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Title: Umlaut: Setting Challenge review
Post by: Malcolm Craig on January 05, 2007, 09:27:51 AM
Every one of the settings I was given made me feel something different and out of all of them, Umlaut (http://www.arkkikivi.net/muut/Umlaut.pdf), by Rich Stokes, produced the most wry smiles, nods and laugh out loud moments. It’s Friday night Battle of the Bands writ large. Unlike, for example, my own ‘Contenders’ based setting ‘Revolutionaries’ which gives the setting as a guide to place, ‘Umlaut’ very much evokes the setting through its modification of the mechanics and the additional little tweaks that it adds to ‘Contenders’.

The random name creation tables for opposing ‘NPC’ bands had me giggling in the aisles, I could just see the lead singer of glam band Lust Rocket bestriding the stage as a colossus or the greasy lead guitarist of thrash band Carnage Kingdom smash his amps in a fit of rage.

The concrete setting material, such as venues and promoters, we simple and provides good guidelines for coming up with locations and NPCs of your own.

What can I say? Umlaut is a journey back to the days of Motley Crue, Hanoi Rocks, Vain, Skid Row and all those other bands you thought were so cool in your youth (I’d like to say I didn’t think that, but I did. My excuse is I was 14). It’s a knowing, tongue in cheek homage to a totally overblown genre of music that still manages to show love for the very things that it parodies.

Would I use Umlaut? Without a doubt. There are many people I know who would love to play a game of this type (Joe J Prince, I’m looking at you!) and start rocking out with Warbastard and The Apocalypse Dolls. Now, normally I would prefer a setting with a little more meat on its bones, but this one really did grab me. The only downside is that I found it extremely difficult to give this a different rating from The Engine, which I thought was good for wholly different reasons.

Nutshell Review

How well is the game system integrated? How well does it seem to fit?
– A very good adaptation of the Contenders mechanics.

How will the game presumably work in play, especially with regard to how the setting facilitates a certain kind of play? - From a few read overs, it appears to be very workable but only some actual play will really reveal how well the mechanical changes work. It may require some small tweaks here and there.

How complete, accessible and well presented is the material? - The setting is mostly integrated with the mechanics, which make it a very accessible, compact read. The 4 Paths of Metal are an inspired design inclusion.

How interesting, original, stylish and “juicy” is the setting? - It’s our own world (sort of) but it takes all the best clichés of metal and creates an amusing, believable whole out of them.

Cheers
Malcolm


Title: Re: Umlaut: Setting Challenge review
Post by: talysman on January 05, 2007, 11:15:52 AM
Since I'm not interested in boxing or boxing movies, I didn't get into Contenders, although I remembered the details from when it was a 24hour RPG. And I'm not into metal; my primary experience with it is through Spinal Tap. But somehow, the two concepts jammed together were pretty entertaining, maybe *because* the game play sounded like it would resemble Spinal Tap more than a serious approach to metal. In fact, I thought it was the best of the four games I judged. Maybe it's the random band name tables, or turning scenes with connections into behind the scenes interactions with other band members. I liked it. I'd play this game.

The only flaw I could find was that the text seems to de-emphasize the needs of connections, which would seem to me to be even more relevant to a heavy metal setting than to a boxing setting. The threat to hope (and heavy cash drain) for a band should be stuff like the lead guitarist's heroin addiction, the drummer's tendency to pick bar fights (and lose,) or the bass player's troubles with his girlfriend. This stuff was in the 24hour version of Contenders, which is the only rules I read; it should be in here, too.

Great job!


Title: Re: Umlaut: Setting Challenge review
Post by: Sam! on January 10, 2007, 02:29:57 AM
It seems that I approach the whole setting-design from somewhat different direction. For me, setting is a part of the whole system and therefore the setting should always be tied to the game mechanics. So if someone changes the setting, he / she should also change the rules accordingly.

The biggest problem of Umläut is that the rules are exactly the same. Now the heavy metal bands interact like they were boxers. For an example, the gigs are strange with two bands fighting against each another, even if they aren't on the stage at the same time. Basically Umläut is just Contenders re-written: take away the unnecessary rule repetitions and you've got a couple of pages of new color.

However, that is just my opinion. I'm pretty sure that Stokes intentionally left the rules untouched and concentrated to re-name the attributes. In this sense Umläut is simply wonderful. It really embraces the atmosphere: my own favourite is the list of examples of narrating the song. Absolutely great!

