Con Report: BurritoCon 3

This weekend I had the pleasure of not only attending a new convention (to me) but getting to run the first public playtest of Project: Cassandra since reworking the system.

Held at Fanboy 3 in Manchester’s city centre the con is a small event, just over 20 attendees with 4 morning games and a further 4 in the afternoon. For the morning slot my first choice of A Code of Steam and Steel (run by creator Simon Burley, @squadronuk on twitter) sadly had too much interest so I moved to the my alternative choice of Marvel FASERIP game (run by (@ConvergenceUK1). It is a legendary system but not one I’d played before. I won’t spoil the scenario but our group of Captain America, Captain Britain, Daredevil, Spiderman and Union Jack succeeded in saving the day.

The FASERIP system is interesting but definitely a product of its time with the need to cross reference the dice roll against a chart. It works well though and flowed pretty effortlessly, thanks in part to the fact that the GM clearly knew it inside and out, I am fairly certain he could run it entirely in his head if he wanted. We unfortunately ran quite considerably past the end of the 3 hour slot, in part due to a series of bad rolls during the opening combat leading to our superheroes failing struggling to fight off mere rats. A little frustrating given I then had to rush to eat lunch before the next slot.

I’ve now played three different Marvel systems and while I’ve generally enjoyed them am coming to the conclusion that comic book style superhero games aren’t for me. They tend to jump from one action scene to another too much for my liking. It’s entirely consistent with the genre so the issue is definitely with me as opposed to the games but I find it interesting just how long it has taken for me to reach this point of understanding.

For the afternoon shot I was fortunate to be able to playtest the new and improved Project: Cassandra. I had four players who took on the roles of Tanaka, Whitford, Sarsin and Brown as they attempted to save JFK from assassination. I am really happy to say that the game not only went well but provided me with plenty of data for where to focus fine tuning. The characters worked, with their diverse skill sets forcing them to come together as a team and the changes to the skill system meant that they actually failed actions at what felt like the right frequency. They also managed to bypass the entire opening challenge (being chased through the countryside by East German patrols) after an impressive use of a Knowledge provided them with a glider for a stealth insertion. That’s exactly the sort of thing that Knowledges exist for and it was encouraging to see it work in play.

New and improved Project: Cassandra character sheets

In terms of fine tuning and changes there are certainly still tweaks that need to be made. Right now my thoughts are:

  • A set of four shared central skills, for example everybody should have observation under the mental skill set.
  • Clearer guidelines for harm, both taking and causing it. The combat we had was quick, as intended, but was over a little too quickly to build tension.
  • Ensure that the opening questions include at least one location the PCs need to reach before the President to give them a signpost for where to go.
  • One of the players actually suggested making premonitions work the way they used to (only reroll dice without successes). I do prefer this option but need to do a deep dive into the probabilities in order to make it work.
  • Guidelines for tailoring the scenarios to one-shots vs mini-campaigns.

That obviously looks like a lot of negatives but doesn’t really touch on all the things that worked and how happy I was with being able to play through a full scenario in just three hours. With a few other projects moving to completion recently Project: Cassandra is back in focus and I’m looking forward to start pulling it together again. First stop, a basic playtest packet that I can release and use in the future.

As a small and relatively local event I can say that I really enjoyed BurritoCon, everybody I spoke to was friendly, it was amazingly well organised by Neil of Old Scouser Roleplaying (@oldscouserRPing) and the games on offer were diverse with no overlapping systems. Of the eight systems played over the course of the day three were being run by their creators, a rather impressive ratio. Fanboy 3 is also a great venue, with plenty of space and one of the largest board game collections I’ve seen for sale outside of the Games Expo. Perhaps the only downside of the event was most people needing to disperse home relatively quickly afterwards, but that’s not too surprising when people have travelled on the day to be there.

There’s talk of a repeat in October and I can confidently say I’ll try and attend it given how much I enjoyed this visit.

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State of the Conspiracy: Cheat-sheet, updated characters and going forward

While I may not have run it in the end the day before UK Games Expo I made a decision to bring along a set of character sheets for Project Cassandra in the off chance there was a chance of testing it out / showing it off / running it. Given the full text is still in pieces I knew I wouldn’t have that to fall back on so I also put together a one page cheat-sheet. Doing so really highlighted what I have known for a while – that while the current draft still needs further playtesting I have a game there. I could sit down and run it and it would be a fun game. The core mechanics are fun (but need stress testing) as is the setup (Cold War psychics saving the world). I’m even proud of the more novel elements such as Knowledges and the way the starting Vision allows for the players to both have an input in the entire adventure but in a way that means their characters are just as knowledgable about the challenges to come.

