Friday, September 26, 2014

High Degree of Randomness

I've played Shadows of Brimstone 5 times now: twice at demos with the publishers, and three times at home.

I'm enjoying the game significantly. The randomness is high, but it provides a good variety of play experience. You never know what you're going to get.

We completed our mission at both of the demos with FFP really easily, so much so that I was mildly worried the game was too easy...

Since getting it home, we've lost three missions in a row. So, "too easy" is not such a concern now.

Cross-Posted at BGG 
If this is sounding familiar, it's probably because I adapted this from something I wrote on the forums at Board Game Geek. This version is longer, and includes some analysis I hadn't done there, but it also skips a bunch of TPK detail that here I could just replace with a link to a blog post from a couple days ago. This is the better version of the post, but if you've already read the BGG version recently, you may find this to be mostly redundant.

Two of our three losses were TPKs caused by chains of Threat cards. I gave a thorough example in a previous post. The other TPK wasn't quite as ridiculous as it was only a 2-player game, but similar in theme.

The third mission was lost by Darkness meter and the villain escaping. The corridors and exploration tokens pwned us. Despite thorough shuffling, we got 8 corridors in our first 10 map cards. (Each boxed set comes with 6, so a total of 12 of the 48 mine cards are corridors. 8 in a row wasn't even possible if playing from a single boxed set, and the odds of it with 2 boxed sets aren't exactly high.) This pushed us to the deep end of the track where Holding Back the Darkness is really hard. We continued on, but now the Exploration tokens conspired against us, and delivered all 7 of the tokens that don't have Clues before we could get the third (of 5) clued token. Game ended with villain escape despite us having handled all the fights really well and done everything "right". We wasted no time, but still lost on the timer.

These losses were of course all flukes, and won't be indicative of overall play experience across dozens of games... but it's still kind of awesome (or frustrating, if that's how you choose to look at it) to know that such losses are lurking in the cards. Even a well-equipped high-level party will still lose to the Darkness meter from time to time.

Despite the shocking upsets, I still feel that the randomness is a benefit. It's surprisingly fun to get curb-stomped by a cooperative game when you thought you'd won.

Contrasting with Myth:
We took a break from Myth because it was getting too repetitive, and just too easy. There were only two or three monster types that you'd see again and again, and our characters had earned titles and got good gear. Brimstone seems likely to avoid those problems because it has more encounter variety and built-in methods to upgrade the badguys and challenges as you level up. Also, there's more PCs to choose from in Brimstone (assuming you have both boxed sets), and each PC has more customization options out of the gate. If Brimstone starts to grow stale, swapping characters should actually freshen it up again.
In theory, Myth is finally actually shipping wave 2 to the US now, which may even it out until Shadows' second wave many months from now. If I can tear myself away from Brimstone long enough to find out, I'll post my observations here.
My expectation, though, is that the clarity of the rules and card phrasing in Brimstone will push it over the top in any comparison to Myth. There are parts of Myth I do like better (the action decks are fun but clunky, the monster AI is more varied, and the two-stage bosses are cool nod to videogaming), but Brimstone's far gentler learning curve, and dramatically fewer rules-holes is thus-far making it feel like the superior game. 

Little Annoyances:

Which is not to say that Shadows of Brimstone is without flaw entirely.

I do find it a little annoying to track XP during combat in Brimstone. I would have been happier if the xp per hit and per wound on the big guys had been more standardized and tracked with tokens or something that would have sped it up during the most complex of the combat rounds. It's not bad, but it could have been better. It's also not as bad as it had been, because in earlier drafts the XP per wound on large monsters was variable by monster type.

I also think that the high-Initiative characters are going to pull ahead in the XP long haul, and that might prove problematic. In yesterday's game the Saloon Girl asked me to give her my last dynamite so she could throw it before the monsters got to act, and it kinda sucked to be giving her a 100 xp worth of potential kills when she was already the only person to level up that session.  If your group includes anyone prone to jealousy or being a sore loser, I'd recommend rotating out characters frequently (so that you get a different party mix and can share the spotlight moments around the table from game to game), or splitting XP evenly (but that will increase the amount of math during fights, and as I mentioned above, I already find the XP tracking a little tedious). I haven't played enough, or leveled-up enough, to know if this problem self-corrects or not.

