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.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Mos Philos

In Night’s Black Agents, every PC has one MOS. This stands for Military Occupational Specialty, which, while delightfully jargonized, is a little misleading. It doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the Military or your character’s official occupation. In a nutshell, an MOS is a once-per-session* automatic high-level success. You pick a single skill that you can absolutely rely on to save your bacon once per night*.

*: Recommended House Rule: The rules say MOS is once per session, but I’ve found that once per MISSION works much better, especially with larger groups. Once per Op means the players have to be a little careful not to just blow their MOS on something trivial, and in turn that frees up the GM to really make those MOS activations knock everyones socks off. The best reason to go with once-per-Operation instead of -per-session is that this discourages players from dragging things out. Someone metagaming the refresh system of a Gumshoe game like NBA can actually wreck your campaign. You never want a situation where the best play is to turtle up and do nothing until the end of the night because next week the PCs will all be back at full strength if they just stall out the clock. For my own campaigns I’ve moved all the end-of-session refreshes and processes to happen at end-of-mission instead, and I find it’s a strong improvement. Ops rarely last more than a second session back-to-back anyway, because all those MOS activations and Cherry benefits generally allow the PCs to shoot for the moon and stick the landing on any plan in just a session or two. About the only situation where I would consider moving things back to a per-session basis would be if I was running a campaign with just 1 or 2 players.  

I’ve seen three main philosophies or schools of thought for player MOS. Having seen them all in play, I think all are equally valid, though it took me a little while to get to that. Here’s three ways to pick an MOS:

1) Use it to strengthen the skill you plan to spend the most frequently. This is the obvious play for a super-shooty assault specialist. Putting your MOS in a skill you plan to lean on heavily provides you the freedom (and safety) of being able to blow all the points you want on every roll, knowing that even if you bottom out your best ability in a protracted conflict you still have one helluva trick up your sleeve.

Though I mentioned shooting, this approach actually works super well for non-combat skill MOS assignments. The notion of “master of disguise” is a very fitting one for the genre, but it can be very point-intensive in this game. You may feel that Disguise alone isn’t good enough, and before long your core concept is eating up your General Ability budget with the smorgasbord of Cover, Network, Infiltration, and Surveillance. Covering all the aspects of “master of disguise” can leave you feeling stretched thin, and those points all feel a little wasted when the current Op is some unsubtle smash-and-grab. Putting your MOS into one of those Abilities is a great way to ease that pain. You can then afford to specialize in just the Ability levels needed to score the most appealing Cherries, and know that a timely MOS will cover any oversights or point deficits.

Aligning your MOS with your best (or one of your best) skills feels very fitting, and makes good sense in- and out- of-character. There is no rule forcing you to pick an MOS in your best skill though, or even in a skill you've got any points in at all. Let's look at some other philosophies and options for MOS selection...

2) Use it to shore up a critical weakness. Here you’ll take a MOS in some action skill that you are otherwise incapable of using. The first time a player in one of my campaigns picked an MOS they didn’t have more than a point or two in, I was very apprehensive. On some level, it felt almost like an abuse of the system. But now I’ve seen it in action, and I’m a full convert.

One of the PCs in my current campaign took a Weapons MOS and basically no other combat skills. Once per mission* she can get the drop on someone and beat them into submission with a frying pan, but if faced with a protracted battle she’s more properly motivated to surrender and gather intel as a prisoner. It works out pretty well. She gets fun spotlight moments in the occasional fight despite being otherwise a non-combatant. That is all kinds of cool. The MOS mechanic allowed her the freedom to play a quirky civilian in a setting where that might otherwise be a lethally bad idea.

3) Use it to hand-wave past your least-favorite part of the genre. The entire point of Gumshoe is to cut out the tedious die-rolling and related frustrations that can wreck a mystery scenario… so there’s no reason you can’t apply that principle to any skill or type of scene that just doesn’t excite you.