Now, I cannot give this work the highest mark due to the reason I mentioned. But if Stokes cares nothing of my rating principles - and why should he, if he was going for another goal - he sure ought to be proud of Umläut. In it's own way, it is the best of the four settings I've read.


Title: Re: Umlaut: Setting Challenge review
Post by: Graham W on January 10, 2007, 05:16:03 AM
Sam,

I find it a surprising point of view. I absolutely agree that setting is tied to mechanics but, to me, that's the challenge: to find another setting that's supported by the same mechanics. If the setting needs too many different mechanics, I think the author should write a new game instead.

It's a little unfair, I think, to dismiss "a couple of pages of new colour". Colour often gets dismissed and I think that's such a mistake. In this kind of competition, for me, the colour is incredibly important.

Oh, yes, my girlfriend loves this game. She told me to mention.

Graham


Title: Re: Umlaut: Setting Challenge review
Post by: Rich Stokes on January 10, 2007, 07:47:04 AM
Guys,

Firstly, thanks to everyone who's commented or just taken the trouble to read Umläut.  Such kind words from everyone, very encouraging and highly appreciated!

I deliberately didn't include any kind of designer's notes in the contest version.  I thought that doing so might influence the judging.  But now I guess I can spill the beans to anyone who's interested.

I wasn't going to enter this contest at all.  I saw the post announcing it on Story Games and thought, Yeah, that looks neat, I think there'll be some really interesting settings to read after that.  It never crossed my mind to enter because I just wasn't going to have time to write anything up, what with Christmas and family and all that.  But then I had the idea for Umläut on about the 15th of December, and when I found I was still thinking about it on the 17th I emailed Joe Prince to get his blessing and started work after reading his reply the next day.  So the whole thing went from nothing to the version you see in about 2 weeks.  As it turned out, my girlfriend had to work over the holiday period, so I had a fair amount of spare time to work on it.

Sami is quite right that I did very little to change the mechanics of Contenders for Umläut, and there are two reasons for this.  The first, as Graham says, is that this is a setting for Contenders, and as such needs to retain the mechanics of that game as much as possible.  Too many changes would make it less Contenders, and I really didn't want that.  Secondly, I had two weeks to write the thing, and that left very little time to playtest new mechanics.  I really don't feel comfortable putting out new rules that haven't been playtested at least a bit and there just wasn't going to be time.  Contenders definitely ain't broken, so best not to muck about with it any any more than I had to.

Another design decision I made early on in the process was that I felt that a setting for a GMless game like Contenders needed to be presented very differently to the setting of a more traditional game.  To explain, consider the first time I ran Shadowrun, about 15 years ago.  I'd read the material in the core book and understood the setting.  I explained it briefly to the players and then we were off.  Anything they didn't understand about the setting, they'd ask me during play. 

"Are there flying hover cars in this setting?"
"Does Magic work in the matrix?"
"Can I get an automatic shotgun built into my left eye?"

I either answered the questions based on what I'd read, or agreed with them on the answer.  But the point was, as GM I was a central authority and was in a position to answer these questions.  The players didn't need to read the setting stuff if they didn't want to.

Without a GM, you don't have the luxury of that central authority to ask about the setting.  So either everyone needs to read and understand the setting in totality or it needs to be pretty nebulous so there's room for facts to be established during play.  I figured that the best approach for me to take would be to write three kinds of setting material:

1) Broad brush stroke stuff, to set the overall scene.  Basically a summary of what the game is about.
2) Slightly changed or re-named mechanics. Because I'm assuming that the objective is to create a fun narrative, the names of the mechanical widgets need to lend themselves freely to the type of narrative you want to have.  Shred and Poetry are good examples of this, they tell a player exactly what they do and help then narrate the outcome of a song.
3) Details that players can drop almost directly into their narrative with very little effort.  The list of venues and promoters is probably the best example of that, or the NPC Band Name Generator.

So that's where I concentrated.  Bite sized chunks you can sprinkle directly into your game.  Hopefully that works.

Other thoughts:

Malcolm, the fact that you laughed out loud means I did at least something right!  Lust Rocket 4 Eva!

