Thursday, October 23, 2014

30 Days to Save Science City: Building the One-Shot City (Part Two)

This is the second half of the background material I developed for a Noir Supers session. You can see the first half here and a session summary here I used Venture City Stories for Fate Core as the system. This is based on a world players built using Microscope, so it has some weirdness. At the end I have some notes on how I might adapt and rework the material. 

The Club is a quiet criminal network, but one with pull at the highest levels. It stays pretty strictly within the confines of white collar crime, including prostitution, forgery, high-end smuggling, and elite drug dealing. Doctor Davian’s reputedly the brains behind the organization. He keeps himself holed up pretty tight in his nightclub, The Seventh Step. Has has a network of other “legitimate” businesses across the city, but particularly in Highmark.

Davian cultivates a sinister reputation and appearance, almost Luciferian. To this end he maintains private parties with strong cultic overtones. He entertains artists, actors, and other celebrities from across the East Coast who want to add some excitement to their lives via association. He draws them into weird midnight ceremonies, secret practices, and pseudo-cultic worship. All of this ought to have an almost Lovecraftian edge.

That’s in great part a cover for Doctor Davian’s real activities. Several years ago he came across a mutant with healing abilities. Through him he’s been able to synthesize and cultivate a drug with young restoring and healing properties. He’s combined this with other narcotics to create an addictive substances he carefully plies onto this intended victims. Davian’s not as clever as he seems- the simple fact that the youth restoring effect fades over time would probably be enough to keep them in his thrall.

Associated NPCs/Ways In: Underground Mutant Looking for Lost Friend, Desperate Fallen Celebrity, Spouse of Influential Person Worried About Cultic Stuff, Scholar Who Can Confirm Ceremonies Are Fake, Chemist Who Works with the Drugs, Ambitious Madam, Rival Mystic

Hooks: Though he’s a manipulator, Davian has a blind spot. He has unquestioning faith in a battle-scarred childhood friend who serves as his investment and financial advisor. Davian ignores some personal problems his old friend is having (which might be possible blackmail material). Davian’s head of security is romantically involved with a mutant who shows no outward signs. He/she has been placed in a crucial role, but absolutely lacks any and all skills for it.

High Concept: High End Sleaze Peddler with Cultist Aspirations

Secret: Trade in Addictive Health Enhancers Harvested From Mutants

Skills: Bureaucracy +2, Espionage +3, Resources +3, Security +2, Tech +2

Smugglers, thieves, and blackmailers the Sundown boys have the reputation of being able to take whatever they want. Their organization is distributed across the city- a loose affiliation of villains, gangsters, and generally bad dudes. They’re much less organized than any of the other major power players. That’s both good and bad for them. On the one hand, they get people rolled up pretty consistently. On the other hand, they’re spread out far enough none of that rolls up hill too far.

They’ve been known to work for other criminal organizations, carrying out dirty work and acting as freelancers. The probably have the most influence in Grey Cross, for strange reasons. The Sundown Boys exist in part because they have deep contacts and influence within the major city builders and contractors. The city planning commissioner, in particular, is in their back pocket. The Sundown Boys have a pretty detailed set up maps of the city’s transit system- and that includes secondary underground transit systems begun in the early 1900’s, but eventually given up as the move was made to street cars and elevated trains. A good deal of that came from work among the Moroccan community. But some kept working on it, and the Sundown Boys know how to get from A to Z the fastest.

Three leaders divide responsibility for the group- with two decently well known. Fahmi Hannan and Talaal Hanann are figures of fear and fascination among the Morroccan immigrant community. Their older brother, Badri Hannan, is rumored to be dead, but he’s actually behind the scenes pulling the strings.

Associated NPCs/Ways In: Urban Explorer, Upright Moroccan Sufi, Crime Fixer, Transit Historian, Disgruntled Construction Supervisor, Overly Greedy City Planner

Hooks: The Sundown Boys know where the Watchman’s base is located. They’re getting people ready to excavate. Badri Hannan was badly injured and is currently addicated to a mix of painkillers and alcohol. He hides this from his brothers. Over the years the Sundown Boys have planted explosives at key locations around the city in case something really bad goes down.

High Concept: Loose criminal network under a charismatic leadership.

Secret: Deep Knowledge of Hidden Transit and Smuggling Network in the City

Skills: Bureaucracy +1, Espionage +2, Security +2, and Violence +3

Knee-breakers, gun-dealers, murderers, arsonists, extortionists…the Throck Syndicate is the classic mob group in Science City. They’re mostly closely associated with other mafia groups in the United States, especially the Cleveland and Boston mob organizations. Unlike other places, the Throck group’s run by a loose ethnic confederation of Belgians, Dutch, and French. They don’t fool around and have a reputation as ham-fisted, excessive, and unintelligent. They have dominant control over the Crucible- a mix of industrial, warehousing, and low-income residential. They also have major control over the ship building dockyards and associated industrial zones. They’re also said to be involved in some trans-Atlantic piracy.

