RPGaDay August 18th

Demon Hunters18th) Which RPG have you played the most in your life?

In terms of total hours it would have to be Torg, I was in a long campaign of it and have run a couple of campaigns of it. Total play time would be around a year and a half of weekly sessions and GMing time would be similar. While I love the setting I’ve slowly drifted away from liking the rules, they are very much a product of their time (early 90’s) which is why I’m stoked for Torg Eternity. The update looks like it has succeeded in keeping the feel of the game while also introducing a more modern approach to many of the mechanics.

As for the one that I just keep going back to then it has to be Demon Hunters from Dead Gentlemen Productions. Again, there has been a new edition recently and while I’ve not played it as much as I’d like it does lean itself more towards my current mechanical inclinations. I can pick up that game with essentially zero notice and throw something together there and then. Plus it is just pure, unadulterated chaotic fun. Perfect for both one shots and a series of short adventures.

RPGaDay August 13th

13th) Describe a game experience that changed how you play.

I actually have a few examples for this one but I want to focus on one, which served to codify my opinions on running convention games. The UK Student Nationals is a convention that brings together student societies from across the country for a mix of RPGs, wargames, LARP and boardgames. I went a number of times but one in particular sticks in my head for how bad one of the games was.

The convention works in that you pick categories then play two long games, one each day with the same group but different GMs. You never quite know what you’re getting, the particular year in question I’d signed up for scifi and the Saturday game was a bit of a disaster. Not horror story dickish GM disaster but a sequence of small errors that just compounded one another. The game was close to six hours long, under half way through I was building dice towers and the only reason I didn’t walk out was because I was going to be playing with the same people the very next day.

The signs were there from the start, the GM was late (not too unusual given the combo of students and drinking) and hadn’t finished the character sheets. Not one. So there went 15-20 minutes as he filled in the missing details. In the end my character turned out to be a smuggler / con-artist, with 20+ skills to his name (the game was in Hero system, I’ve no idea if this many skills was normal).

The opening to the game wasn’t much better. We were on a space station (yay) in the middle of some galactic civil war but none of us knew each other (boo). There’s bombing and we all get rounded up as suspects. Ok I think, maybe this is the central plot, that we’re all innocent and have to escape so we can prove that fact. Nope, we’re quickly cleared of the charges and then asked to work together as security for a delegation aiming to negotiate a truce.

Seriously?

So we head off on this space ship as the security team, a group of characters that don’t know one another and who were recently suspects in a major attack. Then there’s a murder, a threat from an emerging AI and an attack by a splinter group who have embedded themselves in the ships crew. A trainwreck, but a couple of things quickly become clear. The first is that both the characters and the adventure were based on a previous campaign the GM had run and the second is that only one of the characters was going to be central to the plot, the rest of us were just along for the ride.

The real kicker though? From that long list of skills I used only three or four. Total. In around 6 hours of play.

That game really changed how I looked at convention play and the extra responsibilities GMs have when running games. One of these days I might write out the mental checklist I’ve put together for convention games, the aspects that I personally think are important.

Suffice to say that was the last time I played at the Nationals. Every subsequent year I attended I did so as a GM, fully prepped and determined to run as good a game as I could.

RPGaDay 2017 7th August

7th) What was your most impactful RPG session?

Once again another difficult question to answer as while I can think of numerous impactful games many of those came from looking back after a campaign and seeing how the story arcs had come together. I could mention my first campaign of Torg which saw my bitter ex-cop descend into darkness to become the very thing that had broken him in the first place. Or I could talk about the excellent Smallville campaign by Stephen of Step into RPGs where my ordinary, boring and completely un-powered sidekick character ended up having to step up because those who should have been saving the day were too distracted with their own messy relationships (seriously, Smallville is amazing and such an underrated system). Or I might discuss my introduction to Legend of the Five Rings where my samurai went from having everything he could have dreamed of to a tragic tale worthy of the pillow books of Rokugan.

