Monday, December 28, 2009

Advanced A Touch Of Evil

I played several more games of A Touch Of Evil over the recent holiday. We broke out the advanced rules and added them in.

With all those Advanced Abilities on the villain, I thought for sure it was going to boost up the difficulty a lot. To my surprise, we're still winning the cooperative game just as often as we had been when using the basic rules instead of advanced. The villain's Advanced Abilities are basically watered down by the additional Secrets cards, that make treachery less likely.
In fact, we've only lost the game twice total, once to the scarecrow on Basic, and once to the Dellion Dryad (a "web extra" downloadable villain) on Advanced. That's out of more than a dozen plays. We've had a few close scrapes, but as long as you get to the showdown, it seems the PCs are almost certain to win out in a cooperative game. The villains just aren't as powerful as you imagine them to be. We've decided, starting with our next play, to start using the Optional Showdown Chart to spice it up and add to the difficulty. I'm really glad they provided that chart, because as you get better at the game, it needs a little boost to the tension.
Now that we've transitioned to the Advanced rules, I'm really glad we're playing the cooperative version. If not, I think my opinion of the game may have suffered when we hit Advanced.

In particular, the new Secrets cards have an annoying amount of "gray area". I'm specifically talking about "Hero of the People" and "On The Hunt". In our most recent game, the Lair was in the Fields. Those two secrets cards had assigned one town elder to the PC who was about to encounter the Lair, and another town elder to the Fields space. Both those cards allow the PC to use the town elder's stats in interesting ways. Problem is, neither the cards, nor the rules, nor the FAQ at the manufacturer's website, explain if those interesting abilities apply during a Showdown or not. They also don't indicate whether the elder being with you or at the site of the Lair includes them in the Showdown / Hunting Party, and whether or not you can still bring along other elders in the Hunting Party.

Since it was a cooperative game, this was no big deal, we made a ruling based on objective play balance and variety of play experience. But if we'd been playing competitively, this would have been ugly. In this specific situation, how you interpret it would mean the difference between the PC having +2 dice or +9 dice on the fight, whether the villain split his dice between 3 targets or 5, and whether or not we had to take our chances on revealing the secrets of 2 more town elders. That compiled list of differences is pretty huge, and I could see where that would result in an otherwise enjoyable game ending in a rules argument. Glad we dodged that bullet.

Similarly, we also had a situation in another recent game where a card had resulted in a town elder having 2 secrets. When they were revealed later, that one elder had both "Hero of the People" and "On the Hunt". There were no clear rules in the game to dictate which card takes precedence, and whether the elder ends up in a space or attached to a player. Hopefully, Flying Frog will issue some errata or clarifications about those two cards.

Sherlock's Combat Monologues - in Gumshoe

Yesterday my wife and I saw the new Sherlock Holmes movie, and I have some ideas of how to use parts of it in the Gumshoe RPG System. What I liked most about the movie was the clever way they converted Holmes from "merely" a cerebral character to an action hero, without losing any of his genius along the way. He has these awesome internal monologues where he figures out the badguy's weaknesses and how best to fight them. He's no slouch in the Physical Attribute arena, but it's clearly his Mental Attributes that win the fights for him.

As I was watching it, I kept thinking how easy it would be to work some of that in to Gumshoe, the system used in Esoterrorists and Trail of Cthulhu.

In the Gumshoe system, one could argue that attacks, particularly gunfire, aren't quite as damaging as they could (or should) be. Your typical character can take a gunshot or stab wound and be just fine. That's great if you're running a cinematic adventure game, but most of the rest of Gumshoe is geared towards bookish investigator types and gritty realism. So, a method of situationally boosting your combat effectiveness might not be a bad thing. Putting in a Holmes-inspired system is overall pretty simple and elegant.

Here's how it works: For each NPC, the GM comes up with 1 or 2 weaknesses, and the corresponding skills that could be used to ferret them out. In the film, you might argue that Holmes only used Medicine for this (or only used Evidence Collection, depending on your point of view), but for a campaign it'd be important to spread it around so that no single Investigative Skill suddenly becomes a combat powerhouse.

For these weaknesses, the GM assigns one of the following opportunities:
  • The weakness represents a way to incapacitate, or more severely harm the NPC. On a successful hit, you may make an appropriate skill spend to get +2 damage.
    Example: A //Use// of the Medicine skill reveals that the foe has a trick knee. If you hit the foe, you may immediately //Spend// a point of Medicine, Scuffling or Weapons to further injure the knee. If you do, you deal an extra 2 points of damage.
  • The weakness represents a whole in the NPC's defenses. If you //Spend// a point of an appropriate skill while attacking, it provides a +2 bonus to hit.
    Example: A //Use// of the Outdoorsman Skill allows you to recognize the specific camouflage pattern the sniper is wearing. Armed with that knowledge, it's easier to tell him from the background as you return fire. When shooting you may now spend a point of either Outdoorsman or Sense Trouble on each shot, and if you do you get +2 to the attack roll.
  • The weakness represents a limitation to the NPC's attack capability. An appropriate //Spend// can increase your own Hit Threshold, versus their attacks only, by 2. Whenever you do this, the affect lasts until your next action, and if you wish to maintain it beyond you must continue to pay Spend points.
    Example: A //Use// of Weapons has revealed the weakness of his fighting style. He over-relies on a handful of moves, and always telegraphs his attacks. You may //Spend// Weapons or Athletics to boost your Hit Threshold to 5 against his next melee attack.
Of course, you'd need the plot or situations suggest to the PCs that using skills to size up the opponent is a good idea. In the first of my examples, you might narrate a slight limp when the character walks. In the last example, you might have part of the investigation take place at a dojo or gym, and the PCs arrive while the NPC is sparring with someone.

If the GM is feeling adventurous, and really trusts the players, you could also do this more free-form. Allow the above abilities to be something the PCs can invoke with their spends, and in fact make up on the spot, at any time. Just say to your players: "At any time you can spend a skill point to create a weakness in any NPC that doesn't already have one. Spend an appropriate skill, narrate in the NPCs flaw, and it becomes part of the character." There's some potential for abuse there, in that a player could build their PC in a very min-maxed way and then always give every foe a flaw that can be exploited with their one particular maxed-out skill. If you think that's likely to happen with your group, then fall back on the first system I described, where only the GM defines the weaknesses.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Teeming With Life mod, version 1.4

I just posted a new version (v1.4) of my "Teeming With Life" mod for Weird Worlds: Return to Infinite Space.

Download the new version here.

I'm much happier with the look of the mod now, but I still really need to go tweak the amoeba-ships. Getting those to the level I want may take some time.

Cyberpunk F#

Last night I ran a sequel to the old Cyberpunk "MOC" campaign, using F# instead of the clunky old rules for CP2020. I really like F#, it scores highly in the flexibility, elegance, and collaborative story-telling arenas.

Tone and Themes:
The setting aspects were:
  • "Dark Comedy" would be the prevailing theme.
  • Cold, harsh world where life ain't fair, the rich abuse the poor, and cybernetics is cheap and dirty.
  • The PCs are crazy enough, or desperate enough, to join a gang that indulges in random mayhem.
It was a lot of fun, but didn't quite capture the feeling of the old campaign. I think that is because the GM doesn't have any real fangs in F#. The GM can give out negative aspects as a form of damage, but the rules strongly encourage only doing that once per session per PC, and you really can't kill off a PC at all. There's no fear of death, which for many settings is actually a good thing, but probably isn't in keeping with the tone of Cyberpunk. In the old campaign, when the big fight broke out at the end, the PCs would have run and probably scattered - heroism in CP2020 gets you killed. Instead, the PCs stood toe-to-toe with the badguys, and there was nothing I could do to really make them sweat. They had fun, and got to be courageous, so perhaps I shouldn't complain.

Plot, such as there was:
Despite that tonal difference, the game was a lot of fun. The PCs were loser punks in a bizarre little gang that gets together for random mayhem rolled up on Morton's List. The List told them that this week's adventure would be to commit a major act of vandalism in another gang's territory. There were hijinks (involving the night city transit authority officers) on the bus-ride into enemy territory, a dead body in the park-and-ride, and then a big gang-vs-gang conflict at the soup kitchen.

The enemy gang was the Kennedy's Posergang. They faced off against cybernetically-enhanced duplicates of JFK, RFK, MLK, Jackie O (in pink), old Teddy Kennedy and Mayor Quimby. Okay, Quimby I probably never would have done in straight-up CP2020, but the improvisational nature of these light systems just takes me over the edge.

JFK had retractable head armor that (once deployed) was described as dinged up and chipped such that you could tell people liked to play Oswald on him. He was the gang leader, and eventually unleashed a very anime-style attack, where he shouted "CUBAN MISSILE CRISIS!" and launched a dozen micro-missiles. Jackie O had souped up Cyberlegs and did a ballerina attack. The "Vote Quimby" sash had a built-in monowire. Teddy's weight problem was actually enhanced Skin Weave. Etc. Governor Connolly was driving the get-away convertible. It was pretty stupid, but quite enjoyable at the time.

