Friday, February 27, 2009

Hooray again! And yet, I think I'm done.

When I got home last night, I popped onto my two online empires, and discovered I'd been attacked on Ogame. A real attack this time, not some accidental misclick with an espionage probe!

At first, I was thrilled! Just like last time.

I've been unable to attack anyone else - you're under "newbie protection" till you hit a certain point value, which means little guys can't attack each other (though it's main purpose is to stop big guys from smashing little guys into cosmic dust). Problem is that once you're out from under newbie protection, you don't want to pick a fight with someone way above you. You're such a small fish, you can't do a damn thing. So, you sit around building up defenses in hopes of one day being able to compete. There wasn't anyone near me (on the map) who was anywhere near my score, so I didn't have much to do. For a couple months, I could only attack inactive players. I'd been slowly giving up hope of it ever getting exciting, and was really looking forward to some measure of conflict. But I stuck with it for a while, in hopes that someone else would crawl out from beyond the newbie shield near me and we might start a puny little war.

Instead, I got pummeled mercilessly by some random guy ranked 500 places above me, whom I'd never interacted with before. The biggest ship in my fleet was a Battleship, which I had just unlocked, and only had two of. I was attacked by a fleet with 125 Battleships, plus 70 Bombers and a Battlecruiser, neither of which have I unlocked yet, and 15 cargo vessels to haul away the wreckage of my world. The fight lasted 3 rounds. I destroyed 2 of his ships in the first round, and then inflicted zero casualties in the 2nd and 3rd rounds. His surviving 13 cargo vessels (you'll note I didn't destroy any of his actual military units) made off with nearly 200,000 resource points from my world. (And in case it wasn't clear from the above: he destroyed every single ship and planetary defense I had at the world in question).

All of this without an opportunity to do anything - battles are completely computer-moderated, with targets chosen randomly round-by-round. You just get a battle report showing how much your fleet and planetary defenses failed to accomplish. I'd imagined some sort of excitement to come from an epic battle, but instead it felt like reading a spreadsheet. No oomph, no color, just a list of ships and "the attacking fleet did a total of 328,000 damage, of which 16,000 was absorbed by shields. The defending fleet did a total of 25,000 damage, of which 18,200 was absorbed by shields." Lame.

Worse, I never had a chance, and I have no capacity to strike back in any meaningful or productive way. My overall score is like 12,600 development points, and his is 181,000. He's got a lot more ships than me, twice as many planets, and much higher tech development. If I did nothing but build Battleships, it would take me a month and a half to build a fleet the size of his - and he'd have those 2 months to make more of the really big ships I haven't unlocked. A totally one-sided affair, and there's 400 players that out-rank him in our Universe. I spent every remaining resource in my "Empire" just rebuilding the defenses on the planet he blasted, and two of my three other worlds are every bit as vulnerable as that one was.

Now, I realize there's things I could have done to mitigate this disaster. I could have "fleet saved" - a strategy that involves constantly rotating your ships from place to place at slow speeds so they can't be attacked while you're away from your computer. I could have spent every spare resource on defenses so there'd be nothing stockpiled to make it worth a raid. Both of those sound tedious, and I wanted a game I could play for 10-20 minutes a day - which Ogame claims to be.

So, though it was an interesting experiment while it lasted, and kinda fun a couple days, I think I'm probably done with Ogame. It's a poor design. Too slow to get started, and too unbalanced once things start happening.

By contrast, I'll keep my x-wars account active, at least for now, as it still has me fooled into thinking there's some potential to enjoy the game for it's trading and starship-designing subsystems. It doesn't look as pretty as Ogame, but it's got more to do. There's various posts from the X-Wars moderators asking people not to attack the same target more than 20 times an hour, so I suspect it may have the same balance issues that Ogame does. I wouldn't be surprised if a similar painful disillusionment occurs at X-wars in a few more weeks, but for now it seems to be the more rewarding game.


Last night, Malachi ran a game he called Deospora. It was technically a InSpectres derivative, but didn't feel a bit like the game whose system it used. We were all Gods - and we could choose to be traditional Mythological figures, or make up our own Divine personages. A comet passed near the earth, and we hitched a ride. It took us two a primitive little planet where primitive little people worshiped what seemed like a primitive little deity to us. Turns out it was basically Cthulhu. We whupped his but, anyway.

I played Pan, or rather Paaaaaaan, since I gave him a proper Goatboy voice. I ran around lusting after things - mostly womenfolk, but ya never know with Pan. You know all those Greek myths where Pan chases after various Nymphs until they turn themselves into a tree to escape him? We discovered it's not actually an ability inherent to Nymphs and Dryads. Instead, it's a universal property. Anything, and I mean anything, being lusted after by Pan has the potential to turn itself into a tree in an attempt to dissuade his passions.

The game had a lot of fun moments, many of which had nothing to do with me - while I was the most depraved member of our group, we were pretty much all raucus party gods. The group included Pan and Raven and two made-up Gods (one was God of Beer, the other God of Drunk Driving) and the fifth player started off intending to be God of Sex, Drugs, and Rock'n'Roll, and instead landed on being Arlo Guthrie. All those radio stations that still play "Alice's Restaurant" once every Thanksgiving is close enough to worship for him to get invited to the Divine parties.

The plot:
  • We decide to party on a passing comet, which eventually collides on a crappy little planet somewhere, stranding us. The natives worship some nasty dark cthonian Titan, and so we decide to subvert that. With booze, drugs, music, and orgiastic reverie, we convert the local tribes.
  • 100 years pass, and I father all sorts of Satyrs and Paniskoi. The formerly barren world now has all sorts of trees - prior to my lusty arrival it was just mushrooms and lichen.
  • Tribes of seafaring raiders attack us, bearing marks that they are the favored ones of the Cthulhoid monstrosity. A great Panic descends upon thier beached fleet, and they are stranded on our shores. (I take a bow). With the attack fleet in shambles, the rest of the group sets about converting the stranded raiders.
  • Another 100 years pass, and Raven, Arlo and Pan got the urge to take a road trip. Little did we realize, the enemy was still out there and prepping to invade again. While we're off probing the enemy territory, our continent was attacked by a mutant critter very reminiscent of Cloverfield. The Gods who stayed behind managed to handle it, luckily. On the road trip, we bumbled into the dark dank cave that was the center of Cthulhu worship. Arlo and Raven were captured by demi-titans and hauled down to the cavernous orifice of the great evil.
  • Now, since this is a mostly family-friendly blog, I won't go into detail on how Pan rescued them. Suffice it to say, it weren't pretty. The entire continent turned into a big ol giant tree, and then got pregnant anyway. There was a quick round of jokes about how I'd just proven true the theory of Panspermia. Somewhere in all the excitement, Cthulhu went missing.
  • 9 months later, our child, Shub-Niggurath, was born. This became the creation myth of how this planet got a moon. Pan decided he needed to settle down at that, since he finally had a kid worthy of his being a respectible parent, and the love of a good world tree.
  • Another 100 years passed, and by this point we'd set up a ridiculously complex stratified caste system for our chosen people, mostly fueled by the trade of beer, rock-folk music, and pornography. Such were the gleaming pillars of our society. Due to various Godly acts of miscegenation, the population involved little gray people, little tie-dyed people, goat-headed people, tentacled people, tree people, and various cloven-hooved hybrids of the above.
  • Then one day, a spaceship landed. It had a US flag with little cthulhoid tentacle clusters instead of stars, to answer Arlo's question of "Hello, America, how are ya?" Apparently, the big bad had decided to do to earth what we'd done to his planet. They came to invade and colonize, but didn't stand a chance. Serotonin, God of Drunk Driving, had a plan to deal with it.
  • He stole the spaceship (in a hurry, too, like he thought I was going to do something nasty to it if he didn't act quickly) and headed back to earth with all our chief exports. He landed in Japan, where tie-dyed-goat-headed-tentacle-tree porn would be most quickly accepted. Somehow, this resulted in peace between the worlds and the defeat of the big bad. I'm a little unclear on the details, but it mostly made sense at the time.
I'm sure there's plenty I missed there, but you get the idea. All things considered, this summary was quite tastefully inexplicit.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Meet the Posse

Shallow Gulch has been destroyed by Finnegan Cobb and his damned gun. Only a handful of folks survived.
From left to right:
  • Jebediah Hunt, semi-retired Texas Ranger
  • Sister Josephine, Blue Nun
  • Natalie Bliss, the sunday school teacher and town gossip
  • Dr. Immelmann, creator of an amazing flying stagecoach
  • Baucum Pike, Hexslinger and schitzophrenic drifter
Some changes may still happen. Our lego collection only included one body that you'd really call feminine, so it went to the school teacher, as the Nun didn't need to be winning any beauty pageants. However, it is a blue body, and she is supposed to be a Blue Nun of Texas. So, I bit the bullet and ordered up a couple of females on Brick Link. Not only will that allow the ladyfolk PCs to be a bit more distinct at a glance, it'll also get me some proper saloon girl attire for NPCs. ;)

Dr. Immelmann's flying coach may also undergo some modifications. I built it to Kevin's rough specifications of size and shape, but he hasn't seen it yet as of this writting. Since it's a vital part of his character concept, I certainly won't give him any grief if he chooses to rebuild it some. He'll have to come over to my place between sessions to do so, though, 'cause I know what a disaster it would be to just pop open the lego collection while we're trying to roleplay. Everyone, me included, would be distracted.

