Well, the Game Chef competition is still grinding slowly along, but the review for After the Fall came out a couple weeks ago. It didn’t make a position as finalist, but it didn’t deserve to. I’ll post a copy of the review below. It’s one I almost completely agree with. We had 9 days to come up with a game idea. I had a bad first week and in the end decided to just put out something I’d always wanted to work on, using the ingredients (Journey, City, Desert, Edge, and Skin) from the competition. Since I had only 2 days left at that point, I barely had time to write up the basic ideas (I finished it and submitted it with 10 minutes left to go). It shows. But, with the game not making the second stage of the competition I now feel free to go back and work on it, taking the advice from the review to heart.

Let me tell you, it’s not easy to post a review of failure. Needs to be done, though, if I want to really work on making the game better.

The review, by Johnathan Walton, Iron Game Chef 2010 judge:
“After the Fall by Patrick Gamblin
A game of survival and heroics in a post-apocalyptic steampunk world.

Concept: Another post-apocalyptic fantasy game in which you play the crew of a flying airship trying to survive. There’s a very strong Final Fantasy or general Japanese video game RPG tone and this is by far the game that comes closest to being a straightforward fantasy adventure game – though of the 1990s-2000s style, not old school retro.

Execution: There’s a fixed skill list and point-buy character creation. Players get more creation points from taking negative traits for their characters, a well-tread mechanic that is also pretty unfortunate, in my opinion, but that’s a whole different story. The group ship- and port-creation concept is substantially more interesting. Also, the relationship mechanics are relatively cool, but don’t seem to allow for relationships to change over time. Vice and virtue traits are also interesting, but there are so many dice-adder traits of various sorts that it would take a while to learn to keep track of them all. I’m also left thinking: so I have the power to shape-change into a beast and what it gets me is… a generic +2? Seems like there could be more interesting stuff happening there. The rule to spend a challenge die to ignore a failed social challenge roll is cool, addressing the traditional distaste for “mind control” as a result of social challenges, but it also serves to make social challenges ultimately less important, if you can ignore the outcome but more muscle-based approaches work every time. Still, that’s probably not an issue in this kind of adventure drama. I initially thought it was neat that that challenge dice also serve as XP, but then I thought more about the weird tension this creates: do you decide to be better now or raise your traits for later? I don’t think that’s a very interesting or fruitful tension. I have some other minor concerns such as, in the weapons tables, it seems like the ranges could be abstracted in a game like this (far, medium, short, hand), rather than measuring them in hundreds of meters, but that’s much less significant in the big picture.

Completeness: There are limited GM guidelines in the current draft, which is pretty disappointing because otherwise this game might even be a finalist, since the game seems reasonably solid, if not all that exciting, mechanically. The GM arbitrarily picks difficulties for rolls and is supposed to set them at roughly 50/50, making the game super whifftastic. There are also arbitrary challenge dice rewards for doing cool things, which doesn’t really excite me, but it’s par for the course for post-90s fantasy adventure.

Cookery: I guess the theme is here, plus a couple of the ingredients, but they don’t really figure very prominently.

Conclusion: I know some folks seem to be using the term “fantasy heartbreaker” in a pejorative sense nowadays, but it’s important to remember that it was originally intended to mean a game that, yes, actually breaks your heart, not one you turn your nose up at, and this game seems like a heartbreaker in those terms. The author has put a lot of work into this, but in the end it seems like a variation on a bunch of other games without much that makes it stand out as being exceptional aside from the unique setting elements. Plus, even those elements often seem to boil down to a generic +2, making it hard for the unique flavor of the game to stand out, even in play. I can totally understand why you would want to write up these rules as a homebrew system to play with your local group, taking all the things you like about post-90s fantasy adventure RPGs and combining them into this rule set, something that feels natural and comfortable after playing all those other games but doesn’t have some of the annoying bits that bother you about those other games. But I’m not sure there’s enough unique and evocative content here to draw other players away from True20 or the One Roll Engine or Savage Worlds or Exalted or Fate or whatever else they’re playing. And that’s the heartbreaking part, having an original setting and premise that seem really cool and are totally worth exploring, but pairing it with a relatively generic, unexciting set of rules that don’t really differentiate it strongly from dozens of similar games, aside from maybe one or two stand-out mechanics that are not enough to make it worthwhile to adopt the rest of the system. The traditional Forge response to this issue – which is only one solution, among many – was to ask “What is this game really about?” and then make sure all the rules focus on that premise. Another solution is to make the rules exciting and engaging enough, or just better at one particular thing than any other game, that they draw folks away from similar games. So I guess I would suggest moving in one of those directions, because I like a lot of what this game is doing, conceptually, but am not enticed by the mechanics yet.”

It felt pretty negative to me at first, but I tend to get defensive easily. It’s really rather positive and gives me a good idea what I need to work on. Whether I can do it remains to be seen, for reasons I’ll mention below.

