Of the three games I ran at Gateway 2015 the one I was most apprehensive about was Project Cassandra, most simply because it was the first time I’d run it for people I didn’t know. There are a number of steps between now and publishing it, the first of which is working out what needs changed so this summary will try and pull together my thoughts about how it went in order to get me thinking about edits.
Project Cassandra: 4 Minutes to Midnight
The Cold War. A time of spies, paranoia & fear. A top secret research project into ESP yields startling results, only to be betrayed from the inside after the subjects receive a shocking premonition: The President is due to be assassinated at an upcoming rally. Fleeing from the flames and with only their developing psychic abilities to aid them can the subjects stop the attack, or is the Cold War about to turn Hot?
All in all not too bad but a little on the short side and could have had more details, especially about the system given nobody would be familiar with it. Definitely something that I’ll need to work on a little.
Part of my aim with Project Cassandra was to give the players an element of control in determining the setup for the game. The characters are psychics after all. Prior to this I’d already decided on a number of elements, designed to frame the questions. Firstly it was 1969, Nixon is a year into his presidency and Apollo 12 has just returned from the moon with news of a startling discovery. The project members have learned of this through one of their visions and that President Nixon will announce the discovery to the world in 3 days during a speech at MIT. Unfortunately for the President they’ve also predicted that the President will be assassinated during said speech, spinning the world into the chaos of mutually assured nuclear destruction.
For the Gateway game this led to the following questions (and answers from the players):
The assassin will strike during the President’s speech. What will be their primary method? A prototype robot, unveiled by the President earlier in the speech.
What did the Apollo missions discover that has led to the assassination attempt? A clearly unnatural monolith, of unknown origin.
How are the Russian’s involved? Or are they just scapegoats? The Russian’s have reprogrammed the robot to stop the US from being able to claim the monolith first.
Who do you need to find at the diner on Highway 29? Yuri ‘the defector’ (We left details about Yuri deliberately vague)
What is Senator Rickman’s role in the plot? He is a spy for the Russian’s
All in all this provided a good setup, I already had ideas for a number of scenes lined up, such as the diner but until this point I didn’t know who they were meeting or why. The robot, well that threw me but that’s the point of the questions, to mix things up for the GM. All in all, a good start to the game.
It’s been a month since Gateway and ideally I’d have wanted to have had an updated document for Project Cassandra up by now. Work and DIY at home have, unfortunately been sucking up more time than I’d have hoped.
That’s not to say that there hasn’t been any progress, the rules updates are almost complete, though widening the skill list is proving more challenging than I’d expected. The next immediate step is a revision of the text in general after which I’m aiming to solicit feedback from a few RPG design communities.
Then comes the big steps, artwork and layout. My drawing skills are pretty much non-existent so if I want to get some artwork in there it means commissioning some. At a minimum the aim is character images plus a cover though I’ve got ideas for a few other images if I can afford them. Layout I’m likely to try myself, the rules are short enough that they shouldn’t need too complex a setup and it’s about time I played around with Scribus.
Fingers crossed it won’t be another month until I get the update out but I’ll wait and see on that one.
A few Thursdays ago (3rd September to be exact) began the journey that had resulted from one of my wackier ideas of late, I set off to Gateway 2015, one of the Strategicon gaming conventions run throughout the year at the Hilton at Los Angeles Airport. For those that don’t know me this was, all in all, a rather wacky idea for the simple reason that I live in the UK and I was basically going to the other side of the world just for the gaming convention, having set aside only a single day of the trip to be a tourist.
Why would I undertake such a trip? Because of the fine folks of the Happy Jacks RPG Podcast, and the rather amazing community that has grown up around the show. Since leaving Glasgow three and a half years ago the amount of gaming I’m doing has drastically reduced and those games I do play in are primarily run online. I miss face to face games and most of all I miss doing them with friends. So I flew five and a half thousand miles for the chance to play in games with people I only knew online and from podcasts. Sounds crazy right?
Turns out while it was crazy it was also one of the best weekends of gaming I’ve ever had and all the people I met were genuinely brilliant fun to be around and I got to have a great time in the games I played in / run. I’m aiming to do separate posts for the three games I ran (Project Cassandra, Demon Hunters: A Comedy of Terrors and Firefly) but first a quick round up of Gateway itself.
This past weekend I ran Project Cassandra at a convention (Gateway 2015 in Los Angeles) for the first time using a scenario called 4 Minutes to Midnight (I’m thinking of incorporating that into the actual game title). It was the first time I’d brought together all the rules and complete character sheets into a single file, which can now be downloaded from the following link: Project Cassandra Gateway Beta Edition.
A full session report will follow shortly, as soon as I get past the jet lag. Suffice to say it highlighted a few things that worked really well and a few that didn’t. The biggest issue was the target numbers, characters typically had either too many applicable specialities or had virtually none. Coupled with the premonition mechanic whereby they were only rerolling failed dice and it ended up being harder than it should have to challenge the characters. I’ve already started incorporating some relatively simple fixes into the system which should sort these issues, the main changes being:
Changing the specialities of each character to broaden their scope while reduce the number that can be easily combined
Premonitions will now re-roll all the dice with the best result being kept
Remove 1 premonition from each stack (essential for con games)
Add suggestions for actions requiring multiple successes (such as tough opponents)
All in all the changes aren’t too major and hopefully I’ll be able to incorporate them relatively quickly, after that the next step is artwork and layout.