Relearning How To Breathe

When I ran Continuum, I had to largely give up the notion of controlling the pacing of the game. Players were time-travellers, and could bop over to whatever moment caught their interest. There were things I could do to provide direction, but if they really wanted to focus in on a moment, or span over the slow bits, they could do that themselves, and as long as they didn't frag themselves in the process I couldn't stop them. This made for a game that was very player driven, and every moment was entertainly pregnant with opportunity. It was a great campaign.

That "I've got ADD, lets span" dynamic made me a little lazy, though, and thus when I ran the Amber campaign that started the week after my Continuum campaign dropped curtain, I did a poor job of pacing. Instead of grabbing the reigns and cutting scenes, I spent too much time waiting for players to do things in the first 6 sessions. I sort of blame Continuum, because it required I take such concise notes, and left me really wanting to prep and record absolutely nothing. One campaigns success contributed to another campaigns failure.

When I ran Scion, I definitely got the pacing back under control - at least outside of combat. The combat system was pretty volatile, however, and the game rules had ugly tattered seams. I started house-ruling to mend them, bit by bit. As the campaign progressed, and the basic math of the system fell apart, I had to compensate by getting much more aggressive in my house-ruling. When the second chapter of the Scion companion released in PDF, I tore into it, leveling harsh criticism and pre-emptively houseruling like a man possessed. I don't regret that, in and of itself. White Wolf composes beautiful settings, but their "too many cooks" approach to authorship results in sloppy, even contradictory, rules with holes you could drive a mac truck through. Scion is, hands down, the worst perpetrator of White Wolf's signature flaw that I've read. The game is desperately in need of a revised edition, but they'll probably never make one and I'll probably be too jaded to buy it if they did. End result was a game my players are still talking lovingly about the setting and plot, but which I hated to run. Too much hard work and frustration.

So now I'm running Deadlands Reloaded. It's "rules medium-light", meaning a little lighter than D&D 4th, but a step heavier than vanilla Savage Worlds. It's got some extra complexity (beyond Savage Worlds) in the Magic system, Dueling rules, a few other card draws, and the way Bennies work. The first printing had some rough edges. They weren't nearly as tattered as Scion's rules, and Pinnacle released a nice little FAQ that mended 95% of the fraying. It's still not perfect, but it's more than playable.

Problem is, the campaign that went before is casting a shadow on the various games that follow. Just as Continuum allowed me to focus on flavor and PC freedom at the cost of pacing, Scion has inclined me to focus on niggling rules flaws at the cost of... well, I'm not sure at the cost of what (beyond perhaps my peace of mind), since we've only done character creation. I am noticing, however, that my gut instinct has become to bitch here and then house-rule. It's kinda sad how quickly I jump to fix what ain't necessarily broke.

For example, in Deadlands Reloaded, I find that the Poker Hands chart isn't perfectly to my liking:
  • it isn't terribly clear whether "Jacks of Better" counts as a whole hand rank above a mundane pair when you're dueling, or if that's just for spellcasting. (Same vagueness with Ace High - is it just a tie breaker in a duel or does it count as a hand rank above slop?)
  • the system ranks Straight Flush above 5 of a Kind - despite 5 of a kind requiring a Joker. Jokers burn the PC a little, so I'd think you'd wanna make the best possible hand require them.
  • they didn't make the Dead Man's Hand special. The hand is both black aces, both black eights, and whatever you believe the 5th card Wild Bill Hickock drew - I lean towards Jack of Diamonds myself - seconds before he died.
For those incredibly minor "flaws", I nearly house-ruled it to duplicate the hand ranks of Doomtown, the old Deadlands CCG. That would have been silly and pointless, since I'm the only person in the group who played Doomtown, and the vagueness about a pair of jacks in a duel will hardly ever come up. If and when it does, I can rule on it. The other two complaints are just flavorful things, and functional (playtested!) mechanics is probably more important than cramming just a little bit more flavor into an already zesty rule set.

As I look through the Deadlands Reloaded book, lots of little things like that keep popping up. What can I say? Scion made me gun shy. I need to learn to just "go with the flow" again, instead of riding hard to head off potential rules-flaws at the pass. I need to relearn how to relax and breathe.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Cop-Out on page 173

Savage Worlds is a great system, and Deadlands is a great setting, and both are great games. In general, they're very well written. That said, the sidebar on page 173 of Deadlands Reloaded is an egregious cop-out. I'm gonna give 'em some hell here, because that sidebar really got under my skin. It's the most frustrating part of the Deadlands Reloaded rulebook.

The first three paragraphs of said sidebar explain how they won't make any efforts to indicate what rank of PC while find any particular monster / NPC appropriately challenging. The game has this nice ranking structure for characters, Novice/Seasoned/Veteran/Heroic/Legendary, which corresponds to how many XP advances you've had, and dictates what level of Powers and Edges you have access to. Sure, two Veteran characters are gonna be very different, but they'll both be serious badasses at whatever it is they chose to specialize in, and they certainly won't have a Parry of 2. So the framework is there to have given monsters a ballpark rating. They chose not to use it for the monster section.

They claim it's for mostly philosophical reasons. They say it's more realistic for the Weird West to be populated by variable threats that don't conveniently correspond to the experience level of the party. They thumb their noses at D&D's challenge ratings and balanced encounters. Sometimes the PCs will massacre the baddies, and sometimes the PCs better just turn tales and run.

On one level, I agree with this sand-box approach, as it leads to far greater verisimilitude - the world is unfair and some challenges have no easy solutions. On the other hand, it seems kinda out of place - since so much of Deadlands is about capturing the feel of Western movies (admittedly, flavored with some supernatural evil) and random encounters of variable power is antithetical to that genre. Nearly every damn Western I've ever seen escalates to a gloriously violent climax. The heroes do sometimes get left for dead in scene one, but that's always set up for a revenge tale that ends with a fairer (but still challenging) fight in the final reel. It's never "That random encounter nearly killed us, we'd better not go back for round two!" No Western hero would ever do that.

But, if they really meant to go full-blown-oldschool-sandbox-and-random-encounter mode, I could respect it. Instead, come paragraph four, the sidebar undoes itself:
"All that said, the GM should tweak encounters to fit the nature of his party. You'll have a good handle on what your party can manage after a few sessions, without the need for some sort of formula."
WTF? So, realism trumps balance, except really you should balance it after all, and we aren't gonna help. I suspect the truth is that laziness trumps realism and balance both.

Oh, sure, I'll get the hang of it, at the cost of my first few sessions being clumsy and poorly balanced. Great. If this preceeded a 4-page monster section, I'd understand that you could eyeball the easier encounters quickly, and something akin to Challenge Rating isn't necessary. But no, the antagonist section it heads up is 77 pages long. Sure, there's several things in there I can push off till later in the campaign by means o' knee jerk reaction to their stat line, but I really don't want to have to read 77 pages in order to start planning my first session.

Why not include a short list of, say, the 6 monsters most appropriate to Novice characters. That would have saved the new GM a lot of trouble, and been pretty damn easy to fit in the book. Off the top of my head, I can think of 3 or 4 paragraphs they could have taken out to shoehorn it in.

Monday, February 23, 2009

OGame advice

I still can't make up my mind whether or not I like OGame. I pop over to it once a day to queue up new building constructions and research - it only eats up 10 minutes of my day that way, which is just fine, but I'm certainly not finding it exciting, nor am I really making much progress in the game. I feel like I've hit a plateau where the remaining meaningful advances are beyond what my planets can produce in 24 hours. So, instead, I just keep building more Gauss Cannons. Meh.

Today, some random new player contacted me, asking for handouts and advice. I'm still not really at the point of having excess (well, except Deuterium, on one planet) so I couldn't really spare any resources for him (well, I suppose "chose not to" is more accurate on the Deuterium, but the game has weird rules prohibiting charity and I didn't want to run afoul of them), but I did pass on some advice that I'd figured out, mostly in the forms of "here's what I'd do differently if I started over".
  1. Start raiding Inactive players as soon as possible. To do so, you'll need Espionage probes, Small Cargo, and a Light Fighter or two. Inactive Players are the ones that have "I" or "i" next to their name in galaxy view. Lower case means inactive for a week, upper case means inactive for a month. Send an espionage probe first to locate planets with no current defenses. In the early stages of the game, quite a bit of your resource needs can be met by raiding defenseless abandoned players - you probably won't want to pick fights with active players till you've built up a bit.
  2. Ignore the missile silo. It's a ton of expense, and not needed till much later when you're well established. I've built missile silos on all my planets, but never once needed one. It feels like a big waste of resources and fields, in hindsight.
  3. The game's "fluff text" makes Deuterium seem like it's a big deal and really important, but honestly you don't need it hardly at all till later in the game. While I frequently lack the Crystal I need for a building or research, it's really rare that I'm out of Deuterium. In general, I keep my Metal and Crystal mines around double the level of my Deuterium Synthesizer, and it's only lately that that's been any issue at all. Crystal seems to be the biggest limitation to growth (at least at the point I'm at - that may change at the very top ranks of play)
  4. It's gonna be a while before you need the Storage buildings. I built one early on, and it was weeks later before I needed it. So for now, save yourself the resources and hassle.
  5. When you start spreading out to additional colonies, they won't need Research Labs. I built a couple of levels of Research Lab on my 2nd and 3rd planet, and now regret it. I actually dismantled the lab on one of them, which costs a little resources and time, but freed up more space for developing other buildings. Better to just build one big lab and ferry resources from the other planets over to fuel it. (At least that's better till you get the Intergalactic Research Network unlocked, which I haven't yet.)
  6. Each planet has a particular number of available Fields, and each level of a building uses one up. If you colonize a crummy planet, it won't be able to develop very far. In the long run, you generally don't want to colonize planets with less than 150 fields. There's a terraformer that builds extra fields, but it takes a lot of resources and research to unlock it - I still haven't.
  7. Aside from that, I'm afraid there's not much point (or benefit) in specializing your planets. It's much more effective to make sure every planet has metal, crystal, and deuterium mines. They'll all need Shipyards and Robotics Factories, too.
  8. If you haven't checked out the OGame wiki, you should. It's got tons of info.
Not sure how amazingly wonderful any of that advice was, but I figure it's worth my saving here in case someone else asks. I suppose I could go put it on the OGame wiki... but I'm too lazy at the moment.

