Monday, December 24, 2012

Just What I Wanted

Two posts ago, I complained about the lack of examples for certain key Night's Black Agents mechanics: most specifically Tactical Fact-Finding Benefits and Preparedness. In the days since then, Pelgrane Press has announced an upcoming NBA sourcebook called Double Tap. As it turns out, one thing they are planning to include in Double Tap is at least one TFFB example for each Investigative Ability. This makes me very pleased.

I still plan to compile a list of TFFBs of my own (and post them here when I'm done), just to help me get familiar with the inner workings of NBA's most fiddly mechanic. Still, it's nice to know that the powers that be are hard at work on exactly the thing I felt their game really needed.

Overall, the outline for the Double Tap sourcebook looks really sharp, with lots of useful material for players and GMs. The additional Cherries and Thriller Maneuvers in particular seem like a particularly needed expansion, as the existing Cherries are not all equivalent in power or usefulness.  I eagerly await Double Tap's impending delivery via covert brush pass or dead drop.

Friday, December 21, 2012

A Fight Gone Wrong

A few weeks ago, in my Night's Black Agents game there was a fight scene that ended poorly for a character, and it shouldn't have. From my perspective, I saw that a PC made a poor tactical/mechanical decision, that nearly got them killed.  However, the message that at least some of my players walked away with was "wow, this system kinda sucks, and the PCs are really weak". I didn't realize till today, reading the comments to my last post, that any of the players felt this way. It's a pretty heavy disconnect, and I think I need to address it. I'd prefer to do this in person, but we won't be playing again till after the holidays.

How To Succeed At Gumshoe Combat

General advice on how to approach Gumshoe fight scenes.
  • Spend Points. Lots of them. Enough that you never actually have to roll, because even a "1" on the die will still be a success.
  • The goal is to end every fight with zero points left over in your three best General Ability pools. You will almost always have the ability to restore all your points in any three pools between any two fight scenes.
  • The consequences of "wasting" points by spending too many are very minor. The consequences of not spending enough are far more dire. I'll go into more detail on this at the end of the post, but trust me, it's always better to over-spend.

And now for the specifics of one particular scene, and how it went horribly awry...

The Scene

Night's Black Agents is a game about Spies and Vampires.

During the session, a PC got a phone-call from an adversarial NPC who wants to arrange a meeting at the PCs hotel room. The meeting is, of course, an ambush, and the players knew it.  None-the-less, this PC chose to handle this scene by themselves, with no other PCs involved.

The NPC shows up at their door, and the PC looks out the peephole. I give the player a Sense Trouble roll, which he makes, and I tell him that he can tell there's two thugs with the NPC, at the edge of view on either side of the door. The player dithers, tells the NPC to leave because he's not feeling well. The thugs smash the door open, and combat begins.

The PC's Stats

The PC on question is the team's sniper, and thus a bit of a "glass cannon".

His big advantage is 10 points of Shooting, and the Cherry that gives a 3-point refresh per scene. If shooting runs out, he does have 4 Hand-to-Hand points he could fall back on. 

He has the default Hit Threshold of 3, and has only 6 Health, which is tied for lowest in the party. Since he's a player character, he can operate from health 0 to -5 with just a -1 to his die rolls, which is a minor (but risky) advantage over the NPCs.

The Opposition

There's two Thugs plus the named NPC. The thugs have guns, the named NPC has just a wooden stake. The thugs are low-level Russian mafiya goons, and no stranger to violence. The named NPC is a corrupt Russian Orthodox Priest, with exorcism experience. He's got a touch of athletics and plenty of occult, but not a lot of combat skill. The Priest thinks the PC is a vampire, the goons think they're just getting paid to be muscle.

The Thugs are Hit Threshold 3, same as the PC. They have Health 3 each, to the PCs Health 6, but unlike the PC they go down when they hit 0 Health. They have a combat pool of 4 points.

The misguided Priest is very determined, but lacks the skill-set for this kind of work. Hit Threshold 2, and no combat pool to speak of. He does have as much Health as the PC (so twice that of his thugs), but is out of the fight the moment that is reduced to zero.

GM's Game Plan

The thugs will follow the "Opposition Spends" rules on page 52 of NBA. That means they will only use 1 point from their attack pools on the first round, and only escalate beyond that if 1 point per round is failing to get results.

I picture the fight as follows:

Round 1: PC has the higher pool, and goes first. He spends 2 (of 10) shooting, and drops one thug. Since they're at point-blank range, it's literally impossible for the gunshot to not take the thug out, as the thug has 3 health and the PC is doing 1d6+2 damage. The second thug returns fire, and probably hits the PC for 1d6+2 damage. The priest, having never been shot at before, freezes up for a second and does nothing.

Round 2: PC fires at the second thug. They spend either 2 or 3 points (depending on whether or not they are wounded), which would be enough for an automatic hit. Again, at point blank range any hit kills a thug. So, he's down to either 5 or 6 Shooting points left, before he invokes his Cherry and refreshes his Shooting pool back up to an 8 or 9.  At this point, the Priest will no doubt have seen his two bodyguards die bloodily, and will probably bail.

Round 3: The PC either shoots the Priest in the back, or chases after him and knocks him out with hand-to-hand, or decides to just flee the scene before hotel security responds to the sound of gunshots.  The PC is probably wounded at this point, but in no real danger unless something really unusual happens.

What Actually Happened

Round 1 goes as expected. The PC spends 2 shooting, and drops one of the thugs, but then takes a bullet from the second one.  The thug rolls maximum damage (8), leaving the PC at Wounded (-2 Health).

Round 2 is where things get weird. The players are worried because the PC is wounded, and still has 2 foes to fight. They've drawn some inaccurate conclusions about the Priest, and expect him to be attacking this turn as well.

One of the other players suggests the PC should make a called shot to ensure that whoever he shoots goes down. This wasn't really necessary if the PC shoots the thug at point-blank (since any hit will kill him), but it would matter if the PC decided to plug away at the named Priest instead. That would be a tactical error, but the player doesn't know that because they don't know the hit point total of the unwounded enemy.

This leads to conversation about how called shots work. It's kinda fiddly and there's a chart, but it basically works along the lines of "add N to difficulty, to add N-1 to damage if you hit." There were too many people talking at once, and little fiddly details getting mentioned and discarded.

I think in the process, the player of the PC in question got a bit confused. He announced that he was targeting the face of the thug, raising difficulty by 4 to get +3 damage. To hit he would need to roll a 3, increased to a 4 because the shooter was wounded, increased to an 8 because of the called shot.  He then announced, to my horror, that he was spending 2 points of Shooting, and rolled the die. His total was, as probability would suggest, less than an 8 on 1d6+2. He missed entirely.

Naturally, the thug returns fire. I spend zero points on the roll (he'd hit the previous round), but he still only needs to roll a "3" to hit, which he does. I proceed to roll maximum damage again, for the second gunshot in a row. The player is now at -10 health, and thus must make a difficulty 10 roll to remain conscious. Suffice it to say, that didn't happen.

Round 3: The PC is lying on the floor, bleeding out. The thug bails before the cops can arrive.  The Priest is left with a very messy situation on his hands, and is still there when the rest of the party shows up.

What I, As GM, Should Have Done Differently

Prior to the fight, I probably should have more strongly encouraged the party not to split up.  I wasn't too worried, because the PC should have been able to take the bad guys in a couple turns with only minor injuries. Still, if I had kept the group together, this would have been a cakewalk for them.

I should have made the NPCs breaking in the door take more than 1 turn. That I would definitely do differently if I ran this scene over again. If the player had a couple turns to think and act while the thugs kicked at the door, he might have come up with a clever plan, or just gone out a window to escape.

On the first round of the fight, perhaps I should have given the player an explicit reminder of the rules for taking cover, and the rules for invoking Tactical Fact Finding Benefits. Either would have made the fight look a lot less intimidating to the players. Ironically, a less-threatening fight probably would have resulted in the player being more inclined to spend points. It's a little counter-intuitive, but basically by presenting the fight as being a challenge, I inadvertently encouraged the player to horde their points for later rounds. This desire to stash points away in case things get worse later is a fairly common reaction when you haven't yet figured out how Gumshoe really works, and it almost always backfires.

I'm still not sure if I should or should not have told the player: "Don't bother with called shots, this guy will go down with one hit without it".  In this situation, that particular player character option didn't really help at all. Since a two-point spend without a called shot was sufficient to kill the thug, there was no point in using a fancy combat option that raised the difficulty. Some GMs would be inclined to help the player out here, and others tend to keep the bad guys HPs (etc) secret or leave strategy up to the players. I was on the fence, and could have gone either way.

At the very least, I should have taken better control of the table so we weren't all bombarding the player with different bits of rules detail. I think we overwhelmed him.

Certainly, if I'd processed that he was only spending 2 points before the die left his hand, I would have encouraged him to spend more.

Not my best moment as a GM, but not game-breakingly bad either.  I've fumbled worse before, and will likely do so again at some point.

Arguments In Favor Of Spending More Points

Not convinced that it's better to spend your points now then save them for later? Here's some rambling arguments to support my position:

Refreshing pools is easy, so there's no need to save points. Most NBA characters have some sort of Cherry that lets them refresh 3 points in their best skill, once per scene. Even without that, if you get an hour's peace and rest between fights or chases, you get a full refresh of any three General Ability pools. That's a standard rule in Gumshoe. If 24 hours go by without a fight or chase, you'll refresh all your General Abilities. If you accomplish a major success that wraps up an "Operation", you can expect for the whole party to refresh everything.  It should be very rare that you go more than one session without a refresh of some sort. You can routinely drain three entire Abilities per major fight or chase scene without suffering any long-term consequence.

The secret of Gumshoe is that it is actually a diceless system. Rolling the die should be the thing you do only when you're out of points. Anything worth doing is worth spending enough points on that you auto-succeed.

