Thursday, April 30, 2015

Campaign States: Ten Years Out

Almost exactly ten years ago- June '05- I wrote a quick summary of the five campaigns I had going. Of those, three wrapped up with a full final session and two trailed off due to scheduling and player loss. Of those I ran for at the time, seven I don't play with these days: four because they fell out with the general gaming group, one because they moved away, one just due to timing, and one because they died. In fact, Steambuckler's the last full and finished campaign my friend Barry played in before we lost him. But in the ten years since this I've added seven new and continuing players to my regular gaming circles, plus another half-dozen who've played on and off. Loss and gain. 

It's also worth noting that I don't play any of these systems anymore. This ended up being the last great hurrah of GURPS before we grew tired of it. Storyteller ended up dropping off the map from WW, even as we saw the problems with it for our various hacks (wuxia, L5R). I still run Mutants & Masterminds, but the most recent edition which differs greatly from the 1st I ran here. 

What were you running/playing ten years ago? What systems have come and gone for your group?

Steambuckler (GURPS Steampunk/Swashbuckler/Fantasy)
The group makes their final preparations for the trip to Jubilee and the Grand Exhibition of Progress. They know that many of their enemies will be there, including some who have loved ones held hostage. Before departure Qynn learns of Dahlia vro-Haitus' role in the coming struggle for the Throne in Atlantae. Finally they set off, using the dangerous Glacial Air Stream to hurry their progress. Even so, they are set upon by Sky Pirates set to intercept them; the battle is fierce but ends with victory. At stops along the way they learn of the theft of the Dauntless (a grand Miremallian sky carrier) by the Captain's robot doppelganger created by Dr. Cross. Basho is also offered a position as an advisor to the Throne of Atlantae if he will kill his brother, Sheridan.

In Jubilee the group finds lodging with the Technocrat Fott Hobswain. Preparations are made for the great aero-race and old friends are met again. The group manages to free Sian Owen from one of their enemies but the villains escape. Sheridan, long lost, arrives with the mad naturalist Cynowae Autumn. Jacob encounters his mentor, long thought dead, who tries to kill him but fails and dies. In the aftermath, Jacob's secret marriage to Tara Stillwhisker is revealed. Even with all these troubles the group manages to find time to work on the great puzzles of the event, marked out in the stones and design of the city. When they succeed, they find themselves visited by the royalty of Math. Taking advantage of the situation they marry Sheridan off to the daughter of the Emperor and ask for a boon…the use of the Great Southern Dragon the largest airship ever built!!! The Emperor defers, but says he will think on this request.

The Captain and Qynn take to the skies for the aero-race, accompanied by Basho and Jacob who are last minute substitutes on a giant bug when the Orcish contingent is briefly jailed. Lady Galina goes to hand over the Perpetual Engine to Dr. Cross in exchange for the lives of her cousin and Julian's sister. At the same time, Julian heads down into the underground in a desperate bid to stop the plans of the Summoners from coming to fruition. Gallina spring's Braverman's trap on Dr. Cross, forcing him out of his robot shell and replacing him with the soul of Timeaus, long thought lost. Julian and his allies break a standoff between rival powerful villains, resulting in a massive melee of magic and death. Qynn and the Captain cross the finish line of the race, Dr. Cross' ship decloaks and his pirate allies arrive. A full scale air war breaks out over the city. Dozens of ships are destroyed in the ensuing battle. Basho takes advantage of the chaos to rescue the former Queen of Atlantae from the clutches of her son's allies. Though Cross does his level best to destroy it, the Great Southern Dragon survives.

In the aftermath, the group tells the Emperor of Math the full story of the impending invasion from the celestial sphere. News arrives of the destruction of the Drow Woods by the first wave of invaders, pressing the timetable further. The Emperor agrees and gives them the Great Southern Dragon. Knowing these "Spirit"-like invaders cannot bear the touch of Unlife, the group heads first to the Undead lands to bargain with Baron Dechenka who holds sway in the former Dwarven capital. He agrees to assist them, for a price, and the group begins their journey up out of the reach of the earth and to the sphere.

Searching for the final mechanism they will need to battle the comet-like vessel of the invaders, they head to the Moon. Jacob knows legends of ships left from an ancient tyrant who tried to invade the world but was stopped by heroes. Despite an overwhelming ambush by Jacob's enemies, the group manages to find the necessary equipment and set out, only to discover that the comet has picked up speed. The Captain realizes that the threat is larger than simply an invasion; they mean to strike the center of the continent and render it unfit for human life.

Desperately they strain the engines of the Great Southern Dragon, trying to catch up. Spirit Beasts peel off from the Comet and begin to assault the ship. All across the craft, the crew finds themselves under attack. On deck, Baron Dechenka tries to focus his magic to shield the ship but is only able to maintain the defenses when Jacob channels the power of the Shaddai through the Orb. Lady Gallina mercilessly channels her own archmagic through Jacob in a bid to protect everyone. Qynn leads the fighter assault, keeping back as many as they can, while the Captain desperately tries to plot and replot the intercept course for their one shot at the Comet. Below decks Basho readies the weapon with the aid of Simlain Braverman, the arch-villain. He's agreed to aid them in saving the world, but after that all bets are off. Basho has to swing over to repair the lines when they are cut by an attacker but manages to launch the weapon, loaded with the Deathstone they've prepared into the comet. At the same time Braverman let's go of Basho sending him plummeting to his Doom.

The explosion blinds everyone on deck and the magical channel protecting the ship is shattered. Explosions rock the ship as the engines overload and bombs planted by Braverman destroy the arcane engine providing life support. Basho desperately manages to catch the tailfin of the ship with his Dragon-arm, nearly tearing it from his body. As the ship plummets into the atmosphere, he hangs on for dear life. Inside Julian tries to rescue those injured and trapped by the internal explosions while at the same time trying to ready for impact. The Captain throws everything into steadying the craft as much as he can. Gallina draws down all of her mana pool and overcasts creating a current of air to slow the ship. The misfire from the spell creates hundreds of tornadoes across the landscape. As the ship tears into the Atlantaen countryside, Basho is peeled from the bottom of the ship and flung into the storms.