Friday, February 20, 2009


I posted some of my house-rules for Savage Worlds to Savagepedia today. It's a Savage Worlds wiki. Everything I posted there was already on this blog for some time, with nothing new beyond some organization-related edits and minor clarifications. Here's the relevant links:
  • Cinematic Damage: aka "1 Hit = 1 Wound" rule. Speeds up damage rolls and prevents random anticlimactic PC death.
  • Non-Arcane Cybernetics System: Uses a new thing called The Cyber Die instead of making Cybernetics just another form of Arcane Background (as I'd seen elsewhere).
  • Cyberpunk 2020 Setting Conversion: A framework for catching the feel of R. Talsorian's classic setting without losing the mechanical elegance of Savage Worlds.

1 hit = 1 wound, except for duels and drops

I want my Deadlands Reloaded campaign to feel cinematic, with PCs only dying at dramatically appropriate moments, not random first round of combat just 'cause of a lucky roll. So, I was considering using the 1 hit = 1 wound houserule. That, however, may be a little too cinematic as originally proposed, and it completely underplays the tension of duels at high noon and holding someone at gunpoint.

Duh, that has a simple solution. Here's what I'm running with. Any hit only does at most 1 wound, except in the following circumstances:
  • During a duel, when the poker-hand mechanism is in play. That way it's entirely possible that the first shot of a duel can result in death or disability against your stationary target. After the first shot, the 1 hit = 1 wound rule kicks back in for the rest of the fight.
  • When someone has The Drop on another character, their attacks ignore the rule, in addition to getting the +4 bonus to attack and damage. Stick a gun to someone's head, and they better play along.
  • Get caught in a "Mexican standoff" (my apologies for the racism-laced term, but it's a trope of the setting) - that's probably gonna use the duel rules unless there's a threeway (or more) standoff, then it'll be counted as everyone having The Drop. Roll the final scene of Reservoir Dogs... and get ready to make some new characters.
  • Anytime The Gun is present, as it's a harbinger of supernatural disaster. This will likely just be during the Season Finale, and players should have a good idea a few scenes ahead of when that's happening.
Note that Heavy Weapons are NOT on that list (unlike my previous version of this rule). Deadlands isn't military-heavy, so PCs won't be packing LAW rockets, and jumping away from a stick of dynamite unscathed fits the setting plenty well. I may however make exceptions for big nasty monsters that can't engage in a duel. Say - if there were a T-Rex attacking the party, I might suspend the rule. That sort of thing shouldn't come up often, though, and will be foreshadowed/announced while avoiding the combat is still an option. Just don't let ol' T-Rex get The Drop on you.

Other than those situations, no single attack can do more than 1 point of damage, and a Soak roll of a 4 will suck up the one and only wound. Not only does this protect PCs from random anticlimactic death, it also really reduces the math in the game, thus speeding up combat. "Fast! Furious! Fun!"

Card-Based Character Creation in Deadlands

Classic Deadlands had this cool, though admittedly sometimes frustrating, character creation system. You drew a handful of playing cards, and they determined what you had available for stats and skills, and certain elements of your background. I don't remember exactly how it worked, as I only ever made one Deadlands PC, that for a campaign that never materialized. What I do recall is that I'd started out wanting to play a bad hombre gunslinger or huckster, and drew such miserable cards I had to settle for a one-trick-pony/grizzled-old-coot.

In prepping for my Deadlands Reloaded campaign, I briefly flirted with the simplified version of that system which is presented as a free PDF download on Pinnacles site. Two of my players had actually sort of requested that build method, and I'm generally very open to player requests going into a game. It was a stylish enough concept that I first I was willing to overlook the chance of very unbalanced character builds - one player drawing all deuces and threes cards while another got face cards and jokers would have complications I was willing to deal with if it was fun and cool and made for a memorable game.

Ultimately, though, I decided it was a bad match for this campaign at this time. Two factors stopped me:
  • My lack of experience GMing Deadlands. I already have one pretty big house-rule I plan to implement, and I've only GM'd about 20 hours of Savage Worlds. Deadlands Reloaded has far more complicated magic systems than straight-up Savage Worlds, so why make it even less familiar? Choosing to err on the side of caution. Maybe if character creation were several weeks from now, I'd have time to smooth down the rough edges, but this afternoon's my last chance at prepwork before we dive in, and I don't want to spend that time fixing something that ain't broke.
  • Deadlands already has a very effective Hindrance system. On top of that there's the Veteran O' The Weird West Edge. If someone wants to play a "been there, killed that, covered in Grits" character, that Edge will do it for them. If they want to play a PC that's a Tenderfoot, Elderly, or Young, the game already has provisions for that. Worse, what if someone gets the crap cards, decides to play a kid because of it, and then gets hosed by stacking the Hindrance on top of it. Again, with a few weeks to tweak it, we'd be golden, but today's the day I finalize things.
So, no card draws for character creation - except as provided in the default rules, such as if you take the Veteran O' The Weird West edge.

Going After Caravaggio

Last night we played 3:16 Carnage Amongst The Stars. It's a rules-light RPG in the vein of military sci-fi most closely resembling Starship Troopers. To say it's rules-lite is an understatement. Starting characters are defined by 4 traits: 2 attributes named "Fighting Ability" and "Non-Fighting Ability", Rank (Private to Sergeant), and Primary Weapon (one of two choices per rank). Character gen was darned simple, taking 5 minutes the first time, and if I'd had to do it over again it'd take about 20 seconds.

I played "Trooper Novokov", whom I modeled as sort of a drugged-out parody of Paul Berlin, the main character in Tim O'Brien's Viet Nam War novel Going After Cacciato. All the planets in the game are named after artists, and we were invading Planet Caravaggio, which sounds kinda like Cacciato, which is what I think triggered the character concept. That novel is one of my faves, though, so I may well have gone the way of O'Brien even without that opening briefing.

Trooper Novokov was a daydreamer, a flaky artiste, and kinda inattentive. He was working on a novelization of his experiences in the 3:16th Infantry, and was focused on the what could happen if the war were a novel instead of reality. (I know, how post-modern of me.) So, all of Paul Berlin's negative traits, without their more positive upsides. I'd stop to contemplate my novel mid-battle, and during mission briefings I was busy sketching out what I'd paint on the side of the APC after this mission, thus missing crucial briefing intel. Head in the clouds despite boots on the ground. Sarge called me "Trooper Novacaine" cause I was always kinda sedated.

The 3:16 RPG is pretty straight-forward. GM establishes a planet with aliens, the PCs rocket down in a Drop Ship and pacify said planet. Players have a lot of narrative control. Combat is very abstract, and yet it works really well even given how combat-heavy the game is. Our GM last night introduced some extra plot complexity, but I think it would have run just fine without it. Each session a new planet with a new alien menace, and the PCs slowly promoted up the chain of command getting bigger and better weapons and more control over mission objectives. In he words of Robin D. Laws, 3:16 "Out-Verhoeven's Verhoeven."

It's a very competitive RPG, keeping track of kills is a vital component of the game, and in a long-running campaign I think PCs will frequently do things that endanger others to edge out a couple of extra kills, with kill-stealing and showboating being part of the fun. Clearly, where the game shines is Campaign play - as a one-shot it was a little unbalanced. The post-session rewards of rank and medals were less important when you won't see that character again, so there was little motivation for glory hogging in a one-shot. At the same time, you have character resources that can only be expended X number of times over the entire campaign, but if playing for a single session there's no drawback to everyone using all their available flashbacks. As a one-shot those didn't ring as true (though the GMs houserules kept the game from breaking under it), though it is hard to say whether the game was richer or poorer for it. The experience definitely left me wanting to play the game some more, to see how it develops over time.