For the sake of the argument, let’s say you just hate car chases. Maybe it’s the chase mechanics never live up to your imagination and expectations. Or maybe you’re bus-bound in the real world and couldn’t give a damn about cars. Whatever the reason, you’ve decided that you can’t stand car chases and don’t want to play that minigame. It may be counter-intuitive, but in that situation an MOS in Driving would be a great investment. It would allow you to short-circuit any chase or tailing sequence you want by just invoking your MOS to escape/catch-up/ram the opposition. If there’s someone else at the table that absolutely loves car chases, you can expect that there will be the occasional twice-in-one session chase scene extravaganza, but at least you only have to suffer through the second half of the double-play.  
(EDIT/afterthought: Depending on just how much your fellow players enjoy a car chase, you may find it fairest to instead suffer through a few minutes of it in the early part of a session, and then invoke your MOS if the scene really starts to drag or if a second car chase crops up in the same session. Your mileage may vary.)

Driving was merely the low-hanging fruit there, and the same principle can be applied to nearly any type of scene you don’t like if you just target the skill most likely to shortcut it. Hate shopping and planning scenes? A Preparedness MOS will get you the right tool for the job with no advance notice.  Can’t talk your way out of a wet paper bag? An Infiltration MOS will get you past the security check point and on to the fun parts behind enemy lines. Completely bewildered by technology, or bored to tears by hacking scenes? Digital Intrusion MOS cuts those down to a quick montage and a bare minimum of jargon.

The MOS mechanic is one of great innovations of Night's Black Agents, and it does an amazing job of empowering the player to not just customize their character, but also tailor their gaming experience just the way they want it. That's a win for everyone.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Mapping Your Adversaries in Night's Black Agents

As mentioned last time, I've recently started my third Night's Black Agents campaign. Today I'm going to talk about one of my favorite mechanics in NBA, a mechanic which builds you an awesome in-game prop as you go.

I'm talking about the Adversary Map. You know that crazy photo-and-thread "murder board" of suspects, victims, leads and connections that shows up in many a detective film. It is to Night's Black Agents what sheets of graph paper were to old school D&D. I love it. You hand the players some push pins, surveillance photos, and colored yarn and ask them to start mapping out the opposition.

It's not just a prop, it's also a mechanical reward. At the start of every Night's Black Agents mission the PCs get bonus points (that can be spent to improve die rolls) based on the connections they have successfully drawn between the mission's target and various other assets and locations in play. This is genius.

For one thing, it perfectly captures the feel of the genre. The PCs are basically trying to identify and pick-apart a giant conspiracy, and this provides some truly excellent immersion into that mindset. Having used this now in multiple campaigns, I can't imagine running a "detective genre" game ever again without using it.

Along with that oh-so-tasty immersion in the setting, it also helps the players visualize what they are up against. The existence of this player-built map forces the PCs to have an ongoing dialog about the clues they've gathered and the avenues of investigation still open to them. It's a mystery game, so you want the players to take it seriously and try to figure out the big picture. The Adversary Map provides a guiding structure for those efforts, and it's damn awesome that the game rewards that good behavior in play.

More importantly, it gives the GM a clear image of what parts of the scenario the players have actually figured out, which bits have them stumped, and where they have drawn entirely the wrong conclusions. It helps the GM nearly as much as it helps the players, because it brings to your attention the parts of your mystery where you're being too successful with your plotline obfuscation. Sometimes, you hear the players talking about some random photo tacked to the Adversary Map and it brings to your attention a red-herring you didn't even mean to drag across their path. Armed with that knowledge, you know which plotpoints still need associated clues or thematic reinforcement, and can figure out how to rearrange things behind the scenes to improve your game.

I tend to enjoy running complicated and mysterious plotlines, and fully-fleshed sand-box settings with lots of nuance and considerable PC freedom. When a GM does that, though, you always run the risk that players will feel overwhelmed, or get mired in the detail. The Adversary Map generates a big-picture view so you've always got some common ground to start from. It also keeps people from focusing in on one small subset of the plot or setting to the exclusion of all else, because they get a subtle weekly reminder that there's a lot more out there on the edges that they haven't explored yet. Should the players get stuck anyway, it's an easy thing for the GM to point at two or three different pins or photos and say "if you start shaking the clue tree in one of these spots,  I guarantee you something interesting will fall out". That's a little heavy handed, so I wouldn't do it unless they'd really hit a wall, but it's nice to know that you've got that option hanging on the wall to refocus them if the PCs are feeling lost or caught up in analysis paralysis. I love this this mechanic. It's both an immersive tool and a safety net for when I get too clever for my own (or my players) good.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Blog In The Saddle Again

Now that my commute is about two hours a day shorter than it had been (I've moved much closer to work), I think I'm going to try a bit of blogging again. I'll start by telling you about my latest RPG campaign...

