Review: Race to Escape TV show

Author: Scott Hamilton  /  Category: Reviews

Race to Escape is a new TV show on the Science channel, and it is what you get when a game show and an escape-the-room puzzle love each other very much, and have children. Luckily it seems to be a cute child so far. This review is based off of the pilot episode.

For those of you not familiar with the term, an escape-the-room puzzle is just what it says on the tin: it’s a puzzle where your goal is to escape the room you are in. Usually, you have to explore the room and use the elements there to solve puzzles that eventually lead to your escape. Sometimes that requires using things you find around to open locks, uncover clues, etc. Sometimes you have to decipher codes and discover passwords. The exact nature of the puzzles. It’s a very popular subject for small, rudimentary Flash games with MS Paint style graphics, but shows up in games of all levels of complexity and sophistication (Myst is, in essence, a series of elaborate escape the room puzzles).

Race to Escape turns this into a competition. Two groups of three people (who have just met each other) are placed into two identical rooms and the goal is to get out before the other team and before the one hour timer runs out. In order to escape, the players must discover a series 4-digit codes which are put into a keypad on the wall, five codes in total. Once the first code is put in, a clue for how to find the next code is provided and so on. Enter all five, and your team wins. The prize is $25,000.

There are some wrinkles to it. When the clock has 20 minutes left, the prize amount decreases by $500 every minute. Also, you can spend $5000 for a code breaker, which will tell you how to solve the puzzle you are on. You cannot use a code breaker on the puzzle to acquire the final code, however. Also, if you put in three incorrect codes in a row, your keypad locks for 2 minutes, to discourage just putting in codes willy-nilly. To increase the pressure, there is an indicator in each room that shows how many puzzles each team has solved so you can see if you are ahead or behind.

The show itself cuts back and forth between the two teams in a reality show way, with voice over commentary by the show’s host. Also, there are small little fluff bumper scenes where the host explains a detail of one of the puzzles, or talks about things like logical fallacies displayed by the players. The coverage of the two teams seemed pretty balanced and there weren’t any bits of ‘dead air’ in the show. The voice over and bumper scenes are not really important, but luckily they aren’t intrusive or super cheesy.

But onto the meat of the show: the puzzles. As a veteran puzzle enthusiast, I was generally impressed by the puzzles. Very few of the puzzles presented to the players were cliche. No “Oh look, they have dressed up a sudoku puzzle” moments here. There was one sliding tiles puzzle in the pilot, but it distinguished itself both by being a physically large puzzle and hidden in the floor itself.

The puzzles made good use of the space and physicality of the room. Some required players to physically search the room for items. Players had to interact with the entire space of the room as well. For example, one puzzle had the players following a trail of paintings around the room indicated by people in the paintings pointing at other paintings.

The solutions required a variety of lateral thinking challenges. Players had to be aware of all of the room and be willing to discard fruitless ideas quickly to keep up. Solutions were outside the box and none of them seemed overly obscure. I found all of them to be creative and interesting. There were no truly repetitive puzzles, nor were there any puzzles that just required players to sit down and work things out on a piece of paper, which definitely wouldn’t make for good television.

If I had one criticism, it is that there was a puzzle or two that required a little bit of ‘guess what the designers were thinking’. The clue for the last puzzle in this pilot episode in particular was more of a riddle – you just had intuit what the clue meant. This was the make-or-break point of the game. One team sped ahead very early, but could not generate the ah-ha moment the final puzzle needed. While they spun their wheels, the other team caught up, had the epiphany quickly, and won the game. My criticism is really a nitpick, however, coming from the perspective of someone who has done a lot of puzzles and has created more than a few for others.

Overall, I found the show enjoyable with a good pace. The puzzles were creative and interesting, and it was fun to watch people work through them. The combination of puzzle design, good choice of players who actively engaged with each other aloud and good editing made the entire episode entertaining. There is not too much of a reality show feel to it (no trumped up drama or anything), just people working together to play the game. If you are people watcher and you find puzzles tickle your fancy, I think you’d find it enjoyable as well.

Review: Worlds In Peril RPG

Author: Scott Hamilton  /  Category: Gaming, Reviews

Worlds in Peril is a tabletop RPG that is Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA), that is, it uses the basic structure created originally by Vincent Baker’s Apocalypse World RPG (trigger-based character moves, etc.). This puts it firmly into the ‘narrative game’ category, one that is much more concerned with making up a story rather than lots of number crunching and lots of granularity when dealing with minutia of damage, position, power balance, and such.

