RPGaDay August 15th

15th) Which RPG do you enjoy adapting the most?

Cortex in its various incarnations. It cortexwas the first system that I really grokked, not just in terms of how to play but in how the different aspects of the system clicked together. It helps that from a design standpoint it is relatively modular with elements that can be slotted in or out easily. I’m really looking forward to tinkering with Cam Banks’ new Prime version of the system when it comes out and hopefully will be able to put something interesting together with it.

As I’ve slowly started tinkering with game design it’s one of the systems that I keep coming back to and I’ve got notes for a few settings that I’d like to adapt to it. First and foremost would be one centered around stuffed toys and their adventures as they try to protect their sleeping owners. Nothing too original but something that could be fun. Second was the Powers campaign, think the TV series Heroes as a good example of where this was going. We tried a short campaign of it using Classic and a bodged together mechanic for the system (where you had to roll as close to the target number as possible). That didn’t get far due to issues with both the narrative and the mechanics but it’s one that I’ve always wanted to revisit and flesh out more.

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Future Projects

With Project Cassandra edging ever closer to completion I’ve been given some thoughts as to what I want to work on. The length of the list was rather surprising, I didn’t realise I had accumulated notes for so many ideas already.

Niska’s Race – A Firefly Adventure. Having run this at multiple conventions it’s about time that I wrote this up and put it online for others. I’ve got a partial draft of the adventure, what it really needs is some focus on the structuring and what information needs to be presented for others to run it.

Demon Hunters Adventures – Again adventures I’ve run in the past that I’d like to get out for others and again I’ve already got a partial draft to work from. For these I’d love to be able to get them released on drivethruRPG as some sort of semi-official / recognised adventure for the system. First step though is writing then I can worry about layout / publishing.

Neon Blades, cyberpunk reality TV – Aim is a lightweight system with a focus on the idea of looking good over all else, hence the idea of some sort of reality TV show focused on a team of operatives. I’ve got the initial outlines of a system but it’s lacking any details, so in keeping with the theme of style over substance for now.

The Fallen Mountains –  I’d still like to flesh out my Legend of the Five Rings setting  to the point of it being a resource for a future game. Likely to be a slow ongoing process as I detail characters, events and locations.

The Delve, Leverage / Cortex+ hack – The idea for this actually came from a series of images I got through JEShields stock art patreon. The idea is of a group of fantasy dwarves trying to break into a wizards vault. Thinking more along the lines of D&D style fantasy than Tolkien with magic being relatively common. At the moment just an idea, first step will be to go over the original game again and see how much can just be used as is.

Cortex+ hack based around the adventures of soft toys –  Another vague idea for the moment, could probably be achieved with just some custom distinctions  and renaming of a few elements. Originally inspired by a DoubleClicks song called Lullaby for Mr Bear.

Powers, PbtA followup to Project Cassandra. Again a vague idea for a thematic follow-up to Project Cassandra using a hack of the Apocalypse system  dealing more with the consequences of gaining powers in a world dominated by global conspiracies. Will hopefully incorporate some ideas from an old Cortex game  where powers regularly went out of control  with devastating and tragic consequences.

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.

On Firefly…

The above clip has been doing the rounds over the last couple of days, it’s by Stephen Byrne and you can see more of his work here: https://www.facebook.com/ArtworkOfStephenByrne

The timing of this clip coming out was rather appropriate given I was sitting down behind the GM screen this week to run Firefly. It’s been a while since I ran a game, in fact it’s been almost a year. The last time I ran anything was at excellent Strategicon Gateway convention in California, LA. Unfortunately I can’t afford to fly out there again this year so it seemed fitting that my first time back in the GM seat I ran the Firefly scenario I ran there. The scenario, entitled Niska’s Race, is one I’ve now run about half a dozen times, so I’ve been able to flesh it out enough that there are a selection of possible scenes and complications I can introduce depending on the actions of the players. This time I had only two players and just under 3 hours to teach the system and run the adventure so the prior run throughs meant I could strip back anything that might prevent derail finishing on time.

