Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Dukes of the Gameosphere: RPGs Ahead of Their Time (Maybe?)

I’m a behind on updates for Play on Target, the rpg podcast I co-host. That’s OK since we’re a little behind on episode releases. Or maybe OK isn’t the word (maybe par for the course…). Anyway in this July episode we considered games “Ahead of their Time.” In some cases they struck out so far ahead they died off. Yet later games would take up their trailblazing approaches. In the show each of us offers several games we’d put in these categories. We also talk about the challenges new systems pose to existing groups. If something’s radically different it can be hard to wrap your own head around, let alone sell to the table. Your perception may be colored by bad experiences, leading you to dismiss a game. I felt that way about PbtA until I played with GMs who actually showed off the cool parts of the system.

Below I’ve cobbled together a few additional thoughts on the topic.

1. TWENTY-FIVE YEARS BEHIND THE VEIL: I’ve seen it mentioned a couple of places, but it’s worth mentioning again. We’re 25 years out from the original release of Vampire the Masquerade. It showed up on the shelf just as I finished college. I worked at a game store at the time and it drew a little attention. A year later I returned from grad school to manage the store, and it had become the hot new thing. Over time Vampire and its sundry associated games changed the composition of local game groups and increased the number of customers. Over time our gaming population grew and splintered into several groups. I could usually tell when they came in the door if they were “Just Looking at Whatever,” D&D, WH40K/Battletech, World of Darkness, or Magic the Gathering customers.

2. YOUR TEAM SUCKS: In the ep we don’t talk about the backlash to new approaches. It parallels the edition wars which have plagued gaming. Enthusiasts for a particular game of style of game dismiss others. They take any form of criticism as an attack. Even advocacy for alternatives becomes an implicit condemnation. I saw this happen repeatedly in the store…and I joined in the absurd dogpiling: Champions players dismissing anyone who played baby Marvel Superheroes; old school rpg grognards versus the rising tide of World of Darkness; Cyberpunk 2020 versus Shadowrun; Anything else versus d20; tabletop gamers versus LARPers. I’ve been part of that, part of the group that said there’s no BadWrongFun, yet still shat in other people’s cornflakes. I tell myself I’ve gotten better, but I can still get snarky about games I don’t even play with 3+ page character sheets DESPITE THEIR EXISTENCE HAVING NO IMPACT ON MY ENJOYMENT OF MY GAMING.

3. MY TEAM RULEZ: On the other hand, I also remember the lone activists of the shop. Individuals who bought everything for a line and talked endlessly about how it was the end all of gaming. These weren’t D&D fans, but those pushing games that maybe sold a copy or two of anything each year. Over my lifetime, I have lost weeks to these advocates: pinning me behind the counter in conversation. They needed to convince me of the merits of their revolutionary game: Streetfighter, Dark Conspiracy, TORG, SLA Industries, Immortal the Invisible War. Some of them knew when the store would be slowest, so they could share their stories uninterrupted.

4. IF IT MAKES YOU HAPPY: I mention this because I’m sure our selection of games on the podcast sent many eyes rolling: about half the time I discuss Fate or PbtA I get at least one person telling me how it didn’t work for them (best case) or it sucks & any games that sells out by using that system needs to be burned with fire (most other cases). I understand. I can think of several revolutionary and striking games which I don’t dig. Games doing immensely cool stuff, but not in my wheelhouse or just not clicking for me: Reign, Burning Wheel, Star Wars d6, Warhammer 3e, Houses of the Blooded. They’re good games and some people get awesome fun from them. The aforementioned pooping in someone’s cereal about something they dig doesn’t make sense.

5. HOW ABOUT SOMETHING CONCRETE: I have three game innovations I’d like to see again: mechanics reworked and used in new contexts. First, mini-games for things like Sorcery or Psionics. That’s one of my favorite Castle Falkenstein elements. To cast magic you have to have certain types of energy. Draws from a deck represent that via suit and rank. Characters have a limit on how much they can draw to build that up. There’s a push-your-luck aspect there. Do you use more actions to draw? Do you risk bad interactions via unattuned energies? Do you spend your own soul to supplement this? Second, flow-chart mini-games. Mutant City Blues does this a little with the Quade Diagram. I haven’t yet figured out how to bring that over to another game and make it useful. But more I’d like mechanics like the tech deciphering flowcharts from Gamma World. You’d need more active choices, but it could work. Third, institutional lifepaths for character creation. That’s one of my favorite elements from Cyberpunk, FASA’s Star Trek and especially classic Traveller. Uncharted Worlds feels a little like a PbtA love-letter to Traveller, but it backs away from a lifepath approach. That’s too bad. I like the randomness and, again, the push-your-luck element.

6. HOW ABOUT SOMETHING VAPORWARE: I also have a couple advancements I hope we’ll see in the future. First, a cool Legacy-style boardgame-rpg hybrid. We’ve seen more and more rpgs trying to cross into board game territory: Pathfinder Adventure Card Game, Mice & Mystics, Agents of SMERSH, Star Wars: Imperial Assault, Mansions of Madness, and others. Some have a GM role and others automate that process. I’d like to see more of that, leaning towards the rpg side of things. But add to that an element of Legacy games. In those player choices and in-game events change the game itself. That happens in a tabletop rpg, and a bg/rpg could easily offer cool physical objects to track that. But it’d be awesome if things changed at the meta-level, with the rules expanding or changing as play evolved. I don’t know exactly what that’s mean; I’m spitballing. I’d also like to see more interest uses for rpg apps. The new edition of Mansions of Madness subs in the app for the Keeper role and Alchemists uses it to track hidden information. Imagine an app that generates tons of random and cascading details for a city. Or one that generates and manages puzzles for a dungeon. Or something that simulates hacking, giving that player a special mini-game with choices and immersion.

