Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Black Crusade / Broken Chains / Free RPG Day

This past Saturday was Free RPG Day, and my local game store asked me to run a demo in their store of one of the free modules they'd be giving away. Sounded like fun, so I signed up to run the introductory scenario "Broken Chains" for the upcoming "Black Crusade" RPG.

Before I dive in to what I thought of Broken Chains and Black Crusade, I'd like to take a moment to thank Greenlake Games. They were really invested in the whole Free RPG Day concept. They had tons of product to give away, and packed gaming tables into every square foot of space they had available. They were especially nice to us GMs. I walked home with a stack of freebie adventures, a commemorative d6, and a coupon for 25% off my next purchase and a free Iron Die. Very cool of them.

Now on to Broken Chains and Black Crusade...  
  • SPOILER WARNING - Plot points of the adventure (as well as mechanics of the game) are discussed below. Read at your own risk.
Black Crusade is the next iteration of the ongoing Warhammer 40k RPG. This version is from the point-of-view of renegades of Chaos. 40k has always had a thing for anti-heroes. One of the major conceits of the setting is a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" perspective, where the agents of the Emperor do horrible things in the name of saving mankind from itself. Black Crusade focuses more closely on that aspect of the setting, by having the players take on the role of the legions of Chaos. The PCs in this game are the very demon-worshiping psychic psychotic heretics the rest of the game line is trying to save humanity from.

Black Crusade uses mechanics adapted from Dark Heresy, Rogue Trader, and Deathwatch (the three other 40k RPGs currently in print), which in turn use mechanics adapted from the 2nd Edition of the Warhammer Fantasy RPG. Now, personally, I would have preferred it had it used 3rd Ed Warhammer's rules, because I love the dice and it plays fast and easy. 2nd Ed is a bit clunkier and old-school-ier, and not nearly as familiar to me these days. 2nd Ed is grittier, but certainly not easier.

The demo version reduced the mechanical complexity a little in various places, and I very intentionally played fast and light with the system myself. I cheated the initiative system a little, skimped on the die modifiers, and kept the combats short. Several of my players were clearly interested in taking it the other direction, however, and would have been happy to use the full system with all of it's many combat modifiers and special actions. In retrospect, I wish I'd anticipated that and spent some time refamiliarizing myself with the options available to them, as it may have enhanced the gaming experience for more than half the table. That said, I think everyone had fun, and at the end of the night I got thanks and hand shakes from strangers, so I don't think it bombed by any stretch of the imagination.

It's worth noting that this is a very lethal system. We actually only ended up with 1 PC getting hit at all during the game, but despite his thick Space Marine armour and his genetically uplifted Toughness stat, that single hit ate up about 80% of his hit points. Most of the PCs would have died from that blow, and it came as a surprise attack from ambush so it's not like anyone could really avoid it.

This brings up a few related issues I have with the game system.

I'm not certain the game concept is particularly well-suited to the high lethality nature of the mechanics. One can argue that in Dark Heresy or Rogue Trader, much of the crux of the game is in avoiding gun battles. It's a dark, deadly world and the PCs should try to manipulate situations so that they don't end up fighting except when they have a strong advantage (or no other options). They've got the authority and power to push people around a bit, and should be engaging in as many social conflicts as physical ones. Death Watch (the space-marine version of the 40k RPG) certainly features less talking and more action, but the PCs are compensated with power armor, heavy weapons, and redundant bio-engineered organs. Black Crusade features a mix of PC types - armoured Chaos Marines, wild demon-possessed Psykers, and social-oriented Apostate Heretics.  The gap between the combat-focused and social-focused PCs is pretty wide, and quite quickly lethal. As renegades, you lack the support and authority to leverage conflicts away from combat. And if the party has even one Blood-God-worshiping berserker in its ranks, the squishier characters aren't gonna have much luck avoiding fights.

The adventure did include some special threats intended to challenge the parties heavy-hitters, but as mentioned above my first die roll of such nearly vaporized the toughest PC. There's a steep curve to figuring out system balance and encounter design given this PC mix, and any mis-step is likely to result in quick character turn-over. So while I appreciate that some efforts were taken to address this in the adventure, I really found the system far too lethal and unforgiving for my tastes. What's more, there just wasn't any justification within the adventure for including the non-beefy PCs. 3 out of 6 characters were geared for combat, and 3 out of 6 were decidely not. Of those 3 non-combatants, only 1 really ever had anything to do in the adventure as written, and the other two completely lacked a moment to shine.