However in recent years the Throck Syndicate has become much, much smarter. On the ground they’re still all fists, baseball bats, and steel-toed boots. But they’ve been more careful in their handling of upper level affairs: city contracts, shipping firm pressure, land purchases. They’ve also seemed to have the upper hand in several gangland throwdowns with The Sundown Boys and Oriflamme.

That’s due to an incident a few years back when they were involved in the hijacking of a dirigible coming over from England to Science City University. Contained within was an experimental calculation engine, based on designs and materials lifted from several alien invaders. The machine had been designed as a predictive device, aimed at long term planning. Uncertain what to do with the loot, Lamont Throck, head of the Syndicate called in his nephew, Gilbert Throck, an egg-head who had been studying technology and the sciences at Science City University. Gilbert spent the next several months figuring out how to work the device and eventually how to program it to serve the Syndicate’s needs. The Machine, Opus Zero, requires a great deal of electricity and other resources. Gilbert’s also been quietly using the machine to chart his own rise to power in his field.

Associated NPCs/Ways In: Resentful footsoldier, rival of Gilbert Throck at the University, utilities agent, machinist hired to make odd parts, rival gangster, shop-keeper under the thumb, corporate ship maker who wants to reduce his payoffs

Hooks: A former associate of the Throck syndicate is running a pretty obvious exploitative sweatshop off the books from the Syndicate. He’s respected and has some pull, but if he’s found out they’ll eliminate him. Throck has been gearing up to deal with Oriflamme. The computer has indicated that battle needs to be fought soon. To assist with that, he’s been recruiting super-powered muscle.

High Concept: Old School Mob

Secret: Servants of a Super Computational Engine

Skills: Resources +3, Security +1, Tech +2, Violence +3

This is an actual small-scale supervillain group, not much is known about them. They operate up and down the East Coast. There they carry out daring bank heists and raids. Their numbers have changed over the years, but there are at least four key members. They avoid costuming, preferring bulky jackets and almost heavy military uniforms, including hoods and gas masks.

They’re associated with Science City less because they’ve struck there, but because in several cases they’ve come into conflict with other criminal organizations there, as well as the late Watchman. Many believe the Steel Hand have their home base somewhere within the city. This means that from time to time they act to protect it or more specifically act to protect their interests there.

The Steel Hand is a family of superbeings. It is led by a matriarch, Isabella Shaw. She discovered her powers as a medic during the Great War. Shaped by her experience there, she returned and embarked on a criminal career designed to enhance her position. She did this to support her three daughters. Eventually she remarried a wastrel son of a good family, using her skills to influence and straighten him out. When her daughters came of age, she brought them into the family business. The current line up consists of Isabella Shaw (low-key telekinetic powers with amazingly fine manipulation), Miriane Shaw (Heat Control), Cassandra Shaw (Physical Powers- shift between speed and strength), and the youngest, Kip Shaw their half-brother (Flight, Air Control). The third sister, Sara Shaw (Desolidification) has left the business to get married. There’s some tension there.

The Steel Hand takes pains to disguise their gender. They try not to operate too heavily in Science City, but this is where they live. They have a network of suppliers, fences, and underground dealers who work with them- and they protect them fiercely, hence their clashes with other criminals. They also don’t like anyone pulling anything big in The Lock.

Associated NPCs/Ways In: Sara Shaw’s husband (Willenieke Soppers), Douglas Donald Shaw III, former household staff, gear supplier, money launderer, local expert who saw them fight, federal crime specialist

Hooks: Sara Shaw is considering turning her family in. Soppers has been quietly selling some of the stolen goods on the side. These might be tracable and/or he might have some ties to Davian behind his wife’s back. One of the Steel Hand’s local craftsmen or fences might be known to the cabal of non-corrupt cops in the city. They haven’t moved on the target because it might be too big for them.

High Concept: Well-Organized Supervillain Team Based in Science City

Secret: Old School Supervillain Family

Skills: Resources +1, Security +3, Tech +1, and Violence +3

Science City Police Department
Corrupt and divided. The current police commissioner keeps the different neighborhood divisions fighting compartmentalized and competing against one another. He believes in a weakened police force in thrall to political interests. The local police see it the other way around. There’s a “get what’s mine” attitude.
Secret: There exists a small and informal unit of dedicated cops known as the Fireworkers.

Science City Technical Board
The board of controllers and leaders for the secret. They select the city controller.
Secret: Riven by disagreements, they can’t get anything done because everyone’s in the pocket of different special interests.

Science City Courts
The judicial and Court System. Effectively an auction house for justice.
Secret: Leader District Attorney Lamont Golden is deeply in the pocket of the Oriflamme which has blackmail evidence on him.

