Saturday, March 31, 2012

Gamemastering Call of Cthullhu - pacing

Today I was once again behind the screen as Keeper of Arcane Lore. I'm collecting experience, and this was my sixth time as a Keeper! While running this session I experienced something I wanted to talk about.

I have been running games now for almost 25 years, and I think I have a pretty good grasp on how to behave in many different situations. Are the players looking excited? Are they laughing? Do that guy over there look like he is getting bored? I think I have those things nailed down when I stomp around in my familiar fantasy grounds. Especially the problem of pacing is something I usually know how to handle.

Today they players sat down trying to continue from having explored a warehouse of a suspected cult and having had to retreat with one member of the party K.O.'d. What now? From my point of view it was pretty obvious what to do in a Call of Cthulhu game. You visit every named NPC and talk to them to track down ever scrap of knowledge, since knowledge is the most important thing in this game. Right?

Naturally, my players did not do that.

After some very intelligent and smart use of backstory, connections and leveraging Credit Rating, one of my players found a masonic brother and started to talk. Since he was the D.A. I thought that this was a guy who knew stuff, and had resources. I had him mention a few things and be friendly. That and some interest from the players in one of the named NPC and they had finally gotten the idea that talking to people was good, and digging around for people in the know was fruitful. Finally.

Now the P.I. in the party decided to go sneak into the posh mansion of one of the key NPCS. In broad daylight. In an area where I specifically mentioned police patrols being regular and observant. Guess who got to spend a night in jail?

So. What would I have done? Well. I don't understand why they didn't start to talk to all the people on the list they had gotten from their main contact? I would have visited each and every NPC, in alphabetical order! After the session some of the players even voiced the opinion that it felt like it was a bit hard to find the clues. I even play with GUMSHOE inspired rules, so they will find core clues, and they know it. At least I have mentioned it. Interesting.

You do know about the three clue rule, right? Go read that essay if you haven't.

Now, if this had been a fantasy game I would have rolled for a random encounter. I love the idea of a random encounter. The random encounter could provide a conveniently dropped clue, to make it an even three, or just something to do so that after the encounter someone had a new idea.

What do you do when there's a lull in the action in an investigative game? You can't really push the players toward the next clue. It would be bad form, and boring. Also, in order to entertain them while waiting for the penny to drop, do you let wandering kobolds show up and pick a fight? I guess not. I think there are, after more than 20 years, still some things this old dog has to learn.

Friday, March 30, 2012

T&T hacks - a series of rules surgeries

I took a long hard look at my wall of games. I like those games. Some of them I haven't played in a long while, though. I see why the idea of learning one system and sticking to it can be very appealing. Yeah, I have GURPS on those shelves too. I even used to have more than one edition. But, maybe there is a way to have your cake and eat it too!

One of my favourite systems is Tunnels & Trolls. Now, how if I could take some of the cool features or subsystems out of those other games and transplant them into T&T? Some might work like a charm, and some will be terrible frankenhacks. Hey, there's only one way to find out which works or not!

I will in the coming weeks post one post every Sunday, taking the surgical knife to another system, trying to graft its entrails to my T&T homonculi, creating a new life form. Follow along, it might be scary and it might be fun. If you care nothing for T&T rules hacks, stay around any way. I'm keeping up *ahem* with the regular posts in the regular bursts of activity.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Judges Guild take on social mechanics

I wrote about social mechanics a while back, and the notion of influencing the player characters wasn't all that popular among some of my readers. I still think the same rules should apply to all characters in the game, in some fashion, but I can see the logic of the detractors.

Going back in the history of the hobby, I found some "social combat" rules from Judges Guild. These rules are called "Offensive Locution (Attacking with words)" and they include repartees and witticisms. The former will basically interrupt combat and stun the opponent with your verbal skill. The latter is a way to make people laugh and make the destabilized. Naturally, this being old JG rules, it involves oddball mechanics and dice Gygax style.

As if that wasn't enough, there's even a "prestige class" for fighters called Buffoon. Funnily enough, the stat requirements demand a high CHR and low STR and WIS! He always succeeds at repartees, and is described as a face man for scams and theft. Kind of neat.

I find it interesting that way back in 1978 in the Ready Ref Sheets, someone thought of the idea of rules for influencing people. While it's not a general Social Interaction mechanic by any means, it is an intriguing addition to a game.

For the T&T minded in the audience, I suggest the following rules to use something similar in T&T.

