Saturday, March 29, 2014

Comparing two game sessions and the prep - Savage Worlds & Stormbringer


I've been thinking and writing a bit about my recent online game. One thing I was not really satisfied with that game was the flow and pacing, but it highlighted different ways to handle game prep. I thought it might be interesting to compare that game to a Savage Worlds/Agents of Oblivion I ran last year. That game was not online using Hangouts, so the issues I had with that format did not apply, of course. But, I realize that there are other interesting differences.

For those who are interested in how prep notes for a SW/AoO game can look like, check these notes. It's worth nothing that my Agents of Oblivion had a healthy dose of Cthulhu to it, and less James Bond.

Worthy about these notes is that I've listed the names of people, but very little about what they know or what they will do. I improvised that part as we played. Also, I had a vague plan that was basically using the look and feel of a small mining village like the one in the movie October Sky and the dramatic feel of a X-Files episode. Basically, I knew the place and the people, but except that the only thing clear was that the Fungi would mind wipe the characters. Then I just made sure weird shit happened.

I can tell you that they investigated the shit out of that place! They basically took Jackson's place apart and sawed out a bit of the floor with some odd scratches/markings which might have been a Mi-go claw mark! After a fight with the MIBs they totally freaked out when they turned to piles of sand! Some pretty cool roleplaying happened when the sheriff showed up and they had to fast talk her and cover up the weird shit. To say nothing of their trip down to the mines...

In my Stormbringer game on the other hand, I had figured out how they would be forced into the situation, how they would encounter some people who could show them the way and a clear end to their travels, and a final scene where they could do two things. Those was dependent on them either being convinced of the need to repair the world machine or to destroy it. While a con game has to be slightly linear, I can now see some additional problems with it.

While the Savage Worlds game was all centred on the mining village of Torchwood, the players could talk to anybody and go wherever they liked. Also, they could do it in any order. The other game was built on a trip by caravan, where things would unfold. Sure I had the feel and attitude nailed down as well. I wanted the freaky aspect and unreal quality of dream to play up. Moorcock usually introduce the outre into the mundane and I wanted that feel. Less fun with the travel, though. I'm more convinced than ever that trips in roleplaying games should be narrated in a sentence or be the whole point.

Trying to make travel be just part of a scenario never seem to work for me. This makes me think of the Call of Cthulhu scenario Blood on the Tracks from the excellent scenario collection Out of the Vault by Pagan Publishing. Running that worked excellent and it was all travel. In comparison I don't think I've really did any low technology fantasy wilderness adventure that worked well. Know what you're good at, and play to your strengths...

Friday, March 28, 2014

Everything carries baggage

For those who read my post from yesterday about how game systems might colour your experience when converting a setting, this is a good read.

The big thing is how things are presented in Ron Edwards game Circle of Hands and how some attitudes about controversial things can seep into a game text in a way not intended. Sometimes a text might be coloured by your views, and sometimes your views are so natural to you that you do not write them out, which also colour it. Ron has already revised the text for it to clearer reflect his views on these topics and it will make it a better game I'm sure.

Naturally, the lesson here is how not only the game rules, but also the game text can carry meaning and sometimes even baggage you did not intent it to. It pays to have an open mind.

Some people say they just want to kill some orcs and relax among their friends. Sure, that's fine. But, this conversation between Ron and the owner of the Go Make Me a Sandwich blog (who I for the life of me can't find the name of anywhere!) brings out an interesting potential as well.

Instead of having a game carry unintended baggage, bring it out into the open! In a post-apocalyptic game I ran last year we had some quite interesting sessions where the conflict between the owner of a sawmill and the sawmill workers escalated and involved the players. My political views was not a hidden agenda, it was up for debate, forcefully so! We had great fun and it worked out ok. It pays to have an open mind, right?

While I think you have to tread carefully, I think this hobby of ours can even handle problematic issues like sexism and rape (and just plain politics). Unless you game with dickheads, and you don't do that, do you? Good.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Flavour of the week - converting between gamesystems

In between the Fate game I play in, and my resurging love of BRP, I think about these trends in converting games to your favourite system.

