Friday, October 28, 2011

Two sci-fi RPG campaign premises

I've been thinking about what to do in the very likely case that my D&D campaign is over (and I'll know in about a week).  I had two ideas that percolated up, not that either may be the one, but I thought I'd share them here.  As a bit of a notice, neither are particularly original.

The first was cribbed from an old issue of Shadis Magazine (#45) called "Timeship--Titanic" in which the famous cruise ship has actually been hurled through a time/space vortex, cursed to wander the continuum for all time (or the end of the campaign).  Along the way it picks up people from various places and eras to make up a motley crew.

So basically the Titanic is a gigantic TARDIS without a Time Lord.  There's a couple of issues with this, the first is the word "gigantic."  The Doctor's TARDIS is small, a phone booth, which can easily fit into the utility room of any spaceship or wherever the current adventure is locating.  That means the characters can just show up without a lot of immediate impact.  Parking a giant ship somewhere is a bit more noteworthy.

Also time travel, even uncontrolled, can be problematic.  Players are clever and often unrestrained, which can cause some headaches down the road.  But I love the idea of the PC's as essentially Lost in Space aboard a creepy death ship.

The other option is a Star Wars RPG I'm calling "The Darkness Between the Stars."  Basically the set-up is that Bail Organa and Mon Mothma need to very quietly lay the foundation for reclaiming the Republic from the Emperor and his new henchman Darth Vader.  In order to do this, they commission several small teams  with the task of establishing contacts in the underworld, raising money outside of the visible economy, and outfitting rebel cells.

So you've got the basic SWRPG characters all with a reason to get together, so can trot out Darth Vader and a young up-and-coming Boba Fett as villains, but why stop there?  You know Vader has Jedi Hunters out there looking for the stragglers or those not at the temple when he killed everyone.  Moreover, you don't have to invent a new villain for the Star Wars universe--you can use TIE fighters, storm troopers, etc...  Although you ought to, because one of the big pitfalls of the campaign is that you can't definitively win.  You'll never defeat Darth Vader, you'll never kill the Emperor, at best you're just going to be setting the stage so that some farmboy from Tattooine can come along and save the day.

Although, if you really want to have some fun, run the campaign straight for a while and then have the PC's get a news report about some family on a backwater desert planet getting killed by sand raiders or Obi Wan Kenobi being arrested by the Empire.  Or go ahead and have Bail Organa get caught and suddenly Organa's daughter is Vader's creepy emo Sith apprentice.  Then the gloves are off and the PC's can save the galaxy.

And you can call the ret-conning "do a Lucas."

And do yourself a favor and use the old West End Games rules.  It'll help you also dial down the superhuman abilities the Jedi have been given in later rules.  What's interesting is that most of that dial-up of ability doesn't come from the movies (look again and you'll see) but from the Cartoon Network Clone Wars series, particularly the original non-CGI mini-series, where Anakin Skywalker can shove away waves of robots and crushes tanks with a gesture of his hand.

Plus, when the Jedi PC pops out a lightsaber in public, just drop the hammer of the full power of the Empire on him.  That'll teach 'em quick.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Back to First Level, it seems

I wrote this all out as a long, sordid tale, but the short version is this: the D&D campaign in which I'm playing just hemorrhaged four players.  It's not a "we're unhappy with the game" but a "work schedule changed" kind of thing where rescheduling the game doesn't seem to be an option.

So,  we are back down to a gaming group of three: a GM and two players.  Our options?

  1. Pick a game that doesn't require the critical mass of four that 4E does
  2. Try to start scrounging players again
  3. all of the above
I'll let you know how it goes, gentle readers...

Thursday, October 13, 2011

End of the World 2011, Day Three

This entry is written by Scott, the judge in the first day's session.

This is a review of the third day of EOW 2011. Since this is Rob's blog, and it would be a little difficult perhaps for Rob to review his own scenario I will give my own review and send it to Rob. My name is Scott. I have been gaming with Rob for a number of years. This is I believe the second EOW we have attended together.

Robs scenario was ostensibly a Morrow Project scenario. This would be Rob's idea of Morrow Project. Gone are the bolt holes, the vehicles, the weapons and equipment. We played a team of seven science personnel who were dug up and moved to a "Morrow” facility before being awakened from cryogenic sleep. In previous blogs, Rob explained the basics of the Morrow Project background. So I will not waste your time or try your patience re-explaining that. Suffice to say the project intended to cryogenically freeze people who would emerge after a world shattering nuclear war for the purpose of assisting the population in regaining our technology and civilization. An attempt to stave off a dark age.