Character Sheets:
F# gives PCs 6 Aspects, which I've found is probably more than you need. Most PCs end up with some that overlap, and since Aspects don't stack, there's not much benefit to be gained with it. I tried to mitigate this a bit, by restricting the Aspects into categories to encourage diversity on each PC. It also let me ensure all the PCs were properly CyberPunk. The blank character sheet looked something like this:

+2This space left blank for the player to fill in. Useful piece of cyberware, cool gadget, or bio-implant.
+2This space left blank for the player to fill in. Bizarre useless cyberware, or just something that defines the look of your character.
+1This space left blank for the player to fill in. What type of hoodlum, criminal, ganger or loser are you?
+1This space left blank for the player to fill in. Other background element or character backstory
+1This space left blank for the player to fill in. Catch phrase
+1This space left blank for the player to fill in. Your choice, this can be anything.

Most characters had one major piece of cybergear, some managed to squeak a second out of the bizarre / fashion category, and everyone had the option of using the last category for one more major tech bit if they wanted.

Arkham Horror meets Brotherhood of the Wolf

Arkham Horror meets Brotherhood of the Wolf, only a lot less fiddly and complicated than that implies. That's how to best describe "A Touch Of Evil", a relatively new boardgame from Flying Frog Productions. The plot is very reminiscent of Brother of the Wolf, complete with muskets, tri-corner hats, an evil monster, and conspiratorial noblemen. The main game comes with four big villains - vampire, werewolf, headless horseman, and evil scarecrow - each with it's own minions and events to shape the play experience of that particular session.

It's got all the flavor of a game like Arkham Horror, without the maze of rules to wade through. The turns play out faster, and there are fewer counter-intuitive rules ripples to have to sort out. It's got the same "build up your character so you can defeat the big bad" dynamic of Runebound or Talisman or Arkham, but without the 3+ hour play time that those games demand. It's got scenario variety, unlike Arkham Horror where every big bad uses the same chaotic pool of events. A Touch of Evil doesn't feature as much as scenario variety as Betrayal At House On The Hill, but then it doesn't suffer from Betrayal's completely random balance issues either.

Overall, A Touch Of Evil is a triumph of storytelling in a boardgame. Despite having lighter rules than the aforementioned games, it's got more flavor, and tells a better story. As much as I love Arkham, it's such a chaotic mess of monsters and gates that there's rarely a coherent story out of it, and Allies are mechanically indistinguishable from Guns or Skills. Not so in A Touch of Evil, where the "NPCs" have secrets, different from session to session, which you must ferret out lest they stab you in the back. Will the Reverend be a stalwart ally, a craven coward, a book-burning demagogue, or a traitorous pawn of evil? That varies from game to game, and has a lot more impact than just being "+2 vs Vampires".

The game has Competitive, Cooperative, and Team options, depending on the play style you and your group prefers. Team up to defeat the monster, or seek to impede the others and get all the glory for yourself.

Have I mentioned that I really like the game? 'Cause I do. The gameplay is sweet.

It is not, however, completely without flaws. So far I've found three, none of which is major. Here's the problem areas, and how we dealt with them in the two games we've played so far:
  1. Tide of Darkness: This Mystery Card can be interpreted in one of two ways. Either you place one monster in 1 space, and some investigation points in three spaces; or they might mean you place both a monster and investigation points in each of three spaces. We were playing the cooperative game, and wanted the bigger challenge, so we placed three monsters. It worked well, but that interpretation seems like it would be a very swingy card in competitive play, shutting off half the board to the player(s) who were already behind in the arms race.
  2. Muskets: There's no rule stopping you from using 2 muskets at once. Setting this up is relatively difficult (much easier in cooperative than competitive play), but seems cheesy. It'd be easy to house-rule this for the sake of reality, but the absence of fiddly corner-case rules about item stacking is part of what makes A Touch Of Evil so much more elegant than Arkham and it's ilk. Since the musket bonus isn't huge, we chose to just hand-wave it and assume the die bonus didn't represent actually shooting, so much as the fact that you were equipped and ready to take a second shot if the opportunity presented itself. The first musket's bonus is the potential damage of a gun shot. The second musket's bonus represents the reduced psychological pressure of knowing you aren't screwed if your first shot misses.
  3. Lair Cards: You can only have one Lair Card, which makes sense, since it represents tracking the Villain to their den of evil. But there's this unfortunate sentence in the rule book that heavily implies you can buy another lair card and discard whichever is worse. Late in the game, the Lair Cards are cheap. In our second game, Sarah discarded about 6 Lair Cards in one turn. Nothing in the rules stopped it, but it felt lame. If swapping Lairs is that simple, you'd never use the more harrowing lairs, at least not in Cooperative play, because someone will always have the spare Investigation points to keep discarding till you get an easy Lair. So we house-ruled this for all future sessions: you can't buy a second lair card, but can still get a second one via the particular Event that gives you a free Lair, which shouldn't come up too often.
If you like flavorful, story-driven boardgames like Arkham Horror, Runebound, or Betrayal at House on the Hill, you should check out A Touch Of Evil. I don't know just yet if it has as much replayability as those games ('cause I've only played it twice), but it's faster and more approachable, which is a huge plus. It strikes me as being the best of the bunch thus far.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Return to Infinite Modding

My favorite video game is once again Weird Worlds: Return To Infinite Space, the game that lets you explore an entire galaxy on your lunch break.

For nearly a year I couldn't play it. My old computer died, and I'd somehow failed to backup my download of it.

A couple weeks ago, I got the game again. So! Much! Fun! I'm left wondering why I didn't rush out and buy a new copy the second I lost the old one.

And, of course, I immediately felt the desire to mod welling up inside me. Feeling the creative urge...

I very quickly released a new version (v 1.3) of my old "Teeming With Life" mod. No real new content, but several bug fixes. It's amazing how problems and solutions stand out so clearly after taking a year off from something. Download Link

I followed that up with a quick and dirty little mod called "Tech Transparency". It's significantly less ambitious than my other mods (and you can tell by the generic text-only banner).

After a year off, I just found I no longer knew which weapons and items were worth the trouble, and which ones were total junk. I realized it'd be a simple task to make a mod that displays all the relevant game data in the pop-up-window for each item. If I was going to make such a tool for myself, I might as well make it available for others, and thus Tech Transparency was born. Download Link

Now, some would say this mod is almost against the spirit of the game. Weird Worlds is all about style and mystery, not comparing game stats to maximize your efficiency. Those folks are right, but they have the main game and plenty of other mods they can enjoy. I will admit the mod certainly lost some of the cleverness of the original game, even a few of the sci-fi in-jokes had to be cut for space reasons, but I think it's worth it to figure out which three-coin beams are worth installing, and which ones are just trade-bait.

Does this mean I'll return to full-blown modding? I don't know. Those were both easy to implement, and took just a couple of hours. I've got plenty of ideas for mods, but the loss of my Weirdyssey mod before it could even be released was pretty heart-breaking. I'd put way too many hours into that thing, and never got to show it off. Not sure I'll try anything that extreme again, especially considering how dead the WW:RTIS modding community is. I'd love to see the mod forums become active again, but that seems unlikely. Then again, I wasn't playing for a year, so maybe some of the other prolific modders will return, too. It's hard to mod with your fingers crossed. :)

Friday, December 11, 2009

Now with less Pirates!

Yesterday, about 5 hours before my weekly one-shot group got together, we all realized no one had volunteered to GM that day. Throwing out ideas quickly, I said "I could run pirate-themed wushu."

My day was a little busy, so I didn't have much time to prepare. I didn't think it'd be a problem, because I'd written a little 7th Sea / Wushu hybrid adventure several months back. Or so I thought. I hunted and couldn't find it in my notebook, on my computer, or on my blog. Luckily, it was wushu, so I didn't worry. I figured I'd just put the PCs on a ship, have pirates attack, and improvise from there.

I spent the rest of my limited prep time grabbing some props. I grabbed a few painted minis from roughly the right era (there's not nearly as many pirate minis out there as you might expect), and a few of the little Pirates of the Spanish Main ships. Wushu isn't the sort of game where minis are needed, but I wanted them on-hand in case it was ever unclear where things were.

I also brought a gaudy piece of costume jewelry from one of my wife's old halloween costumes. The pirates would attack to get this family heirloom of one of the PCs. I figured the large amber-colored glass "gem" in the middle of it could be a lens for reading the hidden code on a treasure map or something. PCs have tons of narrative power in Wushu, so I didn't really want to plan out too much.

During character creation, it was bandied about that the PCs might be Pirates, so while they hashed that out, I started thinking that I'd need to jazz up the game a bit. I decided the villains would be creepy supernatural pirates, so that even if the PCs chose to be pirates I'd still be able to have an evil villain. I mentioned that I'd nearly run 7th Sea, and that I'd be okay with PCs having magic, as long as it was flavorful magic.

The PCs ended up not being pirates afterall*, but by then I was already excited about the potential of my supernatural baddies. I didn't want to just go with skeleton/zombie pirates - that's too mundane. So I decided to fixate on the term "crow's nest". I decided the villains were evil crows that pluck out men's eyes. It was sort of a riff on vampirism - if your eyes were plucked out, you became an evil pirate who could turn into a murder of crows. Your pirate form would be blind, because it had no eyes, but being able to turn into big flock of birds had some fun possibilities.