The new character sheets (albeit rather blurry)

So what’s holding me back? Me. Writing is not something that comes easy to me, editing even less so. The thought of picking up the manuscript again after so long away from it is daunting. Large chunks need rewritten, a numer of areas need significant expansion and then I need to go over it all again with a fine tooth comb. But I can do it, I wrote a 70,000 word doctoral thesis so I know I can handle a 20-30 page long game.

With that in mind what’s my next step? Ironically, not writing as I have a few other projects to finish first. Ghosts of Iron, Demon Hunters Slice of Life starter, The Sprawl Synth trilogy I’ve been working on.

What I can do now is run it and start some of that stress testing. Make notes and check that I’ve resolved the issues from that informative (yet so frustrating) Dragonmeet playtest. One of the big things I can do is to start sharing material again. After the Dragonmeet game I took my drafts down, partially because I expected to quickly replace them with updates but also becuase my excitement had turned to disappointment in seemingly jumping the gun.

So this time, material up piecemeal and as it develops, starting with the current character sheets and the system cheat sheet. All subject to change but also all out there for feedback and comments.

#AprilTTRPGmaker Roundup

I’m quite fond of attempting the daily post challenges that pop up on Twitter, they provide a quick way to engage with the RPG industry outside of my own little corner of it and more often than not get me thinking about aspects of it that I may not have spent as long on as I should. The April TTRPG maker challenge has been no exception, particularly with its inclusion of questions that have asked me to think about the status quo and my place within it. Below, my daily answers, which turned out to be far longer than I had originally expected. Thanks go to @kiranansi for putting it together – check their profile for more of their work including More Seats at the Table, an email newsletter designed to highlight games by creators from marganalised communities.

aprilTTRPGmaker

1) I’m Craig – geek, gamer, geneticist based in Liverpool, UK and I publish under the umbrella of LunarShadow Designs

2) My published material so far has been adventure starters for @DG_DemonHunters Demon Hunters: A Comedy of Terrors RPG. Later in the year will also see releases of adventures for @Upto4Players Crystal Heart and @TheSprawl_RPG (in collaboration with @HyveMynd)

3) Commuting. Most of my time to and from work is spent thinking about RPGs or jotting down ideas (notebook/one note). My old London commute was even long enough to do bursts of writing or layout.

4) Not entirely sure, I like variety. I guess the closest answer I have is ones with clear conclusions. I much prefer a single clear and central arc for a campaign and would rather a fixed duration than open ended games. Is that a scenario though? I don’t know.

5) At the table – Characters. While I enjoy worldbuilding in my experience it rarely gets seen. It’s a valuable prep aid for GMs but ultimately the characters have greater impact based on their choices at the table.

6) While there are games where I’d happily spend the evening reading then just for the enjoyment I get out of their world building (L5R, Corporation, Demon Hunters) for actually running games I am slowly shifting towards shorter texts. It helps that these days my system preferences tend towards games that avoid pages of virtually identical weapons or hundreds of creatures each with a full page of stats etc

7) The first of probably many difficult questions. In terms of cost I can see the arguments for lower entry price points but many professionals seem to struggle to make a living and actually, I think RPGs are often incredible value for money per hour of play. Regards disabilities first and foremost speak to those who are affected. One relatively easy thing I think we can do is release plain text files alongside regular PDFs. Fancy layout and backgrounds look nice but aren’t accessible for a lot of people.

8) I’ve only had the pleasure of working with a small number of people, all of whom are amazing. @emzyesque on my @DG_DemonHunters material, @HyveMynd with our missions for @TheSprawl_RPG and @Upto4Players who offered me my first commissioned writing credit. There are plenty of others I would love to work with in the future but before I get to that point I need to clear the backlog of my own personal projects.

9) They largely follow a traditional asymmetric setup with a GM taking on a lot of the perceived ‘power’ of defining elements. Overall I don’t have any issues with that so long as everybody, GM included, understands and respects the different roles.

That said with Project Cassandra one of the things I have tried to do is shift some of the ‘power’ to the players (which I’m defining here as anybody who isn’t the GM) in a way that explicitly fits with the setup – individuals with psychic powers. The PCs all possess precognitive abilities so it makes thematic sense for them to occasionally control & define significant narrative details. The rest of the time it is out of their control, thematically in line with the emergence of the conspiracy.

This isn’t to say that every game should be that way. I want to experiment more with shared narrative control and mechanisms where the ‘power’ at the table shifts during play. But that’s in the future, once I’ve finished my existing projects.

10) This is one of the questions where I am going to hold my hand up and say I don’t know if they do and that I need to do more work to learn about the issues, especially the subtler aspects that are ingrained into large parts of Western culture.

11) I’m going to cheat and shoutout to @GauntletRPG and @MoreSeatsRPG who both work towards promoting creators that have historically been (and often still are) marginalised within the community. I could highlight one person, they regularly highlight dozens.

