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.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Kapcon 24

Over the weekend I attended Kapcon 24, a local roleplaying convention. This year I was only at Kapcon for Sunday (Rounds 5 and 6) but despite my short tenure I had a great time playing in one game and facilitating my new game 'Wicked Lies & Alibis'.

Round 5: Heroes of New Haven!
I've run my fair share of superhero games at Kapcon, so I was interested to see how Robert Vincent would balance securing player buy-in for superheroes created at the table, maintain realism while supporting an open story for the characters.  Robert didn't disappoint.  He used the 'Ladykillers' system to provide a really interesting moral overlay to the game, making it feel almost like a game of Dread, where each impulse to act had to be measured for it's moral value, and against potentially severe consequences.  On top of that the system generated a simple random resolution mechanic through the use of playing cards and the accumulation of power and pain points.

It was a very solid game, and we quickly developed characters from several templates and began balancing life as heroes (on probation) with the drama of being a teenager, in a world where the process of becoming a superhero is sufficiently traumatic to ensure a steady supply of villains.  My own character 'The Confessor' who had shapeshifting powers soon got the rest of the crew into trouble and ultimately had to be rescued -  an epic scene where the actions of the characters had such severe consequences that few of the heroes had a happy ending.  It was a gritty superhero experience, very well executed.

Round 6: Wicked Lies & Alibis
This was the third playtest of my new game; a whodunit murder mystery set in the era of art deco.  It went brilliantly.  The players created a cast of suspects and the wove a story of intrigue and murder focussed on a missing manuscript involving criminal family connections, ghost writing, the mysterious disappearance of a husband, professional rivalries and the simmering dissatisfaction of a butler.

Things came to a head in a memorable fashion when Ivan's character, the butler Seeples was unmasked as the murderer.  Seeple's confession was a thing of beauty, when his mask of professional disdain finally slipped and the rage poured out.  I suspect people in the adjoining rooms will speak in hushed tones of Ivan's bellowing for year's to come...

I had a fantastic time, so thanks to all the players for making a great game and putting up with my poor Poirot accent with good grace.

Monday, December 1, 2014

'Tis The Season

It’s been a busy time as EPOCH celebrates its 21st;  that’s 21 scenarios of character-driven survival-horror published over the last two and a bit years.  These 21 scenarios have been written by 10 different authors and collaborators, and each has featured stunning artwork from Doug Royson, been carefully edited by Andrew Smith, and been fitted into the excellent layout template created by Marcus Bone.  I am very grateful to have worked with such talented folks, and I think the quality of the finished product is a good reflection of all the hard work that’s gone in behind the scenes.  Thank you all for helping to spread the horror.
Recently I published The Experiment Continues the companion to the EPOCH roleplaying game which has some new rules, more advice and also includes 4 new scenarios.  The companion had been in development for most of the year, and collects a variety of things drawn from my experiences in playing and facilitating the game, reports from others, and a collection of formal reviews.  Mostly this is in the form of advice, although one particular innovation I’m quite proud of are the Twist cards.  When I was first designing EPOCH there was some feedback that there should be more variety in outcomes for the characters, a degree of randomness which had a mechanical effect beyond the core outcome process.  At the time I stuck with the core idea of balance – that every player has an identical chance of  character survival, and that eliminations would be solely determined by collective decision making. 
However, the Twist cards add a layer on top of that mechanic, and have really enhanced the games in which I’ve used them.  There have been some extremely memorable plays of ‘Die Hard’, ‘Big Damn Hero’ and ‘In League With The Horror’.  One of my favourite plays was in a scenario which shall remain nameless. Igor had been dealt and then chose to play the ‘insight’ card.  Insight  lets the player look at one of the face down Horror Track Cards.  The card Igor peeked at read “Determine the entire town is gripped by homicidal mania’.  The look on his face was priceless, as were his characters, largely fruitless attempts to convince the others that they were in danger.
The scenarios are pretty fantastic as well.  My player were initially luke-warm about the premise of Donna’s scenario  The Tribute as they felt that playing characters in Ancient Greece would be tricky, but within a few minutes of getting started, they realised it was much more familiar setting than they had initially thought and they made it their own, invoking gods, heroes and pirates and having a great time.  Perhaps the best thing was hearing glowing reports of Donna’s run of the scenario at Fright Night, and seeing just how big the differences were between our respective facilitation of the scenario, but how both had delivered a gripping and entertaining experience for the players, despite being very different.
Mash’s scenario of gangster horror has an immediate and compelling setup, and I think it’s a scenario that will develop some very memorable experiences.  Our playtest was a lot of fun, and, as ever, the player stories were very memorable.  I was struck by just how many people have played some version of Death on the Streets when compiling the list of playtesters, it’s like a mini convention all by itself – which goes to show just how much thought and effort Mash puts into his craft.
Then there’s Liam’s scenario Slaughterhouse, which is deceptively simple, as the title would suggest, yet entirely perfect for EPOCH where character stories should be in the fore.  I had a great time playtesting the scenario, and I think Doug’s illustration perfectly captures one of the most dramatic moments.  Liam’s accomplishment is all the more impressive when you consider he wrote the first draft on an i-pad while overseas on a work trip in order to meet my deadline.
In addition to the Companion, I also recently released  White Wedding, the 2014 EPOCH Christmas Special.  Andrew pulled together this incredible scenario at short notice, which was amazing, as I was buried in editing the Companion for most of that time.  Andrew had a very clear vision of the scenario he wanted, and I think he’s created a really compelling and engaging piece.  Then there’s Doug’s stunning cover and fantastic interior art.  All in all, the twenty first published EPOCH scenario is one of the best yet.  If you haven’t yet, you should pick it up, and donate whatever you can afford to help children in need.   

