My Top 6 Influencial RPGs

This is another quick topic that is doing the rounds on Twitter at the moment, but I wanted to elaborate a little on why I picked each of them.

1) Torg – My very first tabletop RPG with an amazing GM that quickly inspired me to run my own games. Yes, the early 90s system is clunky by modern standards (and was so even when I first played it in 2006) but it was Torg that made me fall in love with this hobby. It’s also the game that taught me how much went on unseen behind the screen or in the GMs head, the GM of that campaign made it flow so smoothly that as a newbie I naively assumed it was easy. My subsequent first forays into GMing taught me otherwise.

2) Cortex (Classic, Plus, Prime) – I could easily fill four of the 6 spots here with Cortex games (Serenity, Demon Hunters, Smallville, Firefly) thanks to the impact the line has had on me over the years. Instead, I’m going to list it once, with a separate entry for Demon Hunters for reasons that will become apparent. For this entry, I’m focusing specifically on the system. Cortex was the first game that I discovered for myself, back with the original Serenity. At that point, I’d played only a handful of systems but mostly Torg. Mechanically and thematically the two were so different it was almost overwhelming. I dove into it, roped players into a game… and then ran a disaster of a session as a rookie GM. It was an experience that somehow didn’t put me off GMing.

Since then Cortex has continued to influence me thanks to its continued iteration. Demon Hunters gave me the first glimpse of how a game could be adapted to a new setting with only a few small tweaks. Then along came Cortex Plus, which demonstrated how to take the central DNA of a system and heavily adapt it to mesh with radically different genres. Smallville introduced me to the potential for constant player vs player conflict actively supported by the mechanics while Firefly introduced me to a smooth rules set that is pretty much perfect (in my opinion) for convention play. The in-development Cortex Prime is set to take it even further, providing a full toolkit to build future games on and I can’t wait to see where the system goes next.

3) Demon Hunters (1st/2nd editions) – What can I say about Demon Hunters that I haven’t already said before? It’s a setting that I love for so many reasons, see my recent self-interview for the long list. But the biggest way that it has influenced me? By providing an open world that allows for me to publish my own material. I’ve released two adventure starters (Missionary Opposition and Lockdown) for the most recent edition inspired by the Slice of Life web series and Channel Surfing, an adventure starter drawn from one of my own campaigns and that Dead Gentlemen made available to their GenCon GMs. How cool is that.

4) Hell 4 Leather – One of my first introductions to indie games, Hell 4 Leather bills itself as a Role-Playing Game of Vengeance inspired by tales such as Hamlet and Kill Bill. It’s an inspired game with minimal yet tight mechanics that come together to tell of the repercussions of making a deal with the devil. I’ve played it across a variety of genres, Westerns, Sci-fi, Urban Fantasy and it hasn’t let me down. As influences go it opened my eyes to the possibilities afforded by non-traditional mechanics and tales, supported by the flourishing indie scene in Scotland at the time. While I still tend towards traditional games it was this game that sparked my continued interest in the wider aspects of TTRPGs.

5) Lady Blackbird – This was, in many respects, a turning point for me as it was one of the original inspirations behind Project Cassandra. While the two bear little resemblance thematically the underlying system once did. Yup, Project Cassandra started off as a hack of Lady Blackbird. The system used is, in my opinion, extremely elegant and the whole idea of being able to wield powers in the same way as any other skill (and with few limits) really spoke to me. As I worked on the concept the systems diverged but that was where my interest in game design began.

6) Legend of the Five Rings (4th Edition) – A game that has influenced me in many ways but the biggest was providing me with the chance to join a long term, online campaign. My introduction to playing in the setting came via an online campaign run by Sir Guido and organised through the Happy Jacks Podcast community. It was the first time I’d really played an online campaign and the first where I was gaming with people across the world (we had people from Alaska through to Turkey). While I no longer regularly game online the experience was great and allowed me to step outside of the relatively small bubble that I was gaming in up to that point. It’s something that I’d like to do more of, especially when I get to the point of restarting playtests of Project Cassandra.

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State of the Conspiracy: Character update

While I was unable to get a full update of Project Cassandra finished in time for the RPG Live UK event I was able to make significant progress. The character sheets have been updated to reflect the rules changes and I’ve identified all the edits required in the main text. Next up is getting them down on paper and adjusting the layout to suit.

Changing the text should also allow for a few additions. First up is a mechanic to allow for premonitions to be replenished, something raised during that disastrous DragonMeet playtest. Secondly additional advice for challenges and threats, again in response to the playtest feedback.

I’m hopeful that this set of edits will resolve the issues raised, especially with regards failure. I don’t know if I’ll make it to DragonMeet this year but I’m setting it as a tentative deadline regardless.

