Monday, February 25, 2013

What Do You Get When You Add Modern TV Seasons To Gamer ADD?

I've been kicking around an idea in my head lately.  It was spawned in part by thinking about the abbreviated television seasons that shows on USA and SyFy have  (inspired by the same shorter TV seasons for shows in the UK).  While I am certainly in awe of people that can run a campaign for years on end, I know I have gamer ADD.

I run into too many different RPGs and have seen too many cool settings and ideas for campaigns to think that I will ever again run a campaign that has a lifespan measured in years.  I've also been thinking about how long it really takes to get a good head of steam going, how long it takes a big plot to develop, and how long it takes to get a "feel" for a game system and how characters grow, change, and develop in that system.

Tentatively I'm thinking that breaking down a game system that isn't level based into about a 12 session "season" might be the way to go.  This wouldn't be a hard number, and if something happened and the PCs ended up not able to resolve the big issue of the campaign that has been building up for months, we wouldn't say, "sorry, I'll need another episode to tell this story, but we won't get back to this campaign for a year or so, so no resolution for you."

While I've been avoided some of the more traditional ones lately, I thought about level based gaming systems and this mindset as well.  I think, by design, characters develop differently in level based systems.  I'd say under most I would at least run 24 sessions of a level based system to get a good "feel" and to let a serious plotline develop.

Finally, there are always oddballs.  While I'm getting the urge to move away from pre-published adventures so I can cut lose a bit more with the creativity again, running Marvel Heroic I would certainly still use Events.  The structure of events, as far as I have seen, is so open that the event is as much of a setting as it is an "adventure path."  In the case of Marvel, I'd keep more of an eye on how many sessions I thought I'd need to resolve the Event, and plan accordingly.

13th Age is a level based oddball, as it's advancement isn't based on experience points, but on how many sessions the GM wants to run before he tells the party to level up.  In this instance, I'd be inclined to run with two per level, to get a nice spread of 19 or so adventures, almost as many as I'd devote to a regular level based game.

Having an idea of how many sessions I'm going to run, total, gives me an idea of how to pace the campaign and can let me set some milestones as well.  If I want to hammer home something that is a recurring "thing" in the campaign, but don't want it to be ever present, I should probably hit that theme about three times in a 12 session campaign.

If a major bad guy is going to spin out of the early part of the campaign to take center stage by the end, I should probably foreshadow his involvement or importance by the time I hit the sixth session or so.

I know, looking back, that if I had had in mind that my Rogue Trader game was going to go 12 sessions (and unfortunately we didn't even hit that milestone), I would have had a better idea how to pace endeavors and some of the plots that I was trying to introduce into the game.  I had the overall concept in mind, but the pacing never took off for me.

All in all, I probably added several sessions worth of "padding" to my DC Adventures game that could have been edited out if I hadn't been trying hit the magical "over a year" mark for running the game.

Most of all, if everyone knows going in that we'll shoot for 12 sessions or what have you, it might be easier to plan out that we'll take a break from this game/setting, do another 12 sessions, then potentially go back to the originals, when everyone has had a chance to get a better idea what do do for the next "season," including the GM.

It's an idea that intrigues me to explore, even if it can be tricky to implement.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

What Watching the Ghost Whisperer Taught Me About Campaigns--No, Really

Talking to one of my gaming friends on Google+, I made an offhand comment about trying to figure out something that had to do with campaigns related to watching the Ghost Whisperer with my wife.  While the show is definitely supernatural in theme, most of the time it isn't overly action oriented, so I figured it was more of a challenge than might be the case with a show like Buffy or Battlestar Galactica or something of that nature.

For anyone that doesn't know, the premise of The Ghost Whisperer is that there is a young woman with a gift for seeing ghosts and talking to them, and she figures out why they haven't moved on and helps them complete their unfinished business.  However, while this is the main premise, after a while there are a few plot twists that veer into territory that gamers might recognize.

Long term murder plots, secret identities, lost cities, and sinkholes of souls trapped in despair started to make the meta-plot a little more action and horror oriented.  But we already looked at meta-plots being layered over the initial premise and whether it enhances, reinforces, and augments the original premise, or if it causes some kind of overall thematic drift.

What clicked about the show upon watching it was that it actually convinced me that a type of game that I usually would say isn't a good idea might be possible in a campaign, under the right conditions.  The lead character is  (usually) the only one that can see the ghosts in the series.  She has to do the heavy metaphysical lifting.  In effect, she is the "chosen one," and the premise of the show doesn't work without her.

Normally, having a chosen one is a huge mistake in a campaign.  One person with a destiny can be a problem.  It diminishes the rest of the party, and if anyone else in the party can do what they do, it makes it difficult to understand one that particular PC is the chosen one, when multiple people in the party can do what they do.  Finally, if the Chosen One gets offed or incapacitated, everything comes to a screaming halt.

So in a normal gaming group, I wouldn't recommend ever having a "chosen one" game.  However, the more I watched the show, the more I thought it could be done, under the right conditions.

Conditions One:  Players that are already comfortable with one another

It struck me that if I were running a game for my kids, or for my wife, or for some people that I've been friends with since I was in grade school, I think we could handle one of us being "the chosen one."

Gamers that are friends through gaming, and people that have known one another for a while might be able to handle this kind of trust and importance being put in one player, but it's more likely to show up with family or long term friends.

Also, with family and long term friends, if your "chosen one" becomes insufferable in their role, well, family and long term friends generally have incentive to actually work things out because gaming isn't their one primary link to friendship.

Condition Two:  The play group shouldn't be too large

A group with five or six  (or more) players is a bad fit for a "chosen one" campaign.  Four or fewer really seems to be the key to this sort of play.  For one thing, even if the other players are performing support actions, the importance of those support actions are going to be much more evident in a smaller group.

The smaller group is going to cycle through their turns faster, which means it should be easier to see how the actions of the whole group can be tied together.