John, I wanted to shake things up a bit with the mechanics of band members to emphasise them a bit more.  I deliberately didn't want to dwell on things like people's heroin habits and things like that.  This was meant to be a more light hearted thing and I didn't want the "Face Stabby" feel to it.  Not that you couldn't/shouldn't play it that way, just not what I had in mind.  I wanted to delve more into the mechanics of band members and make them somewhat different from the contacts in regular Contenders, but time restraints prevented this.  Perhaps a second version later this year.  Basically, yes, there ought to be more emphasis on the threats to band members, things that might take them out of The World Of Metal like the need to get a "proper" career in banking or pregnant groupies.

Sami, I'm very glad you liked the feel of the language used.  I really wanted to get that feel over and it looks like it worked!

Graham, glad to hear you liked the game.  Also glad your girlfriend liked it enough to ask you to mention it!

Once again, thanks to everyone who read the game or commented.

Rich


Title: Re: Umlaut: Setting Challenge review
Post by: Sam! on January 10, 2007, 09:42:48 AM
I find it a surprising point of view. I absolutely agree that setting is tied to mechanics but, to me, that's the challenge: to find another setting that's supported by the same mechanics. If the setting needs too many different mechanics, I think the author should write a new game instead.

I see. Maybe I've should have spent more time getting familiar with The Forge and it's language - now I just seem to be disagreeing with the rest of the judges, which causes some mixed results. Anyway, my defense is that the challenge is to mold the system so that it can be connected to a different, yet somehow similar setting. I don't wish to pick up a fight, but just finding a new setting instead of some game designing just seems to be too easy. Naturally, when someone makes a new setting for an old system, the line between a version of old and a totally new game is blurred. I, for an example, refer to Lords & Ladies as both a game (though not an independent one) and as a setting.

Quote from: Graham Walmsley
It's a little unfair, I think, to dismiss "a couple of pages of new colour". Colour often gets dismissed and I think that's such a mistake. In this kind of competition, for me, the colour is incredibly important.

I agree about the importance of colour: it's the thing that gives a game some warmth. If there's no colour, the game is cold and producing narration is difficult; You get the abstract themes right due to strong mechanics, but finding an accord about the concrete game fiction is somewhat harder. My point is that Contenders is already coloured: Umläut is "just" recolouring it. But, as Stokes writes, because his goal was exactly to repaint the game, I'm most willing to admit that he has done an excellent job.


Title: Re: Umlaut: Setting Challenge review
Post by: Rich Stokes on January 10, 2007, 09:57:55 AM
Sami,

This is a very interesting discussion and I for one do not see you as picking a fight.  I learn nothing from people who agree with me, expect that they agree with me!

I think the point might be put like this: I see the narrative as one of the goals of most RPGs.  I view a game's setting as the main force which shapes the detail and colour of the narration.  Therefore, when designing or judging a setting for an existing system, I'm looking to find a way to create very different narratives using the same mechanics.  So having two bands vie for the affection of a fickle audience doesn't strike me as requiring different mechanical systems to a boxing match, although to accompanying narrative will be very different indeed!

I'm totally cool with you wanting to create and judge settings on different criteria to me.  Obviously I'd rather you gave Umlät 10/10 though, but them's the breaks ;^)


Title: Re: Umlaut: Setting Challenge review
Post by: Graham W on January 10, 2007, 10:07:29 AM
Oh, hey, Sam, you're not picking a fight. We're disagreeing, but in a good way.

You see the challenge of the contest as moulding the game mechanics to support a new setting. I saw the challenge of the contest as finding a setting, which was as interesting as possible, while changing the game mechanics minimally. Or, to put it your way, recolouring the game. They're both valid points of view.

I like the idea that, when you design a new setting, you're halfway to designing a new game anyway. Nice.

Graham


Title: Re: Umlaut: Setting Challenge review
Post by: Joe J Prince on January 12, 2007, 06:10:38 AM
I'm trying to remain neutral until the judging is officially over...

But this setting totally rocks!

I'm going to try and get a game of umlaut organised for tonight.

Cheers
JoE


Title: Re: Umlaut: Setting Challenge review
Post by: Ben Lehman on January 15, 2007, 11:17:40 PM
How well is the game system integrated?  How well does it seem to fit?

Ümlaut is relatively well integrated with the Contenders system.  The parts of the system which are adapted well are quite extraordinary -- I really like the band members instead of connections, for example, and the name generation is quite cool.

I find myself wishing that the game system was more modified to fit the setting, however.  The structure of a gig is the worst in this regard: there really ought to be some way to have one band play first, the next band second.  But also I'd love it if your Metal Path had more effect on the characters, and so on.

