Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Book Review: Odyssey by Phil Vecchione

I have to admit up front that part of my problem with Odyssey by Phil Vecchione is that I read and loved his book, Never Unprepared.  Never Unprepared dealt with session preparation for the GM and was a tight, informative, ridiculously helpful book.  I went into Odyssey, a book on campaign management, with similar hopes, but ended up disappointed.  This isn’t to say that Odyssey is a bad book, it just came under the bar of his former work.

First, the good parts.  The book tackles an ambitious topic, not the running of a game session, but actually managing a full blown campaign.  The book tackles this several sections, including how to create a campaign, how to manage the campaign as it goes, and how to end it.  I find the section on ending particularly apt, given how I just ended mine.  Each area has this fictional gaming group of three players and a GM introduce and close each section, first with the GM doing it wrong and then with her doing it right (kudos to the authors for making the GM a black female in a wheelchair, by the way).  The examples are hyperbolic or ridiculous, but are believable as examples.

My problem, quite simply, is one I think that could not really be avoided.  Namely given the vast multitude of personalities that GM's possess, and the many different games--both in genres and rules--that you have in the roleplaying game universe, trying to move past generalities quickly excludes people.  No where was this more evident that in the playing styles of the two authors: Vecchione who describes himself as a "story" GM (implying his games focus on character interaction and development) and Walt Ciechanowski who describes himself as a pretty "free form" GM who does little prep work beyond creating a bunch of "ingredients" and throwing them all together as the game goes along.  So by their own admission, their playing style differs from more tactical GM's or GM's that favor player agency over storylines, and also GM's that like to develop a lot more detail in advance.  As someone who, honestly, tends to be all three of those things, I kept looking for more solid advice about tools, e.g. how one keeps track of NPC's or platforms for campaign journals that allow multiple editors.  So the book has lots of helpful general, fairly abstract advice, but it doesn't have the hard-and-fast outlines that was seen in Never Unprepared.  Does this make the book bad?  No, it just tries really, really hard to be all things to all GM's, and in the process ends up a little soft in the process.

If Odyssey was a movie, I'd said "rent, but don't bother buying."  I enjoyed reading it, make no mistake, but I don't see myself going back to this book the way I do Never Unprepared. Since you can't do that, I'd say buy it if you can afford it easily or are really interested in the sort of foundational elements of gamemastering, pass on it if you are on the fence.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

The end of the Ultimate Posse Campaign

As I mentioned a while back I was pretty sure that my Marvel Heroic Roleplaying campaign was drawing to a close, and rather than just suspend it or worse have it peter out I decided to end it in an intentional manner.  I told the group it would likely be the last session, and that I would be tying up a bunch, but not all of the plot strands that had been about in the game.  So thusly warned, we gamed last night, and here's the recap (GM's notes in italics)...

The Ultimate Posse, a superhero team that came together in the years following an alien invasion of Earth, had managed to infiltrate the Zodiac, a supervillain collective and launch an assault on their space station base from within.  Taurus, the leader of the Zodiac, escaped along with Ares (Headstrong) and Cancer (King Crab), and two heroes in disguise--Samkhara who had become "Sagittarius" and the Ferret who was "Libra."  Ares had managed to capture Dr. Mind, who was unconscious.

Taurus had revealed to the Zodiac (and therefore the disguised heroes) that he had contacted an alien people called the Prax Empire in hopes of convincing them to ally with him in a conquest of Earth.  It turns out that the Celestial, an alien superhero living on Earth, was the Prax's king in exile, and that now he could claim his rightful throne.  There's just one problem: the Celestial had been killed in the previous alien invasion of Earth and then later brought back to a semblance of life by Empyrean, who was currently serving the Zodiac as Capricorn.

Opening Scene...
Taurus, Ares, Cancer, Samkhara, and the Ferret find themselves on a heavily wooded mountainside.  Taurus fumes that he has been ejected from his home but swears revenge.  Then he receives a communication from Empyrean: the alien armada is closer than they believed, and will be here in mere hours.  Taurus tells Empyrean to move onto "stage two" of their plan and signs off.  Taurus tells his allies to kill Dr. Mind, then meet him at their backup location.  He then teleports away.