I recently started a new campaign of Night's Black Agents, the spies-vs-vampires RPG from Pelgrane. Our fourth session meets this weekend (at my new apartment). The game is off to a great start.

My players include some very strong character-actors, and they seem to be really enjoying themselves with the slow-burn horror of trying to convince themselves that the supernatural forces arrayed against them really are supernatural (and specifically vampires) and not just some elaborate psy-op. In my previous NBA campaigns (this is the third I've run), I've felt the need to throw overt and obvious vampirism into the PC's paths very early on, usually the first or second session, to start the game with a bang. Not this time. I'm taking the vampirism slow, and been just focusing on creepy but deniable supernatural evil thus far, as well as a tangled web of counter-intelligence operations. Part of the reason for this new pacing is because, as mentioned, I have the right play group for it. The other half of the explanation is because for this game I've we're using what is probably the coolest RPG sourcebook ever published: Dracula Unredacted, and it enables a very unique play structure and pacing.

Dracula Unredacted is part of The Dracula Dossier, a collection of tools for running a freeform improvised campaign built around the notion that in 1894, British Naval Intelligence tried (and failed) to recruit a Vampire as an asset. You hand the players (not just their characters) a copy of this after-action report from that mission, annotated by at least three generations of spies, and let the players (and their characters) decide what parts of the "novel" to dive into. Do they poke around London and Whitby searching for corroborating evidence that this document is legit? Do they cross the border into Romania and attempt a raid on Castle Dracula? Do they stalk Dracula's leave-behind-network of criminals and undead minions, as hinted and mapped by Stoker's manuscript? Do they seek out the retired operative that ran MI-6's attempt to pit Dracula against Hitler in WWII, as referenced in the annotations? There's a million directions you can take the campaign, and the accompanying Director's Handbook features multiple competing interpretations of every NPC, location or organization mentioned in the Unredacted version of the novel, so as GM you always have multiple ideas at your fingertips no matter where the players decide to take the plot. The players are in control of where the plot goes, and the GM has everything they need to make sure the game is exciting and intriguing along the way.

In the first session of my campaign, the PCs raided a German BND safe-house, got their hands on an antique manuscript that can't be judged by its cover, fought off "trained attack rats" (that's the rational explanation they decided on, any way), and escaped pursuit by killing an MI-6 scuba team. In the second session they smuggled a hypnotized fugitive asset across the border, won big in Monaco, and stumbled into the aftermath of a botched operation involving the CIA and the Romanian SIE. In the third session they encountered another unusual rat; this time it was draining the blood of their fugitive asset / former employer. They chased it off, got the hell out of Monaco, and covered their tracks once again. Then they decided to double-back and trace the movements and actions of some of the opposition assets they encountered in the first session. This weekend, my PCs will be running a surveillance op against the "Median Empire" outlaw motorcycle club, as that gang conducts some sort of mission at the Chateau D'If, the famous "Count of Monte Cristo" prison island in France. Going in to the mission, they don't know if the bikers are mundane criminal types, vampiric Renfields, or some entirely other sort of supernatural working either for or against the vampires. Heck, the PCs aren't even certain that vampires exist yet. It's kinda awesome how much time they spend debating the notion that it might all be just a tandem psy-op and pilot animal-control technology program. Man am I having fun in this campaign.

I'm sure I'll have plenty more to say about it in the coming weeks.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Forbidden Fortress

The Kickstarter for Forbidden Fortress started today. #FoFo is a fully cooperative dungeon-crawl game in the Shadows of Brimstone line. Forbidden Fortress lets you play Samurai, Ninja, Sumo, Kitsune, Geisha and other character archetypes of Feudal (and Mythological) Japan in a battle against various demons and other supernatural creatures.

(Hey, that's me appearing briefly on screen, flipping over some cards and moving minis, around the 3-minute mark)

It's a stand-alone that's backwards-compatible with all the many SoBs expansions that came before it. Within the setting, portals open up between worlds and times, allowing aliens, demons, and us mere mortals to travel from one era or world to the next. If you have one of the two original Shadows of Brimstone core sets, you can combine it with FoFo to have mixed parties of cowboys and samurai working together, battling and exploring across the many OtherWorlds of the combined games.

