Sunday, March 15, 2015

In Defense of Metaplot: Living in a Comfortable Universe

Yesterday I saw the following thought provoking post pop up a few times in my Google+ feed:

 . . . and after having read it, even though it does not turn out to be completely negative in regards to canon and metaplot, I felt as if I had to write something on this same topic.

The first thing I wanted to point out is that I think there is a bit of a difference between the metaplot and canon of something like the Lord of the Rings or Star Wars and something more specifically game related like the Forgotten Realms or Dragonlance.

While the Realms existed before D&D, it's been a D&D setting since 1987, and has been used as the flagship of D&D before.  I would argue that there are a lot of people that just want to play D&D and don't care about a setting, because the game system has it's own following.  I conjecture, and I could be wrong, that often times games the The One Ring or Fantasy Flight's Star Wars games bring people in because of the setting, and then attempt to keep them because of the system.

Because of that disclaimer, I'm not going to go too much into game setting canon.  But I will argue that people want to play something like The One Ring or the Star Wars RPG because they want to play in a setting that feels familiar to them.  What will make them feel familiar is going to vary, but if you aren't hitting a least a few of those notes in the game, you probably aren't scratching the itch that some of the players have when they specifically say "I want to play a game based on this existing property."

I see arguments that games with heavy metaplots don't have room for the players to be heroes.  But many of the settings that I see this complaint levied against are huge settings with a lot of room for characters to explore.  The Forgotten Realms is actually a huge setting, even larger if you go by the 1st and 2nd edition scale.  Middle-Earth is a pretty big place with decades between the big stories we have seen.  The Star Wars galaxy is . . . well . . . it's a galaxy!

Yes, in an established universe, there are some big ticket items your PCs can't do, IF you are planning on sticking with canon.  They won't be blowing up the Death Star, or dropping the One Ring into Mount Doom.  But is that the only worthy thing that the players can do in that setting that will give them the feeling of that setting?

If you make a big, over the top Moff as a villain with his own shipyard full of ships that will crush the Rebellion if the shipyards aren't destroyed, and your PCs destroy the shipyards and the Moff's flagship, keeping him from helping Vader's Task Force from hammering the Alliance Fleet.  If that epic enough for your PCs?

If your treasure hunter in the One Ring find an ancient relic that draws out a barrow wight king to curse the land, is it enough for them to take that relic safely to Rivendell and confront the undead king before he can vent his hatred of the living on the settlements nearest to his grave?

Many times, it seems like the problems with metaplot heavy revolve around expectations.  If you talk about the kinds of campaigns you are looking at running before the campaign starts, this is going to fix a whole lot of problems.  If you tell your Rebels up front that they are going to try and build a cell from scratch in the Corporate Sector with all new villains, nobody is going to be upset that they don't help save Luke from the Wampa.

Another problem seems to stem from the idea that a lot of GMs try to create setting flavor by dropping characters into recognizable scenes . . . and then trying to keep them to the side of what actually happened in that scene, so they can be a witness, in real time.  To me, this kind of setting tie in is much better handled in backstory rather than in an active game session.  Player's in a scene expect to be able to affect that scene, and if you Vader's TIE fighter or the exhaust port, you can't expect them not to take the shot.

This is not to say that people that like a setting, that want the familiar feeling of a setting, don't want to play something that might diverge from canon.  But even then, I think it's best to define what exactly is different in this version of the setting, rather than just say, "here is the setting, but anything goes from this point on."  That works, but it doesn't really create any expectations.  On the other hand, if you are running a game and you specifically define the point of divergence, that gives the players an idea of the kinds of differences they might expect.

For example, if you want to play a Star Wars game that follows Dark Horse's Infinities Return of the Jedi, or you want to play in a Star Wars galaxy where the Dark Side ending of the Force Unleashed happened, changing the course of the movies, it's best to spell out what that actually means to the campaign, and the players can start making their plans and expressing what they want to do in that kind of setting.