HCI (Currently L5R Storyteller)
The characters, having gone through the strange sea-borne gate in the rogue Fading Suns portal, find themselves back in Rokugan, with apparently some time having passed since they participated in the Bronze Swan tournament. They find a strange disconnect between their real selves and their samurai selves; while together they find it easier to remember who they are in the real world, but when apart that starts to fade. The group takes up their duties as magistrates in the Scorpion city of Ryoko Owari, under the command of their Emerald Magistrate lord Ikoma Okataru.

After some rough starts meeting with the various major families the group learns a little about the strange happenings in the city some months ago that left hundreds dead. Whatever occurred had something tom do with the fall of the Usagi clan and the strange magistrate group who passed through earlier. The Daidoji member of that group warns them off, telling them that this matter has been closed at the highest levels, perhaps from the Hantei himself. In the midst of this the group is given their first case, the murder of a Crane merchant. At first it seems a simple strange ritual killing with the victim having been decapitated and displayed as bundori. However, the team quickly discovers that this was not the first such murder. Others have happened and have been quietly covered up by the Clan Magistrates.

Each victim bears descent from a group of legendarily abusive maho-hunters disbanded years ago for their wicked ways. After much leg work, it becomes clear that the killer has contacts among the city officials and access to a magical method of disguise. They intercept the fifth victim before the killer can strike and put him under their protection. They also learn the name of the sixth victim and that they've accelerated the killer's timetable. However, the killer strikes while the group decides to catch up on their sleep. They arrive too late on the scene. Shosoro Yori remains to speak with the local magistrates while the rest of the group heads out to warn others. But the killer is still there disguised! He attacks Yori while she is alone. Some blocks away from the scene the Isawa thinks to check the magical energies to see if the disguise magic is in operation. Realizing their mistake the group rushes back to aid Yori. They arrive just in time to see a wounded Yori make a brilliant slash and strike down the killer.

The aftermath of the investigation is unpleasant as various groups try to steer themselves clear from the deaths and the cover up. Lord Ikoma asks for discretion in the matter, but Yori has already sent the killers head to the governor as a warning. The group begins to settle in and look into other personal matters. Kenichi, the Monk, and Kuni Yusuke look into the matter of some wandering monks who used magic to get them drunk in public and cause them loss of face. They discover a larger plot of these monks who clearly believe that everyone would be better off drunk and have conspired to cause the effect on the Thunder Guard, the largest group of armed samurai in the city. The magistrates rush to the scene, uncertain of what awaits them.

Arkham Harbor (Mutants and Masterminds)
Having adopted the team name Vigil, the group continues to discard it in favor of the more catchy "FWAP!" (aka Fabulous Women with Amazing Powers)*. Investigating strange phenomena in south Arkham Harbor leads them to the land of the fae, where the Court of the Earth has been overtaken. They overcome obstacles, take photographs with a giant fish and rescue the queen of the court. She gives them the second key to the Watchman's house and tells them that the third key lies in the hands of the one who engineered his downfall.

On their return to the real world, the group is immediately called to two different crimes. They choose to follow up on a hostage situation at a movie theater rather than the robbery elsewhere for the sake of people's lives. At the theater they raid the unattended concession stand and then take on the bad guy, the Silver Scream. Apparently in town for the Horror film festival, she creates duplicates of the group to fight them. In the tussle, the two Vinca's fight and no one can tell one from the other. However in a splash of insight Sylph spots Jujubes stuck to the true Vinca and blasts the doppelganger. They finish the fight and then head to the robbery where Player Two has apparently gotten away with his theft of a collection of rare artworks. On the scene they meet city patron and millionaire philanthropist, Mr. Sterne. He hands them the third and final key to the Watchman's estate!!!

They make their way to the former HQ of the Watchman's super team. The untouched base is as it was on the day they left for the their last battle. Moving through they find a host of equipment and materials useful in crimefighting. In the base's lock up they find the body of an unfortunate villain lost and forgotten. In another cell they meet the diminutive Devil's Robot!!! They leave him there though begin formulating plans to have the arch-criminal reprogrammed to clean the base. In the basement, apparently abandoned by the most recent Watchman, they find an occult library. In a vision the group sees themselves holding some kind of orb.

In a flash they find themselves transported back in time where they meet the Watchman of the 1950's. Assuming them to be some kind of supernatural aid, he enlists them in his battle against Dr. Cross and his Ur-Beasts who have control of the city's underworld. They take of to the fight and interrupt the deadly masked Dr. Cross at the height of his rituals. Despite the group's never having fought Cross, he recognizes them and does his level best to destroy them. As the battle finishes up with their victory there is another flash of the same orb and the group finds themselves transported back in time yet again to pre-Revolutionary America and a meeting with the first Watchman!!!

*The group would later discard this name when they discovered the internet. 

City of Tiers (Exalted: Dragon Blooded)
The young Dragon Bloods of House Ledaal are drawn together by the weave of fate, somehow tied to their own impending and yet avoided death and to the actions of a strange anathema. The family, wanting their lingering fate wrecking auras far away sends them on to Crux where the family home has been lost. They find themselves in the Dusk Quarter, an unseemly underground where they are forced to fight for their lodgings. The group settles in and begins to investigated the city.

Soon they learn that two other groups of young Dragon Bloods from other families have also arrived in Crux, though in superior lodgings than their own. The five begin to consider how they might mark their mark here and demonstrate their worth to the family. Various street gangs are fought and rumors of a mysterious monk arise. Ledaal Mihir makes a man scream in terror for no reason. Ledaal Lupita falls off a massive staircase and introduces herself to the woman who usurped their family house here; Ledaal Zhu du Fan with a sudden and strange attraction to this woman.

