Monday, September 28, 2015

Pre-EOW post and taking a break

Author's note: EOW is the annual three-day gathering of my friends where we spend those days doing three independent day-long gaming scenarios using a homegrown ruleset.  You can learn more about EOW by clicking on the EOW tag on the right-hand menu bar of the blog.

This year for EOW I'm doing a Star Trek scenario taking place in the middle of the Deep Space 9 series around the early part of the war with the Dominion.  I have no less than nine players, so I decided the best thing to do would be to break them up into two groups: a Federation crew and a Klingon crew, each with their own (underpowered) ship.  It is a complicated session for me.  For one thing, I'm not that familiar with DS9.  Two, there's the number of players, although they are used to being in a big group.  Three, the scenario is long and complicated in order to fill an entire day, but I'm worried because you never know when something will go off the rails and the whole thing grinds to an early stop.

In the meantime, I'm taking a little break from the D&D game for the month of October.  While that is happening largely because of calendar issues, I also just felt like I needed the break.  The game has been steaming along nicely, with the players continually engaged in a plot that seems to be going places,  But I have been running this campaign three times a month since January, and the pace is a little exhausting.  Moreover there comes a point where you just need to do something different in terms of genre.  Hopefully EOW will scratch that itch, either between my running Star Trek, playing in the "Traveller" game on Sunday, or whatever is happening Friday.

I keep thinking there should be some sort of "endgame" to the campaign coming up in the near future.  I can see two major plot points that need resolution:

  1. The stabilization of Grimfest.  PC's as rulers, PC's as merchant princes, whatever.  That's for them to decide.  The players have made it clear their intention to wipe out three out of four of the known gangs in Grimfest, while setting up the fourth as part of the rebuilding of the city.
  2. Rescuing their lost assassin, Sign.  Sign died outright two sessions ago, but after consultation with the player I realized that her seemingly irrational actions were the result of not understanding what was going on in gameplay.  As such, I felt like I could give the PC and character a bit of a reprieve, but still hang a plot on it.  In the process, however, I ended up opening a potentially long and complicated quest to recover her from drow slavers.  So on this thread I have three options: go with the campaign for a few more months than I would have otherwise, compress the quest down, or just have Sign never be recovered.  That last one would leave the group dissatisfied, however.
The group, for whatever it is worth, is still really enjoying the campaign, so that's good at least.  I'm just trying to figure out how long I have until it switches to something else.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

The Moment in a Campaign

If you ask me why the Claremont era of the X-Men was so damn good, I would have to say that it wasn't the whole "Dark Phoenix" saga, or even "Days of Future Past" (although that was very good), it is the in-between moments in the series.  I'm talking about the moments between the fights where you would see the X-Men hanging around in their 70's turtlenecks and mod dresses shooting the breeze about being an unloved mutant superhero or who they have a crush on or whatever.  It was a moment when they were people and not just powers, and you the reader had the chance to actually experience the fullness of their lives.

The X-Men have since lost this.  Just look at any comic book and see how infrequently the X-Men are out of costume.  Our appetites now reflect a stronger desire to more action, more splash pages, and bigger conflicts.  And in my opinion, the comics books are less interesting as a result.  You can see this in other genres, that question of pacing and taking the odd break to allow the viewer/reader/consumer to take a breath and get to know people.

Now, this isn't a comic book blog (because God knows there are plenty of those), it's an RPG blog.  So what does this have to do with roleplaying games?  Because a while back my friend Adam made a comment about moments like this.  For him, it was the moment where the players are just hanging out in the repair bay of the space station waiting for work to get done, or lounging around the base discussing whether Rainbow Archer was a superheroine or villain.  (The answer is villain, by the way.  She's in "Classic Villains" after all, and that book is chock full of pro-establishment politics.)

And what's up with those boot cuffs?