There is also the added benefit of the the group cycling through their actions faster, and a smaller group ties into the next point rather handily.

Condition Three:  The "chosen one" campaign shouldn't last too long

While a "chosen one" television series may last for years, a campaign with this concession should probably be limited to a few story arcs.  Maybe nine to twelve at most.  Enough to establish the concept, introduce a twist to the concept, ramp up the danger, then "save the world," for whatever that might mean in the given setting.

It also means that you can cycle through your three or four players rather quickly, giving someone else a chance to be the "chosen one" for a follow up campaign.

Condition Four:  Make sure "chosen one" has some limits

On the show in question, the main character may be the only one that can see the ghosts, but if the ghost possesses someone, or if a murderer is on the lose, the other characters can clearly act against the possessed person, or the murderer.  There is a limited but important reason for the "chosen one" to exist in the plot.

You don't want your "chosen one" to be Leeloo from the Fifth Element.  You don't want your "chosen one" abilities to be "she's better than everyone else."

To put it in perspective, if you were running a 40K game with a "chosen one" theme, you might have only one character playing a psyker, getting premonitions driving the overall plot, and being needed to do whatever needs to be done for the final confrontation of the campaign.  In a Star Wars game, you might have your Force Sensitive character serve the same purpose, or in a d20 kitchen sink fantasy game, you might only have one divine caster of any sort that has a direct line to their god.

Those characters are obviously important, and serve a role no one else can, but by nature of the design of the game, they aren't going to be the only ones that can be effective, just the characters that have the excuse for driving the plot forward.

A quick note on other "chosen one" characters that work

What I'm talking about in this post is a "chosen one" that has to exist for the campaign to work.  If no one else can talk to ghosts, it's going to be really hard to find out what the ghost is upset about in order to put them to rest, and it's going to be even harder to have anyone else see the supernatural signs and portents that are pointing towards impending doom.

But there are other "chosen one" concepts that don't need to exist to drive the campaign.  If you have a Slayer type character like Buffy in a campaign, there may be special abilities that only Slayers get, but if the Slayer is taken out, other people can fight vampires, especially after working with the Slayer.

If you only allow one Force sensitive character in a Star Wars game where you are playing a Rebel Alliance cell, that cell can still keep fighting the Empire even if the rare future Jedi buys the moisture farm early in the story.  In fact, the death of the potential rebirth of the Jedi order could even galvanize the cell to redouble their efforts against the Empire.

You can make that same character into the kind of "chosen one" we talk about here, if that person is needed to receive signs from a higher power as the only means of the plot advancing, and if that person has to show up in order to resolve the final conflict of the campaign.  But if they are just unique because you want the flavor of those characters to be rare and special, that's not the kind of "chosen one" we're talking about here.

So, I Can Do It, Why Do I Want To Do It?

The "chosen one" trope is something that shows up a lot in media.  In some ways, pulling off a particular type of campaign for a GM is the roleplaying equivalent of scaling a mounting:  you do it because it's there.  There is a rewarding feeling to knowing you can pull off a convention from one type a media and translate it into the kind of storytelling that roleplaying can accomplish.

Another reason is to reinforce that the supernatural or what have you is rare and special.  Having exactly one character in the campaign that can use their supernatural abilities to move the plot forward means that the group doesn't begin to subconsciously think that there are psychics waiting to take over that "role" around every corner in your world.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Kaldrvedr, Dread Dragon of the Barrowmounds

I realize this guy is crazy powerful. This is my first crack at throwing together a dragon for Dungeon Crawl Classics by converting one of the 2nd Edition Linnorm (Norse) dragons.  This guy, as he stands, is the campaign ender, one way or another.  Characters that aren't already almost demi-gods themselves are likely to be wiped out, but thankfully, with his personality, if those good guys show up to slay him and run away screaming, he usually doesn't bother to come after them.

Kaldrvedr, Dread Dragon of the Barrowmounds

Kaldirvedr is thought of as a singular threat now, but the legends surrounding the beast suggest that it was once two separate beings, twin human clerics of the wintry gods of the northlands.  The twins were two of the twelve heroes of the land, performing great deeds, slaying powerful giants and trolls, and bringing great wealth to their homes.

When a vile necromancer sought to enslave the lands of their birth, the Twelve Heroes set out to destroy the spellcaster, but they had just returned from a lucrative raid of a dangerous city to the south.  With their ship laden with gold, they slowly sailed to face the necromancer before the bones of their ancestors could rise up to form an army to threaten the northlands.

When they arrived, too late for the weight of gold in their ship, ten of the heroes died fighting the hordes of the necromancer.  When the twins prayed to their cold gods, the gods answered them, and told them if they but sank the ship of gold beneath the waves, that they would be given the power to destroy the army of the dead and the necromancer for good.

The twins had never seen as much treasure as this last raid had gained them, and they found it unfair that they should risk life and limb for this, their most bountiful raid, only to give it up to gods that should be willing to destroy this unnatural army without propitiation.  Thus they sailed off to another settlement, further to the north, thinking to raise an army there to defeat the necromancer and scorning their gods.

A storm blew up from the arctic and tossed the ship, full of gold, upon the shores.  The brothers fell overboard into the water, both fully in mail, and both thought to drown.  Perhaps they did, but the dragon Kaldrvedr dreams of the lives of both of these young, formerly heroic priests, and dreams as if those lives were his own life, in the past.

A vast, two headed monstronsity, Kaldrvedr is serpentine in shape, with a long tail, two winding necks, clawed front legs, and massive draconic heads.  His scales are black and grey, and hard as iron.

Kaldrvedr lairs in a vast cavern beneath the barrowmounds that were desecrated by the necromancer two hundred years ago.  Other heroes came and defeated the necromancer, and laid a curse upon the barrowmound, containing the restless dead deep within the earth.  The uppermost levels of the mounds have been consecrated to the gods of the north once again, with a single stone door, sealed with a rune, to lock away the restless dead.

