Saturday, April 12, 2014

Reports from the Orient Express - The Blood Red Fez

This week we completed the prequel scenario, “The Blood Red Fez” which is a new addition to the epic re-booted Call of Cthulhu campaign Horror on The Orient Express.  As people have recently posted, asking me to share my thoughts on the campaign, I’ll start here with a review of this scenario.  As a warning there will be some spoilers, so please don’t read on if you plan on playing this scenario.

We used the proof copy of the scenario supplied to backers at the end of 2013, so it is possible that there will be revisions and changes before the final campaign is published.  So, on to the review – ‘The Blood Red Fez’ is a scenario by Geoff Gillan, one of the original authors of the Orient Express.  It covers a whopping 55 pages, including a small section detailing the Gaslight era of the Orient Express. 
It is suggested that the scenario be run as a flashback during the first part of the main campaign, however, the complexity of this scenario and the time involved (it took us 4 sessions) meant that I didn’t believe this to be feasible.  For the record, I like the idea of a prequel, triggered during the campaign but believe that this would need to be limited to a relatively simple plot, so as not to detract from the campaign investigation.  Instead I chose another suggested option – to run the scenario in advance of the main campaign, and give the players the option to play any surviving characters thirty years on

The scenario takes three parts.  An initial investigation in London, followed by a tense journey on the 1890’s Orient Express, then a final confrontation in Constantinople.  
Overall the scenario has a mix of both highly structured elements, and relatively open sections.  For example it is assumed the characters will diligently investigate a nefarious artefact, then board the Orient Express, but they have relative freedom to determine the way things play out on the train, and what happens once they reach their destination.

I felt that the train section of the scenario was reasonably well supported, and I liked that the villain is travelling openly, and that his relationship with some of the other passengers provokes the characters moral outrage - although it might have been nice to get a sense of what the NPCs are doing during the trip, and how they will react to both mythos and mundane violence, should it occur so the Keeper need not carry the entire descriptive burden.
I think the main drawback of the plot as structured is that the villains have two key artefacts on the train necessary to undertake their ritual in the final section of the scenario.  However, it is possible, if not likely, that proactive investigators will recover one or more of these – potentially dispatching the villains en-route. 

If this occurs there is scant guidance on how to adapt the final section of the scenario with regards to the capabilities of the villains.  The scenario remarks that this eventuality is unlikely, but should the social constraints of the Victorian era be broken, and combat occur, it is the most likely outcome, as the main villain has no real protection against mundane weapons (this is also true for the final confrontation, where it seems that buckshot and bullets are a more reliable method of defeating evil than spending hours deciphering a Mythos tome).

A simple solution (and one which I will employ if running this scenario again) to make this less likely would be to place a famous detective or other military or law-enforcement authority figure amongst the other passengers to provide an outlet for tensions and conflict, reinforce the rule of law, and force the characters bent on violence to adopt a more surreptitious approach.

The final segment of the scenario feels very much like the conclusion of a Chapter of Masks of Nyarlathotep, detailing a host of villains, their lair and their plans (perhaps not surprising given Gillan worked on this venerable campaign as well).  While there is a list of possible investigative sites, the detail of possible resolutions to the scenario seems light.  There is no discussion of possible allies the characters could recruit to help them defeat the villains (once they realise they are outnumbered and outgunned), nor of what should occur if the characters seek the help of the authorities to dispatch the cult (by making allegations of white slavery or the abduction of royal prince for example). 

In my opinion the scene which covers the climactic exchange with kidnappers would have benefitted from the presence of a map and a few more details, and it might have been good to detail whether the characters can monitor the cultists lair from the surrounding islands (and perhaps explain why the villains had ferry tickets in the first segment of the scenario, if no ferry actually goes to their island).  The scenario might also have provided some options for the villains to be proactive (attacking the investigators in their lodgings to try and recover the items they seek for example).
I also think it’s necessary to discuss the centrepiece of the scenario: The Blood Red Fez itself.  While I appreciate the hard work that the author has undertaken to research all things Fez related, I think for some people the idea of horror headwear is simply too ridiculous to be taken seriously.  The Fez is at once described as loathsome (costing Sanity points to view for prolonged periods) and later openly worn on the Orient Express.  In my opinion a Keeper will have to work pretty hard to ensure the players take the Fez as seriously as the scenario requires.