As they say in Starship Troopers: Want to learn more? Here's a pretty nice review of 3:16 that explains what it's all about, and a shorter review that's not as detailed but well written and still useful.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

The Gun

Here's the framework of my Deadlands campaign: The Gun.
  • The PCs backstory is fairly open, but they must have settled in a particular town and been livin' there for at least a couple of years. Then the town burnt down, and they lost everything. The PCs (and any NPCs suggested by their Edges or Hindrances) are the only survivors. More about that in a bit.

  • One extra step in character creation will be to document what you lost when the town burned down. Could be family, could be your ranch that was finally starting to turn a prophet, could be that gal you was a courtin' and about to ask fer the hand o'. Obviously, there's a revenge motif comin' up. Not only what did you lose, but how, and how did it spring from The Gun.

    Tangent to that, you'll be documenting what, other than revenge, motivates your quest for The Gun. Could be you want to stop it from churning up a swath o' destruction all the way to Back East, could be you wanna save the life of the innocent girl The Gun is hunting, could be you think there's an extra special irony if you use The Gun to put Finnegan Cobb back in the ground, could be yer a Whateley and you covet the awesome supernatural power of The Gun.

  • I'll be using "Story Time" similar to what I did back in my old Vampire LARP. At the start of every session, each player has the option of taking a minute or two to tell a short tale. You can share your character's backstory, legends about The Gun, or rumors you've heard of what's coming up ahead. If I like your tales, I'll work them into upcoming sessions. The context is these are tales being told round the fire on the trail - so you can make up any detail you want, and we'll determine the level of veracity later.

  • The Gun is cursed. Ever since Finnegan Cobb got his hands on it, he started acting ...different. Prior to that, he'd been a mousy little man, barely able to keep a roof over himself and his wife. The Gun made him cocky, fiery, vengeful. He pistol whipped a man to death in town square, over something inconsequential. Cobb shot one of the Deputies in the back, then stared the Sheriff down cold.

    He was never without the gun - he slept with his holster on. He'd started cheatin' on his wife, and beatin' her too, so one night, she tried to slip it out and bury it. He woke up when she lifted it. She swares she doesn't remember pulling the trigger, but his corpse had six slugs in the head. She hocked the gun at the General Store, went to Confessional, and then headed out of town. Her hand was bandaged and bloody as she left - the Priest said she chopped off her trigger finger because he couldn't drive the devil out of it. Three days later, Finnegan Cobb clawed his way up from Potter's Field. By sunup the next morning, the town was burning, and any number of supernatural things were on the loose. The details of the Town's destruction will remain mercurial to fit whatever gets filled in at storytime.

  • The players are on the trail of The Gun, Finnegan Cobb, and/or his Wife. Every session involves them arriving in another town on the trail. Someone in that town has been touched by The Gun. There's a standard place to start - askin' round 'bout strangers who come through a couple days before, an' whether or not said strangers shot anyone. The Gun has transformative properties on those it comes in contact with, and on those it shoots - this will provide Episodic diversions. There's a pursuit subplot, but it's more of a story conceit - and I'm being upfront about it with the Players. Catchin' up with Finnegan is the sort of thing to happen in a season finale, not some random mid-season episode just cause a PC got a lucky Tracking roll. In the meantime, the players are passing in Finnegan's wake :) putting down the beasts he done stirred up.

  • I cracked out my old Doomtown CCG cards, and sorted out all the Deeds. I figure I'll need a way to lay out the towns they head to in the campaign, and I don't want to sweat trying to make a bunch of believable maps. Instead (and I'm stealin' a page here from my wife's Cyberpunk campaign) each town is lain out via a dozen random draws from the Deed Deck. This is very much gonna be a "seat of your pants" game, most likely featuring "monster of the week" if you hadn't figured that out yet.

  • Deadlands (and Savage Worlds in general) rewards the use of miniatures (indeed, any game involving gunfights benefits from knowing who can draw a bead on whom), and normally that makes me happy. I've got tons of minis. But, upon looking through my stash, I realized there's not much in terms of Western minis on my shelves - and certainly nothing becoming of a Huckster. I searched high and low for Western minis, which is a tale for another day. Eventually, I settled on Legos. I've got some old Western lego sets, and I'll have the Players build representations of their characters from those bits. Lego minifigs on a map made of Doomtown Deed cards... looks like I'll be abstracting the movement rules a bit.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Are you sure you don't want to search the car again?

For context, read my previous post first. It tells the tale of my first GMing experience way back in the early 80s.

I've carried that dreadful "secret door experience" with me ever since. While I feel like I learned a lot from it, the truth is I've got some scars - my first session of any RPG I'm terrified that I'm going to wreck it before it even gets going. While I like to think my plotlines are far more sophisticated these days, that my NPCs exist for reasons other than to satisfy my ego, and that I know when to roll the dice and when to just say 'don't roll - lemme just tell ya what ya found'. I like to think that, anyway, but I don't always believe it. I get opening night jitters, and have on occasion aborted a campaign because (in my mind) I made the first session suck.

Last night, I was GMing Trail of Cthulhu. Investigators arrive on a scene, there's a car idling in the driveway. They ignore the car, and head into the house. So I have the car's engine conk out, provoking them to check on it. They walk up in the dark, shine a light on the dashboard, and check the fuel gauge. It's indeed run itself dry and sputtered out. Player thinks she's got the relevant clue (that the car's been idling for a very long time), and heads back into the house.

In Trail of Cthulhu (and the GUMSHOE system it's based on), you never roll to gather clues. Instead, clue acquisition is automatic provided you announce you're using a relevant skill in the right place. There's a clue in the car - and it's a pretty vital clue. If she'd said "I search the car" or "I check the glove box" or "I use Evidence Collection on the car" she'd have gotten a very vital tidbit. But she didn't. Somehow, I had convinced myself that meant GUMSHOE players would always get their hands on every available clue - but it just isn't realistic to expect that.

Later, she and an NPC (a more-or-less random NPC that got unexpectedly invited by a PC to the crime scene) are getting ready to leave the site. Knowing that a pretty vital clue has been missed, and that it won't be there in the morning, I try to subtly have my NPC suggest checking the car. I didn't want to be so miserably blatant as my childhood "the elf wants to go back and search for secret doors in room #3 again" blunders, so I fumbled about foolishly having him talk about the keychain in the car. The scene struck me as being stilted, the subtext felt forced and uncomfortable and apparently still too obtuse. She didn't even end up with the right clue (just the keys). I felt like such a freakin' idiot over that scene, like a dumb child GMing his first game, and wondering if I'd possibly just ruined the campaign for her. Eventually, I dropped it, and moved the narrative forward in a different direction.

Other than that mistake, and the session running longer than it was supposed to (my most common error), I think things went pretty well last night. Talking with Sarah about the game this morning, she clearly didn't notice the problem that was staring me in the face. I dodged a bullet, and didn't even know it. If the scene was odd to her, it wasn't so odd she felt the need to mention it even when prompted. Guess I'll just sit quietly and not let on.

Are you sure you don't want to search for secret doors again?

I was 7 years old the Christmas that my mother got two copies of the Dungeons & Dragons basic set. The family (my mom and my aunt and uncles) tried playing once or twice, and didn't really get into it. I, however, was entranced. I was 8 when I DM'ed for the first time. I was a very bright child, read far above my age level, and wasn't the random sugar-fueled-spaz that most kids are at that age. Just the same, an 8-year-old GM is a frightening thing to watch.

There was a mini-adventure in the back of the main rulebook, and it came with a copy of Keep on the Borderlands. But neither was good enough for me - I was all excited about being able to design my own dungeon. I didn't have graph paper, so I eyeballed the map and used magic markers, blue was for 10 ft walls, green for 20 ft, red for 30 ft walls, etc. I wouldn't be the least surprised if I had unintentionally created a noneuclidean maze that would have baffled the likes of Lovecraft, Escher and Bowie-as-Goblin-King. But, for me, it was simple - the solution was to just find the secret door in room number 3, the secret door that hid nearly 2/3rds of the dungeon.

So, of course, my players (my mom, aunt and uncle, and my grandma) defeat the orcs in that room, but don't think to search for secret doors. We'd all made characters together, and my pathetic 1st-level elf, who might as well have been named Mary Sue but instead shared my middle name, was with the party as an NPC. So, I announce that he's going to check for secret doors, which I hadn't done in the first two rooms, so it should have been suspicious. As an elf, he's got a pretty good chance, but I failed the roll. I was a sweet little kid, and the idea of fudging a die roll had not occurred to me. So, the group continues on via the mundane doors, missing all the best parts of the dungeon. They explore rooms 4-6, have a couple more fights with orcs, and get practically zero treasure for their efforts and wounds. Then they say "well, that seems to be everything, let's head back up to town."

I couldn't very well let them miss out on all the cool stuff I'd designed. The game was ending too early for my tastes (as it always does), too. So I contrived a way to get them back to room 3 and searching for secret doors - my "sophisticated" 8-year-old brain decided my Mary Sue would insist on going back and checking that room again. He had no in-character reason to do so, but my relatives got the hint. The whole group checked for secret doors. 6 people rolling d6s, and not a single success. Game over, man - they'd never play D&D again.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Hah-hah, take that, Dominion!

Stumbled on this, and it made me giggle. Man, I am such a bitter geek...

