Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Durance Meets X-Men: Days of Future Passed: An RPG Hack (Part One)

Durance is an rpg about space penal colonies. It is smart, generally diceless, and narrative-focused. I’m going use that to run a game about life in a superhero world, in particular a Mutant Prison Camp. This riffs, of course, on Chris Claremont’s amazing "Days of Future Past" storyline from Uncanny X-Men (141-142, ’81). That set up a whole series of tropes we’ve seen in other comics and stories: many later X-Men issues, Age of Apocalypse, Kang’s camps from Avengers (50-52, ’98), Layla Miller's experience in X-Factor, and even the super-prison from Kingdom Come. Durance requires some alteration to make that fit- given the shared burden for survival in the original. I’ll explain the changes below. You can see the second half of this post here

Sidebar: If any of this sounds interesting, I'm running this online for VirtuaCon on October 11th. As of this writing, I still have room for players. 

All of this is set in a new superhero world, created by a session of players from RPG Geek. You can see the full write-up of that world here. There are a few key facts to keep in mind. There's a long and ongoing history of alien invasions, many of which heavily altered parts of the world. Those invasions and the co-opting of technology pushed developments forward. We have rapid space travel and colonies by the 1960’s. Yet in many ways society’s still stuck in older social thinking and approaches. This setting takes place in the late 1980's. Mutants have become the target of fear and hate campaigns. They’re a distinct group from “Supers” in this world. Superheroes appeared earlier, perhaps at the beginning of the 20th Century and grew general acceptance. Mutants, on the other hand, began to appear in the middle of the century as a result (many suspect) of alien energies. Mutants also have powers, but most exhibit visible physical changes and oddities. They became a scapegoat and a victimized group, thrown into the mix of competing interests. A war among those with super-powers (supers and Mutants alike) hangs over the world like a shadow. Less than two decades after that war, governments moved to contain and suppress mutant populations.

That’s where we take up.

The internal logic and purpose of these camps vary from place to place, year to year. The timeline suggests an evolution with an eventual move in some places to actual population purges. But I suspect these are extreme versions. The players will have to define some of this logic. I imagine all camps begin with the desire to be self-sustaining and perhaps even productive. Whether that actually holds true in practice depends on the facility. Some camps may be about containment- keeping this dangerous population in a central and easily monitored place. Some may claim to be about safety: making sure that Mutants are not subject to persecution or attacks. Some may be about transitions- a holding place before moving inductees on to more independent off-world colonies. Rationalizations, excuses, and cover stories are a dime a dozen.

What becomes clear over time is that there is no endgame for these camps. Except for the few places where the administration establishes some kind of shared-responsibility colony, these prisons in the end. That will become clear earlier in camps run by those with a penal or military background. It may take longer for those administrators focused on scientific experimentation and public policy to realize this, but they will.

In Durance, players start by choosing details which define the planet and the colony. We will do the same, defining the location and the camp structure. Five traits define each of these. In a round, two players will each pick one trait which leans to the positive. The other three traits turn out negative. The combination of those picks give us a two letter code and tell us something about the place. After we’ve done that for the location, we’ll do the same for the camp, giving each player (in a four-player game) one choice.

The descriptions below are pretty open-ended. The group should feel free to make changes or adaptations that fit what they want out of the game. Players may “color in” more of these details during character creation.

Ten sites are available for the prison camps. Each is defined by a code for the applicable traits. The five traits are:
  • Connected (A) [Unconnected (-A)]: How much contact does the camp have with the outside world. Are there regular deliveries of goods or information? Are there nearby settlements? Do the staff & workers regularly change out?
  • Mild Atmosphere (B) [Harsh Atmosphere (-B)]: What is the climate like? A mild atmosphere means consistent temperatures and unchallenging seasons. A harsh environment can be dangerous or even deadly without the proper protection. The camp protects those inside, so long as it runs effectively.
  • Benign Biology (C) [Hostile Biology (-C)]: Are there dangerous animals in the region? Infestations of vermin? Or perhaps deadly plant-life? Or is the dangerous biology bacterial or viral, spreading infections throughout the camp?
  • Stable Systems (D) [Fragile Systems (-D)]: How solid is the life-support, waste management, and general infrastructure of the camp? Is it rock-steady? Or does it break down at a moment’s notice? Does it require constant attention to keep running?
  • Productive (E) [Unproductive (-E)]: Does the camp produce anything- goods or resources for itself or the outside world. Is it self-sustaining? Or does it rely on outside channels to maintain itself?
Desert Colony (CD)
Benign Biology, Stable Systems: Disconnected, Harsh Atmosphere, Unproductive
There's debate about which desert we're in. But you can't think about that too much. It doesn't matter. The heat, the sand, the wind, it slowly wears you down. We're far away from civilization and survive based on aerial supply drops and the yearly changing of the guard. We make nothing here- with most of the facilities simply dedicated to keeping us alive.
Island Colony (BD)
Mild Atmosphere, Stable Systems: Disconnected, Hostile Biology, Unproductive
You'd expect more storms here, maybe typhoons, but no. The island's a paradise in that regard. Perhaps that's why the flora and fauna's so dangerous. Poisonous snakes, inflaming insects, schools of sharks patrolling the waters offshore. Some xeno-beast experiments got out into the local ecosystem as well, creating even more havoc. Inside camp fortifications we survive, but that leaves us little space to provide beyond the basics.
Contaminated Zone (AB)
Connected, Mild Atmosphere: Hostile Biology, Fragile Systems, Unproductive
They used to name these zones- fallout from the battles with alien invaders. But now they just number them. We can at least communicate with the outside world, and specialists move back and forth easily. They work to figure out how to contain the evolving bio-terraforming invasion. We try to get keep that out of our quarters, but it always find a way in: destroying what we’re building, growing, preserving. Systems here break down constantly, victim to living rust and unkillable insects.
Arctic Zone (CE)
Benign Biology, Productive: Disconnected, Harsh Atmosphere, Fragile Systems
The cold never stops. It pushes us to work harder- tapping oil and mineral reserves beneath the ice. They reward us sometimes for output- fixing heaters and insulation, offering more layers we desperately need to stay warm. But when the winter comes we're on our own. Night, cold, and ice. That's all we have then.
Blocked Off City Zone (AD)
Connected, Stable: Harsh Atmosphere, Hostile Biology, Unproductive
They built walls higher than anyone had seen before to lock down the city- lining it with barb-wire, searchlights and more exotic means of control. Damaged and contaminated during an invasion, they left this city to stew and then threw us in. Stay in the protective zone. Outside things fall apart and diseases can whip through and kill off the unprotected in a day.
Space Colony (AC)
Connected, Benign Biology: Harsh Atmosphere, Fragile Systems, Unproductive
As humanity expanded into the solar system in the 1950's and 60's, they left behind older bases, some converted from alien masters. The Lunar base should have been the best cared for, but the unglamorous Moonscape drew few. It remained a traffic control and routing point for automated transits. But there's little else for us in these sterile walls. The life support systems are ancient and prone to breakdown. We can go from freezing to blazing hot in a matter of hours. It’s worse when the scrubbers back up...
Undersea Colony (BE)
Mild Atmosphere, Productive: Disconnected, Hostile Biology, Fragile Systems
We're here in the Deep-Sea Trench, a frontier ignored except to dump waste like us. On the bright side, they keep things at a steady 72 degrees and the aquaculture means that we have more than enough to survive and even thrive. But we have little contact with the outside world, even when the systems break down- and they do, often. Add to that experimental oceanic beasts and weird strains of flu which sweep through, and you have a recipe for disaster.
Terraforming Colony (DE)
Stable Systems, Productive: Disconnected, Harsh Atmosphere, Hostile Biology
We took the techniques the alien invaders used over generations and turned them against other planets in our solar system. It didn't turn out exactly as we'd planned. We're self-sustaining, but we have to keep to the confines of the camp. Outside the Martian atmosphere can bleed through from time to time. And more importantly there are the things they grew: wicked beasts and plants transformed by experimental terraforming. They say they'll get it right next time...
Abandoned Station (BC)
Mild Atmosphere, Benign Biology: Disconnected, Fragile Systems, Unproductive
They abandoned this station in the 1970s. It still stinks of cigarette smoke. Some say it smells like a motel. It was state of the art at the time, filtering air and biohazards and keeping us safe. But there's a delicate balance, with much of the plant life dedicated to sustaining things. And this station is old. It has cracks where there shouldn't be any. We ask for parts and replacements, but they don't make them anymore. And the infrequent supply deliveries focus on more basic goods like food and restraints.
Asteroid/Mining Colony (AE)
Connected, Productive: Harsh Atmosphere, Hostile Biology, Fragile Systems
Some think we have it good. Reliable connections to the outside world. Regular supply drops from ships. Luxury goods made available and more things moving through the black market. But the mines here will kill you. They're dangerous and the systems can't keep up with the dirt, grime, and breakdown. New mutant illnesses can run amok before the medtechs know what to do. Pressure leaks and erratic climate controls can weaken you. And the systems break down constantly.