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, Google Play, or follow the podcast's page at www.playontarget.com.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

My Gen Con: Fears, Fails, and Five Sessions

So I went to Gen Con. And having had a good time there before, I wanted to really pitch in for Games on Demand. While Gene had offered us space if he went down as a guest, Gen Con opted to trim the comic track after last year’s fiasco. That meant Sherri wouldn’t be able to come. I’d seen that a couple of regulars wouldn’t be helping out (including the redoubtable Jeremy Friesen). So prior to the convention I worked on the map, helped out with the menu images, did contacting, and designed & printed cool table tents (at my cost, but with unobtrusive ads). I’d be sharing a hotel room and I’d laid in a supply of Soylent for the con. Steve Sigety gave me a ride down and up since he ran for Pelgrane. That saved me a ton of hassle.

That’s the big picture: now on to the details. I’ve broken this up into two parts. The latter talks about what I ran and how that went. You can jump down to that. The former covers the oddities of my experience and clearer realizations about how bad I am at socializing. This is feelings stuff. I don’t usually talk about that on the blog;  I just mention my shyness and anxiety in passing. I don’t write about it because I’m not comfortable with how much it runs and ruins my interactions. I don’t like talking about it. In fact I usually skip these kinds of posts in other people’s threads because a) I’m a hypocrite and b) I honestly don’t want to think too much about it.

But Gen Con really highlighted my limitations. So anyway…

As background, I got sick the Friday before Gen Con. My assumed allergy attack turned into a full-blown head cold. Often a cold drains you, but you can still get things done. Not this one. I had to park my disgusting, nose-running self on the couch all the way through Monday. Until Tuesday I didn’t know if I’d be strong and non-contagious enough to go. I pulled it together, but I napped/rested every opportunity I got on Wednesday and Thursday.

That then provided a convenient excuse to avoid seriously interacting with anyone. Mind you, the Games on Demand group contained many people I’d met or interacted with online. Did I go and introduce myself or even just say hello? Nope. My brain fiction told me I didn’t want to intrude, to impose, to be that guy who wedges himself into someone else’s personal space. Sherri says that for introverts, we realize how much work other people can be and don’t want to be that burden on another person.  So I did my work, ran my games, wandered the dealer hall, and went back to my room. I watched alot of Law & Order. So dumb.

But I ran five sessions: four two-hour and one four-hour. Two other four-hour sessions didn’t fill. That’s always disconcerting and disappointing. In both cases several other tables went empty, which you think would be some solace. But there’s no real bonding among cut GMs at that point; we’re all trying to figure out what we did wrong with the presentation.

Despite good sessions, my specific stupid sticks with me though:
  • I skipped the Wednesday evening Indie gamers gathering. People I knew went, but I couldn’t kick my head into gear to walk over there. 
  • We had an all-hands meeting for Games on Demand Thursday evening. At one point Steve Segedy asked all the organizers to stand up. My brain said “You didn’t do that much, you just assisted others…”. So I didn’t stand up. I’d done real work and helped set things up, but my stupid anxiety brain told me others would think “jeez, who does he think he is…” or something. I don’t know.
  • After the all-hands meeting split up groups did small board games. I love these kinds of things. James Stuart offered A Fake Artist Goes to New York. I went to that table because there no one else had sat there yet. After a few rounds we were supposed to swap and perhaps go to other tables to play with other people. I couldn’t bring myself to do that, to intrude into an existing group, so I left. Despite there being people I knew at the other tables.
  • I had an interaction with one of the GoD hosts where I’d misheard something. They seemed absolutely frustrated and pissed at me, or at least that’s how my brain read it. I’m sure they weren’t, I’m sure they had no idea who I was, I’m sure it was their reaction to the challenge of getting the games up and running. But dumb brain got super tense. I ended up not going back to play any more GoD sessions during the gaps in my schedule. I used that as an excuse to avoid actually doing something fun.
  • Along with a couple of other GMs, my Friday night game didn’t fill. Renee Knipe, who’d I’d helped with the menus and who’d run my amazing Warren session last year, was running a Conan game. A couple of the other GMs joined that, one of them even said “hey, you come join us” but I didn’t go. I didn’t want to impose. Plus James Stuart was playing and I’d inserted myself at the board game table with him and I didn’t want to seem like I was creepily following him. Instead I went back to my room and watched TV.

…and that’s the one that really made me go “WTF is going on with your brain?”. You’re a grown-ass adult, where does that shit come from?

Here’s the thing: once I’m in a social transaction with someone, I’m good. If I’m running a game and you sit down at my table, I’ll engage with you. If we sit at the same table for a meal, I’ll start peppering you with questions about how your convention’s going. I honestly want to know. I like listening to people talk about their enthusiasms and projects. When I sit down to play, I’m good: I work hard to be generous and supportive. Get me into that mode and I’m usually solid. But getting to there, breaking the ice, whatever, that’s my block.

I find it super frustrating when I can’t quite break through to say hi and engage, especially with GMs and designers I’ve met before. I saw several that I couldn’t bring myself to start even the briefest convo with. There’s a gamer who moved into our area several months ago. At Origins and Gen Con I avoided even going up and introducing myself face to face.