As they settle into things in the city, other weirdness begins to arrive. A bizarre meeting with one of the other new Dragon Blooded; rumors of a mysterious dojo enforcer named Final Sky; the strange voice that came from Zhu du Fan that he doesn't remember; circumstances surrounding the dead exiled poet and why his body cannot be returned; the three brothers marked with mysterious birthmarks all intent on catching Lupita's attention; the Sorcerer Sharpened Thought's alliance with Mihir; Kiir's late night spotting of her beribboned colleague skulking about at night, and finally the bizarre attack by one of the gangs of Ledaal Illathin, convinced that he has affronted them.
As money grows tighter the group begins to look for opportunities….

City of Silence (Vampire the Masquerade)
News grows grimmer in the city and the Vampires decide to follow up on the Irish Travelers who attacked them some weeks before. They track them back to a trailer park and cross paths with a Garou who has also been watching them. The leader of the Travelers involved with the shooting seems to have been involved with some kind of occult workings, having killed the rest of his group in a ritual. At home, the four kindred wrestle with what to do with Circe, the Tzicmze whom they have not reported to the Prince of the City, Clocke. They decide to allow her to remain here and continue their silence on the matter.

While Michael works to get his bar set up, Magdalyn tries to figure out how to get out from the clutches of Queen Arcane, a Toreador who has become infatuated with her. Erika asks Joshua to help with her father's illness and then both Joshua and her father vanish. Michael tracks down his much hated foster brother only to find him married to one of his foster sisters. He begins to plot murder. Naomi continues her work to uncover more about the Kindred and develop a reasonable business for the group. She begins to here rumors that her kinship with the Brujah may put more responsibilities on her. Erika also hears word of a stranger in Chinatown looking for her. Magdalyn suspects Dr. Hollow the Malkavian of sinister motives. However when she tries to follow up she manages to summon an angry wraith.

A meeting by the Prince is called and it is revealed that a Kindred has been slain, though by whom is unclear. Trying to figure out the occult situation, the group follows up with the Orpheus Group. In a meeting they come to realize that these people are using ghosts to conduct business. Wrapped up in their own paradigm, the Orpheus agents believe the group not to be Vampires but simply people possessed by ghosts. With more questions than answers, the group leaves and meets the third herald. In an instant they find themselves back in Victorian London again.

There they meet more of the strange figures of that city and learn of Clocke and Palladino's blood marriage in the past. It becomes clear that something is not right about this "time travel" and the changes they have undergone. They meet Naomi's sire from the past and begin to piece together something about the incident that led to his downfall, including the strange presence of the Kuei-Jin embassy which has come to England. They meet Jin-Shan, one of the Kuei-Jin, her name is one that Naomi heard before her embrace. Heading back to their "home" in this London they are set upon by some kind of supernaturals who possess an understanding of the Beast. They defeat them but with major damage to themselves.

The next night Obano Savall comes to visit them. They discover that like they, he has come here from the future. He explains that it is a strange story that ends up repeating itself in time. He also tells them how to escape it, by causing a major disruption to the timeline. With that information in hand, they go to the London Elysium to try to learn more. Magdalyn makes a Bloodhunter nervous, Naomi learns much from the Prince Mithras, Erika begins to pick up on the hatred of the Kuei-Jin and Michael speaks with Clocke and Palladino.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Avatar Redaction Convergence: A DramaSystem Pitch

The RPG Geek/Pelgrane Press DramaSystem contest announced winners yesterday, you can see the results here. I didn't win, but that's cool since I can repurpose and post my entry here. The contest had some outstanding submissions. My two favorites, in the sense that as I read them I knew they'd work at the table, were Monster's Brawl and Strange Frequencies. I highly recommend you download and check those out. My own submission, as I mentioned in my brainstorming post, presents my attempt to figure out a way to do the "split formula" of weird urban fantasy settings which have a strong dramatic component and a parallel rich action side (Persona, Neon Genesis Evangelion). I'm not sure I've cracked that nut, but I hope it has some material other GMs find useful. 

When their friends seem to be “written out” of reality, a group of teens search for answers and find themselves caught in the otherworldly Hunger Station.

In a near-future Neo-Kyoto (or insert other suitably anime city) strangeness grips the city. Hallucinatory visions, panic-inducing rumors, and a mysterious illness that only seems to target those with green eyes. As fear and unease takes hold, a group of students of the Yojinbukai International Institute discover a stranger pattern. Classmates, teachers, and staff have begun to vanish- with no one recalling them…except this handful of teens.
When their questions fall of deaf ears, this group reluctantly bands together. But these leads only further down the rabbit hole. Touched by the secret forces working behind the scenes, they find themselves thrust into Hunger Station. Granted strange powers they must battle through this nightmarish metropolis to rescue their vanished friends, uncover the source of these events, and simply survive.

Now they have to balance the demands of these adventures with their daily life: navigating the world of high school relationships, parental demands, and adult disbelief even as they try to puzzle together what’s happening to them.

Avatar Convergence Redaction splits into two parts. The first is the day-to-day life of the PCs in Neo-Kyoto trying to reconcile the strange with their ambitions, desires, and personal conflicts. We use DramaSystem to simulate this. The second is their exploration of Hunger Station, armed with unique powers. We will use the 13th Age’s “Archmage Engine” for this. I cover each in their own section below, along with notes on the transition between them.

Avatar Convergence Redaction is a love-letter to the Shin Megami Tensei series (including Nocturne, Persona, Soul Hackers, Devil Survivor, and Digital Devil Saga). At the same time it borrows from anime and manga stories combining relationships with high strangeness (Stein’s Gate, Utena, Alien Nine, Volcano High, and Tomie among others). Two works especially shape my vision of this setting: Boogiepop Phantom and Paranoia Agent. A couple of rpgs could serve as useful resources for the high strangeness of Hunger Station: Itras By and Don’t Rest Your Head.

Drama System stories build on collaboration between the players and the GM. The players call most of the scenes and establish most of the relevant details. The GM helps to adjudicate, handles the challenges of procedural moments, and throws twists from time to time. But generally the players control the direction of the plot. So how do we add in Big Mysteries to a plot? Shows such as Lost, Cult, and The Flash set up big season-long problems for revelation. The ACN set-up has some of that built in, so how do we handle that?

