Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Campaign Postmortem: Scion (Part Four)

Scion Campaign Post-Mortem Part One 
Scion Campaign Post-Mortem Part Two
Scion Campaign Post-Mortem Part Three
Scion Campaign Post-Mortem Part Four

Wrap Up and Overview

The campaign itself lasted about ten months. We had a number of missed sessions due to schedule conflicts and people being out. I'd say we probably ended up with 14 or so sessions IIRC. Maybe more. While I'd begun with a fairly linear concept, I ended up creating a more complicated set of events with several intersecting plot lines.

Good

* Everyone seemed to like their characters. Having Alan and Chris paired up worked well. They had good characters and played off of each other well. Sherri and Shari also managed to create a nice balance of reaction between themselves, a sisterly bond that worked despite their very different backgrounds.

* I decided to let the PCs have essentially whatever resources they wanted. They each had significant wealth as well as the backing of their patron. We had a nice feel where the group could play wish fulfillment-- being able to get excellent service, the finest tables at bars and restaurants, tailored clothing done up quickly, vehicles at a moment's notice and so on. Vegas treats high-rollers well and I wanted to carry that ethos through. That was a nice change from other games where players end up having to scramble and manage those kinds of resources.

* Scion's character building system works well. It does create a nice empowering feeling for the PCs. There's some funkiness with the calculations for Legend (as a fixed stat) and Legend (as an expendable resource. But that only got in the way a couple of times. The idea of Epic Attributes providing both an automatic success as well as a special ability worked well. Most players looked to those rather than the Purview abilities.

* The Virtue System of Scion system worked really well. Usually in Storyteller you get an automatic success when you spend a point of Willpower. Instead in this system you got extra dice based on the value of the appropriate Virtue associated with the action. This did two things. First, each pantheon has a different set of possible Virtues which helps create a distinction between them. Second, players had to take a moment to justify why an action would be associated with a particular virtue.

*We had a lot of mythic stuff going on, but players seemed to handle it pretty well. Some of it was pretty easily recognizable, like the Alberich the Smith who ties into the Ring Cycle. However other details got a little more obscure, like the concept of the Slavic Pantheon and the Arthurian Mythos I threw in with the Fisher King references.

*Players took seriously the idea of Fate-binding. As I mentioned before I think Scion has a really great concept there. In the campaign the party realized that interacting with NPCs meant that over time they could be linked up with their own fates and destinies. They always recognized the dangers in that, and if someone did get linked up, they made sure to take care of them rather than leaving them out to dry.

*The PCs also took their own Mythic roles and duties seriously-- providing largess to others. We spent an hour one session just on the party's work to make a particular restaurant the hit of the strip. I made sure to follow up on that and confirm that their efforts had paid off. I think that's really important-- if players spend time and energy on something, especially as a group, the Gm should have an obligation to revisit those ideas and show the PCs what's happened. The GM also has an obligation not to simply kick over their sandcastles for story effect. Give the players victories.

*Some of the NPCs I came up with on the fly really stuck. I decided Mr. Geier would have hired a researcher for them, so I introduced a guy named Jet Jaguar (that's an old Godzilla reference for those of you not in the know). The PCs loved him and took great care of him. When he got injured late in the game, the PCs got blood in their eyes. A Scion of Sun Wukong from the Chinese Pantheon also drew great affection from the PCs-- she was so totally obnoxious. Finally I liked using Siegfried and Roy as magical gatekeepers for the Norse Pantheon in Vegas. They came off pretty well in the course of play. Plus we had a nice real world reference there.

*The final fight was pretty awesome, from my perspective. I overwhelmed them with the opposition-- and if they hadn't coordinated their actions I probably would have killed a couple of them. The final shot had Alan laying down the dead man's hand in front of the Fisher King at the card game. Shari raises the magic revolver at the Fisher King. We cut to the quiet lake outside the houseboat where the card game's taking place and just hear the sound of a single gunshot.

Bad
*I probably over-relied on borrowing from existing fictional sources. While it worked out in the end, it ran the risk of overcomplicating things. I'd borrowed from two distinct books and then had some of my own plot lines running through there. A couple of times I went a little too far off the reservations so that why something was happening wasn't immediately clear. That meant having to insert an NPC or go to the GM's voice to explain things. In particular I'm thinking of the serial killer scene (which borrowed from Sandman).

*I think I probably could have managed the game as well if I'd cut down on some of the plots and connections a little. As we began to roll into the last third I realized how many outstanding threads I had. Some got dropped (the airplanes in the desert thread) and some got resolved at a distance (the Church of the Desert thread). Some I welded together in a kind of hamfisted way. I wanted a particular threat to come up and so had two groups join together in an attack on the PCs. I had a logic to it, but it was a little convoluted. When I looked at it objectively I realized the players would and could only really draw one conclusion-- that certain of the key players were allied. They weren't, but by establishing that connection I had to backtrack and explain why that wasn't the case. While the scene itself was dramatic, it wasn't worth the confusion it generated.