When Savage Worlds debuted I remember seeing threads on rpg.net everyday about how you could "savage" this or that old classic and make it sing again. Savage Worlds was the "flavour of the week" so to speak.

I'm a fan of Savage Worlds, and many games I think really benefit from a "savaging". But, one thing not always taken into account in those happy endorsements are the flavour a game system bring to the table. These days the worse enthusiasm have cooled off Savage Worlds, and now I think it's more often suggested for games that need that special pizzazz and zing that a fast flowing pulp, action game gives you. Needless to say, that's not all settings and games.

Now I get the feel that Fate is the new "flavour of the week". How does it stack up?

As anyone who have tried Fate knows, it's a game much like the revised 3rd ed of D&D where everything is nailed down. It's a crunchy system, but very abstract and broad reaching, with its capability of turning anything into an Aspect and thus part of the mechanics of the game. If you want a game system that fades into the background, I don't think it's a game system for you, just like I don't think you should use Savage Worlds if you want a simulationist feel to your game.

But, I'm beginning to see why it's very alluring to try to make Fate the base for any kind of game you want to play. It's very elegant to use the "Fate fractal" and let everything be modelled with a High Concept and some more Aspects, some Skills, some Stunts and Stress tracks. You can fairly easily model anything that way. Understanding that makes it easy to quantify anything, and put numbers on it.

The other game that I always think of is BRP. It's trivial to make up a skill list suited to your setting/game and if you need anything to be modelled by the game system, you make a skill or a derived attribute of it. Then you roll your percentiles and Bob's your uncle. You only need to make up a rough probability of something succeeding and that's the whole game system. Basically.

My thinking is that make not all games has to be run in Fate, just like to every game turned out to need to be savaged? Can anything be estimated as a probability written as a percentile, and end up BRP game?

I guess that if you want to you can turn any game into whatever it needs to be. Hero and GURPS were designed to be used for putting numbers on anything, but it takes so much work I'd never work up the energy to even try.

Whatever the feel of BRP is, and however it compares to Fate (I might delve into that at a later date), they have one big thing going for them both. It's really easy to convert things into those systems. My latest reading of Fate conversions have really opened my eyes to how things like that can be done. I'm beginning to see how the Fate Fractal might be the most insidiously genius thing Evil Hat ever created. Even if I arm myself with BRP in one hand, I'll be thinking of that fractal. Make all the cool things an Aspect, and then roll those percentiles!

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Running games on G+, my verdict


I have now played in a few games on G+, and it works quite fine. The biggest issue is trying to figure out which timezones works for everyone so you get a group together. Having tried to run a game I found there were some issues compared to a face to face game, though.

My first issue was surprising to me, having played successfully. I was not getting the kind of visual queues I apparently rely on a lot when running a game. Setting scenes and doing descriptions I often do without thinking to much about it, but this time it felt stymied and stunted. Without being fully aware of it, I think I rely quite a lot on getting eye contacts and seeing my players listening to me. Now they might be listening intently, but if their webcam wasn't trained on their eyes, or if they glanced at another window I kind of felt a bit out of touch. Clearly this is something you can adapt to, but I didn't know I was so dependent on it!

My second issue was the question of where the characters were in relation to each other. Usually I don't play with minis. Instead, I usually drop down some dice on the table to show how is where. Now I had to get Roll20 up and make sure everyone was looking at it. It felt a bit awkward. Those who have been running games online seem to like Roll20 a lot, so I guess it can work fine as a virtual table, but for me it felt clumsy. I had to choose if I wanted to get that eye contact, look at the chat window, or at the virtual table. Maybe if I could have them all in different windows and have them all side by side it would work better?

The last thing is dice. I like rolling dice. The feel of a nice die in your hand as you toss it is part of the experience for me. In the game I ran we used physical dice for the most part and it worked fine. Like I said, if you want to cheat you've already misunderstood what it's all about anyway, so why should I even try to stop you? But, I found I missed the feeling of everyone huddling around the table, waiting intently for that crucial die to land. Maybe the virtual dice rollers are the way to go after all?

All in all, I think this is the way to go. I have no idea of how well Google feel their new platform is doing. They have been known to kill off things before, and I hope it's working well for more people than the rpg crowd. It's clearly where people are getting their game fix these days. RPGA events and cons is good, but this is it. Let's hoep Google keeps it alive!

