Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Game I Rarely Blog About (Yet I'm Loving It)

I almost never blog about my Continuum RPG campaign, despite it going really smashingly well of late. It's so complex that the amount of time I have to work on it between sessions is a lot better spent actually prepping for the next session instead of blogging about what we've already done. Plus, with how many mystery plotlines I run in it, and the non-linear nature of a Time Travel game, it's not often that I can safely post our recent events without potentially giving something away to the players should they read my blog. However, since we're not gaming this week due to the holidays,  I've actually got a few spare minutes. The campaign has been running for just over a year now, and it's high time I talk about it at length, or at least reflect and summarize.

Mechanics: I converted Continuum to the Gumshoe system. Gumshoe is a light and flexible system that's designed to run mysteries. It features streamlined rules and very little random chance, which is good because the original Continuum system can be a little unforgiving on the players. I'm not going to go into detail here and now on what I tweaked mechanically to make the conversion work, because I'd rather spend my energies describing characters and plot. For now, we'll just let it stand at "I changed a few things, and they work great. Continuum-Gumshoe hybrid is an awesome little system that really facilitates role-playing and problem-solving."

Characters: We started with 5 player characters. They are/were:
  • Declan McGee, a balding field epidemiologist for the Center for Disease Control
  • Ronald Weiss, a nerdy behavioral psychologist and part-time adviser to mentalist Derren Brown
  • Casey Yoder, a pot-smoking former real-estate agent turned amateur ghost hunter
  • Grace Blackwood, an psychic and author of books on religion and occult
  • Mercy Blackwood, Grace's twin sister, whose line of work is basically being "Indiana Jones" for the Smithsonian Institute
Of course, that's only scratching the surface. It is a time-travel game, after all, so what they did before they discovered the secret of spanning the centuries is only a tiny fraction of the character. One interesting thing to note is the great variation in world view. The first two characters are a lot more skeptical and rational than the last three, and there have been some great in-character debates about ghosts, psionics, and magic. And the final character on that list has a much rustier moral compass than the other four.

Mentor and Corner: At this point I should also mention my first NPC, Heilyn Stonhewer. I let the players have a lot of input in the creation of this character, who would serve as their Mentor and main go-to-guy, especially in the early stages of the campaign.
  • They said they wanted him to be from far down in the mists of time, with links to the Druids and Celts and the like. 
  • They wanted the Corner (the PC's HQ, effectively) to be based out of some old castle in the UK, and that this NPC mentor should also have had a hand in it's build way back in the day. 
  • They requested he be capable of tough love, but not generally inclined to it. They wanted him to let them get into trouble, but act as a safety valve if they got in too deep.
  • They wanted him to have once run afoul of The Maxims, having fallen in with villains and become either a Narcissist (the Enemy) or a Lost Cause (nearly fragmented out of existence) at some point, and having pulled himself back up by his bootstraps when no one sane would trust him.
  • And since only one of the PCs had any combat skills, it wouldn't hurt for the Mentor to be crackerjacks with a weapon or two.
It was a tall order, and tricky to put in place without overshadowing the PCs. I didn't want him to steal their thunder, even if they'd asked me to. I am not a fan of the GMPC concept/phenomenon. It was a little shaky at first, but I eventually got a handle on it thanks in no small part to his sordid and checkered past. While he's got more skills than the PCs, he often needs them to be his frontman (frontmen? frontpeople?) because other NPCs tend to respond poorly to him or his reputation.

The castle chosen was Caerphilly Castle, half a dozen miles NW of Cardiff.  As corner's go, it's pretty sweet. I had to play a little loose with the CADW (Welsh Historical Society) and visiting hours to make it feasible, but it's oozing flavor and history, so it's worth a little reality juggling.

Video Conferencing: The 5 players portraying these PCs live in 3 different cities, so it's an online game. We started with Skype, and then switched to MeBeam because it could handle 6-way video conferencing.  Eventually MeBeam went down (I'm not certain of the details, but I suspect they're not around as a company anymore), so we switched to TinyChat. There have been a few technical hurdles time and again, but in general I'm really pleased with TinyChat for multi-player group RPGs, and would stick with just Skype when running a 1-on-1 "solo" game.

Wiki: Only 2 of the 5 players had any previous Continuum experience, and only 1 of the players knew the Gumshoe system. So a lot of my early prep work was spent making a Wiki where I explained the rules and the setting.  I knew that was going to be a lot of effort going in, and I was a little worried that the technical bugaboos of online gaming would smother me, so I decided to reign in my larger ambitions and start with a published adventure, David Trimboli's "Identity Is All".

As it turns out, a Wiki was a great move. We've set up a communal spanlog on it, and the players take all sorts of notes online as well. It being a game where every PC can fold time and space to their will, it becomes necessary to keep good notes of what happened where and when, so you can revisit your personal past. The Wiki structure really promotes that well, with everyone being able to edit the logs and notes communally.

Getting Started: So, after a couple short sessions just introducing characters and getting a feel for what it means to be able to span time and space in the blink of an eye, I put in motion a minor variation on the "Identity Is All" scenario. I changed a few locations and character names to better match the existing Corner and PCs.

Identity Is All, by David Trimboli, involves the PCs mentor being gone for a weekend, possibly as a test of how well they can handle themselves without supervision. In the midst of this weekend, an NPC they've never met before shows up at their Corner with amnesia.  The players get to fiddle around with trying to figure out the investigative options at their disposal, and if anything gets out of hand they can simply time-travel away from that weekend to ask the Mentor for help. As written, it sounds like your typical group of PCs should be able to handle it in one, maybe two sessions... but of course, things never go as easily as planned.

My players dove right in, and started back-tracking the amnesiac's movements to find out where he came from. They weren't content to call in back-up or let me swing in some Deus Ex Machina on a string. No, they wanted to investigate every possible nook and cranny of this plotline. Which is awesome. I had to reverse engineer the undefined backstory of the scenario, just so I could stay a half-step ahead of them.

The scenario as written only takes place in roughly the modern day, but the PCs ended up pursuing clues that took them from Cardiff in 2004 all the way down to New York City in 1928.  Things were going great, they were exploring the setting and doing some top-notch sleuthing. Their Mentor hadn't been seen in several sessions, and they were quickly exposing the guts of a major Narcissist plot that is only hinted at in the published adventure.

Then, without warning, an out-of-character disaster struck, and nearly killed the campaign.

Social Implosion: I won't go into the details here out of respect for those involved, but suddenly 3 of the 5 players were no longer talking to each other. As a result, for about 2 or 3 months of play, I was uncertain each week which, if any, of them would show up. They'd been really good friends (of mine, as well as of each other), and I was certain they'd work it out eventually, so I didn't want to aggravate the situation by choosing sides or kicking anyone out of my game.

In the meantime, though, the plot was threatening to stall out. Since I could never be certain who was going to show up, and the various PCs had such different skills available, getting the level of challenge balanced properly was tricky. Plus, if someone was actively pursuing a particular plot thread or task, and then failed to show up the next week, it tended to leave things up in the air.

Back On Track: Myself and the other 2 players carried on without them, eventually writing their characters out of the story in ways that were non-confrontational and easily reversible. Not insurmountable, but certainly quite tricky. They visited three or four different Corners, met a lot of NPCs, investigated shenanigans at the ISIS pulsed neutron source in Chilton, and attended a Magician's show put on by the Enemy.

As is only proper in a time-travel game, they see much of the villains plot afoot and aimed at them long before they inadvertently took the actions that triggered the villain to become a villain in the first place. Why does he have crooked legs and a cane? Because the PCs accidentally gave him permanent injuries on the day they met. Man, it's good to be a time-travel GM.

In the midst of it all, the major Villain got the upper hand, and managed to hypnotize at least one of the PCs. There's still some concern there's a post-hypnotic "time bomb" inside her. Tick. Tick.

The remaining PCs eventually resolved the major plot stemming from Identity Is All and it's aftermath, but never quite as completely as they would have liked. There were several threads left dangling, each tied inconveniently to one or another of the missing PCs. They wrapped them up as neatly as they could, and then went for an in-character vacation.

Off On Vacation: The adventure now switched to the tiny islands of the Palmyra Atoll in the 1990s. In a friendly Corner on these nearly unpopulated islands, the PCs kicked back and got some R&R... until mysterious things started happening. The new puzzle involved rogue nanites, curious Inheritors (think Alien Greys), and an unknown skinnydipper that might or might not be a Narcissist (she wasn't). The players pleasantly surprised me by hitting all the clues ahead of schedule, and solving the dilemma before I could unleash the ghosts or the giant crabs!

Span Two: The players had truly earned promotion to the second rank of spannerdom. Honestly, it would have been justified several months previous to when it happened, but we'd held off for a while not wanting to eclipse the missing players should they return. As it turns out, that was a good decision because the same week we decided to advance Declan and Casey to Span Two, I got an email from the guy who used to play Ronald. Things in his life had settled down a bit, and he was interested in returning to the game if there's still a slot open for him. No problem, it let me work back in some of those plot threads that had been left dangling before.

Meanwhile, Casey and Declan were given a little ceremony upon attaining Span Two. It was rife with symbolism and metaphor, and the I followed it up with a party that was attended by pretty much every NPC spanner they'd met. In the midst of it, someone pulled a nasty practical joke on the Corner. Since Casey is a bit of a prankster herself, they first had to ascertain that the joke wasn't her own Elder self screwing with them. Eventually they figured out which NPC was behind it all (the alien from back on Palmyra, though he tried framing the skinnydipper), but still don't understand his motives. Is it the signs of a deep cultural schism or misunderstanding, or do their own future selves offend him in some way? Due to the remoteness of when and where an Inheritor lives, they lack a good opportunity to question him, and they're not about to start a conflict with the "alien" race that inherits the post-singularity Earth.

