Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Dryads and Murder Hobos in How To Host A Dungeon

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

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

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

Sunday, October 11, 2015

5-Yard Penalty for Failure To LARP

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Recent Gaming 9-29 to 10-5

#WhatDidYouPlayMondays #GameLog for 9/29 - 10/5/2015

Card Games: Dark Gothic / Colonial Horror, and Guillotine
RPG / Story Game: Forget Me Not
Board Game: Shadows of Brimstone
Video Game: Sir, You Are Being Hunted!

On Friday I played Dark Gothic with the cards mixed in from the Colonial Horror stand-alone expansion, as well as the smaller Smuggler's Den, Curse of the Werewolf, Dryad of Harper's Wood, and Forgotten Island expansions. I played this with Mark Walters and Laura Mortensen. It was a tense game that ended in defeat for all of us, as our second Villain was The Necromancer. He has two powers that make Minions move to the Shadows, and we kept drawing new Minions to replace the old ones. My deck was really working well and I had multiple turns where I had the cards in hand to defeat the Necromancer but couldn't because his Fight ability would cost us the game. Our bad luck in top-decking only Minions for two full rounds around the table eventually doomed the town of Shadowbrook.

Guillotine is more or less light filler, but it's always an enjoyable way to cap off an evening when the brain power or energy is starting to run low. Long enough to wind down properly, short and light enough to not wear out it's welcome as you do so. We play with the house rule that starting hands are only 3 cards, instead of 5. I first invoked that house rule at least a decade ago when doing demos at the game store I used to run, with the intention of making it easier on new players and speeding up the demos. What I found was that it actually enhanced the game greatly, and I've used that rule every since. With a full hand of 5 cards, there's often a card or two that you never feel the need to use all game long because you've got better options (so they just sit there dead in your hand). 3 cards to start opens up the need to occasionally play one of the weaker cards, and makes it feel more challenging. In the process it provides a little more variety to play experience, which is a good thing when you've had the game in your collection for 10 or 15 years. This time, Mark won, and Laura and I were tied for second place just behind him. 

On Monday I got together with Mark, Laura, Erik and Devon at Card Kingdom, and we played a fun RPG / Story Game called Forget Me Not. It was a riot. Our plot was over-the-top and our characters masticated all over the scenery. The Sheriff was crazy, the local avant-garde artist was murderous and possibly even crazier then the Sheriff, and eventually most of the town was driven just as batty as them by ergot poisoning at the bake sale (or the need for revenge). Very goofy and hectic. Pretty far from the tone of the source material (it reads as basically an unlicensed Twin Peaks RPG), but so damn much fun! I really love the way the randomized pregens and randomized subplots gives the game a solid structure, but mixes it up from one play to the next. Hugely enjoyable. 

On Thursday I went up to Flying Frog Productions' studio to help with playtesting and proof-reading of top-secret Shadows of Brimstone expansions. That's all I'm allowed to say about that at the moment, other than "OMG you guys, there is so much cool stuff coming up for Shadows of Brimstone! Trust me, you're gonna love it!"

Speaking of which, on Saturday and Sunday I spent a little time each night assembling miniatures for my own personal copy of Shadows of Brimstone. These were GenCon preview figures, stuff that will eventually show up in Wave(s) 1.5 or 2 of the Kickstarter. I built the Serpentmen of Jargono and the Masters of the Void deluxe enemy sets, and the Scourge Rats enemy set. The Serpentmen come with a Shaman who has magic trinkets and a deck of spells, and despite the name they are not purely restricted to Jargono (they can and do show up in the mines). The Masters of the Void has some sorcerers that I like to call the KKKultists of KKKthulhu. Tentacles protruding from creepy hoods. They also have a spell deck. The two spellcasting Enemy types each has a very different feel to their magic (and the "AI" that determines how they act each turn), and they really shake up the game quite nicely. Masters of the Void also comes with some other (non-spellcaster) figures that have mechanics that kind of invert which characters are likely to be effective in the fight. The high-initiative xp-gobblers in the party will have a hard time hurting Void Hounds, and the slower PCs will be able to claim a larger-than-normal share of the glory. Scourge Rats aren't nearly as "sexy" as either of those two sets, but they're mechanically simpler and seemed like a good choice to balance out the extra complexity I'd just added with the deluxe spellcasters. I've got several more sets to break out and assemble in the near future, but decided that I could play a session or two with just these three expansions (plus the two core sets and Caverns of Cynder) before I needed to add in more.

That decision left me with an hour or two open at the end of each of those nights to play a video game to unwind. I chose Sir, You Are Being Hunted! which I picked up inexpensively as part of a Humble Indie Bundle this week. It's sort of like a first-person shooter, except it's more about stealth than combat. That, or I'm just really bad at the combat parts. You're on a random archipelago that feels very British, and (as the name implies) you're being hunted by prim and proper robots. I am _so_ terrible at this game, but it's fun enough I'm sure I'll give it another go sometime soon.