Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Dragonflight game highlights

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

That was a fun weekend.

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Urchin Character Sheets

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

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Hard Drives Full of Ripper Letters

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Clouds of Blood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Back From The Dead. (Again.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, February 25, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.