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Feast or Famine

In December and January, I was essentially campaignless, and that's pretty unusual for me. My Scion game had wrapped up late last year, and I needed a break from plotlines and houserules. Sarah and I had a little Land of the Lost solo-campaign going, but it never really lived up to it's potential, so we kinda let it fade away too. Gaming got so thin, I started "playing" the enormous time-sinks that are Ogame and X-Wars, and designed half a dozen flash games on PlayCrafter. My only RPGing in most of January or February was playing in the weekly one-shot, and I ended up missing two or three of those. GMing withdrawal set in, and I was feeling kinda miserable and low. I even started contemplating dedicating big chunks of time to unlocking the mysteries of Wii Fit.

To get out of my funk, I ran TROOPS.

Then all of a sudden, I'm in over my head with RPGs again. I'm currently prepping for two campaigns I've been asked to run starting in the next week or so. In the background I'm simmering ideas for another TROOPS installment, as an encore's been requested. I also find myself committed to helping plan the next Emerald City Game Fest (which will be awesome, and I'm happy to help, I'm just pointing out I had two fewer other obligations when I volunteered). I have three half-designed PlayCrafter games now on hold, and I'm not sure when I'll get back to them. The last time I checked in on either of my sci-fi time-sinks was 57 hours ago, and I see I've been probed at least 14 times since then (but still not attacked).

Feast or Famine, y'know? Best solution is to hop back in the saddle. Fractal nature of the universe, and what-not. I guess the stars are right for gaming! Speaking of Cthulhu, the game systems I'll be running are:
  • Trail of Cthulhu
  • Deadlands Reloaded

Monday, February 9, 2009

Hooray, I've been attacked!

I've been "playing" Ogame for weeks now. I use quotation marks, because nothing much has happened in the game. It took forever to even get to the stage where I could build a spaceship, then forever again till I could colonize a planet. Eventually my "empire" has grown to 4 planets, which are pretty self-sufficient and require very little time or energy on my part. The downside, of course, is that it is boring.

My interaction with other players has been very limited. I've raided some planets, but mostly just those of players who've been inactive for over a month and thus unlikely to retaliate. I'm such a late-comer to the Universe I chose, that most real players have a huge jump on me in terms of tech and fleet development, so it wasn't ever worth the risk of my attacking them. (I chose the game, and that universe within it, because some old buddies used to play there - but I haven't been able to find them on the rosters.)

A couple weeks ago, I got a single spammish "join my alliance or be crushed" message from some random player, but it didn't make me want to join him. At the time I thought "this game's been so boring, I look forward to him attacking." But he didn't, and after a few days it returned to be boring.

A google search for "better than Ogame" pointed me in the direction of a game called X-Wars. It's graphics and interface aren't nearly as pretty as Ogame, but it has a big plus in the form of getting to design your own spaceships. I started playing it a couple weeks ago... but I considered putting quotations around "playing" in that sentence. You get a sense of progress and accomplishment faster in X-Wars, so it seems more gamelike.

The last couple days I've been weighing in my mind whether or not to just bag Ogame and walk away. Then, early this morning, I got probed. Two of my planets were spied on by one player, and then a different player sent a single probe to suicidally attack one of my planets. The two players aren't in the same Alliance, however, so I'm not sure what the intention of the suicide attack was. If it were the same player both times, I'd assume the point of the probe was to create a small debris field around my planet. He could get a salvage fleet headed toward the debris, timed to arrive a few minutes after his attack fleet hits my defense fleet stationed there. But, since that same player doesn't seem to have previously scanned me, it's also possible he was attempting espionage and accidentally told the probe to attack instead (by mis-clicking).

To play it safe, I sent my non-combat vessels of the fleet elsewhere, loaded up with supplies from the endangered world. I then sunk just about all my remaining resources on the planet into beefing up my defenses there. Hopefully, if it is an attack, his fleet will find the results a lot less rewarding than he'd imagined.

Getting attacked like this was kind of exciting, but I won't know it's full impact till I see how this plays out. If it was an accidental attack, I'm back to the game being boring and non-interactive. If it's a precursor to a longer invasion, who knows. It may breathe new life into a game I was about ready to give up on. Or, he may crush me so badly there's no chance of recovery. Don't know which it will be, but I'm excited to find out.

Saturday, February 7, 2009


A couple of buddies of mine are playing in a Vampire LARP here in town, and last night it was one of many topics of conversation. They revealed to me that they'd just recently (despite having been playing for months) learned two very odd rules of the LARP's setting.
  1. There are no bombs. Explosives just don't make it into Seattle, as the police and border patrol are really good at finding them.
  2. There is no internet. No windows, either. Computers have a DOS prompt and a monochrome screen.
The game is indeed set in the modern day, they tell me, and people have cellphone cameras in-character. It's hard for me to wrap my brain around these decisions. I've never played with this particular LARP group, so it's possible there's some mitigating circumstances I'm unaware of, but from my vantage point this just seems like so much crazy talk. As a result, my response (below) may seem kinda crass at times, for which I apologize.

The "No Bombs" rule I can kind of understand. I played in a game once where some yahoo exploded Elysium, killing several characters and doing Agg damage to just about everyone. I certainly felt like he was ruining the game. So, I can see how a blanket ruling that you just can't smuggle bombs into the city might seem appealing.

But what did my friends do this past month when their request for a bomb was turned down? One of them took his action for the week to purchase a huge amount of gasoline. The other took his action to buy bulk supplies of packing peanuts. Dissolve styrofoam in gasoline and, according to the Anarchist's cookbook, you get low-grade napalm. Since Vampires have an unnatural fear of fire, it's in some ways better against them then explosives are, though I'm sure it's stinkier and requires greater quantities for the job than C-4 would.

My point is, that while there's plenty of reasons that blowing up Elysium is bad, you can't stop it by claiming there's super drug-sniffing dogs at the edge of town. If you try to limit such game-breaking activity via in-character constraints, it only encourages players to get creative. They saw it as a challenge. Given only an in-character rationale, they might crash a plane into Elysium, or a tanker-truck full of home-made napalm into the Prince's haven, or they invest in Police Influence in hopes of making confiscated C-4 go missing from the evidence locker. The explosives are merely a symptom, not the underlying root cause.

There's certainly uses for which Explosives are non-broken. Your vampire wants to build a new Haven deep in solid bedrock - explosives are the way to do so that doesn't break the Masquerade. He wants to defend that same haven with booby traps that will be active even while he sleeps - there's very little even arguably wrong with that. He wants to wage a messy resource war by blowing up buildings that other players have Influence connections at - depending on the scope of what he's doing and whether or not it'll bring DHS and BATF down on your city, it might or might not be acceptable. He wants to boobytrap several other player's Havens so as to vaporize them without warning - that's probably right out, or at least the victim needs some sort of chance to spot it.

And that intent is exactly where the issue is. When a player tries to do something that will ruin everyone else's fun, it needs to be stopped. Rigging Elysium to explode falls into that category, but so would breaching the Masquerade on live television. Are you going to rule that "within the setting the FCC prevents all live broadcasts", just so you don't have to worry about that? Probably not. So why should bombs be treated any differently?

Saying "no bombs" is easy, but it completely misses the real issue. The better way to deal with it is to ask why the player wants the bombs. At that time, explain to them that for the sake of verisimilitude you'll give them access to the bombs, but that it makes you, as the Storyteller, uncomfortable. Make it clear to them that if they intentionally create a situation where their bomb plot succeeding is clearly at odds with the enjoyment of the rest of the group, your decision will be easy. As GM, you have an obligation to provide a fun experience for as many of the players as possible, even if it means his carefully orchestrated plan failing spectacularly.

If you have that conversation, those otherwise likely to nuke Elysium will reconsider it. If you aren't blunt about it like that, they'll just find some dastardly alternate way to sew chaos and devastation, because they think it sounds like fun.

The other part makes no sense at all to me.

The lack of internet, Windows, everything you expect about home computing, etc, is a pretty major deviation from "it's set in modern day". I can certainly think of reasons for deviating from reality like that. The game is set in Seattle, after all, so maybe backstory of one of the first PCs or NPCs involves killing Bill Gates or some other past action that prevented Microsoft from ever existing. Or maybe the GMs just didn't want to deal with all that potential Computer Influence (for which the default rules of the game don't really have a system) and Industrial Influence so they eliminated the elements of the local setting that would have required it. They may even have held back computers expecting some player to want to be the Gatesian pioneer in that arena, but the players just missed it and nobody has pursued that opportunity.

But if you're going to deviate from reality like that, it needs to be front-and-center. The description of the LARP is no longer "Vampire: The Masquerade", it should be "like Vampire: The Masquerade, in a slightly altered setting that's like the modern day except with seriously stunted computer technology and no internet." It shouldn't be possible for multiple people to be playing in your LARP for 3+ months without having been told about this alteration that's absolutely vital to understanding the head-space of a modern character. I suppose it's possible my friends missed this detail, but they were adamant to me that there were no clues: never told it before, nothing in hand-outs they'd been given or on the LARP's website.