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Fright Night 8

Last night I attended the eight instalment our local one-night horror RPG 'con Fright Night.  I know there were some volatility in numbers this year and some last minute sign-ups, but overall attendance was reasonable (if slightly down on previous years), with 3 fully subscribed tabletop games each round.  Local game designer Mike Sands also generously donated a copy of his well regarded Apocalypse World adaption Monster of the Week to every attendee, which was very well received.

Round 1 - The Woods
In the first round I had signed up to play Mike's game 'The Woods' which used another Apocalypse World hack Black Stars Rise.  We played characters in the small Southland town of Otautau who witnessed harrowing murders which echoed killings which had occurred in the town two decades earlier.  I have, perhaps, played too much EPOCH of late, so I spent a lot of time early in the game trying to develop interest in my character - a local reporter for the Otautau Advertiser, who was clearly living beyond his means and closely entangled with several other prominent townsfolk.  However, around half way through the game I realised there was an implicit expectation that all the characters should investigate the mystery and did my best to insert myself and follow the lead of Morgue's amateur detective Percy.

I had a great time, and the game had a high level of carnage for which the characters (particularly Stephanie's level-headed, if trigger-happy, farmer Andy) were responsible.  The final scene was suitably epic, if somewhat grim.  My other observations is that some of the characters basically stayed in the periphery of the horror, seeing no reason to risk their lives in the pursuit of a mystery which should properly be investigated by the authorities (I fell into this camp initially), and therefore I wonder if this is something the system or scenario needs to address given the specified setup for Black Stars Rise:

"The player characters are caught up in the setup, we're here to see how they come out of it. They may try to get out, try to get to the bottom of it, or just try to survive—whatever makes sense for the player characters"

Ultimately, if the players are not on the same page, it seems that this could lead to a fractured and frustrating experience where characters focus on different priorities (investigating vs survival for example).  That said, The Woods was a fun time and a compelling story.

Round 2 - Harvest
In the second round I ran my scenario for the forthcoming EPOCH Companion, Harvest.  The selected scenario setup framed the characters as a group of friends travelling to the remote seaside town of Hudson's Point to scatter the ashes of a recently deceased friend.

The characters that were created were fairly extreme, and not really, in any sense friends, but they create some amazing backstories, which pushed the tension and drama between the characters to the forefront (which is what the system aims to achieve).  Against this rich backdrop of heavily armed mercenaries, clandestine government operatives, drug smuggling, former child stars, cross-dressing, debts and tax evasion, and ghost riders, the actual horror story was somewhat eclipsed by the energy and enthusiasm of those at the table.

It was a great game, even if I was stretched to try and keep up with the plot twists and drama unfolding at pace around the table.

Final Thoughts
The 'con was well organised, and (from my perspective) seemed to go without a hitch, and I congratulate Andy and Grant on putting together an excellent night.  The communication before the 'con was top notch, and I think helped ensure people were thinking about the 'con in the lead-up to the night and probably reduced the number of last-minute cancellations.  The reports I heard from other games were also very positive. 

