Tuesday, September 16, 2014

A Fistful of Super-Glue

Yee-hah! I just finished gluing all the grey minis from the initial wave of Shadows of Brimstone. 8 player characters and about 50 monsters. A few of them still need some gap-filling green stuff, and nothing's been painted (and, dear god, there's still the duplicate minis in red plastic to tackle), but the both boxed sets are now fully playable. The figures are beautiful, but they were exhausting to assemble.

Played the game on Saturday at the Seattle pickup for Kickstarter backers. It was my second time playing, the first being months ago. Had a blast. Really looking forward to getting an ongoing campaign started soon of this "cowboys vs cthulhu" minis game.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Summer Disruptions - and OMG the summer is over, isn't it?!?

Back in Albuquerque, the summers were so hot that they had no impact on gaming. Sitting inside with a cold drink and few friends under the "swamp cooler" is a great way to spend a weekend when you live in a desert where there's next to nothing to do.  We gamed all summer long, and rarely missed a session.

It's just not like that here in Seattle. There's a million things happening in town every weekend, and you desperately want to get outside for the couple months where it's not necessarily raining. Even if you do feel like being indoors and geeky, there's usually some sort of major geek-friendly event going on in town, many of them based out of air-conditioned hotels and convention centers. Which meant that all my RPG campaigns went on hold for a couple months as everybody had scheduling conflicts. During that time, I served on the staff of two gaming conventions and then headed up the coast to a hippy-gypsy-circus near the border. Crazy times.

But now it's mid-September, and... Holy Crap! I need to be ready to GM Warhammer 3rd again on Sunday! Two months without building a dice pool, micromanaging A/C/E, or pouring over my copious notes about the plot...  I fear it's gonna be a painful session trying to get back into the swing of the rather crunchy system. We're deep into Book 3 of The Enemy Within, and I have to be ready to run the climactic final battle should my players push in that direction this weekend. Eek!  If you need me, I'll be buried under the cards and tokens having a last-minute panic attack. Which one of these NPCs was The Black Cowl, again?

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Dissecting Psi*Run

Psi*Run is a great little pick-up game that requires no prep work from the GM (other than printing 2N+1 single page documents for the group of N participants to reference mid-game). The PCs have partial amnesia, mysterious powers, and are being pursued. That’s it. Everything else is determined by the players during the game. I do mean players, because, (like Urchin) it’s a game that intentionally takes some of the power usually reserved for GMs and distributes it around the table.

It's a game about an extended chase. You could use the system to tell tales along the lines of Bourne Identity, Logan’s Run, or The Terminator, anything where pursuit is a huge part of the plot. In practice (because there’s no default setting, it’s all improvised, and relies on collaborative story telling) I find you tend to get things more like a gonzo, trippy, four-color version of the X-files. A wild ride, to be sure. The mechanics push you towards this sort of story, with flashy misfiring powers going haywire in nearly every scene.

It’s mostly awesome, but sometimes strains disbelief or kinda fails to come together in the third act. There’s a couple of recurring pitfalls inherent to the system, stemming from the odd mechanical structure and the lack of a single guiding hand at the narrative wheel.  Here’s the problems as I see them:
  • Powers cannot be subtle.
  • The 2nd Act Slump.
  • Die-assignment paralysis.
  • Passive GMing.
Nothing that can’t be overcome with a bit of forethought, but I’d like to discuss them here to aid anyone who’s looking to run the game in the future. The solutions are for the most part fast and easy, and I really like the game overall.

Powers Cannot Stay Subtle.

The most common Psi*Run problem is thankfully a minor one. Despite not being a huge issue, it has come up in at least 4 of the 5 sessions I’ve run, so it deserves some attention. I’m talking about the problem of low-key, non-threatening, and/or passive powers. When someone’s making their Psi*Run character, sometimes they’ll describe a power that doesn’t do much, or shouldn’t realistically endanger anyone, or (going the other direction) is just one giant enigma beyond their faintest understanding.

If the power doesn’t do much, or is _completely_ outside the PC’s control, then they won’t get to roll as many dice and won’t have as much of the spotlight. That part of it is a self-correcting problem, in that most players will quickly figure out that they’ve got to start triggering their own ability… but once you’ve started arbitrarily dictating that your power “randomly” kicks on in the middle of actions, you tend to use it in every single action. “All the time” is better than “none of the time”, but either is missing out on some of the depth of the system. A player who chooses “none of the time” is basically choosing to have a boring game, and missing out on at least half the fun of the setting. Don’t let them do that, GM.  Encourage them to take a more active power, and tell them that the game will run better for everyone if they do.

A related problem (really the second half of the first problem) is what happens when you have one of these low-key or passive powers, and then proceed to assign a “1” die to the Psi category during play. When the dice are arranged in that way, it’s supposed to be lethal and destructive on a grand “would make national news” style. Every single power has the potential to go horribly awry. In recent memory, I’ve seen this happen with powers like “my hands glow different colors” or “I have a 12-foot tongue”. How do those kill dozens? As a GM, I’m willing to roll with it and narrate a crazy overblown moment. Turns out your glowing hands are just the warning lights of a much more deadly power, or your prehensile tongue doesn’t know it’s own (super)strength. Oopsie!

