Thursday, August 21, 2014

7th Sea Maps and Tokens

Earlier this year I ran a short 7th Sea campaign via the Roll20 online interface, so I needed to whip up some tokens and images. The campaign ended earlier than intended (less than half a dozen sessions, IIRC) for scheduling reasons, so rather than let it all go to waste, I figured I'd share some of the props I made.

Maps and Locations:

We'll start with a world map of Theah. This one is cobbled together from two very similar maps. The political map of Theah from the front of the 7th Sea Player's Guide, and the geographical map of Theah from the front of the 7th Sea GM's Guide. Each was individually available as a file from the publisher, I just melded the layers into a single image that had the names of forests and mountain ranges and yet still had the capitals and the national boundaries clearly marked.

Most of my actual campaign took place on a mysterious jungle-covered island where the PCs were stranded (think 7th Sea meets Lost). This was the basic backdrop map image I used as they explored. Two mountain peaks, miles of shoreline, and plenty wild uncharted jungles that could be hiding anything (such as poor abused photoshop brush plug-ins, see below).

While it's still "island shaped", I did my best to make it fill the rectangular screen space of Roll20 without wasting a lot of area on empty blue open water. Dead space would be wasted opportunity, and I planned the map to be pretty crowded once the island was fully explored.

Individual ruins and other points of interest were represented on that map by little icons that I dragged and dropped over it. For example, when the PCs found an old Porté Gate that had gone disused for so long it now was dangerous and had a telltale reddish glow, I placed this little image on the appropriate part of the map. On Roll20 I had the map scaled up and the icon here scaled down.

When the players moved to an actual site, I'd switch to either a local map or an image of what they saw.

On page 14 of the Explorer's Society splatbook there's this captivating picture of a bizarre Syrneth tower that really I wanted to use for the game. Over Roll20, you can't just hand the book around to show it off, so I scanned it, deleted the surrounding text, and added a little color and texture. The result is to the right. They explored that for a while

Character Tokens:

The PCs are shown here in red-bordered tokens for moving about the map. (Again, the tokens were usually shrunk down much smaller, and the map was always much bigger on Roll20. Also worth noting, I didn't create any of the art for these tokens, I just googled images and dumped them into tokentool.)

The PCs were a Giselle Roux (a Montaigne Porté mage) and Vadim Verekai (the only surviving twin from a pair of Ussuran circus acrobats). These PCs were associated with the Explorer's Guild, which was how they ended up on the mysterious island in the first place (their ship vanished after their arrival, resulting in the temporary stranding).


There was a relatively small cast of characters, given that they were stranded on a deserted island for most of the adventure.  I wanted to get just the right image for each character token, so I made up several and then chose the one that best captured the concept when shrunk down to map marker size.

Here's some vodacce characters, including a fate witch I never used, and 4 different dark and brooding vodacce men that I eventually picked from.   I used one of them for the cruel Bosun of the ship they arrived on who was also stranded on the island with them, so there'd be at least one pain-in-the-ass but mostly grudgingly trustworthy character that they couldn't just kill without there being consequences.
Next are tokens for two Vestenmannavnjar women. One of them I used as a crazy woman, named Githrun Thithransdottir, who'd been stranded on the island for years before the PCs arrived. The less-crazy token didn't get used at all.
The crazy viking lady was usually being chased by Ghouls; the island had quite a few of them. If there's an actual illustration of a Thean Ghoul in a book somewhere, I haven't seen it, and nothing useful comes up in a google search. They're described in the GM's guide as roughly grey carnivorous apes, rather than the undead humanoid that the word usually brings to mind. They're basically just another wild animal within the setting, albeit one that is known to attack humans in the middle of the night. I wanted them to straddle that line between intelligent and monstrous, mostly mundane but just a touch feral and alien. So I stole art from an old school Magic: The Gathering card (Barbary Apes from Legends) that I thought caught close enough to the right feel. This art wouldn't have worked for Ghouls on mainland Theah, but it was just fine for a remote island.
The other major NPC was a "fish out of temporal water" character who'd been not just stranded, but somehow preserved within the old Syrneth tower (pictured above) for hundreds if not thousands of years. He was dressed as a servant from Old Numa, and spoke in an oddly accented version of the old academic tongue.

The PCs set him free, and I was slowly hinting that this was a big mistake... like he might be a willing servant of Legion, or been a Bargainer himself, or a skinwalking Syrneth murder-monster, or just the unwitting victim of some old curse or enchantment... but the campaign ended early (for out-of-character reasons) so they never got find out what he was exactly, nor try to put the genie back in the bottle. Suffice it to say, lots of creepy things happened in his presence. His name was Nymphidius Curio Maior, but in the player's defense they didn't learn his full name until after they broke him out of the ancient prison machine.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Second-Fiddle to the Urchins

The Urchin RPG is weird. It’s not just because you’re playing crazy homeless people living in the tunnels beneath New York. The mechanics of the game upend the usual power-structures, leaving the GM the person at the table with the least control of the plot and world.

