Sunday, October 14, 2018

I buried the lead in a tangent.

Earlier today, I wrote a lengthy rant about 7th Sea and why I chose to reduce the damage of duelists instead of increasing the damage of non-duelists. In a rambling tangent buried deep in that post, I said this:
Options that look strong or weak during character creation should not turn out to have radically different power-levels in play. You would not expect "Duelist" to be significantly stronger than Army Officer, Mercenary, Cavalry, Hunter, or any of the other martial-themed Background options, but it really is.

Thinking back on that, I realized this point was actually far more important than I presented it as, and I probably should have led with that statement.

The internet is full of two years of 7th Sea posts about why Duelists are unbalanced vs non-combatant NPCs, to which the most common rebuttal is "Duelists should be vastly stronger than non-combatants".

Those rebuttals are absolutely right, but they are also entirely missing the point.

Duelists have dedicated at least one of their two Background choices to being a bad-ass in combat. I entirely agree that compared to another character that hasn't chosen any significant combat options, the Duelist should be very potent.

The problem is there are several other character creation options that cost the exact same as being a Duelist (by which I mean it takes one of your 2 Background choices), and every single one of them is significantly under-powered in comparison to the Duelist.

If someone chose Cavalry and Mercenary as their two Backgrounds, they've doubled-down on combat-capable character concepts, but those two Backgrounds combined together contribute far less to their damage output or chances of emerging victorious from a battle than the single choice of Duelist that another player took.

A character who took Duelist and Courtier would do at least double the damage of a character who took Soldier and Assassin. That's what really bothers me about it.

Miss Harker continues to Vamp about

Since my last two posts were about 7th Sea, I just wanted to mention that I'm still currently running Night's Black Agents / The Dracula Dossier. Everyone's schedules are such that we only get to play that about once a month, so I'm planning to do a semi-regular 7th Sea campaign with a different group of players, and hopefully get to game twice a month this way.

In my most recent session of NBA, the PCs got raided by the secret British Vampire Program. They'd not stirred up a lot of Heat in London, and didn't cover their tracks well enough. So there was a cool fight and chase scene as their safehouse got burned & blown. They learned a thing or two about the opposition (including seeing Seward Serum up close) and then slipped away into the night.

The session left with them still in London, trying to keep a low profile while hunting Jack the Ripper (who the PCs had accidentally unleashed into the world a half dozen sessions ago). I actually left off with a fun cliffhanger where one of the PCs found herself in a trunk with a vampire. When you hear Mina Harker's voice in your head at midnight, I do not recommend inviting her in, not even if you're riding in the trunk of a car down a busy street and there's no earthly chance she could actually be there. The power of Apportation scoffs at your puny mortal concepts of time and space.

Putting A Finer Point On The Sword

A couple days ago I posted a set of house-ruled Dueling Maneuvers for 7th Sea 2nd Edition, which dramatically reduced the amount of damage a Duelist could do. This cut it down to about 150% to 175% of a what a non-Duelist PC could do, instead of the 300% to 500% of a non-Duelists damage output as the official rules-as-written would have it. Since then, I've been reading additional other posts on forums and blogs with other people's house-rules and alternatives for exactly that same situation.

It seems most people's solution is to scale up the damage done by non-Duelists. Usually this is achieved via providing a 1-, 2-, or 3-point Advantage that gives non-Duelists access to Slash (and in some cases Parry and/or a few other Maneuvers). Adding a single Advantage seems like a far more elegant solution than completely rewriting 5 or 6 maneuvers and several of the Style Bonuses, so I can see the appeal of going that route.

That said, here are the reasons why I chose the larger-scale revision, and in particular why I chose to lower Duelist's damage output instead of raising non-Duelist's effectiveness.

Reason #1: I'd rather slow the death spiral than speed it up.

In 7th Sea 2nd Edition, a PC has 20 health boxes. 20 points of damage drops a character. A typical non-Duelist starting character is going to deal 2 to 4 points of damage per Round. A starting Duelist, on the other hand, under the core rules,  is going to deal somewhere between 10 and 15 points of damage in a turn. Which means a duel to the death is probably 2 Rounds in length, and if there's a min-maxed or "high level" Duelist on one side of a fight, PC death could happen in a single Round. Each player only rolls dice once per Round. This just seems really short and fast to me. There's no time or warning for a player to realize their out of their league - if a non-Duelist accidentally picked a fight with a major (Duelist) Villain, they'd be dead before they realized the danger they were in. Should a PC stir-up trouble, I want them to have a chance to flee, or an opportunity for other PCs to jump in and save them. Such an escape is just not likely if a battle to the death can happen in one or two die rolls. That is the single biggest problem I have with boosting non-Duelists up to Duelist levels of damage. It seems safer (from a campaign perspective) to slow everything down instead.

The other side of that coin is also mildly troubling. It's not nearly as big a deal if an NPC gets cut down without warning in one or two die rolls, but it still definitely complicates the GM's ability to plan a balanced and exciting fight scene or develop an ongoing storyline with a memorable recurring villain. I've read a fair bit online where GMs have said they needed to throw Brute Squads of 20 or 30 nameless NPCs against the PCs to keep their fights challenging. While that makes sense for a big battle at the end of major story arc, it seems less than ideal for the bread-and-butter of your standard session.