The point of Gumshoe is avoid the narrative collapse that can happen in normal systems when a bad die roll derails an investigation. The GM wants you to solve the mystery, so the rules ensure that you can't accidentally fail it because the dice suck. The same logic applies to combat rolls as well. The GM wants you to win the fight, and hates to see you fail just because of a bad die roll.  If you spend lots of points, the die roll won't matter.

Gumshoe is not d20, you're not going to have to make dozens of attack rolls per battle. Most foes will go down in one or two gunshots.  You don't need to hold back points in case the fight "goes long". You need to spend points early so that your victory happens quickly and decisively.

On a related note, if some NPC in NBA doesn't die after the second gunshot, that almost certainly means they are a wickedly-powerful supernatural entity and your guns won't save you. Time to flee. Come back later with holy water, lots of explosives, and the element of surprise.

If that sounds like gunfights in Gumshoe (especially NBA) are intentionally lop-sided, you're getting the picture.  It's intentional. Long drawn-out fights are bad, and generally a sign that the players should have fled several turns ago. If you can win, you'll do so very quickly.  By turn 3 of any battle, you should either be mopping up the stragglers of your obvious victory, or running for the exits because your life depends on it.

If the PC in our scene had spent 4 more points on his second roll, he would have killed the second gunman and thus won the whole fight. Instead, he saved himself 4 Shooting points but "paid" 8 health instead.  As this left him with 6 Shooting and -10 Health, it was not a good trade.

The consequences of "wasting" points by spending more Shooting (for example) than you needed to on early rolls is fairly minor: in some later turn you might have to take some action other than shooting. You might use hand-to-hand to keep fighting, or athletics to escape. You might take cover, and let some other PC do the shooting for a while. These are pretty minor consequences.

The consequences of not spending enough points on a Shooting roll is usually that you miss, and then you get shot later that round or the next when your foe survives to counter-attack.  That is a far worse consequence then wasting a point here or there. It does you no good to hold back 2 points of a skill "for later" if not using them right now gets you killed. You can't spend those extra 2 points after you die, so you might as well use them this turn instead.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Night's Black Examples

I've run two sessions of Night's Black Agents so far, and I'm really enjoying the game. One of the area's where Night's Black Agents (hereafter called NBA) is really strong is in the mechanical additions to the Gumshoe system. The new rules take the game system in entirely new directions, and, as always, Kenneth Hite's writing is quite clever. However, he in a few places he failed to provide enough concrete examples to fully utilize some of the groundbreaking new rules.

In this post, I'm specifically talking about Tactical Fact Finding and Preparedness, though the general "not enough examples" complaint can be applied to other parts of the otherwise-delightful rulebook. Tactical Fact Finding is a new mechanic, while Preparedness has been around since the very first Gumshoe product and is simply dialed up a little in NBA.

Both of these mechanics allow for players to cut corners during the planning stage and ret-con in surveillance and preparations. In theory this should seriously reduce time wasted micromanaging details or arguing over what the correct course of action is. In practice I'm finding the players still demand all the details and take several hours per session trying to work out the perfect attack plan. More and better examples of allowable spur-of-the-moment ret-conning to point the players at would be one way to encourage them to speed themselves along and not sweat the small stuff.

Even more importantly from my perspective, however, is the degree of GM fatigue and GM fiat that could most certainly be reduced if they only had better examples for these two mechanics. They're not the most radical rules in the book, which is probably why they got under-exampled, but they are rules that will require a lot of GM improvisation and possibly some house-ruling.

Tactless Facts about Tactical Fact Finding Benefits 

While I love the concept of the TFFB (Tactical Fact-Finding Benefit), I find the execution to be a bit incomplete and even vague. In a nutshell, a TFFB is a bonus that the players get during a fight or chase by using their Investigative Abilities. This is an awesome concept that really catches the feel of clever spies fighting smart and dirty. However, it's so open-ended that there's just not much guidance for the GM, and I find myself raising a critical eyebrow at that.

For starters, the actual benefit could be just about anything. The rules list 5 general categories of benefit, and sheepishly suggest point-ranges for the three categories that have something to do with bonus points. The numbers are pretty vague, a TFFB for a group of 4 players could render anywhere between 4 and 24 points if I'm reading it right. Those points could come in the form of a group pool, individual refreshes, reductions in enemy point pools, or reduction in difficulty numbers - and lets not kid ourselves about those categories being 1-for-1 comparable.

There are 35 investigative abilities in the game. Some, like Architecture or Military Science, are really easy to imagine how they'd be helpful in a fight or chase. Others, like Accounting or Forgery, are difficulty to dream up tactical uses for, on the spot, after the bullets have started flying.

That is, by the way, exactly what you're supposed to do: improvise these on-the-fly based off of player actions. Each individual player may invoke one of these per combat round, so even if the GM preps a half dozen between sessions, they'll quickly have to start improvising.

Creating a TFFB involves defining 5 very open-ended variables.
  1. An investigative ability (from the list of 35) chosen by the Player. Everything after that is up to the GM.
  2. Whether or not the player has to spend a point of that ability to get the benefit. 
  3. An action or situation that is somehow linked to that ability and the scene at hand. 
  4. A benefit of one of five general types (or something new the GM dreams up). 
  5. The intensity (point-value) of that benefit. 

 I'm sure they are so open-ended, vaguely defined, and situational on purpose. No doubt that is intended to be a benefit here. The experienced GM can make up whatever they want, as long as it corresponds to the skill the player chose. This can be really simple, if your players are always grabbing the same couple skills or generally under-using the mechanic. If they are instead trying to get the most out of these potentially very powerful bonuses (and they should be), they can really put the GM in the hot-seat.

Some d20 book in my collection (quite possibly the 3.0 DMG) made the then-remarkable assertion that any unusual situation or circumstance that could modify a roll could be represented by a simple +2 or -2 instead of trying to compare and rank the details. If there's seven different factors at play, 4 good and 3 bad, you'd throw +8 and -6 at them, for a net bonus of +2 and be done with it. Quick and easy. Warhammer 3rd went one step further by using white and black dice that were every bit as easy to pile on to a roll, but didn't automatically cancel each other and you could get more nuanced results. Why does NBA, a game using an engine that is far less fiddly and crunchy than either of those two games, have such a completely inelegant system for handling these benefits? It boggles my mind. It is, admittedly, kind of cool and very immersive, but it's also uncharacteristically fiddly.

I've got 6 players at my table, so in theory I could have to come up with 6 of these things per combat round. Frankly, that sounds fatiguing. I would gladly pay money for an entire sourcebook (or even a deck) full of examples of TFFBs that I could use or riff off of. Instead the game gives a mere 4 examples, 2 of which are not generally reusable.


Preparedness is a General Ability that can be used to acquire equipment the moment you need it. Need a tracking device in a hurry, but forgot to tell the GM you wanted to bring one (or honestly didn't think about it at all till right now)? A successful preparedness roll puts the device in your pocket retroactively. This is a standard of Gumshoe games.

NBA adds the extra wrinkle that you can use Preparedness to ret-con in an entire spy cache of useful equipment. If you need a large number of items, but aren't in as much of a hurry, you can make a roll to access a storage unit, safe house, or safe deposit box full of stuff that you'd stashed away months ago. The difficulty of this roll is 6, and it essentially allows everyone in the party to each name an item that's in your stash.

Could that stash have a suitcase nuke, or a wrist-watch with a hidden laser? That's up to the GM. Are guns allowed, or just the miscellaneous tools mentioned specifically in the base preparedness write-up? Again, that's up to the GM. The only guidance given here is that a maximum of one item per cache can be a vehicle. While I'll gladly agree that the most outlandish items should be subject to GM veto, nowhere in the book does the game give any solid advice on what is or isn't a legitimate request from a cache, or what the difficulty of high-powered gear should be outside of a cache.

The equipment section of the game is about a dozen pages, and yet manages to almost completely avoid mention of Preparedness. The new GM is left without any guidance, and players basically have to read several pages only to conclude that all equipment is gained by GM Fiat. What's the difficulty to pull a grenade out of my backpack? 3? 4? 5? That's entirely up to the GM - even though pulling multiple grenades out of a Cache is (almost-clearly) difficulty 6. How fancy can that one vehicle per Cache be? Again, that's up to the GM. Shouldn't this sort of stuff have been on an equipment chart somewhere?

What really bugs me about this is that the book includes this nifty set of icons that are used repeatedly for tweaking mechanics to match which ever subgenre of spy-film you're trying to emulate. Preparedness is exactly the sort of mechanic that should be tweaked depending on whether you're running "Dust"-mode realistic spies or "Stakes"-mode over-the-top cinema. So if the excuse for not providing guidance here can't be "we don't want to dictate to the GM what kind of game to run". If you're already encouraging the GM to pick-and-choose which rules subsets to use, then you can only gain by providing suggested examples to go with those subsets. It seems like an oversight to have not given Preparedness a little more per-mode attention.

The Plan: 

Venting to the internet may make me feel a little better, but it rarely improves the external reality. It's not like I hate the game, either. I'm really enjoying it, I just wish there were more useful examples provided for these specific rules. The Conspiramid and build-a-vampire rules, for example, are chock full of really useful examples, even though the everyone at the table will interact with those systems far less often than with the TFFB and Preparedness mechanics.

The obvious solution is for me to go to work dissecting and building examples of my own. Keep your eyes open to this blog, and eventually I'll probably have "Night's Black Examples part 2", hopefully with a few dozen TFFB examples and maybe some Preparedness charts for the four main game modes.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Span TwoPointFive... AKA expanding to Span Seven

In the Continuum RPG, PCs progress through 5 "character levels" known as Spans.  I have to come to conclusion that these levels are not divided correctly nor mapped ideally. The hurdles, jumps, and responsibilities of the various Span levels are not evenly distributed. In this post I will document the issues I'm finding with them as we move into the fourth year of my current campaign, and propose changes to the structure that I would happily implement if I had my campaign to do again. Adopting them now, mid-campaign, would be problematic, but they'd be a huge improvement if implemented from day one.

