Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Reports from the Orient Express - Overview & London

This is a review of the revised Call of Cthulhu campaign Horror on the Orient Express (Chaosium: 2014) based on actual play.  I intend to review each chapter of this venerable campaign as we play through it, highlighting what I see as strengths and weaknesses, and providing some suggestions along the way for what I’d do differently if running it again.  Spoilers follow, so don’t read on if you ever plan to play in this classic Call of Cthulhu campaign. 

I begin with an overview of the campaign, based primarily upon my read-though, then move onto the London segment of the campaign which my group recently completed.

It was a long wait to get the physical box set (roughly 2.5 years since it was funded), but it has to be said that the final product is magnificent, the production values are simply amazing.  In addition to all the props and pieces, there is excellent support for the keeper in facilitating the campaign – Book I is devoted to an overview of the campaign, key players and settings, while Book V (Strangers on the Train) is a cast of pre-generated NPC’s to help the GM flesh out the investigator’s journey and Book VI is a compilation of handouts. 

These are great additions to make the GM’s life easier, especially when navigating the 3 core scenario books at the table.  The utility and quality of this product has been recognised and reflected in the 4 ENnie Award nominations it picked up this year.

So what about the campaign itself?  Well, it‘s a pretty impressive and comprehensive offering.  There are exotic locations, including the Orient Express itself, multiple villains and some of the most evocative horror scenes to grace a table.  When you count all the new adventures, it’s probably enough gaming to last most gaming groups for the better part of a year. 

There are drawbacks too; the plot it is very linear, the setup and ending are restrictive and there are many sections where character agency is simply not assumed or factored, making plenty of additional work for the keeper (I'll cover this in more detail as part of each chapter review).  The authors of the revised product chose to keep much of the old campaign intact (and how could they not really, given its legendary status?), choosing to try and smooth some of the rougher edges (particularly the ending) and add a lot of additional material in the form of scenarios set in other eras, including a lengthy Dreamlands offering.

The revised campaign is also intended to be run using the 7th edition Call of Cthulhu rules (which currently exist only in electronic form).  However, it feels as though the text isn’t really optimised for 7th edition.  Sure the skill checks in the text refer to difficulty levels and the NPC and monster core attributes and fighting skills have been converted to the new rules, but in 7th edition a lot of NPC interaction is resolved using checks where the difficulty is established based on the NPC skill level.  So ideally relevant NPC skills would be written in the core text when the characters are extremely likely to interact with the investigator if following the plot as written, so the GM doesn’t have to keep skipping to the back. 

Then there are the chase mechanics which comprise a significant section on the 7th edition rules.  There is at least one formal chase in the campaign but some other obvious opportunities haven’t been framed in this way (the conclusion to the Nocturne or the Little Cottage in the Woods chapters for example).  In addition, if popular films are anything to go by, it seems inconceivable that there not be a chase through (or on top) of the Orient Express itself (perhaps for a Pulp Cthulhu run anyway).

Finally, I want to mention what, for me, is the central campaign experience.  While treasure hunting and confronting horrors both mortal and supernatural are major aspects, to me key theme of Horror on the Orient Express is the journey of the characters from light into darkness (which parallels their journey across Europe).  The artefacts they carry, the horrors they will face, and the relentless nature of their objective all seem likely to erode the characters compassion, sanity and ultimately their humanity, giving the players a really fascinating opportunity to reveal the essence of their investigator through hardship. 

Of course, this means the investigators needs to survive, and this is no easy task as the lethality of the campaign is definitely weighted toward the latter chapters.  If you can manage this feat however, the 7th edition sanity mechanics, paired with the campaign’s suggestions about the effect of the Simulacrum on investigators, are a great way to allow the keeper and player to mechanically reflect this journey, as the keeper may draw on the Simulacrum to twist the elements of an investigators backstory when they suffer a bout of madness, and the investigator may also use their backstory to employ a ‘self-help’ sanity gain between stops.  So, on to London.

Dancers in an Evening Fog and the Doom Train
1920’s London is an evocative setting to get things underway, and the campaign encourages the investigators to experience a little of British high-society against a backdrop of industrial unrest. Regrettably the London segment of the campaign is relatively brisk and punctuated with two lengthy monologues by Professor Smith, the first of which has little actual relevance to coming events.

The campaign setup that is the focus of this chapter seems weak on paper, but in actual play, the players were willing to meet the plot half-way and agree to undertake the dangerous quest that Professor Smith outlines, so as to help a friend in need.  Whether this motivation will endure the hardships the investigators have yet to suffer remains to be seen.