  • Well Planned (V) [Chaotic Design (-V)]: Refers to the intelligent arrangement of dwellings, structures and services within the camp. Was the camp built to order or laid atop existing structures? How quickly was it created and with what kind of foresight?
  • Low Density (W) [Packed In (-W)]: Refers to the land footprint, and living area within it, occupied by the camp. Are the camp dwellers stacked in like cordwood? How tightly arranged are the various barracks and facilities? What about the staff and administration- how close are they?
  • Decent Treatment (X) [Poor Treatment (-X)]: Refers to the general amenities of the camp. Is there good access to decent food and water? What about other supplies and goods? Does everyone have access to luxuries or is everything stark? What’s the upkeep like on these goods? Is the populace used for involuntary experimentation?
  • Order (Y) [Disorder (-Y)]: Refers to the compliance and docility of the camp population. It also considers the level of crime and exploitation among the populace. Are gangs allowed to run things completely or does the administration turn a blind eye? Are they corrupt?  
  • Justice (Z) [Injustice (-Z)]: Refers to the colony’s rule of law and its just enforcement. Does the administration consider itself subject to rules? Or are the guards and staff given to arbitrary treatment, abuse, and petty vindictiveness?
Camp Bendis (VW)
Well Planned, Low Density: Poor Treatment, Disorder, Injustice
Delays in the elaborate construction and repair plans meant that they've been pushing prisoners to the breaking point. They run crews round the clock according to exacting schedules. Outside of that prisoners lead a chaotic life, with little oversight. Little comes down from the top to the populace, with the Guards either keeping or black market selling anything other than the basics. The lack of observation has allowed gangs and rival cabals to form among the inmates.
Camp Claremont (VX)
Well Planned, Decent Treatment: Packed In, Disorder, Injustice
Whoever planned this camp loved straight lines and balance. Everything's organized in a logical repeating pattern…of narrow paths, tight corridors, and packed-in living quarters. It means better distribution of resources and the ability to have some personal effects. But it makes the guards nervous. They're just as packed-in and react to everything with a heavy hand. The experimental programs are non-voluntary and constant. Things will eventually get pushed too far.
Camp Ditko (VY)
Well Planned, Ordered: Packed In, Poor Treatment, Injustice
They call it the Panopticon, a theory of constant observation and enforcement. There's no privacy, no place to hide here. Everyone has a place they need to be at a regulated time. Any deviation results in reduction of supplies. Everyone must match their quota or suffer the penalties. It keeps the in-fighting and criminal element down, as they're in as desperate straits as anyone else.
Camp Millar (VZ)
Well Planned, Justice: Packed In, Poor Treatment, Disorder
Prisoners here live in carefully managed blocks. They're shifted and moved between them in response to statistical read-outs, six-month plans, and experimental demands. Despite that, prisoners are treated even-handedly- with equal justice and some staff devoted to managing problems. But they don't live in the dense blocks and they don't see the in-fighting, the gangs, and the killing.
Camp Gerber (WX)
Low Density, Decent Treatment: Chaotic Design, Disorder, Injustice
We're not packed together, but only because they cobbled this camp together out of bits and pieces. On the one hand that means that they don't clamp down on our lives. We have some privacy, mostly due to ignorance. We avoid interactions with the guards, scientists, and staff. They fear and lash out at anything- realizing the potential danger in the disorganization of this place. Instead they leave us alone, to be governed by ourselves and the growing criminal underground.
Camp Byrne (WY)
Low Density, Ordered: Chaotic Design, Poor Treatment, Injustice
Everyone has space here. Enough room to live, but not to move around. If you move too much you begin to see the cracks and seams of this place. We're watched constantly and the guards sweep through from time to time- breaking up criminal activity, gangs, and networks. They want us isolated and quiet. Everyone in their right place, simply sitting and waiting for the end.
Camp Gaiman (WZ)
Low Density, Justice: Chaotic Design, Poor Treatment, Disorder
It seems like there's more scientists, experimenters, and researchers here than guards. The poke and prod us- keeping us on restricted diets, forcing us through courses, drawing every kind of fluid. There's no method to the madness of this sprawling complex, with more and more given over to these tests. The guards and wardens are at least fair- even handed and perhaps even sympathetic to our plight. But they're not around at night when the gangs and criminals make demands and establish their control.
Camp Kirby (XY)
Decent Treatment, Ordered: Chaotic Design, Packed In, Injustice
They feed us well and we're given access to more than a few luxuries. But that's a distraction from the hodge-podge set-up of this place. We're packed in so tightly, with rooms and districts desperately restructured and repurposed. They track us closely- keeping an eye out for any form of organization or criminal activity. That's because the guards want to keep that in their hands- exploiting, taking bribes, and ruling everyone's lives with an iron fist.
Camp Morrison (XZ)
Decent Treatment, Justice: Chaotic Design, Packed In, Disorder
There's a tight lid on this place. They've worked hard to present a bright face to inspectors and observers. We have more than enough to live on and the administration regularly doles out bonuses for good behavior. The guards maintain order without excessive brutality and some have said they're even responsive to concerns. But they live outside the Warrens, the cells and dense barracks we're kept in. They know the score and leave alone the worst parts of the maze-like cell blocks. Instead others among the imprisoned mutants rule here. And they aim to kept their power and control. 
Camp Moore (YZ)
Ordered, Justice: Chaotic Design, Packed In, Poor Treatment
Some call it the Hive, and perhaps there was symmetry and order at the start but that's broken down in madness and chaos now with each further alteration. We're packed in here, and kept in line with minimal rations and little access to recreation. Days can go by without seeing the light. The guards and administration are quiet and yet ever present. They don't persecute. Instead they strike surgically in the night. They cut out trouble-makers and the worst of those who abuse their fellows. And then they vanish back into their own sealed sections.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Bloodlines: A Supers Campaign Seed (Part Seven)