There and Back Again: They decided instead to follow up on leads and threads left over from the plotlines that happened back around the out-of-character social implosion. This has lead them to Tibet in 1852, London in 1592, 1919 and 2010, and back to NYC in 1928 to wrap up some unfinished business. They're still Span Twos (and Ron's a One), so they're always hitching rides with higher-ranked NPCs, but these guys just don't let their theoretical limitations hold them down. One of them has a standing invite to both Ancient Egypt and a biolab in 2152.  They've been taking on plots that should be enough to keep Threes busy, and almost never flinching. We've had two major time combats, resulting in one narcissist being fragged out, and two of the PCs nearly following suit. Like their mentor, they had to pull themselves back up by their bootstraps from the status of being a borderline "Lost Cause". They narrowly avoided a TPK, and then back-to-back with that they narrowly avoided coming to blows with an ostensibly friendly corner that was holding a grudge against their mentor. They've had good luck at talking their way out of some pretty nasty jams.

And that's roughly where things are right now. The party is split, but has things well in control. Declan is in 1928 putting the final nails in a Narcissist's coffin, Casey is visiting a Physician's office in the 1980s to get her head checked out (tick tick),  and Ron is up in the year 2000 about to pursue a major lead about whatever happened to the missing other members (Grace and Mercy) of their corner.

A few hiccups and roller-coasters in the middle of it, but it's been a good year of gaming. I'm looking forward with much enthusiasm to the second year of the campaign.

Friday, December 17, 2010

The Armchair Musketeer

Last night I played in a superhero RPG loosely based on "Mystery Men", in that we were supposed to play incompetent superheroes. The system was Savage Worlds, using the Supers Compendium.

I played the Armchair Musketeer, which is exactly what it doesn't sound like: a plushly upholstered Louis XV chair that had been granted sentience, served in the Royal Musketeers, and has been fighting crime ever since. Complete with an inconsistent "french" accent... and the last time he his upholstery repaired, he had "magic fingers" installed... "for ze ladies".

I spent his ten hero points on Construct (a requirement, really) and the rest on Super Skills. This, combined with the "Blind" Hindrance (chairs don't have eyes, you see) and "Trademark Weapon" edge allowed me a Fighting skill of d12-4 (d12 +1 +1 -6). I also had Taunt at d12-2, and Shooting at d10-6. Awesomely incompetent. I rolled a lot of (adjusted) 1's, but also the occasional high-level exploding successes.

Playing a Blind PC is really hard, by the way. GMs nearly always do the majority of their narrating as "Here's what you see when you open the door..." or "In walks a villain in a lab coat, and three thugs carrying submachineguns..." or, in our case last night "You hit Santa in the face, which peels back revealing he's a robot!" For some strange reason, the other players don't really enjoy having to repeat everything the GM says.

Or, maybe, they just didn't want to constantly explain things to an armchair. I can't completely rule out "the furniture factor".

Monday, December 13, 2010

Planet Titian

I'm pleased to report that I had a much better session of "3:16 Carnage Amongst The Stars" this week. Not that the previous week's session was bad, per se, but it had left a weird aftertaste.

Problem Solving, mafia-style
I solved the dilemma of how to "punish" the PCs for their recent failure (and repeated officer-icide) without punishing the players, without boringly locking them all up in the brig, without lining them up with blindfolds and cigarettes, without invalidating the promotion rules, and without making a Lieutenant scrub latrines beside the enlisted men. I simply reminded myself (and the players) that this is a setting with an implied Fascist government, great personal power and latitude to the upper military ranks, a high rate of battlefield promotion due to death of superior officers, and (most importantly) severe overpopulation back home. They have been warned that if any more high-ranking officers die in the vicinity of the PCs platoon, family back home will go missing. The awesomeness of this is that it shows the total corruption and evilness of high command, and if and when the PCs eventually kill another officer, all their loved ones can be abducted in the dead of night or possibly just executed... thereby contributing directly to the "Hatred of Home" Weakness that is guaranteed for your final level-up.

On to the planet:

    •    Planet Name: Titian
    •    Planet Type: Low Gravity
    •    Alien Type: Dinosaurs
    •    Alien Ability: Regeneration

Physics is not 3:16's friend, nor vice-versa. 40 foot dinosaur people in a giant jungle seem perfectly fine for a low-gravity world, but to have them exist in the large quantities that are needed for 3:16's kill counts would require a lot of surface area, which means large planet, which probably means high gravity is more realistic... and I shut down the science talk at that point, because a couple players were starting to debate whether the atmosphere could be breathable and whether it would be thicker or thinner than our own. It's military fantasy with ray guns, not science-fiction.

The dinosaurs had lots of peanut-sized nerve clusters instead of a centralized brain, and so you couldn't be certain that even blowing off their heads would keep the entirety of their body from getting back up and smashing you again... and that was how I explained Regeneration.

Kill counts were high, but would have been much higher if one of the PCs hadn't chose to pre-empt my big climactic final battle (which was going to be modeled on the Little Big Horn) with a Strength Flashback on the first action of the very first round. Bizarrely, the group had just spent 5 minutes debating whether or not to call in an orbital bombardment on the massed aliens they'd spotted in the distance. They decided unanimously not to do so, to give them all a chance to rack up some kills and only fall back on the bombardment solution if things got dire. One die roll later, someone decided to end the fight prematurely purely for their own benefit. Thankfully, said player did not end up with most kills, so his attempt to hog the glory was a little wasted.

3:16 with 5 PCs
It appears the level-up mechanic in the rulebook is balanced for smaller parties. With 3 or 4 PCs, you get a level-up every session to the person with the most kills, and those with fewer kills have a 50% or 33% chance of getting the "bonus" level up. With five players, that chance of the extra level up drops to merely 25%, which seems a little low.

(When you think about it, the default rules seem to assume you're going to be leveling up at least half the sessions, but with 5 players that just wasn't happening. In fact, one PC had yet to level up as of the end of our 4th session. The dice just hate her. She started with FA 7, and yet has never gotten the most kills in a session.)

So, as I've decided that since I don't want this to be a really long campaign, I'm going to compensate for that extra player. I will now be handing out level-ups for the highest kill count, and the second highest kill count, and one random amongst the remaining players.

More on the E-Cannon:
Hopefully this extra level-up will also help compensate somewhat for the lone E-Cannon at d100 in our group. He only fired three times last session, and got 163 kills. I'm tempted to house-rule that as well, down from d100 to 3d20 or 5d10 or something along those lines. Maybe keep it at d100 but you always read the percentile dice in their least favorable order (so a "2" and "7" could only be "27"), but I'd have to analyze what the curve on that is. For the moment, I'm going to leave it at the normal d100 and just see if the level-up for second-highest kills is compensation enough.

The jump from 3d10 kills to d100 kills on the E-Cannon and Rocket Pod is excessive, but at least I was able to mitigate it a bit this time by some clever NPC maneuvering. Aliens hit the PCs, and pulled back to Far Range. Nearly all the PCs closed the gap to get back to Near Range, some forgoing shooting at all to make that happen. So then the Aliens swung it the other way and rushed to Close range. This was all possible because I had my highest Alien Ability rating thus far (7) which made them far more likely to succeed in consecutive rounds and get to manipulate range after their attack. I imagine that as the campaign progresses and the Alien's ability rating continues to rise, this sort of thing will happen a lot more often.

There's this delicate balancing act where you try to keep the E-Cannon from totally dominating every fight, yet still leave it useful enough that the player who purchased it feels it was worth it. Seems like a lot of hoops to jump through. Definitely the most annoying part of an otherwise recommendable system.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Why 3:16?

After my recent post about 3:16 Carnage Amongst The Stars and how some of the polish had worn off the mechanics, I got an interesting question in the comments.

Lee 'Spikey' Nethersole wrote:
After having read all of your posts about this game/system i feel the need to ask exactly why you are playing it. ...I still wonder what you are getting out of it...

What am I getting out of it?

Well, honestly, it's fun.

It's not perfect, and I freely admit a large part of why it's so much fun is because I really like my current play group, but it's still fun.

The other big thing I'm getting out of it is a 3rd night of GMing each week, with a completely different feel and experience than the other two nights. That might not be feasible with a heavier system.

I'm currently running a twice-a-week Continuum game that takes a ton of GM prep. Continuum is a game where every PC can teleport and time-travel with very few restrictions. As a result, the GM has a lot to track, needing to know the rough whereabouts (and whenabouts) of about 60 NPCs every session, and keep thorough notes in case the PCs decide to spontaneously drop in at some previously unexplored corner of the setting, or revisit a scene you've previously run. I love GMing Continuum, but it's a lot of work.  I spend two to four times as many hours each week prepping for the sessions as I do running them. It's a lot of work, but it's worth it.

In stark contrast to that weekly marathon, sometimes I'm looking for a chance to just flex my improvisational GMing muscles without having to sweat the details. 3:16 is great for that. My sessions have taken about 10 minutes prep each. Roll on 5 inspirational charts, think up one war movie trope I want to lean on, come up with the name of the officer of the week. Go.

3:16 is some sort of dehydrated adventure flakes. A better analogy might be frozen pizza, I suppose. Yeah, it wouldn't be smart to make frozen pizza the main staple of your diet in the long term, but when your stomach is your rumbling and you lack the time or energy to make a fancy meal, you'll gladly grab 3:16 out of the fridge and toss it in the oven. 15 minutes later, you've got a game.

Yesterday I was griping about some of the rules that weren't quite to my tastes, but upon further reflection, I'm going to resist the urge to start house-ruling. It's not perfect, but it's simple, and easy, and it works well enough for what it is.

