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.

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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?

Playing Fair: Combat Consequences

Now that I’ve started running Legend of the Five Rings (L5R) rather than just playing it I’ve been thinking about trying to challenge myself when it comes to GMing by stepping out of my comfort zone. L5R is, from my limited experience with it, the ideal system for doing this in because it can easily throw many of the conventional gaming tropes out the window, replacing the black and white Good vs Evil of Western fantasy with complicated situations that can often boil down to no win scenario’s. The driving force behind this is the code of Bushido, the principles that are meant to guide every samurai but which often come into conflict with one another. Perhaps the best description I’ve heard is that L5R is a game where everybody is trying to be a paladin despite the fact that they’re just normal (and thus flawed) human beings. We’re only two sessions into our campaign but the group has already been placed into a sticky situation, investigating the destruction of a monastery on the (disputed) edge of their territory. I’d say more but I know some of the players occasionally read this plus it wasn’t really the point of this post.

The other aspect of my GMing style that I’ve started to reconsider is combat, namely the challenges that I put up in front of the players. Over the years I feel like I’ve worked myself into a position of holding back too much and rarely placing parties into a position where characters are going to die. The logic behind this has always been that I don’t want to kill PCs outside of dramatically appropriate moments but I’m beginning to wonder if by holding back in the combat I’m also preventing the creation of those dramatic moments, the ones where the death of a character forces the group to completely change direction, retreat in a panic or decide that they’re going to abandon their mission to hunt down the bandit group that killed their friend.

My second motivation to change is that I want my players to spend a bit more time considering whether they should be getting into a fight. I’ve had some experience with this during a past Firefly campaign. The group, on their way to deliver cargo they’d been smuggling, were ambushed by a small gang who, in an attempt to intimidate the party, drew weapons. Wanting to keep things a little tense I had the players roll initiative, with the three more combat capable characters all beating the gang members. So come the first round the players, assuming they were already in a combat, opened fire and killed or downed almost all of the gang. As I pointed out to the players afterwards they had initiated the combat, fired first then disappeared leaving a number of bodies in a densely populated space port, all because the gang had drawn weapons to try and intimidate them. Not exactly something they could explain away as self defence.

So to conclude this rambling post I think I want to achieve two things, more even and challenging combats but also situations where leaping into combat provides consequences and the players need to think more about why they’re fighting, not merely that they an. As always I’d be interested in hearing the solutions other GMs have found for this issue, especially given the deadly reputation of the L5R system.

Planning for the Nationals: The Final Characters

Okay so I forgot to hit post on this on Friday before I left for the Nationals so ignore the ‘Hopefully the players enjoy these as much as I do’ as they all did and most of them wanted to keep their character sheet at the end of the game.

I’ve been posting up the progress and design of my character sheets for the Nationals over the last few weeks and the big event is now mere hours away (it’s Friday morning as I write this and this post should go up on Saturday while I’m away). As the final planning for the nationals post I feel its only appropriate that I post up the final artwork and character sheets my players will be receiving. I’ve always found that the character sheets are an often under appreciated component of convention games. A good convention sheet should be look good, contain enough detail for players to get into character and also have enough details on the mechanics that players can easily tell what their character is capable of. Finally any aspects of the system that are not being used during the scenario should also not be present on the character sheet, a section for spells for example is a wasted space if you’re not playing a mage. In taking this approach I therefore took the approach of dividing the pages up into mechanics, character and extras.

Mechanics became the main page, listing the attributes, skills, initiative and life points arranged around a small version of the character portrait. I chose to include the portrait on this page (in addition to a standalone A4 page) to serve as a visual reminder of the character given I expected this page to be the one players would have in front of them most of the time. This main page also include the names of the character, one male and one female so that each player can feel free to play any character rather than feel they are directed to play a particular gender.

The next section, character, came to two pages in all. The first was the aforementioned full page portrait, there to provide a visual representation of the character. I was lucky in being able to get a friend (Andrew Docherty of Imperious Press) to draw the characters and hopefully the players will enjoy them as much as I do. Personally I think the inclusion of the portraits elevates the sheets to another level and it is certainly something I will look at providing when I run convention games in the future. The second half of ‘character’ was the bio page, which included both a short biography in addition to the assets and complications which provide mechanical encouragement to stick to character. Finally are the extras, the pages which don’t fall into place easily. For most of the characters this was simply the equipment list and a space for players to make notes. For the mages in the party this also included a page listing their spells, each of what are unique to their style of casting.

So rather than ramble on further here’s the final portraits and sheets. In case any other Demon Hunters players happen across this then please note that the assets and complications have been rewritten especially for this scenario. The animate ability in particular has been extensively rewritten as previous experience has suggested the version in the core rulebook is significantly overpowered for its cost.

Blayze (character sheet)
Doyl (character sheet)

Dr Hatter (character sheet)
Rahul (character sheet)
Shrub (character sheet)
Stephanie (character sheet)

Planning for the Nationals: Character Sheets

As I’ve been putting together the characters for my upcoming Nationals game I’ve also been thinking about how to present the information to the players, especially given I expect most (if not all) of them to be new to Demon Hunters. In doing so I’ve tried to break down the sheets into segments, grouping together information based on their importance. The first page is a full scale image of the character, which will be attached to the front of the folder presented to the players. Second is the main character stats – Attributes and skills, separated by a smaller version of the character portrait. This page is the one I expect players to need to reference the most, while inclusion of the portrait allows them to keep that mental image in their head.

Third, the bio. This page is designed to provide the personality of the character, through use of a short bio in addition to their advantages and disadvantages. For Doyl and Blayze an additional sheet details their primary spells (5 each). Finally is the equipment and notes sheet, for you never know what extra equipment the players may wish to acquire during the course of the adventure. While they still need some work I’m fairly happy with the basic layout at the moment, the main aspect that still needs to be added is the wound / stun track and a system cheat sheet. The current draft template for Doyl can be access through the below link:

Character Sheet: Doyl Levett