Sunday, October 30, 2016

Dungeons and Hacking--Borrowing Ideas from Other Games to Help Make D&D's Backgrounds Work

One of the things that I really liked when I first saw the D&D Basic Rules for 5th edition were the Backgrounds. I really liked the idea of having easily summarized character traits that, if roleplayed well, would result in a character getting Inspiration. The better the roleplaying, and the more the character defines their character, the more Inspiration.



The problem is, I've played a lot of D&D 5th since then, and I've almost never seen it work out this way. Inspiration gets used, but almost always when called out in an adventure, or when someone does something over the top or outrageous, not when they do something true to the traits they defined for their character.

That means for a lot of players, Traits, Ideals, Bonds, and Flaws are kind of pointless. Sure, it might help them define their character. Or it may be something they don't pay any attention to on their character sheet. For DMs, it gets to be really difficult to keep track of 12 to 28 different character traits that could trigger in a game, and a lot of players don't want to interrupt the game and say "mister DM, my trait just went off, can I have Inspiration?"

So, looking at other RPGs, I had some ideas about bringing in some of those elements into a game session, so they get some use, and get the Inspriation well pumping.

Bonds




Bonds are, in many ways, similar to Obligation or Duty in the Star Wars RPGs from Fantasy Flight. With this in mind, you could make a chart of Bonds for all of the characters, and at the end of one session or the beginning of another, the DM can roll on this chart and attempt to incorporate that Bond into the session, and when it comes up, award Inspiration.

In the Fanasy Flight system, Obligation or Duty almost never triggers every session, at least until their rating gets higher, but Bonds wouldn't have a rating associated with it. In this case, I'd make a chart that includes one "nothing triggers" entry for each PC. So if you have a group of four PCs, slots 1-4 are the Bonds of the PCs, and slots 5-8 are "nothing triggers."

I'd also cross off a character from the list once a Bond triggers, and reduce the list accordingly. Once a Bond triggers in a group of 4, 1-3 on the list are for the remaining PCs, 4-6 are "nothing triggers." Once every character has had a Bond trigger, restart the entire list.

If you get to a number like 7 players, convert to percentile and put the extra "rounded off" points onto "nothing triggers."

If the person that comes up on the die already has Inspiration, don't take them off the list, but roll again. If everyone has Inpirattion in the party, don't roll for that session.

Flaws




With Flaws, I think the DM can handle keeping track of 3-7 (on average, not counting more outlier group numbers) Flaws, and have a list handy. Once or twice per session, in a manner not unlike Compelling an Aspect in Fate, the DM can ask a player if they would like to do something related to their flaw to make the current situation worse. They don't get the Inspiration until after the scene (so they can't use the Inspiration to mitigate the worse situation).

Once a character has done this, cross them off the list, and next time, offer that chance to another PC. Once every PC has had their Flaw compelled in this manner, put everyone back on the list and start again.

If a character has picked up a second (or third, etc) flaw from a curse or insanity, put that flaw on the list separately. The list isn't limited by character, but by the actual Flaws present in the party, or else, what's the point of picking up extra Flaws?

It probably goes without saying, but don't offer this "compel" if the character in question already has Inspiration, since they won't get any benefit from gaining more and/or they have Inspiration to spend to help mitigate a situation they made worse.

Personal Traits and Ideals

Whenever I've run Star Wars games from Fantasy Flight, at the end of the session, when figuring up XP, I usually ask if anyone has performed according to their motivations to see if they should gain an extra point or two of XP.

Since Personality Traits and Ideals are much broader than Bonds and Flaws, it would be easy to poll the group at the end of the session and ask them if they felt that they utilized either aspect of their character, and if so, to give an example. If everyone agrees that they did live up to that aspect of their character, hand them out the Inspiration at the end of the session.

I'm hoping that by breaking these items out more specifically, and having a bit more of a structure for awarding Inspiration, this aspect of the character's Background might become a more useful and functional element of the game, and not just a box sitting there all lonely on the character sheet.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Fox's Missed X-Men Storylines

For no particular reason, I find myself thinking about all of the classic X-Men stories that Fox could have adapted for the movies, instead of falling into pretty much the same template over and over again, and wringing all of the life out of the series. And if you like them, I'm not going to say my taste is better than yours, just that even with Singer back, there are so many missed opportunities.

Before I dive into the storylines and character development that they could have utilized for the movies, I'm going to throw this out there--I'm not even going to mention the stuff that Fox doesn't seem to want to touch. No storylines with the Shi'ar, or Dire Wraiths, the Brood, or Mojo. Fox is focused on mutants as social commentary for oppressed minorities, and there is still plenty of classic X-Men storyline goodness they could have tapped, but didn't, or haven't yet.

Scott Isn't (Always) A Dick/Scott is a Good Leader



In the comics, Scott is the perfect student, and the perfect soldier. He does everything that Professor X wants him to do. But along the way, he actually becomes a good leader. Tactically, he may not be n Captain America's level, but he's not that far off. We also miss out on another storyline (later on the list) that would highlight this aspect of Scott's character growth.

The movies also had a chance to rectify the "Scott is a dick to the women in his life" trend that developed. Originally, Chris Claremont's idea was for Scott to get married, have a kid, and pass the torch of leading the team to Storm (more on that later), only to show up again in big summer crossovers when the X-Men needed to call in the reserves.

Alas, not only did the concept of X-Factor (the original series) trump Jean's sacrifice in the Phoenix Saga, it also laid the groundwork for Scott being a huge jerk to the women in his life. That said, keeping Scott from getting married and settling down frees him up for a relationship with Emma Frost later on (more on Emma later on the list), which actually produced some solid storytelling as well.

Wolverine is a Murdering Berserker



Wolverine, in the movies, moves around from where he was at in the mid-nineties, character wise, to where he was at in the 2000s. By that I mean, he went from a guy haunted by his past and all the killing he had done, to a grizzled veteran with an affinity for the younger X-Men, even as he tried not to be a role model to them. He was already the wise old ronin.

This skips the entire 80s feel of the character, when he was intentionally sarcastic and unlikeable, because he didn't want anyone getting close to him. He was honestly worried that when he got into a fight, he'd go into a berserker rage, and not be able to tell friend from foe, and being a jerk was the best way to distance himself from others.

Eventually, between Jean and Yuriko, he decided he couldn't keep distancing himself from others, and started to force himself to have more control over himself, and the berserker rage thing got to be less and less prevalent, except in situations of extreme stress. Even then, circumstances where he would have been the wounded, unthinking animal, he wasn't, because that's when he first got close to Jubilee (more on Jubilee later on the list).

Professor X isn't Always Going to Be Around



Several times in the X-Men's history, Charles disappeared. This created tension for the characters, and it also allowed Scott to step up and become the leader in his absence. It doesn't have to be permanent, but even for a movie or two, we would get to see how dedicated the students are to the teacher's dream, and how they interpreted it as they try to carry on without him. Sometimes the best way to show the long shadow that a character casts is to take him out of the scene.

Storm is a Good Leader



I was kind of shocked when I read an article a few years ago, talking about how perplexed someone was that Storm would get her own series, because she was just kind of "there" in the X-Men. I grew up reading stories of Storm stepping up, taking over the team, and being a kick ass leader that could whip people into shape in some of the X-Men's darkest hours.

I'll lump this in here, even though it could be a separate plot point, but part of what showed her leadership ability was that she still managed to be an effective leader even when she lost her powers. We started to see her picking up skills like piloting from Scott and self-defense from Logan, and how she became a lot more than her formidable powers.

Forge and the Power Neutralizer

First off, Forge was a great character to introduce just to explain all of your super science gadgets, since his power is to invent stuff that is way beyond modern science. Second, back in the day it was a big deal when the government hired him to create weapons that neutralized mutant powers. It wasn't permanent (although we weren't sure of that for a while), but there was a lot of angst introduced to the series once mutant hunting government types could just shut off powers during a fight (without going into the whole mutant cure thing from X3).

Beast, Iceman, and Angel Leave to Be Legit Superheroes



Obviously the Avengers can't be referenced by Fox, and probably not the Champions either. But I think there is some value to showing some of the X-Men leaving the team as the younger team members move up the ranks, to do some super heroics of their own. It even allows you to have a "rise and fall" arc where they are loved for being superheroes for a while, until something (probably beyond their abilities to thwart) goes wrong, and everybody hates them again.