There are a few other lesser concerns that lead to my approach. I'll detail them below, but honestly these are all much smaller deals than the tendency towards instant death in the rules as written.

(Minor) Reason #2: A new "leveling the playing field" advantage isn't part of any Background package.

During character creation, players pick 2 Backgrounds that tell their back-story and give them a starting collection of Advantages and Skills. If I were to add a hypothetical Advantage that closes the gap between Duelists and non-Duelists, it wouldn't appear on any of the current Backgrounds. So either I'd need to make new Backgrounds or edit the existing ones, or live with the notion that PCs who are non-Duelists but want to be good at fighting have to spend their bonus Advantage points on it, and so have slightly fewer customization options than the full-on Duelist. Not particularly horrible, but it does undercut the elegance and appeal of just adding a single Advantage to solve the balance issues.

Tangent: I prefer transparency during character creation
One of my pet peeves in regards to gaming is RPG systems with hidden bad-choices in character creation. 1st Edition 7th Sea had these in spades. If you sunk a bunch of character creation points into knacks, especially advanced knacks, it was a terrible waste of your time and power, as those were much faster and easier to raise via XP in just a  session or two. Also, Panache, which sounded on the surface like it might be the Charisma-esque dump-stat most characters could safely ignore, was actually the strongest stat in the game as it determined how many actions you got per turn. In the first 7th Sea campaign I ever played in, we didn't make our characters together, so multiple players missed both of these truths about the creation system, and spent the rest of the campaign feeling envious of my character. It was not a great dynamic, and I learned a lot from that experience. The goal is for everyone at the table to have fun, and that is far less likely to happen if one PC is vastly outperforming others.
Options that look strong or weak during character creation should not turn out to have radically different power-levels in play. You would not expect "Duelist" to be significantly stronger than Army Officer, Mercenary, Cavalry, Hunter, or any of the other martial-themed Background options, but it really is.

That is at the core of why I'm house-ruling the Dueling damage down. During character creation, it's not going to be obvious to most players just how much better a Duelist is to a non-duelist. I can warn them, but the gap is so huge that they are almost certainly going to underestimate the importance and regret it later. If I do successfully put the fear of Duelists into them, then the whole table will be playing Duelists, which erodes character niche integrity and results in everyone having the same skills. I don't want disappointed or envious players, but I also don't want a gang of cookie-cutter PCs with diminished individuality.


(Minor) Reason #3: A ranged combat character can't compete with Dueling.

7th Sea 2nd Edition has loosey-goosey movement rules... or really, no movement rules at all. In many RPGs, movement and ranges are tracked more explicitly. In such games, this often means that melee damage output defaults to being higher than ranged damage, as a trade-off for play balance. You can hit harder if you spend an action or two moving into position and are willing to risk the extra danger of being on the front lines.

This edition of 7th Sea has no concept of the "Front Lines", and explicitly employs mechanics such as Consequences and Brute Squads that affect the entire party regardless of (non-existent) positioning. Rarely will the Swordsman find himself in greater peril than the Archer. As GM, I can force that situation, but there's nothing in the default mechanics that makes it happen, so every time I do so, everyone at the table will know that's me actively working to make it harder on the melee characters. That's a well you can't draw from infinitely without someone crying foul.

Guns have a bit of a balancing factor built in to them to account for this: they always do a Dramatic Wound, which is almost as good as doing 5 damage. Those guns are black-powder weapons, however, so they take 5 actions to reload. A PC carrying a brace of pistols (a not-so-subtle fashion style) can almost match a starting Duelist's damage output for the first Round (and just the first round). A gun-using PC can't keep up later in the campaign as the Duelist improves his Weaponry skill, but for a shorter campaign, this is very close to balanced against Duelists. Duelists are still better, but with the rules-as-written the only hope of a non-Duelist to not feel useless in a fight is to carry multiple pistols.

A PC with a bow, or a bandolier full of throwing knives, just can't compete. If the game were entirely and completely set in just the Restoration and Golden-Age-of-Piracy era, I wouldn't worry much about that. Instead, it's more of a greatest hits of European history. A friend once described the anachronistic setting thusly: "7th Sea is set in the 100-year era between the fall of the Roman Empire and the Industrial Revolution". Yes, it's mostly Pirates and Musketeers, but other perfectly-valid character inspirations include Vikings and King Arthur and Machiavelli and Robin Hood. Unfortunately, that last archetype doesn't seem to have a workable model in the current mechanics. At best you could get a Signature Item (your prized bow) and the Sniper Advantage, but that still only buffs your damage output up to about 8 Wounds per Round, at the cost of a Hero Point each Round.

Tangent: I'm not worried about Pistols overwhelming my new Duelists
I've reduced the damage or Dueling, but not Pistols. For the record, I am not the least bit worried about that swinging balance too far in the opposite direction. While 7th Sea doesn't have a rigid Encumbrance system to limit PCs from loading up on pistols, it does have social etiquette. Unlike D&D where a guy in full armor sporting 5 weapons is normal, in 7th Sea someone carrying half a dozen pistols is going to look conspicuously murderous. The campaign I'm planning to run will have courtly intrigue as well as daring-do, and the need to be able to attend court will prevent players from packing too much heat. Maybe if I was running a purely pirates-in-the-wilderness style of campaign there would be more cause for concern, but I don't expect it to be a problem.

