Monday, October 25, 2010

The Game of Real Life

I was given the Game of Real Life by a friend, who had it given to them by someone else. Other than Hot Potato a game should not be passed around this much, so I was a bit leery about this game from the start. The Game of Real Life is a more realistic approach to the Game of Life, the classic game of happy endings. Apparently real life is filled with nothing but drugs, prostitution, early death and pain. I suppose that’s not entirely false and actually makes a decent premise for a game. Honestly though the game is not much more than a “roll the dice, move your mice” with some colorful details and some options along the way. But, like real life, much of the decision making is really out of the player’s hand. The game is for two to six players and should not take more than a half hour, considerably less if a couple players meet unfortunate endings. Which they probably will.

The best part of the game is the diary. All the players are given a diary sheet to keep track of their life events. It’s nothing all that special, but I like that the game creators wanted to put some sort of element into it that gives it some life. It’s nice to be more than just the sum result of some dice rolling and a score at the end. The problem is that you think that the diary will be a nice, flowing narrative of your character’s life when it is actually just a bunch of short sentences summarizing what happened to you. The game turn is very quick (just roll and read) so it does not leave you with much time to create flowery prose.

The object of the game is to be the player who has the most happy faces at the end of the game. Living for a long time helps because it allows you more time to collect happiness, but it is possible to win even if you die early if those are some real happiness filled years of youth. Happy faces are gained by all sorts of activities; marriage and kids, vacations, and many other things such as your own pizza, catching leaves on a fall day and seeing a unicorn in the forest. Strangely, the single biggest happiness provider in the game is found on the heroin chart. Granted, some of the other heroin uses create disastrous situations, so it’s not always a happy ending. It’s really not a happy ending in most situations. Cris, Mike and I played the other night. Mike was a drug addict witness to an infant having their throat slit, Cris was a prostitute that died in World War III and I perished in a nightmare of a nursing home. At least I made it to old age, not bad for someone who was disowned by their family, shot in a drive by and had some bad experiences with LSD.

The board itself is a blur of lines, small type, colors and some drawings. It is very confusing and the fact that the print is so tiny and facing off in all directions makes it very hard for the player to read what is going on. What space am I on? Can you read that for me? And the game pieces are rocks. Actual rocks. I suppose they are little bit glossy actually. I don’t mind the low-tech approach to the game, but the design of the board could have been a lot better. It’s not just that it does not add a ton to the game, but I would say that it actually detracts since it slows things down as you try to figure out the space that your rock just landed on. And the spaces are very little. Also, maybe we had too much wine when we were getting started but it took us several minutes just to locate the starting point on the board. Not a great sign.

The Game of Real Life is fine if someone wants to give it to you, but I’m not sure that I would recommend buying it. If you are used to Life and Monopoly than it will probably be exciting and funny and perhaps an impetus to look further into the world of board games, which is a great thing. I’m not saying that I will never play it again, but it is not at the top of the list.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Sage Advice: An Archive of Bizarre Questions and Answers

In my formative role playing years I was a big fan of Dragon magazine. What I liked best about it were the insights into the games of other players. I really enjoyed the letters column and Sage Advice, where gamers would write in and ask questions of the gurus at TSR. Most of the time they could easily be answered by anyone who actually owned any of the books for D&D, but other times they were totally off the wall and represented, what I felt was, the real way that people play the game. Fortunately for all of us someone has taken it upon themselves to post years worth of Sage Advice and put it out there for all to read. Thank god for the internet.

This glorious page can be found here:

I’ve spent some time reading through it and I am happy to say that it is as entertaining as I remember. Some of my favorites include the following questions: “We are having an argument over an issue that has us divided. My friends say that with a ring of telekinesis they can make an arrow spin at the speed of light and then release it, having it do between 100 and 600 points of damage to their target. I say this is impossible! What do you think?” The Sage answer sides with the questioner, in case you were wondering it is not possible to do such a thing. Apparently the arrow would disintegrate if it was to spin that fast. Hmm.

Another: “What is the difference between chain mail and plate mail armor?” What kind of a question is that? There are dozens of books that describe both of them in detail. No one at this gaming table was able to answer this question? They had to write to a magazine? I love it.