The kickstarter went live at 3pm today. It took us less than 3 minutes to reach our initial funding goal, and we'd hit $100,000 in about 6 minutes. We just passed the $350,000 stretch goal as I was writing this. If I'm not mistaken, getting to that level took a few days last time. It's been exciting and crazy around the office today!

SoBs was, of course, the game that brought me to Flying Frog Productions, and I wasn't on the team when that first kickstarter went live. So it's kinda wild to see things from this side. I was a random customer back then, a fan of a few FFP titles (A Touch Of Evil, first among them), but it was a big risky investment on a game I hadn't played yet at the time. A risk well worth taking, as it turns out. SoBs eventually became my favorite board game, and my persistent stalking of the designers at local conventions somehow lead to me joining the playtest team for upcoming expansions, and from there it grew in to the best damn job I've ever had.

Anyhow, I'm excited, and I think you should to be excited, too! The game is solid, and this kickstarter is exploding way faster than we anticipated, which means we're gonna hit some amazing stretch goals. Those goals will solidify the Shogun pledge level (the higher of the two pledge levels) into an amazing deal, much as they did for the Minecart pledges of the previous kickstarter. I can't reveal anything just yet, but trust me, I've seen the battle plan, and it's gonna kick even more butt than it already has.

Tiny little extra bonus: If you back in the first 24 hours (before 3 pm, Pacific Time, on Tuesday November 1st, 2016) you get an extra $5 off.

Friday, December 25, 2015

Playing Against Types

It feels really good to get back into LARPing. It was an integral part of my life back in the day, and the new post-divorce, post-depression Rolfe is trying to get back in touch with better days and old accomplishments.

So I'm playing in two LARPs these days, both of which share a venue and a large segment of their player base. (I also attended one session of a third LARP, but it has a scheduling conflict with one of the other two, and at this point I'm invested enough in my characters to be certain where I'm staying.)  Finding the courage to go to the first session was difficult, and the courage to walk back into that room of strangers a second time was even harder, but I stuck through it and now I don't regret it. Each week is more fun than the one before.

Changeling: The Dreaming

Changeling is the lightest, happiest version of the World of Darkness. It's the same world as Vampire, Werewolf, Wraith, Hunter, etc, but the PCs are fay beings infused with imagination and just generally much brighter and more optimistic than the protagonists of any of the other WoD game lines. Characters within the setting struggle to overcome mundane banality, not the murderous hunger or raging inner beast of Vampire and Werewolf.

Honestly, I've never liked the concept of Changeling as much as the darker more angsty takes on the WoD. I'm big into pathos, character drama, and greek tragedy. I'd played one or two sessions of Changeling back in Albuquerque a decade ago, but it never really hooked me. Given my druthers, I'd have joined a Vampire game instead.

But this October, Changeling was the only LARP I thought I was going to be able to play in. (Vampire LARPing really only feels right after the sun sets, so it starts late, and I was working ungodly early mornings at the grocery store.) Expecting this to be the only RPG on my plate (at least as a player) for a while, I made myself a therapy character. I'm playing a grumpy, masochist Troll, recently returned to the world from some horrible self-imposed exile that nearly destroyed him. I carefully picked Flaws that would allow me to vent in-character about the emotions I was feeling out-of-character; through him I get to unload sour statements about love and betrayal. He is quick to anger, but also a slave to his romantic and chivalrous nature; scarred by dozens of half-remembered previous lives of heart-break, and now actively seeking his own death. He's a ball of cynicism and banality, and frankly the other characters ought to be steering clear of him because that shit is dangerous in changeling. 

He is completely out of place at that game, and that was kind of the point. I was going to a game to force myself to be social again after years of being a recluse, so I specifically built myself a character that could stand in a corner and glower whenever the prospect of interacting with humans or making new friends was just too damn scary for me.

My hope is to give him a big ol' arc. The whole point of the character is to maneuver him along a transformation, and through it convince myself that my own return to the world is entirely a good one.

Since the entire cast of the LARP is playing crazy over-the-top fey, I often find myself relegated to the Bud Abbot / Zeppo Marx / Rowlf the Dog straight-man support role. I didn't have much to connect me to the plot, and my bristly armored portrayal often meant I was left standing moody in a corner when it would have been more fun to be center stage. The character is cooler on paper or in theory than he is in practice. Before long, I came to regret those character decisions, as my defenses became a prison. I was in danger of isolating myself from both plot and people until it stopped being worth my time to attend the game.

