Thursday, August 18, 2016

Gaming Pipeline: The Campaigns Must Flow

(Who has two thumbs and still hasn’t been able to finish writing up his feelings about Gen Con? This Guy.) I’m in a gaming transition trough, with several just wrapped campaigns and others kicking off. That’s always a crazy but satisfying time. That hit simultaneously with the lead up work to (and post con drop from) Gen Con. Here’s my docket.

Just before Gen Con we wrapped up Guards of Abashan, a 2+ year fantasy city-guards campaign. So last Friday I solicited feedback and reactions to the campaign and the iteration of Action Cards we’d used. Everyone had positive comments, but zeroed in on a few problem areas. 

1) Overall the revised magic system worked. But I need to tweak effects with multiple targets. In this version I restricted those too much in the name of parity with normal actions. As a result taking the casting risks for AoEs lacked a payoff. As well the magical chart system I used, trying to emulate Mutant City Blues’ Quade Diagram, didn’t work or add anything to the game. 2) I needed better visualization throughout the campaign: collaborative maps of the city and their neighborhood would have helped. Simple, rough drawings would have been huge. On a related when we did the collaborative city-building at the start we had a couple of players who weren’t there. That put them a step off. In the future if we’re using that tool, everyone who is going to play has to be there or we delay. 3) At points in the campaign I should have reincorporated material rather than adding new elements. The players lost track of which incidents to follow up on. I’ve working on managing that as a GM, but it got away from me in spots. We ended up with several dangling plots.4) The players would have liked more emphasis on and concrete results for building up their neighborhood.

After that I presented three options for the next campaign. I set the ground rule that this would be 6-12 sessions long, with the option to re-up if all the players want. Any campaign options not chosen would be on the table for the future (unless they clearly weren’t of interest). I offered The Sprawl, Urban Shadows, and Mutant:Year Zero, either in the basic form or using Genlab Alpha. The group decided to do a ranked, secret vote. In the end standard MYZ won with 17 points, but weirdly all the others tied with 14 points apiece. That’s cool and I know we’ll get to one of the others in the future.

I haven’t written much about Mutant: Year Zero on the blog. I picked it up late last year and fell in love with it. Originally I’d hoped to run it for a new f2f group, but that fell through. Through the miracle of poor impulse control I ended up with the core book, supplemental cards, multiple sets of dice, maps, and two copies of GenLab Alpha. MYZ looks crunchy on the surface. It has d6s in three colors with funny symbols, resource tracking for survival, and lengthy ‘stuff’ lists. But it’s actually simple. The designers mashed up classic simple trad with lessons from Apocalypse World. It has clean playbooks, questions for building character relations, easy social mechanics, improv threat generation, and a system for community building. But it also has random mutations, checks for using equipment, several damage tracks, and a serious system for ‘hex-crawling’ the Zone.

The community building’s especially appealing given that the players had wanted to see more of that in Guards of Abashan. Mutant: Year Zero rates your community, called an Ark, in four Development areas: Food, Culture, Technology, and Warfare. At the start of each session players select a Project. These offer new buildings, services, or structures. They require work points which players at the Ark generate by making relevant skill checks. When you complete a project you roll Xd6 and add that value to the area’s DEV value. For example a new Pig Pen generates 2d6 towards Food. Better projects require certain development levels, offer better returns, and even affect multiple areas. You can set up an expedition into the Zone as a project. Technology and relics play into this. When players find artifacts in the Zone, they can use them easily if their Ark’s has a high enough Tech Dev. As well they can turn in each artifact to the “Dawn Vault” of the Ark. If a player gives up their loot, they add to the Ark’s ratings. It’s a nice, hard choice.

We did character creation, ending up with a nice mix of roles and mutations. Players liked the mechanic for assigning relationships and choosing a “buddy” for you emotional support. The group chose a lake-filled region from among the six MYZ maps I had. They marked a spot on it and decided that their Ark would be an old camping grounds. We used the white board on the wall to draw out the camp’s layout and features. I’ll looking forward to the first session of play.