Shortly into the session, I had the Crow's vessel appear on the horizon and start chasing them. I said it was a chase scene, and treated it like Mooks. PCs could take actions to sail off or fight, and either would reduce the Threat Rating. I expected more of a chase, but it turned into a fight, which was fine by me. When a player eliminated the last of the Threat Rating, she narrated that the Crow ship was on fire and burning and turned away, but two more ships were now on the horizon.

There was a groan across the table. No one veto'd, but it was clear that 3 out of 4 players had had enough ship-to-ship combat for the moment, and weren't looking forward to fighting two more boats. Since no one reacted in-character, I took the reigns and identified the two new ships as English pirate-hunters who'd been chasing the Crow-pirates. To apply a bit of foreshadowing or tension or whatever, I had the pirate-hunters say the Crow-pirates had hit several ports, every place the PCs ship had stopped to resupply in the past two months of voyaging. Players instantly made the connection that the Pirates had been chasing them for a long time, and I think that everyone had figured out (at least out-of-character) it had something to do with the gaudy jewelry prop.

Around this time, one of the PCs narrated the "land ho!" They moored at an unexplored island for a day or so to make repairs to the ship.

One of the PCs had a fancy (almost steam-punk) spyglass he'd been using, and had "Student of the Sciences" as one of his traits, so I told him he could see an ancient temple in the jungle. I was picturing some stone ziggurat or aztec-y temple, but my actual description was foolishly vague. Next thing I know, the PCs had described it's a Greek Temple, meaning that the Classical Ancients were actually a world-wide power. Thanks to wushu's Principle of Narrative Truth, that's what it was. I could work with that, it was an idea with merit.

The PCs narrated they started hacking at the underbrush, cutting a path to the Greek Temple. So I improvised wildly. The underbrush was populated by Dryads, who were being harmed by the chopping. So one cries out in Greek "Father, avenge us against those who butcher us!" That's when Pan (or at least a Satyr) shows up. It ended up being a pretty cool fight, but kinda weird. The PCs were against a Satyr, Dryads, animated trees, and the tropical flying squirrels that Pan's pipes had whipped up into a frenzy. At an opportune moment I had the Satyr point at the gaudy family heirloom (with it's huge amber gemstone) one PC was wearing, and shout out "They have the Eye of Demeter!"

As that fight was winding down, one of the PCs narrates that the Crows are flying in again. Unfortunately, on the Satyr's last action, he and one of the other PCs killed each other. I'm now down one PC, with an hour left in the one shot, and no convenient place for a new PC to come from. So, I have the crows land and pluck the eyes from the PCs corpse. He arises as a blind Crow-pirate, but not yet turned evil. There's some negotiation, and the Crows decide not to attack the PCs this time. They explain to the newly "crowed" PC that they're trying to get the Eye of Demeter, because only it can open the temple, where the Golden Fleece is contained. Only the Fleece can return their humanity.

The PCs head up to the temple, and rather than being locked in some way, they describe it as pretty airy and open, but there's a statue of a goddess with one amber eye and one empty eyesocket. Rather than insert the family heirloom into the statue, though, one of the PCs steals the other eye!

Desecrating a statue in a temple on a heavily-supernatural island seems pretty crazy to me, and needed to have consequences. I'd said Eye of Demeter on a improvisational lark, but sadly Demeter is a Goddesses I don't know jack about. Rather than worry about that, I just decide it's an older pre-myceanean form of Demeter lost to the mists of history. So the goddess that shows up is a naked-breasted snake-wielding bull-dancing Minoan goddess. That seemed to be historical enough for people to grok it, but unusually cool enough no one would quibble over cultural accuracy.

We were running short on time, so the battle was perhaps not as epic as I would have liked. Devon was playing the youngest of the PCs. Her character was a teenage urchin boy, who'd never seen a topless woman before. So instead of helping fight the Goddess, Devon's character tried to placate her. The urchin stole the family heirloom from the other PCs and gave it to the Goddess. She said "It's been centuries since the villagers gave me a virgin sacrifice," and that was pretty much that. Fade to black.

I'd gone in expecting a pirate story, perhaps with some minor supernatural elements, and instead ended up with high-fantasy alternate history in which pirates were only a very minor background theme. We didn't really use the minis (ships or people) at all, either. So nothing at all like I'd planned, yet it was a lot of fun.

*: Well, most of the PCs weren't pirates, anyway. Erik's PC, semi-retired, drubbed-out-of-the-navy "Uncle Evilbeard" was pretty piratical. I should add that "Uncle Evilbeard" is probably the coolest character name I've heard in a long time. It captured the heart of his character perfectly, and defined the tone of the game more than any other detail in the initial set-up. Well done, Erik!

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Fantasy Companion Bullets

More than a month ago, I picked up the Savage Worlds Fantasy Companion, and recently used elements from several chapters for my thanksgiving gaming, so I'm pretty familiar with the book now.

Here's my point-by-point observations about the Fantasy Companion -- and apparently, I have a lot to say about it:
  • It's a good book, and you'll be happy with it, provided you understand how it came to be. It's compiled from several pdfs the company had released previously. As a result, sometimes the 4th chapter doesn't know what the 3rd chapter is doing, and vice-versa. If they'd integrated these documents better, it would have been a far more cohesive and immediately useful book. If you already have the pdfs, the print version doesn't add anything. I only had one of the PDFs, so I found the book well worth the money.

  • At first glance, it would seem races in Savage Worlds are far less fiddly than in D&D. A Savage Dwarf, for example, is elegant and entirely unlike the complicated package of racial bonuses seen in just about any edition of D&D.

  • Then you get to the Saurian and Rakashan races, which have no direct D&D analog, and for whatever reason they are significantly more complicated. It's an odd choice to simplify elves and dwarves so much, but make the new races very crunchy. I suspect there's some sort of copyright issue at work - if they'd duplicated all those dwarf bonuses from D&D, it could have been lawsuit bait.

  • I'm skeptical of the ability of the "Racial Enemy" flaw as a way of balancing the Rakashan race. They already have -4 to Charisma from one of the other flaws, and that -4 is pretty heavy. You'd never dream of building a Rakashan Diplomat PC, for example. Instead, they'll certainly be the parties muscle. So, then piling -4 to Charisma vs Saurians as an additional modifier is dubious. You're already talking about a character who desperately wants to avoid social rolls, so giving him an extra social roll penalty against 1 specific race feels kinda munchkiny to me.

  • I also don't like that that results in a situation where you can't just add one of the these two new races to the game, you have to add both or come up with some other major flaw to balance them out.

  • At least they follow that up with a really good system for creating your own races. That system is very sweat, and a GM's dream.
  • I kind of feel like Troubadour should be it's own Arcane Background, and not a second Edge. The little bit of cash you can make out of it doesn't really justify having to take a Major Hindrance to afford the second Edge to go with your Arcane Background (Miracles).

  • The list of possible Familiars is a little extreme. I'm not sure how I feel about a PC having a Rhino or Great White Shark as a familiar. It definitely out-performs the Beast Master edge from the main book, even before you start adding in the powers a Familiar can give you.

  • For that matter, this Familiar edge suffers from a similar problem to that which plagues the Shape Change power in the main book. For either the edge or the power, your choice as a starting character is between hawk, rabbit, or cat (or snake as a 4th option for familiar). Both provide reasons why the GM would need stats for those three animals - as they result in the PCs stats being increased if the creature chosen would naturally have higher stats. Problem is, hawks cats and rabbits aren't given stats in either book. How do I know if my rabbit familiar/form has higher agility than the d6 my PC started with?

  • I wish the Assassin edge had defined "unawares". The +2 bonus it gives is certainly not as devastating as the backstab in D&D that it's emulating, so it's hard to judge how hard it should be to earn the bonus. I could see some GMs interpret this to mean the bonus is only in cases where the Assassin had The Drop on a foe, whereas others would allow it to work with a mid-combat stealth roll, and my own inclinations would be to allow it vs Tricked or Shaken characters.

  • The gear section is pretty good, I especially love how they handled Studded Leather. I'd been thinking there was no good solution, because the main rules had truncated all armor down to a 3-point scale, but they found a way that works for me. Bravo.

  • The gear list includes both Hunting Dog and War Dog, at different prices. Seeing as how there's only one set of Dog stats in the rules, I wish they'd explained the difference.

  • Love the expanded siege rules. If I ever run a major war plotline, these will see serious use.

  • While I like the Deific Templates for Cleric-types, I was puzzled by the spell lists.
    Example: Bolt is Savage World's premiere attack spell, the equivalent of Magic Missile in D&D. So which of the following clerics should have access to it: A cleric of the Goddess of Healing, a cleric of the God of the Sea, or a cleric of the God of War? As it turns out, it's on the spell list for all three. Other oddities show up, like Burrow on the spell list for the God of the Sun.
    As mentioned above, the book was assembled from several small PDF releases, and this magic section is where that starts to show. If they'd actually used any of the spells from this book on their spell list for clerics, they could have made lists that had less overlap and strangeness. Instead, that work is left for the GM to do.

  • The section on Spell Trappings is certainly desired, but could have been better with more concrete advice and another editing pass. It was full of examples, but no actual guidance on how to balance those examples. No attempts were made to explain how much of an advantage was worth costing one more spell point, for example. If they'd given the trappings system the same treatment they gave the race-building system, the results would be more useful.