Luckily, after a few sessions there, one of my fellow players asked me to join the Werewolf chronicle that meets at the same location. Excuses to decline came right to the forefront of my mind, but I somehow found the courage to disregard those thoughts and accept her invitation.

Werewolf: The Apocalypse

I took a very different approach with my character here. Grumpy and quick to anger would have fit Werewolf better than Changeling, but by this point I really wanted something else entirely to get me out of my shell. I ended up playing a Lupus Cub, a young wolf who knew nothing of werewolves (or humans) until his first change (which happened at the first session I played this character). What a joy this character is!

He knows nothing. His experience is limited to what a wolf knows, and I play him with an open-eyed sense of wonder and curiosity that would be perfect for a Childling in the Changeling game. Pretending to have never had nor used _hands_ before, asking ridiculous questions and clarifications because basic human concepts confuse me, playing the timid omega of the pack who now suddenly qualifies finds himself an alpha at the same time he learns there's so much more out there in the world than he as simple wolf ever dreamt; all these things are hilariously fun. Here I'm not the dour straight man, I'm the scrappy sidekick comic relief. Everyone else is playing a darker character at Werewolf than at Changeling, but I've personally flip-flopped that dynamic. It's really fun.

And boy has this character's arc been a breeze to get rolling. A few weeks ago I was a bewildered cub in a fox frenzy; that persona is quickly being warped by curiosity and experimentation and his confidence just bloomed at the end of last week's session. I had no Tribe in mind when I made this cub, I just built a young wolf as a blank slate. Questions and events have pushed him to Tribe Uktena, and his whole personality emerged organically out of improvisations with the other players. He's still young and innocent, perhaps even foolish, but he's also just starting to find his strength and develop some ambitions of his own. Assuming I don't get him killed (the combat system can be brutal, and I nearly died twice in the first turn of my first fight) first, I think this little pup has a bright future ahead of him.

The weird thing (for me as serious introvert) is that I'm engaging with an entirely different subset of the player group in the two different games. The tiny handful of people that have broken through the Troll Grump's shell at Changeling, are a very different (and much smaller) group of players than the young Uktena Cub pesters and riffs off of at Werewolf. I'm enjoying the later game more, but it's also enhancing the former game by way of contrast. The combination is encouraging me to be more social out-of-character as well, since I'm quickly growing to know and like the majority of the player base. Being quiet and stand-off-ish comes naturally to me, but my little cub pretty much demands to be played as a very social animal who wants to engage with everyone. So I'm just letting the character lead me, and I think that process is doing me a world of good.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

My goblins are always mildly NSFW.

Played a couple hands of 1,000 Blank White Cards on Friday with Quintin Lee and Mahmood Miah. They'd never played before, but picked up the game very quickly and made some great cards. Here's 27 of my favorites from this weekend.

I think the best card of the night was Mahmood's Goblin Medic, as it required us to write and draw over existing cards in play, and also neatly shut down my Goblin Pike Recursion Engine before it could come online. Well played, sir.

Note there are some goblins in these pictures, and that means that one or two of the cards are very mildly NSFW.  :) Goblins have bad taste, and no sense of decorum. No boobbloons appeared in these games (or at least, they never got inflated because someone else got to finish the text), and I purposefully avoided publication of the rectococks that did show up, for the sake of all the innocent little children in the intertubes.You're welcome.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Games I played this week.

An expanded version of my weekly gamelog on facebook.

Played Red Seven, Five Tribes, and Shadow Hunters at the Ballard Board Game Meet-Up at Card Kingdom/Cafe Mox. The games were good, the group is very welcoming, and the venue is pretty amazing. Much better than staying home and watching TV.

Red Seven is good filler or warm-up material. Solid, but not particularly exciting. It's an interesting retooling of the old trick-taking mechanic, but the lightness of play and absence of a theme keeps it from truly moving me. A game I'm always willing to play, but not one I'd go out of my way to schedule.

Five Tribes is a really deep game, with lots of moving parts and a fairly daunting learning curve. I spent the whole game feeling like I was doing horribly because I could never identify moves that were actually splashy enough to be worth bidding the victory points to get first player status. I think I only bid 3 times, and took my turn at the back of the pack round after round. All game long, I thought for sure I was going to come in dead last. Then we totaled the final scores, and I was second place and just a couple points behind the leader. I had 143 points, the winner had 146 points, and fourth place was 112 if I remember correctly. So there really were very few turns where it was worth spending, that wasn’t just me being confused or overly cautious. We were all new to the game, though, so there's some hope that more experienced players would have weighed the value of their bids better and left my penny-pinching play-style in the dust.  I'd like to give this one another try, and see how my strategy develops over repeated plays.

