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Thrilling Tales of Adventure! [Pt. 1]

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There Will Be Games

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For the past two and a half years, most of my free time has been consumed by the development of a pulp hero adventure boardgame. The design has gone through three complete overhauls, which have been particularly arduous because the game is so card dependent (there are over 600), and each revision has necessitated a near-complete rewrite of all of the cards. A few weeks ago I finally managed to finish the third complete prototype (above), and this past week a gang of hardy playtesters were finally able to put it through its paces.

I got the idea for Thrilling Tales of Adventure! after reading Roberto Di Meglio's preview description of Marvel Heroes (a game he co-designed with three other Nexus designers). The notion of each player controlling both heroes and a villain was interesting, and he mentioned the use of "Plot Points" as a kind of currency used to buy actions within the game. Those two concepts, combined with my own desire for a game rich in "emergent" narrative,  sparked the fire. For some reason I can't recall, pulp adventure leaped to mind as the theme for my pie-in-the-sky game, and I ran with it. So I guess a good mental image there is me running with a flaming pie.

At the outset, I hadn't read a lot of actual vintage pulp. My  love of the genre came mostly from having seen Raiders of the Lost Ark at age 14 in 1981, reading old Lee Falk Phantom comics and a couple Lester Dent's Doc Savage novels, playing Justice Inc. (a Hero Games RPG) in high school, and loving The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai to death. The greatest impression pulp had made on my psyche, though, was via the glorious cover art that graced the old magazines themselves. When I was 7 or 8 years old, my parents bought me a copy of the Steranko History of Comics , and I spent countless hours scrutinzing every miniscule cover reproduction therein. Although those covers were mostly for comics, they shared a lot of the same artists as the adult pulps, and pulp paragons like the Shadow and the Spider figured prominently.

Steranko History of Comics Vols. 1 & 2 

In all of my armchair game designing, and in all of the games I love to play most, theme is vital, but the marriage of a compelling theme to fitting and solid mechanics is what really makes a game great. I always start with a theme I want to see in a boardgame (other back-burner designs include a post-apocalyptic empire builder -- Dune meets Nausicaa -- and a boardgame adaptation of Pride & Prejudice), then try to find mechanics that reflect what I consider to be the key qualities of that theme. This is a kind of "outside-in" approach, where the final desired shape of the thing is known, but under all those great elements -- Fiendish plots! Narrow escapes! Death traps! -- is a kind of enormously complicated Rubik's Cube of interacting mechanics with which I have to wrestle.  I know the game I want is in there, but finding it is a heck of a puzzle. And I always sucked at Rubik's Cube. 

I liked the meta-narrative notion of each player controlling both his own heroes and the villains that would oppose the other players, and I liked the idea of Plot Points that you could use to direct that narrative, but both of those concepts had to be jettisoned after I took them as far as I could in the first and second iterations of the game. Putting each player in control of a hero and a villain just felt wrong during testing, and the Plot Points (as I conceived of them anyway, having not played Marvel Heroes at that point) were too tedious to manage by half. In the current version, there can be 1-4 Hero players, working individually or teaming up (as they see fit) to oppose a single Arch Villain player. Plot Points have been replaced with a simple action point system (or "Moves" in TToA terms), with each Hero having 5 to spend each turn.

What has remained through all three versions is what I consider the core mechanic of the game (and one of my own invention): cards that can be linked in variable sequence to create a story. In game terms, these are called Adventure cards, and although there are a number of other different kinds of cards (items the heroes can carry, twists the arch villain can play on the heroes, etc.), about 90% of the 600 cards are Adventure cards. Each Adventure card is a modular story element, which can be "linked" to other Adventure cards, either in "Plots" custom-built by the Arch Villain player, or in  "Wild Adventures" which the Hero players can explore on the fly.

There are 7 basic types of Adventure cards (Hooks, Clues, Locations, Minions, Villains, Allies, and Treasures) spread throughout 8 different decks (City, Country, Sea, Mountain, Jungle, Desert, Polar, and Underground). Most Adventure cards are unique, and each one carries specific link possibilities. Here's an example of an Adventure which I just drew at random for this blog entry:

The potential links for each card are shown along its lower left edge, and if you examine the icons you'll see how each one links to the next card in the sequence. The "Concerned Scientist" card has a bunch of links that could have taken this Adventure out of the City, as indicated by the different colors (top to bottom that card's links are City, Country, Mountain, Desert, Jungle, Polar, and Sea), but I just kept drawing from the City deck because I was lazy.