There is little opportunity for investigator agency as this chapter revolves around set-pieces which occur in sequence.  That said; it gets the job done, the investigators have a chance to test their investigation skills a little, and begin their quest with a clear objective, a list of clues and the resources to complete their task.

The corpse planted in the reading room of the British Museum is a nice touch, and certainly heightened the tension amongst the more research-focussed characters, but regrettably there is little explanation as to how this feat was accomplished (leading to the suspicion that Makryat may have engaged in Weekend at Bernie’s style shenanigans).

I also think there’s an opportunity to spice things up a little (for Keeper’s looking to inject a little more excitement into the opening chapter).  It seems likely that Makryat’s reputation would be well established amongst unsavoury elements of London’s occult underworld. The newspaper reports detailing his demise might lead some of these individuals to investigate his shop and see if there are any artefacts to be plundered.   The characters might chance upon a burglary in progress, possibly leading to (wait for it) a chase through fog shrouded streets, a scuffle or a tense stand-off.  This could, in turn, lead to the recovery of the ledger, or a page torn from it which details the model train sale (drawing the characters attention to this clue), or perhaps Makryat has left some notes about the simulacrum which could serve to reduce the length and detail of Smith’s monologue later and lend credence to the Turkish cult’s interest.

The main issue for me is that, as scripted there is little likelihood of the characters engaging in the Doom Train scenario.  Now I think the Doom Train is a neat little side adventure, but the main hook is not published in the newspaper until the day after Professor Smith has begged the investigators to “Go. Go quickly” fearing that the cult may already be moving to gather the Simulacrum.  Unsurprisingly the authors note that the two playtest groups for the new campaign didn’t play this scenario.

It is also possible that the players will have come to the scenario by reading the ledger in Makryat’s shop, but this seems pretty unlikely unless one of the characters is an accountant with a proclivity for breaking and entering (or you employ my earlier suggestion to spice things up).

This can be fixed by simply moving the publication of the newspaper story (and the manifestation of the Doom Train) earlier in the timeline of the week, immediately following Makryat’s triple homicide and hoping the investigators are suspicious, or bored enough to investigate. 

A more elegant solution would be to run the Doom Train as a prequel scenario.  It ties in very neatly with the interest of Professor Smith in phantasms.  Under this approach the investigators might be asked by Professor Smith to help with the preparation of his material for the Challenger Lecture by investigating the reported manifestation of a ghost train and disappearance of Albert Alexis in 1917.  Perhaps a witness to this manifestation who described the ghost train to the papers (since institutionalised) can provide information which puts the investigators on the trail of the model train, but before they reach him, Henry Stanley ‘disappears’, which segues into the scenario as written.

Running the Doom Train like this would allow the investigators to actually participate in part of the Challenger Lecture (lifting the load on the Keeper somewhat), describing whatever they chose to reveal of events on the Doom Train to a rapt audience, their incredible tale substantiated by the sensational reappearance of the train.  These events would certainly prove the resourcefulness and skill of the investigators to those watching…

In summary:

  • The opening chapter of the campaign takes place in an evocative setting and sets up the campaign with the investigators clear about what must be done, and possessing clues and the necessary the resources to get the job done.
  • There are some nice touches to add to the tension of the game, particularly the corpse in the British Museum Reading Room, the bizarre deaths of Makryat and attack on Professor Smith.
  • The Doom Train is a neat and memorable side adventure that really helps set the tone of danger and supernatural horror for the forthcoming campaign.
  • The rationale for the characters to drop everything and depart on a treasure hunt across Europe is weak.
  • There is little opportunity for investigator agency as this chapter revolves around set-pieces and lengthy monologues which occur in sequence.
  • There are some elements that may require Keeper improvisation; for example there is no provision for the investigators to seek clues from the Police following the fire at Professor Smith’s house (despite the Police being a line of inquiry for Makryat’s death and the disappearance of Arthur Stanley).  Beddow’s also seems a viable suspect following the newspaper report of the fire but there is no detail on his life, friends family etc.
  • As written, it is unlikely the investigators will play the Doom Train scenario.

So, in summary; a reasonable beginning to set up the campaign, but with some awkward components that seem like they could have the potential to be much better fleshed out and integrated, to make life easier for the keeper, and increase player engagement.