A week and a half ago, I played Urchin during one of the midnight time slots at the Dragonflight convention in Bellevue, WA. Two days ago, I GM’d urchin for a group of 6 that included 4 new gamers with very little (1 to 5 sessions each) previous RPG experience. Seeing it from both sides of the GM screen in such a short time has convinced me Urchin is a game where the GM has the least interesting job, and the least narrative power. The GM is at best second-fiddle to the urchins, but even that probably over-estimates the GM’s importance in this game.

At the game where I was a player, I absolutely dominated (and created from whole cloth) the plot. At the game I GM’d, I couldn’t make my pet plotline materialize no matter how hard I tried to push it.

Band On The Run, aka Let Me Tell You About My Character:

At Dragonflight, I played a has-been failed punk-rocker with dreams of getting his band back together.

In the real world, I (the player) once (many years ago) met a friend of a friend who claimed that they’d accidentally left a diary at a bus stop and a year later one of the poems they’d written in that lost journal was now a top 40 pop song. I was skeptical, but, whatever, the truth of their story is beside the point. The idea at least has dramatic potential. I’ve always kinda wanted to use that notion in a character (in an RPG or a piece of fiction) but never got around to it… until the game at Dragonflight.

My character, Rory Wanker (of the once-almost-famous “Rory Wanker and the Bloody Stickahs”) took that diary story and dialed it up to 11. He also had serious psychopathic delusions, and was convinced that he had previously killed Sir Paul McCartney four times and They just kept replacing the blighter with clones. I was basically claiming to have written the lyrics to every Lennon-McCartney song ever, and also claiming to be the cause of the “Paul is Dead” meme. I just riffed off that nonsense all night long.

Every time it was my turn, I pushed the rest of the our group of punks and bums towards tracking down Sir Clone McCartney and offing him again. As a group, we raised the Kill Cartney Count up from 4 to 6 over the course of the session. At least one of those two kills was deliberate misdirection from my fellow PCs, but who was I to quibble over the identity of the body they’d shivved? So our characters invaded the random hotel that I, in my delusion, insisted was where Sir Clone McSongthief was staying while he was in town.

So there’s this major player-driven plotline that served as the backbone of the session. About the only decision left for the GM was whether Paul McCartney was actually staying at that hotel - but from my crazed perspective it was irrelevant because no matter who was in that penthouse, I would fill in the connection to make them part of the Clone McCartney conspiracy. That’s kinda the point of playing a crazy person.

Long story short, I jump off the roof of the pent-house where we just killed McCartney #6. I did this at the end of somebody else’s scene that I happened to be present for. I chose my timing because I’d get to Kick the next scene:
Fade to black. Fade in to a fancy office with a huge desk, and framed gold records on the wall. Rory is there with his agent. “And that’s how the concept album ends, hence the name ‘Paul is Dead’. I’ve got most of the songs written, I’m ready to go to the recording studio.”
That’s a complete dick move, right there, narrating that the session only existed in my character’s album pitch. I tell myself it’s okay because my character is nuts enough that if anyone has an issue with my ending, they can just write it off as the crazy thing running through my head as I fall 20 stories. I was being a bad player, grandstanding and spotlight-hogging, then invoking my own Deus Ex Machina after I made a bone-headed suicidal move. That's totally the sort of nonsense I engage in as a player, especially in a rules-light "hippy game" like Urchin.

In any normal RPG, it’d be appropriate at that point for the GM to say “No, you’ve jumped off the roof, and now you’re dead.” Or at least roll damage or call for a saving throw vs falling or something.

Mechanical Failure:

Urchin’s mechanics aren’t really set up that way. PCs don’t die unless the player wants them to. Instead they end up “in the gutter”, which is just this unfun quantum state where your turns are skipped until a fellow PC brings you food, then you’re magically all okay. With the rules as written, the only way your PC can die against your will is if all the PCs end up in the gutter at the same time… or if all your fellow PCs hate you so much that no one will bring you a candy bar to save your life. You are expressly granted the narrative control to set your scene where-ever you want, and the GM’s main job is say “yes” repeatedly.

I feel urchin is broken. The rules are flawed. Every time I enjoy the game (and I usually do) I feel simultaneously guilty and lucky. The game is a house of cards that could topple over at any moment, but more often than not we get to the end of the session without bumping the metaphorical table.

