Saturday, October 16, 2021

1st Session of Feng Shui 2 - off to a solid start

Our first session of Feng Shui 2 went well! We started with basically the intro scenario from the rulebook. Using any "canned adventure" is pretty rare for me, but I wanted to make sure I had a good feel on fight dynamics before I start really tweaking things. I did rewrite the third encounter significantly, and we're already integrating little twists from the PC's various melodramatic hooks.

Everyone had a ton of fun and we were all impressed at how easily even a giant 25-character fight just zipped right along. The game engine is robust, elegant, and mostly intuitive. (I will also take a bit of the credit for it running so well, because I did a lot of custom-tuning of the Roll20 character sheet before the first session so that die rolls were automated and included reminders of relevant schticks.)

The 5 PCs we've got are a ton of fun:

  • Xiong Weisheng is a Transformed Dragon, whose parents are big-deal badguys (probably Ascended) with their fingers in everything.
  • Ruby Chase is a Driver with a criminal past she's trying to leave behind her.
  • Myrtle Haney is a Drifter from 1850 - she's an actual Old West gunslinger type, trying to find her father or the gang of black hats who might have done him in.
  • Thiegaro is a very fishy Supernatural Creature. Myrtle found him in her travels, and is the only person so far who can translate his fishy gurgles. Thiegaro is basically the Creature from the Black Lagoon, but with the personality and conversation skills of Chewbacca.
  • Benjamin Dixon is a Ghost of a former policeman. 90% John McClane, 10% Kevin from Home Alone. He sacrificed himself to save a building full of civilians in the famous Christmas Massacre in 1987. Now, in 2021, he was finally set free when the city bought and developed the cursed property and turned into the new community center. (Which then got attacked by terrorists within minutes, because movie-logic.)

We swapped out a few Schticks and Skills that didn't match with character concepts:

Thiegaro being able to become a human seemed to go against the intended roleplaying challenge of "Chewbacca from the Black Lagoon":

  • We swapped out "Transformation I" for "Flashback From The Hell of Knives". Meaning he can't turn into a human (or talk clearly), but he's very loyal and will mess you up if you hurt one of his friends.

Benjamin being a Ghost Cop meant the default Ghost template had a few things that didn't really work with his character concept:

  • We swapped out the "Love Potion" power, in favor of the Sorcery Schtick "Exemplary Prostrations". Basically, he can flash his spectral badge, and any cops, paramedics, etc who see it forget he's a ghost and accept him as a fellow first responder for a few hours. Really helped when the HKPD arrived near the end of the opening fight.
  • We swapped out the skill "Seduction" in favor of "Police" skill.
  • We swapped out the skill "Info: Musicianship" a replaced it with "Info: Architecture".

When we were trying to decide why the cowgirl Drifter could understand the fishman, but no one else could, somebody said "what if it's like Cowboys vs Aliens, and you have some weird device on your arm that's translating for you". We realized that also solved the "we're in Hong Kong and your cowboy probably doesn't speak Chinese" problem as well, so we went with it. I'm probably going to say it has a built-in J-Meter as well, when we get to the Netherworld.

Like I said, everything went great, much fun was had, and we will be playing again in two weeks. Currently my only concern about the game has to do with Advancement. There are relatively few Creature Schticks, and two of our PCs (the fishman and the ghost) both have access to that list. The Ghost also has Sorcery powers, so if he leans into that a lot it won't be a problem, but if not, I may have to put some extra options on the Creature's list so that they don't end up too much alike after 10 or 20 sessions of play.

Tuesday, October 12, 2021

Ironsworn fixes Wushu, 7th Sea, etc

  Several years back, I used to play a lot of a rules-light RPG called Wushu. And two years ago, not long before the pandemic started, I was for a few months running the 2nd edition of the 7th Sea RPG. While I liked both of these games, I noticed that they had a flaw in common. (And I feel like I've played a few other indy RPG titles that had a similar flaw as well, back in the before-times when we'd get together for one-shots in Ballard every week.) 

This flaw (which I'll describe below) used to bug the crap out of me when it would manifest, but, I'm happy to say, there's a solution for it in Ironsworn, that can be relatively-easily ported over to other systems. 

The flaw in question is at times hidden, because it comes wrapped in a strength. Wushu and 7th Sea Second Ed use very light and flexible rules, with a single robust action-resolution mechanic, rather than the more fiddly mechanics and individualized monster stats of more traditional RPGs.  For the most part, that's great. Their systems are so elegant and flexible that you don't have different die-rolls for different types of actions. You're not really forced to narrate your actions in narrow ways. If we're playing a scene where the party needs to get 10 successful rolls to defeat this group of mooks and/or complete our scene goals of saving the magistrate, I get to contribute a roll toward that group goal regardless of whether I describe my action as killing a bunch of mooks, or as something more abstract and outside-the-box, such as swinging from a chandelier to escape the mooks, then rushing across the room and untying the magistrate. Not much of a problem, right? It sounds like it's all up-side. I get to narrate whatever sounds fun to me, and still chip in to the goal. On paper, that sounds great. Derring-do and narrative freedom for everyone!