Overall, I'm going to give you a 7 in this category.  That which works works well, but there are too many rough edges and missed opportunities for me to rate higher.

How will the game presumably work in play, especially with regard to how the setting facilitates a certain kind of play?

The setting seems to promote throw-down thrashing metal goofiness.  I'm not entirely certain how much that's going to work in play, with the Contenders system struggling to make a poignant story.  But perhaps the setting is intended to start out goofy and produce more meaning as it goes on?

I'm really just confused by this question with respect to this setting.  The tone of the setting as presented is light-hearted.  I imagine in play it will become less so, because of the system.  Yet, I don't know if that's a bad thing or not entirely intentional.  Confusion will net you a 7, apparently.  I have faith in metal.

How complete, accessible and well presented is the material?

The setting material itself is limited to the random name generator (which is AWESOME) a little color text, a few suggestions for scenes, and a list of venues.  A few more bits would have been helpful, like some ideas of how gigs get set up and so on.

Overall, though, what's there is excellent.  An 8.

How interesting, original, stylish and "juicy" is the setting?

METAL!  I'm totally a sucker for it, so I'm giving you an 8 here, too.

Overall, I thought that this setting was well executed but could seriously use more polishing.


Title: Re: Umlaut: Setting Challenge review
Post by: talysman on February 02, 2007, 11:32:07 AM
Here's my more detailed review. Since this is a Round 2 entry, I should explain that I allowed half-points when I re-evaluated the games. This game and The Engine wound up earning half a point in the second round.

- How well is the game system integrated? How well does it seem to fit?
I don't have Contenders, but based on the earlier 24 hour Ronnies submission, the setting seems to match perfectly. 2.5 points
- How will the game presumably work in play, especially with regard to how the setting facilitates a certain kind of play?
Not many problems here, that I can see. I like the idea of gigs better than the prizefights in the original game. However, I was a little confused about some of the events during a gig, like showboating. 2 points
- How complete, accessible and well presented is the material?
Some of the rules just didn't make sense without a complete set of the *current* Contenders rules, like the way gigs play out. I think a future edition should include more details and suggestions about connection scenes. 2 points
- How interesting, original, stylish and “juicy” is the setting?
I'm completely uninterested in metal. I'm completely uninterested in prizefighting. But somehow, by substituting metal bands for boxers and layering it with a good dose of humor, Rich turned this game into something I really enjoyed. I'd probably tweak it and use new wave or prog rock, myself, but that's close enough. 3 points

Total: 9.5 points (9 points in Round One)


Title: Re: Umlaut: Setting Challenge review
Post by: Mikael on February 08, 2007, 01:02:18 PM
Based on what I had read on this thread, I was expecting a much lighter game, something in the order of SuperScience. I was really surprised to find that, aside from the band name generator, the setting seemed like a really straightforward conversion to a specific environment. All the metal clichés really did not make it any funnier or more of a parody - it is really hard to squeeze a good parody out of something that was already pure parody in itself. Thus, as others have also suggested, the way I read the setting pointed to a much more serious game, where the ridiculous mannerisms of the time are just the outer layer, doing a poor job of hiding the true, grim struggle of the bands to Make It. Rich, since you are on record that this was not your intent, maybe this is something that you might look into when you think about the next version. Where do you really want to take this setting? Do you want to leave it up to each group, or include some explicit advice at the start of the text? Should you make some more drastic changes to Contenders, or even change the whole system? (Not that I could suggest a specific alternative without a lot more thought - Mountain Witch, maybe?)

Some additional random thoughts:

Maybe I was also culturally handicapped. As recently as two years ago, a Finnish metal band called Teräsbetoni (Reinforced Concrete) made it pretty high in the local charts. Their thing was pretty much the re-enactment of all the Manowar schticks, and thus, to me, the core joke of Umläut is sort of not a joke at all, or maybe just an old one.

Of all the entries I read, Umläut also had the most typos. Those are easy to fix when not faced with a deadline, but they did often break the flow of the text, at least for a non-native reader.


Title: Re: Umlaut: Setting Challenge review
Post by: Sam! on February 09, 2007, 07:11:56 AM
The worst thing in Umläut is that it’s made to represent a wrong music culture. I played Contenders for the first time not long ago and understood quite quickly that the boxers of music are hop-hop rappers, not heavy metallists. With rappers the matches between characters would make perfect sense, and the work scenes could feature the gangsta-culture. Change this bit and you’ve got “some serious shit, man".