It’s not all bad: I did had a great time talking with the people I managed to actually interact with, especially my two roomies Bill White and Nick Wedig. But again that’s an established transaction. I got to have dinner with Melissa Gay and Brian Cooksey. I walked around for a couple of hours with my sister, Cat Rambo. I made myself go and play in a game run by Anna Kreider. I ran for Phil Vecchione.

So why go on at length about this? I’m not sure. I don’t talk about it much and maybe that’s not a good thing. I take anti-anxiety meds and they’re otherwise great (confirmed by my wife). But while I had a good time at Gen Con, I could have had an awesome time. I need to find some strategies to get to that point. The obvious one is to have Sherri with me all the time, but that’s not entirely practical. I’m going to go again next year. I’m going to help out with organizing GoD if they’ll let me. I’m going to wrestle with my anxiety. And maybe this time I’ll stand up when they call out organizers for special mention.

/end feels

I should explain how Games on Demand Gen Con works for those who don’t know it or have only seen it at other conventions (like Origins). GoDGC has to manage a ton of players while keeping the through-traffic space clear. It offers both 2 and 4 hours session, so games start every two hours. If you’d want to play, you come by before that slot and get a boarding pass (like “D for Dragon”). Then, about ten minutes before the session starts, the hosts call out letters (after handling anyone with special needs or mobility limitations). When they call your pass, you come forward and look at the choices on display.

You’ll see a gallery of menus, illustrated with an images and a quick blurbs. Generally each GM submits two options for what they can run. The first person to choose that GM selects which game they want. The hosts then cross out the other one. So if I get up there and Everyone’s a Suspect’s crossed out, I have a choice of Dog Eat Dog instead or another GM. Each slot has has plenty of choices, with some GMs running four-hour and some two-hour. Plus GoD offers LARPs. I helped type up the GoD stats recent and noticed a trend. While a significant number of the four-hour games didn’t make, all but one of the two-hour games did. The one that didn’t was a LARP and they may have simply folded the two on offer together. If you sign up for a game that doesn’t get the minimum # of players, the hosts will quickly reseat you where there’s space or offer a pass for a future session.

A couple of years ago I ran two-hour sessions for Games on Demand GC, but not from choice. One of the hosts split my four-hour session into two two-hours by mistake. Both ran fine, with complete arcs. I’m good at keeping tempo and speed at the table. I congratulated myself on my skill. On a recent Gauntlet episode I spoke about the limitations of the two-hour format. I thought it’d be too tight. But having run several sessions, I realize I’m wrong.

I’d forgotten that most of my online sessions are two hours, less if you exclude the BSing. Even with longer sessions, you lose time to technical stuff, waiting on everyone, and goofing around. At the table I do that fast: set up and cc should take at most 30 minutes. That time should ease everyone into the premise before you kick the throttle. You can even cut that with easier systems and completely pre-gen’d characters. I saw folks running games I’d never considered doing in such a short span (Hollowpoint for example). Next year I may only run two-hour sessions with an alternate menu sub-in menu if I get burned out.

Of course all of this may be my way of compensating for not getting picked for the four-hour team twice. Maybe I have to look at what I’m running and how I’ve written up my blurbs. I also didn’t do something I’d meant to: go out and sell my games to the hosts so they could sell them to others, so that’s a problem.

In any case I brought four games with me to run. In particular I wanted to make sure I offered some games written by women. I had a ton of awesome choices across the board, making narrowing it down tough. For my four-hour I took my Neo Shinobi Vendetta scenario, the one I’d run at Origins. I wanted to offer my Action Cards game for at least one session. I paired that with Before the Storm, Joanna Piancastelli’s game from Seven Wonders. For my two-hour sessions, I put together a Fate Core version of Magic, INC and took the demo kit for Threadbare by Stephanie Bryant.

As I said, only one of my four-hour slots went off, with the group picking Before the Storm. We had four players (including myself) for this collaborative story game. Before the con I’d played it once f2f. That revealed some facets I wanted to emphasize when I taught it at Gen Con. Before the Storm can jump around in time which had gotten us lost a couple of times in our home game. So for the con I asked everyone to be clear about location and era when they narrated. I also made clearer how the end battle would work rather than springing it on them. But the choice with the greatest impact was making clear you could dictate your character’s flashbacks to reveal truths. In the game you can play out scenes- drawing in other PCs as themselves or NPCs—or dictate. In our home game, we’d almost exclusively done scenes and it had been a tangle with some of them locking up.

My emphasis swung things the other way. We ended up doing dictated scenes for most of our exchanges. That’s isn’t a bad thing, but it does change the tempo of the game. Joanna suggests a mechanism to speed up con games: putting two event cards down in front of everyone. These mark round and adding them here cuts down the play length. Because we moved quickly, we didn’t need that. We ended up doing an extra cycle, disregarding the impact of those additional cards.

James Stuart asked me about how Before the Storm ran at the table. He had it on offer as a LARP. I suspect, at least the way I did it, is that the tabletop version offers more storytelling time and control for the players. At a LARP I’d feel compelled to play out the scenes, rather than dictating.

Anyway, I had a good time and learned a lot in play. I had a good group with interesting character picks.