Samkhara gets the drop on Headstrong, and while the Ferret and Dr. Mind finishes him off Samkhara persuades King Crab to join them instead of siding with Taurus.  King Crab agrees to help them if they will help him get home to his own planet.  The heroes contact the rest of their team and arrange to be picked up by an UNTIL spaceplane.

When building this scene I had realized that both King Crab and Headstrong were vulnerable to being turned against Taurus.  King Crab had always been the "misunderstood monster" in the game, and Headstrong's partner, Arrowhead, had been killed by Taurus a couple of sessions ago.  Samkhara's player was thrilled to finally have a chance to roleplay out converting King Crab, which she had been pushing for since he first appeared.

Scene Two
The heroes gather together on the Zodiac's base.  They are joined by one of UNTIL's elite agents, the Ginja Ninja.  Control, one of UNTIL's three directors, tells the heroes that in addition to Empyrean and this three bodyguards, Metallurge has also escaped.  The group also learns that the alien armada is close and that the Prax Empire appears to be same alien race who slaughtered the aliens who had kidnapped Union Galactic (I'll have to fill you in on his convoluted origin later).  They also get word that the Vault, the supervillain prison, is under assault.  The group has to decide if they want to engage the alien armada in space, head for Greece where Taurus is hiding, or head to the Vault.  After some discussion of the merits and pitfalls of splitting the group, they head together to the Vault, having realized that the target is likely the Dark Celestial.

The Ginja Ninja was a friend of my son's who was spending the night.  That plan had conflicted with game night, but my son decided to overcome his aversion to "outing"himself as a gamer and invite his friend to the gaming table.  The Ginja Ninja was a re-skinned Hawkeye from the Civil War rulebook.

Scene Three
The heroes head to the Vault where they find Bola, Eye Strike, and Brawl leading a gang of other prisoners in a riot on the landing pad of the prison.  They quickly dispatch the B-listers (again) and head below.  There they find Empyrean and his trio of bodyguards--Viridian, Crimson, and Goldenrod--along with Metallurge.  The villains are clearly trying to open the high-security cell of the Dark Celestial.  Midway through the lengthy battle, the Ferret and Bubblegum find themselves separated from the group and encounter Interface, who doesn't prove to be much of a challenge.  Eventually Metallurge falls to Union Galactic, and Dr. Mind uses his psionic powers to compel Empyrean to flee.  However during the battle the Dark Celestial had escaped.  Metallurge is exposed to be the super-jerk Lancelot, to the surprise of no one.

As is so often the case in superhero games, psionic abilities remain overpowered, mostly because most PC's and NPC's are built as "physical" combatants.  The Posse has two psionicists, however, and they dominated the session.  In addition to being a big, crazy battle scene, this was also a chance for the players to see (and say goodbye) to a lot of their favorite villains of the campaign.  It's just too bad that Mr. Eternity wasn't around to see Interface again.  It also wrapped up the long suspected notion that Metallurge, the armored villain, was the same guy as Lancelot, the armored "hero" who continually riled the team.

I also decided that when the doom pool got 2d12 in it, instead of ending the scene I would have Dark Celestial escape.  If they managed to defeat the heroes before then, the Dark Celestial would not appear later in the story.  Unfortunately for them, this did not happen.

Scene Four
Back in scene two the heroes had decided to try to lure the alien armada to the space station and then cause it to self-destruct, which worked to destroy most of the alien armada but failed to destroy it completely.  A couple of surviving ships were headed for Greece and the likely final showdown.  The heroes hustle it by spaceplane to the island of Crete where they see Taurus and a female version of the Celestial talking.  She is Celestia, the Celestial's wife and now regent of the Prax Empire in his absence.  Taurus is trying to convince her that the authorities of Earth were wrongfully imprisoning her husband, but he had managed his escape.  This proves his sincerity in helping the Prax Empire, and that she should help him take over the Earth.  The heroes counter-argue that the Celestial loved the Earth and lost his life protecting it, and that it was Taurus' henchmen who had created the abomination known as the Dark Celestial.  Just as Celestia is coming around to the heroes' point of view, the Dark Celestial shows up.