  • The expanded Grimoire has some very good spells in it, but also a lot of filler that seems to be redundant, especially given the trappings system that immediately proceeds it. Several of the new attack spells could have just been an old spell with a trapping tacked on.

  • I mostly like the Magic Item system. It's something the game really needed, and I'm a-ok with being a large section of the book. There were plenty of ideas contained within, and it has a pricing system that I found very helpful for my campaign.

  • However, the pieced-together nature of the book is again obvious. You can roll up a scroll with any of the spells from the main book, but not with any of the new spells introduced in the previous chapter. I find that very annoying.

  • Not sure having Minor Artifacts have their own pool of power points is a good design decision if your mantra is "Fast! Furious! Fun!" If a PC already has his own pool of 10-20 power points, I'm a little apprehensive about separately tracking the power points available to each of his two wands. Speaking of which, some of the wand descriptions are missing any indication of how many power points they should have, and only list how many points the effects use.

  • Loved the Tomes entry, and would have liked to see it expanded on. It's a great fix for one thing I consider a minor problem of the core rules. Savage Worlds is pretty much unique in gaming in that wizards actually lag behind fighters in the late campaign. Tomes give the GM a way to fine-tune and course-correct the wizard power level over time, so I'm very much in favor of them.

  • Moving on to the monsters section, I'm impressed. There's far more than 100 monsters here, including equivalents to many of the staple monsters from D&D that you're likely to have distinctive miniatures of.

  • My only real complaint about the monster section is the fact that again they've neglected to include any sort of rating system for the monsters. I understand that the authors of Savage Worlds prefer the sandbox feel where the PCs can sometimes pick fights they can't win. I'm okay with that. But as a GM, I'd like to know when this is happening before half the party dies. And yes, given the unstructured nature of the experience / level-up system, it's hard to say what "level" of characters are a good match for a particular monster. But what's not hard, when you're making monsters, is to put them into 3 or 4 categories based on relative power. Would it really have been that big a chore for them to do so? Or to just include a short list of the dozen weakest monsters, so the GM doesn't have to scan over 150 creature entries trying to find something appropriate for his first session of the new campaign?
Overall, I'm glad I bought the book, and feel I got my money's worth last week.

My biggest complaint with the book is the one I made again and again above. It feels like a tacked-together collection of other documents, and not a coherent whole. That's a natural outgrowth of how the book came to be, but I really wish they'd spent some editing efforts integrating the parts better.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Chronic Spanning-Related Achronal Nascency Syndrome

When I converted Continuum to Gumshoe, I wanted to include rules for flaws / hindrances / limits. Whatever you want to call them, I tend to like the things, as they allow for some differentiation of the characters. Gumshoe has nothing like it, so I had to invent a system whole-cloth.
An armless aside: Continuum had a Limits system, but it wasn't much to my liking. All the flaws were of equal value, and you rolled up the specific flaw at random. I was always stunned by the notion that you take a flaw for 2 extra character points for some Firearms or Athletics skill, and then have a 2% chance of rolling up "no arms". I mean really, no arms? As a random flaw on a character you're already committed to play and have finalized all other details of? I find myself having to check the cover of the rulebook. It is Continuum, even if this chart seems borrowed from Hackmaster.
So I made a very open-ended flaw system. Everyone must create one flaw for their character, and may choose a second flaw if they'd like. The mandatory flaw starts rated at a "1", and if you'd like a few extra points, either flaw may be raised as high as "3".
Numerical Values, and how the flaws work: The number value corresponds to roughly how often it will come up in the game. At the time, I'd been expecting 4 hour sessions, and the idea that a really bad flaw might sometimes bite you 3 times in 4 hours seemed believable. I now know we're running fairly tight 3-hour sessions, and the most I've activated someones flaw was twice in one session - and that just once out of 4 or 5 sessions we've been running now.

The idea was supposed to be that I'd activate the PCs flaw, and they'd have to roleplay it or pay several points of something to overcome it. If you had taken "kleptomaniac" as your flaw, and the GM activated it, you'd either have to try to steal the obvious trinket, or pay a few points of Stability to fight off the impulse. I was trying to recreate something that felt a bit like the Hubris system in 7th Sea, with some back-and-forth mechanics manipulation by pPlayer and GM alike.

So far, because of my awesome group, every instance the person has chosen to just play it out and give in to their flaws. I'm a little worried that by the time a situation comes up where someone wants to resist their flaw, they'll have forgotten it's even an option.
The point of all this rambling is that one of the players came up with this crazy notion that her character would have a flaw that was inspired by the movie The Time Traveller's Wife. Her character hasn't mastered how to span,
Spanning, for those not familiar with Continuum, is the art of time-travel and teleportation. All PCs can blip through time and space more-or-less casually.
and instead ends up at the desired place and time, but naked and suffering from temporary amnesia. I almost veto'd this flaw. It flies in the face of some major aspects of the setting - that the Spanning tech is second nature to the PCs, and that exposure of time-travel to the ignorant masses is a big no-no. The player in question is a great role-player, however, and was no doubt going to be an asset to the game, so, with some trepidation I said yes.

And thus was born Chronic Spanning-Related Achronal Nascency Syndrome. It's a rare disorder, and a flaw that plays with the definition of what spanning is. Are you really the same person you were before you teleported? If all your cells ceased to exist, and then were rebuilt somewhere, somewhen else, would you still be the same person? In some sense, one could argue that a spanner is reborn everytime they span, and her character's flaw is evidence in support of that argument. The true definitions of "self" and "birth" are something the Midwives, Physicians, and Thespians could debate in some cloistered Corner somewhere, so in that way it fits the setting.

It has resulted in a slower start to the campaign than I'd envisioned. My plan was to zip through Span One as quickly as the players could handle. Instead, everything's taken longer, because the PCs have to maneuver around the reality that one of them will end up naked and confused everytime they span somewhere. It's slow-going, but it's fun.

Catching up on a couple weeks

It's been pointed out to me that I haven't posted much here lately. Rest assured, this is a temporary development. We've been very busy. I started a new Continuum campaign within the past month, and we spent a week in Portland over Thanksgiving, for which I had to prepare a lot of Dungeons & Savages. So, all my hours where my wife isn't home have been spent prepping for games, instead of blogging about them. The hours when she is home, or rather the non-telework hours after she gets off work, have been spent re-watching 5 seasons of Lost so it's all fresh when we get into the final season that starts in about a month.

So, my apologies for this place being so slow, and hopefully that will change soon.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Burning the Clocktower, Damming the Gulch

For the majority of this year, I was running a Deadlands Reloaded game, a campaign entitled "Guns of Shallow Gulch". I ended it several weeks back (has it been a month?), and to this point I haven't blogged about it, because the ending was uncomfortable*.

The plot never full resolved. Here's where it left off:

The big bad, Cobb, was temporarily defeated, but was a few days away from being able to rematerialize, and the PCs knew it. The PCs were presented with the big clocktower in the middle of town, an enormous architectural ghost trap. Cobb's wife had told the PCs they could use the tower as a weapon against Cobb, that it might be able to destroy him. However, there was the danger that whoever built the tower would be able to harness his power in the process. The PCs had already dynamited the leader of the faction who built the tower, but they didn't really know for certain if they'd killed him.

As you can see, we were using legos for miniatures in this campaign, and I made a fairly intricate model of the clocktower, complete with corrupted altars, 1,000-year-old vampire coffin, and flayed souls dangling from spectral chains.

The clocktower was eating spirits and ghosts left and right. It was even gobbling down harrowed who got too close. One harrowed the PCs were hunting had tried to take shelter in it, and was destroyed. Another harrowed that was helping the party got attacked by the tower. I had the tower make some ballsy moves. It was just a minor variation on the evil clocktower in my old "H.O.D." LARP, which most of the play group had a love/hate relationship with back in the day, from that LARP campaign. At the LARP, various people had tried to destroy the tower, but no one ever succeeded. It was too powerful, and too well defended, and the players had that pesky Masquerade to worry about.

So, I kind of expected the same in this campaign. To their credit, the players really surprised me. They burned the place to the ground. It was a pretty good fight, they had to put down the ghosts who had bargained with the Tower (to be minions instead of lunch). All the PCs got away with their lives, but one lost his horse and took a bunch of wounds himself. Another got trapped inside the tower for several rounds, and had to fight his way out. In the end, they fled just as the reinforcements were arriving from the Templar Lodge that had built the tower. I really wasn't expecting them to be able to do that much damage to it - the tower was a goner.

Mind you, destroying the clocktower would have meant the PCs had to fight with Cobb again in a few days, and no good leads on ways to put him down permanently. As it was, the campaign wrapped, the gaming group disbanded, and we didn't have to deal with that.

More on the Clock Tower:
in this Deadlands campaign
in the old LARP

Lego miniatures:
The PCs

Other posts about the campaign:
starting each session with storytime
Blessed are powerhouses
every post about the campaign on a single page (includes all the above plus several more posts)

*: I ended the campaign for purely out-of-character reasons, which is why I've been slow to blog about it. I'd decided to end my friendship with two people - and since those two people played in the game, the game was going to have to go as well. I'm still too close to the events to write about it with wisdom. I expect I will look back at it years from now with remarkably few regrets, but for now, there's still a measure of guilt and worry that I could have done it in a less painful way. As an observer said to me about it: "Unfriending people in real life is a lot harder than on Facebook."