If you're worried about this being a abused, there's one very elegant and organic way to limit the effectiveness of carrying 3 or more pistols. Just require a Raise to draw a weapon, and a Raise to fire with your off-hand. (And remember, they already take 5 Raises to reload.) With that in place, Pistols are cemented in their role as a good-opening move but an inefficient long-battle strategy.

(Minor) Reason #4: To open up some design space for Signature Weapons

In 1st Edition of 7th Sea, there were all sorts of cool weapons for swordsmen. Puzzle Swords, Dracheneisen Panzerhands, Sidhe Weapons, Rune Weapons, Castillian Blades, MacEachern Weapons, Twisted Blades, and Pattern-Welded-Steel. Having a distinctive "hero weapon" was definitely a thing, and what style of weapon you had was flavorful as well as meaningful. Almost none of that exists in 2nd Edition, and the only thing really left along those lines is the "Signature Item" Advantage.

If you've got a Signature Item, and it is a weapon, you can use it to do bonus damage. This costs a Hero Point to activate. Most characters start each session with just 1 Hero Point and can only reliably expect to get maybe 2 more Hero Points in a session, so it's already pretty limited. I've seen some posts where people say Signature Item is how non-Duelists can compete with Duelists, but I don't buy it. If you do spend 3 Hero Points on three consecutive hits in the first round of a Duel you could indeed to Duelist levels of damage in the first Round. It's expensive as heck, both draining your per-session resources and costing 60% the cost of the Duelist Academy at character creation.  Despite that cost, it doesn't get your damage up high enough to kill the Duelist you're battling in that one Round (especially if they Parry or Riposte), so they'll rip you apart in Round 2 when you don't have any Hero Points left.

It's worth noting as well that a Signature Weapon doesn't level up with you. A Duelist will do more damage (nearly doubling it) as he raises his Weaponry, but a Signature Weapon is probably going to be same bonus your entire career. And there's a weird little wrinkle where a Signature Weapon is useful to a starting Duelist (it's probably +2 damage on a Hero Point spend) but has no impact on Duelist who has raised their Weaponry during play. So the GM can't really award a fancy sword as a treasure to a Duelist, gifting it late in a campaign as a reward for success, because it won't really do anything by then. (It's still a decent treasure for a non-Duelist, as written. The dynamic is a little weird.)

Other than that, a sword is a sword is a sword. 7th Sea is not D&D, and you won't find intricate equipment lists and weapons using different dice types or significant modifiers. This is both a good thing (it's liberating and rules-lite) and a bad thing (that the only type of "special" weapon is a generic special item that is identical in stats to all other "special" items).  Reducing the automatic damage output of a Duelist makes generic Signature Weapons more useful to Duelists (and to non-Duelists as it makes them much more competitive) and also potentially opens up the possibility that a GM could introduce a more specific weapon bonus without it just further aggravating the tendency for battles to the death ending in the first Round. Not that I've done anything with that just yet, and I might not ever, but it seems like there's more room at the table for that as a possibility if Duelists are taken down a notch first.



(Minor) Reason #5: So I'm not obligated to make all Villains be Duelists

A single PC Duelist, under the default rules, can murder any non-Duelist in two Rounds or less. The only reliable defense is the Parry and Riposte Maneuvers. I'd rather have the option of crafting Villains with any background (or Background) that fits the story, instead of limiting myself to only those who've been a Duelist Academy.





Thursday, October 11, 2018

The Balance Of A Sword: Dueling on the 7th Sea

I'm looking at possibly starting a 7th Sea RPG campaign next month. I'm all excited to try out the new-ish 2nd Edition of the game, but I've noticed in the past that sometimes games by that designer (John Wick, not Keanu Reeves) have some mathematical and mechanical issues. The first edition of 7th Sea had a few bugs (Panache was way too strong, damage calculation slowed combat considerably, Swordsman Schools and Sorcery both probably cost more than they were actually worth during character creation, and Half-blooded Sorcery in particular was a disaster), but was still worth playing because the setting was so cool. I've complained at length about the balance issues and lack of niche-protection in the otherwise conceptually excellent Wilderness of Mirrors by the same author. John Wick writes great settings, and comes up with innovative mechanics, but I feel like sometimes he's doesn't take enough care with play-balance and munchkin-prevention. Or maybe his home playgroup is made up of such high-caliber players that balance issues are tertiary to the story and fun. We should all be so lucky.

With that in mind, I poked around the internet a bit looking to see what flaws my fellow gamers had identified in their 7th Sea 2nd Edition campaigns. The biggest complain I've read (aside from some folks just not taking to the more "story game" approach in the rules, or having been burned because they expected it to be more of a 1.5 edition instead of a completely new core mechanic) is about Duelists.

In short, Duelists are way too powerful. According to this article I read, a properly trained Swordsman from the Duelist Academy can do 3 to 5 times as much damage as a character with identical stats who just didn't take the Duelist Background. That's a problem, and a bad one. It's at least as big of a character creation land mine as the over-importance of Panache in the first edition. 

The problem seems to be mostly in Slashes and Ripostes. Both of these Maneuvers are significantly better than the default attack of any non-Duelist. Most starting PCs will do 1 damage per hit, maybe 3 or 4 damage total in a Round. A starting Duelist is will almost always do 3 damage per hit, and a total of 9 to 12 in a round while also preventing at least one wound to themselves with a well-timed Riposte.  When one character outperforms the rest of the party combined, it's a recipe for unhappy envious players.