Running the scenario multiple times also means I’m in the interesting situation of getting to see how different groups approach it. I always try and lean towards the ‘present a problem without having a defined solution’ style of GMing, it encourages player creativity and involvement and this scenario is proof of that. Each and every time I have run the game it has turned out completely differently. I’ve seen players (using the same set of pregenned characters) go for smash and grabs, stealth infiltrations or seduction to get to their goal. Betrayals, bribes and beat downs have all been employed in different run throughs of the same scene making it a new game for me, the GM, every time. Best of all I’ve been able to see half a dozen set of reactions to the scenarios twist, all influenced by the choices of the players. It’s an immensely satisfying position to be in as a GM and one I’m looking forward to replicating with the next adventure (working title “Big Blue Fish”, my old group should know exactly which scenario I’m talking about).

Review: Cortex Plus Hacker’s Guide

cortexplusThe Cortex Plus Hacker’s Guide by Margaret Weiss Productions is, as the title suggests, a book all about hacking and tweaking the Cortex Plus system. The book collects together a series of essays written by both the Cortex Plus creators and fans and published following a successful Kickstarter project. It is available now through DriveThruRPG. As a big fan of the Cortex system and of hacking games in general this wasn’t a product that I wanted to miss out on so I got in early on the Kickstarter for both PDF and print copies of the book, though as seems to be the case with RPGs on Kickstarter the print copy has been delayed and has yet to be delivered. The Hackers Guide breaks is comprised on three main sections, Mechanics and Structure, Game Hacks (further divided into History and Fantasy, Modern Life, and Science Fiction and the Future) and Core Rules.

Mechanics and Structure

The first section of the Guide serves to introduce the concepts underlying Cortex Plus and it’s Action, Drama and Heroic variants then expands into the various ways of hacking the system. If you’re new to Cortex Plus or hacking systems in general then this is perhaps the most important section of the book, as it not only introduces the basic mechanics of the system but explains logic behind them in a setting neutral manner, aiding you in choosing which of the system variants will be right for your game. Following on are chapters on hacking stress and timed actions, a system for generating random features on the fly and finally chapters focused on learning the Drama variant of the game (which is the most complicated due to it’s use of the pathways map).

Overall this is the section of the Guide that I found most useful and I’d have liked to have seen it comprise a great proportion of the overall page count than it does. The Hacking Stress chapter was of particular value in prompting the would be hacker to think about the logic behind a change and highlights the fact that often simply picking the right name for a stress (for example a spy game might have a stress called paranoid) is often more appropriate than trying to introduce a new related mechanic.

Game Hacks

Moving on from the overview and general hacking are the three Game Hack sections, which provide a range of example games that can be achieved through hacking the system. The hacks presented are, in my opinion, a mixed bag. Some provide a good example of innovative ways to use Cortex Plus but a few come across more as ‘here’s how you can run my home game’ without any explanation of why a certain mechanic has been altered. In addition the examples presented are overviews, with a limited amount of space devoted to each none can go into extensive detail and the majority spend a large portion of that space detailing the composition of characters in the given setting. After the first few examples this does feel a tad repetitive. My recommendation to anybody looking to use this section of the book is to view it in one of two ways. First, if one of the examples closely fits the game you wish to run then use the material presented here as a very loose foundation, that will need to be shored up by details of your choosing. Second, if none seem to fit what you want to do, use these as very loose examples of what you will need to think about for the start of your game before making more extensive use of the core rules presented section of the Guide.

Core Rules

The final section of the Guide is something fans of Cortex Plus have been waiting for since Leverage was first published, generic setting neutral rules for the three variants which can be used as the building blocks for your own game. These cover pretty much everything that you could need for running Cortex Plus and include all of the material that you’d typically find in the rules and GM sections of a typical rule book. About the only thing that is absent is an extensive list of generic talents / abilities / pathways etc however, examples are provided for each in addition to notes on how to make your own. It’s worth noting here that the Heroic variant presented is Fantasy Heroic and thus not completely generic though the use of a limited setting does mean that there are more details provided for this variant than for Action or Drama.

Other details

Before I finish this review I want to just cover the non written aspects of the Guide. As you’d hope from a company with the experience that MWP has the book is professionally laid out, visually clear and easy to follow with each of the sections and chapters clearly defined along the edge of each page. The PDF version is well bookmarked, down to the level of subsections within each chapter and unlike some gaming PDFs I’ve look at recently the addition of notes or highlights haven’t been locked; given the aim of the Guide I expect it’ll be something that I highlight and annotate extensively. Visually perhaps the most disappointing aspect is the artwork, which appears to have been sourced primarily through stock photos and is used rather sparingly throughout the Guide.