Shadow Hunters is short enough to be party-game filler but intriguing enough to be something more. It's a perfect game for a large meet-up, as it can handle a large number of players easily and is short enough to let people join and quit as they please. It starts with a puzzle, and generally ends with a beat-down. It’s got some “aha!” moments, and excitement, but is very random and at times unfair. Luckily the game is usually short and speedy, so if you’re getting the short end of the randomness stick at least you don’t have to suffer very long. Overall, I enjoy it quite a bit. It's got a little in common with both Are You A Werewolf? and Betrayal At House On The Hill, but is faster and shorter than either. I dig it.

I played an unpublished scenario of Shadows of Brimstone with Jeremy, Chris, and Sarah up at the Flying Frog Productions studios. Brimstone continues to be a great co-op experience, and has grown more challenging with the expansion previews from GenCon. We’ve been playtesting some amazing content that I'm not at liberty to discuss, other than to assure you that the game keeps getting better and better.

I wish I could fit more plays of SOBs into my schedule right now, but it requires a fair chunk of time and table space. In addition to the playtests, I have two other groups that I specifically schedule Brimstone games with. It's hard to get everyone's calendar's aligned with the days when my table is clear, though perhaps that speaks to my housekeeping just as much as it does the the requirements of the game. This was extra complicated by mass of boxes (over a hundred of them) that was occupying my living room for the past couple weeks. I had to cancel two gaming events this week to stay home culling boxes of old stuff I no longer need in my life. If I don't get a box or two done every single day, I'll never get through them all.

Goofed off with some Rock Band 4 at a Halloween party. We traded instruments and parts in and out every few songs. Rock Band is more an activity than a game, but it's highly enjoyable... especially when there's enough players on-site to feel like an audience. Scott rick-rolled us all (but especially Jim) during one of his turns on the microphone.

You'll notice no RPGs this week. That's something I have to rectify soon. Workplace exhaustion and the aforementioned boxes kept me from attending a couple of usual gaming nights, plus there were some non-game events on my calendar. Other cool things I did this week included seeing a friend's short film play in a movie theater, and participating in a long training and team-building session for the Dragonflight board of directors. I've kept myself busy. 

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Dryads and Murder Hobos in How To Host A Dungeon

I played around a little with How To Host A Dungeon today, which I hadn't done since December or January. While I don't have a big ol' blog post about it (or even just a finished map to share) this time, I did add a couple new Wandering Monster ideas to the How To Host A Dungeon Wiki. Here's the rules text to two alternate Wandering Monster groups for the map-drawing dungeon-designing game.

Murder Hobos: Murder Hobos start with 4Black-round-md and 2White-round-md just below a random entrance to the dungeon. On their turn they behave exactly like Chaotic Adventurers, except they stop moving after their first Encounter each turn to rest up, regain spells and resupply. Roll a d6 each time, and if you roll less than their remaining Black-round-md, they resurrect one of their number. During other Group's turns (including the Surface Kingdom and other Adventurers), Murder Hobos are encountered as if they were a Wandering Monster.

Dryads: Dryads start at the empty point on the surface nearest where the token dropped. Draw a "haunted tree" there. Dryads will never move below the surface, and create a new haunted tree wherever they end their movement without an encounter. At the end of the Surface Kingdoms' turn, if there are no longer any Dryads in play, add Black-round-md to a randomly chosen haunted tree. Whenever the Surface Kingdoms make a new building on the spot where an unoccupied haunted tree exists, they may first erase that tree from the map. 

Sunday, October 11, 2015

5-Yard Penalty for Failure To LARP

I went to two LARPs last night, and completely failed to actually play at either of them. I'm frustrated with myself for my recent inability to come out of my shell. I am also absolutely puzzled at the unnecessary complexity of character creation at these two LARPs, and the lack of a good summary or tool for new players. I plan to got back, because the hard part is over and I might as well get some value out of the night I invested, but I imagine that there must be a large number of potential players who are just turned off and away by the initial hurdles.