Now it may be that that particular gripe is well addressed and balanced in the main rulebook. I'm not sure how, given what I saw in the Broken Chains intro adventure, but it's possible. I imagine doing so would probably take some high-end social and support powers, but such powers just weren't evidenced in the sample characters provided with the adventure. The closest I saw in this adventure was a character who had the ability to add +1 degree of success to all her successful social rolls. This sounds impressive on some abstract level, but as near as I could tell it did nothing in the adventure. There really wasn't any point in the scenario where you needed a particular level of social success, and the abbreviated start-up rules didn't offer any suggestions of what the in-character difference was, either. The difficulty chart was of no help, either, merely telling me that a "challenging" roll was +0 and a "very difficult" social roll was at -30.

This was further complicated by environmental factors around the first likely scene in the scenario where a social roll was going to be of use. The PCs wake up in a derelict spaceship that's been drifting for generations; most of the people they meet are half-mad cannibals who attack on sight. The first NPC they meet who actually has any clues to what's going on is down in the bilges. He lives in the sewers of the ship, hip-deep in noxious sludge and dedicated to the God of Plagues. My players looked at the entry point to his lair, and the three socially-competent characters decided to wait outside. The  combat-specialist PCs, being Marines, were equipped with full environmental suites in their power armour. So the three beefy kill-happy PCs marched into the muck, and engaged in a "don't ask, just kill" policy. The NPC with all the info is non-human, disgusting, murderous,  and yet a push-over that "in no way is supposed to be a challenging fight". The PCs got the thing they new they needed from him and ripped him apart (long before any mention could be made of him knowing roughly what had happened on the ship in past 200 years and who had woken them from suspended animation or why).

Even had the PCs tried to get info out of him, a lucky Intimidation roll would have done it just fine, so again the Marine characters are all you really need. This is, sadly, a recurring theme of the adventure. I guess you need the fallen Tech Priest character for the first scene or two as well, but once the PCs have all their equipment back (they start unarmed), everything after that can be solved with nothing but brute force. Given this as the "introduction" to the game, I don't have a lot of faith that the finished product will feature mechanics or advice intended to make the squishy human / social characters viable.

For that matter, I gotta say, I don't feel this adventure was a particularly good introduction to the game. Don't get me wrong, I actually think it's great way to start a campaign, just lousy at it's role as a one-shot introduction to the setting.

Here's the plot: The PCs wake up from suspended animation in a prison ship, having missed the riot by 200 years. They have to battle generations of prion-infected cannibal savages, a couple of creepy demons, automated defense systems gone haywire, and eventually the team of Inquisitors who were also woke up about the same time as themselves at the opposite end of the ship. There's some mystery stuff going on in the background, but if you don't have time to explore the vessel in its entirety, that won't really matter. Eventually, the PCs make it to the bridge and battle the Inquisitor. Assuming they win, they can pilot the ship to the Screaming Vortex (or some other Renegade gathering) and gain a buttload of Infamy Points for "capturing" a mile-long Imperial ship. It's a great place to start a campaign, and early success will reward the players with a huge creepy ghost ship that can serve as a long-term plot device or setting. Other than a lack of balance for the squishy humans, it sounds and plays great.

Problem is, it gives you absolutely no feel for what the session of Black Crusade is likely to be like. I imagine very few sessions will start with the PCs waking up in a prison. The likely enemies of the PCs, Imperial troopers and citizens, are almost absent from the scenario. Part of the charm of Black Crusade is presumably going to be that you get to play the rebels and renegades, but that streak of rebellion was almost entirely non-existent in this scenario. It didn't feel like you were playing the "bad guys" either - every NPC they met was more depraved and less civilized than even the PC berserker.  There are two demons in the scenario, but no appreciable word count is spent on any sort of Faustian deals that would have illustrated that the "heroes" of this adventure are supposedly in bed with Chaos.

So there was lots of genericly 40k-ish theme and flavor, but nothing about the Broken Chains adventure made it feel particularly "Black Crusade"-ish. While reading (and later GMing) this adventure, the thought that crossed my mind was that everything but the first and last scenes could have been run identically for a group of loyalist Imperial PCs in Dark Heresy or Rogue Trader. Have the PCs be Inquistor Crane and his Acolytes, and make the encounter at the end be against a group of Chaos Marines who escaped from the hold, and everything in-between could be identical. In fact, I kind of suspect this adventure was first written (or at least brainstormed) as Dark Heresy scenario, and then converted to Black Crusade as an afterthought when it was realized that the marketing opportunity known as Free RPG Day would fall just a month or so before the Black Crusade release date.

I still enjoyed it (a lot, actually), but I don't feel it gave me any particular insight into what a typical session (or campaign) of Black Crusade will be like. Which means that as an introductory adventure to the upcoming game, it probably fails. As a generic starter-seed for a slightly atypical campaign of any of the four 40k RPGs, though, it's a success. Enough of a success, actually, that I regret running it as a one-shot. I kinda wish I'd hand-picked a play group and used a slightly expanded and modified version to start up a campaign of something. In our one-shot, we didn't get anywhere near the end of the adventure, but we did see enough of the ship that I couldn't reuse the concepts in another campaign without having to dream up a whole new ship and scenario. Whatch ya gonna do?

