Thursday, December 9, 2010

A Roleplaying Year in Review - Kingsport Tales

Tonight was the final session of my Kingsport Tales campaign for 2010. Kingsport Tales is an ongoing fortnightly, character driven, 1920’s Call of Cthulhu campaign set in and around Lovecraft’s mist-shrouded, fictional fishing town of Kingsport. It’s been a really enjoyable campaign thus far, with a fairly gentle pace, interspersed with some periods of frantic action. Tonight an enemy from the very first adventure of the campaign tried to take his revenge by setting a vampire on the characters during a train journey to Chicago. It was a satisfying resolution to what I’d rank as one of my best Call of Cthulhu campaigns to date. I have a lot of affection for the characters, and love that they continue to flourish despite not pulling any punches with the entities they’ve encountered (damn your magic Professor Bishop!) so far the campaign has included the following scenarios:

- Malice Everlasting
- Freak Show
- Dreams and Fancies
- The Strange High House in the Mist
- Dead in the Water
- Escape from Innsmouth
- The Raid on Innsmouth
- The Death of Cormac O’Tool (Feat. Pickman’s Model)
- Blood on the Tracks (Feat. The Revenge of the Warlock Matthew Chandler)

Players who have participated in Kingsport Tales = 7
Long-term characters created = 9
Long-term characters killed in the Waking World = 1
Long-term characters killed in the Dreamlands = 0
Characters permanently insane = 0
Elder Gods encountered = 3
Great Old Ones encountered = 1
Love interests encountered = 2

Looking ahead to 2011 I hope to run a few more adventures in and around Kingsport, before propelling the characters into the epic Mountains of Madness campaign.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

The Art of the Pitch

Following on from my basic rules for a ‘con scenario, I’d like to spend a little time writing about the art of the pitch. That’s to say; the blurb – a short paragraph or two, which you write to try and lure players to sign up for your game, choosing it over many other interesting-sounding options, electing to come and spend 3 hours or so, exploring the fruits of your imagination.

Mash rightly points out in the comments of the previous post that while my ‘rules’ for a ‘con scenario may be fairly transparent (if contested) for a GM. As a player, how would you ever know that you’re going to get a game which actually delivers on those points?

It’s a fair point, and in many cases you don’t. I actually think that writing a pitch is much harder work than it might seem at first, and that a decent number of GM’s don’t pay it too much attention; I mean, if you’re like me, then sometimes you’re writing a pitch months before you actually write the game as a kind of placeholder to denote your participation in the event. You try and make it seem like something you’d like to play in, and hope that there are enough other people out there with similar tastes. And yet, it’s not unheard of for games to not get enough interest to be run. I know I’ve often been uninspired when trawling through a collection of pitches, and even decided to skip a round entirely. And yet, at the same time, I’ve had some great fun playing games I probably wouldn’t have signed up for on the basis of the blurb…

The aim here is to create something akin the trailer for a movie, or dust-jacket blurb for a novel. Text so compelling that the reader always finishes reading it, then wonders; “I wonder what that will be like? It sounds so cool I need to try it!” Short, punchy, high on ideas and strongly evocative, yet with sufficient integrity to not alienate the discerning.

Obviously, even a good pitch won’t convince everyone. Some people just don’t like some things. And word-of-mouth and reputation can be a much greater factor in the popularity of a game (just like for other media) but ultimately a good pitch should, at the very least, get you a full game for at least one or more sessions.

Again; I wouldn’t go so far as to say I’m any kind of expert on writing a great pitch, nor that my taste is the same as everyone elses, but here are my requirements for a good pitch:

  • Well written. To quote my earlier point, for me this means the writing should be “Short, punchy, high on ideas and strongly evocative, yet with enough integrity to not alienate the discerning”
  • Not clichéd. Gamers are very aware of clichés and tropes in genre; what does the game offer that is unique, how does it twist boring clichés, or avoid them entirely?
  • Not overwhelming or overly complex; I don’t want to have to work hard to read a blurb, or work to understand complex concepts or settings. I’m going to be worried that any game that seems to technical or grandiose is simply an excuse for the GM to show how clever he/she is.
  • Doesn’t draw on too much established material – this is probably more personal than something I’d expect everybody to follow, but I’d probably not sign up for a Star Wars game because I know I don’t have much understanding or care for the complexity of the setting, and this would likely annoy the players who did and possibly mean that the game would have to slow down to explain things to me. I don’t suggest you shouldn’t use established high concept settings (Buffy, Star Wars, Dresden Files, Anime etc.) but I do suggest that in doing so you may limit the pool of potential players and may end up with a challenging mix of rabid fans and people who just signed up on the spur of the moment, and don’t really care too much about the details.
  • Speaks to me as a player. I want the GM to sell me the game, then level with me about how he or she expects it to work. If I’m going to have to learn a system, I want to know that. If I’m going to get some degree of freedom and autonomy, that’d be nice to know as well. I don’t think you need to spell everything out, but you should try and mitigate any surprises – and obviously you should be catering for the player who knows nothing about anything as a starter.

Anyway, those are my thoughts about what makes a good pitch. What do you think?

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Out Of The Box

And now for a few more words on ‘con scenarios. It used to be that it was very difficult to find the kind of published scenario that I would run at a roleplaying convention. Principally this was because of my requirements:
  • The scenario must be wholly based in the ‘real’ world or play on tropes and settings that are so clearly established in film or fiction that my audience will have NO issues adjusting regardless of their prior knowledge.
  • The scenario must feature pre-generated characters with enough ‘issues’ and interpersonal relationships that they can adequately fill down-time and lulls between actions. Issues must be sufficiently dramatic that characters can demonstrate their ‘roleplaying abilities’ getting to grips with them.
  • The scenario must contain a mix of build-up scenes and action scenes of sufficient intensity and length that they fit within a 3 hour time constraint, regardless of player actions.
  • The scenario must contain the prospect for success and failure, clearly established, in a way that can be examined and analysed by players in the wrap-up.
  • The scenario must use a system which can be learnt by ANYONE in less than 5 minutes, or be able to be abridged to this level.

Nowadays I’d probably expect more from a scenario, but for the last decade or so, I struggled to find published scenarios that fit this description without significant editing. So, mostly I invented my own and borrowed elements from here and there. Sometimes I’d use a scene from a good adventure, othertimes most of the adventure, but I’d have to make the pre-generated characters, which was a whole lot of work in itself.

I generally steered way from investigation based scenarios, as these could easily lead to players not finding the clue in the available time, taking up a false lead, or ultimately, to me having to fudge providing the clues.

However, I’ve noticed in recent years that there are not just a few, but many, published scenarios, which would now meet my old criteria. Notably “My Little Sister Wants You To Suffer” from Cthulhu Britannica, which I’ve now run 7 times, and which is IMHO probably one of the best ‘con scenarios out there. There are others, like Terrors From Beyond, or the Curse of the Yellow Sign series by John Wick. In addition the Gumshoe system has now put investigation scenarios back on the table for me in this format. And there are many more…

I’m not saying that everyone should run a published scenario at a 'con; just that I’m very glad that the market now seems to be delivering works which are better suited to the sorts of ‘con games that I, for one, like to run and play in.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

What do we get?

This post has been a while coming. Not because it’s especially profound, but because writing jobs for the Kapcon 20 LARP have been eating my time (in a good way).

Today’s subject is campaigns. It’s been something I’ve been musing for a while now – the difference between the one-off or short run games versus the longer term campaign. Part of what made me want to consider this was this topic on the Canberra Roleplaying Meet-Up boards. Partially it was because my long-running D&D campaign GM said to me the other day that his entire aim in running a campaign; all he wanted – was to create enough mystery and interest in his players that they came back for more. Particular session-to-session enjoyment was not the driving consideration. Partially it was this very flattering post by Mash where I’m referred to as ‘the GMing Stig’ which is exactly the kind of thing that’ll make me entirely insufferable. And finally, it was because I’ve really been enjoying my Kingsport Call of Cthulhu campaign, which is now going on one year old.

So, my question out of this jumble of thoughts is; what do we, the GM’s want to get out of a campaign?

I think we can all agree that campaigns are a huge investment of time and energy, and that like all relationships they have their ups and downs. Sometimes the downs are so severe that we just want to quit. In the WFRP campaign that Mash recollects with such kindness, I suspended the game for almost a month and came very close to calling it off. Why? Because the game that I wanted to run wasn't the game that the players wanted to play. They didn’t want to have their characters snared by the (often fairly woeful) plot hooks set up by the Paths of the Damned campaign. They wanted to adventure in the Old World, and they wanted the story to come to them. If they were to investigate leads, they wanted some compelling reasons – in character – to do so. I had never had players refuse to investigate a plot before, and I felt that the rug had been pulled out from under me.

Ultimately I decided that my WFRP players were right, and I was wrong. The story should come to them. They should have compelling reasons to act, and if this wasn't within the scope of the scenario then it was down to me to create and introduce these elements. This provided me with ample opportunity to level in-game consequences and trials to really develop the character beyond the mere scope of the scenario. When I did that, I found that the more we learned about these characters, the more complex and real they were, the richer they became, and the more meaningful the action was when it came.

