I’ve gotten way behind on writing these. Life has been a zoo lately. I feel particularly bad that we’ve had two games and I haven’t done any updates. It’s been a while since we played, so hopefully I get the details right. =P
We had a lot of trouble deciding on a game. Most of what seemed immediately appealing was stuff we’d done several times already and we thought we’d try something new. When the players found out I had a copy of Eden Studio’s Army of Darkness RPG, they jumped on it. Several players even made a point of buying the rule book.
The game faced a bit of a logistical challenge with the brief flurry of snow we’d gotten that weekend, but we also had a couple new faces that showed up so that was kinda fun.
It’s always harder to for me to get a sense of how character creation works when I’m running the game. (Just as it’s hard for me to get a sense of all the mechanics when I’m on the player side of things.) Character creation seemed go smooth. The game book has lots of sample pregen characters and the rules for making your own character seem to give lots of options. I’ve always been fond of the distinction introduced in the Buffy RPG between the big heroes and the more mundane characters. In many stories with an “ensemble cast,” whether it’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer or The Lord of the Rings or, hell, Justice League of America, there’s invariably a varying power level but all the characters still have their share of the story. Which is hard to emulate with roleplaying games where everyone is supposed to be balanced. Frodo just isn’t as cool as Gandalf.
Primetime Adventures, the game which introduced the term “ensemble cast” to my lexicon (thanks Matt), approaches this by doing the narrative control jig. Which is fun, but (as I’ve probably said so often that people are about to hit me) it doesn’t scratch my roleplaying itch. So I’ve long liked the idea of balancing out lack of raw ability or power with plucky good luck. I don’t know that players necessarily like that, but I like it conceptually.
The general plot was that the players were drawn into Revolutionary France where Deadite-friendly cultists were using the Reign of Terror to fuel the rise of their evil god. Citizen Robespierre was the head of this evil cult. I had the League of the Scarlet Pimpernel in there for comic relief since I figured that a bunch of nancy boys with overly elaborate plots would be amusing, but didn’t get to use it too much.
The players worked really hard to avoid a lot of combat. Which given my usual GMing style was fine, but given the idea that this was (a) meant to test out the game mechanics and (b) Army of Darkness, it was a little frustrating. But the point was to have fun, so I tried to roll with it. We only ended up having a couple serious fights. I nearly killed a PC in one attack. They used their Drama Point to not die. While they were admittedly going up against The Big Bad (Robespierre, using the stats for Evil Ash from the main book), it seemed… like a bit much.
The things I liked? I like a very simple linear dice mechanic. Initiative was based around broad categories of action and a lot of common sense, rather than Initiative rolls, which was also nice and seemed to speed up combat. I also liked that lower-powered NPCs did not actually get to make dice rolls, they were just target numbers for PCs to roll against in order to dodge or hit. Which seemed like a nice touch to streamline things, especially since it freed up the GM from having to do a bunch of dice hucking.
What didn’t I like? Um, everything else. I felt that the multiple action rules seemed… silly and easily abused. No one really had the foresight to abuse them in this one-shot, so it may not be as bad as it seemed. But they just didn’t look right. The basic idea, as I recall it, was that you got at least one attack and one defense per turn. You could take an extra attack on a turn, but you didn’t get any more defense rolls. And vice versa. You didn’t roll for further attacks. You just used your original roll and kept subtracting from it for each additional action. There seemed little reason to not just take a high roll and milk it for all it’s worth by taking multiple attacks out of the same roll, at least doubling your damage if not more. It was a gamble, since you might instead want to use all those extra actions for defense if some joker did the same thing to you. But otherwise… Conceptually, it fit was flurries of attack like Ash riding a stock cart while unloading his shotgun on some ugly she-bitch threatening to swallow his soul. But functionally… just didn’t like the looks of it.
The long list of special combat maneuvers also seemed excessive. I get that this is a combat heavy game, and you were encouraged to write down common maneuvers on your character sheet. But the maneuvers made it seem like your attacks would quickly become a matter of being “one trick ponies” as you use them over and over again. Or you get bogged down looking up rules for a maneuver that you’re trying for the first time. I don’t know if this is a sign that I’ve been playing too many indy games (and possibly brain damage), but a part of me wonders if these are relevant. Do you really need that much detail and nuance for “I kill them with my boom stick?”
