Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Recent Gaming Shenanigans

I haven't gotten around to much blogging lately, so here's a quick run-down of recent games I've played or GM'd. Probably any of these could have been an entire blog post unto themselves, and a few might still be if I find the time and energy.

  • I played Lacuna at the Emerald City Game Fest. This nearly became part of my "A good GM can save a bad system" post, but after a couple weeks of keeping it warm on the back burner of my mind, I've decided I don't like the taste of it after all. It's certainly unique, and an admirable experiment, but not one I plan to subject myself to again any time soon. Reviews I've read since suggest that PCs can perform all sorts of crazy stunts, but our game was rather more restrained than that. Ours played more like a mystery or detective story in which all the PCs had amnesia and expectations of cause and effect were upended. I had too many questions about the setting, and the GM (not just the NPCs) had too few answers; I found it frustrating. I guess I was hoping for Inception meets The Prisoner, and would have been totally okay with The Matrix meets Blue Velvet, but what I got was more like Memento meets Eraserhead. Interesting to watch, but damn hard to game in.
  • The day after that, our Truth & Justice campaign wrapped up. I was likewise never quite rocked by that campaign. I really wanted to be challenged more. The plot was a little slow, the villains not as colorful as they could have been, and just not enough tension or drama to really engage me. I would have preferred to have the baddies be a bit more "in your face". The players (myself included) share some of the burden as well, as we never really worked together well and didn't chase plot threads perhaps as well as we could have. I guess I wanted less dysfunction, and more action. The game thankfully didn't meltdown or implode, but it also never seemed to get beyond a simmer.
  • My Continuum campaign has had a few out-of-character hurdles. Individual sessions have been really good, but since it's a game where Information Is All, I can't really blog about any plotline (like the basilisk deaths near the 1527 Paracelsus symposiums, or the part where Derren Brown was posing as Christopher Marlowe) that's still in process. And they've been in-process for a long time, as we've only been getting half as many sessions as expected. Normally, I GM twice a week for two different playgroups in the same timeline/universe. The Wednesday night group had to take a month off from play because of one player doing a lot of summer travelling. Just before the Wednesday group returned to the game, the Tuesday group also had to take a month off because a huge work deadline hitting a player. So I had a couple weeks without GMing my Time-Travel game, preceded and followed by less GMing than normal.

Knowing in advance about the month-long gaps in my Continuum group's schedules, I planned to GM as often as possible for our Thursday night one-shot group. However, between my wife getting a promotion that totally rearranged our home schedule, a friend at that game coming down with chicken pox, and me getting sucked into a video game, then mired in a short patch of writers block... well, the month shot by with me just GMing once. That puts me in withdrawal. It gets ugly. My wife came home from work one day, and found me passed out in the bathroom with 3d6 sticking out of my brachial artery.

  • The one time I did get to GM on the one-shot night was Og, which I totally only ran because I couldn't quite get the pregens finished for the Cyberpunk scenario I was planning on running. Og is a very goofy caveman game. I've run it a couple times before, more than a year ago, and worked in some Land-of-the-Lost references and time-travel nonsense which seemed to go over well. This time, though, I think I bit off more than I could chew. The PCs scattered every chance they got, and I was left with too much plot for their limited caveman vocabularies. I started grasping at straws, and pulled out of my belly  The Great Gazoo, an intervention team from the Planet of the Apes, [a Slip-and-Slide, the Beach Boy's Pet Sounds] and about half a Roman Legion. I felt like it was a huge cluster-failure, but most of the players seemed to laugh their way through it.

This past week, however, the gaming has swung back around and apparently I've been on fire (or just really obnoxious).

  • Thursday night we played Lady Blackbird. Honestly, I lack confidence in Lady Blackbird's mechanics, and I think a bit more definition to the setting (and magic) would be a huge benefit. Leaving so much up to the players is dangerous, especially when I've been role-playing deprived for a week or two. I played Snargle, the shapeshifting goblin pilot, and I hammed it up to no end. There was way too much discussion of goblin-porno and the proper inflating of boobloons.  I'm quite certain it was nothing like what the designer of the game intended, and it may very well have undermined what the others at the table wanted too, but at least it entertained the bystanders at the game store.
  • Then the night after that, dinner with friends lead to an impromptu game of Microscope. Our setting was an alternate earth with urban fantasy elements, where famous fictional literary figures became real. Dracula, Lilith, and Dr. Jeckyl all made appearances. There was this scene where I played Dr. Jeckyl (which I pronounced Gee-kell with a thick scottish accent so I could sneak past the initial round of character declaration without most people realizing who I was really playing till the scene got going) and turned into Mr. Hyde and crawled around under the table in some very inappropriate LARP-ish antics with my secretary. What happens under the table, stays under the table.