Suspension of Disbelief may require some ripple effects coming from that setting variation, as well. Camera-phones seem like a stretch if there's no computer revolution predating them, and no way to upload and share your photos. If computers still have the old monochrome screens, why would cellphones have color displays? If not for the advances in technology for home computer's monitors, we wouldn't have flat-screen plasma TVs. Colleges wouldn't have big Computer Science departments, and the departments they would have would have diminshed computing resources - so Education Influence gives lesser benefit than it did before. Same for Health Influence, because a stagnated computer industry means reduced tech for life-saving, and all the records must still be paper-based and hard to search. Sweeping alterations to the setting pour forth from this decision, but it sounds like they haven't been taken into account at all.

Or, again, I suppose it's possible there's some factor I'm unaware of, which the three friends playing in the LARP weren't able to explain to me.

I'm not just some random crackpot here ranting about how someone else's campaign sucks without a leg to stand on. I've got some measure of experience at this sort of thing. For several years, I ran a LARP. It was set (initially) in 1850, and at the end of every 4-to-6-month story arc we'd advance the timeline by 10 to 20 years.

Up front, in big letters on the character-creation packet, it indicated that this was an alternate timeline and an alternate setting. It went on to mention there was no Camarilla nor Sabbat, the werewolf NPCs were non-cannonical and didn't worship The Wyld, the Tremere-Salubri backstory had been altered, and we're using Koldunic (not Vissitudinal) Tzcimsce. Don't assume anything is true about the secrets of White Wolf's setting except for very basic things every neonate would know, such as names and archetypes of the clans, general vampiric strengths and weaknesses, etc. For the sake of the story, our out-of-character goal was for Albuquerque to become the most prominent city west of the Mississippi, and certain PC actions have resulted in Tesla defeating Edison, but other than that, you could generally assume most of history played out largely as the history books record it. Feel free to ask the STs and/or heads of the households if you have questions about anything specific.

This caveat did a good job of introducing the players to the setting, and prepping them for the notion that our game was non-standard. When and if something came up that someone wasn't aware of, they generally rolled with it, and weren't afraid to ask the GMs "what would my character know about this?" 9 times out of 10 the answer was along the lines of "Nothing. You've never heard of it before. Steam-powered cyber-werewolves are not an established part of the setting, it must be something new the evil railroad barons whipped up. Now you know something the other players don't - hopefully it won't eat you."

Friday, February 6, 2009

You missed a great game last night (TROOPS)

I ran my "Stormtroooper Sobriety Checkpoint" scenario last night, and I'm pleased to report it went over very well. It was, of course, inspired by TROOPS, and Star Wars before that, and a little bit of Robot Chicken, so I was merely standing on the shoulders of giants. Just the same, while it's fresh in my mind, I'm going to set as much of it down as I can, even if it seems a little immodest to do so. It's not just that I was on fire - the whole group was in top form last night. So much fun.

The characters were Imperials working a DWI checkpoint just outside Mos Eisley. I gave them pregenerated stats, but required each player to come up with (name, rank, and serial number, plus) a personality quirk or two that made their Stormtrooper stand out. This wasn't the sort of scenario where stats, equipment and dice pools really mattered. It was an action-packed adventure, but not in any traditional sense of the words.

Of course, calling it a scenario or adventure isn't even entirely accurate. Other than the initial character sheets, it was pretty much all improvised. My scenario prep amounts to 6 lines in my notebook, just storyline and character ruminations, without even a single NPC stat. I grabbed a bunch of minis appropriate to Tatooine, and just ran whatever came to mind.

The cast of Player Characters included:
  • Sela Quar, Serial # CR2567, the NCO in charge of the DWI checkpoint. (Played by Laura.) As one of the rare female Stormtroopers, Sela was bitter about the Imperial "glass cieling" and complained about it constantly to anyone who would listen. She was an AT-ST driver, her vehicle is shown here with it's fashionable ribbon adornment. She joined the Imperial Forces to get away from Tatooine, but, sadly, straight out of the Academy they deployed her back on Tatooine.
  • Ojibnan Ramalamadidon, Serial # THX1138, a Stormtrooper who joined the Imperial Forces for the educational benefits. (Played by John.) He's on the II Bill - for every 10 credits you put into your education fund, the Empire kicks in 1 credit. That's a 10% interest, and you only have to commit to 10 years as a Stormtrooper to get it! Oji's other quirk was that he didn't want to shoot people or get shot at - which is fairly rare for a Stormtrooper. "Being a Stormtrooper is also helping me develop my interpersonal skills. I never was a people-person before."
  • PFC Track (Played by Steve) is a member of the Dewback Corps, and was never far from his pet Dewback mount, a lizard named Princess. He really didn't want to be a Stormtrooper, his dream was to manage a tourist resort, but his parents forced him into the military to advance the political aspirations they had for him. His other quirk was a strong fascination with (and memorization of) manufacturer's recall notices.
  • 77T8 is the Protocol Droid assigned to the squad. (Played by Malachi.) He'd been mindwiped 47 times by jawas before being bought by the squad. As a result, he had some patwork personality and a faulty vocalizer. In every scene, he had a different accent. He was also wired with a very potent self-destruct bomb, but thankfully never had to use it.
  • All of this was filmed by CamBot, aka P673219, aka Cindy the Probe Droid. (Played by Sarah. ) Cindy had been programmed with a sexy woman's voice, constantly flirting with the Stormtroopers she was interviewing. Picture a gynormous Imperial Probe Droid starting every conversation with "Howdy Sailor" or "Hey, Good Looking", and you're on the right track.

The scenario started out pretty simply. There was a long line of landspeeders pulled over at the DWI checkpoint.

Between the encounters mentioned below, Cindy Cambot interviewed the other PCs - it was kinda like "confessionals" in InSpectres, but she actually got out our video camera and recorded them. I had planned on putting the interviews up on YouTube, but since we were playing in a coffeeshop the audio is pretty bad.

The first car, just to get the PCs in the mood, was a couple of two-bit hick worm farmers. Yokels with exagerated southern accents, blue-within-blue eyes, and a glove compartment full of a kilo of spice. "Sir, please step out of the car and breathe into the droid." The PCs made them walk a line in the sand, and then searched the car. I expected these druggies to be a smouldering pile of ash at the base of the Imperial Execution Pillars in no time, but since Officer Oji was a pacifist, they ended up just going to the Detention Center. That pretty much set the tone of how the group dealt with criminals and drunks the rest of the night.

The second car was a salvage truck, with an recovered escape pod (and one circular droid bit) in the back. His paperwork was in order and he wasn't drunk so they let him through. It served as a frame of reference as to when the session was set, so the significance of the next car wasn't lost.

An old man and a 20-year-old kid were in the next landspeeder, along with their droids. There was some hand-waving involved. Protocol Droid 77T8 sure tried hard to stop them, since he was immune to jedi mind tricks. Laura (as Sela) played up that she knew Luke from her childhood, and she let Wormie and Old Ben pass through without even having to put the jedi whammy on her. Trying to provoke a fight, 77T8 mentioned the report that Luke's folks had been put down, but instead of starting trouble, it just motivated Sela to let the poor kid go without questioning.

One or two cars later, the driver was Officer Oji's no good brother-in-law Greedo. He was drunk, and talking trash about some guy named solo. I'm such a geek - I have Greedo's lines in Rodian phoenetically memorized, so I delivered them with a drunken slur. "And I know he's gonna try to do that little gimmick of his, where he shoots ya under the table, but ya know what I'm gonna do? Do ya? Do ya? I'm gonna shoot him first!" Since he was family, they called him a cab. The Probe droid put the blurry spot over not just Greedos face but also Officer Oji's badge number.

Sebulba showed up in the next Pod in line. There was some discussion over whether or not it was street legal, so they ran a background check. He'd been racing on other worlds for several years, and the statute of limitations on all his local crimes had run out. Why was he back? He said his old school reunion was tonight, and he planned to beat up Ani for old time's sake. The Stormtroopers wished him luck on that.

Next was Panda Baba and Dr Evazan. Turns out the players had seen that particular episode of Robot Chicken, so my own stolen thunder was stolen. I did have Dr Evazan mouth off a bit, and was again surprised that the PCs mostly let him get away with it. These Stormtroopers apparently really took Palpatine's "kinder, gentler Empire" speach very seriously.

The next three cars in line got smushed by a giant sail barge. We set a dice tray on the table to be the barge, and I quickly pulled out a baggie with miniatures of Jabba, Boba Fet, several goons and a horde of Twi'Lek poledancers. Now was the moment for the players to screw up, get ballsy, and/or just generally start some trouble. Sela, improvising with no prompting from me, instructed the Protocol Droid to serve Jabba with his warrant for outstanding parking tickets. Boba Fett rocketed over to respond. He was starring at Sela's chestplate. "My eyes are up here." "Yeah, but your badge number is down there." Things got tense for a moment, but the brave droid boarded the barge and tried to serve Jabba the Warrant. "This Protocol Droid is my kind of bureacratic scum... If you forget that warrant ever existed, I'll give you this Twi'Leki whore-slave." I was prepared for the fight had they pushed the issue, but they decided a blue-skinned ho was a worthy bribe.

As the sail barge headed to the horizon, the Stormtroopers made medicine rolls to try and save the lives of the cars it had smushed. They called the salvage truck from the beginning of the scenario, and made some profit on the crumpled landspeeders. The players thought everything was winding down early.