I think overall, metaplot heavy settings have the same pitfalls that any campaigns have, and in the end, the best way to avoid confusion and disappointment over what can and can't happen in the campaign and where the action is going to take place is very important.

And using that as an aside, Engine Publishing's Odyssey is a great place to start when trying to figure out the questions you need to ask before you start a campaign, and how to get everyone on the same page before you start rolling dice.

Star Wars: A New Canon

It may come as no small surprise that I'm a Star Wars fan.

No, seriously, quit laughing at me.  I know I say obvious stuff sometimes.

Anyway, I've been keeping up with the new canon offerings from various sources, and there is a weird imbalance in the Force right now.

I'm not going to talk about Rebels.  Rebels is awesome in my book, and I can't do any analysis justice.  If you ever loved anything Star Wars, watch it, and if you loved the EU or are cynical about Disney, try and shut that off and actually watch with fresh eyes.  Unless you loved WEG EU stuff, in which case, don't even worry about fresh eyes, it will be awesome.

What I'm talking about are the novels and Marvel's comic book releases.

Up front I'll say this:  Nothing, not even the good stuff, is "must read" right now.  We are in the era where nobody is going to make waves until we get closer to the Force Awakens, and nobody has security clearance to hint at what happened between ROTJ and the new movie.

But there is a difference between a "non-must read" that tells a compelling story and does something, and a "non-must read" story that repackages exactly what you have seen before, in slightly different form, in order to just try and push a Star Wars product.

In my opinion, the Star Wars novels have been in the former category, and the Star Wars comics from Marvel have been in the latter category.

So, since I know I have about 3.7 regular readers, .34 of my readers will be worried about spoilers, so at this point, let me say I'll probably drop a few spoilers from the Star Wars new canon novels and the Marvel series up to this point from here on out . . .

Spoilers Potentially Begin!

A New Dawn is probably the novel that does the least amount of "work" of all of the novels.  It doesn't so much do something new, or do something utilitarian for the new canon, so much as it introduced characters that debut in the Rebels series  (outside of this novel).

Despite that disclaimer, the worthwhile in this novel is pretty great, in that not only are you getting to read about characters that you haven't read about before, and said characters are interesting, and you will get to see them again . . . John Jackson Miller does a great job of creating what a lot of Star Wars authors have missed in the past.

The bad guy is very much larger than life, and in the traditional mold of Star Wars villains, while also new in several different ways.  Oh, and since this is new canon, after this novel, we now know that cortosis exists in the Star Wars galaxy, officially.

Tarkin is a little odd, because we get lots of information on a villain that dies in the first Star Wars movie that ever came out.  That said, getting that back story definitely makes you feel as if there is more going on in the Star Wars galaxy than just the stuff you have seen on the screen.  In the grand scheme of things, adding more weight to Tarkin's legacy isn't a bad thing, especially since he shows up in both the Clone Wars and Rebels.

Tarkin also establishes that there are rebel groups that aren't coordinated, may not be as morally sound as the Rebel Alliance, and aren't as organized, but they exist.  This is pretty important for the developments we see in the Rebels series, which appears to be showing that transition from local rebel cells with varying degrees of morality to a Rebel Alliance filled with heroes.

Tarkin is also a huge "utility" novel, and by that I mean that the novel reintroduces, as canon, a lot of the "infrastructure" of the galaxy that we don't know for sure until it's been referenced by the new canon.  The galaxy seems to largely have the same components (Deep Core, Core, Inner Rim, Mid Rim, Outer Rim, Unknown Regions, Oversector Outer, etc).  The Empire has a lot of familiar components  (the ISB, Imperial Intelligence).  There are even some familiar EU faces  (Armand Isard exists, for example).  I almost get the feeling that part of the point of this novel was to tell EU fans "hey, if you knew what they galaxy looked like around the Rebellion Era before, this doesn't look nearly as different as you might think."