I’ve posted a couple of times about this campaign which runs every Wednesday on Roll20. I last ran 13th Age for this group a year ago and M&M 2e before that. I shifted us over to Mutants & Masterminds 3e this time. Four weeks in, I’m still trying to get my feet under me. The complete shift over to effects-based definitions in this edition takes some getting used to. I’m a Champions vet, so I’m familiar with those kinds of mechanics, but it’s been awhile. I’d forgotten how that can skew player approaches. It opens the door to “what effects do I want for my character” over “who is my character?” In the previous campaign I did all the initial builds so I could offer niche protection. Here we’ve hit some bumps with players duplicating roles and strengths. Hopefully we’ll get that sorted out.

I used to be an old hand at M&M 2e; I could run it without the book. I haven’t gotten to that point at all with M&M 3e. Green Ronin’s done some great system standardizations, but that comes with a massive list of conditions. Conditions have definite effects and serve as a cornerstone for many powers. But even my reduced cheat sheet for these clocks in at two pages: one for basic conditions and the other for compound ones. I’m also weirdly having a hard time keeping straight all the new stat names. I know I’ll get the hang of it eventually but right now it’s frustrating to have that eat up my attention when running.

There’s the added wrinkle of using Roll20 to play. I like the program, but it does mean I end up burning more time than I’d like finding cool maps and getting tokens put together. Eventually I’ll hit a critical mass and I can coast, but I’m still wasting a couple of hours a week on this. Also Roll20’s being really weird with my camera. We played Tuesday and it broadcast fine. We played Wednesday and it wouldn’t show my video feed. I wish they’d get their audio/video component in better shape. It’s been a constant source of complaints since the beginning. Finally I’ve been looking at how I handle movement and distance on those maps. I’d steered away from grids & hexes. Instead I’d used a modified zone system. But that meant drawing in the zones and weirdness with area effects. I’m thinking about biting the bullet and just using hexes despite how crunchy that feels. Am I trad phobic?

Beyond the mechanical side I’ve been trying to incorporate more story game elements. I mentioned using Microscope to build the recent campaign history. For the character creation session, I used the “How Did Your Team Come Together?” questions from Masks to build their “origin story” narrative. I also mentally matched each PCs to one of the Masks archetypes. I used backstory questions from those playbooks to find out more about the characters. In the first session I followed up with an hour of more character questions what’s one weird thing tied to your origin you’ve seen recently? how do you live day to day? who is the most recent villain you’ve taken down solo? I used some of those answers to build the first session fight. I’m also using all of those answers to build the “threats” for the campaign. Urban Shadows has a great structure for defining and shaping threats and countdown clocks. The PCs are trying to bring order to their city, so I’m lifting from that urban conspiracy PbtA game to craft the fronts they have to deal with.

In a couple of weeks I’m running three sessions of Legacy: Life Among the Ruins for The Gauntlet. It’s a post-apocalyptic PbtA game with fantastic elements. It’s closer in tone to Numenera or early Gamma World. The lost world had some form of advanced “technology” which shattered civilization. Strange things and relics pepper the landscape.

Players have two playbooks: one for family (5 choices) and one for character (8 choices). Legacy feels a level removed from the characters from other PbtA games. They still drive the action, but their choices revolve around solving community problems more than wrestling with their own demons. PCs have a position of influence and command within their family. That gives access to special moves. Legacy has a system for bonds at the family level, called Treaty. But there’s no character-level mechanic for that. It also has some modest resource management in the system (tracking surplus and tech). 

I’ve been putting together the online character spreadsheet and trying to get a feel for the playbooks. For the first session we’ll do some world-building. That involves figuring out the nature of the fall, describing our territory, and coming up with some details about settlements. We’ll draw a shared map to establish a sense of geography. That should help give the game some shape.