Buffoon - a talent always tied to CHR. Whenever you want, you may taunt and jeer and by wit and by the sharpness of your tongue incite rage or cause debilitating laughter. Roll a opposed Saving Roll on CHR, adding your Talent rating. The difference is the amount of turns the opponent is effectively useless for offensive actions.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

RIP Professor Barker

Professor M A R (“Phil”) Barker died just recently. I was away from home, cramming my head full with new skills for my gong fu, when I friend called me up and told me the news. I have never played EPT but I have read his first novel, and liked it. Right now I wish I could re-read it, but I lent it out and now it's lost. One of these days I'd like to explore Tekumel.

So, what can I say that have not been said already? I didn't know him, and don't have any experience with the game world. I'm thinking of how fans of Tekumel write their setting and rules hacks.

If you check out the official Tekumel site, you will find links to many different rules systems. Those I find intriguing are the ones which don't try to adapt an existing set, but instead start with what is specific for Tekumel. There are a few, and some are not even finished after those specifics are nailed down. Maybe that is what is the core of the rules needed. The main theme of the game is by necessity what should first be written. Can you spot what is the core theme of GURPS? I bet there is one. Those might not be obvious at first, but even fairly setting agnostic rules have themes in them. I'm right now suddenly immediately struck by the necessity of that fact. I think I'm going to meditate on that a bit. Maybe re-reading those Tekumel rules again will make me see the Tekumel behind the rules.

Thanks for the cerebral workout Professor! Even indirectly, your creation makes the gears turn. The power of dream and imagination is amazing. Game on!

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Action/Drama/Fate points and player engagement

I was replying in a comment on this post, and realized it was turning into a post of its own. I'll expand all my thoughts below.

The idea was that points which players can use to change probabilities and/or change the game world is bad in a old school game. The perceived threat was that of eliminating the deadliness of the system. Here are some direct feedback on that, and some further thought on the matter.

There are multiple kind of systems for giving the players a way out, and for changing the fact of the game world. I have played multiple systems using those and have some experiences to share.

First, in Warhammer FRP there are something called Fate Points. Those can be used to "save the character from certain death". Suggestions are mitigating the effects of a fall from a cliff, or a critical hit. But, and it's an important but. Once they are gone, they are gone! In a game like WHFRP, which is quite deadly, this is literally a life saver. Will it rob the game of something? Well. I have played with quite a few characters in WHFRP and I tell you that I sweat every time my character takes a hit! Fate points or not. Too see those few points dwindle just reinforce how close to death I just came.

Secondly I want to mention the Drama Dice of 7th Sea. In that system you roll dice depending on your stat and your skill, as a pool. But, you only keep as many as your stat's value. Using the Drama Dice, you basically get more dice to choose from to keep. So, using this mechanic you make it likelier that your character succeeds. These Drama Dice you get for acting in a heroic and swashbuckling manner, i.e. it reinforce the theme of the game. It's a reward mechanic. When I was running 7th Sea, I noticed that the psychological effect of getting a physical token (poker chips in our case), and comparing the amount to the guy sitting next to you, made it work really well to reinforce the theme of the game. Sure, sometimes people chucked in token after token (you can commit them after the fact) on a roll they really wanted to succeed at, but it mostly worked as a prod to act thematically correct.

Thirdly, and finally, I'm coming to Type IV D&D. I played in a campaign up to "Paragon Tier"?  See, I have already managed to dismiss the jargon from my head. Anyway, up to what used to be called Name Level. I remember that I once in a while used a Action Point when I wanted to do something, but in that game the "respawn time" of powers was dominating the game so much that yet another mechanic, like getting "blooded" and triggering new effects, made it down in the general noise of game mechanics. Basically, I barely noted those points and they never affected our actions as far as I could see. They surely never did mine.

So, what am I trying to say? I'm saying that having some kind of points or game mechanic to "save your bacon" can work out in many different ways. I would claim, with some emphasis, that the brittleness of characters is not the defining factor of old school play, and that there are more than one way to skin a cat. The cat in this case being giving those points to players. Compare getting xp for gold to the Drama Dice in 7th Sea. Those are both reward mechanics. Also, having dwindling resources can in fact give the game an even tenser feel, and reinforce the dread. If that's what you're after. But, when you add something like a new mechanic to the game, make sure you are not conflicting with other systems in the game, making the effect lessened by it being forgotten or drowned!

I am vary of the idea of giving more spells to neophyte magic users. It change the tone of the game, but I don't think a scarce resource like the Fate Points in WHFRP does. Is it a valid comparison? I don't know.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Call of Cthulhu is so metal somtimes!

Today I once again was the Keeper for my CoC campaign. Now it was time to handle the scenario Tell me, have you seen the Yellow Sign? from the Great Old Ones book. As I was prepping the game, getting the mood, I was listening to some music.

So what kind of music do you listen to when you want to get in the mood for a slightly paranoid setting with sighting of a certain occult symbol all over time? I put on some Danzig and the song I Don't Mind the Pain.