In the default rules, you start out as a Span One who can teleport up to 1 year into the future or past, and carry about 10 lbs of mass beyond their own body weight. Each "level" beyond that expands those limits by a factor of 10. (So a Span Two PC is exhausted and needs a good night's rest after traveling 10 years, and can carry 100lbs of equipment or wardrobe with them.) This works well in the early stages, and buys the GM time to get a handle on the setting and system before having to do a lot of historical research, or stat out 23rd Century Technology.

However, in my experience, players find themselves yearning for the historical exploration portion of the game long before their characters are technically accomplished enough to undertake it. When you sign on to play in a time-travel game, you're picturing visits to Ancient Rome, Elizabethan England, or at least WWII. Per a literal read of the rules and setting, however, you have no business investigating such places until you're Span Four, Three, or Two, respectively, at which points they are still several night's travel away and thus getting there is an adventure in itself. Promotion to Span Three in Continuum takes too damn long. Which is fine from in-character perspective (you advance based on merit, and self-control is a hallmark of the Continuum), but mostly annoying from an out-of-character perspective. If you pitch me on a time-travel game, I want to be hobnobbing with Shakespeare and Caesar within a few weeks at most, not only after years of play.

What's more, certain Spans have more going on within them than others. Span One is just about screwing up, surviving your own cluelessness, and eventually learning the ropes. There's a couple basic lessons that the Player (not just Character) needs to learn, then the flip switches and they're ready for Span Two. In Contrast, S2 starts out as "Span One, With Fewer Screw-Ups," but eventually transitions into "Visit the Nearby Decades" and/or "Split Up Into Different Fraternities".  The latter transition at the least feels like a major milestone and will heavily alter the tone of the campaign, but nothing within the game clearly demarks it's borders. Which means you have a lot of territory to cover before you reach Span Three, and players feel somewhat devoid of the status markers that other games have taught them to expect along the way.

While that does leave some maneuvering room for the GM to customize their game and it's pacing, it does so at the risk of making the players feel like they aren't progressing fast enough despite a string of successes.  "We keep winning, but we still haven't learned everything we need to reach Span Three."  A kind GM can hand-wave the mechanical/XP requirements (and the players are empowered to take the reigns on that part of it), there's not much you can do to gloss over the required setting familiarity.

You get to the point where you want to play S3 and S4 style adventures long before you could possibly have seen enough of the setting to justify such a promotion. My own attempts to accelerate this process have resulted in my roster of NPCs expanding to ridiculous numbers as I try to shoehorn in Fraternal NPCs into spare scenes as I can. For most games, if the players don't feel like reading the setting sourcebooks, you can usually make do as long as the GM (and maybe one player) know the world well, but over the past several years I've found that Continuum's many buzzwords, stratagems, and subgroups really do require an in-depth comprehension of the setting in order to advance. You reach a point where the player's in-character advancement is held back if they haven't read the sourcebooks.

Here's a break-down the current system, including major milestones and responsibilities at each Span, plus some estimates of how long it might take to reach this stage.

Span Rating Lessons Learned Experiences, Scenarios, and Accomplishments Minimum Duration (per the rulebook, even an experienced player should not advance faster than this) Actual Duration (how long it took my campaign)
Span One The Maxims. How not to frag yourself in day-to-day mundane events. Screwing up again and again. Wrapping your head around spanning in general. Briefly visiting each year of a single decade. 12+ hours of play, across 2+ months 70 to 100 hours of play, across most of a year
Span Two Self-reliance. The finer points of solving your frag when it does happen. Master Rank in at least two skills from a particular list, Journeyman in four others from that or another list. Your first real adventure, and several more thereafter, each with subsequently less coaching from your NPC mentor. Your first Time Combat. Trips to nearby decades. Some sort of meaningful interaction with each of the 10 different Fraternities. Picking one of those 10 Fraternities, and joining it. Leaving the nest and joining some other established Corner. Possibly making your own new Corner. Taking a part one or more missions or adventures for your new Fraternity and/or Corner. Wrapping up any loose ends in your mundane (pre-spanner) life so you're not a missing person's case. Acquiring a huge list of skills required to qualify for Span Three. 16+ hours of play, across 3+ months (plus 2+ months as Span One) 140 to 200 hours of play?, across nearly two years (plus a year as Span One)
Span Three A tiny bit of Hypnosis skill. (Out-of-character, the play group learns how to juggle multiple plotlines and split the spotlight in an equitable way.) Finally getting to explore places and times more than a decade or two from where the campaign started. Your first real Time Combat without your old Mentor being there as back-up. Probably more Fraternity missions/adventures.  Creating several new Corners of your own. Acting as Mentor to a whole pack of Novice NPCs. Successfully running a Corner of your own for 100 years of Age. 20+ hours of play, across 4+ months (plus 5+ months as Span One and Two) This is roughly where we are now (some variation among characters). It took us just shy of 3 full years to get Here.
Span Four Many more levels of Hypnosis skill. Photographic memory. First trip to Atlantis... which takes a minimum of around 15 teleports (and full night's rests) just to get there and is thus a major adventure in itself. This is the most likely earliest Span to accomplish a trip to any of the juicier bits of the setting (Atlantis, Vielavayana, The Engineers Crisis, The Midwives Crisis, The Hunt Of The Sun, or various real-world cultures of antiquity such as Rome/Greece/Egypt/Sumeria/3 Kingdoms China), so you can bet there'll be a lot of sight-seeing and tangential adventures. At least one of the following: Scoring 200 points in the Greatest Game. -or- Successfully running a major Fraternal Corner for 250 years of Age. -or-  Going all the way Down to Antedesertium to act as a deep cover agent. 20+ hours of play, across 5+ months (plus 9+ months as Span One/Two/Three) We're aren't there yet.
Exalted (Span Five+) Crazy stuff that blows your mind. Telepathy. The Atlantean Councils. At least one major mission against The Enemy, which could range from War in the Geminid to deep cover work inside Antedesertium. Probably a trip Up to the Hour of Inheritence. Any of those things mentioned under Span Four, but dialed up to 11. There is no guarantee your character will get to this stage. Within the setting, most Spanners don't.  The authors of the game specifically request you not even attempt this level of play until you've had (at a bare a minimum) 14 months of experience playing Continuum. Seriously. We're aren't there yet.
That's right, I've been running a Continuum RPG campaign ongoing for about 36 months now, and we've only just recently (2 or 3 sessions ago) promoted most of the PCs to "Span Three".  If that seems like slow going, it is. I am thrilled to have them ascend to this level, but I'm honestly rather annoyed how long it's taken.

Partly that's because my plots are convoluted. Partly it's because I've allowed friendly NPCs to transport the players Down into history, so they haven't _had_ to advance in order to get to the plots that interest them. Partly it's because we're playing over Skype, and sometimes lose most of a session to technical difficulties. Partly it's because we're all 30-something adults with lives that sometimes prevent us from playing for a week or two. Partly it's because the players are in 3 different timezones, which restricts the length of our sessions a little.

But mostly it's because there's a lot of ground to cover before you get to Span Three. Players, as well as characters, need to get really familiar with the setting and all the mind-bending ramifications of time-travel. After all, Span Three represents the transition from Novice to Master/Teacher.

And I think that's kind of a problem. My players haven't been further down than the 16th Century, and that only because friendly NPCs were willing to take them. You're really not equipped to travel the length and breadth of history until Span Four.

It's too late for my campaign, but if I had it all to do over again, I would completely rewrite the breaks for what happens at which Span rating, so that there were more but smaller milestones and a more rapid escalation in PC teleportation range. The chart would look something more like this:

Span Rating
Lessons Learned
Experiences, Scenarios, and Accomplishments
You Can Teleport This Far
Span One
The Maxims. How not to frag yourself in day-to-day mundane events.
Screwing up again and again. Wrapping your head around spanning in general. Briefly visiting each year of a single decade.
4 years, then you need a full night's rest
Span Two
Self-reliance. The finer points of solving your frag when it does happen. Master Rank in any one Skill.
Your first real adventure, and a couple more thereafter, each with subsequently less coaching from your NPC mentor. Your first Time Combat. Trips to nearby decades. Wrapping up any loose ends in your mundane (pre-spanner) life so you're not a missing person's case.  Your first brief interactions with most of the 10 different Fraternities.
16 years, then you need a full night's rest
Span Three (More or less equivalent to the second half of Span Two under the existing system)
Master Rank in a skill relevant to your Fraternity, Journeyman in some number of other skills useful to anyone spanning outside their century of origin. (Out-of-character, the play group learns how to juggle multiple plotlines and split the spotlight in an equitable way.)
Some sort of "Career Day" to introduce any of the Fraternities that didn't rear their heads in Span Two. Picking one of those 10 Fraternities, and joining it. Leaving the nest and joining some other established Corner. Possibly making your own new Corner. Taking a part one or more missions or adventures for your new Fraternity and/or Corner. Acquiring a huge list of skills required to qualify for Span Three.
64 years, then you need a full night's rest
Span Four (Equivalent to the first half of Span Three under the existing system)
A tiny bit of Hypnosis skill.  Master Rank in a skill relevant to anyone spanning outside their century of origin, such as History, Anthropology, Acting, Etc.
Finally getting to explore places and times more than a century or two from where the campaign started. Your first real Time Combat without your old Mentor being there as back-up. Probably more Fraternity missions/adventures.  Creating several new Corners of your own. 
256 years, then you need a full night's rest
Span Five (Equal in prestige to Span Three under the current system. However they have access to centuries much more like a current Span Four.)
Many more levels of Hypnosis skill. Photographic memory. Telepathy is a possibility, but not  required.
First trip to Atlantis... which takes a minimum of around 15 teleports (and full night's rests) just to get there and is thus a major adventure in itself. This is the most likely earliest Span to accomplish a trip to any of the juicier bits of the setting (Atlantis, Vielavayana, The Engineers Crisis, The Midwives Crisis, The Hunt Of The Sun, or various real-world cultures of antiquity such as Rome/Greece/Egypt/Sumeria/3 Kingdoms China), so you can bet there'll be a lot of sight-seeing and tangential adventures.  Successfully running one or more Corners of your own.
1,024 years, then you need a full night's rest
Span Six (Equal in prestige to Span Four under the current system, because we're valuing teachers more, and acknowledging that not all PCs are up to running a Novice/Mentor Corner of their own. )
Master Rank in Teaching.
Acting as Mentor to a whole pack of Novice NPCs. Between "shifts" teaching the NPC scrubs, you have more  adventures of the sort mentioned for the previous Span, but getting there and back again is much easier.
4,096 years, then you need a full night's rest
Exalted (Equal to the current system's take on Exalted. There were more steps to get here, but each step was a little smaller.)
Crazy stuff that blows your mind. Telepathy, for starters.
The Atlantean Councils. At least one major mission against The Enemy, which could range from War in the Geminid to deep cover work inside Antedesertium. Probably a trip Up to the Hour of Inheritence. Any of those things mentioned under the previous spans, but dialed up to 11.
16,384 years, then you need a full night's rest. Which means you can go from the Hour of Inheritance all the way Down to the Atlantean Councils in a single teleport.