It may sound straightforward, but it was a watershed moment for me. And it works well in every setting I’ve tried it. I used the same technique to run an 18 month Mutants and Masterminds campaign in Canberra, and it’s the same technique I’m using for my Kingsport Tales campaign. One year on in Kingsport we know that Professor Bishop is so timid that he’d rather sleep outside on a park bench, than risk a confrontation with his landlady for coming home after hours. We know that Dr. Holden will allow himself be set up on dates with women in which he has no interest, to keep up appearances and not excite the Kingsport grapevine. We know that Karl the fisherman is so haunted by his escape from Innsmouth that he sold his fishing boat and lives in a filthy squat. And we know a whole lot more besides…

So, back to the question – what do we GM’s want to get out of a campaign? I’m not sure I’m satisfied with just eliciting a sense of mystery and trying to lure the players back to find out more. I’m not sure that simply allowing players to explore my game-world, and marvel at it’s complexity is enough either. I’m not even sure that telling stories, solving mysteries and completing scenarios cuts it any more either. I want more*. I want to actually share a story with my players. I want them to own it, and I’m willing to let them shape events and have enough control to do that justice, because I know the story will be so much stronger, so much richer, if we have collaborated to tell compelling tales about characters we all care about.

*Intended more as a general statement of intent, or manifesto, rather than a literal plea for more.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Fright Night IV - Part 2

Fright Night playtests and gaming continued:

(Spoiler Warning) Mash ran The Hand That Feeds, a western game with supernatural elements, featuring a cast of werewolves and demons. I was cast as Clem, a ruthless bandit, accompanied by my do-gooder brother played by Paul in the playtest as a Puritan. I was taken aback when the first encounter of the game revealed the town to be unbelievably wholesome (or so it appeared) and faced the hard choice of continuing to hunt the demon, or just try and sucker folks out of as much money as possible. Mash’s character questionnaire, complete with a snip and swap section was neat, although I think that the ambition had outpaced the mechanics as several players seemed confused by what they had received at the end (I had no such problem). I totally support the idea, and have a similar thing envisaged for EPOCH, but I’m not convinced I want to start the game with the players filling in paperwork.

Given the fairly moral nature of our party I was expecting to cause some waves by playing Clem as a real bandit, so to not ruffle too many feathers I went out of my way to try and have him be less ruthless than he might have been (his interrogation of hapless townsfolk was positively genteel by Hollywood western standards). Nevertheless I fell afoul of the party morals after Clem shot a woman (in the leg) who had previously been possessed by the demon. No one would listen to Clem’s assertions she was still possessed (the players had read between the lines of the GM’s description) so I was immensely satisfied when Clem turned out to be right, at which point Clem went his own way. Predictably the other character’s strategy of trying to talk people into doing what they wanted fell through and Clem did the inevitable and used the rather suspect dynamite listed on his character sheet, which regrettably killed most of the party. The game ended with a great final scene with Clem and a small child he had ‘rescued’ leaving the decimated town accompanied by Clem’s brother who was (unknown to us) now possessed by the demon.

It was a fun game, but I could see that Mash was really wanting to explore some dark themes, and to do so with characters who were deeply conflicted. An ambitious undertaking, but potentially a very rewarding exercise if you can pull it off. Again most of the suggestions made were around some of the details, rather than anything central to the plot or ideas.

(Spoiler Warning) In round two of Fright Night I played in Scott’s LARP All Saints’ Eve. I had been cast as Kurt Carter, a wealthy control freak who had recently lost his wife to cancer, and whose daughter had been abducted not long before. On top of that he had brought a gun to a Halloween party. My take was that Kurt was a man on the edge, a tragic figure who sees his life falling apart before his eyes, but is too weak and selfish to do anything to really stop it, and hides his pain and helplessness behind an obsessive need for order and coldness toward the world. Ants played Kurt’s son Jeremy, an 11 year old pyromancer who obeyed his father while under scrutiny but rebelled as soon as he was away from him. Jenni played his friend-from-the-streets, Arial, who Kurt didn't approve of. Clearly Kurt was going to be put into a tough emotional position, and I suspected that he would be expected to lead the action at some point.

The party started badly for Kurt, as we were trapped in a room without external communication. The control-freak was suddenly deprived of control. The unfortunate target of Kurt’s displeasure was Mandy the maid (played by Donna) who really took the brunt of Kurt’s self loathing passive aggression through the night. Largely this was compounded by her raising the matter of Kurt’s missing daughter early on while touching Jeremy. As it turned out, she was a bad egg, although Kurt was acting out of prejudice rather than any serious evidence.

Mandy wasn’t the only one to feel Kurt’s cold wrath, and Jeremy and Arial got a fair bit, with Kurt eventually alienating his son to the point he was ready to run away. Only the elder Cunningham (played by Jackie) really bothered to try and see through Kurt’s quiet aggression, and ultimately she was the only one who stood up to him, and forced him to back down (despite others having the ability to kill him with various powers).

The game ended rapidly after a really slow build up. Kurt, goaded by ghosts, convinced Jeremy to pretend he was having a fit as a distraction, so that he could question Mandy at gunpoint away from the others. From there, things accelerated until there was the discovery of the body of Kurt’s daughter (really creepy) and a knife point stand off as Kurt confronted Mandy, Jeremy was threatened and Arial moved to defend him. Finally Will, played by Glenn saved the day, and freed us.

It was a tough, draining and fairly unpleasant experience being Kurt. Toward the end I had to disengage somewhat, because I just didn’t want to go too far into Kurt’s grief. As we wrapped up I felt pretty bad about how mean I had been to the others, but I did find it to be a memorable and compelling outing.

Fright Night IV - Part 1

Last weekend was Fright Night IV, a one night, two-round, horror roleplaying ‘con. I’ve previously posted about the origins of Fright Night. The fourth installment caused me a little stress, with some switching and changing of games early on, and then 3 last minute player absences. Despite these small problems, the ‘con overall seemed to run smoothly, with all games being run to time.

I was fortunate this year to play in a total of 4 Fright Night games, 3 in playtest, and one on the night itself. I’ll post some brief thoughts on these below, but please heed the SPOILER WARNING for Splinter of Corruption, Did you hear the one..?, The Hand that Feeds and All Saints’ Eve.

(Spoiler Warning) Splinter of Corruption was run by Doug, who adapted an existing Dark Heresy introductory scenario into something more to his tastes. At its core this was a really solid scenario, a straight sci-fi horror exploration and investigation which reminded me a lot of Sophie’s ‘Still to Come’ from Kapcon 19. The characters added a nice 40k element, particularly the explosive collars and floating electronic skull servitors. I found it a fun outing, which enthused me for the sci-fi horror genre, and ultimately there were only some superficial suggestions made along the lines of tidying the investigation track and final sequence, and developing some time-keeping protocols. Doug’s use of miniatures really added a nice, unique element to the game, but unfortunately this was not included in the final run due to time constraints.

(Spoiler Warning) Did you hear the one..? was Sophie’s latest horror offering. Again it presented a straightforward horror setup – people gathering to spend the night in a haunted house. I was given the role of ‘believer’ and created Gill, a paranormal obsessed tech-head with a deficit of social skills who I loosely based on Milton Waddams from Office Space. Glenn played my nemesis, the slightly less socially awkward skeptic, and I spent a good long time sniping with him. Due to the semi-LARP nature of the game it was very visceral, and more than a little challenging for me. I think it worked really well, and the way it ran and concluded was very neat and well executed. Suggestions made afterwards turned it from a good game into a really great game in my view, as notes were replaced by a whispering GM and a co-GM was added to play the critical NPC. In my view this game has most strongly achieved the aim of a genuinely scary horror game in a ‘con setting, and as such is worthy of considerable kudos.

To be continued...

Tuesday, October 12, 2010


I’ve been busy playing a good number of games of late. Particularly playtesting Fright Night scenarios (look here for more detailed thoughts after the ‘con this weekend). In addition, I’ve been having fun playing some rock-n-roll D&D and a little Delta Green.

The latter has reemphasized to me the importance of securing player buy-in for a game. The problem with Delta Green, and many other Cthulhu outings is that it requires the characters to engage with the scenario set-up in a way that is, perhaps, unrealistic for their characters (if Fox Mulder’s sister had not been abducted by aliens, would he really have investigated X-Files with a passion?). So, if the characters are played as real people, without agenda or other emotional baggage, why would they risk their lives and careers for obscure and difficult investigations into the strange and paranormal? Even seeing something unusual or frightening seems an improbable spur to such irrational behavior. If player realism is shattered, the consequences for a game can be profound.

The short answer is that the GM must get the players on board before the game. Explain and discuss the nature of the game he or she wants to run, seek input and advice, and then work with the players to integrate their characters into the plot in a way that will allow them to engage with it in a consistent and meaningful way.