As for the future, I guess we'll see.  The fragmentation of the Wellington roleplaying community (for reasons I previously described here) seems to be continuing, with the active calendar of LARP events diminishing interest in tabletop events, leading to only a few remaining viable - however, it is possible that a new roleplaying store could rejuvenate interest in tabletop if it showcases new RPG releases.  In either event attendance at Kapcon in early 2015 should provide a further indication of the relative health of the tabletop RPG community.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Horror on the Horizon

Fright Night is almost upon us again, and there is a fantastic selection of games on offer!  It's a small horror themed RPG convention which takes place over one night of play – consisting of 2 three-hour sessions.  If you'll be in Wellington on Saturday 25 October you should sign up today by contacting the 'con organisers here.  The schedule of games looks like this:

The Tribute
System: EPOCH
Blurb: Every 7 years the city of Athens pays a tribute of 7 of its young men and women to King Minos of Crete. These young Athenians are then given in sacrifice to the Minotaur in his infamous labyrinth. This year you were one of the chosen victims. You must face the horror of the Cretan Labyrinth and the beast that dwells within.

The Woods
System: Black Stars Rise
Blurb: The woods have always had a spooky reputation – stories amongst the kids, probably due to those murders back in ’95. Still, it’s a park and you use it for normal park stuff – walking to work, exercise, taking the dog out.

Today, though, something strange is happening…

Flyover Country
System: The Laundry Files
Blurb: On a dead plateau, under unfamiliar stars, behind a wall of impaled, watchful corpses, an alien god sleeps. If they wake, the Sleeper in the Pyramid will set in motion a chain of events which will bring about CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN, the end of the world.

Now, a small band of intruders has breached the plateau, presumably with the intention of waking the Sleeper. And it’s the Laundry’s job to stop them.

A Quiet Day in the Library
System: LARP
Blurb:The workers at a small community public library on what appeared to be an ordinary week day. Only, as they pause for another cup of tea they realise that it’s even quieter than usual. Mr Brockton hasn’t been in to read the paper, and he does that every day at 10.30 am, that young mother hasn’t brought her loud child in to play with the toys in the kid’s area…. and the news reports on the radio are a trifle concerning….
A game of existential horror, self-reflection and books.


Dead Horse Corner
System: Trail of Cthulhu
Blurb: The death and suffering on the Western Front provides of the backdrop for many dark and unsettling mysteries. Most of these are dismissed simply as the fears of scared men, but others seem to take on a life of their own.
When the British forward observation post at Dead Horse Corner suddenly falls silent, it’s up to the  brave men of the Royal Fusiliers to reinforce the post and work out what has happened to Lieutenant Somerset and his twenty men.
However they will soon find that there are far worse things than snipers, gas attacks and artillery strikes to worry about in the desolation of no-man’s land.
Silent Night
System: EPOCH
Blurb:I'm dreaming of a white Christmas...
"...shutting down as blizzard conditions come out of nowhere..."
with every Christmas card I write
"...there's a lot of passengers facing Christmas in an airport terminal Chuck..."
May your days be merry and bright
"...please if anyone can hear us, help, please, there's something out there... Please help us! It's coming!"
And may all your Christmases be white
System: EPOCH
Blurb: "Every year the good people of Hudson’s Point celebrate the bounty of the land with a spectacular Harvest Festival.  This year is no exception; scarecrows are beginning to show up on street corners, in front of homes and stores and just about anywhere you can put a stake in the ground.  It’s all part of the fun, which culminates in a costumed torchlight parade.  This Fall, Hudson’s Point is the place to be!"
The Face of Oblivion
System: LARP
Blurb: 2277, May 17, Asteroid Habitat Aoraki Mountain, Captain’s Address to Crew: “People, we’ve done this before. The system newcomer Oblivion, whatever it’s mass, is just another flying rock. Killing rocks is our trade – we have the technology, the manpower, and the will. Earth will not fall on our watch.”

2278, April 4, Asteroid Habitat Aoraki Mountain, Captain’s Address to Crew:
“… in light of Oblivion 3′s failure due to catastrophic equipment malfunction, technical crews will be inspecting Aoraki’s infrastructure early this year. We trust that our crew will behave in the spirit of Aoraki as Oblivion passes through our orbit…”

2278, April 4, Captain’s Private Log
“This isn’t over.”