I really thought Heir to the Jedi was going to be a filler novel that intentionally didn't connect to anything, anywhere, and Luke strikes me as one of the least exciting characters to have a stand alone story without any connection to anything else.  Keven Hearne did a great job of making Luke both familiar and likable.

Not only that, but the novel did some things I wasn't expecting.  Since it's only been two decades or so, even wonder if Luke ever heard anything about the Jedi from regular folks that were alive back then?  Did anyone ever talk to Luke about the fact that his father probably shouldn't have had a son if he was a Jedi?  How much do people discuss what happened in the Clone Wars in the present day?  These were some interesting things that were tackled in the book, although in some cases just lightly.

Did we get anything from the EU back in this novel?  I'm sure I forgot a few things, but we do know that lightsabers seem to work pretty much the same way they were described in the EU days.

And now, the Dark Side of New Canon . . .

Ah, Marvel Star Wars.  Have you ever wanted to see scenes from the movies cut and pasted in a different order, with some dialogue to make is seem like a new, but pretty much similar story that you have seen before? 

Nearly every scene, every panel, to me, feels like the cut and pasted an image from somewhere in the saga into a slightly different way.  How do we make Luke running troopers into things on speeder bikes look new and different?  We'll have Luke wearing his ceremony outfit, and for some reason there are just normal Stormtroopers everywhere instead of scout troopers.

Han references the only crime lord that shows up in the movies, even though even the imperials in this book know he's on the outs with Jabba, because the references have to be from the movies.  Want to see 3PO get blown up and fall to pieces?  The hyperdrive on the Falcon almost let the party down? 

Is there anything original?  Well, we get a planet no one has ever heard of in the Corellian "zone," that is apparently a major weapons manufacturing plant with the worst security ever, had Vader not accidentally shown up when the heroes made their assault.

Anything good?  One moment of Vader being a bad ass in issue #2.  That's about it.  Oh yeah, if there was any tension about what happened in this story arc, which there isn't really, there wouldn't be, because they step on what happens in the Darth Vader comic.

A shining example of something that doesn't touch anything outside of movie references, and could be summed up "watch your favorite Star Wars characters shoot Stormtroopers and run from Vader . . . and that's pretty much it."

So far, it seems like Vader is the strongest title of Marvel's line so far, and that's not saying much.  Issue #1 is Vader getting chewed out by Palpatine and spoiling the end of the Star Wars opening story arc.  Also, Vader hires bounty hunters, which has to include Fett, but also includes a new guy, who might get killed off screen, unless this series does differently than the rest of Marvel's line.

I personally liked a development in the second issue, where Vader didn't just do the "force of nature" bad ass thing, but rather, we saw Vader actually outsmart and outmaneuver someone working against him, which is really what I want to see more of in Vader comics. 

Anything reintroduced from the EU into new canon?  Not really, unless you count that "Grand General" is a rank now, in a similar manner to canon Grand Moff and EU Grand Admiral.

This was the Marvel title that I was most excited for.  A Leia series, written by Mark Waid, drawn by Terry Dodson.  I like the theme and the creators!  This should be great.  Or not.

Sort of minor complaint, but apparently everyone from Alderaan, even when evacuating a base, has elaborate hairstyles and makeup ready at all times.  

Do we get Leia on a diplomatic mission critical to the Rebellion?  Nope.  Do we get Leia, leading a commando team on a mission to rescue political prisoners?  Nope.

Leia is apparently too precious to be allowed to be in danger, so she is told she can't do anything but wait for Yavin IV to be evacuated, and by the way, the Empire has decided to kill every single person from Alderaan that survived because . . . well, that seems like a Leia related plot, right?