This series draws from supers campaign I put together almost ten years ago, "Bloodlines." That focused on inherited super-powers limited to certain bloodlines around the globe. This material sets up some of the groups in the setting. You can see the first post here which lays out the general concept. Once again you'll see a combination of new material and published ideas, primarily used to add color to the background. This has some of the set-up bits I used in the campaign. You might find some useful ideas for plots or how to present certain things. This is news I used for a session.

Dateline: Pierre, SD: In the news, government officials are still trying to determine what occur last week in an explosion that cost the lives of dozens of superheroes and their Anarch foes. Three days ago media and other observers were removed from the area, citing security concerns due to Lockdown nearby. Warden Tomas Fischer spoke to the press recently, confirming that all systems were stable within the superpowered facility. While they had experienced a small power fluctuation, the reserve systems had caught up nearly immediately. A thorough head count, conducted in cooperation with the DPHD confirmed that all prisoners had been accounted for. The DPHD also announced that they would be handling investigation of the Zero Moment site, in cooperation with the FBI in order to better ascertain precisely what happened. Despite the EMP which took recording devices offline with the explosion and the subsequent energy burst, witnesses on scene have confirmed the basic details reported earlier. While some have expressed concerns, readings on site have shown no appreciable fallout radiation or other energies.

Dateline: Chicago: Police are warning pet owners in Northern Chicago to keep their animals indoors following a series of assaults. At least a dozen animals have been killed in the area. Animal Control officers believe that a pack of animals possibly infected with rabies may be on the loose. A number of local parks have also been closed following the discovery of animal tracks and damage to facilities.

Dateline: Seattle: Following services held in Redmond, Washington, Bill Gates announced an aggressive campaign for recruitment to the Microsoft superhero organization Vision. “We believe that Vision has an important role to play, in bringing light to the world and being available 24/7 to deal with disasters and help the weary to rise to their feet after them.” Pressed further as to how he planned to conduct the recruitment, Gates declined to answer, stating only that the campaign was being worked on and would be rolled out within the next several weeks.

Dateline: Chicago: Chicago city officials confirmed negotiations and general acceptance of a new superteam today after several days of sustained questioning. Mayor Richard Dankin stated that following the Zero Moment incident they had been contacted by an independent group offering to assist the city with its notorious Anarch situation. “We have tentatively accepted the offer and hope for the best,” was the limited statement the mayor would make on the record. Representatives of the new group, to be known as the Untouchables, gave a small press conference without the members present. “We have spoken with a number of city officials and worked out most of the details for our operations here in Chicago. They’ve given us tremendous cooperation and we looked forward to living up to their expectations.” Pressed as to the identities of the members of the group, the representative avoided answering. “Right now, we’re getting our operations in order, once everyone has had a chance to settle in, we’ll let them speak for themselves. I can tell you, they all have tremendous talents with a devotion to doing what is right.” A-SWAT commander, Karl Rhody, spoke briefly to the press following an Anarch related incident in which the Untouchables were involved (see below). “We’re curious about how long these Untouchables will last. They almost didn’t last the day, since our department wasn’t informed until just before go time that they were not Anarchs. With so many of these freaks on the streets you can never tell, and especially not in Chicago.” Asked to elaborate on his remarks, the commander declined.

Dateline: Boston: The DHPD shut down a scientific conference at MIT this weekend, citing security risks directly related to the publication of several technical papers. Specific details regarding the scientists taken into custody remain thin. David Myers Syzmanski, representative for the Syzmanski family and one of the co-sponsors of the conference, New Research in Energy Field Studies, protested the closure, joining together with protests from the ACLU and the American Council of Academics. The DHPD refused to answer any questions regarding the seizure as has the Secretary of State.

