Friday, September 30, 2011

As We Head Into October...

And then there was Halloween '79 when I told my mother I wanted to go as a Shambling Mound from the Monster Manual.
No, I don't know why a Shambling Mound has a ray gun. Treasure Type Y, maybe?

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Atelier Auzumel: Session One

We had the first "session" of our one-on-one Alchemist campaign, using Strands of FATE as the basic rules. The campaign attempts to emulate the feel of the Atelier series of rpgs. I talked about that in yesterday's post; you can find a pdf file with the rules and materials for the campaign here. Each session consists of a month- though that may take a couple of sittings to get through. Each month has four weeks with ten units of work time.

Main Character: Mathilde Compos, member of an alchemist family with a mixed reputation.

Mathilde returns home after graduating from the Torvadi Academy- the newest of the alchemical schools and the least regarded. She receives a letter from an black-sheep Uncle, Dor Compos. Despite never having heard of this uncle, Tilly has been offered his shop in the city of Batstad as a legacy. Tilly consults with her family who try to dissuade her from going. Batstad is at the fringes of the Kingdom of Govril, in the mysterious and dangerous Valley of Doubtfall. She presses on and is assigned two house retainers of her age to go with her: Konrad Appel, a loyal and cheery house servant and Jessika Cherry, a sharp-tongued former lady-in-waiting now exiled.

After an extensive and journey (which I imagine happening under the opening credits). Tilly, her two servants, her cart and her mule arrive in the Valley of Doubtfall. They’re escorted by a knight of the city, Arjan Blanker, who warns them of the dangers of wandering unescorted in the valley. Monsters and beasts haunt the paths and ruins. Tilly sees the strange geography of the area- a patchwork of terrain types and climates from jungle to snow-cover, from desert to forest. Eventually they reach the city of Batstad. There Tilly calls on the legal agent (among many duties) Nikodemus, who assumes that the alchemist will want him to sell the shop. He’s surprised when she declines and states that she plans to make a go of it. Her takes her there and hands over the keys, passing on two key pieces of information. First, her Uncle isn’t dead- but instead scuttled off under cover of darkness. Second, he’s left behind significant debts which Tilly will be obligated to cover.

Tilly, Konrad and Jessika survey the shop. It has two floors and seems to have been a perfumery. The facilities are modest- some bottles left behind, a workshop and lab, a simple sales counter and some basic shelves. Creditors may have come through to take loose goods, judging by the recently repaired door. Tilly locates some of her Uncle’s notes- and his quest for an "Ultimate Aroma" which would attune itself to the wearer. Her Uncle had some contacts, but seems to have run from one idea to another in his work. Mathilde decides to settle down to work.


Staff Assignments: Konrad: Alchemical Processing (create temp goods for sale); Jessika: sprucing up the showroom (adding a temporary tag to the shop).

1. Alchemical Processing: Convert goods rating (1) into temp goods (TG) (3)
2. General Research: Tilly finds out about a client of her Uncle and determines she needs to get her favor (Lady Dalsgaard). Doing so will require having the shop look better. She calculates it will cost three temp assets (TA) to do an OK job, but 5 TA to do a good job. She and Jessika contact another former client of her uncle, the Chef Axel Terkelsen. Terkelsen is willing to lend the lovely ladies the money, but she will have to remove a vat of noxious and sticky alchemy ingredients sealed away in his basement, a legacy of her uncle.
3. Research Recipe: Tilly tries to come up with a recipe for a Talc Powder which will cover and keep the noxious liquid from sticking. She succeeds with spin, allowing her to set the suit of ingredients needed.
4. Alchemy: Tilly attempts and actually makes the Super Talc powder.
5. Research Recipe: To seal the cask, Tilly researches and comes up with a liquid which will harden quickly. This Super Shell will have multiple purposes. She creates the recipe.
6. Alchemy: Tilly brews the Super Seal. In-Between Event: Tilly, Konrad and Jessika go to the restaurant in the middle of the night to remove the stinking vat. They unseal the basement door and enter the dimly lit wine cellar. The stink of the place stands their hair on end- the odor has turned all the wine to vinegar. Tilly sees the cask, but also a Stink Puni which attacks her. She fights it off. The group seals the vat and takes it away. Tilly obtains a couple of alchemical ingredients from the adventure.
7. Alchemical Processing: Converting one TG into three TG.
8. Adventuring (Two Units): Tilly learns of the closest and safest place to explore, the path to Demon Pond. She sets out.
9. Adventuring (continued): Tilly fights through the three survival rolls of the first leg of the outdoor dungeon. She takes some damage and harvests some ingredients. She reaches the first event- finding her path blocked by a large bee. She moves to engage the bee and takes a hit to her arm. She runs for it.
10. Private Action: Tilly arranges a meeting with Lady Dalsgaard. They talk about her needs- and Tilly convinces her to give the store support. This action raises the shop’s Client rating from 0 to 1.

Staff Assignments: Konrad: Sales (exchange one good or temp good for one temp asset); Jessika: Sales.

1. Crafting: The swordswoman Zeldala Katsura arrives at the shop. She carries a fine blade which has some damage to it. Tilly studies the blade- she can sharpen and clean it, but the necessary repairs will require a Magical Whetstone. Zeldala explains she has no money and the two of them come to an arrangement. Zeldala will join her as an adventurer and Tilly will work to getting the blade back to its proper state. Zeldala agrees and Tilly gains her first Party Member.
2. Harvesting: Tilly explores and uncovers a harvesting point in the city. She gathers ingredients.
3. Sales: Tilly converts one TG into some TA. She uses the Client bonus on this check.
4. Alchemy: Tilly brews some healing potions. She uses ingredients offering the Forcefull factor several times. This allows her to increase the number of wounds the potion heals.
5. Adventuring (Two Units): Tilly and Zeldala return to the Demon Pond path. They travel the first leg and easily best the large bee this time.
6. Adventuring (continued): The party continues onto the second leg of the Demon Pond Path. They take some damage from survival rolls and reach the second event, three giant bees. They opt to fall back.
7. Resting: Tilly recovers and heals wound.
8. Conversion: Tilly heads to the shops to convert ingredients for like ingredients. Her roll allows her to make four exchanges.
9. Alchemical Processing: Coverting 1 TG to 3 TG.
10. Alchemy: Tilly brews Fire and Smoke potions. Spin on the former allows her to create an extra potion.

Staff Assignments: Konrad: Sales (exchange one good or temp good for one temp asset); Jessika: Sales.