Other parts of this review:
The Blood Red Fez

ADDENDUM: Dooming the Investigators
After further reflection, I'd like to make an additional comment on the lethality of the Doom Train scenario.  Regarding the attacks of the dead passengers, the scenario states "against such slow-moving attacks, an investigator may Dodge twice in a round."  Under 7e, investigators may make a dodge in response to each brawl attack made against them, so this reflects no actual benefit. In addition, as the passengers outnumber the investigators, the second attacker should receive a bonus dice.

Run as scripted, therefore, multiple investigator fatalities are quite possible. A keeper who wishes to avoid this outcome might reflect the slow nature of the dead by choosing not to apply the outnumbering bonus, and may even grant a bonus dice to an investigator attempting to use a combat manoeuvre to push their way through the press.

Another option might be allocate the dead passengers damage of 1D8 Magic Points per successful Kiss.  Under the 7e rules characters who reach 0 Magic Points suffer any subsequent damage as Hit Points (rather than falling unconscious as under previous editions).  This allows the dead passengers to more slowly drain the life of their victims, making the struggle slightly less extreme in stakes.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Arkham, Awards and New Adventures

First I wanted to point you to the nominees for ENnie Awards this year; these awards celebrate excellence in roleplaying products.  Voting is now open and it doesn’t take long to go through and vote and I encourage you to take a look and exercise your ability to participate, if you see some things you like.  I don’t have a product nominated this year, although my whodunit RPG Wicked Lies & Alibis picked up a judges spotlight award (thanks to the excellent taste of Judge Stacy Muth). 

I’ve posted before about the beautiful agony of the ENnie Awards, where micro-publishers like myself can (if we’re lucky) be nominated, but ultimately are extremely unlikely to win an actual award based on the size of our customer base (when compared with much larger publishers).  The Judges Spotlight Award, on the other hand,  is a perfect recognition for a micro-publisher like me.   In related news, friend and one-time EPOCH scenario author Mike Sands has been nominated in the category of Best Rules for the Evil Hat edition of his bestselling game Monster of the Week, so congratulations to Mike!

We’ve just wrapped up the 13th and final session of Arkham Chronicles, and cleared our way to play the (recently ENnie Award Nominated) Horror on the Orient Express, now that it has finally arrived in magnificent physical form.  You may recall that we had already played the Orient Express Gaslight prequel scenario – The Blood Red Fez.  I plan to run the Orient Express campaign with all the trimmings, including the Invictus, Dark Ages, Modern and Dreamlands additions, as well as music, miniatures, and all manner of handouts as appropriate. 

As I read through the campaign I am reminded just how old some parts of it are.  The implicit assumptions about character actions and motivations are not something you’d expect to see in a modern scenario, as they are simply too brittle to survive contact with resourceful, creative and engaged players – highlighting a tension that can (appropriately in this case) be termed as railroading.  Rather than simply try and shoehorn the characters into difficult and dangerous situations, or frustrate their players by stymieing any but the approved investigative avenue, I’ve had some open conversations with my group about this aspect of the game. 

As I told them, I’ll do my best to meet them half-way with these kind of plot elements, but I’ve pushed the players to look to their own characters motivations, and to view the game as a television series, where the setup is usually the same at the beginning of the episode, sometimes ignoring just how crazy and dangerous things were in the previous episode.  I’m also using some of the optional elements from Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition and introducing a house rule; a ‘Mark of Destiny’ which will work as a one shot option to allow a character to avert certain death, take a reduced SAN loss or boost their Luck (this being a critical resource in 7th edition using the optional rules, to both levy consequences and enhance investigative progress).
I’ve really enjoyed running the Arkham Chronicles, and it’s been a great way to develop characters which have strong player buy-in before the campaign and learn the seventh edition rules a little as we go.  As is traditional, I post the key stats from this mini-campaign below:
  • Dark Rivals (Dead Reckonings)
  • Darkness Illuminated (Island of Ignorance)
  • Dead Light
  • Missed Dues
  • The Condemned  (H.P. Lovecraft’s Arkham)

Players  = 7
Characters created = 8
Characters killed = 0
Characters institutionalised = 1
Outer Gods encountered = 1
Great Old Ones encountered = 1

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Buckets of Dice 2015

This weekend I attended Buckets of Dice, a roleplaying convention held in Christchurch, New Zealand.  This was my second time attending - I previously attended in 2013, and this year I was keen to offer attendees a chance to play my new game Wicked Lies & Alibis as well as Harvest,  an EPOCH scenario from The Experiment Continues.

