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You are a washed-up celebrity relegated to keeping your career alive by co-hosting a ghost-hunting show. A failing ghost-hunting show. Lucky for you, the season finale is shooting at a real haunted location. Unlucky for you, the ghosts there want to kill you and your fellow cast members. Just try to be in frame when the murders happen, it’ll be great for your social media. 

Killer Ratings is a one-shot tabletop roleplaying game (ttrpg) created by Ken Lowry and published by Bannerless Games. The game supports 3-5 players and a game master. Players act as cast members of a ghost-hunting TV show and the game master serves as their director. The team investigates a haunted location, taking turns coming up with descriptors for each new room. Eventually, the ghost becomes enraged enough to manifest and chase the team back through the location, trying to kill them as they run. The players can sabotage each other to influence who the ghost attacks. Once a player dies, they become a ghost too and attempt to kill their former co-workers. 

Mechanics

In terms of character creation and mechanics, the rules are fairly light. A character has two stats (Provoke and Survive) and a class, which the player determines at the beginning of the game. Stats determine the success of actions. The action succeeds when a number at or below the stat value is rolled on a six-sided die. The class is an archetype that provides guidelines on how a character should act, however, it does not have any mechanical effects. All other information about the character is up to the discretion of the player and director. 

The map and characters from my game of Killer Ratings ft “The Horror Inspectors” at St. Penance Penitentiary

Gameplay Experience

I liked the collaborative nature of the game. It was fun to come up with room descriptions as a group. We often found ourselves suggesting story beats and complimenting each other on additions that could only have appeared with all of our brains put together. The experience reminded me of an improv version of the board game Betrayal at the house on the Hill (reviewed by Leather Snow here). The highlight of the game for the players was embodying characters who were absolute weirdos. As a group, we leaned into the social media influencer vibe and laughed coming up with what “viral moments” had led our characters to fleeting fame. From a game master perspective, the gameplay highlight was the ability for players to be directly involved in world-building. 

While my group had fun, there were some aspects of the game that didn’t work quite as well for our playstyle. At its core, the game is centered on the concept that most of the characters are trying to steal the camera time from each other. While interesting narratively, it plays into a common ttrpg issue of players trying to make a game all about them. While we made it work, I could see group dynamics getting out of hand quickly. It also inherently creates player conflict, which may be something some groups are uncomfortable roleplaying. We focused more on the collaborative aspects and had fun doing so.

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The biggest issue the players had was that the end game didn’t feel very high stakes. We wanted more mechanically to make the ghost attacks more exciting or suspenseful. From a game master perspective, their biggest issue was that they felt more effective as a more traditional omniscient game master than when trying to give in-character direction as the director.

Conclusions

Overall, Killer Ratings was a fun game and I would play it again with some minor home rules. I would recommend this game for a group that is relatively comfortable with improv and willing to be wacky. If you are looking for a more rules-heavy ttrpg, conflict-adverse, or think your play group struggles to share time, this is probably not what you are looking for. However, it’s a one-shot game with no preparation required, so why not give it a try? 3.8 out of 5 stars (3.8 / 5)

Daphne (she/her) grew up in a game store in Indiana and hasn't stopped playing ttrpgs, video games, board games, and card games since. She is a self-proclaimed horror weenie but loves both campy and cosmic horror. Her favorite horror properties are Mars Attacks and Jason "David Wong" Pargin's books. When she is not writing or gaming she is being a microbiologist, teacher, or student. She can be found on Instagram @daphne.writes.

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Quest Master @ PAX: A Dungeon-Builder First Look

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Next in my journey of all the cool games I saw at PAX, Quest Master! Quest Master is a love letter to retro dungeon crawlers and level designers. Taking inspiration from both Mario Maker and the Legend of Zelda franchise, Quest Master promises the ability to play and design dungeons with a variety of enemies, traps, and puzzles. 

Check out the Quest Master game announcement here:

I was given a private 30-minute demo, where I got to try out some of the core features in a pre-beta version of Quest Master. This demo was led by one of the developers, Julian Creutz who shared some insight into the game design and user experience. My interview with Julian about Quest Master can be found here.