Roundup

Overall the Cortex Plus Hacker’s Guide is definitely something that I’m glad I backed and that I’ll make use of personally. The Guide is aimed squarely at those that who want to tinker with the system and is, therefore, of limited wider appeal. I’d recommend it to those already familiar with the Cortex Plus system, if you’re new to the game however I’d suggest picking up one of the main rulebooks first before purchasing the Guide.

Overall score for a general gamer: 3/5

For the tinkering GM: 4/5

Review: Firefly RPG GenCon Exclusive

FIREFLYRPGThe Firefly RPG is an upcoming game from Margaret Weis Productions, with the GenCon Exclusive preview released during GenCon 2013. The full game is due to be released in early 2014 and utilises the Cortex Plus Action system.

Before I launch fully into this review I want to make clear the answer to a common question about the Firefly RPG, namely

Haven’t MWP already made this game?

The answer to which is yes, and also no. MWP’s first RPG release was indeed the Serenity RPG which introduced the original Cortex system. So what’s different? Two things things. First the new game is licensed with Fox as opposed to Universal and will therefore focus upon the events of the show rather than the movie.  Woo, legal nonsense! The second difference is the system, the original Cortex system was a relatively traditional game, with attributes, skills, wound tracks etc. The new game utilises Cortex Plus, a much more narrative driven game heavily inspired by FATE with both players and GM being able to introduce narrative aspects with intrinsically defined mechanical benefits. The GenCon Exclusive is a preview of the new game, a preview that comes in at over 250 pages and includes the core system, rules for character gen and not one but two introductory adventures.

System

The Cortex Plus Action variant utilised by the Firefly RPG was originally released as part of the Leverage game and it would have been easy for MWP to simply lift the system entirely without tweaking it to suit the new setting. They’ve clearly learned from the original Cortex games however, which were criticised to an extent for being simple reskinning of the original Serenity game. The system in the Preview shifts the Action variant slightly more towards a traditional game style through the inclusion of both attributes and skills but retains the Cortex Plus distinctions mechanic, which work to both help and hinder the PCs. As a Cortex Plus game many of the mechanics revolve around the creation of assets and complications so it’s good to see that the Preview covers these in detail with numerous examples throughout the book and a discussion in the GM section on keeping complications interesting.

One of the most interesting tweaks to the system is the inclusion of the Big Damn Hero mechanic. Essentially this mechanic is designed to get around the issue of characters over succeeding on little actions by letting players bank die to boost rolls when it’s actually time to shine. Given the way in which the show was about running into constant problems then coming through when the pressure was really on it’s an interesting mechanic that certainly helps to maintain the feel of the show. It’s tweaks such as this that emphasise how much work has already gone into the system and the full game promises to go further including full rules for creating your own ships (a basic outline is included in the Preview).

Character creation

Perhaps the most unexpected aspect of the Preview was the inclusion of a chapter that details how to create your own characters for use in the game. As a preview of the game I expected to be supplied with character sheets just for the crew (which are included) but with the character creation rules present you could easily run an entire campaign without picking up the core rulebook when it comes out, though I expect the full game will include additional options for use during creation. Finally if creating your own characters wasn’t enough the Preview rounds it out with a collection of character archetypes that can easily be filled out on the fly during play. With a little work these archetypes could easily be used for one shots, short campaigns or convention games where the players want to jump right into the action but also want to customise their character a little.

firefly_class_ship

The Adventures

I’ve yet to run the two adventures so I don’t want to comment on them too much. Like the rest of the material in the Preview they are well written and clearly designed to emulate the flow of episodes from the show, with interesting plots and fairly detailed NPCs. These two adventures form the basis for what MWP are calling the Echoes of War line, a series of independent adventures that all tie back to the Unification War. Given the likely size of the Firefly license, especially in light of MWP losing the Marvel license it will be interesting to see how Echoes of War proceeds with future releases and whether we begin to see an overarching plot emerge from the line.