But those are campaigns and the question was session. Which goes to a game where I was GM rather than players. A Demon Hunters adventure where the players decided to metaphorically turn left instead of right. We hadn’t even started the adventure but were in what was the transition period from the previous mission. One PC was recuperating, having recently been turned into a vampire. The rest decided they wanted to get flowers for her and being a rookie GM I made an offhand comment that that section of the Warehouse (an interdimensional essentially infinite storage space) had been declared off limits for some reason or another. I’d been trying to redirect them back to the job at hand (I’d yet to come across the idea of “Yes and…”), instead they ventured off into the unknown assuming the comment was a plot hook.

We’d not even started the adventure and they’d already managed to break it. I was flummoxed. I could handle players getting creative in solving puzzles or side stepping encounters but bypassing the entire adventure? That was new and from the look on my face they knew how much they’d thrown me.

So I did the only thing that was fair, I literally screwed up my notes, admitted how much they’d evaded my prep and called a 10 minute beer break. Looking back I can’t remember the details of what I’d planned but I can tell you that the adventure we ended up with was far more creative and entertaining. It eventually led to the Chapter imploding in on itself with the vampire PC giving in to her hunger for blood and turning not one but two of the other characters after having been attacked. We ended on an epic fade out with the Chapter fighting amongst themselves in a grand library while trying to rules lawyer their way out of a Demonic contract.

It was amazing and taught me a lot of vital lessons about GMing.

The Fallen Mountains: Campaign Retrospective

The Fallen Mountains campaign I was running wrapped up a couple of months ago and having gained some distance from it I thought it was time to reflect on the ups and downs of the campaign. All in all I would classify it as a success but I wanted to focus on a few individual bits that went well and a couple where I felt I was especially lacking.

Happy

The players. Dear god were the players a highlight. None of them had ever played Legend of the Five Rings or had me GM for them before but they each dived into the game and got it. They understood the role of honour but also that samurai are just human. They let themselves mess up and say the wrong thing while striving to be honourable. They also embraced both the strengths and the flaws of their clans, especially the Scorpion players who both refused to fall into the stereotype of a dishonourable ninja. Being samurai is about walking the knife edge of what is necessary and what is right, what is easy and what is polite. The players got that and the game was better for it.

Character backgrounds. Across the 11 sessions we managed to cover 3 distinct short arcs while also hitting upon at least one element of backstory for each of the five characters. The balance between them wasn’t perfect but each of them had a moment to shine and develop their characters in ways that I hadn’t anticipated at the start. I think 11 sessions was too short to give each their own arc but I’m glad we did manage to incorporate something for each of them into the wider campaign. Which brings us to…

The setting. While I always had an idea as to the mysteries lurking in The Fallen Mountains I’d never really fleshed them out, preferring to deal with it in play. Across the course of the campaign we managed to do so and in a way that really worked. The players seemed to buy into the story of the Lost Legion but didn’t chase it until they started uncovering clues. Until then they treated it as the characters would, a tale from the history books and used to scare children. It made the setting feel like what it was meant to be, a legend, and not just a simple plot hook.

Ending. We finished the campaign and in a manner that was satisfying. Like many people (I assume) that’s pretty rare for me so it’s always satisfying when it happens. I’m also coming to the opinion that those mid length campaigns suit my GMing style. It gives enough time to learn the characters, have multiple adventures and showcase a metaplot. 11 sessions is probably the minimum for this sort of campaign and I feel like it could stretch up to around 20 without feeling like I was pushing it too far.

Not so happy

The second arc. Shugeki’s wedding, the second of our three arcs, was inspired by the introductory adventure from the 4th edition rulebook. For those not familiar with it the adventure is a murder mystery that occurs during a series of inter Clan courtly challenges. The former is the backbone to the adventure while the latter provides an introduction to the system and Rokugani culture. Taking place at court it is very heavy on NPCs and in the end I just wasn’t happy with my portrayal of them. The NPCs were introduced too quickly to get a feel for them or build proper relationships with them. Likewise I didn’t feel like I’d introduced enough characters to really widen the suspect pool. Maybe that’s the best way to go, it works in TV shows where only the prime suspects ever get any real screen time but it felt forced here and isn’t an adventure I would feel comfortable running as a one shot or opening arc. I think it could work well as part of a longer campaign with a cast of established NPCs. Despite my misgivings about the overall structure of this arc it did introduce one of the best moments of the campaign, with one player fully diving into the role of being a Kolat sleeper agent and then having to commit Jigai to atone for her sins.