It’s important to talk with your group when you start a campaign, ask them if they want a big mystery running through things. Talk about the options, either one of those presented below or another variation. Some groups may not want a distraction from the dramatic interplay of their characters. GMs will also want to consider how their group has handled mysteries (big or little) in other games. Were some players engaged, but not others? Did they give up on the mystery?

Player Created “Puzzle Pieces”
Once the group has established the setting, the big mystery should be evident- to the players if not to the characters. Usually that’s some version of “What’s Really Going On?” In the case of Avatar Redaction Convergence, we have sub-questions about that:
  • Why are their fellow students being “edited out” of the world? How is this being done and how can it be reversed?
  • What is the nature of Hunger Station and the powers they have there?
  • What’s the connection between this and other strangeness happening?
  • Who or what is behind this and how can it be stopped?

Naturally scenes during play will touch on this, and facts will be established. But each session one player gets to offer a big puzzle piece through a narrated scene- usually as a coda on the session. The group should rotate this responsibly and establish each session who will handle it for the next. This coda scene can involve secondary characters and incidents outside the view of the PCs. The player may include their own character is they wish. But usually these scenes introduce a new twist into the larger story.

Puzzle Piece scenes show us some new element: X is actually a robot, Y destroys evidence, a hidden figure sets a prisoner free, an strange object is buried or revealed in the dark of night. You may have seen these kinds of scenes in Fringe, X-Files, and Arrow. The player’s under no obligation to explain the meaning of these bits. By making the usual coda explicitly about these, the group keeps the mystery in a more limited space. Players may bounce of elements of that coda in the following session, perhaps to reveal more about it and bring it into the dramatic tension (mutual suspicion over who freed the prisoner, stole the object, destroyed the evidence).

These twists establish a canon for the mystery. Later elements should be careful not to negate these facts. They can reframe them, reveal additional information about them, or show why they weren’t exactly as we imagined them to be. (i.e. “It was actually his twin brother”). Avoid gonzo versions of this unless you want a fully anime feel.

GM Drive “The Twist”
On the other hand, the players may place responsibility for these twists in the hands of the GM. This gives the GM a little more responsibility and chance for improvisation. The GM should avoid sketching everything out about “The Big Picture”. Instead they should follow the methods of The Armitage Files where the GM improvises and adjusts the mystery in response to the characters’ actions and the players’ interests.

While the secret should be engaging and interesting, GMs should keep a couple of things in mind. That mystery and the process of discovery shouldn’t dominate a session. Keep it small, usually to one or two scenes. Where possible connect those revelations with dramatic incidents- sparking changes or coming out of a clash between characters. Importantly, the secret’s revelation shouldn’t undercut or negate the character’s choices. That’s more fuzzy, but if the group’s been playing towards particular dramatic stakes, they should be tied to the secret.

The basic tension of the “real world” side lies high school dramatics: rivalries, infatuations, ambitions, and a desperate search for identity. Players should discuss tone: realistic, more anime, or somewhere in-between (ala Buffy). The paranormal elements should complicate these things: straining relationships, labeling the PCs as troublemakers, and creating misunderstandings.

The characters know that a handful of persons (students, teachers, staff) have vanished—but no one they talk to recalls them. Physical evidence still exists for these persons, but authority figures hand wave these away or rationalize them as something else. Each player should come up with the name, background, and their connection to one of the missing persons.

The group should decide if they want to begin with the characters already linked by their shared knowledge or if that should be played out in session one. Regardless, that first session will revolve around the characters connections with each other and their ties to the vanished.

  • Where is Neo-Kyoto (or other name)? America? Japan? England?
  • What’s unique about the city? Is it a highly automated or a rustbelt? Is it a crossroads?
  • What unique natural features or locations define it?
  • What’s the Institute like? Is it advanced and layered with shining chrome? Old, storied, and gothic?
  • Is the institute managed by exacting taskmasters or by an apathetic administration?
  • What kinds of students go there? Luck-of-the-draw assignees? Children of the elite? Cast off problem students?

Characters can be classic high-school tropes- American or anime.
  • Foreign “Fish Out of Water” Student
  • Silent Athlete
  • Military Obsessed Otaku
  • Computer Nerd
  • Student Council President
  • Aspiring Musician
  • Latchkey Wallflower
  • Tragic Orphan
  • Misunderstood Bully
  • Gifted Natural Who Secretly Struggles
  • Mysterious Transfer
  • Middle Sibling
  • Club Manager
  • Duty-Bound Daughter
  • Fragile Survivor
  • Secret Celebrity
  • Cynical Diva
  • Uncertain Psychic
  • Family Caretaker
  • Enthusiastic Booster

Outsider/Insider: Characters desperately want to be on one side the other. The new weirdness and their knowledge may push characters away from their moorings.
Absent Friends: The vanished may have been important- how do they fill that gap.
Stupid Authorities: No one will believe them. And even talking about the strangeness may get them label as a troublemaker or in need of medication.
Adult Supervision: The incidents strain the relationship between characters and their parents or caretakers. How do they evade control and the watchful eyes.
Denial: Ignoring what’s happening may seem like a ready solution.
Infatuation and Confession: Love can be keenly felt, hidden, expressed, and rejected. Each of these will feel like the end of the world.
Bad For You: Your peers and romantic interests often are your worst enemies.
Whispering Campaigns: Rumors may or may not have a supernatural power, but they possess a destructive force in high school.
Ambitions: These mysteries are a roadblack and distraction for those who have their future already mapped out.
The Wrong Crowd: You didn’t choose these companions. What will your friends say?
School Days: They’re still going to school, meaning Group Projects, Field Trips, Festival Days, Clubs, and High-Stakes Tests.

Revelations and secrets exposed will increase the tension. But additional twists can make things even more scary and raise the stakes.