Or a decade ago this was true.  Rumors persist that tomb raiders broke the seal and stole the great treasures of the Ten Heroes, and then died within the barrowmound.  The dead stalk the land again, and Kaldrvedr has awakened, and swims out from far beneath his lair, to wreck ships and then feast on them, crew, timbers, and all.

It is said that brave heroes entering the tomb are met with the spirits of the Ten Heroes, who will give those worthy a clue about the powerful arms and armor they possessed in life, arms and armor that can be used to fight Kaldrvedr.  Would you know more?

Kaldrvedr, Old Dread Linnorm

Init +20; Atk +20+1d8  (claw 1d8 x 2, bite 1d12 x2, tail slap 1d20); AC  35; HD 20; hp  120; MV  80'  (Swim 60'); Act  5d20; SP  Breath weapon, frightful presence, magic resistance, weapon resistant hide, infravision 100', cause earthquake, dust cloud, gust of wind, curse, darkness, corrupt water; SV  +20  (all saves); AL C

Breath Weapon:  Kaldrvedr can breathe two separate breath weapons, twice per day for each head.  This takes the place of one action die, and Kaldrvedr cannot breath with both heads at one time.

Cold Wind; Cone 60' wide and 40' long, 60 points of cold damage and knocked prone, Reflex save for half damage and to remain standing.

Steam Breath; Cloud 30' radius, up to 90' away, 60 points of fire damage, Fortitude save for half damage.

Cause Earthquake:  See Dungeon Crawl Classics pg 409, DC 30.  Kaldrvedr can do this once per day, and this replaces one of his action dice when used.  Kaldrvedr often uses this to seal his lair behind him when he enters or leaves through the sea cave.

Corrupt Water:  At will, Kaldrvedr can turn all water within 100' into poison, that causes 1d4 hit points damage per sip, avoided with a DC 30 Fortitude save.  This replaces one of Kaldrvedr's action dice.

Curse:  Once per day, Kaldrvedr can curse a single creature for 24 hours, causing it a -1 to all rolls.  This replaces one of Kaldrvedr's action dice.

Darkness:  At will, Kaldrvedr can create darkness in a 30' radius up to 100' away.  This replaces one of Kaldrvedr's action dice.

Dust Cloud:  One per turn, Kaldrvedr can summon a dust cloud 10' wide and 50' tall.  All creatures within must make a DC 30 Fortitude save or take 1d4 Stamina loss.  This lasts as long as Kaldrvedr concentrates, and an additional 1d4 rounds.  This replaces one of Kaldrvedr's action dice.

Frightful Presence:  All who look upon Kaldrvedr are terrified by his power, and must make a DC 30 Will save for flee in terror for 1d4 turns.

Gust of Wind:  Once per day, Kaldrvedr can summon hurricane force winds to blow in a singe direction, 100' wide at the end of the cone.  Creatures caught must make a DC 30 Strength check or be blown back 200 feet and taking 20d4 damage.  This replaces one of Kaldrvedr's action dice.

Magic Resistance:  All spells have a 50% chance to fail when used against Kaldrvedr.

Weapon Resistant Hide:  Normal weapons only do half damage to Kaldrvedr's armored body.  Magical weapons can harm him normally.

Tactics:  Kaldrvedr will actually ignore anyone that is turned aside by his frightful presence, amused at their terror.  This means that adventurers that wander into his lair unprepared may live to fight him again.

Once anyone from a party has attempted to harm him, he will fight without mercy.  He will usually alternate a breath from each head while attempting to rend would be heroes asunder, and then will summon a dust cloud to choke his foes while he batters them with his tail.

If he feels that his foes are doing too well, he will use his last two breath weapons, and may attempt to flee out of one of his holes into the sea caves, collapsing it behind him using his Earthquake ability, then spending time once the coast is clear digging the entrance out.

Kaldrvedr has mounds of treasure brought to him as tribute, but cares little for it.  Anyone bearing an item of the Ten Heroes, however, will be marked for death.

The Barrowmounds:  Within the sealed sections of the Barrowmounds are the weapons and armor of the Ten Heroes.  In death, their spirits imbued these items with the means of defeating Kaldrvedr.  Some items turn aside the fear he generates, and others are anathema to his flesh, and still others might steel a warrior against cold or ice.  Finding these items may be the key to surviving the dragon and ending the curse of the Barrowmound by killing the dragon bound to the necromancer's hordes.

Why Haven't I Been Back to the Realms Yet?

A few months ago I picked up my first Forgotten Realms product in years.  It was Ed Greenwood  Presents Elminster's Forgotten Realms, and while I still haven't finished it  (too much gamer ADD), what I have read has really reminded me of what I loved about the setting to begin with.  So why haven't I been back to the Realms yet?

Part of me really wants to run a game in the Realms again.  Part of me is whispering that it will never live up to the campaigns of the past, and that all of the stuff that piled up on the setting that I didn't like will slowly insinuate itself into my brain.  But the biggest hurdle is just having too many options and not knowing what option appeals to me the most.

At one point in time, I thought it would be fun to try and use 13th Age to simulate a Realms game.  I liked the idea of swapping out the Icons for organizations, so that any individual game might invoke various and sundry power groups, and thus organically portray the Realms more as I understood them, i.e. less "high magic, high powered NPCs directing the world," and more "lots of competing power groups nudging the world one direction or the other."

But the magic system being what it is, and the resemblance to 4th edition, it feels like 13th Age might be better suited to running the current Realms, or perhaps the Realms as they look after the 5th edition relaunch, and I don't want to be reminded of the things in the setting that drove me away.  Not a flaw in 13th Age so much as what style of play it might evoke.

Another part of my brain says that I should wait for the 2nd Edition books to hit PDF, and run the Realms in the edition that I used the most for my campaigns.  While there is a certain appeal to this, I'm not sure I want to jump whole-heartedly into a 2nd edition game.  I've been there and done that, and I'm not sure that the nostalgia would keep the excitement level up for me.