1. Sales: Tilly pitches in to convert one TG to multiple TA. She receives news that in addition to the 5 TA debt she took on to get the shop spruced up, she’ll also have to pay 10 TA of additional debt at the end of the month- those creditors whom Nikodemas couldn’t put off. She also puts up posters around town, searching for another member to add to her party. She offers a share of the goods as well as room and board (if they’re small).
2. Research Recipe: Tilly researches a recipe for a better version of her Punch Stick, the Punchier Stick which allows her to apply a variable elemental effect.
3. Alchemy: She crafts the basic effect to imbue into her new wand. After this she receives a visit from a travelling salesperson, Cordia Wrathpol, Adventurer Accountant. She has a mini-Athanor, an important forging device for alchemy. They negotiate a price and Tilly ends up spending 10 TA to buy it. This exhausts her resources, but the shop’s Foundry value moves from 0 to 1.
4. Crafting: Tilly crafts her Punchier Stick.
5. Alchemical Processing: Converting one good to multiple TG.
6. Sales: Converting one good or TG to multiple TA. As well, Tilly finally gets a response to her advertisement. Tamarack Tinder, a tiny panda-like beastman in full-plate walks in. He offers his services in a formal manner, making sure the store is doing noble rather than purely mercenary good. Tinder and Zeldala do not hit it off- Tinder has a somewhat closed few regarding female warriors.
7. Adventuring (Two Units): Tilly, Zeldala and Tamarak return to the Demon Pond path. They travel the first leg and second leg, easily besting the large bees. Zeldala possesses a quick blade, while Tamarack offers expert defensive skills.
8. Adventuring (continued): The party continues onto the third leg of the Demon Pond Path. They take some damage from survival rolls and reach the final event. There at the pond, they see an Enormous Queen Bee and four Honey Puni’s, which look like bouncing and delicious gelatin monsters. Tilly wants to pull back, but Tamarack’s instincts kick in and her charges the tasty-looking beasts. The group engages in a hard-fought battle- taking a chunk of damage and using up a number of potions in the process. However, they win in the end. Tilly gathers some valuable ingredients and checks out a nearby ancient bell. It seems to have a message on it, but the tarnish and grime makes it illegible. Tilly takes a sample of the material.
9. Resting: The group rests and heals damage (since none of it was persistent).
10. Alchemical Processing: Converting one good to multiple TG.

Staff Assignments: Konrad: Restocking- refreshing the permanent Goods value of the shop; Jessika: Sales.

1. Alchemical Processing: Converting one good to multiple TG.
2. Sales: Converting two TG to multiple TA
3. Sales: Converting one good or TG to multiple TA
4. Upkeep: Each month the alchemist must spend time in repairs, reassurance, restoration, restocking and reinforcement for the various parts of the shop. Tilly must spend five units this month or risk values dropping.
5. Upkeep
6. Upkeep
7. Upkeep
8. Upkeep
9. Sales: Converting one good or TG to multiple TA
10. Sales: Converting one good or TG to multiple TA

Tilly manages to pay off her 15 TA debt, leaving her with 6 TA. These she uses to make up for the various payment checks on the different parts of the shop. Each has a difficulty and she has to spend 1 TA to gain a +1 to the roll. She ends up with 1 TA and 1 TG which vanish. She gets twenty development points for herself, twenty for the shop and twenty for the NPCs.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Brewing the Alchemy Campaign: Last Notes

Here's some final thoughts on the alchemy campaign I built over the last couple of weeks. I finished up the work and ran almost ten hours of it for my wife. I spotted a few overlooked areas and technical problems which we corrected on the fly. Afterwards I sat down and added most of that to the campaign outline. You can find the full pdf document here, if you’re interested- it offers the basic mechanics using the Strands of FATE system. Character and shop sheets can be found here. It could easily be adapted over to another FATE campaign. Or if there are more fans of Atelier style games, they could thumb through this. More usefully, it offers some ideas for running a one-on-one shop-based campaign. Some people really enjoy building games and perhaps some of the pieces from this could be used elsewhere. You can find my earlier discussion on this here and here.

Between my last post on the campaign idea and this one I worked my way through the list of things to do. Most important was to get the character creation stuff done. Sherri was chomping at the bit. I put together character sheets for her PC and for the shop. Then I created the list of advantages. I decided to focus these on things she would likely want, rather than creating a fully-rounded set. I would create specialty abilities for the Party NPCs as needed- rather than sticking to these. I also decided to split advantages into two types- Skill Advantages, which essentially work like skills in other games and Standard Advantages. You can see the full list in the document I linked to. Then I figured out how many points she would have to distribute. Below is the character she came up with:

Mathilde Compos
Aspects: "Sees Things for What They Could Be"; "Compos By Name, Mathilde By Method"; Motto: "Choose, Improve"; She Graciously Will Allow You to Carry Her Books; "Never, Ever Let the Nickname Stick"

Craft 3
Knowledge 4
(Things Are What They Are)
Reasoning 3
Willpower 3
(You Can Only Control Yourself)
Deception 1
mpathy 2 (What People Like About Themselves)
Persuasion 1
Resources 1

Agility 1
Endurance 2
Perception 3
(Glasses- Cute With; Blind Without)
Strength 1

Standard Advantages: Adventurer Accountant, Monster Hunter, Dizzying Intellect, Assessment, Master Librarian (How to Practice Anything, Etiquette, Bargaining), True Friend
Skill Advantages: +1 Alchemy, +1 Form Making, +1 Harvesting, +1 Sincere Compliments

As you can see- Strands of FATE uses a slightly different approach to attributes/characteristics than other FATE systems. That actually made it easier for me to get a handle on it when I first read the rules.

The other task was to figure out if I would have any other neat stuff to pick from for the Shop. I decided against it- I didn’t want to build a list of advantages and options ahead of time. Instead, I would offer those later in play- requiring Sherri to spend resources or development points to buy special things for the shop. She’d also be limited by space available. I did allow her to pick one general and two specialty aspects for the shop. She decided on the following:

Aspect: Former Perfumery
Specialty Aspects: Fabulous Bottles (Displays); Compos Family Retainers (Staff)
PHYSICALxxxxxComfort 1xxxxxDisplays 1xxxxxSpace 1
PEOPLExxxxxClients 0xxxxxContacts 0xxxxxStaff 2
WORKxxxxxArchive 1xxxxxFoundry 0xxxxxLaboratory 1
RESOURCESxxxxxAssets 0xxxxxReputation 0xxxxxGoods 1

If you want a better game, keep clearly in mind campaign you want to play while building the rules. In my case, beyond emulating a particular kind of video game I had several other factors to consider. I could afford to have a significant amount of bookkeeping and put that tracking in the hands of the player. In fact, that particular player enjoyed that kind of challenge and working through fiddly details represented a value challenge. I also know I want the campaign to be long-term and scalable. The early sessions should be hard- with difficult challenges and tight constraints on resources. But the game should also be able to offer those challenges later on, after the player’s gotten established and settled. To that end, several factors remain open to be decided later: the monthly debt pool, the costs of upgrades (and what they are), what later recipes look like, the difficulty of dungeon survival rolls. The many open options and systems mean I can tailor the experience as the game progresses.

At least the first session of play ended up being pretty tight. She tried out the various action and worked to get a sense of how much time she would need to keep the shop going. I threw in a couple of difficult choices along the way. As I hoped, she ended up with almost no resources unspent at the end of the session. Eventually, her skills and resources will improve- allowing her to make more adventurous choices, but I wanted the first session to have some real pressure. I will post the full session write up tomorrow.

1. Ingredients in the game have a rank, a suit and a factor. Those factors can be negative or positive. To assemble this I put wrote up a large list of ingredients and of factors. Then I randomized to organize that into suits, ranks and associated factors. That worked pretty well. However, if I were to do this again, I’d do some more tinkering to make the list feel a little more natural- that simpler ingredients have a lower rank. I’d also make sure some of the real useful positive factors would appear higher up in the ranking. The other change I made to alchemy was to add "Required Ingredients" to some of the recipes. That will allow me to customize special ones- especially quest recipes.

2. I put together the NPCs she’ll add to her group over time. These would be Party NPCs- who could go along in the field and adventure with her; Staff NPCs who could carry out weekly tasks; and Specialist NPCs who would offer bonuses and carry out special actions. These last two would be based on the stores Staff and Contacts scores respectively. In some cases, an NPC can be slotted into more than one of these areas. This means the player will have to make some choices. She has, for example, eight characters who can be Party members, but only five slots.