I missed the Emerald City Game Fest

Emerald City Game Fest is an annual free one-day gaming convention, put on by the same group that hosts the weekly Game Feast I regularly attend. Last year's ECGF was tons of fun. This year's con was last weekend, and I'd been looking forward to it all year.

But on the morning of, our car refused to start. We intended to go catch the second half later, but the car still wouldn't start, and the ECGF was way up in Kenmore... Okay not "way" up, if the car had been running, it would have been less than a half an hour drive. Instead, as it turns out, in order for us to arrive in time for the 2:00 game, we would have had to get on a bus at 12:08. We didn't realize it would take that long, and didn't even go look up the schedule till a few minutes after that.

In general, the bus-service here in Seattle is really good, but in this case, when taking a bus to far northern suburbs, it kinda sucked. I guess I've just been spoiled by my direct and easy route downtown.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Two comments on Wraith: The Oblivion

Last night, my weekly one-shot group played Wraith the Oblivion. Two observations:
  • I really like the concept of you playing two characters: your main character, and the shadow-self (like the devil on the shoulder) of another player. It was really flavorful, and it meant every player always had something to do.
  • Both the mechanics and the setting were probably more fiddly than is ideal for a one-shot. (Having now played the old Vampire, Werewolf, Changeling and Wraith, I have to say that Vampire is the most accessible and newbie-friendly of the batch.)

Friday, October 30, 2009

Were-Ostrich and Iguana Boy

I played in a hilarious and completely awesome game of InSpectres last night.

InSpectres is a very light RPG where the PCs lie somewhere in the spectrum between Ghostbusters and Ghost Hunters. It's a very simple system, and allows for a lot of narrative power in the players hands, so I really like it.
An aside about silliness:
I've played InSpectres half a dozen times over the past year, and have come to the conclusion that it handles goofy, almost slapstick, adventures better than more serious ones.

Everyone gets very different ideas in their head about what's going on, and given each players narrative power, it's easy to end up with a disjointed and somewhat contradictory story. If you go in with the intention of being goofy, you're not alarmed when someone pulls a completely random bit of nonsense out and makes the plot take a sharp turn. Scooby Doo endings, Big Bads behind seemingly disparate events, Werewolves in Spaceships, by embracing wackiness you're freeing up the plot (and players) to surprise you. You never know when someone's going to say, "Your stake breaks against his chest, but it does tear open his artificial flesh - it turns out the vampire is actually a robot!"

A more serious game of InSpectres is harder to pull off, because it only takes one moment of wild improvisation for another player to completely destroy your suspension of disbelief, and thus "ruin" the session without doing anything "wrong". Better to go in with your eyes wide open to the truly bizarre nature of the game.
Goofiness all around last night. We were playing the creators and staff of a little monster-hunting show on the internet. I was constantly adding in-character statements like "I know were-ostriches sounds pretty strange, but this is from a reliable source. The same source that gave us our lead on that episode in season 1, remember the vampire armadillos? The same guy. That sounded unbelievably bizarre then, but John's still got the scars to prove it was true. Were-ostriches will play out the same." Other folks started getting in on the joke, though I'd been it's main instigator for the first half of the session. By the end of the night, it was established that our show was in it's 4th season of investigating mostly supernatural versions of otherwise mundane animals.

We ran two mini-scenarios during the course of the evening.
  • The first had to do with a possible were-ostrich killing the workers at an ostrich farm. Investigation later revealed it was actually ostrich warriors of some rare African mystical tradition.
  • The second scenario began with a Fortean rain of cursed coins from 1923, and ended with Iguana-Human hybrids who were being held captive by a witch. I can't really summarize the plot of the second scenario. You had to be there.
I really liked that the game's extremely light rules and quickly-resolving narrative structure allowed us to pack two self-contained scenarios into a four-hour block. If most RPGs sessions are Novella, and long campaigns like a multi-book Novel series, then last night was a short-story anthology. It's was a nice change of pace, very unlike most other gaming experiences.
Another aside, this time about the sudden resolution of plot arcs:
The hardest part of InSpectres is pacing. There's a mechanism that determines how far you are from completing the scenario, and it's really easy to accidentally blunder into what should be whole-hog resolution while you're just trying to narrate your way past what you thought was just a minor hurdle and unrelated to the main plot.

After half a dozen sessions of the game, I don't feel our group has gotten any better at keeping our eye on that and adapting our narration to match. One of these days I should really sit down and do an exhaustive mathematical analysis of the core mechanics, and different scenario length possibilities.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Fate and d6 minus d6

The game I just mentioned in my last post was using a modified version of the Fate system. I have a quick observation on the mechanics.

We used a strange 2d6 roll instead of Fudge dice. One d6 was a positive die, the other negative, so a roll could range from +5 to -5. You add your aspects and skills to that. I've seen this mentioned as an optional rule in other Fate products.

Thing is, getting a +4 bonus on a skill is pretty big investment on your character sheet for a starting character. Which meant in an opposed roll, the guy who spent everything on this given skill might roll a total of -1, while the person who has no skill in it gets a lucky roll and +5 total. That's just really swingy. Not horribly broken, but yet, it made it feel like our skill specialities and character niches didn't really matter. Next time I play Fate, I'll definitely argue for the Fudge dice version.

At least I went down while shooting at Space-Hitler

In the previous two sessions, the crew had become the "guests" of the evil space genius who intended to destroy an entire civilization as revenge for them stiffing him on a weapons-design contract.

We'd made a plan to defeat the villain, and at a critical moment I was betrayed. Division within our own ranks resulted in me being subdued by my own crew, who feared their own deaths more than the dishonor of being the lap-dogs of a genocidal maniac.
(Now, admittedly, there's out-of-character pressures involved there. Most players consider self-preservation more important than accomplishing the goals of the mission, in most circumstances. But I'd made a hero, gosh-darn-it, and if I had to choose between my survival and my humanity, it was an easy choice. Plus we'd just watched Valkyrie about a week ago, so I have a relatively fresh model for making hard sacrifices to do what's right.)
It actually turned out pretty amazing in the final session of the three-part storyline.

My Kirk-role was, as I mentioned in my last post, hampered by the humorous hindrances placed upon me by the Worst...Crew...EVER. Despite those many handicaps, I managed to muster some Stauffenberg-esque determination.

I fought to the bitter end, and managed to do massive damage to the super-ship, stranding the evil doctor and the traitorous members of my crew deep in the void of space. I died, having been injected with the evil doctor's syringe full of poison. Laser pistol hot in my hands, my last envenomed breaths being taken as the self-aware and mostly crippled ship choked out life-support on the bridge to make sure I was really out of commission. Did I mention that all of this was happening while the super-ship was wiping out two fleets of warships? I'd timed my actions to coincide with the most critical part of the fight, so that the ship couldn't just space me.

One of the two mostly-innocent player characters managed to escape the vessel, find rescue, and distance herself from the madman. Sadly, the other wasn't able to escape as well, the ship went to hyperspace while she was getting the airlock ready. That character was the only collateral damage I regret. The rest of them, their actions made them villains, and the characters got what they deserved.

Kudos to Erik. After one rough scene at the very start of the session, he managed to maintain order and keep the game fun despite everything that was happening. That couldn't have been easy. Even after the game, everyone was laughing and pal-ing around.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Twice As Powerful With His Crew Stabbing Him In His Shirtless Back

Update: Rereading this, it seems far more bitter than I really intended. I don't have the time to edit it right now, so it'll have to stay, rant and all. So I'll qualify it with "it was actually quite fun, just really frustrating at the same time". Like get-up-and-walk-away-from-the-table-for-a-moment-because-you-need-to-calm-down-and-can't-believe-how-bad-the-other-player-just-screwed-up-your-plans fun. Anyhow...

Several weeks back we arrived a little late for this sci-fi short-shot we were playing in. Four other players had already made their characters when my wife and I got there. No problem, the GM says, character creation is fast, flexible, and a little experimental. So, I ask, "what positions in the crew haven't been taken yet?" They say, "actually, we don't have a Starship Captain yet. Why don't you play the captain?"

We're late, I don't want to hold up the game, and as it happens it was the day I was diagnosed with Achilles Tendinitis, so I name the character "Captain Achilles". Top of the character sheet says "Character Concept", so I write "Captain Kirk with Prosthetic Leg". We'd recently watched some season 1 classic Trek - before he develops the strange pause-laden over-dramatic speach method that marks his characterization in season 2 & 3 and the movies. In short, I'm thinking I'm making a heroic and competent captain - Star Fleet's finest, beloved by his crew, etc, but with an old war wound as a handicap to keep me from dominating the game.

Next step in character creation is handing your character sheet to the left. That person adds an aspect to your sheet. Then they pass it left, and another person gives you your second aspect. I get my sheet back, and my two aspects are "Twice As Powerful With His Shirt Off" and "Compensating For Something". Thanks, guys.

But that's just the tip of the iceberg. All I knew was that the setting was ostensibly that of the old Traveller system. Now, I don't know Traveller very well, but it never struck me as slapstick or a parody. What I didn't know, was that in the 20 or 30 minutes we'd missed, they'd decided the crew would be the worst most dysfunctional crew that had ever been press-ganged into service. But they didn't tell me that. Nope, no clue had I till my first attempt to give a real order.