The obvious power-level of the Slash and Riposte also have the side-effect of making the other Duelist options seem worthless in comparison. The only other option that compares favorably is the Lunge, but doing a Lunge ends your turn prematurely. Instead of providing interesting options and tactics to spice up duels, the strength of Slashes and Ripostes pretty much render the Duelists choices meaningless. The optimal sequence of plays for every Duelist in a sword fight is to Riposte against the first attack an enemy launches, use a Slash for the actions directly before and after the Riposte, and then a Lunge instead of a Slash for your very last action of each turn. If you're graced with the good luck of having more than 4 Actions to spend in a Round, you might throw in a single Bash, Parry or Feint, but this will be rare and you'll always know that these moves are inferior to every Slash, Riposte and your final turn-ending Lunge. That all feels like a missed opportunity to me.

I'm currently considering the following house-ruled Maneuver set for all Duelists. It reduces the overall bonus for being a Duelist to roughly a 50% increase in combat effectiveness, instead of the 200% to 400% increase that they receive with the default system written in the rulebook. Duelists have the following combat Maneuver options, listed in the same seemingly-random order in which they appear in the rulebook:


Slash: This is a basic attack, the same as any non-duelist can use. It does 1 Wound to the target. You may spend additional Raises to add damage to this attack, the same as a non-duelist can when they land an attack. Slash is the only Maneuver that is exempt from the consecutive-actions limitation on page 235 of the rulebook (you can Slash twice in a row, but cannot use any other Maneuver twice in a row without doing something else in between).
(Duelists will rarely use the basic Slash. Their other options are generally better in one way or another. The only common exception to this is to use a Slash for a killing blow if your enemy starts the round close to defeat. When that happens, it will be worth it to dump a stack of raises into one large Slash early in the round to prevent them from striking back.)

Parry: This prevents a number of Wounds equal to your Ranks in Weaponry. Using Parry takes your action (and 1 Raise) and must be done immediately following the attack by an enemy that caused the Wounds your are preventing.  
(This is functionally identical to the Parry as written on page 235 of the rulebook, nothing has changed about Parry.)

Feint: This does no damage when activated. Instead, it puts the foe in a position that makes them more vulnerable. The next time your target is injured in this same Round, they take +2 extra Wounds. 
(Note that this house rule leaves the Feint at the same power-level it had in the rulebook provided you have another action to follow it up with (or an allied PC available to do the same), but I've made it just a little trickier to use. A Duelist needs good planning or a good roll at the start of the Round to get the bonus damage, and they will have to switch their tactics up from round to round. It's now usually, but not quite always, better than a non-duelists attack or an unraised Slash. Much like the new Lunge listed below, the two actions spent for a Feint+Slash are collectively 50% more damaging than two consecutive Slashes or two attacks from of a non-duelist.)

Lunge: Performing a Lunge requires 2 Raises (exactly). It does damage equal to your Ranks in Weaponry. (Unlike a Slash, this cannot be increased by Raises.)
(Note that there is no longer any restriction about Lunges ending your action. You can open your assault with a Lunge now, but it is no longer possible to spend extra Raises to increase the damage of a Lunge. The Lunge is now the only attack that does damage based on Weaponry Ranks. If your Weaponry Rank is 3 to 5, Lunges are better than Slashes. Most PC Duelists will start with Weaponry 3, so it's generally 50% better than a Slash in the early campaign. If you have enough actions available, a Feint followed by a Lunge can be very powerful.)

Bash: Does 1 Wound the target. (Unlike a Slash, this cannot be increased by Raises.)  If that wound is not prevented, the next time this Round that target deals Wounds, their damage is reduced by your Ranks in Weaponry.
(If attacked with this version of Bash, if you can Riposte or Parry it's worth doing so to prevent the Bash penalty from effecting you. Note that a Feint preceeding a Bash will boost it's damage up to the point where a Riposte cannot stop the Bash from landing and applying its penalty.)

Riposte: This prevents 1 Wound from an attack you just suffered, and does 1 Wound to the attacker in response. Using Riposte takes your action (and 1 Raise) and must be done immediately following the attack by an enemy that caused the Wound your are preventing. 
(Note that there is no longer a limit to how many Ripostes you can do in a turn, I just dramatically reduced the damage each Riposte prevents and does. Against non-duelists, the Riposte is pretty much always better than a Parry, but against a fellow Duelist the best defensive choice will depend quite a bit on what attack Maneuver they threw at you. Riposte effectively stops a basic attack, Bash or unRaised Slash, but is not a full defense against a Lunge or raised Slash or any attacked boosted by a Feint.)


 Hopefully that reigns in the power of Duelists enough to keep things fun for the other players, and also adds enough meaningful decision-making to each Round to keep the Duelist's player entertained and engaged. The idea was to keep the rules elegant, while enhancing the tactical variety from turn to turn.