State of the Conspiracy: Major Feedback from Dragonmeet

I posted a quick collection of thoughts regarding Dragomeet 2016 over on my G+ page but I wanted to give the Project Cassandra feedback a post to itself.

What happened

The setup for the game was the same basic questions that I used during the Stratigicon playtest, that Apollo 11 had discovered something and President Nixon was due to be assasinated prior to announcing the discovery. The discovery this time, shapeshifting aliens on the moon who had already infiltrated the USSR and were now trying to take over the US government. The assasin was non other than the vice President who had already been replaced. Thrown into the mix was a Soviet Null, immune to the powers of the party (but not, as it would turn out, regular bullets).

The adventure went by fast. Too fast, as the players blew through every challenge with ease thanks to a combination of difficulties that were too low, great teamwork and some amazingly inventive use of Powers.

Feedback

The primary feedback was pretty unambiguous, actions weren’t challenging enough, which resulted in the group not failing for the first two thirds of the game. This had a knock on effect in that it prevented other mechanics from coming into play, namely conditions and spending premonitions on re-rolls. It was only towards the end of the game that I started raising the difficulty that we started using all of the mechanics but by then it was too late to have a major impact.

The second negative was with the skills themselves and compounded my GM error with the difficulties. Essentially the players found that they either had too high a skill level for a given task or were lacking the skills entirely (and therefore didn’t attempt actions). This is something that has come up in playtests before and I had hoped that the current skill list addressed it. Unfortunately this does not appear to be the case.

It’s a blow to get this close to having the game finished before running into a major issue but on the other hand I’m glad it went badly. It’s the first major catastrophe I’ve had but it also feels like it is workable rather than an impassable issue.
Beyond this the feedback was quite positive. The players enjoyed the scenario and being able to influence it through the questions plus liked the fact that the powers weren’t mechanically constrained to prevent them being overpowered. As these are all aspects I’d put thought into I’m glad that the players picked up on my design aims. Following the game I’m also convinced that the single scenario design (of saving the President) was the right approach. Once the game is finished I may add a bonus sheet on running additional highly defined bonus scenarios (I already have ideas for one based around the Berlin Airlift).

Going forward

I’ve been pondering how to change the skills since Dragonmeet but before I dive too deeply into it I thought it important to look again at the probability tables, the results of which are plotted below. The x-axis plots the number of successes and the y-axis the percentage chance of rolling at least that many successes for a given skill level.

2016-12-06

Looking at those numbers it’s clear how off my perception of the difficulties was. With a skill level of 3, which the players were regularly achieving, there is still a 66% chance of rolling 3 or more successes. In my head 3 successes should have been difficult and definitely not in their favour so often. Those odds rises to a staggering 90% at a skill level of 4 and drops to 32% for a character with a moderate skill level of 2.

It’s clear therefore that the first thing I need to do is adjust my idea of difficulty levels and then add explicit descriptions to the game. My current working template is:

1 – Trivial – Only worth rolling if the individual is unskilled
2 – Normal
3 – Challenging (with intention of this being a typical roll for the game)
4 – Hard
5 – Heroic
6 – Impossible

The second approach is a limit on the maximum skill level of a character. The players at Dragonmeet suggested setting it at 3, which I’m thinking of implementing. At this level a skilled individual will pass a Challenging roll most of the time but still fail at a noticeable rate.

The biggest change, which I’m still working on, are the skills themselves. Under the current design players add up related specialities to get their skill level and tend to either end up with a high level or none at all. If I keep the current system the specialities need completely rewritten to provide a wider breadth skills with only a small number that overlap enough to give a high skill level.

The alternative is simply list a set it skills with a rank by each of them. That has the advantage of simplicity and also makes it easier to deal with edge cases as I can give each skill group a rank for when no specialities apply. For example using brute strength might just fall under the general umbrella of the Physical skill set at rank of 2 for the strongest and 0 for the weakest. The downsides of this approach are flavour and rigidity so more thought will have to go into it before I settle on one over the other. I may also split the skill groups further by adding Social to the existing mix of Mental, Physical and Specialist.

All in all I’ve got a lot to think about and a valuable learning experience for future projects.

Project Cassandra: Reorganisation and example of play

​November is fast approaching and along with it my target deadline of finishing Project Cassandra by the time if the US presidential elections. That’s not likely to happen now, mostly as I want to reorder a couple of sections and expand on some others. On the plus side I think I now have all the artwork that I want to use so the new aim is for the start of December, just in time for Dragonmeet in London.

One of the sections that I’ve decided to add is a small example of play, the first draft of which is included below. I’ve tried to highlight the basics without going too long or too detailed though it still needs a bit of work.