3. Each NPC begins with a set of aspects- with both she and I can invoke those in play. They also have five traits- negative personality quirks- rated from -5 to -1. These traits can be improved over time (through actions or spending NPC points). This tries to simulate the NPCs each having their own story arc and set of problems which need to be solved in the course of the campaign. I also decided that NPCs would each have a set of Special Bonuses, Ranked from One to Five. For example, the Rank One ability for the staff member Jessika is that she can sell one good for two assets (instead of one). Tamarack Tinder’s Rank One ability is that he adds +1 to the Armor Rating of his fellow party members. In order to buy new abilities, the player has improve the NPC’s negative traits.

4. I found the experience system hard to develop. I didn’t want improvement to be that sudden. I think the costs work pretty well- judging by her purchases at the end of the session. I will probably put some limits on advantage buying or raise those costs as the campaign progresses. I used a slightly different point scale from Strands of FATE (about half) because the numbers get weird later when they’re scaled that high.

5. Left out of the rules is an action we developed on the fly: Trading or Conversion. This action allows the alchemist to exchange ingredients of one type for those of an equal or lower value type. For example, "Foul Water" is a Rank Three Clubs ingredient with a negative factor. The alchemist could exchange that for another Rank Three or less ingredient with a negative factor. The alchemist rolls Persuasion + Contacts and that’s the total number of ingredients she can exchange.

I’m really pleased with this exercise. The game has played out better than I hoped at the table. There’s some significant GM downtime as the player calculates the possible combinations of ingredients, so I have to be ready for that. The play feels balanced and some of the interactions have been fun. It certainly isn’t a game for everyone- probably for only one person. She still doesn’t like the FATE dice, decrying them as cruel taskmasters- but I’m liking the FATE system.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Robot Zero Tuesday: June 13th, 201X

Previous Entry

The Adventure Continues!

I hate all of you. Actually, I only hate those of you running around with mostly flesh on. I hate so much that when I turned off my Emotionator to cool down I was still hating. I’m hating so hard I burned it into my circuit boards.

Actually, I don’t have circuit boards per se—close but not that primitive, of course now I’m really behind the curve, but we’ll come to that. I’ve put on a little soothing Kraftwerk and now I’m feeling better, not so hatey. I can get back to the reason that I’m upset. You see…may have noticed the significant gap between my first journal entry and this one. Let me tell you how that came to be.

We were riding to intercept Warp Master who had been spotted making his way towards the Ignacio Flats Nuclear Power Station. After the last time we’d fought him, Prof. Professor had rigged up a scanner to detect his particular energy signature if he reoccurred. Scientists were testing an experimental weapon and ripped a hole in the fabric of space and time—again—and let the Warp master back in. We had a full complement on the Justice Hopper that day. I was there first and jumped in the co-pilot’s seat, but Dr. Boom suggested that I head to the back; he’d recently made some “adjustments” to the controls that might make them sensitive to my magnetic resonance. Uh-huh. Technobabble apparently trumps calling shotgun. Boom kept the seat clear until Lumina came in. This is the woman who leaks kilo-joules of energy when she doesn’t pay attention versus my “magnetic resonance.” I noticed that Boom had also adjusted the AC vents so they blew directly at the middle of the passenger seat. Anyway, besides those two we had Nukulator, Prof. Professor (with the pipe again, he’s got some kind of oral fixation), Mockraven and Archer Eagle. Dr. Boom paired everyone off and of course I got stuck with recon again. By myself.

If it was me I would have left Archer Eagle at home. I have a basic problem with someone who can’t decide what kind of super he wants to be. Mockraven gets away with it because he’s a mystic and they never maintain thematic consistency. Me, I’m a Robot—electro bolts, shock shields, a little bit of enhanced strength and toughness from my armored body and static flight. I mean flight based on static electricity, not that I fly in one place. In any case, that’s what I do and everything makes sense. Archer Eagle has wings and a bow. Sometimes he decides he’s going to swoop down and do some old fashioned punching, using his wings for momentum and agility. Most of the time he flies up into the air and fires off arrows into bad guys. He flies way off into the air. When he’s that high he has a hard time picking targets, so he uses explosive arrows to deal with bad guys.

Or any of us who happen to be standing nearby.

If he flies closer he can actually hit his targets but then he alternates between the stupidest trick arrows (Acidic Sponge Arrows, Inflatable Cat Arrows, etc) and actually putting real arrows through the bad guys. Then he apologizes and says that he got his real arrows mixed up with his blunt arrows and that he didn’t mean to put that guy’s eye out. My problem is that if you’re going to be a flying hero, be a flying hero and if you’re going to be an archer then get down here. He might as well have a sniper rifle or a mortar, which would have the same effect, but no, he has arrows and suddenly he’s a cool hero and number two in sales.

In any case, we get down on the ground and break into our teams: Dr. Boom and Lumina (shock!), Prof. Professor and Mockraven—which actually amuses me since they hate each other, not in a friendly banter kind of way but more in a let me push you off into this vat or boiling acid way, and Nukulator and Archer Eagle—because you really want to put the least level headed and most heavily armed heroes together when you’re fighting in a nuclear plant. And me. By myself.

Let me cut past all the middle part—hunting down Warp Master, battling his minions, desperately trying to prevent a chain reaction because something strangely like an arrow hit a control panel—and cut to the chase. We ended up near the core which the Warp Master was trying to absorb to power his ability to suck all of the surrounding county into the great beyond. Most of us were tied up with the transdimensional minions he’d managed to summon and something had to be done. I realized this and shouted “Someone has to get into the core and disrupt the energy field there!”

I heard Prof. Professor cough and then suddenly all of my teammates were having a really hard time with the minions they were fighting. Now I’m completely on the other side of the battlefield from Warp Master, but I have to make my way across while they wrestle with these mooks that apparently became ten times stronger when I mentioned going into the core. Never mind that Prof. Professor has his gadget belt, or that Lumina can control energy or that Mockraven can, well do something, I have to fly across to stop Warp Master. As I do, Eagle Archer—who has flown out a hole in the ceiling and is firing randomly into the room shouts, “I’ll cover you” and then plugs me in the leg with a Allergy-Enhancing Arrow.

I disregard all of this and fight the urge to flip Eagle the bird, and instead press forward. I know this is a suicide mission, that going in there means certain death, but I also know that lives are at risk unless I manage to do this. Warp master tries to bend time and space around me, but I set up a current field to block it, crack it up to 11 and fly into the center where I reverse the polarity and disrupt all of the energy, creating a contained explosion that tears apart the Warp Master and blows me into about a zillion pieces.

Now, when I was destroyed, portions of my consciousness were downloaded into what I call my black box—as much as I can transfer. It isn’t a perfect process, the box itself has just barely survived my destruction the other times this happened. But I knew the risks when I went in—a pretty good chance that I’d be destroyed forever.

I should probably back myself up more often at the base, but you know it takes so long and you have to sit there and sometimes you just don’t have the space. But that’s beside the point.

I could have died. But I didn’t. Instead I rebooted in my back up body. They’d managed to salvage my black box and fit it into the reserve unit I use when I have to do major repairs to my primary body. I open my eyes and look into the less than enthusiastic face of Eagle Archer. Who has a beard. And insect wings. And is a woman. I desperately try to turn down the gain on my nausea inducers.


“Hey RZ, cool. You work.”

“Um. Yes. You, ah, look different.”

“Oh, this…temporary curse. The beard will fall out in a day or two.” She smiled which made it worse.

Now I’m looking around. One of the really nice things about being in the Team Future is that the facilities are great. Even if Dr. Boom deducts a little from my earnings to pay for my electricity use, and internet connection, and any damage I might cause from my “dangerous mechanical feet.” This place, however, is a dump. There’s a pungent smell like—I run it through my scent analyzer—yup, men’s dormitory in humid summer.

