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.