Problem #1: The problem that gets entangled with it is that it's fairly common to have someone in the group who is either not goal-oriented, or not good at paying attention to how close we are to accomplishing the goal, or just not feel very inspired in this specific scene tonight. It's come up again and again with different groups. Someone will narrate their action as something that doesn't really move us closer to the goal. For example, maybe they are so focused on swinging on that chandelier that it's all they narrate for the turn or action. I swing across the room, but don't think to untie the magistrate or narrate any sort of attack against the mooks or even mention how swinging at least gets me out of their way. If this happens early in the scene, it's no big deal, but if this just happens to be the last roll we need to complete the scene goal of X successes, it's anticlimactic and a little weird. You do a totally unrelated thing, and suddenly the fight is over. There's potentially a huge disconnect between the narrative fiction and the scene progress.

Now systems like this often have some built-in advice on how to avoid this. Pay attention at the table, craft your actions and narrations to respect how close the goal is to completion, and try to avoid stating definitively how many henchmen you're fighting in the first place. All of which is good advice, but they only work if all of the following conditions are met: 

a) everyone's paying attention and no one's getting distracted between their turns, and 

b) everyone playing understands the mechanics and probabilities of the system well enough to know if this turn's roll is statistically likely to complete the goals of the scene, and

c) the dice cooperate by not giving you super rare results when you were banking on an average roll.

If any one of assumptions a, b, or c is wrong, then the flaw described above will rear-up and overturn your applecart.

Here's how Ironsworn fixes it: 

Ironsworn doesn't automatically end the fight when you've accomplished X successful rolls. Ending the fight is instead its own special Move, with the fate of the entire battle riding on it. In order to qualify to make that Move, the party has to have gotten X number of successful rolls first. 

This means goofy actions that don't really advance the narrative goal can't accidentally roll well and end the scene, at most they can unlock the ability to have someone else's next aggressive action end it.  So instead of counting down to "we win", you're counting down to "our next roll determines if we win or lose the whole thing". 

It's basically moving the goal-posts, and I feel it's surprising how well it works for being such a tiny shift. Instead of needing "10 successes to end the fight", you need "10 successes, and then one last successful roll, to end the fight." That single extra roll means you can't accidentally blunder into a win, you have to intentionally make it. This awareness will color your narration when the moment comes, and empower the person after you take some crazy big risk and narrate in an appropriately epic fashion.

Saturday, October 2, 2021

The End of an Era

 About a month and a half ago, a friend of mine passed away. Jeff was a regular player in one of my RPG campaigns, and has been a good friend to the entire group for many years. Tonight, the rest of us made the decision to wrap up the campaign, and play something else. The existing Night's Black Agents campaign just wouldn't be the same without him. His character was the group's main heavy-hitter, and a major part of the party dynamic. It was hard to imagine a road to Castle Dracula without Dov (his character). We had been playing this particular campaign since January 2017.

I've never had a game end because of player death before. Life has interfered with many a game over the decades: campaign's occasionally crumple due to schedule conflicts, random TPK, divorce or break-ups, relocation to new cities, graduation, even waning interest more often then I'd like to admit, but never has death interfered before. It's weird, and emotionally complicated. It took us 6 weeks to decide what to do and move on, but I think it was the right call. We'll miss you, man.

But, we know he'd want us to keep on gaming as a group. So, sometime soon, we'll be starting a Feng Shui 2 RPG campaign in it's place. I think it's got potential to be pretty great. Feng Shui has been described as the Big Trouble In Little China RPG, but I think it's probably more accurate to say it's the Big Trouble In Little China -meets- John Wick -meets- Mad Max -meets- Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon -meets- Fast and Furious -meets- Drunken Master -meets- Kill Bill -meets- Planet of the Apes RPG. Crazy, over-the-top fun.

Ironsworn: Wolf and Cat, Log 11

   This is the 11th log of my Ironsworn solitaire campaign about Oddi Ice-Chosen. Character background and start of the narrative can be found at: Wolf and Cat, Log 1

Session length varies wildly. Some are multi-hour sessions in open evenings, others are 20-minute diversions over a lunch-break. 

Cast of Characters:

  • Oddi Ice-Chosen, my main PC. Abducted by a Firstborn sorceress as a child, only recently returning to the world of men, motivated by a terrible prophetic vision. Wears an enchanted wolf-skin. Storyweaver and occasional ritual spellcaster.
  • Sammutisel: Oddi's pet Cave Lion. 150 pounds, 4-inch fangs. 
  • Kasju Frystgrotta: The Firstborn sorceress that abducted Oddi and taught him magic.
  • Grassa Bitterloss: Oddi's mother. Recently reunited after 12 years.
  • Emelyn Firetop: Blacksmith. Survivor of the destruction of Oddi's hometown. 
  • Tern: Emelyn's younger brother. Werebear.
  • Myrgun Bitterblad: Oddi's sister. Currently missing in the Shatterwood.
  • Rygar Bitterblad: Oddi and Myrgun's recently deceased father. Grassa's ex-husband.

