Archive for Games that Don’t Exist

Return to Maniac Mansion

Return to Maniac Mansion is a game I made for Johnathan Walton’s Stage One. It’s a fictional internal memo among some unnamed Lucasarts employees, and also a playable roleplaying game.

[Reviews of Games that Don’t Exist] Galveston Adventures

Galveston Adventures

If you’re anything like me, you begin reading Galveston adventures thinking “What, another retroclone named after a city in Texas? Does every roleplaying group need to take their houserules for The Dallas RPG and publish them as their own separate game?” But like many other Dallas heartbreakers, Galveston contains a few really clever, innovative ideas. I just wish that the designers had been confident enough to discard more of the Old Soap Renaissance baggage and create something more original. Are we always going to be playing in the field of soap operas set in 1980s era Texas? Could we at least update the setting to modern day?

Most of the game follows heavily from the original Dallas rpg. You have the same essential core mechanic, a very similar list of attributes and a set of goals that involve uncovering secrets and gaining control over specific groups or NPCs. Like many Dallas clones, Galveston adds a combat system, which I feel is a mistake. It detracts from the real core of the game. The importance of JR being shot wasn’t how he was shot, it was the mystery that arose from there.

You have a pregenerated cast of characters with no character generation rules. This is fine for some games (I quite like the cast of PCs in King of Houston). But Galveston’s cast is full of wishy-washy uninspiring PCs with dull motivations (e.g., “Goal: Investigate accounting errors at Buck Wapnow’s cattle ranch”). This lack of strong situation and drama plagues the entire game. Who cares who secretly runs the Chicken Hut?

Even though the locations are uninteresting, I do like the rules for secretly seizing control of locations, organizations and NPCs. There’s a secret bidding system, whereby you know when people bid, but not how much. You can use this to fake out other players in various ways: making several small bids may seem like you’re investing more than you really are. One large bid may fly under the other player’s radars. Investigation rolls can reveal some about the bids given, which helps make investigative PCs useful.

When someone finally reveals their secret control, they get a bonus based on how heavily invested they are. At that point, the secret bidding is closed on that resource, but other players can later reveal they had even more invested in the NPC or group, and that the resource was really working for them. This makes for entertaining reversals in play. Once, during our playtest, one player miscalculated his secret total, which led to some rules confusion. Clearer rules on how to handle this situation would be helpful.

Closely tied into the secret bidding is a system called “Foreshadowing”. Each secret, goal and NPC or group has a list of 5 hints that you can use, and each hint also applies to several different secrets. On your turn, you can insert into your narration a hint pointing toward one of your secrets, goals or hidden control of a resource. When you finally win the Big Reveal bonus from bringing out your secret, each hint that you gave adds a multiplier onto the bonus (there’s a chart). but each hint also makes it more likely that an Investigating PC could discover your secret and steal that Reveal Bonus for themselves. Hints are a risky maneuver, but can really pay off. This subsystem can make for really interesting play, but it also limits replayability: once you know which hints point where, it becomes easy to steal the Reveal Bonus from another player.

These new mechanics suggest to me that the designers could have made a really interesting, innovative game if they had abandoned some of the ideas carried over from the Dallas RPG. Or that they had made a setting out of Galveston that had enough drama to really sustain interest in the game. But as it is, I doubt that this retroclone can survive in an RPG marketplace already overcrowded with Dallas heartbreakers, TV soap systems and big budget licensed television drama games.

[Reviews of Games that Don’t Exist] The Dukes of Hazzard RPG

The Dukes of Hazzard RPG

Following the phenomenal success of The Dallas Roleplaying Game, lots of little game companies sprang up and seized licenses various television licenses. Some of these became instant classics (like the Fantasy Island game where the GM plays Mr Roarke). Others were less successful, and left their companies drowning in debt.

The Dukes of Hazzard game is one of the latter group. The basic premise is actually pretty good for a roleplaying game (gamers love being heroes outside the law). And the rules have a few good ideas: every session is about building up resources to use in the mandatory final chase scene.

Unfortunately, the system’s flaws kept it from being a success. The random character creation was wildly unbalanced. (They don’t even stat up Bo and Luke as NPCs? Apparently, they assume you will play additional Duke family members, like the regrettable Coy and Vance.) The resource building phase is easily gamed to generate infinite resources. The “Bridge is Out” card is brokenly powerful, while other cards are ambiguously worded.

In the end, The Dukes of Hazzard RPG failed to gain a foothold against juggernauts of the industry like The Cheers Game or to find a niche among indie gamers the way St. Elsewhere Storytelling did.

[Reviews of Games that Don’t Exist] Allegory Mystery

There’s a thread on Story-Games.com where people write reviews of RPGs that don’t exist. I have had way too much fun writing a couple of these, and wanted to preserve them here. Here’s one:

Tom the Dancing Bug’s Allegory Mystery RPG (featuring Billy Dare)

Allegory Mystery at first looks like a Sea Dracula knockoff. Cartoon characters, absurdity, mystery investigation, the whole deal. Only this time we have humanoid cartoon characters, a la Tintin, and recursive literary meta-critique replacing the dance contest. The game is probably bet summarized as “House of Leaves meets Scooby Doo.” I don’t know if that clarifies anything, though.

It’s the last part that really causes problems. You’re supposed to have your PCs symbolize the subtext of their own story in order to manipulate the outcome towards the end that you want. So suppose you want to have your teenage spy clamber across the Berlin Wall. (The setting is “somewhere in the 20th century”. Nazis, Communists and bomb throwing anarchists all appear as antagonists.) You might accomplish this by explaining how your protagonist represents youthful optimism triumphing over cynicism. Or you might argue that crossing the Berlin Wall back into West Berlin is analogous to the Hero’s homecoming at the end of Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces. Your opponent, however, might argue that your job as a spy is symbolic of a larger morally ambiguous world of international politics, or that the Berlin Wall represents the fundamental divisions between humans: you will never fully know or understand anyone you meet. Either interpretation implies the same thing for the story: you fail to make it over the wall and be reunited with your girlfriend, and instead you are shot dead by the border guards.

So you and anyone else involved gives their critique of the story so far (in character), then the group decides which interpretation is correct and the story unfolds from there (“Haha, you neglected to pay attention to the neo-Marxist subtext of your own soliloquy. Victory is mine!”). The rules are unfortunately a bit vague on what happens if the group can’t agree on which is the right interpretation, which is quite unfortunate.

I’m real keen on trying this out in play, but the rest of my group is wary. They want the meta-critique to be encompassed in a more traditional mechanics like Sea Dracula’s dance-off. “Why can’t we have a yodeling contest, and the winner can then describe their analysis of the story?” they ask. I tried to explain to them that literary analysis is really just another performance art, but they didn’t buy that.

(Even if I did get them to play, I know one guy would be going for Jesus allegories everywhere. Biblical parallels are broken, yo.)

Still, it seems like a cool system. I’m working on a hack to run Doctor Who as the triumph of romance and intellect over brute force and cynicism. Now I just have to convince my friends to play it.