A 3:16 campaign is not a fancy sit-down dinner. Neither is it the elaborate masterpiece work of art you slave over all day and wake up thinking about in the dead of night. Instead, it's more like the drinks and snacks you enjoy while you casually shoot the bull with your friends.  And every so often, that's exactly what I want.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Planet Klimt (and mechanical observations on 3:16)

Yesterday I ran my fourth session of 3:16 Carnage Amongst The Stars. It was an interesting, but oddly paced session. Let's look at the planet/mission stats:
  • Planet Name: Klimt
  • Planet Terrain: Ocean World
  • Alien Type: Sirens
  • Alien Ability: Invoke Weakness
The remains of the platoon, after having suffered heavy losses in the past three sessions, was given the "easy" job of providing security to a detachment of officers and science corp personnel taking R&R on a colony world in a rear area.

So I set up a bit of a mystery scenario, with mind-altering skin-swapping deep ones. They could somehow read your memories and make themselves look like your relatives. Early in the session, before we ever got planetside, I had an NPC Trooper in the platoon get a Dear John letter. This not only hit a war movie trope we hadn't touched on yet, it also worked as both a red herring and foreshadowing. A few scenes later, when the NPC cried out the name of his unfaithful girlfriend and tried to kill himself, no one stopped to consider that maybe he did so because an alien shapeshifter was impersonating his girlfriend. (And really, why would they?) One of the players played straight into my hands by offering that her character's cousin, an deep-space colonist, might be on the planet. So I said sure, and later had the "cousin" try to kill her. At the start of the session, none of the PCs had ever used a Weakness, but by the end of the session, 3 of them had.

Setting up the mystery scenario was kinda neat, but it ran afoul of 3:16's mechanics a few times. In a game where the emphasis is on the carnage, and each attack roll could kill dozens of enemies, it's hard to do a slow simmering mystery scenario where there aren't massed enemy troops. As GM, you feel bad telling the PCs that it doesn't matter that their E-Cannon could kill d100 baddies this round, as there's only one target available. After all, the PC got his E-Cannon to that level of bad-assitude by spending several sessions advances on it, and here I am essentially stealing (or at least disarming) his thunder. Plus, taking too much of the focus away from the fighting starts to over-emphasize the NFA stat (see below) which is already over-emphasized (see below).

And this leads me to a few observations about 3:16s mechanical issues that weren't immediately obvious on my first (or second) read of the rules, but which have shown up in long-term play.
  • FA (Fighting Ability, used when trying to kill things) and NFA (Non-Fighting Ability, used when trying to do anything except kill things) are not balanced.  At first, I thought they were, or at least well enough for a rules-light game with just 2 attributes.  And honestly, given that it's a military game/campaign, I'd probably be okay with it if FA were a little better than NFA. But instead, it turns out that past your first or second session, NFA is much better than FA. All the advancement rules hinge on NFA rolls. So, while a high FA character starts out at a modest advantage (counter-balanced by being the lowest starting rank), they're going to be still slogging around with a Slug Rifle while the high NFA character sports a maxed out E-Cannon.  In fact, the PCs that start as Corporals in the first session seem to have a huge advantage over Privates and Sergeants alike. Corporals can start with an E-Cannon, and have high enough NFA to be able to reliably upgrade it to maximum and reliably requisition a second weapon to cover the E-Cannon's few weaknesses.
  • The progression of Kill potential of weaponry (essentially damage) seems a bit lopsided. Here's the scale: 0, 1, d6, d10, 2d6, 2d10, 3d10, d100. So the average damage roll at each band is 0, 1, 3.5, 5.5, 7, 11, 16.5,  and then it jumps to 50.5. It's that last jump that seems out-of-whack. On average, an upgrade gives you +2 damage, except for that last step which is +34. The game is very competitive, with Kill-count determining which PC advances each session. The E-Cannon is the only weapon that gets d100 at Near range, the Rocketpod is the only weapon that gets d100 at Far range. Once someone gets one of those two weapons to it's max rating, and everyone else realizes just how awesome it is, it takes the rest of the group a minimum of 3 sessions to play catch-up, and that's assuming they make their NFA roll at the end of each of those 3 sessions. I look at the PCs at the back of the pack, with NFAs of 3 or 4, and it seems like they're completely out of the running, and probably will be so for the next 5 or 6 sessions, despite supposedly having built characters that were highly-skilled bloodthirsty killers (high FA).
  • Pacing is really damn hard, mainly because of the built-in mechanism of each session takes place on a different planet. We run a 4-hour session, with a fair amount of role-playing between the big combat action pieces. As a result, in 3 of our 4 sessions, the GM (me) has decided late in the session to just "throw away" some number of enemy tokens and cut to the final battle. I'm "wasting" alien resources and effectively going easy on the PCs because of not having enough time. To solve this, I either have to cut down on roleplaying, or break the fundamental rule of "1 planet per session" and discover what ripple-effects that has.
  • Narrating the enemy actions is really taxing. On "the GM's turn" I have to narrate for a large but unspecified number of aliens. Either hundreds of foes fail, and I have to improvise what factor caused them to all screw up, or else I have to narrate hits on 3 to 5 PCs at once, and try to somehow make them unique and interesting despite everyone getting pounded on in exactly the same mechanical fashion. Which gets tricky since the PC has control of whether they take the hit as a Wound or soak it on their armor. So I need to quickly narrate 3 to 5 attacks or injuries that are vague enough the player can choose which type of wound to take. Most of the time it flows fine, but late in the session you start running out of ideas.
  • The system incorporates some number of expressly-defined Rewards, namely medals and promotions, but is considerably lacking in Punishments. So, a PC can be rewarded for heroism, or just being in the right place at the right time. They can be demoted as well, but per the rules, this can only happen if they use a Weakness (which is somewhat rare), and one of the other PCs chooses to rat them out to high command, and that rat succeeds at an NFA roll, and the person being ratted out fails an NFA roll. Meanwhile, in 2 of our 4 sessions, the PCs collectively have completely failed to achieve their in-character goals, and as GM I don't feel I have the power to punish them for it. I could demote by fiat, or strip them of equipment, but either option seems to be against the spirit of the written rules (which specifically spell out that every session ends with tightly-scripted skill rolls to advance in rank and requisition equipment). So, I'm left with the odd situation where I wanted to run this RPG because it's unique take on experience and advancement were so interesting, but now that I'm doing so I find that unique take is potentially standing in the way of compelling narrative (and eventually willing suspension of disbelief).
Don't get me wrong, I'm still really enjoying the campaign. For the first couple sessions I was very impressed with the extremely lite rules, with their unique competitive approach. Having watched several sessions of how those rules play out, I'm now finding them to be more of a hurdle than a step-ladder. The game is remaining fun, but that's mostly because I've got good players and we're improvising wildly. As I think about it, that is frequently the case with most RPG systems, and at least we're not having arguments about miniatures-positioning, attack modifiers, and such. So maybe I shouldn't be complaining?

Friday, December 3, 2010

Everhammer Full Rules

Looking back on my last post, and the one from June, I don't think there's really enough info there for anyone else to run this hybrid Everway/Warhammer FRP game.

So,  I'm going to post below the actual rules document I've GM'd from. It's just 2 or 3 pages, written pretty informally, and in a couple spots talks about things I hadn't yet done (like convert Wound cards to reference Everway's stats instead of Warhammer's). It was basically just a brainstorming document that proved solid enough on it's rough draft to work without major revisions. Obviously, it's derived from Everway and Warhammer, so I make no copyright claims about it. Feel free to use this system in your own games if you'd like. I feel that, given the nature of RPGs and the common assumption that every GM creates house rules, this document falls under "fair use". It doesn't quote either game system directly, IIRC, but certainly appropriates numerous concepts from both.

To use this "EverHammer" document to it's fullest, you'd need to have a copy of Everway and a copy of Warhammer 3rd. A passing knowledge of each game would be very helpful - you'll need the setting info from Everway and a modicum of familiarity with the combat system from Warhammer.  The Everway boxed set contributes two necessary decks of cards, gives examples of appropriate powers,  and lays out the basics of the setting. The Warhammer boxed set provides dice, fatigue markers, and location cards that can be used as-is. It also provided wound cards that I didn't use exactly, but which certainly provided the inspiration for the wound decks that I created/converted and used for the game. To use these rules, you'd have to make up your own Wound cards.

Everhammer Summary
An Everway variant using elements of Warhammer FRP 3rd

Character Creation:
(Per Everway, except that dice are derived from Element pools.)
  • Draw three fortune cards to determine Virtue, Fault, and Fate
  • Draw five image cards to decide on back story
  • 20 points to build character
  • Four Elements must rate between 1 and 9. 3 is human average.
  • Zero-point power. Others cost 1 point per Frequent, Versatile, or Major. Max 6 points on powers.
  • For truly flexible open-ended powers, you’ll want Magic. Magic ranges from 0 to 7.
From Warhammer:
  • Dice: Blue for Elements, Yellow for Specialization, Black and Purple for difficulty, White
  • Location Cards
  • Abstract Movement and Manoeuvres system
  • Assisting others with your manoeuvre
  • Group Initiative
  • Fatigue

Tweaks to warhammer stuff:
  • Dice symbols are a little different.  
  • Comet & Chaos Star draw a fortune card for unexpected developments
  • Eagles & Skulls only affect fatigue, or trigger location effects
  • Wounds are crits only. Wounds via mental attacks are disorders.
  • Fatigue is 1 stat (not 2) and affects all elements. At end of fight, recover fatigue = highest element.
  • Assess the Situation can be done with any Element you haven’t rolled yet this battle.

EverHammer Longer Version
Keeping the cool bits from Warhammer FRP 3rd Ed, and fusing them with the solid narrative system of Everway. Warhammer 3rd is too fiddly, and Everway is too simplistic, but meeting in the middle and playing on synergy and strengths is powerful.

Keeping the best dice from Warhammer 3rd. Those are the Blue, the White and Black,  and the Yellow and Purple dice.

Using the four “Classical Elements” stats from Everway. 
Most rolls are Blue dice equal to stat, vs a number of dice equal to target/opposing stat. However, defense dice are 1 purple and the rest just black. By contrast, the attack roll will be Blues and often a Yellow. You’ve got a better than 50% chance of hitting a foe of equal calibre (unless you’ve got a 2 in your attack stat).
For non-contested rolls, the GM assigns a difficulty number. This is total dice rolled against you, one of which is purple and the rest are black. Average challenge is 1 purple and 2 black.