Session Log 11:  8/6/2021

Reminder: My ritual pelt is no longer charged, because I rolled a "1" on an Edge test.

It is several minutes before Sammutisel has had enough scritches behind the ears to allow our expedition to continue forward. Oddi presses through thick brambles, trying to find his way back to the trail they had been on before.

Secure an Advantage - Iron - Weak Hit +1momentum

The Gloom glowers overhead, but is no longer strong enough to start trouble anew just yet. Before long, Oddi's dogged determination has pressed through the thickets to get him beyond the Gloom's hunting grounds.

Delve the Depths: Wits - Miss!

Danger - 9 from Theme - Imminent Collapse or Destruction    Feature - Dense Thicket

Unfortunately, Oddi is pushing his way through the brambles with a fair amount of speed, perhaps paying less attention to his surroundings than he should. What he doesn't notice until it's too late is that ground slopes downward into a ravine, but the brambles grow taller there. It appears level and even until you press forward too far, and your weight or momentum carries you plunging down into thickets above your head! As he starts sinking, Oddi struggles to grasp thorny branches and stop his sudden descent.

Face Danger - Iron - Miss.   Pay the Price - It is Harmful.   Endure Harm - Miss: 1 Harm, -1 Momentum

Oddi sinks from view, thornbushes rising above his head. He grabs at the tangled mass of branches trying to slow himself, but mostly they just tear up his hands. He continues to sink into the darkness. He calls out to his faithful Cave Lion Sammutisel. The great cat is quite clever, and good at following instruction. If I can work my rope free from my pack and manage to throw it upwards for the cat to bite. If that's not possible, maybe he can dig and tear out the mat of brambles at the top of the hidden slope. If we work it from both ends, we may be able to cut a path to the surface.

Secure an Advantage - Edge - Miss - Pay the Price: Now Sammutisel is also sinking in the thorns, and takes 1 Harm as well.

The cat misunderstood his calls, and leapt forward to try to find or drag him to safety. Instead, it comes crashing down into the spiked plants of the gully as well, and Oddi finds himself driven deeper by the weight of his Cave Lion. Sammutisel thrashes for a bit, then gives up and starts to whimper.

It must not have been a ravine, but a chasm. Not a slope, but a cliff. They're 20 feet down, with barely any light reaching them. Oddi reaches for his axe, but it's tangled in the branches and bodies, and he can't get it clear. Then he remembers the throwing knives Emelyn gave him. They are small blades, but easily reached. It will take time and bloody patience, but if he's careful he may still cut his way free eventually.  As he works, he tells Sammutisel stories of the Firstborn like Kasju, and how once they covered the continent with cities and civilization before the time of the Masks. In those days, the Firstborn treecrafters grew walls and fences of stuff not unlike this bramble. The cat probably can't understand half of what he's saying, but the sound of Oddi's voice, and occasional mention of Kasju, may serve to calm them both.

Secure an Advantage with Storyweaver - Weak Hit  is +2 momentum

Face Danger - Edge - Strong Hit

He works slowly, cutting tangling branches loose and clearing a path while he talks and sings and calms his feline friend. Oddi runs through the Tale of the Dawn Splitter, the Lay of the Ruined Mallet, the Ballad of the High Boundary, The Snake Who Ate The Moon, and even the Grave Tale of the Masked Birth. All these songs and stories are complete before they reach the opposite slope and eventual freedom from the cages grown around them. The emerge on a small hill, bloodied and tired, with the sun setting on the horizon. In the twilight they can't tell if the downslope on the other side of the hill is equally perilous, and so decide to spend the night here on this hill.

Make Camp - Supply - Weak Hit  - Recuperate: +1 health

Unwilling to risk a fire while in enemy territory, and surrounded by 20 foot deep flammable thickets, man and cat curl up together for warmth. While they slumber and recuperate, Feris Left-Tusk and the [Shatterwood Broken] consolidate their strength.

Advance A Threat - 38 - Danger escalates. Mark Menace. They are at 4 of 10 Menace, and I have not yet scored a single progress on my linked "Vengeance on the Broken Pack" vow. This is not good.

Oddi dreams of sinking beneath an ocean of thorns, then arising as a tower on a hill. It's a theme reminiscent of the sigil of the pack of Broken he currently hunts. Oddi awakes before dawn, and the moon is out, so he clears a bit of brush from the top of the hill to create the smallest space necessary to dance his ritual vestment of his wolf-pelt.

Ritual: Bind - Wits - MISS! I rolled a 5 for my action die, but unfortunately, both of the Challenge Dice came up 10's.  So thats a Complication, and my pelt is not re-charged.

Reveal a danger - 79 You confront a harrowing situation or sensation.

Mark Your Failure  - 5 times in one short but painful session.

For next session: Given the dream metaphor, the Complication, and the Menace, I think it may be time for another vision. I'm not sure I want to do another Gloom encounter, but maybe he could have a vision of Feris Left-Tusk and/or Myrgun Bitterblad. Maybe Myrgun is in danger, or in danger of corruption. We'll see.