Monday, June 6, 2011

Leonardo's Microscope

I've tried quite a few different rules-light GM-less games over the years (Off the top of my head: Microscope, Remember Tomorrow, Fiasco, Universalis, Rune, Baron Munchausen, and Pantheon), and I strongly feel that Microscope is the best of the bunch.

Microscope is settingless, and indeed that's really the point of it. In-game, you create a setting turn-by-turn, and then zip your focus around to various eras within that setting for impromptu scenes exploring it. In our experience, it was lively and wild, an excuse for everyone to ham it up... even the more usually quiet and passive players dove right in! I suspect it'd be hard to do an entirely serious setting and find it satisfying at your first go. Aim for humor and over-the-top cinematics in your first testdrive of Microscope, and it won't disappoint.

I read in a forum thread somewhere that Microscope works really well for alternate history since you have a common ground to riff off of, and thus plenty of inspiration. I'd like to submit our game as further confirmation of that observation.  Our setting began as just the concept of "Steampunkish alternate history where all of Leonardo Da Vinci's craziest  ideas work as imagined, and empower the Italian city-states to dominate the world." We opened right up with the cathedral-airship of the Anti-Pope pursuing the floating city of Venice.... and it just got crazier from there.  Assassination attempts against Empress Lucrezia; Sicily colonizing Japan; Napoleon leading the Genoese mammoth corps vs Baba-Yaga's lumbering mecha-bird-hut; analog computers stocking the Pope's personal bordello; and Venetians vs Zulu's at the battle of Beppo's Drift.

Like I said, it was a wild ride. Here's one of the tamer moments:
Click-click click-click. Vacuum tubes glow and fade, gears whir and ratchet. A large loom arm glides over the top of the machine, and then it spits out a punched card with rows of woodblock-printed letters across the top. His excellency The Steam Pope adjusted his lenses and regarded the message at arms' length.

It read: "Airship to Queen's Elephant 3. Checkmate. I am Deep Cerulean."
So as not to entirely disappoint those who expect me to be overly critical of every game system, I have a couple minor gripes I can air here. These are things I wasn't as blown away by as the rest of the system:
  • The mechanism that the victim chooses the success and/or consequences of the attack worked plenty well, but didn't exactly motivate anyone to mount an offensive. Some scenes that could have been dramatic or violent lacked tension because of it. We had enough wackiness and scenery-chewing to keep it fun, regardless.
  • Some scenes didn't suggest characters naturally. Especially since our group was large (the rules state it's for 2-4 players, but it worked smashingly well for our group of 7). You might think you're introducing a major character and then have nothing to do, or plan to play a background character and realize you're the only person representing one of the two factions involved in the scene.
  • The "point" of Legacies is not particularly clear, nor is the "point" of rating every scene as light or dark. Both exist just for thematic considerations, but masquerade as mechanics.  It wasn't until I carefully read the PDF the day after the game that I could be certain there wasn't anything more to them. I think this could be spelled out better in the rules... or that the virgin design space of making such things matter more in-game could be explored.
  • I think named characters could end up on cards of some sort. It's not really necessary, perhaps, since they might only be in one scene and have no stats, but I think a bit more to remind us they exist would have facilitated making them recur. Or perhaps we just could have done a better job of titling our scene and event cards to make the characters more accessible later. Without some way to record the characters,  the game definitely favors hamming-it-up and not taking things too seriously. Anything that fosters recurring characters and the time to develop them would help to reduce Microscope's need for grandstanding antics and outrageous humor.
Those are my four complaints, all very minor, and one of them was only an issue because our group was so large. Overall, I loved it, and I imagine it will get even better as we get more experience framing scenes. I'd happily play again without any house-rules, or with either of the following:

  1. For a large group, I think it might be a good idea to pack a dozen chess pieces along with the note cards. Four pawns and a king and a queen of each of two colors. When you introduce a character, you grab a chess piece. Pawn vs Royalty indicates whether or not you're a major mover & shaker in the scene. Color indicates which faction you're with for conflict scenes. That way, if you're the last person to introduce a character in a round, you can immediately tell if it's 5-against-1 and then choose to side with the underdog. No restrictions, just a tool for helping spot who your friends and foes are amidst the narrative chaos.
  2. If you find your group reluctant to take pot-shots at each other's characters given the mechanics, you might test out this variant: Have the person making the attack roll 1d6. On a "1" they get to narrate the results, on a 2 to 6 the target does (per the rules as written). That may make aggressive actions seem more worth it, without too badly subverting the point of the game. If using the chess-piece idea from the previous paragraph, you could even make it that the attacker wants to roll equal to or less than the number of chess pieces engaged in the attack. Just a thought.