In Urchin, players go around that table taking turns. Turns are entire scenes that could last anywhere between 10 seconds and 10 minutes. You can either “kick” a scene, or “grab” a scene. Kicking a scene is where the player narrates the situation and what their character is trying to do, and the GM just adjudicates the rules (and maybe sets the difficulty and results if the player chose to do something that’s not covered by the rules). When you Kick, you as player are usurping at least 80% of the power a GM normally has. A good game of Urchin is one with colorful PCs who take the initiative to do interesting things.

The other option is Grabbing a scene. Grabbing frees up the GM to narrate and frame the scene (giving them back the power most other games assume they always have). The rulebook also provides a chart the GM can roll on if no obvious scenes spring to mind. The Scene Grabbing Chart ranges from absolutely devastatingly terrible (attacked by multiple bad guys that each individually outclass you), to just mildly better than the average turn. Once the players have been bitten by that chart once or twice, they’ll stop grabbing and start kicking hard.

There’s only three ways a session of Urchin can end:
  1. Agharta — Someone raises Mind up to 10 via the Blessing, receives a quest, and follows that to fabled hobo heaven. This is the intended ending the rulebook sets you up for.
  2. Total Party Kill - Usually the result of failing to pay the light bill. Sometimes the lights are covered, but you still get a TPK when somebody grabs a scene after they or other players have stirred up the sort of trouble that could logically draw a police response.
  3. Fizzle — The party splits and rambles, having some good flavorful scenes but never really engaging in anything that smells of plot. You eventually call the game because you’re getting tired and the game is growing old.
Of the three ways the game can end, two are generally undesirable. The occasional TPK or plotless rambling can be fun, but more often than not most players prefer some sort of dramatic arc and some chance of success. If you’re actually getting a group to play Urchin a second time within a few months of the first, there’s a good chance they’ll be on-task for the whole Mind 10 trip to Agharta thing.

Sadly, the path to Agharta is mathematically solvable. Each time around the table, one scummer needs to collect money to pay the lights. Everyone else can focus on the Blessing. You can scavenge for the raw materials, which you’re guaranteed to find, and if you’re willing to Push you can even ensure nothing bad (other than Mind Rot) happens while you’re searching. So Scummer A finds the components, and passes them off to Scummer B. Scummer B brews a few hits of the drug, pushing the roll if needed, and possibly suffering some Mind Rot. They pass the finished blessing to Scummer C who sells it to meatheads for 2 to 3 cash tokens per hit. In a four (or more) player game that can be done in one round. In the second round (or the same round if you’ve got a lot of players) you spend the cash buying more blessing from NPCs, and then selling it to other NPCs. It’s a goofy loophole that lets you, once you’ve got the initial investment capital, generate a feedback loop that slowly inches towards infinite blessing. Even if the GM plugs that rules-hole (and they might not want to, as being able to buy the blessing from NPCs is a nice safety net for low-mind PCs struggling with Madness), it’s still pretty easy for a 4-scummer circle to generate large amounts of blessing in just a couple low-risk rounds. Ultimately, Blessing is easy to come by.

Lots of blessing = lots of money and a high mind score = the lights never go out, and somebody becomes Captain. So if you’re concerned about winning the game, and willing to cooperate like a normal RPG party instead of struggling like scummer nutjobs, “winning” the game becomes a trivial exercise. The only thing that can trip up a coordinated party is rolling a 3 or a 5 on the Quest chart (but even that can be solved by aiming the blessing machine at a second player to generate a new Captain and a new Quest in the next round).

About the lights and turn order: 

It’s vital that the turn order get shaken up from time to time (don’t always start the round with the same player) or else the player at the end of the line usually gets stuck having to chase Cash Tokens every single turn. That player is left feeling like they have no freedom (as their only choice is whether to panhandle or mug from turn to turn), and probably won’t enjoy the game as much as the others. They may be tempted to not pay the light bill. The Lights Out Table is certainly fun, but it has at least a 1 in 3 chance of producing a TPK. I'm happy when that table gets action on in any Urchin game I'm involved in, but I can understand how it may not be some scummer's cup of tea.

The more I play the game, the more strongly I feel that Urchin desperately needs a 4th ending scenario. It could really use a little more narrative structure in case the players scatter, but that would require rules revisions, since the rules-as-written keep the GM from introducing any sort of plot at all.