That's my proposal for a smoother version of the game. If I were designing Continuum 2.0, that's how I'd break it up.

From Span One to Exalted is 6 promotions instead of 4, but each promotion has less of a barrier in terms of xp requirements and familiarity with the setting. The largest barrier to PC advancement, which is the sudden redirection of the campaign to the PCs being mentors themselves, is pushed to very late in the campaign, and becomes a natural divide between those that do or don't advance to the final rank. The somewhat less-daunting barrier of picking a Fraternity, which tends to split up the campaign into more subplots and less screentime per player, is delayed a tiny bit, and becomes the focus of it's own milestones in-character.  Over all, character progression should be faster and cleaner. Players have more clearly defined goals, which are spread out more evenly across the ranks.

The x4 instead of x10 spanning range at each level isn't quite as clean or easy (the same can also be said about having 7 levels instead of 5), but I think that's a fair trade off for getting to actually visit other centuries before you have to start thinking about Mentoring for a gaggle of NPC Novices.

P.S.: Sorry for the ugliness of the tables. Blogger ate my original HTML, and the process of fixing it was much easier if I just stole someone else's code (in case blogger ate it because of some error I had made.)

Monday, October 1, 2012

HammerPatterns that might have been

As mentioned in some of my recent posts, last week I ran a impromptu RPG. The setting was influenced by Tolkien's Moria and dwarf-based fantasy in general, but also (and more strongly) by Dwarf Fortress. The system was cardX, a variant of the 6X RPG. My posts from Friday gave a detailed plot synopsis, and reprinted the cards that were drawn.

Since we had 6 players plus GM, for every card that was drawn, a great number more were created but never made it into play. These cards represent a number of "what if" scenarios, and actions that almost happened.  As is the danger with 6X, sometimes the best ideas for results just never happen, and sometimes the same idea will end up as a possible result again and again until it either happens or is abandoned. So there's a lot of redundancy here, but also some real gems

The cards got a little shuffled up on the way home, so I'm not 100% certain what order they went in. I've done my best to reconstruct the order they appeared in.  Since we allowed people to throw in 0 to 3 cards per event depending on how inspired they felt, some sections are much larger than others. The previous post will provide more context if my brief titles aren't clear enough.

Card Draw #1:  Burning the tree house.

Mad Oleg starts a fire and a bunch of intelligent orangoutangs attack us from the treehouse.

Elves. Drunk elves. Throwing pumpkins.

An elf hunting party dogs you all the way to the cog-encrusted bridges of HammerPatterned. The supply wagons are lost.

The trees are actually treants. They don't take kindly to being set afire. They attack Mad Oleg.

Card Draw #2: What happens when the bridge-lever is pulled?

Magma chutes open, filling the entire valley with fiery lava. Those on opposite bank will have a painful, but probably non-lethal, crossing.

The gears turn, opening a secret door in the other side (opposite the lever) of the bridge. Inside the secret door are kobolds.

Turns into a giant cogwork stone golem, and it is pissed! Attacks the party.

All the cogs star spinning and the bridge flips upside down. There is a warning of dire evil on the bottom.

The lever sets off a trap! Back on the side we came from there's an explosion and we see a cloud of dust and hear the sound of 1,000 hungry rats being released… RUNNN!!!

The cogs start turning on the bridge, and it starts migrating up the ravine.

Moves down to the lower entrance.

Card Draw #3:  What noise do they hear?

An orcish drum solo.

We hear a rumbling sound, as of volcanic activity. But the syrupbeards would never have built on a volcano!

The haunting wails of dozens of dwarves ghosts flow down the halls of the darkened, abandoned fortress.

It is the metallic sound of some eldritch machine being activated. No doubt created by a crazed inventor.

The sound of a giant, wild party.

It's the sound of pints being poured. Irresistable dwarf lure! (Or possibly a waterfall)

A thousand voices crying "Tusk!"

Card Draw #4: Oin jumps atop the 7-story jasper elephant

Oin lands on top of the elephant, and nothing bad happens. The judges award him a 9, 8 9, and 6 for the leap. (The elf judge was clearly biased.)

Oin reaches the elephants head. It becomes animated and tries to shake him off.

Oin slips, falls, and slides down the curved u-shaped jasper trunk, momentum carries him up the other side, and he disappears into a nostril.

A wind rises from below, blowing Oin to the other side of the gallery with its force. The elephants eyes start glowing.

Slips, slides down to the tusk, and rides it up into a lob into the air.

Card Draw #5: First round of the first combat. Barricade, door #2, ladder up and away, etc.

Moving the log into position too late, it burst through the door but impales itself on the massive timber.

We find the last stand of the dwarfs behind the door. The room is full of bodies stacked like cordwood.

As the dwarves run through the door, Oin remains behind, watching, hidden in the rubble. He's horrified to see Syrupbeard riding the mastodon with an electrum harness.

Army of kobolds in tusk-ivory armor.

The door opens into a shaft going down….

We find a room full of cats.

Brunhilda climbs partway up a ladder ready to pounce on whatever comes out and pound it with her hammer.

The door burst open. A small dwarf child stands on the other side. Naked except for a tusk necklace and a hat shaped like the houdah-tower that a war elephant would carry on it's back.

We find a dining room with only a few corpses.

Card Draw #6 :  Facing the ghost elephant, plus there's a noise behind the barricaded door,

FlameTrunk hurls Oredang (now on fire) across the room. Smashes into Brunhilda, knocking her off the ladder.

Bursts open and a deep demon mastodon strides forth, eyes ablaze!

Brunhilda makes it partway up the ladder when Oredang is flung at her. She manages to grab Oredang and help here onto the ladder. The living mastodon comes through the door and trumpets at the ghost.

Oredang closes the door.

Mammoth bursts through the door, shatters Mad Oleg's beam, and the splinters impale the fake elephant skeleton setting the entire contraption on fire.

Cog Clasphanks jumps in front of the skeletal beast and prostrates herself, taking heed of the engraved warning. The action appeases the elephant and it adopts Cog as a pet.

Card Draw #7-8 : Battling against what we think is a normal mastodon

The mastodon eyes the dwarves with an odd intelligence, then walks deeper into the dungeon.

Brunhilda jumps on the mastodon as it lurches back into the room. Another dwarf, crazed and cackling madly, is riding the mastodon with a silver harness.

The dwarves that run down the passage way that the mastodon came out of find the mastodon's mate and 2 calfs.

In the haste to avoid the beast one of the dwarves accidentally bumps a bucket into a deep well, causing a lot of noise. This wakes a hoard of goblins sleeping deep in the fortress. They're coming!

The mastodon chases us into the needlessly long, narrow staircases over the massive fall with no railing.

Brunhilda waits until the mastodon comes running under her and then jumps on it and batters it to unconsciousness with her hammer.

Draw twice. Both happen.

Brunhilda jumps onto the mastodon from the ladder. Lands on it's head. She proceeds to bludgeon it unconscious with her hammer.

Some dwarves retreat and find a catapult.

Cog prostrates herself to the mastodon. It recognizes this action as supplication, and accepts Cog as a pet. Her friends are freed, but now she must feed the mastodon - Quickly!

Detecting a vein of limestone, Mad Oleg yells at the mastodon getting it to follow him. He leads it to an area with a limestone ceiling and collapses it, trapping the beast.

Thugnar pulls himself along the tusk and smashes open the beast's skull! Then the sound of more mastodons thunders out!

Suddenly Oredang gets a fit of inspiration for an artifact. All the other players each name an item that could be within a few rooms of oredang. Then we do a series of cards to decide/define what she makes.

Card Draw #9: Cog was just swallowed

Covered with carving tools, she is not what you want in your guts. The mammoth starts to roll in agony, it's intestines are sliced open.

The were-mastodon reverts to human form. Cog is inside, and takes a lot of damage. The previously impaled dwarves fall to the ground.

The mastodon runs across a pit trap set up decades ago. It falls 10 levels down, to its death. The ghosts of Cog, Thugnar, and Oin son of Gloin son of Broins son of Droin son of Moain all rise.

