Thursday, June 28, 2012

Tabletop Time Estimation: Superheroes Year One (Part Four)

Despite running campaigns pretty continuously since ’87 I’m still bad at estimating how long something will take to play out at the table. Others might disagree, but that feels to me like my greatest weakness. I’ve tried timing sessions, even recording them; you’d think by now I’d have put together a body of experience I could draw on. Yet it continues to amaze me how off I can be. I have one principal about this: things will take longer than I expect. But if I sketch out scenes and details with that in mind then players zip through in a flash. I’m glad I’m generally a low-prep GM: scene sketches, general outlines and such. If I wasn’t, I’d be flummoxed even more often.

Conventional superhero games usually require a more defined structure. They’re most often episodic, and I often feel lost unless I’ve sketch out some connections and clues beforehand. I take a more GUMSHOE approach to that these days (web of scenes, core clues, etc), but I haven’t yet embraced a fully improvisational form ala Armitage Files or Graham Walmsley's excellent Play Unsafe when handling there. Once a superhero campaign does get rolling I can take a more sandbox approach- putting out news reports and leaving details such that the players can choose what they pursue. For shorter games, those with a more tightly defined theme, or those facing other structure restrictions (i.e. online play), I shape the action more directly: I have a plot, a case they’re going to investigate, rather than a several different choices. I still hope to allow for multiple paths to reach a solution, but generally I sketch what I see as the crucial scenes- and where I expect the final confrontation will take place.

I have an even harder time estimating duration when facing new groups and new situations. Last night I ran the second session of the Superheroes Year One campaign- the first session really bringing the group together. The first session had been about shaking out the bugs and doing a kind of team up. Tonight I wanted to bring everyone together, like the first issue of a team book. To that end I had a basic structure in mind (not unlike what I use for con demo games): initial easy fightàinvestigationàincidentàfinal confrontation (high stakes fight).

One of the nice things about a G+ game is the focus. That may be a factor of it being a new experience, but so far I’ve seen more directed work. Some of that could come from my side of things- my headphones are particularly pinchy so I want to keep things moving forward. A disadvantage of the G+ game can be the scheduling of arrival. At my house I know pretty much when people are going to show up and we’ve had years to develop those rituals. Last night we had a couple of people show up later. One person hadn’t been able to make it to the first online session, so we also had to make sure we got them into the game even s I ran the initial combat. He had several technical errors and steps, but we eventually got him in and online.

The big problem came from the structure I’d set up for the scenario. Originally I’d planned on borrowing a set-up from one of Ben Robbins' Dr. Null modules- with all the players called to a scene and then working together by necessity. However I decided to be a little too clever for my own good. Since I knew I’d have the maps all in front of me and accessible, I decided I wanted to run three scenes simultaneously. The characters, in pairs, would be attacked by bad guys at different locations. Mr. Freeze and Mister Miracle would be discussing how to set up a spectacular ice block escape trick. Iron Man would be visiting Thor’s alter ego Donald Blake. Sarge Steel would be meeting Nightcrawler at a public park to recruit him. Giant super-science bugs would attack each pair. They’d take out the bugs and then try to figure out the reasoning and source behind the attack. I’d run the combats as a single combat with one initiative track, switching between players and scenes. I created one long map (2100 x 650) split into a dojo, office building, and park- each drawn differently to make clear the distinction.

The problem with that idea is that it really means everyone has to be there at the same time for it to roll out well. If I’d spent a few minutes considering that, I might have realized that. In my original set up, I could have started with the players who were present and then easily rolled the others in as they arrived. This structure didn’t allow that as easily. The group’s pretty comfortable (from their MMO days) starting with some players not there- and I should have taken that into account. As it was I held off starting. Mind you, the time was well spent- the players interacted with one another in character, built some connections, and did some basic follow up to the first scenario. That helped later on in the session. It did mean that my mental estimation for scenes and what we’d get to had no relation to reality. I enjoyed the session, and I learned some things about how to scope and run in the G+ setting.

One approach I took in the investigation was handling it as a series of questions. This kept it from becoming a free-for-all and helped players build on each other's successes. I went around in order and had each player pose a question. If it was too broad I made them narrow it. Each player then made a skill check based on what they’d asked. If they described contacts or resources they were using, I gave some circumstances bonuses. Based on their rolls I offered them information. If the subject they investigated still had more to squeeze out (such as one of the bug autopsy) I tried to stress that others could still pursue that avenue. Some of the results eliminated possibilities, such as useful as uncovering specific facts. I thought that it ended up being a nice combination of creative thinking- trying to figure out the right narrow questions- and players figuring out how to play to their strengths. The session ended with them having made significant progress in their research, and we’ll take up again with that in two weeks.

Here’s the news reports I gave them a couple of days ahead of the session. Some of this may come into play and some of it may be just color, but if players see something they want to look more closely at, they’ll be able to do that (so some minor sandboxing…). There are a few obscure references in there as well. 