The way I see it, getting any RPG campaign to that moment means that finally the players have stopped looking at the campaign as quests to be solved or villains to be beat down but are now actually living in the world.  They are thinking about how their PC's act outside of conflict.  But most importantly, they are investing in a profound way in the shared imaginary reality of the world at a level that transcends die rolling and the like.

I feel like this should be some of sort of "GM Achievement" like when you accomplish something in a video game.  If you GM a campaign in such a manner than eventually this happens, it should be celebrated.

Monday, September 14, 2015

The Fruit Bat of Frustration (MHR)

For Adam....

The Fruit Bat of Frustration (real name unknown)
Affiliations: Solo d8, Buddy d4, Team d6
Distinctions: Annoying Little Twat, Relentless, Ambiguous Identity

Flight d6
Claws d6
Enhanced Reflexes d8
Emotional Control d10
SFX: Sapping Your Mojo.  When creating a "In a Funk" complication, add a d6 and step up the effect die.
SFX: Right Where I Want You.  When the GM is trying to alter an Affiliation status of a PC in an encounter with the Fruit Bat of Frustration, step down the effect die necessary to do so, reflecting either effectively isolating the PC from contact with friends, or putting him in an unsatisfying gaming group.

Covert Expert
Menace Expert
Psych Master

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Friday gaming recap: the giant falls

Trying to depict gaming in a dungeon that just turned 90 degrees.
After the Prophetess debacle in the last session, the group decided to use the chaos and carnage of the three-way battle between the Puppeteers, the Parliament of Bone, and the Children of the Third House to try to take at least one of the major gangs off the board.  After some research and intel collecting, the group decided the easiest group to neutralize would be the Puppeteers.  And, after shaking down a halfling named Greeble, they knew where to look.

The Puppeteers home base was a weird layout of cylindrical hallways filled with golems and in one chamber a pulsing magical furnace.  After Sign (the party's thief/fighter assassin) ganked the head Puppeteer with one blow, the entire compound began to move.  Or more accurately, stand up.

The whole base was a colossal sized golem with a hollow interior.  It also was about to self-destruct.  Alaric the monk, Corwin the cleric, and Roghanj the sorcerer all make it out before it exploded.  Sirdos the warlock made it down into one of the legs, but Sign stayed in the chest cavity.  

In the rubble of the destroyed mega-golem, Sirdos was found critically injured, but restored by Corwin.  Sign, however, was truly dead.  For the second time in the campaign, a PC had died. 

What you want, what I want

So...Adam at Barking Alien wrote this.  And then some guy who actually thinks you have to type out accented English like you're Chris Claremont writing the X-Men Banshee commented on his post.

Only not that charming.
The issue, and I feel like I can say this without too much concern about misrepresenting Adam, is that over the years Adam has found that he has engaged in more interaction with his players when it comes to building his campaigns than he did when he was a wee lad and he felt more free to run what he was genuinely loved and players would just trust him that it would be good.

Slipped in there is a bit about how players sometimes ignore what the GM is proposing in terms of tenor and theme for a campaign and create something totally out of whack with the campaign.  I know exactly what he is talking about.  It's the guy who wants to play a werewolf in Vampire the Masquerade (happened) or a no-costume mercenary in a four-color superhero game (also happened, although it worked out).  Here's his quote:
Depending on the group, I need a unanimous vote. I don't want to leave anyone out, especially the regulars. If I get a positive majority vote, with one, or two naysayers, I will do the following: If those who vote against are regulars, I'll drop the idea, and go for something else. If those who vote against the idea are not regulars, I'll either try to convince them to give it a shot, or hold the idea off until I can assemble those who liked the idea on their own.
This process right here eliminates the vast majority of my coolest game ideas from reaching the table. Getting four to six people to agree on a single concept is tough these days.
Now, here's his contrast with how things used to go:
I began with a concept, genre, or specific game I wanted to run. It could be teens who are going to school to be superheroes, Anime Action/Romance Sitcom, or my particular Blast City Blues setting for Teenagers from Outer Space. 
I met up with my group, having told them only that I want to start a new campaign. I then pitched them the idea. Everyone would say, "Cool!", or "Great!", maybe even an "Awesome!"
We would immediately begin creating characters. Everyone would create a character that fit in perfectly with the basic idea.
 Now, ignoring the possibility that Adam might be suffering some rose-colored glasses about the past (or ruby quartz, to continue the X-Men theme), what he seems to be suggesting is that as a grown adult, he's having to work more with his players to get them on board, and losing something about his creative je nes sais quoi in the process.