It’s easy to say, but its much harder to actually implement, especially when there are so many other things that need to be prepared, read and considered to run a game. I loose track of the Cthulhu scenarios I’ve read that simply assume the players will dutifully follow the plot, irrespective of dangers and consequences for their characters, and while I can understand how this can happen – writing a detailed and authentic scenario with a unique flavor is very demanding – there really ought to be more attention paid to developing skills and introducing techniques to bridge this difficult chasm.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Epic Finale

Tonight we concluded the Raid on Innsmouth. 18 different scenes over 4 epic sessions, featuring 36 different characters; 1 Coastguard Cutter, 2 Patrol Boats, 1 Submarine, a truck with a snow-plough and a cast of Marines, Coast-Guardsmen, Submariners, Treasury Agents, mobsters and regular investigators. It was a lot of work to prepare, and even more to deliver. Some of the epic scenes taxed my descriptive skills pretty heavily, and the sheer level of violence was like nothing I’ve run in Cthulhu, outside Masks of Nyarlathotep. Overall it was a lot of fun; completely different to the regular Kingsport game, and a hard thing to top, but at the very least, I think I did the scenario justice. The next thing to consider will be running a published campaign, although I’ll need to be careful to pick something that caters to both the slow atmospheric burn that some of my players prefer, and some bursts of frantic action that others enjoy.

On Spetember 9 I provided a brief players perspective review of 'Burning Stars' from Terrors From Beyond where I said "I am assured that all will be revealed in the conclusion, so reserve final judgement for now." Well, in fairness this scenario delivered a humdinger of a twist. Something so clever I've never seen it done before in a roleplaying game which takes my opinion of this scenario from 2/5 to 4.5/5. Despite this awesomeness, there were some elements which let down the playability of the scenario and it could do with a fair bit of tuning to really deliver on its awesome twist. Still, great stuff!

Monday, September 20, 2010

One Night as a Supervillain - Part 2

The night had begun well. I delivered my Best-Man speech, playing up on the idea that Thunderbird was a womanizer who hadn’t liked Kelly (the bride) from the beginning. I followed two heart-warming speeches from the groom and maid of honour, and could tell I had struck the right note when, as I sat down, there was a dejected, gloomy atmosphere amongst the wedding party. Then Jack (aka Thunderbird) went mingling with the guests, and to my delight made a number of jokes about how he could have sealed up the supposed victims of his organ harvesting with his ‘lazer gaze’.

Kelly, meanwhile, was sitting dejectedly on the stair with the remaining bridal party. Now I asked the ‘wait staff’ to deliver my note and folder to ‘Shadow’. I was testing Shadow to see if she was still capable of dark deeds, and the note instructed her to deliver the attached folder to the bride. The folder contained embarrassing pictures of the groom at a strip club, drunk and singing from the stag night (not the most incriminating - but it was what I had to work with, and I thought it might just tip the balance on her unhappiness with him). Shadow (aka Gwen) did so, and I was pleased.

Next my note was delivered to Kara, the cyborg who had defended Thunderbird from my malicious tabloid accusations, thus earning her a place in my plans. I sent her a note (supposedly from one of the magicians present) telling her that she had a virus in her system which would cause her to kill everyone present unless she delivered $5 million to the magician. To my delight she did, although I believe that the magician didn’t take the money. I had also sent a love note, supposedly from Kara, to one of the police detectives professing a desire to ‘interface’. This turned out to have broader ramifications than I had anticipated.

About this time Loki talked me (and Puck) into separating the wolf spirit from the superhero Fenris under the guise of a group wedding photo. I helped out, as it seemed likely to spread some mischief, and then made myself scarce as I didn’t want to be incriminated in the subsequent aftermath (there was quite a bit, and I did use this opportunity to voice my suspicions about ‘Lew’ the building manager aka Loki effectively double-crossing him).

I made sure to check in with Detective Bud Stone at regular intervals, to amplify the increasingly bizarre threats to the party (and world) and discuss the nature of Chaos Gods. Good times.

Now I made good on another of my objectives and spoke with ‘Shadow’ aka Gwen revealing that I was actually Coyote. Jackie had sent me some very cool fiction around how conflicted Gwen was before the game, before she knew my identity. Gwen had apparently just been dumped, and I tried to seize the moment to remind her how much fun being bad could be… It was the first of several encounters, where I tried, but ultimately failed, to talk her into coming to the dark side – but to be fair, it’s pretty hard to compete with an Angel cop.

About this time Loki told me that we had unwittingly brought about Ragnarok, by our releasing the wolf spirit. I told him that as it was his plan to cut the spirit free, it was down to him to fix things, and to my surprise, and his credit – he actually did, even though it alerted the party-goers to his identity and ultimately brought about his demise. At one time it seemed that we might need a willing human sacrifice to save the day, so I tried very hard to hint that only a true hero aka Thunderbird might be willing to make the supreme sacrifice, but alas he wasn’t biting and apparently another method was found. I did manage to arrange some media mischief, after I convinced Thunderbird to save some folks caught up in the wake of the devouring wolf.

The party was getting pretty wild now, with magical rituals galore, and I was getting nervous that I’d be rumbled soon, so I triggered my pièce de résistance, an arrest warrant for the groom’s father, Harry. I had taken pains to use a different envelope and format to the other letters, in case someone got wise to the sender, and hoped that Harry would be lead out in handcuffs, much to the distress of the groom. Unfortunately all the parties were very mature, and no immediate arrest was made. I even alerted to bridal party, lest they miss it, but alas it was not until the end of the night that this scene was played out, after Coyote had left.

Now things were getting downright hostile at the party. Puck was destroyed, and Loki fled, to return for a brief showdown – the ‘omnipotent’ gods were going down like flies. Gwen urged me to leave, and given that the newly reincarnated Galahad and Merlin were actively searching for me, not to mention her Angel cop boyfriend, Coyote did just that, leaving Justin Mallone with a killer hangover and no memory of what had happened.

In review; it was a brilliant game and great fun. Jenni and Paul did a fantastic job, especially as I learn about the other plots that were taking place. I am a little disappointed that I failed in my primary goal of messing with Thunderbird, as his own account seems to indicate that a love triangle caused him much more grief than all my efforts combined. I’m also torn as to whether I should have revealed myself, and faced Thunderbird down, forcing him to destroy Justin. But leaving the party when I did, just felt right for the Coyote.

One Night as a Supervillain - Part 1

On Saturday I attended the Super Reception, a one-night superhero LARP created by Paul and Jenni. I played the part of Justin Mallone, the Best Man, soldier and government liaison to the League of Heroes. Of course, I was also Coyote, a Native American trickster-god who was the arch nemesis of the groom (Thunderbird). I had capriciously possessed Mallone, in order to humiliate Thunderbird, at the stag night before the wedding, and cause trouble at the reception.

That was pretty much the brief. I was told I had nearly unlimited power, and that two other chaos gods (Loki and Puck) would also be attending undercover, presumably each with their own agenda. I was given a little information about the Grooms family (parents Harry and Melissa) and also told that Coyote’s old flame Shadow would also be attending, but that she had turned over a new leaf, although might be up for some fun.

Clearly I didn’t want to ruin the game for the other players by doing anything too spectacular, but equally, it seemed that to achieve my goals I would need to spoil the reception for the newlyweds. If my identity was discovered too soon, it seemed likely that Thunderbird and the other heroes would likely attack, and at the very least, I’d need to leave the party (and thus the game). I was also told that I was ‘looking forward’ to my Best-Man speech.

It seemed the best way to cause havoc would be to have the bride and groom distrustful, even perhaps at each other’s throats. So with that premise, I started by creating a number of fictional tabloid stories in the lead-up to the wedding. I didn’t actually have any information about the contemporary Thunderbird, so I just assumed he was like Superman, and made up a story about how he might have been implicated in a black market organ trading racket (based on real-life civic corruption). Then, as I wanted to start Kelly distrusting his integrity, I framed him for a Tiger Woods style scandal story.

For the night itself, I pre-prepared a number of messages, almost all lies, to be delivered by the wait staff (GM’s). That way I could watch the messages being delivered, and then try and amplify their impact as Mallone (I even sent one to myself to avoid suspicion). I targeted the bride, and the grooms family with a message that Coyote had possessed the groom and planned to do terrible things to the bride later that night. When this was delivered I even arranged for the groom to be ‘tested’ for possession by a magician guest, who confirmed that he was possessed (Thunderbird is also a Native-American spirit), but I tried to make the most of this diagnosis, hoping someone might attack or imprison the groom. Sadly no-one wanted to take action.

To be continued...

Thursday, September 9, 2010


This week was a busy week in gaming for me:

Monday: Playtest of Splinter of Corruption. This game reminded me just how much I love some aspects of sci-fi horror. It’s a really solid scenario, with some truly great gimmicks to help reinforce the tension. I played with a crew of relative strangers (bar one) and I think Doug got a really thorough test. There are some things to be tweaked and tidied, but overall it should be great for Fright Night. It inspired me enough to pull out my copy of Rogue Trader and think about whether I might be able to squeeze in another Kapcon game.

Tuesday: D&D Campaign. My character’s troublemaking has finally led to some consequences for the group and we spent the first half of the session treading carefully around some strong views (both in and out-of-character) about how the characters should be interacting with the environment. Then, to our genuine surprise, a fairly powerful creature showed up and tried to kill us. A pretty epic fight ensued.

Wednesday: Kapcon LARP meeting.