Finally, we ran this scenario using the 7th Edition Call of Cthulhu Quick Start rules, and I didn’t appreciate just how deadly combat has become.  In previous editions, villains usually had less total attacks than characters, and a well-timed Dodge test could save an investigators life.  Under 7th Edition, in close quarters combat there is the potential for both sides to damage each other with every action, and a successful dodge roll will not necessarily negate damage if the attacker secures a ‘hard’ success (one fifth of their chance). 

In this scenario there are several instances where close quarters combat is likely, and the investigators are likely to discover just how dangerous their enemies are.  In addition First Aid no longer works in the same way as it did and injured investigators no longer get a boost to restore in hit points following a combat. 

I gave each investigator a fate point (meaning they could negate a killing injury once) and this proved the difference between a hard won success and brutal defeat in the final session.  My party of 6 investigators all spent their fate points, and a further two were killed subsequently (meaning that 8 investigators would have died without fate points).
In Summary:

  • The settings (Victorian London, The Orient Express and Ottoman Constantinople) are very atmospheric
  • The scenario is well supported with descriptions and details, nice maps and a good cast of NPCs
  • The conclusion of the scenario allows the investigators agency to resolve the scenario on their own terms
  • The scenario neatly foreshadows several elements from the main campaign
  • This is a sizable scenario, and pre-generated characters are provided
  • Some people are likely to find the idea of horror headwear too ridiculous to take seriously
  • The scenario is too long and complex to be easily run as a flashback
  • There is not sufficient scripted motivation for the investigators to drop everything and risk their lives in a fight against an odd cult (I’d make this same criticism of many Call of Cthulhu scenarios)
  • More detail about how the NPCs respond to likely events on the train, and options to keep the hostilities covert would assist the keeper
  • Under 7th edition combat rules, run as written, this scenario is likely to be extremely lethal to the investigators, and result in a brutal defeat
  • The conclusion of the scenario is not sufficiently detailed to support the Keeper in detailing all the options it invites
In the final analysis, I did enjoy running this scenario (more than I thought I would when I first read it), and with the use of Fate Points the conclusion was genuinely tense and climactic.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

2013 in Review

Around this time every year, I review my gaming achievements over the past year against what I had planned.  Then I set some goals for the next 12 months.  So how did the actual 2013 stack up against the projected?  Let’s see:

1. Write and publish more EPOCH scenarios.  I’d like to see a total of 20 scenarios in print by this time next year.

Check, I didn't manage 20 scenarios, but there are now a total of 16 published EPOCH scenarios, which seems a pretty respectable effort.

2. Write and publish the EPOCH companion.  This includes some expansion rules and new cards for EPOCH as well as my mini-series rules and scenarios. 

No, I am still working on the companion. Several sections are drafted, and Doug is working away at some amazing cover art, but there is more to do - particularly developing some alternate rules, rules for a TV mini-series and a couple of additional scenarios.

3. Write a scenario for Esoterrorists.  Marcus has been talking about this, and if he still wants it, I’d be pleased to repay some favours and write an Esoterrorists scenario for him.

No, although it's still something I'd like to do.

4. Run the Warpstorm Trilogy for Rogue Trader.

No, although it's still something I'd like to do, but given the heavy rules prep required to get back up to speed with this game I probably should accept that this won't happen soon.

5. Attend Day of Games and Buckets of Dice in Christchurch.

Partial check, I missed Day of Games but Buckets was great.  I also managed to attend Fright Night and Kapcon.

So, what goals for the next twelve months?  Here's my list (slightly reduced this year due to family commitments):
  • Write and publish the EPOCH companion
  • Run the revised Horror on the Orient Express campaign for Call of Cthulhu
  • Attend Fright Night and Kapcon
Do you have any goals for the next year?