Attendance at Buckets has increased significantly since 2013, with more than 90 folks attending this year, playing in tabletop RPGS, the two large LARPs, the Grand Strategy and board game offerings.  I only attended 3 rounds this year due to other commitments.

In terms of organisation, my impression was that the size of Buckets has now outstripped their current  arrangements (for example people had to ask an organiser which games they had been allocated, creating an unnecessary bottleneck and workload, and scoring and nominations were not in rooms, nor were there rubbish bins in rooms) but the 'con also had some other great innovations - a code of conduct printed in the schedule booklet, free fruit for all attendees, and an attendee pack which included a notebook and pencil for all important note taking!

Round One - A Night to Remember
I had pre-registered and selected 4 picks of games I wanted to play, however the organiser had apparently not received this, so I hadn't been allocated a first round game. There were just two first-round games not full so I picked one at random to play; A Night to Remember which used Urban Shadows (a supernatural/political hack of Apocalypse World).

As a side note, when I attended Buckets in 2013 I noted just how popular the Apocalypse World hacks are with Cantabrians - this enthusiasm seems undiminished two years on, with a great many AW hacks on offer at Buckets including a mega-dungeon (world).

I was playing a mortal, Lewis, who hustled on the streets selling replica handbags, while also dealing in information about the supernatural events in the city. As it turned out the game was to be a largely political summit with the players each representing a faction and negotiating with one another and several NPCs to try and broker a peace in amongst the supernatural factions.  Lewis was not the best choice for this setup, as the game soon became a standoff between the demon-affiliated character and the others (which included an angel, hunter and ghost). 

Although I was less than convinced about the execution of the main activity of the game (player negotiation across the table without any specific information or knowledge to enable this to be a good reflection of the character aims) the game did reach a suitably dramatic and definitive conclusion in line with the GMs expectations.

Round Two - Wicked Lies & Alibis
I had a group of enthusiastic players for this game, and they did a great job of bringing the complex cast they created to life. They selected High Stakes as they liked the premise of a murder mystery aboard a Zeppelin, so began a tale of intrigue and deceit. 

The cast included Ge-Ge a beautiful actress and her secret lover Reginald (a banker who was financing the fascist movement in Brazil).  Karen a French politician who was secretly married to Father Willard, a catholic priest, while also having an affair with Amelia Jones, a German film director.  As you might imagine with such a group of suspects, accusations mounted swiftly, while there were also plentiful alibis provided by those engaged in romantic entanglements.  Ultimately, it turned out the Ge-Ge had dispatched the victim in a fit of rage, and she was arrested - taking the opportunity to pose for photos from the gathered press before being led away.

We completed the game in  two hours and as there were still two hours remaining in the round I gave the players the option of playing a second case, or getting an early dinner and having time to get ready for the flagship LARP.  They wanted to play again, so this time we played A Knight in the Maze, a classic British country-house murder.

Clearly in the swing of things, the players wasted no time getting stuck in; the cast for this case included Lady Matilda who was having an affair with Helmut the German gardener.  Helmut's sister, Victoria a textile industrialist (who was adopted at birth and raised in Britain) was also present along with Elizabeth, a young and recently impoverished woman who was cousin to the victim, and Dr. Weston a Texan medical doctor with a love for guns.  After a tense series of exchanges and revelations it was revealed the Dr. Weston was the murderer, and in his riveting confession he outlined how Sir Richard (the victim) had wronged his momma back in the U.S. and richly deserved the justice had had administered.

It went very well, and I think the players had a good time (several purchased copies of the game afterwards) - I know I had a lot of fun.

Round Four- Harvest
I didn't attend the LARP, and the next morning I found that had four players for this EPOCH scenario (the fifth being a no-show following a late night at the LARP).  They swiftly created compelling stories for their characters, an unlikely group of friends; Wylie a wild party animal in High School had nearly died in an OD and reformed his life, while Frank and James had kept their high school rivalry alive with James a semi-professional athlete, and Frank a competitive body-builder.  Finally Andrea, a shy and bookish member of the group, clearly had feelings for Frank, and it was revealed this had ultimately led to a shocking murder prior to the scenario beginning.

The game went very well with the characters experiencing a series of unsettling events at the seaside town of Hudson's Point in the lead-up to a harvest festival.  The escalating tension finally erupted, and only Frank and Andrea made it out alive, the tragic sacrifices of their friends enabling them to  achieve a total victory and ultimately a happy ending.