...The parent or caretaker of one of the PCs vanishes and no one remembers them.
...They're spotted in their investigations, making life more difficult through grounding, house arrest, or other limitations.
....A target of affection begins to behave oddly or irrationally- indicating a hidden secret.
....They encounter rivals from another school who seem to share their talents but have other agendas.
....One of the Vanished returns, and once again no one seems to notice it. But the returnee doesn’t behave as they did before.
...They see creatures from Hunger Station in the real world.
...The vanishings accelerate as the city slowly becomes an unreal ghost-town.

Hunger Station is a phantasmal otherworld of darkness and nightmares the players will enter. It looks like a half-built modern city, with the unfinished sections echoing the architecture and state of endless other places- some decaying, some futuristic, others incomprehensible. The city has other analogues- a ghost tram system, amusement plazas filled with masked figures, and strange hooded sanitation workers rolling silently along the streets.

When the players enter into Hunger Station, the game switches to a dungeon crawler. This uses a variation of 13th Age as mentioned above. In Hunger Station, the PCs will see signs and echoes of the Vanished they know. In order to rescue them, the party must enter into the prisons holding them. There they will fight unnatural creatures and try to overcome the self-inflicted bonds used to restrain the Vanished.

But the players are not simply helpless, instead they possess powers gifted to them, called Avatars.

When the players first enter Hunger Station, they will be contacted by a mysterious force calling itself Arcana. It will draw out from the characters an inner vision of their own heroic nature. While hunting for their missing friends and loved ones in the dungeons, these Avatars grant them powers and a unique appearance.

In practical terms, each player will build a 13th Age character, with a few changes. There are no racial options or feats. Background points should be reflective of the character’s Action Types from the DramaSystem side of things. Icons exist, but slightly modified and with different uses and implications. Characters begin at Level 1. Players should probably talk about the composition of the party and come up with a unique name for their Avatar reflecting their outlook and its powers.

Keep in mind that players will have to reframe some of the fluff from these powers for the new context.

The following classes will work most easily: Barbarian, Cleric, Fighter, Paladin, Ranger, Sorcerer, and Wizard. Other classes will require some retooling for Icon feats (Bard) and Backgrounds (Rogue) but could also work. The Commander, Druid, Monk, and Necromancer from 13 True Ways could also be used, but will also require some reframing and restrictions. I’d leave out the Chaos Mage, Occultist, and Multiclassing from available options.

Depending on what the players want, GMs could alternate one session in Neo-Kyoto and one session in Hunger Station. Events in Hunger Station should involve a little bit of color set up and travel through the weird landscape, ending at one of the “dungeons.” Each dungeon is a manifestation of the particular Vanished’s memories, hopes, and fears. Built the atmosphere off of that. Take advantage of the opportunity to reveal character elements for the Vanished and for PCs connected to them. You can easily tie puzzles and traps to these emotional details. The players will fight through monsters, which can be easily reskinned from the book into weird psychic manifestations. Each dungeon should have a boss linked to the Vanished and to the Dramatic Poles of one or more PCs. So an end boss might showcase feelings like Guilt, Anger, or Envy.

The players might not make it through a dungeon in one session. Decide if you’re comfortable splitting that over two. Generally you shouldn’t stretch that out any longer to avoid shifting the emphasis away from the Drama. Adventures in Hunger Station should be a reward- with easier questions or right & wrong. If they haven’t finished a dungeon and you don’t want to split things, have the PCs tumble out of the Station back into the real world. They can reenter later at the point they departed.

Each delve should be aimed at a rescue, and should also offer at least one significant revelation about the big picture plot.

Given that players will have a Full Rest between explorations, consider cutting the number of PC recoveries in half. Go low to start, as you can offer more as a reward later.
Since the explorations of Hunger Station happen infrequently, consider upping player advancement. The characters might gain a level after every delve or every other one. You can tune this as you play further.

If the players lose, they can withdraw. Such a loss should translate into permission to tighten the screws in the real world. Perhaps they suffer some physical effects- illness, exhaustion, visible wounds- which complicate their lives in the real world.

If you’ve introduced a rival group of students in the Neo-Kyoto side of things, consider making them adversaries in a delve.

Players only have real access to their Avatars in Hunger Station. However, GMs may want to allow the PCs some minor echoes of those in Neo-Kyoto, especially as the campaign progresses. They can use those to support dramatic declarations or narrative editing.
Magic items can be a reward for the characters, but should probably bind to a character’s avatar when they take it up. That means they cannot be passed to another. One-use items are less important given infrequency of delves.

The players should fall into Hunger Station via weird events and coincidence (they meet up after hours and cross over, they find a portal when they stay in the school to look for ghosts, they discover a unique item). Ideally this should be a coda scene for the first session. After that, returning to the Station should require all of the group. The process should be weird enough that they can’t easily share it with others (perhaps they have to be alone). If they have to do it after dark, this means they’ll have to create cover stories and sneak out of their homes to meet up. This can be used to create complications at first, but shouldn’t become a major barrier to moving the story forward. How they cross over could be a good things for the players to come up with together.

GMs may want to leave out Icons from 13th Age for simplicity. On the other hand, these could be used and tied to both sides of the campaigns. Icons in Avatar Redaction Convergence take the form of personifications of different passions, drives or emotional states. Each takes the form of one of the figures from the Higher Arcana of the Tarot. I’ve only listed twelve below- perhaps there are others, tied to rivals or other forces. Perhaps there’s both a standard and an inverted form to these figures?

Note that theses definitions don’t reflect the actual meanings of these cards in the classic tarot. Tweak these as necessary.
  • The Fool: Innocence, Luck, Virginity
  • The Magician: Esoteric wisdom, craft, or skill. Weirdness and mystery.
  • The High Priestess: Faith, hope, charity.
  • The Empress: Command, respect, center of attention, admiration.
  • The Emperor: Desire for power, ambition, envy, jealousy.
  • The Hierophant: Knowledge, expertise, arrogance.
  • The Lovers: Infatuation, affection, desire.
  • The Charioteer: A figure of rage, anger, force, and destruction.
  • The Hermit: Isolation, loneliness, driving others away.
  • The Hanged Man: Depression, self-destruction, self-doubt.
  • The Devil: Manipulation, seduction, duplicity
  • Death: Change, transformation, restructuring.