12) I’ve got multiple answers to this based on the angle that I look at from. First and foremost – listen and learn when people tell you that something is a problem or preventing/restricting their inclusion. Secondly support and promote. This is something I can do better on, I try and back interesting games where I can but monetarily there is a limit to what I can spend. Spreading the word about them? That’s free and is something I need to do more.

As a creator I have a few approaches that I use. I try and keep my text non-gendered unless I am specifically talking about somebody whose gender has been defined. When creating characters I define stats and then randomly assign aspects such as gender/race. Then I go back and check if there is a significant imbalance – do I have a broad mix. I’m a straight, cis, white guy, it would be mentally easy to fall back on cultural defaults. Having a process prevents that and also works to redefine those mental defaults.

13) Not at present and I have no plans to do so any time soon.

14) This is another difficult one to answer. As a creator in a position of privilege, I could not tell these stories without appropriating them. That’s not for me to do, so largely I again fall back on trying to support and promoting those that do. The big thing I can do though is to try and not reinforce the issues that intersectionality deals with. I actively try and diversify characters and concepts, to go against negative stereotypes or expectations.

15) In general I aim to avoid negative ones but they’re not something I think I have actively gone out of my way to subvert.

16) Shape may be a better word here but I do most of my design thinking in bursts during my commute, so I tend a lot towards short notes, scribbled down or stuck into OneNote. That’s reflected in my material – short adventure starters rather than long texts

17) Again, I don’t have a good answer for this because, for the most part, I’ve been in a position of privilege where I haven’t had to consciously define my identity.

18) Loosely that good needs to triumph over evil/darkness but that’s very much because the adventures and games I’ve made to date tend to follow very typical storytelling conventions. There’s a situation, heroes vanquish it, the day is saved. I want to branch out more in the future. The missions I’m putting together for The Sprawl are a start because they’re ambiguous. Teams may be in conflict with monolithic amoral Corps but they’re rarely heroes, they’re professionals seeking a profit.

19) More catch up after the long weekend and once again a bit of a non-answer in that I don’t know if I have any. I’m still at that point as a creator where I’m figuring out what I enjoy exploring the most.

20) I’ve still no idea if anybody that has downloaded TowerFall, the expanded version of my @200WordRPG entry has actually played it or wants to.

21) Time management, procrastination, dedicating my spare time to just sitting and writing when I have so many other that I could be doing. You know, the usual.

22) Broadly I’m trying to listen and being open to other ideas/perspectives. I’m getting better at trying to boost other voices but still trying to find the balance between supporting and constantly spamming RTs (which I personally dislike when others do)

23) Nothing formal or direct but I feel like indirectly all the podcasts I listen to have been a massive help in driving me to reflect on my gaming and GMing.

24) Scenes. A lot of my adventures originate with a single scene. There’s the saying that ‘everybody has a book in them’ but honestly I don’t think I do. I love setting up scenes and seeing how they play out but I’m terrible at linking everything together. It’s why I write what I call adventure starters/outlines. They’re literally that, the frameworks to set up an adventure with the outlines just having more detail than the starters. How they link up? That’s down to the players & GM. Channel Surfing, my first Demon Hunters adventure outline started off with what if questions for 2 scenes – “What if the zombies started dancing to thriller mid fight” and “What if the PCs met Count von Count as he struggled with his darker self?”

25) Again, bit of a non-answer as I’ve primarily been a solo creator. There are plenty of amazing people on #rpg twitter doing a lot to discuss diversity and inclusivity and companies are starting to actively include consultants. Without having worked with any though I can’t really say who is rad or not. It’s something I’d like to change in the future but that requires the funds to do so, which I don’t have at present.

26) An easy one for once – @happyjacksrpg

27) Mostly Twitter and a couple of specific discords but it’s not something I have put a lot of effort in to date. Until I start regularly releasing material it is difficult to consistently market it.

28) My most valuable tool – my notebook. Seriously, as much as I use onenote for writing up first drafts across various devices I’d be lost without a physical notebook. I scribble down ideas, stats, concepts etc with lots of interlinking and colour coding.

29) It’s difficult to tell whether it is a new trend or down to me widening my awareness but small form games, especially in the zine format seem to be on the up. Licensed settings also seem to be on the up, primarily in the traditional games sphere.

30) If I could change one thing about the industry serious answer – Clear out the bad actors that keep bringing it down. Historically and currently there are too many within it (and in society in general). Lighthearted answer – Reduce the dominance of #DnD, there are so many other games out there and while I understand why D&D is so big I want all those new players to experience and enjoy the diverse range of games that are out there.

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.

Forward Planning: Practice makes perfect

Alongside the research angle, my second starting point for writing Ghosts of Iron is one of practice, by which I mean immersing myself in Savage Worlds. It’s a system that I have both run and played but that I haven’t given as much screen time as others such as Cortex. As a GM I know that I can run it but I also know that, at present, when it comes to the intricate rules details I’d be reaching for the rulebook to double check edge cases.