Thursday, March 6, 2014

On the Rails

Last night I began running Horror on the Orient Express, which is one of the epic campaigns for Call of Cthulhu, recently revised as part of a Kickstarter.  If you’re not familiar with the campaign, this is the description from the back of the box:
"Orient Express contains a massive adventure for the Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game. Beginning in 1920s London, the investigators journey to Paris and thence to the ancient city of Constantinople. With luck, they may also return home."
My plan was to use the new campaign, which includes a significant amount of new material, to provide a complete package for my players, and end to end run of the Orient Express including all the new material.  The new campaign is now designed for 7th edition of the Call of Cthulhu.  However, there were two hurdles – first, the campaign has not actually been published yet (originally scheduled to be published in August 2013).  However, Chaoisum were good enough to send out a PDF proof version of the campaign books to backers prior to Christmas, so that was enough to get started with. 
Second, the 7th Edition Rules have not yet been released either (the Kickstarter was originally scheduled to be published in October 2013).  Once again there is a work around – Chaoisum have published a free quick-start set of 7th edition rules, which, combined with the playtest rules, provide enough to get underway.  I am just keeping my fingers crossed that Chaosium soon release the published campaign and, at the very least, PDF versions of the 7th edition rules so I can run the campaign as intended.
As I mentioned earlier, the new material written for this campaign is significant   This begins with a Gaslight (1890’s) era prequel.  There is a neat idea in the campaign – that this prequel feature during the campaign as a flashback – rather than simply reading a handout which summarises the information, the players take on pre-generated characters and play through several sessions which features a trip on the Orient Express on its pre 1913 route.  Although the material is not directly related to the main plot of the campaign there are a couple of intersections.
However, I decided against using this material as a flashback, opting for another of the suggested approaches – to run the Gaslight section in advance of the regular campaign, offering the players the opportunity to use the same characters for both, albeit 30 years older.  I did this primarily because I felt that the plot and clues relating to the campaign were complex enough, without distracting the players with (another) unrelated plot during the first chapter – particularly one which spans several sessions and which involves a trip on an earlier incarnation of the Orient Express.  This allowed me to start the campaign now, allowing more time for the full campaign and 7th edition rules to be released.
I will confess to having some reservations about the Gaslight prequel.  The notion of horror headwear (which is central to the plot) seems more than a little farcical and the plot is fairly linear -  a railroad if you will.  In addition the author seems to have made little use of the 7th edition rules in setting the difficulty conditions for skill checks etc.  On the other side of the coin, the scenario is reasonably well supported, does provide some options and timelines to guide the Keeper, plus it comes with a small non-fiction section detailing the Gaslight era Orient Express which is very helpful in describing the trip.
The first session went well, although the 7th edition combat rules, which allow a combatant the opportunity to damage enemies in hand-to-hand every time they attack, made the initial encounter extremely brutal and left 3 of the characters seriously injured.  However, the new rules also ensured that characters were able to gain the upper hand through weight of numbers, something which would not have had a clear mechanical resolution under the 6th edition rules.  It remains to be seen whether the rest of the prequel will sustain this momentum.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Structure Your Fun

Is it necessary for RPG scenarios and adventures to have a pre-established structure?  And more importantly, how does having a structure help a GM both read and run a game?,
Scenarios with a compartmentalised structure are - in my opinion - much easier to read, assess, compare and then run.  When looking for a scenario to run a short notice, my preference is to skim through the pages – looking for what seem like great scenes, then backtracking to check that the detail of how the scenes link seems to be coherent and workable for my players.  Then I skip to the end and check the finale, to see if it seems suitably memorable and pitched appropriately.  Passing those tests, I then read the scenario and make notes about how I’ll run it.  When the text runs together this assessment is much harder, and I need to make many more notes in order to run the game.