Thursday: The Burning Stars. A new Call of Cthulhu adventure from Terrors of Beyond with a creepy premise which involves the investigators waking in a Haiti military hospital with no memories. Unfortunately the pre-generated characters seem too light on detail to really let the players understand the initial setup and buy-in; flashbacks might have helped. In my view there also seems to be more railroading than is necessary for a good scenario. I am assured that all will be revealed in the conclusion, so reserve final judgement for now.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

D&D 4th Edition - Updated Review

Back on March 11 I posted my initial thoughts on 4th ed. D&D and concluded by saying: "I should clarify that it is early days of playing 4E and that I may yet become more attached to this sleek, plastic thing that’s eaten my old mongrel."

So, I’ve been playing D&D 4th Edition for almost 9 months now, which works out to around 35 or so sessions, or around 140 hours! In that time I’ve had three characters die, and advanced a character from 1st through to 7th level. I have to say it has been fun. Below are some of my thoughts on the game, specifically where it differs from previous editions. I’m not a big fan of D&D as a system, but it does deliver some sustainable and consistent fun.

Classes: I’ve come to accept the new class structures, although it does seem that the more recent PhB’s and option books go out of their way to try and blur the original distinctions between them, harking back to the inevitable power creep of the multitude of 3.5 books. I’ve never liked the idea that a party character composition should be dictated by the rules, but in this 4th ed. seems little different to previous editions, with a balanced party achieving better results.

Combat: Still takes ages. Much like 3.5 there are a lot of rules to check, double check and re-check every turn as almost every power has a unique twist. I accept that this is not going to be the same for all groups, but I think that it is somewhat inevitable in a group of people who are tired after a day at work, but still determined to derive the full benefit for their characters. On the plus side, this checking is usually fairly straightforward as the details are (hopefully) printed on the cards, and most people only have one attack to make. On the downside, feats don’t print in that format in the electronic system and are increasingly important elements for characters, making for some ugly overlapping rules which must be checked and clarified. While some basic moves like attacks of opportunity, bull-rushes and grapples have been tidied up, they remain fairly arduous and cumbersome. On the plus side, healing, surges and bloodied rules are neat. On the downside the multitude of new conditions can be confusing, necessitating yet more rules checking each turn, not to mention the ongoing nature of saving throws and contingent damage etc. Also resting time, and the technical distinction between short and longer rests seems incredibly regimented and unnatural. On the up-side I believe it is much easier for GM’s to prep combat encounters, which should be good for all concerned, and I do like the way that the attack powers all spur descriptiveness from the players.

Skill Challenges: In my opinion these are still not very intuitive, and the narrowed range of skills is frequently confusing. I’ve never liked players trying to use rules as a crutch to describe their characters actions, but as the skill-challenge mechanic seems to be GM driven, I’m not sure how you could set one up as a player unless you’re willing to do this. Simply put, I think to work properly and in the way intended, skill challenges should be prepped by the GM almost like a combat encounter, which is probably a fairly unrealistic expectation, given the traditional approach to D&D games of a lot of groups.

Magic Items: The change to balance these and bring them into the system makes me realize just how much I used to depend on my equipment to get me out of tough spots; particularly higher level scrolls. Now encounters lack that element, I know the basic range of damage my character can deal, and simply must try and optimize things to ensure that it is delivered to the right place at the right time. It seems a lot more mechanical and requires a lot less creative thinking in my opinion.

Down-Time: Following on from this is my major disappointment with the difference between prior editions and 4th Edition. I really liked some of the logistical problems we used to face. How to cross a hostile river, how to enter a sealed barrow or how to disguise and pilot a ship between ports, braving storms, monsters and pirates. The old range of spells and items really gave us some neat options to do some creative and interesting things. From the humble rope trick through to minute mansions and pocket dimensions, there was a lot of variety. Now I agree that despite all these great tricks, you’d usually end up in a fight, and given the current system is built for this eventuality, perhaps it just cuts to the chase. But it really does feel like the game is missing a great and important element.

So, in summary, I do like 4th ed. particularly the way that it makes the player experience both slicker and more flavourful and makes GM prep easier. The game seems to work best for players using the character creator, but there are several elements that are poorly resolved in the output, making things unnecessarily complicated. I miss the grand old magic options of previous editions, even though I accept it probably made things unbalanced. Yes, some classes were disproportionately better under those rules at different levels, but as I remember it, few high-level characters that didn’t have a splash of at least one other class or prestige options/kit under their belts. Obviously WotC are blurring the clear lines of their system by releasing even more supplements, with more options and new rules, but that’s been a hallmark of D&D for as long as I’ve played it…

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Dispatches from the front

Gaming updates:

D&D continues apace. The game has hit a nice groove at the moment, with our group finally having a more equal mix of controllers, strikers and defenders, and thus we have found the recent fights a good deal easier. More tactical options means that we now each have a unique niche that we do well, and we can attempt to tailor our skills to the enemies and environment. Most recently we were ambushed by a group of ghouls, then, a short time later by an Ettin supported by a dozen or so bugbears and took care of business with relative ease. On a campaign footing the many factions of enemies seem to be jockeying for position, attacking one another and the human encampments to capitalize on perceived weaknesses. My own character continues to be a poorly behaved semi-sociopath now dubbed ‘darksoul’ by the monsters, so I must be doing something right!

I recently ran part 2 of the Raid on Innsmouth. It was suitably epic with a bloodbath aboard the coastguard vessels and madness on a submarine, a refinery shootout and then some close encounters with a couple of the bigger scale cthulhu monsters. Only 5 of the 36 characters in play have been killed thus far, but part 3 promises even more epic action, so it should be some good fun. I haven’t run Call of Cthulhu on this kind of a scale for a long time and am a little concerned it might be hard to readjust to the slower and more atmospheric and detailed approach that is normally how Kingsport Tales runs.

Looking ahead; I’m excited about the launch of A Foreign Country this week, the Super Reception in September and getting into training for the Chuck Norris Memorial Hard Man RPG Challenge!

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

In the thick of it

As you may be aware, a GM withdrawal from Fright Night has left me suddenly filling the gap, which while a little stressful, might prove a great opportunity to put EPOCH into action – making a lie of my many and various excuses as to why I can’t get to this anytime soon. Thus, I have committed to run Captivating Jasper for Fright Night.

Of course, this isn’t really the first time I’ll be trying some of these techniques. I’ve been observing and using elements all over the place, from Morgue’s early Aliens games, through to my own recent games at Confusion 8, both of which were tests for some of the techniques I think might work.

I see EPOCH, in addition to having some simple tools to build the right kind of mood, as a more organized and considered approach to horror roleplaying. Reading through the list of Horror Techniques posted on Yog-Sothoth, I was struck by the fact that these techniques are not really enough in-and-of themselves. They tell less than half the story. They are like jokes for a stand-up comedian, or slight-of-hand for a magician. Useful elements, often used poorly and in isolation, but really only very small parts of a greater performance. Without an approach and mindset toward horror, supported by the right kind of tools, these will be little more than interesting quirks or amusements for the players.

Morgue recently made mention of a time mechanic in a very interesting post on Gametime. He wondered if “a horror game could benefit from a ticking clock in the actual room, demanding answers from the players within a certain number of seconds every time. Time pressure makes people nervous.” I have attempted to use this kind of device before at ‘con games (namely in Kapcon offerings Pressure Positive and The High Price of Spandex) and found that while a neat idea, it actually requires a considerable degree of adherence and discipline by the GM to make it ‘real’ in any sense for the players and have a chance to evoke the right kind of atmosphere. That’s not to say it couldn’t be done, just that I think it would need a high degree of forethought, preparation and in-room focus to work – which can be very challenging in a ‘con environment for fairly obvious reasons.

In any event, I plan to write up my first pass at EPOCH and publish it here for comment in due course, so stay tuned…

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Mrs Peabody Investigates

Some games I have recently played -

A Restoration of Evil: A two part game that featured the aforementioned Mrs Peabody, masterfully played by Brady. Mrs Peabody is a nearly unstoppable force of nature, an elderly dilettante with a small dog, and a penchant for using her many contacts in New York society, and scolding anyone who tried to obstruct her investigations. The adventure began when my character (a third rate stage magician known as The Great Andini) and my roommate (a prohibition era bartender) decided to establish the New York Skeptics Society and placed an ad in the Times, only to find Mrs Peabody on our doorstep. Before we knew what had happened we were being whisked around New York in the back of Mrs Peabody’s large chauffer driven car (the dog rides in front), investigating a series of bizarre murders around the decaying Red Hook. Ultimately, we were surprised that the New York Skeptics Society survived (although is now considerably less skeptical) despite the loss of nearly a dozen of New York’s finest in a raid on the horror we uncovered. A grand time.

Bad Moon Rising: A two part adventure, featuring the previously described frustrating investigation phase, concluding with a climax that was equal parts epic and bizarre and surreal. My private investigator survived in body only, alas, his intellect remains trapped in the far future. The sheer degree of narrative strangeness puts this squarely amongst the most challenging Cthulhu scenario’s to GM.