Overall I had a great time at Buckets, it's a neat 'con and well worth attending; as tabletop events diminish in Wellington and Auckland, Buckets is rapidly becoming a major RPG event and one of the few NZ events with a good range of tabletop offerings.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

In Their Own Words

I posted previously about my sandbox style Call of Cthulhu game, the Arkham Chronicles.  We've just completed our eighth session, and things have gone as well as I'd hoped.  The characters have all developed nicely, and had a tense time of things surviving challenges both Mythos and mundane.  Rather than spending time describing the game from my perspective, I thought I'd post some excerpts of character fiction the players have been creating to fill in missing players on events.  So here is a snapshot of my game in the words of the characters:

From the personal records of Frank Cutter P.I.:
"Baby, its been a rough week...

They say guys came back like that from the war, in pieces that nobody can see, nobody can put together again.  I’m like that. Or maybe not.  Maybe I’m the guy that breaks people into pieces and beats his friends wit a b-club because a mushroom is growin’ happily in his thick skull.  Who the hell knows anymore.

I felt fine in the hospital.  Better than fine, better than a cold beer on a hot day. I skipped out before I shoulda, I see that now. The docs were right. But hindsight is useless when you have dead children to step over on your way to the office. Its not like I’ll make that mistake twice."

From the diary of Sebastian Gilbert (engineer and radio salesman):
"It started out as a bit of a laugh really.  The desire to read those blasphemous, forbidden books a way of getting at Father and his God.  It was like watching a road crash, voyeuristic really, looking at someone’s private insanity.  Deep down I think I always knew some of it made some twisted sense that I was too afraid to admit to myself, but lately it is more real.  Those words that evil man tortured from that poor woman, or beast if Frank is to be believed, they eat into your mind, maggots eating at the necrotic flesh of my sanity.  I’m repulsed at the evil horror those words spell out on the page yet somehow hungry to know more.  The mundane life I live seems more and more insignificant.  I’m losing hope, I must understand."

A journal entry by sergeant Lorenzo Gatti (army recruiter):
"I should never have saved that lowlife Sticky Frank from those Irish thugs. Saving him set off a chain reaction of horror and violence. After the Irish Mob came into my hospital room and smashed my broken leg’s cast with a hammer, I needed to find the S O B..."

A letter from Louis Jarvie (medical student) to Dr McIlvoy:
"Anyway, my wallet got lifted, we chased after the bastard, with the help of the unfeasably
large and dextrous Conrad- the man is as fast as a greased weasle, I swear! We caught the disreputable filcher called Greasy, I know it will seem farfetched but I actually brought him down with the old Litmanns stethoscope you gave me, I swung it like an Argentine ranchero might use a bola, incredibly they wrapped around his lower legs and he dropped like the great clot he was. Then, in exchange for my fabulous whistle from Seb, Greasy gave away where his friend Sticky Frank was holed up, we went there as a group which in the end saved our bacon, though in honestly I couldn't help but feel if we'd had Frank around we would have had an easier time of it.
At the tenements we were shown inside by a kindly seeming old Russian lady and, it shames me to say but like any ninny minded chuckta, despite the business at hand, I felt at ease and took a seat alongside the handsomely put together Bessie, enjoying our close proximity perhaps more than is proper. 
My hand trembles as I write, but the elderly lady turned truely nasty and scalded poor Bessie with a coffee pot before stabbing her, I feel I was guided by a force greater than myself, which bid me rise, staunch Bessies bleeding, thereby saving her life, then returned me to myself, I turned and grasping a handy crucifix, for the whole room was cluttered with relegious imagery and icons, I attempted to strike the auld bag and instead found my sen sat on the floor with a deep cut to my thigh, but I know you will not be surprised, my ability with bareknuckle fighting is just as poor as it ever was. My auld form master would have had my guts for garters if he could've seen me."

A statement by Conad Black (photographer and army reservist):
"The fourth floor had two rooms, I think. The first one was horrible, it was like something was trying to burst through the walls, the sound. I can remember the sound of artillery hitting trees and the splintering noise.

The other door. I, I admit I lost it here.
There was something in that other room. It was horrible. I can still see it when my eyes are closed, the way it moves, undulating. The Sarge saved us. He shot at it and closed the door.
We somehow made it to the top floor. There was a noise, a weird music it tugged at the senses..."

From the diary of Bessie Steele (researcher at the Miskatonic University):
"I almost died today.  