The Radio Stations: WTWR, WVRH
The Television Stations: WSCT, WVOP
The Newspapers: Science City Sentinel, The Science City Free Press

Make sure to keep the pulp 1930’s feel. Telephones. Two-way wrist radios are expensive. Black and White television a luxury. Gyrocopters and blimps. Elevated trains, street cars.

Define who controls each one and define the actual area with an aspect plus an Issue.

Four Points: A strange mix. It houses a baseball stadium as well as a massive city park. But flooding, drainage problems and the fire of 1930 has meant that this part of the city has fallen into decay. There have been efforts at some rebuilding, but that’s been less successful. Lots of experimental building and pumping techniques. More industrial locations here. The Orphanage has major control here.

  • Rolling parklands and public spaces.
  • City sections decaying before their time.
  • Weird uncontrolled flooding.
Tomorrow Way: One of the major gates to the city. The World’s fair island has a large number of recreational and amusement park locales. Site of the 1901 World’s Fair. Think Coney Island. Larger portion of the area heavily controlled by Zinkman. University and technical research centers here. Local employee blocks ala Disneyland.

  • Work village blocks.
  • The lingering smell of chemicals.
  • Zinkman security forces on patrol.
Crucible: Densely-packed low income housing. Lots of ethnic neighborhoods. Tight streets in need of repair. Problems with the street cars. Nicer places down by the water. Heavy railroad traffic. The major shipyards. Light industrial serving those interests. Controlled by the Throck Syndicate.

  • Working class heroes trudging home.
  • Cooking smells from across the globe.
  • Strongarm thugs picking up the daily take.
Grey Cross: A mix of larger-scale tenements, high-rise work houses, and low to mid-level shops and stores. This is a lower middle class area, leaning towards the low. More movie theaters and other entertainments aimed at keeping people from heading too far west.

  • Rundown clubs on the strip.
  • Bijou Theater Which Has Seen Better Days
  • Servants of the Wealthy Riding to Work.
The Lock: This is where the political heart of the city lies a mix of Courts, law offices, financial centers, and areas of public display. Some aim to live here in the fancy hotel and penthouses, but it’s a stepping stone to other ambitions. City jail on the island. Political power. The Steel Hand consider this their place of power.

  • The echoing chambers of city hall.
  • Public skating park and other sites for tourists.
  • Dark oak-paneled private clubs for the members only.
Highmark: The theater district, the high end shopping district, the restaurant district, the fashion district. This section of the city contains all of the high end luxuries the city can bestow. Behind the face are packed in all the middle class people who make this work and the desperate up and comers. High end brothels. Distinguished nightclubs. Wonderful places to be seen. Doctor Davian likes to think he runs things here.

  • Dirigible parks for the up and coming.
  • Where to Be Seen.
  • Glitz and glamour conceals the darkness.
Radium Heights: This is where the truly wealthy live, with large parcels of land, estates and grounds. There’s a weird mix of that and services dedicated to keeping them happy. Craftsmen, upper middle class workers, and so on. Docks and yachts to the far west. The Oriflamme controls this area, but want to expand.

  • Have you seen my regatta?
  • Winding roads leading up to the house.
  • Clandestine upper scale private homes for liaisons and assignations.
Also note three major bridges into town, plus they’re working on an underwater tunnel system. Hoping to eventually connect with a proposed Trans-Atlantic tunnel. Other bridges serve as important joins for the city. 

I really enjoyed this session. I have two favorite one-shot approaches. The first is a fairly linear Fight-Investigate-Complication-Big Fight set up I use mostly for demo games. The other is to present a wide open problem with lots of dials and let the players figure out how they're going to solve it. They'll always come up with something. I enjoy that Q&A at the beginning as they chip away at the block reveling the texture of their thinking. Different groups will find different approaches. But you need to give them enough raw material to cut through. 

On the other hand, I think I overdid it here. I ended up getting too excited about the ideas and writing too much. I ended up doing campaign-level prep rather than one-shot (which is still heavier than my standard session prep). I had the cool map which sort of naturally broke into seven sections so my brain decided I needed seven factions. Mind you the players didn't really interact with a couple of them in play- which is either a feature or a bug depending on how you see it. Next time I'll probably consolidate that down to five factions- and make clear from the outset that's how many there are. That means when they take one down, they can feel the satisfaction of having dealt with a significant chunk of the problem. I've talked before about the importance of demonstrating success to the players

So what would get consolidated? First, I think Dr. Davian would be shifted to simply be an agent or a face for the Oriflamme organization. They're too close to one another in their trappings right now, something I realized in play. Oriflamme has a weird name and bad guys in hoods; Davian has a whole cult-like vibe going on. Simply fold Davian into Oriflamme and you get a more obvious target for the players to act against. Plus you scratch out some theme duplication. Second, the Orphanage probably ought to go as an adversarial group. I like them since they're more complicated (badly treated Mutant youths turned bad). But they could function better if presented at the outset as a potential source of allies. Downplay them a little and if the PCs go looking for help, offer them up. Alternately, if I want to keep the Orphange on the table, then I need to eliminate either the Sundown Boys or the Throck Syndicate. Both represent a more classic criminal organization. I like that the former is more rough & tumble and the latter is more upscale mafia. But they do hit on a few of the same themes and could be reworked to fit together into one group. 

