Thursday, August 31, 2017

History of Cyberpunk RPGs (Part Four: 2004-2007)

Cyberpunk isn’t just for role-playing; here are ten selected board games that try to emulate the genre.
1. Hacker: Old-school Steve Jackson game with tons of rules and bits. Slightly out of date and built with some knowledge of real world operations, so you might find yourself hacking a BBS.
2. Shadowrun Duels: A deadly battle between 6” tall dolls in the DMZ. Play dress up with weapons and duke it out.
3. Rogue Agent: Not a deduction game, instead one of worker-placement and resource management. You play freelance police tasked with keeping down crime in 2048’s Rain City.
4. Cyberpunk CCG: Not to be confused with Netrunner. This was a sort-lived attempt from 2003 to revive the IP for card games. Not successful.
5. Edge City: A game I saw in discount bins and trade offers for years and years. Demonstrates why a rhombus is not a good packaging choice. You try to develop your character as the ultimate “Data Ripper.”
6. Mechanisburgo: A cult-favorite heavy Euro-game. Originally released in 2008, had a new edition in 2016. If you’d like fill your entire table with eye-burning boards and graphics, check it out. Honestly I can’t even tell what you’re doing in this game.
7. Shadowrun: Crossfire: An actually decent deck-building game based on Shadowrun. Has an interesting gimmick in that your characters grow via experience over time. You mark advances with stickers ala Legacy games. You play cooperatively against a mission.
8. Android: The kick-off game for FFG’s Android line. This is a massive game where you compete to “solve” a crime in a near future corporate world. And by solve I mean pin the guilt on someone.
9. Android: Netrunner: FFG reskinned the old (and amazing) Netrunner CCG into this Living Card Game. Very cool and I bought everything for the first several months. But I got tired of getting smacked around since I didn’t play enough. Has 40+ supplements at this point.
10. Android Infiltration: A push-your-luck game. Players pick actions trying to drill down into data fortresses.

While I’m focusing on core books, I include a few notable sourcebooks and supplements (by my reckoning). Ironically, I only list books with a physical edition. I might include an electronic release if they’re notable and of significant size. Some selections came down to a judgement call. I’m sure I missed some, so if you spot an absent cyberpunk rpg from 2004-2007, leave a note in the comments

1. Ex Machina (2004)
Guardians of Order had problems. As I mentioned on other lists, those included issues with freelancer payments and more importantly questions about their use of licenses. George R.R. Martin had to involve himself with the Game of Thrones rpg after GOO declared bankruptcy. The company’s disjointed releases showed up in discount bins for years, starting before they went out of business. They boundced around from line to line: Silver Age Sentinels, Big Eyes, Small Mouth, a host of anime supplements, AGoT, etc.

Out of this chaos came several gems, including Ex Machina. It is a stand-alone rpg built on the Tri-Stat system. It follows BESM's mechanics: point-buy abilities and powers from a set menu. It's a descriptor-based approach rather than an effect-defined one. Ex Machina's a hefty book, but only the about first third covers character creation and resolution rules. The rest presents ideas for cyberpunk in general, including GMing the genre, cybernetics, and netrunning.

The most interesting part of the book comes in the four extensive and richly described cyberpunk worlds. "Heaven Over Mountain" brings together biotech and orbital elevators with an Asian flavor. The urban center you operate in is the "beanstalk" running from Earth to space. "Underworld" contains an oppressive dystopia with the underclass kept in vast, subterranean prison shelters. "Ioshi" considers subcultures and information-- it reminds me the most of The Veil. It's written by Jenna Moran-- as Rebecca Borgstorm here-- author of mind-stretching rpgs like Chuubo, Nobilis, and Legends of Wulin. Finally "Daedelus", by Michelle Lyons, has a utopia built on eliminating freedoms, a surveillance paradise written in the wake of 9/11. They're all solid settings with lots of ideas to steal for existing cyberpunk games. The're also some of the most experimental settings published. Fates Worse Than Death comes to mind as the next closest in experimentation.

This is a dynamite and overlooked book. I'm not saying it is a great game; I don't dig Tri-Stat that much. But as a sourcebook for cyberpunk, few can match it

2. Generation Gap (2004)
As I mention below, Cyberpunk v3 moves the setting twenty years down the road. But it also maintains continuity with the Cyberpunk/Cybergeneration universe. In particular the Firestorm Incident and the Fourth Corporate War, detailed in some of the last CP modules, set up the Cybergen world. But there’s clearly a break within the lines. Many products fell off R Talsorian’s schedule in the late 90's, meaning they simply got shelved.

In the 2000's Firestorm Ink popped to release some of those products. They only got Generation Gap and Researching Medicine out the door before the company shut things down. It's unclear if that was a business or licensing decision. The result is that these products have become Holy Grail items due to their short print runs. They're almost impossible to find at a reasonable price and completely unavailable as pdfs. I couldn't even find reviews for these supplements; I thought they were vaporware until I found some sale listings. It's especially bad that we don't have access to Generation Gap. While it apparently had been written in the late 90's, they was supposed to serve as a bridge between Cyberpunk 2020 and Cybergeneration.

3 AmnesYa 2k51 (2005)
A near-future French rpg in which you play mutated humans called "Dopplegangers." GROG lists this as cyberpunk, but I'm unsure if it's that or more adjacent. It definitely has the corporate dystopian future down. The mutation system of the game has a parallel with the cyber-based humanity loss seen in other cyberpunk games. The more powers you have, the harder it is to blend with society. AmnesYa has those elements as well, called Leganthropy. This includes a variety of bio-modifications and transhumanist upgrades. A least one reviewer mentions a "Cronenebergian" feel to the material. The line got several releases including a module, GM screen, a free rules update, setting sourcebook for future Washington, and a world overview sourcebook.