The problem here is that the player may actually want to play someone with subtle low-key powers. If so, they need to never put anything less than a 3 in “Psi” so that nothing over-the-top gets narrated… and that’s really hard to pull off for an entire session unless you’re willing to let something else horrible happen (or willing to never succeed at your goals and never regain lost memories). Player, it’s on you. If you want a subtle power, you just have to accept that the story is going to get dark in other ways. You’re going to fail and you’re going to get hurt, because you don’t have “Psi” available as a place to dump your lowest dice. Subtle powers either become outrageous over time, or they successfully remain understated while everything else bad happens to you all at once. There’s really no other alternatives (unless the dice are abnormally kind). The GM should mention this early on, preferably during character creation, so there’s no unpleasant surprises during play.

The 2nd Act Slump.

The other major problem the game sometimes runs into is a 2nd or 3rd Act slump. The first Act always opens up strong, with character introductions amidst a flaming wreck, and mysterious pursuers right behind you. There’s built in dramatic tension, and we’re all still experimenting with the mechanics, so that first part is golden. Sometimes (2 out of the 5 Psi*Run one-shots I’ve done) the players will, instead of experimenting, just click on the supposed “optimal” plays or get freakishly good rolls. Some people always play to win, even if it’s an RPG.

If you’ve always got 5’s and 6’s to stick in “Harm”, “Chase”, and “Goal”, the PCs can quickly shoot out to 5 or more locations ahead of the chasers. At that point the dramatic tension diminishes significantly. The notecard system clearly tells us exactly where the conspiracy has gotten to, and with no injured characters your dice will probably continue to extend the lead, so things kinda slow down. The players spend a ton of time discussing options at this stage, which is sad because it’s not really a game with a “right answer”.  If there's anything that can ruin a game of Psi*Run, it's the second act slump, but in practice I find even the slumpy games have such good starts that you don't regret playing at all.

There’s three ways to get out of this slump, should it happen during your game.
  • Player “sabotage”
  • Remote villainy
  • Cheating the chase tokens

Player "Sabotage"

The best way is for a player to ‘intentionally sabotage’ the PC’s progress, by sticking low numbers in “harm” or “psi”. The GM has less power in this system than most, so it’s hard for them to create tension or steer the plotline. Players, by putting their dice in “sub-optimal” parts of the resolution sheet, can rapidly change the tone of the game. As a player, if you feel things are starting to slow down, you should grab the reigns, and intentionally screw up. It will rescue a game that’s starting to get away from the GM.

Even if the game has given no indication that things are going wrong, it can be very helpful (to the narrative) if someone purposefully fails or causes trouble from time to time. It helps keep the game tense, and sometimes amazing scenes develop from it.

Remote Villainy

The second best option is for the GM to introduce a subplot about the Pursuers conducting some act of evil at an off-site location. Give the PCs a reason to leave the safehouse they found, and start heading towards an enemy stronghold. If anyone’s Questions implied a friendly NPC is out there, put that NPC in danger. If not, then think big, and engineer things so that the PCs are the only ones who know about the villain’s planned coup or terrorism. If they do dive into the heart of evil, the lack of tension from having such a huge lead on the Chasers may make it anti-climactic, but at least with them rolling dice there’s a chance things will go south. It only takes one bad die roll to suddenly make the game interesting again.

Getting the reaction you want is hard when you’ve got limited narrative windows, and an inability to dictate the danger level. The PCs might call your bluff, and there’s really no consequence if they do so. The Crossroads system in the end game will usually let them hand-wave a solution to your impending apocalypse even if they ignored it all session. GM, don’t restrict yourself to only in-character motivations. Tell the players “I think we’ll probably have a more enjoyable session if you put yourselves back into dangerous situations.” You’ve escaped, caught your breath, and time has gone by. What would your favorite movie heroes do next? Vengeance? Justice? Infiltration? Pick one and do it.

Cheat It

The third option is untested (by me, anyway). That would be to just cheat the chase tokens. There’s no official mechanism by which the GM can ever control the rate of the pursuer’s advance. Officially, the players set the bad guys pacing, and their location on your trail is public knowledge. You really couldn’t get away with suddenly moving the pursuit token 3 or 4 spaces along the trail just to make the game interesting again. Doing so would break the rules, and more importantly it would make the players feel like their previous decisions (about where to go and what dice to assign to various boxes) were meaningless.

What you could do without breaking immersion or rules, is just decouple the Pursuit token from the narration. The Chasers are officially 5 spaces behind you, but that just means the bulk of their forces (enough to turn “Chase” into “Capture”) are trailing that far back. Instead, you introduce scouts or advance units that are much closer. They can’t capture any one, but they provide immediate danger (forcing players to add the “harm” die to every roll) and keep the plot rolling. This still runs a tiny risk of generalized “our actions were meaningless” perception, but certainly less of it would come from arbitrarily moving the markers around. Again, the players could call your bluff and just ignore the scouts with only minimal consequence. As with the “Remote Villainy” option, you may have to get a little meta and ask the players to please try to work with the plot, since they’ve already proven they can beat the mechanics.

Die-Assignment Paralysis.