Strange, it is to see those words on paper.  It all happened so quickly, I've not time to process.  
 Louis thinks I should be resting, rather than writing in my journal - I can sense him hovering outside.  The idea of sleep is somewhat terrifying, the fear of closing my eyes and them not opening again.  If not for Louis..."

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Roleplaying Aotearoa Style

In the past I've posted about New Zealand Roleplaying Products (Feb 2011) and the rise of New Zealand Roleplaying products, (Aug 2013) highlighting some great products authored by New Zealanders.  Now it's time for the 2015 edition, covering more RPG products by Kiwi authors:

We begin with a new edition of a title featured in the last instalment; Monster of the Week a new and revised edition of this best-selling monster-hunting roleplaying game powered by the Apocalypse.  Michael Sands teamed up with Evil Hat Productions to produce this slick product, packed with new art and containing some new material including an introductory mystery; example monsters like Balkan vampires, ghouls, and spore trolls; and hunter types like the Crooked and the Spell-Slinger.  Mike's also made available all the handouts and created a bundle of extra playbooks.

Next up is The Idea from Space by Simon Carryer.  This is an adventure suitable for low-level characters for use with Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Role-Playing and other traditional role-playing games.

Also by Simon is Nod, a game about a barbarian from the Shivering Steppe, hunting human quarry within the walls of the city. One night is all that is given to find the quarry and flee the city. But Nod is a place of dark alleyways, strange rituals, degenerate worship and corrupt rule. The barbarian's journey will have many crooked turns, and will never end where you expect.

Steve Hickey has recently released Left Coast: the Short Story edition a role-playing game about a science fiction writer in California (and her weird friends, family, fans and nemeses).  Steve also has Soth, a game about cultists just trying to do what cultists do, coming soon.

Jenni Sands recently published Quiet Day in the Library, which is an existential live action roleplaying game about memories, relationships and coping in a crisis.  Jenni has also authored Four Things, a simple, systemless game about ordinary people that examines the quirks and foibles which form our personalities and how we relate to each other. Inspired by games like Grace, Silver and White and a team building exercise.  She also published the horror sequel Four Spooky Things, which sets the self reflection on the backdrop of a player-chosen horror scenario.

True Love Match is a free game of romance and reality TV by Morgan Davie. You’ll need six people, a couple of rooms, and a few hours. It might mess you up a little....

Stepahnie and Catherine Pegg published Tesla's Wedding,  a giddy roleplaying game based on the steampunk genre, designed in a spirit of celebration and to evoke a feeling of joy; the story of how Tesla von und zu Drakenwyrm and Pierre de l’Eclaire, having Conquered the forces Arrayed against them and Founded a little town of their own in the Black Forest, are about to get married good and proper. 

Catherine Pegg also authored The Face of Oblivion,  a science-fiction chamber larp for 6-8 players, designed around a hard choice.  Disaster is coming: will you save a large group of people that you are responsible for, or a smaller group of everyone you ever loved and everything you ever cared about?

EPOCH scenario publication has continued apace and continues to showcase some great NZ talent with Andrew Millar, Liam Jones, Marcus Bone and Michael Sands and I all contributing scenarios to War Stories, which was nominated for an ENnie Award for best adventure. Morgan Davie and Andrew Millar also each contributed a scenario with proceeds donated to charity - Silent Night was published in Christmas 2013, White Wedding in Christmas 2014.  The EPOCH companion The Experiment Continues also features original scenarios by Donna Giltrap, Liam Jones, Alasdair Sinclair and I.

I also recently released Wicked Lies & Alibis, a whodunit roleplaying game set in the age of Art Deco enabling you to recreate murder mystery stories in the finest tradition of the goden-age of detective fiction. 

New Zealand writers also feature in the RPGgeek Dramasystem contest, in  particular Monster's Brawl by Morgan Davie and Grapes of Wharekaka by Eric Dodd.

Looking back over the last lists all the way back to early 2011, there has been a lot of growth.  Some names have appeared with regularity, their writing credits growing steadily, while there has also been an influx of new talent.  All in all it seems to be a vibrant and diverse community of writers, publishers and gamers. Perhaps we should all get together sometime?

If you know of a product I've missed, comment below.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Designer's Notes - Wicked Lies & Alibis

I recently launched a new game; Wicked Lies & Alibis, a whodunit roleplaying game set in the age of art deco.  I thought it might be interesting to briefly discuss how this game came about and the thinking behind some of the key design decisions that were made.