This doesn't need to be it's own movie, but could serve as an interesting sub-plot that shows the world isn't just focused on what's going on at the school all of the time.

Emma Frost Has a Competing School



So much room to tell stories with this one. If Emma hadn't shown up back in the sixties, and not even remotely been Emma. Another school of mutants, one that wasn't being taught to make the world better so much as to figure out how to best gain power and influence using their powers, would have been a great contrast.

And while this would have been a separate plot thread, having Emma appear as the amoral headmistress of her own school would have made transitioning her to being on the side of the angels later in the movies more interesting. Don't make her super evil, but do make her arrogant and self-interested.

The Brotherhood Transitions



Oh, how off the rails has Mystique gone. Mystique's Brotherhood looked a lot different than Magneto's, and not because she had a few different members. Mystique was an opportunist more than she was ever a zealot, and we missed out on a great opportunity to see her sell out her team to Val Cooper to have them work as government agents hunting mutants for a while, to show how "not Magneto" Mystique really was.

Genosha

How did Fox never use Genosha as a storyline? Not only does it play perfectly with their key central focus for X-Men movies, but it also lets you get away from real world governments and Weapon X always being the face of human oppression, which means you can really step up the oppression without feeling quite as heavy handed.

Genosha is a country that becomes the most advanced nation in the world because they make laws that say a mutants powers "belong" to the state, effectively making them into slaves. Then they tell the outside world that mutants are happy productive citizens that want to help make Genosha a paradise. This plot writes itself, and in multiple parts (see later in the list).

Magneto Takes Over Genosha



You really have to let Geonosha show up in one movie and just get to be evil, and yet have other nations refuse to get involved when they are actively oppressive mutants, and let that stand, and then let Magneto's assault on Geonosha be a separate movie.

What kind of thought provoking discussion do you think you can generate when a bad guy with good motives does horrible things to horrible people? How many real world parallels can you draw between a terrorist that becomes a head of state, and the fact that the world has to recalibrate how they view him and interact with him, once there is a totally mutant controlled state?

This would have been a much more satisfying development for Magneto than "he's friends with Charles, he's a good guy, he turns bad, he's friends with Charles . . . " repeated over and over again.

Master Mold as a Rogue AI



Master Mold doesn't need to be a giant Sentinel, just an AI that controls Sentinels, and comes up with the idea that humans and mutants aren't really separate species, so the only way to protect humanity from mutants is to run the whole planet, control breeding among humans, and "manage" the root problem with mutants, that being humans themselves.

On it's face, it's a standard "rogue AI" storyline, but it is also a way of delivering the message that humans really shouldn't be seeing mutants as anything other than an extension of themselves. And it gives you an excuse to have a Sentinal-centric storyline. If you really wanted to do it, you could also fold the destruction of Magneto's version of Genosha into this storyline, after you give Magneto his shining moment of giving mutants their one safe haven in the world.

Jubilee as Wolverine's Sidekick

Yeah, we kind of got Rogue doing this, but not outside of a full X-Men movie. I'm talking about a "solo" Wolverine movie where the school gets blown up, the X-Men scattered to the four winds, and Jubilee is the only person that has Wolverine's back.

It was never about how awesome her powers are(n't), but the fact that she is more than willing to risk herself to be there for Logan, and how having her with him humanizes Wolverine. Contrasting his new role as protector and mentor with the killers he used to work with coming back to haunt him in the present would be a great way to show some transition of how his character sees himself and his role in the X-Men.

Rogue Really Can Have a Good Storyline



It wouldn't be all that hard to introduce a mutant that was similar enough to Carol Danvers to allow Rogue to put someone into a coma, and be literally haunted by another personality trapped in her head, even as she had permanent access to a wider powerset. Coming to terms with what she did was a major factor in her development, as was her actually being raised by Mystique, which we also completely lost out on with the movie's weird alternate Mystique development.

Love is in the Air for Wolverine and Storm

It's fine to have Wolverine pine after Jean for a bit. And for a solo movie, you really need to introduce Yuriko into the mix for a while. But honestly, at least show some chemistry between Wolverine and Storm. If nothing else, it could make for an interesting storyline to have them get together and realize they are better friends than lovers.

Where the Heck are the Morlocks?



The concept that there are mutants with really extreme mutations that cannot live with normal humans and started to live in abandoned tunnels under New York is great. For maximum effect, you really need to introduce them in one movie, with them appearing to be a threat, and then becoming sympathetic, and then have a later movie depict the brutal attack of the Marauders on them, which gives the X-Men a serious knock down drag out fight against an evil opposite team.

The Purifiers

How has this not made it into a movie yet? High tech zealots with body armor and weapons that have decided God Hates Mutants? I mean . . . how has Fox not used this yet? Sure, they already snagged their leader for a member of Weapon X, but that doesn't mean the group, as a bad guy faction, suddenly melts away.

All of that was pretty much just off the top of my head. I'm sure there are a ton of stories that don't have anything to do with aliens or magic and still focus on mutants and human rights allegories, that would be way better than constantly rehashing the same story elements over and over again.






Thursday, October 27, 2016

What Do I Know About Reviews? Headspace (Powered by the Apocalypse)

So, while I was on my journey to read and review everything on my shelves and in my hard drive (okay, not everything), I thought, as long as I'm in Cyberpunville reading and reviewing Shadowrun Anarchy, why not hit the off-ramp and visit one of the suburbs of Powered-by-the-Apocalypse Town and look at Headspace?



Okay, I think I've strangled that analogy enough. Moving on.

If you don't know what Apocalypse World is and what the games are that use the game engine, and are thus referred to as "Powered by the Apocalypse," I'm not sure I can do it justice here, but the quick takeaway is that the games are very narrative focused, light on rules, and the core mechanic usually goes something like this:

Roll 2d6 and add some kind of stat, or possibly a resource you are willing to spend.

On a 6-, the GM comes up with something bad that happens. Since the GM doesn't get a traditional turn, this may be where his characters act to hurt your character, or he may just do something that makes  your character miserable.

On a 7-9, You did what you set out to do, but there is some kind of complication. Sometimes you get to pick what that is from a list, and sometimes its up to the GM.

On a 10+, you did what you wanted to do, with no strings attached.

There is way more too it than that, but if you grasp the above, you are well on your way to understanding most of the games that fit the Powered by the Apocalypse moniker.

Headspace is a Powered by the Apocalypse game that was on Kickstarter last October. I didn't get in on it then, but I picked it up later. It is a cyberpunk themed game, but like most Powered by the Apocalypse games, it has a pretty tight thematic focus. Just like Monster Hearts, Urban Shadows, and Monster of the Week can all fit broadly into "Urban Fantasy," Headspace shares cyberspace with the Powered by the Apocalypse game The Sprawl (and eventually with games like the Veil and Hydro-Hacker Agents), but has it's own unique niche.

I'll go into more detail below, but the quick version is, in this cyberpunk game, you are linked to all of the other PCs, and you share your skills, memories, and emotions with one another.

So, how did this game make me feel? Let's find out.

Its All About The Looks

Headspace isn't quite as flashy as some of the larger RPG offerings you might see, but it is definitely a professional and attractive book. It is mainly in black and white, and the artwork is more cartoonish than you might expect for the subject matter, but it is all well done, and actually works rather well to use that cartoon-like quality to emphasize the emotions being portrayed in the scene. This is actually very central to the theme of the book. I do not have a physical copy, but the PDF looks very nice and clean on my tablet, and clocks in at 250 pages.

Welcome to Headspace

The first section of the book gives a quick overview of some of the themes of the book. It also presents common elements the game will have. They introduce the character types, very broadly, and discuss the social contract of the game, and the importance of being aware that the game is asking people to focus a lot on emotions as well as actions.

Playing the Game




This section starts with a definition of the emotions that the GM tracks during play sessions. While you may initially think that definitions for some of these emotions aren't needed, they serve a specific game function, so the definitions tend to be functional definitions that link up to game rules later on. Essentially it's making sure everybody knows what the rules mean when they talk about rage or ego, for example.

Professional skills are skills somebody in the link is really good at, and professional skills have Baggage, an emotion associated with the use of that skill. There are also Headspace moves, which are moves other people make in the link using another person's skills, and improvised skills, which are skills  nobody in the link excels at.

The GM tracks emotional stress, and when one of the tracks is full, it causes Feedback, triggering emotional complications. If the stress is also caused by physical attacks, this may take out a character (physical stress isn't tracked separately, but is represented by the emotion associated with the harm being inflicted).