When my team awakened we found ourselves in an isolation ward. We could speak to people only through a two-way viewscreen, or we could go physically meet them only if we were wearing sealed, armored, suits provided by our hosts. The people running the facility explained that a war had occurred but it did not involve vast numbers of nuclear weapons. It did involve biological weapons and the atmosphere was contaminated with things that would kill us as we have no immunities to them. So when ever we left our sealed room we had to wear the armored bio suit. The suit incidentally looked like the armor worn in the videogame "Halo". Which is exactly where Rob got the picture. There were a number of images including a picture of an aircraft used in another wargame which saved time in description and hand drawing of these items, and in my opinion added to the flavor of the scenario.

Our keepers explained that they are Morrow Project personnel who have awakened before us and our operating the base. They have had no contact with prime base (as usual). They say we have awakened 300 years after the war. In that time an alien spacecraft came to earth and someone shot it down with a nuclear ICBM (yah, go team!). The aliens in the flying saucer survived. They were low tech aliens armed with crude firearms. They were the usual bug eyed monsters of the 1950s. Spiky skin that could puncture our bio suits. Unpleasant demeanor, demonstrated by their tendency to kill humans, rape humans, and eat humans. Not the sort of fellows one would be likely to invite to Thanksgiving dinner.

After our briefing we are equipped with armored bio suits, weapons (which only fire if one is wearing a bio suit glove) and sent via troop carrying aircraft to hunt the evil aliens. The aircraft is capable of vertical takeoff and landing. So it is an armored, high tech helicopter with a big rear ramp door for the troops to enter and exit. It also has a prodigious armament of machine gun and missiles, none of which are operated by the troops inside, but are controlled by the pilots and copilot from their sealed and separate flight deck up front. This becomes important later.

We hit the ground and went on our first bug hunt. The visor of the bio suit is a fancy electronic head up display that is heat sensing, light intensifying, shows your ammunition status, and probably with a knowledgeable user will automatically pick your nose for you in combat. We were warned that any breach of our bio suit will be detected by our support transport and by the base. We moved through a world that looked barren. The visor made everything Brown. We moved toward ruined buildings and took fire from primitive black powder muskets. The aliens weapons appeared to be a large bore led bullet firing long gun. We shot back with assault rifles, machine guns, and grenade launchers. One of our number even had a flamethrower. Not a fair fight. But then I approve of not fighting fair when my ass is getting shot at. Eventually, we killed all the evil aliens in the buildings assigned to us. During the cleanup, our flamethrower guy went into a building where three aliens were dead and found out that one of the "dead" aliens was alive enough to shoot him in the back of the helmet with a pistol. An alarm went off that we all heard indicating that that player's character had suffered a suit breach. Shortly after the alarm the character fell unconscious. We brought the character back to the transport and flew away congratulating ourselves on a job well done despite one man being injured.

It should be understood that the Morrow Project persons in charge divided our group into two fire teams with four people per team. I was in team “A” and the man who was injured was in team “1”. Yes I know it is an odd way to number the teams, but one must consider that this was the third day of gaming and we were all a little tired and punchy. The players appeared happy to go with any idea who's only merit was "damn, that would be funny". The fact that we were to separate fire teams becomes important because the player decided he did not trust anyone outside of his fire team and therefore did not impart to those of us in team "A" any information about what happened to him when his helmet was shot.

So, unbeknownst to my player character, the guy that got shot in the helmet saw that the three aliens in the building were not actually aliens but were humans. The helmet visor was apparently editing what was seen. It was a virtual reality visor. It edited out humans and replaced them with images of spiky evil rapist murdering flesh eating aliens. Unfortunately, the player that was in the building tends to make things very complicated and does not communicate simply. So, instead of telling those few people he did trust "gosh them aliens that we shot actually are human. I saw them as human when my helmet got shot", he whispered something to his fellow players about “VR helmets” and said little else. As stated earlier, he also did not share this information with anyone from the other team including my character. So, I as a player and I is a character did not know anything was amiss at this point.

On our way to the second mission, this player (let's call him “head shot”, which indeed we did since our keepers required us to come up with combat Nick names) got up in the transport halfway to the target and pulled out two hand grenades. He did not pull the pins, but he did have the grenades one in each hand. He walked toward the front of the aircraft. He told the judge that he was going to lunge forward and hold the grenades in front of both pilots. My character saw him walking forward with the grenades and realized that the pins were still in. I readied my machine gun and told him to stop, or I would fire. He looked at me and said "they're not human, they are the aliens". At this point, the judge stopped play and clarified that the aircraft had a sealed compartment in back where the troops ride, and a separate flight deck for the pilot and his assistant. This was an unfortunate oversight on the part of the judge. He fixed it by backing up play so that the character with the grenades never pulled them out in the first place because he could not have threatened the pilot as there was a bulkhead in the way. However, I is a player now had information that my character did not.