We'll see if I ever get to run this again. I hope I do simply because the amount of work I put into it!

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

RPG TV: Panels from VirtuaCon

VirtuaCon had an amazing array of panels this year. I only ran one, but I participated in four others. The inexhaustible Rich Rogers moderated a crazy number of them. If you're not following him on YouTube or the Indie+ Network he's part of, you ought to be. I've put my five panels first in the order below, but I also offer descriptions and links to the others from the convention. We had dynamite presentations across a wide range of gaming topics. 

Amber/Lords of Gossamer & Shadow GM Jam: Play on Target for VirtuaCon
Only two of the PLOT team could make it to VirtuaCon, so we decided to celebrate Brian Cooksey’s favorite game. In the tradition of our Changeling the Lost episode, I wanted to get gamers together to talk about running and playing. This jam considers two excellent games which share the same engine. Steve Russell, Phil Vecchione, Brian Cooksey, Kristin Hunt, and I will talk about the challenges of running, what we've done with campaigns, what drew us to the settings, and what it's like to play. If you’re curious about these games or diceless systems in general check it out.

Gaming with Significant Others
Do you Game with your SO / Partner / Lifemate? Do you wish someday you could? Submit questions and come watch a fun group of gamers talk about their highs and lows gaming with their SOs, learn some tips and tricks as well!

24-Hour RPGs: How Did You Do It?
Ever wonder what it was like to design an RPG in 24 hours? Join your hosts as they talk about their experiences with whipping up new games on the fly.

What's in Your RPG Toolbox?
As GM’s and players, we all accumulate a set of techniques and tricks we find useful time and time again. Our experienced panel will discuss their go-to tools for making gaming sessions more enjoyable for the whole group (GMs included).

RPG Lay of the Land
Tabletop roleplaying games are set in a variety of genres and worlds. What are some of the most popular games in each? Where do some games fall short? Join us for a survey of various RPG genres, a discussion of high and low points, and a look at upcoming new games.

Playing 53+ New RPGs During 2014
Jonna and Andrea discuss what it was like to accept and accomplish this amazing feat! Anything you really want to know, be sure to ask in the comments here or during the event!

Gaming Group Social Contracts
How to establish expectations and a social contract with your group.

Virtuacon Interview: Guest of Honor - D. Vincent Baker
A sit down with D. Vincent Baker. Head of Lumpley Games, designer of Dogs in the Vineyard, Apocalypse World and many other fine tabletop RPGs.

Breaking the Mold: How to Play Against Type
We all have our favorite characters, and we reiterate and recreate them again and again. How do you roleplay a character that's not you and not the same as the last five characters you've played, though? Join us as we discuss how to stretch and challenge ourselves rather than take the path of least resistance.

Off the Cuff GMing
Who needs a module?!?!
Learn about ways to run tabletop RPGs with little to no prep from this group of excellent GMs and improv folks!

Role-Playing In The Worlds Of Childhood
Roleplaying in childlike worlds can range from fairy-tale to farce to dark fantasy. We'll discuss how to play children in RPGs, as well as how to bring all of those varied realms of the childish imagination to life.

Descriptive GMing: Lighting up the Theatre of the Mind
With our exceptional panel of GMs: Jim McClure, James D’Amato, Mark Cleveland and moderated by the master of your mind GM Keaggan, we will journey through the landscape of our imagination and unfurl your creative potential with descriptive GMing by "Lighting Up the Theater of the Mind."

Creating Believable Characters
Join a star-studded panel to talk about the importance of creating convincing characters, how to do it, and how it can benefit your campaign. Kick back and spend an hour listening to the thoughts of gaming luminaries.

Roll20: Connecting the World
Join me as I chat to Riley Dutton, co-creator of the Roll20 virtual tabletop gaming system, about its development and capabilities. Take the opportunity to participate in the discussion by asking Riley questions of your own.

This will be a fascinating glimpse into the world of role playing games application software.

Understanding Player Types
Understanding Player Types will be a one hour workshop taught by Jim McClure of the roll20 GM Academy. It will give you a unique way to understand the players at your table and the ways they enjoy the gaming experience.

This workshop will present a system of identifying the Eight Kinds of Fun (Narrative, Fantasy, Expression, Challenge, Sensation, Submission, Discovery, and Fellowship) and how these concepts make up you and your players play style.

(Just a link for this one...)
Have you ever wanted to build and design you own stories for your table top campaigns but just have no idea where to start? Having problems keeping players engaged or keeping that cohesive story together?