Those house-ruled Maneuvers will require a few house-rules for specific Duelist Styles, as a few of the existing Style Bonuses give out too much bonus damage or interact weirdly with my revised versions of Riposte or Lunge. In general below, I haven't house-ruled any defensive powers, and have only worked to reign-in damage output. For balance reasons, I believe any particular Dueling Style should only add about +2 damage per Round, and getting even that much of a bonus should require the player to jump through a hoop or two to get it so it's not 100% guaranteed to happen every Round. Damage-prevention powers are less likely to need revision, because any PC willing to sacrifice offensive power and aggressive success to just concentrate on staying alive should be able to do so pretty reliably.

Aldana: Once per Round, when you perform a Feint, instead of adding +2 extra Wounds, it adds extra Wounds equal to your Panache.

Drexel: When the Metzger and Gerbeck stances talk about "additional" or "fewer" Raises, this is referring only to initiative order, and not any other effect. (I feel this is more a clarification than a House-Rule per se, but it's possible the original authors intended it to function differently with the old Lunge rules in a way that's not crystal-clear in the rules as written. Regardless of that intent, in my revised Maneuver system, it only affects initiative.)

Eisenfaust: Your Ripostes prevent up to 2 Wounds (instead of just 1), and inflict 2 Wounds on the attacker (instead of just 1).

Sabat: When you apply bonus Wounds from your own Feint to your own Lunge, instead of the usual +2 extra Wounds, you can apply +3 extra Wounds.

Those effects are intended to entirely replace the Style Bonus for the effected Dueling Styles, so the boosted Riposte mentioned for Eisenfaust completely replaces the "Iron Reply" text/ability, and the like. No other House Rules should be necessary to make any of the Duelist Styles in the core book play nicely with my revised Maneuvers.


On page 174 of the Pirate Nations book:

Lakedaimon Agoge: Your Lunges require 3 Raises to perform, but they do damage equal to your Weaponry Ranks +2. (This replaces the "Agoge Thrust" alternative-to-Lunge Maneuver rule, but does NOT replace the other effects mentioned for weapon type -- the benefits that you would gain a second of if you took the "Agoge Weapon Mastery" Advantage on page 150 of this book. On that note, I'm not convinced Agoge Weapon Mastery is worth the investment, even in the default rules system, but that's perhaps beside the point here.)

On page 195 of the Nations of Theah Volume 1:

Hallbjorn:  Your Feints are replaced with Slams. Slams do 1 immediate damage in addition to the normal Feint effect of setting up your target to take +2 extra Wounds the next time they take Wounds this Round.


None of the other Dueling Styles in the core 7th Sea 2nd Edition book, Pirate Nations or Nations of Theah volume 1 seem like they would need any house-ruling to work with these rules. I haven't read any of the other books, so I'm not sure if any of them have Duelist Academies or Swordsman Schools that need further modifying.

Hey, speaking of Nations of Theah, Volume 1... I couldn't help but notice that the page that mentions the Rossini Style (page 79) fails to actually provide a Style Bonus for Rossini. I'm not sure if that's a publishing error, if it got intentionally cut, or if it's lurking on some other page and I've just missed it. Here's a proposed house-rule for the Rossini special move if you also can't find it in your copy of that book:

Rossini: You may perform the Parry or Riposte Maneuvers in response to another character nearby being dealt Wounds, instead of just when you take Wounds. It still costs your Action and a Raise as normal, but it prevents Wounds to the person you are defending instead of to yourself.



Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Dragonflight game highlights

Last weekend I went to a local gaming convention, Dragonflight. It was a ton of fun. Because of my work and sporadic volunteering, this was the first game convention I'd attended in something like 5 years where I was actually off-the-clock and free to sign up for a full event schedule. Man, it was nice. I played the following games, including quite a few that were new to me:
  • Night's Black Agents - The first of 2 different NBA sessions I played in, each set in a non-typical era for this RPG. Usually, it's a game of burned superspies hunting vampires in the modern day. Instead, this scenario was set in 1870 in the Ottoman Empire, with everyone playing real-life historical figures instead of modern superspies. I played George Stoker, surgeon, officer, and younger brother of the author of Dracula. 
  • The Captain is Dead - a brightly colored cooperative board game about everything going wrong on a space ship all at once. The game was really solid. I have some minor concerns about replayability because there are card decks where every card in the deck gets played every session of the game... but I'm still probably going to buy The Captain is Dead in a paycheck or two.
  • Prime 20 - Tim Beach's ultra-streamlined version of the d20 system, GM'd by Tim Beach himself. He did something fun for character creation: we built Lego minifigs from a big bag of Lego parts, and then quickly stat-ed those minifigs in Prime 20 mechanics. The adventure was a rescue mission that evolved into diplomacy when we learned the "abducted" villager had actually eloped.
  • Thanos Rising - The first of many pick-up games of this Marvel-themed cooperative dicefest that I played this week. OMG, I played so much Thanos Rising. Every hole in my event schedule was filled with a round of Thanos.
  • Night's Black Agents - My second NBA session of the weekend. This one was set within 24 hours of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. We had a pretty cool chase/combat scene in a Berlin subway station.
  • Cthulhu 7th - The new rules features in Cthulhu 7th Edition were enjoyable and meshed well with my gaming style and tastes. It seems like a more forgiving version of the game. That said, the GM had the Phobia Deck handy for when I found myself face-to-face with mind-bending horror. I drew the outburst of Violence card, and it colored the rest of the session. Pretty cool.
  • Urchin - A recurring staple of my Dragonflight experience is the Saturday Midnight Urchin game. All those years when I was a volunteer or board member for Dragonflight, the midnight Urchin was the one game I'd make sure I always got to play. As is my tradition, I re-curred my favorite Urchin character, an outrageous over-the-top musician name Rory Wanker, who is forever chasing his (imaginary?) former glory in the music industry. I'm getting the band back together!
  • Thanos Rising - So much Thanos Rising. Seriously, this game has no right being this good. It's a movie-tie-in by USAopoly that came out right after the movie did. That could have easily been a design disaster. How on earth did it end up being such a solid game? Shut up and hand me the dice.
  • Dr Who: Time of the Daleks - This is a semi-cooperative dice game with some card and board game elements. It really nails the theme. If I had played it for the first time maybe half a year ago, I probably would have fallen in love with it. Unfortunately for the good Doctor, it's mechanics kind of scratch the same itch that Thanos does, but you can finish three games of Thanos in the duration of one Time of the Daleks, and Thanos is easier to teach to new players. Given all that, I just don't see myself buying Time of the Daleks.
  • Gaslands - This game is everything I ever wanted Car Wars to be, but more elegant and much faster-paced. Our introductory death-race ended in a three-car-pile-up and massive explosion, in under and hour. I foresee myself buying and modding a bunch of Hot Wheels and Matchbox Cars in the near future.
  • Thanos Rising - And we closed out the Con with another nail-biting Thanos struggle.