My two-hour games ended up being one session of Fate Core and three of Threadbare. I’d converted Magic, INC over from Action Cards for the Fate game, trimming the character creation choices. I might need to cut even further. The session went well, with a completely different approach from the other three times I’d run it. They took a fairly straightforward approach, but did a nice job of indulging in their characters’ appetites and drawbacks. I like Fate, but I’m not entirely certain it’s the right approach for Magic, INC. Still thinking about that.

Threadbare ended up being crazy fun. I’ll admit I hesitated about the semi-post-apocalyptic toy concept when I first heard it. But between Sherri’s enthusiasm for it and Bryant’s appearance on +1 Forward, I backed it. It’s goofy fun with a slightly dark edge to it, which you can more or less emphasize. That fits with my style. You only have three playbooks with quick choices so it’s easy to pick up and play. That meant we had more time to do some Q&A at the table.

The demo scenario—“Furry Road”—has an incredibly open premise. On a mission to travel from point A to point B the PCs have gotten off course. As a group they make up their vehicle, who seeks them, what they’re transporting, etc. Then I improvise completely off of those answers. I’d done up a list of concepts and details as a reference page, but once we got going I hardly looked at it. The first group found themselves pursued by a group of monster trucks and ended with a Godzilla PC knocking down a Playmobil castle defended by Decepticons. The second began navigating the darkness to an inn run by wrestler figures and ending with them escaping Baby Nazghul. The third had to outrun a storm and ended up Spartacusing a Barbie-chariot arena and deposing Emperor Eeyore.

So good times. I dug all of the sessions, with some standout moments from the enthusiastic Xmas sock to the self-sacrificing homemade doll to the voodoo softie determined to make Troll Dolls hip again. All that plus a Ninja Turtle Pizza Van, Refugee “Barrel of Monkeys,” the sock dance-off, and more stick with me. The interactions between the voodoo doll character and the na├»ve teddy bear may be my favorite moments from among all the games.

I only played in two games. The first, Swords without Master, was interesting. We had a couple of players- solid and fun-- I wish I could have gamed with more over the weekend. But we also had one player who was a little off. The game clearly did click for them. At  one point I wished we’d had the X-Card in play because I would have used it. So overall I’m not sure this was the best demonstration of Swords. The flow of play stopped and started abruptly. I couldn’t tell how much of that was the game and how much the table. I’ll have to try it again, given the love I hear about it.

The other game was the Shab al Hiri Roach at Hogwarts. I’d skimmed the SaHR rules but never played it. Anna Krieder created and ran this great hack. She’s a solid convention GM: setting up the premise, establishing boundaries, giving us tools for feedback, and explaining the rules. She kept the pace up and helped shift things so we ended up with a complete story. I really, really enjoyed this session. One of the best games I’ve played at any convention.

RPG-wise I picked up Velvet Glove, Headspace, and the Fate Codex Anthology from the Magpie (IGDN) booth. That’s it. I’d already bought the electronic versions of the latter two items, but in the case of Headspace I wanted to support the designer because he’d had such a terrible run with the printer. Much of the other stuff I would have bought, I’d purchased through KS. For board games I picked up Legendary Big Trouble in Little China and the Marvel Legendary Civil War expansion. I got those Sunday and really only bought them because I was surprised they still had them in stock. Finally I bought some accessories: specialized meeples for Imperial Settlers (one of my favorite bgs), some Totoro meeples, and some writable fantasy maps from Arc Knight. That’s it.

1. Get all my games to run.
2. Talk to people.
3. Get Sherri to go.
4. No, really actually introduce myself to people.
5. Play more games.
6. Actually check my email during the con.
7. Game with Renee Knipe and Hans Messersmith (my two big missed-them regrets)
8. Not watch Law & Order

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Far Station Eschaton: A Kingdom Seed

Robert Rodger asked if anyone had done a seed for Kingdom (a top five rpg for me) based on DS9. That's a cool idea so I did up a rough version. Others may have additional approaches or suggestions. 

Once this station stood at the far ends of known space, a jump point for the desperate, established as a watch post for the Confederation. But now things have changed. The formation of a wormhole, reaching into new areas of space has made Eschaton the gateway to a new gold rush and the epicenter of old vendettas.

Customize (pick one answer for each)
  • The Confederation is [ a distant and faceless bureaucracy | a society dedicated to expansion and peace-keeping | an expansionist military force | the failing shell of a once-proud society | a puppet state at the beck and call of corporate interests]
  • Eschaton was established by [ the Confederation’s military originally | the scientific arm of the empire | as a far-edge drydock and repair station | a pleasure and rec facility for patrolling vessels of the fleet | a diplomatic outpost | the HQ for a peacekeeping mission]
  • The closest planet [ is under military occupation by the Confederation | is in the midst of civil war | is united in their resentment of the confederation | is a hodge-podge industrial settlement | is a backwater hive of scum, villainy and licentiousness]
  • Eschaton has [ absolute control over the gateway | limited access it can dole out | control through the threat of being able to destroy the gateway | no ability to stop anyone going in or out.]
  • The wormhole [ leads to a system spoken of in old records and legends | goes to a location in another galaxy completely unknown before | opens onto the hub of an alien empire | varies in its final destination]

  • Corporate interests want control of the wormhole.
  • The Confederation wants to militarize the sector.
  • The system is being overwhelmed by the sheer number of new arrivals rushing to be the first through.
  • Tensions with the closest planet have increased as they’ve made new demands.
  • The field of the wormhole creates strange and unpredictable effects on the local space-time.
  • The Confederation’s rival(s) claim the wormhole as their own.
  • Alien forces have begun to emerge into the Eschaton’s system from the other side.
  • Underground forces on the station look to seize control.
  • Supplies and/or supply chains have been tightened and reduced.
  • Bizarre events, psychic episodes, and reality warping caused by the wormhole’s energies.