Dateline: Chicago: Witnesses and officials have confirmed the first known action involving the new local independent superhero group known as The Untouchable. The team-- only hours after the Zero Moment-- managed to foil a bank robbery and dispatch the Aanarch group known as The Enforcers. Shortly before closing a well-armed gang entered into the 4th National Bank on Rosemont, taking dozens of patrons and workers hostage. Within minutes, the Untouchables arrived, shattering the bulletproof front windows and taking the robbers by surprised. Within seconds, all had been dispatched easily. However, the Anarch group The Enforcers, apparently intending to rob the robbers arrived soon after and were engaged by the Untouchables who took them down quickly. Property damage was minimal and apparently only one of the superhero team suffer any significant injuries. A-SWAT arrived on the scene soon after and took the Anarchs into custody. Details are sketchy about the identities of the Untouchables, but witnesses confirmed the presence of the veteran hero Cruel Butterfly. This hero has not been seen in public since his mysterious collapse on the floor of the Tokyo Game Show several month ago. Fan sites across Japan buzzed with the news of his return. In a related story the law firm of Sorrentino, Church and Laquedem agreed to take on the case of the Enforcers. This firm is well known for representing accused “Anarchs” in court. Lead attorney Gilbert Sorrentino gave a brief statement outlining his defense. “Our clients admittedly have some warrant out for their arrest, though in several cases we can show that those warrants are in bad faith or stem from mistaken identities. Following the Zero Moment, my clients realized the errors of their ways and were determined to keep the situation from becoming chaotic. Accordingly, when they saw a group which they believed were Anarchs outside the site of a bank robbery they took action.” District Attorney Jacob Weisphaut’s response to Sorrentino’s stated defense was unpublishable.

Dateline: Boulder: Trial begins today in Bainbridge, Colorado in the case of Helena and Randy Colewell. The Colewells, members of the Church of Scientology, are accused of attempting to kill their six-month-old son, Colvin. The state will present a case that upon learning that their child carried the Rakepaw gene the Colewells attempted to smother their child and then left him exposed to the elements. The Colewells will attempt to show how their religious faith, which condemns Bloodliners, drove them to the murder. So far the Colewells have issued no statement, and their Church sponsored lawyer has avoided and media contact. Colvin Colewell himself was the subject of a brief battle over custody with him eventually being placed with the family of international singing sensation Ace Braddock (cousin to the noted Cruel Butterfly).

Dateline: Chicago: A series of mysterious explosions rocked several scattered an apparently abandoned sites across the city last night. Preliminary reports indicate a lack of explosive residue, but rather a strange energy signal in the area. Homeland security agents, originally scrambled to look into the situation has returned to Washington after determining the case to be one of Anarch Vandalism. Police still have no leads on the vandals.

Dateline: Chicago: Police were called to a division of Wescosa Pharmaceuticals late yesterday to investigate the vanishing of an entire research department. In the late afternoon, a fire alarm cleared the building. However in a brief follow up check revealed an entire department missing. Firefighters called to the scene made their way into the lab to find it deserted. Police continue to investigate.
Dateline: Seoul: Scientists from dozens of countries today decried China’s entry into the group of countries working in cooperation with South Korea’s World Stem Cell Hub. The Hub was founded by Chosun University professor Song Chang-hun when he uncovered a way to artificially created custom-made human embryonic stem-cell lines. Soon after they created a consortium aimed at giving researchers wider access to these lines. The Hub has been praised but at the same time there have been questions about the distribution of scientific techniques and proprietary genetic information.. China, who has long had an aggressively proprietary stance towards any and all genetic information, is viewed with suspicion by many of the current partners of the Hub. One high ranking member stated, “We know that China’s genetics program involves forced labor, torturous experimentation and the assassination of those who cross “The Nursery” as it is called. By allowing them access to this work, we make ourselves party to their horrors.” It has been suggested that the US’s isolation from the project has given China room to invest more heavily. Because the World Stem Cell Hub conflicts with U.S. policies that have limited scientists' access to stem cells only a few US private firms have been able to do business with them.

Dateline: Chicago: Breaking local news, a little over 72 hours after the capture of the Anarch group, the Enforcers, the city of Chicago had arranged a transfer, supervised by the Chicago PD and A-SWAT team. During a transfer of the prisoners from local holding to site for Lockdown management, three of the prisoners managed to escape. In the brief melee which followed, two of the three, Zero Point and Praetor were killed by A-SWAT members standing by. Though details are sketchy right now, it is believed that the third, Crasher, a known mentalist Anarch managed to escape and is still at large.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Communities & Organizations: Play on Target Podcast Ep. 34

This week Play on Target considers Communities & Organizations in RPGs. This covers a wide range of elements in our games: factions, locales, icons, and clans. When done well, I adore these elements in games. I like how they offer a shorthand for GMs and a resource for players. The smartest games make them into a conversation. They inform players about the world without resorting to an info dump. But they also offer a channel to support the players with strings attached. A good faction ought to give and call in favors- a two-way street.

Before I move on I want to direct your attention to RPG Geek’s VirtuaCon, an online gaming convention coming up October 10th-12th. Play on Target came together through RPG Geek and we’re the "unofficial" podcast of the site. VirtuaCon offer 60+ events for free, including games and panels. You can see the full list here. I’ll be running four games and one panel, as well as participating in several others. Expect me to collapse by the end of that weekend.

I’ve been thinking about what fiction has factions and organizations as useful touchstones. Steven Brust’s Jhereg comes to mind. While the main character only belongs to one faction, the interactions between the other Houses define that world. Eventually when a character of a particular house appears on scene, they arrive with a set of expectations. Brust develops those naturally over time. Harry Potter offers another example. Ravenclaw, Hufflepuff, and the other ones each represent a kind of faction in the world. School games can easily replicate this or break things along other lines (Years, Clubs, and Nationalities). You might also be able to read the Marvel Universe this, with the political and power splits of X-Men (Good Mutants), Brotherhood (Evil Mutants), Inhumans (???). You have strong characters leading each. Maybe you could borrow something from 13th Age and have iconic relationships in a modern supers game.

Many games have integrated ideas of factions to help lay out their world. Brian mentions how World of Darkness has crafted nearly all of the new worlds (Vampire, Mage, etc) with a two-level system: group and philosophy. In Changeling the Lost, players select a Seeming and then usually connect themselves to a Court. That’s given added complexity through a system of “special interest clubs,” the Entitlements. It is interesting to look at games which offer archetypes that define role (Shadowrun, Earthdawn) versus those which define interests or allegiance (Legend of the Five Rings, Fading Suns).