That was a fun weekend.

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Urchin Character Sheets

Doing a bit of spring cleaning today, I stumbled across some old Urchin character sheets. The character creation rules for the Urchin RPG require you to use a piece of trash for your character sheet, which is why these are on egg cartons, dog food packages, tin foil from left-overs, and old holey socks. In the game you play crazy people living in the rail and steam tunnels under New York City. Each character starts with 3 Talents, which are defined by the player. These talents are very open-ended, and tend to be both humorous and bizarre. Here's a photo of the party:
As part of my ongoing efforts to de-clutter my home and life, I am now going to return these character sheets to the trash from whence they were born.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Hard Drives Full of Ripper Letters

SPOILER ALERT: May contain tree nuts and spoilers for Night's Black Agents / Dracula Dossier.

Last weekend's session of my Night's Black Agents / Dracula Dossier campaign went smashingly well. We started with a battle between a group of PCs and Mina Harker on a helicopter. That led to a controlled crash that everyone survived thanks to quick thinking and aggressive point spends on the part of the players. They hoofed it north from the wreckage to cross Hadrian's Wall and the old Scottish border beyond it, having come to the deduction that Mina might be stronger on her native English soil and might have a hard time crossing a border uninvited.

Feeling a bit safer on the other side of the wall, they decided there was finally time to bring the newest Player Character up to speed on what she'd gotten herself into. So they broke out the Adversary Map and summarized each person, place, and organization on the giant interconnected web of strings and suppositions. This gave me a good feel on what parts of the mysteries the players had understood and internalized well enough to retain despite the two long breaks that have disrupted the campaign. Which meant it also pointed out to me which bits of the mystery were too vague or obfuscated for their own good, and the handful of important clues they had either forgotten or undervalued. So then I chimed in with some refreshers and emphasis where needed. I know I've beamed about it in many previous posts, but I'm just going to reiterate my love for NBA's Adversary Map, the Dracula Dossier's main prop/resource, and other organizational tools this game provides. Most detective RPGs with a long-term ongoing metaplot would have been irrevocably scuttled by the long dry spells that were caused by everyone's busy schedules and some out-of-character drama. That this campaign has bounced back twice pretty much effortlessly is a testament to what Night's Black Agents / Gumshoe System brings to the table.

 We left off this session with the PCs just starting to prep their next Op. They feel responsible for unleashing Jack the Ripper on the modern world several sessions back, so they are planning to track and target him next session.

In preparation, I spent a few hours tonight making Jack the Ripper props for the game. All new letters From Hell to be the trail of breadcrumbs for the Player Characters to detect and follow. Once the PCs find them, I'll post some here. Tangential to that, I just gotta say, the stuff that accumulates on the hard drive of a horror-game GM or DM can get pretty damn crazy at times. Sometimes anxiety-brain questions the wisdom in making and storing such madness, even though it is clearly for gaming purposes.


Sunday, May 6, 2018

Clouds of Blood

SPOILER WARNING: The following post contains SPOILERS from fairly deep into the DRACULA DOSSIER campaign for NIGHT'S BLACK AGENTS. If you plan to ever play that campaign, you probably shouldn't read this. SPOILER WARNING



The body of this post are session notes from a recent Night's Black Agents game. I typed these up because one player was absent that week and needed to be brought up to speed on what he'd missed. As such, there's not a lot of context or explanation here about things he'd already know. Mostly, I'm just posting it here as an archive for my players in case they need to refer to it later, and to get me back into the habit of blogging about gaming. I make no promises that this will be of interest or make much sense to a random person without that context.


We picked up where we left off, on the decomissioned oil-rig owned by Edom. Gideon set loose Mina Harker, who proceeded to turn into a sentient mobile cloud of red blood, and who most likely ate the scientist and soldier that were in the dark with him. (Both stopped screaming, and Gideon stumbled across a body in the dark.) A few moments later Mina stepped out of the room in human form, excusing the blood at her mouth as a symptom of her long battle with "Consumption".