Characters are built from the usual Everway budget of 20 points. Attributes come out of that total, and you must spend at least 1 point on each, with 3+ points per stat being very recommended, as that’s human average.

Still get a free 0-point power. One small bit of design space opened up by the dice is that your 0-point power could add a single die (usually a white one) to a die pool (as long as it’s an infrequent, non-versatile die-pool).

Other powers cost per Everway. Frequent, Major, and Versatile each cost a point. When a power is being used, it adds a die to the roll. In most cases this is a White die. However, any power that is major will add not just a white die, but also one extra yellow die per Major rating.

Defensive Powers: Any defensive power will convert one more black die into a purple (which is similar in impact to adding an extra black die, but it’s actually a little better for the defender in terms of the foe getting more banes). Major defensive powers add extra purple dice per level of major, which is pretty potent.

In general, the dice reflect the powers, not the other way around. That is to say, the storyline impact of a major power is probably better than its dice odds. There will be times where that major power means you don’t even have to roll.

Dice icons: We’ve really simplified things.
  • Hammer: Success as always. Attacks do 1 or 2 damage, depending on whether you rolled 1 or 3 successes. Damage is done in crits. NPCs will, in addition, have a target line that if a PC rolls the NPC is taken out automatically.
  • Hammer +: Success, and roll another yellow die!
  • Comet: GM flips top card of the Fortune Deck, and improvised appropriately. The better possible interpretation of the card happens, regardless of up/down orientation.
  • Eagle: These are only fatigue-related now, unless there’s a location card. One or more eagles gets rid of 1 point of fatigue.
  • Crossed Swords: Challenge result. Cancels out a hammer.
  • Chaos Star: GM flips the top card of the Fortune deck, and the worse interpretation happens.
  • Skulls: These are only fatigue-related now, unless there’s a location card.. 1 or more skulls means 1 point of fatigue.

Other roll effects: Location cards can give other effects for die rolls, but the most common will be for Eagles or Skulls.

Attributes used: Most attacks roll fire. Most powers use Air. Attacks are always defended against with the same trait that they rolled. If your foe has a better dice pool than you, change stats.

Initiative: Per WFRP 3rd. Each PC rolls. Every major NPC rolls, and once per distinct type of henchmen. Any person on the team can use any slot, whoever knows what they want to do, should do it.
Assuming all sides know trouble is coming, they roll Fire for initiative, depending on whether this is a melee or a social conflict. If, however, it’s instead an ambush, we’ll roll water.

Fatigue and Injuries: 
We’re using the core of the Fatigue and Manoeuvre systems from WHFRP. So, you get 1 free manoeuvre per turn. Each mano past 1 costs a fatigue. Range system is Engaged to Close=1, Close to Medium = 1, Medium to Long = 2, Long to Extreme = 3. So going from Extreme to Engaged in one round is 7 fatigue.

In addition to movement, manoeuvres can be used to interact with the environment, draw or ready a weapon, or assist another. Assisting is just narrating how your action provides an opening or opportunity for someone else, thereby giving them an extra white die on their next action. You can also narrate sheltering them or intervening, which adds a black die to attacks against them.

Fatigue is marked with tear drop tokens. If your fatigue exceeds your active stat, each point beyond it adds a black die to your roll.

Shedding Fatigue: At the end of a fight, you get back fatigue equal to  either your highest stat, so you’ll start the next fight very close to fresh. (Plus basing it on highest stat helps make high stats better, which is important given that we’re using dice for Everway).

During a fight, you may “Assess The Situation” to regain fatigue. Assessing involves  rolling any trait you have not yet rolled this fight. The difficulty is a single purple, plus 1 black per foe you’re engaged with. If you score 1 success, it cures 1 fatigue. If you score 3 successes, it scores 2 fatigue (total), and if you score any eagles that cures 1 more.

Wounds: This is the trickiest part. The GM has just a couple days to make a bunch of Wound cards (criticals) and Distorder cards (like insanities, plus party tension meter, distractions, etc). I’ll base them off the ones in WFRP, but converted to these four stats and simpler system. If you get more crits than your Earth score, you’re out of the fight.

Healing: You may roll Earth once per day to get rid of injuries, and Water once a day to get rid of disorders (the stress effects). Success gets rid of one card, regardless of numbers of symbols rolled. Only 1 card (of each type) can go away per day.

Magical Healing: Is just like normal healing, except the healer is usually the one rolling. Magical healing is limited to one roll (and one success) per day, but it does stack with mundane healing.

Everhammer Revisited

I ran some "Everhammer" (Everway, using select mechanics ported over from Warhammer FRP 3rd Ed) over Thanksgiving while visiting friends in Portland, OR.  This time we got in 12 to 13 hours of actual play, split in two sessions. This slightly more than doubled the total amount of Everhammer I've run.

Overall, it went really smashingly well.

The session was mostly creepy, with a little bit of humor, and a heavy layer of impending doom. Apparently, I was doing something right, because the players kept deciding to put distance between themselves and the various creepy NPCs I'd made. (As I compose this, I'm reminded of a review I once read for the movie Lost Highway where the review put himself on a strict budget of no more than 10 uses of the word "creepy" in one review. I think I'll do the same.)

We picked up from last time with the PCs having just come through a gateway into an unidentified Realm. They knew that there was a pretty major villain (quite probably Alurax the dragon) just a few days behind them, so they didn't really want to stay near the gate. The nearest civilization was a huge barn or stable up on a ridge a few hours hike from their current position. As they approached, they had some encounters with ghosts, which revealed there were some real "wicked witch" types living at those stables. The witches were sort of Norn like, seers and prophetesses who delighted in giving out terrible omens, and sometimes chose to swindle and murder their potential clients.

So the PCs decided to sneak away from the creepy witches. From the high vantage point of the cliffs, they could see a small village not too far away, and what looked like a large military camp a few hours beyond it.

They head to the village, but find the locals paranoid, conservative, creepy and a little insane. These people are in to a little S&M apparently, and punish the smallest crimes with mutilation, piercing, and huge heavy chains. So the PCs slink away from the creepy rural locals, and head towards the military camp, which the rurals had referred to as the big city.

The big city turns out to be even more fundamentalist and creepy than the little village was, so the PCs decide to high-tail it back to the Witches, and see if they get the evil prophetesses to point them in the direction of the nearest gate away that doesn't have a ferocious dragon beyond it.

At this point, speaking as sadistic and awful GM, I was feeling pretty good. I'd made the PCs so stressed and nervous they'd fled a dragon to the witches, fled the witches (and ghosts) to a village, fled the village to a city, and fled the city back to the witches. It warmed my cold dark GM's heart. So, of course, after a creepy (and just plain wrong) couple of scenes interacting with the Witches, it seemed only appropriate to have them relate that the only other gate out of the realm was back in the creepy city.

Back to the city it is. There was a bit of a run-in with the TSA equivalents amidst the city watch. That didn't go so well, and the PCs ended up in a running battle all the way into the middle of town. After some pretty nasty fighting, they managed to get to the gate. Around the gate (on this side) the creepy repressive chain-wearing punishment-mongers had built The Museum of Human Suffering, so that anyone entering the gate from another world would immediately know that this place doesn't tolerate dissent.

On the other side of the gate, in whatever world it links to, was a cage and a watchdog. Basically, the folks there didn't want the creepy sadistic folks from the Suffering museum to invade/expand/visit, so they'd set up some barriers to stop it.

The PCs managed to finagle their way out of the cage around the gate, and we decided to leave off there. The storyline will resume the next time a 3-day weekend takes me and my wife down to Portland again.

Anyone looking to learn more about the witches should read my page on Crone Crater.
Anyone looking to learn more about the chain-covered folks should read my page on Restriction.
I can't fill in any more details in this post, because I've already used my allotted budget of "creepy".

Everhammer is basically the general character creation rules from Everway, with the dice from Warhammer 3rd added in. I blogged about it once a few months ago. Full write-up here.

To give you a feel for it, if a character with Fire 4, an Archery specialization, and a 0-point power called "Improbable Ricochet" (this is actually one of the PCs) were to fire in a bizarre bouncing arc at a villain with Fire 5 and no relevant defensive powers (which was one of her main targets during the battle in the city), the die pool would be 4 Blue, 1 Yellow, and 1 White vs 1 Purple and 4 Black dice.  That's a 58% chance of scoring a Wound, and a 53% chance of scoring one or more Boons. In the process, she has a 22% chance of taking a Fatigue for her efforts. I'm pleased with it. It's simple and intuitive, easy to improvise, and the math works well enough.

Fatigue flows pretty fast, but between my tweak that it only takes 1 Boon to remove a fatigue, and my port of the "Assess the Situation" action, it's pretty easy for PCs to manage it. There were high and low crests and troughs to the fatigue levels, which provided dramatic tension as needed, but in actuality, only one roll ever ended up penalized by pre-existing fatigue levels. It was just enough to keep the players wary, but never lead to a doom spiral. Success, if you ask me.

It was quick and easy to pick up, as well. My rules document is 2 pages long. I reread it just before we left to take the train down to Portland, and only had to reference it twice in 13 hours of play. The players needed about 5 minutes to look over their character sheets again, and be walked through one sample die roll, and then everybody was ready to go. Success again, all around.