Its about that time that I notice a discrepancy alert in my systems. My clock is off, which is not unusual in that the black box is made to hold things in stasis. The internal clock on my back-up body has been running.


“Eagle…” I began.


“What?” I say.

“MY new name is Chrysalis…” s/he answers back. “Nice name…” I begin to say.

“…Archer.” And my punching protocol comes online but I shut it off in time.

“Ok…do you know that it’s 201X, and that the last I remember is 1998. Did we have to go to some kind of older back up tape? And why are my arms and legs sticky?” I’m noticing black splotches of goop and bits of packing peanuts stuck to them.

“No—we this is the first chance I’ve had to reboot you.”

“First chance in over a decade?”

“Yeah, well…we didn’t find your black box until a kid who was touring the plant sent it back to us. Then there was some argument about who would pay for the shipping. Then everyone started to get worried about the Y2K bug and whether you would go rogue if we switched you back on, then we had the Mystery Armada which took us off planet, then everyone lost their memory when Glaxor squeezed the cosmos to get reality juice to power his Event Horizon Arsenal, then we started to have the franchising and you got packed away. Your crates went a couple of places before it ended up here and I was able to get you started.”

“You’ve picked up some technical skills—I’m impressed.”

She looked a little confused. “No—but your on switch was hard to find. And a little unpleasant to get to.” My back up body doesn’t have a shudder function, which was a mixed blessing at this point. “Oh., and…” she said reach over and scraping away a stray piece of foam from my knee, “…we had a spill in the storage area. I wasn’t sure what to used to clean you up.

I put aside the unpleasant image of her running her hands all over my chassis and tried to make the best of it. “Oh well, I’m guessing that the roster has changed in the team since I was gone. I’ll have to call in some favors to get a more effective body set up—unless you already have one…” She shook her head no. “…In any case, I’ll be glad to get back to the Team Future.”

“Actually we aren’t part of the Team Future anymore.”

“They disbanded?”

“No—there were change ups and switches and then some misunderstandings and I ended up joining Frontline.”

“Really? They have nice government support and equipment; that will be good.”

“Um…not so much. We aren’t with Frontline: International. They branched out.”

I saw my stress meters going up. “Which branch are we with?”

“Frontline: Midwest. We cover from Iowa to Ohio. But not Chicago.”

“Chicago has its own superteam?” Perhaps I can join them I thought, a nice small team in a major metropolitan area, a chance to get some headlines.

“No, Chicago got taken over by supervillains. We have to steer clear of there or they’ll wipe the floor with us.”

“So…who… is…on…our…team.” My vocalizer was working overtime trying to push this through my clenched steel jaw.

“Me, Yes Man, Meta-Woman, McGuffin, Kim Reaper, and…Cybertron.”


“Yeah, he’s…uh…a robot…he’s really cool.”

“So let me get this straight. You left me in a box for all these years because everyone was too lazy to flip a switch. Then I got sent down to a minor league superteam sent to defend Indianapolis. And then it turns out you already have a robot on your team? You do understand that I sacrificed my life to stop Warp Master from irradiating an entire state?”

“Yeah, but you…you know…you’re a robot. It isn’t like you really died. And you’re up now. The deal is that I found out Team Future just got a robot butler, so I was thinking…”

My back up body has a high powered stunner for emergencies. This I liberally applied. Repeatedly. And with Prejudice.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Path of the Oracle: An AP Analysis

We had the first real session of our new "Treasure Hunters" campaign, which I'm going to call Path of the Oracle. I think it is worth looking at the session- both in terms of narrative and play. It was our first session using aspects & tags from FATE and the first session I recorded play for.

The campaign is going to be eight sessions, set in a fantasy world the players built using Microscope. In many ways, they managed to craft the arc of the campaign in that session. They set up elements for the premise and created the important problems to be solved. While this campaign will only be eight sessions, I image it as the first movie of a trilogy- so if we want to return to it, we can do so.

Mechanically we’re using our house system, Action Cards, which everyone at the table has played before. However for this version I significantly retooled the magic system. More fundamentally I cut out some sub-systems and added the Aspects and Tags mechanics from FATE. The AC system already uses a fairly narrow range of result conditions (Catastrophic, Bad, Just Missed, OK, Great, Masterful, plus a variety of special and player unique results). Adding the Aspects mechanics ended up being fairly easy. Aspects/Tags can be invoked for a repull, a one degree bump, or an effect. This session would be my first full chance to run a game using those concepts.

The premise of the campaign is that the PCs all hold magic items. The Big Bad has declared all magic items must be turned over to the Empire, so they’re on the run. The twist is that artifacts and magical items in this world have personalities- with some items dominating their bearers. The group is mixed between bearer dominating, item dominating and shared power characters. I didn’t play too much on that for this first session, as I wanted them to have a chance to establish their personality. Dealing with the secondary 'voices in their head' would have overcomplicated what I intended to be a simple session to get everyone on board.

We had done a character creation session which resulted in this line up. I list their aspects for clarity:
1Batu, Barbarian Warrior (Mysteries of the Desert, High Pain Threshold, Son of Battle, Weapons Don’t Need to be Honed- People Do)
2Alina, Warlock and streetwise former noble (Obsessively Focused, Architect of Destruction, I Can Take It, Social Chameleon, Friends in Low Places)
3Adie Rahl, blind Wizard with compensating spirit sight (Chosen of the Dark, Blind but Marked by Two Worlds, Fly by Night, Fierce Loyalty, Torn between Two Natures- Life and Death)
4Tiassale of the Forgotten Forest, Druid forest-tender, Elven (Precariously Balanced, I’m a Survivor, Strength of the Earth, Guardian of the Forest, Animal Whisperer)
5Avari Fearwhisper, Elven "ninja" (Blood of the Elves, Well-Traveled, A Good Day to Die, Shadowed Purposes, Pride of the Dancers)
6Evendale Minot DuShont, Elven rogue (Facts Get in the Way, Death Defying, Seat of his Pants, Teller of Tall Tales, One for You- Two for Me)

This last character was absent from the session.

They met with their resistance group which stressed two threats hanging over the world. On the one hand, the young Empress had been possessed by the spirit of a powerful relic. It was this relic which wished to destroy all other magic items, hence the current hunts and the PCs’ life on the run. But while the Empress certain represents a fierce threat, a greater one faces them. A magic ritual had been twisted, resulting in the Sunblaze. That caused the sun to burn fiercely for the hour before and after noon. During that time, the temperature sky-rockets, up to 110-120 degrees. People had to seek shelter during these hours, weather patterns had gone haywire, crops were burning, and the landscape was being devastated. This had gone on for almost two months.

An artifact existed which might be able to stop the Sunblaze- The Bells of Pelic. The group would have to seek them out. However, they would also be in a race with various factions, including the sinister Night Elves, to gain control of the artifact. Those other factions wished to bend the Bells’ power to their own ends. The group would need to seek out the Oracle, who lived in the lost jungle city of Hesek Pang. To get there, they would need a guide. Unfortunately, their guide had been captured in the northern border city of Darkness. The group began with the following agenda:

1. Rescue Guide
2. Make their way to the Oracle
3. Consult with the Oracle
4. Follow the Oracle’s directions to find the Bells of Pelic.

The group arrived in the decaying metropolis of Darkness. I spent some time describing the nature of this rough and half-abandoned border city. The two players with the most socially adept characters opted to investigate the situation. Avari, the ninja, blended in with the locals to see what the situation was in the Imperial-held section of the city. He discovered that they had largely given up on the rest of the settlement, but Imperial Hunters had arrived recently, raising the alertness of the garrison. They had conducted a token sweep, rounding up a number of prisoners who had been taken to the Dragonfly Tower. Avari got a sense of the landscape, defenses and the basics of the prison tower.