When I created EPOCH I set a set structure for scenarios - this was a layout that I felt had a dual purpose, both to provide a coherent story, while providing a clear vision for how the game would unfold, and to be usable when facilitating the game - allowing GMs to access information with ease.  This structure was based entirely on my own preferences, although I assumed the utility would be apparent to all.
I was wrong.  When I worked with other authors, I found that few of them submitted scenarios in any form that resembled the structure I had established for EPOCH scenarios.  Indeed most were in sharp contrast the rigorous divisions I had established.  
But what about other games?  Here are some examples from scenario collections, selected at random from my bookshelf.
Example 1: Call of Cthulhu (Terrors From Beyond)
In the past I have found scenarios for Call of Cthulhu to be a leading benchmark of quality in scenario structure.  They (almost uniformly) follow a similar structure, setting out a Keeper Background (which usually serves as a background and synopsis) followed by a section on 'Involving the Investigators' or 'Investigator background' which establishes the role of the characters in the scenario. Statistics for NPCs and monsters are usually found in the back (although sometimes on the body of the text as well).  This is pretty good, but the coherence and layout of the main body of each scenario can vary greatly.
Example 2: Trail of Cthulhu (Out of Space)
Expands a little on the traditional CoC format by including sections titled  'Hook' (how the characters are involved) 'The Awful/Horrible Truth' basically the same as a Keeper background section, then 'The Spine' (a paragraph by paragraph summary of the scenario scenes) then some variance between scenarios but generally a section titled 'Scenes' which contains the bulk of the scenario.  I think the addition of 'The Spine' is a significant improvement on the CoC formula.
Example 3: The Laundry (Black Bag Jobs)
No real coherent uniformity beyond a 'Mission overview' section which is usually a page or two into the scenario text, following a discussion of background elements.  Player handouts are at the end of each scenario. Thankfully most of the paragraphs are small and easy to digest.
Example 4: Rogue Trader (Edge of the Abyss)
No coherent uniformity beyond an appendix containing adversary statistics at the end of the book.  Ironically scenario two in the collection systematically establishes the setting, objectives and rewards for a series of encounters the characters can have providing a small oasis of order (and I found this was one of the easiest sections to facilitate when I actually ran this game). 
Example 5: Paranoia XP (Crash Priority)
No coherent uniformity although most scenarios have a 'Mission overview' section somewhere close to the beginning. 
My conclusion: few RPGs I examined imposed a systematic and consistent structure on scenarios written for their games.  I think this makes it more difficult for GMs to rapidly assess information and use it in gameplay, and increases the variance of the experience for players.  The ability of the GM to remember, prepare or bookmark key sections becomes much more significant and it is more likely that key details of the scenario are omitted, or changed on the fly by the GM.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Kapcon 23 - Part Two

I arrived on Sunday morning ready for day 2 of Kapcon, refreshed and ready for more!

Round 5: Silent Night
The Kapcon organisers had scheduled me to run a session of EPOCH in Round 5 on Sunday morning using the blurb for Road Trip, but when the players arrived I found that one of them had played in Road Trip during round 1 on Saturday, so I hastily suggested we play Silent Night instead.

As Silent Night is a Christmas scenario I suggested it might be nice for the characters to
play a family group.  In short order the characters created a memorable, if highly dysfunctional, modern family.  Conflicts swiftly resolved around Frank (played by Tigger), owner of an organic food store, who had recently married Molly (played by Sam). 

Unfortunately, Frank’s enthusiasm for healthy living wasn’t shared by the family and both his daughter Evie (played by Maggie) and step-son Darrian (played by Nicholas) thought Frank disingenuous.  This was exacerbated by Frank's insistence they use their 'Journey Journals' and formal family meetings to resolve conflict.  The inter-family conflict was so intense that nobody had much time for family-friend, poor asthmatic Victor (played by Nick C) who had been sent away for a Christmas break because his mother was dying of cancer.

My favourite scene in this game was when the family decided to ram a police barricade.  As bullets flew all around them, teenage Darrian who had been arguing with Frank for the whole scenario wrapped his arms around his step-father and shielded his body from harm, whispering a plea for Frank to look after his mother.

Round 6: Quintessence
You may recall that I had previously registered to play Incident at Talos in round 6. However, the GM facilitating that game was away and the game had been cancelled.  Casting around for another option in the break between rounds, there were few games with any player spaces to pick from, and none that appealed to me. 