Both LARPs were at the same location, and apparently they have a total of 4 LARPs that run there every weekend. Three use the old (pre-reset) World of Darkness setting, and one the newer (but still nearly a decade old) World of Darkness. I made characters at Changeling and Vampire, the other two games are Werewolf and nWoD mortals game.

Now, before I get into my gripes about the experience I had, I should temper it with acknowledgement that this may not have been the typical situation. The LARPs had just moved to their winter location, so it's possible that the venue transition may have shaken things up a bit. Also there was a big competing event this weekend (a 6-month special event at a boffer LARP called Alliance) that greatly diminished the player turnout at the Vampire game at least, and a couple of the Vampire Storytellers were either absent or late as well. Any of these factors may have reduced the effectiveness of the staff to facilitate a new players entry into the game.

As I said, both games use the old WoD setting(s). They don't use the oWoD LARP rules (Rules of the Night, or Shining Host), instead they use a home-brewed system called "Mod-Dot" that is effectively a filter applied on to the tabletop rules. One game uses Changeling: The Dreaming 2nd Ed + Mod-Dot, and the other uses V20 (Vampire: The Masquerade 20th Anniversary Edition) + Mod-Dot. Mod-Dot, if I'm understanding correctly, replaces each dice roll with two rock-paper-scissors matches. These RPS matches function rather like FUDGE dice, in that they generate a plus 2 to minus 2 modifier to your base number of successes, which are derived from your tabletop dicepools by some similar formula (not sure if it's 1/2 or 1/3 x dicepool). If you win both or lose both of the RPS tests, that's essentially a critical and triggers another two tests so the modifier can range out to plus or minus 4 (or maybe further, I'm not yet certain what happens when you score two wins followed by two more wins). I didn't participate, and merely watched from a distance, so it struck me as a lot of work for such a strongly centered bell curve. By my math, you have a 78% chance of scoring with one success of your default result. Compare that to FUDGE dice which have a 63% chance of scoring within 1 of the median result. My one complaint with FATE (which uses FUDGE dice) has to do with the overwhelming strength of that bell curve, and here's a system that out-FATE's FATE. Or, so it seems to me from my outsider's perspective. I haven't actually played with Mod-Dot yet, and it's apparently functional enough for several local LARPs to use it for many years. At first glance, it strikes me as more complicated than both the tabletop rules and the old White Wolf LARP rules. I wish either game had a hand-out that covers the mechanics of Mod-Dot, because after 1 night in proximity to it, I'm still pretty iffy on the core resolution mechanic. That said, one does not LARP for the rules, one LARPs for the story, the setting, and the scene.

Unfortunately, I didn't know the Changeling setting all that well. I had emailed the Head Story-Teller a few weeks ago to ask about the game, and we'd exchanged some conversation, but I didn't really have a solid character concept going in. I'd suggested that I'd probably play a Troll because it was one character type I'd remembered from my ~2 sessions of Changeling experience over a decade ago. He encouraged me to not limit myself to a core book character, and showed me lots of Kith write-ups (more or less character classes for Changeling) that came from various sourcebooks or were derived from the old Arcadia CCG. Some of this he'd sent me over a week before, but it was the week where I got a promotion and worked overtime, so I had still had _so_ much to read at the session. There were several people (including the HST) willing to help me out with the process, but their approach was pretty much "let me read you a giant list of options", rather than either making suggestions or asking questions that actually narrowed down the giant pile of information I needed to sift through. After more than an hour of reading I fell back on the Troll idea I'd emailed two weeks back, in hopes that something simple and mildly familiar would let me actually finish my character in time to play or at least watch some scenes. Unfortunately, the wealth of expanded character options continued past basic concepts and into a huge Merit and Flaw list, plus I had to at least skim over the lists of Arts (special powers in Changeling, akin to Disciplines in Vampire, or roughly equal to spells or feats in D&D). Again, so much reading.

The way character creation works in tabletop White Wolf games is that you get a small number of points to spend in each section of the sheet, followed by another pool of freebie points to spend wherever you want but at sort of an exchange rate (such as 7 Freebie points for a Discipline rank in Vampire). The character sheets didn't list the exchange rate. A person walked up and offered to help just as I was wrestling with that, so I asked them about it. They told me there is no exchange rate, just add 15 dots to things. I foolishly took them at their word, thinking they were one of the Assistant Story-Tellers since they were over there offering to help newbies fill out paperwork instead of playing in any of the many scenes going on elsewhere. I should have known better, but instead I accepted their word and my math got completely messed up. I finished my character right about the time the game was wrapping up, and only discovered then what a mess my sheet was.