Then I said a sleek black landspeeder flies towards you. It's bobbing and weaving, and the driver must be drunk. They fired warning shots, and the driver managed to break just short of plowing into the AT-ST. It was a state-of-the-art expensive landspeeder, with seamless tinted windows. Everybody started to sweat in their armor, but someone mustered the nerve to approach the car. A black gloved dropped a crumpled beer can out the window.

Vader was not only stinkin' drunk, he was morose and mopey. Tonight was his school reunion, and what did he have to show for himself? The PCs tried to convince him that being a Dark Lord of the Sith and second-in-command of the fleet was accomplishment enough, but Darth insisted that he was nothing but a washed-up cyborg freak who hadn't been in a stable relationship in nearly 30 years. This was between various cans of beer, bouts of vomiting, taking hits on his spice pipe, unzipping to pee in front of them all, reminiscing about Padme's hairstyles, falling on his ass and sobbing about the high ground, etc. (In the background, "Princess" the Dewback was eating Vader's drug stash.)

"Sebulba's gonna *wheeze* rub my mask in it *wheeze* if I show up to the reunion *wheeze* without a date." This was, of course, why I included the sexy little slave-ho in the previous scene. The eyes of the droid's player light up, and he gets half a word into offering the slave to Vader.

Sela cut him off. She had ambitions, and wasn't above flirting with Vader to advance her career. "I'd be happy to be your date, Lord Vader. My shift is nearly over, just give me a moment to freshen up..."

I just had to reward that quick-thinking, so Vader says "I'm afraid I can't fraternize with a Corporal... *wheeze* ...but I'll be happy to attend my school reunion with you, General Sela. Let me get you a proper uniform." There was some goofiness as he struggled to unlock the trunk of his car, but eventually he opened it up. The bodies of five dead Imperial Officers were packed in the trunk. One was female, and looked like her uniform would fit Sela. You'd think that'd be enough to scare her off...

The arrive at the Cantina where the Reunion is being hosted. Sela and Vader on a date, the rest of the PCs being their honor guard.

There's a small delay at the cantina - the crew that was supposed to hang the "Enchantment Under The Dune Sea" banners first had to clean up a severed arm and poor Greedo's body. Officer Oji calls his sister to break the news - John was hilarious as he tactlessly let her know that her husband is dead, sent her pictures of his smoking corpse, and then rummaged through his deceased brother-in-laws pockets and improvised finding half a dozen different wedding rings. "I guess he really did have a woman in every port." He then read off inscribed names from the rings.

77T8 slipped off for a moment to sell a couple of the spare Admiral Uniforms to various criminals. He keeps one and wears it into the Cantina, as being an Imperial Officer is the only way to convince the barkeep to serve droids.

Since it's the "Enchantment Under The Dune Sea" dance, I had the band play "Yoda Be Good", complete with improvised parody lyrics from the Bith version of Marty McFly.

Vader pranced around showing off his trophy date, insulting Sebulba, buying rounds of drinks, bragging about his power and position, etc. He made it terribly clear to the whole reunion that he was indeed little Anakin Skywalker.

Sela makes a mental connection, and steps off to call Luke. So, of course, Luke's in the middle of trying to fight his way across the hangar bay to the Millenium Falcon. The power was in Sela's hands. She could have told Luke who his dad was now, she could have ordered her squad to help capture him, there were plenty of options. Instead, however, she flexed her recently-promoted muscles, and ordered the squad attacking her old chum to stand down and let Luke and the Millenium Falcon escape.

Vader passes out. Then his phone rings, so Sela picked it up and answered it. It was Emperor Palpatine. I was just planning to riff along the lines of Palpatine and Vaders conversation on Robot Chicken. Instead, she secures her title as a General, contingent on getting Vader home safe to the Death Star and make sure no one at the reunion remembers any state secrets Vader might have blabbed (including his Anakin identity). Again, I'm expecting mass carnage as the "correct" answer. Instead, they plug the probe droid into the bar's widescreen TV, and play altered footage of Vader claiming to secretly be everyone they'd met. "I'm really Greedo! No, wait, I'm really Jabba The Hutt!" etc. Meanwhile, they spend a big chunk of the salvage money on additional rounds of drinks so everyone at the reunion is so wasted they can't remember which Vader identity was the real one.

77T8, the protocol droid, interrupts the call from the Emperor to network. He arranges for an interview with the Emperor to make a presentation/proposal about a new Droid Army. This is, the Emperor Explains, contingent on him having 5 or more arms. "Everytime I hire a new Droid General, my rule is that he has to have more arms than his predecessor..."

What a ridiculous scenario. Everyone was in stitches, and half the group made out like Bandits. I may have to revisit this on Cloud City or Endor sometime.

Update: One of the players, Steve, also wrote up a big chunk of the scenario . If my blathering wasn't enough for you, check out his LiveJournal entry.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Follow That Dog, Part 1

My wife and I recently purchased Wii Fit. My initial reaction wasn't entirely positive, but it's kinda been growing on me. Honestly, though, if my wife weren't encouraging me to lose weight, I don't think I'd have the patience for it.

A few days ago, a friend of mine blogged about some things his Wii Fit had done to surprise him. One of these involved the running game. There's certain key points where, if you "accidentally" outpace your trainer, you can start chasing a dog instead. The dogs take you on completely different trails, so you get to explore more of the island.
Last night, I outpaced the trainer and followed a dog, that lead me to another dog, that lead me to another dog. I now know that in addition to the three trails the game menus tell you about, there's at least 5 other alternate trails. This made me curious, so I did a quick google and a scan of various cheat sites. Most of them are wrong.

Some of them report that the dog appears when you outpace your trainer. That's what I thought at first, but I've since tested it and it's not true. Outpacing your trainer when there's a dog on screen will switch you to chasing the dog, but outpacing your trainer when there's no dogs around does you no good (as near as I can tell, anyway). I thought maybe it would summon a dog, but that theory doesn't hold up to testing.

Some of the sites report that the dogs appear at specific places. That seems mildly inaccurate to me as well. For example, I've seen it claimed that the dog appears in front of the "single house with a mii out front" on the short run. While it's true I can often find a dog there, the same dog sometimes passes me well before that, when I'm on the trail that goes through the rock archway. That implies to me that the dogs have preset circuits they go on, and your speed determines when, where, (and if) you run into them. I'll have to test it further to know for sure.

Most cheat sites claim that there's 3 or 5 dogs. However, there may be a 6th, because the other day I walked into the living room while my wife was following a dog on a trail I'd never seen. She was unable to explain to me where she'd run into the dog. Taking all that into account, there's a good possibility that there are more dogs than the five I know about, and that I just haven't got my timing right to find them. I see dogs going the other way, for example, and have no clue how to follow them. As I indicated, there doesn't seem to be a thorough or accurate guide to the Wii Fit dog trails on the internet. The best I've found is some videos on AOL that show you 4 alternate routes. I've seen a comment on a forum where a guy claims to have found 12 alternate trails, but he may have been smokin' something, as he didn't describe any of them. Some random guy on yet another site claimed there were 15 trails. claims each time you follow a particular dog they cycle through a list of different routes, but that hasn't matched my experiences thus far. No site documents any alternates in Free Run or 2-Player modes, but neither does any site claim there aren't any in those modes. The information just isn't out there.

For some reason, I've got enormous curiousity about this stupid trail variation mystery. So, I've decided to do something about it. My plan is to do a different run every day, at varying speeds, and do my best to record here every dog I encounter, and where they take me. It'll be an ongoing series.

I realize most of my readers are here to read my rants about RPG mechanics and steal my campaign ideas, :) so don't worry, this isn't a sign of some major change to the site. No matter how obsessively I may try to explore the Wii Fit jogging game, my primary focus here is and will remain on tabletop RPGs, with just a bit of sideline diversion into board games, LARP, card games, computer games, etc. I expect to be doing 4 to 7 of these posts a week for just a couple weeks, at which point I'll have completed all the trails I can find (or have decided it's not worth pursuing further). I also expect the posts will be pretty short. They will all be titled "Follow That Dog" so you can easily ignore them if you're not interested, and I understand and expect that most of you won't be.

The format, should anyone care, will be something like this:
Run Type: Short, Long, Island Lap, 2-Person Run, Free Run, etc
Dog Color: Self-explanatory, and unimportant. I'd skip this, except I think it will make it easier for me to find the multi-dog trails and know whether or not I'm just repeating myself.
Met At: A description of the part of the trail where I met this dog, and how far on the distance meter that location is. If I was running particularly fast or slow to be at that location at that time the dog got there, I'll mention it.
Destination: A description of the final location the dog lead me to.
Along The Way: If anything particularly cool or entertaining happens en route, I'll share it, but this is a purely optional part of the entry and likely won't happen to often. I know there's at least one feature of one trail I'll want to discuss.

Should a run involve following more than one dog, I'll include that detail, probably by having multiple Dog Color, Met At, and Destination entries, numbered in sequence.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Time Travel (and Parallel Universe) Links

Mainly I wanted to share Timelinks, aetherco's big list of time-travel movie reviews. A related link is Andy's Anachronisms. Both review only movies and TV shows that feature Time Travel as a major plot point. What makes it cool is that the reviews have more to do with the consistency and logic of how time-travel functions in the setting of the films, than they do with the traditional film qualities most reviews focus on. At Timelinks, they list 700 films and shows, and score them from 1 to 12 (like the hours of a clock), though neither a 1 nor a 12 has ever been given, as a 1 would be too horrible to watch and a 12 would be actual video proof of time travel. Even the page on how their review system works is well worth a read.