As with standard Iconic Relations, players can have Positive, Negative, or Conflicted relationships to these forces. A player’s Dramatic Poles should connect to that. Perhaps a character’s trying to battle against their own Self-Destructive impulses, so they might have a negative relation to The Hanged Man. Or perhaps they resent their parent’s work as a doctor and the time they spend on that. They might be conflicted about The High Priestess. I’d suggest rolling Icon checks at the start of each entry into Hunger Station.

Icons on Hunger Station side can be used concretely. These forces might offer assistance, information, or items of power. Alternately, you may allow players to use these as “rerolls” if they can explain how their emotional connection to the Icon pushes them to succeed. If a player rolls a “5” for their Iconic relationship, then things become a little more interesting. The cost for such aid doesn’t appear on Hunger Station side of things, but in the real world. They create an “Obligation.”

Obligations have to be cleared before the next delve into Hunger Station, or else they burn up a players’ recoveries (leaving them only one, unless they had more than one obligation, in which case they start with zero). Obligations can be cleared by introducing complications related to that Icon’s aspect to a dramatic interaction, either another player or an NPC. Essentially these complications should up the stakes, permit crazy misreadings, or generally make life worse for the obliged character. Obligations could also be read as pushing a character to deal with their feelings or help someone else deal with theirs. The group should negotiate and agree when an obligation has been cleared.

In some ways, the 13th Age mechanics overwrite a good deal of the procedural material. So how do we handle Procedural Actions on the Neo-Kyoto side. In general, keep those as simple as possible. If it’s an investigation bit, “GUMSHOE” it- give information, but allow the players to spend Drama Tokens for additional information or details. For other conflict, go as simply as possible. The Pelgrane site offers some alternate rules for handling such resolutions. Consider connecting Icon relationships to this if you’re using those. Players can succeed by burning a 5 or 6 roll- but the results have to be colored by the particular Icon used. 

My earlier pitches for Malign UniversalA War on Christmas, and Changeling the Lost. 

Thursday, April 23, 2015

The Lost Phone, Object Permanence, and GMing

You’re running a session. Let's say a modern game, you’re not running a module, and there's a mystery of some kind, an unanswered question with some depth.

The players discover an object, one you’ve placed into the game, in this case a locked phone. They unlock the phone.

How do you figure out what’s on the phone?
  • You already have the information on the phone written down in your notes. Alternately you have a hand-out with the details. In either case, the phone’s contents and role in the mystery have been established before play.
  • You choose information from a list you’ve prepared of important clues and details.
  • You roll to determine what’s there based on a list you’ve prepared of important clues and details.
  • You decide based on the solution to the mystery you planned out before the session. (Partial Improv)
  • You decide on the fly based on how the session’s going and the solution you’ve now decided to present as the truth. (Full Improv)
  • You decide based on the flow of the session, possibly going against the solution and/or notes you prepared before the session.
  • You keep the information abstract and allow the players to use the information to support or disprove a hypothesis.
  • You allow the players to decide the information.
  • Some other approach.

Maybe this varies for you. If so, what circumstances shape your choice to handle things in one way versus another?

What got me thinking about this was a question put to me about the specifics of something I’d written. I put together a Dread scenario a couple of years ago- with a lot of oddball threads and objects. But I hadn’t put in what they meant. Someone asked if I had more specifics, i.e. “What’s on the Blackberry?” That’s a reasonable question. But it’s also at a tangent to the way I wrote that material. I don’t know if that makes it more or less useful?

Almost twenty years ago I had a conversation with my friend Juan. I’d been running a Champions campaign for a little over a year. I knew Hero system really well; I’d been playing it since the first edition. After a battle he questioned me about the specifics of a bad guy. I explained that I’d sketched out the rough details of their adversary, but I’d winged the specifics and set them as the fight needed.

“But that’s not fair.” He was seriously irritated.

We went back and forth on this for a while. He believed I needed to have the full stats and details of the opponents worked out. I didn’t. We ended up agreeing to disagree, and didn’t talk about that again. I ran for him for another year or so before he moved away. That conversation stuck with me- when GM discuss exploiting player builds, when they talk about challenge ratings & building encounters, when they argue about fudging dice rolls.

How connected or different are a GM’s feelings on those issues to something like the micro-GM decision above? Is one of those more fair than the other?

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

"Grail Campaigns": Games Out of Reach: Play on Target Ep. 40

Woot! A new episode of the Play on Target podcast drops. This time we take on campaigns we'd like to run....but we're not sure we can. In other words "Grail Campaigns." Idealized or unicorn campaigns that won't actually come to fruition for whatever reason: group reluctance, ambition, not as awesome as we think, death threats, time required to actually get them off the ground, etc. Listen as we talk ourselves into and out of our ideas in just under an hour. Scoff, support, or simply sit in bemusement to our confessions.

Bonus point to listeners if you can help me with my Fading Suns problem...

I usually blather about these episodes, so I’m working to condense my additional thoughts.

1. I’m pretty taken with the idea of using Dogs in the Vineyard for a Dragon Age riff. While DitVY leaves open the question of the reality of demons in the setting, DA takes that as a given. But they match up in the question of peoples' problematic readings of events. What does demonic influence actually look like to “non-mages”? How can we interpret the signs? In particular Solas in Dragon Age: Inquisition deepens the narrative about the line between spirits and demons. This mash-up could be a cool way to explore these issues- perhaps as an adjunct to a conventional Dragon Age campaign. We successfully did a version of that with our Hollowpoint/Skyrim session.

2. I love creating campaign concepts. That's one of my great downfalls. Even as I’m running awesome games, I’m thinking about other stories and settings I could be playing in. That’s why my campaign pitches lists end up being far too long. When I assemble those lists, I end up with games I know will never pass muster. But I leave them in, telling myself some story about options and "off-chance "reactions. But these extras cloud the waters for the players. Plus each one’s appealing to me; the more I put forward, the more opportunities I have to be sad about rejection. Next time I pitch campaigns, I’m going to try to rein myself in. (This is a lie.)