The following gives an example of play. Dahlia Sarsin (played by Kate) and Keith Tanaka (played by Richard) are just leaving a small diner off of the highway, having convinced the Russian defector Sergi that they mean him no harm. Sam, the GM frames the scene.

Sam: You know trouble is brewing the moment you step out of the diner, there’s a man in a gray suit waiting for you by your car. He motions to you, his intent clear: Step this way. What do you do?

Richard: I’m unarmed so I nod and slowly start walking forwards, trying to get a parked car between us. 

[Tanaka, whispering] “I hope you’ve got a plan Sarsin.”

Kate: This is too simple, something’s wrong. I take a proper look around the lot to get a feel for the situation.

Sam: Think that’ll need a roll, with a difficulty of 4.

Kate: Ok, I’m using my Secret Service skill group and have surveillance, security and threat assessment which gives me a skill level of 3. [Rolls] Damn, only 2 successes. I’ll spend a  premonition to reroll it. [Rolls] Not much better, 3 successes and I think I need to save my premonitions for now. Oh, I’ll tag Angry and raise it to 4, I should have seen an ambush like this coming.

Sam: Ok. You spot her at the last moment, lying on the roof of a truck with a rifle. Her first shot whips past your shoulder, next to you Sergi freezes in panic. Tanaka – you’re almost at the car when you hear the gunshot, do you keep walking forward?

Richard: No, I’m going to dive into cover then I want to spend premonitions to make Sergi intangible before he gets himself killed. Sarsin should be able to look after herself for now.

Sam: The car just in front of you will provide cover but you’re having to react pretty quickly to all this… lets make it 3 premonitions to activate your power in time.

Richard: Ok, so as the would be assassin makes her next shot Sergi turns slightly translucent and the bullets whiz through him, shattering the glass of the door to the diner. Screams erupt from inside.

Sam: I like it. In the commotion the two men by your car duck into cover, drawing pistols as they do so. What do you want to do next?

Kate, looking at her knowledges: This is a truck stop right? I know all about weapons, including that the sort of person who drives that 18 wheeler in the corner is going to have a shotgun in the cab. I make a run for it, cover be damned.

Ten Years

For the most of the month, Facebook Memories has been notifying me that September 2016 marks 10 years since I moved to Glasgow. Which also means that it’s been almost 10 years since I made a decision that would, in many ways, come to define me outside of my professional life. I became a tabletop gamer. Sure, before that point I’d been a gamer, hell I’d even done a fair share of RP, online and at the Nexus LARP (Madbay forever!). But until I joined GUGS I had never sat down and actually rolled the dice. Since then…

I’ve fought invading Cosms and witnessed the power of bacoffee,
Flown the width of the ‘verse for a quick profit,
Battled Demons with coffee and a smile.

I’ve walked the path of bushido,
Raced the wastes of the apocalypse,
Been inconsequential yet saved the planet,
And fought the Great Enemy in the name of the God-Emperor.

I’ve been President of GUGS,
Run games at the Nationals.
I’ve played with people from around the globe,
And flown across it to game with them in person.

I’ve guested on podcasts,
Published a game (TowerFall: http://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/183370/Tower-Fall-Micro-RPG),
Am nearing completion of a second (Project Cassandra: https://lunarshadowrpg.wordpress.com/games/project-cassandra/),

And I’ve come to loathe D&D.

Not too bad for 10 years, especially considering all the things I’ve probably forgotten to mention, I can only hope the next 10 are as eventful.

The Reset Conspiracy

One of the things about learning how to layout and produce a game as I go along is that every so often I come across a rather major issue that forces a rest on a particular aspect of the game. This time? The font. I mentioned this particular issue in the last update, that the text of the gag ghee wasn’t rendering correctly in certain versions of acrobat and having spoken to Adobe tech support it appears that this is due to a bug with that version of the software. A bug that they have no immediate plans to rectify and which means I need to find a replacement font for Project Cassandra.

Hopefully this shouldn’t be too big of a challenge, typewriter style fonts are fairly common but this time around I’ll be testing the output in a variety of formats before I layout the main document. Right now I can’t afford an Acrobat Pro subscription so testing it with that is, unfortunately, off the table at the moment. All in all this is one of those annoying but not too critical bugs. It would have been a different story if I’d already published the game but for once it seems like I’ve rolled a twenty on that spot check.

Edit 1: Actually ignore all that, as it seems to be an issue with multiple fonts, possibly even all of them. Next stop – getting in touch with the Scribus community and seeing if I can find anybody with access to Acrobat Pro to run the file through the preflight tools. Hopefully that will solve it. Meanwhile if you have any experience with this sort of thing then any ideas / suggestions would be greatly appreciated.

Edit 2: Ok, so looks like it is an issue with embedding font, subsetting works fine. Progress of a sort but not sure why the two differ in their output.