This will be a learning experience for me. I’m curious about Legacy’s play. It has a generational mechanic, but I doubt we’ll hit that in three sessions. I’m particularly interested in getting a feel for the MC’s role in Legacy. I can’t quite tell if it’s more or less directed than other like systems. One oddness is the lack of any real discussion of the PvP aspects of this kind of game. There’s more about how to hack Legacy to other purposes than a consideration of how to handle PC conflicts.

A few months ago I’d never watched any real wrestling beside luche libre movies from when we lived in Mexico. That’s changed now. I’ve watched Lucha Underground, NXT, Cruiserweight Classic, Monday Night RAW, Smackdown Live, and several New Japan Wrestling G1 events. I’ve hunted around YouTube for commentaries and listened to podcasts. Last night I found myself watching and writing down the set ups, storylines, and theatrics I saw. I’ve even read a couple of books on the pro-wrestling: all because I enjoy the World Wide Wrestling game so much.

So far I’ve run four sessions of it, three online and one f2f. I set both groups in the same promotion, so I’ve been able to use characters from one to populate the other. WWW remains super fun and I’m crazy excited about the release of the expansion book International Incident this week. I’m still a rank amateur, but I don’t care. I’m having a great time with it. I’m going to keep running infrequent sessions of this promotion; maybe I’ll try to rope in new groups or at the very least get sit-in guest stars. If I get the ambition together I’d like to run an actual 5-10 session season online.

I’m GMing two other campaigns. We’re about halfway through a one-year Middle Earth game using Action Cards. They’re just moving into another story arc. In Ocean City Interface we’re about halfway through the Assassins of the Golden Age portal. We’ll finish that in 3-4 sessions, shift back to the Alpha world, and start cycling through the previous portals.

I mentioned WWW above as something I want to run online. Beyond that, if the Gauntlet sessions go well, I’d like to try more there. I might run Fellowship or Worlds in Peril (as part of my “PbtA Games I’m Unsure About” series). I’d also like to run more 13th Age online, hopefully with some of the players from the campaign I ran earlier this year. I want do several sessions of Kingdom, a great and overlooked game. Plus I have two games I need to get to the table for feedback.

I’d hoped to go to Metatopia again this year, but it isn’t going to work. The continuing awful job search, house repairs, and obligations in October means we can’t swing it. Not great.
I’m only playing two ongoing games. Rolemaster continues despite scheduling hiccups. We should be hitting a major turning-point there. Rich Rogers just started a short Monster of the Week campaign for Mondays. I think he has something else he want to run after that to finish out his Ladder of Insanity rankings.

  • Finishing out my Base Raiders 13th Age conversion
  • Seeing if Magic, Inc works better with a PbtA approach
  • Revising Right of Succession rules
  • Finish Atelier World rules
  • Superhero board game build on the model of Robinson Crusoe or Castaways
  • Another serious pass at the Action Cards book
  • Revise Crowsmantle into some kind of publishable state
  • Another pass at the Wuxia PbtA hack
  • Nights Black Agents co-op boardgame
  • Doing Scion with another system
  • Monster Hunter Style boardgame
  • Harvest Moon Stories ala Golden Sky Stories
  • Adding to Ghostlines
  • Doing DUXS with PbtA
  • A Rotted Capes frame for Masks
  • Handling modern, more serious Spy rping with something like PbtA
  • Alternate Advancement and Milestones for Fate
  • Card mechanics for Action Cards in Roll20
  • A Rune Factory style monsters & farming game
  • Fate Accelerated Jet Set Radio
  • Changeling the Lost using Urban Shadows
  • Revision of earlier History of RPG genre series into consolidated ebooks
  • Random cards for generating events on journeys
  • Right of Succession dice
  • My mob board game with heat and gift currency
  • More Play on Target recording, getting more cool and diverse sit-in guest hosts

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