3. Andrew mentions what I'll call “Abused GM Syndrome”: the lure of games and settings that draw you back, but don’t pay off. The cycle continues as you go away for a while and start to think about how cool X is. I get this every couple of years with Scion, but then I flip through combat system. The same thing with Hero System, especially when I see a laudatory blog post or it appears in a Bundle of Holding. I gaze longingly over a rose-colored GM screen. But I can cure myself by paging through through the books. While the system does some awesome things, it those aren't the things I necessarily value at the table.

4. We’ve covered pitching campaigns to players before in this episode. I’ve also blogged selling campaigns to players before (and what happened). Next Campaign Survey (and the results); Campaign Frames 2012 Part One and Part Two; and 23 Campaign Concepts

5. I wish I could easily calculate a cost/benefit analysis for game prep. For example, I like the idea of Exalted, especially the Dragon Blooded. But I’m not fond of the mechanics in any of the versions. Is it worth the time to work out a hack for it? Or would I get just as much fun out of something new I didn’t have to rebuild? That’s the “grass is always greener” problem in GMing.

6. If you want to look at more cool campaign concepts than you can possibly run, check out the DramaSystem pitch contest here. Yes, yes I’ve mentioned it before but a) there are some tremendous cool ideas there and b) I have a horse in that race so I want more people to vote.

7. Here’s another game that I like, but may be a little too crunchy for me: Night’s Black Agents. To run that, I’d need to streamline the mechanics (consolidate skills, trim down some of the extra systems). It isn’t that the mechanics aren’t awesome- they are. But I’m more comfortable with lighter approaches. I’m still thinking about how you could mash up NBA with the James Bond 007 RPG. I like those quick mechanics- and maybe it’d be worth just stealing the supernatural premise. I could do a reskin of the Vampire building section in those rules. On the other hand, it also occurred to me that NBA could be fused with Over the Edge. In particular you could use the Kergillians as the conspiracy, ending with the players actually in Al Amarja.

8. Campaigns require a commitment of time and effort. I’m more comfortable with those than one-shots, or even short runs. I fetishize campaigns a little because I feel like more sessions gives me room to play with things (and perhaps recover from mistakes). But their length and scheduling needs means that you can’t play everything you want (unless you're Andrea). You have to pick and carefully choose your battles. At first I thought I’d compare that to sinking time into a jrpg like FF or Valkyrie Profile. But those can be picked up and put down at a moment’s notice- engaged for an hour when insomnia strikes. You can’t do that as much with a conventional tabletop rpg. (Unless you do a forum game, something I haven’t, but I see some of the draw of).

9. As I have said before, we live in an amazing time for gaming. Players and GMs seize great sessions and experiences out of all manner of games: story, tactical, narrative, forum, osr, online, and on & on. I sigh and talk about my Great White Whale games in this episode, but I’m running four campaigns right now, playing in one, and have another one just beginning. There’s more than a little Monkey’s Paw here: if I got all the games I wanted I’d burn out like a die-rolling mayfly.

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

Friday, April 17, 2015

Sky-Racers Unlimited: RPG Mash-Up Sketches

I’ve posted before on my current Ocean City Interface campaign (OCI). That game contains several settings, called portals. Players play out stories in those portals (usually around 5-6 sessions). In between they return to the “meta-setting” of a near future world and try to puzzle out the mysteries and connections. Each world has its own logic and narrative, but these connect to larger stories. Characters and identities bleed between them.

So far we’ve played out three portals, with the players a fantasy mercenaries, then future ninja rebels, and finally imperial agents reclaiming territory. Each has had slightly different tweaks to the base Action Cards system (which itself has been tweaked with elements from Fate). So we’ve had classes & magic, strange shinobi-tech powers, and unique masks granting other-worldly powers. The players picked these portals at the beginning of the campaign. We have two left before we begin the rotation back at the start: “Assassins of the Golden Age” (my Assassin’s Creed/Mage: Sorcerer’s Crusade mash-up) and “Sky Racers Unlimited”.

That last one’s going to require airplane and dogfighting mechanics. And for several reasons, it’s where I’m going to go a little crunchier than I might otherwise. Originally I’d planned to simply do it all abstract, with zones and such, borrowing heavily from Clark Valentine’s excellent Kriegszeppelin Valkyrie in Fate Worlds V.1. But here’s the thing. I have a bunch of Crimson Skies miniature- metal and plastic- that a friend handed off to me. And I’ve been playing X-Wing, which has an awesome and easy movement system. Could I put that together?

Could I? Of course I could. Should I is another question. We’ll see. Right now I’ve probably got 10 weeks before I have to bring anything to the table. So I’m planning out and building the crunchier versions…which I’ll then start to tear down and thin out.

All of this starts with miniatures and using measured movement and range. I have extra Attack Wing bases I’m going to mount the Crimson Skies planes on. The bases create uniformity, allow easy use of the maneuver templates from AW/X-Wing, and get rid of the distraction of the Clix bases. At the same time, I have sets in several different colors, so I can mix or match things up. Action Cards itself is a moderately light system using individual PC card decks for randomization and mark-up. It borrows Fate's aspects and general approach to actions, but has some Frankenstein bits in the most current version (like dice for damage).

Players will have a set of possible move for their aircraft (more on that later). Rather than dials, I’m going to use cards in sleeves or laminated sheets so that players can simply circle their moves. That will make things slightly faster and they don’t need to hide their moves from one under. On the GM side, I’ll probably have a single sheet where I can mark in or circle the moves of all the enemies.

This brings us to the question of initiative. The “Wing” games use an Up/Down system for turn order, splitting turns into Movement and Shooting. This means models move in order from worst pilot to best, and then shoot in order from best pilot to worst. If I want to do that, then I effectively double the turn length. I also need to have a fixed measure of pilot skill. As well I probably have to ditch the Atomic Robo “Pick Next” system which has served us well. Doing the Up/Down with “Pick Next” is a possibility, but would still double turn length. I’d also have to decide if the picks on the first half of the turn reverse for the second (requiring bookkeeping) or if they pick anew.