Sync happens when someone divulges a Regret, which is a big thing tied to events in the setting, and they can only do this once per session. It can also happen when someone in the link puts themselves at a disadvantage in order to help another member of the group put forward their Drive. Sync helps keep emotional stress from piling up, and can be spent to turn a failure into a success. Drives are what motivates a character to become an Operator and work against the corporations.

Whenever a character is taken out, if they aren't harmed by something that only stuns them, they can chose to die heroically, and their character becomes a Ghost Operator, someone whose shadow is still felt in the neural link.

Objective clocks are used in the game, but unlike other games that use clocks (a measure of how close the game is to triggering an event), clocks in Headspace can have pieces of the pie filled in by either side that is striving against one another, and if one side has any "slices," they can add a clause to what the "winner" declares when the clock triggers.

Now, all of this is really interesting, and gets put to good use later, but without some context, and possibly a copy of the tracking sheets and playbooks from the back of the book, someone new to Powered by the Apocalypse games can get a little lost. Still, its all interesting enough to make you power forward, and I'm not sure how I would have reorganized it myself.

The Moves in Detail

The previous section painted in broad strokes, this one explains a few more concepts in depth. Using your professional skill lets you just succeed with that skill, but at the cost of adding to the stress track of the Baggage emotion. Headspace moves always succeed, but the lower tiers have emotional complications associated with it.

Emotional complications are similar to the types of complications you would have in other Powered by the Apocalypse games, except they are all framed by what emotion is most likely to cause a given type of complication. This is where the definitions of the emotions from the previous section comes in handy, as those definitions help make the examples of what is a "rage" complication versus what is an "ego" complication clearer.

The World of Headspace




This section is written as an in universe briefing to your character, and it shares what is assumed about the game world, without going into the specifics about whatever setting you may have chosen. While much of it feels like a standard cyberpunk setting, the unique spin is that it doesn't seem impossible to make the world better, just really, really  hard. While it's brutal and oppressive, there is a degree of optimism that doesn't seep into a lot of other cyberpunk.

The section ends with gear and upgrades, detailed in terms that explain what tags the gear has (the narrative things that happen when you use an item, like that item being loud or hard to conceal), and what rules they might interact with (like how much harm weapons cause when used to injure someone).

Like some of the other sections, without reading ahead or having the play aids in front of you, you'll have to be patient if you want to know how you get these goodies. The items are only presented here, as examples of things in the setting.

Character Creation




This section essentially provides an outline of what you need to do to start the game, and lays this out like a checklist. The first thing you need to do is to have everyone agree on a setting, two of which are presented in the book. This is going to be important, because when characters create their first Regret to be revealed, and chose whether their Drive is vengeance or redemption, these are tied to the corporations in play and their secrets.

Another aspect of character creation is creating a story to explain the Baggage that goes with your professional skill, which involves asking a question of the player that involves another Operator in the cell. This ties the group together, which might make for some uncomfortable associates at the beginning, especially for people in one another's heads.

Characters pick sub-cultures, which give you a list of looks based on the societal background that character was from before they joined the cell. These include things like "corporate," for clean cut people that were good citizens before they were pushed beyond, to "neons," who already liked to be on the edge of things from the beginning.

If you don't have representatives of some of the Operator playbooks, you create Ghost Operatives for those playbooks, ask the appropriate questions, and work in the story of how they died into the first session of the game.

The Operators




If you were confused by the terms and gear referenced elsewhere, here is where it starts to come together. Each type of Operator is explained, with a list of class skills they can pick, and what question to ask to get your Baggage. Edges (knowing people or modifying other aspects of the character's abilities) are also chosen, a list of gear is presented, as is a starting upgrade (a piece of cybernetics that specifically reinforces what that operator will be doing). You also assign your "stats," which in this game represent what emotions your are good at controlling, and what emotions you are bad at controlling.

The Gamemaster's Role




This section of the book goes into some very clear explanations of what type of game this is, and how the game should feel. It explains what type of prep is beneficial to the game, what you should let the players know ahead of time, and what you should all agree on.

As a side note, some Powered by the Apocalypse games hew much more closely to the original terminology and even exact phrases used by Apocalypse World itself, and at times, this creates a kind of jargon that can make players not exposed to this jargon feel like they are missing something, and that maybe some of this jargon has some kind of game rule connotation that they are missing.

While Headspace uses some of this jargon, it does a very good job of being conversational, and introducing the jargon in a more natural way, as well as having a voice that is more appropriate for this specific game, which could mean it is a little more accessible to people new to a Powered by the Apocalypse game.

Corporations and Their Projects

Remember back when we got to see how the clocks work in this game, with the slices of the pie that can go either way, and let the winner make a statement that is now true, with the losers potentially getting to add a clause? Now we get more context for that.

Each Corporation will have projects, big, world changing things they want to get done. If they complete one, the statement made at the end of the "big clock" will be true for the entire campaign,  unless a statement made in a later project changes what happened.

Each game session will have smaller clocks, and depending on what happened in the game session and how it resolved, temporary statements are made about the current state of the campaign. Projects have three legs, and the winner of a given "leg" gets to fill in a piece of the big project clock.

The explanation of the legs of the projects is gold, at least for me. Essentially it is presented as an in game artifact from a corporation, explaining a project and the legs of the project, in what looks like a PowerPoint presentation.

The First Session--It All Went Sideways




The first game session is framed as starting "in media res", with the corporations having just accomplished one leg of one of their project clocks, and things going badly for the players. This is where any Ghost Operators are assumed to have died, and the players get to fill in one piece of "pie" for having done something detrimental to the Corporation on the way in. That means the first session is the Operators trying to get out of the bad situation that you determine they are in, depending on the setting and corporations involved.

This is a very interesting way to hit the ground running, and get the players right into the action. The only thing I worry about is the replay value of campaigns with this assumed set up. When things feel a little too familiar, I worry that the value of jumping right into the action is somewhat negated by knowing how the game is "suppose" to start, even if the setting and corporations are different.

Session Two+

This section goes into how the campaign should progress after you have played the first session. Session two is where the GM and players need to start introducing Anchors, characters that the PCs can spent time with to vent their emotional stress, and who represent the aspects of the setting where "normal" people live.

From session two on, the GM is suppose to start introducing new projects from new corporations beyond the first, and any time the PCs ignore one of the corporate projects for a whole session, they get an automatic success. This means out of four or five corporations in a setting, a few projects are likely to slip through.

While I like that this reinforces that the PCs can't fix everything, and that the world is a living place, it does feel like it introduces the possibility for the campaign to start getting a little confusing, with all of the pieces in play. It certainly reads as if the tension and story potential would be worth it, but it may also get a little overwhelming.

This section also talks about XP and advancement. XP is awarded when the cell achieves Sync, and some of the advancements can get a little pricey. I'm also a little confused about introducing this at the end of the session two+ section. Does this mean that PCs aren't suppose to get XP in the first session?

Headspace Settings

This section presents two pre-generated settings, which are not assumed to exist in the same "world" with one another. In addition to the settings, the general rules for creating a setting are presented, so that a GM and players could design a completely different dystopian setting for their characters to live in.

The rules for building the setting are interesting and fun, starting with picking certain big ticket things to happen, then moving down to other events, then getting into the more local events that sprang from everything above it, and then detailing the corporations involved, what secrets they are keeping, and who their agents are. The agents will be assumed to have the same level of skill and to roughly correspond to one of the roles of one of the Operators, and that agent is tied to a specific emotion as their "theme."

The two settings included are the Vancouver area after a tsunami hits the western side of the continent, and Israel, after a massive drought has hit the region and plans for a water reclamation plant have literally gone up in smoke, causing the UN to step in. Both settings have a pretty detailed map of the region they take place in, and have distinct corporations, all set up with secrets, agents, and a starting project.

Of the two, Vancouver feels like a stronger setting to me. The corporations are collectively a bit more evil, their projects more sinister, and the impending issues clearer. The Holy Land setting has more corporations that feel self-interested, but not wholly evil (some clearly are, however). The corporate projects don't seem that terrible for some of the corporations, and the setting mentions a plot element that was already used in the Vancouver setting that feels redundant and less compelling in this setting.

I think were I to run this, I'd be leaning towards Vancouver, or building a setting with my players. The Holy Land setting is interesting, to be sure, but I'm not sure it's as perfectly tailored to this exact game as the Vancouver setting is.