Audience members at Mister Miracle’s charity performance last evening found themselves thrown from terror to thrills in a matter of moments. Notorious criminal Mysterio attacked the performance- setting a gang of thugs to hold audience members hostage even as he attempted to sabotage Miracle’s water tank escape. But the villain hadn’t counted on one thing, or actually five things. Even as he set his plan into motion, things went awry as Mr. Freeze appeared. He quickly engaged and dealt with a third of the thugs. At the same time other heroes appeared on the scene: the Mighty Thor emerged from a blast of lightning in the stage set, notorious playboy hero Tony Stark swooped in, and a mysterious do-gooder described as bearing a “fist of steel” leapt into the fray. Miracle himself quickly reversed his predicament center-stage. Within moments he’d escaped Mysterio’s trap, grabbed up the villain, and locked him secure in the water tank trap.

Police arrived on scene quickly, setting up a perimeter even as the melee continued. Mysterio had blocked cell phone calls out. Locals, hearing the sounds of battle called it in. The heroic cabal dispatched the thugs quickly, with the steel-handed stranger moving the civilians out through the wings. However many stayed despite the danger. “I wasn’t going to miss this…this could never happen again.” Almost a quarter of the guests remained in their seats snapping photos and recording the events- immediately uploading to YouTube and other online sites. The hits skyrocketed when Mysterio let loose two attack robots which the heroes joined forces to defeat. The highpoint of the melee came when Mister Miracle pulled Mysterio from the tank, and then dragged himself and the criminal back in. Miracle refastened his own manacles and then performed his escape even with the distraction of the thrashing villain. Footage of that performance has crashed several servers in the hours since its upload.

New of this unprecedented gathering of superheroes set message boards and news programs aflame. So far only one of the heroes involved, Mr. Freeze, has issued a statement and the mysterious “fifth man” remains unknown. First on the scene, Captain DeWolff of the HCD refused comment; DHS Director Ziegler would only say that he found the situation troubling. Radio personality and activist G. Gordon Godfrey lashed out at the events citing the reckless endangerment of the public and suggesting collusion among the metahuman community to cover up concerns about Miracle’s origins and citizenship.


The vanishing of a garbage scow, Suydam, carrying an estimated 2,000 tons of trash continues to baffle authorities. The New York Port Authority, New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, and the Department of Sanitation NYC issued a joint statement early today asking for any and all assistance in tracking the vessel. The Suydam vanished overnight, June XXX, while moving out to settling distance amidst heavy fog. When the GPS and tracking indicators went offline, officers attempted to raise the vessel via radio to no avail. Witnesses describe the lights of the ship vanishing, but no other details. Coast Guard officers located no wreckage or other signs, but neither could they calculate a course that would have kept the vessel from being spotted as it left. While no hard facts have emerged, initial speculation has suggested that the scow might have been involved with narcotics trafficking.


Police have withheld comment on the collapse of a small apartment building currently undergoing renovation in the XXX block of XXXX. Witnesses describe a mass of police cars, including SWAT Team members arriving at the site in the early hours of Monday morning. Reports also suggest the presence of police helicopters in the area. At some point later, the building gave way, reducing the six stories to a pile of rubble. The building’s ownership remains in question as the company listed collapsed in the recent housing crisis. While the city has issued no office response, inside source suggest that a sewer accident which undercut the foundation lead to the destruction.


LexCorp announced today that the third-phase development of its revolutionary telemetry laser would be completed at its New York offices. The project, cornerstone to LexCorp’s new focus on private space flight, had been put on hold following the July 4th Attacks. However in recent months, CEO Franklin Richards has shifted priorities, raising funds and grabbing investment share from OsCorp. Though details remain scare, LexCorp announced that the telemetry laser would be vital to the company’s project to clean up space debris and reduce the risks associated with manned space flight.


A man who drove his car into a crowded coffee shop claims to have been attacked by spiders while driving. The man, name withheld, has been described as a sedate thirty-something lawyer with no history of mental illness. The New York Health Department confirmed Saturday that they believe this to be the sixth in a series of apparently random and severe hallucinatory attacks. In each case the victim has had a relatively clean bill of mental health. They have inflicted harm both on themselves and on others, recalling the details of their panic attack in vivid detail. Health Department officials have issued a tentative statement indicating that they do not believe the pattern to be contagious. While this has calmed some fears, rumors of a terrorist or metahuman weapon have begun to circulate.


Queens College Professor Grazny Kong arrived back in New York City today after being rescued almost a month ago from the remote Pacific Island which had been his home for almost a half a year. Kong remains the only known survivor of the destruction of the research vessel, The Phantom Lady, which was caught in a freak tropical storm last year. Survey planes tracking fish migration patterns miraculously spotted Kong’s beach markers, almost 200 miles away from the search area established by international authorities. A professor of anthropology. Kong stated that his time doing field work helped prepare him for living rough, but that “…little can make you ready for moments such as these.”

Previous Superhero: Year One Posts

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