eminent publishers of the genre. The collection of mechanics behind the game – known as the Cypher System – is regarded by fans as effortless and elegant. It’s relatively simple to teach to new players, but surprisingly deep as you delve into its complex inner- workings. But Numenera’s greatest contribution to the modern RPG scene is its intense spotlight on storytelling. For the most part, the rules get out of the way and allow players to engage in thrilling collaborative narratives.

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However, despite the infinite possibilities of its setting, Numenera is built upon a specific foundation of science-fantasy. The Ninth World is brilliant and original, but it’s only one world. The Strange rectifies this quandary, opening up the Cypher System to a vast universe of genres, styles, and ideas.

The Strange is a collaboration between Monte Cook and his good friend and famed game designer Bruce Cordell (2nd, 3rd, and 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons). Kickstarted in late 2013, the RPG is set to release this August, but buzz from the community is already palpable. This excitement is founded upon the clever concept at the core of The Strange’s gameplay: that the dark energy that makes up our universe is actually the remnants of an alien computer network. This ancient internet is filled with endless and intangible worlds that have been sprouted from the imagination of sentient creatures. All of the collective stories that we’ve told throughout human history have found a home there, a home in The Strange.

These worlds are called Recursions and though they have remained hidden from the people of Earth, they are perfectly capable of interacting with our reality. There exists a number of secret societies made-up of scientists and businessmen that hope to take advantage of The Strange’s boon of resources; but their tampering has opened a portal to unknown threats. Now, the Recursions are aware of Earth and unfortunately, some of their residents are jealous and wrathful. As such, the game can easily be set in a mirror of our modern world, fueled by dark conspiracies and hidden heroes.

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But The Strange Core Rulebook also elaborates on two prominent Recursions located just beyond our perceptions. Ardeyn is a mystical world where sorcerers battle powerful demons, hoping to intercept them before they arrive on Earth. Ruk is an alien land of horrifying monsters, born long before man evolved, powered by advanced technologies and biological enhancement. Luckily, the Game Master is only limited by her imagination and any of her own creations can become a valid, canonical Recursion. The Strange is a world-builders dream, as every session can take place in a new elaborate setting, each more bizarre than the last.

Travelling between Recursions is a process known as Translation, which doubles as a gameplay mechanic to distinguish The Strange from Numenera. In the empty space between worlds, characters must assume new forms, so as not to disturb the inherent rules of each Recursion. This prevents a blaster rifle from crossing over into a medieval setting or a magical scroll from invading a planet based in hard-science. Thus, players are forced to make major changes to their equipment and powers in order to survive this transition, giving each character a chance to evolve with every subsequent destination on their route.

The Cypher System is already known for its inventive take on character creation and progression. The Translation process is only an interesting addition to a stellar mechanic. As in Numenera, players build their characters by writing a simple sentence: “I am a (adjective)(noun) who (verb)s.”

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In The Strange, the “noun” is referred to as a Type of which there are three to choose from: the Vector, the Paradox, and the Spinner. A Vector is the muscle of a gaming party, the most physically adept member of the group. They can wield massive weapons and mighty armor, but are truly meant to induce action and excitement. The Paradox is a rule-breaker who bends reality to his whim. Like a sorcerer or magician, this player can do the impossible. A Spinner is a fusion of the two previous types, a jack-of-all-trades who can swindle, persuade, bluff, and charm her way out of trouble.

The “adjective” is known as a Descriptor, a means to describe the character’s personality and abilities. A Skeptical Vector might be more perceptive because of her extreme attention to detail. A Fast Spinner might be able to escape a band of marauders without much effort. However, the Descriptor goes beyond gameplay capabilities and helps a player to truly inhabit her character.

Lastly, the “verb” is called a Focus, the ability or quality that makes the character special. In Numenera, the Focus is typically permanent; but in The Strange, players might take on new Foci based on their current Recursion. On Earth, you might portray a Fast Paradox who is Licensed to Carry, while on Ruk you could inhabit a Fast Paradox who Metamorphosizes. Again, these shifts allow players to try on new talents and powers that they’d have to earn in other systems. The Strange encourages and rewards character experimentation.

Once the player has constructed a sentence and selected from a few other options – such as equipment, stat pools, etc – they are ready to play. Character creation in the Cypher System is relatively minimalistic, but the sheer variety of choices immediately engages the imagination. Players quickly become connected to their roles and The Strange drops them into a practically infinite setting that they can explore at their own pace.

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Monte Cook Games is still a young publisher, but it has already proven its ability to innovate and inspire. The Strange doesn’t hit bookstores until late August, but the game has managed to build a huge following. Perhaps it’s because of the openness of the Recursion concept or because of a hunger for more products using the Cypher System; but it’s difficult not to be swept away by the excitement surrounding The Strange. Still, we’ll have to reserve our final judgment until the game’s release date, waiting patiently for our journey to Ardeyn, Ruk, and beyond. But at this point, if there are two game designers that I trust to arouse my roleplaying sensibilities; it’s Monte Cook and Bruce Cordell.

Can I Kick It? Ep. 9 – We Are The Dwarves, Athlas, After Reset, and Speakeasy

In the newest episode of “Can I Kick It?”, we take a look at four excellent games: We Are The Dwarves (An Isometric Tactical RPG), Athlas – Duel for Divinity (A Unit-Building Board Game), After Reset (A Post-Apocalyptic RPG), and Speakeasy (A Mob vs FBI Party Game). We also take a glance at a personal recommendation: the Learnt Podcast. 

The Projects:

We are the Dwarves:
https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/whalestudio/we-are-the-dwarves?ref=nav_search

Athlas – Duel for Divinity:
https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/451575426/athlas-duel-for-divinity-0?ref=nav_search

After Reset:
https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/blackcloudstudios/after-reset-rpg-rebooted?ref=nav_search

Speakeasy:
https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1894392880/speakeasy-a-mob-themed-hidden-role-party-game?ref=nav_search

Learnt:
https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/836422533/learnt-podcast-season-2?ref=nav_search

Listen to Episodes of “Learnt” here:
http://learntpodcast.podomatic.com

Music by TeknoAXE