Fortunately, I’ve got an easy solution to this – run it. My ongoing series of Monthly OneShots is a perfect way to both dive back into the fast, furious, fun of Savage Worlds and to introduce more players to the Crystal Heart setting. There are already a number of short adventures available, released to promote the Kickstarter while the fact that I am comfortable running one-off games will allow me to playtest individual elements from Ghosts of Iron before I bring them all together into the complete adventure.

The final step will be updating everything to Savage Worlds Adventure Edition, which was only kickstartered last year and which is still in production. While a pre-release is already available the finalised rules aren’t due out until later this year. For consistency, I’ll work from the Deluxe edition and then update to the latest edition that has been properly released.

So if you’re in the Liverpool area and want to get your game on keep an eye on the Sugar & Dice RPG group for my Monthly OneShot announcements.

Forward Planning: Savage Worlds One Sheet Adventures

With the successful completion of the Crystal Heart Kickstarter in December, I find myself in the fortunate position of starting 2019 with a commission to write RPG material for somebody else. The brief for the adventure was broad – something that an Agent of Syn might face, including an NPC ability or hazard to demonstrate knowledge of what makes Savage Worlds fast, furious and fun! My pitch, as presented during the Kickstarter campaign was:

ghosts

So where do I start? How do I go from a pitch to a finished adventure? I’m aiming to cover that process through a series of blog posts as I develop Ghosts of Iron.

Right now, that answer is research. While this may be my first commission there are a wealth of resources I can draw on. Firstly, there are my own adventure starters which were designed around a similar framework to One Sheet adventures – streamlined overviews that outline the adventure but require additional GM input to fully flesh out. It also helps that Pinnacle, the company behind Savage Worlds have a treasure trove of One Sheets available as free downloads from their website. I’ve begun mining that to put together a framework – what should be included, how do I highlight sections, how much detail do I give locations vs NPCs vs plot. Once I have identified those I can start to take my existing notes and begin to fit them to the page.

Secondly, there is the Crystal Heart setting itself. While the book is still in development Eran and Aviv have already showcased the world through the webcomic and accompanying page notes. Over the coming months, I’ll be going back to that repeatedly, to pick up on details that I might have missed and to ensure that my adventure embodies the spirit of the setting.

Thoughts on Marvel Heroic

Alongside my Monthly OneShots, I’ve recently finished playing in a mini-campaign of another Cortex Plus system, the short-lived Marvel Heroic RPG. While I was fortunate enough to buy it while still in print it’s a system that has languished on my shelf for some time.

Unfortunately, with the campaign over, I feel like it may return to that position for some time as overall it just did not work for me.

First up was a personal issue – I prefer shades of grey in my games. Four colour heroics just don’t sit well with my style of play. Especially when trying to be a clean-cut hero such as Captain America. It’s something that I’ve struggled with during previous superhero games and it clearly remains something I need to work on.

As for the system, well something just failed to click. To a degree, it felt over-engineered, with too many moving parts. Rolls were typically built around a base of Affiliation + Distinction + Powerset + Speciality. That’s before considering any possible boosts or variations such as Sfx. Each of those had to be considered and actively chosen, there is no default combo so each action felt slow, though I will admit that they sped up as we became more familiar with the mechanics.

My other mechanical issue was one of focus. While I understand that the superhero genre is heavily combat orientated my non-combat options felt like they were lacking. Again, I appreciate that Captain America is pretty much the archetype for ‘super-soldier’ but it still put me off when I saw that my non-combat rolls were relatively limited.

captain-america-the-winter-soldier-movie-hd-wallpaper-my-top-10-of-2014This isn’t to say that my thoughts on the system entirely negative, as there was a lot that I did enjoy. The doom pool was central to this, allowing the GM to bank dice for later use rather than having to create complications in the moment (ala Firefly). It’s definitely a mechanic that I’ll be including in my future Prime games, likely alongside the Firefly type complications for when I want to immediately challenge the party.

Second, was the ability to counter actions on a successful defence, allowing the heroes to inflict stress even when it wasn’t their turn. This really felt like it played to the genre and made the heroes feel special, as with enough plot points it is (theoretically) possible to take out a mob of low-level antagonists without even taking an action!

Finally the idea of switching out power-sets between adventures to highlight different facets of a character really appeals. Demon Hunters, which blends some Cortex concepts onto a backbone of Fate, does similar by allowing you to spend milestones to rewrite Aspects. Over the course of a campaign, I could see a character building up a repository of options to pick from. Want to focus on mysterious backstory this adventure? Simply swap in that aspect. Want to highlight your stealth? Add in the power-set you acquired during the recent downtime.

So overall, mixed thoughts. I won’t be rushing back to the system but on the other hand, I would like to play it again (or run it) to see if I can get a better feel for it.