Curse of the Were-Gator:

When I was GMing Urchin on Sunday, I tried to work in this oddball subplot about a were-alligator in the tunnels. In a five-hour game with 6 scummers, they Grabbed a scene exactly twice. Every time I could get away with narrating a background detail in somebody else’s scene, I mentioned the beast howling in the distance or causing problems with the subways, but nearly every time the players Kicked a scene they (wisely) narrated themselves far away from my were-villain. Most of the group individually chased after the Blessing right away, but weren’t very cooperative or coordinated about it early on, so they doubled-up on redundant steps and never actually got enough of the drug to boost someone to Captain status. Along the way, they mugged a rich person just outside an opera house, and drew police attention. Immediately afterwards they neglected to pay the light bill and rolled a Meathead Invasion that resulted in a (police-based) TPK that had nothing to do with my alligatanthropic monster.

The one time I got people to interact with my were-gator, the player Kicked his next scene by narrating that he was searching for ricotta cheese. Because “everyone knows” that ricotta is like wolvesbane for were-crocodiles. In a normal game, the GM would have control of whether or not this ludicrous notion was valid or just going to endanger you further… but in urchin searching for a piece of gear that gives you +1 die on rolls vs the crocogator is an automatic success and the player gets to narrate what that found gear is. In later turns they can even DIY themselves a better version of the object (maybe a cross-shaped cheese-log?) that gives even more dice. That’s cool. Bizarreness like this is at the heart of Urchin, but it does illustrate what I’ve been saying about the GM having very little power. I leaned hard on my big threat, and all it got me was one player spending one action to invent it’s weakness while everyone else just steered clear.

Everybody had fun playing weirdo nutjob scummers, so it all worked out for the best despite the relative lack of plot and the the TPFM (Total Party Ferguson, Missouri-ing) ending. Urchin is broken, but it’s not unplayable. It’s like the first edition of Og - you can run it as a one-shot and have a lot of fun, but consecutive plays in a short time frame are less fun and become increasingly focused on the mechanical failings. Urchin could really use a revision with the same goals as Robin Law’s “Unearthed Edition” of Og (which is to say a rewrite that preserves all the best bits of the current game but fixes core mechanics and gives you more reason to play a second time). I’ve got a couple ideas towards rebalancing it, and I may type them up in a future blog post, but for today I’ve probably rambled on long enough. There's blessing to brew, and somebody's gotta pay the lights around here.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

The Doctor meets The Great Gazoo

Lesson learned while running Og last weekend at Dragonflight:

Never schedule The Doctor and The Great Gazoo for the same session of Og. It's too hard to keep their voices and personalities separate.  Limit one annoying time-traveler per session, please.

The End of Warhammer 3rd

Yesterday, FFG finally announced the thing all WFRP fans have suspected for more than a year. Warhammer Fantasy RPG 3rd Ed is over, and no new products will be released. They did kindly make a few final updates to their FAQ/Errata and Index files.

I really like WFRP 3rd, but it had some major flaws. The overall concepts were great, but the execution was often sub-optimal.
  • I love the narrative dice, and the non-binary results... but I felt I could never get their full potential out of them (and have had better luck with them when running rules-light spin-offs instead of the game itself). I feel that most of the cards give such small bonuses for most results that it leaves the GM very little room to improvise. If you interpret random left-over symbols on the rolls, your improvisations risk invalidating most of the printed Actions and Talents. 
  • It also feels like there's too many symbols on the dice. Boon/Bane/Success/Failure would have sufficed, but we got those plus Comet/Star/Exertion/Delay. Those last four weren't truly necessary and the game would have been stronger without them.
  • I like the idea of Reckless vs Conservative stance... but the benefits don't outweigh the clunky rules baggage. The difference between Reckless and Cautious makes sense, but transitioning from 2 deep to 3 deep in your current stance is jarringly gamist and hard to role-play or envision. "You know how I was really reckless and crazy last turn? Well now I'm officially 50% more reckless!"  The fights are too short, and the benefits of stance depth are too minimal, to justify building your character around the mechanic. Yet it's too integral (built into every Action and Career) to cut it out of the game without suffering a million little ripple effects. 
  • I love having cards to reference with all my powers so I don't have to flip through rulebooks during play... but in practice, the large numbers of cards and tokens laying everywhere make a huge mess on even the largest table. The lack of a good summary or analysis anywhere makes it hard to pick out cards during character creation and encounter design, so whatever you time saved at the table is merely shifted to pre-game prep sessions. Still over all a savings (because during play is when time matters most), but it's not what it could be if it were better indexed.
  • I like the idea of real-world careers, for the gritty realism they bring to the setting... but find it hard to suspend my disbelief during most actual career transitions.  You can choose Knight without ever doing anything worthy of being Knighted. Rat-Catcher today, Noble Lord tomorrow, all without the slightest nod towards storyline justification. Even when voluntarily restricting yourself to more sensible choices, the climb from raw Initiate to High Priest is usually accomplished in less than a month of in-character time.
  • And as much as GM's love the idea of gritty careers, I find most players want to be knights, wizards, and other combat-oriented D&D staples, rather than starting as Warhammer's default "dregs of the Empire".
  • I like that the critical hit, miscast, insanity and similar decks can be customized and updated on the fly to set the difficulty and tone of your campaign... but the game failed to ever take advantage of that flexibility and instead encouraged a shotgun approach where you just blindly throw in every card they made. The GM's guide really should have had some discussion of this, with custom decklists for various play styles.
  • I hate: 
    • the contradictory and confusing healing rules; 
    • the non-obvious high-lethality of every single disease, and the uselessness of the medicines that give bonuses only after your 4th day of save-or-die treatment; 
    • the opaque economic system and all those damn haggling and availability checks; 
    • the sad fact that being on horseback is a major disadvantage for your Knight; 
    • the advancement loopholes that allow you to career-swap for infinite Fortune dice; 
    • the prohibitively high monetary barriers associated with Runesmithing; 
    • the Rank One blessings of Verena and Ranald that break every single mystery-dependent plotline in the published adventures;
    • and a few dozen other smaller rules-holes that should have all been caught and fixed if anything got playtested for more than a single session.
Grr! I admire so much about the game's theories, but next to none of it's implementation.  Running this for the past year and a half has left me very bitter.