Some more: “Will a monster join a character party if invited?” There are a lot of these subjective questions going on as well. Some of the others include “Is my character dead”, “What is behind the secret door” and “Is the sword I found magical”. The Sage Advice guy was a lot kinder with these questions than I would have been.

This also got me thinking about some of the questions that my game of 13 year olds would have asked back in the early 90’s. One of them would definitely have been, “Is a wish spell capable of giving the character an army of water breathing minotaurs? And, if so, what needs to be done to insure their loyalty? Is the promise of pillaging enough?” That was big in our game. Very important. I’ve also always wondered about “How many ballistas can fit onto the deck of the boat that my party stole at the end of the Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh?” If you are a player of a certain age the answer to just about any question should be yes. It just makes sense to try to do everything. And, in a way, it’s easy for the DM because they all lead to murder and treasure.

There is something inherently strange about asking questions about D&D, since there are specific rules for the game and the DM’s word is law for anything not covered under those rules. But at the same time I am so glad that people ask these questions.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Prime Runners: Shadowrun 2nd Edition

Lately I’ve been pretty obsessed with second edition Shadowrun. There are just so many things about the world and the game that I really like, as a result I’ve been buying up pretty much every second edition book that I can get my hands on. Some are replacements for ones that I had a teenager (that have all gone to some sort of abyss of old role playing material, my contribution to this netherworld is substantial) and others are new to me entirely. One of the best parts of this is that not many people seem to be playing second edition these days so the books usually cost more in shipping than to actually buy them. The point is that I have been reading a ton of these things lately and, while many of them are excellent, the one that most stands out to me is Prime Runners.

Prime Runners is a sourcebook, but it is not location specific. It is essentially a book of NPC’s of all types. When I purchased it I had assumed that it would just be page after page of elite runners, which seems pretty cool to me. I like reading about badass futuristic mercenaries. But it is actually way better than that and gives such an interesting view into what makes the Sixth World really tick. There are runners contained in it’s pages, but there are also talismongers, journalists, fixers, writers, athletes, and pretty much anything else that you can come up with. To see how a world really lives and breathes it would be not all that useful to just see the runners that operate in it’s seedy underbelly. But to see how many powerful people in the world interact with and use this seedy underbelly is something else altogether. How did that fixer with the suitcase nukes get to be that guy? Why has that journalist been able to survive and thrive in the most dangerous places in the world? It’s all in there chummer.

Like all the Shadowrun sourcebooks, Prime Runners is presented as the work of someone else. In this case two runners who decided to compile a directory of people that other runners would need to know. Good concept. And like other books it is filled with comments from others who have read and commented on the entries. I love that. Usually the comments present various opinions on the person in question and bring up rumors about them as well. Aside from that all the entries have the character’s motivations, history (or what is known of it) and hooks to get the players involved with them. It is well written, smart, interesting and funny. If you can’t get something out of this as a GM then you should probably retire your dice.

One other thing that I really liked about the book was that it showed what a really tough character looks like. Since Shadowrun does not have a level system for characters it is sometimes difficult to know exactly when someone is very powerful, so much of it depends on the particular situation that they are in. And the location sourcebooks rarely have the stats of actual characters in them, that just seems to be how they are. But this books peels back the curtain and shows you how a real wiz runner scans. Take for example Teachdaire, the elven assassin. This guy is no joke. Skills as high as 13, all custom delta-level cyberware and rating six hydraulic leg jacks. Okay, the leg jacks are weird but I would not tell him that. But that is what elite level looks like. Two things really stuck out at me as I read his entry. One, in a standup fight he is virtually invincible. Super fast, skilled and deadly. And two, that with a good plan he can be killed with one shot just like everyone else. And that’s what makes Shadowrun so cool. At least one of the things.

Another runner I would not cross is the combat mage Sukie Redflower. She is totally absurd, both in attitude and ability. But the book is filled with compelling characters. As I was reading through it I was thinking with each entry how I would fit that NPC into our campaign, and it wasn’t stretch for any of them. When I finished the book I had a year’s worth of adventures planned. Isn’t that what a good sourcebook should do?