4. Charme (2005)
I give you now the best summary statement from RPGGeek, "An Italian erotic cyberpunk-science fiction roleplaying game, containing adult imagery and a detailed system for seduction and sexual intercourse."

Holy shit.

Beyond that I couldn't locate any more information in English or auto-translated. Not sure if I should be sorry or relieved.

5. Cyberpunk V3.0 (2005)
By the time Cyberpunk 3.0 came out, I'd already moved away from Cyberpunk 2020. The GM in our group who'd been the instigator for these games had shifted over to Fuzion. That experiment burned all of us out. Except for a few last sessions, cyberpunk would be a dead genre until 2015. Therefore I missed the anger and negative reaction to v3.0- at least directly. I had a few fanatics in my online gaming circles. They ranted about it but I never picked up more than “it wasn't what they wanted.”

Mike Pondsmith had an unenviable task with this revision. He had to satisfy an audience steeped in their long running series. But not a monolithic audience. Instead different players had different visions of the genre. Add to that the need to update technology-wise without falling into the traps of the original game (16MB computers and the like). Pondsmith opens with a tight page addressing this. He cites the influence of video game design and the goal of making the game playable fast. And he pushes the setting in a new direction,

"It’s a world some ten to twenty years after the original classic Cyberpunk 2020—a world where the vast Net has collapsed, the Megacorps are struggling to regain their stranglehold, and humanity has broken into divided, often warring factions, each centered around a new definition of what it means to be a Cyberpunk."

That means a more defined and set world. Cyberpunk v3.0 focuses on transhumanism and culture groups. You can still pull out a classic Cyberpunk set up, but that requires much more digging. Pondsmith's approach is radical and I can see why some folks didn't like it. It doesn't succeed in some of its ambitions. It remains a dense game, with lots of crunch and numbers. It doesn't feel particularly accessible.

It's also- and I don't say this lightly-- kind of ugly. I've always admired R Talsorian for their striking designs. Cyberpunk 2020 set the template for sci-fi games in the decades following. Castle Falkenstein is a work of art. But this game doesn't hold together: color choices, weirdly bulky page borders, CG & action figure art. There's a cool game here, but the physical presentation doesn't help it.

Despite all that, Cyberpunk v3 does draw me in. I want to sit down and give it another read through just for the setting. I think it has ideas worth taking a look at. Also, if you haven't yet read it, you should check out this recent interview with Mike Pondsmith.

6. d20 Cyberscape (2005)
This supplement builds on both d20 Modern and d20 Future, focusing primarily on cybernetics and cyberware. It takes the same approach as d20 Future-- cyberware is gear, but with additional consequences for use. The rules also include other options for handling that (like cap limits). But it’s interesting to see a d20 game shift away from a purely level, feat, and class approach to these central elements. Three of the five chapters deal with these rules: the basics, armory, and variant cybersystems (necrotech, nanites, alchemy, wetware). Each of these offer interesting ideas, but they're give only a short treatment.

The other two chapters cover Networks and Campaign Settings. The former focuses on a VR approach to online stuff. It's a parallel world, handled with many of the same rules rather than creating a distinct sub-system (as Cyberpunk or Cyberspace do). There are some additional rules and systems, but it’s more a minor retooling than a full system. The final chapter talks about running cyberpunk campaigns in general. It offers a fairly by-the-numbers setting called CyberRave.White it suggests mentions a few variations, but that's the main world on offer.

d20 Cyberscape follows one of the distinct paths for "cyberpunk" games-- technology as the central feature. On the other end of the spectrum we get something like Fates Worse Than Death or even The Veil. Those have the tech but that's much less important than the social and emotional life & implications. Cybperunk 2020, through most of its lifespan, managed to find a middle path with brief slides towards the chrome side of things.

7. Future Lost (2005)
There's an anomaly with this game. It seems to go by the name Future Lost, that's how the designer refers to it in interviews. But the cover and the blurb on Amazon calls it Dark Future, despite being the sale page for “Future Lost”. And while Venture Land has other products available on DTRPG, they don't sell this one. It appears to have been d20 based, but there was little info out there beyond that. But then I found a copy online.

Future Lost came out late in the d20 bubble as interest in the system waned. It looks better than many "first product" d20 genre releases. It uses a simple, almost MS Word layout, but to its credit that's uncluttered and relatively easy to read. It's just a little stark and boring. So it's probably up to my own level of DTP layout skill.

Future Lost's much more about mechanical additions than setting. We have four races (Gen-Ens, Mutants, Super Soldiers as well as humans), nine classes (including Street Preacher which I hadn't seen before), 27 prestige classes (including Go-to-Guy, Mqachine Man, and Totem Lord), and a massive section on psychic powers and items. Those abilities get much more attention than cybernetics or equipment, weird for these kinds of games. Only fifteen pages out of 270 actually cover the world and setting. If you're looking for general cyberpunk material, this isn't as useful as other d20 cyberpunk supplements.

8. Shadowrun 4th Edition (2005)
I don't stop off to mention all editions, but I thought it was worth pointing out Shadowrun 4th, the first one fully overseen by FanPro. When FASA closed up shop in 2001, it sold the rights to Shadowrun to WizKids. They turned around and made the doll-fighting game Shadowrun Duels (hindsight is 20/20…). Eventually Topps would buy WizKids and license out SR to FanPro, which is how we arrive at this version.

