Monday, July 15, 2019

Dear Boss

Yesterday I mentioned props I had handed out in my Nights Black Agents Dracula Dossier game, and it dawned on me that I'd never shared the letter the PCs had been sent by Jack The Ripper, whom they accidentally freed from Cross Angel Cold Storage.

Most of it is in fonts because I was lazy, but I told them to imagine it was all hand-written, and that the group's Forgery expert could identify 2 of the 4 handwriting patterns as matching the "Dear Boss" note and the "From Hell" letter. Either it's the best forgery he's seen in the Ripperology field, or somehow both of those letter writers are still alive. It's less directly actionable than the prop in yesterday's post, but it was still pretty fun.

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Just Lettin' 'Em Talk It Out

I ran another session of Night's Black Agents: Dracula Dossier yesterday. I'm going to brag a little bit. It was the least amount of work I've had to do as a GM at the game in possibly forever, and it was amazing. Two of the players were running late, so rather than dive into the plot, the other players just started in talking in-character and planning for the next op. This lead to them reflecting on some of the props I'd given them in a previous session, and suddenly they found themselves deeper in character discussing the ramifications of a letter they'd intercepted. The other players showed up, and they had to bring them up to speed on it. This started a whole new round of debate and even philosophical discussion, as they pieced together the frame of a plan on how to bring the fight to the enemy. I didn't have to do anything. For over 4 hours they bantered back and forth, with everyone super-engaged and excited.  I played one NPC, for about 30 seconds, near the very end of the session when they decided they wanted to phone a friend. Other than that it was all them. And they enjoyed it so much, everyone kept complimenting my GMing and the depth of the world I'd created, as I mostly just twiddled my thumbs.

Now, to be fair, I did a ton of work before and between sessions to set this up. I worked out the rules of what vampirism is in the game world (as NBA provides a toolbox for the GM to design their own unique take on what the evil in the world really is). I built a huge roster of NPCs each with their own agenda and timelines and loyalties, and let that simmer in the background. And then I dangled tantalizing clues about the true nature of things before the players eyes in the form of some nifty props.

Without the context of everything that's happened in the game, this probably reads as maddeningly obtuse, but my players were able to decipher it enough to hatch a scheme to turn Rasputin, Paracelsus, Graf Orlok, Jack The Ripper, Mina Harker and a Moroccan Djinn named Aisha Qandesha against Count Dracula. It's going to be epic.

Sunday, July 7, 2019

Sailing Off Into The 7th Sunset

I wrapped up my 7th Sea Campaign tonight. It was 7 sessions of play, mostly just fulfilling what was officially a 5-chapter story. There was a terrible monster on the loose, and the PCs eventually figured out it used to be a Montaigne noblewoman who'd blooded the wrong Syrneth artifact. When she tried to call it to her with Porte, she got her soul trapped inside it, and her body turned into a murderous Porte-wielding monster. The players returned the artifact to the Syrneth ruins where it had originally been found, and thereby put the monster to rest. One of the PCs sacrificed themself to seal the monster in, which wasn't my original planned solution but was suitably bad-ass enough to work and feel like an epic campaign-capper. Everyone had a blast, and it was nice to run a game to a logical and exciting crescendo in a relatively short number of sessions.

Now, we certainly could have continued from there with the surviving characters and 1 replacement. It was tempting to do so, but for one misgiving: I really don't like the 2nd Edition mechanics. I love the heck out of the 7th Sea setting, but I didn't really enjoy the new system. It wasn't awful, but it never quite gelled for me. The players enjoyed the game, because I gave them a compelling mystery and an intriguing cast of NPCs to interact with -- and because the PCs were themselves fun and colorful so I definitely can't  claim credit for everything good about the campaign.

For being such a light system, it took a surprising amount of work to make fights and chases fun. The Action Sequences worked well if I took a lot of time to prepare them with a bunch of Consequences (we're fighting on a boat in a storm) and Opportunities and Villain with a good special ability and a couple Brute squads to back him or it up. If the PCs unexpectedly picked a fight when I wasn't prepared for it the battles ended up being one-sided and lackluster. Maybe that's my failing as a GM, and maybe it's not as bad as I thought, as my players didn't have nearly as many complaints as I did. For a super-light system where your nastiest Villain only has 3 stats, one of which is literally the sum of the value of the other 2 stats, it took a surprising amount of prep to make Fights and Chases feel tense. None of my PCs were Duelists, so it's possible that fight scenes would have been more readily dynamic if we'd gone that route, but as I mentioned in previous posts I think the Duelist rules had some balance issues. In D&D if the players go off the map, you can pad out your run-time by throwing a handful of goblins (or something stronger at higher levels) at them. There's no 7th-Sea equivalent of the low-prep filler-fight.

The Dramatic Sequences had the same problem of being cool if I anticipated them and prepped all sorts of neat things happening during the Sequence for players to spend Raises on, and falling flat if the players chose to investigate somewhere or talk to someone I wasn't prepared for. I'm pretty good (I think) at improvising NPC dialog and I had a multi-layered mystery plotline so I made those improv scenes generally fun, but the lack of dynamic Consequences and Opportunities in most social or investigative scenes meant that the Players didn't necessarily get their "money's worth" for character points spent on non-combat skills. There was lot of GM-fiat involved. I probably could have done better in the planning department there. The age-old GM crutch of having the PC roll some dice and basing a decision on the roll is very complicated in 7th Sea. There's no equivalent to rolling a natural 20, and rolls where the PC gets no successes is almost unheard of. As GM, you have to build multiple Consequences and Opportunities into every die roll, or else just accept that the PC will automatically succeed. I did the later far more often than the former. Again, that might be my failing more than the rulebook's. I dunno.

We're almost certainly going to switch to a different campaign with a new setting and new rules when next we get together. If that weren't the case, or if I were to give 7th Sea 2nd Ed another go somewhere down the line, I can think of a tool I might create that would help make these Action and Dramatic Sequences easier to put together on the fly. Basically a deck (or a couple decks) of Consequences and Opportunities on notecards. This would provide some inspiration and help the GM spice up a Sequence or Risk. Having them on cards you could play to the table would also help the Players realize what options they had during each scene. I know we had a couple times where the PCs missed Opportunities and at least once suffered a Consequence because by the time we got to someone's third action in a scene they'd just forgot about a detail I'd described at the start of the round, and so they dumped all their Raises on a big hit. That was ok, I guess, but it was definitely a rough edge of the system that could be polished smooth with deck or two.

The other hard part for me as GM was balancing Story Chapters. I like giving my players a lot of freedom to chart their own course, so it made me reluctant to spell out the 5 steps to my story. I was crafting a mystery to investigate, so I didn't want to spoil it with detailed steps that revealed too much. A consequence of that was my steps were a little too vague and it took 7 sessions (by my count, one of the players disagreed it was this long and my notes don't include play dates to verify) to finish our 5 Chapter Story. None of the players managed to complete their personal Stories. Partly that was because they were very focused on the main mystery, but when I did go out of my way to introduce a new major NPC for one PC's Story, they bushwacked him in the very next scene and kinda short-circuited that Storyline. So, yes, I could have done better, but it was also at least a little on them. Over all this isn't insurmountable, as I think there's a learning curve to Story creation and we would have eventually found our footing (in writing them up as well as multitasking the pursuit of plot) if the campaign continued. It's just that given the other headaches and speed bumps in the system, we're choosing to move on before that learning curve has gotten past the initial spike.

Anyhow, it's not a horrible game, and I still love the setting. I just think I'd rather put my efforts into something different for now, and my players are willing to indulge that.