I do know that this problem is less pronounced than it was at the time of that first demo many months ago. At the time I complained to Jason Hill that I felt my character (the Gunslinger) was too good, because of the way Quickdraw interacted with Dual-Wielding and his high Initiative. Since that time, the Dual-Wield penalty has been rewritten to be more severe (it used to apply to only your off-hand shots, not all of them), the Quickdraw card gained a restriction that it can't be used when Dual-Wielding, and the XP numbers were tweaked in a way that rewards hits instead of wounds (so you can still get a decent amount of XP if you are shooting at a monster that only has 1 wound left).

On a related note, I don't quite understand why low-Initiative characters lose their activation if the last monster dies before they move. Restarting at the top of the round only makes it more likely that the high-Initiative PCs will get the scavenge rewards. This seems an unnecessary bit of insult-to-injury, even if they do get some manner of compensation during the Catch Your Breath step.

Things I Love

The combat system is solid, and the handfulls of dice are fun. The components are beautiful, and the tile system rocks. Variety of play experience is high, thanks to 18 missions, tons of cards, customized PCs, and lots of random events. As mentioned above, the game can turn difficult with a single bad roll or draw, which is a good thing in a cooperative game. The XP system solves the problem of being the party healer - you score a lot of experience patching up the other characters.

I really appreciate the Traveling and Frontier Town portion(s) of the game. While some folks are probably going to complain that the game inserts random rolls into everything, I find that the risk of events really spices up what would otherwise be another boring min-max shopping trip. I _hate_ those "stop and ponder the equipment list" moments in traditional RPGs, but in Brimstone shopping is actually fun.
House rule caveat: 
When we play, we don't let you buy things for other people. Doing so (there's no clear official rule against it, but the rules seem to vaguely imply you can't) would allow a 6-player posse to hit every location on the first day, and that's just not as much fun as pushing your luck on multi-day town stays. 
And really: Outlaws, Bandidos, Saloon Girls and Gunslingers probably shouldn't be trusting one another with their wallets.

The level-up system is kinda fun, too. You get one random (rolled on a chart) stat boost each level, and then you get to pick a cool power to go with it. This gives you control of the important parts of your character (choosing your new trick) but the random chart makes it harder to min-max. In most level-up systems, the players who've mastered the system (at least to the extent of having identified dump stats and exploitable interactions) have a huge advantage over casual players that haven't done as much analysis. In theory the random stat boost should even this out a bit. It won't perfectly balance things if one person is making poor choices while the other carefully weighs the options, but it should at least reduce the gap. I'm excited to see to what extent that holds true over the long haul, as we've had such bad luck that only 2 characters have leveled up in 5 games (though to be fair, that's also because I've played a different character in each game to get a taste of everything). Worst case scenario: the casual player gets unlucky rolls for stats with no synergy, and the min-maxer rolls exactly what they wanted. While that sounds bad, it's actually basically the default assumption/starting point of most other games.  Worst case is essentially breaking even, and it's still providing at least a small extra hurdle for the shameless min-maxer to have to work around. I feel like that's a step in the right direction.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Doc's Office Cards

Shadows of Brimstone has a very interesting campaign mode. After each adventure in the mines, you head back to town. This involves a handful of die rolls to generate encounters in the frontier town, so that even the act of stocking up for the next mission remains engaging and mildly dangerous. I'm really enjoying the system.

The equipment and effects that you can get in town are recorded on a handful of 8.5 x 11 sheets. You can copy the relevant details down on your character sheet, but after just one or two adventures your sheet becomes a mess of handwritten notes, abbreviations and eraser marks. Which is silly, since the rest of the game goes the route of having cards for everything. I get a card for my starting pistol, and if I find an awesome alien beam weapon on the other side of a dimensional portal it'll be a card too, but the game doesn't have a card for the modestly upgraded gun I bought in town between my first session and getting that lucky artifact draw. Strange, huh? Clearly just a cost-saving measure because the game was already loaded down with ubercool components.

You know where I'm going with this. I sat down and started making spiffy cards of all the entries on the chart. Without further ado, here's everything you can buy at the Doctor's Office that isn't available as a sidebag token. (I started with the Doc's Office, because our first session went so painfully that our total purchases were just Bandage Tokens and a single Specimen Jar.)