I want to stress this again: Shadowrun's a monster. Where other cyberpunk games came and went it remained. Nearly every year has seen a new release of some kinds: sourcebooks, updated materials, modules, revisions for new editions. There's a metric shit-ton of stuff out there for it...spread across multiple contradictory editions.

FanPro was a German operation with an American component. Shadowrun had remained strong in the German market (something Phillip Neitzel mentioned to me in my interview with him). Shadowrun 4th is an attempt to revamp and rewrite the core SR rules-- or at least bring together all the materials from dozens of scattered sources. That meant simplifying the game mechanics. Some fans didn't dig the changes, but enough did to make this a highly successful version. A couple years later FanPro released a 20th Anniversary edition-- essentially the same book with full color interiors. Nice work if you can get it.

Shadowrun 4th also updated the setting on several fronts. It pushed the metaplot forward. If you read the Shadowrun Alamanac, you can see the accelerated shifts here. It worked to make technology more universal and up to date. Just as Cyberpunk 2020 had fallen behind the curve of the real world, even this magical setting had not kept up with the everyday. The biggest change: now people could operate wirelessly. Woot!

9. Corporation (2006)
In Corporation, the world of 2500 has been entirely corporatized. "A country (such as Mexico) does not have its own Government or laws, nor is it treated differently from any other place owned by the parent Corporation. The United International Government dictates law across the civilised world." You play Agents, cyber and bio-enhanced persons working for the Corporations. They handle dirty work on the ground, far below the attention or interest level of their masters at the highest echelons.

It's a solid premise and puts the player in a position of questionable power at the start. They're potent and have access to resources, but at the same time must obey and become entangled in the struggles between these organizations. I like how the corporations serve as a kind of clan, racial, or ethnic identity in the setting. It reminds me most of Legend of the Five Rings.

The game itself seems middle-weight. You have a point-buy system and figured stats, but a relatively small skill list. The details don't feel heavy and there's an emphasis on concept and thinking about who your character is that reminds me of Storyteller. The weirdest thing about the game is that, at least with the revised edition, you don't get any real explanation or understanding of the system mechanics until page 138. I'm used to games putting the full resolution mechanics late in the book. But at least explain the basics to us before you throw us into equipment, character creation, skills, etc. It left me confused as I read through.

Corporation appears to still be in print and getting supplements. The revised edition appeared in 2009 and the company continues to release sourcebooks and modules.

10. Perfect Horizon (2006)
Perfect Horizon's publisher describes this as "cyberpop." I think they mean that it borrows more from anime than gritty cyberpunk sources. It has your typical corporate, near-future dystopia heavily influenced by Appleseed and Ghost in the Shell. The world itself looks high-tech and chromed. A glance at the ToC shows lots of agencies, acronyms, off-world settlements, and showcase tech. Perfect Horizon's a sourcebook for the HDL System. It's a fairly crunchy game: 11 base stats plus figured ones, health levels measured by location, big skill list, etc. The publisher's released a new version of that base engine and a second edition of this supplement as well. If you want a summary of the game contents Flames Rising has you covered. They walk through the basics of Perfect Horizon as well all the other HDL games of the time.

Note: What do you think about dense tables of contents? Sometimes I hate ToCs that have clearly been generated by Word. I know because I've used them. Rather than a quick outline of the material, it gives a listing of every heading and sub-heading. In this case, there’s 2 1/2 pages of ToC for a book of less than 100 pages. I feels more like an index to me. I don't know why it bugs me.

The sci-fi sourcebook for All Flesh Must Be Eaten. It opens with a long section detailing all the tech, space, and skill bolt-ons for the game. AFMBE uses an advantage/disad system for defining abilities (like Savage Worlds or GURPS). But it's always felt super kitchen-sinky. Just throw a ton of abilities, called Qualities and Drawbacks, and GMs will pull things together. The scattering across sourcebooks reminds me of the Rolemaster Companions, seven volumes of disconnected optional rules spread out over years.

That being said, there's a lot of interesting stuff here. Implants, nanotech, and cyberware are handled as powers. The rules also include Psionics to cover those kinds of stories. There's some discussion of netrunning, but it isn't given a fully fleshed sub-system. "The Cybered Dead" presents a cyberpunk Deadworld setting in 18 pages. There corporations contained a zombie outbreak. They prevent new infections, but have now turned to exploiting zombies as soldiers and sources of labor. The zombie elements are pretty thin here, but turn on an interesting premise: humanity loss from implants can lead to characters becoming cybered up zombies. Most of other actual z-bits come from a scenario set in the location of the initial outbreak. The idea of mixing the two genres isn't bad-- I sketched out a lighter take on it a few years ago. Overall All Tomorrow's Zombies brings some neat tech to AFMBE, but doesn't add a lot for those hunting new cyberpunk approaches.

12. Kuro (2007)
 A French rpg, with an English translation released in 2012 from Cubicle7. That line’s now sadly discontinued and out of print. I'm hesitant to summarize Kuro for a couple of reasons. First, it's a game with some secrets built in. They aren't vital, but provide wild color to surprise players with. Second, Kuro has so much going on that summaries inevitably leave something out. I'd read many before I finally picked up the core book and discovered it wasn't what I expected. The short pitch is this, though: a near-future cyberpunk horror game set in an isolated Japan.

The slightly longer pitch goes like this: In 2046, during the accidental launch of two nuclear missiles, the weapon targeting Japan vanishes. The international community demands this shield tech, but the government claims they know nothing. Various nations impose a blockade and embargo. The Japanese survive by focusing on recycling tech, alternate energy, and new food sources. But this world has begun to fray and come apart due to breakdown, decay and fear.