I played and loved the original Tales of the Arabian Nights game in the 80s (and am eagerly anticipating the Z-Man re-release), and in high school I took a stab at a card-driven fantasy adventure game along similar lines, so the basic concept of a game with a flexible, unfolding narrative has been nagging at me for a long time. This card linking system basically allows you to do away with the paragraph book (for those of you familiar with Tales of the Arabian Nights), at the expense of a more detailed narrative and the wealth of choose-your-own-adventure options that that game provides. But there are advantages to the economy of space enforced by the cards, chief among them the power of suggestion.

I write and draw and teach comics for a living, so the relationship between words and images arranged in sequence is something I think about a lot. When you provide a player with just a few key elements -- in this case, a card title, an image, a line of flavor text, and a card-specific mechanic -- he or she will instantly string them together with the next ones in the sequence to create a story. It's not always the most logical story, but the players will always make "sense" of it. The linking system tends to keep things from getting too out of hand, but I can always fall back on the fact that a lot of those old pulp stories were full of some crazy shit.

Sheesh, this was originally meant to be a simple account of a recent playtesting session, and I'm running on and on. I guess I've been wanting to talk about this for a long time, and completing the third prototype (which was a fucking bear) has opened the floodgates. Without any further backstory, I'll just try to summarize how the session went.

The assembled playtesters were students and alumni of the Center for Cartoon Studies , where I teach. We had played about half a game previously, so they were familiar with the basic  rules, but this would be the first complete run-through. There were three Heroes (chosen from a lineup of 10) this time around: The Amazing Uri ("Former Magician to the Tsar"), La Gaucha ("Argentine Vigilante" -- think female Zorro), and Jack Snapper ("Salty Sea Captain"). Each Hero has a rating in three stats (Might, Speed, and Wit), a Home Base, a special ability, and a starting item or ally. Two people actually decided to play the Arch Villain as a team -- not something designed into the game, but it worked out just fine.

The game plays out over 16 turns divided into three Acts. Initially, the Arch Villain has no specific identity. In Act I ("Our Story Begins"), the Heroes concentrate on successfully resolving their initial Wild Adventures, while the Arch Villain player starts constructing and Plots. At the start of Act II ("The Plot Thickens"), the AV player must select a specific Arch Villain to play (there are 10 to choose from), and the Heroes either continue on Wild Adventures or try to thwart any Plots that have been put into motion. At the start of Act III ("The Thrilling Climax!"), the AV player reveals which Arch Villain was selected in Act II, and sets about trying to complete that Arch Villain's Master Plan. Each Arch Villain has a unique Master Plan, such as the construction of a death ray or trying to encase the planet in ice).

There are three categories of resources in the game: Heroism/Villainy, gained through the successful execution of good or evil deeds; Theme tokens (of five types: Criminal, Military, Science, Occult, and Weird), gained through linking cards of the same Theme; and cards themselves. Heroism/Villainy points are the closest thing to experience points in the game, and are spent on general effects like bonus dice to combat rolls. Theme tokens are spent on Theme-specific powers, like spells (Occult) or inventions (Science). Finally, any cards in your hand can be are discarded to power basic abilities, such as firing a tommy gun or researching something at a library. 

The game starts off with each Hero in media res --  as if we've come upon them near the beginning or in the middle of one of their usual adventures. This idea was new to this iteration of the game, folded in after previous versions proved slow to start out of the gate, and I'm happy with the addition. I'll just outline each hero's first turn to give you an idea of how the Adventures play out, and then summarize the rest of the session instead of taking you through every turn. As I describe what happened to the characters, actual cards they encountered will be noted in bold. Other narrative details were made up by the players as their adventures unfolded.