I’ve noticed that some players take a lot of time agonizing over which dice to assign to which box on the resolution sheet. Sometimes, it feels like the only way to get exactly the result you want is to run a dozen different ordering around in your head and compare them. I understand that, and am known for a bit of analysis paralysis myself in other games. In practice, though, agonizing over the dice in Psi*Run does you no good. It just slows things down for everyone. Also, I find that every time someone has spent a lot of time and energy moving the dice around, they _always_ screw up who gets first say on at least one of the dice. Which means that the thing you just spent 5 minutes silently envisioning won’t actually play out at all like what you pictured.

My advice is to move those dice around fast and not worry too much about the exact numbers.
  1. What’s the most important thing you wanted to accomplish with this roll? It’s usually going to be Goal or Chase/Capture/Disappear, (but sometimes it will be Reveal or Harm instead in certain circumstances) and you’ll generally know which one before you’ve rolled the dice. Slide your highest die onto that first. If nothing calls out to you, just move on to the next step.
  2. Next, look for the 1’s in your remaining dice. You get to ignore one of them (unless you’re impaired) so just set it aside. If there’s any 1’s left over, put them somewhere other than Harm or Chase/Capture/Disappear; most people find that Psi or Reveal is a good sink for that. 
  3. The remaining dice can pretty much be put anywhere and you’ll be equally happy most of the time, so I recommend just move each of them to the box nearest where that die stopped. It’s quick and easy.

A little less than half the dice in the game won’t actually affect the narration at all, so don't sweat it. No matter where you put dice, you will eventually experience a roll where some else getting first say on a single die completely derails what you were trying to do. That’s okay. The game is actually at its best when the unexpected is suddenly happening out of nowhere. Don’t overthink it, just play the dice where they lay. The only thing you’ll ever actually regret is if you put a “1” in the wrong place at the wrong time, so if you get your ones solved the rest can be arbitrary.

Passive GMing.

This is the most minor of the flaws to this game, but I don’t really have a good solution for it. Passive GMing might not be the right word, perhaps it’s more accurate to call it “GM’s feeling of powerlessness”. It's not that you can't or don't do anything as GM, it just feels like that's the case.

Like Urchin, the GM in Psi*Run has very little narrative power. You get to set up the original crash, and cobble together your badguys from the things implied by the PC’s descriptions and Questions. After the game starts, you’re down to just narrating side effects and the degree of success, with the occasional physical description thrown in for flavor. If you try to force a plot, the players will ignore it.  If you try to establish background detail, the players will contradict it when they answer Questions.

If you’re the GM who loves to run taut mysteries or large casts of NPCs, Psi*Run will seem like you don’t have enough to do. If you’re the sort of person who loves GMing more than Playing, Psi*Run is going to feel weird to you. If you’re the inverse - a person who would rather Play than GM, or who likes describing combat scenes colorfully but is intimidated by the idea of generating entire plots - then Psi*Run is right up your alley as a game to break out whenever it’s your turn to provide the evening’s entertainment.

The hardest part of being the Psi*Run GM is choking back the answers you want to give to everyone’s Questions. Only players answer Questions, so the GM never gets a say in anyone’s backstory or mysteries.  I’ve considered changing the “Reveal” box so a 3 result lets the GM answer a Question, but I think that would speed up the game too much for long-term play. For a one-shot it’d probably be fine, you’d use 5 or 6 Questions per player instead of the truncated 4 per player currently recommended for Con games. Perhaps more interesting would be to use the “1” result not the “3” for GM reveals, but in the process encourage the GM to narrate the most punishing Answer they can dream up when those 1s do happen. That would make Reveal much less of a safe die sink, and I haven’t played around with it enough to know if that’s a good or a bad idea. Next time, I guess.

Despite That, It's A Really Good Game

These are small problems with wordy solutions, but not much needed in terms of house-rules. I've run the game 5 times total, with 3 of them being brilliant and the other 2 hitting the second act slump mentioned above but still being mostly solid. It's an easy game to run when you don't have time to prep something more involved, and it's a great icebreaker game for conventions or strangers.

Psi*Run. It's cheap. It's easy. It's fun. Check it out. Link to publisher.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

PAX 2014 Highs and Lows

Wow. Pax was mostly pretty wonderful, though I did have one ugly Enforcer incident, and one very failed demo, both of which I'll whine about below.

Dragonflight is more my speed (the crowds of tens of thousands at PAX were at times overwhelming) but I certainly had a great deal of fun.

High Points:

  • Flying Frog Productions blew me away with their sheer power of their awesome friendliness. My wife and I really connected with Scott Hill and Mary Beth Magallanes, and we gabbed with them quite a bit. They gave us lots of free stuff, a great deal on something too big to just give away, and then they go their whole staff to sign everything, and then gave us more free stuff so they'd have an excuse to sign some more things. It felt like we were reconnecting with old friends, not having our first real conversation with total strangers. It's cool to learn that the designers of some of my favorite games (I love A Touch Of Evil, and the demo I played of Shadows Of Brimstone was great) are such friendly, excellent people.  If you have money burning holes in your pockets, might I suggest you spend it on a Flying Frog game?
  • Games On Demand was great. For those unfamiliar, Games On Demand is like going to the library during the con, except you're not checking out a book you're checking out an RPG to play, and the GM to run it.  My wife and I were volunteers. I ran three tables of Psi*Run for total strangers, including two amazing incredible games, and one just merely solid and enjoyable. My wife ran three tables of Microscope, which were, to quote one of her players, "Fucking _Metal_ As Hell!"  Good times.
  • So many awesome things to spend money on! Dice, T-Shirts, RPGs, board games, video games, you name it. Expect a series of posts about all the cool stuff we bought, at least until the check for our internet bounces. Then expect smoke signals.