It is always the challenge in role-playing to play only with information that your character possesses. I have been role-playing for 35 years. I am capable of separating player information from character information but it is not and easy thing to do. My attention for the rest of the scenario was divided as I constantly did mental gymnastics trying to keep straight what my character knew and how that would affect his perception of what was going on. Alas, until we get Star Trek holo decks we will be stuck with this kind of problem.

So we hit the deck on the second mission. Team one (the team with headshot in it) went left toward the buildings. Team “A” (my team) went right. My character did not see the leader of team one take his helmet off and then immediately go unconscious.  All of the radio traffic regarding the team leaders suit breach was on team ones frequency. We in team “A” ran toward our objective building using covering fire and only knew something had gone wrong the other team when we heard headshot announce that the mission was aborted. Headshot was not the leader of team one. Pandemonium broke out over the airwaves. During this confusion our team leader of team “A” got shot and went unconscious (which seemed to be the most common reaction to any problem with the bio suit. Something that would have appeared odd to my character, but I did not know that team ones leader took his helmet off and immediately passed out. So, I the player said "hmm”. While my character was oblivious). Then I got shot and went unconscious. 

Eventually the transport came to pick up team one. Headshot repaid them for this kindness by again trying to crawl into the pilot section of the aircraft with a hand grenade. The pilot pushed a button and headshot went unconscious, falling out of the door he had just entered. In the meantime the assistant pilot/medic was in the rear of the aircraft trying to tend to the team leader when another member of team one grappled with her and then shot her with a rocket propelled grenade. The grenade was fired so close that it did not arm. But, it made one hell of a bruise and knocked medic out. It also came to rest on the ground under one of the engines. 

Fortunately, it did not go off when the transport finally lifted to pick up team A. During this part of the scenario another player who had a laptop computer handy brought up the theme music from "Benny Hill". It was deliciously appropriate.

Eventually I woke up in the hospital at the base. I recovered and returned to the isolation room with my team. While I was away, the team members examined their injuries and the bio suits. They discovered a needle at the back of the collar on the suit and surmised correctly that this was an automatic drug system to disable them by remote control. They did not tell anyone this information either. But, it is plain to everyone that we were being watched and listened to while in the isolation room.

Given the odd behavior of the team our unit was relieved of combat duties for a while. The keepers specifically asked my character watch the behavior of other team members and report any anomalies. This put my character on alert as it seemed to be a tactic that would be used at a POW camp. I was being asked to snitch to the guards on my fellow inmates, not very Morrow Project behavior. I decided that my character could now come suspicious of the motives of our keepers. We asked for and were given permission to go outside the base to practice with our firearms. My character had higher skill than most of the other characters in our team in handling a rifle. So I told the judge that my character was assisting in the training of each team member by drawing in the dirt their target and showing them where each shot went. At the point the guards lost interest I wrote messages to each team member. They wrote messages back and thus we were able to communicate all of our concerns and form a plan.

The third mission found us delivered to a small village full of "evil aliens". As soon as we were away from the transport we took cover and the best electrician in our group disabled the visor of each of our team mates except one. We went forward to the village quickly found that the aliens were indeed human. We got into the village and the same electrician disabled the alarms on our helmets allowing us to remove them. We made a deal with the villagers. They lay down and pretended to be dead while we walked through the village shooting over their heads. Then we called for the transport to take us back to the base.
The scenario ended with a battle in the base in which we to the armory and expanded from there killing every alien we could find. The end battle was quick run and rightly so.

Overall, the scenario was run well. The pacing was reasonable. The plot was clever. In retrospect it reminded me of the movie "they live" in which the hero sees the aliens living among people only when he is wearing special sunglasses. Even more clever than plot was the judging.  Rob did a good job of distracting the players so that they would not think to closely, too soon, about the possibility that the helmets were not showing reality and that they were indeed working for the bad guys.

All in all a good strong ending to the three day game Fest.