One thing of note with all of the example corporations in the settings--these corporations are big, evil, and full of resources, but they are quite as powerful as the mega-corps in other cyberpunk games, which I think is important to note. This game is promoting making a difference, even if it is difficult to do so, which calls for corporations that haven't already more or less "won" the setting.

Everything Else

The rest of the PDF contains the Ludography, which is the inspirations from games and media that went into the game, staff credits, thanks to the Kickstarter patrons, and an index, as well as the playbooks and play sheets.

Positive Emotions

This is a different spin on cyberpunk than most games take, and that feels exciting. The writing is conversational and approachable. Making a setting seems like it would be fun even without getting to use the game itself. The themes of emotions, stress, and sharing traumatic moments are really well reinforced throughout the game rules.

Negative Emotions

If you aren't into games like Powered by the Apocalypse style offerings, this probably won't be the one to convince you to change your mind. While the books is very clear and easy to read, the order that information is presented may still be confusing, especially to people that aren't familiar with the way Powered by the Apocalypse games work. While the game rules aren't complicated, the assumed progression of the campaign might be.

Sync

This is a solid game, and a fun read. If you have any degree of affection for narrative based games, and any degree of interest in cyberpunk, you should check the game out. Even if you don't, the parts of the book that deal with creating dystopian settings, framing NPCs in terms of emotions, and running campaigns may still be worth a look.

**** (out of 5)


Sunday, October 23, 2016

Stealing From Anarchy--Some Ideas from Shadowrun Anarchy Applied to the Star Wars RPGs

In Shadowrun Anarchy, the game is always moving in turns. Until everyone wants to interact at the same time, one player goes, and if they aren't in combat, once they take an action and do everything they want to do, it moves to the next player.



When all of the players are present and may need to quickly interact with one another and NPCs in rapid succession, the game moves into "Talk Time," and turns as rigidly moved from one player to another. Once it seems like players are doing individually important things again, you move back into the structured turns, which Shadowrun Anarchy calls "narratives."

So what does all of that have to do with Star Wars RPGs?

Star Wars is all about action. Things happen. Things move. The more traditional the game system is, however, the more likely you are to fall into traps like characters spending half a session shopping. When was the last time you remember shopping being a major part of a Star Wars story?



At the same time, credits and acquiring things are still a part of Star Wars. I have some other ideas for modeling this same thing, but there are always multiple solutions to a problem, and multiple tools that can be used in a project.

In the Star Wars Fantasy Flight RPGs, characters can't always assume that an item will be available. Items have a rarity, and if you look for it legally, you make one check to find it, and if you look for it illegally, you use another skill. Once you find the item, you can attempt to haggle if you want the item cheaper than it appears.

When a character wants to look for multiple items, and then look for it legally, fail, then look for it legally, then haggle for the item, this can take a lot of the wind out of the game. Sure, you can appeal to the character and ask them to move along to keep the pacing, but it feels like you are stifling what they want to do, since the game itself says you can do that thing.

In Committee 

When players are together and all interacting equally with NPCs and one another, the group is "in committee." In this instance, there aren't going to be a lot of checks going on, and those that are made will usually be ones that multiple players will be contributing to with assisted checks.

Solo Mode


In Solo Mode, characters explain what their character is doing. They can transition from one location to another, as long as it makes sense for the narrative (for example, the time it takes to go from the cantina to the spaceport doesn't matter, but it's one area transition to another--leaving planet wouldn't make sense to the narrative, however).

In addition to the one scene transition, the character can make one check that requires a die roll. Once that check is made, and the outcome is resolved, the scene wipes, and the next character describes what their character is doing, transitioning from one location to another, and making another check.

Just like in combat rounds, it doesn't matter what order people do things, but if player one goes, every other player at the table has to have their Solo round before that player can go again, transition locations, or make another check.

When a two players are in the same location, if it makes sense, the other player at the location can aid any checks that the player might make.



Shopping Lists


What if characters want to buy multiple things, and don't want to cycle through the group multiple times to get back to their turn?

If a player creates a shopping list, they can make their check to find the item, at the rarity of the most rare item on the list, with a setback die for each additional item added to the list, to represent trying to find one place that has all of the items they want.

So what do you think? Is shopping not an issue in your games, or do you have better tools that you use to keep the narrative moving? I'm curious to hear from you, and even more so if you implement a solution similar to the above.


Saturday, October 22, 2016

What Do I Know About Reviews? Shadowrun: Anarchy

Much like Adventures in Middle-earth, Shadowrun Anarchy wasn't on my big list of RPGs that I was attempting to get caught up on. I had heard of it a few months ago, and was kind of interested in checking it out, but it dropped off my radar until a few people in my online gaming chat circles started to talk about it again. After a couple weeks of successfully resisting the impulse buy, I finally gave in.



Shadowrun is one of the Big Names in the RPG industry, regardless of who is currently publishing the content. Much like World of Darkness, Shadowrun was one of those RPGs that gained a lot of traction and managed to shrink the domination that D&D held over the RPG industry. The other thing that is probably a bit ironic is that it is the biggest cyberpunk genre RPG, even though it's not "straight" cyberpunk by a long shot. Not too bad for a game that makes William Gibson cringe.

Shadowrun first showed up in 1989, and given that I was a subscriber to Dragon Magazine at the time, I couldn't escape it. I saw the ads, and I saw the products in game stores and book stores whenever I went shopping for the more traditional games that I was currently purchasing. Despite that, my group never really got into Shadowrun. At least not when we were all one group. When my friends went off to college, and we talked about separate gaming experiences, they had apparently picked up Shadowrun habits while out and about.



I was certainly interested, but initially the lack of disposable income (I wasn't ready to abandon D&D and Marvel Super Heroes to pick up something new), and eventually, the lack of gaming group, meant that I never checked the game out. Eventually, through the magic of video games, I was introduced to the setting, but I still had never purchased a Shadowrun tabletop product or played in a game.

When I returned to the RPG scene, I heard a lot of Shadowrun stories. People seemed to have a good time playing the game, but there were always--warning signs. Gamers would recount entire four hour sessions just spent planning a mission. Stories were plentiful about how combat was super lethal. Plans were so important that a player whose character screwed up their part "deserved" to have his character killed by the other PCs. Jokes about the number of six sided dice that needed to be rolled, and of course, about the density of the rules were common.



I wasn't overly moved to learn the game. But it still all looked so compelling, and I loved the video games. I really wanted some kind of "in" with the setting, something that wasn't just playing an RPG on my computer. I picked up the 5th Edition PDF, which looked gorgeous, but never quite made my way through it. Then I heard about Anarchy, which was suppose to be a "low impact alternate ruleset." I was interested, but there were so many other games out there. Then I started hearing people's impressions of the game. And now we're here.

The Book Itself




Shadowrun Anarchy is pretty consistent with books that I have seen from Catalyst Labs, which is to say, they are up there with the top players in the industry when it comes to attractive, well formatted books that sport high end, full color artwork. As far as I can tell, at least some of art is re-purposed from other Shadowrun material, but the art that appears is attractive and appropriate. It's grungy, shiny, colorful, and dark, all in equal measures, which makes sense for the setting. The book itself clocks in at 218 pages. All observations on how the book appears are made from the PDF, because, at the time of my review, the physical book isn't available.

Opening Fiction

The book has opening fiction. It takes up multiple pages, and uses some of the pre-generated characters from the Forces of Chaos section of the book, which is a nice touch. It's pretty standard if you are familiar with any cyberpunk tropes, but since this game is marketed, at least in part, to get new players into Shadowrun, it's probably not bad to reintroduce the basics. As with most fiction in game books, I prefer it right up front and not shotgunned throughout the rest of the book, and that's pretty much where Anarchy contains the fiction.

Introduction

This is a really quick introductory section of the book that just quickly explains what each section of the book is about and then moves on.

Bleeding on the Edge

This part of the book is a quick primer on the Shadowrun universe, explaining why there is magic and weird creatures in the middle of all this cyberpunk. It outlines corporations, organized crime, gangs, law enforcement, political and magical groups, and daily life in the setting. All of this is in pretty broad strokes, but enough that someone picking up one of the pre-gens and playing through the mission briefs included in the book will probably "get" what is going on.

As an interesting side note, they do mention that Shadowrun is now "alternate history" urban fantasy cyberpunk, since the setting has remained relatively consistent with how it was envisioned in 1989, and introduced things like wireless access to computer networks much later in history than we have it now--and we also didn't get magic back in 2011, either. That we noticed.