Alina, the Warlock, used her advantage to spend a drama point to make a quick and lasting friend. She ended up making contact with a local merchant (Erastos Spew) who took her for a wealthy noble. He explained that the Imperial Hunters had issued an edict that all magic items would have to be turned over within a week. However that would be hard to enforce- the Imperial garrison had split with the locals and were effectively under siege in their wall compound, the Citadel. Local sentiment was stacked against them.

GM Comments: I tried to keep this pretty tight- focusing on just two players doing investigation. I wanted to get the basic situation into play quickly. So I split the information into two halves. I made sure to offer the aspects of the Citadel to the players at this point, so that they could make use of them. They didn’t end up using them here- but later in the session they would catch on to how that mechanic worked.

The group opted to split into two halves, with one pair crossing over and breaking into the tower and the remaining three setting up to assist and create a distraction as necessary. Avari and Tiassale, the Druid, went in, while Adie, the Wizard, readied an invisible escape bridge from one of the tower windows, Alina the Warlock picked a section of wall she could blow up to draw attention, and the Batu, the Barbarian, went to the front gate to watch. The initial operation went well and quickly. I wanted just a few quick checks if they offered a decent plan. However, they seemed to enjoy the mission and tension, so I threw in a complication.

One of the Imperial Hunters returned, observed by Batu. The Hunter crossed the grounds and then stopped- having sensed the magics cast by Tiassale the tower’s upper level. The Hunter broke into a run toward s there. I’d intended this to be a "clock" to put some pressure on them. The players saw it as a more dire threat. Batu made a nuisance of himself at the front gates in hopes of drawing the Hunter’s attention, bot only succeeded in riling the gate guards. But the Alina, having spotted the Hunter- decided to act. She lobbed a fireball over the wall and struck him- which immediately changed the whole situation.

The Avari and Tiassale found themselves under sudden pressure to move quickly. Batu tried to force the issue- which meant that he nearly ended up overrun by guards. Alina continued to exchange spells with the Hunter- protected from reprisals by Adie’s magics. We had a couple of rounds of abstract combat, before the rescuers managed to escape the Tower on the invisible bridge, carrying with them the information they needed. Everyone took off, save the warlock who waited until the street guards investigating the situation approach- at which point she immolated a dozen of them.

GM Comments: I had intended to have this go faster than this, but everyone seemed to enjoy the challenge. I’d initially thought about having the group ambushed in town- but since we’d had some physical conflict there, I opted to make the next couple of beats different. That would give the players a chance to catch their breath and allow the next combat to have its own life.

With a map given them by the dying contact, they made their way into the jungle in search of the lost city of Hesek Pang. While unprepared in terms of provisions and gear for this journey, they had two survival experts to lead them, Batu and Tiassale. Along the way they saw evidence of how badly the Sunblaze affected the world: rivers dried out, fruits and gourds at the top of the jungle canopy exploding from the heat, and animals driven mad from the changes.

GM Thoughts: This ended up a nice scene which allowed some interactions between the PCs. I required survival checks. The margin of success determined the exhaustion stress the characters took. The mages also couldn’t clear the damage they’d taken from casting because they couldn’t adequately rest on the road. I had some nice travel and scene description and- I think- brought home the environmental impact of the Sunblaze. It also allowed a break between the combat scenes, which can’t be underestimated.


The group arrives in the ruins of Hesek Pang and make their way forward- straight into an ambush. A party of Garresh, intelligent twelve-foot gorillas in armor, awaited them. Though the PCs briefly attempt to parlay, they quickly realize the force wants their blood. A melee breaks out. The PCs face overwhelming odds: a commander, several sub-commanders, two mages, two senior legionnaires, and standard troopers make up the ambushers-eighteen opponents in total. The group quickly splits- with the Batu charging forward and the Avari assaulting those behind. In the meantime, the three mages gather in the center to unleash spells. The battle swings back and forth, with the PCs taking many wounds. The Taissale the Druid desperately tries to keep up- buffing the warriors and healing the wounds before turning to offense. The Wizard and Warlock let loose with offensive spells, managing success mixed with a few miscasts. Eventually the tide turns and the group manages to dispatch all of their adversaries. They check the bodies and discover orders which seem to implicate the Night Elves and a renegade band of assassins- who may be arriving in force soon. The group presses forward to the Oracle.

GM Thoughts: This was the first fight we had. I talked a little bit about that in this post- particularly the time breakdown. This combat, against an overwhelming force, pushed the players to really explore their options. The mages tried some new effects and saw how those could work. More importantly, the players saw how aspects and tags could be used effectively. I stressed the environmental tags early in the fight, and about halfway through they began to make use of those. Players used their own aspects in interesting ways. They also looked at how spin (large success margins) could be used to tag enemies and set them up for fellow players. It felt really good. The aspect system played easily, worked naturally, created a strong visual, and encouraged the players to work together. This is only a single session, but I’m hopeful about these mechanics and our group.

The group made their way under into an abandoned temple. There they found a spinning mirrored disk- the Oracle itself turning out to be a magic item. They petitioned the Oracle for aid in locating the Bells of Pelic. The Oracle explained that it could, but not exactly as they wished. The Tree of Manoc- itself an Oracle- had been cut down and desecrated. That act had fractured the power of prophetic visions. The future could only be seen in fragments, with connections uncertain and distorted. If the group would accept it, the Oracle could offer them a choice of Paths- and the choices they would make there could open other paths. The group agreed. The Oracle split in two- becoming two disks, each large enough to pass through. To the left, they could see a frozen, arctic wasteland- barren but for the snow and ice. To the right, they could see dark and twisted trees- a scene Tiassale identified as the Forlorn Shadow Forest, home to the awful and vengeful faeries...

GM Thoughts: I moved to this fairly quickly, as it had gotten pretty late. I wanted to make sure I set up the twist clearly. The players should walk away with the sense that they had a fairly basic choice: snowy wastelands or sinister woods. I also wanted to establish that this would be the structure for the next couple of sessions- make a choice, explore the location, come to a solution, and be presented with another pair of choices to lead them forward. It will be linear- but with a healthy dose of player choice. Given the brevity of the campaign, I think that will work. The only regret I have is that I left the choice off because of the time. That means that I have to sketch out two different adventures for next session. If I’d had them choose then I could have reduced my prep time.

Fifteenth is the Dice Anniversary

I met my wife through being bad at Magic the Gathering. Well, that and Games Workshop's Man O' War. See at that point I was managing a game store and running the evening game room. On Wednesdays we got people together for Magic- this would have been around the time of Legends, The Dark and Fallen Empires. I was not great at MtG- frankly I'm not great at board or CCG games, but I enjoy playing. But I could win sometimes- the trick was that I often wouldn't, even if I could. When people won, they were happy- and often that meant they'd buy more snacks and cards. I didn't have to throw a game often- I was a fairly average player- but every once in a while my opponents would have their deck go against them.