Finally, the more I'm looking at the Adventurer Conqueror King System, the more I am thinking this would be a great game to run a campaign with, in the Realms.  I would have to find the right area that has enough option for land grants and PCs clearing them  (the Stonelands?  I'm looking at you) to take full advantage of the system.  It seems like it would be the system to use to do what I have wanted to do for a while, which is to set a game back when Gondegal took Arabel, and potentially ignoring the Time of Troubles.

But even that feels like a lot of investment into a setting that I had written off a few years back.  What I really want is to have the PDFs of the Old Grey Boxed set and the 1st edition Realms material back on the market, so I can start digging through them again, waiting to see if the magic takes hold.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

What I Learned About Campaigns from Watching Sliders

My wife and I recently canceled our cable, as we realized that we spent a lot of time finding series to watch from beginning to end on Netflix, and when we weren't doing that, we were watching the same syndicated television over and over again from the time we turned on the TV.

My wife wanted to watch Sliders again, as she had always liked that show, but neither of us had watched much of the later seasons of the show.  As we did, some thoughts about ongoing campaigns, themes, changes, and when to let go all occurred to me.

Spoilers for the Whole Freaking Series  (Do I Still Have to Say this for a Series from the 90s?)

For our purposes, let's define what jumped out at me.

You have a series with a set cast of four people.  The original concept was that they are all from the same place, start jumping around dimensions, trying to get back to their own, and have adventures in between on strange worlds.

So as the "campaign" starts, you have the whole cast with a common origin, i.e. that they come from the same Earth, and you have a common purpose, getting back home.

Eventually the plot thickens, as a recurring set of villains are introduced, the Kromaggs, who could show up and create a meta-plot.  Regardless of how you might have felt about this addition, it's something that's not uncommon to a campaign.  The longer it goes on, the more you might feel you need more texture in the ongoing narrative than just that "everybody wants to get home."

Now everybody wants to get home, and they all have the same bad guys to personally rail against.

Eventually, though, you also lose a few cast (party) members and replace them with new cast members.  One of the new cast members may not have the common goal of returning to the same Earth, but they don't have a homeworld that they want to go back to.  Another cast member, introduced a little later, has a direct personal tie to another character.

At this point, we have a secondary bit of metaplot, in that the characters not only want to get home, but that the Kromaggs have to be defeated and the brothers have to find out the secrets left to them by their parents.  More on this secondary bit of meta-plot later.

Finally, you have the last permutation of the team, with one of the original cast members gone  (but very tenuously connected, by yet more meta-plot, to the new guy introduced), and one of the new characters tied to that character leaving, and another new character introduced that has the same "hook" that the second generation member of the team had, i.e. she's not going home, but she doesn't have a home to go to, so why not go back to the home of the one, single, solitary guy that has ties to the original Earth that the show started from.

In my personal opinion, by the time the show ended, a lot of the cohesion, chemistry, and fun of the show had been wrung out of it, and the ending was just sad.  Not sad in an effective emotional storytelling kind of way, but sad in that you have a hard time believing the show ended that way.

But how does this relate to campaigns?

Party Turnover

When one member of the original cast leaving, the show didn't lose too much of the party chemistry.  When two members left, it was getting iffy, but the show had a fairly good hook for the new person, i.e. that she was from an Earth she wasn't going to go back to.  When the next new addition was added, the meta-plot was kind of painful, but introducing a long lost sibling at least created some automatic emotional connection.

The problem comes when you introduce a second person with the same hook as the first one to the party.  Another person that has the "I can't go home so I'll help you" isn't unique anymore, especially when she is also the "we need a scientist character to work on the Timer" character.  And when you try to replace the lynchpin character  (more on this later) with someone that has "some" of that character fused to him, but is pretty much a new character, it's hard to care anymore.

The point is, it's not always easy to see where that point is, but at some point, when you have reached a certain high water mark with your party, and the chemistry is tuned in, losing too much of that chemistry will make the campaign feel like its something else entirely, at which point, it might as well be something else entirely.

None of us want to see players leave, but sometimes we can't help it.  More controllable are character deaths, but sometimes, even those can't be helped, or ignoring them will damage the campaign more.  At some point you have to sit down with your players, talk about how much has changed, and address the real possibility that it may just be time for a new campaign.

Insane Meta-plots

I may be slightly misapplying the term meta-plot here, by which I mean not so much an overall push for the setting to change with or without the players, but the very high level overarching story of the campaign, not the plots of the individual adventures or even three or four adventure story arcs.

Long term campaigns will develop meta-plots.  When you play in the same setting, and similar themes and characters show up, this is actually a good thing.  However, there is a danger of having those meta-plots start to run counter to the nice, simple concept that the campaign started with.

It's really easy to see how a simple plot like, "let's keep sliding until we get back home" can start to feel thin after a while.  But introducing a race that can slide more effectively and threatens your home world, thus creating more of an impetus to get home, can come dangerously close to changing the whole premise of the campaign.  The new plot element has to be used lightly, or the focus and feel of the campaign shifts.

The most dangerous meta-plot trap of all is to fall into a meta-plot that is so important that it affects the whole campaign, but doesn't focus on the party equally.  Granted, you can usually get away with this in movies, because you know your "chosen one" is there for the whole thing.  However, television can be a bit more like a campaign in that your actors may not sign on for the long haul.

Making one character the chosen one, or having a huge plot point revolve around two player's parents, can be a big issue if they leave the campaign.  Suddenly, a lot of the drive in the campaign is ripped away.  Even players that might not have realized just how much they were playing second fiddle suddenly realize it when the whole campaign grinds to a halt.

But can you fix a meta-plot mistake with more meta-plot?  I'm not going to say no, but I'm inclined to lean that way.  Saying that a brand new character still "counts" as the chosen one, when it's obvious that he's a brand new character, even if he has some small aspect of the old character, isn't going to fly.