Jim McClure of the Roll20 GM Academy will be presenting a one-hour workshop on building a plot for a table top campaign. In this workshop you will be presented an eight step process that anyone call follow to design a compelling and unique narrative for your game.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

VirtuaCon After Action Report: Corruption Uncovered, Avatars Arrested & Cyber-Apes Smashed

VirtuaCon was awesome. It was one of the best convention experiences I’ve ever had- on or offline.

I ran three games; a fourth didn’t go because I had a brief crisis that ate up the morning. I played with a dozen+ amazing gamers. I participated in five panels. I got to pop into the online tavern several times and talk with role-players I’d met before and some I’d only seen on RPG Geek. The con was well managed, they had prizes for the GMs, and I absolutely loved it. Once again RPGGeek proves how it brings the awesomeness of its community. Good games encourage more games.

Below is a quick summary of my three sessions. I’ve also provided the video, if you like watching online rpg sessiond. I check them out from time to time to see how other GMs run and handle the table. Below each video I’ve included a link to a YouTube playlist of the same session, but recorded to show the Roll20 app. If you’re curious about how that plays, I recommend checking out all of "Super-Rebels" or the last third of "Science City."

The Pitch: Science City, 1937. Once a shining beacon of progress and hope following the defeat of the Kansegu alien invasion, darkness now covers Science City. Some hint at strange forces behind the transformation of this island paradise. But clearly corruption, urban decay, foreign agents, and criminal influence have made Science City a hotbed of vice and crime.

You’re going to fix that.

You’re a superbeing with amazing powers and an equally difficult task. The Transatlantic League, the world-renowned team of superheroes has selected your group to fix Science City. But you only have thirty days. How you decide to do that is up to you: quiet, loud, soft, hard, above board or from the shadows. Will you prove that heroes can make a difference and keep yourselves above the muck?

I’ll set the stage and you’ll figure out what to fix and how to do that. Play involves a mix of investigation, social interaction, problem solving, and the occasional head thumping, should you so choose. System: Venture City Stories, Fate Core

I gave the players an overwhelming challenge right away. Invited to join a famed superhero group, The Transatlantic League, they'd first have to undertake a secret mission. A supervillain had issued a private threat: the heroes had thirty days to clean up Science City. This wasn't the first time this madwoman had made such demands. Two years earlier the Iron Gale issued an ultimatum about Monaco. The famed superteam had simply thought it part of some elaborate ruse- only to be shocked when an earthquake leveled the city. Now the League was caught- they could not be seen as giving into supervillain demands, but they could not simply stand by. Hence the PCs would be undertake this without official sanction.(For more, see this post.)

The group began with preliminary questioning- trying to get a feel for the industries and level of corruption in the city. They isolated the three most obvious threats and followed up with queries about those. After some discussion they opted to go into Science City mostly out in the open, arriving as new heroes taking up the mantle of the fallen superhero, the Watchman and his lost comrades. At the same time they kept one player, The Phantom, off the radar and their doppelganger, That Guy, assumed another superhero ID. That would allow them to act independently. The players spent a little time working on minor crime and using their network of agents and contacts to get a better sense of the city. They established some aspects in shaping public perception. Eventually they uncovered a couple of other major threats hidden with Science City. Phantom targeted one group, The Sundown Boys, and discovered one of their edges: access to and maps of underground networks throughout the city. After some discussion the team decided to hit the Sundown Boys decisively- rolling up the three highest members and a chunk of the gang. A surgical strike took them down quickly. The speed of the operation meant that the team gathered additional useful info.

They followed that up by putting PR pressure on city officials to ensure that Sundown Boys couldn’t simply walk out of police custody. Instead corrupt local officers and lawyers would have to hold off. They traced a connection between the DA and another group, Oriflamme, indicating his debts to them. That led them to follow up on Oriflamme. Materials found on the Sundown Boys showed a possible location for the base of the late Watchman. That seemed to coincide with Oriflamme’s zone. They tracked an unusual ship and discovered it servicing an underwater base. The group took out the vessel and then raided the base which turned out to be in the hands of Oriflamme. In the hard fought battle the group took on a dozen henchmen as well as three supers, but triumphed in the end. They discovered the head of Oriflamme was the Watchman’s son, who had used his father’s info on crime in Science City to carve an empire for himself after slaying his father.

The Pitch: Another day on the mean streets of Abashan. In a town of fantasy adventure it’s up to you and your fellow guards to patrol your district, quell riots, take down monstrous invaders, break up foreign conspiracies, shut down wild magicks, make friends in the community, and stop crazed adventurers. Beginning with a morning briefing you must figure out how to prioritize assignments, shirk duties, protect the innocent, and perhaps even earn a little extra coin…

You’ll be able to pick which case you want to run down and how you want to fix things. Play involves a mix of investigation, social interaction, problem solving, and the occasional head thumping. System: Fate Core

I’ve run Guards of Abashan several times. It’s based on my home campaign, with the characters echoing the PCs. I usually run it with Action Cards. Since I haven’t yet figured out how to get that to work with Roll20 I translated it over to Fate Core. The session beganwith their sergeant giving them a little bit of a dressing down and briefing them on three cases available: victimized murderhobos, a warehouse fire, or a ghostly thief. I like to let the party argue out which case they ought to follow up on. That gives them a chance to find their character’s voice and establish relationships. In this case, the group opted to look into the warehouse fire.