Thugnar pulls himself along the tusk until he's eye to eye with the beast. He then head-butts the beast, knocking it silly!

Brunhilda leaps onto the mastodon. Also on its back is a crazed dwarf with a silver harness!

Brunhilda jumps from the ladder as the mastodon runs under. She lands on its head and beats it to death with her hammer.

Card Draw #10: Mecha-mastodon

Noticing that the eyes are gems, Mad Oleg leaps up, licks one, then pulls it out with his pickaxe, impaling a kobold as he does.

The mechamastodon swallows brunhilda. She lands in a cage next to Cog's cage. The kobold co-pilot pokes a bone spear out of the cockpit and impales Cog.

Cog throws her chisel and strikes some random bit of machinery. The mastodon's tusks retract, it's teeth grown, and it turns into a giant mastodon-textured tyrannosaur.

Thugnar pulls himself the beast's face, stares it in the eyes, and head-butts it. The head breaks open revealing the kobolds. Cog gets free, and Brunhilda crashes through the top!

Cog uses her engraving chisel and hammer to chip the grates out of their sockets. Freely moving she grabs the kobolds and 'jettisons' them out the rear, taking control of the mechanical mastodon

Card Draw #11: Oin's fate after impaling.

As he falls from the Beast, Oin son of Gloin crashes into a barrel of Golden Salve, one of the most precious elven plant extracts in the land. Realizing the healing properties immediately, he is forced to drink the barrel as it drains onto the floor. Blech…

Oin son of Gloin is dragged from the battlefield as Oredang opens up on the machine with a ballista. We find a pantry and barely treat his wounds with an ancient ale and fungus poultice.

Oin son of Etc shoves a large, medicinal loaf of bread in the wound! As the bread does its work, Thugnar kicks the other tusk loose and falls to the ground.

As Oin lies bleeding on the ground, he feels a tongs in his right hand. His spirit leaves his body and enters the tongs, where it survives many years longer than any of those other dwarves.

Looking for the hospital to try to help Oin, Mad Oleg finds another, unoccupied Mammoth vessel and gets it into operation.

Oredang goes into a fell mood! She claims a butcher's workshop. Then she comes back, stick a pick in Oin's head, and drags off his corpse.

Oin has landed in a pile of dwarf clothing. It's dirty and ripped, but he uses it to make a bandage so he won't bleed to death.

Card Draw # 12:  Groin's entrance

Oredang finds a mysterious artifact crossbow inlaid with cat bones, and decorated with spikes of jasper and bituminous coal. Someone yells "Anyone in there? Father..?"

Cog breaks the inner cage grates from their hinges, allowing her to kill the other kobold and take control of the mechanical mastodon. During the struggle to take control she smashes the beast through the front gate, opening the fortress up to Groin.

Groin, son of… opens the main doors by means mysterious. Meanwhile, Thugnar, bloody tired of being impaled on a tusk, grabs a hold of a column and yanks the tusk free of the mechamastodon.

Card Draw # 13: More mechamastodon melee

The remaining kobold gets tired of going in circles. It stops the mastodon and makes the head shake, causing Brunhilda to go flying and thugnar to fall off the tusk.

Mad Oleg swings Groin into the rear of the mammoth. THe tong-chain catches the mammoth and up-ends it, spilling Groin onto the kobold, who is now disarmed.

Brunhilda pulls levers at random. The mastodon trumpets, then tweets, then goes OOK OOK OOK. The kobold shoots Brunhilde in the arm and she drops her axe. The mastodon stops moving.

Brunhilda's weapon knocks aside the kobold's crossbow aim. His bolt ricochets, and hits Mad Oleg in the eye.

Brunhilda dodges the bolt, which then hits something vital to the mastodon's movement. It stops and she beats the other kobold to death.

Card Draw #14:  What next?

Mad Oleg is inspired. Each player names an item that could be found nearby. Then we make cards describing artifacts Mad Oleg could make from those items during this Strange Mood.

Elves attack.

The rat demon, previously held at bay by the elephant, he's scared of elephants, manifests.

A crazed dwarf comes running from the depths of the keep. He sees the stopped mastodon and hugs Mad Oleg, saying "Thank you for saving me from the elephants."

The sound of a kobold war triangle ominously chimes through the air! The sound of more mechamastodons echo through the chamber.

Thugnar dies on the tusk. Elves arrive to avenge their forest. Ghasts of Oin and Thugnar and the dead Yak rise up to haunt us.

There is no way that Oredang's yak should have been able to get into the fortress. It totally never shot crossbow bolts out of its mouth before, either.

The elves arrive to avenge the forest. Brunhilda kills the kobold and free Cog. Groin breaks the right tusk off the mastodon, dropping Thugnar to the ground in a bloody heap.

Card Draw #16 to 17: brewery battle

Many Kobolds die. The flaming trunk lights the elephant on fire. The dwarves flee the burning wreck which falls on and kills the remaining kobolds.

Oleg sets one of the vats of beer on fire, apparently someone added flammable liquid. The kobold was nearby is now running about on fire. Cog and Brunhilda manage to kill a number of kobolds.

Kobold massacre! A few dwarf losses too.. which means the remaining dwarves go insane and kill themselves. More brew for us!

Mad Oleg's flaming elephant-butt attack kills three kobolds but also sets the beer on fire. The fire is heating the still. The whole thing is nearly critical!

An old skinny dwarf elder setps forward. "We must not offend the Elephant Gods again, or we will all be cursed this time!" The poor enslaved dwarves assault you and overpower you since you dare not harm your kin. You wake in chains.

The battle rages on, mastodono-a-mastodono, for hours. Whicher player draws this card: their character is driven mad by hours of booze-withdrawal, and is now a homicidal villain.

The mechamastodons go into battle, but the kobolds don't expect Oleg with the flaming trunk. He sets the other mastodon on fire. It goes around setting kobolds on fire.

Groin son of Oin takes the beer hostage! "Drop your weapons and surrender to me, OR YOU'LL NEVER BE DRUNK AGAIN!"

Cog and Brunhilda charge the other mastodon and the two lock trunks. Oleg immolates a dozen kobolds! Thugnar grabs a beer!

The mechamastodons lock tusks in a fierce battle. The still is destroyed but the barrels are spared. The dwarves jump on top of the kobold mastodon and rip open the hatch, pulling kobolds out.

The PC who drew this card is shot in the eye by a kobold crossbow.

An elven army shows up to avenge the forest. A goblin army shows up to take the fortress. Kobold reinforcements arrive.

"You have to find the artifact," one of the captive dwarves whispers to Oredang. "The mastodon spirits are angry at the sacrilege."

The dwarves have been poisoning the beer in an act of rebellion. Your first clue is when Groin son of Oin doubles over after tasting it while on guard duty.

Thugnar, his French Bread glistening with kobold gore, strides into the brewery and pulls a pint, drinks deeply and sighs. And a bunch of stuff happens outside.

Booze casks are smashed open. The entire room is engulfed in fire. The PC who drew this card is the only one who _doesn't_ catch on fire.

Both elephants catch fire! Cog and Brunhilda are burned, but escape alive! The battle continues on foot. The kobolds are led by a kobold with an elephant mask.

The kobolds see that Mad Oleg came out of the mechamastodon and try to surround him, but he uses the trunk to set them on fire. Cog and Brunhilda manage to force the flaming mastodon out of the brewery.

The fighting mechamastodons spin into the brewery, imperiling the ale!

Card Draw #18: Battle above the abyss

The noise from the fighting mammoths was up a Forgotten Beast way down below -- the dwarves had dug too greedily and too deep… The beast rises up and devours the mammoths and kobold 'riders' and turns its gaze to the other dwarves.

The mastodon teeters on the brink! The flaming kobolds start leaping from the beast, making it tip! Thugnar strides forth into the brewery covered in gore and has an ale.  AAAAH!

The mastodon tips and almost falls into the abyss! It's hanging by the trunk. Burning kobolds jump into the control chamber! Will Cog and Brunhilda fight, flee, or drive the elephant?

The kobold guards rush the mammoths and shove them off. Several kobolds fall with it. Brunhilda and cog leap at the last moment landing amongst the remaining kobolds.

The flaming kobolds board your mechamastodon. Oredang is stabbed. Mad Oleg starts on fire. Brunhilda's pants leg gets caught in the gears of your mechamastodon.

Card Draw #19: Crazed Craftsdwarf

The crazy guy grabs one dwarf and drowns him in the beer. Oleg uses the trunk to set him on fire as a sacrifice to the elephant god.

Groin son of Oin smites the insane dwarf. "As your new nobleman," he shouts, "I demand PLATES!!!"

Thugnar drowns the crazy artisan dwarf in a hogshead of stale ale! Then thugnar has another beer… from a different keg.

The craftsdwarf is wearing another artifact, "Wombatdunked", a maple earring. It is bound in granite, adorned in dangling rings of green glass, and menaces with spikes of maple.  As he freaks out and fights, the artifact earring impales Cog, rupturing the eye and bruising her brain.

Card Draw #20:  Epilogue

Thugnar's wound begins to fester. A miasma erupts from his flesh. He dies, as does another PC (of John's choice) who contracts the infection. Then we add another round of cards to those already in the bag.

Brunhilda agrees to stay to build a new elephant statue for the dwarves. She finds a craftsman who make flames come out of the trunk, and they make it facing the front gate.

Groin son of Oin arranges for an epic funeral for his father Oin son of Gloin. A great statue is built which gives Oin's lineage to the sixth generation. The plaque on the statue claims that about half of them are elephants.

Cog crowns Mad Oleg as King. She names herself Baroness. She gives Groin son of Oin the title of Bookkeeper, as suits his appraisal skills. They take over the fortress.