What follows is a three way battle between the heroes, the Dark Celestial (who is intent on killing everything on Earth), and the enraged Taurus.  While Taurus is overwhelmed by the more "physical" heroes, Samkhara and Dr. Mind manage to do enough emotional damage to the Dark Celestial to drive him off planet.  Celestia, horrified by what her husband has become but determined to reclaim and try to save him, pursues him into space.

And...scene.  It was kind of fun coming up with the mechanics for how two opponents might try to convince a single person of something.  Basically we did it as trying to have both groups overwhelm Celestia emotionally on two different scales (kind of a like a carnival where two people are trying to get their balloon to pop first).  Even though the group rolled terribly, my rolls were even worse to the point where it really became funny.  If Taurus had won, then the group would have to face Taurus, Celestia, and the Dark Celestia together.  Thankfully, they did win and thus Celestia was out of the battle and the Dark Celestial and Taurus would both be Solo, rather than Team.  

This battle did prove one of my biggest gripes about MHR--the rules don't really support creating tough Solo villains unless you want to get into having multiple dice in Affiliations, and even that doesn't help that much.  Taurus was dogpiled by most of the heroes while Dr. Mind and Samkhara worked the Emotional/Mental damage spectrum on the Dark Celestial.

Afterwards the group got together for a photo and we began our discussion about the upcoming Mass Effect campaign, as well as a couple of other small loose ends about the campaign.  The group said that there were several plot lines that they would enjoy revisiting: the magic war between the demons and the Pact, for example.  But for now, we move onto other things in a satisfying manner.

Left to right: Union Galactic, Dr. Mind, Le Metamorphe's baby, Samkhara, Abrasax, Bubblegum, the Ferret, and the Ginja Ninja.  Not pictured: Mr. Eternity and Patchwork

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Understanding your players

Aaron Allston died February 27th of this year, and the gaming community lost a big contributor to its long and varied history.  I was particularly sorry to hear this, because Allston had written one of the biggest influences to my own gamemastering, the Champions II supplement Strike Force.  I have written about Strike Force at length on this blog before, but for those who missed it Strike Force was essentially a campaign journal in which Allston shares what he learned managing a superhero campaign that spanned several years and multiple gaming groups playing in the same "universe."

I mention this because right now, as my Marvel Heroic Roleplaying campaign winds down and I enter into a months-long hiatus, I have been thinking about doing a more intentional job of constructing the next campaign.  That means first understanding the needs and tendencies of the players, and Allston wrote a brilliant little segment that has been borrowed heavily in many other games about this.  He outlined some broad categories of players, which I have briefly listed below with a description and what for me is a typical quote:

  • Builder: the player who wants to have a significant impact on the campaign world.  Between gaming sessions I'd like to start an orphanage for that NPC we found last session.
  • Buddy: the player who is there mostly hang out with friends or a spouse.  I'll play whatever.
  • Combat Monster: the player who enjoys combat as a primary gameplay.  I'm lighting this guy up. (Rolls dice) Oh yeah, baby!
  • Genre Fiend: the player who is intensely interested in the right "feel" of the literary style of the game.  We need to make sure we pick the right name for this team.
  • Copier: the player who emulates an established persona from established book/movie/television series.  I'm playing a drow ranger with two scimitars.
  • Mad Slasher: the id-driven, violent anarchist whose personal interests often outweigh the group's or what makes sense for the story.  The king is given me lip?  Fuck that guy, I shoot him with my crossbow.
  • Mad Thinker: the player who likes to out-think his opponents.  I'm looking around the room.  Do I see anything that might be helpful?
  • Plumber: the player that enjoys exploring the personal depths of his own character.  I've written down some notes about the history of my PC's dwarven clan.
  • Pro from Dover: the player who has to be the best in the group at something, e.g. stealth, negotiating, some field of science.  The ship needs to be repaired?  I've got a +9 in that.
  • Romantic: the player for whom romantic angle holds the most appeal.  I hope we see that ship captain again soon.
  • Rules Lawyer: the player who enjoys finding the most effective player through manipulating the rules.  I built my character using these three different supplements.
  • Showoff: the player who must be the center of attention and hog the spotlight.  I thumb my nose in your general direction!
  • Tragedian: the player who is particularly attracted to plots involving pathos and personal drama.  My character has made a deal with a demon to get back at the people who killed my parents.
In anticipation of my next campaign, then, I'm creating a roster of my players and my general sense of which category into which they fall, along with some notations about what really seemed to hook them as players of the last couple of years.  I think that most players actually fall into several categories, a sort of "primary" and "secondary" category, so I'm listing at least two.