Think of it this way:  if the party paladin is on a quest to kill a dragon that is the ancient evil of prophecy in his religion, and he is reincarnated as a thief that really doesn't care, but the party is expected to all decide that fighting the dragon is a good idea, how much emotional investment does that spawn in the party?

"This is me, from an world where I am absolutely nothing like myself."
So the lessons that we learn about meta-plot and the campaign?  Make sure that it only adds and enhances the basic, established premise of the campaign, as established at the beginning, and make sure that the meta-plot doesn't tempt you into creating a Chosen One or Two that the whole campaign hinges on.

And at some point, if your meta-plot gets too heavy, look for an exit, not more meta-plot.  Talk to your players about how you can wrap things up in a satisfactory way  (see the next point), and don't be afraid to end it.

How To Say Goodbye

There is a huge temptation to leave the door open to more adventures.  If you have the chance to give your players an epic ending, take it.  Give them a payoff.  Let them hang their hats on One Big Thing, and then walk away.  Worry less about leaving the door open than going out with a bang.

You may want to use these characters again someday, but odds are that you will have a long time to think of how to do that, in a way that doesn't occur to you now.  It may never happen, but if it does, it's not something you need to be able to do right now.  So don't half-ass your crowning moment of awesome for some theoretical reunion.  Give your players a reason to want to have that reunion, because of the fond memories.

Trust me, I've screwed up campaign endings before.  I'm not saying this as someone that always gets it right, but as someone that has often felt that he wished he could have changed that last adventure to do things a little differently.  There are always going to be times when you can't give your campaign a proper ending, so when you get the chance, make the most of it.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Winter War Journal 2013, Day Three--Terminal Velocity! (Or Something)

I ran but a single game on Sunday.  For some reason, the last session on Sunday always feels a bit depressing for me, so I decided to skip it.  It's not anyone's fault, but everyone seems run down, and the session has to end when it is suppose to end, so it feels like a rush, so I just decided to end on a high note and only run the morning slot.

I know, the above opinion is just me, and I'm weird.  I'm sure there are plenty of people that love that last slot as much as the first one and are just as jazzed and energized on the way out as they are the way in.  Call me quirky.

New Mutants--Siege  (Once Again)

This session I had a few other friends sign up that hadn't been to the rest of the convention, which was nice.  I had a few repeat customers from other sessions, which was also nice.  I had at least two people that had not played before, but one of the players had read through the rules before.

Especially in Marvel Heroic, I think its interesting to see how the same scenario plays out with different players and different heroes.  Last time around, no one took Dani, which meant that the ties to Asgard were more tenuous.  This time around we had Dani with us, and everything felt a bit more imperative.

We also had Warlock this time around, and my friend really took to Warlock's characteristics of taking on pop culture icons with his shape changing.  He turned into R2-D2 at one point, and turned into the Death Star later on.  He also really got into the Warlock's reluctance to inflict harm on anyone.

I do think that I made a bit of a mistake at one point in the session.  There are three fairly powerful powersets that a character can acquire in the session, and none of them explicitly say that one person can't have more than one, but one player decided, in part because of a Milestone that he had hit, that he needed to keep two of the three.

The other players briefly mentioned that he should probably, for tactical reasons, spread the love, and he almost agreed, but really thought his Milestone that he had just fulfilled indicated that he would keep as much power as he could get.

I should have just jumped in with a quick ruling about mortals not being able to bear more than one of the powersets and had that be that, but I didn't think fast enough.  No one seemed to be too upset, but I do think that it showed in the fight that ensued that having more versatile characters across the team would have been a better plan.

The game went right up to time, and as his last action, Sentry, fully possessed by the Void, pretty much wiped the floor with most of the team.  Everyone had a good time, but I also felt I dropped the ball a bit by not saving back my 2d12 to have actually narrated an ending instead of "calling" the session at time and just saying that two out of the six team members were still up.

Still, another friend of mine from the game store decided to buy the book and join a Marvel Game, so I'm glad that she enjoyed the session enough for that decision.

Overall, definitely a success.  Lots of fun was had by lots of gamers, and lots of new people got to see a new game system and seemed to take to it.  Looking forward to next year already, even if I don't know if I'll run, play, or do both.

Winter War Journal 2013, Day Two

Thus begins the accounting of the second and longest day of the Winter War.  Heed well my words and . . . oh, nevermind, here's what went down the second day of Winter War for me this year.

Saturday Morning--What If?  Siege--New Mutants

Saturday morning started off well, with my first session once again being held in one of the awesome conference rooms.  Once again I showed up early enough to get out all of the cheat sheets, dice trays, and various and sundry "table dressing" that I had set up for the session.

I'm not as sure about how many people in this session had played before or not.  I think we still had a majority that had not played the system before, but I think we had a couple that had played, and a few that had read the books before.

We also had almost a whole table that was familiar with the New Mutants as characters, so there was less of a familiarity issue than the Young Avengers presented.

One of the things I liked about this session is that the players really wanted to describe what they were doing in terms of surprising the enemy or ambushing them, but even the people that were unfamiliar with the game system seemed to pick up on how to do things fairly quickly.

I also liked that the narrative and the game rules made it easy to figure out how to play characters and make them "feel" right.  For example, Hydro Man continually had a "burried in rubble" complication thrown on him, so I was spending a lot of my time running Hydro Man removing complications by reforming from the rubble.

The nicest thing about this session was probably the couple that told me that they were glad they had signed up for another session that I was running that weekend.

Young Avengers Redux--Chaos in the Middle of the Day

My next two sessions weren't in the conference rooms, and while I love those rooms, I know you can't expect to run the whole convention in them.  I've run games in the large room used mainly for the Saturday auction before, as well as another room with multiple tables, and had a really good time and a generally positive result.

I have not, however, run anything in the auction room right after the auction concludes.  You would think that, as many years as I have gone to Winter War, I would have picked up on the fact that the auction always runs over, but, call me dense, I never picked up on that, nor connected the thought that the auction was scheduled to run right up until my event (and all of the others in the room) were to start.