I'm not sure why, but it just rubs me the wrong way that Empire has decided to kill off every single Alderaanian they missed when they blew up the planet.  I'm not sure what this mass killing serves, other than to come up with some artificial angst for Leia.  Wasn't some of the point of the Death Star that without the hammer of the Death Star, the Empire still had to at least try and look less tyrannical to avoid open rebellion in even more of the galaxy?  "Every single Alderaanian that survived has to die, because they are all guilty by association, but don't worry, we're still providing you a nice, orderly galaxy.  Thanks!"

But beyond that, Leia acts like a spoiled princess, endangers the evacuation of Yavin IV in order to, um, save Alderaanians?  I guess?  Somehow?  By going to Naboo?  It's pretty convoluted, but hey, Leia has a new BFF!

It's only been one issue, so maybe this one will get better.  Maybe it will make more sense.  I hope.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Making Up Random Poo Doo: Using Star Wars Galactic Dice Game Dice as Randomizers, Volume 1--Who Do You Know?

Today I happened upon this oddity on the game aisle at the local Walmart:

I have yet to look at the actual rules, but as soon as I saw these, I decided that I had to come up with some kind of randomized . . . thing . . . to use with the Star Wars RPGs.

I may have some other ideas later, but the first thing I came up with is this--when the campaign first begins, have each player roll one of these dice.

 When the above comes up, the player that rolled this die may, when they are called upon to make a Knowledge check, remember an NPC that they know that can give them the information for free.  The player must come up with why the NPC owes the PC a favor, and this favor cannot be called in on Knowledge checks that are of Impossible difficulty.

When the above comes up, the player that rolled this die may call on an NPC to grant them a favor.  The favor may be in the form of one repair, either of equipment or a vehicle, for no charge, and a generally favorable amount of time.  Alternatively, the NPC may upgrade a piece of equipment for free.  The PC must come up with why the NPC owes the PC this favor.

When the above comes up, the player that rolled this die may call upon an NPC to grant them a favor.  The NPC will be a nemesis level character that will show up to help the PCs in a tight spot, even fighting for them and risking his life.  The PC must come up with why the NPC owes the PC a favor, and how the NPC knew that the group was in trouble.

The player that rolls the above may choose to have a minion group wander into a difficult situation to make that situation worse for the PCs.  A fight with a group of bounty hunters might attract a squad of stormtroopers, for example.  After the encounter ends, the player may flip one Dark Side Destiny Point to Light.  Alternatively, the player may chose to add one rank of Adversary to an opponent of Rival level or greater at the beginning of a combat encounter.

The player that rolls the above may choose to have a Rival level character enter a scene and complicate it for the PCs.  A group of Stormtroopers might be reinforced with an officer, as an example.  After the encounter ends, the player may flip two Dark Side Destiny Point to Light.  Alternatively, the player may chose to add two ranks of Adversary to an opponent of Rival level or greater, at the beginning of a combat encounter.

The player that rolls the above may chose to have a Nemesis level character enter a scene and complicate it for the PCs.  An inquisitor might happen upon PCs trying to keep imperial customs agents and army officers away from their ship, for example, or a Krayt Dragon might attack the group when they are engaged with a group of Sand People.  After the encounter ends, the player may flip three Dark Side Destiny Points to Light.  Alternatively, the player may choose to add three ranks of Adversary to an opponent of Nemesis level instead, at the beginning of a combat encounter.

Once everyone has rolled these dice, they do not get rolled again until all of the players have cashed in their die rolls.  Theoretically, this means that the players may get positive and negative rolls, cash in the positive rolls, and "bank" the negative rolls, never getting any more dice rolls.  That's fine.  This is just a way of introducing some narrative randomness and player control into the campaign.

In the event that the players all manage to roll negative rolls, the GM can "buy" those negative rolls by converting the same number of Destiny points that would flip from light to Dark.  Once the GM has done this, that die is "cashed in," and the player doesn't have to suffer the other effects of the die to count as having spent the die roll.

It's random, and it's kind of off the top of my head.  Let me know what you think, and even better, let me know if you decide to use this crazy idea in your own games!