And they have good reason to be afraid. Something else came along with the mysterious intervention. Since the "Kuro" incident things have begun to change. Strange rumors, vanishings, mysterious visitations. The gates to something else have been opened. Those that worry have begun to turn to new technologies and means of protecting themselves: Occultech. This combines old traditions with more modern approaches. Hell cricket-based detectors, holographic pentacles, consecrated salt grenades, etc.

There's more-- for a fuller write up, see my review here: Running Kuro: J-Horror with a Cyberpunk Edge. It's a dynamite game, full of all kinds of crunchy cyberpunk details. These focus more on daily life than many other games. It also provides horror with a unique flavor. Kuro isn't perfect. The resolution system grinds through too many details and the sample scenarios are more predictable than evocative. But overall it’s a great resource for cyberpunk and horror GMs.

13.  Strikeforce: 2136 (2007)
An rpg with only two release. The Strike Manual appears to be the system guide, with character creation and basic resolution. The Tech Manual supplements that with equipment, weapons, implants, etc. Strikeforce takes place in a higher-tech future world, again closer to Appleseed than the near-future of many other games. It's still gritty, but technology’s less a questionable tool and more an awesome source of cool shit. Think Maxiumum Metal from Cyberpunk 2020. The hook line for the game is "The System Dominates. Will You Fight It?" The blurbs focus on conspiracies and power struggles involving corporations, with the PCs caught in the middle.

It also has literally the densest and most involved character sheet I have ever seen in my entire life. Nine cluttered pages with several fonts, multi-colored boxes, and almost no page margins. Page one has your 16 primary and secondary attributes, plus a listing of the game's 150 or so skills and sub-skills. {Page two has room for all of your devices, armor, armor totals, armor areas, medical kits, a distinct scanner track, weapons (with twenty stats each), and more. Then there’s a second device page, and then a third. And then there’s even more combat and weapon stuff. I can’t even…

14. Cyberpunk Adjacent
A few games aren’t cyberpunk exactly, but right up to the edge or overlap in interesting ways.
  • a|state: Somehow I've managed to leave a|state off of any of my previous lists. It could have shown up on the Horror, Steampunk & Victoriana, or Post-Apocalyptic lists. But it isn't exactly any of those. Instead it is a weird Venn diagram of influences and ideas. That being said, I'm still not entirely certain what this game's about. Every time I look at it is seems to be something different. Many sources list it as cyberpunk. While I see some echoes, I've not entirely sure. One of those times I find myself squinting hard trying to "get" a game.
  • Control: The Game of Absolute Power: A storygame about confronting a world-spanning conspiracy. Adjacent in that it can easily be reframed to a cyberpunk struggle.
  • Etherscope: d20-based steampunk and pseudo-Victorian setting set in the year 1984. It has ideas worth borrowing, the most striking bring cyberpunk concepts into the setting. In particular, the titular Etherscope is a virtual reality space- a parallel plane which can be manipulated by human will. Effectively this creates the internet and the full-on hackable Net of cyberpunk novels and games. In that respect it is pretty brilliant. Technology runs wild here with genetically engineered beings and consciousness transfers. The authors cite Dark City, In the Mouth of Madness, and The Adventures of Luther Arkwright as inspirations. In some ways Etherscope's as close as any game to being Perdido Street Station, while still being alternate history.
  • Lacuna: Mentioned in some resources as cyberpunk, I don't really think it fits. The connected concept boils down to the characters fighting back against an entrenched force in a pseudo-future setting. I'll let you be the judge. This newb's review expresses much of my uncertainty about the game.
  • Shock: Social Science Fiction: A generic storygame for science fiction play. Shock focuses on the social aspects and implications of the world. While most rpg cyberpunk leans to the guns & chrome side, other media have made this a place for interesting social thinking about humanity and technology. Shock works in that space.

15. Electronic Only
As this is a slightly shorter list, I thought it'd be good to mention a few substantive pdf-only cyberpunk releases in this span.
  • Black Market: A d20 Modern Gear book. Includes cyberpunk weapons, services, and vehicles.
  • Cybernetics: d20 resource from the always reliable Skortched Urf' Studios. Includes "Sexual implants that open the host to an incredible new world of pleasure."
  • Espionage Genre Toolkit: Cybermillennium: A d20 Modern cyberpunk campaign setting. While it's listed as part of the publisher's Espionage Genre Toolkit line, it looks like a conventional backdrop.
  • Knivblänk i Prag: A web-published setting supplement for the Swedish rpg, Parallel Worlds. Set in a Kafka-esque cyberpunk 1984 Prague.
  • Netspace: A d20 sourcebook for handling virtual reality. Essentially refames VR space as a secondary space with the same rules. Includes new character types and classes.
  • TACTICAL IMPLANT: Another Adamant Entertainment release. This sourcebook adds new combat options for cyberpunk games (morale, cyborgs, combat frames, nanotech, etc).
  • True20 Cybernetics: True20 didn't do that many of these smaller, pdf-only niche supplements. Doesn't just rely on a feat-based approach. Has some additional ideas for supernatural elements and new character paths.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

The Sprawl: Hacking It for Night's Black Agents

I’ve run seven sessions of The Sprawl this year. The rules for this cyberpunk PbtA rpg grabbed me when I read them. But when I went to play the actual game differed greatly from what I had in my head. That discontinuity left me unsure. A few months later I reread it a couple more times. I’d played a lot more PbtA in various flavors in the interim. This time I saw how the game’s unexpected granularity actually worked for it.  