They went to the scene and began canvassing. They discovered that the warehouse owner, Abniro the Jackal, was paid up with the Thieves Guild and well liked as a distributor of wine and olive oil. Investigation of the ruins and witness statements suggested a magical source, but not a drunken mage. Instead it seemed something had fallen from the sky. The Gnome Healer headed off to check on the local firefighting Vigiles and discovered they had actually stolen goods from the warehouse during the fire. Witness info and strong-arming the Vigile head lead to a discovery. They’d allowed a scavenger to go through the smoldering ruins afterwards and he’d discovered something.

While chasing that lead down they crashed into the middle of a riot. On one side, disciples of a Butterfly God. On the other, worshippers of a Deity of Masonry. The group rousted the followers and then threw themselves in the middle of the fray, with fist and sabre bringing the two leaders to heel. They turned out to be newly anointed Avatars of their very tiny gods. That morning they’d been raised up and sent out to discover a potent divine artifact which had arrived. Putting two and two together the PCs rushed off again to find their scavenger.

They caught him and discovered what had crashed: a large cosmic egg. Which, to their chagrin, they found out the thief had gifted to his girlfriend, a Dwarven baker. Hustling down the streets they discovered another Avatar on the march- this time of a less small god, a war deity also determined to secure the Egg. Part of the group stormed the bakery while one headed off to intercept. A skirmish ensued, with some back up arriving later- but the duelist among the group managed to bring down the avatar after taking serious hits. The others secured the Egg before it could be completely hard-boiled and made a desperate run to take it back to the precinct and secure it against any and all divine seizures.

The Pitch: In 2112, Chancellor Helagard seized control of the Earth at the behest of his alien masters, the Kansegu. He moved quickly to take out the world’s superbeings through sleeper agents and his own loyal cadre of Psychic-powered henchpersons. Nine years have passed and the Kansegu  ave finally cemented their control. All opposition has been crushed.

Except for you.

You’re among the last free superbeings, waging an underground campaign against the invaders. Now a desperate gamble may unlock the secret to defeating the Chancellor and his Kansegu puppetmasters. But first you will need to find Tesla’s Brain! System: ICONS Assembled. 

This was my first session with Icons Assembled. After letting the group pick their characters, I threw them into the middle of things. An agent of the resistance, The Phantom (a PC from the first game), had been captured by Helagard’s forces. He had been looking into a way to strike back at Helagard and likely had valuable information. He needed to be retrieved- preferably alive. Their target would be a massive patrol robot currently making its way back to an internment camp. The group confirmed robot's likely route and decided to sneak close before engaging it as it crossed a river. That would give the gun-platform less of a chance to make drastic moves or escape.

The group split and entered via hatches in the battle-bot’s legs. They met minimal resistance and began to fight their way upwards. They kept any alarm or alert from sounding which both helped and hurt. They ambushed the crew in the engine room (including a super security officer), but unsecured hatches in the robot's feet flooded once it entered the water. One of the team fell to keep the KO’d crew from drowning. The team fought their way forward, damaging control and systems- leading to the robot falling in the middle of the river and effectively turning the whole map. They located Phantom, defeated the baddies, and after some confusion managed to make their escape.

Back at their HQ, their cell leader, Doctor X (another PC from the first session) gave them the low-down. Tesla understood the energies powering Helagard’s super-soldiers. However Tesla’s brain had been stolen by the arch-villain, The Iron Gale, decades earlier. Phantom had discovered the likely location of her base, under the ruins of Science City. He'd also obtained a medallion which could act as a key. However, Helagard’s forces were on site- apparently digging in an effort to break into the base. The group took off and confirmed this information. They surveyed the forces and spotted several superhuman  as well as elite Kansegu alien troops. Their excavations seemed close- and the group discovered that their enemy’s efforts had apparently already set up the base’s defenses. In scouting, the resident team ninja discovered another entrance, triggered by the medallion.

Descending into the base, the team encountered several traps- including an electrified floor and an automated gun turret. While the lair, with its shag carpet and wet bar, had been abandoned for a long time, it had a strange pungent odor. The group soon discovered the source of the smell: a force of power-armor clad cyber-apes who assaulted them from multiple directions as they made their way through. The group fought a desperate running battle, but managed to turn the base’s defenses back on the apes. They blew through and managed to locate Tesla’s brain- even as Helagard’s  eam broke in from another section of the facility. They grabbed the brain capsule and took off, but not before the ninja set the base to blow up in a montage of flames and shocked bad guys. 

