Thursday, March 14, 2013

Planning & Attending Game Cons: Play on Target Podcast Ep. 6

This episode we talk about our own experiences with gaming conventions, with a focus on practical advice. We cut across several different areas- from what game conventions need to do to better serve attendees to keeping yourself sane to running events at conventions. We recorded this last year, just after I'd attended Gen Con (for one day). I've been to and run at many conventions, all in the Midwest (MichiCon, Emperor's Birthday, Historicon, Origins, and many others) but I don't do that nearly as much as I used to. All it takes is a few bad encounters with mismanaged organization to really burn me out. I've seen conventions approach these issues smartly and others be weirdly hostile to people putting on events.

But I still love the idea of conventions. When I started out in the hobby, this was the place to see new games, to try out things you could never afford to elsewhere, and to play non-stop for hours. Those many early conventions really raised the bar for what I wanted out of the hobby. The enthusiasm and patienc eof those who advocated for games in those days stays with me. I was a snot-nosed kid running around, and yet they still let me play. 

Planning and Attending Gaming Conventions
Play on Target Episode Roundup

If you like RPG Gaming podcasts, I hope you'll check it out. We take a focused approach- tackling a single topic each episode. You can subscribe to the show on iTunes or follow the podcast's page at

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Changeling Lost Vegas: Session Ten: Beginners' Luck

The video for Session Ten:

This Episode:
We had three of five players this session, and we took up immediately following the previous adventure. I ran through the logistics of stripping Greyhand Grip's magic rail car: calling on the born-again werewolf Lucas to assist with transport. The group headed to the Autumn Court to deliver what they'd found: Greyhand's corpse, the three containers of Moon Milk, and various loose bits and pieces from the site. Shark-Fingered Princess met them at her fairyland-dollhouse hollow where she listened to their story. She seemed less interested in the body of Greyhand, merely indicating she would see to the disposal of it. She asked about any papers or cards found on the site, at which point John produced the lovey-dovey sketches the dead Smith had drawn of the Princess. She seemed uninterested, clearly hoping the group found something else. To examine the Moon Milk she called forward Zippet Rausch, a Swarm Elemental made of insects. He checked the liquid and then whispered briefly to the Princess. Amber overheard him say, "This should be enough for the cauldron." Shark-Fingered Princess announced that the group had satisfactorily completed the task. She gave them right of salvage to the railcar (effectively raising the level of Scrapyard for their hollow by one) and one third of the Moon Milk recovered. Pressed, she would only describe it as a form of concentrated glamour, a kind of dream draught. 

The group returned back to Sunswept Ranch and considered their next move. If they followed their pattern  they would next go to the Summer Court for their task and then pay a call on the Spring Court to acquaint themselves. They discussed how to handle the Moon Milk, at which point John took a slug of the stuff. He froze briefly in place and then headed out to his workshop. There he began to forge chains. Amber and Morosa watched him, and tried to keep him calm when he came out of his weird Lunar haze. The chains upset him and made him angry and scared, nearly lashing out and attacking his Motley Mates, nearly drawing the Pledge Sanction. Amber spoke to him carefully and eased his temper. Morosa and Amber hid away the Milk and the Chains. 

Next, I took advantage of the small number of players to do a "Once Around," essentially individual scenes for each player. 

John Smith received a call from a Changeling, asking if he was willing to do an auto inspection for him on some cars he'd come into possession of. John met the Changeling face-to-face who turned out to be the Beast Bunny, Dudley Ladyquake. he offered John $3000 to check and make sure the four cars he'd bought we're up to specs: reinforced suspension, bulletproofed, rigged with nitrous, and free of tracking devices. John did so, noting that the four muscle cars had been rigged to seat extremely tall drivers. He found a GPS tracker which Dudley asked him to disable. The beast paid him his money and the two parted. 

Morosa Scorned spoke with Mrs. Pang, one of the senior Winter Courtiers the motley hadn't met yet. She asked about Morosa's nature as an Ogre Witchtooth and her Occult skills, and then requested she helped her on a job. They met up at an apartment where Mrs. Pang showed her the body of a lizard-like Beast Changeling, Forgone Collusion, who had apparently killed himself. However Mrs. Pang had noted the various magical tools around the area and wanted to know if there was anything to worry about. Morosa discovered that Forgone had been in the middle of a ritual to lay a self-harm curse on someone. He'd screwed up the process and the magicks had flown back on him. The curse energy which would have been placed in eggs, had flown off into the Changeling's kitchen, infecting the eggs there. Morsosa also realized that the energy had continued on into a neighbors apartment. using her wiles she managed to gain entry and get the Dreadul Free-Range Eggs of Doom away from the smitten neighbor. She returned as Mrs. Pang was finishing her corpse-grinding and passed on the information. 