Not So Quiet: A great little one-off Trail of Cthulhu playtest, run by Andrew, set in the Great War. The pre-generated characters were great, although keeping them involved in the investigation was unnecessarily hard work for the GM. My suspicions about the wickedness proved to be wrong, the real menace was far more nuanced and wrenching than anticipated. I had fun and gave as much feedback as I could.

D&D 4e: The weekly game in the ruined magical city continues with our characters having nearly reached 7th level. I have been keeping things interesting between epic fights by inappropriate use of a philter of love and trying to convey how an emotionally crippled character deals with the effects. One of the characters has been turned to stone, and we’ve had several ‘trial’ spots filled by new players. Good fun.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Confusion 8

So this Saturday past I attended Confusion 8 a relaxed one day roleplaying ‘con. For various reasons I had offered to run 2 games, which I initially had cause to regret. First, I somehow managed to get sick on Friday night; I had a fever and only managed a handful of sleep hours. Also, the weather on Saturday morning was not exactly hospitable. Just to top things off I was having a lot of trouble getting my head around Castle Bravo, and felt woefully unprepared for it.

However, I had pledged to run games and take Fright Night registrations, and was still capable of functioning, albeit with diminished capacity, so I braved the rain and headed to the ‘con for the first round where I was to run Mutants and Masterminds.

Round One – Running the Proteus Plot
This is a fairly straightforward published scenario with a neat twist. To keep things interesting I had made some additions to put a lot of focus on the characters, which are created using templates and some randomly assigned elements, then fleshed out a little using some light collaborative method. It’s a bit challenging because I really ask each player to work with me and flesh out some initial scenes, requiring some up-front engagement and creativity - A big ask first thing in the morning.

As it happened, I had the maximum load of 6 players sign up for the game, which wasn’t ideal for this style of game and in light of my diminished capacity. On the plus side they were all talented and experienced players with love for the genre. On the downside, the collaborative hero creation process was a little rocky for some, but I did find that we got a cast of really great characters who really added more interest and depth to a simple plot. The Supers created included:

- The Spirit of Justice, a billionaire body-builder with a troubled marriage
- The Crown Prince, an elderly dad with a utility belt of 1980's gadgets
- Rain, a wealthy party girl turned dark avenger with a predilection for gun violence
- Crisis, a time travelling bad-ass loner with electricity powers and a stray cat
- Edge, a psychic investigator with a crummy day job and a rocket powered skateboard
- Beast/Simon, a man and monster fused together with a helping of anger issues

It was, for me, the fun romp that I had envisaged and I think every player got some decent spotlight time, and had a measure of fun. I don’t know if it hit everyone’s buttons, as there wasn’t a huge amount of investigation, combat, relationships or grand ideas, which I know some people really dig. I was fading a little toward the end, so was not really able to push for an epic cinematic ending of the type I think supers ‘con outings deserve, but all things considered, it was a fun game for me.

Round Two – Playing Apocalypse World
I missed out on the signup having chatted to people, then trying to take more notes for Castle Bravo while I ate lunch, so I arrived in Apocalypse World by default. On the plus side Mike (the GM) was really enthusiastic about the game and setting, and there a number experienced veteran players at the table who I enjoy gaming with.

I was nominated to be the Hard Holder, which was the gang leader in a Mad Max (2) style world. Accordingly I modeled my character, Calibre, after Lord Humungus, and took a fairly brutal approach to gang management theory. Unfortunately the dice betrayed me at several crucial moments, my captive escaped, some of my bodyguards tried to kill me, my ruse to uncover traitors failed and during an epic battle my gang turned on me and handed me over to the enemy gang and I was seriously injured (okay I can actually only blame one of those on the dice).

Thus, Calibre spent the later stages of the game confined to a hospital bed, being tended and often sedated by our ‘Angel’ or medic when she disagreed with my ideas. In all fairness, the real roleplaying hammer fell on Mash’s character Spice, who was the hottest guy in our gang, and also the unlikely vehicle of our salvation from a more monstrous foe.

It was a really fun game, despite my characters incapacitation, and I must give kudos to Mike for a great setup and execution while also allowing us an effective ‘sandbox’ approach to the game. The only real downside was that one of our number played a character that was really very creepy, even by Mad Max standards and was effectively ostracized by our characters, effectively cutting him out of the main action. I felt even worse when my character executed his character at the end for a perceived assassination attempt.

Also, my Calibre voice, really tore up my throat in a way that left me concerned about whether I’d be able to last out Castle Bravo.

Round Three – Running Castle Bravo
As I have alluded to, I was concerned about making sure I understood this scenario adequately. It is written as a series of increasingly bizarre events leading to an epic crisis point. This is set against nuclear tests at Bikini Atoll during the 1950’s. It was also my first experience at running Trail of Cthulhu (although I had previously run other GUMSHOE games). I had a full house again (6 players) which again, was not really ideal for the mood and pacing of the scenario – but them’s the breaks in the big show.

It was also the last slot of the ‘con, and a late one at that. We kicked off close to 6pm and I could see many of the players were wilting fast.

Overall, it went surprisingly well from my perspective (perhaps because I had so much anxiety about the detail). I think I managed to convey the creepy and bizarre against a backdrop of ever more dire circumstances. Most of my efforts were centered around the major NPC, which worked out fairly well. Despite their tiredness the players all engaged with the elements well, and worked with me to really push things along - particular kudos to Henry one of the few unfamiliar faces at the table who engaged really well with the plot and his PC.

On the downside, because this is a ‘purist’ scenario the players are left without the real opportunity for ‘victory’ and really have to settle for a much less decisive outcome. Also some of the more important information that is imparted to the players at the beginning didn’t really come out until the end, which meant I had to push things along in a more direct way than I’d prefer. Whether or not it’s reasonable to expect the PC’s to dump this info in a single scene, as envisaged by the scenario, is perhaps more of a question. Also providing some real detail and ambiance to the setting of the aircraft carrier was something I don’t think I really executed well.

In either event we made it without anyone falling asleep, or me losing my voice entirely, so I’ll call it a win.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Be Prepared

Last night I ran the first part of the Raid on Innsmouth. It’s a scenario for which I have some fondness, having run it several times more than a decade ago, but as I geared up to run it again, I wondered just how much attention I had paid to the scenario the first time around.

It’s a neat outing. There are six objectives, each a unique scenario with a series of ‘supporting characters’ and for each objective there are three parts. You switch frequently between each objective, as the actions of the raiders in other parts may change the circumstances of current objectives.

I like the idea, and the ability for one set of characters to take actions that impact on other sets of characters. But it’s pretty hard work. To compound the problem each of the 6 objectives has 6 pre-generated characters which can be used by the players. Again it’s a nice idea in concept; a player should be able to play several different marines, a sailor, a submariner and a treasury agent, in addition to their own character who is acting as a civilian advisor. Unfortunately the book does not make this simple, by printing the character sheets and info in a way that could just be copied and distributed. Instead they put the character information into the text, omitting base skills and often lapping over pages, making any quick attempt to copy and distribute characters impossible. So, it took me many hours to prepare the 36 pre-generated characters. This necessarily ate into the time I would normally spend preparing the actual scenario.

Then the actual game itself was pretty challenging. Run as written it’s fairly mechanical for a Cthulhu scenario with a lot more gunplay than an ordinary outing, which necessarily bogs things down a bit. On top of that there are a range of special weapons and equipment, and several NPC’s I need to keep animated, while also running the combat. I also found suddenly switching to a new group of characters to be a difficult process, and not especially smooth.

Thus far we have only managed to play 1 part of 3 objectives in about 3 hours, but I am reasonably sure that things will speed up as we go on. I guess I’d conclude by saying that the Raid on Innsmouth is an unrepentantly old-school Cthulhu outing, which really puts a Keeper through the wringer if run as written.

While I’m on game-prep, I really need to spend some more time making sure I’m ready for The Proteus Plot and Castle Bravo which I’d like to run at Confusion tomorrow, assuming I can actually find enough players.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Fright Night

Back in 2007, with the arrival of the eminent Marcus Bone, I suddenly realized that there might actually be enough horror loving GM’s in Wellington-town to run a mini-convention. To confirm these suspicions I ran a poll on NZRag and found that there was probably enough support for such an undertaking; although several people were clear that they were not interested in horror-themed roleplaying.

In my head this was to be a Cthulhu-con, with perhaps a smattering of other games. After all; it seemed evident to me that Call of Cthulhu is simply the best horror game out there, and is rich with published scenarios for precisely this kind of outing. Of course, my own personal bias had meant that I was entirely detached from the reality of the Wellington gaming community. Other than me, nobody pitched a Cthulhu game, and instead we had a wide variety of other styles and genre of games, which were met with enthusiasm by the ‘con attendees.

However, I know some people don’t enjoy horror games. Usually this is driven by a dislike of the premise of horror (splatter seems to dominate Hollywood horror flicks), compounded by second-hand stories of gleeful TPK’s, where the GM ruthlessly wiped out the characters - because that’s ‘horror’. My own belief is that horror games (and movies) can be considerably more nuanced than that; but how to convince people not only that this is true, but also lure them to the ‘con one Saturday night in October, and convince them to pay for the pleasure?