So one night while playing- with a Shivan Dragon up for ante- I let an attack go through even though I could have stopped it with the "Fog" card in my hand. I had a couple of people behind me see the terrible play- which earned me a reputation as an even worse player than I was. So the first thing my future wife, Sherri, heard about me was that I was that guy who didn't know how to play Magic but ran a game room. Sherri had fallen in with a group at college who'd gotten pretty heavily into MtG. It appealed to her sense of organization and combinations- she liked getting things in order. A couple of people in that group came over when I started pushing Man O' War hard- one of those games I loved and wanted to get more people into. I ended up playing on the same side as Sherri. We crushed a Dark Elf Black Ark of Nagarroth through the power of outclassed sexy demons- one of my favorite turnarounds at the table. After that Sherri came by regularly on Wednesdays to paint figures- ships and others- with some of her friends. We started talking and eventually I managed to lure her into a fantasy GURPS game I was about to start.

That pretty much sealed the deal. See- I'm not handsome, I'm not suave, I'm not outgoing, but I can tell a pretty compelling story. And Sherri loves stories.

We got married fifteen years ago today, on a Monday evening. We'd chosen that date to make it more difficult for the parents to set up anything fancy. Despite our efforts, they managed to put on a pretty impressive wedding. We had a lovely civil ceremony, overseen by an old friend of the family and local judge. We had a table of gamers, many with mullets. We had a superb reception- with excellent service because no one else was getting married on a Monday night, so we had their full attention.

I'm writing this a little while after having finished up a session of Changeling the Lost where her character had to clamber across grease-coated rafters to rescue a potential enemy from falling into a vat of boiling grue. Somehow, she's still willing to be married to me. She's agreed to a one-on-one campaign as her anniversary present. Sherri enjoys the various role-playing campaigns, and I've enjoyed every one of her characters. Sometimes she suffers more than the other players because she's my wife. I know some people think she gets all the behind the scenes details but she doesn't. She's still my favorite audience, my favorite player and someone I never get tired of spending time with.

I look forward to all the stories to come.

To the left, a terrible picture of me from the wedding, and a lovely picture of her.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Lost Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci: RPG Supplements I'm Meh About

The sourcebook for Sorcerous Automata in the Castle Falkenstein universe. Sort of.


As might be guessed from my series of reviews for Castle Falkenstein products, I have a fondness for steampunk and Victoriana. But as that particular craze has taken off, we’ve gotten more stuff which has in turn meant more crap. For example, in a number sourcebooks and on sites, I was directed to Murdoch Mysteries, a TV series (based on books) about an inventor-detective in Victorian Toronto. I love police procedural shows, especially British ones so I went for it. However those who suggested the show neglected a basic point: the show sucks. Maybe it gets better after the first season, but it squandered all of my good will with terrible acting, idiotic plots, spastic camerawork, and clumsy anachronisms (which I can usually tolerate).

The Lost Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, likewise, uses up some of my goodwill towards the Castle Falkenstein line as a whole. I’m really torn- and want to find some things I like here, but the book makes that difficult. Allow me to say this up front: LNoLdV is the least essential of all the Castle Falkenstein supplements for several reasons.

Physically it is a 128 page softcover, perfect bound. The artwork’s quite good throughout- sketches echoing da Vinci’s style throughout provided by James Higgins. But the book’s printed on a sepia tone paper, which means a greytone background for the pdf version. The color choice makes the volume more difficult to read. Add to that the font choice. The majority of the book’s presented as Leonardo’s own handwriting, which means a 'script-style' font for those sections. That font’s annoying and hard to read- especially when italicized. I understand the stylistic choice, but I think usability trumps that. In caps, for example, the "I" looks like a "J" which bugs me more than it ought to.


Magickal Engines or Sorcerous Automata are a detail from the story told in the original Castle Falkenstein book. Essentially, they’re a rare new development which allows the Good Guys to fight off the Bad Guys with new technology. In a world which has faeries, sorcery and steam-tech, Magickal Engines combine the latter two. That’s a significant thing- allowing magic effects without a wizard. The main book treats those tangentially- implying they’re a special thing, which makes this book a little odd. How and why this ought to fit into a campaign feels contradictory to the premise of rarity established in the core book. More problematic is a case of what Blake Snyder calls "Double Mumbo-Jumbo" where a fantastic premise gets stretched past the breaking point by the addition of more fantastic stuff. So in this case, we have a Steampunk Fantasy Victorian Universe. That should be enough to explore and provide ideas for. But here we have a book which is mostly (105 of 128) pages about the distant history of that place and Leonardo’s world. Yes, it might be interesting in places- but it feels like a wasted opportunity. Little of what’s presented here actually helps with a Castle Falkenstein campaign.

As I said, the first 105 pages are those notebooks, in Leonardo’s voice. Where the fiction in the other CF books engages me and offers me ideas and insights into actually playing in this setting, this does not. There are some interesting ideas about magick, its role and its cosmology here- but not enough to make the section interesting. There are no game mechanics and very little useable source material presented in first 80% of the book, unless you’re running a very particular campaign. It does beg the question: who is this written for? Players or GMs? I’m not sure.

Finally at page 110 we actually get how these ideas might be applied to a campaign. I feel a little odd harping on this, as I’m not someone who worries about mechanics, stats or numbers. But I do like to know how these things fit into a campaign, I like to have a relative scale of power and cost. I don’t need everything calculated down to the last point or bolt. Of the eighteen final pages of the book, four pages cover the context of these Automata- how they work in "real life," the difficulties involved, how they function compared to the other systems in the campaign, and how one actually aims and operates these devices. That’s solid and well-written material, providing some nice ideas on how to present these devices in play.

The next four pages discuss how players can actually make these Magickal Engines- beginning with getting plans for one of them which ought to be an adventure or campaign arc unto itself. Assuming they do so, players can purchase the new skill in Sorcerous Engineering. As with other construction rules from the main book, LNoLdV offers a number of variables the players can muck with (size, power source, reliability, etc). Based on those parameters players can build and modify machines from those plans. The book makes clear this is a process, involving several stages- which, of course, means that it could be interrupted by bad guys, making for some cool scenes. Nine pages following this section go through the various engines described by Leonardo in the first part of the book, providing a paragraph or two of explanation, plus the two mechanical details (Operation and Investment). So the first hundred+ pages of narrative get boiled down to nine pages of useful discussion. The last two pages of the book provide a discussion of a new and rare magickal material, Star Iron, including how to find it and its effects. I like this and I would have enjoyed seeing more of these kinds of things- interesting McGuffins which could lead to adventures.

This book is for series collectors, people who like pseudo-historical fiction, and those fascinated by the ideas of Magickal Engines presented in the main CF book. But the latter user will find only a small portion of the book actually offers great campaign material. This isn’t a bad book, but it is one that heads off in directions I’m not interested in. Other GM’s may find more to like here, but I recommend they do that after they’ve exhausted the rest of the CF library.

The mechanics for Magickal Engines are light- taking up four pages really. Those ideas could easily be ported elsewhere. But again, that’s only 20% of this book. The one place I can imagine this having great utility might be as a sourcebook for a Renaissance campaign, something like Mage: The Sorcerers Crusade where the notebooks would be talking about the present or close to the present.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

How Not to Rise to the Challenge

For a long time we had a guy in our group who could be generously described as a sociopath. Actually, he mentioned his therapist had called him that. He was younger that most of the group, so people cut him some slack...for a while. We’ll call him Dryan. Dryan had many delightful personality quirks- most significant of which was his mastery of whining. He could whine out the unfairness of any situation, describe things had conspired against him, and sulk that the world hadn’t just given him what he wanted.

My favorite story, of many, was the night that he was playing in a Rolemaster campaign. The other players had managed to enjoy themselves despite Dryan’s level-best efforts. In any case, their group enters a cave, and the GM describes that there are largish spiders, the size of a football, and they have a bluish glow to them. Dryan immediately begins bitching- "Geez, Scott- Lightning Spiders- my god, how unfair can you be? I’ve read about those, I can’t believe you’re throwing those at us..." on and on about how he knew about these things and Scott was awful for having done this.