Quest Master has two main modes, playing dungeons and building them. I got to try out both, though I had a more comprehensive experience playing dungeons. While playing dungeons, the game mechanics were intuitive and simple. However, I was continuously surprised by the complexities offered by the puzzle and logic systems. For example, you can collect a boomerang which is incredibly easy to use. To solve one of the puzzles, I had to throw the boomerang through a torch (which I thought was just decorative) to catch the boomerang on fire and enable it to activate a gem. While the individual mechanics were basic, they combined into a sophisticated puzzle-solving experience.

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Immediately, I was eager to look under the hood and see how the dungeon building mode enables the puzzle solving as previously described. Once again, I was impressed with the sophistication of a system with such simple mechanics. The controls for building weren’t intuitive for me, though I also don’t use a controller for much of my gaming (like I was during the demo). Additionally, I could see how it would be really easy to get accustomed to as you build.

As it was a short demo, I wasn’t able to try any of the multiplayer features (i.e. co-op, online map sharing) so I can’t speak to the success of their implementation. As this is supposed to be a large part of the game, I’m wary of wholeheartedly suggesting Quest Master for those interested in the multiplayer experience. However, I was impressed with Quest Master’s modern take on retro dungeon crawlers like the Legend of Zelda games. The graphics and controls feel like much needed quality of life updates for a system taking inspiration from older classics. 

I recommend wishlisting Quest Master if you are a fan of old Legend of Zelda games or are looking for a fresh take on the dungeon builder genre. If Quest Master interests you, don’t forget to check out my conversation with Julian too!

4.5 out of 5 stars (4.5 / 5)


Check out my other PAX posts here!

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Interview with Game Dev Julian Creutz: Quest Master @ PAX

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As mentioned in previous posts, I had the opportunity to demo a pre-early access version of the game Quest Master alongside the Lead Developer, Julian Creutz. Quest Master is a Legend of Zelda and Super Mario Maker inspired dungeon crawling and building video game. While the other post covers the game itself, this one covers the inspiration and vision for the game as told by Julian.


How did you become involved in video game development?

I’ve been a huge gamer, and especially a Zelda fan, ever since I was a little child when my dad put a GameBoy Advance with “The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past” into my hands. Sometime during elementary school I started dabbling with game development using visual tools like Scratch and GameMaker. I quickly got into making Zelda fan games and had dreamt of the day when I would make my own Zelda game one day. Over the years I’ve honed my game development and programming skills, resulting in where I am today.

What has been the most challenging aspect of the development process?

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Developing Quest Master is essentially like making two games at once – the making and the playing part. Both of these game elements have to be equally as polished to form a cohesive one.

The most difficult thing by far about the game’s development has been to make the maker mode experience intuitive for first-time users and people who know nothing about Zelda-like games, but at the same time powerful and complex enough to allow creating anything you could dream of.

One good example is the gameplay feature to link certain parts to others, like linking a pressure plate to opening a door. We’ve been through countless iterations affecting both the visual, gameplay and user experience aspects of it – I hope that the one we are using right now is the final one!

Quest Master takes a lot of inspiration from classic dungeon-crawlers like the Legend of Zelda franchise. What about these games was so enchanting to you and how does Quest Master try to capture that enchantment?

As described earlier, I’m like the biggest Zelda fan, which I’m sure shows. My gripe with many Zelda-likes on the market is that none perfectly capture the feel of the classic entries… there’s always something missing.

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I confidently believe that Quest Master differs from that greatly. We are trying to make Quest Master feel like an in-house 2D Zelda like Nintendo used to make, just from an indie team like ours. Many people crave the classic 2D entries, just like I do.

What emotions do you hope the player will experience while playing Quest Master? What design choices were made to assist in that desired atmosphere?

A big aspect of Quest Master is its local multiplayer. The game is deliberately designed to work flawlessly with that, and makers can create specialized puzzles in the game that require all players to work together for example. The result is both rewarding, funny, and sometimes infuriating altogether, for example when one of your buddies throws you into a hole.