  • Bridge of the Eschaton, central point for command and control
  • Docking ring, the connecting point for new arrivals and those wishing to board
  • The loading bays where cargo arrives (and sometimes falls off into other peoples’ hands)
  • Security core. Where personnel monitor security and attempt to keep track of threats
  • Prison (brig) for the Eschaton. Most often used for the drunk and derelict, now has a larger variety of strange and dangerous criminals.
  • Overflow housing for the new arrivals. Connected to a black areas where refugees attempt to hide and survive.
  • Medical Bay. Smaller than it ought to be. Unequipped to handle the volume of new arrivals.
  • Diplomatic station dedicated to the culture and needs of the populace from the local planet
  • The Promenade. A crossroads of stores, suppliers, corporate offices, bars, and other diversions.
  • The Bar. While there may be several locations where station personnel and visitors go to unwind, the Bar is the largest and most important of these.
  • The Holo-Lounge. A place of education for some. Of obsession for others.
  • Bay 8. Location of the special runner ship or shuttlecraft for the main crew of the Eschaton.
  • Station Core. The tightly controlled center for ship operation and power.
  • The Menagerie. Facilities set up for various alien ambassadors and their needs.
  • Jeffries Tubes. Engineering access points used for repairs as well as clandestine travel by some.

Character Concepts
  • Commander of the Eschaton
  • Commander’s resentful but precocious teen child
  • An exiled Psychic
  • A bizarre living hologram
  • A doctor exiled to this miserable posting
  • The excitable security chief
  • Official liaison from the local planet
  • Corporate station representative
  • Washed up former Captain turned con man
  • Avaricious merchant
  • Station Supply Officer
  • Dedicated engineer
  • Former spy turned religious mentor
  • Space Workers Union Rep
  • Confederation Military Observor
  • First Contact Specialist
  • Diplomat turned native
  • Splintered Refuge from a Hive Mind

Issac Tyrrell, Erich Strachan, Anton Phillips, Kalyn Wynter, Gema Alessandro, Maddie Avison, Shani ch'Shuni, Thara ch'Kerria, Ortal zh'Giiazn, Hjalmar sh'Nortre, Enak Vorle, Aarmar Telle, Ular Turra, Makbar Tajar, Mar'Ta, K'Kori, G'Lora, Vekma, Veirre, Khaesar, Cura, N'Freleya

  • Do we impose absolute control over who passes through the wormhole?
  • Return criminals/rebels/spies from the local planet to their home?
  • Send our own missions through the wormhole to seek new discoveries
  • Permit the Rival Enemy Empire to establish a formal presence aboard the station?
  • Expend resources searching for the station shuttle we lost contact with?
  • Crack down on the rising tide of smuggling?
  • Turn to black market sources to support the station?
  • Declare independence from the Confederation?
  • Ration supplies to civilian interests so that the military wing of the station can maintain maximum readiness?
  • Divert power and effort to establish protections from the strange space-time anomalies?
  • Establish a system of democratic representation?
  • Recognize the independence of the local planet?
  • Rearm the station for a possible military stand off?
  • Make an alliance with former enemies?

Inspired by Star Trek DS9 and Babylon Five.

Kingdom notes that when you play “with physically-separated locations…make sure it’s easy for characters to interact in person. There has to be easy transport…or you risk all your scenes turning into boring phone calls.” You’ll probably have most scenes on the station, but I can imagine jaunts out to survey the wormhole, interact with arriving captains around their ships, or visit with officials on the local planet.

You should also discuss and think about the tech level you want to have with this setting. The easiest way is to set the default at Star Trek level, but allow for players to suggest things to add or reduce to that.


Other Kingdom Stuff:

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Gaming Pipeline: The Campaigns Must Flow

(Who has two thumbs and still hasn’t been able to finish writing up his feelings about Gen Con? This Guy.) I’m in a gaming transition trough, with several just wrapped campaigns and others kicking off. That’s always a crazy but satisfying time. That hit simultaneously with the lead up work to (and post con drop from) Gen Con. Here’s my docket.

Just before Gen Con we wrapped up Guards of Abashan, a 2+ year fantasy city-guards campaign. So last Friday I solicited feedback and reactions to the campaign and the iteration of Action Cards we’d used. Everyone had positive comments, but zeroed in on a few problem areas. 

1) Overall the revised magic system worked. But I need to tweak effects with multiple targets. In this version I restricted those too much in the name of parity with normal actions. As a result taking the casting risks for AoEs lacked a payoff. As well the magical chart system I used, trying to emulate Mutant City Blues’ Quade Diagram, didn’t work or add anything to the game. 2) I needed better visualization throughout the campaign: collaborative maps of the city and their neighborhood would have helped. Simple, rough drawings would have been huge. On a related when we did the collaborative city-building at the start we had a couple of players who weren’t there. That put them a step off. In the future if we’re using that tool, everyone who is going to play has to be there or we delay. 3) At points in the campaign I should have reincorporated material rather than adding new elements. The players lost track of which incidents to follow up on. I’ve working on managing that as a GM, but it got away from me in spots. We ended up with several dangling plots.4) The players would have liked more emphasis on and concrete results for building up their neighborhood.