In the episode we mention several games focusing exclusively on communities: The Quiet Year, Blood & Honor, Durance, Deluge, and Kingdom. I want to emphasize that last one. Kingdom’s a really interesting game and a great exploration of the tensions between competing interests within a group and the collective desire to maintain a stable society. We don’t mention World of Dew, Ben Woerner’s sequel to Blood & Honor. This deals with classical Japanese urban society and the lives of the non-samurai. DramaSystem (Hillfolk & Blood on the Snow) also features many campaign pitches focusing on the dramas inherent in communities.

It’s worth looking at some of the traps and pitfalls that factions offer as well. For example, I love the factions of Planescape. They’re supremely cool. But they’re also a great way to get a group at each other’s throats. If players pin too much attachment to those ideals it can lead to serious inter-party strife, worse than some alignment BS. Group attachments also have to have some payoff for the players. They should get a benefit at least slightly outweighing the cost IMHO. They also shouldn’t lock down or severely restrict the PCs’ choices. If the game’s mobile, any community attachment shouldn’t guilt them for travelling. Also be aware of the bookkeeping trap. If you introduce something the players can spend points on or build up, don’t go too granular. Otherwise you’ll have to track all of those details- especially if each player has their own to play with. Think about the economy of this. If the players can invest in something (a town, a base, a ship) figure out how far you expect them to go, how much that will cost, and how many sessions you expect them to play. Dole out points and set costs accordingly.

Most importantly if you present groups and communities in a game, you need to be willing to explain how and why they function. What does the Thieves Guild offer people? Why don’t the authorities directly act against it? If they’re so powerful, why don’t they take over? You need to establish the logic of these things. That’s especially true with authority groups, since players usually have a knee-jerk reaction against those. For example, the Court system in Changeling the Lost often irritates PCs. Why would Changelings replicate a hierarchy out in the real world when they’ve just escaped from that? I have something of the same reaction to Werewolf Clan structures. The answer is that they are doing something collectively that individuals couldn’t do, for the benefit of the group as a whole. That’s often hidden and forgotten behind layers of ritual. In CtL the Courts and their cyclical nature offer a powerful magic to help conceal the Freehold from the attentions of the Keepers. If that magic weren’t in place, then everyone would be vulnerable. Authority groups have duties and obligations and shirking or concealing those should cause them distress.

I have a useful trick for integrating communities in a meaningful way: put the players in charge. Make that part of the game's premise from the start. It’s a little like a Star Trek game. Everyone’s an officer and the ship’s a community. It’s a shared resource and responsibility. This is how I’ve handled two recent campaigns. For The Last Fleet, everyone took up a role in this rag-tag Fantasy/BSG fleet. Each player represented a particular ship/race. They had to balance the desires of their own peoples against the needs of the fleet as a whole. That meant sometimes enforcing rules and roles against their own. One player ended up effectively exiled from them for her choices. I’ve also done that with our homebrew L5R game, The New Dragon. Borrowing from Blood & Honor, everyone holds and office and we switch between classic adventures and seasonal actions.

I’ve written a few posts related to this topic you might find useful:

I’ve done several posts assembling games with a group or faction theme. 

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 www.playontarget.com.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The Year in Horror RPGs 2013: Part Two: It Came from the Stars to World War Cthulhu

Here are the rest of the horror rpgs published in 2013, a pretty huge number. The genre remains strong and compelling, paling next to fantasy but beating out many others. It’s worth comparing that success to its presentation in other kinds of gaming.

Board Games
For this I looked through the BGG rankings of games published in '13. I skipped a couple of foreign-language games and some “kids” games with cartoonish horror elements. And I’ll admit I got exhausted after about the tenth page of game listings and stopped. I’ve included base games and major expansions. As you can see, there’s a definite trend I had to break out. Zombie games rule the roost in quantity. However, I suspect the average rating of those games is significantly lower than that of the other group.

Video Games
Here I focused on games which have significant and playable horror elements. I left off those which just had you playing a monster in a side-scroller, for example. I also skipped many little games and apps, instead focusing on those which garnered review attention (positive or negative). Zombies appear again strongly, but don’t dominate. I suspect if I included shovelware, that might be different.

This list complements my chronology of Horror RPGs, offering a look at games released in 2013. This is part of my Patreon project (which you can see more about here- please share if you find it interesting or useful). The first half of this 2013 round up is here.

As I mentioned on the previous list, I’ve made some choices about what to cut and what to keep. Some of these choices are practical. Smaller pdf-only supplements I’ve generally avoided. I’ve also focused on professionally (or pseudo-professionally) published books. That means I often skip free/online or purely self-published products. I've consolidated products under an umbrella if a publisher has released 3+ items in that year.

As always, if I’ve missed something important, please give me a heads up. I may have it on the other list, or perhaps I’ve glossed over it.

A sourcebook of Lovecraftian space horror for Pathfinder Fantasy. It shares some ambitions with Shadows over Vathak, but instead of building a new fantasy world with those horror elements it brings the weird to an existing setting. This might be a corner case for the horror list- the frights and Mythos come filtered through a Spelljammer sensibility. The book's split into three parts: new mechanics including races & classes, GM material including new foes, and a couple of adventures. The nod to horror comes via the weird creatures and some potent "star beasts" which can have unearthly abilities. These are Lovecraftian horrors written small and with clear hit points. While the game claims that "Mystery, wonder, and terror from the starry vastness await you," I suspect that depends on your GMs willingness to tweak and turn the material up to eleven. Still, if you're looking to add something of Numenera's tone to a Pathfinder game, this might be worth tracking down.
It Came from the Stars on RPGNow

I‘ll be a little coy about this one. I just received a copy and I want to do a full review. Basically King for a Day lays out a massive campaign sourcebook for a low-fantasy/horror sandbox. It is systemless, but seems tuned for use with something like BRP, Harnmaster, or the like. It has a distinct Anglo-Saxon feel, and specifically cites Harn as an inspiration. King for a Day is about 300 pages, trade-sized. The first thirty+ pages set things up and talk about the social interactions involved, the next 100+ lay out the land and key places of the setting, and the last half of the book goes through the dozens and dozens of NPCs and the storylines running through the book. Rather than a sequence of events, KfaD builds on event triggers leading to many different plots and results.