Doc's Office Items:

Bone Saw, Field-Surgeon's Apron, and Tools of Science are straight from the Doc's Office chart. No functional changes at all (unless you count rounding down to the nearest dollar on the apron, but what else could I do?). Note that, like Gear cards, the listed values are the sale value of the item, which is 1/2 it's purchase price (hence my rounding). So don't try buying them for what's listed there. You make purchases according to the big Doc's Office sheet (usually double what's on the card), and only then acquire cards to represent them.

Which brings up a good point: there are no intentional changes to the functionality on any of these cards. I did have to alter some wording for various reasons, but my stated intent is to make them work identically to what comes in the Shadows of Brimstone box. For example, the Specimen Jar (below) may seem a little odd at first glance since it's now two cards, but if you read them both and think it through all the way, you'll see it works exactly the same way as the item on the Doc's Office chart. I just made it two cards so we could easily track from session to session whether the Jar you're carrying has been taken to Another World yet or not. If a failed mission or town event destroys a Doc's Office or two, you no longer have to try to remember whether or not you sacrificed your Move for a turn in that game session two weeks ago. Plus, y'know, cool monster in a jar art.
As you've no doubt noticed by now, all these cards have a little "Doc's Office" label on them, so you know where they come from and can quickly look them up on the official chart if anything here is unclear.

Doc's Office Injections:

Injections aren't technically items, so I wanted to make them obviously different so no one would get them confused and try to discard them if an Encounter card (etc) stole or ruined an item, and you wouldn't try trading them with adjacent PCs like an item, etc. I made them half-sized and distinctively colored, so it should be hard to mistake them.
Again, these are intended to work exactly as the official chart describes, and are merely meant to be reminder cards that you'd stick in whatever ziplock, box, or envelope you're using to keep all your character's cards together for next session. So, for example, the two injections that cause a Corruption Hit when first administered make no mention of that effect here. I'm assuming that you'll read that on the chart, resolve it as per the rules, and only use this card to remind you of your bonuses during the next adventure.

Doc's Office Miscellaneous:

The Sycorath Injection can cause "Temporary Withdrawls", so I figured that might need a reminder card as well, just to be thorough. Then I noticed that the Plague Tent entry on the Doc's event chart can cause a one-session penalty as well, so, I figured what the heck I might as well make that, too. Apparently I'm using little green cards to mean any non-item modifier that you pick up in town and discard at the end of your next adventure.

I plan on doing the same sort of cards for all the other Frontier Town charts... and then I will probably have to redo them all when the Expanded Frontier Town releases a year from now. :) Unless it uses cards, in which case I'll need to just pull these down.

In case it wasn't abundantly clear from the rest of the text: Everything in this post is derived from work by Flying Frog Productions. No challenge to copyright is intended. Mostly I just engaged in cut and paste with their art and text. The whole point of this project is to make it easier to play the awesome game that is Shadows of Brimstone.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

TPK’d in Brimstone

We got our chaps-wearing butts handed to us when we played Shadows of Brimstone on Friday night. We had four PCs (gunslinger, preacher, lawman and an indian scout) so we our threat difficulty was Medium.

The first couple mine cards we drew were just corridors, so we were all getting a little antsy by the time the first room showed up, so we weren’t coordinating our movement very well. The preacher rushes ahead into the new room, leaving my gunslinger around a blind corner. I considered asking him not to do that, but I figured it was our first room and we were all at full health and equipment, so what could go wrong?

The exploration token called for an Attack, so that’s one Medium Threat. The room had an Advanced box on the mine card, calling for an extra Encounter card. Long story short… The Encounter card added a High Threat to the fight. The High Threat was itself "Draw Two Medium Threats", one of which was "Draw Two Low Threats". On round two we failed to Hold Back The Darkness, and the card added another Medium Threat to the fight. Thus our very first battle of the campaign was against 3 Elite (+2 damage) Night Terrors, plus 1 Slasher, 6 Void Spiders and 6 Hellbats. All appearing in a large room around the corner where my gunslinger special ability to get free shots at spawning monsters couldn’t draw line of sight.