Low Points:

  • Overall there weren't enough chairs or tables, and the lines were too long. With 70,000 people out there, it's hard to find a place you can just catch your breath for a moment. Random chairs in the various nooks and crannies and back passages would be wonderful. I don't quite get why they stuff 50 bean bag chairs into two places, rather than spreading them out across 10 or 20 different spots across the various floors, which I think would be a huge improvement.
  • Absolutely pathetic demo of the Netrunner card game from FFG. The guy from FFG forgot to tell me two really important rules that resulted in me actually losing during my first turn, and then couldn't shut up about how he'd never seen anyone lose that quickly or make such a big mistake.
  • One of the Enforcers (a bearded guy in the Indie Megabooth area sometime between 2 and 3 on Friday afternoon) was a total asshole too me, screaming in my ear from well inside my personal bubble because the heel of my right foot was across a line of pink tape I hadn't even known existed. When I tried to apologize, he flailed his arms and yelled more like he thought I was starting shit. His aggression actually drove me out of the convention center for more than an hour till I could calm down and cheer up, and I stayed out of that part of that exhibit hall for the next two days in case it was his assigned area. If someone on my staff behaved the way he did, I'd fire them immediately. The Enforcers don't have badge numbers or name tags, so there was nothing I could do to report him. I suspect his blue uniform labeled "Enforcer" had gone to his head. Seems like that word is just asking for trouble. At the very least that term has some risk of attract raging jerks to the position, and I suspect it was provoking a bit of Stanford Prison Experiment mentality too. I would strongly encourage the PAX organizers to change the labeling of their staff, but they'd probably just tell me I should just be happy the shirts read "Enforcer" not "Dickwolf". 

Thursday, August 21, 2014

7th Sea Maps and Tokens

Earlier this year I ran a short 7th Sea campaign via the Roll20 online interface, so I needed to whip up some tokens and images. The campaign ended earlier than intended (less than half a dozen sessions, IIRC) for scheduling reasons, so rather than let it all go to waste, I figured I'd share some of the props I made.

Maps and Locations:

We'll start with a world map of Theah. This one is cobbled together from two very similar maps. The political map of Theah from the front of the 7th Sea Player's Guide, and the geographical map of Theah from the front of the 7th Sea GM's Guide. Each was individually available as a file from the publisher, I just melded the layers into a single image that had the names of forests and mountain ranges and yet still had the capitals and the national boundaries clearly marked.

Most of my actual campaign took place on a mysterious jungle-covered island where the PCs were stranded (think 7th Sea meets Lost). This was the basic backdrop map image I used as they explored. Two mountain peaks, miles of shoreline, and plenty wild uncharted jungles that could be hiding anything (such as poor abused photoshop brush plug-ins, see below).

While it's still "island shaped", I did my best to make it fill the rectangular screen space of Roll20 without wasting a lot of area on empty blue open water. Dead space would be wasted opportunity, and I planned the map to be pretty crowded once the island was fully explored.

Individual ruins and other points of interest were represented on that map by little icons that I dragged and dropped over it. For example, when the PCs found an old Porté Gate that had gone disused for so long it now was dangerous and had a telltale reddish glow, I placed this little image on the appropriate part of the map. On Roll20 I had the map scaled up and the icon here scaled down.

When the players moved to an actual site, I'd switch to either a local map or an image of what they saw.

On page 14 of the Explorer's Society splatbook there's this captivating picture of a bizarre Syrneth tower that really I wanted to use for the game. Over Roll20, you can't just hand the book around to show it off, so I scanned it, deleted the surrounding text, and added a little color and texture. The result is to the right. They explored that for a while

Character Tokens:

The PCs are shown here in red-bordered tokens for moving about the map. (Again, the tokens were usually shrunk down much smaller, and the map was always much bigger on Roll20. Also worth noting, I didn't create any of the art for these tokens, I just googled images and dumped them into tokentool.)

The PCs were a Giselle Roux (a Montaigne Porté mage) and Vadim Verekai (the only surviving twin from a pair of Ussuran circus acrobats). These PCs were associated with the Explorer's Guild, which was how they ended up on the mysterious island in the first place (their ship vanished after their arrival, resulting in the temporary stranding).


There was a relatively small cast of characters, given that they were stranded on a deserted island for most of the adventure.  I wanted to get just the right image for each character token, so I made up several and then chose the one that best captured the concept when shrunk down to map marker size.