For more than a hundred years the people of Earth and its surrounding space habitats have been fighting the Rock War – a collection of solid masses are passing willy-nilly through the Solar System, many of which could profoundly damage the mother planet. Most have been neutralised – humanity is winning!

But now the largest planet-killer of them all, code-named Oblivion, has defeated the last three attempts to divert it. Soon it will pass through the orbit of Asteroid Habitat Aoraki Mountain, almost close enough to see, and the Captain has one last desperate gambit in mind…

But oh – this will cost. Join the habitat’s officers in the last two hours before an irrevocable decision is made. Sometimes there aren’t any good choices.

What compromises will you make, in the Face of Oblivion?

Thursday, September 4, 2014

The Frozen Reaches

Last night we completed The Frozen Reaches, the first book of the Warpstorm Trilogy for the Rogue Trader RPG.  It took us 9 sessions, and while I don’t think we ever entirely came to terms with the system ‘crunch’, it was overall a fun time.  What follows are my reflections on this scenario and do contain some spoilers. 

The setup for this scenario is set out pretty clearly in the blurb:

“The Frozen Reaches throws the Explorers before an impending Ork invasion as they work to save the planet of Damaris... Use all your charm and influence to prepare a planet’s defences as the Ork fleets close in on Damaris. Fight the xenos in space aboard the bridge of your starship, or meet the bloody Orks in brutal hand-to-hand combat on the ground! The choices you make ensure success, or guarantee defeat. Choose wisely, and reap the rewards of your victory.”

So the explorers have a job in three acts, organise and prepare the planet, fight the siege, then take the fight to the Orks to end the threat once and for all.  It’s a nice idea - to have the characters directly involved in a massive global siege, able to spread their influence to different parts of the fight to tip the balance.  This is achieved through a series of structured missions, and a bespoke system for resolving each aspect of the siege, modified by the actions of the characters.  That seems pretty cool, and a different approach to the Star Trek style episodes of Lure of the Expanse, promising to really invest the characters in the richness and complexity of a planet.  However, in my opinion the book fails to adequately deliver on its potential.

This set-up becomes a victim of its own ambition.  The authors clearly wanted to have the explorer’s ship, and crew, have a major impact on the scenario – so a planet with a population of 3 Billion is described as having a military strength of something in the order of 150,000 including some tanks, a moon defence base, several system ships.  That means the explorers crew can make a meaningful impact if deployed to man the city walls, but it does stretch credulity a little far (at least for my group).  The moon defence base, in orbit around the planet, also seems to have some fairly obvious drawbacks in terms of being a meaningful obstacle to preventing invasion to a specific part of the planet.

In addition several other Rogue Traders are described as having responded to the planet’s distress call, and as their ships are reasonably powerful, it does seem unlikely that the explorers would actually be anything but bit players in the forthcoming events.  However, the characters are expected to discover the motives of the other Traders, and merge them into an impromptu coalition. So the scenario seeks to make the planet worth saving in terms of future profit for the explorers, but at the same time arranges events so that a Rogue Trader and their ship could significantly influence the outcome of the battle, and this comes at the expense of some in-game realism.

This could have been addressed if further details were provided – perhaps the Imperial Levy has recently been particularly heavy and stripped the planet of soldiers (picking up on the thread of simmering ambitions for independence presented elsewhere in the scenario)?  Perhaps there is an evacuation already underway, and the Imperial fleet is en-route, but the Explorers have a critical role to play in the interim.  Unfortunately there is simply not enough detail provided to facilitate this, and the GM is left to find their own meaning in the void.

In short; Frozen Reaches feels like a rushed product.  It weighs in at just 70 pages, and would have been so much stronger if it had spent more time detailing the city, the major players in it, and what happens within the city as the invasion rages (providing an additional suite of social challenges for the explorers).  A layered approach like this would have allowed a GM to run each part in as much, or as little, depth as appropriate for their group.  Nowhere is the rushed nature of this product more clearly evidenced than in the mysterious relic contained in a stasis casket, which the Bishop begs the characters to safeguard as the siege reaches its zenith.  The nature of the Relic is also apparently a secret from the GM:

“Just what really resides in the stasis casket will be revealed in future instalments of the Warpstorm trilogy…”

To conclude; The Frozen Reaches provides a fairly innovative and interesting set-up for the characters, allowing them to engage with a specific planet, and play a significant role in an epic Ork siege.  However, the GM is not furnished with enough detail to really bring any particular aspect of the scenario to life outside a narrow railroad of expected PC actions, and accordingly a large creative load is put on the GM to help this scenario deliver on its vision.  We had fun playing this scenario, but some characters (like the Navigator) were significantly disadvantaged in their potential to be useful, and the final conclusion, with outside aid coming from the Eldar, feels like an unrewarding way to repay the efforts of the characters, and their persistence with the relentlessness of the Ork attack.