Thursday, October 16, 2014

The Initiative: Superhero RPG Appendix N Blog Challenge

Barking Alien put forth a challenge for Superhero GMs at this post. In brief,
“I challenge you, the Superhero RPG GM, and/or player, to list between 5 and 10 Superhero comic books, and 5 to 10 Superhero live action or animated shows or films, that typify your style of Superhero RPG campaign.”
So here’s my list- I’ll try to be brief in my reasoning. I’ve left off some stuff I adore (Tom Strong, Unbreakable, Watchmen, Wonder Woman, Starman, The Question) because while I think they’re great, there’s less a touchstone for me when I run. Each of the items below has or has had some impact on and helps describe what I want from a campaign. There’s a Venn diagram here - some of them apply strongly to some campaign forms. Others typify slightly different campaigns I’ve run or have an interest in. I’m not sure what the intersection these influences would look like.

Added: Graphs, Paper, and Games response
My Dice Are Older Than You response
Willfully and Persistently response
Held Action response
Sea of Stars response

  1. Super Friends: Weirdly enough all of the "Saturday Morning Cartoon" versions of the Justice League still stick in my head. They’re the default super-team. They’re together to fight evil. Most importantly they have a built-in nobility. I still reference stories from these series in game from time to time.
  2. The Marvel Super Heroes: These cut & paste Marvel comic series from the ‘60’s remain strongly in my mind. They had crazy over-the-top Silver Age plots usually mixed with overwrought personal drama. I think you have to be exaggerated and hyper-kinetic at the table.
  3. Spider Man ’67: There are some astonishingly weird stories here- plant invasions, cross-dimensional strangeness, and bizarre psychedelic images. I like the high weird in my game- curve ball stuff with metaphysical beats.
  4. Batman the Animated Series: If we’re doing street-level stuff, I want something intimate like this. Strong character focus, a real sense of place, and a large cast of returning NPCs. I like gritty and a little realistic, but not brutal and gruesome.
  5. Justice League Unlimited: When we do a super-team I want them to confront challenges on many levels. They have to deal with fighting baddies, but also with their place in the world. Episodic stories tie into a larger plot slowly over the course of a campaign. Big multi-part finishers.
  6. X-Men Evolution: I also like strong character backstory. While there’s some superheroics in this, most everything here’s about interactions and relationships. There’s a weird status quo between good guys and bad guys. They can interact on different terms. I like to have that negotiation from time to time.
  7. Batman Beyond: I dig high-tech plots with a degree of hand-waving. Most of my superhero games have a layer of super-science toys in the hands of important groups. I also aim for unusual motivations for my heroes and villains.
  8. Mystery Men: I want my superhero games to have some comedy in them, but played straight. Patently absurd moments are done as seriously as I can. Stay in character and respect even the oddest motives.
  9. Sky High: If superheroes have been around for a while, there’s a structure to support that: government agencies, training programs, gear shops. I like the idea of generational heroes and some characters coming out of these programs with radically different results. (Oddly in comics I dislike intensely The Initiative.)
  10. Hellboy: If there’s magic in my setting, you can count on there being some really awful stuff there. It will have monsters, elder beasts, corruption, and darker stuff. It won’t be super-science by another name with a rational explanation. There will be groups dealing with that and they will be misfits.

I don’t list any of the big live action films here. In part that’s because live-action superheroes don’t speak to me as strongly as animated ones. The three I list all have drastically different approaches to the genre. I love many live-action films (Avengers, Spider Man, Batman Begins), but they’re less in my head when I’m thinking about my campaigns.

  1. Astro City: This is what a superhero world built from the ground up is all about. Supers affect history, supers affect people, supers are human beings. Characters can have interesting personal sub-plots which can come to the center stage.
  2. The Avengers (Byrne/Perez run): Superhero teams can get caught up in bureaucracy. They may be overcome by non-superhero problems, but then they’ll have a big fight and that will clear the air briefly.
  3. X-Men (Claremont/Byrne run): If you want, I will bring the soap opera. It doesn’t always have to happen that way, but I’ll give you that if you want it as a player. Also, sometimes we’ll spend sessions on individual character backstories/personal life. I’ll tie those in to the major plot eventually. 
  4. The Defenders (#50-130): The world can be weird. Sometimes your superteam assembles for the dumbest reasons. You don’t fit together. You have to figure out how to make the best or that and actually become a team. Also, sometimes there will be absolutely insane plots.
  5. Gotham Central: There are normal people in the world who have to deal with this craziness. Some of them don’t like it. They have to clean up after the heroics. If we’re doing a street level game, you may end up at least as much hindrance as help to these people.
  6. Legion of Superheroes ("The Great Darkness Saga"): Sometimes we will go epic. It will start small, but slowly the layers will be peeled away until the big bad’s actually revealed. In that final battle, it will be no holds barred and sacrifices may have to be made.
  7. Promethea: As I mentioned earlier, the world can be weird. Sometimes the world simply accepts that weirdness. People and relationships can complicate that strangeness. The interaction of the stable and the weird will create problems.
  8. Doom Patrol or Seven Soldiers (Morrison): If I’m going to go dark, it’s likely going to come out of the weirdness. Things may double back on themselves, you may find yourselves going to strange places. Sometimes you’ll be unprepared for it and you’ll have to find a creative, lateral-thinking, mythic approach to solve things.
  9. Planetary (or The Boys): There’s a secret history to the world. That can conceal may things- legacies of herodom, alien invasions, previous universes, etc. But it can also be dark and people may have hidden that away for a reason.
  10. All-Star Superman: Anything can happen because you’re superheroes and that’s a wonderful thing.