Amber Sunshine Jones, having been told that there were other alien look-alike beings in Las Vegas, decided to go out hunting for them. She checked out the casinos on the strip, noting the strangeness of some and the Keeper-Cursed atmosphere of others. She avoided the hedge side of things here. After some searching she found herself on the monorail running between casinos and the downtown. From another car, she saw three short Grey-like aliens clearly disguised from humans. They were carefully maneuvering and subtly separating a thirteen-year old from the rest of his friends in the train car. Despite her terror, Amber made her way into the car, using her Mirrorskin nature to playact a crazy woman yelling and taunting. Her energy broke the Alien's efforts and the teen ran back to his group. However, the three Greys moved to intercept Amber. She ran back to previous car, but just missed exiting at the stop. She ran further down the car, screaming about aliens, with the three hot on her heels. In the next car, one of the passengers could clearly see through Amber's Mask and the aliens' disguise. Amber ran close to her and then pointed and shouted at the Greys. With attention drawn to them, the three scuttled off at the next station. Amber spoke to the woman, who seemed not to be a Changeling, but had hazy, dreamlike scars on her skin. She introduced herself as Serenissima and listened to Amber's tale of Alien Invaders and Kidnappings. Off balance, the woman seemed unsure what to make of it, but offered Amber her phone number in case she needed help in the future. 

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Moving from TTF to Roll20: An Assessment

Last year I ran about fourteen sessions of Mutants & Masterminds 2e using Tabletop Forge. This year I ran four sessions of a sequel campaign (wiki here). I’d backed TTF in the Kickstarter campaign, less for the assets and more for the promised functionality development. Last week, TTF went offline, pushing our group and others over to Roll20.

M&M 2e is a crunchier game than those I run right now. I say that as a veteran of running many, many years of higher crunch rpgs like Champions, Rolemaster (Classic and Standard System), and GURPS with all the chrome. M&M 2e as a system and superheroes as a genre invite tactical battle play. That may not hold true for all groups but it does for mine- five old school rpg players all of whom assembled originally to play the City of Heroes MMO. Several of of them seriously play tactical video games or board games (like HeroClix). A different group composition might  result in a different focus. My face-to-face supers rpg groups still like tactical combat. But they prefer games more open ended with more sessions devoted to investigation and NPC interaction. I think f2f works better for that. 

What I needed out of the program was pretty simple:
  • Easy connection set up. We have a couple of people with odd set ups and jinxed systems. The players broadcast audio only, while I as GM broadcast audio and video. That means I can’t see their faces and what they’re doing. That creates problems from time to time, as they step away or don’t pay attention and miss when I tell them to go.
  • Ability to put up decent maps. I just need these as a surface. I use a variant movement system for M&M 2e which breaks up the map into zones. Depending on your movement power, you can move X zone and still take an action. I want to keep things relatively abstract- avoiding counting hexes or squares. It has worked well. It means I don’t need a grid for the map, the scale can shift, and I don’t have to worry about other bells and whistles.
  • Ability to make tokens from images and be able to move those tokens around map.
  • A simple die roller that doesn’t take up much screen space. Easy command line to add bonuses.

That’s the basics and in general TableTop Forge handled that decently. It ran in G+ Hangouts and from time to time we’d have some connection problems which necessitated people logging out and back in. That would usually happen for just a couple of the players. We could tell it was coming because their rolls would stop showing up or have a significant delay. TTF also had a number of glitches with some basic functions requiring work arounds. These added a few minutes to the set up. It lacked a few features I could imagine would be helpful but I got used to the program. I used the G+ Screenshare app to show images, for example. I didn’t want anything more complicated getting in the way of things.

The needs of other campaigns and GMs may vary. I run a WoD Changeling the Lost campaign, and I don’t use TTF or anything like it for that- just the G+ Hangouts. That campaign doesn't tactical maps or dice rollers. I imagine GMs running a D&D 4e would need lots of things to track statuses, detailed grid maps, and, perhaps a more involved die roller. As always your campaign set up will vary. For example, the excellent Barking Alien seemed shocked that I would use maps for a supers campaign. In his games, the scale of the superheroic made that  difficult to map or keep in a constrained space. Something like Marvel Superheroes is purely abstract, so you never need a map. That’s less of an issue with my tactical over narrative play group.

That being said, I worried about learning a new program with Roll20. I’d heard it described as more robust and complex. The need to set up a special account and the presence of micro-transactions via purchasable assets and tokens made me nervous. Some people mentioned problems with the video chat functions. The closure of the TTF project I'd backed made me irritable as well. I posted in a couple of G+ threads about my trepidation. I saw some back and forth, but nothing that convinced me to be positive (or more negative).