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Impressions from running Stormbringer

Last weekend I ran a game of Stormbringer. It was a long time since I last did, and now I used the 5th ed. which have some changes from the 4th ed. I used to run. I thought I should note down some of my impressions.

As some of you know, the 5th ed. is very similar to the Magic World game Chaosium is selling now, since they no longer have the Eternal Champion licence. Most of what I write here is probably applicable to Magic World as well. Stormbringer often struck me as a great base for a generic fantasy game, and Magic World looks to be just that great game. One day I'll have to get hold of a copy.

System

The first thing about running this game is how to approach any BRP game. Everything is a percentile roll, either against a skill or against a multiplied stat. Anyone can do whatever they like, and as a GM you either make up a percentile chance of success or picks a skill/stat. Anyone understands "You have 65% to success, roll the dice". It's newbie friendly.

The second thing I noticed was how many fiddly bits there are when you look beyond that basic concepts! Some of them have changed in different editions, and I'm not too keen an all of them.

Stats

I understand why you might roll 2d6+6 for stats, since it makes the characters more heroic. But, I think those really oddball stats that can happen in a straight 3d6 bell curve are usually my main hook for roleplaying, so I'd keep the 3d6 method. If you like your game more heroic, what you want to keep an eye on are probably hit points. This game system is really deadly! I suggest calculating HP as CON+SIZ if you want your game more heroic, instead of the 2d6+6 stats.

Combat rules

First off. This is a deadly game! With the major wound rules, you can't just add up hits and keep pushing on. Even smaller wounds will hurt as they pile up enough. I liked the idea of your character falling over after a certain amount of rounds after taking a major wound. I am less certain about the adding up of lesser wounds. Why do you have to make a POW x 4 roll to stay conscious when they add up? I prefer the Call of Cthulhu way of rolling CON x 5 not to keel over. I'll probably do that running the game again.

In 4th ed. Stormbringer you had separate ratings in attack skill and parry skill with a weapon. I kind of liked that, and the idea of a "finesse" fighter focusing a parrying and feinting before lunging for attack. They kind of open the option for you in the book to add your experience either in attack or parry. Another thing I like about the Parry/Dodge rule is that they are actions you can do over and over again. It makes for a more fluid combat and being able to dodge all attacks (if you have a really massive Dodge skill!) is probably good considering how easy it is to be eliminated.

Magic

In the game I ran we didn't have any summonings. Earlier editions of the game only had magic based on demons and elementals. Editions after the 4th added some other variants, and those round out the system to cover more kinds of magic. Apparently it's supposed to better model the Elric stories as well. Frankly, I only remember the summonings, but it makes for a better game engine to include more options. Friends of D&D will even feel at home with the basic spell system, since as long as you pay you magic points the spell will go off and there's no roll involved.

I kind of like the idea of introducing some randomness in spellcasting, but running Stormbringer I'll do it by the book. If nothing else, call it a concession to the potential players coming from D&D. If you'd like more randomness and making spells less common, make each spell a skill. That way you'll get some drain of build points, and randomness. 

Allegience

This something that was added to the rules after 4th ed. I was never really happy with the former "Elan" system, but was unsure of tracking points for Chaos/Law/Balance as well. Now in the 5th ed. they start to mean something, as you can "cash in" those points for extra skill points, hit points or magic points. It can be used to give some flavour to the game, involving the players a bit in the cosmic battles.

I usually say that alignment causes brain damage, as I've seen smart and intelligent people reduced to 12 year olds by it. Everyone remember how you ran your first game, misunderstanding most of it and clinging on for dear life to those rules that give some kind of focus and you think you can use to beat the game into shape with. It's quite natural, but then you grow older and relax. Sadly alignment brings that back out and people who are usually sure of them self and have both wife and a job are reduced to whimpering 12 year old kids who can't make a moral choice of their own. Luckily, allegience is not prescriptive.

