Saturday, November 29, 2014

Friday Game Night Recap, Fallout Edition

We didn't expect much of a group the day after Thankgiving, so my son Mac asked if he could run a scratch built Fallout RPG encounter using the d6 Space rules (better known as the old West End Games Star Wars rules minus the branding).

He did a good job, although managing the roller coaster of the d6 rules and the wackiness of ethically murky PC's would challenge anyone.   He came up with a gray, morally ambiguous story involving settlers encroaching on ghoul territory that was meant to make us squirm. Admittedly our response was to pretty much burn everything to the ground and run away, KoDT style...

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The Ferretverse, or Ferret International

So if you've been reading Spider-Man lately, you know that there has been this whole "Spider-verse" storyline going on.  For those who aren't reading it, a family of interdimensional vampires has been roaming around feeding on the spider-essences of various spider-men (or women, or pigs, or monkeys) from different alternative dimensions.  Twigged to the situation, a bunch of the different Spider-men have teamed up to stop them, with the Doc-Ock "Superior Spider-Man" in the lead.

Now while I think that Marvel has been dragging this event out for a very long time, and may be using it as a way to test-market new Spider-Man concepts (like the Gwen Stacy Spider-Girl, which appears to be a huge hit), my kids are loving the gazillion different Spider-Men.  One of kids, readers may remember, is the player of "The Ferret" from my Marvel Heroic Roleplaying Game last year and now he is on me to create a "Ferretverse" storyline where he can stat up a bunch of alternative universe versions of the half-man, half-ferret superhero including, but not limited to "90's Iron Age Ferret," "Steampunk Ferret," and "Man-Ferret, the ferret who gained the powers of human beings."

Got his costume right here.
My other child, the player of teen superhero Bubblegum and Batman-esque heroine Ghost Raven has been also interested in the "Batman Family" series of comic books out there.  They are often a little adult for her, but she likes the smart female characters of the series, like Batgirl and the Huntress.

That got me thinking about what it would be like to do a superhero RPG campaign with a group of non-powered but related characters, like the various Batman-related titles such as Batman International.  Superhero RPG groups tend towards your Avengers or Justice League: mid- to high-powered superheroes with widely divergent concepts.  This would be the opposite.  I don't think I could use MHR to do it: their non-superpower rules tend to be highly abstracted.  Everyone would just have "Combat Master" and "Weapon d8" and the like.  I feel like a little more detail would help differentiate everyone, including the villains.

This is me just spitballing ideas right before the holidays.  I was glad to write up something fun.   Thanks for reading!

Friday, November 21, 2014

Friday game night recap, featuring the Black Orchid!

Yoshi's player gets into character.

We are back to Firefly, with the crew getting their strangest job yet. A wealthy bored socialite hires the crew to be part of a sort of live-action roleplaying game. They are essentially characters for her to interact with in her guise as the adventuress "The Black Orchid."

The players surprised me by hatching a plot to use the Black Orchid theatrics to cover an actual casino heist. The best part was watching the players roleplay people roleplaying other characters!

In the end the heist worked but now the PC's have the casino's owners, law enforcement, and the Black Orchid's real life husband (the fifth wealthiest man in the planet) after them!  And who were those "extras" in that one scene shooting real bullets?

After the session, the players jot down what they think was the coolest thing another player did during the game.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Intimidating your Players (or at least their Characters)

So I'm gearing up for another session of Firefly tomorrow and was reading the rules regarding PC vs. NPC interaction when the rules showed as an example an NPC trying to intimidate a PC.  In the example the attempt failed, because the example was meant to illustrate how a player could jack their die roll total up, but it left me wondering what would have happened in the game if the NPC had successfully intimidated the PC.

Players often intimidate NPC's.  For that matter they also frequently bluff, trick, seduce, haggle, or otherwise bamboozle NPC's in a generally social/intellectual manner.  Sometimes this is done strictly through roleplaying but over the last, oh, fifteen years or so it has been resolved through skills.  Roll high enough and they will believe that the sound was a reactor malfunction but that everything is under control and how are you.

What I don't see a lot of is the flow going in the other direction.  In fact I can't think of the last time I had an NPC attempt to pull a fast one over on a PC and resolve it through a die roll.  I've had players roll "insight" or "detect motive" or some such thing to try to ascertain if their GM is lying his ass off to them, but generally an NPC has to rely on my own roleplaying chops and not on random chance.