Here's some vodacce characters, including a fate witch I never used, and 4 different dark and brooding vodacce men that I eventually picked from.   I used one of them for the cruel Bosun of the ship they arrived on who was also stranded on the island with them, so there'd be at least one pain-in-the-ass but mostly grudgingly trustworthy character that they couldn't just kill without there being consequences.
Next are tokens for two Vestenmannavnjar women. One of them I used as a crazy woman, named Githrun Thithransdottir, who'd been stranded on the island for years before the PCs arrived. The less-crazy token didn't get used at all.
The crazy viking lady was usually being chased by Ghouls; the island had quite a few of them. If there's an actual illustration of a Thean Ghoul in a book somewhere, I haven't seen it, and nothing useful comes up in a google search. They're described in the GM's guide as roughly grey carnivorous apes, rather than the undead humanoid that the word usually brings to mind. They're basically just another wild animal within the setting, albeit one that is known to attack humans in the middle of the night. I wanted them to straddle that line between intelligent and monstrous, mostly mundane but just a touch feral and alien. So I stole art from an old school Magic: The Gathering card (Barbary Apes from Legends) that I thought caught close enough to the right feel. This art wouldn't have worked for Ghouls on mainland Theah, but it was just fine for a remote island.
The other major NPC was a "fish out of temporal water" character who'd been not just stranded, but somehow preserved within the old Syrneth tower (pictured above) for hundreds if not thousands of years. He was dressed as a servant from Old Numa, and spoke in an oddly accented version of the old academic tongue.

The PCs set him free, and I was slowly hinting that this was a big mistake... like he might be a willing servant of Legion, or been a Bargainer himself, or a skinwalking Syrneth murder-monster, or just the unwitting victim of some old curse or enchantment... but the campaign ended early (for out-of-character reasons) so they never got find out what he was exactly, nor try to put the genie back in the bottle. Suffice it to say, lots of creepy things happened in his presence. His name was Nymphidius Curio Maior, but in the player's defense they didn't learn his full name until after they broke him out of the ancient prison machine.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Second-Fiddle to the Urchins

The Urchin RPG is weird. It’s not just because you’re playing crazy homeless people living in the tunnels beneath New York. The mechanics of the game upend the usual power-structures, leaving the GM the person at the table with the least control of the plot and world.

A week and a half ago, I played Urchin during one of the midnight time slots at the Dragonflight convention in Bellevue, WA. Two days ago, I GM’d urchin for a group of 6 that included 4 new gamers with very little (1 to 5 sessions each) previous RPG experience. Seeing it from both sides of the GM screen in such a short time has convinced me Urchin is a game where the GM has the least interesting job, and the least narrative power. The GM is at best second-fiddle to the urchins, but even that probably over-estimates the GM’s importance in this game.

At the game where I was a player, I absolutely dominated (and created from whole cloth) the plot. At the game I GM’d, I couldn’t make my pet plotline materialize no matter how hard I tried to push it.

Band On The Run, aka Let Me Tell You About My Character:

At Dragonflight, I played a has-been failed punk-rocker with dreams of getting his band back together.

In the real world, I (the player) once (many years ago) met a friend of a friend who claimed that they’d accidentally left a diary at a bus stop and a year later one of the poems they’d written in that lost journal was now a top 40 pop song. I was skeptical, but, whatever, the truth of their story is beside the point. The idea at least has dramatic potential. I’ve always kinda wanted to use that notion in a character (in an RPG or a piece of fiction) but never got around to it… until the game at Dragonflight.

My character, Rory Wanker (of the once-almost-famous “Rory Wanker and the Bloody Stickahs”) took that diary story and dialed it up to 11. He also had serious psychopathic delusions, and was convinced that he had previously killed Sir Paul McCartney four times and They just kept replacing the blighter with clones. I was basically claiming to have written the lyrics to every Lennon-McCartney song ever, and also claiming to be the cause of the “Paul is Dead” meme. I just riffed off that nonsense all night long.

Every time it was my turn, I pushed the rest of the our group of punks and bums towards tracking down Sir Clone McCartney and offing him again. As a group, we raised the Kill Cartney Count up from 4 to 6 over the course of the session. At least one of those two kills was deliberate misdirection from my fellow PCs, but who was I to quibble over the identity of the body they’d shivved? So our characters invaded the random hotel that I, in my delusion, insisted was where Sir Clone McSongthief was staying while he was in town.

So there’s this major player-driven plotline that served as the backbone of the session. About the only decision left for the GM was whether Paul McCartney was actually staying at that hotel - but from my crazed perspective it was irrelevant because no matter who was in that penthouse, I would fill in the connection to make them part of the Clone McCartney conspiracy. That’s kinda the point of playing a crazy person.

Long story short, I jump off the roof of the pent-house where we just killed McCartney #6. I did this at the end of somebody else’s scene that I happened to be present for. I chose my timing because I’d get to Kick the next scene:
Fade to black. Fade in to a fancy office with a huge desk, and framed gold records on the wall. Rory is there with his agent. “And that’s how the concept album ends, hence the name ‘Paul is Dead’. I’ve got most of the songs written, I’m ready to go to the recording studio.”
That’s a complete dick move, right there, narrating that the session only existed in my character’s album pitch. I tell myself it’s okay because my character is nuts enough that if anyone has an issue with my ending, they can just write it off as the crazy thing running through my head as I fall 20 stories. I was being a bad player, grandstanding and spotlight-hogging, then invoking my own Deus Ex Machina after I made a bone-headed suicidal move. That's totally the sort of nonsense I engage in as a player, especially in a rules-light "hippy game" like Urchin.