So there it is. 

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Amber Diceless/Lords of Gossamer & Shadow: Play on Target Special Ep 4

On Saturday we did a special episode of Play on Target for RPG Geek’s VirtuaCon. If you’ve listened to the show, you know Brian’s love of Amber Diceless. Since we had two co-hosts out, we decided to do another game-focus episode (as we’d done with Changeling the Lost). In this we were lucky enough to be joined by Kristin Hunt, Jeff Miller, Steve Russell, and Phil Vecchione. You can grab the podcast at the link below. Also you can watch the panel's video here. In the episode we cover our experiences with Amber and Lords of Gossamer & Shadow, why diceless, and what the new game adds. BTW VirtuaCon '14 was one of the best convention experiences I've had online or IRL. If you didn't go this year, check it out next year. 

As I mention at the start of the episode, my own Amber experience begins with missed opportunities. Several times I had the chance to play with designer Eric Wujick and his immediate crew at Michicon and Windsor in the late 1980’s, early ‘90s. My friend Paul played in several sessions and reported back to me. He told me about a completely narrativist, diceless games. Anyone could make up anything and the GM simply worked it in.

And I poo-poo’d it.

I couldn’t wrap my head around it. I was in the middle of running GURPS, Champions, and Rolemaster. When I found a setting I liked but the system wasn’t up to snuff, I immediately tried to figure out what Arms Law weapon charts would fit. Or how to do create character templates for it in Hero System. Amber sounded like lunacy. Sheer lunacy.

I simply couldn’t grok it. I mean it seemed like the system meant that the players could do whatever they wanted. How the eff would I prepare for that? I needed my precious notes, planning, storylines, battle set ups, etc.

Or just as bad- the game would allow the GM to simply do whatever they wanted to the players. They could be cruel, vindictive, revel in the their despair. I knew that would happen because that’s what I would do. I mean I wouldn’t do it. Not really, but I also knew my potential to be That Guy. I’d played in games with terrible GMs who demonstrated favoritism and ignored our input. If those GMs existed then it followed that this game couldn’t work. It was a line of thinking I used to dismiss a ton of interesting ideas in those years.

At some point I got better. At some point I got brave and tried these things and found I enjoyed them- and the world didn’t collapse. Diceless and more shared power games might not be for everyone, but my experiences there enriched my gaming and I think made me a stronger GM.

I’ve run Amber a few times, in one case a short campaign with three players. It began in a modern world, with the players discovering over time that they were children of Courts and learning about their powers. However I also ran three Amber Throne Wars.

They’re brilliant. Have a group of role-players and don’t have some kind of LARP ready to throw them into? Or perhaps they object to the concept of a LARP? Run a Throne War for them. The King is dead and suddenly everyone wants to seize power. The best part of the Throne War is the auction which pits the players directly in conflict right from the start. I can get people to bid, bid, and bid some more. It’s a delight. Then you simply let them loose at one another for a few hours. I ran it with a dozen+ people one time and it remains one of my fav sessions.

One player opted to bid low in most of the stat rounds. Instead he focused on various Chaos magics and such. Once we got to the actual moving around and playing, everyone broke off and began to plot, negotiate, and backstab one another. This player offered others some of the Klondike bars he’d brought and stored in the freezer. Once he’d finished distributing the tasty delights over the course of an hour he sent me a note. It detailed everyone he’d given the ice cream to and how precisely his character had spiked it. A little meta, but it ended up being amusing since he got killed off before he could bring that to fruition.

There’s a moment in the episode when something finally clicks for me. Kristin’s describing the infinite possibilities of the different worlds. I’d always known that about the game and the setting. But for some reason in my head I still had some fairly conventional ideas. I hate to say it, but I pictured pretty plain settings- pass-through places. Some of that comes from the original Amber novels. Except for some of the high weirdness of the last race through Chaos, there’s a focus on Western fantasy tropes. But Kristin mentioned doing Shadow of Colossus as a game world and suddenly everything clicked. That these worlds could be truly novel and strange- and have stakes in them. They could be more than resources or sites for a brief scene. I suspect that’s part of what LoGS brings to the table- more weight to these worlds.

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