Monday, December 1, 2014

'Tis The Season

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

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Fright Night 8

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Horror on the Horizon

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

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

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

Today, though, something strange is happening…

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, September 4, 2014

The Frozen Reaches

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, July 21, 2014

ENnie Awards - The Beautiful Agony

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Games within Games

As we make our way through The Frozen Reaches for Rogue Trader we have used the starship combat rules a little more frequently than in our last outing with this system.  These rules are interesting, as they exist as a completely separate subset to the core rules governing characters and their actions, and even the rules governing life on a starship not involved in combat.  To play these rules in the way the designers intended you need to use a grid and tokens or models to reflect the ships.  Characters then take specific roles – either direct (moving the ship through piloting rolls, and firing the weapons) or indirect – (boosting crew morale, making repairs etc.).  All of this is intended to combine into a dramatic and balanced battle which plays out like a movie, with each character getting a cut-shot of their activities during the action.
So does it work?  I’m a big believer in having a system which reflects the core function of the game – and for me Rogue Trader is a game about exploration and commerce, with a little diplomacy and action thrown in for good measure.  Accordingly I think that the system should reflect this, and to its credit, it does in many places by providing abstract rules for things like crew population and morale, establishing a colony, determining your cargo etc.  Shifting from this activity to a game of grid squares and tables - effectively a mini-wargame -  seems to jar with the rest of what this game is trying to achieve, not to mention being extremely time consuming.
My real gripe with these rules, however, is how difficult they are to reference.  A tabletop wargame (or boardgame for that matter) needs to have rules that are extremely easy to reference, unambiguous, and will ideally include examples which reference all the key activities of that game.  The Rogue Trader rules by contrast are written into the long paragraphs of text that are typical of the rest of the book.  This makes finding key rules time consuming, and even then, some of the wording is ambiguous.
Perhaps the greatest irony of this is that Games Workshop (whose IP is licensed in Rogue trader) are established market leaders in wargaming, and Fantasy Flight Games (who published Rogue Trader) are established market leaders in boardgaming.  So if ever there was a product which should have robust and well considered rules which optimise space combat, it should be a marriage between these formidable companies – like Rogue Trader.
Instead it feels like the space combat rules for Rogue Trader were hastily bolted onto the core book, as were the combat rules, and equipment – all taken from an assembly line of 40k RPG components.  A feeling reinforced by the GM screen (which for Rogue Trader includes only combat rule summaries – no skill summaries, exploration or space combat rules are in evidence).  You might argue that this situation was the result of the speed to bring this product to market – the core rules are a sizable product after all.  But Fantasy Flight has subsequently published many expansion books for Rogue Trader over several years, and had ample opportunity to revise and improve these rules (in publications like Battlefleet Koronus for example). Instead they use additional books to layer yet more complexity to an already ill-fitting system.
In fairness, we have enjoyed the game to this point, and the space combat rules certainly add a high level of interest to proceedings, forcing the characters to agree a joint course of action under some degree of pressure.   But as with many aspects of this game, it leaves me to wonder what might have been...
Can you think of any other examples of games within roleplaying games?

Friday, May 9, 2014

Back Into Space - The Warpstorm Trilogy begins

Following Chaosium's announcement that the publication of the 7th edition rules for Call of Cthulhu has been further delayed, I discussed with my group whether we should wait until the finished rules are published, and run Horror on the Orient Express in the way it is intended, or continue to play using the quickstart rules, or even go back to 6th Edition.  The consensus was to wait, so in the interim we have returned to a campaign which has been on my list of things I want to run for some time: The Warpstorm Trilogy for Rogue Trader.
"In Frozen Reaches, the Explorers find themselves facing an impending Ork invasion and working to save the planet of Damaris. But first, they will need to organize squabbling factions and establish a united front. This is no easy task, as powerful forces are working against them from the shadows...  The exciting adventure continues in The Citadel of Skulls and culminates in Fallen Sun. Do you have what it takes to brave the dangers of a warpstorm?"

Re-entry to the Rogue Trader system was a little rocky.  I had forgotten just how much complexity exists in such an old school system.  While not radically different from other Old School style games, Rogue Trader requires players to reference multiple sections of the core rules, and if they want to utilise all the options the system provides, reference specific sections in multiple books across the range.

On top of that, fairly routine actions (such as travel through the Warp, acquiring new items etc.) require a 3-5 stage process, each with a discrete set of mechanics, tests and modifiers, to say nothing of combat in both space and interpersonally.  It led me to wonder - what is the point of all this complexity?  What is this game doing (intentionally or otherwise)?

My conclusion is that all these mechanics and details provide a veneer of balance, and serve to effectively camouflage the degree of GM fiat that occurs in most traditional games.  To an extent the mini-outcomes these micro-systems produce can be used as a creative crutch by the GM, fleshing out details to add to descriptions and providing some colour.  However, as these systems also require the GM to specify difficulty, other variables and then situate the outcome in a meaningful context, they do not check GM fiat in any meaningful way.

Thus far, the mechanical complexity of Rogue Trader has been tiresome, convoluted, and just a little bit wonderful.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Reports from the Orient Express - The Blood Red Fez

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, March 13, 2014

2013 in Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4. Run the Warpstorm Trilogy for Rogue Trader.

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

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

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

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

Thursday, March 6, 2014

On the Rails

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

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Structure Your Fun

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

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

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Kapcon 23 - Part Two

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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