I also saw that Home Front, Andy’s EPOCH scenario of Dad’s Army meets the Twilight Zone, did not have enough sign-ups and had also been cancelled.  But during the break I observed several people approach the desk and asked if they could play Home Front.  The organisers had cancelled the game, and were not accepting sign-ups for it, so as a work-around they suggested that it be offered in the Games on Demand room.

I was pretty keen to help people play some EPOCH if they wanted to, and Andrew agreed to pitch the game in G.O.D. to see if there was any interest.  I volunteered to play in order to help with the numbers, and we were able to round up 4 others, including the venerable Sophie.  As both Sophie and I had played Home Front, Andy offered Quintessence (published in Frontier of Fear), his sci-fi scenario about corporate marines intercepting a spaceship that has been missing for 100 years.

Having both playtested and edited this scenario, I was fairly familiar with the plot, so I determined to create a character that would take no part in leading the action or in making any decisions.  I had been dealt the cards War Scarred, Cautious and the traits of Idealistic and Romantic.  So I created Neil, a marine who had suffered hideous injuries when he accidentally dropped a grenade amongst his fellow marines, killing several of them.  Clearly traumatised by this error, Neil lacked confidence and was extremely accident prone, to the point where he was almost a liability to the other marines.  This allowed the other characters to unite in their disdain of Neil’s professional abilities, while ensuring that he was not consulted on major decisions, which fulfilled my objectives in not spoiling the scenario.

Sophie had established during the initial scenes that her character was a doctor, and that her father was a General.  I decided it would be neat to use this detail as part of Neil’s story, so over several tension phases I used flashbacks to show how Neil had been imprisoned following his grenade accident, and then been summoned by the general and ordered to protect his daughter and follow her like a shadow.  In preparing for the mission, Neil had been given to the General’s files concerning his daughter and watched hours of home movies until he had fallen in love with the General's daughter, although this was a secret he hadn’t revealed (I had noted it on my secret card at the beginning of the game). 

In the tense scenes of the final climax, I revealed that the General had turned Neil into a human bomb, placing explosives in his cybernetic replacement organs which were detonated when his daughters life was in jeopardy.  I was, however, denied an attempt to actually play a second Hero card, as Neil was Zeroed, and thus eliminated without further heroism.

I enjoyed the game and I think Quintessence generated some really interesting characters, whose end scenes were poignant.

Prize Giving
Before the main Kapcon prize giving I gave out a couple of EPOCH awards [you can read the details here] to recognise some of the excellent character play over the weekend, and thank everyone who had played in an EPOCH scenario.

Reflecting on the weekend; player numbers in each round seemed to be considerably more volatile than in past years.  My evidence for this is limited to the games for which I collected stats (the EPOCH scenarios of which 2 were cancelled due to lack of numbers and 2 were run at short notice – several ran with just 4 players, but the majority had 5 or 6 players). This effect may be due to an over-saturation of EPOCH, or it may have been a more ‘con-wide phenomenon.  In either event, it’s unlikely I will be offering EPOCH to the same extent in the future.

No mention was made of Con-fusion or Day of Games one-day-conventions, leading me to conclude that the NZ tabletop convention calendar has shrunk as the LARP calendar has expanded.

Increasingly Kapcon feels to me like 2 or 3 separate ‘cons held at the same venue (if you include Games on Demand) with some level of interaction, but not a lot.  This isn’t new – a similar thing used to happen with D&D and the Harn folk.  Now, as then, Kapcon organisers have made it clear that they are happy to let things evolve holistically, and often say that “people will vote with their feet”.

I agree that it is important to let people do the things that they enjoy most, but I also think that failing to take a more strategic or proactive perspective may also lead to unintended consequences which are extremely difficult to reverse.

However, I also accept that change is inevitable – Kapcon already bears little resemblance to what it was 10 years ago and it’s likely that in the future it will be greatly different to the current event.

Reports of Kapcon's Past
Kapcon 22 - Part One and Part Two
Kapcon 21 - Part One and Part Two
Kapcon 20 - Part One and Part Two

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Kapcon 23 - Part One

This Kapcon I had coordinated with several other GMs to ensure that a game of EPOCH was offered in each round.  I liked the idea that players might be able to play EPOCH for the whole ‘con if they so desired, and I also thought it was a good chance to showcase the diversity of scenarios published over the last 12 months.