Rules of the Street




This section explains the core mechanics of the game, how to roll the dice, and how to know when you were successful or when you failed at a task. Essentially, you build a dice pool based on a skill and an ability trait, and you need a number of 5s and 6s based on the number of 5s and 6s rolled by the opposing die pool, which is either a set number of dice or a dice pool built by an NPCs traits and skills. This can be modified by various Shadow Amps (anything magical or cybernetic you have as part of your character) and by other aspects of your character. You can spend Edge to change the success threshold of your dice roll, as well, and you can also spend plot points to alter your rolls, get extra actions, or movement.

There are quite a few ways that Shadow Amps, traits, and plot points can alter rolls. Enough that it's not easy to summarize them here. I will say this--from what I have seen of Shadowrun 5th Edition, this game is simpler, and easier to learn, but it's not exactly rules light. It's more on the low end of rules medium. The rules are logical, and intuitive, but there are a lot of ways to engage them.

Also, some terms start to be thrown around in this section that aren't as obvious until you see examples in later chapters. The section on building characters and the catalog of amps, traits, and gear at the end of the book make things much clearer, but the way the book presents some rules, you aren't sure if that clarification is coming. It may have been worth it to move that section forward in the book, especially for someone reading the book in a linear fashion.

Building Street Cred

This section goes into more details about how the rules presented in the previous chapter work at the table. By default, the GM doesn't do quite as much as a GM would in a traditional Shadowrun game. Their job is to present the scenario, and run the obviously appearing opposition. On each player's turn, called a narration in these rules, the character can use plot points to introduce more twists and turns into the story, and when characters make perception checks successfully, they get to narrate what they see.



The intention is for the players to add many of the details and surprises that a GM might normally be responsible for. This is the standard way that the Cue System works for games like the Valiant Universe RPG and Cosmic Patrol. For those not familiar with those games, it's not entirely dissimilar to Fiasco, where the players are expected to make their own lives more difficult and interesting, and the GM is only presenting the most obvious and straight forward of challenges in the game.

I think this could be a very interesting way to play the game, but this game is also meant to bring in people used to more traditional RPGs, as well as to possibly get some gamers from other editions of Shadowrun involved, so this section also includes a few notes on how to shift the game back to a more traditional PC/GM narrative structure. These rules give the GM a few more plot points to use and some more freedom on how to use them, and more narrowly defines how the PCs can use their plot points.

There are also alternate initiative systems, which involve moving from one side of the GM around the table, "cinematic" initiative, which should be familiar to players of Marvel Heroic Roleplaying, and traditional rolling. This section also mentions specific "Talk Time," when all of the PCs are interacting in a less structured manner, as every scene, not just combat, is assumed to use the same structure as combat rounds, allowing them to introduce plot elements via plot points, if they wish to do so.

Controlling Anarchy

This section gives GM advice on how to keep the narratives moving from player to player, how to ask the right questions to get details from players, and how and when to offer the players clues that they can latch onto in order to advance the storyline. It also introduces one of my favorite alternate rules--Target Tokens.

Using this alternate rule, if a player does the exact same thing in multiple rounds, that player acquires Target Tokens. If the player picks up three Target Tokens, the GM can cash them in to gain a bonus on actions against their character, since they have provided their opposition a discernable pattern of behavior.

Forces of Chaos

This section details character creation, for those players that aren't playing one of the characters from the section that provides pre-gen characters. There are rules for game "level," to show if the characters are brand new to their profession, somewhat experienced, or seasoned operatives. There are modifiers for what metatype the character has (human, elf, dwarf, ork, or troll) as well as attribute maximums for those metatypes. There are point costs for being awakened or emerged, allowing the character to chose magic Shadow Amps. Skill points are next, and then Shadow Amps.



The section on Shadow Amps is another one that can be confusing without the example Amps show up at the end of the book. While the cost in points (and essence, for cybernetics) is clearly laid out, examples definitely help to show exactly how the Amps should look and what they should do for their cost, especially when they can be custom built.

Essence measures how much of your metahumanity you lose to your cybernetic parts, and it creates a hard limit on how many cybernetic Shadow Amps you can have. Additionally, you take a penalty on rolls involving magic and healing based on how low this score gets.

One thing I'm going to throw in here that isn't apparent until later in the book is that while Shadow Amps are suppose to represent super high tech gear, cybernetics, magic items, and spells that the character knows, a few sample characters, as well as the examples at the end of the book, show "social amps." These are just basically things your character can do to interact with other characters. Given that there is a section for positive and negative qualities later on in character creation, it almost seems as if these "amps" might have been clearer if presented as qualities instead. Maybe it's just me.

Eventually you pick up two positive qualities and one negative (which you can later buy off with Karma), armor, and gear.

To finish up your character, you create cues, and then create your background, which includes dispositions. This feels a little redundant to me. Cues are kind of like catch phrases, and the point is to give you an idea what to do when it's your narration and you aren't sure what to do next. Dispositions aren't worded like cues, but they are suppose to be the things that your character is motivated by. Neither of these has a direct mechanical function, other than to flesh the character out, so it feels odd that these are two separate things, which have kind of a formalized way to represent them, when they are just there to help you define the character.

Finally, the chapter goes into character advancement, which is how much Karma you have to spend in order to upgrade your weapons or amps, or how much it will take to increase your skills. One note that isn't quite clear here, but is made clear later in the book, is that Karma is both your XP and your money, essentially. In the universe, you get paid X amount, but that translates into Karma you get for completing a run, and your character can negotiate the Karma they get much like they would scrip or nuyen "in character."

Street People

This section presents pre-generated characters, who can also serve as NPCs (and are referenced as such in some of the mission briefings later in the book), as well as definite NPCs, like bug spirits, corporate security, nature spirits, and dragons.

There is a huge selection of pre-gen characters, which makes this product very useful to just pick up and play, especially with how the mission briefs are presented later in the book. There is also a good cross section of the various metatypes and potential archetypes of runners from the setting.

The NPCs section feels a bit lighter. Even in the mission briefs, there are a lot of references to stat blocks that say to use "X, but swap out Y and add +2 to Z," which feels like it loses some of those great "pick up and play" kudos I just gave the game for all of the pre-gens included. There is a a fairly comprehensive conversion guide in the back, which should help a lot for building more distinct NPCs, but I can't help but wish for just a couple more pages of variety from the Shadowrun setting. Despite this, they do pretty much cover the basics, just not much of the exotic.

The Secrets of Seattle

I really like what they did with this chapter. While it could have been a fairly straight forward gazetteer of the Shadowrun version of Seattle, the end of each section makes the difference. Not only do they have a few comments "in universe" about what was just said above, which often highlights what the "adventurers" of the setting find most important, but each section has tags. These are several words that pertain to that section to remind you what sites are there and what the important themes of that section are.



It's not quite as extensive as what I have proposed in the past, but it is exactly the kind of tool I have been hoping more "setting detail" sections of books would adopt. Having the "bullet points" of what you were suppose to take away from the section appear at the end helps to digest the information, and makes it much easier to remember what was distinct about an area by just looking at the tags.

Happening World

This section has many, many mission briefs, which generally serve as an adventure outline for a mission that should be sufficient for a night of play. There are a few multi-part missions towards that end that can be chained into longer campaigns.

Most of them are simple and straight-forward, and there is a lot of "this is the main thing they need to do, make up the details as needed" to the mission briefs, but that is completely within the spirit of how the rules have been presented thus far. Additionally, the briefs usually give you names and locations, so you don't come up blank when pressed for more information.

However, the briefs also go one step further, with their own bullet points to reiterate the objectives, and tags to remind you of the elements that should be coming up in the mission. I really like this, both for keeping the session on track by reminding you of the objective at a glance, and for giving you a prompt when you need to improvise something. Look at the tags--has X come up yet? No? Then I guess it's time for that to happen.

Some of the briefs also start with a context or word watch section, which explain elements of the Shadowrun universe in more detail than the rest of the book might have, as it pertains to the particular mission at hand.

Some of the missions are just set pieces that can happen in between other elements of another mission brief, and the missions, have a lot of variety. There are standard cyberpunk style jobs, but there are also jobs that act as a sort of guide to daily life in the Shadowrun setting, and there are also jobs that deal heavily with the magical side of the setting. It was a broader range of missions than I was expecting.