In any normal RPG, it’d be appropriate at that point for the GM to say “No, you’ve jumped off the roof, and now you’re dead.” Or at least roll damage or call for a saving throw vs falling or something.

Mechanical Failure:

Urchin’s mechanics aren’t really set up that way. PCs don’t die unless the player wants them to. Instead they end up “in the gutter”, which is just this unfun quantum state where your turns are skipped until a fellow PC brings you food, then you’re magically all okay. With the rules as written, the only way your PC can die against your will is if all the PCs end up in the gutter at the same time… or if all your fellow PCs hate you so much that no one will bring you a candy bar to save your life. You are expressly granted the narrative control to set your scene where-ever you want, and the GM’s main job is say “yes” repeatedly.

I feel urchin is broken. The rules are flawed. Every time I enjoy the game (and I usually do) I feel simultaneously guilty and lucky. The game is a house of cards that could topple over at any moment, but more often than not we get to the end of the session without bumping the metaphorical table.

In Urchin, players go around that table taking turns. Turns are entire scenes that could last anywhere between 10 seconds and 10 minutes. You can either “kick” a scene, or “grab” a scene. Kicking a scene is where the player narrates the situation and what their character is trying to do, and the GM just adjudicates the rules (and maybe sets the difficulty and results if the player chose to do something that’s not covered by the rules). When you Kick, you as player are usurping at least 80% of the power a GM normally has. A good game of Urchin is one with colorful PCs who take the initiative to do interesting things.

The other option is Grabbing a scene. Grabbing frees up the GM to narrate and frame the scene (giving them back the power most other games assume they always have). The rulebook also provides a chart the GM can roll on if no obvious scenes spring to mind. The Scene Grabbing Chart ranges from absolutely devastatingly terrible (attacked by multiple bad guys that each individually outclass you), to just mildly better than the average turn. Once the players have been bitten by that chart once or twice, they’ll stop grabbing and start kicking hard.

There’s only three ways a session of Urchin can end:
  1. Agharta — Someone raises Mind up to 10 via the Blessing, receives a quest, and follows that to fabled hobo heaven. This is the intended ending the rulebook sets you up for.
  2. Total Party Kill - Usually the result of failing to pay the light bill. Sometimes the lights are covered, but you still get a TPK when somebody grabs a scene after they or other players have stirred up the sort of trouble that could logically draw a police response.
  3. Fizzle — The party splits and rambles, having some good flavorful scenes but never really engaging in anything that smells of plot. You eventually call the game because you’re getting tired and the game is growing old.
Of the three ways the game can end, two are generally undesirable. The occasional TPK or plotless rambling can be fun, but more often than not most players prefer some sort of dramatic arc and some chance of success. If you’re actually getting a group to play Urchin a second time within a few months of the first, there’s a good chance they’ll be on-task for the whole Mind 10 trip to Agharta thing.

Sadly, the path to Agharta is mathematically solvable. Each time around the table, one scummer needs to collect money to pay the lights. Everyone else can focus on the Blessing. You can scavenge for the raw materials, which you’re guaranteed to find, and if you’re willing to Push you can even ensure nothing bad (other than Mind Rot) happens while you’re searching. So Scummer A finds the components, and passes them off to Scummer B. Scummer B brews a few hits of the drug, pushing the roll if needed, and possibly suffering some Mind Rot. They pass the finished blessing to Scummer C who sells it to meatheads for 2 to 3 cash tokens per hit. In a four (or more) player game that can be done in one round. In the second round (or the same round if you’ve got a lot of players) you spend the cash buying more blessing from NPCs, and then selling it to other NPCs. It’s a goofy loophole that lets you, once you’ve got the initial investment capital, generate a feedback loop that slowly inches towards infinite blessing. Even if the GM plugs that rules-hole (and they might not want to, as being able to buy the blessing from NPCs is a nice safety net for low-mind PCs struggling with Madness), it’s still pretty easy for a 4-scummer circle to generate large amounts of blessing in just a couple low-risk rounds. Ultimately, Blessing is easy to come by.

Lots of blessing = lots of money and a high mind score = the lights never go out, and somebody becomes Captain. So if you’re concerned about winning the game, and willing to cooperate like a normal RPG party instead of struggling like scummer nutjobs, “winning” the game becomes a trivial exercise. The only thing that can trip up a coordinated party is rolling a 3 or a 5 on the Quest chart (but even that can be solved by aiming the blessing machine at a second player to generate a new Captain and a new Quest in the next round).

About the lights and turn order: 

It’s vital that the turn order get shaken up from time to time (don’t always start the round with the same player) or else the player at the end of the line usually gets stuck having to chase Cash Tokens every single turn. That player is left feeling like they have no freedom (as their only choice is whether to panhandle or mug from turn to turn), and probably won’t enjoy the game as much as the others. They may be tempted to not pay the light bill. The Lights Out Table is certainly fun, but it has at least a 1 in 3 chance of producing a TPK. I'm happy when that table gets action on in any Urchin game I'm involved in, but I can understand how it may not be some scummer's cup of tea.

The more I play the game, the more strongly I feel that Urchin desperately needs a 4th ending scenario. It could really use a little more narrative structure in case the players scatter, but that would require rules revisions, since the rules-as-written keep the GM from introducing any sort of plot at all.