Now, when I'm playing a ranking PC, I don't pull rank often. It's not any fun to be bossed around, so I play it a lot more casual than any military or workplace would ever allow. In recent memory, this has burned me twice. So, it's not till the situation is dire that I start making command decisions, and the Pilot, Engineer, and Ship's Surgeon decide to do their own things instead. Total cluster. "Oh, well," I think, "that's what I get for showing up late. At least it's just a one-shot. I'll just roll with the punches." For the second half of the session, I switched from Captain Kirk to Zap Branigan, 'cause clearly that's the type of captain the rest of the players wanted. Any attempts at using logic, charisma, or discipline were going to be disrupted by the other players. Worst crew ever. We end up crashed, our passengers and crew imperiled, on this desolate ice planet run by a mad scientist. But, we didn't all die, so I considered that close enough to victory for a one-shot.

Imagine my surprise then, when, several weeks later, I come back from vacation to discover that a follow-up session to this game has been put on the schedule. Now I'm stuck reprising my over-compensating, shirtless on Hoth, incompetent captain, doomed to be disrespected by his crew. "Oh, well," I mutter again, and try to put on a good front.

Twenty minutes into this second session, it becomes clear that our NPC "host" is not just a mad scientist, but a genocidal fiend. He was marooned on this planet after being back-stabbed by the Draconian Empire, for whom he'd been a designer of superweapons. In the decades he'd be stranded here, he'd built a new super-weapon, a space ship with artificial intelligence and the power to destroy entire solar systems. He was now planning on obliterating a third of the galaxy to get his vengeance.

So, I talk to my horrible, incompetent crew. I know ordering them to fight won't work. But it is "Space Hitler" we're facing here, so I figured the players would grok that he's the badguy. "We need to figure out how to deal with this villain," I say. "We need to separate him from his ship, and knock him unconscious. Then the pilot and engineer will be able to jerry-rig a distress signal or possibly disable the AI in the ship." We discuss this, we lay out signals (blink three times, as silly as that sounds), we discuss it again and again, disseminating this information to all the PCs. Everyone is on-board.

A few scenes later, we have an opportunity. The mad scientist is in room with us in his base. All the PCs are present. There's two sets of 40-foot hangar doors between us and the evil AI ship. We've all got weapons drawn, because it had turned out one of our passengers had been a Draconian spy. The spy was subdued, and the Mad Scientist stood with his back to me. I blink three times at the Pilot's player, and attack the Mad Scientist. The game has no sneak attack rules, but the GM gives me initiative. I get a good hit, but it's not quite enough to take the Scientist out in one blow. Even though we had weapons at the ready, I started with an unarmed attack, because we wanted to capture the Mad Scientist and keep him as leverage so the supership couldn't just vaporize the planet. The scientist counter-attacks with a laser, but misses because I burn through a bunch of character resources to stay alive.

It gets to the PC Pilot's action. He shoots at me. Yep. My character is his target.

Then it's the Engineer's action, and he starts throwing pies at me. I kid you not.

3 other PCs flee the room. They're not really combat characters, and one had already been wounded by the Draconian spy, so I can't really blame them.

On my actions, while focusing my attacks on the Mad Scientist I shout orders to my crew to help me stop this madman - all the while reminding them that he is planning the genocide of billions. I even chose not to attack in round three so I can make a Leadership roll to force the Pilot to do his duty to not just his Captain but also Humanity. The player of the Pilot character blows through a big stack of Fate chips to resist it.

About 4 rounds into the fight I finally get some help from one of the other PCs, but by then I've burned through all my Fate Chips and taken a lot of damage. Even that PC decides to wrestle me to the ground on round 5 or 6, because she decides that's easier than fighting the villain plus all the other PCs. Total freakin' chaos.

The session ends with me in the brig of the evil super-ship, and everyone else buddy-buddy with Space Hitler. "Oh, well," I think, "at least it's the second-half of a two-parter. I'm out for a couple of scenes, but it'll all be over soon."

This Thursday, we're playing part three.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Gumshoe Continuum

I've been a little quiet both here and at Arcana Wiki lately, because I've been prepping a new campaign. I'm running Continuum, which is a setting and concept I love, but which has kinda crappy mechanics. So I converted it over to the Gumshoe system from Trail of Cthulhu and The Essoterrorists.

Gumshoe handles high-level competence very well, which will slip past one major hurdle that Continuum faced in that certain actions were just too unpredictable. I remember a scene in my old campaign where someone fell off a roof, spanned back in mid-fall, fell again and spanned again, fell again and spanned again, and then finally got the roll they needed to stay on the roof. Now, probably that character in that specific instance should have spanned off and taken some mountain-climbing lessons, but I think the anecdote does a good job of illustrating that the Continuum mechanics are a little weird. It had no real tools for fine-tuning difficulties.

By contrast, the only problem with Gumshoe is that various traits refresh at different rates, which makes for a lot of paperwork. Given that Continuum is a setting that already pushes the envelope for paperwork burden, this is not ideal. Plus, since Continuum PCs can always span off for a good-night's rest, this meant that "refreshes in 24 hours" skills were essentially unlimited access, which would be broken.

The easy solution there was to put everything but Health and Stability on the same new refresh scale, which has nothing to do with sleep or the passage of time. Instead, all your skills (investigative and dramatic) refresh at the start of every session - no need to track anything but Health and Stability (and Frag and Yet since it's Continuum) from one session to the next. But of course, that meant the PCs needed fewer points in skills, so I had to really analyze and modify the character creation process.

So, for the past couple of weeks, I've been converting, then editing, game rules. I'm running the campaign via Skype (with players in Seattle, Albuquerque, and Chicago), so I set up a wiki to be our communal Spanbook, rules database, and setting reference document. It's been a lot of work, but feels well worth it already. We've started character creation, and our first actual session is this Wednesday.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009


In Albuquerque last weekend we played 1,000 Blank White Cards. Our host, Jeremy, has put up some scans of the cards made for the game. Link to card images.

Here's a sample, there's another 81 cards where these came from:

Additional Blank White Cards link.

Bride of Stankenfreen

On vacation a few days ago, I found myself GMing some improv roleplaying. Since I'd had some fun with my recent Stankenfreen's Monsters one-shot, I reprised it for a different group. Much as with the first play-through, it proved to be great fun, but somewhat hobbled by utterly flawed mechanics.

Before reading further, you might want to view my post from the first game of Stankenfreen's Monsters.

Bad Mechanics:

Weird thing is, the mechanical flaws were different this time. In the previous play, the PCs were under-powered. Their skills didn't overlap much, and it was a rare roll that got +4 (the bonus from two bodyparts/skills on a single card). In this second game, the opposite happened. Most of the body parts were really broadly or metaphorically defined. As a result, nearly every roll a PC made had +6 or higher. Stop to consider the odds of rolling 11 or higher on 2d6+8... roughly a 97% chance of success. I'd say at least a third of the rolls were at those odds. Meanwhile, human NPCs were rolling 1d12+2. In all our various conflict scenes, I only managed to hit like four times.

The crit system for the game is flawed as well. In both sessions, curiously enough, double 1's were rolled twice. In the first session, John rolled double 1's twice. In the second session, Rob rolled double 1's twice. In neither session did anyone roll double 6's. For this second game, I increased the penalty of the critical failure, but it proved to be no better - despite getting two ticks on every card he had, Rob never lost a part.

I even tried to make the final conflict more interesting by putting them up against a boss monster - a rogue Stankenfreenian creation that had turned evil. While he took two parts off of one PC, he lost all 9 of his body parts before he could get a third action.

Beyond a doubt, this is the worst set of mechanics I've ever crafted. Yet both games have been incredibly fun, and the character creation process is a winner. One of the players told me this session was the most laugh-out-loud fun she'd ever had roleplaying.

I'm thinking that I may run it again sometime, but if so the die mechanics would need a major overhaul, probably a complete replacement. I'm thinking F# might be the way to go - but with Stankenfreen's character creation system.

Amazing Characters:

The real joy of the game was, as with the first session, the player characters. I sadly don't have character illustrations this time, but here's the lists of bodyparts.

April's PC:
  • The Feet of the Waiter
  • Legs of a Dancer
  • Vulcan Brain
  • X-Ray Vision
  • Hitler-style Face w/ Mustache
  • Tusks of a Woolly Mammoth
April went to a great deal of trouble trying to get rid of her Hitler face. She kept trying to justify using it on rolls, so that she could assign ticks from rolled 1's to it, but never ended up with enough ticks to lose the face. The tusks apparently annoyed here as well, because she had one of the other PCs trim them. X-Ray Vision, on the other hand, was definitely appreciated and utilized.

Carrie's PC:
  • Trunk of an Elephant
  • Wings of a Bumblebee
  • Vampire Fangs
  • The Mustache of Luigi
  • Heart of a Lion
  • Lion'sheart
You'll note that Carrie was given the heart of a lion by two different players. Parts were created and assigned blind - nobody knew what anyone was going to get. Since she got two Lion hearts, she got +4 at a minimum for every roll where bravery or predatory instinct were beneficial.
During this session, I reused the Corwin-in-the-dungeon gimmick 'cause I thought it was cute. Carrie ended up using her Vampire Fangs to drain him, so I gave her the new part "Blood of Amber" which was rather potent.