Family commitments meant that night games were out for me this year.  Accordingly I planned to run 3 sessions of EPOCH on Saturday and play 2 other games on Sunday.  At the time I registered few of the blurbs for games on offer captured my interest, but I pre-registered to play in 'Flyover Country' (a Laundry game) and 'Incident at Talos' (an Ashen Stars game) on the strength of their blurbs. 

However, as it turned out I was to have even more involvement in EPOCH than I planned…

Round 1: Road Trip
Road Trip is a favourite EPOCH scenario of mine because in the later phases, the threat to the characters is generated by the characters themselves which provides a neat pay-out for the work of establishing relationships and linked back-stories between the characters.

Road Trip focuses on a group of people who travel to an isolated cabin to spend some quality time together, and get a lot more than they bargained for.  The players created a group of school friends reunited after the graduation of one of their number.  A good and diverse range of characters were created, from high achievers and budding politicians, to jocks, activists and loners.

My favourite scene played out in the final phase.  Two of the characters were suspected of being infected by the horror and posing a threat to the world.  The others armed themselves and resolved to settle the matter once and for all.  They all drove out together into the wood at nightfall, but only two returned…

Round 2: Mass Destruction
Mass Destruction (published in War Stories) is both easy and tricky to facilitate.  The opening scenes place a fairly high descriptive load on the GM, but the setting and the role of the characters in that setting (reporters covering the 2003 invasion of Iraq) are familiar enough that there are usually strong characters created to experience the harrowing events.

In this run there were some memorable characters – Penny Prescott with Time Magazine (played by Hamish A.) had a terminal brain tumour and evoked plenty of audience sympathy with tearful conversations with her daughter living in the USA, while Lachlan Loader, blogger and founder of blog ‘Lock-n-Load’ (played by Ciaran) was unrelentingly patriotic, occasionally ridiculous, and ultimately heroic.

My favourite scene in this scenario featured the ruthless Edward Thompson of the BBC (played by Ruth) who had already used one of the characters as a human shield.  As the horror overwhelmed the military, desperate soldiers tried to climb into the helicopter the characters were escaping in, and Edward was pushing them off to ensure the helicopter got enough lift.  A few moments later the helicopter climbed into the sky, Edward tumbled out and plunged to his death – shoved out by one of the other characters.

Round 3: Red Gold
I was scheduled to run Shadows of Yesterday in round 3, but I was a little surprised to learn that there wasn’t enough interest to go ahead with the game.

As a result I was actually planning on heading home early when Igor confessed that he had to depart soon after the round 3 began and he was scheduled to run Red Gold with a full schedule of players.  I had edited Red Gold so I proposed that we co-run Red Gold.  Igor would do the initial description, opening scenes and run the first tension phase, and I’d take over and finish facilitating the game.

This actually worked fairly well, as Igor was able to return in time to facilitate the final tension phases and end scenes.  This was a fairly memorable game and many scenes were stolen by Mike Foster’s character Rhineheart, the body-builder with the Austrian accent and penchant for one-liners.

My favourite scene in this game occurred when Cyrus (played by Damon) revealed through a series of flashbacks that he had been a host for aliens all along, and killed his character in an attempt to pass the alien into the body of Todd (played by Theo).  In a final effort to deny the aliens a host, Todd shot himself in the head.

To be continued…

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Run A Game At Kapcon

Kapcon needs more games!   If you're thinking of trying out a new game, or published scenario, or even something of your own creation, Kapcon will supply you with a dedicated room, players and promotion for your offering.  Just sign up here.  If you are interested in offering a session of EPOCH please drop me a line, as I'm offering some additional support for folks who run my game.

Kapcon has been a staple of the Wellington, and the New Zealand convention gaming scene for a fair while now, and seems to grow larger with each passing year.  I've attended Kapcon for many years and had a great time - you can read about my past experiences here.  I hope to see you there in a couple of weeks time...