Thugnar finally has enough beer.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Hammer-Patterned, The Multiplicity of Tongs

This is a story synopsis and play-by-play for a tabletop RPG I ran last night. The game was completely improvised, and the system was 6X, so it ended up being pretty wacky.

Starting premise was essentially "reclaim" mode of the video game "Dwarf Fortress". If you've never played DF, just picture the abandoned halls of Moria from Lord of the Rings… with a penchant for going FUBAR in delightfully slapstick ways. If you are familiar with Dwarf Fortress, you'll get a couple of inside jokes below, but you'll also quickly see that we diverged  from the source material.

For a thousand years the mighty Dwarf enclave known as "Hammer-Patterned, The Multiplicity of Tongs" had stood solid within a rocky mountain at the edge of the empire. But now, several years have passed since word or caravan had come forth from Hammer-Patterned, and the worst is feared.

 A small group of stout Dwarven settlers and explorers has been sent forth to Hammer-Patterned to learn the fate of King Blordok Syrupbraid, re-establish the trade-route if possible, and claim salvage rights should things in Hammer-Patterned turn out to be as bad as they are feared.

An aside about the ridiculous name: Three of us grabbed random words and we mashed them together to come up with a silly title worthy of a Dwarf Fortress. It didn't make any sense to us, either, but it certainly is in line with the bizarre naming conventions employed in the source material.

Our party of stout dwarves explorers is as follows:
  • Oredang the Miner (played by Devon, who had a fair amount of Dwarf Fortress). Gender: Female. Skills: Miner, Novice Organzier.  Equipment: Steel Pickaxe, pet Yak calf. Beard: black, long and twisted.
  • OIN son of GLOIN son of BROIN son of DROIN son of MOIN (played by Dan), (hereafter referred to as simply "Oin son of blah" to save me a lot of typing.) Gender: Male  Skills: likes Ancestry  Beard: 7 and 1/8ths inches
  • Cog Claspshanks (played by my wife, Sarah). Gender: Female  Skills: Stone Engraver  Equipment: Carving Tools  Beard: 9 braids (one per child she bore)
  • Brunhilda the Carver (played by Laura). Gender: Female  Skills: Carver, creates statues, curious, good fighter with a hammer.  Equipment: Hammer, Carving Tools   Beard: Has a red beard she wears in two braids.
  • Thugnar the Bold (played by John). Gender: Male  Skills: bold, break rock with hammer, drink ale copiously.  Equipment: Hammer Beard: Long flowing blonde beard, braided intricately.
  • Mad Oleg (played by Eric). Gender: Male   Skills: Ore-taster  Beard: filled with minerals
Fine specimens of craftdwarfship be they all.
An aside about investigation and skills:   In retrospect, I wish I'd done more with Mad Oleg's unique and flavorful "ore-taster" skill. It's got great potential for an investigative scenario, but since this was an off-the-cuff 6X game (and thus what mysteries there were remained mysterious even to the GM until they were randomly defined), I just didn't really figure out a way to make it matter. Similar things can be said for Oin son of blah's "likes Ancestry" skill that would have been really useful in Continuum or Trail of Cthulhu, but was hard to work into 6X on the fly. I wish I could have integrated these into the story better.

I started the game with some narration about the overland trip. When you arrive at your destination, the food cart has already run out and you've polished off half the mules. That baby Yak calf is starting to look pretty good.

Then I threw in a passing comment about the sad state of the disused trade route and especially the statuary along it, and it nearly took the game in a completely different direction.  I said the ancient statues at the side of the road were overgrown, and someone had put pumpkins or jack-o-lanterns where the statues heads should be, but I didn't really know where I was going with this. It was just color, drawn from an old fantasy illustration I saw once for one of the Lord of the Ring books. The players immediately started blaming the elves, so I said that near one of the statues was a tree with an old ramshackle treehouse in it's branches, and they could hear the slow sad sounds of a banjo on the wind. 

The players debated whether to sneak past what were clearly creepy elfbillies, or just burn the place.  Seemed like a great place for our first card draw.

Card Draw?  We were using a variant of 6X that I'm calling cardX. Instead of making a chart and rolling a die, each player rights a possible outcome on a notecard, and we draw one out of a hat.  Learn more here.
So we get our first result: 
  • 1: "Burning down the treehouse starts a forest fire. We have to run quickly and rush the cart along, breaking the axle."
Which I think came as a surprise to the player who first proposed that they burn down the treehouse, as he thought he'd been talked out of it. That happens with 6X.

We threw in a little color narration about dim-witted elven hillbillies having a conversation as their treehouse burnt down around them. One with a banjo, the other a pitchfork. "There they go, setting' us afire agin. An' I was jus' bouts to warn 'em that there's nuthin down that road but the ol' haunted dwarves place."

Escaping past the (flaming) tree line, and hauling their booze kegs on their own backs, our fearless dwarven explorers find themselves at the massive bridge that marks the borders of HammerPatterned the Multiplicity of Tongs.

The bridge was carved of stone and set with cogs and machinery. Dangling from the sides were chains ending with metal Tongs clattering in the breeze. With his knowledge of ancestry, Oin son of blah was able to explain that the local custom was to hang a set of ancestral tongs to commemorate the moment and place of passing of any dwarf. Clearly, hundreds of dwarves had died on this particular bridge. At the far end of the bridge was a mighty lever, so Thugnar the bold ran across the bridge and yanked the lever while his friends were crossing more slowly behind him.

I like to imagine that the other cards in the bag were full of horrible trap-riddled death the likes of which would have made even One-Eyed Willie turn white as a bone, but alas the one the players drew said simply:
  • 2: "The cog bridge plays beautiful music!"
The lever set the gears turning, and the chains and tongs dangling from them clattered together in a pleasant tinkling melody, accompanied by the deep bass rumblings of the bridgeborn machinery that powered it all.

Thereafter followed a long section without any cards being made or pulled. There were probably a couple moments where we could have done cards, but each time someone would announce an idea they had that sounded fun enough we all just conceded the narrative ground to them.

The dwarves came to the gates of HammerPatterned, which were huge granite things set with engravings of hammers. The doors looked like they hadn't been opened for some time. We tried speaking "friend" to them, but to no avail. An oversized steel hammer and tongs hung from a chain, dangling out of the mouth of stone grate above the doors. A grate perfect for pouring something down on unwanted guests, like boiling oil.  Most of the party stepped back or to the side.

Nearby was a pumpkin patch, growing in the sunlight beside the gates. Not a particularly dwarven crop, but we all grudging acknowledged you could ferment and brew with them if you had to. Oredang pastured her Yak calf at the p-patch.

Speaking of Yak p,  by this time Thugnar had started knocking on the massive doors with the dangling hammer, and the other players suggested that his greeting should be that someone or something pees on him through the grates above.  Sometimes you just gotta play to your audience.

Wet and smelly but surprisingly undiscouraged, Thugnar decided to yank on the big chain to see if maybe it rang a bell inside and summoned servants.  Instead it made the grates above open up. As i was about to narrate huge rocks falling and call for a card draw, again a player interrupted me with a rather more amusing possibility so I just said yes. A Yak fell from grate, narrowly missing Thugnar and going splat on the ground.

Additional chains and tongs now dropped and dangled from the grates as well, because clearly, any place where a Yak might feasibly drop on you is a place likely to have claimed the lives of many a drunk dwarf (and thus need commemorating per the previously described local custom). So the players climbed up the mesh of chains and into  the inside of the gatehouse.

Inside where the desiccated remains of a dwarf who had barricaded himself into the gatehouse. He'd clearly lived here for some time before passing on when the beer ran out. The grain and foodstuffs he had with sequestered with him were nearly out as well, but had been enough to sustain the Yak until this very day.

Before the booze ran out, the dead dwarf had kept himself busy carving the walls of his gatehouse tomb. Here is an engraving of a dwarf and and elephant. The dwarf is riding on the elephant. Here is an engraving of dwarves and an elephant. The dwarves are holding hands around the elephant. Here is a superior engraving of dwarves and an elephant. The elephant is giving birth to the dwarves. Riffing off of "Boatmurdered" (google it), mostly, followed by one  reference to the Simpsons: Here is an engraving of just words, dwarves runic script in shaky handwriting, "can't sleep, elephants will eat me, can't sleep, elephants will eat me".

Undaunted (and now motivated by the inescapable conclusion that the fortress had been abandoned and thus the salvage rights were theirs), the players took down the barricade, and opened the doors.  Beyond were balconied galleries, overlooking the main hall and gates to the fortress. Far below them the main hall angled downward into the bowels of the earth.

It was at that moment that I told them, "all of a sudden, you hear a terrible noise reverberate through the fortress. Everyone contribute a card to the hat describing a possible noise." Apparently someone liked my engravings, because the card that was drawn said:
  • 3: "The Sound of a Mastodon"
There was much debate over how to differentiate the calls of an elephant, mastodon or mammoth from one another, but eventually everyone decided it was indeed a mastodon. It didn't sound particularly close, however, so the players probed deeper into the galleries.

The floor of the main hall below fell further and further down, until at least 7 stories separated the extended balcony they walked upon from the main floor. As they probed deeper into the gloom, they eventually saw a giant Jasper elephant statue. It's head rose to the level of the balconies, so it was 7 stories tall, and equivalently long.

Mad Oleg said something to the effect of: "That is the largest collection of Jasper I have ever seen in all my years of ore-tasting, and the second-largest elephant statues I've seen, too."

The thought occurred to me then and there that it'd be a cool demise for the fortress if they'd had a "Trojan Horse" scenario where the elephant statue had brought some invading force… but the gates were clearly secure and intact, whereas at Troy the gates were torn apart. If I wanted to go the Trojan route, I'd have to give the players another clue… and I'd have to do so quickly, because in 6X you can't be subtle or slow because at any time a player action could derail your plans.

