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…