Author jim pinto worked on several of my favorite L5R products. He has a deft hand and strong voice which carries through the work. This has a cool set up and distinct sense of place. Pinto mentions that it arose from his reworking of an earlier module, Night Below. GMs wanting to run King for a Day in an existing world may have to do some shifting to make it fit, but the book works to make that easier. The central horrors and challenges are striking, but they're also subtle. I think what's most fascinating is how rich the material is, which could go to a GM's head. KfaD relies heavily on social interactions with NPCs and careful tuning of those conversations. GMs have to manage and maintain the tone. Recommended for anyone doing a low fantasy game tinged with or fully embracing horror.
King for a Day on RPGNow

I'm pleased that The Laundry rpg has done well for Cubicle 7 and they've continued to expand the line. I enjoyed Charlie Stross’ original books, and I love how the setting presents a mirror to games like Delta Green and Conspiracy X. The focus on bureaucracy and paradigms for understanding magic make it disquietingly realistic. Cubicle 7 released two Laundry products for 2013. God Game Black adds a number of elements drawn from The Apocalypse Codex novel, including more details on the Black Chamber and External Assets. It also has two new adventures. Cultists Under the Bed considers the how and why of cultists and conspirators in this setting. It includes write-ups of many foes, large and small. I like the focus on the human agents involved in these matters- rather than just another monster book. Modern horror or conspiracy GM might want to pick it up. Both books are substantial 128-page supplements, which is also awesome.
God Game Black and Cultists Under the Bed on RPGNow

Based on a series of novels I'm unfamiliar with, Monster Hunter International is the last thing to come out from Hero Games in some time. As I commented on the earlier Horror Hero: Endless Nightmares, this would not be my go-to system for horror games. The crunch, numbers, and tactical approach don't mesh well with what I want when I run this genre. But I have to revise my opinion a little with this product. For one thing, it uses Hero 6th which files down many of game’s pointy corners. For another, the set up's action-adventure horror, with trained forces battling the supernatural. It may work well in that context. Certainly the game's solid showing on Kickstarter indicate people believed it would work (or at least offer a good sourcebook).

MHI follows the trend of recent Hero one-off games, with a complete and condensed version of the system alongside the setting material. Everything has a paramilitary look to it- reminding me of the old Recon and Merc games. It seems exclusively aimed at fans of the books- there's little explaining the premise in the blurbs. I'm guessing you're part of a company that hunts down monsters? Maybe InSpectres but more hardcore? I'm not sure. Reviews are mixed, and I had a hard time finding any beyond Amazon and RPGNow. Novices expecting an easy system to run the game seem put off by the rules presentation and incompleteness. I suspect your love for this will depend entirely on your fondness for the source books and/or Hero system.

Monster Hunter Intl on RPGNow

Onyx Path has done a striking job of moving attention and excitement over to Kickstarter. They've been able to grab fans and make them online advocates. They’ve had to in order to survive in a purely direct sale/no retailer environment. We've seen these kinds of shifts in the rpg industry before. Shannon Appelcline's Designers & Dragons is filled with many such experiments. What's striking about reading that book is how crystal clear their results seem in retrospect. It was obvious that the Masterbook series wouldn't stand up or that the switch to Megatraveller would alienate allied companies. But at the time, as a consumer, these moves seemed legitimate. So I don't know if the new KS publishing economy will sustain itself. I don't think, as I did a few years ago, that a series of collapsing projects will bring things down. Instead I think if there's a sea change it will come in five years once these companies have had a chance to absorb and process the economies of these approaches.

Mummy the Curse funded at over $100K of its original $30K request. I've written about WW's earlier Mummy game which I quite liked. This version takes a very different approach- more esoteric and meta. Designer C. A. Suleiman, among others, has produced quite a different sensibility. While it offers the first new core book for World of Darkness in some years, the game's approach is more contained than Werewolf or Vampire. It reminds me more of something like Nephilim or Amaranthine. Players run potent and powerful creatures, but a good deal of the game is given over to figuring out exactly who you are. It looks very cool, but I'd recommend reading a few reviews before picking this up. DieHard Game Fan and Tor.com both present solid overviews.

Mummy the Curse on RPGNow

A collection of generic horror scenarios set during the Great Depression. The seemingly niche product did quite well in Kickstarter, raising 4+ times the requested amount. It could easily be adapted for Call of Cthulhu, another general horror rpg, or the period-appropriate Trail of Cthulhu. The stated intent is to offer quick and complete horror scenarios GMs can easily run for fill in. Reviews suggest all five are quite good. And while they're all set in the same period, they don't repeat one another too thematically. One review suggests that there's six in the collection, counting Lover in the Ice as one. But the publisher blurb only mentions five. The bundled edition is only available as a $20 PoD version. That's nice and has a really striking cover. But if you’re not interested in that, each of the five included scenarios can be purchased as pdfs "Pay What You Want" via RPGNow. Try one out and see if it fits your style.
No Security on RPGNow

A zombie rpg where you play the elderly attempting to quietly shuffle along with the undead and keep themselves from being eaten. This is a one-shot game with the players working to clear the facility or manage to get the keys to escape. While that could be done as a scenario with a number of existing zombie games, One Foot in the Grave adds a unique element: Bingo. The game uses d6 resolution. When players roll only sixes, they then have to generate a 2d6 cross-check number marked on everyone's cards. If anyone gets Bingo during play, they survive and everyone else is gunned down by the military invading the facility. An easy prep game, with mixed rpg and board game elements.
One Foot in the Grave on RPGNow

I wasn't sold on the zombie-survival rpg Outbreak when I first saw it. But I'm pleased to see a company regularly supporting a line with new material, even if it is only a few pages of weekly material like Hunters Books' Free Content Friday. They smartly gather those into annual collections as well. Outbreak: Deep Space, as you might guess, is a space survival horror game. However I’m not sure exactly what’s going on with the actual publication history. It seems like they published a 150 page version in 2013, but then they ran a Kickstarter in 2014 for it, which seems to be for a second 240 page edition released in September. The earlier edition seems to be a set of modules to add to the original game, while the newer version is stand-alone. I’ll hold off comment since it seems like the actual final game’s really a 2014 publication.
Outbreak: Deep Space on RPGNow