So I said there was a lever nearby. The players pulled it, and the entire top of the mountain retracted, giving them a clear view of everything. This meant you'd be able to drag the 7-story statue in our out of the fortress's 2-story gate. That (plus "the elephant is giving birth to the dwarves") made me feel like I could later go more explicitly Trojan and it'd be deemed foreshadowed rather than contradictory.

Oin son of blah suddenly got the idea into his head that if we can't find stairs down from the gallery, maybe we can somehow find stairs down from an elephant. It was a novel idea, and he approached it with masochistic gusto, suddenly jumping off the balcony towards the head of 7-story elephant. This had some potential to backfire, and we hadn't done cards in a while, so what the heck…
  • 4. "The jasper elephant collapses into a pile of bits burying Oin."
An aside about character mortality: I probably would have been justified in killing poor Oin given that result and it's vague statements about his status at the end of it. 7 stories of falling and then being buried under tons of shattered jasper could easily be lethal.  Just like I could have made the Yak, rather than just it's pee, land on Thugnar earlier, and taken him out.  Instead I would just file this away in the back of my mind. Later, when it was time to start kicking the players butts a little, I'd remember that I'd previously gone easy on the two of them.
The statue fell to rubble, and this gave me a chance to reinforce my Trojan Elephant idea. I narrated that it had been a wooden frame with a jasper shell, hollow on the inside, and mostly breaking his fall as it collapsed in upon itself.

Rather than split up the party, I allowed the others to quickly find a ladder down and start unburying Oin son of blah. But as they labored, they could again hear the trumpeting of a mastodon, and the sound was now growing closer. Oh, and something about the cantilevered clockwork mechanisms closing the mountain top again since no one was up there holding the lever any more.

They free Oin son of blah, bandage him up, loot the huge garnet eyes of the crumbled statue, and then realize the source of the mastodon sounds is now only 1 room away from the main gall. It's behind Door #1.  Mad Oleg starts trying to barricade Door #1. The other players start to scatter, and one opens a door across the room (which we'll call Door #2) to make an escape. The remainder of the part started describing various other dubious escape routes, and I decided the best way to bring this chaos under control was to have everyone make a card describing the event they wanted to have resolve first.
  • 5. "Inside the door [Door #2] is the skeleton of a mighty elephant. It's eyes light up with a ghostly flame and focus on Oredang."
So whatever the mastodon sound was on the other side of Door #1, it was suddenly back-seat to the Undead Elephant behind Door #2. That precipitated yet another card round.  The card I put in to the pot was particularly nasty, but alas it was not drawn. Instead, we got:
  • 6. "The mastodon bursts into the room, shattering Mad Oleg's barricade! The mastodon then crushes the skeletal elephant in one blow of its mighty trunk!"
Combat in 6X (or my cardX variant) is pretty damn swingy. Here we have flaming ghost elephant about to attack Oredang one moment, and then it's obliterated by something else entirely in the very next action.  Why, I don't know. Clearly, with the players having that much narrative power, I needed to stop pulling my punches.

I gave everyone the opportunity to put in one brief bit of flavor narration that didn't change the overall situation, so they could illustrate how they fought or fled as appropriate, and then we did another card round to determine how the fight would resolve.  Hammers and picks were swung, Brunhilda clambered up a ladder to line up a daring leap towards the mastodon's head, and the monster thrashed about. Then:
  • 7. "The mastodon impales Oin son of bla on its left tusk, and Thugnar on the right. Both are badly injured and freeing them will take much effort or heroism."
Yep, that card was mine. Major wounds and impairment to two PCs, and specifically the ones I'd gone easy on earlier. I decided to keep running combat for however long it took the players to make up a card that defeated it and get the corresponding lucky draw. As for my own cards in that time frame, I planned to eliminate one PC from the fight per round. Chances are they'd win the day, but we'd see if the mastodon couldn't take a few of them with it.

And wouldn't you know it, the players drew another one of my cards the very next round.
  • 8. "The mastodon swallows Cog Claspshanks in a single gulp. Meanwhile, the impaled Dwarves bleed profusely, and Thugnar's weakened arms drop his hammer."
Three PCs down, 3 to go. More color narration for those that weren't swallowed, impaled or immobilized, and then another card-round. But I was not anticipating this result.
  • 9. "Cog discovers that this mastodon is also hollow."
That's definitely a good break for the PCs, but a little open to interpretation. Hollow in what way? Well, if you leave it up to the GM, you have no one to blame but yourself.

So, I narrated that Cog drops down into the belly of the mechanical beast, and is immediately sealed inside one of several cages therein. Above her, safe within a metal cockpit with, are two kobolds operating the bicycle-driven mechanisms of the mechamastodon.  They have reinforced windows that let them look down at Cog, or stare out through the "eyes" of the mechamastodon.

Next round:
  • 10. "Brunhilda jumps on the mastodon and starts beating it about the head with her hammer. The main effect is that she manages to realize there are kobolds inside. She kills the closer one."
We do some more color narration, and someone mentions that perhaps the mechamastodon, now missing the copilot, could be stuck running around in circles. That's funny enough to say yes to. 
At this point, I decided it was worth dealing with the impaled people. I announced that one of the tusks went limp, and Oin son of blah slid off the end of it. He's now bleeding out on the floor as the mechamastodon runs circles around him. I directed the players that this round of cards should not resolve the overall fight, but primarily determine Oin's fate.
  • 11. "Oin dies in a pool of blood and miasma.   Dan's next character may arrive as the first of a wave of migrants sent to aid your colonization."

Dan quickly came up with a brand new character, well, kinda…
  • GROIN son of OIN son of GLOIN son of BROIN son of DROIN son of MOIN, (hereafter referred to as simply "Groin son of Oin" to save me a lot of typing). Gender: Male  Skills: likes Ancestry  Beard: 7 and 3/8ths inches

As a general rule, when a PC dies, I usually require that the replacement character be something very different from the previous character, so there's some sense that death has impact, and is a thing to be avoided. Usually. This time, however, it was funny enough, and relevant to the "likes ancestry" mention on the character sheet, that I felt that was actually the perfect way to continue.
Various color narration. Circular mechamastodon chase. Cue benny hill music.

Then: "I am GROIN son of OIN son of GLOIN son of BROIN son of DROIN son of MOIN. You killed my father, OIN son of GLOIN son of BROIN son of DROIN son of MOIN. Prepare to die!"
  • 12. "Groin son of Oin swings into the battle on a long tong-chain. The mastodon is still running in circles, however, and Groin son of Oin misses it.  Meanwhile, Brunhilda drops into the mammoth next to the kobold."
Color narration. The kobold shrieks: "Peddle left! Peddle left! Why aren't you peddling? We're going in circles!" and then realizes that Brunhilda has replaced his copilot. He goes for his loaded crossbow, she goes for her hammer.
  • 13. "Brunhilda bashes the kobold to mush! Thugnar is saved through the immediate application of dwarven french bread through the wound."
Wow. Bread bandages. Or rather, a bread blood plug. If it didn't very specifically say "saved", I totally would have had that backfire… but the spirit of the cards should be obeyed as much as possible, even if it makes no sense. I mean, everything else in this adventure is logical and sensible.

I'm not sure exactly what happened next. The kobold was dead, the threat neutralized. They must have freed Cog. I remember Devon saying that Oredang had grown attached to her fine steel pick.
Mad Oleg wanted the flaming trunk "mechanism" off the ghost elephant, which was now somehow retroactively also a hollow mecha-skeletal-elephant and not a ghost elephant and I'm not really sure how any of that made sense, but it was amusing and he'd had the unfortunate distinction of not having any of the cards he'd created get drawn by anyone in any of our 13 to-date pulls from the hat, so I just said yes to his crazy idea. Plus, that retcon made at least as much sense as shoving bread into your wounds

… but other than all that miscellaneous insanity, I'm not really certain what the context was of this card, or why we were drawing:
  • 14. "We need beer. NOW."
So they all piled into the mechamastodon, and drove it around till they could find the local brewery.
The brewery was guarded by kobolds in bronze armor, carrying bronze whips, and making mastodon calls on bronze french-kobold-horns. They apparently assumed the PCs were just another run-of-the-mill kobold-filled mechamastodon.

The doors to the brewery swing open, revealing dozens of emaciated, broken dwarves, clearly now enslaved to the kobolds.  They are being forced to labor, and brew pumpkin ale for their kobold overlords. It is a truly sad sight, and a dishonor that cannot go unavenged.

Thugnar leaps forth from the cockpit of the mechamastodon, in much the way Athena sprung from the head of Zeus. The mythical reference will matter (sort of) a few cards later. The other dwarves start crawling out of the hole Thugnar leaves behind him, except for Brunhilda and Cog who drive the mech.
  • 15. "Thugnar plows into several kobolds, knocking them down. Thugnar plays kobold golf. The mastodon's tusks swing, killing several. Oredang sneaks into the brewery! Another mechamastodon appears!"
The two mechs battle, mastodono-a-mastadono.
  • 16. "Our mastodon rams their mastodon. Mad Oleg is thrown from the rear. Sensing his opportunity, he lobs the flaming ghost trunk into the hole in their mastodon. It lights on fire."
More color narration followed. Oredang and Groin son of Oin took up position near the beer.  The battle raged on as they sampled the kegs.
  • 17. "Brunhilda drives their mammoth backwards, forcing it through the doors into the walkway over the abyss. Burning kobolds climb onto the top of the mammoth."
There was no previous mention of an abyss prior to this card, but not only is that how 6X works, but it's also perfectly in tune with the subject matter for there to be a big bottomless pit with a narrow walkway spanning it such as one might use to battle a balrog.
  • 18. "The hide is burnt away as Cog figures out how to shake off the flaming kobolds into the abyss. The other dwarves have liberated the brewery."
There dwarves bow to their new saviors. An elderly, broken looking, emaciated dwarf steps forward. He identifies himself as Blordock Syrupbraid the Younger, son of Blordock Syrupbraid the Elder, and thus heir apparent to the throne now that HammerPatterned the Multiplicity of Tongs has been liberated. Mainly he serves as a obligatory exposition/wrap-up info dump to explain in case anyone had missed the finer details of what had happened. Kobold siege. Kobolds appear to give up, but leave a giant jasper elephant behind. The dwarves hall it inside, and worship or party around it. When everyone's drunk… well, more drunker than is usual even for a dwarf, the kobolds sneak out of the elephant and deploy mechamastodons to conquer. 