Elsewhere on the converted Oil Rig platform, Tzofiya watched as two soldiers and a guy in a suit marched a female prisoner out to the railing at the edge of the deck. They were about to shoot this woman in the head, when the sound of gunfire (coming from Gideon’s situation) distracted them. Tzofiya and the new woman (Batty’s PC, a Russian agent named Nika) defeated the (presumably Edom-aligned) men and headed below decks.

They fought some more soldiers on the way to the boat. Raul intercepted drone launches and radio traffic. Thankfully, Dov had disabled the missile launcher on the platform, and everyone was able to slip away before enemy reinforcements could arrive. According to intercepted transmissions, there was a helicopter and a warship on their way, ordered into position by a woman’s voice identifying herself by a name that sounded something along the lines of “Can Has”, “Ken Ads”, “Kehnazz”, etc.

Whenever Mina crossed a “border” she experienced some difficulties, ranging from inconvenience and distraction up to incapacitation or possibly involuntary liquidification. This included passing through doorways, moving from boat to boat, landing or taking off, flying over Hadrian’s Wall in a helicopter, etc. At one point is was so bad, they had to use the bilge pump to relocate her from one boat to the other.

(And it should be noted that the GM stated that Mina spent a few points of Health or "Soil" at some of these border crossings. Feel free to draw your own conclusions about what that means mechanically about how my Vampires work. Night's Black Agents monster chapter is a toolbox, not an encyclopedia: no two campaign's versions of Vampires work exactly the same way.)

The players wanted a safe place to interrogate Mina. Mechanically, there are a lot of ways to create a safe haven for the PCs. You could assign Network to retcon into existence contact that owns a safehouse. You could assign Cover to retcon into existence a false identity that owns a remote property somewhere. You could make a Supply Cache roll via Preparedness to retcon into existence a safehouse that you’d set up in your previous spy career. You could assign a Familiar City from one of your points of Urban Survival to have a place you can crash in that city. Or, you can improvise. Chris made a Digital Intrusion roll to search the dark web to find a horrible person who owned remote property that Raul could break into without feeling bad about any repercussions it might have if this lead Edom or Vampires to raid the asshole’s cabin at some future date.

As such, the place came with some baggage. Implications that the owner of the place was involved in crimes such as homicide and human trafficking, and might have actually been a serial killer, etc. All of which Mina seemed to smell about the place pretty much as soon as they’d bilge pumped her onto the island. She intuitively knew how many months it had been since the most recent murder on site.

There was a long scene where the PCs interviewed Mina. She claimed to be a patriot, and alluded to sacrifices she’d made for crown and country. It’s clear she’s a prisoner of Edom, but it seems she might also be an Asset of Edom that’s done at least a little field work. She indicated that the Dracula manuscript you have (which the PCs claimed wasn’t on them) was marked with the blood “of The Man Himself” and could be used by people with the right training to control or influence Him. The implication being that maybe Edom previously controlled Dracula, but he’s been on the loose since the book went missing. She was fairly evasive and at times the PCs knew she was outright lying about things. I think it's fair to say the players where a bit divided about how much to trust her. Eventually she revealed that Dracula was trained at the Scholomance, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scholomance, the devil’s school in Transylvania. The body that had been on ice in London was revealed to be "Red Jack", aka Jack The Ripper. On a whim, Nika asked her if Rasputin was a Vampire, and Mina said there was a jar with his name on it inside the Scholomance. Mina gave up some useful intelligence, so despite still seeming untrustworthy to at least some of the PCs, they agreed to transport her via helicopter to English soil. The enemy of my enemy is… hopefully not going to eat half of England?

All this time, Tzofiya was intentionally making herself seem like a deliciously tempting target for Mina’s darker impulses. Exposed neck, shared deep glances, holding hands. I’m not sure if this was a variation on "good cop" to get her to talk more freely, or an effort to provoke her into attacking to expose Mina’s true evil, but it effectively achieved both in the end. Once she made up her mind she was going to eat you all, maintaining secrecy was a lot less important.

Leaving Dov to sail the boat to a later rendezvous, the rest of the party boarded a chartered commercial helicopter and left the island cabin behind. They flew over Scotland and then south over more traditionally English soil. As soon as they were definitively above England, Mina made her move.

I told Kaylin “You feel icy fingers rifling through your mind. If you want to resist, you can make a Stability test.” A few unfortunate die rolls later, and Tzofiya has shot the NPC civilian commercial pilot in the head. That’s our cliff-hanger: most of the PCs are on helicopter that is falling from the sky, there’s a murderous vampire in their midst, and one of the party’s best fighters is struggling against mental domination.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Back From The Dead. (Again.)

A year ago, I suddenly returned to this blog after a long absence, posted for a few weeks, and then vanished again. I had just moved closer to work (so a much shorter commute), and started a new Night's Black Agents campaign, and thought for sure I was going to be blogging a lot more. It didn't work out that way. I started a new relationship, which is going along wonderfully, but as the early stages of a relationship often do, it tends to re-prioritize your free time.

On a completely un-related front, there was simultaneously a falling-out between two of the players in the NBA campaign that nearly ended the game, so I suddenly had a lot less regular gaming to blog about. Moving closer to work meant moving away from a lot of my old haunts and social circles, which further reduced my access to a regular game night for a while. Things have stabilized, and I thought it was time to poke my head out and shout "hello" to the world.