Then when we wrapped our 30+ session Mutant & Masterminds online campaign I had a short window before the next GM came in to run Pathfinder. I wanted to run something more abstract for the group, but with interesting mechanics. I put forward Blades in the Dark, Urban Shadows, and The Sprawl. Several of the players knew classic Cyberpunk 2020, so it felt like a good fit. And make no mistake, despite the more story-game orientation, The Sprawl is classic, down & dirty, mean, and hard-edge cyberpunk. It will chew you up and spit you out.

I’ve been recording our sessions. If you like actual play videos that only show the Roll20 table, then I’ve got a treat for you. Session 4 features a PC having his eye torn out by an Uplifted Cyber-Lemur. Session 6 showcases the group completely blowing the mission and losing all their money.

But right now I’m thinking about adapting the mission-based structure of The Sprawl to Night’s Black Agents.

Night’s Black Agents is one of those game premises that I dig, but probably won’t run online. It has more game-tech than other GUMSHOE games. Sharp, flashy, cool chrome that deepens the experience but makes it much heavier. I could handle that weight f2f, but online—with the additional barriers that presents—I wouldn’t want to. I’ve run a streamlined version of Mutant City Blues, another GUMSHOE game. That went decently, but it probably wasn’t the best to start with because of the additional balance and complexity of super-powers.

That complexity feels even higher with Night Black Agents. Yet I wouldn’t want to do a streamlined “GUMSHOE Express” version. I’m not sure I could do a successful lite version that cuts it down and throws away things like the cherries and diverse ability lists. Instead, I think I need to break away into another game—using that distance to give me perspective. I’ve talked about NBA hacks before, and here’s some first thoughts on this one.

  1. Characters are spies from different agencies.
  2. They have each encountered some portion of the Vampiric Conspiracy
  3. As a result of that, they’ve been burned or disavowed.
  4. Now, outside of official support, they’ve joined together to investigate and take down the conspiracy.
  5. At the beginning they don’t know the size, scope, or structure of the conspiracy (called the Conspiramid)
  6. They also don’t know what the Vampires are: abilities, limitations, weaknesses, sources. The GM constructs the Vampire’s nature, so it can be anything.
  7. The game is about uncovering information about the criminal conspiracy and about the Vampires’ nature.
  8. Parallel to that, they’re also trying to avoid general Heat from police and their own former agencies.
  9. They can call on old contacts and such, but they’re also working with tight resources. They need to do operations to get Cash to fund what they’re doing.

In The Sprawl, players begin by defining Corporations they have a relationship with. For each one they start a clock. In typical play you run against or for these corporations. The clock measures how much attention you draw. When it fills, the corporation responds with extreme force. Other reactions may trigger at lesser levels. Additionally players may be connected professionally or personally to these corps. In a four player game, you’ll have five corporations on the table. One for each player plus another for the GM.

In a Night’s Black Agents hack, players would name a group, faction, or nation where they encountered the Vampiric Conspiracy. (Bulgarian Secret Police, Bludcorp, The Grengari Crime Family, Delta Cruise Lines, the BBC, Radical Alt-Right Finlanders). These become clocks on the table. However instead of one, we have two each.

One tracks that heat, but the second clock shows how much information the team has on that group Missions generate additional info--- details the GM gives (linking clues and background clues). When one of those clocks fills, we connect that to another, higher step in the Pyramid. That’s a new group with a new clock and another step towards the force at the top. That process also provides significant information towards the big picture. It might also increase the clock of an associated organization on the same level.

In The Sprawl, players choose a mission after getting the basic details. They stake credits towards it which determines their payout. They then make a “Get a Job” roll affecting how much they know, what they get paid, and how much attention they draw. For this hack, players shape their mission more. They decide a target, type, and goal. The target is one of the organizations on board or something else we’ve heard about. This can come from some earlier fiction to require some legwork. We still have a mission set up roll, representing the pre-planning phase.

Mission type defines generally what they’re trying to do: theft, infiltration, assassination, exfiltration, surveillance, contact, etc. If we want to steal a little from Blades in the Dark, we could use that game’s “Approach” roll in combination with this. We could use that at the end to cut right into the action. It might not be necessary given The Sprawl’s structure.

Finally players choose the mission Goal: Information, Cash, or a Mix. Information adds to the organization clocks and likely GM revelations. Keep in mind that the PCs have several objectives: figuring out the shape of the conspiracy, learning who has been compromised, understanding enemy methods, and discovering how to actually fight these things. Cash gets them the money they need to buy things, pay for informants, and keep going. Mixed is a little of both, a compromise.

Players will make and confirm those choices in the modified Take a Job and Get Paid moves.

While we’ll have reaction clocks for each corporation, we’ll also have a local heat clock. When a team goes to do a mission normally in The Sprawl, we start a Legwork and Mission clock. Legwork measure how much info they’ve given the enemy in their preparation. The Mission clock abstractly measures how badly things have gone. When that clock fills, the job’s blown. The local heat clock would set the minimum for the Mission clock in that region.

When the Heat Clock fills, local authorities send someone after you. That clock then resets to zero. I’m considering that there might also be a Grand Conspiracy Clock. Each time you fill and reset the Respond with Force clock, you tick this up one. When this bigger clock fills, the conspiracy as a whole perceives you as a legit threat and comes after you in full.

Chases, pursuits, and manhunts are key sequences in spy and action fiction (Bourne, US Marshals, James Bond, etc). It’d be easy to do these as a simple done-in-one move for a PbtA game. But I’m not sure that’s the best way to handle this for Night’s Black Agents. The Sprawl breaks Hacking into several discrete moves because that’s a major sub-system in the fiction. While I don’t think a chase quite has that weight, but they’re cool enough that “thriller” sequences might warrant developing.