To try and be clear about what kind of game experience you could expect at the ‘con I borrowed a system from popular Canadian horror film festival, where the movies were scored in categories such as ‘strange, splatter, scare and suspense’ and also borrowed the film classification ratings.

The first Fright Night just scraped together enough players to fill all the available slots, and break even. It was a stressful time, largely because we had one GM pull out on the day and I hastily had to run a replacement game (Simply Red from Call of Cthulhu’s Blood Brothers 2) in its place. In the intervening years while I’ve been out of the country, Alaisdair has done a great job of running the ‘con, and introducing the kind of things that are now more popular in the community, like LARP’s and so forth.

Now it’s time to start drumming up players for Fright Night once again. Please register and help to keep this fiesty little ‘con going!

Saturday, July 24, 2010

That Old Innsmouth Magic

This week I picked up my Kingsport Tales campaign after a several month absence. I find it a fun, and sometimes a challenging game to run, mostly because I try and allow the characters as much autonomy as I can manage. In practice that means I try and hook the characters individually, bringing clues from the scenario to their attention through their stated interests and occupations and hoping that the players will work with me to involve their characters in the story. I usually have one shot back-up characters (police and the like) available for players who don’t involve their own characters in the climax.

It’s an approach that requires a fair bit of effort from me, and that always stokes my anxiety about other player downtime, as the characters often don’t interact with each other for long periods. I try hard to not force anything on them, to keep things moving and try and weave things together as the session goes on. Predictably, as I get more tired, this breaks down to an extent.

One manifestation of this occurred in the last session. I’ve always said that the characters can go anywhere they please within the setting. Already this has lead me to merge two adventures when they suddenly decided, in the midst of one scenario about dreams, to explore the strange high house in the mist.

On this occasion, boats had been going missing around Kingsport. The characters interrogated superstitious fishermen, who offered a wild series of conjectures including the possibility that those folk from Innsmouth were somehow involved (there is a history of bad blood between Kingsport and Innsmouth in the setting). This was actually a red herring, but the characters decided that it sounded plausible enough for a trip to Innsmouth.

Queue some frantic re-tooling from me. Now, in retrospect I should have allowed them to experience some Innsmouth creepiness, but ultimately been frustrated and returned to other avenues of investigation. Instead I treated them to my full-on Escape from Innsmouth treatment designed for ‘cons, largely because this was my first reaction.

I had fun and while the actual escape section was slightly truncated and a little bogged down with some crunch because I allowed the characters to go into the town heavily armed, and several tried to fight their way out - I think it ultimately worked out okay. Two long-term characters are now prisoners, to be potentially rescued in the next installment where I plan to run the re-tooled and extended ‘Raid on Innsmouth’ which looks to be a lot of fun.

So, I stand by my decision - but can’t help but feel that I really should have been better prepared for the session...

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Horror Game Manifesto

I believe it is possible to run a truly scary game at a roleplaying convention irrespective of the environment.

I've been on about this for a while now, so I think it's time to try and tie in the things I've written about this, as a first step in trying to actually put together a game which delivers on this aspiration.

The principle framework will focus on:

-Player buy-in and empathy (through a degree of shared narration)
-Visual and audio aids (not in a major way - just to cover learning bases)
-GM ground rules and time out zones
-Table discipline
-System reduction
-Shared Character development
-Identifiable setting
-Identifiable sitations and choices
-Distance closing techniques
-Disruptive player techniques
-Increasing the stakes with (almost) every successive scene

I will attempt to detail my thinking, and the way I tackle this as I move toward the Experimental Paradigm Of Contemporary Horror (EPOCH).

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Not Just a Number

Luke’s comments about my ongoing D&D game, contrasting them with his own experiences, have made me pick up a proposition I made elsewhere a while ago, and reconsider it. Namely; is the GM’s style and personality a far greater determinant of a player’s game experience than system or setting?

My D&D 4e game may use all the bells and whistles of 4e (power cards, action points, milestones etc.) but, fundamentally, the game experience for me is very similar to 3.5, 3e and 2e, because the GM’s influence on the game, his NPC’s, the setting, and the types of encounters that he runs (epic) have always been pretty much the same. Yes, I think about my PC in different ways, and we have different tactical options (more immediate and less strategic IMHO) in this edition, but for me at least, that isn’t a massively significant element.

I then consider my own experience. I recently completed An Eye for an Eye, an intro scenario for my WFRP 3e players. It’s a fairly straightforward scenario with an investigation sandwiched between two fights. Now, I suspect that the investigation component wouldn’t be radically different then if I were running Call of Cthulhu, there are NPC’s who must be questioned and clues obtained. Yes, the setting is different (The Old World rather than New England), but I’m not sure that it’d really be a significant difference to the players experience of the encounter.

Then we get to the combat. As the GM I found it to be a fairly challenging time, the PC’s eliminated the initial bad guys in record time (the Waywatcher shot and killed 3 in a single action), but then had an extremely tough time with the subsequent foes. I found that running this part of the fight was very hard work, as there was quite a lot of system to get my head around. I need to make sure that the PC’s are using their actions correctly, and that they include the bad guys ‘defence’ value in their dice pool each time, apply any fatigue or delays that result from their roll, allocate damage if the attack hits and then be able to narrate the action. Then, for the bad guy’s actions I need to select an action, place charge counters if necessary, build a dice pool, queue a PC defence - and factor it into the pool, roll and assess if the attack hits, and then see if anything else is triggered by the result, attribute any wounds and critical and narrate the action. And I need to do that for each bad guy. At the end of the game I was exhausted.

All that work, made the fight feel very different for me than a similar type of Cthulhu encounter. Indeed it felt very different from most other kinds of combat’s I’ve run, but I wonder if the players found the experience to be significantly different from other games? If so, I wonder if once we’ve played more, and are more comfortable with the system, if it will still seem significantly different from a Cthulhu encounter…

In short, I’m coming to believe that the system and setting of a game may seem like a significant element for a GM, even the most significant element, but from a player’s viewpoint, I wonder if the same is true. GM style, ability and personality seem like they must be a far greater influence, and I’m not sure these change dramatically from game to game.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Miniature Combatants in Epic Battles

Tonight we finished what has been a 3 session combat in our D&D game. That’s 3 game sessions of 3 or so hours; so around 9 total play hours, to represent a little over 2 minutes of game time! Okay, so for D&D you might say that’s par for the course – after all, some folks might argue that it’s a really tactical wargame with roleplaying elements. Certainly this game has been a tactical fiesta with the Giant Toad eating several of the party, spitting them out, then eating them again, while other enemies drag us into water or beat us down from unusual angles.

Nevertheless, I find it a little mind boggling. Being a fan of old-school games I have run plenty of epic fights in my time. For example; Masks of Nyarlathotep, which I’ve run several times now, is laden with them. And recently I’ve taken the next logical step, and invested in miniatures, primarily for Cthulhu, but also for Supers and other games I might run.

A part of me feels a little dishonest for doing so, because I do subscribe to the argument that a GM should be able to adequately narrate a combat, keep things flowing and both empower the players, and add a lot of flavor in the process without needing props. In the past a map, with relative locations usually sufficed. After all, this is roleplaying, not wargaming (don’t get me wrong – I wargame as well, but prefer to keep these hobbies separate).

I recently put this into practice in my Kingsport Tales, in a situation where the characters were investigating an old house, which contained a basement, secret corridor and blasphemous temple chamber. I did this principally because I find that often, players can become confused about their relative position, the position of other characters, NPC’s and even room layout. By putting everything in miniature, and letting players only move their own miniatures, everyone can see sight lines, and should have a clear understanding of relative positions. I also used this system (using tokens rather than miniatures) in my 6 different runs of My Little Sister Wants You To Suffer from Cthulhu Britannica and found that it worked very well. It's also a handy antidote to the player who asks for information about a room, then, after triggering an associated encounter will argue they couldn't possibly have done so, as they had described their character as remaining outside the whole time.

Nonetheless, after this epic D&D marathon game, which I found unnecessarily complex and sometimes frustrating, I do find myself questioning whether miniatures and their ilk really add to games which prize story elements, and which downplay combat. What do you think?

-For the record our D&D party ‘survived’ and were not TPK’d, and might even be considered victorious, but only through the heavy use of story elements tied to our mysterious backgrounds and introduced by the GM as the characters were killed.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Visit a Foreign Country

Okay, it's not about roleplaying, but it does feature the work of roleplayers.

A Foreign Country is a new, New Zealand Speculative Fiction anthology being released shortly, featuring a story by yours truly, and work by Wellington roleplayer, Kapcon don, and award-winning scenario designer Matt Cowens. It's open for pre-orders now, and for a small press, these kind of orders are pretty important. I'd sure like to see more of these kind of ventures in the future so that other writers can spin tales, so please support New Zealand fiction:

"The future is here! A Foreign Country, Random Static's new anthology of New Zealand Speculative Fiction, is now available for pre-order. Featuring work by best-selling author Juliet Marillier, poet, musician, and writer Bill Direen, several Sir Julius Vogel Award winners, prominent writers, and talented newcomers, this is an unmissable volume of imaginative and compelling short stories.