As a community dungeon maker, what features are you most excited to see implemented in player-made dungeon crawls?

I’ve already been hugely amazed by the creations of the existing Quest Master demo. With all the new features the game will launch into Early Access with, I bet this will be tenfold. I myself always enjoy the brain busting puzzles people come up with. Other things I also like a lot are the unintended mechanics the players find, which dynamically emerge from the many, many gameplay systems working together.

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What’s it been like working with Apogee, an indie publisher who goes back to the early 1990’s and has a long legacy of terrific game releases?

I’ve only had very few interactions with game publishers in the past, and Quest Master is my first large scale commercial game project. There’s preconceived notions floating around everywhere on the internet about how evil game publishers are and how much better you would be off self-publishing your game. Contrary to that, working with Apogee has been nothing short of supportive and family-like. They are very invested in the project, and they have many Zelda fans on the team also helps a lot. They are supercharging the potential of Quest Master and without them the game would not be where it is today.

Is there anything else you would like to plug or that you think is important for people to know about Quest Master or other upcoming projects?

Early Access is just the beginning! Quest Master will be hugely expanded upon during its Early Access phase, with many more themes, dungeon parts and entire new gameplay features coming in short intervals and a rapid update schedule. There are always new things around the corner. For example, things like the singleplayer story campaign and the overworld maker will be most likely not be part of the initial Early Access release, but we will make sure to build anticipation by introducing bits and pieces into the world of Quest Master to build up to that.

I hope you are looking forward to it as much as I am!

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LONESTAR @ PAX: Spaceships and Bounty Hunting

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This past week I had the opportunity to go to my very first PAX East convention! For those who are unfamiliar, PAX East is a large gaming convention in Boston. This year marked its 20th anniversary, which meant an extra layer of celebration and festivities! Courtesy of a HauntedMTL Media Badge, I got to play tons of new games and meet even more interesting people. One of the games I was able to demo was LONESTAR by developer Math Tide. 

LONESTAR is a roguelike spaceship building game reminiscent of FTL and Dicey Dungeons. It was released for early access on Steam in January and has gotten largely positive feedback. In the game, you play as a bounty hunter traveling through various sectors to defeat your bounties. Along the way you can visit a shop, take a breather, or experience other various events. 

I was able to play the early access build for thirty minutes on the showroom floor, and I was pretty instantly hooked. I love roguelike deckbuilders, with Slay the Spire (especially the Downfall fan expansion) being a strong favorite. LONESTAR nails what I love from the genre, with an aesthetic smoothly integrated in its form and function and novel gameplay mechanics.

A screenshot from the LONESTAR Steam Page of game play.

LONESTAR’s ‘deckbuilding’ element takes the form of ship systems. You can collect, buy, and upgrade them as you progress through a run. However, your ship only has so much space on board. As a player, you have to prioritize weapons and utility systems while also ensuring you diversify your damage output/defense across all three sections of your ship. At the beginning of each round, you are randomly given number values that can be input into your ship systems to achieve varied effects. The enemy responds in kind, meaning whoever can get the highest damage output is who overwhelms the other in the round.

I loved the possibilities for synergy and strategy as your pilot explored more dangerous sectors. It was incredibly rewarding to turn a couple of crap numbers into a super powerful attack. I also enjoyed the various options for “vacation” time in between battles, which kept everything feeling fresh. Of note, I only played for thirty minutes. While they were a rewarding thirty minutes, the game was not incredibly difficult. I cannot speak on the general replayability, though I would have been happy to continue playing for at least another hour. My only critique from the whole experience was that some of the vocabulary was unclear. However, that could have been due to starting mid-run during my demo. 

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If you enjoy deckbuilders and are interested in a spaceship game a bit easier than FTL, I think LONESTAR is a great choice. It is still in early access, however, I feel confident that the game is plenty of fun already. It is also only $10, so definitely worth taking a chance on. I’ll continue to watch the development of LONESTAR with great excitement! 4.8 out of 5 stars (4.8 / 5)

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