The original Outlive Outdead had a hook- modelling itself on a zombie survival guide. That's smart, given the popularity of Max Brooks' work. That helped distinguish Outlive a little from the horde of zombie games shuffling through the market. The Outlive Outdead Companion makes a couple of odd moves. For one, it isn't really a "companion." I have certain expectations when publishers describe that kind of book: new classes, rules, GM advice, and a general expansion of the original. OOC is actually an adventure collection, each one set in a different time period: Stone Age, Arthurian, ECW, WWI, and near-future. So effectively it is closer to a Deadworlds book from AFMBE. That's not a bad concept, but it needs a more accurate title. But that approach negates the central conceit of the original game: rpg as training tool for zombie survival. It means the question still remains: what makes this game more compelling or interesting than the dozen other Z-Games?
Outlive Undead Companion on RPGNow

This is a revision of the earlier RPGs, Dread: The First Book of Pandemonium ('02,'07) and Spite: The Second Book of Pandemonium ('09). As I said in my original listing, "...a modern horror game with lots of demons, black magic, and crazy occult symbology. It looks pretty metal. The back cover of the book has lots of colorful blurbs, but it isn't easy to say what the game's about (besides demons). I think you might actually be playing demon-worshippers or at least servants to demons, based on the flavor text there- but the review suggest the opposite, that you're actually hunters against those demons. Most of the reviews invoke phrases like ass-kicking, gritty, stylish, demons." This book's blurb makes it a little clearer that you're fighting against the forces of darkness- but that you're terribly and deeply flawed. It mentions abilities like Sexpletive, Death Panel, Photobomb, and Gunfetti. Keywords from reviews and blurbs include: gorehound, transgression, vomiting, primal, Sodom, splatterpunk. You have to admire a game which truly knows itself. I came in skeptical, but I'm more than a little sold on this. It isn't a game I want to play, but it is a game that takes aim at what it wants to be and embraces that- without resorting to covering statements or defensive elements.
Pandemonio on RPGNow

Rifts has always embraced certain horror elements, reworking many of them into monstrous foes to be exploded without mercy. Like many, I admire the variety and sheer gonzo craziness of the Rifts books, though I've never embraced the game itself. Several world books are pretty cool; many could as easily been complete stand-alone games based on the volume of fertile ideas. Rifts Vampires expands the material of Rifts:Vampire Kingdoms, the section of Chaos Earth held by the undead (New Mexico, Central America, portions of South America). It develops the internal struggles of the vamps, offers a new dark god, and adds new magics and monsters for those areas. But on the flip side it presents a wealth of new material for those fighting against the vampires. New equipment & gifts, heroic necromancers, a city devoted to hunting the undead, strategies & tactics, and human strongholds still standing in these dark lands. If you're looking for a sourcebook filled with crazy ideas about techno-cyber-arcane Nosferatu destruction, then this is up your alley.

Also covered on my supers list, zombie survival meets superheroes pretty much sums this up. Rotted Capes offers a stand-alone system and setting. We've seen several versions of the “zombies meet supers” story (Marvel Zombies for example), but Rotted Capes seems closest to the ideas of Peter Clines' Ex-Heroes series. The game has interesting concepts like the focus on scavenging and maintaining tension by having the PCs play ‘B-List’ heroes. Rotted Capes' mechanics feel pretty straightforward. Characters begin by choosing a power source and an archetype. These modify the player point spends for attributes, skills, advantages, and powers. The game has a lot of calculations and exceptions (requirements for purchases, calculated stats, modifications from archetypes). The power list's a mix of specific and effect types. Combat uses an initiative clock for each character with different actions having different time costs. It isn't exactly the same as Scion, so I'd be curious if it has the same limitation. In Scion speed kills. Anything which reduces your action time cost makes you significantly more effective. I've read through Rotted Capes and I'm not sure how to judge it. It feels more complex than Mutants & Masterminds. I really need to watch or read about an actual play. The mechanics make up a little more than half of the core book, the rest covers the world, history, and GMing. Gamers looking at doing a superhero zombie game will find a wealth of ideas here. Beyond that it is a pretty awesome looking book- with gruesome and evocative art.
Rotted Capes on RPGNow

What Pelgrane lacked in number of publications for Trail of Cthulhu, it made up for in quality. Eternal Lies offers a massive campaign for ToC- international, brilliantly presented, massive, and open to different paths of approach. Combine that with several unusual twists and you have a Cthulhu campaign on par with Masks of Nyarlathotep or Walker in the Wastes. For good reason it took home the ENnie Gold for Best Adventure. The fewer words I say about this twisty and awesome product, the better. Cthulhu GMs should pick it up. The other major ToC product is more tangential. Ken Hite's Ken Writes About Stuff alternates between general topics and explorations of Lovecraftian monsters. The other two big products The Final Revelation and Out of Space both collect earlier related adventures into single volumes.
Eternal Lies, The Final Revelation, and Out of Space on RPGNow

Every rpg designer should be thinking about how their games will be played online. Yes, online gaming represents a fraction of the gaming going on, but it also encompasses an active and savvy group. They're potential advocates for new systems in social media and offer a new arena for demonstrating and pushing new games. They can run game demos without having to coordinate with shops or shlup to conventions. Rafael Chandler has done that thinking and the result is ViewScream, a horror game taking advantage of the technology, which he calls a varp or video-augmented roleplaying game. Players are crew on a damaged spaceship, cut off from one another and only able to communicate via viewscreens throughout the ship. And then the horrors begin. It can be played via G+ Hangouts or any other video messaging system. That’s pretty brilliant and the game includes a number of scenarios. You can also find many actual play videos for this online. Highly recommended.
ViewScream on RPGNow

Cthonian Stars came out in 2010 using the Mongoose Traveler system. The same team behind that and CthulhuTech created the The Void. It seems to rework of the former with a new system. The Void also follows Eclipse Phase in offering its material as a Creative Commons license. It aims to be a hard sci-fi setting, with little of the Manga/Weirdness of Cthulhutech. Instead The Void wants to embrace the most recent strains of space horror (Pandorum and Dead Space) mingled with Lovecraftian elements. I could give a review of the relative success of that endeavor, but you can check it out yourself. Wildfire offers the complete pdf of the product “Pay Want You Want” at RPGNow. You can pay nothing, check it out, and then if it proves interesting to you, buy it and support the company. If you're at all interested in science fiction and space travel in your horror games, you ought to pick this up.
The Void on RPGNow