Man, Cyclops is a jerk.
And I think he's probably right, although I'd argue that might be a natural evolution of the changing environment in which he is gaming.  Adults, I think are actually more finicky than teenagers, especially when it comes to this kind of interaction.

When you're a teenager, you're still experimenting with your identity, still trying out different things and generally being open to new experiences.  A friend comes along and says, "hey, I just saw this new Japanese television show" or "I just ate this weird food" or "I just picked up this RPG that looks really cool," the teenager, I think, is more likely to give it a go.  And more likely to view it kindly in the process.  Don't believe me?  Just go back and re-experience something you thought was really cool as a teenager, e.g. a book, a movie, or even an RPG.  I will bet that in at least some of those instances, the adult experience is not as enjoyable as the teenage one.

And why is this?  Because as adults we have done our experimentation and we know what we like.  We are less likely to take risks, especially with something as precious and rare as our free time.  We are also less of a follower (although sadly at times, not enough) and are more critical of following people into the unknown.  That seems sad at some level, but the upside is that as adult you're probably making some more mature, sensible decisions about your own contentment, and are probably being more responsible in the process.

But RPG's are low-risk activities, in my opinion.  I think that players should be more willing to trust GM's when they say they have a great idea, and should risk more in life when it comes to things that might open up their horizons.  And I'm saying this as a person who has sat through some clunker gaming sessions run by GM's who were clearly enjoying themselves.  But I also understand that to get adults to play, with their more critical perspectives and their less copious free time to waste on shots in the dark, you need to work with them as a GM to get their buy-in as well.

I hope this makes sense.  Comments welcome.

Friday, September 4, 2015

How to Soak a Gaming Group for 2,800 gp.

So there's a new force in the town of Grimfest--"The Prophetess," an ancient dragonborn seeress who claims to be able to answer any question as long as you give her 700 gp. and answer a question of hers first.  After impressing the four rival gangs of Grimfest (and getting four of the PC's to ask her questions), she announces that she will answer the question everyone wants answered--where is the tarrasque--but only to the highest bidder.  Three of the four gangs show up with tons of treasure in tow, while the PC's merely offer her a song and a holy book.  After announcing the highest bidder, violence breaks out among the three groups and in all the chaos and carnage the Prophetess appears to have escaped with all three gangs' bids while no one got the answer.  The PC's in the meantime manage to escape and then take advantage of the situation by going and knocking over a stronghold of the Parliament of Bone.

With all hell breaking loose (literally), the players are wondering if there is a chance to eliminate at least one of the gangs from contention entirely.  Their top pick--the Puppeteers!  We'll see how that goes next week!

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

RPG Review: Far Trek

So, as I mentioned recently, I've got a lot of sentimentality for Star Trek RPG's, and Star Trek in general.  Three actual honest-to-God licensed ones exist in history: FASA's, Last Unicorn Games, and Decipher's.  I own the first two and have heard mixed things about the third.

But there are also a lot of non-licensed Star Trek RPG's out there, and recently I saw that one of them, Far Trek, was offering a hard copy for a couple of bucks on Lulu.  Never one to let a deal go by I picked it up and thought I'd give you, gentle readers, my thoughts.