As an example of how this works, let's take Union Galactic's player (he's pretty safe, as well as pretty obvious).  In addition to his propensity for coming up with unusual names (i.e. Union Galactic, Positive Crisis, and of course the Ultimate Posse) Ben is the player who will show up for the campaign with a three-page backstory. He roleplays in character more than most of the group, and once said that what would interest him the most in the sci-fi game would be learning about the culture and philosophy of alien peoples.  So Ben's pretty solidly a Plumber.  When I think about when Ben was really engaged in the game, two incidences come to mind: when he overcame his robot duplicate by playing upon their shared personality traits and history, and when he drew a gun on Doctor Mind for mind-controlling a non-violent but antagonistic NPC.  Ben has mentioned that second one often.  That suggests that his secondary might be a Tragedian, since he seems to enjoy healthy intra-party conflict.  So Ben's record on my cheat sheet looks like this:

Pondering this, I can honestly see that I haven't been shaping the game much to Ben's personality.  I never explored the alien race that kidnapped Union Galactic and gave him his powers, or followed up with a chance for the Union Galactic/Doctor Mind conflict to develop.  That's something to consider in the future.

So going forward, when I begin to think about the campaign sessions, I can look at my checklist and ask myself, whose "sweet spots" will this session be hitting?  Ben's?  What about Doctor Mind's player (a Mad Thinker/Genre Fiend) or Samkhara's (a Tragedian/Combat Monster)?  I might even keep track to make sure I haven't been favoring one or more players over the others as the campaign goes on.

Thoughts?  Comments always appreciated.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Wrapping Up

As I mentioned last week, two of my players welcomed in a wonderful baby boy last week (and there was much rejoicing).  This prompted me to throw together a D&D 4E dungeon crawl for four of the other players (including both my children), and a "guest star," the child of another player.

I'll say right now, when you have three players under fourteen years of age, with unfamiliar characters, and you're playing Fourth Edition, and your're just doing a three-encounter railroad, you need to adjust your expectations a bit.  Especially when it is four hours long.

Moving on, I'm running into the inevitable holiday-related gap in gaming that accompanies both Spring Break for the kids and the Easter season, when work up-ticks for me.  Because we only game every other Friday, this means that missing a Friday or two can mean that we end up going a month or more without gaming.  As a result of the vagaries of the schedule, we are going to not be gaming in March, and will likely miss out on most if not all of April.

This prompted one of my players to ask if he could take a turn behind the screen.  He's been trying to develop his own RPG based on Mass Effect, and was hoping to maybe run the game through the Spring and Summer.

Does this mean that this blog is going silent?  Not at all.  I was actually thinking of using the downtime to re-constitute the game, which could mean either a) just coming up with a new plot for the MHR campaign, b) sticking with superheroes but changing rules (there's been some complaints about MHR), or c) doing something totally different.  We'll see how the year shapes up.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Modular Dungeon Walls

As I mentioned over at my other blog, it once again got very cold and very snowy here--perfect weather to polish off a few projects that have been sitting around. 

I've been slowly building up a modular dungeon using Hirst Arts blocks, and I finished off a few Gothic Arena wall sections that can be used to spice up the flat floor tiles. I think they add a lot of versatility to my modular dungeon, as you can see. 

Over at Strange Vistas