So last night I ran using Roll20, having taken a day earlier in the week to familiarize myself with it. I planned on a little investigation, leading to a fight.

Long story short: The transition was easy; Roll20 does many things important to me better than TTF; and the players came away excited and impressed.

I set up the game easily. Roll20 allows GMs to create several different scenes, rather than working with a single map. You can easily move between those scenes and they load quickly. I really wanted that from TTF. More importantly, in Roll20 the GM can easily set these scenes, maps, and tokens ahead of time. TTF allowed the GM to save a map and a set of tokens. However, more times than not, when I loaded those, players could not see them. So I’d have to go through the process of choosing setting them out again- delaying play. Now I can easily have a staging image for the investigation/narrative section of the adventure and then switch to the map.

But even more, Roll20 makes loading tokens and maps super easy. You can drag and drop them right on to the table. I use two monitors and a couple of times last night when I wanted to remind them what a bad guy looked like, I just grabbed the image from the other monitor, dumped it onto the battlefield for a minute, and then deleted it. Any image you upload in this way becomes part of your library. I have a 100 Meg storage limit to start; I’m not sure if that’s a TTF backer thing or the general rule. You can quickly clear out images you don’t want from your library. The search function makes finding images efficient  and encourages me to be accurate about how I name images. You can also tag these assets.

Campaigns are persistent- with a campaign page players can hop on to at any time. You supply players with a link. I set up a NY Skyline image as the default landing page. That means you don’t have to send out Hangout invites- players just show up at the appointed time. I suppose you can still send out reminders. Each player has a little graphic box- since I’m using video, my broadcast shows up there. The players had grey boxes- I think they’ll need to set up icons to represent them. There’s a green bar below their image which moves to show talking. Each player can pick a unique color to represent them, used for drawing and similar functions. The players, of course, immediately drew penises on the screen. The GM can erase all drawings (thank god). There’s an Undo function in the program which only goes back a single step. Audio set up wasn’t a problem; you have to grant permission to the built-in program. A couple of times during the evening players dropped out of the audio; however they signed out and rejoined which quickly fixed it. They commented this fix was easier than with G+ Hangouts. Two of the players signed in accidentally on two devices, creating two icons for them. That didn’t affect anything thankfully. A couple times we had a little chat lag- which resulted in players talking over one another. However some of that I think has to do with one player’s attention level. The Roll20 forums suggest doing a campaign in G+ can help with some connection issues. The minor problems we had don’t make that an issue. We’ll see how that goes over the course of the campaign.

The die roller is simple and the command syntax easy. Some players turned on the 3D dice for themselves; I left it turned off. One player discovered you can easily build die rolling macros for commonly used rolls- attack, toughness save, gather information, etc- and started to set those up right away. Since players can go to the campaign page at any time, I expect that will become a widely used feature. I’ll just need to make sure they keep those numbers up to date.

Roll20 has several other functions I didn’t know I needed but which everyone loved. It has an initiative tracker- something I’d done on a scratch pad for TTF. Having the order on-screen and clearly available to all players kept people more focused. They could easily see when they would next take an action. You can easily label tokens and those labels stay- as opposed to TTF where they’d vanish when loaded. Players loved the tools for marking status- several different color dots or an “X” over the token. I will have to build a legend  those. As I mentioned, they’re a tactical group and love having that info. Each token has up to three info boxes you can put numbers into. The GM can set who can see and edit those. The PCs tracked the number of Bruises they’d taken and how many Hero Points they’d spent. If you don’t want that info, you can just set them to not be visible. The table doesn’t look cluttered, as I feared it might, because tokens only display the additional info if you click on them. Another goofy feature players loved was the ping- an animated circle allowing them to point at a place on the map.

Was there anything I didn’t like? The audio drop out was a little annoying, but super easy to manage. The chat delay affected a couple of times. I use 50x50 pixel tokens, so they can be a little hard to grab. A couple of times I ended up stretching the images rather than moving them. But you can Undo that if you do it immediately; you can correct the size from the edit on the token as well. I’m sure I’ll find other things which bug me in time, but that’s about it for the moment.

I’m really, really pleased with the group’s response to the new program and set up. They quickly embraced it. I picked it up pretty easily. I thought it was pretty good, but the everyone’s reaction convinced me we had a winner. It features a number of other little details and tools that I haven’t mentioned- ability to turn off the grid, the speed of image resolution for the players, highlighting tokens from the initiative menu and so on. I would say that if you’re going to run an online RPG which requires a map and tokens moving around, Roll20 is a dynamite option. I came in very skeptical and ended up sold on it for this kind of campaign.