Movie for the night: Dylan Dog (horrible, just horrible)

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

End of the World 2011, Day Two

The second day of EOW featured a post-apocalyptic western.  The locale was an island off some mainland where people lived essentially late 1800's American lives, complete with saloons and undertakers.  The only real government was a local law enforcement official, apparently elected by popular consent, and a quasi-feudal force known as the "coasties" who protected the area from pirates in return for a portion of the goods produced on the island and the local mainland.

The set-up was pitch-perfect. One of the PC's played a local sheriff, in this case Scott who had collaborated a bit with the story.  The others were all brothers whose father had recently been killed in a "farming accident."  Upon arriving back to the family homestead, they discover that their father had been a lawman in his day and had been killed my members of a gang he had put away to prison years ago.  The brothers, armed with the father's secret stash of modern-day era weapons, rode out with the sheriff to get revenge.
The brothers discover (after some overly-long investigating because of dropping into tactical movement) that their neighbors have been likewise slaughtered by members of the gang.  But at this point the plot went sideways.  While making their way to a suspected hangout of the gang, an underground bunker pops up and a Morrow Project team appears.

Now, I think that the judge in question does a great job of creating "scenes," and by that I think he can create an evocative, unique moment in gameplay, and this was one of them.  Usually the PC's are Morrow Project, but this time we're the natives.  That having been said, I think the whole thing was a bit of a mistake.  For one thing, the Morrow Project team are now the most influential force on the board, if you will, with their APC's, tanks, and machine guns.  Even though they ended up being allies of the PC's, the judge now has a great deal more control over the actions that the PC's make, because he can alter or negate any of those things using the Morrow Project team.

And frankly he did just that.  The judge played the Morrow Project as a comedy element, making them naive-but-earnest morons toodling around the countryside blowing things up.  Whenever we went to another farm, he had the Morrow Project team crash in, rather than let us sneak in the way we wanted.  But the biggest factor was he had the Morrow Project team attack the coasties, and then we had to at the end of the session deal with an invasion of pirates, a group that also enjoyed a substantial advantage in terms of guns, men, etc.

So here's the plotline:
Scene one: PC's go to the funeral, form posse
Scene two: PC's investigate neighbor, find corpses
Scene three: Morrow Project appears
Scene four: PC's head for another farm, Morrow Project intervenes
Scene five: PC's head for main town, see Morrow Project attacking coasties.  PC's engage gang in shootout, one PC dies.
Scene six: PC's hear that pirates are attacking another town, head there to engage pirates.  Another PC (mine) dies, pirates decide to head back to main town, steal Morrow Project equipment.  Finis.

It's worth noting that one of the complicating factors was that the judge had to leave at 5 PM.  Most of the time we play from 10 AM to 6 PM, with one hour for lunch.  If we have to go long, we take a vote of the group to continue.  So the last scene was incredibly time-compressed, and frankly given how it was set up, with our posse of rifle-toting farmers having to drive off an armored vessel with rockets, I don't quite see how it was supposed to go.  I had offered to switch with this judge and run my scenario on the second day and his the third, but he refused, citing that I would lose two players before the end.  I'm not sure about that logic; I have a suspicion there were other factors at work.

I don't want to sound overly critical--the judge is a good friend, but my question is this: how does what the players do impact the story at all?  At best, we made tactical decisions in firefights that may or may not have led to our deaths.  But deciding what to do in combat is not the same as deciding what to do in response to the story. The story was pretty much pre-ordained.  We'd obviously head off in the direction the gang went, a path that led to us to Morrow Project, who in turn made the pirates attack.  There's no way, at least as far as I could see, barring attacking Morrow Project themselves that we could have altered the course of the events at all.  So there's no agency, no real collaborative storytelling.

And I get that this sort of "adventure thread" game design is common if not downright normative.  But at the time it also felt heavy-handed, especially when the final scene was very compressed for time.

So like I said, the game had a great hook, a great look, and some great moments.  I just wish that we had more to do with the story, and frankly had a chance to overcome at the end.

Movie of the night: Outpost and Priest

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

End of the World 2011, Day One

I thought I might give my review of my three-day gaming fest in Columbus called "End of the World" or EOW for short.  This is an annual event for myself and about ten other people, with most of us participating in three one-shot day-long events Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.  We use one system, a homegrown ruleset appropriately called the EOW System.  I'll take each day as its own post, just because of length (and to milk it for the week).

After arriving in Thursday and checking in, Friday we had our first session, which was judged by my friend Scott.  This was a little bit of an unusual game because it was not a one-shot, but a session for the quarterly Traveller campaign that Scott is running for the group.  Normally you get three sessions a year, then EOW to cleanse the palate, but this year they decided to have one session be the "home game."  I saw "Traveller" but in fact it only takes place in the Traveller universe.  The rules are the EOW System, making characters a bit more diverse in their skill selections but combat lethal as all get out.