The players had no complaints. I, however, found three rough edges I need to smooth over, two of which stemmed from the fact that I didn't do any prep work.
  • Everway NPCs are all about their weird powers. As GM, next time I need to spend a few minutes pre-game writing up weird powers. I had to improvise them as the game rolled on, and that wasn't always the best. However, the guy who could pierce your nose from a distance was pretty neat, mainly because it came up during combat.
  • Same thing about Boon & Bane effects. I could have used some terrain cards appropriate to the places my fight scenes were happening at, and some prepared effects for high Boon or Bane rolls or for the Comets and Chaos Stars. These dice symbols and effects are all really detailed and defined in default Warhammer FRP, and improvising them off the cuff was a little uneven. Sometimes I was on fire, other times I froze up.
  • Exactly how many Wounds or Fatigue does it take to knock out a PC? According to my 2-page rules summary, it takes Wounds = Earth +1. That rules summary doesn't mention how much Fatigue it takes to make a character pass out, but my original post here about the system says the answer for Fatigue is 10. One of my players had it written on her character sheet KO=8. That character's Earth score is 3. Somewhere, numerical wires got crossed several months ago. I can straighten it out easily enough, but it was annoying to discover the disparity (and lack of answer on my rules sheet) mid-session.
Having identified those three areas, I'll be ready with fixes for next time. Memo to my future self: do your prep work. It's a rules-light game, but will run much better if you're properly prepared.

Definitely looking forward with great anticipation to our next session in Portland.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Planet Warhol

I'm very pleased with tonight's session of "3:16 Carnage Amongst The Stars", and I should be because I provoked my players into fragging a superior officer. You know you're doing something right as GM when your players decide to take a dangerous and unnecessary action with possible consequences, just because the NPC was so vile.

In the first couple sessions, I saddled them with an incompetent but well-intentioned rookie Lt (Lt Courson) in charge of their platoon. They handled him pretty well, with the PC NCO's pretty much calling the shots and placating him as needed. They did eventually get him shot up a bit, but it was by accident. 

While that soft and incompetent officer was off recovering aboard the Hospital Frigate, I decided to give them a taste of a hardnose bastard commanding officer. Lt Tertius was a fun little role-playing challenge, as he insulted, badgered, overworked, threatened, and endangered the men and women under his command.  It only took about three hours of harsh taskmaster (with a side of reckless kill-stealing psychopath) to push them past insubordination and on to murder. Three of the five PCs worked together to smuggle a bomb into his kit bag, and the other two probably would have contributed to the cause if the opportunity had provided itself. So long Lt Tertius.

The officer-icide (and the events leading up to it) was the biggest portion of the night. There were aliens, too, of course, because it's 3:16. Planetside stats were:
  • Planet Name: Warhol (Badly mispronounced as always, in this case it was War-Hole)
  • Planet Type: Desert 
  • Alien Concept: Ooze (Black oily goo with eyeballs. In small clusters it could fly.)
  • Alien Ability: Highest PC FA-1 (which put them in at a "6")
  • Alien Special Power: Lasting Wounds
"Lasting Wounds" means that PCs don't get opportunities to heal between battles. Per the rules, the GM is free to narrate whatever he or she feels is an appropriate explanation for why they can't heal: Could be poison, acid, or flesh-eating infection, or it could be the aliens cut your supply lines and leave you stranded without medical support. I decided to think outside the box. Since the new Lt was so dreadful, I figured some conflict between him and High Command could result in the Platoon not having the proper supplies. So, technically, the alien's special attack was actually Lt Tertius' special attack.  I don't think that was actually a factor in them killing him, though, they just really didn't like him.
An aside about the evil Lt:
Tertius was inspired mostly by Lt Spiers of Band of Brothers, with the arrogance of Capt Sobel (from the same show).  The former made the men fear him, the later just made them hate him. Combining those two characters gave me some real easy handles on how to play the Lt when in tough situations, which the platoon was in plenty of before they decided to frag him. I was able to riff and improv pretty well, including an awesomely explosive dressing down aimed at Trooper Hur (Laura's PC) for not yet starting on the task that the other NCO PCs had failed to order her to do. I was very proud of the sheer in-character unfairness of that situation, and my ability to seize the opportunity and unload on her. My goal with this game is to keep my GM prep down to next to nothing and improvise wildly (which is the conceptual opposite of my ongoing Continuum game), so it's not like I had a clue before that scene that the "eyeball argument" was going to happen.

I'm a little sad to Lt Tertius go, since he was fun to play and quite a good antagonist. If those players hadn't worked together like that, I probably could have justified keeping him around for a while, but when 3 PCs make multiple rolls each to betray an NPC, they should be rewarded for taking such a strong stance and a big risk. If just one of those rolls had failed... they'd have been in for the fight of their lives. The Lt had some pretty ridiculous armament and medals (he'd been demoted for insubordination himself, because he fired a Starkiller in the previous system against orders), and had nearly killed one of the PC sergeants before.
The final conflict with the aliens went down in less than 1 round. I put my last 10 tokens on the table for a big confrontation, and while most of the players were still declaring "FA" or "NFA" one of them blew a Strength to end the fight before it could start. That was certainly a sensible decision (that PC was Crippled and had burned his Armor defense) at the time, but it was a little surprising. Previously, flashbacks haven't been brought in to play until fights were almost over, as everyone wants to avoid using them if they don't have to. If not for the Lt murder yet-to-come, this one-flashback-takes-all preemptive strike would have been anticlimactic. Let that serve as a warning to other 3:16 GMs, if you put all your eggs in one basket, the players will upend and smash it. There's a reason why they strongly suggest never putting more chips into a single fight than 2x the # of PCs.

In other noteworthy scenes, there was a possible minor contact with Pvt Watkins (an NPC who went AWOL on the last planet and was presumed dead) flying an alien shuttlecraft from the previous planet  - at least one PC thought that's what happened, and took measures to leave a message for him. More on that down the road... and there might also be some fall-out on killing an officer.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Planet Matisse

This is a summary of my second session of 3:16 Carnage Amongst The Stars, which I ran just over a week ago. I would have written this sooner, but I've been really sick.
  • Planet Name: Matisse
  • Planet Description: Mountainous Terrain
  • Basic Creature Form: I think they were supposed to be "Mineral-based forms" but somehow I made them humanoids with weird ears. It made sense at the time, but I can't put my finger on the logic just now. Not sure which I should cross off the list.
  • Alien Special Ability: Swarm (After each alien attack, the range is set to Close)

The PC's platoon set down in a hot LZ on an agricultural terrace just outside a fairly primitive alien mining city. The aliens tech was mostly about WWII level, except that had various digging and tunneling machines that greatly exceeded that - though with sort a pulp idiom, big screws and drills. The aliens they were fighting weren't an organized force, but rather more militia-like with very irregular armament.

There were tunnels, so I figured I'd hit the Viet Nam trope of the by-the-books Lt who insists all tunnels must be searched. I got clever with this, splitting the party into 3 sections, and running a simultaneous battle amongst them all with three piles of 2 Alien Tokens each. It was a nice idea, and allowed me to split the party without making anyone sit out for long. Given the free and abstract mechanics of the game,  though, I'm not convinced 3 piles of tokens was actually a better choice than just 1 pile of 6 tokens. It worked well, but I think I could have accomplished the same thing via narration without the mechanical twist. That's an important lesson for next time the party splits up.

After that diversion, the PCs were supposed to fight there way into town and meet up with Bravo Company, which had been deployed by drop-ships into the heart of the town to capture the hospital. An ambush stalled out the platoons advance, so an NPC runner (Trooper Watkins, who'd been clowning around and served as comic relief on the previous planet) was sent to communicate with Bravo and tell them of the delay.

Watkins comes back with several dozen alien children - whom he'd said Bravo company had been killing for fun at the Children's Hospital. I was trying to create an opportunity for a moral quagmire, something akin to the burned village that defines the characters and allegiances in the movie Platoon. Instead, my players found it really easy to kill children as long as doing so seemed to be in line with their orders. Not nearly so much pathos and agony as I'd been hoping for.

In the midst of it all, Watkins goes AWOL, and the incompetent Lt gets shot up pretty bad by another alien ambush. The PCs give chase to Watkins, who leads them into the bowels of the planet. As the session progressed, it was revealed that the surface culture was actually the alien's slums, that the wealthy lived below the surface, and may have more or better tech than was encountered up topside. They found some "F"s shaped out of tape on tunnel walls. The PCs are in Foxtrot company, and there was a scene earlier were Watkins was taping a weapon to his armor - so they concluded that this meant Watkins wanted them to follow him. This was an attempt to riff on "Going After Cacciato", where the platoon's goof-of leads the main characters on a chase that takes them away from the war.

Just as I was starting to explore that, though, I realized I had less than 45 minutes left to the session, and was on my last pile of Tokens for the Aliens. I didn't know how to really wrap up the conquest of the planet in that time, but I didn't want to stop to think. The point of an improvised game like this is to keep the plot movie. If you start to stall out, start the shooting instead. It is a War game, after all. So I threw the final battle at them... without really thinking that this made the F's now seem like the bait of a trap, like Watkins had turned traitor. So much for Cacciato...

It was all just happening too fast, the need to wrap up a planet per session seems to conflict with the otherwise totally loose and improvisational nature of the game. I think it's intended to be a framework to hang your improvisations off of, the type of limitation that breeds creativity. For me, though, it's actually the biggest sticking point with 3:16. The system plays very fluid and intuitive, and the action is certainly rapid-fire enough, but trying to cram an entire alien world into just 4 hours and 25 tokens is really hard. The final battle resolved, which meant the last PC to take out a Token gets a medal, and the planet is supposed to be pacified. Narratively speaking, though, we weren't really at a point where the enemies surrender would make any sense.

So I blew up the planet.

I sounded a retreat, and reported that High Command was going to use a star killer missile. Due to the PCs driving so deep into the undercity, they'd uncovered that the enemies were more technologically advanced than initial reports had indicated. Those above them decided that exploring the subterranean expanses of the planet would produce unacceptable casualties, and long-term occupation was unfeasible. Imploding the enemy star was the best option. Or at least the best way, off the top of my head, to end that adventure right there.