Summary

All in all, this is a neat game. It has some simple mechanics you can teach in a few minutes, and most importantly you grasp the concept of a percentile chance of succeeding and can improvise and make shit up in your first game as a GM. You have Professions that mould the characters a bit, but at the same time is less limiting than a class based system. Magic is expressive and if you involve demons it's wild, crazy and dangerous!  Taken a a general fantasy system I like Stormbringer a lot, in the shape of Magic World it would suite me like a glove. As a game of "Moorcockian" fantasy it's excellent. I had forgotten how much I like BRP and will soon bring it to the table again.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Glorantha ORE, maybe?

I have managed to misplace my copy of Heroes and other Worlds, so I had to get on Lulu and order another copy today. Before that I tried to sort through all my games and find it, unsuccessfully. While doing that I did find some gems I had not seen in a long time. Boy do I have many game books or what? I need to stop working and play games full time!

One game I found that made me stop and browse it was Reign. For some time it was a game talked about quite a bit. Now I have not heard about it in a long while. Maybe the fact that the built in fantasy setting was not all that interesting, and that the weird world just felt weird for it's own sake made people shrug and walk past it. But, the rules are interesting and the idea of playing on a higher level, as lords and leaders, still resonate with me. I felt that resonance way back, and long time readers know.

I've never played the so called "end game" of D&D and all that jazz, neither have I ever played Pendragon. I've always felt Reign was the way to go, though. Especially as an alternative to D&D, since you would get there from the get go, and I never was that into knights.

Consider Glorantha. When the rules set Hero Wars and Hero Quest were published, Greg and friends really pushed for the social aspect of the game to come to the forefront. I seem to remember there actually being a book all about "hero bands", like they called the party. It was a group of individuals with contacts, relationships and resources. I kind of liked the idea, but never tried it in play.

Enter Reign. That's the game that's all about playing a "company" of some sort. Maybe it could be married to that setting where you no longer exist (things were different in thr RQ days) as a lone adventurer?

Playing games full time sounds better and better every time I say it...

(anyone want a copy of the flawed but brilliant Glorantha game Hero Wars? Pay shipping and it's yours...)

I pledged for another kickstarter, what have I done...

At the Special Wudang Xiake level I've now pledged to The Legends of the Wulin board game. Considering the martial arts I'm practising have connections to Wudang Shan I guess there was no option for me not to choose that...

If everything arrives this year that I'm waiting for (or have pledged for the last months) then it will be a busy 2014.

Go and check it out, it might interest you!

Thursday, March 20, 2014

How to run a con game, some notes for myself

Last Saturday I ran a online Stormbringer game for an online game con. It was in the middle of the nineties the last time I did something like that, so I was a bit rusty.

Running a game online has its own problems, and running a con game is also its own beast. I knew, in theory, how to do it. This is as much a reminder to myself for the next time as well as some advice for the potential reader.

Base the scenario on scenes
Have a clear idea of the location, and the concrete opposition in that situation. It will help you pace the game, and you know how much the game have progressed in time and in the plot.

Make the end goal simple to grasp
Don't make it too fancy, or subtle. In a long campaign you have all the time in the world to establish the metaphysics of the world or the power players in your setting. In a con game you can't let the players game their way to a stance on the global problems. There just isn't time.

The player characters have to be distinct
Make sure the characters have something they are good at, and some things they don't like. It's probably a good idea to make sure there are NPCs that push their buttons, as well as some of the other characters.

What I did
Sadly I didn't heed all that advice. I did a fairly involved setting, with subtle power play. I also included references to other media, which some of the players clearly had no experience of. But, my biggest fault was I did not break it into scenes. I just started it and knew where it was headed, planning on shepherding it along as we played. Naturally, it made it less focused than it should be, and rushed when I looked at my watch and how far we had proceeded.

But, some of my players got to shine, do weird things and kill every human being on that plane of the Multiverse. That's worth something.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

The strangeness of Fate

I'm now a few sessions into a Fate game. It's a fantasy game, with magic and elves and all that jazz. Even though those parts makes me grounded in the familiar tropes, the rest of the game still makes me reel sometimes. I think Fate is probably the most different game I've played.

Different than what? I hear you ask. Well, most things. First off, it's very loosey goosey as far at delimiting what is turned into game mechanics. Aspects, the core of the system, can be something looking like a class, a part of the character psychology or a relationship. I guess most people have heard about that part. That part I think I've got down pat by now.

