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.