I really like 3:16, but it's gonna take some getting used to this whole "each session is a new planet" concept. The mechanics of the game are really built around it, so I don't want to just toss the idea, I'd like to figure out how to get the most out of it as a GM. I'm choosing to step up to this challenge. I'll let you know how it goes.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Planet Degas

On Sunday, I started a campaign of 3:16 Carnage Amongst The Stars. It's a military sci-fi RPG with very abstract mechanics. The primary influence is of course Starship Troopers (the book more than movie), but I'll be throwing in hefty doses of Platoon, Band of Brothers, and Going After Cacciato. Yes, there's big alien menaces to be dealt with in every session, but the plot is more about the moral dilemmas and the social dynamic between the soldiers.

It's extremely rules-lite with a single attack roll killing half a dozen aliens (or more - after just 1 session's advancement, one of our PCs can kill 3d10 per round). On similar lines, the GM rolls just once per round, regardless of how many aliens are attacking - but that one roll has potential to do damage to the entire party. With the wrong group, this level of abstraction could get boring real fast, but we were all narrating details and developments as we went, so the game flowed smoothly and colorfully. I was pleased with the system, it seemed to be living up to it's potential right out of the gates.

I ran a smaller pool of threat tokens than is "standard" for the first session, and never activated the alien's special ability. This wasn't to go easy on the PCs - it was because we'd killed about an hour and a half gabbing, explaining rules, and making characters before the first scene, and I didn't want to have to skip on characterization and description in our first session for the sake of slogging through the tokens. I went with just two combat encounters, but the second one was quite large. By the end of the session, I had a couple of well established NPCs to kill off later, so I'm pleased.

Going Planetside

Beyond a doubt, what I like best about this system is how little prep there is for the GM. The rules are so simple, there's plenty of space to improvise. You roll on a series of 4 or 5 charts, and make something from that. Here's what I selected for our first session:
  • Planet Name: Degas
  • Planet Description: High Humidity
  • Basic Creature Form: Dogs
I decided to have the PCs get deployed to the planet late, as reserves, because of some trouble with their new LT that just arrived fresh from the academy.  So they nosed around before deployment to try to learn what the planet was like. "Wet. F-ing Wet. Wet falling from the sky. Wet coming up from the ground. Wet inside your armor. Everywhere F-ing Wet. Can't see anything for the Wet. Wet. Wet. Wet. Then something bit my F-ing foot off." Said one of the wounded who'd been evaced.

They head down planetside, and there's a bit of snafu about having the wrong coordinates. This landing pad has been abandoned because the moist ground beneath it gave way, and one side sank beneath the muck. The rain is coming down mercilessly. Improvising, I'd described the clouds as being blue. So now I said there's some blue blobs in with the rain. I had no idea what they were at this point, I just wanted to spice it up and make it more alien. Of course the players assume there's some big mystery about it, and start taking precautions not to let the blue touch them. They fret overly when the new LT gets some blue right on the face. Somewhere along the way I improv that the sound of the blue striking their armor is like an eggshell cracking. I was intending that it might damage their armor, but their minds went to it being the eggs of the as-yet-unseen aliens. I kept that in mind for use later.

It was time for a fight. My aliens were supposed to be "dogs", so I'd been planning to use some wet shaggy werewolves. But, given that the PCs had commented that the blue gunk on the LT's face was going to turn him into a zombie, I decided werewolves was not the way to go. That'd be too predictable, too much of the campy B-horror vibe, and I wanted this game to be something else, something more alien. So, the when the enemy attacks, they're "Drogs": large furry clawed frog-like things. They howl, then ribbit. It felt sufficiently alien, despite being a very simple blend of terrestrial animals, so it seemed to work. There were these pitcher plants on the surface, which the Drogs used like grenades, with a (somewhat unreliable) electrical discharge when they hit. I left my descriptions kind of sparse, so each player could fill in to their own heads whatever blend of frog and dog they could imagine, but in retrospect a little more detail probably would have been better.

Climactic Geyser
After that quick intro combat, and some shenanigans during the night involving a memorable NPC and his grenades, we went on to the bulk of the mission. They were supposed to go locate missing elements of D and E companies, along with the egghead science team that were guarding. They'd gone missing while exploring the region near a geyser. It was 45 minutes from our scheduled quit time, so I put nine threat tokens into the encounter and called that my limit.
Technically, I had 10 more counters available than I used, but the GMing advice says to never go above double the number of players in any one fight, so I figured 9 for 5 players would be hard enough. I knew there wouldn't be time for another combat scene, but given the late start and the colorful non-combat bits, I was fine with having 10 chips that would never hit the table.) It was a pretty grueling fight, with all the PCs getting ripped up quite a bit. One player nearly invoked a strength, then got talked out of it. On the next round, a different player invoked a strength, because it was either that or die.

They were on the last threat token, so as they finished the narration I chimed in that they'd also "killed the geyser" - which turned out to be a giant Drog spewing it's eggs into the air. They yanked most of D & E companies out sinkholes, and managed to save one of the scientists. It was a little forced, and may have gone better with an extra hour to play and another fight leading up to it, but it certainly wasn't bad. The one mistake I regret was my insistence that half an hour after the big frog died, they all saw the first tiny patch of clear sky. I thought I was being poetic, but one player made a disgusted-sounding comment about "magical weather-control frogs", so I think I may have offended their suspension of disbelief. Everyone else seemed pleased, and next week is a different world, and I won't make the same mistake twice.

Experience and Promotions

Then came the post-mission section of the game. This is a few die rolls and related things that are pretty unique to 3:16, and also part of why 3:16 needs to be run as a campaign and not just a one-shot. Medals were awarded. One of the troopers was promoted to corporal. New equipment was requisitioned. Two characters "leveled up". Everyone got something, which was great for our first session. Eventually, there'll be a session where the successful dice aren't so evenly distributed, and someone gets a huge boost while the others get nothing. I'll be sure to blog here when that happens.

The "experience" system is a little lopsided and random, but it's not unfair per se. If your character is focused on FA you'll get a certain type of reward quite frequently, but if you went with NFA as your primary stat, you'll get the other reward types more often. Over the long term, it'll even out across the group, but there's a chance someone could get next to nothing for a couple sessions in a row. It's clearly an intentional feature, not a bug or hole in the rules. It's intended to reinforce thematic elements (life isn't fair, battlefields are chaotic, sometimes the least competent get promoted, etc) and encourage some competition between the players. I'm a tiny bit worried it could lead to hard feelings if the dice are cruel. I have one or two players in the group that I could see getting miffed if the system slights them too often. We'll just have to see how it plays out.


Overall, I was very pleased with the game, especially for a first session with next to no prep. I spent more time printing the character sheets than I did actually contemplating the plot, yet the simple mechanics and a couple war movie tropes were inspiration enough to keep the action flowing. It's light and flexible enough to let improvisation be the heart of the game, which is a good thing for me since it's the fourth weekly game on my schedule right now, three of which I GM.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Just Hand Me A Pre-Gen

Last Thursday, we were making PCs for a Sci-Fi RPG called Diaspora, and I took forever. I always take forever making RPG characters. Or rather, I always take forever coming up with a good idea, so the only time I can hammer out a character in a reasonable window of time is if I've got a really good handle on the setting, and know what sort of character types are appropriate. Otherwise, it'll go like it did Thursday.

I spent most of the session just staring at a blank character sheet, and rereading the half dozen planet descriptions the GM had given us, without feeling the least bit inspired. I just couldn't wrap my brain around the setting, or figure out what sort of character would be the least bit helpful in the scenario. Whenever I did get an idea, I ended up shooting it down internally as either uninteresting, or inappropriate to the setting. Which is funny, because the character concept I finally settled on was almost certainly just as inappropriate as any of the far simpler concepts I dreamt up and shot down on the way to that PC. So now I'm stuck playing sort of an alien cyborg jellyfish that lives in a suitcase, and I'm probably going to undermine everyone else's suspension of disbelief, because, well, it's an alien cyborg jellyfish that lives in a suitcase. What was I thinking?

Yet I can't really back out of it, because one element of Diaspora is that everyone makes their characters semi-collaboratively, and has the PC to the left and right of them worked into their backstory. I'd like to ditch the alien cyborg jellyfish, and the suitcase he rode in on, but I can't without being a further disruption, at least to the two players who were sitting adjacent to me. I think the whole situation would have been much better if the GM had just handed me a pre-generated character and told me to play it. I might not have like the role I ended up with if he'd done that, but at least everyone else would. Of course, with the semi-collaborative backstory system Diaspora uses, it's really not feasible to have just one person play a pre-gen.

I get myself into these sorts of pickles all the time as a player - and yet as GM I can improvise like a pro and am never at a loss. When running the table, I'm almost always at the top of my game, but as a player more often than not I'm a nervous wreck heavily impaired by analysis paralysis.  I wish I could understand why two outwardly similar facets of the same hobby provoke such entirely different response patterns out of me, and why the one with lesser responsibility is the one that freezes me up. I'm tempted to say it's some sort of anxiety disorder or neurological trigger associated with my Spasmodic Dysphonia, because often on the days where I'm spinning my wheels like this, I'm also battling with SD the whole night. Sounds like a great excuse, except this last time, I was having no SD problems at all, yet I still took forever and eventually made a painfully ridiculous alien cyborg jellyfish in a suitcase. What the hell is my problem?

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Stability Chart for Gumshoe Continuum

My Monday and Wednesday game is a Continuum campaign, but using the Gumshoe mechanics. Which meant that I incorporated stability from Gumshoe, but had to come up with values for stability losses for all sorts of Continuum-related scenarios such as the Time Combat Stratagems. Here's the modified version of the Stability chart that we use for that campaign.

Most entries come from the Trail of Cthulhu or Esoterrorists rules, duplicated here without permission. You would need one of those books, plus the Continuum rulebook, to use the following. I'm listing it here to save some work for other GMs that might want to try out a Gumshoe/Continuum hybrid game.