The story set up was that we (the almost inevitable free trader ship crew) were hired to transport an archaeologist, his staff, and a media crew to the secret location of a lost military base from a conflict some time ago.  I should point out the coolest dimension of this session--it was all done as a large flashback.  It actually began with the ship's pilot being accused of murdering one of the staff members of the archaeological expedition (something the player had no idea would happen), and the session became the content of the "mind scan" being done on the pilot.  This meant the pilot would have to witness, either in person or via remote camera, most of the action in the adventure.  When the judge reverted back to the trial, he dimmed the lights and used a green spotlight on the group, the only "special effect" of the weekend.  It felt a lot like the Star Trek episode "The Cage."

The military base, which had never played a role in the war because of its secret location, turned out to be on some distant planet.  When the PC's arrive, they discover that the former occupants appear to have been either torn apart by some strange creature or have starved to death holed up inside buildings.  Moreover, some of the PC's begin to manifest small medical maladies after arriving.  After some time was spent exploring pirates jump into the system demanding that we surrender the base's treasure.  We held off the pirates using the base's defenses and getting to a very tight aerial battle over the base using the free trader.  In addition, there's a dark swarm of creatures that surround the base, but leave after we turn off the power.

By the end, the free trader, the pirate ship, and their longboat have been battered into near-oblivion.  A member of the media crew is revealed to be a pirate spy, and she frames the pilot for murdering the archaeological assistant, herself some sort of government agent.  We negotiate a truce with the pirate, collect a portion of the treasure from the base, and get back home where the mind scan clears the pilot of murder.

I know from the post-mortem that the judge thought that the ending of the session was weak.  He had planned to have the creatures, drawn to the base by a device that nullified psionic powers, be a real threat, but the players didn't power up the base until fairly late in the session, instead exploring it by flashlight, etc.  Our reasoning was that the base had obvious defensive capabilities, and might have some sort of automatic defense system that would pose a threat to us.  While the judge had some heavy-handed in places to the plot, he decided to play the whole alien menace thing straight.  Good thing too, because they looked like serious trouble.  We did twig to the nature of the threat (hordes of beetles, right out of The Mummy) pretty quick, although I also suspected mechanical menaces like the ones from Screamers.
No one died, a bit of a rarity in an EOW session given the rules, and strong start to the weekend.  Scott's judging tends to feature a pretty rich backstory and a lot of exploration and discovery, and this session definitely came through.

Movie for the first night: Resident Evil: Afterlife

Monday, October 3, 2011

Ripping off books

I had lunch with the DM of my D&D game recently and spent some time describing to him the various one-shot games that show up at EOW (my mini-con coming up next week).  One reoccurring theme is judges ripping off the plot of books for their adventures.  It is an enticing prospect: you have the plot, NPC's, key events, etc. all laid out for you.  Moreover if you liked the book, you'll probably have a good game.  Or so you think.

In reality it never works out.  Either you end railroading the players through the plot of the book, or the PC's go off the rails so badly you don't know what to do, because you didn't build anything beyond the plot of the book. Case in point: last year a judge did a scenario based off a piece of military science-fiction where a stranded leader of an armored company in Iraq travels all the way back to Europe, following the path of some famous classical-era general.  So, we the PC's, are these military personnel who get informed that the United States is hung up in a civil war and no relief is in sight.  So what do we do?  We hunker down.  We fortified the base and decided to set up our own little fiefdom.  After all, leaving the area likely meant getting shot at.  So, all the scenarios predicated our leaving, and we didn't.  The judge spent most of the time flailing about and the players got frustrated because it was clear we were doing something wrong and the adventure seemed pointless and boring.  It wouldn't have taken much of a nudge from the beginning to get us on the right track, but even then you're just setting up the "journey" storyline where we will just go point-to-point, encounter-to-encounter.

The other part is, players just aren't as interesting as characters in a story.  We tend to be mercenarial, a little short-sighted, and prone to silliness.  It happens.  So you imagine the interplay and the personalities of the literary characters, and your players fall short.  Basically, you don't get a second iteration of the book.

Where I think ripping off books can work is when you lift out things like interesting NPC's and settings, certain descriptors, and maybe even a general plot, realizing that it won't be like the book.  There's ways to do it, and I think in my next post I'll take some of the books I've been reading, and show you how to mine them for gold.

Over at Strange Vistas