TPK in the first room. Technically, they left us for dead, and wandered off to destroy half of the frontier town.  We fought to the bitter end, and when finally the Lawmen fell, there were only two monsters left (the Slasher and the last Night Terror) both of whom were badly wounded. Those of us who didn’t go down the first round scored a lot of XP, but not enough to level up. So we survived, but with a permanent wound or two, hardly any treasure, and very limited options for stocking up before our next mission. We’re off to a great start on the campaign.

I’d actually been a tiny-bit worried prior to this that the game might not be dangerous enough. The two demos we’d played with FFP had been mostly cakewalks (especially the more recent one). Fun cakewalks, to be sure, but not exactly close calls. Instead, I see now that the full game starts in the sweet spot where one wrong move (or unlucky card draw) can smash your face, but actual “gone forever” character death is rare. (They may have stacked the decks and/or exploration tokens at the demos, to specifically encourage the cakewalking. I don't know.) Given the way the Elite and Brutal system automatically scales up the monsters as you advance in character level, I think it’s going to sustain the tension into the later stages of the campaign. I’m very excited to play more again real soon.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Now Entering Book 4

Major SPOILER Warning for "The Enemy Within"

After a 2-month break from my Warhammer campaign for summer vacations, we returned these past two Sundays to the second half of Book 3 of The Enemy Within. The big climactic battle against The Black Cowl and his demonic and human minions took nearly two whole sessions, with the player’s success and survival both in doubt the entire time. Two PCs went down, but were revived in time to rejoin the fight and turn the tide of battle. All four PCs spent a large portion of the conflict heavily wounded and one-hit away from disaster. A single bad die roll or suboptimal decision could have wrecked them at numerous points in the action, but they pulled together with some great teamwork and tactics to squeak out a well-earned narrow victory. Good job!

Ranald's Sign
I gotta say, for being self-centered untrustworthy pacifists, Priests of Ranald are surprising powerhouses that actually make great allies. The “X marks the Spot” blessing was constantly giving the PCs the leg up on the various mystery plots throughout the campaign, but it had nothing on “Bamboozle” in the final sessions of the earthly plotline. That little one-turn mind-control spell saved the day twice, despite the many restrictions   printed on the card. Another single-xp character power that really saved the party was the “Cool As Ice” talent. Socketed into the Party Card, that talent allowed players to recharge actions every time they suffered Stress… and there are an insane number of stress-inducing powers, monsters, and macguffins in that final conflict.

Not that anyone failed to carry their own weight. The Slayer laid down the axe-related pain again and again, and delivered the final blow to The Black Cowl himself. The Bright Wizard made short (and smouldering) work of Bischoff's death squad that was waiting in ambush. The Knight rode his steed up a staircase and trampled down the demons that were about to kill his badly-wounded comrades. In the previous session the group collectively managed to defuse the bombs that were going to kill thousands of as-innocent-as-you-can-be-in-Warhammer citizens. Lots of great heroic moments all around. Everyone has reason to be proud.

"I'm Not Batman" - whispered throatily
The Black Cowl is defeated, but he’s left a gaping hole in reality in his wake. The PCs have chosen to enter it, and attempt to seal the breach from the other side. The next few sessions will be a literal trip to hell.

So who was The Black Cowl? That would be Peczold Von Engler, the father of one of the PCs.  The players dreamt him up during character creation, while filling in backstories and deciding on a Party Card. Their intention was that they were creating a minor subplot villain just to add some flavor, but I ran with it and subtly warped the entire campaign around him. The adventure provides the GM with 3 obvious choices to be the Big Bad, lays out the plot twists necessary depending on that decision, and then spends a few paragraphs giving advice on how you might adapt other NPCs to fill the role. I had to make a lot of tweaks to things happening behind the scenes, but those rolling alterations actually helped keep me from getting bored with the lengthy published scenario over the long haul. The character swap worked rather well, as the fact that clearly wasn’t in the published adventure in the first place helped throw them off his trail and keep the mystery running for so many sessions. He rose to power, getting himself declared the Elector-Count of Averland and Hero of the Empire, all while running a massive criminal empire and heading up two different cults. He would have gotten away with it too, if it wasn't for those meddling kids and their scrappy horse undoing all his evil plans (and then sticking an axe in his head).

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.