Layout and art

As you’d hope from a company such as MWP the overall layout and presentation is generally of a high quality. There are, however, a couple of issues. First is the artwork. The majority consists of stills from the show which works extremely well; the rest of the art isn’t as good. The individual sketches included in the adventures are an extremely mixed bag while the artwork for the character archetypes simply isn’t at the level I’d expect from a license of this size. The second issue I have is with the extensive use of blue backgrounds to highlight sidebars and character sheets. Not only does it clash with the pale cream colour used throughout the rest of the book but it makes printing the characters and character archetypes all but impossible unless you’re willing to spend a small fortune on ink.

Wrap-up

As a Preview of the upcoming Firefly RPG the GenCon Exclusive goes above and beyond what I’d expected, presenting pretty much a full system as opposed to what could have easily been a simple quick start guide. If you’re a Browncoat and a gamer then you’ll be happy to know that the legacy of the series appears to be in good hands and personally I’m excited about what is to come from MWP. About my only issue relates to some of the layout and artwork decisions but overall these are minor aspects.

Score: 5/5

Dredd (2012 movie) as a game

dredd-feb-6-new-4Note: Spoilers ahead

Going off of a recommendation from a friend I recently picked up the new (well last years) Judge Dredd movie and to my surprise I not only enjoyed it but found myself rewatching it the next evening. The reason for that, I think, is the movie hits pretty much every aspect of the dystopian cyberpunk genre and does so without compromise. From the outset Mega-City One is presented as a violent, brutal and uncaring place to live with the focus firmly centered at street level. Dredd himself is presented as an unflinching enforcer of the law and while much happens over the course of the story (which comes across as a typical day for Dredd) no attempt is made to humanise him or to develop his character. He is the epitome of a faceless system where citizens are little more than numbers in the dataflow and as such makes the perfect counterpart to the rookie Judge Anderson.

My aim here, however, isn’t to review the movie as perhaps unsurprisingly the movie got me thinking about how I would run the movie as a game. In thinking about this (during my second viewing) one particular line caught my attention:

They’ve killed 30 plus and haven’t even taken a scratch…

Until I picked up on this line I had initially been thinking along the lines of fairly traditional cyberpunk RPGs, where the PCs are often tricked out killing machines with hundreds of options at their fingertips. The issue with this thinking though is that in each of the games I’d looked at combat becomes a central focus, requiring multiple turns, complex tactical choices and generally only allow for each PC to engage a single enemy with any given action.

None of which is keeping with the feel of Dredd, where most of the fight scenes are over in seconds, with a dozen or so enemies felled before they even get a chance to act. Fighting, while an integral part of the movie, is also incidental. It has to be when the Judges are so highly trained, which is also why the longest fight scene sees Dredd facing off against a handful of corrupt Judges. Even the final confrontation with the drug baron Ma-Ma (brilliantly played by Lena Headey) is brutally direct and short, ignoring the Hollywood desire for a drawn out climax.

So given all this how would I run a Dredd as a tabletop game? Primarily by avoiding making combat the focus. PCs would still be nigh unstoppable killing machines thanks to Judge (or Judge like) training but the combat itself would be short, fast and brutal with a focus on the consequences. Mechanically I can think of a number of systems that could achieve this but my personal choice at the moment would be a tweaked version of Cortex Plus, incorporating aspects from the Action and Dramatic variants. Why? Most importantly the system already allows for extremely quick combats, which can be completed in as little as a single roll while entire groups of enemies can be represented by a single die (and therefore taken out in a single action). Despite this the system also scales well, incorporating NPCs capable of individually challenging the PCs without any trouble. The second reason is the flexibility of the system which is easily modified to suit the needs of an individual genre or setting, as demonstrated by the success of the Cortex Plus Hackers Guide. With that in mind it would be relatively easy to incorporate all of the required aspects into the game, such as Distinctions that encouraged Dredd to be heartless or even introduced additional Trouble / Complications when he wasn’t. Likewise Anderson’s psychic abilities could be easily represented and triggered through use of plot points while her compassion could also be designed to earn her plot points when it made her hesitate in carrying out her duties. For a game with only two players it would even be possible to design Distinctions which played off of one another, with plot points flowing back and forth between the players instead of player and GM.

As always this is one of those things that everybody will see slightly differently depending upon their individual preferences and what they see as the most important focus of the game. For some it will be being badass enforcers of the law, for me it’s the development of the characters while enforcing rigid and unyielding justice. Or as Dredd himself would say

I am the law