Combat. At the outset I’d been expecting a combat heavy game and things just didn’t go that way. Partially because of the players circumventing it (which I’m all in favour of) and partially because of how the plot progressed. When it came to the final adventure there was combat but I failed to adjust it to take into account the rapid advancement of the characters (we went from rank 1 to 4 over the 11 sessions). In doing so I failed to provide any meaningful challenge, an issue for a game with a reputation for being deadly. To compound this error I feel like I failed to properly pace the final combat, which was meant to cut back and forth with events occurring elsewhere. A lesson to learn from and I think in future I would keep the game at a low power level, likely Insight Rank 3 or below.

Generic NPCs for Legend of the Five Rings

When it comes to GMing I have to admit that quite often I cheat with NPCs and enemies. Not with their dice rolls but with their stats. Most of the NPCs and monsters in my games consist of only a fraction of the detail that would be found in a complete write up.

A lot of the time I lean towards the bare minimum, noting attributes and skills on the fly as required. I’ll often have an idea of their competencies in my head but until they come into play they’re just that, ideas. Doing so requires a level of system mastery that I don’t currently have with Legend of the Five Rings, especially given it’s a system where antagonists can easily out-rank the PCs. To help with that I’ve put together a generic NPC cheat sheet, which covers all of the essential components other than the school specific abilities. It’s geared primarily towards bushi and courtiers. For shugenja rings will be slightly higher, skills slightly lower. It’s already proven useful in my current Fallen Mountains campaign, hopefully it’ll be of use to other GMs out there.

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).

Project Cassandra: The Questions

In writing Project Cassandra I’ve been heavily inspired by the rules and design philosophies of Lady Blackbird. One of the central tenets of that game is that the GM should be ‘listen and ask questions’ rather than planning everything out in advance. As each of the characters in Project Cassandra possess precognitive abilities the game provides an ideal mechanism to let not only the players define the events of the game but do so in a way that the characters are also aware of certain future events. The first piece of advice for the GM is therefore to start at the end, by defining the shared premonition (assassination of the President of the United States of America) that they are out to prevent. The game proper begins a few days after they have reported this premonition, as they awake to another premonition, that somebody is coming to silence them by burning down the unit.

Defining the end scene and the setting of the game as a whole is handled through a series of questions, at the moment I’m working with 6-8 being the right number. In preparation for the first playtest of the game I recently sat down with my players to run through the questions, the results of which are as follows:

  1. What era are we playing in?
    Early 1980’s.
  2. How will the President by killed?
    At close range, approach by the assassin, possibly using a small calibre silenced weapon.
  3. Where will the assassination attempt occur?
    At a public event, possibly a campaign rally as it’s an election year.
  4. Are the Russian’s really involved or are they just scapegoats?
    Scapegoats, being used in order to keep the cold war from fizzling out.
  5. Who betrayed you? (Referring here to who saw the report of their initial premonition and has decided to burn down the unit)
    A prior candidate who believes the premonitions are all lies being used to justify arresting / killing people who haven’t yet committed any crimes.
  6. Where will they catch up to you? (With they not being defined and could be the prior candidate, the secret service, the conspirators etc)
    At a truckstop diner with roller-skating waitresses.
  7. What are the consequences?
    Political opponents gets into power, uses the assassination as a reason to declare martial law, the cold war goes hot.
  8. Who is the President?
    Thomas J. Whitmore from Independence Day (and still played by Bill Pullman). Reimagined as a former Air Force pilot who served in Vietnam.

Through these questions the players have defined quite a large chunk of not only the final scenes (the assassination) but the rest of the game as the characters try to work out what is going on and how to stop it. As the GM the answers to these questions have already provided me a firm idea of what the players want to see while also forming a jumping point for the rest of the game. Why, for example, are the characters spending time at a diner? How does the assassin get close to the President? If the Russians are just scapegoats does that mean evidence has been planted to frame them?