Friday, July 12, 2013

Firstwave: Series Two: Lessons

FINITE CRISIS
The skies cleared, leaving our heroes standing. They'd faced seven gargantuan monsters from the depths, an army of the dammed, the Queen of Hel herself, and their own deceased and corrupted comrade Thor. NYC showed the scars- but Firstwave had won- in part due to allies they'd made. The Furies, supervillains Mister Miracle had stood up for; Quicksilver and the Morlocks, turned away from the path of Mutant supremacy; the Mole Man and his army, helping those who had stood up for him to the government; the Justice Luchadors, called back from retirement; and even jerry-rigged suits of defunct Iron Man armor. They won the battle which brought to a close the second arc of my Mutants & Masterminds campaign, Firstwave (campaign wiki here). 

For the first arc I'd aimed for 6-8 sessions and ended up with 13. This time I shot for a dozen sessions and finished the series out in 17 sessions. I had some general ideas at the start about what I wanted to see and do- some of which I got to and some of which ended up cut. The game rolled in many different directions- and I had a good time trying to hold the reins. I learned a few things in doing it.

When we finished the first series, I knew we'd have to come back. I took a couple of months off. Running superheroes can be tough- it requires more prep than most of my other campaigns. That's a relative measure. I'm a prep-lite GM but with mysteries I like to sketch out different leads, clues, and approaches. I wing those less.  I stat supervillains in greater details ahead of time. But one of the biggest time-sucks comes from visual presentation. At home when I run a fight I have years of accumulated scenics, miniatures, and a battle mat. For a tactical superhero fight using Roll20, I want the same or greater pizazz. That means first finding, drawing, or adapting great maps. HeroClix maps are good, but most rpg battlemaps have been drawn for fantasy games. When I've found modern maps, they're often tightly drawn corridor-fests. That's not as useful for a colossal battle. I also need to collect art and make up tokens. Since I'm running in a weird combo DC/Marvel universe, it isn't that hard to find images for the bad guys. But I try to track down new drawings or costume redesigns (like those of Project Rooftop). For example, I used the hybridized Batman villains created by deviantART artist gingashi. Getting the right artwork, organizing it, scaling and zoning maps, and getting the tokens ready takes up time. But that time's worth it- the fights run well and look good.

BUILDING THE NEW CAMPAIGN
I had set up a number of elements in the first arc I wanted to come back to. Primarily I wanted to explore further the idea of the Cabal. This secret order of superbeings had controlled the world for decades- hiding the reality of superpowers. Think the bad guys from the Wanted comic or the Illuminati from Marvel. They'd vanished, which had led to the apparent new emergence of superheroes two years ago. The group had uncovered some of that secret history, including an abandoned base which they'd appropriated. Second, I'd introduced some McGuffin gems in the first arc. They'd learned more about one, but more existed so I wanted to develop that. Third, I had an idea for a Joker homage- based on the PCs having dunked a psychic supervillainess in toxic sludge during one of their battles.

But most importantly I had to deal with the question of the death of one of the PCs at the end of the last arc. Thor had sacrificed himself to destroy Starro, the Great Old One. He'd actually managed that with a nat twenty to seal the deal, so it had been pretty amazing. I asked Thor's player what he wanted to do- a classic comic book death and return, a completely new character, or something else. He suggested playing Loki- but disguised as Thor. He's been reading some recent Marvel comics with a more sympathetic spin on young Loki. He wanted to run him as a bad guy infiltrating the group, with an eventual aim of destroying his brother's reputation and legacy. I liked it and we brought Thor back towards the end of the first session. Then, during the second or third session, we did a scene that revealed to the players- but not their characters- that Thor was actually Loki.

That worked really well- it engaged the rest of the group in that story. They played off of that without playing a gotcha game of trying to figure out the truth. Instead everyone got more enjoyment out of those moments where I put Loki in the vise. As time went on, Loki slowly began to relish the attention and adulation of the public. He stepped forward to be heroic- even when his fellow heroes didn't quite reach those standards. We had a great moment late in the game where Tony Stark recovered from a strong moment of hubris, spurred on by Loki's words to realize his errors. I enjoyed the whole arc- and the players still weren't sure exactly what the secret was- was this actually Loki? Thor brainwashed? A Skrull? Or something else?

STRUCTURE
I started out the campaign arc in the middle of a fight- with villains drawn from City of Heroes. The play group had been heavily invested in that for years, before moving on to Champions Online and other games. CoH closed right around the time of this session, so it fit together pretty well. I'd given the group a set of “interludes” and then I followed that up with some news reports offering them different cases to look into. I tried to mix up been fighting and investigation sessions and change up the combats and interactions. We had two or three sessions which were purely the group chasing down different threads and deciding where they wanted to go. However, these players keep focus- more than many other groups I've run for. They choose a task and run with it.

The second act of the arc began with the battle against Dr. Simian and his cyber-ape corps. That led back to connections with the Cabal and more revelations of the nature of the world. The second act introduced questions and arguments about the treatment of super-criminals, the Mutant issue, and the idea that someone had been studying the group. The third act began when some of the group's research paid off and they discovered the location of one of the lost crystals. That led to a fight on a college campus. But while absent, a set of supervillains took over their base and held some loved ones hostage. So we had a session of the group fighting their way through their own defenses, essentially a dungeon crawl. They then fought the bad guys, but a supervillain they'd been holding snuck out and stole another one of the gems. That led immediately to the group tracking him down and facing the real Tony Stark who turned out to be Kang the Conquerer. Having barely defeated him and a dozen Iron man suit, they came out to see NYC overrun by Hel's army.

LESSONS
  • We made the switch from TTF to Roll20 early in the process. I’d been worried, but Roll20 proved stronger and more robust that TTF. You cansee my initial impressions here. That bore out through the rest of the campaign. I have a few quibbles with the program, but it gives amazing results. We did opt to use Skype instead on the in-service voice chat. Since we weren’t using video feeds, it wasn’t a loss. It also fixed a weird chat lag two of the players had.
  • I have a couple of tropes I tend to fall back on. For one I like the idea that the players make friends and allies throughout a campaign and those come back either directly in the field at the end or as an abstract resource. That’s something that offers a payoff for taking the time to work at those interactions. For another, I like to make the last several sessions a downhill run- picking up speed with no real downtime between events. In this case the players ran from fight to fight to fight- with some change up in terms of structure and obstacles (like having to dungeon crawl their way through the base). The problem I had here was that we had a couple of breaks for events and obligations, so it didn’t keep quite the energy I wanted. I like both of these techniques, but I have to recognize that I when I use them so I don’t become predictable.
  • I really like the zone combat system I’ve used for this. It avoids specific measurements of distance (which M&M frankly does badly). It scales well across maps. More importantly it makes play easy- really important for an online game.
  • For M&M savants, I’m glad I capped Luck. Hero Points remain the most effective power in the game. I had a few others I also put the kibosh on- Concealment is super-cheap for what it does, as is any power which offers a double effect (like Disintegrate). If we do a third and more cosmic arc, I’m considering taking the limits on powers (but not Luck) off to see what they can do. And I’ll respond in kind.
  • I build several interesting modern maps (a cool elevated train platform, a meta-human gym, their base) usually from pieces I found on the web. I ended up especially pleased with two of the battlemats. In one case I found a brochure drawing of a small college campus which I cleaned up and adapted. They then fought across and through the various buildings. For the final battle, I found a b&w map of the south end of New York City. I cleaned that up and then increased the brightness to map it more greyscale. It ended up pretty effective, I think.
  • I need to make a Firstwave logo.