But instead of post-apocalyptic adventure, Worlds in Peril is about super heroes – what they do to protect the world and how they actually fit into that world. So you get to explore both the awesomeness of super-powered duels in the streets, and how fighting the good fight affects their mundane lives.


Like many PbtA games, Worlds in Peril does not come with a default setting. Instead the game is intended to model a type of setting in a particular way. The details of the setting are worked out during character creation and during play.

Worlds in Peril does make several assumptions about the superhero world, and the mechanics of the game reflect that. It assumes that the there is more to the hero’s life than what just happens in the fistfights in the street. Who the hero is outside of their secret identity is important, and how they are connected to the people they know and the city they protect is key to their power and motivation. There is also an assumption that the more powerful a superhero is, the less they can relate to the rest of the world. That makes growth and recovery more difficult.

The relationships in comics and movies are modeled nicely here, whether they are to sidekicks, loyal servants, or the boyfriend you have to keep in the dark for their own protection. In playing various superhero games, this common trope gets lost quickly, in my experience. By centering a key mechanic on those relationships, it forces players to pay attention to it and reclaims that as part of the hero’s story. I think the game is the better for it.

Beyond just the hero’s personal connections, the game also makes their connection to the city (popularity among the residents and the local government) and law enforcement in particular part of those relationships that affect them and that they have to pay attention to. How a hero deals with the city and the police is another typical element in comics and movies, and it’s nice to see it reinforced.

The Basic System

For the uninitiated out there, PtbA is based on something called a move. Most of the time, you are just describing what you are doing in a free-form role-playing way, and the GM (called an Editor-In-Chief) responds and reacts; it is an ongoing conversation. However, what a character does may trigger a move, and dice get involved. You roll to see how well you do, and the move specifies what happens as a result. These effects are often very broad, in which you and the GM then decide on the details.

For example, if I am running across a plaza to get to the little old lady trapped in the burning car and I’m dodging plasma blasts flung by Dr. Evil Antagonist, that triggers the Defy Danger move. I roll to see if I do, in fact, defy the danger. Or, I may be able to defy the danger but pay a cost doing so, or the GM gets to stick it to me. Once I get there and try to save the little old lady, that triggers the Serve and Protect move, etc.

Moves are really the heart of any PbtA game. How they are defined determines what types of actions are important (and thus need dice) as well as well as what sort of consequences the game is built around. You understand and evaluate a PtbA primarily by its moves.

The moves in Worlds in Peril are very intent-focused. The same action can trigger one of many moves depending on what you are trying to accomplish: if you are trying to avoid an unpleasant consequence then you are Defying Danger, whether you are using your athletic skill to dodge bullets or you are trying to convince the cops to not haul you in as a dangerous vigilante. Players who are used to games that are very action- or skill-focused (“I use Dexterity to fire a bow”, “I use my Charm to fast-talk the guard”) may have a bit of trouble wrapping their minds around it at first.

The standard moves of the game reflect the superhero world: Defy Danger, Serve and Protect, Gather Intel, Take Down, Aid or Interfere, etc. There are a few that add some nice touches: Use Environment is for all those superheroes who pick up cars or rip parking meters out of the ground to use as weapons, for example.

Moves are traditionally formulated in a very simple “when I do X, I roll dice and the resulting situations is Y” format. However, Worlds in Peril does a very good job at explaining these moves and their effects, with discussion on what all of the possible effects mean and when you would use them. There are several well-written examples with each move as well. For that reason, I would suggest Worlds In Peril as a book for people new to PtbA games to get a good sense of how such a game is played.

There are a few moves where Worlds in Peril really shines. First, lets talk about the Fit In move. Your relationships, called Bonds, can be used to boost dice rolls and represent how those NPCs will react to you. The Fit In roll is triggered when you spend time cultivating your Bonds: creating new ones or increasing the strength of existing Bonds. In addition, Fit In is the only move that allows you to recover from conditions that are inflicted on you. So dealing with your normal life is vital – it’s the primary way you ‘heal’.