After that I presented three options for the next campaign. I set the ground rule that this would be 6-12 sessions long, with the option to re-up if all the players want. Any campaign options not chosen would be on the table for the future (unless they clearly weren’t of interest). I offered The Sprawl, Urban Shadows, and Mutant:Year Zero, either in the basic form or using Genlab Alpha. The group decided to do a ranked, secret vote. In the end standard MYZ won with 17 points, but weirdly all the others tied with 14 points apiece. That’s cool and I know we’ll get to one of the others in the future.

I haven’t written much about Mutant: Year Zero on the blog. I picked it up late last year and fell in love with it. Originally I’d hoped to run it for a new f2f group, but that fell through. Through the miracle of poor impulse control I ended up with the core book, supplemental cards, multiple sets of dice, maps, and two copies of GenLab Alpha. MYZ looks crunchy on the surface. It has d6s in three colors with funny symbols, resource tracking for survival, and lengthy ‘stuff’ lists. But it’s actually simple. The designers mashed up classic simple trad with lessons from Apocalypse World. It has clean playbooks, questions for building character relations, easy social mechanics, improv threat generation, and a system for community building. But it also has random mutations, checks for using equipment, several damage tracks, and a serious system for ‘hex-crawling’ the Zone.

The community building’s especially appealing given that the players had wanted to see more of that in Guards of Abashan. Mutant: Year Zero rates your community, called an Ark, in four Development areas: Food, Culture, Technology, and Warfare. At the start of each session players select a Project. These offer new buildings, services, or structures. They require work points which players at the Ark generate by making relevant skill checks. When you complete a project you roll Xd6 and add that value to the area’s DEV value. For example a new Pig Pen generates 2d6 towards Food. Better projects require certain development levels, offer better returns, and even affect multiple areas. You can set up an expedition into the Zone as a project. Technology and relics play into this. When players find artifacts in the Zone, they can use them easily if their Ark’s has a high enough Tech Dev. As well they can turn in each artifact to the “Dawn Vault” of the Ark. If a player gives up their loot, they add to the Ark’s ratings. It’s a nice, hard choice.

We did character creation, ending up with a nice mix of roles and mutations. Players liked the mechanic for assigning relationships and choosing a “buddy” for you emotional support. The group chose a lake-filled region from among the six MYZ maps I had. They marked a spot on it and decided that their Ark would be an old camping grounds. We used the white board on the wall to draw out the camp’s layout and features. I’ll looking forward to the first session of play.

I’ve posted a couple of times about this campaign which runs every Wednesday on Roll20. I last ran 13th Age for this group a year ago and M&M 2e before that. I shifted us over to Mutants & Masterminds 3e this time. Four weeks in, I’m still trying to get my feet under me. The complete shift over to effects-based definitions in this edition takes some getting used to. I’m a Champions vet, so I’m familiar with those kinds of mechanics, but it’s been awhile. I’d forgotten how that can skew player approaches. It opens the door to “what effects do I want for my character” over “who is my character?” In the previous campaign I did all the initial builds so I could offer niche protection. Here we’ve hit some bumps with players duplicating roles and strengths. Hopefully we’ll get that sorted out.

I used to be an old hand at M&M 2e; I could run it without the book. I haven’t gotten to that point at all with M&M 3e. Green Ronin’s done some great system standardizations, but that comes with a massive list of conditions. Conditions have definite effects and serve as a cornerstone for many powers. But even my reduced cheat sheet for these clocks in at two pages: one for basic conditions and the other for compound ones. I’m also weirdly having a hard time keeping straight all the new stat names. I know I’ll get the hang of it eventually but right now it’s frustrating to have that eat up my attention when running.

There’s the added wrinkle of using Roll20 to play. I like the program, but it does mean I end up burning more time than I’d like finding cool maps and getting tokens put together. Eventually I’ll hit a critical mass and I can coast, but I’m still wasting a couple of hours a week on this. Also Roll20’s being really weird with my camera. We played Tuesday and it broadcast fine. We played Wednesday and it wouldn’t show my video feed. I wish they’d get their audio/video component in better shape. It’s been a constant source of complaints since the beginning. Finally I’ve been looking at how I handle movement and distance on those maps. I’d steered away from grids & hexes. Instead I’d used a modified zone system. But that meant drawing in the zones and weirdness with area effects. I’m thinking about biting the bullet and just using hexes despite how crunchy that feels. Am I trad phobic?

Beyond the mechanical side I’ve been trying to incorporate more story game elements. I mentioned using Microscope to build the recent campaign history. For the character creation session, I used the “How Did Your Team Come Together?” questions from Masks to build their “origin story” narrative. I also mentally matched each PCs to one of the Masks archetypes. I used backstory questions from those playbooks to find out more about the characters. In the first session I followed up with an hour of more character questions what’s one weird thing tied to your origin you’ve seen recently? how do you live day to day? who is the most recent villain you’ve taken down solo? I used some of those answers to build the first session fight. I’m also using all of those answers to build the “threats” for the campaign. Urban Shadows has a great structure for defining and shaping threats and countdown clocks. The PCs are trying to bring order to their city, so I’m lifting from that urban conspiracy PbtA game to craft the fronts they have to deal with.

In a couple of weeks I’m running three sessions of Legacy: Life Among the Ruins for The Gauntlet. It’s a post-apocalyptic PbtA game with fantastic elements. It’s closer in tone to Numenera or early Gamma World. The lost world had some form of advanced “technology” which shattered civilization. Strange things and relics pepper the landscape.