I'm trying to imagine a scene where I, as the GM, tell someone "Baron von Shnorkel glowers at you imperiously and demands you tell him the truth. (die roll) He succeeds and you tell him everything you know."  I can imagine the howling that would occur.

"Kneel before Zod!"  "Sigh, okay."
(Is that Bill Cosby in the background?  Now that's damned awkward.)
This is actually a tension I feel about RPG's in general. I get why we stat out physical abilities, because that's how we resolve combat and similar challenges.  I even get intellectual skills, since I can barely jump my car's battery, much less fix an engine.  But social attributes I've always found a little hinky, because at that point you've take a lot of roleplaying out and swapped in a die roll.  I get nonathletic people playing strapping heroes, or liberal arts majors playing starship engineers, but socially inept people playing suave con artists starts to make me wonder why we play the game.

I've gone a little far afield here.  Do you allow NPC's to dictate social or emotional responses in PC's based on die rolls?  Can a group of PC's be conned simply by luck?  How do you, if you're the GM, work that out in your own game?

Monday, November 17, 2014

My Players Talk About Fifth Edition Dungeons and Dragons

I thought I would jot down some general impressions from myself and some of the players in my group, following our first try at D&D Fifth Edition.  As a bit of backdrop, I ran the free mini-adventure from Goodman Games “The Wizard’s Amulet,” which I remember running back in the days of the third edition of D&D, but has now been renovated for the latest iteration.  The adventure features about ten pre-generated PC’s, with the optimal group size of six (I had seven), all at first level.  There is an introductory battle (almost a skirmish), a somewhat pointless exploration encounter that is more of an homage to the early days of D&D, and a final ambush that presents a steep challenge to a 1st-level group.  It’s possible in the final battle for at least one PC to die.
In terms of how the game went over with my group, most everyone (even the new players) like fantasy as a genre.  It was the first style of game the group played when they came together, and we’ve done fantasy games for years until about a year-and-a-half ago when we switched to superheroes, and now science fiction.  So getting back to fantasy was going to go over well with this group.

That having been said, the “old school” vibe didn’t necessarily set well with them.  Many of them came in at third or fourth edition, and 5E has a lot fewer options when it comes to gameplay, not to mention a slimmed-down tactical element of play.  We used miniatures, but it wasn’t as hard and fast as 4E, and at one point the players started trying to flank their opponents in expectation of a bonus, but there wasn’t one because 5E doesn’t have one (at least not one in the PHB).

The overall lethality troubled the players as well.  In the final combat the seven PC’s faced five skeletons, five zombies, two half-orcs, and a human sorcerer.  In their 4E-trained brains the skeletons, and maybe the zombies should be “mooks,” one-hit point opponents.  They were dismayed to discover that the skeletons had 13 each, and the zombies over twenty, making them more than equal to the PC’s in terms of durability.  I myself found this to be a bit steep in play, and held back on the half-orcs and sorcerer in the final battle, but still had two PC’s drop below zero hit points (they were revived in play).  That’s a big difference from 4E, where an N or N+1 encounter might only cost you 25% of your hit points.  And that didn’t sit too well with some of the players.

Not quite the pushover I used to be, eh?

A couple of players commented that, after almost two years of Cortex+ games (Marvel Heroic, the homemade Mass Effect RPG, and Firefly), the Boolean yes/no of the d20 mechanic wasn’t as interesting.  As one player put it, it sucks when it’s your turn and you roll one die and fail, then wait fifteen minutes for your turn to roll around again, only to again roll badly.  In 5E there isn’t the “fail forward” notion that’s in a lot of games now, including 13th Age, a close game to 5E. (Ed. Note: “Fail forward” is when players can opt when failing on a die roll to instead succeed but with negative consequences, or have the failure have some future benefit down the line.)  I would quickly consider throwing that idea, 13th Age’s “contact, near, far” range options, and their “three unique things” into a 5E game if I ever ran one.

With a one-shot with pre-gens there’s not going to be a lot of character development, and I did have some people say it wasn’t the deepest of plots, to which I could only suggest it was an introduction to the rules, not the kick-off of a longer game session.  That's less of a commentary on the rules than the adventure.

There's a lot of interest in some parts of the group for continuing to do a fantasy game.  Now if I can just find it in myself to find it interesting as well...