Friday, February 20, 2015

For the Salvation of the Askellon Sector . . . and Other Reasons! (Dark Heresy 2nd Edition Session 1)

The Heresy began last night!

We had our first session of Dark Heresy 2nd Edition last night.  It was a bit abbreviated because we still had a few players finishing up their characters, since we currently only have one Dark Heresy 2nd rulebook between the lot of us.  I suspect we'll be rectifying that situation, but for now, we had to do some sharing.

Also, everyone seemed rather keen on using the optional character generation rules found in this particular document:

Dark Heresy Second Edition Character Creation Supplement

Once we had everyone put together, our warband looked something like this--

Davrus--An Untouchable outcast heirophant from Thaur, Davrus is a creepy old man that isn't well liked by anyone.  He's got ritual scars all over him, and likes wearing his ceremonial robes.

Trip--A young psyker mystic outcast from an undisclosed hive world in the Askellon Sector, Trip is a disheveled young woman who smells of chemicals.

Genevieve--An Imperial Guard  (Astra Militarum) chirurgeon who was void born, the unlikely named Genevieve is a tall, gaunt, greyish man who carries a bloody rock as a memento of his days of Imperial Guard service.

Yasta--A young void-born seeker who was of late working for the Adeptus Arbities, Yasta is enthusiastic about doing her job.

Getting There is Half the Fun

The entire group was going to meet for the first time at Port Aquila on the edge of the Askellon Sector.  They had all been recruited in the last year by mysterious Imperial officials, who gave each of them a cured flesh documents with various symbols enscribed upon them.

I asked each of them how they got from where they were recruited to Port Aquila, and what kind of difficulties they might have run into.

Davrus--Davrus requested a ride from a pilgrim ship administered by the Ministorum, where he was put into a closet like berth due to a request by the Astropath on the ship.  There was a Gellar Field incident, and Davrus was able to stride to the auxiliary system to engage it due to his ability to resist the entities that were bedeviling the crew.

Trip--Trip stowed away on a ship heading to Port Aquila and spent the entire journey hiding from the crew members, lest she be punished for her unlawful passenger status.

Genevieve and Yasta--Genevieve and Yasta both signed up on a Rogue Trader ship that was newly arrived in the Askellon Sector.  Neither of them knew one another, and an outbreak of a strange affliction caused Genevieve to attempt to cure afflicted crew members, but Yasta diligently pacified the crew when it turned unruly, including Genevieve, who was unfortunate enough to get in the way.

(The Rogue Trader ship in question is the ship that our group previously called home during our Rogue Trader campaign.  We like our internal continuity, what can I say?)

Tourists at Port Aquila

Because there was the potential for ruffians to accost individuals if they wandered into the wrong parts of town, I decided to see how the group was going to navigate a large, densely packed station like Port Aquila in order to find their meeting place.

Trip's hive world ability came in handy, and she just navigated to the right spot.  Genevieve used his inquiry skill to ask the Ork serving abort the Rogue Trader ship he arrived on, and the Ork just decided to walk him there, clearing the crowd in front of him.  Yasta asked the Rogue Trader on the ship directly, and she managed to catch the wake of the Ork's passage.

Davrus found a likely low ranking Ministorum acolyte and issued a command to him, and he called up a servo skull to guide him to the docks that he was looking for.

The Method to My Madness

Because it had been a while since we had played a 40K RPG, and the last one was Only War, which was definitely a game where we were relying more on combat oriented skills, I wanted to have a simple situation where I presented the PCs a situation, then asked them how to resolve it, which also gave them a chance to look over their skills and the abilities that modified them.

Nobody got lost, so nobody got accosted by the common thugs waiting in the more shadowy portals of the station.

Come Together

Trip arrived first, and got turned away by the Imperial Guards at the military docks because she looked like a disheveled hive worlder that just wandered into the wrong part of the station.  Genevieve, knowing Astra Militarum procedures better, managed to talk his way onto the ship, and noticed Trip trying  (and failing) to hide.  They realized they had the same flesh parchment adorned with cyphers, and Genevieve vouched for Trip.