Incident Stability Loss
You Frag someone (Accidental or deliberate) 1
Reveal to a friend where and when you Hide 1
View a particularly shocking work of art 1
A nasty argument or social drama, unexpected stress 1
You see a fresh corpse, or witness a killing 1
Fragged (Accidentally or unknown cause) your Frag total
Dream Haunted 1d6
Isolated by 3 or more foes 1d6, plus effects of fragging
Attacked with evident intent to do serious harm 2
Car or industrial accident imperils you 2
Witness to acts of torture 2
Unexplained phenomena and sensations 2
Caltrop Stratagem foils and frustrates you 2
Fragged deliberately by an enemy 2 + your Frag total
Attacked with evident intent to kill 3
You kill someone in a fight 3
Reveal the time and place where you Hide to an enemy or rival 3
Harbinger threat made good against you 1d6+2 initially, subsequent efforts just 3
See a particularly grisly murder scene, accident, or battlefield 4
Learn a friend or loved one has been violently killed 4
Invitation To Dance 4
Attacked by a friend or loved one 5
Committing murder or torture 5
You Fragged someone to Lost Cause or worse 5
Unnatural and threatening phenomena - witchcraft, haunting, etc 5
Learning of your own death via Iron Man 1d6+4
Fragged deliberately by a friend or loved one 5 + your Frag total
Discover the corpse of a friend or loved one 6
Tortured for an hour or longer 6
Spanning for the first time 6
Attacked by a T-Rex or Alien 8 minus your Span, to a minimum of 3 stability
You see a friend or loved one killed 7
You see a friend or loved one killed in a particularly gruesome manner 8
You kill a friend or loved one 8
Fragging a loved one out of existence 9
You witness your own Elder death 9
Realizing you are a Lost Cause 9
You witness your own Junior death! 8 + your Frag total (so, 10 at least)

With the exception of the modified chart, we use the Stability rules from Esoterrorists, as opposed to the more complicated Stability-and-Sanity rules from Trail of Cthulhu.

Looking over the chart, I realize that I probably need to add an entry for when someone is rendered Graceless. Having that happen to you is probably worth a 2-pt to 4-pt test. Hasn't happened to PC in my game yet, so I hadn't considered it.

Hmm... I could probably reorder that a bit. In general, it's in order from least impactful to most devastating, however, the way the  d6 for Isolate is added to whatever other fragging stability loss happens, making it a lot more potent than it's placement on the table would suggest. Most typically, frag loss from an Isolate is going to be at least 5 points and could easily hit 10. 1d6 + 2 + Frag total, at least. That's why the narcissists call us The Swarm.

Booster Packs full of Gamma Rays

UPDATE:  I've been directed to a video that gives more information about the game and it's randomized components, so after my original post I'm adding my thoughts on the new info.

Within the past week or two Wizards of the Coast released a new edition of the classic RPG Gamma World. I played a lot of Gamma World back in the day, and would be happy to try out a new edition, at least in theory. As it turns out though, there's one fact about the new edition that leaves me really cold. In general, when people grouse and complain about how expensive gaming is, I just roll my eyes. When they claim an RPG company is just in it for the money, and doesn't care about doing what's best for the game, or doing what makes the gamers happy, I tend to stand up for and defend the publishers. But in this particular case, I'm on the hater's bandwagon. Clearly, somebody at Wizards put profits  above functionality.

They replaced the mutation charts with a deck of cards.

Actually, at first glance, I really like the notion of cards. I've been a fan  of using card decks instead of charts and rulebooks for a long time.  It saves you time looking things up in the books, because you can keep your most commonly used cards at your fingertips all the time.  For a mechanic like mutations, or other special powers that help individualize PCs, using cards instead of charts can help with "niche preservation" (if you've already drawn that card, no one else can draw the exact same special power). Another reason I like the idea of mutation cards is because they let me tailor the "charts" on the fly. If there's a mutation I think is unbalanced, or too goofy, I could theoretically cull it from the deck. If there's one that I'd like to make more common, I could add an extra copy (assuming I'm not too hung up on the "niche preservation" mentioned previously). In short, I could really like this. When FFG used cards for the latest edition of Warhammer FRP, I really found it awesome.

The problem with the cards in Gamma World is that Wizards put them in random booster packs, selling an RPG like a CCG. By offering the cards in random boosters, most of what I like about cards goes away.  I'm almost certainly going to end up with multiples, so niche preservation goes out the window, unless I'm willing to waste some percentage of my investment.  I may buy a booster that's full of cards I already have and wouldn't want to put multiple copies of in the deck.  I may want to include an extra copy of some particular card, but can't reliably get one (cheaply, any way). Just bad all around, in my opinion.

If they were complete sets, decks of 50 non-random cards available for $10 or even $15, I'd happily embrace this game. Instead, it's boosters of 8 random cards for $4. Too pricey for my blood. 50 cents per line-item that could be on a chart in a rulebook sounds a little overpriced in and of itself, but knowing that past your second or third pack you'll be looking at a lot of random repeats just sours me to the whole idea. (As an aside, it's 8 cards for $4, whereas Magic: The Gathering by the same publisher, is 15 cards for $4.29, so even by their own precedents this is nearly double the average cost per card.)

Worse yet, the packs aren't just mutation cards, there's also technology cards. While I could perhaps warm up to random mutation card boosters (though it would have to be at a cheaper price to compensate for the frustrating duplicate cards), I don't imagine myself, as GM, being happy with restricting the weaponry of my NPCs (or the treasure to be gained, or the macguffin central to the plot) to whatever happened to be in the handful of boosters I might be willing to buy. So, rather than run a high risk of making a purchase I'm not going to be happy with, I'll just be steering clear of this new Gamma World entirely.

If they weren't random, I'd probably buy quite a few of them. Paizo Publishing does a "Game Mastery" series of card decks with just pictures of fantasy equipment and magic items. I buy a copy of nearly every deck they put out, because they come in set decks at reasonable prices, and you can look up the card list online first to see if any given set has cards you'll be likely to use. If Gamma World followed that business model, I'd certainly pick up the main game and at least the first two expansion decks, but I'm not willing to drop money on boosters.  For the record, random packaging is what eventually drove me to stop buying prepainted miniatures, too.

UPDATE:  I've been directed to a video that gives more information. I'm a little less up in arms about it now, but I still think it's a weird decision to make, and can't help but feel it was a business decision first, and a game innovation second. So while I'm less upset about it, I don't think it would be a good match for me.

Video link:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fccpiG09YbU&feature=related

In particular, the stuff I don't like:
  • The idea that your mutations change every day is a little weird to me. I imagine I could warm up to that, but my initial reaction was not positive.
  • The fact that players build their own technology decks bothers me. For one thing, this could lead to weird imbalances if one player buys more boosters than the others, or just has better luck. Even assuming a play group that shares a single card pool, though, I dread the metagame issues that come up from players making their own treasure decks. It seems like suspension of disbelief is likely to suffer as well if I describe you're fighting mutant chickens armed with clubs, and after the battle 1 PC finds a death ray and the others all find nanotech. 
  • At the end of the video, they specifically address play balance, and say that the various mutation cards are not balanced against each other, some are just better than others. If that's the case, then why would a player put that in the deck they build for themselves? Maybe I'm missing something, but this seems like a really bad idea, for largely the same reasons I just mentioned about metagaming the Technology decks.
  • On a related note, I am also a little worried by the statement that you'd draw a new Cryptic Alliance card each session to find out which secret society you are working for this week. Suspension of disbelief gets tricky when a mechanic forces weekly randomization of setting/flavor/fluff/conceptual information. Who the PCs are working for seems like it should be dictated by the needs of the scenario or the actions of the characters, not by a weekly random card flip.

What I do like:
  • The commons (5 out of 8 cards in each booster) are not random, but preset so if you buy four consecutive boosters straight out of a fresh display they won't have any duplicate commons. However, having managed a game store for years, I suspect this won't in practice work as well as it does in theory. All it takes is one customer selecting a couple random packs out of the middle of the display pack to disrupt that for everyone that shops after them. A customer might do so out of ignorance, a desire to get duplicates of a particular common, or a desire to grab the pack that "feels lucky". That last one is something I'd see all the time when I ran the store.
  • The general formula that each adventure adds new components and rules as well, like the Cryptic Alliance cards being added in Famine in Far-Go. I was apprehensive about a similar approach in Warhammer FRP, but eventually decided I kinda liked the "potpouri" "cornucopia" "hotdish" "mixed bag" method that gives you a lot of little expansions in each Warhammer product. I could live with that in Gamma World, if the rest of the concept weren't scaring me off.
  • They rewrote the end of the world to blame it on the LHC. That amuses me. The reality implosion also justifies the weirdness of the Gamma World setting, and could plausibly explain the wonkier of the new setting/mechanics stuff such as mutations changing every session. I'm still not at all happy with randomized boosters or the metagame issues that come from players building their own decks, but they at least make some effort to justify some of this weirdness in the setting.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Extreme Range

The Gumshoe game I just mentioned is actually a hybrid. It uses the Continuum time-travel setting, but with most of the Continuum rules replaced with Gumshoe rules. Which meant I had to convert certain elements. In the post below is an example of a sub-system I converted to be Gumshoe compatible.


When we say Range, we're not talking about how far a gun can shoot. Range (and it's always capitalized) means how far Up or Down you can Span. It works a lot like a Skill, in that you can Use or Spend it.

A Use of your Range is a trivial hop. Each Span Level indicates what sort of jumps are trivial. For a Span One PC, that includes any teleport of less than an hour Up or Down, and less than a mile in distance. If you're going further than that (in any direction or dimension), it's going to have to Spend a point of Range.

All characters have 50 points of Range, and can spend from 0 to all 50 of them in a single jump.
For a Span One, a point of Range will let you Span to any place on Earth, or up to one Week futureward or pastward. You can span more than 1 week, by spending multiple points - you can get just under a year by spending all your Range at once.