Flipping Superhero Tropes: the Robot Villain

Even as I'm running Firefly (and I've told myself I'm going to run that game X number of times before I stop, just to justify buying it), and even as I'm doing little D&D games here and there to try out the new rules, I'm always thinking superheroes.

By that, I mean I'm always thinking about running a superhero RPG, always coming up with villain NPC's and jotting down plot ideas, etc.  Most of these don't show up on the blog for loads of reasons (not the least of which is because at least one of the players in my game reads this blog), but I did want to externally process one idea.  And that is flipping tropes.

In Mutants & Masterminds they did a GM's book where they outlined a bunch of stereotypical villains.  M&M actually uses this archetype notion a lot, given they did the same for hero concepts as well.  In the villains there is the mad scientist, the elemental-wielding guy (pick one: ice, darkness, fire, etc.), the robot, etc.  And I understand how this works and why this works.  I understand that comic books like Astro City played around with a lot of "wink wink nudge nudge" stuff when it came to creating ersatz versions of other companies' characters. (Authority and Planetary and a host of other post-modern third party comic books did it too.)

But lately I've been thinking a lot about reversing some common tropes.  Take the robot villain, for example.  Most robot villains generally a) are Frankenstein-esque creations that are rebelling against their creator, b) despise humans for their inherent inferiority, and c) lack emotions, which usually works out in the heroes favor, thus proving that humans (and meta-humans) still have something on robots.

Here's how I'm thinking about flipping that trope.  What if the robot villain in my game was actually doing exactly what it was supposed to do by its creator, and even had a good relationship with (or at least fondness for) its creator?  And what if, instead of viewing humanity with disdain, instead that feeling of superiority created an elevated, dangerously distorted view of responsibility?  And instead of shunning emotions, sought to achieve its goals through them?

So here's my concept: a brilliant but paranoid computer programmer is convinced that humanity is hell-bent on destroying itself, and that humanity's only possible successful legacy is the creation of artificial intelligence.  Eventually the programmer succeeds, creating an AI whose sole purpose is the preservation of humanity, but adopts the persona of a sort of Robot Messiah whose methodology is the paternalistic control of human society.  If I was creating this NPC in Marvel Heroic, its Distinctions might look like

  • The Apocalypse is Coming
  • Only the Machine is Eternal
  • All Humanity Should Worship the Machine
The Robot Messiah would do things like thwart scientific advancements on the grounds that they are dangerous, unilaterally disarm nations, or start religious cults.  Imagine Annie Wilkes from Misery with Ultron's powers.

For Affiliations, we'll go with Solo first (I don't see much teaming up with this guy), Team second (reflecting the use of cultists, etc.), and Buddy third.

And now we have a semi-fresh take on a familiar villain concept.  Still a villain, still evil, but just a few degrees off from what is expected.  Fishing around for some possibilities, I like the name "The Conservator" because it has a sinister sound to it, but also underlying the notion of a pseudo-beneficent controller.

I can work out powers on my own, likely the typical giant-powerful robot body as one power set and the AI-software-body-jumper in a second power set.  Tech, Psych, and Menace Specialties (plus the almost ubiquitous Combat) and we're done!

"Rejoice, humanity, for your true god has come."

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Friday Game Night, Fifth Edition Style!

It's an off-week for the group but we still decided to try to get a game in, not the least of reasons being that next week's regular game night is a bust.  Since it was an off week and two of our regulars couldn't make it, we decided to try out the latest edition of Dungeons & Dragons for a brief one-shot.  I also invited two new people who had expressed an interest in playing: Tony and his daughter.  Tony had played D&D years before but hadn't been able to find a group, and he especially wanted to introduce his daughter to gaming.  I'm a big supporter in getting new people into the hobby, so I was happy to help out.

I can see why the OSR grognards like Fifth Edition.  It has a lot of early edition elements to it--low hit points, limited healing, no more "just make an Arcana check" stuff--while at the same time having some "modern" game aspects, including ascending Armor Class.  We used miniatures because I find it helpful with a big group to understand what is going on, but my players (used for 4E) were asking about flanking, etc. which isn't in the rules anymore.  Everyone like the Advantage/Disadvantage rule as an easy way to reflect situational modifiers.

The problem?  I'm already running Firefly, and that group is already too big for that system, IMHO.  D&D handles a larger group better (because of the PC role differentiation) but nine is way too many even for it.  I'm back to my considering an open-world two-group model for gaming again, or as I call it Mi Gran Sueno.

Over at Strange Vistas