So how did the scenario go?

Our brave investigators arrived in New Orleans after a close fight with a vampire. They talked to their local contact, agreed something was fishy and started digging. Soon they was convinced by a chatty physics professor that the stiff must have died some other way that was the police official story. He must have jumped from a hot air balloon, or something else flying fairly high up in the air. They also talked to some police men, including one guy who partook of the famous raid of 1907. When night fell, they started the real work, investigating a warehouse they had visited during the day.
How come so many rpg parties set something on fire, steal stuff or start breaking and entering? I was just earlier this week, or the week before (I don't remember) listening to a podcast where someone suggested it's always just a matter of time before the PC set something on fire. It didn't take long for one of my players to suggest it. But, instead they trespassed on private property doing some old school breaking and entering.

As a diversion, the party doctor decided to play drunk and act out some shenanigans on the fire escape ladder, involving the night patrol man. It ended with the rest of the party hastily retreating, dragging their bleeding companion to medical attention with a cracked skull. He will now be hospitalized for weeks.

I don't mind the pain.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Save or Die - Randall said it well

I just read what Randall wrote on his blog on save or die effects. While I think sometimes there is a masochistic streak in some favouring the Old Ways, his solution and great arguments allow us all to have the cake and east it too.

My only problem with that post is I wish I had thought of it first! Cheap to only link and not write something yourself? Well, he said it best.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Prepping Call of Cthulhu

I am going to be the Keeper of Arcane Lore again this Saturday, and now it's prepping time. As usual it's complex. In a scenario where investigation is common, you need to have lot of information available. Not only give the characters enough rope to hang themselves by, but also enough information for the players to to feel it is a real work they are interacting with. I find this is slightly different than a game like D&D or T&T.

The idea of making the game world seem real involves sound. When our Keeper ran us through the Beyond the Mountain of Madness campaign, he made good use of sound. Ambient sound like engine sound, arctic winds or the lapping of waves can go a long way to make the players feel involved, which is something I try to do when running CoC. The coming scenario, Tell Me, Have You Seen the Yellow Sign? (from Chaosium's Great Old Ones) will be set in New Orleans. Guess what kind of sounds I'll need? I don't even like jazz music...

You know what? Right now I'm contemplating how to introduce more yellow objects into our living room, just as "background noise". I wonder why CoC always makes people go that extra mile?

It would be fun to hear if any of my readers have done something like that, or if you have run TMHYStYS?

Sunday, March 4, 2012

A generic extended conflict system for LL, S&W etc.

I was reading the Savage Worlds fanzine Shark Bytes, and in there was an article on more uses of the mass combat system. Since I have a soft spot for the Burning Wheel and its "social combat" system Duel of Wits (which I still haven't tried!), I of course was charmed. Maybe this could be ported to other games? Some people like mini games like this, and some hate it. I'm not a great rules writer, but these are some basic ideas. It could probably be improved or slimmed down.

Let's imagine this being for a game like Labyrinth Lord, Swords & Wizardry or a similar very popular fantasy rpg.

When you want to have a cooking competition, argument or another conflict not covered by the combat system, do like this. Decide who is "attacking" whom, and exactly what is the expected outcome of anyone winning. Then decide which stat you are going to start to use in the conflict. Divide the stat by two, this is the amount of points or tokens you start with. Use dice or poker chips, or write it down.

Now, explain to the GM what you are doing this round, role play as much as you like. (Option: if you and your players like to act it out, you might now give a small bonus, -2 at the most, to the roll). Roll 1d20 below the stat you have chosen, both of you. Since the "attacker" and defender might want to use very different stats, work out a way for it to make sense in the game world. Now pick and action, and bet any amount of your tokens. There are four different actions you can choose. For most effect, choose secretly and then reveal.
  1. attack +1 to the roll
  2. defend -1 to the roll
  3. probe you don't loose anything
  4. all out defence loose one less, -1 to roll
  5. all out attack gain one extra, +1 to roll
You can also do an All In, and then the opponent must match your bet and the winner takes it all.

The results then. If you fail, you loose your bet. If you succeed and the opponent loose, you gain the lost bet. If you crit, i.e. roll below 3, you gain another token in addition to any other effect. First player to loose all tokes loose the conflict.

Will it be very cumbersome? Maybe. Will it be fun? Well, it seemed to work in Savage Worlds.

I imagine it could be used for prolonged conflicts, where each turn is hours, days or even longer stretches of time. Also, I guess it could be used for almost anything, mass combat or court intrigue.

One of these days, I'm testing it. Let me know if you have tried something similar (like the rules in Shark Bytes), or even test this set of rules.

Friday, March 2, 2012

There must be a game opportunity in this, somewhere

Fancy your own country? You could rent one.
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