On the other hand, I have to consider if taking an action- movement and standard action changes the balance. It probably does, but given that this isn’t intended to be a balanced sim game, that’s probably a non-issue.

We usually play with a mix of minis, terrain, zones, and scene aspects. That’s a halfway compromise for players who really like the tangible side of combats. Weapons will have firing arcs. I’ll probably use the “Wing” three area range template. I’m also considering some kind of three level elevation thing. I don’t know. If I do that, it could simply add a modifier to attacks in addition to the range. I’m not going to worry about other complexities from plane games like profile, facing location damage, etc. Need to figure out terrain and collision rules (I like the idea of no collision unless voluntary or acted upon by another pilot).

So, in short my probable method: Players set moves at the beginning of the turn. They then take actions in Atomic Robo pick order- executing both move and standard action. Actual range determines ranges, rather than zone counting. I assume I’ll also have some scene aspects (like darkness, choppy skies, packs of gulls, steel canyons, etc).

On the character side I’m probably going to add four new skills. I’ll also look to see if I can consolidate others to keep the total numbers low.
  • Piloting: Gunning the Engine, Tight Turns, Evasive Maneuvers, Shake Tail
  • Navigation: Night Flying, Read the Skies, Manage Weather, Anticipate Course, Short-Cuts
  • Mechanics: Clear Jam, Assess Damage, Sup It Up, Manage Repairs
  • Gunnery: Machine Guns, Bombing, Rockets, Tracer Fire

I’ll probably want to have a few pilot-based stunts associated with that. Some of that should be easy to adapt over from existing stunts.

In terms of the Action Cards categories: Mental is used for spotting and repairs. Physical is used for maneuvers and defenses. Combat is used for attack and setting things up. Social is used for leadership, coordination and reading the enemy.

There was a brief moment when I considered having players use a separate deck for this plane. That seems crazy. I still think that mechanic might work for a shared resource or ship (ala Firefly or Ashen Stars).

Each player gets to build their plane as they’d build a character. They get X stunts to build these. We’d begin with a set of basic templates. This would cover weight, speed, and maneuver dial. Different templates have a different initial Stunt cost. Afterwards they can spend stunts to upgrade in different areas.

Weapons: Different weapons have different arcs, different damage, different tags, and different effects (i.e. spend fate point or damage to do something). We’re making this a little more granular on the table, but I don’t want to go nuts with this. Keep the number of options reasonably small. Action Cards uses diced damage, so that opens up the possibilities- but don’t go nuts with this. Maybe 5-8 weapon options?

Maneuvers: By this I mean the base movement dial. Consider the different between fast, agile, and reliable. Put these on cards which players can then mark. I think this will be based on the plane frame/template they choose. Should they be able to modify this further?

Damage Capacity: We’ve got two factors here: Stress and Armor. Stress should be tied to the template, perhaps with a max number you could buy after that. We use straight damage pool for the diced damage. Any potential armor has two factors: # needed to cause stress against it and damage reduction. Those can be big factors, so probably worth tying heavier versions to a drawback or trouble aspect.

Extra Features: Perhaps planes have some particular Stunts? Some of that might reflect capacities, like better visuals, ejection seat, a co-pilot, etc. In particular a co-pilot might be funny as an aspect/means of absorbing a consequence. Nitro boost. Bomber. Flak or chaff. Camouflage?

Initiative # (as a measure of plane and pilot): This depends on how I want to handle initiative. If I parallel X-Wing I’ll need to have a number for this. But since I’ll likely just go with standard picked action order I can skip this. 

I’ve mentioned the use of Attack Wing Dials for movement. I might add elevation as a factor, but keep it super simple: low, medium, and high. Low allows attacks on ground targets. It might also allow for cover/interaction with terrain features (i.e. fights in canyons, in-between skyscrapers). A difference in elevation would add a range tick. Short medium long.

Have to figure out if I need rules for Ramming, Close Contact, Smoke and Chaff. Worth separating out into some other system or fold into usual resolution mechanics
Types of Plane Actions- parallel personal actions.
  • Creating Advantage
  • Attacks
  • Defenses
  • Maneuvers/Gambits (overcome?)

Should there be some typical “dogfighting”maneuvers we have laid out on the reference chart? These would have fairly defined effects:
  • Tailing
  • Shaking a Tail
  • Controlled Stall
  • Strafing
  • Out of the Sun?
  • Chicken/Bump
  • Wingman

Most Important: Clark Valentine’s Kriegszeppelin Valkyrie has an awesome mechanic which needs to be used. Planes cannot do full damage on a target unless they have created an advantage against that target (representing maneuvers). I assume environment aspects or team created ones could be used for this.

Redlining: The “Wing” games have a mechanic where pilots gain stress tokens. They have to clear those tokens before performing other actions. Most of the time stress tokens come from taking a particular maneuver. Red colored moves on the dial indicate these. They can be cleared by performing a Green colored maneuver. Stress can also come from damage effects or the use of some upgrade cards

I think we’ll use a version of this which I’m going to call Redlining. Players gain a “Redlined” state when they take certain maneuvers, as a Consequence, or as a cost on some Stunts (equivalent to spending a Fate point?). To clear a Redlining, the pilot must perform a Green move on their dial or else use some kind of Stunt to clear it. Have to think about this.
What are the effects of Redlining? I’m thinking that while in this state, you can only do standard Attack and Movement. I have to figure out exactly what that means. I’d allow for Defend against actions normally, or perhaps you might lose Defend ties while Redlined. Affected pilots wouldn’t be able to use Stunt effects (except those which would clear the Redlining).

I also want to have sky monsters, so I have to figure that out...

OK, so that’s my starting place. A few sketches to get my thoughts in order. When I have some more concrete rules, I’ll probably post those. I’ll also post my “23 Things About the World of Sky Racers Unlimited” when I get that done. Before then I’ll have to go and reread some of the gaming sources: Crimson Skies material (FASA and WizKids), Night Witches, Romance in the Air, Kriegszeppelin Zeppelin Fate, and Warbirds