Strange creatures are loose in Miramar, desperate survivors cling to the remains of a submerged country, humanity’s descendants seek to regain what they’ve lost, and the residents of Gisborne reluctantly serve alien masters. The visions of New Zealand - and beyond - painted in this collection of short stories are both instantly recognisable, and nothing like the place we know.

A Foreign Country brings together the work of established authors and fresh voices to showcase the range of stories produced by New Zealand's growing community of speculative fiction writers. Humorous, disturbing, intriguing, cautionary, and ultimately hopeful, these tales tell of worlds where the boundaries between human and animal are blurred, babies are not what they seem, desperate measures are in place to ward off disaster, and flying standby can be a big mistake.

The anthology includes stories by:

•Philip Armstrong
•Richard Barnes
•Claire Brunette
•Anna Caro
•Matt Cowens
•Bill Direen
•Dale Elvy
•J.C. Hart
•Paul Haines
•Miriam Hurst
•Tim Jones
•Susan Kornfeld
•Juliet Marillier
•Lee Murray
•James Norcliffe
•Ripley Patton
•Simon Petrie
•Brian Priestley
•Marama Salsano
•Lee Sentes
•Janine Sowerby
•Douglas A. Van Belle"

These are the Games of Our Lives - Part Three

Running: Call of Cthulhu - Final Flight

I ran this Pagan scenario as a one-off session the other week. I found it was laden with good detail, but almost completely undone by a poor layout. It’s a simple adventure involving a plane flight and then an aftermath of about the same length. It’s a nice idea, but the scenario as written involves a dozen NPC fellow passengers, including cabin crew and a major villain. This was pretty challenging, and while the scenario thoughtfully provided me with a matrix of their stat’s it didn’t do the same for their personality elements or motivations, making it a pretty hair-raising experience.

Then the second part of the scenario really needs some work, tying in the fairly cool elements sketched out in the scenario into a comprehensive story. IMHO, add in a story tree of possible actions and responses, options for setting it somewhere else at another time, and some colourful and fun pre-generated characters and you’d have a really excellent ‘con game. As it stands it was fun, but unnecessarily hard work.

Running: WFRP 3e

So, I’ve been intimidated by the new edition of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay since I purchased it. For those who don’t know, the game is played using a collection of cards, with relevant rules printed on them rather than having a rulebook as reference, and uses ‘special’ dice. I had played a game with Luke over Kapcon weekend, and wasn’t convinced that the game really did anything that 2e couldn’t do better, or that the special dice and card represented a worthwhile addition, given the associated mechanical hassle. However, having spent a decent chunk of money on it, I finally got up the courage to give it a run.

I ran it as written, rather than creating pre-gen’s like Luke did, as I don’t especially like reading rules in my free time, so was keen to learn with the players as we went (although obviously I did do some pre-reading).

The character creation session was extremely daunting. Players can spend their points on virtually any combination of statistic, wealth, or pick from a range of ‘action’ and ‘talent’ cards. By throwing it open like this, the players really need to read almost every card they might pick from in order to select the best value-for-points for their characters. Because they hadn’t played, this also meant that I needed to explain the rules as they went, so they had some idea of the relative merits of each selection. A huge job, made easier by the fact that the players, despite being a little overwhelmed, really engaged with the game.

Characters made, we then had just enough time for the into involving some brief roleplaying and a combat (I was determined to get the combat in so that the players could see how their choices worked in practice). It actually went very smoothly, and I was pleasantly surprised. The fight was flavourful and challenging, but I think ultimately a lot more empowering for the PC’s than a 2e equivalent would have been (at entry level that’d be rounds of everyone missing their targets).

I hope to get the next session under our belts next week. I am a little concerned as two of the players picked (and randomly chose) the Waywatcher and Swordmaster careers, which seems to make them pretty kick-ass in combat, when compared to the Gambler and Rat-Catcher. Story wise, appropriate, but I remember how incensed my 2e players were that some characters were better at combat than others – the idea that other characters are better in social situations, didn’t hold much sway. I’m also not convinced about abstract movement in combats where there are multiple attackers, nor do I find the monsters easy to run when there are many of them – however, time will tell if these kinks work themselves out.

These are the Games of Our Lives - Part Two

Playing: Cthulhu

In addition to the ongoing D&D saga, I’ve been playing a little Cthulhu as well. I playtested Liam’s Cthulhu Invictus scenario “Chaos in Rome” which I understand he entered in a recent Chaosium competition. It was not what I was expecting, and despite my initial reservations about Cthulhu Invictus, it was good fun.

Regrettably for Liam, we played on the setup (an upper class Roman family at each other’s throats after the mysterious death of the patriarch) and this culminated in my spoilt momma’s boy character conspiring to poison his brother (played by Mark as a particularly nasty piece of work), then after that failed, hiring some footpads to ambush him. Both attempts were ably thwarted by Igor’s centurion. The problem was that after all that excitement, and by the time we found the lurking menace, the resulting action was necessarily truncated by time pressure, leaving several character’s suddenly dead.

I’m also playing in Liam’s run of “Bad Moon Rising” a classic Cthulhu adventure from ‘The Great Old One’s’. After a full session of abortive investigation, we have arrived at the heart of the scenario, albeit in a way which makes me question if all our attempts at investigation were really needed (and find that I agree with the GUMSHOE manifesto more and more). To Liam’s credit a lot of the older Cthulhu scenarios require considerable shoe-horning to run as intended.

Finally, I’m looking forward to playing in Andrew M’s playtest of a forthcoming Trail of Cthulhu scenario. I’ve been wanting to run Trail for ages, but find that there is more than enough regular Cthulhu I also want to run, without having to learn, and teach, a new system. Hopefully Andrew can do the heavy lifting on that account for me…

These are the Games of Our Lives - Part One

It’s been a while since I updated; but I was reminded today that a couple of people take a look at what’s here so I suppose I should update my current roleplaying goings on:

Playing: D&D 4e

As you may recall this D&D 4e game was set in the ruined city sealed by magic, and overrun by demons. We currently seem likely headed for another TPK after a two session combat. In short, to earn our keep in the ‘good’ human faction we were asked to clear a tower which was overrun by froglockes (bullywugs). We were told that there were around thirty of so of the enemy, although they spawned rapidly. Scouting we ambushed a party of around 20 or so young ones (almost all minions). Then we attacked the tower itself (it’s more of a complex multi-level fortress) doing battle on an outer courtyard wall. We battled several giant dire toads guarding the door, and then entered a melee with 30 or so froglockes (all brutes).

Late in the fight a froglocke that was part human, and part water elemental , joined in and did some big hits, before teleporting away. We won the combat, but found ourselves defeated by the stout, barred doors of the fortress, so hurried to a garden which seemed strangely free of froglocke corruption. We encountered ghostly soldiers who offered to escort us to the ‘mess’ to rest. This was a door into the tower, which when opened was a large chamber entirely filled with froglockes and a huge giant dire toad. Queue a huge fight. We have so far dispatched 50 of the froglockes (most of them) and bloodied the toad, but are still grappling with the remaining elite guard and have expended pretty much all our resources.

At this point 3 of the water-elemental, part frogs arrive and put the hurt on my character (200 hit points worth of damage in 3 rounds – the only way I’ve survived to date is by virtue of Andrew’s specialist healing cleric who is now in a bad way as well). So I suspect it’ll be new character time shortly. Overall, it seems a little frustrating that we faced such a tough ask as an initial mission, and that the ‘friendly’ npc intelligence was so far out. Both of these gripes can be explained in story terms, but I feel would be a hard ask in game terms.

I must face some blame, because I was the catalyst of pressing on into the tower without a full rest, when I think one or two of the others had level-ups pending and needed to restore daily powers. I stand by my decision, because it was driven by roleplaying elements, rather than tactical considerations, but then that’s what happened the last time we were TPK’d…

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

A Door in your Mind

So, the other day in my regular D&D game, our group of hardy adventurers were on their way to dispatch an outpost of one of the many factions which inhabit the ruined city, when we happened across a door. Not just any door mind, a giant door with a huge skull above it. And when I say happened across, I mean that we sensed the door, through some grand plot stuff, and detoured to discover it. As soon as we saw it, I cynically wagered another player that we would eventually open it, despite the obvious omens and the fact that we had another job underway. Needless to say, despite the many, many efforts of the other player to prevent such an occurrence and nearly thirty minutes of play, the door was opened by another character.

When running games I’ve always found that a door, trapdoor, or a deep hole, can easily occupy several hours of gameplay as players bicker, discuss and hypothesise what might lurk beyond. Often the imagined scenarios are far grander than the reality, and it is hard to not re-write the game to reflect the nice ideas floated. Inevitably, no real consensus will be reached and one player (usually the one who has become most bored) will simply announce their character will open the door/descend into the hole to the outward exasperation, but secret delight, of the others. This period can be extended by adding more detail, such as a sound or smell which is hard to place coming from beyond, or inscriptions or pictograms on the portal.