It was over a half hour into the timeslot when we got going.  It might have even been closer to 45 minutes once all was said and done.  The tables were thrown together rather quickly to get things going, so we hardly had any room to get seated, and were so close to another RPG table and a board game table that it was very hard to hear one another.

Let me preface all of this by saying that Winter War is great.  The people that organize and run it do an amazing job, and it's a lot of fun.  However, the chaos of that afternoon event really makes me think about not running anything in the afternoon slot after the auction, because I don't want to provide a substandard experience for my players.

We had a slot open, and someone came in even later than we started.  He had no experience with the game before, and was a bit lost.  Unlike the previous sessions, it was a lot harder to stop and explain how the game worked and to answer his questions due to the proximity of the other game tables with the hasty set up.

All of that having been said, four of the players had been in sessions already that weekend, which definitely helped.  The couple from the other session was back for this one, and seemed to enjoy themselves, and discussed buying one of the books, likely the hardcover of Civil War, so that they could play after the convention.

My two regulars from my Thursday night games, the two playing Cyclops and Wolverine the previous night, took Wiccan and Hulkling this time around.  That was some serious night and day roleplaying, and it was great.

All in all, despite the noise and the late start, most of the players seemed to have a good time, but I feel bad about our newbie that likely left not knowing what he had just sat through.

Saturday Night Live--Breakout, New Avengers Style

Saturday night we were also in the auction room, but this time my experience was much more like previous times I had been scheduled to use the room.  I arrived in the room early with some of my regulars, and we moved the RPG tables further apart, and moved our table back towards the wall a bit  more, and not only did everyone have room to move and get to their seats, the extra few feet we created by setting up more carefully made it a lot easier to hear one another.

This session was the first half of the Breakout event from the Basic Game, and I offered the players the choice of eight characters that had affiliations with the New Avengers.  We ended up with Captain America, Spider-Man, Spider-Woman, Luke Cage, and Iron Man.

By this time, we only had one player that wasn't familiar with the game system.  They picked up on the game system pretty quickly, and also really keyed into the Milestones that Luke Cage had.  For the more experienced players, I was giving them the option of activating their limits a bit more, as Cap lost his shield and Spidey ran out of web fluid.

I also got to run one of my favorite villains from the Breakout event again--Graviton.  Running Graviton against the team reminds me of why I really like Marvel Heroic and why it hits the superheroic RPG chord better for me than other systems.  Even before Graviton got his turn, I was burning the Doom Pool left and right to inflict effect dice on his successful reactions to attacks.  I had most of the Avengers injured or complicated, and only took one turn before the team defeated him, but it still felt like an epic fight and one worthy of the comics, because of all of the options I had as the Watcher.

Saturday ended on a high note, and I had a nice, warm, fuzzy Watcher glow leaving the convention center that night.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Racing to Ruin (Star Wars Edge of the Empire Recap, February 14th, 2013)

I have seven players in my Edge of the Empire game.

  • Tash Lindar is a human starship designer that owes some favors after getting his dream starship designed.  
  • Prawn is a Rodian slicer and pilot that is in deep with the Hutts, and is deathly afraid of needles.  
  • Akkit Ntik is a Jawa sneak thief and shooter that is obsessed with committing crime, which explains why he spends so much time with other species, because it's easier to commit crimes in societies with more laws.  
  • Max Damage is a Human supremicist that actually feels bad for the lesser races (i.e. he doesn't want them wiped out or harmed, he just assumes they can't run their own lives without being a danger to themselves and others), and is a jack of all trades.  
  • Osskwo is a Trandoshan gunman who is the strong silent type. 
  •  Rak T'Shey is a Twi'lek fast talker and thief that's been in hip deep with organized crime for a while and is sure that he can always come out on top.
  • Sleerin is a Force sensitive Squib that lives for the deal, and puts a lot of stock in the feelings the Force gives him, even if he doesn't follow a particular Force tradition or philosophy, beyond the Squib Mystic Martial Arts of Combat and Transactions.
So of that group, Sleerin and Rak are definitely faces, and Max can certainly pull face duty if he needs to do some talking.  The others, not so much.

Last session, for Valentine's Day, we were short Sleerin, Rak, and Max.  

We left off last session with the group being recruited by the Zann Consortium to do a job as yet not detailed, and Sleerin negotiating for some upgrades to the YV-664 that the group is getting from the Consortium.

While 3/7th of the team was gone, I decided to have one of the Zann Consortium toughs challenge the remaining characters to a test to prove that they had stones the size of a Bull Rancor's, which they were going to need for the job they are getting hired on to do.  The team needed to boost an airspeeder and convince an underground racing circuit to let them race in a dangerous, illegal race.  They didn't need to win, just prove that they had been in the race and survived.

(I'll edit out the discussion of how visible a Bull Rancor's "stones" might be since it's a "reptomammal," as opposed to a full reptile, and how that relates to the "stones" of a Trandoshan.  Have to love gaming chatter.)

The group has few credits and no ID  (or at least no ID they can use, without getting picked up by Imperial Center Security).  Osskwo and Tash were discussing the finer points of boosting a vehicle and where to do it, while Akkit just headed out to do it, and Prawn followed him to keep him out of trouble.

Akkit did a fine job of sneaking up to the speeder unnoticed, and Prawn caught up to him and used the com link to keep an eye out for him.  Akkit disarmed the alarm and hotwired the airspeeder in broad Coruscant daylight, but Prawn, unfortunately, stood out a bit as a Rodian in an nice, upscale neighborhood.

Prawn was carrying a rifle, and could not produce ID, so the Coruscant Stormtroopers that happened upon him  (a dozen) assumed he was a threat, and began to beat him mercilessly with stun staffs.  I had originally thought that the whole team would go together, rather than a single member of the group facing a dozen Stormtroopers, so Prawn now has nightmares about both needles in the back of his head  (an unfortunate moment with the team's former assassin/medical droid and a stim pack administered at a crucial moment with little bedside manner) and a dozen stun staffs flashing blue and shocking him into oblivion.  