Players have two playbooks: one for family (5 choices) and one for character (8 choices). Legacy feels a level removed from the characters from other PbtA games. They still drive the action, but their choices revolve around solving community problems more than wrestling with their own demons. PCs have a position of influence and command within their family. That gives access to special moves. Legacy has a system for bonds at the family level, called Treaty. But there’s no character-level mechanic for that. It also has some modest resource management in the system (tracking surplus and tech). 

I’ve been putting together the online character spreadsheet and trying to get a feel for the playbooks. For the first session we’ll do some world-building. That involves figuring out the nature of the fall, describing our territory, and coming up with some details about settlements. We’ll draw a shared map to establish a sense of geography. That should help give the game some shape.

This will be a learning experience for me. I’m curious about Legacy’s play. It has a generational mechanic, but I doubt we’ll hit that in three sessions. I’m particularly interested in getting a feel for the MC’s role in Legacy. I can’t quite tell if it’s more or less directed than other like systems. One oddness is the lack of any real discussion of the PvP aspects of this kind of game. There’s more about how to hack Legacy to other purposes than a consideration of how to handle PC conflicts.

A few months ago I’d never watched any real wrestling beside luche libre movies from when we lived in Mexico. That’s changed now. I’ve watched Lucha Underground, NXT, Cruiserweight Classic, Monday Night RAW, Smackdown Live, and several New Japan Wrestling G1 events. I’ve hunted around YouTube for commentaries and listened to podcasts. Last night I found myself watching and writing down the set ups, storylines, and theatrics I saw. I’ve even read a couple of books on the pro-wrestling: all because I enjoy the World Wide Wrestling game so much.

So far I’ve run four sessions of it, three online and one f2f. I set both groups in the same promotion, so I’ve been able to use characters from one to populate the other. WWW remains super fun and I’m crazy excited about the release of the expansion book International Incident this week. I’m still a rank amateur, but I don’t care. I’m having a great time with it. I’m going to keep running infrequent sessions of this promotion; maybe I’ll try to rope in new groups or at the very least get sit-in guest stars. If I get the ambition together I’d like to run an actual 5-10 session season online.

I’m GMing two other campaigns. We’re about halfway through a one-year Middle Earth game using Action Cards. They’re just moving into another story arc. In Ocean City Interface we’re about halfway through the Assassins of the Golden Age portal. We’ll finish that in 3-4 sessions, shift back to the Alpha world, and start cycling through the previous portals.

I mentioned WWW above as something I want to run online. Beyond that, if the Gauntlet sessions go well, I’d like to try more there. I might run Fellowship or Worlds in Peril (as part of my “PbtA Games I’m Unsure About” series). I’d also like to run more 13th Age online, hopefully with some of the players from the campaign I ran earlier this year. I want do several sessions of Kingdom, a great and overlooked game. Plus I have two games I need to get to the table for feedback.

I’d hoped to go to Metatopia again this year, but it isn’t going to work. The continuing awful job search, house repairs, and obligations in October means we can’t swing it. Not great.
I’m only playing two ongoing games. Rolemaster continues despite scheduling hiccups. We should be hitting a major turning-point there. Rich Rogers just started a short Monster of the Week campaign for Mondays. I think he has something else he want to run after that to finish out his Ladder of Insanity rankings.

  • Finishing out my Base Raiders 13th Age conversion
  • Seeing if Magic, Inc works better with a PbtA approach
  • Revising Right of Succession rules
  • Finish Atelier World rules
  • Superhero board game build on the model of Robinson Crusoe or Castaways
  • Another serious pass at the Action Cards book
  • Revise Crowsmantle into some kind of publishable state
  • Another pass at the Wuxia PbtA hack
  • Nights Black Agents co-op boardgame
  • Doing Scion with another system
  • Monster Hunter Style boardgame
  • Harvest Moon Stories ala Golden Sky Stories
  • Adding to Ghostlines
  • Doing DUXS with PbtA
  • A Rotted Capes frame for Masks
  • Handling modern, more serious Spy rping with something like PbtA
  • Alternate Advancement and Milestones for Fate
  • Card mechanics for Action Cards in Roll20
  • A Rune Factory style monsters & farming game
  • Fate Accelerated Jet Set Radio
  • Changeling the Lost using Urban Shadows
  • Revision of earlier History of RPG genre series into consolidated ebooks
  • Random cards for generating events on journeys
  • Right of Succession dice
  • My mob board game with heat and gift currency
  • More Play on Target recording, getting more cool and diverse sit-in guest hosts

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Second Wave: The Supers News Cycle

A couple of weeks ago I posted the Microscope timeline my players created for our new M&M 3e campaign. They went darker than I expected and I've been thinking about how to handle that. The game's a pastiche: using and riffing on existing superhero properties. I don't usually do that, so I've bought in fully (i.e kitchen sink-ing it). You'll see lots of classic references; that's the kind of thing which would make me roll my eyes in other peoples' session reports. 

We've done a character creation session plus two actual play sessions. We're using Roll20 and I recorded those (Session 1 and Session 2). I want to get a few more nights under my belt before I write up my impressions of 3e vs. 2e.