It all started when I was playtesting a new EPOCH scenario - Harvest - which was subsequently published in The Experiment Continues.  One of the suggested setups for the characters in the opening scene is that they are old friends who are travelling together to sprinkle the ashes of a recently deceased friend from the cliffs of her remote, coastal, hometown. This background served no purpose to the scenario beyond being a reason that the characters travel together to the town where the scenario begins

EPOCH is designed to encourage the players to construct interesting backstories for characters with a specific flashback mechanic.  As my playtest progressed the players began to focus on the story of the deceased friend, and created a Tarantinoesque story involving a drug-deal gone bad, double-crossing and finally death.  Each player used their flashback to show a different way in which the friend was badly injured during these escapades, but concluded with the friend being alive when they last saw them - implicating the other characters.

So engaging was this story of betrayal it came to compete with and even eclipse the scenario plot.  That led me to conclude that EPOCH worked pretty well to support this kind of a game. But what, I wondered, would a game that was explicitly designed to generate this kind of story look like?

I have always found it interesting that in most murder mystery stories the crime itself is fairly straightforward; the bulk of such stories are the lies, obfuscation and twists that the guilty, and not-guilty, weave in order to hide their secrets.  It seemed to me that there was a neat game experience to be had in recreating this kind of game for the tabletop, focussing on the human drama and secrets of the suspects, rather than the procedural aspects of following clues and deduction.

I started with character creation; EPOCH does a pretty good job of supporting the players to generate interesting concepts from a few card-based concepts which could be fleshed out in much greater detail over a single session, so I borrowed these mechanics - but there were a few tweaks I wanted to make.  For example, in the past I'd observed players complain they simply couldn't reconcile two randomly dealt character creation cards, and sometimes players would even agree to swap cards.  So, I decided it would be important to give the player several options so they could pick a combination of cards that suited them from the outset.  I also added a motive card which would have obvious importance for later in the game.

In EPOCH I suggest using a group relationship to help players establish an identity relative to one another.  For Wicked Lies & Albis I wanted this relationship to have a mechanical effect, so during the opening scenes each character can play a connection (which they specify) on another character, and both players look at each other’s secret motive and circumstance cards, binding them together in a way that enables them to help or incriminate one another later in the game.  During playtest this had the greatest impact when players established close relationships, particularly immediate family.  It also means that some characters might end up being heavily connected (and knowing a lot of other people’s secrets) which I think helps reflect the reality the way social groups actually work in real life.

The game itself is split into two parts.  The opening scenes serve to ease the players into their characters, and to interact in order to establish some basic relationships.  Another EPOCH device that I’ve slightly refined this is also where the GM does the scene setting and introduces the future victim, and at the conclusion, the means of their demise.

The System
The second part of the game is perhaps the real meat of the game experience.  I wanted the characters to be able to tell stories of the victim’s demise, and ultimately accuse each other – but I needed a way to balance the different skills and experience that players bring to the table, and create a story framework that was constrained enough that it could evolve over the course of the game, and where the key elements could be remembered by the players. 

My solution was to create a deck of accusation cards.  Each has an element that incriminates another character somewhat (for example the character has a violent temper or previously threatened to kill the victim), and a player draws three such cards in each of four rounds and choses one to play on another character at the table in order to incriminate them as the potential murderer.  Played cards remain on the table as a physical reminder of the story and where the weight of accusations sits. 

In the hands of some players these cards support the framing of a detailed flashback scene which culminates in an accusation; for others less interested in exercising narrative control, simply making the accusation across the table is sufficient.  There are also alibi cards that allow a player to cancel an accusation played on another character by providing an alibi, rather than making an accusation.

The key is that the accusations can fit any context that the players construct – for example we know the character of the actor has a violent temper because it has been narrated in an accusation that they assaulted a theatre critic who reviewed them poorly – now that we know the actor is violent and probably ambitious, so a further accusation might infer that perhaps the victim was preparing to fund their next theatrical outing and reneged at the last minute, or perhaps they were a beneficiary of the victim’s will and needed a cash injection to promote their career... As the accusations are played, we learn more about the character and their motive to murder.

So while the accusation cards provide elements of a story framework, the players are the ones who really shape the story.  Playing multiple accusations on a character allows players to build on one-another’s stories, and ultimately each is a vote for which of the emerging narratives is most compelling.  This is an unusual experience for the players as they begin the game with total autonomy over their character, but in the second part of the game, they give up some of this autonomy and gain a level of narrative power over other characters, while still remaining in the skin of their character. 