Akkit is a great sneak and thief.  Piloting not so much.  He manages to fly by Prawn as he takes off and snags him with a hooked bungie cord, but can't pull him back into the speeder, and manages to fly around in a circle right over the troopers.  The troopers pile into their speeder to give chase, and Akkit flies a giant loop so as to drop Prawn into the speeder, and manages to slam into a landing platform, damage the speeder, knock himself unconscious, and allows the speeder to fly uncontrolled down several levels to crash into an alleyway in the undercity.

The troopers loose the out of control speeder before it crashes, but Prawn and Akkit are unconscious in a dark alleyway, in one of the less savory neighborhoods in Coruscant/Imperial Center.  

After working on an actual plan, Tash and Osskwo head to a run down neighborhood in the Undercity.  Instead of trying to sneak up to a speeder and steal it, Osskwo (making a Cool check), snarls at anyone keeping an eye on him and looks like he belongs in the rough neighborhood, and anyone on the street avoids him.

Osskwo and Tash find a booby trap on the speeder, and Tash sets it so that it can be triggered later on.  He then tinkers with the speeder to make it more maneuverable, and the two set off to the races, set under a trash processing plant.

Since the pair weren't invited to the race, the race coordinators set their security droid on the pair to see if they check out and if they can impress the droid.  BA-22 tells them to get lost unless they can prove that they belong in the race, and Tash  (who "speaks Binary") helps Osskwo glower at the security droid until the droid is sure that they will at least have enough bravado to be entertaining during the race, and signals the coordinators that they "seem legit."

The racing circuit flies under the processing plant, which drops metal shards from broken down machinery onto conveyors, and also, from time to time, drops a stream of melted metal from the recyclers into basins on the next lower level.  So there are hazards to avoid, and the racers, since it's an underground circuit, are allowed to "make things more interesting," which is code for allowing the teams to shoot at one another.

Right out of the gate, the player's speeder starts out faster, but the other team fires on their speeder, their mechanic scores a couple of nasty shots to Osskwo, and the teams dodge the first load of metal scrap from the sky.

Both airspeeders avoid the scrap, but the other speeder pulls ahead.  Osskwo fires a well placed shot at the pilot, who miraculously survives the blast  (he's a Nemesis, and I spend a fate point to reset his wounds and gave him a critical).  

The molten metal falls out of the sky, and Tash and Osskwo dodge it.  Tash uses his "Bad Motivator" ability to stall out the opponents.

Then the spiral starts.  The pilot botches his first roll, and everyone takes damage from the molten metal.  This takes out the gunners, but the mechanic and the pilot are fine.  But the bad motivator stalls out the airspeeder, and they attempt to avoid the molten metal again, to no avail.  The mechanic is now gone, and the pilot flips another fate point to reset and take a critical.

That critical causes him to take damage from the same source again.  Which causes him to flip another fate point to reset and take another critical.  Which causes him to take the same crit again--receiving damage from the same source again, which not only takes out the pilot, but does enough structural damage to the airspeeder that it blows up.

So the pilot hits the molten metal, loses his crew, has a problem with the ship, stalls out, circles around the molten metal again, watches his mechanic burn, and circles around again, right into the stream of molten metal, and explodes, with his boots full of liquid durasteel.

To win, Osskwo and Tash only need to survive another hail of shredded metal from the sky, which they do, and return victorious to the Zann Consortium front bar.  And then realize that Akkit and Prawn are still missing.  

Watching the Holonet, they manage to find a newsfeed about an unidentified Rodian hanging from a stolen airspeeder that crashed into the Undercity earlier that day, and the two spend hours trying to follow the trajectory from the news, until they finally find Akkit and Prawn, naked and robbed of anything remotely valuable.

Earlier I had rolled for Akkit's obligation to come up in this session.  Akkit is just obsessed with crime.  He has an urge to commit random, dangerous crimes, and if he ignores them for too long, his obligation goes up, and the random minor crimes he has committed catch up with him and make it harder for everyone. 

So Akkit, having recovered one single wound and naked, goes on a crime spree.  His first impulse  (as per his obligation) is to steal something shinny and potentially not immediately helpful, so he sneaks into an upscale shop, past its security, to steal a portable handheld rock polisher.  Top of the line, too.

Then he sneaks into a gunshop to get back an ion blaster and something for him to do more deadly damage with as well, all the while upset and swearing revenge about losing his upgraded, tricked out blaster.  Finally, he steals some clothes off of a homeless man in an alleyway because the clothes "smelled about right" to be fashioned into Jawa robes.

The party then returns to the Zann Consortium bar to hear the final details worked out between Sleerin, Max, and Rak with the Consortium representatives.  Prawl has vowed not to keep Akkit out of trouble in the future.

Last Time, in the Dungeon (Dungeon Crawl Classics Recap, Feb 7th, 2013)

I had canceled my Dungeon Crawl Classics game that was scheduled just before Winter War, so we had nearly as big a gap between DCC games as I had between my Star Wars games due to my illness. Thankfully it wasn't too hard to get back into the swing of things.

Warning, Some Spoilers for the DCC Adventure People of the Pit:

The group was investigating cult activity near a rift, a rift with a giant tentacled monster, for the Inquisitor that killed their village.  Gold and a writ from the Inquisition declaring them free from the taint of vile sorcery and Chaos is the prize.

DCC 68 The People of the Pit at RPG Now
Going into this session, we have had a few unlucky players that went through more than a full set of 0 level characters, and other players that had managed to hold on to two or even three characters.  The last session, we lost a few due to some bad luck and mercurial magic.

The party decided to camp outside of a room they hadn't explored yet, which meant that the bad guys, including a toan  (a mutated half-elemental eyeless toad thing), burst in on them while resting.  One of them went running out of the room, and managed to trigger another encounter with another toan from the other direction.