Being drunk, stupid, and beaten-down, these dwarves have started worshiping elephants and specifically the giant jasper elephant statue. They even call the players half-elephant demigods in dwarven form, come to free them from the half-elephant demigods in kobold form who were enacting the punishment of the high elephant gods.

Or something.

At this point, I realize we haven't had anyone go crazy, which is totally a Dwarf Fortress thing. So I start narrating how one of the dwarves here had used the giant jasper elephant as a component in a slightly fancier artifact statue of his own design - mainly by attaching wheels (so they could haul it in) and big garnet eyes to the existing statue. But it's totally his design now, and the pinnacle of his life, and as the players explain that the statue has been destroyed, he goes berserk. 

You thought the previous fights were big and crazy, wait till you get a load of even round one of my big climactic battle with the psychopathic spreekilling craftsdwarf. We pulled out all the stops for this one!
19. "Mad Oleg knocks him out with a single blow."
Nicely done, sir.

All that's left is the "happily ever after" solution, so I let everyone throw into the hat their own personal best interpretation of how this could end.

  • 20. "After being honored by the freed dwarves, the party seeks out the next fortress.  However, at their camp that night, Oredang's pet yak calf creeps up on them -- her mouth opening to reveal a kobold crossbow…"
I must say I rather like the idea of a mechayakcalf getting the drop on them. Was it replaced by kobolds when they left it in the pumpkin patch, or was it secretly a kobold spy mechayak all along?

cardX - a 6X variant

Last night I ran a one-shot RPG using a variant of the 6X rules. It worked pretty darned well, so I thought I'd share it here for anyone who was interested.

Normally in 6X, whenever there's a dynamic action or dramatic twist to the plot, you make a 6-entry chart where the active player fills in one end with the ideal success result, the GM picks the most dramatic (and most appropriate) failure for the opposite end, and the rest of the players fill in one possibilities 2 to 5, half as successes and half as failures, to fill out the spectrum between these extremes.  Then you roll a d6 to find out which one happens.

In this variant, we ditched the structure of a chart with exactly 6 entries. Instead, we used notecards and a paper bag (which could have been a hat, or pot, or whatever metaphor/tool you prefer). When an action or event would come along that would in vanilla 6X result in a chart and die roll, everyone scribbled down a possible result on a notecard and we threw them in the bag. One result was drawn from the bag and used, and the unused result cards discarded.

More often than not, we didn't even announce the "best" and "worst" results (the "1" and "6" results of a standard 6X chart), so the only options you knew when the cards were drawn was whatever you personally threw into the hat, plus eventually the one card that was actually pulled and read aloud.

This had several advantages over the default rules:
  • Faster pacing, less downtime. Everyone writing down their results at the same time instead of sequentially meant we were less likely to get hung up by one person drawing a mental blank. If someone else was taking too long, you had the option of writing up a second result card yourself instead of sitting around bored.
  • Escaping from the 50% success rate.   There are times where more interesting failures present themselves than successes, and if the group overwhelming wants something to succeed or fail, it's a lot more likely to turn out as the consensus wishes. The semi-anonymous nature of cards getting dumped in the hat meant this sort of "we all want you to fail" dynamic could happen smoothly without any out-of-character social drama or political debate. Plus, if one character was meant to be a badass and the another the comic relief, they aren't both saddled by equal odds of success.
  • No lame results.  Unlike vanilla 6X, you never agonized over trying to come up with a "2" that was still negative, but not as bad a the "1" result. No need to put filler onto the charts.  If you personally couldn't think of a cool result for that particular action, you'd just choose not to throw something into the hat this round.
  • Far less confusion. Every game of 6X I've ever played had at least one event where the most memorable or amusing result on the chart was not the thing that ended up being rolled. Which then always results in somebody mis-remembering that interesting "almost-was" as if it happened, and basing later results or plot developments on something that the rest of the table realizes didn't occur. In this variant, all those other possibilities stay secret and only get revealed if they're drawn. Keeping the narrative and past events straight in your head is much easier when you're not hearing every possibility that didn't happen.
That's not to say this variant is entirely without flaw.  There's a couple small areas where this variant is arguably inferior to the normal 6X rules:
  • The semi-anonymous nature of the card inputs to the hat could skew the game and/or be abused. If all the players wanted to, they could submit only successful and beneficial results, dramatically reducing the narrative tension to the point of boredom. If someone had an out-of-character axe to grind, they could get away with making every card (or rather, every card they wrote) pick on the same target disproportionately. If someone in the group has a fragile ego or a long-standing grudge,  you may be better off using the more-transparent default 6X method.
  • Along those lines, the option to throw in a second (or third?) card could be abused. If you find that someone keeps throwing multiple cards into the hat on roll after roll to make their own ideas more likely to be chosen, you may need to reign them in. The second card is meant to be an option for when inspiration strikes, not a way to game the system. If you are throwing in two (or more?) cards, they should be for significantly different ideas, not just to increase the odds of getting your preferred result.
  • You really chew through the notecards fast. Our one-shot had 20 events worth throwing in a card, and 7 players, so we burned through around 150 half-sized notecards. A normal game of 6X would have used less than half that.
  • Lastly, and certainly most sadly, you will find that some of the best material never gets revealed. At the end of the session, it may be worth digging through the piles of discarded cards to see what wonderful ideas never came to be.  
If I were playing 6X with strangers, especially strangers that had never played 6X before, I'd use the default rules. This variant is probably best reserved for people you know and trust, who have a basic familiarity with story-gaming and the "do"s and "don't"s of collective narrative building.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Rocks Fall, Everybody Zombies

I'm normally a very good GM, but on a couple of my recent sessions I really dropped the ball. Sometimes it happens to even the best of us.

Basically, I wrote a set of Zombie RPG rules, and they didn't work. I still think they would work reasonably well for what they're intended to do, but that wasn't what my players were interested in. They wanted to get the heck out of dodge, whereas my rules naively assumed they'd stay in densely populated areas that would turn into an undead wasteland over time.  I had chapters devoted to sieges and supply hunts, two scenarios my players did everything in their power to avoid. (And seriously, can you blame them?) They stocked up early before things got really bad, and headed out of town.

As it turns out, there's no such thing as a supply shortage during a zombie outbreak. Supply shortages like you see after a hurricane or other disaster are a function of a break down in supply lines without a corresponding significant decrease in consumption. Unless your zombies are eating canned goods, there's no shortages. Though malnutrition would eventually play a factor with a diet so restricted, any of us could survive for a very long time on a couple of cans of beans a day with no immediate ill effects. Next time you're in a grocery store, attempt to count just the canned beans in one aisle of the store. Thousands of cans.  Either survivors are rare and thus any given grocery store is several years of food for the party, or the infection rate is low and the PCs can readily avoid the zombies. Neither results in particularly tense and exciting sessions, and while everyone else seemed to be having fun, I felt my pacing was dreadful.

There was a point where I probably should have stymied their efforts to leave town, for the sake of the narrative. If I'd kept them in town, where the zombies were, I could have kept the game sharp. However, the rules I was using were intentionally very light, and assumed a strong level of PC competency, so there wasn't a particularly good way to provide an obstacle to the players that they wouldn't have a very high likelihood of getting past... at least not that early in the timeline. And since I wrote the rules, I didn't want to just hand-wave the obstacle, lest the it be perceived that my rules were intentionally light specifically to allow for unfair GM fiat.

Some time after the PCs got out of town, after many more sessions of pacing that I felt was wretched, I essentially decided to end the campaign... but I didn't decide to do so in a reasonable way, or at a decent time. I just kinda got frustrated during the final scene of a random session where they'd once again dodged a particularly slow-moving offscreen bullet. In my frustration, I had an NPC go psycho and sabotage their car. No build-up, no foreshadowing, not even a die-roll to blame it on, just pretty much "so, that psycho guy cut your break line and now you're hurtling down the hill."

I told myself I wasn't ending the campaign, I was just creating a good cliff-hanger and making the game exciting for once. What a crock. It was abrupt and unfair, and I'm lucky I didn't lose my GMing badge over it.

My players looked at the situation, and politely said "well, I think that's about enough of this campaign." And what could I do but agree. Your GM's a dick, and a hack. The very sense of engineered unfairness that I'd carefully steered clear of 5 or 6 sessions earlier, now returned with a vengeance.

I hope I haven't burned any bridges or good will there, because that bizarre turn of events was very abnormal for me. I like a good tragic ending, but this wasn't a good one, and it wasn't planned or prepared for in any way.  Nobody left angry (that I'm aware of), but it was a rather pathetic thing for me to do as GM. Sorry I let you down, folks.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Swashbucklers of Dredmor

Yesterday saw the release of my latest Dredmor mod project, a collaboration with fellow modder Ruigi. Our Swashbucklers mod adds dozens of new items to the game, focused primarily around a Pirate theme and the Rogue skill archetype. There are also new rooms to spice up the dungeon layout, such as hidden treasure rooms with undead pirates, and a place known as cannibal island. It's been several months in the making, and I think you'll really like it.

You can download the files, and/or read the detailed synopsis at the Gaslamp forums.