To give you an example of what the sites are like, I offer their review of T3 - They ignore most of the films many mundane flaws to instead focus on how it deals with Time Travel, and how it muddles the rules of the first two films. The best part of the review is the supposition that maybe ALL the Terminators were sent by SkyNet, none by John Connor.
In fact, except for Kyle Reese, John's time-warped dad in the first movie, we have only the word of a bunch of Terminators about what the future holds. And even Reese could have been told to lie to Sarah Connor about the date of Judgment Day (originally August 29, 1997). After all, he memorized a speech to tell her.

There is even the grim possiblity that, since Terminators are programmed to lie constantly in pursuit of their goal, that ALL of the Terminators have been sent by Skynet. What better way to herd humans into desired events than by giving them a glimmer of hope?

I'd happily play in that Campaign.

(All this reminds me of Terminator: Salvation. That movie could be sweet. Fingers crossed.)

I just wish they'd get more reviews up, and more films rated. There's 700 time-travel films listed, but maybe half that many rated, and only a handful given full reviews.

...but while I'm providing links, here's a couple short scientific articles on parallel universes and how to make our own.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Of Pandas and Athletic Shoes, WTF?

Headbutting a teddy-bear-style panda-pillow is minus three points, but getting kicked in the face by athletic cleats is only minus one point?!

Who the heck dreamt that up?

Knights of the Realm, Over The Edge, Traveller

I didn't get to play in Sophie's game last week, which is a shame since she's a very fun GM, and doesn't live in Seattle anymore. There were just too many players, and some of us had to splinter off and play something else.

Sophie's scenario sounded awesome. The PCs were real world aging stars who've been Knighted. Ben Kingsley, Tom Jones, Ian McKellan, Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger, Judi Dench, etc. Some big calamity occurs, and the Queen calls on them. It seems when you're knighted, there's a clause that you must actually take up arms to defend your country should any supernatural evil come about. Picture those aging entertainers battling dragons. No doubt, much hilarity ensued.

But, alas, I was across the room at a different table, playing a semi-improvised sci-fi game where one rules-light-system was welded to a somewhat less interesting setting. I learned three things:
  1. I think I could grow to like the mechanics (and setting) of Over The Edge
  2. I'm really not impressed with the setting of Traveller.
  3. Don't bring a shotgun to a laser-cannon-mounted-on-combat-droids fight.
Despite livening things up by playing a rather disturbing xenophile marine sniper turned combat medic (and having to draw him and his alien pinup calendar thanks to Over The Edge's character creation rules), the setting and scenario just didn't do much for me. The pace was slow, and no knowing the races or tech meant it just wasn't noob-friendly. I couldn't really grok it.

In retrospect, I would have been happier just playing Over The Edge complete with Al Amarja, (or finagling my way into Sophie's game).

TROOPS: Stormtrooper Sobriety Checkpoint

This Thursday, I'm GMing at Wayward. I'll be running a scenario inspired by TROOPS. If you're not familiar with TROOPS, click on the embedded video.

The PCs will be Stormtroopers, Imperial Navy Officers, and/or Bounty Hunters (plus maybe a Camera Droid?) working a Drunk Driving Checkpoint on a backwater world. I'm going to be using the classic d6 System, with a few minor modifications. I'm considering making PC be required to have a quirk, chosen by the player. That way the Fargo-accented Stormtrooper can be complimented by the nerdy autograph-seeking trooper, the aqualish-phobic trooper, the pregnant Imperial Officer, the overzealous protocol droid who thinks he's a Stormtrooper, the recently redeployed Snowtrooper who hasn't been issued enviromentally-appropriate replacement armor yet, etc.

Boxing Animation

This is a bit goofy. I made this little animation on PlayCrafter - it's not even a game. It was just a way to kill a couple hours while waiting for my wife to finish her telework last week. It had struck me that the lightbulb pieces on playcrafter looked a little bit like boxing gloves, but I couldn't think up an actual game to use that for, so I just did a short "animation". I certainly wasn't expecting it to get over 200 plays in a weekend - in fact, I nearly didn't publish it.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Another Hypothetical RPG - an alternative BSG RPG

Battlestar Galactica - yeah, I know there's already a BSG RPG. I'd never play it. I'll start with a few points as to why I'm not interested in just playing it as-is:
  • It's based on the current show. I enjoy watching the current show, but as an RPG setting it sure has flaws. It's muddled, and I really can't tell what will prove to be prophetic destiny arranged by godlike beings and what will just be Baltar's paranoid schizophrenic ravings. I'm not entirely convinced the writers will be able to make the cosmology make sense in the end, and I'd hate to find that out for certain in mid-campaign.
  • Worse, there's giant logic holes in the show that wouldn't survive contact with your typical playgroup. To keep the PCs from having a cylon detector by episode two, you'd have to deny them access to any science or engineering characters, and also disallow cameras and the seduction of their fellow pilots. The Galactica has a never-ending supplies of missiles for the vipers - so PCs would jury-rig missile launchers onto the hull of the President's ship by the end of session one. It goes on and on.
  • I've read that the two types of Viper (Mk II and MVII) have the same stats in this system. There's 40 years of tech development seperating them. I know the show doesn't dwell on it real long or hard either, but they ought to have some variation in stats. Abstract elegance is good, but for a setting the features space-dogfights so prominantly, you need more granularity.
  • On the other hand, the rule book lists several different pistols that only vary in cost, not effectiveness. Why differentiate between costs of identical handguns? The show never names gun types, never dwells on them beyond "he's armed", and only mentions money when plot points are being discussed over a game of Pyramid.
  • Politics is a huge part of the story, and resource depletion is a recurring plot line. You could handle the resources with a light and abstract touch by having an NPC admiral give the PCs missions every session - "The Admiral says Fuel supplies are low and we need to raid that Cylon tillium station". Sadly, that runs into the same "powerless PCs" problem you get when you have a NPC Prince in a Vampire LARP - it would strip the Politics out of the setting, and/or make the PCs feel like bit players. Alternately, you could have a very gritty system that tracks resources so players can make the hard decisions - but every review I've read of the game suggests that it's crunch-lite, without any rules for how to find a world with food, how much fuel it takes to jump the fleet, etc.
  • Most generic systems lack the ability to make 3-D space combat meaningful or exciting. I haven't heard any praise of how this one is different.
Assuming, for the sake of an post/argument, that I had some desire to capture the feel of the series, but not the precise exact canonical details... Here's a quick rough draft of how I'd start:

I'd go with a really rules-light system for the actual characters. Probably FATE, as it's solid, simple, flexible, not too cinematic, and provides some character background. PCs would have skills, but not lots of feats. I'd put the majority of the focus on the ships, instead.

I'd have each player design a ship - and I'd focus my game-design energies on making a system for that rewards the players for making a fleet that's diverse. Their PC would be the captain of the ship they designed. Rather than having one big Battlestar to focus everything on, the needs of the fleet would be split between various vessels.

When the Captain of the only Agriculture vessel in the fleet decides to play political hardball, I want him to have some clout. When he tells the Military Carrier that he wants their engineers to install some point-defense on his vessel or else he'll cut production to emergency ration level, I want it to be a workable threat. I also want the players to be able to prioritize which ships get protection and babying based on what they bring to the fleet based on an appraisal of how important that vessel is to the fleet, and the mechanics need to make that possible.

Of course, when a fight breaks out, who wants to play the Agriculture ship, even if it has some jury-rigged flak guns? To solve that dillema, each player would have option of having two PCs. One is a captain of a civilian vessel, the second is one of the hot-shot fighter pilots. The captain characters would take part in the political struggle and resource management, and the fighter pilots would face the threats head-on. During full scale fleet battles and "33"-inspired ambushes, each player would control both their fighter and their civie ship, and the game would need a good tactical 3-D space combat system to make that work... Problem is, I have yet to play an RPG that does so, so I'm uncertain where to start.

I think I might crack open my old Full Thrust miniatures game books. Something similar, with individual ships-systems recorded and tracked, and using relative vector movement, would probably be the way to go. Fighters would have to be souped up a bit to feel like BSG, but Full Thrust is at least a good inspiration. You'd add systems like "Cargo Hold", "Tillium Processor", "Improvised Housing", "Hydroponics Bay" and the like so that the ships could hold a purpose in the fleet. You don't want a system where a critical hit makes the whole ship explode, nor a system with abstract hit points and a boolean unimpaired/destroyed status for the whole vessel. Instead, you want a brutal system where ships get battered and impaired, systems go offline one by one, and you have to nurse it back into shape after the battle.

That's where I'd start, anyway.

Current Events (Zombies attack Texas)

If I were still running Scion, or some other modern-day fantasy/sci-fi game, I'd be sure to work this current event from Austin, TX, into the storyline - with sinister backstory...

(Thanks to Jake at Repeated Expletives for bringing this to my attention.)