So I want something to cover escaping from pursuit, chasing someone down, evading a dragnet, or organizing a manhunt. For that I want a slightly more robust PbtA system. Two criteria for going to these moves: there has to be more than one player involved and the moment has to be awesome and colorful. If either of those isn’t true, then we can go a single rolled move (an Overcome or something similar).

For what I’m going to call the Chase/Getaway move, we have the usual three tiers of results: full success, success with cost, and failure. We might have slight variations on it for the different kinds of “thriller sequences” I mentioned above. Ideally I can write this as single move so it doesn’t clutter things.

For the Chase/Getaway, we have three exchanges to resolve the full sequence. We stop off in each exchange to establish the fiction and color the results. Each round one player’s the primary roller-- the person we’ve got the camera on. If the group’s together, a player can Support by describing how they’re helping (if they’re not driving then they’re shooting, mapping, etc). If we have players in different locations then we divide them into three sets. We alternate between players in each exchange.

The PCs begins with a score of 1. Each exchange adds to the final result total. A 10+ result adds 4 points. A 7-9 result adds 2 points. A 6- result adds 1 point. Add to that the usual costs and complications of those results. So if you rolled a 6- in this part, you might take a hard move like a damage, loss of a contact, destruction of resources, or increase in heat. Ideally each of these three exchanges wouldn’t slide into another rolled move outside the sequence

In the end we total up the scores from those exchanges to resolve the final results from the Thriller Sequence. Roughly, that would be:
  • If the final total is 6-, then the characters have failed. They’ve been caught or lost the target they were following.
  • If the final total is 7-9, then the character succeed, but there’s a significant cost for the group. I’d probably go with a list of picked costs here.
  • If the final total is 10+, then they’ve succeed completely and are scott-free or bring their quarry to ground.

Different kinds of extended sequences have different results for these, but generally they’ll amount to failure, success but with a cost or ending at a disadvantage, and success. I’d have to think if we want different moves written up or we can simply put them together. It think the “driving” vs. “shooting out the window” would be functionally equivalent. We alternate between characters.

Probably the largest challenge in this will be deciding on the developing the playbooks. Night’s Black Agents has many “MoS” ‘classes’ with a lot of overlap between them. One way to handle that diversity would be how The Warren does it. You have one or two moves which define your characters key concepts (Sniper, Tech, etc). But then there’s a larger generic set of moves. If players have a relatively small number of personal moves, this could work.

That’s for the future though, right now I’m just noodling around on the viability of this approach. 

Friday, August 25, 2017

Freaking Out: My ENnies Award Post! (Seriously, Yikes...)

A few weeks ago I hit another milestone for Age of Ravens: 1200 posts. Assuming an average of 1500-1800 per post, that’s a lot of words. If we accept Sturgeon’s Law, that still leaves a decent total of good work. I’ve reread the first few years of posts looking for what works and what doesn’t. They’re a little more blathery and prescriptive. But there’s still solid stuff, like the campaign postmortems and list-posts. They’re a snapshot of my thinking & gaming at the time.

The other milestone came a week ago today when Age of Ravens won a Silver ENnie for Best Blog. For that to happen, two things had to occur. The ENnie Judges had to deem it worth nominating out of the large field of blogs submitted. Then people had to actually vote for it. I’m still stunned that either occurred. I’d been nominated four years ago. That felt awesome, but this feels most awesome. Most awesomest?

Thank you to everyone who voted for Age of Ravens and everyone who took the time to vote, even if not for me. I faced off with great blogs this year, and I have no regrets taking second to the venerable and excellent Gnome Stew. I honestly didn’t think I would win. I turned off my phone the evening of the announcement and went to the movies. Sherri gave me the news when she saw Rich Rogers tweet to me. He kindly went up to accept for me. The whole process made me super tense. I won’t submit Age of Ravens again, unless something major changes with the blog. It gave me a nice uptick in traffic, but I look forward to seeing the new blood nominated next year.

I have to give other, specific thanks. Sherri’s the one who always asks if I’ve posted. She’s the one I bounce ideas off of. She provides the most cogent insights which I then reword and put up on the Interwebz. At heart I’m writing the blog for her. Rich Rogers has also pushed me to be a better GM and think about things “on the ground.” I also have to thank The Gauntlet community. Rich and Jason pushed me to run online for the group last year and that’s been an absolute pleasure. The players have been amazing, the community supports new things, and the way The Gauntlet schedules means games actually go. I’ve had two cancellations in the year I’ve been running for them, out of just under 60 sessions. And only one of those came from player no-shows. I messed up my knee and had to cancel the others. Overall that’s a far cry from my previous online play experiences.

The Gauntlet’s great: community, online gaming, and podcasts that rock. You should check out their Patreon and the community if you like playing online. In October they’ll be hosting GauntletCon, an online gaming convention. It already looks awesome and I’ll be running games there.

Which brings me to what I’ll be running online in the future. In September I’m running The Veil, Dead Scare, and Pigsmoke. In October I’m running World Wide Wrestling and Legacy: Life Among the Ruins 2e. I haven’t decided for November, I plan to just run one game online. The rest of the time I want to work with GMs looking to run online. I want to workshop and talk one-on-one with them to get comfortable with it. December will be “Retrocember,” more modern settings done with older games (Rolemaster, Marvel Super Heroes, James Bond 007. Next year I’ll be adding Wednesdays as a regular online evening and I have ideas about that. I’d like to get more Fate to the table and I want to revisit Mutant: Year Zero.