Jeremy's PC:
  • Lizard's Brain
  • Toes of a Chimpanzee
  • Breasts of a Prostitute
  • Hands of a Pointilist Painter
  • The Teeth of John Tesh
  • Weight of a Feather
Poor Jeremy had probably the least-useful set of parts, and the least focus/overlap, but he was able to make them count in the final battle. Weight of a Feather was fun, even if rarely useful. He was constantly being blown around by the other PCs.

Sarah's PC:
  • Elbow of a Tennis Player
  • Amazing Spring-Like Jumping Ability
  • The Spleen of Roger Rabbit
  • Raven's Tongue
  • Voice of the Siren
  • Tentacles of a Squid

Jumping Ability wasn't really a body-part, but I was cool with it. It combo'd well with Squid Tentacles for acrobatic tricks. Voice of the Siren combo'd with Raven's Tongue (since Raven is a Trickster God) for potent crowd-control and smooth-talking. As a result, it won her:
  • Ears of the Romanians (as in "Friends, Countrymen, Roman...ians, lend me your ears")
She then got in a fight with a crazed townsfolk that was trying to burn down the castle. From him she got the:
  • Singed Scalp of an Arsonist
but lost her squid tentacles in the conflagration. In the final battle with the Big Bad, she lost her Voice of the Siren as well.

Christie's PC:
  • Lips of a Latin Lover
  • Super-Strong Hair
  • The Claws of the Sloth
  • Legs of a Giraffe
  • Princess Sparkle Pony's Horn
  • Owl's Eyes
Princess Sparkle Pony is this Unicorn that keeps showing up on Blank White Cards at Jeremy and Christie's house, so she was able to use the Horn to magically heal people (but not the Undead). One of my favorite images of the game was the idea of this 12-foot-tall giraffe-legged unicorn-horned character constantly leaning in with her lush latin lover's lips to make the other PCs a little uncomfortable.
At some point, the tips were trimmed off April's "Tusks of a Woolly Mammoth". After that happened, these tips were braided into Christie's Super-Strong Hair. It was part Wilma Flintstone, party improvised weapon.

Rob's PC
  • Ears of a Bat
  • Hyper-extending fully-controllable Tongue
  • Hyena's Jaws
  • Buddha's Knuckle
  • Eye of the Tiger
  • Eyes of a Child
Most of us pictured Rob's character with 4 eyes. He described himself as just having 2 - the eyes of a tiger cub. Turning a critical eye at the card now, I realize by the rules he'd have 3 eyes - two children's eyes and just one eye of a tiger. Speaking of Rules, Rob can rules-lawyer and munchkin-out like no one else I'd ever willingly game with. He makes it entertaining enough that we tolerate it, even appreciate it, at least in one-shots. I mention this because Rob was the only person I had to say "no" to during the game - he kept coming up with spurious ways to use 4 or 5 bodyparts on a single roll. The justifications were entertaining, so I usually let it fly.

Gene's PC:
  • Skin of a Chameleon
  • Legs of a Centipede
  • Arm (just 1) of a Body Builder
  • Liver of a Drunken Japanese Stockbroker
  • 360-degree swiveling Neck
  • Pouch of a Kangaroo
  • Moebius' Splint
Moebius' Splint needs a bit of explanation. Moebius was the brand-new puppy that Jeremy and Christie got a few weeks ago. Within half an hour of getting this puppy, he'd broken his arm. The free puppy has cost them $1,500. Currently, Moebius is wearing a bright purple cast/splint. It makes one of his legs seem longer than the others, and it's a rigid object that smacks into people when climbs into their laps. All day, we'd been referring to it as his secret weapon. Gene interpreted this combination of cards to mean that 50 of his character's 100 centipede legs were in splints.

In addition to the PC's parts listed above, someone got this off an NPC:
  • Strong Arms of a Pitchfork-Wielding Farmer
but for the life of me, I can't remember who got those arms.

The Big Bad
At the end of the game, the PC's had to do battle with Dr. Stankenfreen's Most Evilest Creation EVER. So, I gave everyone another blank card, and had them generate the body parts of the Big Bad. Thus did they face:
  • Dragon'sbreath
  • Vader's Helmet
  • Mouth of an Asp (poison included)
  • Picasso Face
  • Blowfish-like Inflating Body with Spikes
  • The Black Sulpherous Void That Was Dick Cheney's Heart
  • Hung Like a Walrus
  • Whiskers of a Kitten
  • Will of Oberon
  • Soul of Evil Incarnate
Despite having 10 body parts (3 of which overlapped - Evil, Oberon, and Cheney), and initiative, he went down in the second round. I got to deliver a post-modern monolog and use the dark sides of both the Force and Cubism, but to no avail. He went down with only minor injury to the PCs.

Link to photos from the game. Probably not of interest if you don't know the players.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Toe-Eating Mechano-Crabs

Posting those sketches my players did at the last game reminded me that Devon had requested I put up on the web a photo of the drawing I'd made of the toe-eating mechano-crabs that attacked us in a game she ran a few months ago.

Our weekly one-shot group sure runs some interesting games.

Stankenfreen's Monsters: More Than The Sum Of Our Parts

Last Thursday I ran a one-shot that started with something to the effect of: "You awake strapped to a laboratory table, having been shocked into life by the Lightning. In the distance, you hear your creator shouting 'My monsters! Come alive and rescue me!' as the angry mob of villagers drags him out of the room."

I used a home-brewed system for it, which was literally made-up on the walk to the game. I had a pile of index cards. Each player designed a body part for each other player, on cards which were then given out face-down so you didn't know what your monster looked like until you looked down at your body in the first scene.

The body parts were bits from people and animals. "Hands of a concert pianist", "heart of a lover", "eye of the hawk". That sort of thing. Here's the actual PCs, as drawn by their players:

<- Sarah's PC, "Polly" Parts:
  • Antlers of a Buck
  • Hands of a Speed Typist
  • Arms of a Wood-Chopper
  • Voice of a Parrot
  • Nose of an Ant-Eater

Laura's PC, "Cookie" ->

  • Shell of a Snail
  • Left Foot of a Great Tapdancer
  • Bill of a Platypus
  • Tongue of a Chef
  • Claws of a Wolf

<- John's PC, "Joe" Parts:
  • Spit Glands of a Camel
  • Hands of a Surgeon
  • Hands of a Strangler
  • Eyes of a Lecher
  • Throat of an Opera-Singer

Added via Surgery skills mid-game:

  • Snout of a Pig (on the elbow)
  • Hide of a Blacksmith
Mark's PC, "Jack" ->

  • Jack Ass (Butt of a Donkey)
  • Mouth of a Super-Salesman
  • Tongue of a Snake
  • Legs of a Can-Can Dancer
  • Monkey Feet

Added by feasting on an NPC:

  • Evil Laugh of an Executioner

The best part was the parts. Everyone else made body parts for your character, and did so blind without anyone knowing what other parts you were going to get. We ended up with some pretty bizarre PCs as a result.

Beyond those parts, they also ended up with a set of "Eyes of a Curious Child", but instead of installing those on a PC, they used them to fix some blind NPC in the Vampire's dungeon (his name was Corwin, not that it matters).

The title of the body part functioned like a skill. Every time you took an action, you'd roll 2d6 and +2 for every body part you felt could help. ("Tongue of a Serpent" might help for sensing heat and scents, but also for tempting people like in Eden.) If your roll plus modifiers totaled 11+, you were successful.

If either die came up a "1", you'd make a tick-mark on one of the body-parts. If a body-part got 5 tick marks, it falls off. Double 1's is a tick on all your body parts, Double 6's means you've developed a soul. A soul changes your dice from 2d6 to 1d12. That means it doubles your odds of accomplishing unskilled rolls (2 in 12 instead of 3 in 36), and cuts your odds of taking tick marks by about a third.

Attack rolls were super-simple. A success killed a townsfolk, or ripped one part off a monster, depending on who was being attacked. The dice mechanics weren't amazing, but they worked well enough for a one-shot. In retrospect, modifiers didn't end up stacking as much as I'd imagined them to, so I probably should have had a lower difficulty. Dead townsfolk, by the way, became one body-part each, which basically made them into treasure.

The plotline involved rescuing the "good" Doctor Stankenfreen from the townsfolk. When that proved too easy, I added a second plot about the Vampires in the next castle over. Once you're a vamp, you're a vamp all the way. It was goofy fun, and not too deep.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Chipped-in Wage-Slaves

Over at Pair o' Dice, they mentioned the concept of chipped workers in Shadowrun (and the same could be done in Cyberpunk), people who are slaves to the company they work for. A company that never had to train them, they just plugged in a skill chip that guides the worker's hands. Scary, creepy, sci-fi fun. And it's only a few years off.

Talking about it, Scott at Pair o' Dice wrote:
Wageslavery as a Backdrop to the Action

I am not suggesting players take on wage slave characters (although some runners have backgrounds as an ex-wage slave or corporate drone), that would probably be a terribly dull game.