I kinda assume that they playtested the rules. Eden Studios is hardly some amateur company just making up rules off the cuff and dumping them into a game book. And this is the third game to use these rules. So they’ve had plenty of time to hone them. So I’m not sure if this just works better for other people or I’m missing something fundamental in my one time running the game. Though I’ve never played the full-blown version of UniSystem instead of the simplified version of the rules in Army of Darkness, I often felt like some of this was just a simplified version of what they made for a much crunchier game. Maybe if I’d played another one of their games I wouldn’t be this boggled by the rules? Or maybe practice makes perfect?
Another part of me, the part that has read and played other games, wonders why you wouldn’t get rid of both of those mechanics and have something like “stunts” from Exalted? Instead of mechanical weirdness with multiple actions and the slowness of keeping track of maneuvers, what if a stunt just improved your roll and hence your damage as well? I realize that there’s a certain level of re-inventing the wheel that comes with roleplaying games trying to make their mechanics stand out or be different from the competition. But it just seems like there have been much better ideas revolving around cinematic combat.
Or maybe I’m just biased towards the familiar? I readily admit to being a grumpy curmudgeon. ;)
While I theoretically like the one roll for hit and damage, it’s always felt problematic. The fact that I very nearly killed a PC with one hit also gave me pause. The use of a Drama Point saved the character from certain death, but it left me feeling… iffy about the whole thing. In long term play, with Drama Points getting used more regularly, I could see the risk of death being a bit higher. Especially when fighting The Big Bad.
The game also has a mass-combat rule system which I didn’t get a chance to try out. It makes sense if you feel like your game needs a large open conflict like they had in the movie. The rules for it seemed okay, as such things go. Not my favorite approach, but at least okay. This was the one thing the players utterly avoided.
There are also Fear checks, which seemed okay but did not overly impress me. It was a basic roll to see if you flip out when you run into something horrible.
Compared to the Leading Brand
A few obvious games jump out for comparison. Unknown Armies is probably the most obvious. There’s sort of a distinction between the two. I’ve heard one game designer claim that the way to encourage people to use specific maneuvers in combat is to include them as part of the rules. Army of Darkness definitely does that, though I don’t know that I agree with the implimentation. Though it has it’s own problems, Unknown Armies felt simpler and more elegant. There is little to encourage players to do much more than say, “I shoot him” or “I hit him with my sword.” The lack of visible “hit points” in Unknown Armies does lend a certain level of narration. At first my addendum to that is, “but it doesn’t require it, nor does it need to fit the genre.” But, really, I don’t think I’ve even played a story game that required that. A good example of this is the horrible thing we did to Shooting the Moon at GPNW ’08. As with any game, I guess it requires a heavy dose of social contract (and social pressure) to keep it from going off the rails.
More generic systems that would seem a good fit for this are my usual favorites: World of Darkness and Savage Worlds. The latter seems particularly well suited to that fast and loose combat. World of Darkness I mainly put on because it’s a really solid fast and loose system that disappears quickly. Poaching a few ideas from Exalted (lower target number on the d10s, stunt bonuses) would probably really kick it up a notch.
I’m not sold. The book is a fun read, diving right into the smarmy, shmaltzy man’s man tone of voice that you get from Ash. As a game setting, though, it’s sort of a one trick pony. Ultimately, there’s only one villain: the Deadites. You can do all sorts of whacky time periods and hell realms or whatever. But ultimately it would seem like it would be repetitive. It’s a problem, I guess, with any fictional setting that’s made into a roleplaying game.
The rules have also failed to really delight me. I like some of the individual ideas, but not the final product. Of course, I may have a very different opinion if someone more comfortable with the rules were to run it for me. My ham-handed attempt at running it probably didn’t allow the rules to shine in their glory. The way to sell me on a game does not usually start with me running it. =)
Next I’ll cover our run of Wilderness of Mirrors. Hopefully I’ll get it written before we play our next game.