Monday, July 21, 2014

ENnie Awards - The Beautiful Agony

Being nominated for an ENnie Award is a big deal for a little publisher.  For those not familiar with the process, publishers of roleplaying game, podcasts, websites and the like can submit their products from the previous year for consideration by a panel of elected judges.  The Judges then read each publication, and debate amongst themselves which 5 of these products are sufficiently awesome to be nominated for an award (and in which category).  For a really interesting insight into the process of being an ENnie Judge, you might like to read this account on the Iron Tavern.

Once the nominees are announced the public have 10 days to vote for their favourites, with the top two products in each category being awarded a prize at the ENnie Awards Ceremony held at Gen Con.

Both of these mechanisms  are a little controversial - the selection of nominees is obviously a subjective assessment, albeit moderated somewhat by a group of people.  The voting process meanwhile is often seen as a popularity contest, with the big publishers being able to mobilise overwhelming support.

Last year EPOCH products were nominated in 4 categories (Best Rules, Best Electronic Book, Best Free Product & Product of the Year) and these nominations were both very gratifying and proved a big boost to interest in the game.

This year I was extremely pleased that War Stories, a collection of 5 scenarios set during wartime (a 155 page book or PDF with an RRP of $7.99, currently half price)  was nominated in the category of Best Adventure.  I was particularly proud when I reviewed the other 4 nominated titles:
  • Eternal Lies; an epic campaign for Trail of Cthulhu  (a 400-page hardback book or a 396-page PDF with an RRP of $49.95)
  • The Sense of the Sleight-of-Hand Man, A Dreamlands Campaign for Call of Cthulhu (a 294-page book or PDF with an RRP of $49.99)
  • Rise of the Drow, a mega-module for Pathfinder (a book of nearly 500 pages, with an RRP of $41.99 or $99 in print)
  • Razor Coast - Heart of the Razor, a collection of four adventures for Pathfinder (a 160 page book currently available for $29.99)
Some serious competition to say the least! All of these look like great products (so much so that I already own the first two).  So how does War Stories stack up? 
  • The first scenario in the book is FROM ABOVE AND BELOW, by Marcus Bone.  A thrilling plunge into the darkness and the horror that lurks beneath the trenches of the Western Front during the Great War.  I had a great time playtesting this scenario, and would love to try running it in the dark with each player wearing a head-lamp that is extinguished when their character is eliminated.
  • Next up is THE COLDEST WINTER by Mike Sands which thrusts the characters into the hostile climate and freezing forest in a brutal struggle for survival during the Russian invasion of Finland.  When I ran this game it had the feel of a true Russian epic which spanned the entire war experience for the surviving characters, and culminated in a suitably bleak ending.
  • Then it's HOME FRONT, Andrew Millar's homage to Dad's Army where the well-meaning Home Guard of the British village of Blakely are sent to secure the wreckage of a German bomber.  Although this scenario is truly creepy, I most remember the Inglorious Basterds style shootout, which was the epic climax to the tensions between the characters. 
  • Next is my scenario MASS DESTRUCTION which blends modern catastrophe with ancient evil, and which I've recently ran at Kapcon to good effect.
  • Finally, Liam Jones presents BEHIND THE MASK OF EVIL which draws on his own experiences of Peace operations in the Congo and adds a supernatural twist.  I loved playing this so much I used our playtests as an example of how to structure flashbacks.
So, although these scenarios were contributed by friends,  I think they've delivered an excellent package which will provide you with hours of quality gaming.  Can we win?  No. Like many small games EPOCH simply doesn't have a fan-base which can compete in a popular vote.  But I think it's clear that just being nominated is a victory in its own right.   

Voting for the 2014 ENnie Awards is open for the next 10 days, so no matter who you vote for, spend a few minutes to participate in the Beautiful Agony that is the ENnie Awards.