During this phase the GM takes a formal facilitation role through the NPC of the Great Detective, who already knows the identity of the murderer, but will only reveal this once the secrets of the key suspects, and their attempts to obfuscate the truth, have been laid bare.

Playtesting the game yielded a further element – players wanted to have the opportunity to respond immediately to accusation made against their character, by turning them back on their accuser.  So I added the Prime Suspect card (given to the character with the most accusations) which allows this to happen once per round, providing some disincentive to piling accusations on one character, while also providing a physical reminder of which character is soon to face charges for murder.  This all comes to a conclusion in a formal end scene, where each player provides a conclusion for their character.

So, how does this all work?  In my experience Wicked Lies & Alibis supports an almost entirely player-driven story experience, and balances interaction so that everyone at the table has a fairly equal degree of participation.  It manages this without needing a 10,000 word scenario or the threat of character elimination that is the modus operandi of EPOCH.  All the GM needs is a deck of cards, a one-page case summary and to have some idea about the Great Detective they want to portray.

That said, much like EPOCH, I imagine this won’t be a game for everyone, it’s pretty non-traditional, dispensing with attributes, skills and characteristics, and my perusal of relative sales status of DriveThruRPG titles suggests that while investigation is common in many popular RPGs, dedicated murder mystery RPGs don’t seem to have a huge following.  There’s also the need to assemble the deck, which is obviously a much higher bar to entry than simply grabbing your trusty dice and a pencil.

As always, it took much longer to pull together all the material I wanted to include than I initially imagined.  Following on from the example of EPOCH scenarios I wanted to offer some detailed facilitation notes to explain how to get the most from each phase of the game, and some summary materials to make the GM's life easy at the table (as a regular 'con GM I am a big advocate of simple reference sheets).  Then there is the historic context - I wanted to set this during the art deco period (mid 1920's- late 1930's) to parallel the 'golden age' of detective fiction, so I wanted to add a few historical details, but as this wouldn't be the focus of the game, I didn't want to get bogged down in this material, so I hit on the idea of introducing selected historical themes in the same way you'd introduce an NPC - some general details to enhance the flavour of the game.

So, that's a high-level overview of creating Wicked Lies & Alibis.  It makes it sound a much more orderly and planned experience than it actually was - at it's heart this is a game that evolved from a tabletop experience, and was refined through further gaming and experimentation.  

[Cross-Posted to Wicked Lies & Alibis]

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Arkham Chronicles

I've started running the Arkham Chronicles for my gaming group.  It's a sandbox style Call of Cthulhu campaign which serves the purpose of familiarising us with the 7th Edition rules, creating some characters with real history, while also filling the time until we can begin Horror on the Orient Express (my copy still hasn't arrived) and I'm not inclined to begin the campaign proper until the 7th Edition Kickstarter has also delivered books to the table.

I've run a Call of Cthulhu sandbox campaign before, set in Kingsport, and found it to be a very rewarding experience, as the players really spend some time developing their characters until the whole group has a real feel for these people, which obviously makes for a more compelling time when they are faced with the sanity shattering dangers of the Mythos.

My approach is to select several scenarios and weave the key elements of each into the characters daily lives along with some mundane (and quirky) elements - for example one of the scenarios I'm using (Darkness Illuminated from the Island of Ignorance) mentions missing animals.  So, to put this thread into the path of the characters, the Mayor's wife hired PC Frank Cutter, a Private Investigator to find Mr. Pickles, her missing spaniel.  I also had a PC Sergeant Gatti of the Arkham National Guard witness a man being beaten by two mob thugs (and intervene) which is a reference to forthcoming elements from 7th.ed scenario Missed Dues and introduced some foreshadowing for the events from The Condemned in H.P. Lovecraft's Arkham.

The players then ultimately determine when their characters become more immersed in each scenario, which triggers the next series of planned events.  It works fairly well, as the balance of time at the table is spent on elements related directly or indirectly to horror, although the majority of each characters time is spent on the mundane tasks of daily life.  There is also an implicit sharing of authority with the players, as they can clearly see linkages between the things each character encounters, and can choose how their characters might come to realise such connections.

The only real negative (thus far) is that there is slightly more down-time for the players than I'd normally like (exacerbated by the fact I currently have 7 players!)  as each character has their spotlight time and moves through the events of their day.   Again there is an implicit suggestion that if the players want to have less downtime, they can work to have their characters link with others.  It's still early days yet, and it will be interesting to see how this game develops.