Of course, these weren’t monsters from the book or anything. They were just something Scott the GM had come up with on the spot for a little challenge. They were just differently colored spiders. The problem was Dryan, like a number of other gamers, had a social script- one which often worked for him. I’m seen it done in more- and in less- sophisticated ways. Like the "Defer & Naysay" approach, it survives and thrives because it works. We’ll call this approach "Challenge Bitching."

This script can take a number of forms. The easiest one I mentioned above, complaining about the unfairness and difficulty of the challenge presented. Some of that can be in good fun. I had a Champions game where the players would go on after a fight about how tough the opposition had been and questioning the bad guys' abilities and points...which would inevitably lead to me exploding with "But you guys won!" in fury. At that point they’d laugh since I’d fallen for their trap again. That’s fun, and part of the game. But when that turns chronic- with comments about points, challenge ratings, and the decks being stacked against them, it becomes a problem. Some players immediately engage in complaints and rules-riffs the moment a conflict begins. Now, if a group complains, that’s a different matter. That ought to be a sign. But here I’m speaking about the player who starts out any encounter in this mode.

That script offers a certain amount of camouflage for the Challenge Bitcher. He’s addressing the system and mechanics. They blend it with other kinds of genial bitching. It includes an approach I’ll call "Sideways Bitching," where the Bitcher complains that he’s unable to do "anything" (or a specific thing) because the GM’s created deliberate obstacles to that. Where described, these obstacles take the form of Powerful NPCs, Omnipotent Enemies, or Impossible to Break Structures. They may be more generically presented as "he just won’t let me...". Again, these criticisms may not be invalid- but the difference here is that the Bitcher hasn’t actually tested any of these things. They’d decided that the situation is beyond them. That allows them to avoid responsibility in the group, give them an excuse for lack of forward progress, and a sense of martyrdom. This script’s presented to avoid criticism from fellow players for the most part. Good GM’s presented with this will try to find a solution- which isn’t what the Bitcher wants.

Another script/tactic used by the Challenge Bitcher is to react to any challenge presented to them as yet another affront. Challenges- from combat, to social interactions, to just having to roll for something- demonstrate how the GM is picking on the player. The Bitcher may do this at the table- or away in commentary afterward. As opposed to a joshing comment, he uses this as a passive-aggressive reproach to the GM. The message conveyed is that the GM should be picking on other players or offering the player a 'buy' in this situation. This script plays on the GM’s desire to both be fair and to be perceived as fair. That makes handling it at the table more difficult- the GM has to assess the validity of the point. And if the comment isn’t valid, pushing too far can make the situation adversarial. That’s part of the reaction the Bitcher counts on.

Another approach is in body language- where the player becomes visibly angry, pouts or sulks at the table. To be fair, people can get angry at the table- can find themselves showing that more than they intend. The difference comes with players who do this consistently, as a means of expressing displeasure or making the mood uncomfortable so that they get their way. Asking the player at the table about this usually makes the situation worse- entering into a strange "Thanksgiving with the Family" mode. The player can turn the query back on the GM, that the comment’s an attempt to make them angry or call them out in front of friends. They may also take the opportunity to bring another player into the situation, hiding behind their skirts and pointing to the GM’s behavior as antagonistic. Again, the point of the tactic is to reshape the behavior of others- to force them to hesitate, to moderate the difficulty of the situation, or to simply offer the Bitcher what they want.

So what’s the problem? Stated as above, these issues would seem easy to spot and to deal with. But, of course, they’re not. They’re bound up in social interactions, tied to other parts of the social contract. In my experience, players who do this kind of thing at the table also do this away from the table. They interact with family and significant others through this passive-aggressive and guilt manipulating approach. And they’ve learned that this script is effective. Even if they don’t get 100% of what they want, they get a portion of it. They make the GM, other players or any source of authority hesitant to interact with them in anything but a positive way. They make the rest of the table have to second-guess their own actions.

To give you a concrete example, I play miniatures and I play board games. In each case I have at least one person I’ve played against a few times who uses this approach- often in a deliberate way. When things goes against them at the table- they slow things down; they get quiet and visibly angry or upset; they go to the rulebook and begin to question every move their opponent has made; they complain about a minor detail they ‘misunderstood’ and imply that the game should be done again or is invalid; they check and recheck their actions in a CCG. They create a singular thought in their opponent’s mind: is it worth it? Is winning worth the experience? And maybe the Dryan or the more articulate versions of Dryan won’t win- but that seed will be planted for next time- that hesitation about making a rules call, about taking advantage, about keeping the game going to victory or letting them win. Now for a board, miniatures or card games- you can usually choose to not play them or play with them infrequently. But over long-term social interactions- such as an rpg table- you have constrained choices. Calling them on it might work- these scripts rely on a "victim" stance. It is difficult to extricate players from this without taking the ‘bad guy’ role. Often these players have grown used to these approaches- with their friends and with their family. They’re expert with them, leaving you with few choices besides walking on eggshells or cutting them out.

And I’ll admit I’ve been guilty of bending to players who have used this pressure at the table. Table management's vital to being a GM. I want things to run smoothly- so when players visibly show upset at the table, I try to figure out how to get around that. So I’ve bowed to that kind of blackmail in the past. Part of me wonders if the player realizes that everyone at the table can tell they’re angry. I used to be more charitable in my interpretation of this, but now I’m fairly sure it is an approach they’ve integrated into their lives with success. So I try to make sure that the whiny player gets taken care of- the squeaky wheel gets the oil...

...which of course isn’t fair. At a table with one or more of these tantrum players, good players can get the short end of the stick. Increasingly, I’ve tried a compartmentalized approach- offering the players rewards, plots and details they want- but not ones connected with the main plot. As well these should be in realms fairly isolated from the interests of their fellow players. It can work, putting them in a pen- but not always. Sometimes the whiner will see over the fence into another player’s yard- and see something shiny, where they’ll rush over and step on others' toes. I have to admit that handling these kinds of problems feels like the weakest part of my GMing skill-set. But the first step to fixing these kinds of problems is to recognize them when they happen at the table. If I can identify that kind of pressure and manipulation in play- directed at me or another player- then perhaps I can figure out a way to redirect it.

Again, I want to stress I’m not saying criticism of a GM isn’t or can’t be valid. Constructive and tactful criticism would be ideal. But we’re human, so GMs often have to filter through the comments and reactions of people at the table to make things better. What I’m talking about here isn’t commentary aimed at making the game better. Instead this is player behavior aims to get what they want. They’re willing to throw the socially-acceptable version of a tantrum to "win." Winning in the game can mean acknowledged superiority in rules-lawyering, letting their character be the best, controlling what happens at the table, or simply being able to exert power over the group. These tactics and scripts aren’t about improvement of play, but gaining control. They’re selfish and isolated- often at odds with both GM and fellow players. A good GM has to filter these out from legitimate problems and address the latter. The GM has to be especially aware when a problem isn’t a lone voice, but instead expresses complaint or unhappiness from the group. The GM has to manage a table despite players who run away from challenges crying.

And here’s the thing- challenges are what makes the game. My solid players rise to the challenge. They’ll complain, react, and express shock at the challenges to come- but when it comes to it, they pick up they’re tools, march forward and deal with it. They work together, they plan and they deal with problems- from the small to the unbeatable with equal panache. They don’t assume I’m out to get them- or at least if I’m out to get them then I have a higher purpose- a better story in mind. The vast majority of my players fall into this category- embracing play, taking on challenges, and pressing forward. It is that, maybe, which makes the bad players stand out so strongly in my memory. I’m writing this as an exorcism, from the ghosts of gaming past. My present groups take on anything thrown at them- offering me a freedom as a GM I’ve never had before.