I’m running World Wide Wrestling for both GauntletCon and VirtuaCon. For VC I’ve also scheduled a session of Tales from the Loop. When I have the GauntletCon schedule I’ll link to that on the blog.

I know that without the Gauntlet, this blog wouldn’t be nearly as good. In this last year it let me run two dozen new games online. I could then write about them with some knowledge. I’ve become a stronger GM through this process and generated richer content. The History of RPGs Genre posts are nice, but they’re a lot of research, hunting, reading, writing, rewriting when I find errors, and trying to put some context in. I’m glad to have reviews, game concepts, and hacks as parallel material.

OK, enough of that, what do we have coming up for the blog?

Next week I’ll have the next installment of the Cyberpunk History lists. I’ll also have the final wrap up of my #RPGaDay posts. Those have been interesting and generated useful discussions. I’ve been running The Sprawl and Blades in the Dark for several weeks now and I’m working on posts about them. While I’ve written about The Veil and Godbound before, I’m going to revisit those in light of playing another half dozen sessions each. I’ll also be write up my impressions of Dead Scare and PigSmoke after I run those in September.

I’m just finishing up my Fate month at The Gauntlet and I think that’s worth a few posts. I want to talk about supers in Fate and how I modeled Base Raiders in Fate Core. I’ll also have a look at my Reign of Crows experiment—how well did it capture the feel of A Game of Thrones, what elements need tweaking, is Fate the right choice?

On the design and hack front, I have several things ‘in progress.’ I’d like to revisit Crowsmantle to make it better. I’d like to write up Arclight Revelation Tianmar as a Fate setting. I’m also still considering how to model Danger: Unexploded Spell. I picked up MASHED which has some cool mini-game ideas I want to check out for that. I’ve come up with a system for chases in PbtA, and that’s part of my current work reskinning The Sprawl for Night’s Black Agents. Other hacks in development: wuxia-drama PbtA, revisiting my Atelier series game, reworking Lady Blackbird for a wuxia story, a set of add-on tables for Ghost Lines, city travel encounters, and figuring out how to make my Crimson Skies Fate work online.

Outside of the blog I have four big projects that need to get traction. First, I work freelance generally and I want to see about setting up to do freelance editing. Second, I need to get a workable and playable version of Action Cards out there. I just need something simple, but I keep overelaborating it when I work on the (now massive) Scrivener document. Third, I want to get at least one of the RPG Genre lists pulled together, revised, edited, and expanded to release as a pdf volume. To do that I’ll need to figure out how to get and handle cover images. I also want to do some interviews. Fourth, I need to get the last of the assets and details done for Right of Successionso I can get it to Kickstarter.

I have to nebulous ideas that I need to work on. I’d like to learn how to run and stream rpgs with Twitch. It looks more involved that working with Google Hangouts or XSplit. If anyone has suggestions for resources, I'd love to hear them. I also have a podcast idea that we’ve been batting around, but it’s in the starting stages.

Again, thanks to everyone who voted for Age of Ravens in the ENnies!

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Mystery Academy: My Masks: A New Generation Hack

A couple of times I’ve run a game frame I call “Mystery Academy.” Teen characters get sent to a new and strange school. They can tell right away the school has weird secrets and hidden threats. But the kids themselves are not entirely unprepared. They have their own hidden talents- a magical gift, lost knowledge, ancestral curse, mysterious helpful voice or the like. This is something they haven’t revealed to anyone…for reasons.

The PCs have been thrown together, but now they must bond and join forces to solve the mysteries of this place. That may be the key to a richer legacy or it may protect them from the dangers of the school. That depends on the tone you want. It can be modern fantastic, steampunky, historical, or just high weird.

This concept is inspired by John Bellairs, Morning Glories, Gunnerkrigg Court, Avengers Academy, magic school manga, Moorim AcademyLocke & Key, Tales from the Loop, and a host of other sources. I’ve come up with a quick and easy hack that I think will allow you to play out these kinds of stories. You could obviously use Monsterhearts 2 for this, but that’s a little darker and more intimate than I’m looking for. Instead to keep the focus on teens I’m working with Masks: A New Generation.

First, we’re not using any playbooks. Write down the five labels for your character: Freak, Danger, Savior, Superior, and Mundane. Then assign +2, +1, +1, 0, and -1 to them. These five labels cover the same ground as in Masks. They have the same limits: -3 to +3. Usually you’re shifting labels so if you raise one, you lower another.

You will also write a one-sentence key aspect and a one-sentence trouble aspect. The former you can call on for a bonus. Once per session, you can mark your key aspect to boost the result of a roll by one degree (i.e. 6- becomes a 7-9). You have to explain how that aspect helps you here. Once per session you can mark your trouble aspect and automatically fail a test. This should usually be about you giving into your worst self and  cause you more problems than the group. If you do this, you mark 2 potential and add one to the Team Pool (which we’ll be calling the Trust Pool here).

You also begin with a special item—some object from your past life that contains an important memory, creates an effect, or just looks cool. For this item, choose a Label and a Basic Move. When you do that action, you can use that Label. Describe how that item helps with that. If the Basic Move already uses that particular label, you instead just gain +1 forward on it once per scene.

Finally you should write a short description of your weirdness. What power have you kept hidden? Just a phrase or a sentence will do for this. Until you actually invoke this power, you can change it as you see fit. After this you’ll work setting, backstory, and influence questions, but let me talk about Basic Moves first.