But I gotta say, that actually gave me two really cool campaign ideas that aren't dull at all:

  1. A game where the PCs are wage slaves, and some sort of mix-up happens. One day, they show up for work, and their "Assembly Line Efficiency & Company Loyalty" chip has been replaced with a "Urbo-Anarchist Badassery" chip. Or just a Martial Arts chip. You're playing ordinary people who suddenly have a single maxed out skill, which was no doubt slipped to them by someone for some reason. Cue the clues, interspersed with Matrixy fight-scenes. You have to break out of work, with company property still in your head, and the pursue the mystery.
  2. A game where you don't play the meatbag, you play the AI. I'm a super-spy that only exists as a skill chip. Plug me into a person, and I immediately over-ride their personality as well as tacking on a couple of very important skills. If things go south and I need to lay low, I just convince someone else to try this awesome skill chip instead. You'd play the same character, but have new character sheets and background every time you swapped your plugging. There's some logistics to work out about the couple seconds between unplugging from your current body and getting plugged in to the other, but I'm confident it could be explained in a way that would at least diminish the risks and plot holes. If the persona lingers for a few minutes after the chip is pulled out, for example, or if the last thing you do before unplugging is auto-hypnosis. Every NPC you meet that has a visible chip socket becomes a potential bodysnatching.
Anyhow, the blog post over at Pair o' Dice is pretty cool. Check it out

Tekeli-Li: fun, but muddled and sloppy

A couple weekends ago I played a card game called Tekeli-Li. It's a Cthulhu-themed card game. Or, at least, it's trying to be. And that's the problem for me, it's the Cthulhu theme, but applied really lightly, and without much skill. Had it been the same mechanics with no theme at all, I may have been happier. Had the scoring mechanics been less clunky, or had anything to do with what the cards represented, I'd have been a lot happier. As it was, it was fun, but it left scratching my head.

It's a trick-taking game, which means you already know roughly what the play style is like. I'll start with a brief analysis of the remaining mechanics. Most of the cards are worth zero points. A handful, however, are negative points. They range from (IIRC) -10 to -240. So you don't want to take any tricks. There's a few cards that do weird things, like cancel each other out, or make you round differently.

Oh right, rounding: at the end of each hand, you divide the negative points you took by 100, and round towards zero. You then get a number of tokens equal to the absolute value of that number. Tokens are bad, the winner is the person with the fewest tokens after a certain number of hands.

Why negative scoring? Why then take absolute value? Why divide by 100? Why have inconsistent rounding? They could have just printed the cards with 1/10th the value, and it would have affected nothing, but that's at least a mistake common to many games. The negative value is, I think, so that it feels like sanity in Call of Cthulhu and other Lovecraftian games - except you wouldn't then expect to start from 0 sanity, would you? And then this whole rounding thing - you round up towards zero, which is the same as rounding down after you take the absolute value, so it's good for you. Unless you have a particular card, which makes you instead round up, which is down, which is bad for you. Which is way more complicated than it needs to be, given that the card in question would be functionally identical if it were just -100 points. You'd get the exact same result in 9 hands out of 10, without having to change the way you round when you get a particular card.

It feels like a lot of superfluous and needless math, even if it's not terribly difficult. It's mainly just a hurdle to be jumped in trying to teach the game. If you went with positive points, with no rounding or absolute value nonsense, the game would be far easier to pick up and explain. Not to mention easier to spot-check people's totals if you thought someone had made a mistake or was cheating. I suppose I can accept, however, the idea that the unwarranted complexity is intentionally designed to make it all a tiny bit confusing, so it feels like a descent into madness.

Perhaps, then, it's intended to push the flavor and theme. Too bad the theme was applied so sloppily to rest of the game.
  • The negative point cards depict various eldritch horrors, from Deep Ones up to Azathoth. That much makes sense. If I have a face-to-face with gnarly hotep, I expect to lose something from the exchange.
  • The zero point cards are ordinary people. Construction workers, doctors, even little girls. Sure, you need these folks in any good Mythos tale, but they're not terribly exciting.
  • Perhaps that's just right, given that they are zero points. But here's where the first bit of the flavor starts to fail. Tekeli-Li is the sound made by the horrible things in Antarctica in both Lovecraft and Poe. The characters depicted on the zero-point cards aren't wearing cold-weather gear, and don't have jobs that correspond to the characters in those stories. Neither are the monsters restricted to the denizens of the Mountains of Madness. If it was all Shoggoths and Old Ones, with human explorers and professors, the name of the game would make sense. Instead, it feels like the name was chosen because "it has something-or-other to do with Cthulhu". They're making a game ostensibly for Lovecraft fans, but show very little knowledge of the actual Lovecraft tales.
  • Minor gripe: The cards are arranged into suits: red/fire, blue/water, black/earth, and white/air, with corresponding imagery in the margins. Any real student of Lovecraft will tell you that August Derleth's elemental associations for the various Great Old Ones was spurious, contradictory, and definitely not in H.P.'s original concepts. Why make that a major part of the game?
  • The cards with special abilities are equally weird. The most common of these is doctors. If you play a doctor, it cancels the previous doctor. I guess that's getting a second opinion? Why should Azathoth be captured by 1 doctor, but not by 2? I can't quite grok what the card plays are supposed to represent.
  • The Necronomicon appears on two cards. In Lovecraft's stories, it's a book that gets referenced a lot, but doesn't do much other than reveal horrible truths that you'd rather not know. So, I'd expect it to cost you some sanity just like the monsters, but perhaps less. Instead, if you have 1 copy of the Necronomicon in your score pile, it's zero points - as dangerous as a little girl or a construction worker. If you have both copies of Necronomicon, however, it's worth positive (good) points. We kept joking that the book of ultimate evil has a really uplifting surprise ending, which will make you feel all better if you just stick with it through the dense second half.
  • But the strangest of the cards with special rules is the telephone. That's right, the telephone. It's the card that makes you round away from zero (so, down, but up when you're taking the absolute value, and so overall it's bad for you). I can think of one Lovecraft tale where the protagonist was worried about people eavesdropping on the "party line" that was the only phone line in Dunwich - so maybe that's it. Someone please explain to me why the telephone is as harmful as 10 Deep Ones, more ominous than the Necronomicon, and more random than Nyarlathotep.
It's like someone with a very casual and fleeting knowledge of the Cthulhu Mythos (someone who'd read one or two Derleth stories, and maybe once played in a Call of Cthulhu one-shot) took the card game Hearts, obfuscated the scoring system with arbitrary mathematical functions that serve no purpose, stapled a Squid onto it, and said "I bet the fan boys will spend $14.95 on this!"

For the record: I could be talked into playing it again, but I certainly wouldn't spend money on it. It's a game that could use a major overhaul and revised second edition. Which is a shame, given the great artwork on the cards. The visuals of the game are the best part, slick and very professional.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Azathoth Upstairs, Cthulhu Downstairs

One of the other players in Fordyce Hall (a Cthulhu by Gaslight scenario I played in at Gwen Con) put up this lovely picture of me about to bash another PC's brains in. They put up a short video clip as well, and a brief Live Journal entry about it, too. Click here for their full coverage. Pretty sure that's the journal of a person named Erik, who was playing the character of the Housekeeper (or head Maid or head Cook or something along those lines - in charge of the female staff of the manor house in the game).

The big blur in the photo is me, suddenly swinging an imaginary shovel at Gwendolyn Kestrel, host of GwenCon. (In the background are Stan! and Sparky.) This image was prior to Gwen's reaction. She apparently wasn't expecting my bit of LARPing at the tabletop, and jumped. You would too if the crazy guy sitting next to you suddenly swung an imaginary shovel within a couple inches of your face. Sorry, Gwen!

The game was great fun - everybody's roleplaying was top-notch, with lots of accents and affectations, appropriate levels of in-party conflict and good humor. We were the servants of a nobleman who had just inherited some creepy old manor. It was our job to prepare the house for his arrival. It was Cthulhu, though, so only about half the staff escaped with their lives and sanity. I started the day by saving Gwen's character from an ice-cold demon-filled well, but by tea-time I'd had a full transformation. I went crazy, nearly killed Gwen's character, and ran off into the woods never to be seen again. One of the other PCs (played by Genevieve, not pictured above) ended up taking bad advice I gave her, and got captured or possessed by some powerful evil entity. All the PCs lost their jobs, at least.

My only misgiving about this very excellent and enjoyable scenario was that there was an awful lot packed in for a mere 4-hour block. By my count there were at least 7 supernatural fiends - a ghost in the manor house, a hob in cat form we managed to placate, a second hob that killed one of our horses, the clawed thing in the well, the tower-creatures that dragged off genevieve, the dark presence in the woods, and the thing at the center of the hedge maze. And I'm not sure if that list counts whatever it was that tried shoving Mary into the oven, or whatever reanimated the dead horse. The property was huge, as well, with carriage house, collapsed woodshed, hidden well, underground tunnels, hedgemaze, woods, free-standing tower, and a 3-wing 80+ bedroom manor house. Then there was a mystery about a suicide off the grounds, our surprise that the realtor wasn't awaiting us at the train station, and the fact the townsfolk wanted nothing to do with the manor. It was a pretty amazing example of highly-detailed verisimiltude-rich sandbox gaming, but there was no chance in heck of us accomplishing or unraveling anything. Luckily, it was Cthulhu, where resolution is more likely to involve madness and death than victory. Had we serious intentions toward the goal of solving or winning the scenario, it would have been way too much plot for the time.