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.

Forward Planning: Playtesting

It’s hard to understate the value of playtesting a game or adventure. The human brain excels at filling in the gaps and seeing what it expects to see, so when you’ve been immersed a piece of work it’s all too easy to overlook simple errors or conflicting information. You know that the map to the dungeon can be found in the secret archives of the thieves guild but then forget to mention that the thieves guild even exists. Or maybe you alter the adventure hook and now a merchant is not only the big bad antagonist but is also found dead during the opening scene. Suddenly the players are paranoid about shape-shifting doppelgangers and you’re left with either retconning everything or trying to adjust the plot on the fly.

In a home game, GMs are expected to adapt as they go but when it comes to publishing an adventure those little (and sometimes large) errors just cause headaches. Another GM reading what you have written doesn’t know all the little details that you omitted due to space limitations or that your players always break into the wizard’s tower on the first floor, hence why there is no description of the ground floor. It’s up to interpretation, which is why published material should always be playtested and read over by an editor. Trust me on this, it’s a lesson I have learned the hard way.

With that in mind last week I ran a playtest for Ghosts of Iron, the first step in identifying any potential issues that I had overlooked or details that I had omitted. As the writer I went in with a few clear questions I wanted to answer:

  1. Does the adventure work as written? Not ‘does the version floating around in the head work’ but does the one-sheet writeup provide enough detail at the correct points for the players to know what they need to do and be able to do it.
  2. Is the adventure fun? I’m serious here, as an experienced GM it’s easy to fall into the trap of assuming you will always write a daring tale of thrilling heroics but that is never the case. I’ve written and run adventures that just fell flat before so I couldn’t assume that this one would automatically be enjoyable.
  3. Are the difficulties appropriate to the task at hand? It’s all too easy to write a challenge that is impossibly difficult or, conversely, absurdly easy. This is especially true when you assume a particular party composition with the associated skill sets.
  4. Can it be broken? There is truth in the statement that two heads are better than one. It’s especially true in gaming if there is a challenge that the GM has set then at least one player will think of an unexpected way around it. This is good, and isn’t something to be avoided. The issues you want to avoid are those that completely break the scenario, that turns 4 hours of fun into a 30-minute tale of there and back again.

Thankfully, the playtest worked pretty well. I was careful to keep to the details as they were written and from my perspective, it easily passed the first two hurdles. On the third, we identified a few points where the difficulties as written assumed the PCs possessed a less frequently used skill (which they didn’t) while the combat encounters were appropriately balanced given the action-orientated nature of the mission. As for the final question, can it be broken? Almost. The players did identify a possible way to bypass the first third of the mission due to a missing detail during the mission briefing. It’s an easy fix and one that I’m glad we spotted.

Beyond those core questions, the playtest also picked up on smaller, non-critical issues, such as elements that needed to be clarified or highlighted better. So while a major rewrite isn’t going to be required (this time) I have plenty to work with before passing it on for the next critical step – external editing.

State of the Conspiracy: Project Cassandra Update

Its been too long since I did a Project Cassandra update (or any regular posts but on that one, ssshhh) for the simple reason that the game went back to the drawing board quite heavily after the first (and so far only) playtest. That session identified a fatal flaw in the system, simply put tasks were either impossible because characters lacked a given skill or too easy due to the combination of sufficient skills and the premonition abilities. Originally the system had been designed as a fork from that of Lady Blackbird, with players building a dice pool from their available skills. The major difference, however, is that each character in Lady Blackbird has a pool of dice they can draw from to add to rolls, thus even unskilled characters can potentially still roll a large number of dice. In replacing that with Premonitions, which allow rerolls of dice, I’d severely limited the potential of players to complete goals when they lacked the right skills.