(An aside about work: I'm still working on Shadows of Brimstone, Forbidden Fortress, and other games for Flying Frog, but that work is covered by an Non-Disclosure Agreement so I can't really blog about it much, if at all. That's a bummer, as there is some seriously cool stuff in the pipe that I'd love to blab about if I could.)

The Night's Black Agents campaign went over 6 months without a session. That would have been the death of nearly any campaign, and you'd expect that to be doubly true for an RPG with mystery and detective roots. Not the case here at all. Night's Black Agents has amazing tools for keeping the narrative cohesive and preserving the clue trail, and the Dracula Dossier doubles down on that. I was very much impressed at how easily everything came back together.

About a year ago I blathered on about the Adversary Map, so I'll keep my praises of it brief today. Keeping a cork-board covered with strings and photos in the spare room gathering dust for 6 months was a small price to pay to preserve a snapshot of how all the NPCs and plotlines interconnected. Between that and a similar flowchart I have on my hard-drive (basically the same thing, but it also has all the secret connections and off-camera NPCs that the PCs haven't met yet), it was easy to reconstruct all the mysteries and pick right up where we left off. 

As I said, the Dracula Dossier features even more tools toward that end. The special annotated copy of Bram Stoker's novel, with marginalia in the voices of three generations of MI-6 NPCs, is a uniquely useful prompt for the players. Having a hard time remembering the clues and leads from 6 months ago? Just open the novel to a random page, and there's almost certainly something there to jumpstart the adventure.

Anyhow, just wanted to let you know that I'm still here, I'm still gaming, and I hope to blog more soon. Of course, I have to acknowledge that I said the same thing 14 months ago, only to vanish for a year immediately thereafter.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Do they really expect me to play baccarat with Count Dracula?

I'm having a hard time figuring out how to make the Gambling skill in Night's Black Agents interesting in play, without breaking the game in any way.

It hasn't really mattered in my previous two campaigns, because no one ever put more than a couple points in it. This campaign, I've got 2 PCs with level 8 Gambling ratings, and while there's some interesting "Cherries" to pick from at that level, it's hard to picture how I'm going to make Gambling be important (or interesting) often enough to make those points feel well-spent.

I guess the right play for the GM is to craft the narrative so the PCs have no stable income and have to rely on periodic Gambling forays to finance their Ops. The game's monetary system is pretty loosy-goosy and avoids dollar signs as much as possible. There's no equipment charts, nor do you have to account for every last gold piece, so there's no mechanical incentive (or method) for, say, making a 20% return on investment. Either it does nothing, or it generates "Excessive Funds" with no real risk, so the needle jumps wildly between "useless" and "broken" depending almost entirely on GM fiat. I'm not happy with that.

What's more, the game's mechanics are set up to encourage PCs have rock solid competence. If you know the difficulty of the roll you're making, and success on the roll is at all important, the right call for the player is almost always to spend enough points that the die is irrelevant.

The only likely reason not to spend enough that even a "1" on the die is a success, is if you're trying to hold something back for later in the session. It's easy to imagine situations where a PC might not want to spend their last point of Shooting, or Driving, to hold on to it in case another gunfight or a chase scene breaks out. But you're rarely if ever going to think "I'd better not spend my last point of Gambling, just in case there's a surprise slot machine ambush!"

If I make all their gambling be one or two high-difficulty rolls, the PC will dump all their points on them and be guaranteed to win big. Calling for a long series of smaller rolls might make the PC's decisions from roll to roll feel more important, and better justify (via hard work) the benefits of gambling-as-finance, but it's probably going to put the uninvolved members of the party straight to sleep. Either way, the rules as written don't really catch the feel of risking everything on a big bet, which is a real shame because that's the appeal of a gambling montage in a spy movie. I suppose you could get that feel by setting really high difficulty numbers, I guess, but then you're looking at a situation where a PC drops 8 or more points on a single roll (which would be overkill on any other skill) to still only have a 50-50 shot at success. More exciting, yes, but again it would feel like those 8 points during Character Creation could have been spent better elsewhere.

I'm starting to think that maybe Gambling should be an Investigative Skill, not a General Ability, in Night's Black Agents. If that were the case, you'd use Gambling to qualify or earn a seat at the table where the Enemy high-rollers were playing, or to locate the floating poker game where the opposition thugs play. Gambling would then pick up clues about NPCs using sleight of hand, or NPCs having suspiciously good luck, or you'd use Gambling to follow the paper trail of the mafioso who owns the track. You'd even be able to spend Gambling to gain a Tactical Fact-Finding Benefit or Tag-Team Tactical Benefit bonus on a skill roll, and retroactively justify it in the narrative as having spent your winnings to have better equipment. (Gambling spent to TTTB on your comrade's Preparedness roll just seems kinda fun.) There's some decent ideas there, so I'm going to try to work some Investigative Spends for this General Ability in my current campaign. It's going to take some significant scenario-design effort on my part to make those 8 points feel as meaningful as they would have been if sunk into Athletics or even Digital Intrusion.

Next campaign, I'll probably shift Gambling to the other column of the character sheet. It seems like that's where it belongs.

If anyone with GUMSHOE experience has any better ideas or advice, I'd love to hear them.