If there is a downside to this section, it's what I mentioned earlier, in the Street People section, where NPCs will be referenced in the briefs, but then call for the GM to make multiple modifications to the stat block. This seems inimical to the improvisational feel of the game, as presented, and the more free-form structure of the mission briefs.

Anarchy and Fifth Edition

This section of the book gives you a guide to converting characters to and from Shadowrun 5th Edition, and makes a few notes on what books from the Shadowrun line would be the most useful to those wanting to use Anarchy in depth. I appreciated the candor about how some books might be too rules heavy to be of much use to an Anarchy-utilizing group.



I can't speak to how well the conversions from Anarchy to 5th Edition would work, since I never quite made it through that book. I have to admit, I'm kind of excited at the prospect of picking up a few of the suggested books and modifying the stats accordingly, which I guess is pretty good for Catalyst's bottom line.

For people playing Anarchy itself, however, the most important part of this chapter is probably the Anarchy Catalog, which is a list of all of the example Amps, Qualities, Weapons, Armor, and Gear, some of which only appear in this list. This includes "Critter Amps," which can be helpful in modeling monstrous things that weren't detailed in the NPC section.

My only real criticism of this chapter is that I wish the catalog had appeared in the character creation chapter to give some better examples closer to where they are most likely to be used.

Positive Mana

There is a lot to like in this book. It is easy to build dice pools, and fairly simple to figure out if actions were successful. The book "feels" crunchy enough to still be Shadowrun, despite using more narrative mechanics. While there are a lot of rules, the rules are intuitive in how they work, so it's not too hard to puzzle out all of those functions using logic.

Negative Mana

Because of where information is in the book, and the order that terminology is introduced, some people trying to puzzle out the rules may get lost before they find out how something is suppose to work. If you really, really want a rules light, narrative game, this one isn't quite what you may be looking for. Ironically, examples of how the game should work in the "default" mode, with more player control of the narrative, are a little light, and may be harder to pick up for people not used to more narrative based games, and the "alternate" standard GM/PC set up presented may be a lot easier to set into motion with the tools provided.

Fate of the Sixth World

I was feeling this product as a solid three stars until I started to see the tags, objectives, and variety presented in some of the later chapters, and the Anarchy Catalog, providing the solid examples that it did, pushed me over the top.

**** (out of 5)

Thursday, October 20, 2016

The Lost Mine of Phandelver Isn't Lost Anymore (Spoilers for D&D Basic Set Adventure)

For about 11 2-hour sessions, a group of friends online have been playing through Lost Mine of Phandelver. We've been playing this as an Adventurers League game, although I'm not sure how many of the players are going to be playing in AL games with their characters.



Cast of Characters

Ormar, Gold Dwarf Cleric of Kurtulmak (formerly Lathander, and Kurtulmak via Saint Hubal, Kobold Patron Saint of Allying with Bigger Folk for Gain and Prestige)--Ormar is a combat medic from the south who has traveled with a number of adventuring companies over the years. He's grumpy, but generally compassionate, but also just prone to doing weird, impulsive things.

Thokk, Tiefling Bard--Thokk likes to lie about everything, so his origins are a mystery. For a while, he was convincing people that he was a Warlock allied to Zargon the Returner. He also convinced people he was fleeing from, or working with, a goblin organized crime syndicate. He convinced the local bandits that one of his adventuring companions was a powerful sorcerer, and finally, he started spreading the world of Saint Hubal, kobold martyr.

Squinkie, Dragonborn Rogue--Squinkie is sneaky and a little bit paranoid. She likes to know that any time she meets someone new, she could kill them, and then can let them live if they don't seem to be a threat. Squinkie isn't a coward, however, as she tends to volunteer to scout in the most insane of situations, and is usually pretty good at it.

Lo-Kag, Goliath Paladin of Kurtulmak (via Saint Hubal, see above)--Lo-Kag started life as a Goliath sell sword that couldn't even speak common. A simple being that enjoyed testing his limits, he fell in with his fellow adventurers, but eventually the powers that be wished to be able to speak to him to make sure he understood his missions. Thus they hired a half-giant translator to speak with him, and Lo-Kag fell in love with the woman. To prove his love, he became more studious, learned common, and even studied culture in the North at a record pace. Moved by the sacrifice of Hubal, he became a man of faith, and won the heart of the translator who once dismissed him as a simple, yet charming, thug.

Tangled Narrative

Lo-Kag and Thokk were both rebuilt, Lo-Kag from being a low intelligence fighter, and Thokk from being a half-orc warlock. In both cases, we tried to work the rebuild into the narrative, and whatever doesn't make sense we chalked up to Ormar telling stories in bars and getting mixed up about what adventuring band he was currently with. "I could have sworn this was the group with the dumb fighter and the half-orc warlock." "No, that was the group you traveled with 20 years ago that died horribly." "Oh, yeah, right. Who is in this party, again?"

Adventures on the Road

The group started off as hirelings of Gundren Rockseeker, sent to escort goods from Neverwinter traveling to Phandelver, and they ran across an ambush, which appeared to have been sprung on their employer. Following a trail into the woods, they dispatched goblins and  hungry wolves, and rescued Sildar Hallwinter of the Lord Alliance, and found out their boss had been kidnapped by goblins allied to this band.

Local Heroes

In town, Squinkie and Thokk met with Halia Thornton, local Zhentarim contact, and were told about the Redbrand Ruffians, and that she wanted their leader dead, but the group more or less intact so that they could be hired as needed. Ormar met up with Daran Edermath, who shared some stories about undead haunting Old Owl Well. Lo-Kag attempted to get a job with the Lord's Alliance through Sildar Hallwinter, but had to wait for Ormar to translate for him.

Upon hearing about the Redbrand Ruffians, the group promptly set to work, and instead of just fighting them or tracking them to their hideout, Lo-Kag beat one of them senseless in the Sleeping Giant tavern, and Thokk convinced the rest that Squinkie was a powerful dragon-blooded sorceress, and that she was displeased with their activities. Terrified of the dragon-thing, they gave up information on the organization, and one of them started working as a mole for the adventurers.



The double agent smuggled the group into the Redbrand hideout, and tried to convert some of his fellows into agents to work for the adventurers. In the mean time, the adventurers killed the horrific one eyed Nothic, and rescued a goblin named Droop from his bugbear tormentors, and between the informant and Droop, the party crept into the Redbrand leader's quarters, and managed to kill the wizard, in the process finding out that he was a former Lord's Alliance agent, and that he was working with someone called "The Black Spider," who was organizing local bandits and goblin tribes into a single force.

Thokk convinced the town to spare the rest of the ruffians (so Halia could hire them), and the party negotiated that the lands near the abandoned estate where the Ruffians had their hideout should be managed again, and that Droop should serve as the overseer of the estate, with the Ruffians working out their criminal sentence as his caretakers. Halia reinforced to the Ruffians that they needed the legitimate cover and they could kill the goblin if they needed to. Droop was thrilled to have an important job and new friends.

Side Note--Both times I've run this adventure, the adventurers have more or less adopted Droop and tried to better his station in life. I kind of like that.

Urban Renewal

With the Ruffians managed, the Townmaster wanted to hire the party to look into orcs raiding near Wyvern's Tor, but Sildar had moved into the Town Master's hall and essentially displaced him and the local ruler while doing "official Lord's Alliance Business." Sildar also hired a half frost giant translator to help him issuing missions to Lo-Kag, and Lo-Kag became smitten with her immediately.

Squinkie found a kobold being tormented by some town folk, and used her fearsome reputation as a sorceress of great power to scare them away, and Hubal, the kobold, adopted her as his new mother. Hubal generally liked to eat any carcass that was lying around, but to make things more palatable the group taught him to add hot sauce to them. He became the group's mascot and followed Squinkie everywhere.

Droop's instructions helped to lead them to Cragmaw Castle, where the "goblin king" was consolidating local tribes under his control, and via his control, under the Black Spider. Thokk managed to talk the goblin sentries into bringing them into an audience with the goblin king, but the hobgoblin bodyguards were more wary, and just outside of his chambers, a fight broke out. The adventurers killed the goblin king, saved Gundren Rockseeker, and ran like hell because of how beat up they were and the fact that any reinforcements were likely to kill them outright.



Also, in the wilderness, the adventurers kept running into owlbears. Owlbears all over the place.

In town, Gundren and Sildar both fully displaced the Townmaster from his own hall, and asked the adventures to find the Wave Echo Cave so that they could secure the Forge of Spells for clan Rockseeker. And maybe find out of Gundren's brothers were alive. In the mean time, the townmaster convinced the party to look into the orcs, and they agreed to look into the undead at Old Owl Well.