Now, how you use those Aspects and Skills, that is where it gets weird. At least it's what trip me up. In Fate you have those aforementioned loosey goosey crunchy bits, which really gets in your face when you use them. The thing is, I'm used to have the game mechanic be some kind of binary system. Do I succeed at this or that? Fairly simple, you do or you don't. In Fate you have specific actions you take. You might Attack, Defend, Overcome or Create Advantage. That to me feels strange.

I'm used to expressing what I want to achieve, getting some feedback from the GM of what I need to roll and then get some kind of adjudication of what that means, cooperatively sometimes. Contrast that with Fate, where you can do all those actions mentioned before with almost all abilities, and they make narrative and tactical sense! That last bit is interesting.

I don't know how often I've read or heard that Fate is one of those narrative modern "story games" or whatnot. In my experience it's not. Fate is in your face crunchiness and the most tactical game I've so far played. Even when you do things that are "pure roleplaying" or "story" in that they are driven by your character's foibles or relationship, it's still tactical thinking. You set up an Advantage so you can then invoke it, or activate a negative Aspect so you can get more Fate points to then boost your next skill roll which might be a, say,  social Attack. That seriously trips me up. Interesting, but odd.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Wilderness and pursuits

I've found that while a chase is often quite intense in a movie, they are seldom as much fun in a game. But, while that's interesting, today I'll talk about a related subject, namely wilderness pursuits.

If you have a team of PCs pursuing some, say, orcs, how do you make that interesting? In a Pathinder/D&D game it's very easy to reduce it to daily rolls on Tracking/Survival and then it becomes mechanistic and devoid of that interesting suspense a good chase should have. If we flip the coin and make the players being players, it's probably their characters being chased. Still, just making a die roll to avoid being hunted down is just as dull.

This is how I'd make these scenarios interesting. It's a compilation of my own ideas, and some I've collected from blogs and podcasts. This will fiunction both as a list for my readers to be inspired by, and a note to myself for things I have to remember to bring to the table.

Tactics

  • Use the terrain - Someone being followed in the wilderness are probably going to make it harder for you to track them. You'd try to look for different terrain, like trying to not just stomp forward over that soft and marshy ground. Not only will you run the possibility of getting stuck, you will leave excellent tracks to follow. Have you ever seen any Western movie about a chase? That's where you'll want to go for inspiration. I know for a fact that riding in a small streak or creek is a classic way to hide your tracks. You'll want to do that.

  • Create hindrances - If you are trying to run away, the best way to succeed will be to make the guy following you slow down. One way is to use those tools you use in a dungeon. Dig holes, cover them with vines and branches. Tie up a branch of a tree and put down a tripwire which release it in the faces of your follower. Build traps to spindle, fold and mutilate your tracker.

  • Ambush - Sometimes you have to face the fact that you're not getting away. Then it might be prudent to not just stand your ground and await the attack. Instead, plan an ambush! Use cover, hit from afar and run before they collect their wits. 

  • Split the party! - One thing which is a big "no, no" is splitting the party. While it might be hard on the GM, it's a sound tactic. Make your follower have to choose which set of tracks to follow. If you combine it with the techniques mentioned above, you might even decimate your opponents while doing it.

GM techniques

There are a few things a GM might do to keep a pursuit scenario in the wilderness feel more tight. Here are a few of those.

  • Interludes and personal development - In Savage Worlds there is a mechanic called Interludes, where a player gets a benny for telling a short vignette about their character.  Even if you don't use that game system, why not take the opportunity to ask one of the players if they perhaps tells their friends more about that time back in the days when they sit down by the camp fire at night? They might balk at the idea, but try it out.

  • Have a timetable - The best way to make a chase of any kind interesting is to have a timetable. Make sure things happen in the world, and to the people involved in the pursuit at schedules intervals. 

  • Bring more guns - Want to rack up the tension? Bring reinforcements! It would be fun if the guys being chased suddenly joined up with friends and could take the hunt to the hunters, right? Bring in those Allies or Enemies if your game system have them.

Those were my collected nuggets of wisdom about chases in the wilderness. Also, don't forget to think about what happens if someone fails that Survival roll...


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