Next are the Last Chance and Dead For Now moves. If you get taken down by a villain, it triggers your Last Chance. Depending on the roll, you might be able to keep going, or you might be able to keep going only if there is someone in danger that you could be trying to protect. Or, if you get the villain monologuing. If you do go down, it triggers the Dead For Now move. You have a chance to just come back in a few sessions, or possibly come back but changed somehow or with some other challenging, drama-inducing problem.

While the game as a whole does a good job of reinforcing the feel of the superhero genre, this combination of moves is what really clinches it for me. These tropes are classic comic book, and weaving them into the game like this is brilliant.

Let’s Talk About Powers

So, superheroes need powers, right? This is where you get all the fiddly bits in most superhero games: lists of powers and tables of effects. I like fiddly little things like that (I am the proud owner of one of the original Marvel Super Heroes books called the Ultimate Powers Book, after all).

Worlds In Peril handles it in a completely different way, and honestly, it impressed the hell out of me.

You describe you power set narratively with a Power Summary (like “Olympic-level athletics; pinpoint accuracy” or “psionic knives; telepathy”). For specifics, you fill in some details in your Power Profile. First, you describe if and how your powers are dependent on stuff which could be taken away from you. Then you describe a number of power effects in terms of how difficult the effect is to do. This defines the things your character normally does with their powers, how hard it is to do those things, and what they can’t do.

It sounds a little basic and loose, but it’s actually pretty clever. Once again, Worlds In Peril mechanics are focused on effects. If what you are trying to do with your powers is in your power profile, you can just do it. That doesn’t mean you are automatically successful; the action may still trigger Defy Danger, Seize Control, Serve and Protect, etc. like any other situation. Spiderman swings on a web – it happens. If he’s swinging between oncoming heat-seeking missiles, he’s got to Defy Danger and deal with what that move dictates.

However, if you try to do something with your powers that is not with your Power Profile, it triggers the Push move. If you make a good roll, you add what you did to your profile – congratulations, you just figured out how to do that! If you roll poorly, well, things could go badly. Comic book heroes do this sort of thing all the time, and this is a great way for your actions in game to directly cause your hero to grow and advance. A similar move, Burnout, is triggered when you go for broke with your powers – it’s a high stakes move with potentially high cost. World in Peril once again does a great job in baking the feel of the four-color comic into the basic rules of the game.

Character Creation

Making characters in Worlds in Peril is a fairly collaborative process, as is typical for PbtA games and the current wave of indie games. You get to define details about the game universe, how common heroes are, what city you are based in, and how and why you are working as a team. You also decide on your initial Bonds and create a few Bonds that connect you to the other heroes. If you are familiar with the games that already do this sort of collaborative brainstorming, this will be old hat for you. You’ll also define common resources like the all-important superhero base, because heroes have cool bases.

PbtA games usually have a set of classes (playbooks) that define archetypes in the game. Worlds in Peril does not provide classes, but rather asks you to choose from a list of Origins and a list of Drives. These reflect how your character got their powers and what pushes them to be a superhero. Each option gives you a few special moves that your character can trigger based off of their history or motivation. For example, the origin I’m A Freak has a move called That’s Right, I’m a Monster. It triggers when you use your freakish nature to intimidate someone into doing what you want.

Drives also form a narrative framework for advancement. Each drive has a prerequisite condition; if you fulfill the condition in game, then the Drive becomes available to you. Then you unlock Drive moves by doing specific things related to your Drive. When you unlock a Drive, you get points you can use to improve your stats, add things to your power profile, and so forth.

If I have a problem with anything in Worlds In Peril, it’s in this area. In terms of the text itself, the details and discussion around Origins and Drives are really sparse. Gone is the depth of discussion that made the basic moves section so useful, and the examples are minimal and not very enlightening. The description is muddy and vague in a way that the rest of the book is not.

Also, the point-based advancement system that comes out of unlocking Drives feels really out of place given the narrative nature of the rest of the system. The rest of Worlds in Peril is a wonderfully-textured story game that is based on qualitative differences rather than numbers. Suddenly, there is a point-buy system plopped in the middle of it.

But, I think there is something really awesome hiding in the unlocking Drives idea. In fact, it gives me ideas about alternative forms of growth in RPGs that I will probably play with if I write any other games myself. There’s a kernel of genius in it, but it doesn’t get developed at all. Hopefully any supplements that come out for Worlds in Peril will delve into that more.