While waiting for Gundren's map to the Wave Echo Cave, the group headed to the ruined tower at Old Owl Well, and ran into some ghouls (note: I substituted fewer ghouls for the larger amount of zombies in the original encounter). Upon defeating the ghouls, a wizard, wearing red, with head tattoos came out to greet the party, but Thokk decided he might be responsible for the undead, and attacked.

Thokk, Squinkie, and Hubal all ended up dead from an area attack, and the surprisingly cultured Red Wizard of Thay, Hamun Kost, apologized for the deaths, and told the surviving adventurers that he would gladly entertain them if they came back peacefully sometime in the future.

This is when the era of Hubal began. May his legend ever grow.



Back in town, the Harper agent and cleric of Tymora Sister Garaele offered to have the adventurers raised if they party agreed to meet with a banshee called Agatha and ask her about a lost spellbook. The surviving adventurers agreed, and Sister Garaele used her resources to have them raised (normally, the Zhentarim would have done it, but discussing it with the group, this solution fit the narrative better).

Surprisingly, the adventurers returned to Hamun Kost's encampment, and found out about his well appointed extra-dimensional space inside the tent, including a bath, and his lacquered skeletal servant, who brought them all tea and dinner. Kost mentioned that he, also, would like to know something from the banshee, in his case, who built the ruined tower he was camped near. He told the group that the undead weren't actually his making, but the remnants of a Netherese curse, and one he might be able to lift, if they could get the name of the wizard whose tower this was. He also mentioned that he really wanted the orcs to the south dead as well.

Suicide Mission

The group headed to speak to Agatha, the banshee, and strangely, Lo-Kag did most of the talking. Giving her the comb as a gift from the Harper agent, she shared the information on the spellbook, and she was about to dismiss the group, but they asked another boon.

Normally, she only allowed one question, but she told the adventurers that if they amused her, she would grant their wish, and if they failed, she would kill them all. The adventurers agreed, and Thokk sang about Hubal, patron saint of kobolds that found more powerful people to give them things and grant them prestige, who was immediately welcomed into the halls of Kurtulmak for his bravery and cunning.

Agatha was amused by the unlikely ballad, and also gave them the name of the wizard whose tower the Red Wizard was interested in. On the way back, they told the wizard his information, and he lifted the ancient Netherese curse. Additionally, they told him about Bowgentle's Book, which the Harpers were also looking for, potentially setting up a confrontation between the Harpers and the Red Wizards, but the adventurers really liked the Red Wizard when he wasn't killing half of them.

Provisions and Proselytizing 

Lo-Kag and Ormar started to think there might be something to this Hubal thing, and found that they were being granted divine power by Hubal's patron, Kurtulmak, for helping to spread Hubal's legend. Thokk sang more songs of Hubal in town, explaining how the weak should always look to make powerful friends.



Squinkie was now revered not just as a powerful sorceress, but as the mother of a saint.

Then the group set back out to kill the orcs at Wyvern's Tor.

I Told You So

Squinkie scouted out the orc camp, and even stole some weapons, but was eventually caught by the orc's leader (I subbed out a half-ogre ogrillon and an orog for fewer orcs in the encounter). Squinkie was badly hurt when she was discovered, but half the camp of orcs was sleeping, so once the two most powerful of the orcs were killed, the rest were easy to pick off.

The surviving orc told the group that the band was a scouting party from the Kingdom of Many-Arrows, but that they were traveling as envoys attempting to hire legitimate mercenaries so that they could register their formal grievance and declaration of war against Mithril Hall for breaking a treaty, so as to keep the rest of the Lord's Alliance from intervening. The party made him cut his ear off so they could get the bounty on him, and then let him leave.

When the townmaster was told they were a scouting party from Many-Arrows, he reveled in pointing out that Sildar didn't think it warranted Lord's Alliance attention.

Wave Echo Cave

Finally ready to retake Wave Echo Cave, the adventurers consulted with Gundren and left. On the way, they ran into a chimera that had killed a funeral procession carrying the dead body of a noble knight of the Order of the Gauntlet. The chimera nearly killed the party, but they survived, stowed the body to be safely taken back to town later, and acquired his sword, an enchanted weapon made to drive off orcs.



(This encounter was to give the PCs some of the treasure they had missed earlier, if they were willing to take the risk with the chimera, which itself was a thematic substitution for the green dragon that they could have run into had they wandered into another optional encounter)

In the cave, there were bugbears. So many bugbears. And there were undead. A flameskull, which Thokk used a spell to turn into a smokingskull so he could then taunt it, as well as zombies, and eventually a wight (I swapped out the wight for multiple ghouls in some of the encounters later on).

Badly hurt and in need of rest, the party retreated from the caves, and rested near where they had stowed the knight's body. The next day, they ventured back into the caverns, and were ambushed by bugbears and a drow, who, upon being defeated, turned out to be a doppelganger.

Side Note--As written, the Black Spider, the drow "boss" of the adventure, isn't all that exciting, and the moniker gives away what he is way too early. To rectify this, in my version of the adventure, the random doppelgangers in the adventure are all agents of the Unseen, a power group out of Waterdeep composed of doppelgangers and answering to mind flayers. The Unseen killed a group of drow, and used their reputation to take over the goblins and bandits in the area as they attempted to secure the Forge of Spells for the Unseen's use.

The adventurers spared the last bugbear, and bribed him with gold coins and cheese, to recruit other bugbears, in part by exposing the doppleganger's ruse to the bugbear. Also, Thokk, Ormar, and Lo-Kag attempted to convert the bugbear to Kurtulmak/Saint Hubal. He was a bit confused, because Hubal didn't preach being the Alpha Predator like Hruggek did, but was still okay with being sneaky. In the end, he recruited some other bugbears to hear the adventurers' offer.

The group set up an ambush on the Black Spider, sneaking in some of the bugbears to swap out for his bodyguards while giving cover to Squinkie to sneak in and attempt an assassination. The ambush set, the group kicked in the doors, with Ormar disguised as a bugbear for no particularly good reason but for even more chaos.



The bugbears helped to injure the Black Spider while the adventurers came in a finished him off, and Thokk and Lo-Kag attempted to convert the bugbears to the church of Saint Hubal while Squinkie became increasingly annoyed that she wasn't getting much help killing the last of the giant spiders.

Eventually the group found Nundro Rockseeker alive, kept that way so the doppelganger could find out what he knew about the Forge of Spells. Eventually, the group rested for a bit, and crossed the dungeon to confront the guardian of the Forge, and spectator summoned by wizards when the mines were still active. Nundro asked the adventures to come with him in case the guardian wouldn't stand down, but thankfully the guardian was convinced that Nundro was related to the miners that had once worked the mines, and let him pass.

Aftermath

Returning to town, Lo-Kag swept the interpreter off her feet with his tales of conspiracies that he helped to squash. Squinkie and Thokk reported the weaknesses of the Lord's Alliance to Halia and told her about the Unseen infiltration. Ormar held a huge festival for Saint Hubal in the town square and prepared the holy Hot Sauce for them.



The party used their clout to have the former townmaster appointed ambassador to the Lord's Alliance, and installed Droop and his new bugbear bodyguards as the townmaster instead. Townmaster Droop promises to be a boon to Phandalin, and in no way will be too busy to notice the Zhentarim activity that his former farm hands will be getting into.

Next Up

After a few week hiatus due to everyone in the group getting simultaneously busy, next month the group starts Princes of the Apocalypse. It should be an interesting experience with this group.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

What Do I Know About Reviews? Force and Destiny: Chronicles of the Gatekeeper

The weekend rolls on, and I roll out another review as my backlog grows ever smaller. This time, I gave the cover to cover treatment to the first stand alone published Force and Destiny adventure, Chronicles of the Gatekeeper.



This was interesting for me, because to the best of my knowledge, there haven't been many published Star Wars that focused almost entirely on a party of Force users. While there have been adventures in the past that could be seen as similar to Edge of the Empire style adventures or Age of Rebellion style adventures, I think having an all Force user party is something that most Star Wars RPGs didn't assume in the past. If I'm wrong, let me know! I'd be happy to look into whatever Force centered adventures may have come out in the past.