The press release about the end of WFRP3e makes a cryptic hint that maybe a 4th Edition is in the works... but FFG has sat on the license with releasing anything over a year, and had slowed the release schedule to a crawl in the year before that, so they may very well continue to hold the license hostage without releasing anything. That sounds silly, but it may be that the WFRP license comes tied to the more profitable WH40K license, and thus worth them sitting on it.

It's a shame, because there's so much of the setting that could use sourcebooks (for 3rd, 1st/2nd, or a new edition). I'd love to see sourcebooks for any of the three types of Elves, or the Norscans, the Chaos Dwarves, Tilea and Estalia, the Ogre Kingdoms, etc.

Even if someone picks up the license (or FFG is hard at work on 4th Ed), it'll be years before we see such books in print. First some publisher would have to:
  • 1) Pick up the license.
  • 2) Design and release a new main book, or reprint (and possibly update) the core book of a previous edition
  • 3) Write and release a new adventure to help ease new GMs into the setting and system. (Even if you were just reprinting a previous edition, you'd almost certainly put out a new adventure because it's an easy add-on sale and shows you're serious about reviving the product line.)
  • 4) Produce and release the minimum sourcebooks necessary to just play the default Empire-centric setting. 
    • So I'd guess at a minimum a magic sourcebook plus a religion sourcebook, and maybe some sort of GM's supplement or bestiary. 
    • 4 to 6 products published in total, counting the corebook and initial adventure, before they get around to exploring new territory.
  • 5) Sell enough copies of those 4 to 6 products to justify continuing work on new titles. This will take time, and for best results they'll be released about 1 per month.
  • 6) Decide entirely new content is a better investment of time and energy than merely rehashing old stuff initially covered in existing books from previous editions. In other words, choose to do things the hard way instead of just cashing in on the existing body of previous work.
  • 7) Get GW's approval on their manuscripts, which may be tricky if GW is (as has been rumored for months) rebooting the miniatures setting soon.
If someone picks up the license, and both major branches of the fan base embrace the new (or reprinted) version, then we'll eventually get some truly new content 4 months to 2 years after the new (or reprinted) core book releases.

If instead we splinter into further little angry sub-groups like the fanbase mostly did when 3rd ed came out, the new game (if there is one) won't survive long enough to explore new ground. I don't have a lot of hope here. I've been to the Strike-To-Stun forums, and they are not a friendly place to fans of 3rd Ed.

It's not impossible that FFG could be secretly working on a 4th Ed to be announced at GenCon. That would be the fastest track to us getting actual new content. If they are being that secretive about it, though, I'll be worried about whether or not it got enough playtest before publication. I love 3rd Ed, but as I said, it really needed a more thorough blind playtesting than it got.

If FFG is not secretly at work on a new edition as we speak, then the next best hope for new content would be if a new licensee was to launch a Kickstarter (etc) to gather up tons of fan money and not release the mechanics (since they'll likely be unappealing to at least 1/2 the possible fanbase either way) until after the money is in their hands. I don't know if GW would let them do that, but if they did, a successful crowd-funding might actually free up budget early on for exploring new corners of the setting. Even then, most Kickstarters take forever to deliver their product. I wouldn't hold your breath.