Now, I had chosen the Changeling LARP because an acquaintance had invited me to it and the Werewolf LARP that followed it. He didn't show up to Changeling. I don't know if he made it to Werewolf or not. It was in the other part of the building, whereas there was a Vampire LARP in the same space where the Changeling game had just finished. I was a little let down to not get to play in that first game, and I only knew Werewolf a little bit better than Changeling, so character creation was likely to take nearly as long and involve almost as much reading. Vampire, on the other hand, that I knew really well from my years of running a V:tM LARP. So rather than head to the other area in hopes that maybe the guy who invited me would show up late, I decided to just do Vampire. Surely, I could bang out a character in a hurry.

But as I mentioned earlier, only a lone Assistant StoryTeller showed up to Vampire on time. A couple others were late, and I gather that at least one of the STs went to Alliance instead. The one that was there didn't have the needed materials to begin character creation. She did have character sheets, so I started planning and lightly socialized while waiting. The thing that held me back was the beads they needed to draw. This group uses a system to allow differing levels of character power and rarity while eliminating all danger of favoritism. You draw three beads from pools corresponding to the ideal mix for the campaign. If you get a lucky draw, you may start with extra XP, or be allowed to play one of the rarer clans or bloodlines. So I started mentally sketching out a Toreador, but had to wait to finalize it till the beads arrived. By then, there were four other new players, and only one copy of the rulebook. So while each step of the process took me a lot less time, I had to frequently wait my turn to look things up while these two guys read every single Merit and Flaw to their non-gamer friend they'd brought with. So slow.

As it turns out, my bead draws gave me completely normal starting generation and basic clan choices, so it started off as an easy build. However, I drew a bead that gave me a bunch of bonus XP to spend. So creation went in three stages: normal points, freebie points (using the various conversion rates as mentioned above) and experience points (using a totally different conversion rate). On paper, my character looks really strong, which is kind of funny as I was completely prepared to play a wimpy little Toreador for just the easy hook in to characterization that provides. And it may still play out to be wimpy, if the obfuscated values of the bead draws means that most characters already start with as many or more XP than I got. The overall power-level of the chronicle is not yet transparent to me.

And I guess that level of complexity and confusion is why I'm here griping about a game that I totally plan to play and enjoy. They said attendance was down because of the competing event, but it still seemed like a big group and probably a good place to game and meet new friends. I'm most likely going to have a lot of fun, but that's because I'm going to power through the initial awkwardness of it all and dive into character and plot. And all of this headache could have been made so much easier for new players. I find myself wanting to lay out a one-page summary sheet for each of these games. At the top it would say which rule books are considered canonical for that game, then explain the Mod-Dot success formula that modifies the engine in those books. Below that would be a listing of the three beads you draw and what options they unlock for that chronicle (and a statement about what percentage of the pool is each bead level). You'd know at a glance what kind of character you could make, how potent or rare they were in the setting, and where to go for more information on the game or rules.

In terms of my old crunchometer system, I had rated oWoD at a crunchy but playable c12 level, and the Mind's Eye Theatre LARP rules at a somewhat simpler c10. After this level of exposure, I'm inclined to eyeball Mod-Dot at around a c20. Thus far it is significantly crunchier and more complicated than I prefer, but I'll give it at least a few sessions for the plotlines or the playgroups to engage me. I used to have a lot more tolerance for needless complexity and the character niches that complexity carved out, but over the decades I've been shown repeatedly by games like Amber, Microscope, and PDQ that the best RPG experiences don't require complicated rules and fiddly modifiers. Good games are made from rich plotlines, nuanced characters, and the presence of good friends.

By the time character creation was all done, it was after midnight. The game had been running since 10:30, and would be continuing for more than an hour. About half the players were sitting around in the main room quietly playing with their phones or having whispered conversations, and the rest were off behind closed doors having private scenes. There was no obvious in-roads for actually joining a scene at this point. I was tired, discouraged, very hungry (hadn't eaten in over 8 hours) and a little grumpy, and I had a long walk home ahead of me, so at that point I bailed. I'll get a fresh start at the next session.