The door/hole was, for me, often an unexpected and unwanted sink of time during a scenario, however, I have come to appreciate how they can also be a very useful device. A method of exploiting and drawing out existing character divisions, or, when used with some degree of time pressure, an exciting challenge, or simply a chance to think about, and prepare responses to unanticipated in-game events from earlier in the session. All in all, I have come to appreciate the value of a good mysterious portal.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

A Player's Tale

This week I spent a fair bit of time playing in some different RPG’s. Here’s a brief snapshot of the week that was;

On Monday I helped playtest Morgue’s forthcoming superhero adventure for the ICONS system. I had previously created a character by rolling superpowers randomly (love that old-school, V&V feel) and decided on the basis of rolling plant control, animal control and the ability to excrete toxins that I would be the ‘Green Man’ and environmental avenger and super-hippy. It was a pretty wild time, and I must give nods to my fellow heroes for having some great laughs. Our team was entirely dysfunctional with two fairly straight characters (Slade played by Norman and Salamandress played by Jenni) and two kind of lame, oddballs (Robo-Zard was played by James and was particularly memorable for his stalker style antics involving Salamandress) and me of course.

Other than a fondness for the characters, I was reminded just how much a GM has to try and continuously reinforce the role of the game world’s reality and provide some kind of basis for normalcy in an old school supers outing. It can be a continuous and exhausting process depending on the power level of the Supers and the creativeness of the players. Perhaps it’s the difference between a campaign, or long-term game over a short run, but If anything, I think that it reinforced that I prefer super games which deal with origin stories and bring a focus on ‘real-world’ pressures on super characters, over short run, four colour adventures.

On Tuesday I played my ‘Brutal Scoundrel’ in my regular D&D campaign. It’s been several sessions since the TPK and I like the other PC’s, but it seems that we might have to change party roles around and introduce new characters soon in order to replace our ‘healing role’ which was left vacant after a player left the game. We continue to explore a gigantic city cast out of time and magically sealed, overrun by demons, fey, frog-locks, bugbears and many other assorted nasties. The number of factions involved has made me concerned that we may once again find ourselves betrayed and TPK’d but I guess time will tell.

Last week we were ambushed by bugbears who referred to us as 'noobs', which I guess is true, but certainly made me feel like it was a very long road ahead. Without any bushcraft capabilities, and obviously being at the low end of the power scale in this setting (or else it'll be a short campaign) I pondered whether there was any point in trying clever strategies or trying to do anything but blindly walk into one encounter after another and hope that we can beat it. After all, everything else in the setting is likely more powerful and more in tune with the local environment than we are, so unless the GM is willing to give our ideas and plans a credence that defies the perscription of our level, he or she is unlikely to let us gain any real advantage over the NPC's.

We have our first actual serious, non-combat, interaction with NPC’s next week and it's possible the group will shatter and fragment when given the opportunity to find different motivations . I think that from this game I took away the need to use pace appropriately in order to try to reveal a story of this scope.

On Thursday I played Dr. Ivan Borkovsky, a Czech Archeologist on expedition to Meso-America in 1914, in Call of Cthulhu. We spent almost the entire session making characters (well, talking about making characters and other things) and finding our way to an ominous and largely undiscovered ancient, overgrown Mayan city. Fortunately my fellow explorers were sufficiently outlandish in their antics that my Dr. Borkovsky was actually fairly buttoned down, despite my outrageous accent (I guess that balances out my Green Man mischief on Monday). The group is heavily armed, but on the basis of the scenario build-up so far, I fear that Dr. Borkovsky is unlikely to live long enough to publish his paper on the lost city…

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Who's Bad? - Part Two

So in my original post I tried to illustrate what I have observed as a potential problem in some old-school style games; the idea that sometimes the villain becomes too powerful, as a result of the GM conflating their own knowledge of the PC’s actions, with the notion that the main villain should be more powerful and intelligent than the GM would be in a similar circumstance, leading to a very high degree of difficulty for the PC's possible victory.

To the mailbag, Mash asked: “Looking at your example: if the PCs don't really understand how powerful the villain is, then is there scope to downgrade him without creating a continuity error with what they do actually know?”

I think there surely is, my point on this topic is that the GM is not willfully nor consciously doing this. It is a problem that creeps in, often undetected except in the final throes of conflict after a TPK. Let me go to an example:

I have primarily experienced this in older D&D games, where the villain’s level was a predictor of his or her relative powers, and as such, far exceeded that of the any given PC (as a way of equalizing the cumulative power of all of the PC’s fighting the villain at the same time). However, the actual manifestation of this was that as PC’s, we encountered the villain’s hench-people and defeated them without really understanding much of the why’s and wherefore’s of the situation. The consequence of that action would be terrible and extremely powerful revenge visited upon us, usually through a pre-prepared ambush, which would often defeat or kill the PC’s.

The result from the player’s perspective was a degree of confusion: ‘why did we just get our asses kicked? That sucked!’ and the response from the GM would often be ‘that’s the consequence of meddling in the villain’s schemes, you guys should have been smarter’ and also ‘had your characters actually survived, you might have learnt your lesson’. This might be a 'fair' outcome from the GM's perspective, but because we didn't ever undertsand all the variables involved we couldn't assess the fairness, only the fun-ness, and it was not 'fun' (for me at least).

To be fair I have run a similar situation myself; several instances of Delta Green come to mind, where the villains in question were a race of sentient insect fungus from space. Possessing advanced technology they are able to easily spy upon the PC’s without detection, and while their motives and actions should be appropriately abstract in terms of plot, I had difficulty in having them overlook the PC’s plans for violence or disruption of their plans. I tried to give some clues of this infiltration, but what occurred in the most recent game of Delta Green I ran was that the players acted hastily (in the context of the government agents they were playing, not in terms of some tired gamers around a table) and enacted a raid that was a spectacular failure due to the villains having made preparations along the lines of the Branch Dividian in Waco (one of the villains listed ambitions was to cause the federal authorities significant embarrassment to back off future operations). I’m not sure the players enjoyed the experience, and we didn’t play Delta Green again.

Which brings me to the next point of discussion. If the GM might sometimes attribute additional intelligence, perception or power to the villain’s interaction with the game-world, then who exactly are the PC’s?

To illustrate this point with an example, a friend of mine recently complained that despite having a high Charisma score in his recent D&D game, the GM often belittled his attempts to elicit information or charm NPC’s because the GM did not find the player’s strategy for achieving this to be successful, irrespective of the characters ability. He was equally miffed that the other PC’s did not treat his character in a manner that befitted the natural charm and charisma that his character should exhibit in the game-world. His argument was that the PC’s and NPC’s should all act as though his character was the extremely charismatic and charming individual the system said he was, largely irrespective of his own personality at the table.

Obviously the same argument can be leveled at investigation games, where the PC’s are playing expert and professional investigators, yet the players are often stumped in situations that their characters would not be (enter the GUMSHOE debate).

I know that when I run a game I try and keep a mental picture of each character distinct from the player, and try to overlay one with the other when they interface with NPC’s, but I suspect I’m not always successful in doing this.

To be continued again...

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Who's Bad? - Part One

I have observed, over the years, the power creep of creeps. Or, to be more specific, how hard can be for GM’s to distance themselves from their villains. It’s a problem I can understand only too well. When you create an adventure or dungeon or campaign, you usually arrange for there to be an adversary for the players, a villain, or in special cases even a super-villain (being an especially successful villain). This NPC is vested with dastardly schemes, and likely a range of accomplices/underlings/hench-people that can be deployed to achieve these ends. Often the villain’s actions which do not involve the PC’s directly are unscripted, left to the imagination of the GM, as this NPC interacts with the game world through his or her imagination alone initially.

Naturally, during the course of the game, the PC’s will encounter some aspect of the villain’s plan, either by accident or intent, and inevitably confront underlings or allies in a manner which will either thwart, or otherwise inconvenience the villain’s schemes. It is, therefore, only natural that the villain will take measures to stop/eliminate or distract the PC’s once they become aware of them. It’s pretty much the plot of any bulk-standard Hollywood action flick right? So far, so good?

Here’s where it gets tricky. The GM has watched events unfold, probably with a smug look, as PC’s bicker and blunder their way through plots (by which I mean quality roleplaying of course!). The GM is aware of just how lucky they have been to this point, whereas the NPC villain may only be aware of something going awry with a plan, or the sudden death of a minion in a very remote way. Can the GM adequately separate his or her own knowledge and intellect from that of the villain?

The problem is that most villains are extremely successful operators within the game-world. Where players have fluked or blundered their way through encounters and survived often by luck (or the use of GM fiat), villains have risen to their position through force of personality, ruthlessness and cunning. They are wealthy and powerful in a way that is remarkable. In most cases, they are more successful in these ways than the GM, so it is somewhat natural for a GM to justify superior reasoning and capability to the villain.

What does this mean? Well, sometimes it means that no matter how clever or well thought out the actions of the PC’s the villain will be neither surprised nor prone to sudden defeat. It sometimes means that the villains will lways achieve their major aims because they can tap into the game-world better than the PC’s. It also can mean that the villain will rarely suffer a major defeat or die in a non-epic way. It might even lead to the GM berrating or belittling the PC's due to perceived shortcomings, when their actions are compared with the villain's.

It might even have serious consequences for a game, but is there anything we can actually do to combat this phenomena?

To be continued…