The Second, Third and Fourth Maxims dictate that you should only span to places that are safe, and known to you. As a Span One, this is your greatest limitation. Later, when you know more Spanners, it will become easier to find a safe harbor.

The limitations of spanning (by Span Rank) are summarized on this chart.

Span Rating Range Pool Trivial Span 1 Range point Spans Mass Limit
Span One 50 1 Hour, 1 Mile 1 Week, Anywhere on Earth Self + 10 lbs
Span Two 50 1 Day, 10 Miles 3 Months, Anywhere on Earth Self + 100 lbs
Span Three 50 1 Month, 100 Miles 2 Years, Anywhere on Earth Self + 1,000 lbs
Span Four 50 1 Year, 1,000 Miles 20 Years, Anywhere on Earth Self + 10,000 lbs (5 tons)
Span Five 50 10 Years, Anywhere on Earth 200 Years, To The Moon Self + 100,000 lbs (50 tons!)

  • A character spans one hour into the past, but stays in the same place. It's trivial, and costs no Range.
  • A Span One PC spans Up one hour, then realizes they'd really wanted to go Down. So, now they span Down 2 hours to get when they'd wanted. The first (1 hour) span costs no points. The second (2 hour) span costs 1 Range. Had they been a Span Two (or higher rank) both jumps would have been free.
  • A character spans Level, from New York to Tokyo. If they are Span Four or lower, it costs 1 Range. If they are a Span Five, it's considered a Trivial Use, and costs no Range.
  • A Span Two in Dallas jumps 1 year into the future at Prague. It costs them 4 points of Range, plus 1 point of Range for exceeding 10 miles. They spend a total of 5 points of Range.
  • An Exalted Span Five leaves Atlantis in October 12969 BCE. They spend all 50 range points, and arrive at some friendly corner around 3,000 BCE. If they invoke their Second Wind, they'll be able to get Up to the hour of Inheritance for another 26 points or so.
For self-destructive ways around those limitations, see Exceeding your Range.

Thie above came right off the website we set up for the game - we have a big wiki we use as campaign log and rules database.

How the above is functionally different than the default Continuum Rules:
  • Less paper-work and bean counting. Vanilla Continuum expects that if a PC were to span back and forth repeatedly between two events, each time they would meticulously calculate how many days, hours, and minutes they were crossing and keep a running tally to the second if need be. It's kinda anal, and involves way more math than you want to be doing in the middle of a tense scene. In my Range system, they'd use less precise numbers to gauge how many points it takes to travel between the two events, and not worry about whether some jumps were a few minutes longer than the others.
  • Span Ones get shafted just a tiny bit. Instead of going 1 year, they can only go 50 weeks. I was worried this was going to be a big deal when the campaign started, but in practice it only came up once or twice before the PCs reached Span Two. It's fairly rare that anyone burns through all 50 Range points in a three-hour session, and doesn't have a Second Wind or Mentor around to help them out.
  • Span Twos, by contrast, get a small boost. 3 months per Range point equals 150 months, which is nearly 3 years further than they'd be able to travel under the default Continuum setting. Not so much extra as to break the game, but a nice bonus to the "level" that characters will probably spend the most Age at.
  • Range points refresh at the start of each session, and when invoking the Second Wind rules. The later is a bit like in default Continuum, where a good night's rest will replenish you, but in general you'll be spanning a much shorter overall distance per session in this system. This further constrains the PCs, but at the same time it eliminates the weird logic flaw where the original game rules demand that Span is not regained during a Time Combat. In this system, Time Combat does not exist within it's own bizarre bubble of arbitrary physics for the sake of plot. Suspension of disbelief is thus a little easier.
  • Trivial spans are a way around the restriction of only refreshing per session. If you really need to get somewhere this session, you can do it with baby steps. Yeah, you can get there "faster" by making a single large jump, but slow and steady will eventually win the race. This is a good compromise to cover the faster depletion of Range. It can also lead to some good role-playing as exhausted, fatigued PCs are restricted to shorter teleports. When the PCs are pushed to their limits in this system, they really feel it.
  • Less math and paper-work. Did I mention that already? I'll do so again to stress how important this is. It's huge. I think it was key to making the game playable this past year (and still going strong).

Gumshoe Points Per Session

For the past year, I've been running a Gumshoe game with one really major house rule: All the skill pools refresh automatically at the start of every session.  It's a simple change, but made the game a lot more enjoyable.

With this rule, there's no need to track from week to week how many points you have left/available in Chemistry (or whatever other skill is critical to the task at hand).  I've found this does a great job of simplifying things, and freeing up the players to actually use their points.  There's less book-keeping, and as a bonus players spend less time and energy agonizing over mechanical decisions.

In straight Gumshoe without this house rule, I tend to see players hoard points. Usually, they start out the campaign spending freely, but eventually they burn a point on something frivolous that turns out would have been really helpful 2 sessions later. After that happens once or twice, the players hoard their remaining points for weeks on end, then wrap up a scenario with tons of unspent reserves. This is far from ideal, and tends to just leave everyone feeling like the game didn't quite come together.

My houserule nips that problem in the bud, and gets the game rolling. Players feel empowered to spend points at any time. The result is characters that feel highly skilled, proactive, and very competent. As soon as they've identified a problem, they're already on top of the solution. I happen to like that.

Of course, this freedom to spend the points without drawback, means that PCs need a lot fewer points. Default Gumshoe (Trail of Cthulhu or Esoterrorists) give the PCs 60 to 65 General Points and 16 to 32 Investigative Points, for a total of around 80 or 90 points.  I gave my PCs in the current campaign less than half that, a total of just 32 points each, split between the two categories, with lots of other restrictions on top. In hindsight, I could have trimmed that even further, probably down to 25 points per character since it's a low-combat campaign and our sessions are only 3 hours long. 

Friday, September 24, 2010

Dirty Rotten Heroes

Last night was the third session of a four-part super hero mini-campaign of Truth & Justice. The villains are particularly despicable, having at this point killed over 2,000 people in their campaign of terror (and they'd tried to kill a stadium full of 50,000 as well).

The villains thus far have all been Invulnerable, Immortal, Intangible or just plain Untouchable. In the first 5 or 6 fights (the first 2.5 sessions), despite usually outnumbering them one villain versus 3 or more heroes in any given fight, we were unable to get any decisive victories. The bad guys always out-classing us, and always escaping.  Since any one of them can fight any three of us to a standstill (and, all assembled, there's about as many of them as there are of us), we've been getting kind of desperate.

Last session, there was a point where a group of four of us "heroes" managed to knock one of the villains unconscious. It was our first success. This particular villain was a thug - a super-powered thug, sure, but still nothing more than a hired gun, and unlikely to know anything useful. Plus, he had a lot of blood on his hands (literally and metaphorically).

So we chopped the unconscious villain into little pieces with an axe, on a public street. I kid you not.

Truly a bright and shining moment in super-hero stardom.

Monday, September 20, 2010

The Last GwenCon

Gwen Con X, the last Gwen Con ever, was this past weekend. After some troubles with a bus Friday night, Sarah and I were able to make it over there for 4 RPG scenarios and a couple short games of "Are You The Werewolf?" Overall, it was a great weekend, and I'd have been happy if any of these games had run twice as long as they did. All the games had some meaty in-character inter-party-conflict, with PCs arguing with one another in a way that echoed the bittersweet dissolution of our favorite Con. Happy to be there, saddened to go, there was a real sense of "let's go out with a bang" which manifested in some delightfully dysfunctional scenarios. Here's some highlights:
  • We played in both of Tim Beach's lego games this year. Tim does these bizarre RPG mash-ups, with light rules so you can ham it up in-character. One of the games was a blend of several sci-fi franchises, with bits of Star Trek, BSG, Firefly, Terminator, Dr Who, and Galaxy Quest. The other was a "best of" game featuring characters and lego sets from the past 10 years of Tim's games at Gwen Con. Pretty crazy stuff, revolving around the love affair between Ash (from Evil Dead) and Catwoman (from DC Comics), while Dragons attacked Fort Legoredo and Zorro's horse played charades. In a lot of ways, Tim's games sum up the heart of Gwen Con for me, being scenarios you'll just never find anywhere else.
  • For a more conventional RPG experience, I played Vampire: The Requiem for the first time. I've done lots of Masquerade in the past, but this was my first actual test of the "new" system. The rules are really a streamlined improvement over the older system, and it looks to be relatively easy to house-rule back in the setting elements of the previous edition that you might feel are missing. I took to it far better than I thought I would. Session was too short, but with solid character acting all around, and the most "personal horror" I'd seen in 10 years or so. My character nearly shot himself in the head, and three out of the 4 PCs really struggled with the beast within. The fourth quickly embraced that beast and became a real monster, which served as a great roleplaying foil for the other three.
  • The academy award in the disfunctional party category was taken in a Cthulhu-meets-Cloverfield game that Michael Lee ran on Saturday night. It certainly wasn't a subtle scenario, and he really could have used a back-up character for the PC that died early, but it was a great game none the less. Two PCs were treasure-hunting archaeologists in it for the fame and glory, two were the Miskatonic University biologists who'd screwed them over, and two were the FBI agents investigating the other four. The scenario itself was short and sweet, and mainly just a pretense for the 6 players to bicker and threaten one another while a monster rampages in the background. You'd hate to have that conflict for a long-term game, but as a one-off it was a pretty clever device.
  • The two games of "Are You A Werewolf?" were likewise short and faux-argument-laden, but extremely enjoyable as a result. One of them was the most ridiculous game of Werewolf ever, with literally zero normal townsfolk, and special identities for everyone.

A great send-off to the Con series that first caused my wife and I to move to Seattle. Saying "good bye" to dozens of "once a year friends" was hard, but in several cases it at least motivated us to finally exchange contact info and make some efforts towards seeing certain people more frequently.

We'll miss Gwen Con dearly, but at least it rode off into the sunset gracefully instead of burning out or imploding.