For the previous campaign (First Wave) I did a lot of world building: NPCs, organizations, and news reports. Since we have all the material of that 50+ session campaign to draw on, I want to do less of that this time. I still like news reports so I wrote up a few items for this week. The setting's a gritty at the outset; I hope the players will make a difference over time. They integrated analogues for real world issues I want to handle carefully (immigration and refugees for example). We haven't played that long, so I'm still trying to get a feel for the team.

News for Session Three (8/17/16)
NEW FIRST WAVE: In a short news conference held at the White House Secure Site, President von Doom announced the re-formation of First Wave, quickly dubbed “Ultimate First Wave” in online comments. The veteran superhero team has been missing for eight weeks.

“As you know, I worked closely with Vice-President Frieze, founder of First Wave. He saw the importance of his team as a symbol of American hope. Victor realized they served a vital role in the current war effort against the Neo-Soviet metahuman empire. He prepared a contingency plan: a carefully recruited replacement team should anything happen to them.”

The new roster includes Meteorite, Steel Patriot, Yes Man, Thundra, and Nocturne. New team leader The Black Knight spoke briefly to reporters “I worked with First Wave and was honored when VP Frieze first spoke to me about this plan. I only hope I can live up to their legacy.” He indicated that the new First Wave would be headquartered closer to the capitol and work closely with federal authorities to prevent Neo-Soviet metahuman infiltration and aggression in the US.

ATLANTA OUTBREAK: The CDC confirmed today that the closure and quarantine of major sections of Atlanta would have to be expanded. Aided by the National Guard, CDC agents and medical volunteers have been processing victims and attempting to deal with what has been dubbed Helstromm Syndrome. So far the outbreak of this new virus has resulted in 92 deaths and 312 comatose victims. The government has been carefully tracking travel and possible outbreaks in other regions of the country, but have reported no other incidents outside Georgia.

While the CDC and the Army Medical Corps have ruled out a bioterrorist attack, they have refused further comment. However a series of internal emails leaked by Anonymous confirms ongoing rumors surrounding the incident. In the emails, authorities claim to have traced the disease to a set of dimensional refugees smuggled out of New York City. This has added fuel to the fears of anti-“Dimmie” cohorts. So far all involved agencies have refused to confirm the report.

HONG KONG AFLAME: Explosions rocked Hong Kong for a third night as Chinese officials continued their “containments” following the one year anniversary of the Iron Tiger Crackdowns. Those operation targeted metahumans throughout the countryside last year. At the same time Chinese agencies have moved to high alert following the revelation of Neo-Soviet operatives throughout the region. As a result tensions have escalated between the two superpowers. In particular activities in Mongolia and former Tibet have drawn attention and ire in the highest circles. The remaining Soviet delegation in the United Nations has met formal protests with non-responses and mechanical vetoes. Some experts fear the global economy could degrade even further if open hostilities break out between the two. Others suggest such a conflict might ease pressure on the US, Europe, and the remaining non-Soviet occupied Middle Eastern states.

RAGNAROK IRAQ: Observers emerging from the Iraqi devastation zones have reported a wasteland, now lost to "monsters and mythic beasts." A Neo-Soviet paranormal event created the areas a few months ago. “It is clear that the blood and fluids of the 'Ragnarok Serpent' has acted as a powerful mutagen, transforming both the trapped citizenry and local ecosystem into something dangerous, toxic, and inhuman.” Doctor Patricia Mnoyoko confirmed reports that the Ragnarok Zone has continued to expand, moving further into Turkey and creating even larger waves of Kurdish refugees. Other recent reports have acknowledged Ragnarok beast attacks on shipping and aircraft in the area.

LUTHOR SPEAKS: On Good Morning America, Lex Luthor finally spoke about the thwarted attack against him last week. Unknown metahumans ambushed the industrialist and accused Cabal mastermind as he toured sites in NYC scheduled for renovation. Unidentified supers stopped the attack, leaving behind a tag associated with pro-Cabal sentiments. “I’m a businessman and a visionary.” Luthor said in the one-on-one interview. “Yes, I was part of a group of like-minded thinkers and scientists who operated behind the scenes for many years. But I was also the victim of an unprecedented terrorist attack which kidnapped a whole generation of philanthropists and experts.”

Later he spoke more directly about the Cabal’s effects, “We helped to keep the world safe and stable. Look around today, with metahuman superwars and parahuman shape-changing dimensional refugees. Do you feel safer now?” On the subject of First Wave he spoke only briefly. “I’ve had disagreements with members of First Wave, but I have to thank them. It was only due to their intervention that I was rescued from the so-called 'Phantom Zone.' Mister Miracle clearly believed we had been unjustly imprisoned, so I leave that to your viewers’ consideration.”

NYC MAYORAL RACE: The latest polls of NYC voters show incumbent Richard Grayson falling behind Wilson Fisk in the upcoming mayoral election. Grayson has come under increasing pressure to tighten restrictions on metahuman citizens and dimensional refugees. Additionally clashes between local SATF agents handling super-powered cases and federal S.W.O.R.D. officers have brought Grayson’s moderate policies under increasing scrutiny. On Friday he finally moved to shift the combined Raft/Ellis Island containment facilities over to federal authority. meanwhile Fisk has continued to focus his campaign on rebuilding and stability, appealing to local business-owners. He pointed to the dangers and destruction which have accompanied the rise of metahumans within new York. In a recent speech he alluded to the rise of metahuman gangs, made up of Dimmie refugees seizing control of criminal operations in many sections of the city. Many have accused Fisk of using “dog-whistle” politics with his “New York for New Yorkers” campaign slogan.