For the GM

The latter part of the book is your GM advice section that is standard for most books, so I don’t have as much commentary here as I do have on the rest.

As a PbtA, it follows the structure of GM Agendas to promote, and Principles to follow. Also here is the list of GM moves and discussions of choosing moves and responding to players. GMs familiar with PtbA games will know that the details these sections are really important for getting the hang for the tone. I’m a big fan of this structure in general (it inspired my approach to a few sections in Unwritten).

There’s nothing revelatory in this section. There is a lot things you see in every other PtbA book, as those form the core of the GMing philosophy behind this style of game. There are bits that do address the genre of superhero games as well, and they are nice reminders. But I don’t think there is anything there that someone familiar with the genre won’t know anyway.

What does make a return appearance is the helpful discussion. Each of the points raised have are talked about and provide useful insights on how to apply them. This is another thing that would be useful to GMs unfamiliar with the style of game even if they don’t like superheroes.

There is also discussion on how to prepare for a Worlds In Peril game. This can be different from traditional games because so much of PtbA games are improvised. The book talks about how to prepare the setting and how to develop threats and challenges for heroes to tackle. The list of common tropes is a little scatter shot, but it does provide a lot of inspirations if you get stuck.

You’ll find good advice on how to develop your super villains and how to develop their master plans. Worlds in Peril provides a good structure for various levels of opponents, one that is tuned to superhero games. You’ll find a few helpful examples as well.

The Verdict

Worlds in Peril is a good game and one that I think is worth buying. I wish I’d backed it on Kickstarter when it came up.

It captures the feel of the superhero game without tying you to a particular setting. If you like looser games, you’ll find this one interesting. If you like a lot of numbers in your superhero games and a lot of ‘crunchy’ rules, you’ll be disappointed. But if you are willing to try a different way of doing things, you might find something you really like here.

The writing is clear and helpful, though it does drop the ball in one particular area. But even there, you’ll find diamonds in the rough. If someone were to ask me for a game that would be good for people who are unfamiliar with Powered By The Apocalypse games and want to know more, I’d suggest Worlds in Peril as a good option.

You’ll be able to play a diverse set of superhero games using this game. I could see playing four-color campaigns, as well as games like the Marvel movies or even grittier settings like Watchmen (though you’d need a few tweaks here and there for that). If you wanted to play in existing universes or even existing heroes, I think you won’t have a problem with using Worlds in Peril for it.

For you game hackers out there, the game is also a great source of ideas. Its take on super powers is interesting; it could be ported easily to any other PtbA game or used as a basis for a game which has ‘abilities’ that are diverse and resist quantification into specific moves. The Drives concept is just begging to be developed more as well. Get on that, Internet.

A Prog Rock song in Ithkuil

Author: Scott Hamilton  /  Category: Conlanging

John Quijada, who I think is one of the grandmasters of modern conlanging, has posted a video for his progressive rock song Ozkavarkúi (lyrics).

The lyrics are in the conlang Ithkuil, and they are sung by David Peterson, creator of languages for Game of Thrones, Defiance, Dominion, The 100, Thor: The Dark World, Star-Crossed, Penny Dreadful, and an ever increasing list of other nifty things.

What makes this exceptionally cool, in my opinion, is the fact that Ithkuil is one of the more exceptional conlangs out there. It’s not intended to act like a natural human language. It’s a philosophical language designed to reflect more aspects of human cognition than natural languages do, and reduce the ambiguity that is common in language.

Here’s what I think is a great example of it, taken right from Quijada’s introduction to the language:

Tram-mļöi  hhâsmařpţuktôx.
On the contrary, I think it may turn out that this rugged mountain range trails off at some point.

That’s two words for a 19 word English sentence. It’s all built off of a single root for ‘mountain’, and includes tones (like in Mandarin Chinese) and word stress that has specific meaning to the words.

The morphological analysis of the lyrics for the song (in the link to the lyrics above) is just insane. It looks like there are all sorts of shades of meaning in the lyrics that the English translation does not quite encompass.

As you can see, Ithkuil is quite a singular language, which is why this video has extra helpings of awesome. It’s a full artistic work based in a language that is incredibly unique, and honestly is not the sort of language project I’d have expected music to come from.