This would have been horrible, if not for the fact that the toans, big bad creepy otherworldly monsters that they were, apparently have an ability not on their stat blocks.  They roll lots of 1s.  I mean so many 1s that it has to be some kind of metagame manifestation of their unnatural existence.

Now, our player that created a new 0 level character, after having run through all of his original 0 level characters and then some, rolled up an amazing character for 3d6 in order.  That is why we knew he would die.  More on that later.

The group finds some cultists, encounters some teleporters, figures out how to use them, finds some talismans for some other teleporters, and manages to more or less skip a whole level of the dungeon  (unlike some other adventures I've run, the nice thing about The People of the Pit is that it pretty much assumes that some parties will just skip whole sections, so while it may be nice to explore areas, it may not happen, and the story and PC slaughter go on).

Oh, and as a happy side effect of a few of the character's careers before adventuring, one of the party members managed to skin the featureless face off of one of the cultists, sew it to the hood his robes, and make a disguise that kept a tentacle from attacking him while it instead slammed into his fellow adventurers.  The glee with which this disguise was created was both amusing and disturbing.

The party splits up again, with half of them fighting some more cultists  (and figuring out the whole color coded robes as it relates to ability to summoning tentacles from the thing in the pit to fight for them), and one of them finding a tentacle elevator and riding it all the way down to the final encounter area.

"Tentacle Elevator" produces fewer disturbing results on Google than "Octomass" does.  Not by much, though.
To my surprise, he doesn't charge straight to the cultists near the great pit where the main mass of the otherworldly earth elemental tentacle things is, but darts into a few tents, and finds some villagers that explain that the cultists have been sneaking into their villages, stealing people, finding some that willingly join, and shoving octomasses into the guts of others to "replace" them with regrown former members of the cult.

Eventually the rest of the party survives the cultists upstairs, and rides their own tentacle down to the final area of the adventure.  They meet up with their brave fellow that ventured ahead of them, and proceed to charge the villainous cult leader.

So, everyone is 1st level, except one player's character, we have six players, and still have multiple players that have multiple characters.  The 0 level cultists throwing rocks take out the 0 level character and do serious damage to several other party members.  Meanwhile the toans continue to have their head in another plane of existence, but avoid any more 1s.

One of the players uses his mercurial magic side effect to scare off the mass of 0 level cultists, and one of the elves comes up with a plan and asks if he can hold off on his attack until just after the other player's character engages the Blue Sorcerer, the leader of the cult.  I felt a little bad because the hood/face disguise didn't really help the party in this fight, since one of the people with the disguised party member charged the cultists.

The other player takes out the Blue Sorcerer, which would normally precipitate something bad for the cultists with him, as the creature is bound to him and is upset with his death, pulling all of his cultists into the pit and . . . well, the other player's action went off as soon as the Blue Sorcerer was attacked.

He cast the mother of all sleep spells by doing 20 points of Spellburn, and named the condition of waking up his companions pecking them with his beak  (he grew a beak, if you missed the recap from a few sessions back . . . it's DCC . . . magic is weird and dangerous . . . sometimes elves grow beaks).

Unfortunately, the death of the Blue Sorcerer and the rage of the earth elemental creature as it retreats into the earth and pulls its tentacles from the cult's underground complex triggers a 10 minute long sequences of falling rocks that do 1d6 points of damage per round to anyone not actively climbing out of the pit.

The elf that cast the spell hightails it out, after doing some quick math showing him that pecking anyone would essentially kill him.  The other elf also heads out.  Amazingly, even Spellburned the elf makes it out of the pit.  So, for 10 minutes the rest of the party is beaten to death with a collapsing dungeon complex.

In an uncanny parallel between gaming and real life, I am pummeled with ten minutes of verbal barrage about selecting two adventures in a row where the dungeon complex falls apart after the BBEG is destroyed.  Thankfully the verbal barrage didn't do 1d6 per round, or I have a lot more hit points than I realized.

Overall the group still had a good time.  This, despite the fact that there were only two survivors--the elves that didn't fall asleep when the cavern started to collapse.  I think that the players that had most fatalities were actually the ones ready have their character allotment trimmed down.

So What Did I Screw Up . . . er, What Did I Learn?

While the group did seem to enjoy themselves, having another major adventure end with caverns collapsing, even if it was in the adventure as written, did seem to be a bit much.  I should have modified the ending a bit to avoid the obvious comparison, or waited to spring this adventure on them after I had a non-collapsing end to an adventure.

I also should have done a better job of explaining patrons and how the players select and use them.  I've had a couple times where players wanted to call on a patron that was undefined, because I didn't clarify not to take a patron that wasn't better fleshed out, and wanted a ruling on the fly about what they got from their patron.

So I clarified that I'd rather they take patrons for whom the patron bond is more clearly fleshed out, because I didn't want to either give them a get out of jail free card from the spell because I was being too nice, or a handshake and a pat on the back right before they were being decapitated because I was being too stingy.

This was totally on me, as I should have spelled this out sooner.  Thankfully, I also pointed out that they are free to take the patrons from Angels, Daemons, and Beings Between, as it has proven to be a really nice third party sourcebook.

Finally, the survivors are both arcane spellcasters--elves--and I didn't have a potential source for new spells ready to go.  I should have done a better job of having something ready to go, as I assumed that eventually they would level up and should have the chance to learn new spells, but I pinned a bit too much on the Whispering Workbook magic item that I gave them, which got lost in the landslide.

This game doesn't need nearly the level of planning and prep that Pathfinder does, but after the convention and being sick, I did let too much fall between the cracks from the Judges side of the screen.  Hopefully it didn't bother the players too much.

Oddly, not having answers ready for the players seems to be a bigger wet blanket to the overall fun of the campaign than killing them.  Death is fun, nebulous answers is no fun.  Got it.