Yasta arrived next, and Genevieve was concerned when he recognized Yasta as the eager pacifier from his previous trip.  Yasta apologized, and Davrus arrived.  No one liked the cranky old man, but Trip was especially on edge around him.

The group was taken to a secure area inside the ship by the ship's captain and the Astropath, where they watched a message from their Inquisitor, Theodosia Atilarius.  Theodosia gave them a series of signs and code phrases by which they would know her other agents, and she sent them to join the crew of the Aspirant on the way to Calforil Prime, there to find a missing noble heir in an attempt to quell rioting and uprisings there.

However, their ongoing mission, the one that was to be of tantamount importance to them from this point on, was to find a woman named Jaqueline Adanra.  All other concerns were secondary.

The ship's captain, warned by Davrus that the message may be classified, decided to sit in  (since it was being played on his ship).  As the team set out to find the Aspirant, the ship's captain . . . was relieved of his command . . . permanently.

A Word on Subtlety  

Genevieve and Yasta weren't overly cautious about showing their parchment, and Trip was somewhat vocal about dropping hints about being on official business, so the group moved down the Subtlety track right out of the gate.

A Trip on the Aspirant

Upon arriving at the Aspirant, the ship's Void Master, Paltomar Inwrath, and the ship's first mate, Kaya Sanderil, were very cold to the group.  Despite being warned that the Captain was too good for them, Captain Blain Valor was quite personable to the group, but tried to convince them that rumors of a bad augury for the transition to the Warp were exaggerations.  Then he showed them placards with various prayers on them, and advised them that saying those prayers would likely be a good idea until they were on their way.

The group argued over who would bunk with who.  No one especially wished to be in the room with Davrus, but Davrus wanted to keep an eye on the psyker.  The captain didn't help when he suggested, just as a precaution, that someone may want to have a gun to Trip's head "for safety's sake."

Eventually Davrus took a room with Trip, and had his weapon ready to go, also reciting the Prayer for Accuracy . . . just in case.

The Gellar Fields fluctuated slightly upon transitioning to the Warp, and everyone had to steel themselves against the fear that they would feel upon seeing ghostly images intruding into the ship.  Everyone managed to do so, except for Genevieve, who failed by two degrees.

Being Very Cautious

Genevieve had a ship based superstition that was generated by using the above expanded character creation options.  Because Genevieve's player role played enacting this superstition, I actually gave him a +10 on his fear check, which was good, because that saved him from the three degrees of fear that might have resulted in Corruption.

To Be Continued

We called it a night after the ship got underway, because it seemed like a good place to cut the action for the night, and because everyone had a chance to introduce themselves to one another, establish some personality traits, and make some rolls.

Things I Need To Remember

I don't have the Untouchable rules memorized as well as I wish I did.  I made a judgement call on how they worked at one point, which wasn't a huge problem, but was probably too broad of an application of the resistance to Warp Phenomenon.  Thankfully, we discussed it soon afterwards, and I'll be hewing to how I think it should work from here on out.

Looking forward to the next session, and I think we are off to a good start.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Easing Back Into the Chair on the Other Side of the Screen

So, fairly quickly, I went from playing in two games to playing in a new campaign and running another game.  We'll see how good I job I did attempting to get a campaign up and running in under a week, as this Thursday I start running a Dark Heresy 2nd Edition game at a friend's house.

This will be a little different than my most recent GMing, as this will be at a private residence, and a relatively small group  (3, maybe 4 players).  I am interested to see how this works out, versus the larger groups in a public venue, and I'm hoping this will be a nice transition back into GMing after last year got a bit crazy on the real life side of things.

I'm probably getting way ahead of myself, but because I'm at a private residence, I'm considering crazy things like background music and the like.  I'll have to poll the players and see where this goes, but I'm looking forward to it.