I've mentioned my someday dream game of an Ancient Rome League of Extraordinary Gentlemen/Hellboy hybrid with players chasing yellow-masked agents of Hastur through the aqueducts. That's one I'll likely never get to run. Weird Wars Rome joins two other Roman horror games, Cthulhu Invictus and 43AD. It bears a closer resemblance to the latter, though it doesn't share the eerie atmospherics and focus on uncertainty. As with that game, you create a Roman solider but in a world with a lot of monsters. If you're looking for a Savage Worlds setting book dealing with this period, then WWR has what you want. It offers a good deal of background info and history of Rome. If, however, you've already invested in several other Rome rpgs, you many find a good deal of this repetitious. It does include a plot point campaign and some unique background. Savage Worlds is a good choice for combat and unit-fighting heavy campaigns, but perhaps less so for those aiming at tense horror.
Weird Wars Rome on RPGNow

I'm impressed at how Onyx Path balanced attention between the Old and New World of Darkness. When I first heard they'd be releasing new Classic WoD material, I assumed that would be a complete about-face. But the kind and quality of material they published across the settings (for lack of a better term) made it clear both could be sustained. It means cool things afoot for old and new fans- and anyone who likes this particular flavor of horror gaming. It demonstrates that WW/OP, despite shifts in approaches and distribution, remains one of the tentpole publishers for horror rpgs.

That being said, I've never been a big fan of Werewolf, though I know many who adore it. The 20th Anniversary (W20) edition is huge. It pulls together and synthesizes the key ideas and elements of Werewolf the Apocalypse into a new coherent whole. This is a stand-alone book any gamer could run from. The material makes changes to the base system and fine tunes the Storyteller systems to bring everything in line. OP released several other products to complement this new edition. Skinner is a fan-service adventure for long-time WtA players. It, of course, revolves loosely around Sam Haight, a polarizing figure in the community. Rage Across the World is a travelogue look at the world of W20. It includes a mix of mechanics, setting material, and game fiction. Changing Breeds (W20) is a massive book looking at the game's non-Garou shapechangers. Many love these character types and while some were covered in the main book, this expands that material. If you're a fan of Werewolf: the Apocalypse, then this was a good year.

WtW 20th Anniversary, Skinner, Rage Across the World, and Changing Breeds on RPGNow. 

38. World of Darkness (Classic)
Werewolf was not alone in getting retro-WoD love from Onyx Path in 2013. The Hunters Hunted II revisited one of the earliest and most beloved of the Vampire books. This 180+ page supplement once again considers what it means to be lowly humans in the WoD. It offers character creation rules, strategies & tactics, specialized magic & gifts, GM advice, organizations, and NPCs. Rather than a straight sequel to the original Hunters Hunted, feels like a second edition, given the same care as V20 or W20. V20 Storyteller's Screen offers the obligatory GM screen. If you like those and like Vampire, then you're in luck. From another corner of the WoD we also got Mage the Ascension enemy books Convention Book: Progenitors, Syndicate, and Void Engineers- bringing these three groups fully into the new century. Some may argue that MtA isn't a horror game and I tend to agree with them. But the grotesques on offer from the Technocracy could be easily added into any modern horror game. It’s also worth mentioning the Mage Translation Guide. This offers a bridge between the two Mages, Ascension and Awakening. That opens up new material to gamers on both sides of that divide.
Hunters Hunted II, Progenitors, Syndicate, Void Engineers, and Mage Translation Guide on RPGNow

Onyx Path dialed back releases for World of Darkness (nWoD), but what they did publish had significant impact. I've already mentioned Mummy: The Curse above, but The God-Machine Chronicle is arguably a bigger literal and figurative game-changer. Half of that volume details rules options, major changes to mechanics (including damage), and new sub-systems. These can be added piece-meal, but they're really intended to work as a whole. The conditions system in particular offers a weirdly crunchy and detailed element that reminds me of aspects from Fate. The other half of the book is a complete meta-campaign or framework. It introduces the eponymous concept and offers about adventures to go with that. The GMC brings an element of Kult or Hellraiser to the WoD setting. They've taken some time figuring out how these elements work in the generic horror of the main book and in conjunction with the different sub-lines. GMC's been better received than the mechanical portion of the book. Non-storytellers can download just the new rules as a free pdf.

Reap the Whirlwind is Onyx Path's offering for free RPG Day. It gives a simplified introduction to Vampire: The Requiem and includes a full adventure by Chuck Wendig. Anyone curious about VtR can download the pdf for free from RPGNow. Blood and Smoke: The Strix Chronicle once again turns and twists elements of the World of Darkness. We've seen that done a little bit before with Mirrors and Monte Cook's World of Darkness. This presents a ‘done in one’ book for playing vampires in WoD, no others needed. It notably integrates the rules advancements presented in GMC. In a sense Blood & Smoke offers a new edition for VtR, with significant changes to mechanisms of unlife, clarifications of roles, and continuity with earlier elements (such as the clans). I'm weirdly reminded of DC's work with the New 52. B&S:TSC shakes off the cobwebs and aims to offer a jumping on point for new gamers- a way to play Vampire without the continuity or having to buy a chunk of other sourcebooks. What remains to be seen is if this also serves as a jumping off point for older players…

God-Machine Chronicle and Blood and Smoke on RPGNow

We end with another WW2 Cthulhu gam, as we (almost) began with a different one. World War Cthulhu: The Darkest Hour offers a period setting book for Call of Cthulhu. Unlike Achtung Cthulhu!, WWC is intended as the first of a series of sourcebooks- each one using a different war or period of conflict as a framework for CoC setting material and scenarios. That's an interesting and ambitious project. I'll be curious what front they move to next. 

Rather than covering the whole of the conflict WWC: DH focuses on Europe and establishes a central group for PCs, the Special Operations Executive. They're essentially spies. Within that organization, a select few have been chosen to battle against forces of the Mythos. The game includes rules and adjustments for character creation, leading to strong starting PCs. WWC:DH includes historical background, details on intelligence operations, and the usual GM support for the setting. It has a full campaign to allow Keepers to get up to speed quickly. Overall the book's lovely and well put together. In 2014 Cubicle7 released an additional set of six missions, World War Cthulhu: Europe Ablaze. They also published a fiction anthology to complement the rpg supplement. Interestingly there's a collection of short stories with the same name which funded this year via IndieGoGo. If I were C7, I'd be a little annoyed. Overall this is very cool. I suspect rather than competing, AC! & WWC: DH will play together nicely.

World War Cthulhu: The Darkest Hour

History of Horror RPGs (Part One: 1981-1990)