Far Trek is a light-hearted, even breezy take on the Star Trek universe, almost exclusively the original series.  There rules incorporate stats, skills, and talents.  There are four stats: Strength, Dexterity, Intelligence, and Charisma, with the stats ranging from about a -2 to a +2, reflecting their modifier on the die roll.  I actually like this mechanic, which I first encountered in True20.  It doesn't make a lot of sense for there to be numerical values for a stat (say, 3 to 18) if the only impact is how it corresponds on a table to a modifier. Why not just have the modifier?

Anyways, stats are randomly generated, or you can distribute 3 points between the four stats.

Stats are then modified based on race, and Far Trek offers four: Human, Vulcan, and right out of FASA the Tellerites and Andorians.  I'm kind of bummed that they didn't offer FASA's other two from the animated series, the Caitians and the Edosians.  The game does say that most Star Trek aliens are effectively just humans with face paint, and to use the rules for humans (which involve getting an extra talent, but otherwise represent the baseline for the game).  Other races are featured in the rulebook outside of player options, just in case you wanted to play a Klingon, for example.

From there, the player has to choose whether the PC is a gold shirt (command and ship control), a blue shirt (science or medical), or a red shirt (engineering or security).  Whichever shirt the PC is determines which skills can be chosen.  There is also a general skill list from which any "shirt" can choose.  Each selection is rated as a +1, and while multiple selections are sometimes an option, the PC can never have more than a +2 at PC creation.

Talents mirror skills, insofar as there are general talents and shirt-specific talents.  This is where some of the light-heartedness comes in, because in addition to some of the more typical talents in RPG's you have general ones like "Torn Shirt" which when used means that the PC has ripped an article of clothing in a fight and can use is as a distraction and gain a one-off bonus, or shirt-specific ones like my favorite "Just Another Red Shirt" which means when the PC is out of a fight you can just scratch off the PC's name on the character sheet, write in another, and have that PC rejoin the game.

Skill resolution is pretty straightforward: 3d6+stat modifer+skill modifer+additional modifiers (including talents) vs. target number.  Contested skill resolution has the target number being the opponents dice+stat+skill+etc.  Easy peasy.

For damage, rather than wound levels or hit points, the game is pretty binary: able to fight or out of the fight.  It is kind of "genre simulationist" of them, with the idea that you might have bloody lips or torn shirts, but generally in Star Trek you were fighting at full capacity or you were unconscious (or in the case of red shirts, dead) on the floor.  In Far Trek if you get hit, you roll against a target number based on the weapon.  Succeed and keep fighting, fail and you're out.  Successive hits in a single combat ratchet up the number.  Again, a simple mechanic.

Ship combat is largely similar, although each side can perform certain actions to affect the outcome of the contested die rolls (like "evasive maneuvers").  But the combat is fairly abstracted--no moving ships around on a tabletop.  Damage isn't binary in this case but you simultaneously lose hull structure points and accrue various hindrances reflecting the details of the ship's damage.

In the back there is the predictable lot of TOS villainous aliens and their ships, etc. which will be familiar to anyone who knows the source material.

So, the final judgment.  First of all, I can not really be too critical of a game that is free online.  Even a mediocre game can be a source of inspiration, and not having to pay for it is a plus.  The print copy I received was perfect bound, in the lingo of the trade, and had some margin/cutting issues on the back cover, but otherwise was fine.  I chuckled to see the Enterprise called a Constitution class ship, because that was a conceit of the FASA game, not the original series, but was made canon in the Next Generation as a "tip of the hat" to the RPG.

As I said earlier, Far Trek could be run as a serious, gritty Star Trek RPG, but that is not what is was designed to do.  It's designed for a lighter touch, which I find pretty in my own wheelhouse when it comes to running RPG's.  Is it better than Last Unicorn Games' iteration (which would be my "go to" version for Star Trek, should the desire arise)?  No, just different, including its being squarely set in the original series.  But I could definitely see me using it, especially for a certain "feel" to a campaign.

Over at Strange Vistas