Most of Masks’ moves work as described, except that access to Unleash Your Powers is a little different. Keep in mind that in the fiction, you’re playing fairly normal teens. Things which might be possible in Masks aren’t.

If you want to use your strange talent to do something, you always roll Unleash Your Powers. The 7-9 result for that now reads, “On a 7-9 mark a condition or the GM tells you a cost or complication arising from what you’ve done. It may be that the effect is fleeting, it causes collateral damage, it draws unwanted attention, it does most of what you wanted but not all, it changes you for a time, or a similar effect.”

Once you’ve Unleashed your powers once, you can then work those abilities into your fiction for minor or cosmetic effects. Generally the use of your powers should be a serious and risky thing. You may have been told to hide them, they may seem weird to others, they might not be fully in your control. Still your talent is yours to shape; it can be odd martial arts training, pyrokinesis, visions of the future or anything similar.

Peripheral Moves also remain the same. For these read “Team” as the group of thrown together PC schoolmates. Your team pool represents the characters starting to understand and trust each other through their encounters with these mysteries. To reinforce that, we’ll call it the Trust Pool. Team Mechanics work largely the same. The group forms a Trust Pool when they enter together into a charged situation against an adversary. That might be a fight with ogres; it might be another clique of students harassing them.

When you enter into that situation, add two to the Trust pool. If everyone has the same purpose in the conflict, add one. If the group’s off-balance or ill prepared, subtract one. We don’t define anyone as the leader of the group.

When you fill in your potential track you have a more limited set of options:
  • Someone permanently loses influence over you, add +1 to a label.
  • Rearrange your labels; and add +1 to one.
  • Add another key aspect
  • Make up a custom move
  • Make up a custom move
  • Add a new item
  • Add a new power or weirdness
  • Define a Moment of Truth for yourself.

Once you’ve taken four of these, you make choose this additional option,
  • Take an adult move

To set the stage, players should choose two from the list of backstory questions. The GM should choose one more for them. The GM should also work through the list of school questions with the group—before the personal questions or peppered throughout. Ideally for this I'd also have an inspirational list of names for places in the school, instructors, and other students. 

About the School
  • Is the school a single building, many buildings, a large mansion, a castle, or what?
  • What keeps the school hidden from the outside world?
  • What is the nearest “normal” place? Does it know about the school?
  • How large are the grounds surrounding the school?
  • What’s over the doorway as you enter?
  • What are the dormitories like? Bunk beds, large common rooms, individual suites, something else?
  • There are other students here. Are there many, few, a handful?
  • How are different groups of students divided or kept separated?
  • What’s the school’s motto?
  • How large is the staff? Does it seem to be just teachers? Are there people working behind the scenes?
  • What kinds of classes are offered?
  • What areas are kept off limits or hidden?
  • Who is “in charge” of the school? What’s weird about them?

  • When your strangeness first emerged, someone was hurt. Who and how?
  • You have been hunted for an unknown reason. What do you know about your pursuer?
  • You lost a sibling or parent mysteriously. Who were they and what happened?
  • Where did you come from before this—was it rich, poor, something in between?
  • You had a dream that has been cut off by being sent here. What is it?
  • A close relative or caretaker betrayed you. How and why?
  • You’re naïve about the real world. Why is that? What kept you insulated?
  • You were rescued and brought here. What were you saved from and by whom?
  • What tragedy caused you to be sent you here?
  • What’s the last thing you remember before you woke up here?
  • You found a secret passage here. Where does it lead?
  • You failed at something spectacularly and hope to start over here. What happened?
  • When you first walked around, you saw something odd that you’ve been unable to find again. What is it?
  • You have an object that matches some pattern or image here at the school. What is it?
  • You dreamed of this place before you came here. What did you see?
  • What skill or knowledge do you always try to show off?
  • What wouldn’t you do to fit in or be accepted?
  • You knew someone who shared your strange talent. What happened to them?
  • You brought almost nothing from your past life. Why? What are the three things you do have?
  • You have a secret and embarrassing hobby. What is it?
  • You have had a premonition or vision of your future. What did you see?
  • You’ve found a hiding place in the school. Where is it?
  • You pocketed something strange you found here. What is it?
  • Who have you seen roaming the halls at night?
  • You have vague memories of coming here when you were little. What do you remember of that?
  • Someone spoke of the school before you came here. Who were they and what did they say?
  • You overheard one of the instructors whispering with someone you couldn’t see. Who was it and what were they saying?
  • Why haven’t you shared the secret of your power with anyone else?
  • You present a mask to the world. Why do you hide your real self?
  • Why do you care able this group of schoolmates?

Each player picks two. Give one influence to each person named.
…saved you from bully.
…looks like someone you know from your past life.
…is has declared themselves your rival here
…is related to you by blood.
…got caught along with you doing some mischief.
You trust…and told them a secret about yourself.
You have to prove yourself to…
…seems to know how to handle this.
…has been protecting you behind the scenes.
…scares you because of an incident from your past.
You stole something from…
…is your crush. You get weird when you have to deal with them alone.
You keep trying to impress…but they don’t seem to notice.
You hinted about your weirdness to…and you’re waiting to see what they think.
…is much cooler than you.
…is up to something but you can’t figure out what.
You’ve kept an important secret from…
You hurt…shortly after you got here.
You think…has a crush on someone and you’re trying to figure out how you feel about that.

…showed you kindness when you first arrived.

There's still some work to do to polish this, but I think that's in a playable format. I'm going to try running this as a one-shot in the next couple of months. If you're interested in this, you can see my write-up of an earlier campaign I ran in this style (but with a different system).