The review points out a couple of things he liked. The ship and port creation stuff. One of my few bits of semi-originality there. I was quite proud of those and I’m glad they were liked. The relationship mechanics are okay, but I need to work more on making it a functional part of the game. I have some ideas there. He also seemed to like the setting idea, which is good. I had very little contact with how rpgs were developing between 1995 and 2010, so I’ve missed out on a lot. I’ve been reading up, but there’s hundreds of decent /interesting games out there that I’d never heard of. I may get to run some of them someday.

There were many things he didn’t like, which I agree with pretty much completely. The only one I disagreed with was setting difficulties. I think he misunderstood what I meant, but that’s likely a miscommunication on my part. It would have been much easier (and probably better) if I’d gone with the tried and true difficulty chart.

The ones I agreed with:
* Relationship rules to stagnant. I have some ideas for allowing relationships to change over time.
* The northern shapeshifter people should have more stuff than just a +2 trait. I wanted to do more with them, but ran out of time. I need to do more with the islanders, too.
* Challenge dice = experience points is not a great idea. Deadlands first edition did it too, and we had problems with it then. I chalk my use of that as being too tired at that point. It’ll be dropped in the next version.
* Spending a die to ignore a social control effect on your character. A whim I regret. If a character loses a social influence argument, they should have to roleplay it as if they had lost a physical fight. No easy out.
* Abstract weapon ranges are something I wanted, but I couldn’t think of a proper way to integrate them at that point. I think I can now.

Now for the big problems, for me:
* Lack of GM guidelines. Mostly this was me running out of time, but I’m also not that certain of my GM skills. My games tend to be fun in a campy way, but not deep. I’m hoping I can change that if I run a game or two that are outside my normal range. Shake things up a bit. Not sure if it’ll work, though. Me telling others how to run a game would be hubris, though giving them ideas on what to do with the world itself I might be able to handle.
* The lack of interesting and engaging mechanics. The big one. I have some ideas for stuff, but I don’t know if I’m up to this one, really. Most of my ideas are cribbed from other games. I can perhaps put them together in a way that works, but I’m a bit stumped as to how to make them interesting. It’s just not how my brain operates. When I read a game and see a rule or idea that interests me, it’s usually because of the mechanical aspect of the rule, not the engagement aspect. I like games, but I’ve seen very few game rules that made me want to play the game just to utilize that rule. Elysia has a couple. Smallville has several. I think perhaps the way to go about it is working the rules into representing the setting. The interesting parts of the Smallville rules are how they represent running an emotion-based dramatic series rather than a more traditional party of adventuresome characters. Not something I find easy to do, but I’m going to try to work in that direction.

Also, the idea of working out what the game is about is, I think, important in this case. Not all games need it, but I think this one would be helped by it. I was thinking about it last night and I think it’s about two things: The Group and Resources.

It’s supposed to be a world where resources are scarce and the characters’ primary job is to find them and take them back to the people who need them. I’m not sure how far I want to go with resources, though. I definitely don’t want to end up making people keep track of lists of them, but rules on what happens when you run out of resources and how to get more should be in there.

The group seems to be the big thing to me right now. I was watching a thing on the military last week (Weaponology, episode on explosives, I think) and it highlighted just how close people in a group constantly surrounded by an enemy can get. Close enough to take a grenade or bullet to save their friends. I was thinking, when you’re world is teetering on the edge of destruction, wouldn’t you are your shipmates be similar. Also, I’ve been wanting to make the group part of character creation. Not just making characters and bringing them together, but being part of the creation of each character. Similar in a way to how Smallville’s characters are created as part of a web of interconnectedness. Not quite as complicated, though. I do want to keep this still relatively simple. Tie the characters together in the minds of the players and the histories of the characters.

I also might want to branch out a bit, but I’m not sure. Do I want the game to only be about people on a ship, or do I want it to be about a group working together in some aspect of a destroyed world. Maybe defenders of a town instead of a ship’s crew? Maybe. Not sure yet.

After seeing a couple things on RPG.net, I think I may want to add some Shadow of the Collossus aspects to it. Maybe instead of the world covered in a miasma, some of the demon lords and generals found a way to bind themselves to some part of the world, anchor themselves so they couldn’t be sent back. One possessed the buildings and land of a city. Another created a body of stone and earth hundreds of feet tall. Stuff like that, with the miasma becoming a deadly aura that surrounds them for miles. Your job is to find resources your town/city desperately needs and to defend it from these roving monsters of various sizes. Some cannot be easily destroyed, only decoyed away. To permanently get rid of them, you must find and destroy the anchor, rarely easily done. And if one of these was destroyed, perhaps its remains would be useful resources. Magical materials. Stuff that could be traded for food.

I need to think more on it, but I think it can be done, if I can come up with a way to engage the reader/player with the game.

PS- Sorry about the typos. Seems I’m always short on time these days.