Chronicles of the Gatekeeper came out towards the end of last year (2015), just a bit ahead of the release of The Force Awakens in theaters, so this adventure was most likely largely developed with the idea of the EU being Legends. The Lucasfilm policy that games (video, RPG, or otherwise) aren't meant so much to be canon, as they are to represent "authentic Star Wars experiences," was already coming into play. The Fantasy Flight products now tend to intersperse some old EU material that has yet to be either entered into canon or contradicted, although really ancient stories, like information from The Old Republic, tends to get disclaimed as unverified ancient history and folklore in the modern Star Wars era.

Physically, the book is an attractive hardcover that meets all previous expectations for Fantasy Flight products. There is quite a bit of artwork that was clearly designed specifically for this adventure, and depicts many of the unique NPCs, new locations, and species that show up in the book. The page count for the adventure, as is standard for the Star Wars Fantasy Flight RPGs, is 96 pages.

Opening Fiction

At this point, the pattern has pretty well been established that the Star Wars adventures from Fantasy Flight will have one page introductory fiction that introduces NPCs from the adventure, doing something that leads directly to some aspect of the adventure. This one is no different, and it does a good job of setting things up and getting out of the way.

Introduction

The introduction includes a plot synopsis, major NPCs, and a section on how to use this particular adventure if your players are running characters from Age of Rebellion or Edge of the Empire and include only one or two Force sensitive characters. Essentially that guide points out a few encounters that you may want to weigh a little more heavily to play up the other themes of that particular RPG.

Since Morality doesn't work exactly like Obligation or Duty in the other two RPGs, there is just a mention that there will be sidebars calling out particularly important scenes in each episode where Morality might come into play and characters might be more likely to generate Conflict.

The introduction ends with a new Force power tree that is essentially a specialized version of the Foresee ability that revolves around individuals instead of events. It's an interesting power, but aside from the range or the speed the ability can be triggered, only the initial tier of the power involves seeing the future in "plot" terms, and the other upgrades have to do with the mechanics of combat. This ability appears here because one of the reasons that the plot moves forward is to give PCs access to this particular Force power by tracking down crystals that will unlock information from a Holocron.

Episode I




Episode one includes an optional encounter where the PCs can acquire the Holocron to begin with. For brand new groups, you can assume that if they start with a Holocron, that the device is the device from this adventure. The Holocron then leads the PCs to a planet to start hunting down crystals that will complete it's knowledge of the Force power introduced at the beginning of the book, by retracing the steeps of a Jedi active during the Clone Wars.

The device leads them to a planet where they can either go in guns (or swords) blazing and take the item they are looking for, or they can attempt to be sneaky, or they can resolve a community crisis and overthrow a bad leader, and finally get the crystal. It's a pretty wide open approach, with details of the town and some key encounters that could happen, but with the PCs determining how they want to proceed. Part of this is to make sure they they have the chance to make moral decisions along the way.

There are mounted beasts they can rent and ride, a new alien species that is detailed as a PC species, if one of the players wants to make a new character from this planet, and an optional encounter with Imperials that might make things more complicated. Essentially, there are several encounters listed, with some listed as optional. If the PCs either are anxious to move forward or do really well in whatever plan they come up with, you can just circumvent the extra material.

The biggest quibble with this episode is that a few of the characters in the optional encounters are listed as "use statblock from page X of the core rules, but replace Y and Z," which makes for more work for the GM.

Episode II

There is a bit more investigation in this leg of the adventure, as the PCs can basically be jerks and bulldoze their way through, or they can spend time helping out the locals on Cato Nemoidia, gain their trust, and get pointed in the right direction. Depending on how helpful they are, they may not even need to make checks to get the information they are looking for.

This section of the adventure deals with the Jedi that recorded the Holocron, and his actions during the Clone Wars, which lead to his fall to the Dark Side. Ironically, if the PCs give in to the Dark Side and power through this section to get the information they need to find the crystal, they don't get the backstory that explains to them that they may be doing exactly what that Jedi did before his fall.

Cato Nemoidia is a planet with some interesting visuals and structures that has appeared a few places over the years, so it may be recognizable to the players. Depending on how much they want to help out and how much they play through the encounters in this section, this episode could resolve rather quickly. The amount that the players get out of this episode is going to depend a lot on how much they want to put in, and how much they are interested in the Clone Wars era of Star Wars. While there are some optional encounters that might lead to confrontations, depending on how they proceed, these may not happen, so unlike Episode I, there is no set climax to the episode, which may also be a negative for some players and GMs.

Episode III




To find the final crystal, the group is going to have to head to Moraband (sigh, yes, that's the same planet as Korriban). However, in the modern era, there aren't really any records of where Moraband is located, which means the PCs may need to make a side trek to find some pre-Clone Wars era navigation charts.

The GM is instructed to let the PCs try anything they want to find these charts, but if the situation is presented to the Holocron's Gatekeeper, it suggests a Jedi retreat on an aquatic planet. There are some rules for using a non-submersible ship to go underwater, and a big sea creatures that's too big to really fight, so the PCs will poke around trying to find something useful.

Interlude: Nerd Moment of Varying Importance

The key to finding the navigation data for Moraband is to find a ship in the retreat and get the old data from it's nav computer. The problem is, the ship in question is an Delta-7 Aethersprite interceptor. Those don't have hyperdrives, and thus, they don't have nav computers. They are only hyperspace capable if they are docked with a hyperspace ring, and their R2 unit will then serve as the nav computer. Thankfully, if this bothers you because you are as big a nerd as I am, the encounter actually also has the R2 unit that was with the ship in the same bay, needing repairs, so the encounter still works almost as written.



On Moraband, either a vengeful crime lord from Episode II, or a group of bounty hunters will follow you and confront you before you can look for the tomb of the fallen Jedi and claim his final crystal to allow your group full access to the Force power tree that he developed. One odd note about this is that the bounty hunters you may run into in this encounter are noted as being the same bounty hunters that were in the optional opening encounter, rather than the bounty hunter in Episode II that is specifically mentioned as existing so he can show up later in the campaign. Easy enough to switch the bounty hunters around, but it was odd, especially since the first group of bounty hunters will have no tie to the party if they didn't play the optional first scene.

The adventure mentions multiple ways that the PCs can zero in on the location they are looking for, either by using sensors or Force powers, or even having the Holocron try to reason out the most likely place for the Jedi to have gone. Like the previous two episodes, there is essentially a toolbox of encounters, several of which are marked as optional, that you can trigger as they march across Moraband.



The flavor of the planet is heavily influenced by the "Mission to Morriband" episode of the Clone Wars animated series, using the Dark Side Phantoms as the PCs' greatest fear come to life to attack them. There is an interesting mechanic for resolving attacks against them that I kind of like, involving their Willpower stat.

The final confrontation with a Dark Side Force user is described in a fairly epic manner, and also contains the ability to bring that character back to the Light, if the characters wish to make the attempt, even during the fight. If they go that route, some of the Dark Side Phantoms actually show up to remind him of all the evil he has done, so that there is a physically manifest battle for the character's soul that I really like.

At the end of Episode III, there is a section about the long term ramifications of the adventure, but instead of adventure hooks and contacts, it revolves around remembering to throw out some nasty nightmares and reminders of how psychologically grueling Moraband was, and how some of the locations the PCs visited previously could turn into hellholes or get better depending on how they blew through those sections of the adventure.

The Dark Side

There are a few places where it felt like things were thrown together in the adventure and a few details were missed, like the starfighter and the nav computer, the stat blocks, and the bounty hunter encounter towards the end. There is a large amount of information in this adventure that deals with the Clone Wars, so if players aren't so into the prequel era, that may not appeal to them as much. Episode II isn't a bad act at all, but how well it works is really going to depend on how much the PCs engage the plot and the NPCs, which means it could just shoot by unnoticed.

The Light Side

While the goal of the adventure is straight forward, the first two episodes are wide open with how the PCs want to approach their goal, which means they have lots of opportunities to engage in plans and moral choices. Episode I and III have very clear climaxes, and III especially is pretty epic in how it feels. The sections detailing Moraband can definitely be re-purposed to good use in other Force and Destiny adventures.

Final Verdict

This is a good, solid adventure to kick off the Force and Destiny line. There should be a lot of interesting choices to make, and it has a suitably epic conclusion. The only thing that detracts from the overall picture is that the reliance on Clone Wars era imagery and story elements, and the potential to leave a lot of good roleplaying material in the dust in Episode II. That means that it may not be as universally loved for the epic ending presented.

*** (out of 5)