Having spent a fair amount of time considering the matter the system has been completely overhauled. All rolls are now made from a fixed pool of 5d6 with the number of skills available setting the range on the dice which count as successes. For example if they have only 1 applicable skill then only 1’s count as successes, 4 skills and 1-4 all count as successes.

probabilities-v2-mechanicsHaving already fallen foul of probabilities with the first version of the system I’ve made sure to do a bit of maths this time round and as is apparent from the figure the curves are much nicer this time. The difference though is that even with a low number of skills it’s still theoretically possible to achieve a high number of successes, even before accounting for the Premonition ability. There’s also the added bonus that with it being always being possible to succeed at hard tasks players will be encouraged to spend their premonitions more frequently.

With that major hurdle out of the way the second issue to resolve was that of the skill trees. In order to ensure a player always has something to roll each tree now starts as either MENTAL, PHYSICAL or SPECIALIST before breaking down into the specific skills. With those changes, plus some rewording of the skills themselves the game is pretty much ready for another playtest session which can be worked around the writing of character bio’s plus the rules pages.

Playtesting Project Cassandra

With the general rules and initial characters of Project Cassandra completed the next step in the development of the game has been playtesting, which began this week. I’d already identified a number of potential issues but rather than make immediate changes I held off to see how my players felt about the system. As expected some of those issues did pop up in game while I also identified a number of additional problems that I’d missed by just reading over the rules documents. The biggest change coming off of this first session was that a number of the skill trees needed reworking, both to make them flow more cleanly down the levels and to change some of the descriptions in order to prevent unneeded redundancy.

The biggest change that I hadn’t spotted prior to the session concerns difficulty levels, as depending on the situation a difficulty of 5 can be either impossible to achieve or too easy to achieve. The first of those, being impossible, arises when a PC lacks any relevant skills and therefore can’t roll more than 3 successes on their base dice pool. In these situations it is therefore impossible to reach a 5 (though 4 successes can be reached by taking a condition). When writing the rules I thought that wouldn’t be an issue as high difficulties would be relatively rare and restricted to extreme situations. What I hadn’t factored in, however, was two things. Firstly how well the players managed to apply their skill trees (thus making me instinctively increase the number of difficulty 4+ rolls) and secondly how powerful premonitions (which allow players to reroll failed dice) are.

With that in mind my issue is how to handle it. I’m not keen to change the way premonitions work as they fit in nicely with the scenario and setting of the game. So instead I need to have a way of allowing unskilled rolls to achieve 4+ successes from only 3 dice. My first thought is some sort of explosion mechanism, but I’m unsure of whether d6’s explode too often for the system. Guess that’s where the playtesting comes in.

Session summary

  • The PCs (Sarsin, Jones and Whitford) awoke in the early morning with another shared premonition: Fire engulfing all they could see, a silhouetted figure stepping forward. On their chest is a five pointed star, which changes into the stars and stripes then into the logo of the Joint Research Division.
  • Realising the power is out in their living quarters (in the project unit) they discover that the electrical supply has been sabotaged. Whitford spots somebody on the other side of a locked door and gets flashbacks to the premonition. Second later said individual throws a firebomb at the door which starts going up in flames.
  • Faffing ensures with Jones first rescuing some of her research notes (concerning the role of a major arms dealer in influencing politicians) then suggesting they try and put the fire out. Said fire then blows through the windows, injuring Whitford.
  • The group finally escape through a skylight, Jones spots a car driving off in the distance. The group wait for the emergency services to arrive and hope others will escape from the fire. Nobody does.
  • After the fire service arrive the group discover that they are near Winston, Tennessee and that everybody believed the army base they are on had been shut down a decade ago.
  • After the police arrive all three are arrested on suspicion of arson, trespassing on government property and murder (they’d told the firefighters others had been in the building). The cops suspect Whitford may have escaped from a psychiatric ward as he’s dressed in his pyjamas and carrying a tool box.
  • At the police station Jones tries calling Corporal Molly Wick, an attaché to the JRD. She eventually returns the call, claiming not to know Jones before warning them that they need to get out and hide.
  • The group hatch their escape plan: Jones teleports the keys for the cells to her while Sarsin slows time down around the duty officer. Recovering their gear takes longer than expected and Sarsin is forced to knock out the officer.
  • The group escape in a stolen police car but are forced to pull in for fuel at a truckstop / diner (from the initial questions) outside of town. End of session.