Curse of the Were-Gator:

When I was GMing Urchin on Sunday, I tried to work in this oddball subplot about a were-alligator in the tunnels. In a five-hour game with 6 scummers, they Grabbed a scene exactly twice. Every time I could get away with narrating a background detail in somebody else’s scene, I mentioned the beast howling in the distance or causing problems with the subways, but nearly every time the players Kicked a scene they (wisely) narrated themselves far away from my were-villain. Most of the group individually chased after the Blessing right away, but weren’t very cooperative or coordinated about it early on, so they doubled-up on redundant steps and never actually got enough of the drug to boost someone to Captain status. Along the way, they mugged a rich person just outside an opera house, and drew police attention. Immediately afterwards they neglected to pay the light bill and rolled a Meathead Invasion that resulted in a (police-based) TPK that had nothing to do with my alligatanthropic monster.

The one time I got people to interact with my were-gator, the player Kicked his next scene by narrating that he was searching for ricotta cheese. Because “everyone knows” that ricotta is like wolvesbane for were-crocodiles. In a normal game, the GM would have control of whether or not this ludicrous notion was valid or just going to endanger you further… but in urchin searching for a piece of gear that gives you +1 die on rolls vs the crocogator is an automatic success and the player gets to narrate what that found gear is. In later turns they can even DIY themselves a better version of the object (maybe a cross-shaped cheese-log?) that gives even more dice. That’s cool. Bizarreness like this is at the heart of Urchin, but it does illustrate what I’ve been saying about the GM having very little power. I leaned hard on my big threat, and all it got me was one player spending one action to invent it’s weakness while everyone else just steered clear.

Everybody had fun playing weirdo nutjob scummers, so it all worked out for the best despite the relative lack of plot and the the TPFM (Total Party Ferguson, Missouri-ing) ending. Urchin is broken, but it’s not unplayable. It’s like the first edition of Og - you can run it as a one-shot and have a lot of fun, but consecutive plays in a short time frame are less fun and become increasingly focused on the mechanical failings. Urchin could really use a revision with the same goals as Robin Law’s “Unearthed Edition” of Og (which is to say a rewrite that preserves all the best bits of the current game but fixes core mechanics and gives you more reason to play a second time). I’ve got a couple ideas towards rebalancing it, and I may type them up in a future blog post, but for today I’ve probably rambled on long enough. There's blessing to brew, and somebody's gotta pay the lights around here.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

The Doctor meets The Great Gazoo

Lesson learned while running Og last weekend at Dragonflight:

Never schedule The Doctor and The Great Gazoo for the same session of Og. It's too hard to keep their voices and personalities separate.  Limit one annoying time-traveler per session, please.

The End of Warhammer 3rd

Yesterday, FFG finally announced the thing all WFRP fans have suspected for more than a year. Warhammer Fantasy RPG 3rd Ed is over, and no new products will be released. They did kindly make a few final updates to their FAQ/Errata and Index files.

I really like WFRP 3rd, but it had some major flaws. The overall concepts were great, but the execution was often sub-optimal.
  • I love the narrative dice, and the non-binary results... but I feel that the cards gave such small bonuses for most results that it left the GM very little room to improvise and interpret rolls without invalidating most of the printed Actions and Talents. It also feels like there's too many symbols on the dice. Boon/Bane/Success/Failure would have sufficed, but we got those plus Comet/Star/Exertion/Delay none of which were truly necessary.
  • I like the idea of Reckless vs Conservative stance... but the benefits don't outweigh the clunky rules baggage. The difference between Reckless and Cautious makes sense, but transitioning from 2 deep to 3 deep in your current stance is jarring gamist and hard to roleplay or envision. The fights are too short, and the benefits of stance depth too minimal, to justify building your character around it. Yet it's too integral (built into every Action and Career) to cut it out of the game without a million little ripple effects. 
  • I love having cards to reference with all my powers so I don't have to flip through rulebooks during play... but in practice, the large numbers of cards a tokens laying everywhere make a huge mess on even the largest table. The lack a good summary or analysis anywhere makes it hard to pick out cards during character creation and encounter design, so you time saved at the table is merely shifted to pre-game prep sessions.
  • I like the idea of real-world careers, for the gritty realism they bring to the setting... but find it hard to suspend my disbelief during most actual career transitions.  You can choose Knight without ever doing anything worthy of being Knighted. Rat-Catcher today, Noble Lord tomorrow, all without the slightest nod towards storyline justification. Even when voluntarily restricting yourself to more sensible choices, the climb from raw Initiate to High Priest is usually accomplished in less than a month of in-character time.
  • I like that the critical hit, miscast, insanity and similar decks can be customized and updated on the fly to set the difficulty and tone of your campaign... but the game failed to ever take advantage of that flexibility and instead encouraged a shotgun approach where you just blindly throw in every card they made.
  • I hate: 
    • the contradictory and confusing healing rules; 
    • the non-obvious high-lethality of every single disease, and the uselessness of the medicines that give bonuses only after your 4th day of save-or-die treatment; 
    • the opaque economic system and all those damn haggling and availability checks; 
    • the sad fact that being on horseback is a major disadvantage for your Knight; 
    • the advancement loopholes that allow you to career-swap for infinite Fortune dice; 
    • the prohibitively high monetary barriers associated with Runesmithing; 
    • the Rank One blessings of Verena and Ranald that break every single mystery-dependent plotline in the published adventures;
    • and a few dozen other smaller rules-holes that should have all been caught and fixed if anything got playtested for more than a single session.
Grr! I admire so much about the game's theories, but next to none of it's implementation.  Running this for the past year and a half has left me very bitter.