I am definitely looking forward to getting my regular fix of plot, puzzle and drama sometime soon, in hopes that it will pull me out of this over-the-top perverted character-actor spiral.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

A good GM can save a bad system.

A good GM can save a bad system. I played several new (for me) RPGS this weekend at the Emerald City Game Fest, and I had a ton of fun. In spite of the mechanics. These games had ridiculous off-kilter mechanics, but the GMs kept the games rolling and provided more than enough color to overcome the flaws in the systems.

The first game was octaNe. The scenario was a riff on Big Trouble In Little China, and I gather that's not the usual setting for the game, but it was a lot of fun. Towards the end, the silliness meter cranked up higher than it goes in Big Trouble In Little China (and that's saying something, isn't it?). Ranma and Sailor Moon both showed up in the final scene, a couple PCs got replaced by their evil twins, things just got... odd.

All of which certainly justifies using some light-weight system (instead of, say, Feng Shui, or d20). Yet, I can't say I cared for octaNe. The mechanics were very unbalanced. The pregen I was playing had a Daring rating of 2, and (since the other pregens didn't) that meant I almost always acted first, almost always succeeded at every task, and ended every conflict with more plot points than I started with.

I can't imagine building any sort of dramatic tension in this system, given that on any die roll the PCs have at least a 71% chance of winning... the whole conflict. Because I was going first every round, I was constantly having to reign myself in, force myself to leave something for the other PCs to fight (or do). It was not easy.

I feel particularly bad for one of the players in our group whose best stat was Magic. Magic goes last each round, _and_ you have to pay plot points to activate it. In theory this is somehow compensated for by being broadly applicable and open-ended, but given the level of narrative freedom that any of the other stats already has, I can't imagine how that could possibly compensate for such drawbacks.

To add insult to injury, his second best stat was Charm... which sits in the middle of the initiative order. Ever try to make a social roll in the middle of the round, _after_ you comrades have already killed half the enemies? Oh, sure, on a success the rules let you narrate a sudden peaceful resolution, but it will rarely pass the disbelief test. "After you ambush and behead most of them, I convince the survivors that there are non-violent solutions to our disagreement." Sure.

Painfully bad system. I think the exact same scenario would have been far, far better with Wu Shu, Risus, PDQ, 3:16, F#, or any of a dozen other "fast and fun" systems. I can't think of any reason why I would want to use octaNe's system. Admittedly, I've never read the rulebook, so maybe there's something I'm missing here... but I doubt it.

Honestly, I'd rather just have everyone roll a single die at the start of a conflict and highest roll narrates how the entire conflict wraps up. It'd honestly be better balanced. As it was, I'd always go first, and nearly always had the freedom to end the entire encounter on that one roll, so spreading that around to the other PCs would have had to be an improvement. I have never, ever in my decades of gaming experience, had to fight so hard to keep myself from abusing a system. The flaws in octaNe are so obvious and horrid, it's amazing it ever made it into print (and even more amazing that there are supplements and expansions out there).

And yet we had fun. The GM did a few really interesting things outside of combat that really saved the game from its own conflict resolution system. His previous plays of the system had indicated that there'd be a plethora of plot points sitting unused, so he came up with a way to make them meaningful. He got these really fancy chinese envelopes and stuffed them with "fortunes". Clues, plot hints, solutions to puzzles, revelations of background info, and some real game-changers like "your character is actually a ghost". So, between scenes, we cashed in excess points for clues, and they really helped coax us along several possible plotlines. He also prepped color photos of all the locations alluded to in the clues (and many of the villains), so there was plenty of instant flavor and atmosphere, and a sense that we were "on the right path" even though it was free-form. Without these clever structural cues being available, I imagine our narrative freedom would have imploded the plot before the end of the second conflict scene. Well done, Mr. GM! I may just have to steal your red envelopes for my own future campaigns.