*I like the idea of the rival Scion group. They're presented as adversaries in the basic book, but I modified them a little. However I only used them a little. That might have been for the best, I'm not sure. If I had used them I would have had to cut elsewhere significantly. In retrospect, I could have done with a little more planning on my side on that.

*While I like the Scion system, it does have a couple of real weaknesses. The first comes from the Purview system. These are a set of powers covering the aspects of the various gods. Buying into those associated with your divine parentage costs less. However those abilities seem significantly less potent and useful compared to the Knack system. A character gains a Knack when they buy a dot of an Epic Attribute. Given that the Epic Attributes themselves give benefits, you get more for your money. Most Purviews also require a long action for activation, reducing effectiveness in combat. Then there's the question of balance between the various Purviews. I don't usually need absolute balance, but I do want some parity. Some of the purviews end up being useful, while many would rarely come up in a game. Even if they did, they ended up weak. I'm of the mind that if something is narrow in scope, you make it a little more potent to compensate. I need to look at those when I run this again and see if there's some small alterations I can make...or if that's even needed.

*The other weakness comes from the basics of the combat and action system. Old Storyteller has a system for multiple actions that, while a nice idea, often broke down when PCs got to throwing around big dice pools. The Scion system uses some of the old ST dice mechanics but goes in another direction. The new Exalted 2e system uses the same approach. Scion maps initiative and action timing to a circular display with eight sections or wedges called Tics. Players make an “enter battle” roll. The character with the highest number of successes gets placed in Tic 1-- everyone else is placed relative to that based on successes. That does mean that there can be a fairly large number of Tics between the first and last person in the round-- that will be important later.

Each action a player takes has two costs-- a speed cost showing how many tics the action takes and a Defensive Value (DV) showing how much the number to hit them is reduced by. Players can combine two actions on an action but it costs more speed and DV. When a player takes their action, you move their marker on the chart an equal number of tics. When that tic comes up again, everyone in that wedge takes their action simultaneously. At first I really liked this system-- it had an interesting flexibility and made a significant difference in action choices. I bought a metal pizza pan, marked it up and used magnets with labels to track these things.

However after running several combats with the system several things become clear. First, Speed Kills. A character with a faster weapon will be in much, much better shape. They will have several more opportunities to act over the course of a combat, which is to be expected. But since you also reset your DV to normal when you take an action, it could be hard to wear them down to a manageable level. Second, other actions like activating Purviews and such cost a more speed than attacks and knacks. That means that if you want to do those things, you're going to be waiting a bit before you get to go again. Third, while I liked the chart, it could get in the way-- and it was difficult to make up markers big enough to be visible to everyone and still have room to fit within each wedge.

Overall the system really showed its weaknesses when we did some really big combats. Players had to make choices between their more interesting abilities and simply going for a swack. The difference in speed costs usually made the latter a better choice. On my side of things we also had the problem of the rapidly rising Defensive Values. In this system, Defense wins-- and more abilities seem to support defensive options. To hit someone you have to beat their DV in successes on your attack roll. Generally that means you have to be throwing a little less than twice their DV in dice to have a decent shot (7+ for successes, 10's count as two successes). Most DVs sat at around 7-8. This meant ordinary characters didn't have a real chance of hitting the PCs unless they coordinated-- an action which cost them time an opportunities. It took me a while to kind of work through those numbers and get comfortable with them and I suspect I'll have a better handle on them next time I run this.

*To solve some of these problems the next time I run, I'll probably make up a combat control and reference sheet for everyone. That will breakdown the cost and rules for each action for the players. It will also have space for them to record and track their own combat specific abilities so they don't have to hunt around their sheets. I think that will help speed up a couple of things. The system can be intuitive, but it looks enough like old Storyteller that it is easy to get confused.

Finally
I enjoyed this campaign much more than I thought I would, quite honestly. I expected a light breeze through game, but I ended up engrossed in the setting, story and the player characters. Except for a few problems getting a handle on the mechanics and my own penchant for overcomplication, I think it went well. I expect to return to these characters and this setting. I like the idea of having a campaign with three chapters, each set in a different city. Las Vegas had some interesting ideas as a certain kind of place. I look forward to exploring the environment of other cities-- probably one from the Midwest or old South and one from the East Coast. That will give me a chance to work through very different themes and see the evolution of the PCs.

Scion Campaign Post-Mortem Part One 
Scion Campaign Post-Mortem Part Two
Scion Campaign Post-Mortem Part Three
Scion Campaign Post-Mortem Part Four