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La Gaucha's tale begins when she encounters a Dead Soldier during a routine patrol of the Pampas outside of Buenos Aires.  Examining the area for clues, she finds a set of Tracks leading to some nearby Ruins, where a search through the Rubble turns up several crates of an Opium Shipment, clearly secreted after some intended criminal exchange went awry. She turns the illegal cargo over to the local authorities before heading back to Buenos Aires in search of more wrongs in need of righting.

Meanwhile, across globe in Shanghai, Jack Snapper and his faithful monkey sidekick, Mister Mate, have inherited an old map from Jack's deceased pappy. The map depicts a land mass in the midst of a formerly uncharted area of the Pacific Ocean. In hopes of discovering some buried treasure or other fortune, Jack and Mister Mate set out on Jack's tramp frieghter, the the S.S. Hibernia. After smooth sailing across Open Sea, they negotiate a Deadly Reef without mishap, and continue across more Open Sea until a purplish land masscomes into view on the horizon. Reexmining the map and deciphering his father's cryptic notes, Jack realizes that they are approaching none other than the Lost Continent of Lemuria!

Uri's story starts in his Magician's Garret (every Hero has a unique Home Base) in Petrograd, with a loud noise at the door. He opens it to discover a Bullet-Riddled Body, clutching a scrap of paper on which is scribbled a library reference number. Uri takes a carriage to the Petrograd Library, where he locates the book referred to by the scrap of paper. Inside the book, he finds a Map Drawn in Blood, which details a portion of the city's Sewer system. Reluctant to risk soiling his fine suit, he nevertheless descends into the depths, and follows the map through a long Tunnel of older construction than the rest of the sewers, emerging eventually into a strange Hall of Planets. Starlight is channeled down into the dark chamber from the surface in a single beam, which illuminates an engraved map of the world at a specific spot in the Amazon jungle...

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In addition to controlling all Minions and Villains the Heroes encounter throughout the game, the AV may play Twists (traps, hazards, and obstacles) directly on Heroes, so he or she can actively try to thwart a Hero's attempt to successfully resolve a Wild Adventure.  In this game, though, because the AV players were playing the AV for the first time, they concentrated on building Plots, and only played a couple of Twists in the latter part of the session.

Act I saw La Gaucha and Uri successfully complete their initial Wild Adventures, but Jack Snapper would end up exploring the vast continent of Lemuria for most of the game. He successfully battled enough enemies (smugglers and cannibals among them) to keep him neck-and-neck with the other Heroes in terms of Heroism points, and he always had the option of abandoning his Adventure, so I don't feel like this was a flaw. In fact, the guy playing Jack had probably the most fun, due in part to "Bottle o' Rum," Jack's special ability, which grants him +1 Might and -1 Wit before any fight. Jack basically brawled his way drunkenly across Lemuria, the most memorable battle being between him and a "Firebox" -- a sort of flamethrower robot --  amongst the ruins of a lost city.

As the jungle burned down around him, Jack eventually succumbed to smoke inhalation, and despite Mister Mate's best effort to defeat the Firebox by throwing rocks at it, the thing eventually left them both for dead and continued on its swath-cutting way across the landscape.

When Act II began, the AV players took stock of their accumulated Theme tokens before choosing which Arch Villain they would be for the rest of the game. The AV accumulates Theme tokens whenever cards with matching Themes show up in a given Adventure. A card's Theme is denoted by Theme icons just below the card's type icon. In the three-card example above, the grey circle bearing the ringed planet icon in the upper left indicates that the Ancient City has a Weird Theme, whereas the Firebox falls under both the Weird and Science (lightning bolt) Themes. The AV gains 1 Theme token of a given type per previousy revealed card of matching Theme, so the rewards grow rapidly with each successive match.

 I came up with this concept as a way to reward the AV for building Plots that are thematically coherent. As the AV player, you're not obliged to link matching cards when building a Plot, but you will be more powerful in the endgame if you manage to do so. Which brings me back to the AV players choosing their Arch Villain at the start of Act II. You can choose to be whichever Arch Villain you want, but you'll be more powerful if you choose one whose Theme matches the Theme of the tokens you have in the greatest quantity. The AV playtesters had far more Weird tokens than any other, so they settled on one of the two Weird Arch Villains. The Hero players would be in the dark about their choice until the beginning of Act III.

[End of Pt. 1] 

There Will Be Games
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