The press release about the end of WFRP3e makes a cryptic hint that maybe a 4th Edition is in the works... but FFG has sat on the license with releasing anything over a year, and had slowed it's release schedule to a crawl in the year before that, so they may very well continue to hold the license hostage without releasing anything. Sounds silly, but it may be that the WFRP license comes tied to the more profitable WH40K license, and thus worth them sitting on it.

It's a shame, because there's so much of the setting that could use sourcebooks (for 3rd, 1st/2nd, or a new edition). I'd love to see sourcebooks for any of the three types of Elves, or the Norscans, the Chaos Dwarves, Tilea and Estalia, the Ogre Kingdoms, etc.

Even if someone picks up the license (or FFG is hard at work on 4th Ed), it'll be years before we see such books in print. First some publisher would have to:
  • 1) Pick up the license.
  • 2) Design and release a new main book, or reprint (and possibly update) the core book of a previous edition
  • 3) Write and release a new adventure to help ease new GMs into the setting and system. (Even if you were just reprinting a previous edition, you'd almost certainly put out a new adventure because it's an easy add-on sale and shows you're serious about reviving the product line.)
  • 4) Produce and release the minimum sourcebooks necessary to just play the default Empire-centric setting. 
    • So I'd guess at a minimum a magic sourcebook plus a religion sourcebook, and maybe some sort of GM's supplement or bestiary. 
    • 4 to 6 products published in total before, counting the corebook and initial adventure, before they get around to exploring new territory.
  • 5) Sell enough copies of those 4 to 6 products to justify continuing work on new titles. This will take time, and for best results they'll be released about 1 per month.
  • 6) Decide entirely new content is a better investment of time and energy than merely rehashing old stuff initially covered in existing books from previous editions. In other words, choose to do things the hard way instead of just cashing in on the existing body of previous work.
  • 7) Get GW's approval on their manuscripts, which may be tricky if GW is (as has been rumored for months) rebooting the miniatures setting soon.
If someone picks up the license, and both major branches of the fan base embrace the new (or reprinted) version, then we'll eventually get some truly new content 4 months to 2 years after the new (or reprinted) core book releases.

If instead we splinter into further little angry sub-groups like the fanbase mostly did when 3rd ed came out, the new game (if there is one) won't survive long enough to explore new ground. I don't have a lot of hope here. I've been to the Strike-To-Stun forums, and they are not a friendly place to fans of 3rd Ed.

It's not impossible that FFG could be secretly working on a 4th Ed to be announced at GenCon. That would be the fastest track to us getting actual new content. If they are being that secretive about it, though, I'll be worried about whether or not it got enough playtest before publication. I love 3rd Ed, but as I said, it really needed a more thorough blind playtesting than it got.

If FFG is not secretly at work on a new edition as we speak, then the next best hope for new content would be if a new licensee was to launch a Kickstarter (etc) to gather up tons of fan money and not release the mechanics (since they'll likely be unappealing to at least 1/2 the possible fanbase either way) until after the money is in their hands. I don't know if GW would let them do that, but if they did a successful crowd-funding might actually free up budget early on for exploring new corners of the setting. Even then, most Kickstarters take forever to deliver their product. I wouldn't hold your breath.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Old-School Conspiracy-Mapping with Night's Black Agents

I think I need a bigger corkboard. Here's what my Night's Black Agents PCs have uncovered of the conspiracy as of session 3 (and that third session was only about 2 hours of play). Mostly stolen from The Zalozhniy Sanction: Russian mafiya in the top and left, undead in the the middle and creepy locations below that, plus a subplot or two over on the right. NBA's mechanics actually give the PCs bonus points for every piece of string linking people or places.

When non-gamer visitors come over they see that wall and immediately start asking if I'm investigating a murder. (Note to the surveillance team in the white van that's always down the street: It's all just a game. I promise.)

Thursday, July 24, 2014

No Use Matrix Tables, Play Og!

I just signed up to run a session of Og: Unearthed Edition at the Dragonflight convention next month. I'll also be GMing it this weekend for a group of friends from my wife's workplace.

I just keep coming up with crazy ideas to spring at the poor cavemen.  Ran down to Top Ten Toys and Archie McPhee to get some megafauna and other props. Being a gamer is fun.

I'm also currently toying with the idea that a sheet of black construction paper and an old Icehouse set makes a good simulation of the table with the matrix of control crystals from the inside of a pylon in Land Of The Lost. The idea is to present the players with the sort of intellectual challenge that makes D&D gamers groan and start asking to short-circuit it with an Intelligence check... knowing full well that as cavemen, they'll just smash the device with rocks and clubs. It's your classic unsolvable puzzle situation, but this time no one has any delusions about needing (or being able) to actually solve it. I mean, I did work out a puzzle for it, but I'm not expecting the players to actually solve it, and the plot won't bog down regardless of whether or not they do. No use smart thing, play Og!