After quite a bit of work and tinkering with the game that’s included more than one rewrite of the system Project Cassandra is finally at a stage where I’m happy to put it out there as a fairly complete document that includes both full rules and mostly complete characters. At this point the core game is, I hope, there and the rest of the work consists of editing, layout and getting some artwork together. Then finally try and spread the word about the game, while just being able to say I’ve written a game was my real goal it would be nice if people outside of my own group actually played it.
Its been too long since I did a Project Cassandra update (or any regular posts but on that one, ssshhh) for the simple reason that the game went back to the drawing board quite heavily after the first (and so far only) playtest. That session identified a fatal flaw in the system, simply put tasks were either impossible because characters lacked a given skill or too easy due to the combination of sufficient skills and the premonition abilities. Originally the system had been designed as a fork from that of Lady Blackbird, with players building a dice pool from their available skills. The major difference, however, is that each character in Lady Blackbird has a pool of dice they can draw from to add to rolls, thus even unskilled characters can potentially still roll a large number of dice. In replacing that with Premonitions, which allow rerolls of dice, I’d severely limited the potential of players to complete goals when they lacked the right skills.
Having spent a fair amount of time considering the matter the system has been completely overhauled. All rolls are now made from a fixed pool of 5d6 with the number of skills available setting the range on the dice which count as successes. For example if they have only 1 applicable skill then only 1’s count as successes, 4 skills and 1-4 all count as successes.
Having already fallen foul of probabilities with the first version of the system I’ve made sure to do a bit of maths this time round and as is apparent from the figure the curves are much nicer this time. The difference though is that even with a low number of skills it’s still theoretically possible to achieve a high number of successes, even before accounting for the Premonition ability. There’s also the added bonus that with it being always being possible to succeed at hard tasks players will be encouraged to spend their premonitions more frequently.
With that major hurdle out of the way the second issue to resolve was that of the skill trees. In order to ensure a player always has something to roll each tree now starts as either MENTAL, PHYSICAL or SPECIALIST before breaking down into the specific skills. With those changes, plus some rewording of the skills themselves the game is pretty much ready for another playtest session which can be worked around the writing of character bio’s plus the rules pages.
As a child of the 1980’s I didn’t personally experience much of the Cold War. Sure I knew of it but it was really a peripheral thing that had happened in the past or was happening Somewhere Else (and despite having a parent in the military that went on tour during the late 80’s I never connected that with a sense of threat). About the only major Cold War event that I really remember before the collapse of the USSR was the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Working on Project Cassandra has, therefore, required a lot of research into the earlier events of the Cold War in order to gain a wider understanding of what drove the war for so many decades. Not unsurprisingly fear, hate and jingoism played a large part. World War II had demonstrated just how low we, as a species, could fall and now the populations of both sides were being told the new enemy was even worse. It’s no wonder that people were paranoid.
Focusing on specific events however two got my attention recently, both directly connected to the threat of nuclear war that hung in the air for so long. The first was new information from recently declassified documents relating to the accidental release of two hydrogen bombs in early 1961. The accident occurred when a B-52 broke up over Goldsboro, North Carolina releasing the two M39 hydrogen bombs it was carrying. Each of the two warheads carried a nuclear yield over 250 times that which was deployed at Hiroshima but at the time the authorities stated that there was never any danger of detonation due to the presence of multiple failsafes. The recently released information significantly changes that story, indicating that for one of the bombs of the six triggers required to fully arm the bomb only one had not accidentally activated. A single switch was all that had prevent detonation of a weapon with an estimated 100% kill zone of 17 miles. Had it gone I wonder if its detonation would have led to some sort of nuclear strike against the USSR, the US forces would have had little time to realise what had actually happened and nuclear doctrine was heavily weighted towards the need for quick and decisive action.
The second event that has specifically got my attention is, thankfully, a much more positive story though again it demonstrates how close the world came to accidentally finding itself in World War III. Stanislav Petrov was an officer in the Soviet Air Defence Forces, responsible for monitoring data coming in from early warning satellites. On 26th September 1983, during a period of strained relations between the Us and USSR (triggered by the USSR shooting down a South Korean passenger jet), Stanislav’s computer systems detected the launch of an American missile, followed up by four additional launches. If he had followed protocol Stanislav should have notified his superiors of the launch. Instead he waited, suspicious that the alert was the false alarm it proved to be. When confirmation from other early warning systems did not arrive the launches detected were put down to malfunctions in the computer system.
It’s unclear how close the world came to nuclear war that night as following protocol a retaliatory Russian strike would have required confirmation of an American launch from two independent sources. However, given the tensions between the respective nuclear blocks and strain on the Russian system at that point in history it could have been easily decided that a single source was sufficient and the world as we know it would have been very different.
Both of these stories highlight the sort of fears that I want the players of Project Cassandra to face while trying to save the President. I want them to feel like the fate of the world might hang in the balance of their actions and be aware of the paranoia that permeated through the world during the second half of the twentieth century. The fear of all out nuclear warfare is something that the world has done it’s best to collectively forget about but for the game I’m writing, intrinsically linked to the Cold War, it’s something that should always be their, even if it’s just that niggling fear at the back of the mind.