And that’s pretty cool.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Robot Zero Tuesday: JULY 16TH, 1998

Note: Some time back (2006!) I posted a series of vignettes on another blog- one I meant to follow up on but never did. I've decided to move that material over here, so that will be appearing on Tuesdays for the next several weeks. This was an homage to the excellent story blog, The Velvet Marauder. I hope people who haven't read it yet will enjoy this story.

JULY 16TH, 1998

Being the Journal of Robot Zero, the world’s premier mechanically based superhero who has zero-percent body fat. He kicks ass exponentially. I’m not sure what that last part means. I’m working on a slogan.

Hey! I’ve been thinking—or processing—(a little joke there)…

Actually, I hate that joke.

I’ve been thinking that I should create a hard copy of some of my notes, adventures and thoughts. After all I am the first robot superhero, and a working demonstration that anyone can make good if they try. So this is my first entry which I hope will provide a behind the scenes look at what it is like to be a robot on a team full of…um…non-robots.

We got the numbers in from licensing and sales today for the Team Future Merchandise. At least I didn’t end up with the cliché of having the lowest sales. That honor went to Mockraven. Apparently he’s been adopted as a super mascot among certain communities, not unlike Tinky-Wink. His sales went up in some areas but down in others when Fallwell suggested he encouraged a super-alternate lifestyle. I’m not even sure what that means. Part of the problem is that Mockraven likes to be mysterious—I mean, what does that name mean? When we ask him, he looks around, arches and eyebrow and then poofs away with his magic cloak. At least I think its magic, but I don’t know. It is purple and I was told purple meant magic. I remain skeptical.

Now Robot Zero on the other hand, with my name—given to me by Dr. Boom when I joined—you know what you’re getting: a robot. The original robot superhero. I know you’re thinking—wait, “Zero” sounds more like an empty set, or a loser or even a sidekick. No, really it’s more like “Patient Zero,” when they’re trying to trace back an infection to find out where it started.

When you put it like that it doesn’t sound as good.

In any case, I’m not worried about the rankings for sales. I’m just glad to be a member of the team. Besides, most of the money goes into a fund Dr. Boom set up to cover my repairs. Mind you, everyone else gets free medical coverage. But I don’t care, I mean I’m sure extra screws and wires cost just as much as Nukulator’s radiation treatments for his atomic acne.

Really. I’m sure.

In any case, we just got a Troub…I mean “Danger” Alert call and we’re heading out. Something about the Warp Master and his minions. I want to see if I can get a seat up front this time in the Future Hopper.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Sharing and Play

Taking the Hit

Although I’ve had to bump some games recently for work and illness, we’ve had some really solid sessions of late. A few of the groups really click well- playing off of one another, taking to plot and doing interesting things with it, coming up with creative ideas at the table. As my friend Art Lyon reminded me- no GM plot ever survives contact with the players. A game can embrace that and benefit from it. That’s part of the reason I don’t buy modules- at least for the kinds of games we’re doing the cost of the module and the time to get it into shape doesn’t balance against the benefit at the table. I’m sure there are exceptions- great modules and series out there- but running in home-brew worlds also presents an additional hurdle for conversion.

We had a good moment a few weeks back that I want to point at because it sums up the kind of role-playing I enjoy. In the Changeling the Lost campaign, they’re only a quest out into the Hedge- giving me a chance to explore some more fairy-tale landscape. We have three PCs so I’ve built each leg of the quest to echo the background and inner self of one character at a time. They came to a puzzle, a variation on the Honest Axe trope. Scott’s character, Nate Diamond had a choice between a lead axe and a golden crown. His character’s kind of a self-centered, former upper-class scion- he likes nice things. So of course, I leaned hard in my GM narration about how lovely the crown was, how the jewels glistened in it, how well it would fit his head and so on. Scott played that up- describing Nate’s hesitation, his longing stares and hesitation- even as the other two players watched on.

Now here’s the thing- I didn’t have any mechanical roll to resist temptation or anything. Scott knew the crown was a trap- it was an deliberately obvious one after the things they’d seen leading up to that point. I knew Scott would choose the axe, the other players knew- but Scott took his time and milked the scene, made it funny, made it enjoyable. He let the interaction between his character and the GM narrative run, instead of cutting it short. And he did it because for the fun of it and to entertain his fellow players. He was generous in letting his character appear vulnerable, in order to have a moment more interesting and dramatic to the players.

That willingness to play, to embrace the character’s flaws and to show that to other players at the table- that’s what I love about role-playing. Even though it is Scott’s scene, he’s acting it out to share and entertain the other people at the table. The strength I’ve come to appreciate in the last few years has been people at the table who react well to failure, react well to challenge, and are willing to be “open.” Johnstone talks about actors taking a moment and running with it- regardless of the content of that moment. That openness lets them keep energy in a scene. Part of that at the table comes from trusting the GM- trusting that they’ll offer some benefit and payoff for that effort. The other players as well have to be willing to enter into that contract. All of that comes from experience and time.

Shying Away

I’ve had some players over the years who haven’t been able or willing to enter into that exchange. Some of that can come from newness or uncertainty about play styles. Over the years I’ve seen players come from other groups and find our approach a little too open or rules-light for their taste. I’ll say that people like tangible and obvious rewards- treasure, victory and the like- and when they don’t see them in a form they’re used to they can get frustrated. A GM has to assess and try to work with that- offering those players something they’re used to, while slowly demonstrating the value of this new way of play. Certainly I’ve talked before about the importance of offering rewards to players, and I think that’s doubly true with new players.

But some experienced players come to the game with a “paranoid” style. They worry about their appearance and success, and invest themselves more heavily in it. As an example, we had a Changeling campaign in which early on, one character attempted to get candy from an isolated vending machine. She was an Ogre and the result she pulled indicated a fumble- so I narrated a humorous result in which she managed to break the machine, shattering the front plexiglass. It was an early moment, and I tried to make it more funny than serious to counteract the failure coming right out of the gate. I’d honestly forgotten the moment until month’s later when the player brought it back up- upset that her character had been painted in an unflattering and humorous light. That threw me- especially since her play since then had been to present her character as cute and funny. It took some time to work out exactly what was happening. The player wanted to be that ‘funny and cute,’ but absolutely under their own terms. They wanted absolute control of that narration. They rejected any interpretation or editorializing- from the dice results, from the GM, from fellow players- which wasn’t their own. They closed down any thread which didn’t come from their authority. I tried a neutral approach- staying hands off and letting the player narrate as much as possible, while describing the scenes clinically. However that fell apart when dealing with NPCs- the player became upset if an NPC reacted in a way other than they expected.

Other Defensive Modes

A variation on this “closed” approach that I haven’t figured out a way to deal with I call “Defer & Naysay.” In this case, a player gives a ‘whatever’ response when a challenge is presented. That ‘whatever’ can literally be that, ignoring the question, heading off to do something else, suggesting they won’t be listened to, or another framed approach. Then once the situation goes into play, they begin dismissing the solution decided on, questioning the leader’s right, ignoring the group decisions, and belittling the results- usually with some variation on “I wouldn’t have done it that way…” That’s a dangerous social script- and one some players use with awful efficiency. It allows them to avoid responsibility, while at the same time retaining their own sense of authority. Again, it comes to a question of shared play. Luckily I have to deal with that rarely these days-

Tomorrow- On Challenges and Rising to Them